THE FIGHTING IN BURMA
AN ADDRESS BY
MAJOR A. W. INNES, M.C.
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Conquergood
Thursday, April 26, 1945
MR. CONQUERGOOD: Before introducing our guest speaker today, I wish, to call your attention to the fact that today is our Annual Meeting, and will be the last regular meeting of the Club until next season which opens on the first of October. In the meantime, a special meeting may possibly be called to hear an important speaker in which case all members will receive their regular notice.
The addresses which have been heard during the past season will be published in our Year Book as usual, and should be ready for distribution by September.
As President of the Club, I have received during the year a very large number of complimentary comments, especially from those who hear our programs over the radio. The Empire Club extends its thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for carrying these addresses to the larger audience, as a part of their public service program. We especially thank the management and staff of Radio Station CJBC over which our addresses are heard.
We also extend our thanks to the Press for their reports to the reading public, as well as to the management and staff of the Royal York Hotel for their consistently good service under difficult conditions.
Last week, we heard something of the broad picture of the war against Japan. Today, we are to hear a more specialized account of the fighting in Burma. Our guest speaker is Major A. W. Innes, M.C.
Following his graduation from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, England, in 1936, Major Innes joined the regular British Army and early in 1937 proceeded to India where he served for three years. On the outbreak of the war, he saw service on the Northwest Indian Frontier. When war with Japan broke out, he moved to Burma where with his unit, the Lincolnshire Regiment, he took part in the Arakan fighting. In 1944, he was transferred to the British Army staff in Washington. He has come to Toronto today for this meeting.
Major Innes, we welcome you to Canada and to Toronto and to The Empire Club. We trust that you will receive at first hand a favorable impression of our war effort. We can assure you that despite the fact that we are in the early stages of two election campaigns we will not neglect our duty in the Victory Loan campaign, which started this week for the largest objective yet, in Canada.
Gentlemen, I have much pleasure in presenting Major A. W. Innes, M.C., who will address us on "The Fighting in Burma".
MAJOR A. W. INNES: Mr. Conquergood and Gentlemen of The Empire Club: If any of you have come here to listen to a very eloquent speaker, I am of raid you will be disappointed. I don't make a habit of speaking, normally.
I am a very junior officer in the British Army and I am going to give you, if you don't mind, an informal chat about my experiences in Burma and I hope they may be of some use to you in getting an over-all picture of what is going on out there.
Now, I will tell you what I am going to say in brief outline. If anybody gets bored they can walk out. First of all, I am going to give a brief outline of the campaign up to date, just to put you in the picture, and then after that give you some idea of the general conditions in the campaign, the country and how we lived what the people are like, and so on, and so forth, and finally, finish up from Ledo, there was another operation by General Wingate. This time troops were dropped in the very heart of Burma near Mogaung and, eventually, as you know, linked up with General Stillwell.
The fourth thrust came from our Chinese Allies, clown from the Yun-Nan border, again pushing into Burma. So you have: one, in the Arakan; two, the thrust from Ledo; three, in from Yun-Nan, and four, General Wingate's air-borne operation.
That went very nicely in February last year, but all of a sudden the Japs reacted, not unexpectedly. They counter-attacked in force and completely surrounded the Indian Division down in the Arakan. For the first time in Burma fighting, a Division was given the order to stand fast and did so. That order was given by Admiral Mountbatten, and for months the 26th Indian Division fought its way through to the 17th Division down in the Arakan and eventually relieved them.
Now, that counter-thrust by the Japanese was just a forerunner of what was to come and in April of 1944, the Japanese counter-attacked in very great strength under a peculiarly unpleasant little Japanese General up in the Imphal area, and they surrounded and very nearly got to the main railway line which served the Imphal troops and which runs up from India. It was just touch and go. However, larger and stronger forces were brought to bear against the enemy and the Japanese suffered the greatest land defeat which they have ever experienced in this war in the Imphal campaign. Thousands were killed and they were pushed back out of the Imphal area and from that day in April of last year we have not stopped. We have gone right on from Imphal down to the Chindwin River. We pushed them across the river and we pushed them out of all the places they held there, pushed them down past Mandalay, down near Irrawaddy River, and as you know, yesterday we captured the oil fields at Yenang-yaung and Magwe.
Now, all that happened between 1942 and the present day. It is a long time and it didn't happen so easily as it sounds. It entailed a lot of hard fighting and the most difficult part of all was suddenly finding ourselves having to campaign in jungle country where the British Army had never had to fight. We had to adapt ourselves to entirely different conditions, so now I am going to give you a few ideas of what it is like fighting in Burma.
