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Burma 1942: Memories of a Retreat
The Diary of Ralph Tanner, 2nd Battalion the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
By R.E.S. Tanner, D.A. Tanner
The History PressCopyright © 2009 R.E.S. Tanner and D.A. Tanner
All rights reserved.
The Past is a Foreign Country
What the Second Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry did in the first five months of the Japanese invasion of Burma was extraordinary by any standards of military performance. The men showed bravery and an impressive ability to adapt to diminishing resources; the survivors marched over a thousand miles to get back to India. It is too easy in the historical studies of warfare to concentrate on political failings and the inadequacies of senior officers, because at those levels there are always quantities of documents on public record which can be analysed and which of course leave out the personal realities of warfare. Similarly, the failure of military units to perform optimally is often assessed by well-intentioned scholars who were not there and may have had little personal experience of prolonged danger and physical deprivation; they will never have gone without water, been blown sideways by bombs, had sores on their feet from marching and watched Japanese soldiers coming near to their hiding place. Only the highly imaginative novelist can begin to express what these men experienced.
Too much of the writing about the initial shocks of Japanese aggression has involved the laying of blame and playing the 'if' game, suggesting that performance and outcomes could have been different. This Battalion of infantry was certainly dealt a poor hand, but it is no part of this study to discuss why this was so, except to say that defence against German attack would always have priority over Burma, which only became a war front long after most of the pieces on the strategic chess board had already been committed. This study attempts to show how these soldiers played the cards which they were given and in the words of one officer who survived, how they 'got on with it'. This was achieved through a combination of personality, trained performance, regimental and personal backgrounds, the equipment they had and the circumstances with which they were faced, over which they had almost no control at all.
The availability of war records
We know the results of the battles of Waterloo, Kursk and El Alamein but what it meant to the hundreds of thousands of men who were present and the small combat units in which they spent their days of war is less known.
The availability of records to historians after a campaign is over takes three forms; but paper on which records are kept will not survive unless someone or some institution has an interest it preserving it. A private soldier who served in the British army for up to the five years of World War II would have left an enormous paper trail involving his pay, promotions, training courses and movements. Ralph Tanner estimated that between June 1940 and sometime in 1946 when he was demobilised in Burma, his name must have been on at least a thousand documents, and yet at the end of this period he found just six official pieces of paper that can establish that he had any military existence at all.
In more or less static warfare in which base areas are not overrun by the enemy, there is always a flow of paper from front units to the rear areas from both sets of combatants so there are both public and private records available, should those involved retain them. Enormous quantities are available from Flanders in World War I and the Middle East and India in World War II. Then there is the paper trail left behind by successful advancing armies, but this is much less in quantity, so that it has to be augmented by historians talking to those involved, as in the 1944 siege of Kohima (Colvin 1994, Edwards 2009) and for the subsequent advance into Burma (Cooper 1973, Fraser 1999), which are virtually written oral histories relying on memory and records still in existence.
Finally there are military retreats such as Burma in 1942 in which the only paper records are a limited number of top-level wireless messages sent back to India. Similarly, the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum hold very little data about the battle for Crete in May 1941 at which Ralph Tanner was present and indeed he has been in correspondence with an Australian historian wanting to find out details of the final evacuation from Khora Sphakion and was quoted in a study of that battle (Beevor 1991). There is even less data available about Burma in 1942 relating to the Second Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. There is very little evidence on paper of the experiences of these 500 men and only their well-intentioned memories which made up subsequent reports, diaries and indeed the official War Diary for the Battalion written by Lt. Col. Chadwick, who commanded for the last half of the campaign, though he was absent for some part of the earlier months through illness. In the early days, letters may have been written but none are available in any known records. Censorship would have ensured that they contained little information anyway. Ralph Tanner may have received some letters but his parents received nothing from him for at least three months, and ones addressed to him circulated round a number of possible Indian addresses.
The official history of this Second Battalion in the Burma campaign (Hingston 1950) was not written by a participant and there are no references in it as to the sources from which so much detail about individual behaviour and events was obtained. It mentions over one hundred men in particular events. Presumably it was created from the War Diary and other reports and personal contacts with survivors, but very little is now available in the Light Infantry depot at Pontefract, the original home of the regiment before it was abolished as a locally recruited unit by merging into a single Light Infantry Regiment. This thorough work did not use Ralph Tanner's diary, because its existence was not known to the regiment.
