diary · family · History · World War Two

Nan’s Diary: Burma – The Forgotten War

On a stranger Remembrance Sunday this year, I’m reading through Nan’s memories of corresponding with my grandad Les when he was posted to Burma during the Second World War.

Often referred to as the Forgotten War, the Burma campaign dragged on long after Victory in Europe, in tough conditions far away from home.

“I received my first letter from Les a few days after my 16th birthday. We met playing tennis together and soon after he was posted to the Far East with the RAF as a radio mechanic.

I heard that my ‘newsletters’ to him were put on the noticeboard in the mess for everyone to read, as I used to write about what was happening at home – entertainment, sport and films, and every day life in London (anything to do with the war would have been censored).

When I succumbed to appendicitis in the November of 1941, it meant another spell in hospital. I recall receiving letters from Les during that time – much of his mail was in the form of aerogrammes, which were almost illegible as they had to be very much reduced in size.

He was stationed for quite a while near Chittagong in North Burma, near what is now the East Pakistan border. He spent quite some time near Comilla and Agartala, even further north and where the full force of monsoons was felt between June and August.

In 1943, Les mentioned being near the sea, so I imagine this would have been at the time he was near Chittagong. He had a spell in hospital (one of many) with dysentery and also endured attacks of malaria.

At the end of 1943, he was posted to the hills of India, but unfortunately that did not last long as he had hoped, and he was back in the mosquito-ridden area by the beginning of 1944 – Les sometimes felt that his share of the war effort was the dirty end of the stick. However, it was not too long before he got a station that housed a good number of his former mates.

Les was beginning to wonder how much longer he was going to be in the jungles of Burma – little did he know that his stay would last almost two more years.

In May 1944, Vera Lynn went to the front line for three days – the only artist to venture so near to the fighting, but in addition the Salvation Army also played a large part in providing comfort to the troops.

He moved from one area to another, and as things hotted up, the Japanese began piling on the pressure. In the middle of 1944, he spent some time in hospital with yet another bout of malaria and burnt legs, having spilt sulphuric battery acid over them.

It was in 1944 that he was responsible for fitting up a broadcasting system at his camp and the radio terms FM etc. were beginning to appear. It became quite sophisticated, but the Asian Broadcasting Service had to be abandoned after the end of the European War as there was a rapid personnel movement when the Japanese were removed from chunks of South East Asia. They also fixed up a cinema, which was a godsend; they showed a wide variety of films, all of which were described during the course of his correspondence.

I suppose he must have got things going for the rest of the wing’s units as he was Leading Aircraftman by the beginning of 1944 and by May 1944 (when he reached the mature age of 21 years) he was Corporal.

At the beginning of 1945, the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces) is mentioned and from then on they worked together, particularly towards the end of the European War. At this time, he seemed to spend his time dashing from one Mobile Signals Unit to another in lorries, which incidentally he taught himself to drive. Les had no choice other than to get around, so he learned the hard way. Much of his time was spent on dusty roads, enduring bumpy, uncomfortable rides from one unit to another.

After Victory in Japan in September 1945, censorship was lifted, so names and places could be mentioned; there was also talk of airlifting troops back to England.

Les talked about different people going back to the UK, but he wasn’t among them and he became very frustrated. Life was boring as there was no ‘work’ as such and to pass the time they played football, badminton and basketball; they had the cinema of course but mostly they just longed for the time they could go home.

By October 1945, personnel were going south to Rangoon, Singapore and places East, either on their way home or helping to get POWs repatriated. Les was in Agartala and within the flying zone near Calcutta where he was in command of a unit. With the gradual demob and repatriation of a trickle of men in the unit, fresh personnel were coming out from England.

Les heard that at the end of October, half the unit were due to go to Malaya and Sumatra. All large, heavy and bulky possessions were parcelled up ready to be sent to the UK whilst personal things were packed to go wherever they were to be sent – in Les’s case, Borneo or Sumatra. He sent valves and various items of radio equipment back to the UK, addressed to himself, to be for his own purposes – taking the risk he would be imprisoned if thieving from the Armed Forces ever came to light!

Leaving Comilla at the beginning of November, he reached Rangoon in four hours flying time. From there, the flight was to Penang and then onto Singapore.

In a letter of his from this time, Les gave his account of being on loan to a local wing in order to enhance the reputation of his own unit. He had handled British, American, Australian, Dutch and Italian radio equipment, and now had to tackle Japanese equipment without manuals. However, they found how superior the Japanese equipment was even in those days – in fact it would have put much of ours in the shade.

He waited until he could get a flight to Borneo where he languished until he left for the UK. He arrived in Labuan just before Christmas 1945, a coral island 10 miles by 5 miles, which was taken over by the Australians when they kicked the Japanese out.

Les got his repatriation orders on 1st December 1945. There is reference to discontent amongst the Forces in the Far East in the delay.

They only had a short while in Labuan where they tidied up the radio transmission equipment for the next incumbents – they left on Christmas Day 1945 on a five and a half hour flight to Singapore, touching down for one night at Kalang airfield. Formalities were completed in Singapore and Les was kitted out for his return to the UK (money etc.) and he sailed for England, direct from Singapore on the Winchester Castle. He arrived in the UK towards the end of January 1946.“


2 thoughts on “Nan’s Diary: Burma – The Forgotten War

  1. Thanks for reminding me of all this, Abbe. It is a poignant reminder on this day of reminders, of the trials and tribulations that your grandad went through during those years in Burma. The role of Mobile Signals Uints was vital in tracking the Japanese planes and they had to be sited away from airfields to minimise the danger to them from air raids and the destruction of their equipment. Although not harmed personally from enemy action (as far as I know), the effects of his bouts of malaria undoubtedly had an effect on his underlying health. Although actively playing football, tennis and badminton when we, his sons, were young and enjoying life to the full, he died in 1964, at the ridiculously young age of 41, from cancer, which may well have had its origins in his war service in the unhealthy jungles and swamps of Burma. Your nan kept his letters to her, and hers to him, during those years. They are a testament, not only to their love for each other, but to the trust that they had that he would finally make it home.He did (otherwise we wouldn’t be here!) but he had a relatively short time to enjoy family life and see his sons take their place in the adult world, I’m immensely proud of the role he played in fighting facism and ensuring we grew up in a democratic society, however flawed that democracy might be. It is certainly better than any of the alternatives! Dadxx

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