Michael Lowry September 2005
The Braganza Box that we had as you might know referred to Catherine of Braganza, who married Charles 11. Catherine was entirely responsible for the birth of my regiment in 1661 because Charles 11 married her & the dowry was Tangier & so they raised 2 regiments – 1 was the Royals as they are now & who I think were called the First Horse, & we were called the First Foot. We weren’t quite the First Foot; the Royal Scots are actually, but at that time we were. Anyway, no, it was the First Tangier regiment of Foot, & First Tangier Horse I think. They left us there for 20 years – forgot all about us.
So that why you were the Queen’s?
That is right – The Queen’s Royal Regiment has always been known as The Queen’s.
It was after Catherine of Braganza was it?
Catherine was entirely responsible.
And that’s why you called yourselves the Braganza Box, because you were there?
Exactly; the Braganza Box was a battalion box as you’ll have gathered. This book was taken from a diary I kept during the war.
I was amazed at the detail of the diary..you mentioned the large diary that you were given.
I’ve pulled it out for you to look at. I was given it by my second in command Wally ??
All written in pencil. It’s kept remarkably well. There was no military background in your family was there?
None at all. I was an athletic sort. I left school in 1937 & in 38 I went to Sandhurst. I had the opportunity to join my father’s firm in the Stock Exchange – Lowry Brothers. My grandfather & his brothers set up the firm in 1899 or 1900. My father joined when he came out of hospital after the First World War, after the Spanish Flu he got. He made a very good soldier in wartime – got an MC. His men liked him. He was in many ways cut outhe played cricket & hockey & rugby. In 1937 I don’t think I thought there’d be a war & I think I made up my mind at that time.
No idea of farming at that time?
No idea at all; the farming idea came later because it was outdoors & I was not an office boy really.
What made you give up the army & start farming?
Well, we were here & the land around came up for sale. We bought it in 1964; I’d come back from abroad in 1963. The land was here & I’d always wanted to farm & I knew I wasn’t going to be a general. I’d turned down the Staff College I was recommended for Staff College – it’s in the book somewhere. I could probably have commanded a battalion if it had come up at that time. I reckoned I knew what to do in order to get moving & use the artillery etc. I didn’t want to go to the Staff College. I’d done 5 odd years in that part of the world & I was sick of it; I really wanted to get out of it. When I had that job in Austria with the general just after the war, he was a very intelligent man – became a 4 star general. We would sit in the back of his staff car, which was a Bentley & drive from his quarters to the office which took about 35 minutes. We must have done this for a year, going backwards & forwards. He’d do the Times crossword puzzle in the time it took to get from his quarters to the office; he was very clever. There were a couple of occasions when he couldn’t finish it & he’d throw it at me & say â€œI can’t finish these last 2 clues. See what you can do. And blow me down; I was able to finish the thing off. I realised afterwards that he was just testing me out – he was such a clever man & couldn’t have failed to have mastered those clues & was testing me out to see if I was stupid or not.
It must have been fascinating being in Austria at that time.
It was. I was in intelligence in Malaya – a side issue really but we were heavily involved in terrorism in Malaya for 2 ½ years, I found myself, when I left the army – I had a very happy time in the army – to have command of a battalion ? Your own regiment is quite out of this world & I was very lucky to have done that. This general I was MA to, he said to me one day in all seriousness, â€œYou don’t want to go to staff college; if you want to get up there, you’ll get there anyhow; don’t need to go to staff college. And I never did. This very clever general never went to staff college & although he meant it seriously, I never took it seriouslyI missed my time of being able to go to staff college & that was entirely my fault, but you’re lucky to command a battalion if you haven’t been to staff college; I was very lucky to command a battalion. I might have been a full colonel or a brigadier – unlikely, but I might have been. Certainly I wouldn’t have gone any higher than that & I thought I am young enough & strong enough to turn sheep upside down & haul bales of hay around & this sort of thing & that. So I had land here & I decided I was going to farm it – sheep & I was the shepherd; did it all. I still own the land. I fell off a horse a few years ago & had to have a new hip. I broke my back playing rugby in 46/47 – I was lucky to stay in the army.(making coffee)
The 8th army got Crusader magazine, did you get anything like that in Burma?
Yes, a news sheet keeping us in the picture.
To go back to the 30’s, your father had had a hell of a lot of experience, but he didn’t talk about it much?
Never. This general I worked for in Austria, he’d been in Burma, but we never talked about it. It was only after he died, in fact only really since I’ve read a number of books on Burma that I realised he was there at the same time as me. He was commanding a brigade. He was a very young brigadier but then he was a very able man. I wish I’d known that. I got to know his wife very well & I saw him on several occasions after Austria. When they had a baby I sent flowers & so on & blow me down I still know where she lives now. Haven’t seen her since she was a year & a half but I look forward to meeting her any day now.
