The Burma Campaign

War Memoirs of Major Hugh Walter Patrick Graham, Burma Rifles

Major Hugh Walter Patrick Graham served with the infantry of the Burma Army during the Second World War and after.  He recorded his experiences with the 8th Battalion, Burma Rifles during the 1942 campaign and as part of the Second Wingate Expedition, serving with the ‘Chindits’ as a member of the 2nd Battalion, Burma Rifles.  These recordings have been transcribed by his son, John Graham, who has kindly made the memoirs available.

In 1939, in his early 20s, Hugh Graham went to Burma and worked as an assistant on a tung oil estate, thirty miles to the northeast of Maymyo. As part of the expansion of the Burma Army, along with other men resident in Burma, he was called into the Army.  He was embodied into the Burma Auxiliary Force, joining a Militia Company which was then attached to a British infantry battalion to undergo basic training.  Upon completion of this training, those found suitable, were selected for a four-month course with the O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit).  The course was held at Maymyo and those successful were awarded an Emergency Commission in British Service (in the case of British citizens) or the A.B.R.O. (Army in Burma Reserve of Officers) in the case of Burma citizens.

Captain Hugh Graham, India 1943

Captain Hugh Graham, India 1943.  Captain Graham's cap badge is that of The Burma Regiment.

I was called up into the Burma army in 1941 and I did six months of recruit training with the K.O.Y.L.I.'s the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, which was then the British Battalion, stationed in Maymyo. Well, that was hard work. Looking back on it, the training we did was totally and utterly useless for the war which we ultimately fought. Bags of square bashing, we marched up there and marched back here, we right wheeled, we left wheeled, we were in columns of three, blah blah and so it went on. We had .303inch rifles in those days we didn't even have a Bren gun, only the old Lewis guns. We learnt all twenty-three stoppages of the various guns and even up to the one where the gun fires and the gun won't stop. So, we didn't really learn anything that was of much use to us later on in the war, and I can assure you I got very fit.

At the end of the six months, I was selected for an Officers course and so I did a 2-3 months Officers course and I ultimately earned a commission as a Junior Lieutenant, one pip. I thought myself very important and I was posted to the 8th Battalion of the Burma Rifles and was sent down to Mergui, which is right down at the Southern tip of Burma, as a Station Staff Officer.

Hugh Graham received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant on 28th April 1941 and was posted to the 8th (Frontier Force) Battalion, Burma Rifles.  In June 1941, the Battalion was serving in the Tenasserim region of southern Burma, located at Tavoy, with one company at Mergui.

[A transcript of the war diary of the 8th (Frontier Force) Battalion, Burma Rifles may be viewed by clicking this link]

Well, this was a very odd job because there was only one other Officer at Mergui. He was Major Love (Stephen William Addington Love – Indian Army, seconded to the Burma Defence Forces. Served with the Burma Frontier Force and was C.O. of F.F.2, Burma Frontier Force when he was killed at Bokpyin on 26th December 1941). I can still remember his name. He was a Ghurkha Officer, as he had some Ghurkha troops there, but I never quite knew what my job was supposed to be except to meet VIPs’ who stopped off on their way to Rangoon from Singapore. 

Captain Love was an Officer of the Indian Army, attached to the 7th Gurkha Rifles.  From 1938, he was seconded to the Bruma Defence Forces where he served with the Burma Frontier Force.  In 1940, raised and commanded the F.F.2 unit of the Burma Frontier Force which in December 1941 was sent to Mergui.  This unit was manned mostly by Nepalese (Gurkha) soldiers, recruited by the Burma Frontier Force.  Upon receipt of rumours of a Japanese landing at Bokpyin, a patrol from F.F.2 under Captain Love was sent to investigate.  In the short action which followed the arrival of F.F.2 at Bokpyin, Captain Love and two men were killed before the patrol withdrew.

[The story of F.F.2 may be viewed by clicking this link]

They usually travelled in Blenheim Bombers, which trundled along the big airfield we had there. I had to go and meet these VIPs; I well remember meeting General Wavell. We had a tiny room there with a few chairs which we called the little mess. I met General Wavell, who was an austere gentleman, and as he got off this Blenheim, I asked him if he cared to come across to the mess and have a drink while the plane was being refuelled and he said, "No bring me a chair". So, I brought him a chair and he sat under the wing of the plane. So that was that and then the plane took off. I didn't see General Wavell again for several years. 

Otherwise, I didn't have that much to do there, and I got on very well with Major Love and he had a wonderful collection of Charlie Kunz records. I can still remember this, old 78s and I used to go up to his bungalow and we'd just sit and listen to Charlie Kunz and drink whisky and soda's, which was all very pleasant. 

It was extremely hot down there, very hot, very humid, and humid because there was anything between 250 and 280 inches of rain a year in 6 months, during the monsoon. I was not there during the monsoon, but you can imagine how sticky and humid it was. Major Love was the first British Officer to be killed in Burma. He just didn't manage to get out of Mergui when the Japanese attacked, because they did not attack from the sea as expected but from behind from over the hills from Siam (Thailand as it's called now). We were just on the border there with Siam. So that was my initial experience as a Second Lieutenant in the Army.

Then the great retreat, the long walk started, and we went back progressively defending the thin red lines which were dry riverbeds, in point of fact they had no water in them, being hotly pursued by the Japanese. We had no arms, we had no air cover, and we had absolutely nothing. There was nothing we could do but retreat and I can assure you, anybody reading this, that there is nothing worse for anybody's morale than a retreat because you know that all the troops under your command are, and yourself no doubt are looking over your shoulder all the time and it's not at all pleasant. 

Anyhow we had some amusing incidents during this time. We got to Moulmein which was quite a big town on the Salween (a very large river). Its source is way up not far from China, and it comes right down the eastern part of the country and out to the sea at Moulmein.

By December 1941, all companies of the 8th Battalion, Burma Rifles, were located in the Moulmein area.  In January 1942, the town came under Japanese attack and after a stiff fight, the garrison was ordered to withdraw, boarding river craft to cross the Salween River to Martaban.

