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Britain's Longest Retreat - A trip up the Chindwin River

By General Mike Riddell Webster

The Japanese first bombed Rangoon on the 23rd of December 1941. Between then and late April/early May 1942, the British were to conduct a difficult, demoralising and dangerous retreat of some 900 miles as they fell back to the Imphal Plain, nestled in the hills of North East India, pursued every step of the way by the relentless Japanese onslaught. It was to be the longest retreat in British military history. And it was not just the Army. The whole British and Indian expatriate communities were on the move. Whilst many opted for routes west over the Arakan or north to Bhamo and beyond, many chose to aim for Imphal and travel up the Chindwin valley; it is estimated that a total of 500,000 made it to India, with 10-50,000 perishing on the way. The route to Imphal takes in some 250 miles of the Chindwin River, traveling upstream from its confluence with the Irrawaddy River to the town of Sittaung, from where it is possible to cross the Burma/India border at Tamu.

ll forms of transport were pressed into service for this chaotic move with a hostile force snapping at their heels: cars, lorries, elephants and boats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, for which this was to be their last mission before being scuttled. The story resonates as one of a desperate, morale-crushing journey, with glimpses of humour, self-sacrifice and extraordinary courage.

The military forces opposed to the Japanese consisted of the 40,000 strong British Burma Corps (or Burcorps), commanded by Lieutenant General William Slim, and three Chinese Armies, with a total strength similar to Burcorps. At first, these forces acted in concert, but the Chinese were to retreat on the northern route towards Bhamo as they made for China rather than India. As a result they played no part in the retreat up the Chindwin, once north of Irrawaddy/Chindwin confluence.

A trip up the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar) 1

To travel the Chindwin River, whose valley was one of the main arteries of the retreat, is not possible without reflecting on the horrors of that journey. As the retreat was taking part in the early months of the year, the weather was dry and hot. Water levels on the Chindwin would have been dropping and, by the time Burcorps were crossing the Irrawaddy in late April 1942, the river levels would have been very low. So low, indeed, that the Chindwin itself was ruled out as the main route for the withdrawal; the route would now have to be along jungle tracks as Burcorps found their way to Imphal.

As Burcorps attempted to cross the Irrawaddy at Sameikkon, west of Mandalay, it became clear that the promised ferries were not there. Simultaneously, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was beginning to scuttle some of its river fleet at Mandalay. John Morton, the manager of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, was in Mandalay; his diary for the 28th of April records:

"Mandalay was evacuated yesterday, the IF being the last to go. The Army is retreating up the Chindwin. Our men won't be many days at Monywa and I expect them to retire up the river and so through to Manipur. Macnaughtan has been at Sameikkon (below Mandalay) ferrying the Army across the Irrawaddy. I have a guarantee from General Slim that he and the crews of the steamers there will be taken safely to Monywa.
We are being chased out even quicker now than was expected and I have orders for more sinkings here at Kyaukmyaung. There are over two hundred of our fleet sunk at Mandalay. Imagine how I felt drilling holes in their bottoms with a bren gun."

Once the Irrawaddy Flotilla boats, commanded by Flotilla Assistant John Macnaughtan, now a Lieutenant in the Burma RNVR, had ferried elements of Burcorps across the Irrawaddy, they did indeed retire up the river and were to be instrumental later on in the retreat.

Others of Burcorps managed to cross the Irrawaddy by the Ava Bridge, nearer to Mandalay and, once the entire Corps were west of the Irrawaddy, the Ava Bridge was blown at midnight on the 30th of April signalling, in the words of General Slim, "that we had lost Burma".

A trip up the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar) 2

Travelling by car from Pagan to our embarkation point at Monywa provided a number of opportunities to reflect on that epic military retreat. As we flicked effortlessly across the Irrawaddy on a new bridge at Pakokku, just south of the Chindwin/Irrawaddy confluence, we pondered that altogether more complicated crossing by ferry of an Army Corps. Driving up an almost empty road into Monywa from the south reminded us of those soldiers of the Glosters (The Gloucestershire Regiment) and Royal Marines, who had been holding the town in 1942. During the night of 30th of April/1st of May, there was much confused fighting. It was thought that the Japanese had taken the town, and the General Officer Commanding 1st Burma Division, Major General Bruce Scott, found himself fighting for his life as his headquarters was overrun. Reinforced early on the 1st of May by six or seven hundred troops who had come up the Chindwin, the Japanese took Monywa later that day and, despite a counter-attack and some fierce fighting on the 2nd of May, the town remained in Japanese hands. The capture of this town confined the British to their land route and gave the Japanese access to the main waterway.

Today Monywa is peaceful, has a large bridge crossing the Chindwin and is a hub of river transport. How extraordinary is it, to be boarding the graceful Kalay Pandaw in bright sunshine and being greeted with fruit juices and lunch rather than mortars and bullets!

For the next two days we followed the footsteps of Flotilla Assistant Macnaughtan and his doughty men. In the most tremendous comfort, we literally watched Burmese life pass us by. In late January the river levels are already low, making our progress slow as our crew checked the depths with their painted bamboo depth finders. Side trips on mountain bikes took us to some wonderful Burmese villages, considerably less encumbered by the piles of plastic found in the more popular parts of Burma. Highlights included calling in at a small village called Mingin, where our host and Pandaw founder, Paul Strachan, knows the Abbot. The village was wonderful – not a shred of plastic anywhere as the Abbot exerted his influence and called for order. Rather, water fights between playful locals as they cleaned a pagoda in advance of a religious ceremony, and solar power plants and batteries were the order of the day.