You say you didn’t think there was going to be a war in 37 but was there ever any chat about Nazi’s or anything like that at home?
Oh yes there was. It’s in my book but other than what’s in my book I don’t think there was anything much more. I didn’t say a great deal in the book..I allude to it when we were in Lyme Regis but I don’t dwell too much on it. I was 13 & we did know about these things..
But you didn’t think about in terms of you possibly being involved in it?
No, but you see.we were talking about a Mr & Mrs Stanton-Jefferies, she looked like a battleship coming in to port; an enormous woman with a very loud voice. They were both employed by the BBC he as a rather brilliant pianist & she as a singer. They used to arrive on the footpath below our terrace..One afternoon they arrived when I was standing with ma & pa. They began to discuss the news headlines. With considerable emotion ma said that she couldn’t bare thinking about the possibility of another war with Graham (my father) just managing to survive one and now Mike probably to be caught up in another one. My father said â€œDon’t worry, there can’t be another war. My mother was invariably implacable although usually optimistic. My father was usually optimistic although inclined to sweep things under the carpet. Their views on this occasion reflected this although pa could not have said much else for fear of upsetting us..that was in 1932/33 & we were well aware really of the headlines & certainly by the time I was leaving school & throughout the whole of Sandhurst, I knew..I think it comes out in the book.
As someone who was training to be an officer at Sandhurst, the idea of seeing action, did that cause.
I never thought about that. Of course my father did & I think that again comes through hopefully in the book because my father was obviously so upset by the whole thing & looking back.I didn’t realise at the time; I just thought he was rather grumpy but in fact he wasn’tI myself am always much more moved by that war than the second world war because one knew up to some point that the soldiers took the casualties in the first war rather than civilians; living in those ghastly conditions in the trenches on the Western Front
But then Kohima was hardlythose descriptions of those 2 particular days – the Black 7th & it must have been the 10th I suppose when you were getting all those casualties – reading that you wonder how anyone managed to come out unscathed.
I have had many people come up to me – quite senior officers come up & talk to me.& I can hardly talk when they do come up.
Well, it was a terrible thing you had to go through.
In retrospect it was quite awful but because you were there & you had so much responsibility on your shoulders, I was not going through the ghastly horrors that the private soldier must have gone through. He had not much responsibility.
There is a great passage about fear.
Yes, of course I had my moments of extreme fear. When I came back from doing reconnaissance & was told by my second in command that 12 platoon had been hit by a bomb & there 8, or maybe it was 11, casualties. 3 had been killed & the platoon commander was wounded for the second time, seriously on this occasion.I was shattered of course but I was very calm – one of my platoons has lost all its commanders. Another occasion was during the battle of ?? itself when I wanted the artillery to do something & I turned to my gunnery officer who was fairly close to me usually & he said â€œI can’t help you. My signal operator has been killed & my orderly has been killed & my wireless set doesn’t work; it’s been hit. That was shattering news but I have to admit because of the pace of things & because you’ve got so much to think about, it was just another factor.
So your brain takes a rather pragmatic approach.
Yes, I think it’s that.
10.25 5 Oct
Because you’ve got so much to think about you’re sort of blotting out the emotions you might be feeling.
Yes, the emotional thing did come later of course but you’re quite right to say that. Those poor private soldiers who saw all the horror going on around them & thinking is it going to be me next must be going on in their minds. They’ve got – other than keep alive & make sure the mate next door is alright & so on – there was a lot of that – helping each other & that was quite marvellous.
But the point was you had so much to think about, you didn’t have the time to sit & dwell & worry about was there a shell with your name on it?
There was also that hair rising night march when you talk about going through the jungle.
It was I think about 4 or 5 hours to do that. We started at 10.15pm & had to be there by 3.30am so we had 5 ½ hours or so to do it in. I was very concerned whether we were going in the right direction. The general direction was ok, but was it the right direction. If I missed something by 20 yards or something I could have been 100 yards out at the other end & I was so worried then. We weren’t being fired at because nobody knew we were there but with 300 men behind me that was very worrying & the soldiers were tired – we were all tired all the time & I daren’t let them sit down because they were bound to doze off & I myself probably would have, so we couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t afford to have anyone falling asleep & the next thing would be they’d be snoring. That’s the other thing – I don’t dwell on it too much but perhaps a little hungry & very tired on many occasions because you never really recapture your lost sleep.
So, just permanently exhausted? Energy levels sapped?