In Burma you have two very definite seasons. There is the dry season and the monsoon season. In the dry season it doesn't rain; in the monsoon, it doesn't stop raining. This rain you have here today is nothing like it, really. You get 150 to 200 inches of rain in five months. That means you are completely swamped. All the paddy and rice fields are under water. You virtually can't move. You can move on foot but you can't move vehicles.
Now, I want to describe how we were supplied. I think a lot of people have the idea that Burma is a hundred percent jungle. That is a misconception. A large part of it does consist of jungle, admittedly. But there is in the center of Burma a dry plateau around Mandalay which is extremely good for farming and where there is no jungle you have your cultivated paddy fields, rice fields, where the population carry out their main occupation of growing rice.
A lot of Burmese mountains go up 8,000 or 9,000 feet. The main mountain range runs along the border, and that is the natural border of Burma. They are high mountains and very, very thick jungle, so think that in primary jungle--that is a jungle that hasn't been cut before--you probably can't see more than fifteen to twenty yards. And of course another thing about Burma is that there are very, very few roads; they are mainly waterways.
So we had to adapt ourselves to that type of country. If you can imagine the type, coupled with the seasons, you can understand that it wasn't over pleasant, although I should like to say that I think the unpleasantness of Burma has been over-rated tremendously. That is my own personal view. Fighting in this war is not pleasant at any time and I don't think that fighting in Burma is any more unpleasant than having to sit under a 500-gun German artillery barrage. It is much the same thing
Now, how do we live and fight? You remember the troops had never fought in the jungle, but they soon became adaptable in living down there. We had to find ourselves shelter in the monsoons and we very soon learned from the Burmese how to wield the bamboo. You can do anything with a bamboo. You can make a bed with it, you can make a roof with it, a fork or a knife, or a spoon out of it, you can get water out of it, you can drink out of it and you can cook with it. One thing you can't do is eat it, though you can eat bamboo shoots and we got fairly good at times at doing that.
The jungle was, to start off with, frightening. A lot of noises go on in the jungle. You have crickets and a large number of wild animals which make life at times rather unpleasant, particularly down in Arakan. We used to meet a number of elephants which in addition to Japs were not always too pleasant.
We did have one incident in the Indian Battalion next door to us. The usual sentry was on duty one night and he heard a rustle as one frequently did in the jungle. He said, "Halt", and he didn't receive an answer. He said "Halt" again in the approved fashion. Again, no answer, so he fired with his Bren gun, whereupon he was charged by the elephant who had been making the noise. It picked up the Bren gun, threw it away, and the sentry, of course, bolted, very rightly and wisely. It was a bit of a shambles because the Sikh commanding the post saw the sentry running away and unfortunately shot him.
Now these elephants can at times be rather annoying. If I may mention one thing here--we got very good at knowing when elephants were about. Elephants are very kindly gentlemen and they always leave a large amount of manure lying about and we can tell in two seconds whether the elephants have been there. We just looked and if there was elephant manure we knew they were there. If we didn't see it, they had gone on.
You get a large number of reptiles in Burma, some poisonous, some non-poisonous. We only had two fatal casualties from snakes. But they are an annoyance. You never know when a chap is going to step on a snake. You have always got to be prepared and carry extra equipment around.
We had one incident in the middle of battle once. We weren't quite sure where the Japanse were coming from and suddenly we heard an awful rustle in the leaves about us and an enormous python fell off the tree. We gave it two magazines of a tommy-gun and finished it off. It was a long one-I don't know how long but it seemed about fifteen feet.
So much for an idea of what it is like. I forgot to mention that there are mosquitoes there. Malaria in Burma is the biggest cause of casualties. You have got to take the most stringent precautions against malaria. You haven't just got to take these precautions once a week or once a month. You have to take them every day and we have very rigorous malaria discipline. Every night I used to parade sections or platoons or whatever it would be. If they were in fox-holes we used to have a parade that consisted of first of all putting on a beehive net, which they no longer issue, but they looked very like a beehive net hanging over the face. We used to put on long gloves which the army called "gloves mobile, laundry." Then we smeared beauty cream all over our faces and finally took a yellow atabrin tablet. Every man had to do it. If he didn't, he was put on a charge and given seven days C.B., or whatever he got. Also, if he didn't do it, he got malaria.
When you go to Burma down every half mile on any road or camp you see these enormous signs all over the place about malaria and its prevention.