We got there and now we had to get across this river. There were some sort of ferry paddle-boats with paddles on the riverbank, so we commandeered them and went across. The Japanese were just right behind us, and they were trying to mortar us as we went across this river, which was very wide as we were close to the mouth of the river. Anyhow as these mortars dropped right or left, fortunately, none hit us. I and another Officer were standing behind the bloke who was steering the thing (an Indian), with a .38 pistol to make him go across to the other side to Moulmein, otherwise he wanted to turn around and go out to sea and we thought "Oh God we'll all get drowned because it's a flat-bottomed boat". We got across the other side in due course.

There was a railway station; it was as far as the railway ran, so we all disembarked and got into this railway station, there were no trains of course, they had long since stopped running. We then sat down and said, "What do we do next?" Meanwhile, quite a lot of stuff had been left lying around there and this is rather amusing because we discovered some cases of beautiful French champagne. So, we opened some of these cases and we sat on some of the other cases as we drank this beautiful champagne and ate jam sandwiches. That did it; it put our morale up a little bit.

Meanwhile, we were trying to determine what we were going to do, there was only one thing we could do, and that was push off quickly because we were then being mortared again.

We walked and we walked, and we walked, I will say walked and not marched because it was all rather a scraggly sort of column. Then we carried on and got to some of the other smaller rivers and we couldn't stop there, we couldn't hold any particular point, it was quite impossible. The Japanese were fighting with excessive numbers to us; it was a fact that even then they were far better armed. So, we then got to the Sittang River, now which was also a very big river, mainly due to its proximity to the river mouth. It was a tidal river. We got there I think early one morning, and we were supposed to hold certain points in the village town of Sittang. 

We had to swim the Sittang, what happened was, that the bridge over the Sittang was blown by the engineers under the instructions of General Sir John George Smyth VC, known as “Jackie”, Smyth. (He was C.O. of the 17th Indian Infantry Division). What I think he had forgotten, was the battalion was on the wrong side of the bridge. So, there we were with no means of getting across the river. The Japanese were just behind us. Fortunately, we had a very good 2ic, Major Arthur Victor Perry (7th Rajput Regiment, Indian Army and seconded to the Burma Defence Forces). He took command and said, "Right everybody for himself". Well, that's what happened. A very wide river, it was a mile wide. We got down to this river and so we cut some bamboo, and we made a raft, if you'd like to call it that, tied together with our webbing and what have you. 

There were plenty of Ghurkhas and British troops, we all had to get across this river many couldn't swim nor could the Ghurkhas, but they were not all that stupid they emptied their water bottles, banged the corks in as hard as they could, tied them all together and used them as swimming flotations. So, a great many of them got across in that way. A lot of British troops drowned. We of course built this silly little raft thing which was bamboo in a square and we had an Indian doctor with us, and he couldn't swim. We put him in the middle of this square, and the four of us, on each corner. We told him all he had to do was just kick, kick like hell and as he said that he was very, very frightened and so we put him in the middle and when he stopped kicking, we made him kick again, eventually we got across this river at about 10 p.m., and when we got to the other bank, we were a little lonely.

During most of this river crossing we were being mortared right, left and centre, backwards and forwards, fortunately, none of the Japanese mortars reached us. We couldn't see on the other side of course because it was pitch dark.  There was no moon and of course so what happened as the tide went out, we drifted downriver and then the tide turned and came back in. So, we did a V, little did we know this at the time of course. So, we swam a great deal more than a mile to get across to the other side. We got across to the other side in the end with this raft getting more and more water-logged as we went on and we reached up on the other side sometime after midnight, completely and utterly, of course, exhausted.

Fortunately, we found a little hut, which was an old grain store, and we got into this hut, soaking wet of course, and had nothing on except our shirt tails and our webbing and pistol. Webbing, I say belt that's all. No trousers, no shorts, no boots, nothing. What I did have in my sack was three tins of Rothmans Churchill No.1 cigarettes sealed, plus some matches in a plastic container which did not get wet. So, when we got to the other side, I was very popular as you can imagine after what we had been through. So, we just fell straight asleep in this hut. How we didn't get our throats cut that night I'll never know but we didn't. We woke up eventually, I don't know 10 - 11 a.m. or something like that and so we had no food of course, nothing to eat. So, then we thought "Where the hell is the battalion headquarters". We didn't know, but we knew it had to be behind us somewhere or rather ahead of us if you put it that way, on retreat. 

So, we had the option of walking barefooted either up the railway line, on the sleepers, which you can't do because it doesn't fit into any gait you try to work out, or on the stones underneath or on the field at the side which was entirely paddy stubble. The paddy had been cut and therefore was very hard and very spiky. So, we had to take the chance in bare feet, which we did, we alternated a bit and then we got to wherever the battalion headquarters was, about 20 miles, for part of the journey we commandeered a bullock cart. I put the pistol to the chap’s head and said, "Right now we are coming with you". That helped us a bit; it saved us walking for a while. Then we got to this particular small town where the battalion headquarters turned out to be and was also part of the Cameroonians that I can remember. We were all absolutely clapped. 

The Indian doctor disappeared during the night, while we were asleep. We never saw him again. Who knows what the hell happened to him in the end I don't know, probably eventually got his throat cut. Still, we got there, and we were met by the Cameroonians who halted us when we arrived, they saw who we were and one of the Cameroonians came and saw us and said "Right now. I know what you want". He produced four mugs of very, very sweet tea, saturated to be quite frankly with sugar and he slapped a bottle of Scotch whisky down between us and said, "Right now get that lot down yeh", which I may tell you we did. That brought us around and we survived. This incident occurred on the 22nd of February 1942, which is the date that I shall never forget, and as it happens it was my father's birthday. Not that I remembered that at the time of course. It just shows what resilience, young people can have under incredible conditions, and these were incredible conditions. Today, of course, at my age, I would think it would be ridiculous; I couldn't swim a mile now. This is what we had to do otherwise I would have been in a Jap POW camp. That wouldn't have been very pleasant, would it? This is the way it went. That was a memory in my life that I will never, never forget.

