- Pertwee, J.W.M., Lieutenant, RN
- History - WW2
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE DISASTROUS RETREAT of the British forces in Burma, their incredible heroism during the siege of Imphal and the eventual southward advance through the worst fighting terrain in the world are all, thank God, past history. But before the saga of the Fourteenth Army grows dim in our minds, I should like to recount briefly the story of a small band of sailors who, though only a minute cog in so vast a machine, were nevertheless an integral part of that ‘Forgotten Army’.
At the beginning of 1945, when the Fourteenth Army had begun to advance again, I volunteered and was accepted for a Special Service assignment in Burma, and soon found myself in Calcutta working with ALFSEA, obtaining equipment and stores for gunboats which were building on the banks of the Chindwin River. In due course I had assembled in HMS Chilwa, Calcutta, two complete crews for the boats, each crew consisting of one PO, one Leading Seaman, four ABs, one Leading Stoker and one Stoker.
By April 10th I had managed to arrange for a Katoa transport aircraft to fly us all over the Chin Hills to Kalewa, where the first two boats had just been launched. One was named the Una, after General Sir William Slim’s daughter, the other the Pamela after Lord Louis Mountbatten’s daughter. I had the honour to command the latter. On April 29th we sailed on our thousand-mile journey.
It was at once obvious that the boats would have to be kept pumped out day and night to keep them fully water-borne, and as this was a non-stop evolution for two months, I will not allude to it further.
The weather was beautiful as we ponderously made our way down the river, but the monsoon was beginning to break over the Chin Hills, and just before dark it poured and poured. We then realised that not only were we making about 1,500 gallons of water per day through the bottom, but a continuous deluge assailed us from above, through the non-watertight deck. I secured alongside the Una for that night and my cox’n and I went on board to discuss our first day’s trip. We were met by a scene of indescribable chaos. Water lapped around our ankles, water dripped down our necks, water had permeated into every stitch of clothing and every piece of bedding. Millions of white moths from all over Burma held a jamboree with us, attracted by our one paraffin lamp. They floated on every drop of liquid. We opened our only brandy bottle and almost literally ate a silent toast to the Una and the Pamela. We did not take water with it.
I made my way back to the Pamela shortly after that, where the ratings were trying to resurrect a battered Primus stove to make some ‘char’. My Burmese bearer, aged fourteen, was in the wardroom and in tears, trying to find some dry bedding for me. He was unsuccessful, so I laid down on a wooden bunk and went into a coma till 0500 hours. At that time I awoke, hearing a crash. It was my bearer, Maing Maing, tripping over the centre intermediate shaft which ran slap along the middle of the wardroom and six inches above the deck. He had failed to see it, for it was under three inches of muddy water.
The second day proved even more eventful than the first, because a Dakota aircraft, indulging in a little joie de vivre, decided to ‘shoot us up‘, as I think the RAF term it. With a precision which would have made a Harley Street surgeon green with envy, he removed the top of my mast and commissioning pennant with his airscrew. The top of the mast was ten feet above my head.
And so the days went by, each one seeing us nearer our objective, which was to link up with 33 Corps. The scenery was very much the same all the way down to Magwe, the river ever winding southward, with high brown banks sloping to the water’s edge, or occasional sheer cliff with a ‘pungi chaung’, more commonly known as a Buddhist pagoda, perched on the top, its tower covered in faded gold leaf paint. Every mile or so we passed a small fishing village of a few wood and rush huts nestling together among the trees on top of the bank. The children could be seen playing, as all children do the world over, regardless of nationality or creed, the old men of the village sat on the steps of their homes smoking in solitude, while the womenfolk did the household washing, standing knee deep in the river. At the first sign of the British Navy these women and girls emulated the water buffalo, and we usually saw only their heads. They are the most modest women in the world, but as one rating remarked to me, ‘Wouldn’t they be chocker, sir, if they knew we had these big binoculars‘.
Here I think it is opportune to give a brief description of the tactical situation as I saw it at that time.
