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Yenangyaung 1942

(by Captain Christensen, "The Back Badge", Summer 1949)

On 13th April 1942, the 28th arrived at Yenangyaung ostensibly to rest after several months in continuous movement and action. They were at this time reduced to a strength of 2 companies and were ordered to take over from KOYLI the protection of Yenangyaung and Chauk, another oil centre further north, and to cover the demolitions should these be necessary. The demolition plan was in the hands of specialised troops and certain Oil Company employees. One company proceeded to Chauk. On the 14th a reconnaissance of the various areas was made and that evening troops were ordered out to their various locations.

Yenangyaung town and cantonment were empty except for the Oil Company "last ditchers" and the military. The fine bungalows of the oil people, standing high up from the Irrawaddy, were a sad sight with their wardrobes full of clothes, children's nurseries with books and toys and dining rooms with crockery left from the last hurried meal still on the tables.

Demolitions started on the 15th and continued on the 16th and these notes only deal with the area covered by the writer. The first job was Nat Singh's refinery, which was the only privately owned refinery in the area and the owner's name was well known to some in connection with racing. Then we went up the cliffs above the Irrawaddy and dealt with 2 pumps and then to a dump of electrical equipment. This equipment must have been worth thousands of pounds, such is the cost of a scorched earth policy, and was stacked in the open and surrounded with a bund. As in many cases, the plan was to run oil into the bund and when flooded to ignite. The oil pressure was low and there was a fear of not getting enough so we set to with sledge hammers breaking up the delicate machines.

So we progressed. A route had to be followed so that we kept clear of fires already blazing and the last stretch lay through a series of "go-downs" down to thw river where the oil personnel boarded a launch that was waiting to take them on their way to India. Our little party were quite sad, or perhaps envious, to see them go and we threaded our way back through the fires to the Battalion R.V. During the day there was minor air activity and the hospital was bombed.

2200 hours on the 16th April will be remembered by all who saw the immense blaze-up of oil storage tanks. The countryside was illuminated for miles around. At midnight the power station went up with a bang and it was certain that the Japs would get little or no oil even of they could not be halted by the British.

As already said the demolitions were completed at midnight on the 16th. At 0130 the writer was sent on patrol to Twingon, a village just north of Yenangyaung, with instructions to patrol down to the Pin Chaung - a sandy river bed dry at that time of year - further north. The patrol commander took a route east of north and, on deciding it was wrong as the chaung was not reached in 45 minutes, retraced steps to Twingon. Within a few minutes sounds were heard from the east and the patrol took up a position coveringa track. It was pitch black and it was only foreign tongues that were unmistakably not Indian and a flag which we knew only Japanese carried that told us for certain that it was a large rabble of enemy. The weapons of the patrol were 3 rifles, a tommy gun that stopped after 2 or 3 rounds, and 2 grenades. We must have inflicted several casualties and then hastily beat it. Our only loss was 1 finger, and the swordsman who cut it off - presumably an officer - was killed.

On reporting enemy in Twingon to Battalion HQ, the writer was given command of the only Glosters available, 18 in number and a platoon of Burma Frontier Force. The party moved to within a mile of Twingon, by which time it was already first light. The plan in brief was for BBF less LMG's to make an encircling movement and to clear the village from the east, the attack to go in at 0730 hours and Glosters to do the same from the west. Parties were to meet at a prominent pagoda. BFF LMG's were ordered to give covering fire from a frontal position chosen. It was unlikely that we could succeed with the strength available but we set off. The writer went with the Glosters. The ground gave good cover as it is undulating and covered with oil workings and our party approached to within 100 yards of the village before our first casualty, one killed. From this position it could be seen that a high open bamboo fence made it impossible to enter that side of the village. The writer was then shot in the leg and could only move with difficulty, so command was handed over to the next senior, a corporal, with instructions to work across the front under cover and see if the fence ended. If impossible they were to work into the village and then return to the starting point. So commenced our rest period at Yenangyaung.