I was commanding the company then, on the top of a small hill, with little houses on it, and we were supposed to dig in, we hadn't got the time, and we hardly had any picks and shovels and so the thing was a complete waste of time. I thought "If we don't watch it at dawn tomorrow, we've had it". I was really tired by then of course as we hadn't had much sleep. It was a job to keep everyone awake but before dawn the thick mist came down and I realized that this was probably it. If we didn't do something about it, this was going to be when we would be attacked. It was the obvious thing for the Japanese to do, come up this small hill in the thick mist, we couldn't see them, and they knew we were there, we would've had it. This was exactly what they did. Fortunately, they were rather stupid, as they started shouting and screaming, carrying on in Japanese and we heard them coming although we couldn't see them. I gave the orders to retreat down the far side of the hill, which we did I can tell you very sharpish. Then of course the mist immediately lifted because the sun came up. We were going down the reverse slope of the hill and they were on the top of it, shooting at us as we were running, fortunately, their eyesight was not very good, most of them wore thick glasses, and they didn't hit a single solitary soul. We got away from that one. 

Then we went back and eventually found, (we had no radio) the battalion headquarters. I was balled out by the Battalion Commander, who was Lt. Colonel Thomas Ivan Bowers, known as “Bonzo” (Indian Army, seconded to the Burma Defence Forces) who I may say was a completely useless soldier. He fortunately had a very good second in command, his name was Major Arthur Perry. He was, I must say, a very strict officer. I said we couldn't hold this place anyway and what was the point to it as it had all been decimated there and if we could join up with the rest of the Battalion, or what was left of it, we might be of some use. So, I calmed down and off we went again backwards and backwards and backwards. 

Anyway, all the way back to Rangoon, which was a long way, on retreat all the time. Then we got to Rangoon, and we stopped there for a little while, and then the Japanese were again getting closer. There was a big oil refinery outside Rangoon at Syriam, owned by the Burmah Oil Company. The oil came down by pipeline and was refined in Rangoon. The Engineers blew up this oil refinery (7/3/42 at 1400 hours) and the whole city was covered in clouds of black smoke, it was just like night-time.

We left Rangoon and went up to a place called Pegu, (again on foot), and then we went on the "Irrawaddy Flotilla Company" paddleboat, all the way up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay, troops and all. I meanwhile had snagged my hand on a piece of rusty barbed wire, somewhere along the way. The thing festered badly and swelled right up. We had an Indian doctor on this paddle boat so I said, "Hey mate, can you do something about this?" He had thrown out his tools of his trade, you see, as he was so petrified. I had a very sharp pen knife and so I said, "Here sterilize this, you had better lance this damned thing", which he did, it wasn't very pleasant I must admit, lancing this great thing with a sharp pen knife, but still it let all the pus and everything else out. We put on a bandage and at least the swelling went down. I went into Mandalay Hospital when we got there and stayed 2 or 3 days. I don't know why the hell I had to stay there that long. I got out as quickly as I could. I was perfectly alright after that. Several of us went into the Mandalay bazaar, where we bought up all the sulphanilamide pills that we could find and tipped them out of the bottles of course because of the weight. We put them in our packs, in an old sock or something. 

According to the war diary of the 8th Battalion, Burma Rifles, on 28th February 1942, Captain Graham was sent by train to Prome with personnel who had survived the Sittang crossing but were now unarmed.  At Prome, the men were to be re-equipped before returning to the Battalion.  Captain Graham re-joined the Battalion at Meiktila after a spell in Mandalay Hospital.

We then started to walk again, and we walked 1,134 miles (1,825km). If anybody told me, I could walk 1,134 miles today I would tell them they must be joking but mind you I had done lord knows how many hundred miles before that. Still, we were young and fit, but getting less fit I may tell you by this time because of lack of rations and food. 

We were walking up the edge of the Irrawaddy most of the time. We'd only walk at night normally because we were strafed by Japanese zero planes by the day, we had no air cover at all of course and we were on the major escape route. Of all the civilians, mainly Indians were also walking up this route, along with us, a very straggly band of troops. We eventually all pitched up in due course, back in India. Cholera was rife and people were dying of cholera right, left and centre. On the side of the road, along which we were walking, we couldn't drink out of the river, we weren't allowed to, we knew what our orders were that we shouldn't, but I had to implement these orders. We only had one water bottle per day of fresh water if we were lucky. We found our way from one water point to another, it may have said, it was there on the map but sometimes it wasn't there in reality! 

The heat was terrific, somewhat cooler walking at night, but sometimes the stench from these rotting bodies was such that you could barely draw breath. This was not at all pleasant; in fact, it was extremely unpleasant. Anyhow we managed to get ahead of most of the civilians, I don't know how. We had very little to eat, there were no official rations at all of course. We lived entirely on rice and salt and the odd chicken that we could catch in the odd deserted village that we came past because the civilian population had disappeared into the bush and hills. 

Then we got to Kalewa at the bottom of the Letha Range of mountains that separate Burma from India and Assam. Now these mountains were very high, (in places over 10,000 feet). Now we had already been caught by rains, they had started, malaria of course was rife and by virtue of our diet and a great many of us had dysentery as well, no medication, therefore no cure, so we just had to put up with it. 

So, the trek started up over these mountains to get over to Assam, which was becoming quite an effort because we were getting weaker and weaker. We were still carrying with us what we could in the way of a pack, not that there was much in it by this time. So funny enough at that time, I don't know where he appeared from but, Bill Williams (of whom two books had been written about him), who was the biggest 'fundi' on elephants that ever existed in Burma, arrived with some elephants. Well now the sick & the lame were put into panniers on the side of these elephants, not that these were comfortable I can assure you, an elephant is the most uncomfortable thing in the world to travel on in the pannier on the side of it. It's alright if you are sitting up on its neck but you get seasick if you are sitting or lying in a pannier on the side of an elephant. Anyway, he helped a lot of us, not me, I was alright. There were people far worse than I, and he came out with us, with all these elephants into Assam.   