Now, let me give you one or two personal impressions of the Japanese. I am going to speak from a personal point of view. Probably other people met different types. The Japanese, that we saw, were in the majority small ones. They would come about to my shoulder, I think, and I am not very tall. We did meet some out-size Japanese. Some people said they came from Korea. We didn't find out where they came from but they were tall-some of them six feet three or four inches. They wore enormous beards and were very fat.
The Japanese clothing is extremely difficult to see in the jungle and, contrary to the majority of views, the Japanese are extremely well clothed and extremely well equipped. Their clothing was originally designed for the jungle and they know how to do it. They have excellent ground sheets, weighing practically nothing, and all their equipment is very light because they had very little transport in Burma. Everything they carried was on their backs.
The Japanese officer you can always tell because he will always wear a large sword or a sabre, a two-handed weapon, and he wields it extremely well, extremely efficiently. He does use it as a fighting weapon.
When we get back to peace we will go back to wearing swords here on our uniforms, purely as an ornament. The Japanese still uses his sword as a two-handed weapon, and very successfully as well.
Now, the Japanese had a lot of this jungle fighting long before we did and they are very clever at living in the jungle. Whenever they get to a place where they are going to stop two or three hours they appear to dig very quickly. They, have very sharp little shovels, about three feet in length, with a razor-edge blade and they can get down pretty smartly into the ground. They dig very deep fox-holes or bunkers, if you like to call them, and I have a healthy respect for Japanese digging.
They feed on practically nothing. That may not be quite true but from what we see they appear to eat practically nothing. For instance, one day we were out on patrol and in a tree we found a dirty old pair of shorts hanging, the legs of which were sewn up and inside was a large amount of rice. This apparently was a week's ration for a Japanese Patrol. Some rice, water and dried fish appeared to be their diet.
Now, you have probably heard a lot about the Japanese fanaticism. It is absolutely true. I think there are a lot of things we don't believe until we meet somebody who has actually seen them and told us about them, then we do believe them. The German atrocities we were inclined to think were propaganda. Now that we have been shown the pictures we believe it. We didn't altogether believe the stories about the Japanese fanaticism when we went into Burma but after seeing it we did. I would like to give one or two examples.
You have heard of the Japanese banzai charge. That consists of a large number of men who come in very close and who seem to have no respect for modern warfare and tactics. The first I remember was one night I suddenly received a message from Brigade Headquarters that about two or three hundred Japanese had been found in a village near us and the Indian Regiment was pushing them one way and we were to take up a position on the opposite side and wait for them to come up, and when they did come--well, we knew what to do with them.
We got in our positions fairly early--about six o'clock in the evening, I suppose--and we heard shooting about 400 yards away. We knew that the Gurkha Rifles were coming toward us, but there was no sign of the Japanese at all until, one of my Platoon Officers came running up and said he had killed a Japanese. To kill a Japanese or to see a Japanese killed individually, is quite a good thing because you can fight for months in the jungle and never see them--and hope they never see us. It is actually amazing. My batman had been out fighting well over a year and honestly I think he only saw about one Japanese.
This Officer had said he had killed a Japanese. We decided to give him five minutes to die. We gave him five minutes to die and went out and had a look at him. We were ten yards from him and this Jap, who was lying down, raised himself up in a sitting position. He, took a hand grenade, held it under his chin, and away went his head. He could have been alive today as a prisoner-of-war, but he would rather be dead. That is one example of their fanaticism.
That same day the Japanese gradually started to come out of hiding. Things were quiet until about eight o'clock in the evening and we were thinking that nothing was going to happen. We weren't altogether sorry, but about midnight the shooting started about a hundred yards away from my Company. The Company next door to me were at right angles to us. The shooting got heavier and then it died down. We thought the Japanese were trying to get down. Not a bit of it. About ten minutes later we heard in the silence of the night a number of orders being shouted out in Japanese. They came from a Japanese officer who was lining his men up into formation. We could definitely see them being lined up there about four deep and I suppose there must have been about twenty in each rank--about eighty chaps. It was a fairly bright moon. You could see them moving about. It was ridiculous to shoot. That is exactly what they wanted us to do-they didn't know where we were. We didn't shoot until they came a little nearer-about ten yards or so-and then we opened up. There was a further order from their Officer, a tremendous shout from all the Japanese and they started forward, at a steady trot toward our Company. I don't think they had much ammunition. I could definitely see the Japanese Officers behind the rear ranks, slapping the backs of their men with swords, right and left, and pushing them on. They went through shouting and screaming. When we opened fire we shot down a lot, but of course when you shoot at a range of ten yards some are bound to get through. Some got through and that is all the Japanese cared about. They didn't care a damn about those who got killed. They didn't lose any face by it.
