We were struck, on landing at Bombay, by the peace time atmosphere prevailing. Customs and Immigration were as fussy as usual, and those who had lost their passports had some trouble in landing, but fortunately I had mine with me so went through quickly enough, but was stopped by customs, although I only had a few shirts and shorts in my small case, and had to surrender the small pistol that Darby had given me in Port Dickson, although I got it back later. Gammon’s manager in India met us, and took us to places where we could get a bed, and Gordon and I got a small flat with another Gammon man called Thomas, who seemed to live on Valium, and was known as Blob.
I had left Singapore about 24 hours before the surrender, probably on Feb 11th 1939, and referring to my old passport, I see that we landed at Bombay on March 9th, and I was not commissioned in to the Army until April 1st. I had heard through my father, soon after landing that Budge and Sue were all right, and that they were in Durban in South Africa, and that was a tremendous load off my mind. We had heard many rumours that many evacuee ships had been sunk, and of course I had been frantically worried that they might have been on one of them. However I did not get a letter until well into April and so knew very little of their general well being. Later it emerged that Sue had been very ill on the ship, losing weight rapidly, and that therefore Budge and Eryl, who was with her, had decided to disembark at Durban, instead of going on to England. Once ashore Sue quickly recovered, and a photo I received, showed her blooming in health. They soon moved from Durban to Umkommas, and later to Greytown, where they rented a cottage, and remained there until July 1944, when they joined me in Ceylon, but more of that later.
After a short time I went along to Army Headquarters to join up, but after studying some files, they told me that I was in a reserved occupation and was earmarked to go and build bridges right up in the north east corner on the border with Burma, in the area where the retreating Army were crossing back into India in dribs and drabs. I learned that Gammon himself had somehow arranged this without consulting me; indeed I had never met him as he rarely visited Malaya but looked after the Indian side of the business. I was furious, as, after my experiences, I was determined to join the Army, but nothing I said made the slightest difference to officialdom. However, one morning Blob arrived back at the flat and said that he had just been accepted in the Indian Engineers, on the Transportation side, which he said had absolute priority in recruiting, so that afternoon I rushed along to their headquarters, and was interviewed by a Col. Langley to whom I explained my difficulty, and how much I wanted to join the Army. He said that there would be no problem, and recruited me on the spot, and told me to await written orders. These orders arrived in due course, and I was told to report to No 1 Transportation Training Centre at Deolali. Enclosed was a railway warrant, and an extract of a Part 2 order to the effect that I had been commissioned as a Captain in the Indian Engineers. There was also a short note to say that although a Captain, I should only wear one pip while at the T.T.C.
The T.T.C. was just a basic training depot for learning the most elementary military necessities such as drill, compass reading, arms drill, simple tactics, etc. and as I had had all this taught both at school and at Cambridge, it was no surprise to me when I passed out top at the end of the course, as most of the other trainees had had no such training, and a great many of them thought it all a great waste of time. Deolali was a desolate place and there was no outside amusement whatever, but one could get occasional leave to go down to Bombay, which I did once or twice, as some of my friends from Malaya were still there, awaiting ships for wherever they had permission to go to, so all in all I was glad when the course was completed and we could all disperse to our final appointments. In general, most of the trainee officers came from jobs connected with the loading or off-loading of ships, and so most were posted to dock operating companies,then being formed, but to begin with I was posted in command of a Dock Maintenance company but this was only done to give me the rank of Major, and I never served with it, if indeed it ever existed, although I was it’s C.O. for about 3 months. Eventually I was posted to command 220 Port Construction Company, and remained in that position until I was demobilised in 1946, and felt no desire to leave it, although while in Calcutta, before the invasion of Malaya, I was offered a position on the staff at Dum Dum, where the planning took place, which meant promotion, but having seen the staff at work I refused it, preferring to go into Malaya with my Company .