Yes, & there’s something in our psyche – when the chips are down – I can’t think of the word..
Things seem worse then?
Yes, I think that must be so.
Burma is a different kettle of fish altogether to all the other places I’ve studied in depth. It must have been so draining – all these descriptions of close up fighting – people being hacked apart with swords & so on.
Yes, I’ve spoken to people who fought in Italy & the desert & they have no conception – whereas their enemy was 500 yards off & a burst of machine gun & as you say it isn’t just round the next bush.
My personal take on it is thinking there’s someone behind the next bush flailing around with swords & bayonets is more frightening than someone shooting at you with a rifle from 400 yards away.
Yes. Richard Holmes in his forward made an observation about the very first contact we had with Japanese on the 1st December 1943 was bayonets & swords when I 2 soldiers killed & 2 wounded with swords. To have the first action like that – it was close as you say. It was a steep learning curve. Richard Lyneham mentions something in his review – a very perceptive man who’d been a soldier himself – it was the attitude of mind although I say it myself, I had that attitude of mind – we always felt we were better than the Japanese. There’s no question about it. Okay, we had some bad luck & we had a lot of casualties but when it came to the nitty gritty, we would say be in an ambush & the Japs didn’t know we were there but we knew where they were.
It comes out in the book that there is a grudging respect for the tenacity as a whole & as individuals but it was very interesting to me how noisy they were in the jungle & how they could not think laterally at all. They had their orders & they obeyed those to the letter, but if that was knocked out of kilter, which it invariably is presumably in battle, then they were stuffed & what was so interesting about the admin box episode (?) is that what you proved was that if you just stand firm & hold on, they’re stuffed because as I understand it, their big thing was their manoeuvrability wasn’t it? And if they ran out of supplies – they were like leeches weren’t they? They liked to use your supplies. If you stopped that supply..
We were the first to do that. They’d encircled I don’t know how many divisions altogether but probably about 3 divisions & a division is about 1,500 men & they’d always cut & run – I use that term loosely – I don’t mean they’d cut & run but they’d left their positions & had to leave a lot of kit behind & they lived off those, but it didn’t happen this time; they were the ones who were cut off.
And then you have no choice – you have to pull back?
Yes, but it’s a very touch & go thing that & I may not have made this entirely clear because the Air Force wasn’t always necessarily going to be available for us; it became available. Lord Louis was talking to Churchill although I don’t think I say that in the book. Lord Louis was very worried about this & he did talk to Churchill & Churchill himself would be ringing round saying â€œNow look here, we want more aircraft I am so pleased that I discovered somewhere in my readings that there was a pile of x thousand tonnes of food for 40,000 troops ready to be taken (??) had we had the aircraft & in the end we did have the aircraft & so we were lucky in that respect, very lucky indeed that the aircraft were available. One has to remember too that Iwo Jima (?) was the time of D Day. They talk about the forgotten army..I never use that word forgotten army. The troops said it of course; you couldn’t stop them; they said it at the time & in fact when I had a poetry competition one of the servicemen wrote about the forgotten army & that was us. I remember him well. It was Sergeant Kent who was the only dark soldier in my company in those days, in a company of about 80 men or so. But I never use that term. We were forgotten in as much as we had to be overlooked because the important thing was Europe.
You recognised that fact?
Oh – I don’t know that I did at the time. At the time I probably didn’t, but all I do know is the powers that be were doing their damndest to get what they could. Everyone was fighting for us; the commanding officer & people in my ? of course – the general commanding the division, & they were desperate to get what they could for their men & in the end one got it. But it paved the way for the future of wartime tactics – air supply; advance air supply & so on both in Burma & other campaigns as well.
It turned the whole thing on its head didn’t it? I’ve jumped the gun though because I was going to ask you about growing up. I get the impression you had a very contented childhood. You were close to your parents; you enjoyed school
I had a very happy time – you’re quite right. I was very happy with my school; it was brilliant; it suited me & it was purely down to my father’s contact with people he played cricket with before the First World War.
Was Wolfenden the same one as in the Wolfenden Report?
Absolutely. He was a marvellous headmaster.
Were you close to your sister?
She was younger than you wasn’t she?
Two years younger. She had an unfortunate life in many ways. She died of cancer 2 years ago.
You wrote to your parents during the war; did you write to your sister?
I think I probably didn’t write too many to her. I know I did get letters from her & I sent some to her but nothing like the rate I wrote to my parents. I make the excuse that time was a factor, but I’m not certain it really was a factor. We were very close. I was very lucky – they were married for 58 years & when I went through their things, I discovered love letters – they would write letters of love on their anniversary every year – living in the same house! Just before the outbreak of war, my father wrote as letter – it would have been the day he proposed – March 39-ish. It was very moving. They were very close. One couldn’t live without the other. My mother died & my father died a year later. He came back from France & died here.