We arrived in Manipur and dealt with, I may say of course, Malaria and Dysentery. Then we were taken to what was well known then as the hundred and ninth mile. Milestone 109 on the Imphal-Dimapur road.  This was the initial collection point for the Army retreating out of Burma. I couldn't tell you how many hundreds or thousands of us there were there. At least we did have food and we did feel better, there was a certain amount of medical attention. Then trucks arrived, a dirt road, the rains were on, don't forget this and we drove a hundred and nine miles to Manipur to catch the train down to Calcutta, that was the idea. I guess the trucks were 5 or 7 tonners, winding down muddy roads, very, very mountainous country, extremely steep curves, some of which you had to back two or three times before you got around them. It would have been God knows how many thousand feet down one side of the mountain up the other and an Indian driver of the Indian Transport Corps was supposed to drive about 25 - 30 of us to Manipur so I said to this chap, (I spoke fluent Hindustani) "Have you ever driven in a hilly country like this before?" and he said, "No sahib, I've only driven on the flat". I said, "Oh I see, all right you get in the passenger seat, and I'll drive". I wasn't all that experienced at driving a big truck like that I can assure you and I thought "I think it may be a bit safer". So, I drove this truck a hundred and nine miles, and this wasn't easy I can assure you. It was muddy and slippery, it was not pleasant, and I had 25 - 30 chaps in the back, whom I was personally responsible. All of them are sick. A big hospital in Manipur. We eventually arrived, there I don't know what time it was, but say it was 2 or 3 a.m. and absolutely clapped. So being the senior officer at the time. I pulled this truck up outside the hospital, I went in, looking I suppose like nothing on earth, covered in sweat, dirt and probably ticks and lice, and I don't know what, and I then called for the medical officer on duty, who would have been a RAMC Officer.

There was a sister on duty, of course, and she said, "I don't know if I can" and I said, "You go wake him up mate, that's for sure". So eventually he arrived "What the hell are you doing waking me up at this time of the morning?" So, I said to him "There is no need for his sort of thing". I said to him "If you have been sleeping comfortably here on your camp bed, little do you know what we have been doing right through this night and right through, God knows, the last few months" and I said, "Right get cracking and get all these chaps off the back of the truck, get them into bed, and deal with them and then you can deal with me". And so, he couldn't do much because as it happened, I was senior to him in rank. So, they all got buckled to and everybody was given a bed, put in and dossed down and so was I, as it happened it was the first time in my life that I slept on a dunlopilo mattress with a dunlopilo pillow, and this was absolute bliss compared with sleeping on the ground for the previous couple of months. I stayed there; I think for possibly 4 - 5 days. Then they passed me down the line to various sundry field hospitals, which were mainly tents, were highly efficiently manned I must tell you, by extremely courageous and good volunteer nursing sisters. I think they were called "QAIMNS" Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service for India. They cleared me of malaria and dysentery. The dysentery side of it was somewhat awkward I may say as so far as most of us were suffering from it. These tented camp hospitals, all we had then of course, was thunder boxes you see, or if you want to put it the other way commodes Well now you were on the run all the time, and so was everyone else. When you have got to go, you have got to go!! This was all very awkward for a certain length of time but soon we all got over this. We were all cured. 

I went on the train down to Calcutta. Then when I got to Calcutta, I discovered I weighed 90 pounds. Now my normal weight then, at the beginning of the war was about what it is today, about 160 pounds, so what I looked like I can't imagine but still. I was feeling alright, very weak. I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta for a while. We all were granted 30 days leave, very kindly too I may say after all we had been through. Then what happened? I got jaundice. I thought "Oh God to hell with this"? So, I did not go back into hospital, which theoretically I should have done but I had enough of it. Cause I was going on leave to Darjeeling. I'd worked this out the first week I was in Calcutta, it was the second week I got this jaundice. So, I was in the Grand Hotel. I couldn't eat a thing, drink a thing, just water and I'd bring that up. So anyway, I cured myself of this jaundice with vast doses of McLeans Gran's Stomach powder and Eno’s. Now to this medical profession today this would sound ridiculous. I still had it when we went up by train to Darjeeling which is at the foothills of the Himalayas at about 8 - 9 thousand feet, where you can see Mt Everest from there which I did see if the clouds were not down. I spent the rest of my leave in Darjeeling. Suddenly one day the jaundice had gone.

I went into the Planters club of which we were automatically members and I smelt a steak and kidney pie cooking. This is just what I'd like and from then on, I was alright, and I started to put on weight. I, very quickly got fit very again, went to a couple of dances and what have you there, and had a thoroughly good time in Darjeeling. 

Captain Graham was posted to the 1st Battalion, The Burma Regiment on 1st October 1942.  The 1st Battalion of the new Burma Regiment was formed on that date by amalgamation of the 7th (Burma Police) Battalion and the 8th (Frontier Force) Battalion of The Burma Rifles. 

[The history of the Burma Regiment may be viewed by clicking this link]

Then the time came, to go back to Calcutta and I was then posted to the 2nd Battalion, Burma Rifles which was forming up again from a place called Hoshiarpur in the Punjab, don't forget it was still all India then it wasn't Pakistan, this was in Northern India. Eventually, we got most people back again. Some had deserted of course but then we eventually welded back into a unit, and then training started. Now we didn't know what for, but it wasn't very long before we learnt, (now early in 1943). We were only in tents; it got really cold up there in winter. We dug underground, and we pitched the tent on top of the hole we had dug, which was the same size as the tent and there you had your camp bed and what have you down in the hole and the tent was up above you and you could stand up and what have you, quite cosy and reasonable. We had a mess, good food and good rations. So, we started building up strength and we started training again.

Around that time in 1943, while I was there, I had to go to Multan, which was known as the glass house, which was a military prison on the edge of the Thal Desert and a place hotter in India you can't imagine. A posting to this Military Prison was a punishment station for British Battalions that misbehaved themselves. I remember well, I was there for about two weeks, and I had to give evidence for several Court Martials relating to deserters. I remember the food was fantastic. My cousin Charles Graham, funnily enough, was stationed there, I don't quite know why or what he was doing, but I stayed with him in this very large house with stone walls, all about four feet thick. I can well remember that he had a thermometer in the sitting room and at about 7 - 8 p.m. it was registering 107o F.  Now you could imagine what the temperature was doing during the day. 

We were given a bicycle and we had to bicycle out every day to the Glass House prison, which was about seven miles out of town.  There was a tarred road, but the tar was all sticky due to the heat. We sat there all day, at this damned prison, every day, meanwhile, all the military prisoners were doing everything at the double with one thing and another. Anybody who has seen a military prison will know how this sort of thing goes on.  I did this roughly for 14 days, on my bicycle. All I had to say was yes or no blah blah, so it was one of those things that is a waste of time really, which wasn't very pleasant. So, I won't go on much more into 1943, except that we did start our training for what now we realized was volunteer work, which was for the second Wingate expedition of Chindits into Burma. Now we didn't know what this involved or anything else, but I guess being the Burma Rifles and speaking the language and everything else, we volunteered, it was you, you, and you. This was very intensive training. 

