Tag Archives: Burma

Post VJ Day 1945 – Returning home from Thailand and Burma

By Martin Percival

My father, Frank Percival, was called up in December 1939. He was 21 years old. After initial Army training at Seaton Barracks in Plymouth, he was posted to Bradford before heading to Gourock in Scotland to embark on 30th September 1941 on the troop ship ‘Empress of Canada‘. The troops onboard thought they were heading to North Africa – in fact they were enroute for Singapore, disembarking on 28th November 1941. After the short lived Malayan campaign, along with 80,000 plus other Allied military personnel, he was captured in Singapore by the Japanese on 15th February 1942. 

Frank Percival, September 1945. (Courtesy of Martin Percival)

The next 3.5 years saw my father engaged in railway and bridge construction work in Thailand and Burma and by the summer of 1945 aerodrome construction work for the Japanese. Soon after his return home from the war in November 1945 the story of his experiences was published by the local newspaper where he lived in North West London – the Willesden Chronicle and Kilburn Times. This was very unusual. The military had made it clear that they didn’t really want the men returning home to talk about their experiences. My father died in December 1982 and I only discovered the newspaper cutting when I was moving house in 2004. I was both delighted and sad to read it. The whole piece can be found here; https://www.far-eastern-heroes.org.uk/Your_Gods_Stronger_Than_Ours/

Here’s an extract from the article on what he had to say about the period from VJ Day up to his arrival back in the UK: 

“On the night of August 15th 1945. all the Japanese in our camp were drunk. We thought nothing of this, as it was a fairly frequent occurrence. The working party for the aerodrome paraded for work as usual at 8 a.m. on the morning of the 16th, but no Japanese sentries came to take them to work. At 10.30 a.m. the Japanese Commandant made an announcement to the effect that he was going away for a few days and upon his return hoped to have some very good news for us. In the meantime outside working parties would cease. The camp immediately went mad with joy and few slept that night.

On the afternoon of August 20th, a British parachutist major arrived in the camp, gave us details of the cessation of hostilities, said that he and a number of colleagues had been in Siam for some months and arrangements were under way to get us out of Siam as quickly  as possible. He advised us to ignore the Japanese as at that time there were less than 1,000 Allied troops in the country and there were over 100,000 Japanese yet to be disarmed.

The majority took this wise counsel, being loath to prejudice their chances of recovery after having endured so many hardships. Siamese gendarmerie replaced the Japanese guards in the prisoner-of-war camps, and were placed there only for the protection of the ex-prisoners.

We moved down to Bangkok by rail on August 31st and were given wonderful receptions by the Siamese people at every station en route. We departed from Bangkok the following day by Dakota aircraft for Rangoon, and it was not until we were actually on the planes that we felt ourselves out of the clutches of the Japanese.

Our new-found elation was dimmed, however, by the memory for many hundreds of our friends left behind in Siam. They would never again see the shores of England as a result of the bestial treatment meted out to them by their Japanese captors.”

Unlike some of his peers, my father didn’t hate the Japanese. He felt that was pointless. However he never forgot his war time experiences. The war had held a number of lifetime firsts for him. His first time leaving the UK was onboard the ‘Empress of Canada‘ troopship on 30th September 1941 and his first time on a plane was on the Dakota that airlifted him from Bangkok to Rangoon on 1st September 1945. From Rangoon he headed home on 21st September on the troopship Orduna, arriving in Liverpool on 19th October via Colombo and Port Said. Like many returning home the news that greeted him was not all good. His father had died in August 1944 – the letters sent informing him of this sad news eventually caught up with him many months after getting home. Family members have told me that he didn’t talk about his war time experiences during the 1940s and 50s. However by the 1970s and 80s a lot of time had passed and he would talk about his war time experiences to my brother and I. I suspect he found it therapeutic. I am very glad that he did talk.

The Chindit Operations

Piers Storie-Pugh has travelled to Burma since 1985 and the Chindit Operations is one of his specialities; he has both written and made films about them. He regularly presents his talk “The Chindit Operations of Burma 1943-44”, which is supported by over 150 PowerPoint photographs, many never seen before.

From 1941 disaster followed disaster for Great Britain and her Empire and indeed for the Far East. The fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, was followed by the fall of Malaya and the disastrous surrender of Singapore in February 1942. A failed expedition into the Arakan sealed the fate of the Allies at that time.

