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Pontefract Memories and Recollections

A BOY IN BURMA


CHARLES GERALD DELANY

PART ONE | PART TWO

Abridged version from an account written by Charles G. Delany for his grandchildren, and published with the permission of the author, Charles G. Delany.

In 1939 at the outbreak of World War Two, my father, William Delaney, more widely known to his friends and associates as Gerry, R.S.M. was stationed with the 2nd Battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. in Burma in the small garrison town of Maymyo, situated 35 miles north east of Mandalay. The garrison town boasted one British shop, which traded in the small town shopping centre, but you were able to obtain most requirements from the local bazaars. The Barracks (Alexander Barracks) housed the battalion, barrack blocks on stilts for the soldiers, and bungalows for the married families. Facilities within the barracks included a well stocked shop and canteen owned by Wasir Ali. Posting to a battalion lasted six years and with most married families living in close proximity to one another, long time friendships were formed and you tended to live like one big family due to a willingness to help one another in any situation that could occur. This proved to be invaluable during the evacuation period. Many junior ranks had local girlfriends, either Burmese or Anglo/Burmese. Some of the soldiers eventually married these local girls.

Colonel Charles G. Delany

In the 1930’s life in colonial Burma was very laid back with the soldiers duties in the main being of an internal security and guard role. For the soldiers, route marching, weapon training, map reading and sports, were the main activities. For the ladies much of their entertainment was to hold tea parties, cocktail parties, bridge and whist drives, and of course bingo. For the officers of the battalion, golf, polo and tennis were very popular. Religious needs were provided by both Roman Catholic and Church of England churches. As Roman Catholics, my cousin and I became the only two white altar boys serving Mass and Benediction on Sundays and Holy Days.

In 1938/39 with war clouds gathering in Europe, many senior N.C.O.’s and Officers were to return to England to assist in the training of new recruits, building up the strength of the regular army in anticipation of war. This depleted the battalion of many of its senior N.C.O.’s. My uncle, then Sergeant Arthur Holmes, later to become Captain Holmes, was one of those who returned to England with my Aunt Mary and cousin Arthur, who was also my best friend.

Following the declaration of war with Germany there were two main concerns of both wives and soldiers. Wives were worried about their loved ones at home in England and from the soldier’s point of view, the safety of their wives and children. There was frustration at being in the backwoods, forgotten and probably never to fire a shot in anger in the defence of their country.

With 1941 came the realisation that Japan was becoming a distinct threat and danger in Asia and that the battalion was likely to fight a war far from home. There was great confidence among the troops that they would defeat the Japanese quite easily. In 1942 Brigadier Orde Wingate was to form his famous ‘Chindits’. With priority of equipment being given to troops at home and in the Middle East, the battalions in Burma were poorly equipped. An entrenching tool is a vital tool of an infantry soldier but not one tool was available to the battalion. With only four, three-inch mortars and no two-inch mortars, the firepower of the battalion was to depend largely on the Lee-Enfield rifle and a few Bren guns and Thompson machine guns. The only transport available for the battalion was six fifteen-hundredweight trucks, mules and carts. There were no wireless sets, no air cover or mines and only one anti-tank weapon. This was how the battalion was equipped to fight the rear guard actions and eventual retreat from Burma.

In December, Japan declared war and we realised we were part of a world war. We frequently saw Japanese aircraft overhead though to the best of my knowledge bombs were only dropped on one occasion. This caused complete panic among the local population who fled into the jungle.

With the success of the Japanese and their rapid advances, tension grew and plans were implemented for the evacuation of the families. Early in February families were warned that a total evacuation was a possibility and that we should be prepared to move at short notice and be allowed to carry with us the minimum amount of clothing and food.