On 17th April at 1000 hours I was lying in the shade of a tree near the PWD bungalow at Yenangyaung quite comfortably, except for the tourniquet in my right leg to stop bleeding from a hole in the calf. Thanks to QM Roland Grist I had a lift from near Twingon back to Battalion HQ where I had reported to Captain Richard Johnson. Already it was hot and it promised to beat the previous day's 112 shade temperature - but we were not left in peace for long as mortar and small arms fire soon drove us under cover.

Medical Sergeant L.P. Smith, late Band Sergt., with his usual thoroughness had prepared some ditches big enough to take stretchers and in one of these he continued to loosen the tourniquet at intervals and to tend other cases. Fire increased and it appeared that the Japs, already blocking the road to Twingon to the north, were likely to over-run the position from the east and it was decided to take the wounded to the Irrawaddy and try to evacuate them by an Irrawaddy flotilla boat. With difficulty 2 stretcher bearers took me down the steep path to the river side. The flotilla boat had already started up stream and Private Carr volunteered to swim out to her and get them to pick us up. The river was wide and swift flowing and I was relieved to learn 3 years later that he made the boat but that captain refused to change course (quite rightly as the channel was tricky and he would probably have grounded) for at that time we thought he was lost.

Our party consisted of Sergt. Smith and 2 stretcher bearers, together with Private Snow, shot in the groin, a private of the Duke of Wellington's with an arm injury, and myself. After about an hour, a further party of Glosters arrived who had been chased out of Yenangyaung. They had been told to proceed south down the river side of the town in the vicinity of the Stud Farm on the Magwe Road. Sergt. Smith stated that his concern was with the wounded and CQMS G.H. Biggs remained with him.

Around 3 in the afternoon Jap bombers had a go at the Stud Farm area. Divisonal HQ must have been their target as we could hear distant AA fire and only Divisional HQ ever had any AA protection. The next incident was a burst of fire at our party from the PDW Bungalow area and sniping continued for some 15 minutes but no one was hit. Biggs or Smith had seen a native boat beached a short distance up the river and it was suggested that we cross the river to the west bank, hire a bullock cart and proceed north, and this was agreed to as lastest intelligence had said that there was no sign of enemy west of the river.

Smith brought the boat down, a frail boat that would only hold the paddle man and one other. First Smith took Biggs over and then returned for Snow, then for the "Duke" and finally for me. Biggs went off in search of transport and after some time returned with an ancient Indian and a bullock cart. Snow and I were loaded into the cart and off we jolted and creacked through the bare paddy fields in the evening sunlight. My recollections are somewhat confused as I feverish. An Anglo-Burman led us to a boat in a nearby stream that would take us back to the Irrawaddy.

We spent the following day and night in the boat, which had a crew of two. After a few days some of us were transferred to a larger Irrawaddy ship. Lieut-Col. Irvine, RAMC, whom we had known in Rangoon, was in charge at first but left after a few days to establish a Field Hospital on the route between Burma and India and at Kyaukmyaung an Indian Medical Unit took over. We stayed at Kyaukmyaung for several days as there was no fuel for the ship's boilers and a Padre on board organised wood collecting parties. Each day we heard planes going over and the distant bombing of Shwebo and we were glad to get on our way up river when sufficient wood was on board as we knew that the Jap was at Lashio. The day before we left my leg boiled up again and the Indian M.O.s had me on the slab for 3 hours.

On the afternoon of the 2nd May we reached Katha and the following morning were put onto a train which set off in the afternoon for Myitkynia. Captain Thorp, who had been wounded at Padigon whilst I.O. to the Battalion, Greaves and Broughton of Punjabis, and Morris, RIASC who had been shot up at the Sittang Bridge fiasco, were my companions. Greaves was in a bad way and still had 5 bullets in him, and, when conscious, spent his time issuing orders in Hindustani. Greaves died in Assam. On the night of the 4th May we arrived at Myitkynia - the last train to come through.

