Burma Invaded

An excerpt from the book Burma Invaded 1942.

4 February 1942
Left Mandalay

Tarzan (Colonel Learmond) fitted me out with some khaki, a sling and rounds for my revolver, and other items; and I left for Rangoon by the 8 p.m. train. It is four years and a month since I saw a railway train last in January 1938 on our return from Japan.

The platform was crowded with gay and cheerful people most of them wearing revolvers. They looked as if the war had stirred them pleasantly out of their dull routine. The Mandalay battalion has 6 platoons on board for some destination and purpose unknown; probably to guard railways in Lower Burma. There was much cheering as we drew out of the station and it brought tears to my eyes to be caught up again like this in the old atmosphere which is the one to which I belonged in my youth. I feel young; as young as young Lindsay in my carriage who is in command of the troops.

5 February 1942
Reached Rangoon

Rangoon is in dreadful confusion, which I suppose is only to be expected of a city under daily bombardment, and whose population of 400,000 has been reduced to 100,000. After the first raid on Rangoon on the 23rd December, it seems that the bodies were heaped high in the streets. The work of removal occupied three days, and became really unpleasant. It was on this occasion that the Anglo-Burmese and Anglo-Indian (particularly the women) did some conspicuously good work. The corpses were piled in heaps 30 feet high and burned.

The stream of Oriya and Indian refugees is described as a mob surging along the roads, or surging back if planes appeared in front of them. Since then, of course, we have assumed a very marked ascendancy in the air over Rangoon, and at least 130 planes (mostly bombers), and perhaps 500 Japanese airmen have been brought down. Evacuees are still pouring out of the city.

The chief difficulty is that all offices have shifted and no one knows where anybody is, or for that matter, who anybody is, under their disguise of letters and initials. Distances are enormous, even if you happened to know where you should go, and there is a great shortage of transport.

I was lucky in securing a taxi after leaving my kit in the waiting room, but it was the only one I got all day. It took me to the Secretary to the Army, Major Columbine, whom I rightly presumed to have wired me to come. He directed me to Colonel Gwin, Chief of Intelligence, who was out for lunch, and who on return betook himself immediately to a Press Conference.

Waiting about in government offices is the most depressing occupation I know. However, I passed the time with a Japanese dictionary lying on the Colonel’s desk. On his return he doubted my ability to speak Japanese, and as he admitted having forgotten his own, and declined to speak in it when I addressed him, he had to send me to “Defense” where there was a lad, Kenderdine, who was born and bred in Japan and speaks the language like a native. He vetted me, and reported O.K. after which the interview with Colonel Gwin became more genial; but this had taken nearly all day, and I was just about dead with thirst and hunger by then.

28 February 1942

In Rangoon a grievous tragedy has been precipitated by a premature evacuation. This seems to have been due partly to a lamentable error on the part of the unhappy Fielding-Hall whom we found so charming when he visited us in Lone Spur only a few months ago. Now, in despair at the consequences of his mistake, he has committed suicide, poor fellow. It seems that the evacuation, of which he had charge, was arranged in categories; A, for the departure of non-essential people; B, for classes not greatly needed; C, for people necessary for carrying on certain services; D, for absolutely essential people; and so on. Each category was advertised by posting up a label.

Label E meant a final evacuation of the last elements who remained to carry on important key duties or business. The issue of Label E had indeed been expected almost hourly for a week after the loss of the two brigades at the Sittang; but was postponed till the issue of the battle became more definite. The immediate situation had not in fact changed much, and the sudden issue of Label E caused a surprise and a stampede. It meant, amongst other thing, that all cars not entitled to carry the Label would be confiscated. Consequently everybody had to leave without a moment’s delay, and without transport. Much valuable property and many essential stores had to be abandoned. The military police was withdrawn; and steamers unloading in the Rangoon River cast off, and sailed away. Looting, which had been going on for some days now assumed unheard of proportions, and villagers from the country round come prowling into the empty city to see what they could get.

It must be clearly emphasized that the destruction and looting in Rangoon occurred while the enemy was still 50 miles distant. The Japanese have had nothing to do with it.

(NOTE: They did not enter Rangoon till the 9th March).

Whoever started the looting – and it is a fact that all sorts of people took part in it – Rangoon has been ruined not by the foe but by its own inhabitants. It was a mad, vulgar orgy; and amidst the many cities destroyed in these unhappy days, the case of Rangoon is unique.

Many of the beautiful houses in Rangoon which were left standing without caretakers, or even gardeners, have been burned and looted. The house of Colonel Stewart, I.G. Police, whose daughter Miss Stewart is staying with us in this bungalow, was wrecked, and everything in it smashed to pieces. (Miss Stewart does not know about it yet, and we have not the heart to tell her.) Such is the picture of Rangoon as it is told in the conversations of a hundred evacuees; nor is this all the worst.

It seems to be a fact, incredible though it sounds, that the jails have been opened; and the frightfulness of that is only apparent to those who realize the desperate character of Burmese criminals. It seems that the order was given by a Minister without any authority at all. Not only that, the insane have been released! I refused to believe it at first, but apparently it is true, and nothing has served to terrify the already frightened population more. They say it is the insane who have fired many parts of Rangoon. Criminals still in their prison clothes are mixing with the people.

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