Vol 8. 1st Edition
Wingate's Men Hold Indaw
by John Richardson
John Richardson enlisted in October 1939 for military training, joining the 7th Hampshires with whom he spent two years, ending up at Dover. The story that follows is testament to his courage and determination to survive in the most gruelling conditions. Spending the rest of the war in India and Burma he, like those other brave men, showed great endurance against a formidable opponent.
After the fall of Dunkirk, my Company was asked for volunteers for overseas service and we had to draw matches organised by Captain Cox of ‘A’ Coy. I drew a short straw and my fate was sealed. I then travelled up to Liverpool to join the Duchess of Richmond for a journey to Bombay which took three months!
We didn’t know where we were heading, but on arrival at Bombay, we went to Wellington Barracks in the Blue Mountains to acclimatise for a fortnight. I was then sent across India to join the 2nd Worcesters at Madras, staying with them about 18 months, before contracting malaria. After a convalescent period in Delhi, I volunteered to join the Long Range Penetration Group and I passed for that, having attained the grade of A1+. We crossed India again to Ken Dam, Bengal area, for training with 16 Brigade, 17 Column of the 2nd Leicesters under the command of Colonel Wilkinson, who was twice our age at 40! We undertook intensive training there for about three months, but the Ken Dam was infested with alligators and, as part of our training, we had to cross the river with full packs which we used to protect ourselves. We lost a lot of men during the training; others didn’t make the grade and were returned to their units.
Once ready, we went across India arriving at the Lido road which the Yanks were building to connect up to the Burma road. I seem to recall we stopped at the 72 milestone, one of their camps which they called 42nd Street, or Leech Alley. We stayed there a couple of days until our mules arrived. Orde Wingate saw us off from there. The objective was to cross Burma, penetrating the jungle undetected, behind the enemy’s lines to take the Japanese-held airfield at Indaw causing as much disruption as possible. On parade, I recall him saying “you’ve got a 50/50 chance, but all you can do is get in there and do your best. We can’t get you equipment because of the second front in northern Europe”. He then gave us a chance to fall out if we did not think we could make it, but no one did.
It’s not often you get a General saluting a bunch of marauders like we appeared, but we had no rank or identification - we were in a sorry state! It’s difficult to believe today just what we had to do.
We then started off from the Lido road over the ‘hump’ to Chindwin. We walked for over two days along a tributary to meet our schedule, sometimes wading in deep water. On one occasion when sleeping on the bank with my feet in the water, I awoke in great pain with a crushing feeling in my chest. I thought I was a gonna until I realised it was a mule lying on me. I didn’t realise until I read a book after the war how high we were going. The hump (Himalayas) was 8,800ft high, cutting steps on the way in places for a journey of 800 miles. Later we received a message from Wingate saying “Well done, Hannibal eclipsed”. We carried a button compass and a silk square with a map imprinted on it. Mine was a bright orange colour about 30” wide. When we found a clearing, we laid about 20 of them down in a letter ‘L’ as a dropping zone for essential supplies. Unfortunately, when the Americans dropped things we had to retrieve them from the trees as their planes were too high up and missed the zone.
Our Regiment comprised a section of about 500-600 men and en route we had to clean up every trace of our existence. We didn’t dare leave a mark for fear of detection. I particularly remember a place we passed through called Lapyat Gar, the Naga village. The Nagas used to fight with the Karens, head-hunting which they placed on poles around their village. At one time we did a forced march through a teak forest to get water as we’d been three or four days without. Water was always in short supply, so we had to carry what we had and make it last. Eventually we reached our objective, Indaw, in the specified time. We actually walked through unexplored territory, in jungle terrain, with mules carrying our equipment. They’d had their voice boxes removed for absolute silence. It was necessary. We had to live on what we could get and silence was our saviour. We each carried about 70lbs of equipment.
On one occasion we had to help out ‘Mad Mike’ (Brigadier Calvert), King’s Own, who came in by gliders to take Chindwin. At the time, his force took on the enemy with flame-throwers.
Once at Indaw a large force was sent in by gliders to form big blocks at Mawlu, which we named ‘White City’. Mad Mike and his men did good work there. Everyone knew their job and we had to be adaptable. I was in charge of a two inch mortar and grenades which we used to blow bridges and create mayhem. We had to do almost everything. It was a well planned operation and once we established our base more troops came in by gliders. The 2nd Queen’s Regiment was supposed to have supported us at Indaw, but they were ambushed by the Japs in a wadi and were ten days behind. At Indaw everything seemed to go haywire, so we had to withdraw again. Wingate was on his way in to take command of the attack on Indaw airfield when his plane crashed killing him and the combined American crew.
Several of our units went out on patrol to cut roads, blow bridges and railway lines to cause as much damage as possible. The idea was to draw the Japanese away from other places like Imphal, making them think that they were facing a much larger force than we actually were. All of this had to be done before the monsoons came as we couldn’t move with the torrential rains. I didn’t have a roof over my head throughout the entire campaign.
One of the main problems we had was with the Jap snipers. They were dedicated blokes; I actually admired their courage. They used to come through the jungle at night singing and shouting “Hello Johnny” hoping for a response. We never talked or shouted, otherwise they would get hold of a name. They would call, for instance, “Captain Kay, would you come over here” and, if he did... whoomp! They used to walk by in front and between us, and we’d have to let them go. We would bury ourselves face down in the undergrowth so they couldn’t see us, but they would throw crackers around to try to find us. If you got caught, that was it. Our job was to infiltrate an area and draw their troops out. Mad Mike was crazy - nobody normal would have taken on the enemy like he did. Then all hell was let loose.
We slept in the rough, hidden by leaves and bushes to avoid detection. It was the safest place. Sometimes we heard a whistle when a pal had something curled up around his stomach and he couldn’t move. I once saw a giant chameleon resting in a tree nearby. It was like a fairy dragon - mind you, I didn’t go anywhere near it! Then there were giant spiders and scorpions to beware of. They could paralyse your whole body but providing you were in good health, you would be OK and this would disappear after several hours. In all this, however, I contracted malaria, then gangrene and was left behind once to fend for myself. We couldn’t take injured or sick men with us and it was the rule of thumb to leave behind anyone who might hinder our progress. Thankfully, I recovered, remembering in my dreams the visit of a monk in an orange robe who gave me tea to help my recovery. I often wonder if this was for real or just hallucinations.
After a fortnight or so, I managed to catch up with my unit. Living in the jungle, you became acclimatised to every sound and developed a unique sense of direction. Having met our objective, we had to withdraw from Indaw but had to cross the road to get out. Our support came from the Yanks who bombed the local village to keep the Japs back. My section was the last to pull out and I always remember burying my head in the sand thinking that this was my lot as shells exploded all around me. Eventually we broke out under tremendous fire and, again, the familiar undercover of the jungle was our salvation. The retreat was successful as we made it to an airstrip and were flown back to Imphal.
It was a success and we achieved our objective. From Imphal, when I had fully recovered, I was sent to Calcutta to join the 2nd Durham Light Infantry aboard the ship, Dilwara, for the invasion of Rangoon. After VJ Day, I finally got home for demob at Sedgefield, Co Durham.
I spent over seven years out there before returning to a world that had no idea of what we had gone through. What an adjustment I had to make!
Material Copyright ©2004 Wartime News.