Afer some hours we were transferred to Myitkynia Hospital. Early in the morning all walking cases were told to parade and to form their own parties and set out for India. Many never got there. Stretcher cases were laid outside to await transport to the airfield. At about 1000 I was delighted to see Sergt. Smith arrive driving an ambulance. Smith was far from fit and still had dysentry. In due course I was loaded into a CNAC Douglas 12-seater with 36 others and we were flown over the hills to Dibrugarh in Assam. Here we were taken to Panitola Tea Estate hospital and accommodated in bashas. At Panitola there was a civil doctor who operated for 14 hours a day, and a Captain of the RAMC who struggled with the administration of some hundreds of casualties, British and Indian. There were also 3 Lady Minto nurses and the doctor's wife who had been a nurse and who was of great assistance. A tea planter's wife did what she could in the way of comforts and organised a fund to supply razors, combs and pyjamas.

General Wavell visited us, and it rained and I thought of those walking out, including what remained of the 28th. After some days we were loaded onto goods trains and taken to Brahmaputra and put on board a river ship and went down to Gauhati. Here we were moved to a hospital that was just being established and which was not ready to receive any patients. So we went back to Gauhati and found a real hospital train. Thorp, Broughton, Morris and I were I think the only officers on the train and to us came the OC Train for advice. He had a train but no instructions and no rations. Our advice was to that we should set off, and so we did. By phoning down the line ahead, Anglo-Indian Railway communities fed us at various stations and I still thank them for their generosity. The train reached Patna and we were ferried across the Ganges and taken to some barracks at Dinapore. Here we were well fed and cared for and wounds were re-dressed. A Wilts Battalion were stationed nearby and Dutton (late CSM 28th) came to visit Thorp and myself.

Our next move was to Poona and there we came to rest on 15th May after travelling well over 2,000 miles by bullock cart, boat, train and air. I recommend it if you want to lose weight as I lost 3 and half stone. Sergeant Smith was awarded the DCM for his devotion to duty throughout the campaign, and CQMS Biggs received the MM for several good jobs of work.

Burma 1942

CQMS G.H. Biggs, MM, 'B' Coy.
(Back Badge 1949)

On the 17th April the Battalion was surrounded by Japs and some of us were forced on to the river bed of the Irrawaddy. It was about 10 am when a party including Captain Johnson, MC, Sergt. Edwards, Sergt. Ransome, and others had decided how to break out. There were 2 ways - cross the river, or creep up under the ridge which overlooked the river and which was occupied by the enemy. We dicided to split up into 2 parties. Capt. Johnson with the 2 sergeants with one party, and myself with Lance-Corporal Gillett in the other. I chose creeping up the river edge and had not gone far when I found Captain Christensen and Private Snow badly wounded and Sergt. Smith attending them. After a discussion we decided to carry them to a narrow part of the river and get a small boat to take them across as we were being continually sniped at. During this period we were machine-gunned from the air and the remainder of the party scattered and later joined me at Chauk.

After getting across I got an Indian with a bullock cart to take us across country to another point on the Irrawaddy out of range of Jap sniping. There we found a Burmese boatman about to sail to Mandalay. We arrived at a place called Weston at 11 am. None of us had had any food or water for over a day but we kept cheerful somehow. At Weston I got some food from a Chinese pork shop and after a meal we set out for Chauk where Major Hunter was with 'C' Company. On arrival I was told that there was a hospital ship leaving soon for Mandalay. After seeing Capt. Christensen and the others on board, I left them and went ashore at Chauk and later went to Mt. Popa where the remainder who broke out of Yenangyaung joined up.

Biggs became an RSM in India and by 1949 was a storeman with the Royal Engineers near Broadway in Worcestershire.
Sergeant Smith, DCM, became Bandmaster of the Southern Rhodesian Auxiliary Force at Salisbury.