In late 1943, Captain Graham was posted to the 2nd Battalion, Burma Rifles, arriving with his new unit on 6th November 1943.

This intensive training took place, not only in Hoshiarpur but also at a place called Orchha, somewhere in central India. There were some quite large and very fast-flowing wide rivers. There we were trained to do river crossings.  The whole brigade I may say.  By this time, we had been put into and made up to 77 Brigade and under the command then of Brigadier Orde Wingate. This was the start of the nitty gritty. We did river crossing daily, complete with I may say mules and animals, ponies and ourselves with full packs and everything else, from the Senior in the Battalion right down to lowest rank, with Wingate I may say, sitting on the bank of the river, quite often with his 303, firing live shots left and right of you, thank God he never hit anybody. This was what we did for quite a while, during the middle or two-thirds through 1943. We were then told we were going to move up to Assam.

After this initial training in India, before we moved up to Assam, it was done purposely of course, and it was make or break.  Very similar to the final training for the S.A.S. in this country (Rhodesia) [my son John qualified in May 1965] except that we didn't go and parachute. We were forced on one occasion; I can remember to go 72 hours without sleep and still keep compos mentis and keep control and command of the troops around us on a full 3-week exercise. Anyway, all those who came through that, (it wasn't everyone) did all the river crossings and then moved into Assam. This was quite interesting because it is the longest train journey I have ever taken in my life, some 700 miles north of Calcutta. We were 17 days in the train, not one train because the gauge changed before we crossed the border into Assam. I must admit towards the end it got somewhat tedious. 

During the interregnum, I may say, before we went up to Assam, I did get a certain number of odd snatches of leave. On one occasion I went up to Srinagar which is in Kashmir, right up in the foothills, once again up in the Himalayas, which is the most beautiful place, where you could see the snow on all the hills all the way around. It is an area that is full of beautiful lakes, and you lived on a houseboat on this lake Nageen, they were called barges there. You had your sort of boat and boatman attached to you and there was also a cook on the houseboat who cooked for you. It was extremely nice and very peaceful. 

There was a hotel across the other side of the lake. You paddled across there in the evening, and you would paddle back, for better or for worse, later on in the evening. We had a very pleasant time there. I went up with the adjutant of the second battalion whose name was Rannard, who was always as known as ‘Randy’ Rannard, with good reason, I think. We had two separate houseboats. We were up there for about 10 days to a fortnight, and we lived like Lords. We went up by road, we hired a car. We were wealthy young men in those days. That was very, very pleasant indeed. Anyway, that was it. We came back and went up to Assam. 

Now in Assam, we went up by train, as I said, and we finished up at a place called Lalaghat. There was a big airfield there, so we did a lot of training there. There was a lot of thick jungle, which was more of the type of country that we were going into. Also, with this big airfield, we got our air training because we were taken into Burma, in due course, naturally by air. 

I was then attached to the South Staffordshire Regiment (South Staff's). There were sixteen of us from the Burma Rifles attached to each column. Now one Battalion of the South Staff's was split into two columns, one commanded by the CO and the other by the second in command. 16 Burma Rifles were commanded by one officer each attached to the British Battalion. Our job was to act as reconnaissance troops to these British Battalions when we eventually got into Burma because we knew the country, spoke the language, and knew the people. This was our basic job. The South Staffords were supposed to go in on gliders. These gliders were called Waco gliders, which were designed and used in the European war zone to be towed about 400 feet over the English Channel. They were never intended to be used for what we had to use them for, which was to get over the mountains into Burma at some 11,000 feet, 2 behind each Dakota tow plane. We did a lot of training on these gliders; they were only made of canvas and plywood, and the most terrifying things I have ever been in my life. I've often thought later that I would have preferred to jump by parachute. Funnily enough, each glider, held an extraordinary number of people, it took 13, which some people were superstitious at the number 13. We did a lot of taking off with these gliders and coming back down again and so on. 

Apart from landing these gliders we also practised being snatched off the ground, which happened quite often when we were behind the Japanese lines. This was even more terrifying than taking off. What happened was that a couple of poles were put up, with a rope in between, with a tow line attached to this rope, then the tow plane a Dakota (DC3) came in low with a hook trailing under him. He comes down to about 40 feet, of course, no one in the plane, the pilot or the chap who is working the drum lets this rope out as soon as you are hitched, to reduce your take-off speed. It was pure grace or by God as to whether they got caught or not, quite often of course he didn't. So, it took anything up to about 15 minutes to circle again so he could have another bash. Meanwhile, you were all tensed up sitting in this darn thing, and then nothing happened so you relaxed then you would have to get all tensed up again waiting and eventually you were snatched up. You went from zero miles an hour sitting on the ground to approximately 90 miles an hour which was stalling speed with the flaps down on the Dakota. As soon as he caught you, he revved up and put his flaps up and off you went. Funnily enough, there were no accidents whatsoever.

We did not go in gliders in the end because another regiment in the brigade was the King's Regiment and I don't know what happened or what they did? Their Brigadier, Brigadier Wingate, as a punishment in a way, switched them to the gliders. We went in by Dakota. Well, that was rather comforting I must say, off we went.

During this period Brigadier Wingate was then promoted to Major General. Mike Calvert, who was a regular sapper officer, whom I first met in 1942 as a sapper. Then he took over command of the Brigade and was made the Brigade Commander at the age of 29. Now that wasn't bad. He was an absolute madman, an extremely good Brigadier and Commander and he was awarded the DSO & 2 bars, MC, and eventually the American Silver Cross, and somewhere along the line got the Croix de Guerre. He was highly decorated. He was a very good soldier and one of the few who were completely and utterly fearless, which very few people are, they may say they are, but I know very well that they are not. I certainly wasn't. Most people if they are honest, would admit it, but I think he was completely and utterly fearless. 