On February 28th the first families received their orders to move. This first group consisted of fifteen ladies and five children. They travelled initially by train to the Chindwin river at Monywa where the journey continued by steamer to Sittuang, with no metal roads into India they travelled by foot carrying what possessions they could. Still travelling by foot they went on forest tracks and over mountain ridges. In better times the view would have been magnificent from the mountain ridges. At the village of Tamu the party crossed into India. The party finally arrived at Calcutta on the 21st of March, a total journey time of just over three weeks. Later this route was to be used by many thousands of refugees fleeing from the Japanese.

Meanwhile, back in Maymyo, families waited anxiously each day for news of the battalion and their menfolk. The Barrack rooms were converted into hospital wards with large red crosses painted on the roof, and on the barrack square, but this did not stop the Japanese bombing the barracks. The Indian population was making a mass exodus with tens of thousands fleeing from all parts of Burma.

The fall of Singapore was to change the situation completely. The battalion, which had suffered for many months with tropical illnesses while preparing for the Japanese invasion, including two hundred cases of malaria whilst in Tuanggyi, was rushed south to Martaban and Moulmein as the Japanese were advancing rapidly through Malaya and Thailand. At Moulmein, the river Salween is very placid between two and three miles wide, a magnificent defence line if you have sufficient troops and equipment to defend it. Unfortunately these were not available. This was to be the start of a nine hundred miles retreat – the longest in the history of the British Army. The situation became chaotic as retreating troops reached the river Sittang, which is a fast flowing river, three-quarters of a mile wide. On the 23rd February 1942, the only bridge crossing this river was destroyed to deny passage across it to the enemy. Unfortunately, a brigade, which included the K.O.Y.L.I., was left stranded on the wrong side. This fast flowing river was a major obstacle even for the strongest of swimmers. Those who managed the crossing were swept almost one mile downstream. My father, who spoke very little of his Burma experience, did relate that as he went into the river he decided that he had no hope of reaching the other side. He came out of the water, smoked a cigarette and started to think of his family back in Maymyo, and decided to try again and was on this occasion successful. He reached the opposite bank in only his shorts and bush hat, under which he had his silver cigarette case, which I still have to this day.

There were many casualties, either dead, wounded or prisoners. Morale was at a low-level, with concern about their families left back in Malmyo and their own predicament with no equipment and no means of communication.

Back in Malmyo wounded soldiers were returning in so called ambulance trains. We were shocked at the arrival of the first train; this being no more than a number of goods wagons. The injured and wounded had received little or no medical attention during their journey from the south which had taken many days. We were able to glean information of the battalion from some of the wounded soldiers.

On the 3rd March my father returned to Maymyo to help organise the reinforcements and reforming of the battalion, the remnants of which were still in the area of Pegu. It was a well known fact that the British were not popular among a section of the Burmese population, it was therefore important that soldiers be armed to protect themselves against possible attack from groups of dissidents. To this end an armoury was broken into at Pegu and weapons which had been captured from Italians in North Africa were issued to each soldier. By this time it was obvious that evacuation of families would be necessary and with this in mind my father instructed me in the use of the Italian rifle and .38 Smith and Weston revolver. He warned me that Burmese dissidents had attacked convoys of refugees and that I should use the weapons if necessary to protect the family.

On the 8th March we heard that Rangoon had fallen to the Japanese. The following afternoon at about four o’clock, sitting on the veranda having afternoon tea, a runner from the Orderly Room passed by our bungalow and informed us that certain families were to report at half past four for immediate evacuation. My mother told him it was ridiculous, that it was impossible to comply with these orders at such short notice. Ten minutes later we were also warned to move at the same time. We were permitted the minimum luggage, a small bag of toiletries into which we placed small tins of condensed milk, biscuits and bread. Everything else, precious possessions collected over seventeen years of marriage was to be left in the house. The last item I picked up before leaving was a book called "How it works and how it is done" printed in India by the Bombay Book Company, and a holy picture given to me by Father Blevaue, both of which I have to this day.

Charles G. Delany


PART ONE | PART TWO


 

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