Field Marshall Wavell sent for Orde Wingate, who had made his name in Palestine and Eritrea and told him to look at the feasibility of long range penetration into Burma. Wingate therefore paid a visit to Mike Calvert, then commanding the Bush Warfare School in Maymyo, right up in the Shan Hills. Together they walked through the jungle discussing the tactics and this was to be the embryo of the Chindits. Wavell decided that all operations into Burma in 1943 should be stood down but Wingate persuaded him that his 3rd LRP Brigade was eager to go ahead. Thus, Operation Longcloth was launched! Commanded personally by Orde Wingate three thousand men and five hundred mules and horses, with air support left Imphal and marched eastwards in February 1943. Along the way they bumped into groups of Japanese, crossed the very fast flowing Chindwin, continued eastwards, cutting railway lines, blowing bridges and perfecting the art of air re-supply lines and met friendly local Burmese. The Japanese were perplexed by both the purpose and how the Chindits were sustained in the field.

Having crossed the Irrawaddy, one of the widest rivers in the world, they were at the extreme range of air supply and becoming boxed in by a swiftly reacting enemy. Imphal Army Headquarters ordered their return to India. Wingate broke up the groups and under their own arrangements headed westwards; some went north via China, others through NE Assam; but some never made it – they had run into the Japanese force, which had gone ahead expecting a follow up Chindit Operation.

Wingate had his enemies not least because Operation Longcloth was expensive in the loss of men and most of those who got back were in no fit state for another such long range expedition.

However, the exploits were given triumphant coverage by the press, eager for some good news and entranced PM Winston Churchill. Wingate was sent for and accompanied the PM to the Quebec Conference. There he shared his vision for future operations, thrilled the American Chiefs of Staff who in any case needed support for their own efforts in China and Wingate gained the promise of sufficient air power to raise five brigades for 1944.

Given this American support it was decided to fly in the Chindits by glider on Operation Thursday, but with Ferguson’s Brigade marching in alone; he did so to protect Stillwell’s right flank advancing from China, south towards Myitkyina.

The most successful Brigade Commander was undoubtedly Brigadier Mike Calvert DSO*. Flown into Broadway with his 3,000 men plus mules and horses, he advanced to Pagoda Hill which dominated the Japanese supply line from Mandalay northwards. He attacked the hill, established White City Fortress and caused havoc in the area. Ferguson, when he arrived after an extremely arduous advance, established Aberdeen; later Jack Masters established Blackpool.

Wingate visited Calvert, and had a wonderful few days meeting officers and soldiers from his old brigade, before flying on to Aberdeen to see Ferguson. Wingate was killed in a plane crash and so in many ways did his dream. However, Mountbatten said that by this time the 14th Army was ‘Chindit minded’.

The Chindits now came under command of the American General Vinegar Joe Stillwell. He hated the ‘Lazy Limies’ but had a huge respect for Wingate.

Without Wingate to protect them and with the gentlemanly Joe Lentaigne as Wingate’s successor, the Chindits were driven ruthlessly hard by Stillwell. He ordered Calvert to head north and capture Mogaung. Described as a mini Passchendaele this battle started on 6th June 1944 (!) and lasted nonstop for three weeks by which time Calvert had only 10% of his force fully fit. Nevertheless, the Chindits captured Mogaung with Chinese support. Suffering from wounds, sores, malaria and other afflictions, not least the demands from Stillwell, they were ordered by Mountbatten to be flown out to India.

The Chindits cut the essential Japanese supply lines to their troops facing Stillwell’s Army: blew up bridges, had fierce hand to hand medieval battles and slowed the Japanese advance towards Kohima and Imphal; causing them to be beleaguered the wrong side of the monsoon. The Chindits lit a flame of hope and did a huge amount to keep the American Chinese Army committed to the front.

Slim’s 14th Army drawn from Great Britain and many parts of the Empire, as well as local troops, may have been the Forgotten Army, but their exploits live on and have become the stuff of legend: The Chindits are right up there in this catalogue of astonishing achievements.

Even in the most atrocious conditions against a cruel enemy, thousands of miles from home, The Chindit Operations will live on in history as endeavours of extraordinary courage, cheek, panache and considerable sacrifice.

Those who were killed on that operation are buried or commemorated in the Htaukkyan War Cemetery or on the Rangoon Memorial. There are over five thousand graves and some twenty thousand names on the memorial – testament to the sacrifice in this Forgotten War.

Some of the Chindits captured were flung in Rangoon Goal and suffered similar dreadful ordeals of cruelty, hunger, beastings, disease and despair as their FEPOW comrades in The Far East.

The infamous Burma-Siam Railway pushed through Three Pagodas Pass, where it crossed the border, to reach Thanbyuziat where one will find the third  Commonwealth War Cemetery in Burma.

Mike Calvert returned to Burma just once and is seen here with Piers on top of Pagoda Hill which he stormed in March 1944.
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For talk or tour enquiries please contact pierss-p@virginmedia.com