We now come to March 4th, 1944, and we had done all this intensive training in the jungle up in Assam, hacking our way through bamboo jungle doing precisely what were obviously going to have to do and we did do later. We were then told for the first time, that March the 4th was, as far as, we were concerned, "D" day for the whole of the Wingate Expedition, (Chindit expedition, this was the second one, there was one in '43, which was a little bit of a fiasco). We had a lot more experience of course by now, and also a lot more equipment because the Americans were helping us left, right and centre. We knew we were going in by Dakota. We were sent up to sit on the side of this airstrip on the night evening of March 4, 1944. We sat and we sat, and we sat on the side of this airfield waiting to be called.

Planes were coming in and going out all the time. Now there were approximately 4,000 troops to airlift over the mountains into Burma, and to some 250 miles behind the Japanese lines. We had been briefed, on the map, as to where we were going to land, which had been picked from air photographs. So, the gliders went in first. We took two bulldozers, the smallest caterpillar bulldozer, to bulldoze out the airfield on to which we were going to land, which was an open piece of land in the middle of an extremely thick jungle, with long grass on it I may say. Now a number of these gliders came to grief because ruts were not visible on the old photographs. The Japanese had been hauling teak logs across this piece of ground during the previous rains and naturally hauling these great 2-tonne trees across those left great ditches. The gliders landed and a lot of them were up-tipped on landing resulting in several casualties because the D2 bulldozers shot straight out over the top of the pilot and the D2 bulldozer driver. Perhaps it was just as well that it was switched to Kings and from us. We knew nothing of this at the time of course. 

Anyhow somehow or another when all this rubbish was cleared off, they made this air strip. There were no lights or anything but there was a Brigadier who was there in command of this base, if you like to call it as such, Brigadier Claud Rome, I can well remember him by name. They had a very powerful radio. Then the radio messages came over, that we could start coming in, so the Dakotas started taking off one by one by one. I suppose by now it would have been about midnight, a full moon, and off we went, eventually. I was delegated to a Dakota and my only companions in this Dakota were 5 large Argentine mules and the five mule holders or handlers. This was rather lonely you know out there at 10,000 feet up in the middle of the night with 5 mules. There were innumerable Dakotas around, some landing, some taking off, all with their landing lights on, naturally, there were no lights on this airfield, it was as bumpy as hell, that airfield as we discovered when we came into land.  Planes were taking off and landing all at the same time, how there were no accidents I will never know. Fortunately, enough there were none. We had pilots of all descriptions from British to American to Australian, New Zealanders, South African, and every nationality alive you can imagine. When we landed, we were immediately met by somebody in the pitch dark, (the moon was beginning to go down), and taken off to some point in the bush to the side of the airfield, where we were told to stay there for the time being which we did very gratefully.

Not still fully realising what it was going to entail after this. We at least then could relax, we had some rations to eat, and all of this was organised, very well I may say under the circumstances.  It took 4 nights to get the 4,000 troops and animals in.  During this time the Japanese didn't know a thing about it. That was the most extraordinary thing is that they didn't. It was just as well they didn't, let's be honest. This particular base, where we landed, was given the code name "Broadway". There were many code names of course as there are in the army today. It stayed as a main base right through the whole of this campaign until eventually being closed down when we pulled out. A lot of people came in and went out through there, having been taken there by light plane from wherever they happened to be. All these planes of course were flown by American Pilots who couldn't read a map or any other darn thing, but we managed to get from A to B anyhow.

This was all quite interesting and new to us at the time. We sat there and waited for our orders. Eventually, the orders arrived; of course, we knew which column we were going to be with. The columns were all given extraordinary numbers. This was to fox the Japanese of course, to make him think that there were far more columns of us than there were. We were with the 77 Brigade, I can assure you that there were not 77 Brigades, our column number was, a hundred and something. The column number of the other half of the battalion was, for all I can remember; it might have been one hundred and fifty-something.  This was all for radio purposes, to suggest to the Japanese, there was a damned sight more than 4,000 of us I can assure you.

The whole object of this particular operation was to take the pressure off the allied British troops who were being very hard pressed by the Japanese down in the Arakan, which was way down south, in Burma, and also the Japanese were trying to build up, which they were doing, to try and attack India. This was to take the pressure off these two fronts so they could turn around and attack us. Ultimately this is exactly the effect it had, the strategy of the thing I could fully understand. At the time we thought we were just the flippin’ mugs you see. We did do a very useful job. We then said, "Right let's start marching" and so off we went.  We were told, we were going to start up a big block on the railway line between a place called Mawlu, which was quite a reasonable-sized town, and another reasonable-sized town which was called Mohnyin, which was north of us, Mawlu was south but very close to us. It was only about 5 miles away.  To get there from Broadway, which I have mentioned, it was some, give or take, 50 miles. Off we set. It was by no means flat country; it was hilly. We struggled up hills and down hills, eventually arriving at this place, which was to set up as "White City". The reason it was called “White City” is because, we were entirely supplied by the air, and with airdrops, (parachutes) very efficiently I may say so too. Of course, on the trees, we were sort of set on three or four little hills, and the whole thing was surrounded ultimately, and this was all dropped from the air, concertina and barbed wire and we finished up with 3 lots of barbed wire around the whole block. 

There was only one way in and one way out. Also, then with minefields laid, personal mines, we called them pineapples in those days. You could only get in at one particular point which if you didn't know it well, you'd had it. We were in there for a while, but this wasn't our job of course and so then we left the reconnaissance with the Burma Rifles, as our job was to range within a 20-25 mile radius of this block around going into villages, sometimes the Japanese walked out the day before and we would walk in the day after.  We lived like British Lords because we had an advantage of course speaking the language fluently, and we had two doctors, attached to the South Staff's, whose names I now forget, of the Indian Medical Corps and we had them on call, sometimes they came with us. We went into these villages, and they pulled out teeth and treated the villagers and this and that and of course we were all very popular because the intention ultimately, we were going back to rehabilitate Burma, which actually in the end we did. We ranged around, we had a radio of course, somewhat antiquated compared to the modern army radios today, but even so, they worked sometimes but never exactly when you wanted them to.  They worked on batteries, sort of car batteries which had to be charged up. You had this thing, sort of a folding bicycle which worked the generator sort of thing, charged up the batteries.  So, some poor blighter peddled like hell for I don't know how long, to charge the batteries up. But still, it worked. We had to carry these batteries up hills and as anyone well knows a 12-volt car battery is very heavy. 