The next early morning presenteda very real link back to that awful retreat of 1942. At about 0730, the little bay of Shwegyin came into view. Known as "The Bowl", Shwegyin is just that: a large area surrounded by hills about 200 feet high. It was in this bowl that the Army gathered as it came out of the jungle in search of somewhere to cross the Chindwin. The surrounding hills were picketed as the last line of defence from the pursuing Japanese and there was fierce fighting as the Japanese attempted to cut Burcorps off completely from further retreat.

A trip up the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar) 3

Here it was that Flotilla Assistant Macnaughtan had gathered his little fleet of six "S" class sternwheeler steamers to help in the evacuation of Burcorps across the river to the town of Kalewa, six miles upstream. Today, there is a shiny new bridge which crosses the river at Kalewa, but in 1942 the difficult jungle track reached the Chindwin at Shwegyin and its jetty. Doubtless the legacy of the teak traders, who would have used the "chaung" or stream that issues into the Chindwin at this point, the track and jetty was the only sensible place for loading troops. The six Irrawaddy Flotilla ships worked tirelessly, in increasingly dangerous circumstances to evacuate troops and refugees. Light vehicles were also loaded and transported, but the tanks had to be abandoned. Unlike our luxurious Kalay Pandaw, those Flotilla ships were steam driven and soldiers boarding had to bring a log with them to fuel the boilers, rather than carrying a ticket.

A boom had been established across the Chindwin to stop the Japanese moving up the river by boat, and this measure was successful until it was broken by shelling on the 7th of May. Despite breaching the boom, the Japanese failed to get sufficiently far up the river to cut off the British crossing.

Looking around Shwegyin today, little seems to have changed and it is all too easy to imagine the fighting, the chaos as troops were loaded onto boats, and the suppressed air of urgency; it must have been something of an inland Dunkirk. General Slim described it as "one huge bottleneck". Loading the Flotilla ships was slow, as they took on board their cargo of 5-600 tightly packed troops. Slim recalls hundreds of civilian vehicles in "The Bowl" and, although there is nothing left now, it is not difficult to picture dozens of abandoned vehicles getting in the way as their owners jostled for places on board a steamer. The Japanese finally forced their way into "The Bowl" on the 10th of May and the remaining troops had to march up the east bank of the river until they were opposite Kalewa, although the redoubtable Chief Engineer Hutcheon, who was by now captaining an Irrawaddy Flotilla ship, managed to evacuate about 2,400 troops from a creek about half way between Shwegyin and Kalewa. Hutcheon's fellow Chief Engineer, John Murie, was awarded a Military Cross in the field by General Alexander on the 16th of May for his part in maintaining the Irrawaddy Flotilla's contribution to the evacuation. The history of that evacuation is still sharp in the folklore of the locals at Shwegyin. We met one resident who had a Japanese bayonet and another whose mother had learnt to speak Japanese when she was six, during the Japanese occupation of the following two years.

Making our way along that final six miles upstream to Kalewa, it was also easy to see how troops would have been landed, as they prepared for the start of their long march up the infamous Kabaw Valley to Manipur and relative safety. The retreat had, for some time, been a race against three competing dangers; the Japanese, reducing rations and the rains. The Japanese had been held just enough to allow the evacuation and rations had been cut time and again. But now the rains arrived. On the 12th of May, they broke in full fury, rendering marching conditions indescribable and the going underfoot treacherous, but they stopped the Japanese. That day the Japanese occupied Kalewa, but came no further, allowing Burcorps to struggle their way back over the hills to Manipur. As Slim watched the last of them arrive in Imphal, he wrote:

A trip up the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar) 4

On the last day of that nine hundred mile retreat I stood on the bank beside the road and watched the rearguard march into India. All of them, British, Indian, and Gurkhas, were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows. Yet, as they trudged behind their surviving officers in groups painfully small, they still carried their arms and kept their ranks, they were still recognisable as fighting units. They might look like scarecrows, but they looked like soldiers too."

The Japanese were to remain where they had stopped for nearly two years, until they invaded India in March 1944. Starting with the huge struggles for the Imphal Plain and Kohima, Slim and his "forgotten" Fourteenth Army were to defeat the Japanese in a series of epic battles, ultimately forcing the Japanese back into Burma. The British finally returned to the Chindwin in early December 1944 and crossings followed at Sittaung, Mawlaik and Kalewa as the precursors to the re-conquest of the whole of Burma, all of which is another tale of extraordinary ingenuity, endurance and courage.

As we travelled the Chindwin in luxury, admiring its glorious beauty, it behove us all to spare a thought for those of Burcorps and, later, those of the Fourteenth Army who had fought so hard to ensure that Burma was liberated from Japanese occupation. I certainly raised my glass to them all as we sailed so comfortably past the sites of their struggles. Not for us was the Fourteenth Army forgotten.

General Mike Riddell Webster, formerly of the Black Watch, is currently Governor of Edinburgh Castle.


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Susan Stopforth posted in Apr 2018

Actually the bridge was blown up BEFORE the entire corps were across - those remaining were simply told to make their own way back to India. Little is ever said about their survival or not against all odds.


Sharon Edith Rentsch posted in Apr 2018

I have just read this account and realise how much we don’t know of the WW11 battles not far from home. The Japanese were so relentless and with so much determination to press further north as well as south where our troops were involved.

Really enjoying these quite comprehensive tales of south-east Asia.


Kevin Heaton posted in Apr 2018

Fantastic article - a great description of the events in Burma during the war.

My Father was a Burma Star man and I really want to visit this fascinating country and, in particular, to sail their rivers on one of your lovely boats!


Wendy Evans posted in Apr 2018

Alex Stafford said “... We believe there are better ways to provide power and income to the people of the region ...” What are they and where can we get more information about them?


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