The Japanese are very cunning. We are cunning as well. I would like to mention one or two of their ruses, showing the apparent intelligence of the Japanese. People don't seem to think that he is intelligent, but believe that he is a fathead and has no intelligence at all and he is just told what he is supposed to do. But I remember one particular occasion, when one of my Platoons was cut off from me and the only way to get in touch with them was to shout as loud as I could. We didn't have any signalling equipment, no wireless equipment. I remember shouting, and every time I must have given a dozen orders in English. Every time I shouted to the Platoon Commander I used his name. This had gone on for about a quarter of an hour, actually giving orders for a further attack. Then after a short time a little voice piped up, using the name of the Platoon Commander, "Sergeant Major Boyle, come down here--the Company Commander wants you."
Sergeant-Major Boyle nearly went down. This Japanese was shouting orders in seemingly perfect English, to try to trap Sergeant-Major Boyle into going down. They are taught to speak English phrases and they use them. On several occasions we heard voices down in the jungle, calling out names of regiments and saying they were surrounded and would have to give up-that they couldn't get back. The Japanese were using English and they go in for ruses like that quite a lot.
Of course the Japanese not only uses fireworks now--he used them before the war, apparently. He uses them in great profusion in this war. He has cracker parties. They come up behind you and set off these fireworks and a certain amount of fighting or attack comes from the other direction, to make you think you are surrounded. The Japanese is very clever at this sort of thing.
He uses a Very-light on a pistol. He uses Very-lights in great profusion and especially, so far as we can see, for giving orders. The Japanese generally attack at night.
We know what they are doing and when they are attacking we see great sprays of Very-lights-green, red, yellow, all over the place. We think the Japanese are giving orders to each other to say how their plan is going--Alright--Plan starting-Plan gone wrong-or something like that.
Now, how does the Japanese behave when he is captured? You have seen on the newsreels the Japanese giving themselves up. He looks a bit frightened, and so on. You don't get many Japanese prisoners, you get precious few, and I think it is safe to say here that in 1943 an individual used to be given I think it was ten days leave if he captured a Japanese. In my company we only captured two Japanese in two years fighting, and it was quite enough. We would really prefer them dead.
Their behaviour was very extraordinary. This particular gentleman we caught didn't altogether give himself up. He was trying to hide. He had been very badly wounded in the leg. He had made himself a very excellent little pair of crutches out of bamboo. They looked expertly made to me. I nearly pinched them. They brought him into the Company Quarters on a stretcher. I was particularly interested in this individual. First thing, he asked for a cigarette and a cup of tea, then he asked for an orange. I then got out my book of Japanese phrases and asked one or two questions which he answered straight away and gave us all the news we wanted. He spoke the whole time, he never stopped speaking. We couldn't understand half the stuff he was saying, but after he had seen that we .weren't rough with him he calmed down and was really quite sensible.
Another thing which I think is worth mentioning is the Japanese respect for the Red Cross. Some people say that the Japanese have no respect for the Red Cross and they cite examples. That is absolutely true. I give you one example and that was in February, 1944, last year, down in Arakan, where the Japanese went straight through a main dressing station with bayonets flying, and finished off the patients in their huts.
An example of the opposite. In another attack we had suffered quite heavy casualties and were going around trying to get the wounded out of the way and we had a Padre, a Roman Catholic, who was only part Padre--he was trying to kill Japanese--and he had a Red Cross on his arm. He got this Jap and just as he was putting a syringe in his arm, somebody about five yards away said, "Go away or I will shoot you." This was a little Japanese and he had been told what the Red Cross meant. He told the Padre to go away and the Padre very wisely went away--he didn't want to be shot.
That is one small example of Japanese respect for the Red Cross, although in the majority of cases I don't think they do have any.
Now, I could go on giving you numerous examples of one thing and another, but I am trying to give you a cross ' section of what it is like out in Burma. It is fairly tough out there, but I don't think it is any tougher than any other theatre in this war, except from the point of view of the climate.
There are troops out there that have been fighting for three and a half years in Burma without a rest. When I say without a rest-they have probably had a month's leave in Calcutta or somewhere in India, but there are people who have been there three and a half and four years and who have never been home. I know quite well, speaking for, or I think I might say on behalf of the British soldier fighting in Burma, he definitely intends to stay until the Japanese are out of Burma and to go on until he gets to Tokio. He intends to get some leave, he intends to finish it through, no matter how soon the Nazis fold up and then he wants to come home, and so does his Indian brother.