So war was declared & you passed out of Sandhurst & you joined the regiment & off you went to India – was there any sense of disappointment that you weren’t staying in Europe or were you just thrilled to be off on an adventure?
I don’t think – no – I don’t think that came into my head; the fact that one’s disappearing 10,000 miles or so away – in those days it was a very, very long way away.
Presumably the only travelling you’d done before that was to perhaps France or.
Yes, quite right, I’d been to France almost every year, except one year I went to Germany with a friend from Sandhurst in 1938. Another reason it didn’t worry me – I knew a lot of people on board the troop ship – my regiment – we all got commissioned at the same time. Oscar Palmer was at Uppingham with me. He was a year younger than me. He’s still alive today & we meet up from time to time. There were 3 other boys who’d been at Uppingham with me, in different regiments & there were others – I should think at least 30 of my sort of generation – ex Sandhurst – on board ship. It was quite a party for young people & another reason why we ran out of beer on the first night, or all drinks! There were 1001 people who knew each other very well & were probably going to be torpedoed in 3 days time anyhow, which was very nearly the case as it turned out.
The impression in the book is that this was all a grand adventure – a lark really – rather than â€˜we’re going off to the serious business of fighting a war.’ I may be wrong about that but ..you were young chaps together.
I agree with what you’re saying but I don’t think for a minute one was looking at the downside of things. I don’t think one was at all. It was horrific in so many ways – it was horrific when I thought of my parents – what they must have been going through; what my father, who probably thought I was going to spend 4 or 5 years somewhere – didn’t know where – & funnily enough nor did I because when I got on the ship, I was actually destined to go to Palestine but my posting orders were to join the second battalion of the Queen’s regiment in Palestine, but when we stopped in Port Said, I wasn’t told to get off. I didn’t know if it was right or wrong but I stayed on the ship & joined the first battalion out in India.
Otherwise you could have been all the way through North Africa?
Might well have been. You said was I upset about having to go on a long journey away from England & I think the short answer is no & funnily enough I’ve never been upset by any posting I’ve had in the army in the whole of my career.
I think what is so fascinating is that there were these people fighting a comparatively modern war in Europe & there’s you still wearing peculiar pith helmets & fighting a colonial war against Bhutan tribesmen which was like something out of the 19th century & the contrast is so extreme. When you got sent to Burma & joined the 7th division, it’s back to square one almost. You’re given completely different kit. The British army or Indian army, whatever you want to call it, is kicking into gear isn’t it?
We were doing some jungle training before we went to Burma & fortunately we were the
first to do it & we had the greatest good fortune – it’s an important factor – we’d all been under fire on the northern front in India against the Bhutan (?) so we knew what a bullet sounded like.
Presumably there’s no substitute for experience?
None at all. I think one of the great factors that carries one through a campaign – I think the word discipline comes very high in the order of qualities required because without the discipline you don’t get the other things & I think discipline comes first. I can’t remember what Montgomery said because there was no doubt about it, he hit a few good nails on the head when he was there. He was the Margaret Thatcher of ?? wartime Britain.
My theory on Monty is completely split down the middle & that’s not standing on the fence it’s just that he was really good at some things & truly awful at others. What he did well, he did very well, & what he did badly he did very badly. As a commander I think Slim (?) was infinitely superior to Monty.
I only touch on it very slightly in this book – I was acting chief instructor at what became Eton ?? in 1945. Then in early 47 I went back to the battalion. I sat next to Montgomery at lunch one day. He did the talking; I didn’t talk at all & he was laying down the law & I was an inferior object because I’d been in the Far East & I didn’t know what a tank was.he didn’t actually say that but.a few years later, chief of general staff was Slim & I had the good fortune to be put next to him one lunchtime. That I do mention in the book. I remember him saying something like â€˜I’ve never been one of these advertising generals.’ In other words, he wasn’t a headline chap at all. Whether he said it because he knew Montgomery had been in our part of the world a year or so earlier, it did cross my mind at the time that he was referring to Monty, who wanted headlines forever!
I would have thought self-deprecation & modesty are good attributes for any commander, whether you’re Patton or Montgomery, & he just didn’t have it. Eisenhower did for example & Alexander, who was brilliantly self-deprecating. What struck me that by the time you’d reached the Arrakhan (?), you personally & the men under your command who you’d been with right from the word go, were about as well-trained as it was possible to be in terms of training, experience, discipline.all those. You’d had that very interesting curve where you’d seen action on the Northwest Frontier but it was not so intense as Kohima or the Arrakhan. You knew the sound of a bullet; you knew what it was like to be wounded; you’d seen troops killed in front of you. You’d got that experience which was all very important & yet the training you had for the jungle – I was surprised at how thorough that was.