I raised the Company in Bombay, occupying a large block of flats in the Colaba district with other Companies being raised , and there we received raw recruits whom we had to train. I was given a 2i/c, a Captain Sandy Mills and two subalterns Jimmy Dodds and Jimmy Milne, both Scots and both incipient alcoholics, and older than subalterns normally were. This period was pretty dull, and we occupied ourselves with drill, route marches, and weapon training in the morning, starting at 6 am reveille, and had the afternoon off, except the duty officer who was one of the subalterns. Every so often I would have to act as duty field officer for the whole group. I joined the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, where occasionally I would dine in lone splendour, as no officer below the rank of major was permitted to enter its sacred portals, but more often I would go out somewhere with Sandy Mills, or the man I shared a room with, a fellow major. At last this boring period ended at any rate for us, and the Company was sent to a place in the Ghats ( or hills ) where there was a river,and we were to train in bridging, building wharves and general construction work. All the men posted to the Company, with the exception of a few sweepers and drill instructors were supposedly tradesmen, such as carpenters, welders, mechanics and even divers, although it was obvious that some had obtained their certificates of competency by bribery or other underhand means, All were paid different rates of pay according to their trades, the trade of diver being by far the highest, and well above what any of them could possibly have earned in civilian employment, so I decided that, as I was empoweredto regrade, we ought to trade test most of them before we had to build things in earnest. Most of this went smoothly enough, and we learned the capabilities of each man fairly quickly some being up graded and some down. My main suspicion was of our two divers capabilities one being an overweight Anglo-Indian who I was pretty sure had never dived in his life, so one day I ordered him to don his suit and dive. After a lot of excuses, he finally did, with help, get his suit and helmet on with an increasing look of panic, and was put in the water, sinking like a stone; the pump men started pumping, and shortly the diver shot to the surface on his back with the suit fully inflated, unable to get at his helmet valve with his outstretched arms. We hauled him ashore and got him undressed, and he then confessed that he was not a diver at all, but a shopkeeper, who had seen the opportunity of earning good money in the army, and had somehow got his trade certificate, how I did not enquire as I knew I would not get at the truth. He was grateful to be regraded as a store keeper at a greatly reduced rate of pay, and we trained our own divers later from the more intelligent tradesmen
We remained at this camp for some weeks, with an interval at a delightful place close to the sea, which in peace time was a week- end resort near Bombay, and there we trained in combined operations, which mainly consisted of getting on and off landing craft. At this period we were the only Port Construction Company in the Indian theatre of war, so it was fairly obvious that if and when an invasion of Burma or Arakan did take place we should be on it, and I remember thinking that whilst my men were good tradesmen for the most part, they emphatically were not fighting soldiers,with the exception of a few ex regular Indian Army, such as the Subedar Major, Havildar Major, and a smattering of N.C.O,s who were with us for discipline and administration. Finally a movement order came, to the effect that we were to move to Chittagong, in West Bengal, and as usual in the army we were given very few days to pack up, and move to Calcutta by train. We sailed from Calcutta on a troopship, and a short time later docked at Chittagong, a God forsaken place at the best of times but made much more repulsive by the effects of the famine that was raging in this part of India. There were dead and dying in the streets, and corpses frequently floating down the river which bordered on our quarters. At first one was shocked and horrified, but it did not take long to become used to it, and to be quite callous.
We did not stay long in Chittagong, but soon got orders to proceed to a small settlement called Cox’s Bazaar further south down the coast. I, with a small advance party,went ahead by coastal steamer, and saw to accommodation, and the rest of the Company with vehicles and equipment, followed. Cox,s Bazaar was on an estuary surrounded by creeks and deep in jungle, and pre-war had no doubt been a small trading post for rice etc, but had now become the principal port to supply the army in its hoped for advance into the Arakan, which had been overrun by the Japanese the previous year. We were not to stay long there but were to go on down to a jungle clearing known as Tumbru Ghat, to prepare to advance further into the Arakan, when the Maungdaw – Buthidaung area was recaptured. At Tumbru there was not much for us to do except keep the men busy and trained, and we built a small wharf on the creek. I had managed to acquire two outboard motors, together with two infantry assault boats, folding canvas affairs with flat wooden bottoms, and I made frequent trips down the creek to see if I could get an idea of the site where we were to build the forward small port. These trips were always good fun as, if one got the balance right, the boat would plane at a very good speed, and there was always a slight risk of running into a Jap patrol, although I never did. At Tumbru we had our first casualty, albeit self inflicted, when, just as I was leaving to visit Cox’s, I was called back to some commotion that was going on in the camp. When I got back to my office I was confronted by a sepoy with a notice hung round his neck to the effect that he wished to fight the Japs. He was on guard duty, and was armed with our only tommy gun which he was certainly not supposed to have. I tried to keep as calm as possible, and sent for our Subedar an enormous Sikh, to come and deal with the man, and find out what was troubling him, when suddenly the sepoy, first pointed the gun at me, and then held it to his chest and pulled the trigger, blowing himself to pieces.
We remained at Tumbru Ghat for some weeks,waiting for the Maungdaw area to be recaptured, and then we got the usual sudden order to move up. The supply of our forces in the forward areas depended on water transport, as there was not as yet a road to them suitable for all the heavy transport, and it was to be our job to build a port on the river, on to which food and ammunition could be off loaded. I had already indented for the necessary timber and ironwork that I thought would be necessary to build two wharves at different levels to suit the tidal range, and this was starting to arrive, and I had also obtained the plant additional to our own war equipment. So, as soon we were settled in to our camp on Maungdaw Island we started work. It was an island only in name, being separated from the mainland by a small muddy creek The Japs were only a short distance down the river, so we had to keep alert. Every now and then two Zeros would come over and sometimes strafe us, but never seemed to do any serious damage, the Indian Air Force having air superiority meant that they did not stay too long on any strafe.
