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An Escape From Burma

Letters of 164607 Lieutenant John Angus Cumming, 28th Regt.
(Back Badge, 1948)

In April 1942, Lieut. Cumming, then a subaltern with some 16 month's service, was ordered to take a draft of 70 men from India to join the 28th somewhere in Burma. He got them to Myitkynia and then to Assam where they found the Battalion.

(Letters to his parents)

24th May 1942,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am quite safe and sound in India again after an adventurous evacuation of Burma over a mountainous range. Actually, we (that is Peter Carr, myself and the 70 men I was in charge of) managed to cover, entirely on foot, 290 miles of mountain country up and down goat tracks in 17 days, and thank God we never lost our way once. I found it a great strain, as I could never be anywhere but at the head of the column with an inadequate map and the little compass we bought in Bond Street on my last leave, and it saved us more than once. Now I am in India again with the Battalion, and we are catching up on a lot of sleep and eating. On the march we had to rely on our rifles and the rice we were able to carry. Rice! I never want to see the stuff again. I was lucky in bagging 3 wild boars, which gave the rice a decent flavour, but on occasions we ate rice plain, one meal a day for a fortnight, also tea at least 2 or 3 times a day.

I lost a lot of my kit in Burma, and could only take what I could carry. Goodness it was cold on those moutain peaks, and the worst of it was we had to park for the night without water. Yes, it was a strain, but now that it is over I would not have missed it for the world, even though I had a fever at one stage. Now all I seem to want to do is eat and eat. We have been waiting for General Wavell to arrive since 10 am, and it is now 6 pm. I expect that he is very busy. Food here is very good and plentiful for the troops. We have been issued with a new pair of boots, shirts, shorts and socks.

Well the General did not turn up yesterday and is expected to arrive at noon today, so we are all in a bustle again. The more I see of the CO the more I am glad to be serving under him. He must have gone through hell.

On the way out of Burma I lost my topee and all I could obtain was a Sharu hat, which is an immense straw affair with a 2-ft. brim. This I had to discard when it started to rain, and I got hold of a 15-ft length of red turban material, so you can imagine what a knut I looked when we got back. Quite a lot of my men also wore turbans and we grew terrific beards.

We may be part of a retreating army, but cartainly not a defeated army. This has been an experimental conflict against the unknown. Japs with utter lack of exhaustion, Japs shooting at us from trees, Japs we seldom see, Japs who think that to lie is an honour, Japs whose mentality and outlook are utterly unlike ours. It must be difficult for "gentlemen in England now abed" to realise the grim, relentless, tiring struggle that went on. When we were flying into Burma, the planes carrying us were used to bring back wounded soldiers, and these men all said, "Look out for them in the trees; they are like monkeys."

I nearly forgot to say that General Wavell came yesterday and inspected us all. He asked quite a lot of questions as to how the party that I commanded got out, and about the rough time we had. We have just received a cable from General Pagan - "Well done, 28th."

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30th May 1942,

On 24th April we left Barrackpore and, after 3 days train journey in a north-easterly direction, came to an aerodrome from which we had to fly to Burma. We flew from India to Myitkynia (now in Jap hands, I believe) and were quartered for the night in some drill sheds. I had Peter Carr as my second-in-command. We spent 4 days going south on the railway to join the Battalion. We seemed to be the only train going south. What happened the next few days I will be able to tell you some day.

Early one sunday morning the train had stopped for the night at a little station called Segon, and I was awakened at about 0200 hrs by shots and shouts. Hurridly putting on some clothes, I dashed out, revolver in hand. It was a bright moonlit night. The station was small and a fire was burning in the office. Behind, on one side, were 20 or 30 shadowy houses, and on the other side jungle.

I found most of the men tumbling out of the carriages. There was no panic. I got them organised into 10 parties and surrounded the train with 9. The other I split in 2. One I took in the direction of the firing; the other I sent to another flank to give supporting fire. A volley of shots, rifle shots, revolvers, sporting guns, went over our heads as we flung ourselves to the ground. We could now vaguely see our enemy - dacoits led by 3 or 4 hpungyis (yellow-robed Buddhist priests who have a grudge against the British). I ordered no one to fire yet and crawled forward with 3 men. Someone yelled "Look out sir!" A shot rang out from the sergeant behind men and a Burman rolled down from a roof top. He had been levelling his gun at me. I remember saying "Thanks Sergeant" and feeling it seemed inadequate at the time. We got into a good position and we let them have it. From then on it was a rout. The engine driver and fireman had flown. Luckily, I spent 2 days and nights travelling in the engine, so I managed, with the help of 2 of my lads, to get the train to the next station.