We were living then on American "K" rations which was a very good idea. You had 3 boxes all done up in very tight grease-proof sort of polythene paper, completely watertight. I may say they got extremely monotonous because you had three meals a day and all very health-giving and full of nutrition you can imagine this being American. Full of vitamins and everything you needed. If we got the opportunity to get hold of bully beef, we were jolly glad to get it. The only thing we got in addition to these "K" rations was tea, butter, milk and sugar because in the American rations, there was nothing that you could call now a Nescafe, soluble coffee, and the Americans never drank tea of course. We did have tea, milk and sugar.  When we picked up these rations, we were supposed to carry 7 days of rations at a time, and of course, we were supposed to carry that in your pack as well, not much fun really, apart from everything else you had. We had socks of rice and red chillies. We got hold of curry powder and we were fed quite often in these Burmese villages into which we went. We were given a right royal meal. So, we, ourselves, actually did better than the people we were defending.

This big block and been ultimately, mortared which happened all the time. We had nothing to complain about at all, and I must admit I quite enjoyed what we were doing. Doing intelligence work and feeding it back was quite interesting, far better than sitting in a bunker and being mortared and shelled which wasn't very pleasant. Anyhow we carried on doing this and now and then we had to return to this block of white city. 

Meanwhile, other blocks had been set up. One further north of us, which was named Aberdeen, which was under Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, and we used to pop up there occasionally and see him.  Brigadier Bernard Fergusson was an incredible character, he had a great beard and always had an eyeglass, and I don't know how many times that eyeglass was not broken, and he had a new one dropped to him on a supply drop.  Just 16 of us, that's all. Many times, we could lie in the long grass on the side of a track or path, in the middle of the night and we had information of course that some Japanese were going to come up, on this particular track and we would lie in this long grass and a whole Battalion of Japanese would walk past and we'd count them. I may say, thank God that nobody coughed or sneezed while they were walking past otherwise, we would have had it. It never happened thank goodness. Then we'd radio back the x number of Japanese passed us going east, north, south or west whatever it was. Heading obviously for wherever they were heading, and we knew because we had plenty of maps and we knew exactly where we were and what we were doing. So, we enjoyed that part of it and this went on in March, April, & May when the rains were about to start. It was decided that Block would be evacuated, and we would move up to a place called Mogaung which is in the North of Burma, up in the Kachin country, not far from another place called Myitkyina.

Our job was to take them into an assault force to take Mogaung. Now that was stiff with Japanese. So, we got there and dug in. Then we got established but then more heavy equipment, when I say heavy equipment, more mortars and I think somehow got us some 25 pounders. That was a right battle that was.

The rain, of course, started.  Very swampy sort of area, full of mosquitoes of course and we battled on there for a bit. Then I was with my 16 Kachin was sent up with a personal message to General Stilwell, who was known as "Vinegar Joe", who was commanding the Chinese troops, who were allegedly supposed to be coming down from the North, in this sort of pincer movement to assist us to attack the Japanese from the opposite side. Well, they took an awful long time to get there, and they weren't very keen either. I was sent up with these 16 Kachin to go and deliver this personal message to him at a place called Kamaing, some way along the Ledo Road. Upon our arrival, we then sat there for about 3 days before "Vinegar Joe" would see me. I was a comparatively junior officer, I was only a captain, and he was an American General, lord knows how many stars he had, eventually, I was ushered in to see this austere gentleman. So, I delivered this manuscript to him from my Brigadier, Mike Calvert, which I think, (I never saw it), was telling him to get a move on, get these damned Chinese down or we were all going to be in the soup. 

We passed a lot of Chinese on our way up as they were going down.  They were all more concerned about their pots and pans and their cooking utensils than they were with anything else. So, they were in the end actually of no help whatsoever. At that time the Americans were operating with the Chinese at Myitkyina, some way east of us, which was a much larger place than Mogaung. They made a complete nonsense of this lot and in the end, of course, it was the British who re-captured Myitkyina. The Americans claimed the victory and I well remember that we had by then taken Mogaung and cleared all the Japanese. This message came in from India that the Americans had taken Myitkyina, but we knew damned well that they hadn't. 

Mike Calvert sent a signal back to India that if the Americans had taken Myitkyina, 77 Brigade takes "Umbrage". That signal I think was put into the Archives I think because it is quite an unusual one and I think the powers that be, that were in India and controlled what we did, were quite amused at it nevertheless. We then were flown out, in the end from this place Kamaing back to India but meanwhile, we were treated for malaria with mepraquine [mepracrine] which soon cured us. That was the end of that phase of the war and, as far as we were concerned and as far as the Japanese were concerned.

During our assault and attack on Mogaung, I wasn't there all the time because I went up to Kamaing for a personal message for Vinegar Joe, but we were there, and I think I did mention that we were up to our knees in the mud because it was extremely swampy there and the Japanese were giving us stick and we were giving them stick. We had a lot of casualties a lot of casualties, officers and men. Then reinforcements were flown in almost daily and the planes that brought them in took out the casualties back to the hospital in India I presume. One of them that came in was Captain Archie Wavell, I know this was General Wavell's son who was a Black Watch regular soldier an excellent soldier and a very nice chap. The young man took over the company or whatever it was where the company commander had been killed. Anyway, it so happened that during one of these skirmishes in operations in these ghastly conditions that we were under, I was quite close to him when an explosive the Japanese used, (they used these explosive bullets) hit him in the wrist, and it virtually blew his hand off. It was his right hand. All that was left was his hand hanging there by literally a piece of skin attached to his arm.

I was nearest to him, with two or three other officers there. We carried him back to the sort of makeshift field hospital that we had, and all the doctors had to do was snip off a bit of skin and then his hand would have come off. So, then we stitched his hand, and he was 'tickity boo'. Now he refused to be flown out he was perfectly alright, there were people with stomach wounds and lords knows what else were a great deal worse.