There is a printed casualty list for all battalions of the regiment which lists dates of presumed deaths in Burma with their dates of recruitment, but there appears to be only Ralph Tanner's hand-written diary from March to May 1942 available as a primary source. Included in this book are the relevant parts of the original maps of ground covered by the battalion with, in some cases, his marking in pencil of the location of the hourly halts, the photographs which Ralph Tanner took, and some sketch maps of the various actions at which he was present. The only other primary document retained by the Battalion are hand-written details in an official alphabetical Register of Deserters, with 'deserters' replaced by the word 'missing', of all non-commissioned members of the Battalion. In some cases against 'missing' is the word 'located' in another hand.
Then there is John Heald's hand-written roll listing some 600 names of officers and men with their army numbers giving dates for individuals missing, wounded, and killed and in some cases nicknames, short anecdotes and comments (Appendix D). This monumental hand-written work shows great personal devotion to the Battalion of which he was a member in India after this campaign. The roll was completed in 1985 relying upon the memories of men involved forty years after the events listed. He must have had some help from regimental records that existed then so as to be able to include so many army numbers. We do not know how much he got right as he lists Ralph as a captain and the transport officer for the battalion, which he was not. There is also his history of the campaign which did use his diary, so it seems likely that both these works were created after the regimental history had been written. The Fitzpatrick book of his personal memories (Fitzpatrick 2001) is an even later production and may not be classifiable as a primary source, paralleling Fraser's account of the Border Regiment's platoon (Fraser 1992).
The Second Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry took part in the Burma campaign of early 1942 from start to finish but neither the nominal roll for the Battalion in 1941, nor the survivor roll of those who arrived in India has survived. Thus more than five hundred men have passed into history in the service of their country with very little evidence that they were even there. What records do exist as evidence of the presence of these men as individuals rather than just as part of a corporate mass are the telegrams of the higher command to their superiors; including a telegram of congratulations from the Queen as Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment about their performance at Toksan – which they never received.
If we take the comparable situation of an infantry battalion in the Western Desert, Italy, and then in Western Europe, the amount of documents subsequently available to historians is huge. There would have been daily war diary entries kept up-to-date and sent to higher formations, casualty lists as well as Part One and Part Two orders, as well as letters home and personal data recorded in each soldier's AB64, which he kept in his personal possession. In London after D-Day some thirty censor officers each read about three hundred letters every day for a month and a proportion of these letters would have been kept by the recipients as personal treasures, particularly if these men became casualties.
The records held by the Light Infantry Office for the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry – which no longer exists – contain no data at all which originates in Burma. There is the post facto War Diary, which under the circumstances of 'regular' warfare would have been written up regularly, but that was not the case with this Battalion. This War Diary is a compilation from memory of the then battalion commander Major Chadwick, with the help of other survivors who had returned or who had remained with the Battalion at Shillong in September 1942, and data from the records of I Bur Brigade and I Bur Div, which reached India by signal. The documentation available from these higher formations is perforce scant on detail regarding the Battalion.
At Pontefract there is a file containing substantial correspondence about getting compensation for the regimental silver which was buried near to Pyingaing and which was stolen during the occupation and never recovered, but there is no nominal roll of members of the Battalion available either before they were mobilised or later. There is only a final casualty list of deaths in all battalions in all theatres of war between 1939–45, including, for example, accidental deaths in a blizzard in Iceland and those who died in accidents or in hospital in the United Kingdom. This list gives the names of those killed in action, died of wounds or missing presumed dead in action or as prisoners of war, with the date of their enlistment and the date of their presumed deaths. Of those who died in Burma in action, all 122 have no known grave; nor do those who died as prisoners of war, as, in time, the wooden crosses marking graves were used as firewood for the cooking fires of the surviving POWs. There is correspondence with the reformed Battalion at Shillong in Assam, endeavouring to find out what had happened to those who were listed as missing, but the surviving letters just list names, regimental numbers and dates when they were presumed missing and the dates when they were reported as missing on Army Form AFW3014, dated May and July 1942, signed by the Colonel Commanding and addressed to the Commandant No 6 Infantry Training Depot, Berwick-on-Tweed, with copy to Commandant KOYLI Depot Party, Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Strensall. The listing of a name cannot be taken as conclusive evidence of the death of a missing man since we know of one case in which a soldier so listed married to a Burmese woman was hidden by her throughout the Japanese occupation in a village near to Mandalay. There is a handwritten alphabetical register in an official foolscap notebook listing the names of those involved with 'missing' written against a number of names and the date on which they were last seen. Against 35 names it is noted that they were subsequently located in India. Who wrote this, where and when is not known, and the notations of 'located' against some names are in a different handwriting. What documentation, then, is available which could be considered as hard evidence? Very little and from only one source. Ralph Tanner took some 35 mm photographs dated after Yenangyaung of officers who can be named and of the column on the move or halted north of Pyingaing, and there is his tattered map, marking with pencil lines the hourly halts. It appears that this is the sum total of evidence of the Battalion's activities independent of a person's interpretation of events from memory.