The West African divisions, driving from the Arakan, had left the Jap no means of escape except by crossing the Irrawaddy, for which purpose he must have a bridgehead on either side of the river, thence making a hazardous journey eastward across the Pegu Yomas and into Siam. As the entire east bank of the Irrawaddy was in our hands, the hinterland thick with members of the cutthroat bands of the Burma National Army, and the Jap himself had no MT or even shoes, and was normally riddled with at least one disease such as dysentery, his chances of survival were small. Nevertheless, such is his tenacity of purpose or fanaticism, call it what you will, he did try to do it; and to thwart this end we were sent to Prome. After doing various odd jobs there, we went to Shwedaung, about ten miles to the south, where we worked with 100 Brigade for several weeks.
In order to prevent the Japanese crossing the river, we had to sink or disable all canoes on the west bank, and it is much regretted that we may have had to destroy the livelihood of many peaceful but bewildered people. Shortly after this, Lieutenant- Commander Penman was recalled to Rangoon for a conference with 14th Army HQ and I was left in command of the Flotilla.
It was decided to land four companies of Gurkha troops on the west bank in an endeavour to prevent the Jap forming a bridgehead in our vicinity. Rafts were hurriedly constructed and country boats were strengthened to take troops. Then it was decided to make an assault landing on Padaung Island on the opposite side of the river at 0730 the following day. I will leave to your imagination the sight of two gunboats, much overloaded with Gurkhas and live goats, and each towing a jeep or anti-tank gun on a home-made raft alongside it. Since the boats always had a list to port or starboard, since they were flat-bottomed, and since there was a four-knot current, it was surprising we had no casualties.
Two days later it was discovered that Pungi Chaung, which was at all times visible from our anchorage, was being used as an artillery observation post, so the Pamela was called upon to conduct an air strike on the target. To do this we had to approach the pagoda as close as possible, carrying an RAF and an Artillery Officer, each with his own wireless set. When we were about 2,000 yards away from this pagoda there was a horrible crack, followed by a large spurt of water directly in front of us, followed by another astern. Realising that the Japs were firing over open sights at us I decided to leave. By ‘throwing’ the craft about all over the narrow river we were able to make good our escape, while every shot from the enemy was within fifty yards of us. In the Pamela’s defence, I must add that we directed the air strike very successfully from a more prudent 4,000 yards.
Some days later both boats were sent to Prome to stand by to evacuate one company of Dogras who were being besieged by Japanese troops who had managed to form a bridgehead on the east bank at a place called Zaion, five miles north of Prome. However, by the time we had left Prome these Dogras had been relieved and there was no immediate call for our services. Nevertheless, we decided to approach this bridgehead with caution, to endeavour to ascertain the strength of the Japanese at this spot. When we were about three miles north of Prome and still two miles from the suspected Japanese position, we passed a number of Indian troops bathing in the river – in fact, nothing could have appeared to be more peaceful. Everybody was standing about on the deck sunbathing and making tea as usual. We anticipated that it would be at least another fifteen minutes before we saw any sign of a Jap.
Suddenly a burst of machine-gun fire hit the water about six feet from the Una’s side. Hurriedly everybody closed up to gun positions, and both boats went into action against a land target for the first time. Bullets were churning up the water all round us and the Una, which was about twenty yards ahead of me, was being raked from stem to stern by both heavy and light machine-gun fire. For about two minutes all hell was let loose, with the Bofors, Oerlikons and Brens of the two gunboats replying to the Japanese, which were entrenched in strongly fortified foxholes. Realising that we could not compete at so short a range against such overwhelming gunfire, we turned and retreated down the river at full speed.
A mile lower down the river we drew into the east bank to see how much damage or how many casual-ties there were. The Una had thirty-two bullet-holes through her and the Pamela had twelve; all of the Una’s petrol tanks had been hit, but luckily the Japs were not using tracer or incendiary bullets.
During the two months we were on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers, the crews of both boats had been so depleted by disease that it became necessary to call for volunteers from the Army to keep them fully manned. Since we could be of no further use to the Fourteenth Army and the boats were fast becoming completely unserviceable, while the majority of the crews had their legs covered in jungle sores and a number had dysentery caused by the drinking of the Irrawaddy water, we sailed for Rangoon on June 4th 1945. There we were in time to take our place ‘in the line’ for the Rangoon review. Unfortunately, the number of ratings able to take part was small, as some were in Rangoon fever hospital.