The jungle where we actually did our training was nothing like the Burma jungle. We were hardly in jungle; we were in tree country.
But the length of the training
The Seoni (?) forest or whatever it was in India was a good link & the best they could do. The best jungles were very close to the Burmese frontier; in Assam & so on, so we didn’t really see any real jungle until we got down there. But what amazed me was the very first time we were to meet the enemy on December 1 1943 it was astonishing because I was sent out with this fighting patrol of 70 men, i.e. 2 platoons & my other platoon was left back in an ambush position to which we were going to return to & everything worked like a dream; I lost mighty few men & yet the information we brought back on where the enemy were on this ridge in front of us with 3 or 4 machine guns or whatever it was. I had 2 or 3 killed in that little lot & several wounded; not many. We then came back to our ambush position & shortly after bang, bang, bang, the enemy had been following us – my ambush platoon trained by me in what they had to do, did it exactly. At the time one just expected them to do it; didn’t think it was sort of clever but it was good because they stood there & as the Japanese arrived it was brrrr, brrrr, brrrr & they did come back later it’s true, but on the other hand they did see them off. As you say, the training had been quite good & I think probably I had no feeling that they could have done better. I had some reinforcements during this time, particularly amongst one or two officers, which were weak & they hadn’t had my sort of training earlier on & they were noticeably weak & that was difficult because they had to be covered somehow & you couldn’t really cover them because we were all..we wanted more men to help & so on.
Some of the people with you Tiny Taylor & Frisby, they sound excellent.
They were brilliant. Tiny Taylor he was out of this world. He couldn’t tie a boot lace & he looked very untidy most of the time but he was remarkably
Got things done without question & earned tremendous respect from the men.
Earned tremendous respect as you say. I used him as a floating platoon commander; he was really my second in command because I never had a second in command. I’d like to talk about the British soldier. People say to me â€˜I couldn’t have done what you did.’ My argument to that is if you look back through history, the British soldier – the British people – are quite remarkable. The French generals are almost the first to acknowledge that because they go right back to the Napoleonic wars etc & they can understand why we are still there – let me see if I can find this paragraph – this is Malaya 1956 – I wrote it in about 2000 – My company usually about 100 strong. Below the rank of sergeant there were very few old soldiers. Mostly they were national servicemen. A few young short term regular soldiers in the army for a total of 3 years. The former were not volunteers & certainly not for the jungle but were drafted into the army by government legislation. Most of them cam from Peckham, Balham, Jamaica Road & the Bermondsey area of London & the villages of Surrey. Some had been milk & paper roundsmen; fishmongers; farmers; bricklayers; plumbers mates & there were some who knew the inside of borstal or other institutions. These national service men only young ? were quite..then I go on a bit more..my praise for the young soldiers could not be higher. They had ?? mental fatigue being alert for hours on end, carrying great loads in some appalling conditions, through heavy rain on slippery, muddy slopes of a craggy, jungle covered mountain. In the day time they suffered the high temperatures & steamy humidity that might have sapped the strength in an already weary body but they never gave up & I was responsible for asking them to eat uncooked food, drink no tea, smoke no cigarettes for days on end & there was always the danger they’d be shot by some often unseen enemy. These men were marvellous. They were understanding, their morale was high.
That’s post war?
Yes, but you’ve got the same background of a British man, not necessarily trained as a soldier. In Malaya we were relying for most part on national service men, so what I am saying is that the British character, psyche & all the rest of it during war is much the same. It does depend on the calibre of leadership & the training & I think behind it all has to be this word discipline because there’s very little else you can do without it. There are other qualities you require but you won’t get them unless you’ve got the discipline to get fit & that sort of thing.
In the jungle there isn’t the necessity to learn all arms training in the way there’s a need to in say Normandy or the desert; no threat from tanks. But your knowledge of artillery & how to use it seems to me to be excellent. Where did you learn that? Was that just part of your training or were you learning on the job as well? Right from the word go in action in the Arrakhan, you seemed to instinctively know what you’re doing.
You’re quite right – I did know. I’d been on one or two courses as part of one’s training, the commanding officer from time to time would send younger officers on a course. I knew perfectly well what to do with that artillery when I thought the enemy was down there somewhere. I never gave it a thought; I just did know. I suppose it had accumulated in the back of my head somehow or other & that was it. It had been part of the training. I couldn’t have dreamt it up without being taught it somewhere & I would have picked it up certainly on the course I did at Poona. I think we did a 3 week course which would take you up to battalion level & so it would include artillery because the commanding officer would have to know what to do with guns if he was in support.