On 5th May we started our long and harassing trek back. We started off with 3 tins of "Bully" per man, 1 tin of milk each, also tea and sugar, and as much rice as each man could carry. We also started with an immense load of personal kit, which, believe me, we soon threw away. We learnt by experience, and marched between 3 am and 10 am, and again in the cool of the evening, although our marches were regulated to some extent by the watering places we expected to find. The first day we stopped by a lovely lake, and we bathed and fished. We had a meal of some rice and chickens which I bought from a villager. The next day we marched on to a river, only covering 11 miles. I had developed a fever, but managed to keep this from the men, although I nearly fainted twice. The next 2 days were a nightmare; marched and marched, feeling rotten and getting worse, until 9th May when it got cooler and I got some quinine tablets. We camped for the night by a spring and life looked a bit brighter till in the morning we found we had some of our "Bully" and milk stolen. Up to now we had done 69 miles.

10th May was very hard going; up hill again. We were joined by Major White, an awfully nice chap, but I still kept command of my men. By the time we got to Maingkaing, 96th mile, we were really short of food. Major White went down with cholera and later died. Our hopes of getting rafts down the river were dashed. Cole and Massey went down with cholera and we had to get bullock carts and coolies to carry them down to Homalin. Had to swim the river at Homalin. Devil of a job getting the sick men over dry. We had to (temporarily) steal a native boat. At Homalin, hopes of food and doctors were not realised. I managed to buy some food. We spent the 10th at Homalin. We left with only rice in our packs and to leave Milward (plague), Massey (cholera), Cole (cholera), and S.S. Williams (cholera). It was with heavy hearts that we trudged along the river bank to the ferry and crossed about 3 miles from Homalin. We went through most exacting map reading country, long grass with tracks crossing at every angle. Our spirits rose as we followed the Chindwin River for 2 days and came across some most delightful little villages peopled by the most friendly Burmans imaginable. Here for 2 days we lived on rice and chickens. We were also able to buy potatoes. We crossed the river and reached Tonhe, but there was no food there. From Tonhe on the serious climbing began, and it took everything we had. Sometimes we went uphill on hands and knees, or rather hands and toes, digging into cracks in the rock. By sunday 17th May we had done only 182 miles. It was terribly cold at those high altitudes. We ate only rice, with an occasional wild boar or monkey.

We crossed into India, but the country looked just the same. Rice, rice, rice! Oh, how we hated it. Sometimes no water for 24 hours. We kept ourselves alive with thoughts of England, home, food. It was a battle of wills. Along the paths we saw many poor corpses, death from exhaustion, mostly natives, but not all.

18th May we climbed up 3,000 ft. of altitude in under 2 miles. It was just tooth and nail. On the 19th the rains started. We marched on and on, we dare not stop for fear of pneumonia, as we were soaked through. We did 24 miles, slipping, climbing. Then we got to a small village of 3 deserted huts. A small amount of dry wood was taken from the floor and while the rest dried their clothes, I went out with Merritt, my batman, to see what we could bag. We spent 2 hours looking for game and came back with nothing at all. It rained without stopping for 3 days. At last we reached Molin, where we got some porridge, and didn't we just enjoy it. Two days later, damp, dirty, tired, we reached a ration dump. Didn't that "Bully" and biscuits taste good. And later a tin of fruit between 10 men. Two days later we joined the Battalion.

We are longing to get some decent barracks where we can really get set up and the men trimmed up again. I wonder, did I tell you in my last letter that I have been given command of "B" Company of the 28th and that Avery Jones is one of my officers?

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After several months in India, Captain John Angus Cumming volunteered for service with the 17th Division HQ, first as a liaison officer and later as GSO 3. He was killed in the Arakan fighting, 21st May 1944, aged 23. Imphal war cemetery. He was mentioned in despatches twice, for services in Burma (London Gaz. 5 April 1945 and 19 July 1945).