Meanwhile, the signals went back to India, as all notifications of casualties were signalled to HQ and that Archie had been wounded and lost his hand. Then the signals came streaming back in from his father General Wavell to Brigadier 'Mad' Mike Calvert that he must be evacuated immediately. Now Archie refused and said, "I will not go; you send out the worst injured first". This file of signals got thicker and thicker and thicker and he still refused to go so eventually Mike Calvert said to him "I agree with you 100%" but he said, "If you don't go, I shall get the sack". So, he said alright. Archie said if that's the situation I will go but I will speak to my father about this. So, he went and right that was the end of that at least so I thought.

The 2nd Battalion, Burma Rifles completed its mission with the Second Wingate Expedition and in September 1944 was withdrawn to India, having suffered thirteen killed or died, three missing and eight wounded.  The Battalion moved to a rest camp at Dehra Dun.

Officers of the 2nd Burma Rifles, Dehra Dun, India 1943

Officers of the 2nd Burma Rifles, Dehra Dun, India 1943.

When it was all over and we got back to India and there was a big cocktail party/ball laid on at Flagstaff house, Simla, which was sort of the main government headquarters during the hot weather, it was up in the hills. I and several other Burma Rifles Officers were invited. So, we put our Number One’s and we went. I think we were staying up in Simla for a few days’ leave or something. This was a real plush affair you see as you can well imagine. Drinks flowing, beautiful snacks, absolutely first class until I was summoned by an ADC to General Wavell who with Lady Wavell was sitting on a large sofa one at either end.

The ADC said that the General would like to speak to me, I thought oh God now what gives? So, I then had to sit down between the two of them and so then I was interrogated by mainly General Wavell who was not a very talkative man at all normally, very dour, why was it that, how was it Archie's hand was blown off? Archie, I may tell you was there at the time dancing merrily away with no hand on his right arm, that was the one that went around the girl's back, so you didn't see it too much as he was thoroughly enjoying himself. I had all this interrogation, I said all I did was help carry him back. Further than that I know how he got shot which was not his fault at all and it was just as lucky that I wasn't shot as well, or I was not shot instead of him, but this is the way that it went. Anyway, I couldn't leave because on those occasions until the ADC introduces someone else to the general, then you can get up and click your heels and push up. 

Well eventually I called over to the ADC and he did bring someone else up I got up and did the necessary and got the hell out of it very quickly. I may say I went and had a strong whisky and soda but who was it that they brought up but the doctor that took his hand off. So, well I left him to it so he could explain he took it off etc., etc. It wasn't for me to do but matter of fact I saw it done. That was I must say a most embarrassing, awkward situation for me and one that I was going to participate in a most enjoyable party.

Postscript: Archie Wavell was subsequently killed in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and this was very, very sad for a fine, regular Black Watch Officer to be killed in that way, after what he had been through during the War, very sad indeed. 

We went into training again to get trained up again for what was going to be a third similar type of expedition in 1945. I was then promoted to Major and put in charge of all the 2nd Battalion reconnaissance troops who were going to be deployed again in 1945, on a similar type of expedition, behind the Japanese lines. I was then attached to Brigade headquarters, it suited me down to the ground, as I had a number of these sections under me. My job was to see that they were trained and what have you, well they didn't need much training because most of them had done it before anyway, some of them had done it twice before. We were still under Brigadier Calvert, and we were in so-called peacetime India.

The training commenced, and we got very fit, not that we got unfit that's for sure. We carried on with no problems. The result of all this in the end was that the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then the Japanese war came to an end. The unconditional Japanese surrender to the Allied powers came on 2 September 1945. So, then that is roughly it, without going into too much detail, the history of my experiences during the war. We hadn't finished then because none of us were due for demobilisation. 

General Orde Wingate, was killed in a plane crash (24 March 1944), leaving White City.  He had come to see us and point of fact I had seen him board the plane on an airstrip that we had outside this big block during our time in White City. The following was printed in the 14th Army publication called "SEAC", an army-produced paper. They published the following under the title "The Song of the Chindits". They make a moving tribute to the memory of the first Chindit, General Orde Wingate.

Agreed as follows:

Were the sword he forged, eager and bright
Tempered so cunningly, proudly bequeathed
Tested unbroken and keen for the fight
Others must wield it before it is sheathed
We are the torch he lit blazing a trail
Flaming through jungle land
Shamming the sun
Faith shall rekindle it, no one shall fail
None shall turn back until the battle is won
We are the path he made through the unknown
Straight as a spear, at the enemy thrust
Never again will we strike the lion
We are his legacy, we are his trust
We are the flag he raised bloody and torn
We are his dagger which leaps to the kill
Strong in our hearts is his courage reborn
He is our leader, the conquer still.

During the March of 1945, I was granted what was called, LIOP [Leave in Lieu of Python], which was 60 days leave to England which naturally I took. We were sent down to Bombay, to a very big transit camp just outside the city, there were 3,000 if not more people either going back to England for demobilisation or on leave for 60 days. It was about a week or 10 days before we got a plane to get back to England.

George Formby happened to be there at the time with his wife and they were both part of the theatrical people that came around entertaining the troops in the later part and also slightly after the war. They did a marvellous job, and he sang all his old songs to us on this great huge rugby field come parade ground. All 3,000 of us, and this was absolutely fantastic then when it was all over, he came over to the officers’ mess with his wife and I may say they were both in army uniform and then he started singing and telling stories. These were the songs that were not recorded that one normally never heard. So, it was one of the funniest evenings that I can remember that we had or that I can ever remember really. Standing just beside the chap and hearing all these incredible stories that were not suitable in point of fact for publication.

Major Graham's Medals and Badges

Insignia worn by Major Graham. Flanked by Chindit shoulder patches, Major Graham's campaign medals are (l to r): 1939-1945 Star; Burma Star; Defence Medal; War Medal 1939-1945, with Oak Leaf denoting the award of a Mention in Despatches.

To the left of the medals can be seen the cap badge of The Burma Rifles, while to the right is that of The Burma Regiment.

Certificate issued to Captain Graham for the award of a Mention in Despatches

Certificate issued to Captain Graham for the award of a Mention in Despatches.

Note by John Graham: These memoirs were taped by my father when living in Rhodesia (1982/83) and transcribed & edited by John Graham his son in New Zealand. I tried to keep them as close to the way he told the story. Unfortunately, he died in December 1985, eighteen months after arriving in New Zealand so was unable to explore them further.

14 February 2024