One thing that interests me is that you said that the British soldier felt the British army was better than the Japanese, & the British army had great discipline & yet the Japanese seem to have had a fanatical discipline & in a way I think it’s intrinsic in the British nature to be slightly suspicious & look down ones nose at that kind of discipline. It was a different discipline. There’s perhaps the thought they must be slightly beneath us because they don’t know their own minds; they just blindly follow Hiro Hito & so on & I wonder whether you’d agree with that?
Yes I would; I think the British private soldier might not think quite along those lines; he’d always say he was better than the Japanese but I’m not certain he’d analyse it. The reason their discipline was different to ours was of course from the emperor downwards, they had a way of life – they’d bow on every occasion to their commanding officer – to die in battle was a big dream! They knew they’d go to heaven. You couldn’t tell that to a British soldier.
In a way I just think we are suspicious of people who are zealously religious; you slightly mistrust that person.
I don’t know; I’ve never thought of it.
That blind obedience; that feeling that if they died in battle they’d go to heaven & it would be a great honour. To your average British Tommy I would have thought that would have seemed rather silly.
Therefore they wouldn’t respect them so much as an individual because of that.
I never discussed it with them, but you are right. They would see that – our soldiers would see Japanese putting grenades against their chests because they didn’t want to be captured, they were running away & I did see it, not a lot of it but I did see it. Certainly a lot of soldiers would have seen Japanese running away because they didn’t want to be captured & were putting grenades against their chests because they knew they were going to get to heaven that way. They never talked about that to me.
Talking about the conditions in the jungle, presumably you just had to go with the flow & accept it & not let it get to you?
Yes, that’s right. You had to watch it very carefully because you were covered in jungle sores. If you cut yourself on a bit of bamboo it would go septic almost overnight.
What did you have to put on it? Iodine?
I don’t know what we had. A bandage
I know what I’m like with mosquitoes; I suppose I would have got used to it, but being bitten all the time..
I think everyone had bandages – round their faces & arms & hands etc & they’d go bad & you just had to cover it up to stop the dirt getting to it. I had 4 stretcher bearers in my company & they would have had a medical box & it probably was iodine. There was a doctor at battalion HQ. Each company had its 4 stretcher bearers with a corporal in charge of 3 others.
You said you had very little sleep & presumably when you did sleep it was a question of just bunking down where you were. Were there tents?
No, just holes in the ground.
Sort of fox holes?
Yes; in the jungle we had fox holes & if we weren’t in the front line & in the jungle where is your front line? You had to be careful when you put up a mosquito net. We did have them; they were part of our kit & we put them up when we could but if you were operating in the so called front line, then you probably didn’t. So you were in a hole in the ground & you probably had your monsoon cape to keep some of the rain off, not much. That was it. Otherwise you just got wet.
Did you get used to the conditions pretty quickly?
I think one did get used to it pretty quickly. You were wet almost all the time. We were in ?? in the monsoon. We were at 5,000 feet.
In that kind of rain, it’s just impossible to keep dry isn’t it?
Yes. As soon as the rain stopped the sun came out & then it baked all that mud on your clothes & of course it was then solid, solid, solid & you were carrying around a couple of pounds of earth.
When you came to an old Japanese position, was there evidence that they were faring better or worse than you?
I think they suffered as well. We did come across their equivalent to anti-malarial pills. I was one of those who’d got malaria on the north west frontier before pills had been invented. When I got malaria in Burma, that wasn’t necessarily to do with the Burmese thing, it was just to do with the climate generally speaking & it just coming back at me. By then we were just starting to get pills. Everyone started to go a bit yellow in the face – jaundiced.
I have a clear picture of what a box was like in the western desert, but a box in the jungle – there was no boundary – was it just an area in which you were concentrated?
It might come out in my original diary better than the book – we had some tanks there – indistinct as he seems to be away from the Dictaphone here – all units had their own boxes within the area on so & so division. I’ll turn to my book – we were so lucky in so many ways; we couldn’t have had a better commanding officer commanding the battalion – a marvellous brigadier who became a general in due course.
The hole (whole??) became the admin box?
The hole became the admin box; strictly speaking the admin box was centred around the traditional administrative area with all the vehicles like that – the Japanese never really got there. They got here & here & so on but –
I wanted to ask you about the approach to Cohima (?) when you were first coming through & going past all the mile pointers – a mile 32, then a mile 33 & it’s getting closer & closer & the rains are coming down & you can hear the battle ahead of you. What must have been going through your mind at that point. It’s all ahead of you & you’re walking straight into it.