Maungdaw was in India, right on the Burma boundary, and, on the other side of the Arakan hills was Buthidaung in Burma, and there was a tunnel joining the two areas. The whole area had been first captured by the Japs, and then, in the year before our arrival had been recaptured by the British, who had then been driven out again. This latest offensive on our part was aimed at the port of Akyab on the tip of the Arakan peninsula, which, once captured and working would open the way to the invasion,and reconquest of Burma. In fact, as things finally turned out, the Japanese forces were so completely defeated by our separate offensive from Imphal, that Akyab was left undefended and the final conquest of Burma took place through Rangoon, but that was a year away.
The Japs put up a tremendous resistance round Buthidaung and there seemed to be a virtual stalemate in the Arakan, while the Imphal offensive was being prepared. We were a bit worried when the 2nd Indian Division was withdrawn to be replaced by the 5th. We came under the one Division on the front for administration only, as we were not Division troops, being an independent company. I had an occasion to go to Division H.Q. at Buthidaung for some purpose or other one day, and next day heard that the Japs had infiltrated round the Division, and cut it off from it’s support forces during that night. They had attacked a field hospital by the road and slaughtered all it’s occupants, and had occupied the tunnels. On my way back to the company I had come across a stranded 15cwt truck whose passengers were trying to manhandle it out of a stream it was in, and with my 4 wheel drive weapon carrier had pulled it clear. While we were thus engaged a shell or mortar bomb had fallen on the road nearby, but we just thought it was an occasional round that the Japs had loosed off, and went on our way, How wrong we were, for the Japs were across that road that evening and cut us off from our rations supply base. This so called siege lasted about two weeks before it was broken by our troops with the rout of the enemy, who by then were in a pitiable half starved condition as they had not managed to capture the division supply base. We in Maungdaw had no infantry or fighting troops near us and had had to organise our own defense in case we came under attack, and we dug trenches and dug-out Bren gun posts and put sharpened bamboo stakes round our camp, and every night fully manned these defensive positions. Fortunately the Japs never came for which I was very grateful, my main worry being to keep the sepoys on guard at night awake in the defensive positions, which meant that one of us four officers had to patrol the perimeter continuously. We were certainly not fighting troops.
Some time after this , a young Lieutenant from an Indian Regiment arrived at our camp and asked to see me alone, and then in a very secretive manner asked me whether we could build small bridges over the streams on the other side of the Arakan hills, but was very reluctant to tell me what sort of bridges he was talking about. After a bit, I dragged out of him that they should be capable of carrying light tanks. I replied that I could not answer his enquiry unless I had a look at the sites myself, and so he gave me some map references, and I agreed to go and have a look. As soon as I could, I took my driver and our Havildar Major, Jokhey Singh,who was the only Gurkha in the company, and easily the best soldier and shot, and drove up the Naugedok pass (known as Nockidock) through the tunnels towards our objective. On the way we saw a Sikh company advancing across an open space intent on capturing some objective in the jungle, and a little later came across a small group of officers sitting in a hollow. I enquired of them if it was safe to go further forward and one of them replied that it was O.K. if I did not mind being shot, but they did not try to stop us, and thinking it was rather a weak joke we pressed on, only to find a bit further on a few Gurkhas crouched in a ditch looking very alert. Fortunately, having Jokhey Singh with us, he was able to talk to them, in spite of their shushing signals,and we learned that there was a body of Japs a short distance in front. We retreated to our transport as quickly as we could, and I never did see the site I was asked to inspect, and heard no more about it before we were moved elsewhere.
Our work at Maungdaw was now completed, and there did not seem to be anything more that we were likely to be asked to do. We were ordered to return to Tumbru Ghat, and hold ourselves ready for a further move. We had been in the Arakan as long as most troops, and hints had already been dropped that we were likely to be withdrawn from this theatre of operations for a rest. Before we left Tumbru we had our second self inflicted casualty. A sepoy on guard duty deserted his post with his loaded rifle, and an immediate search was started, as we knew that he could not get very far without transport, and that he had none, but were alarmed as to what he might get up to. Eventually he was spotted some distance away, standing by the road. The Subedar ordered him to return to camp which he refused to do, and he threatened any who approached him. At this stage I was sent for, the idea being, that he might obey me, and in any case I was the boss. Before I approached him I got Jokhey Singh to lie down and cover him with his rifle with instructions to shoot him if he showed any signs of shooting me. Although he was at least 100 yards away I was confident that Jokhey Singh would not miss. I then walked up to him as calmly and quietly as I could,and started to talk to him, asking him what the trouble was and offering home leave. He listened quite rationally for a bit ,and then suddenly raised his rifle, pointed it at me, and said ” If you don’t go away I’ll shoot you “. I could do nothing but obey him, and turned my back on him, and walked away. We still had the problem of preventing him from leaving the area, and while we were pondering what to do a jeep with two British M.Ps drove by. I stopped them and asked whether they had any tear gas,or some such thing and explained the circumstances, whereupon one of the idiots jumped out of the jeep and marched towards the man ,drawing his pistol as he did so. This tactic might have worked with a British soldier, but made the sepoy put his rifle under his chin, and blow the top of his head off. The M.P. nearly fainted in shock, and I berated him vehemently for his criminal stupidity.