This page continues the memories of a skilled carpenter from Hemyock whose talents were employed around the world. It is an extract from the book Memories of War. Other pages in this series:
Continued from previous page: Village Carpenter Goes to War.
In 1945, after his two weeks compassionate home leave, Mr. B. was transferred out to Burma. They went via the Suez Canal. He remembers the banks being so close that Egyptians were able to stand up on the banks of the Suez Canal and spit at the troops on the ships passing through the Canal.
Eventually they landed at Bombay and then went by train towards Burma. He remembers the Kohima Ridge — driving up the side in the army lorries. In parts, the road was so narrow that there was only one-way traffic. They often had to stop to allow the lorries returning from the front to come through. He remembers the terrible heat and the dust whilst they were sitting in the backs of the Army lorries and not having enough to drink. It was so hot that when the dust settled on your tunic and you tried to flick it off, the sweat and dust would fall off rather like a bar of chocolate. He remembers arriving up at the top of the ridge and seeing lorries that had fallen off the side of the road piled up far down below.
Once in Burma, their duty was to keep the supply lines up to the front open. He was not involved in the "front line" fighting but he saw plenty of dead Japanese. No one would touch the bodies as they were often booby-trapped. There were many rivers, canals and streams. The Royal Engineers had to build bridges over these using whatever they could find. They had to improvise.
There was very little shade as there had been very fierce fighting and all the branches had been shot off. There was nowhere to sleep as the houses had been blown up and huts had been destroyed. You could not sleep on the ground because of all the insects. He made a "sleeping place" by cutting up some bamboo poles he found, knocking some thicker bamboo posts into the ground, then tying them together with some "honeysuckle stuff they have out there" and then spreading his groundsheet on top.
Mr. B. remembers playing cricket with improvised equipment, soon after he arrived there. It became his turn to bat and he picked up the cricket glove that had just been thrown down on the ground by the last batsman. He was stung by a scorpion, which even in that short time had crawled inside the glove. He had to report to the Medical Officer and although he was sick for about two weeks there was nowhere to go sick to — just an awning to provide shade, so people just kept going with their duties. The MO's only words of comfort were that if Mr. B. went back to the place where he had been stung, he would find that the scorpion was now dead, as when scorpions sting they commit suicide. On the whole he was lucky and managed to keep fairly healthy as he took all the tablets they were told to take as well as those that his comrades refused to take!
Water was a problem too. They arrived at a town in central Burma called Metulla (Myitkyina?). They had to fetch their water in a 200 gallon tank, from a pond. He can still remember the bodies of the enemy dead lying in that pond. No one could remove them unless they were booby-trapped. That pond was their only source of water for washing, cooking and drinking! The water looked like milk with all the chlorine that had been tipped into it to try and purify it.
Another memory is that soon after his arrival he was asked what he was doing in Burma as he was a category B1. (Less fit people were not supposed to have been sent to Burma. He had been changed from A1 to B1 after being injured in Gibraltar.) His only reply was that he was there now and that there was no way to get back!
Lots of memories still come back to him: Watching the Burmese women walking to market along the raised paths beside the canals, carrying their produce on their heads. It was so hot that the top halves of their bodies completely disappeared into the heat haze that rose up off the baked ground. All you could see was sarongs, bare ankles and flip flop sandals moving along the paths.
In Rangoon Mr. B. was detailed to convert Rangoon University, a beautiful building dating from 1926 with teak lecture theatres and fittings, into a hospital. They had just finished the conversion when the atom bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hospital was never used. He still has two photograph frames he made out of scraps of teak door fittings from the University fittings, and two books about the Philippines that were all that remained from the University library.
Whilst in Rangoon he made a teak bed for General Slim, complete with a 14th Army shield carved on its headboard. He often wonders what happened to that bed.
They heard about VE Day and the end of the war in Europe over the radio. He does not remember they had any particular celebrations as they were still fighting. On VJ Day he was actually on a ship in Rangoon waiting to go down to Singapore. It was 120 Degrees Fahrenheit. They heard the announcement over the radio. This trip to Singapore took 10 days and the Japanese led them through the minefields. When they finally arrived at Singapore, a young dare devil of the Devons (from Tiverton), who had managed to survive to the end of the war, fell between their ship and the jetty. He disappeared without trace and so presumably was eaten by sharks. This young man had been in a Reserved Occupation so need not even have joined up.
In Singapore Mr. B. was put to work preparing for the Surrender Ceremony. The Royal Engineers had to supervise and to work with Japanese who were now prisoners-of-war, clearing up the area and building the podiums needed for the Ceremony. Opposite the building where the Ceremony was to be held, they had to clear up the Sports Ground that the Japanese had been using as a lorry park. The Japanese were not at all willing to work and had to be "encouraged" with the butt of a gun.
Mr. B. witnessed the procession of the Japanese Generals marching to the Ceremony where they signed the Surrender, between Lord Mountbatten, General Slim and their escorts. He heard Lord Mountbatten deliver the Victory Speech. He still has his photograph of the ceremony.
His souvenir photographs show some of the sights he saw whilst he was in the Far East, such as Haw Par Villa in Singapore, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Burma, the wonderful Buddhist Temples, the Mosque and the Hindu Temple. All these for a man who, until the war, had rarely left the Hemyock area.
Mr. B. stayed in Singapore until he was finally demobilized in March 1946. He was working mainly on repairs to the Civil Servants' bungalows that had been destroyed during the war. On returning home to Hemyock, he finally saw his first baby, a daughter, now well over a year old.
He was awarded the following medals for his service: 1939-45 Star, Burma Star, Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939-45.
See Previous page: Village Carpenter Goes to War.
The memories were published originally in 1995 as a 65 page, A4 booklet, illustrated with many photographs. All profits went to the Royal British Legion.
The text has been extensively re-edited and republished in Amazon Kindle format, in aid of Hemyock's Blackdown Support Group charity, it is equivalent to about 115 A5 pages. The photographs have been made into online slideshows.
For convenience, the photos have been arranged in four groups, forming four slide shows, each lasting about four minutes. The slide shows have been uploaded as 1080p HD. This means that they can be viewed using most types of computer or mobile devices and at any of the resolutions supported by YouTube. Contact us for a DVD version of these slideshows, or versions in other formats.
Hemyock Castle, Hemyock, CULLOMPTON, Devon, EX15 3RJ, UK.
© 2001–2015. Prepared and published by Curlew Communications Ltd