I can’t forget that.
You must have had feelings of great trepidation.
Tremendous – as we got closer, we began to hear the battle; the rain was coming; we were peering through the gloom & it really wasthe fog of war was everywhere. The smoke from our shells & their shells – landing on features half a mile away on the ridge.
Presumably you could hear them whistling over you?
Yes – one never really knew where bullets were coming from or shells. Usually it wasn’t behind us except when we were surrounded of course. Going into the battle of Cohima, we were within a mile I suppose when we de-bussed & got to the hill in the pouring rain; sat down to get orders for the future – we were attacking I think tomorrow, on the 7th, & I have to admit one of the most ghastly of noises – I think the noise in battle is one of the most frightening things & that’s why I produced those lines on fear. It was exactly then that I realised that is the point when people could go over the top (?). I don’t like noise today, but the noise of battle..all you could see was mist & fog & the shells bursting & things like that. We were standing on a hill otherwise we couldn’t have seen it of course, but that was the Cohima ridge in front of us & that was a very frightening experience. I think I was probably more frightened at that time than just before the Cohima attack, because just before the Cohima attack I was so engaged in how it was going to happen that the fear.that was the word I was looking for earlier – adrenaline – the adrenaline was taking over & one was in a high gear to do something. Adrenaline works in remarkably good ways. I was waiting for orders & I could see & hear the battle going on & we didn’t know whether we were going to be launched into that cauldron this evening or tomorrow or exactly where it was; we didn’t know any details of the battle at all; we just knew the enemy had been stopped there.
Was it deafening noise?
Yes, fairly deafening noise.
The constant noise of explosions?
Yes – I just want to remind myself what I did say in my diary
Presumably the rain wasn’t improving things?
No. There were periods when we liked to have the rain because when we were on the hill, you could move about & it would throw some rations to someone over there who hadn’t got any orsomebody’d been killed so you took his rations & his water bottle & gave them to somebody else. You could do those sort of things & get casualties to a shell hole or somewhere when it was raining because they couldn’t see you, but when there was no rain or mist they could pick you out al the time & what I didn’t know for half that day was where the enemy really were; they appeared to be firing from behind us. But that was merely because our flanks hadn’t been secured as had been promised; that was awful; really rather nasty.
Did you ever have feelings that you weren’t going to make it through or did you always have the belief.?
I think I always had the optimistic belief. I didn’t occur to me that I was going to be hit – no.
You were leading a recce somewhere & 2 people were hit – wounded behind you & you say â€˜Interestingly, I was 5 yards ahead’ & I was thinking well that is interesting but it must have been very unnerving as well?
Yes, behind me was Sergeant Major Hudson – we were on the Massive I think at that time & that was a ghastly hill; solid jungle; nobody had ever been inside it properly; we’d all been round the edges & it was mostly knife edge stuff; one man ahead at a time. There was firing going on ahead & people had been hit ahead of me & then to suddenly find my own sergeant major & I think there was a corporal in charge of stretcher bearers actually, who were 5 yards behind me, they were suddenly hit & at that stage – I’d just moved to the wireless set & the wireless set was just behind me but a bit nearer the SM than probably me but I needed to talk on it & at that minute we were fired at & the bullet didn’t come my way & I said to the adjutant â€˜We’d better move or stop.’ I can’t remember what I said now.
Presumably in a lot of cases the trepidation & the fear comes from the unknown. At least if you’re on a bit of flat desert you can see what’s coming so you can make a mental adjustment but if you don’t know what’s coming..that being on edge all the time must have been so wearing I should think.
