Battles Long Ago


T. S. WATThas written several burlesques of war memoirs by various commanders.

The battles I have in mind were fought in Burma in the dark days of 1942 and 1943, but I am concerned at present with one which I am fighting now — and have been fighting for ten weary years — against a foe more pitiless than the ferocious Japanese, lurking in the steaming jungle. I refer to the publishers and to my unavailing attempts to get them to see eye to eye with me on the subject of my war memoirs. How is it that my work is shunned while general after general bursts into print with apparent ease? Only the other day I happened to be glancing through Field Marshal Slim’s Defeat Into Victory, and I am quite sure that, great as his anxieties and misfortunes in the early days were, my own could have matched them. In fact, it seemed to me that our experiences were not really very dissimilar, though, of course, I was not a general, or anything like it. Take, for example, my assignment to the Peng-hoh detachment:

“In the early hours of the morning of June 2, 1942, I picked up my telephone and heard Bobo Bunsen’s calm voice over the wire. ‘The canaries are molting,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry,’ I replied mechanically, striving to clear my mind of the mists of sleep. There was a pause, and suddenly my bemused brain began to function. ‘Heard and understood, sir,’ I said. ‘The scrambled eggs are in the piano!’ Hanging up, I felt a glow of exhilaration. I had just been detailed to take over the Peng-hoh detachment, and had replied that I could start within the hour.

“My pilot for the flight to Penghoh was a fatherly-looking Sikh, a black shade over one eye and a neverfading smile on his lips. He smiled imperturbably through all the hazards of our flight, in execrable weather conditions, and he was still smiling when, fifty miles off course, he made a faultless crash landing plumb in the center of the cocoa-colored torrent of the Ooloo River, swollen by a week of incessant rain. It was not without some difficulty that we struggled to the bank, and there, leaving my chuckling companion wringing out his turban, I started on a short reconnaissance upstream. Within a matter of minutes I had stumbled upon one of the Ooloo River detachments, encamped in a jungle clearing.

“The commander of the outpost was Lieutenant Cannon, a cool and resolute officer who earlier in the war had brilliantly attempted a raftmounted hook at the Japanese across the Salween, only to be swept down the river into the Gulf of Martaban. Cannon first gave me grave news of the Peng-hoh detachment received from Bobo Bunsen but half an hour previously. It appeared that Captain Crump, the energetic and resourceful officer in charge, had been in his tent, putting the finishing touches to his Operation Stopwatch, a masterly plan involving a semi-encircling movement combined with a vigorous jab at the enemy flank, when, without a moment’s warning, word was brought that he was surrounded by the Japanese. Quietly and without fuss Crump had managed to extricate himself, but at a cost of all his equipment. (It later became clear that the news of encirclement was false, but my admiration for Crump was not one whit diminished. He had shown commendable presence of mind in an apparently ticklish situation, and I could not help hoping that the fortunes of war would sooner or later place us shoulder to shoulder — a hope quickly to be fulfilled in the holocaust of the flight from Chintu.)

“It was clear to me that I could now regard my Peng-hoh assignment as countermanded, and I told Cannon to get in touch with Bunsen as quickly as possible, announce my arrival, and ask for instructions. He returned a few minutes later, looking a shade pale beneath his tan. ‘He wished you luck,’ he said slowly, ‘and then — ‘ He broke off momentarily. ‘I hope he’s all right. He’s been under very great pressure.’

“ ‘Out with it, man,’ I snapped. ‘What else?’

“ ‘I understood him to say that his trousers were full of tarantulas.’

“I held out my hand to Cannon, and he took it, looking puzzled. ‘It’s all right, Cannon,’ I said. ‘I’m to take command of the Ooloo River outposts. . . .’ ”

It seems hard to credit that material as colorful and lively as this should have been kept shuttling to and fro through the mails for the best part of ten years while the Field Marshal’s has been read for more than five. Yet this is no flash in the pan. Here are a few extracts from my Ooloo campaign:

“It is my habit before taking any important action to sit down and think out clearly exactly what it is that I am trying to do. I tore a leaf from my notebook and wrote, ‘My command of the Ooloo River detachments: Object — ?’ There were three of these detachments, North, Central, and South, spaced at fourmile intervals along the river. Cannon’s was the South detachment. With what object had they been established? Were we part of a defensive line? Were we to harry the enemy’s communications? What was the overall plan? These questions I was unable to answer. Finally, I wrote on my paper, after ‘Object’: ‘To strike a heavy blow at the Japanese,’ and silently passed the paper across to Cannon. He studied it for a full minute, and then, flicking his lighter, reduced the paper to ashes, which he rubbed to powder between his palms. ‘Good man,’ I said quietly. . . .

“Jack Carfax, the lieutenant in charge of Central detachment, was an energetic and cheerful character whose delightfully hearty laugh could be heard at a distance of a full half mile through the jungle — and no doubt had been heard, probably with some apprehension, by many of the enemy who had infiltrated between the outposts on the night of June 10. Standing with Carfax by the turbulent Ooloo Falls just opposite the encampment, I emphasized yet again the importance of timing to the success of Operation Split-Ring. The whole plan hinged upon the ability of South detachment, in its two motor launches, and North, on the improvised rafts, to meet at Central at 1300 hours. At the very moment in which we first heard the chugchug of the launches, North detachment swung around the bend upstream, the fitful sunshine glinting on the rifle barrels, the machine guns, and the tins of bully-beef and piles of bananas stacked on the stores raft. Hardly, however, had our cheering died away before disaster struck. As the heavily laden rafts came into line, to edge toward the bank, they were caught by the full force of the current, and in less time than it takes to write it the whole flotilla had been swept over the falls, squarely on top of South detachment, now anchored below.

“There are some men who tend to be paralyzed by a sudden stroke of misfortune, others in whom it seems to bring out the best. Carfax, thank heaven, was among the latter, and as Cannon’s head disappeared in the murky flood beneath a shower of bananas and bully-beef tins, his roars of merriment were good to hear. . . .

“Operation Split-Ring, as its name implies, involved a) a deep penetration, and b) encirclement of the enemy forces. Led by Cannon under cover of darkness, the initial thrust went well, but, unfortunately, just at the critical moment, this plucky and brilliant young officer had the misfortune to stumble over an immense white-handed gibbon, and a noisy disturbance was created. Kishawara, the Japanese commander, reacted violently, swinging his line back toward the river, and a difficult position arose when our vanguard attempted to strike at the enemy rear while our own rear was in turn being menaced by the enemy vanguard. In this strange situation an event occurred so horrible that even now, nearly twenty years later, the hair stands erect upon my head when the appalling picture flashes through my mind.”

This seems a suitable point at which to stop. Perhaps readers whose curiosity has been aroused will make representations in the appropriate quarters.