When the hand-written diary written up within a year of the campaign's end is compared with the Battalion's official history written by Lt. Col. Hingston, it is obvious – assuming that Ralph was trying to write down the truth – that he never knew about or did not remember many events that happened more or less before his eyes. A ten-page report dated 1944 on the Battalion's activities from Yenangyaung onwards, written by Major Throckmorton and added to by Captain Anne, both of whom participated in the retreat, is in error in at least one instance: a patrol that Ralph Tanner recalled leading is recorded as being led by another officer with two men, of whom only one survived, wounded. Ralph Tanner led this patrol with two men, both of whom survived unwounded. The detailed regimental history with drawings and diagrams which was published in 1950 lists by name the activities of no less than 166 officers and men and the extraordinary acts of some and the deaths of others, compiled from the memories of those involved, but when these records were made is not known. But it certainly made a vivid story and nobody seems to have objected to what had been written, or wished to add information.
Then there are the Japanese regimental records. Ralph Tanner visited Tokyo in 1985 and was entertained to lunch by surviving officers of 214 and 215 Infantry Regiments (Photo 1), equivalent to the British and Indian brigades of the 33 Division. They gave him a history of the Division's involvements, which included the Yenangyaung action (Appendix C and C/1). This had been published in the 1970s and was nowhere near as extensive as the usual Japanese regimental histories, which are sometimes over 1,300 pages long. The Japanese have also produced a number of individual unit histories and compilations of the memories of soldiers who fought in Burma on the basis of the prefectures from which they were recruited.
In between the dates of the British and Japanese printing of regimental and divisional records there is the monumental work of J. Heald, as discussed earlier, who joined the Battalion in India after the Burma campaign and started then and subsequently in Britain to work on its history; an extraordinary act of personal devotion to the Regiment to which he belonged as a wartime conscript. He wrote his own history of the campaign from his personal contacts; but more importantly he produced a roll of every soldier's name that he could find who was in Burma, with their regimental number when located.
Finally, there is the history of the Japanese 1942 invasion of Burma written by British and Japanese historians. Kazuo Tamayama's account (Lunt 1986) who met Ralph Tanner when he was in Tokyo, includes a number of references to the Battalion and comments favourably on their fighting qualities (Grant and Tamayama 1999). General Iida commanding the 15th Army writes in his post war memoir: 'Around Bilin we received strong and firm resistance by troops from British mainland, King's Own Yorkshire, who fought fiercely' (Iida 1990).
As to fictionalised accounts, one novelist, (Baxter 1955) served in the Battalion as an infantry officer and the other (Clifford 1960) was an officer in the Burma Rifles; they both give vivid impressions of what it must have been like to have been soldiers in those dark days, and the former in particular gives a moving account of relationships amongst men under conditions of continual stress.
The workings of memory
Individuals are likely to remember isolated and unusual events, the first occasion of seeing a dead man, hearing a bomb fall or bullets going overhead, but as these occasions repeated themselves there is less reason to remember their singularity and the possibility of inaccuracy must increase. Then, some time later, from a minute or two to half a century or more, as the result of some stimulus, a question from an outsider, a smell or something written or heard such as a whirring sound like a mortar shell descending, and some of these images are reactivated. Of course if a soldier from a patrol reports to his senior that he has seen something, it is generally assumed to be true unless there are reasons for disbelief due to that man's reputation, his nervousness, or the improbability of the report. But it seems likely that reports of Japanese numbers may well have been consistently exaggerated, since no one is likely to have counted what he saw or underplayed a threat.
Excerpted from Burma 1942: Memories of a Retreat by R.E.S. Tanner, D.A. Tanner. Copyright © 2009 R.E.S. Tanner and D.A. Tanner. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Past is a Foreign Country,
Chapter 2 The Combatants,
Chapter 3 Into Action,
Chapter 4 A Reckoning,
Chapter 5 The Other Enemies,
Chapter 6 Conclusions,
Appendix A: The Diary of 2/Lieut. R. Tanner, 223473,
Appendix C: Japanese Map of the actions between 9–21 April 1942,
Appendix C/1: Japanese Map of the actions between 16–21 April 1942,
Appendix D: Corporal John Heald's Roll,
Appendix E: Reliability of memory and the experience of warfare,