That’s why I found the British soldier so courageous because you see I would say to the platoon commander â€˜I should put a scout in front of you; I don’t think you want to put yourself up there because if you go, what happens next?’ This was a fear I had – this is an interesting sideline – on May 11 on Gaol Hill (?) I took 5 or 6 men with me – on 2 occasions I took 5 or 6 men with me maybe from the next door platoon – you took men from where you get them because I thought I wanted to take that enemy post out there – we’d go & scramble forwards over the holes & the wood & so forth & make very bad progress & I remember saying to myself as I took cover there â€˜If I were to go on & throw 2 more grenades, if I had 2 more grenades with me – we usually had only 2 but on occasions we had a few more than that, & if I were to go on with 2 grenades just by myself, I could probably take that thing out & I was saying to myself, & I did think of this you see – heavens alive! I’ve got this far, I could probably do it on my own. Then I thought what’s the point in that? What then happens? You get into that trench in front – this happened to one of the platoons & it is purposely in the book too – they got into an enemy hole having got there & got the enemy out, as soon as they got in there, were fired on from a fox hole behind, so as soon as they got in there, they were drenched with fire from Japanese. I said to myself There’s no point in this; if I get killed they’re lost because I’d had nearly all my commanders killed anyhow; I’d lost all platoon commanders; I’d got one officer left & myself by half way through that day. If I’m knocked out, there’s nobody but a couple of sergeants to command about 30 men. I’d already seen Tiny Taylor & his 4 or 5 men doing what I was doing later on – going to that hole – knocking the enemy out – getting in their trench & then getting showered by the enemy guns & there was little point in doing that & I suddenly realised I was not a PC (?) man at that point. I did work it out – I thought what’s the point in that. My sergeant major was never hit funnily enough & he was behind me. I hadn’t got any platoon commanders at all. By the end of that day certainly – one sergeant, one corporal & a lance corporal & one officer.
Do you think one becomes hardened to scenes of horror – you must have seen some horrible things. That vivid description of seeing Captain Scott I think it was getting killed.
I think you do. That was a horrible sight but I had to dismiss it straight away.
There was the time you sent your parents some pictures by Tiny Taylor – very gruesome – decapitated Japanese & things like this – I was quit surprised by that.
I was surprised too.
But that also that Tiny Taylor, who seemed such a genial, amusing fellow should have drawn those pictures. It seems amazing really. I also wondered whether in the package of time afterwards, whether that wears off – that protective shell that one instinctively builds up.
It does wear off. I can’t now look at a filmI loathe looking at films.I do not like whodunits if people are killed. I am physically very upset if I see people killed on TV. The hardness of battle wears off. I think I like it less than I ever thought I’d like it if you see what I mean. In battle you do get that hardening. I am very moved by anybody getting killed on film.
Do you find yourself thinking about the war much?
Yes, I think we touched on it briefly earlier when we were talking about old soldiers talking about their experiences. I never talked to anybody, particularly not my family, unless they’ve put a direct question to me, I’ve never said a word about Burma. But when the book came out, then I talked about it in answer to people’s questions – rather like you on a smaller scale. But I never ever directly discussed Burma to anyone at all; none of my family
Did your children ask you much about it it?
No, it was the second world war; no, they didn’t. They had no idea.
What prompted you to write the book?
People enjoyed my diary when it was published & people kept saying you should re-print it but the publisher had gone out of business but people said You mustn’t let it go & they prompted me & subconsciously I think it’s a great cathartic get it out of the system because it had been in the system.never surfaced.& I believe that has done me quite a lot of good in a funny sort of way.
Was there a sense of, in 1948 or whenever you bought that Bentley, I’ve just survived this war; I’ve got through & I might as well live abit; have some fun..I’ll go & buy a Bentley sports car, or is that reading too much into it?
I think that’s reading too much into it. I don’t think I thought about that way. There’s no doubt about after the first world war, the partying that went on by people who’d survived that war – I know my own father & mother had dances in their house in London & going to clubs & so on.they were doing all the things they’d missed in those 4 or 5 years of war & up to appoint I think I was doing the same, but not in buying the car I don’t think.
How much do you think your experience in the war specifically shaped your post war life. Did you come back a changed man or were you in essence the same young man as when you left?
I think with hindsight – I wouldn’t have recognised it at the time but I do think with hindsight, it took me a long time to get my feet properly off the ground after the war. I was pretty ill. When I left Burma, I’d had malaria & that developed into jaundice & dysentery & was pretty nasty just at the end & I was in & out of hospital & when I left the battalion on about 22 May, I went straight into hospital. I was still in India in January/February, having been in & out of various hospitals & nursing homes but the last 4 weeks there wasn’t to do with my illness; there was no space on the ship from Bombay or wherever. You could say that from June til the end of the year, I was in & out of hospital, so it took me 6 months to get back to England once I left the battalion which in some ways is a little sad to think of. I was very lucky with my commanding officer because he was the one..I would have gone soldiering on until I keeled over, not knowing I was so ill, but he saw that I was ill & offered me a lift to go & attend to orders. I think that was him testing me out to see how ill I really was because I’d had this malaria for a longish time. Now & again I refer to it because sometimes it came on in a big way.
You were really pretty poorly?
Yes & the day I did leave, I couldn’t eat I felt so ill. Once I left the battalion, there was nothing to keep me going – living on bullets!
Not a very good diet really!
I was in a pretty slow gear but by the time I got to London I was in good order; I was fit by February/March 45, before the end of the war & had gone off to ? to be an instructor there.