South African Military History Society


Review: DEFEAT IN BURMA - January to May 1942.
When Capt Dickie Bullen arrived at the devastated Rangoon docks in February 1942, the Burma Campaign had been in progress for just a few months. Having survived two years in the North African desert, plus Greece and Crete "thrown in", he now found himself in a totally different war in the jungle, against a numerically much stronger, better equipped and trained enemy, to whom murder, killing and destruction were merely a byproduct of combat.
In comparison, the troops available to ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) had suffered from a lack of operational direction by a succession of 5 superior HQs over 16 months. In the Far East the British troops had been at the tailend of the supply queue for a long time due to the set backs in Europe, and were now forced to suffer the consequences. There were also the almost unsurmountable transport problems on road, river or rail, with the latter entailing either broad-gauge track, or narrow gauge, requiring re-loading all the way. And lastly, the number of available soldiers, the antiquated or limited equipment, the shortage of suitable arms and ammunition, and the lack of moral fibre in many units, especially among Burmese government troops, was tragically insufficient to fight the Japanese. There was only one RAF fighter squadron with 16 antiquated planes, and a rather better equipped American Volunteer Group. But that was all.
Promoted to T/Major and appointed 2i/c of a special unit accompanying a constantly swelling group of civilians fleeing northwards to Prome, Dickie found himself at the start of a horror retreat to the north. But he was not alone.

With one of the two army pincers attacking Burma, the Japanese reached Mulmein in January, a city almost impossible to defend. The town fell within two days of desperate fighting, and the disorganised and dispirited survivors pressed northwards. They left Martaban behind and were ordered to take a stand at Bilin, to the east of the river, in the face of an approaching enemy division. The battle, which should never have been fought, only lasted for a week, then the defenders retreated and raced to the Sittoung river and the only bridge spanning it. Every unit hoped for relative safety on the other side. But the Japanese also wanted the bridge to reach the far bank and the open country.
And so began the battle for Sittoung bridge on 21 February with fearful losses on both sides. Eventually the bridge was blown up and part of the British troops were left on the wrong side of the river, but not many made it to the other bank because they could not swim or died by shooting. Whoever remained was borne away in the slow agony of the Burma train.
Dickie and his group left Rangoon on 23 February and marched on to Prome, but there was no respite for them. When the Japanese attacked Taungoo, Prome became vulnerable, and the column had to leave for Allanmyo on a "Dry Belt" march. They suffered excruciating pains from lack of water, but went on to the oil town of Yenanyaung to rest. Denying the Japanese this longed-for prize, the British blew up all installations and when Pin Chaung was attacked in April, Dickie's column was ordered to head to the town of Wanting on the Burmese border. They managed to reach the railway station of Pyawbe and then on to Hebo and Loilem, all the way sniped at by the Japanese, shot at and bombed by fighter aircraft. The increasing shortage of ammunition was only relieved by a lucky find at Hebo. Then on the way to Loilem the ice cold rains of the Monsoon struck fiercely.
Walking on in the mud became almost impossible, exhausting everyone, and the ill, starved and exhausted fell by the wayside to die, as nothing could be done for them.
The nightmare was interrupted at Loilem where the group found enough to eat and drink to regain some strength, and on they went to Hsipaw, to be told on arrival that they had to march to Katha on the east bank of the Irrawaddy.
The monsoon was still with them when they arrived, but with the help of some experts they built rafts from flattened bamboo walls and canvas roofing to ferry the people across. This was achieved, luckily, without any interference by the Japanese. In Katha they took shelter, and eventually marched the last 15 miles to Naba which was occupied by British troops. Altogether they had been on the march for 8 exhausting weeks and 445 miles.
Here Dickie left the party, was flown to Sigchar, where he was made presentable and faced a number of gruelling interrogations about conditions in Burma. Granted four weeks leave, he proceeded to Kalimpong and a good rest in the Himalayas.
The large audience was captivated by our speaker's absorbing presentation and was visibly moved by the vividness of his remembrances, even after almost 60 years.


12 April 2001
Illustrated Talk by Rodney Costantine
10 May 2001
SINKING THE UIT-22, 965 km south of Cape Town, 11 March 1944, by 262 Squadron RAF.
Illustrated Talk by Wg Comd E.S.A. Nash D.F.C., A.F.C.
14 June 2001
RAILWAY GUNS. With special emphasis on German guns, e.g. Paris gun in WW II and the giant DORA 80 cm gun, used to pulverise the defences of Sevastopol.

Subscriptions: Members who have not yet paid their 2001 subs are reminded to do so soonest.

Welcome to new Members: Dr.John Austin, Mr.R.M. Ritchie, Lt.RNVR Mrs.T.Shearing (Sedgefield)

Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797 5167

by Gerry de Vries and Jonathan Hall (private publishers)

Cdr Gerry de Vries (rtd) is the former Commander of SAS Wingfield, Cape Town, and Jonathan Hall is a Computer Systems Specialist and ex-submariner.
From the arrival of the first European settlers at the Cape, cannons have played a significant role in their existence, be it for defence against local inhabitants, against danger from the ocean, or for sending signals for communication in times of peace or when threatened from outside.
The authors have recently produced a superb guide- and history book on the muzzle loading cannon of South Africa, not only for the military historian or artillery expert, but also for the lover of Cape- and South African History.
It took them five years of hard, painstaking work, travelling thousands of kilometers across South Africa to record well over 700 cannons along the coastline and inland, and the old history as well as the astonishing details of the finds make fascinating reading indeed. One wonders how and where they unearthed the numerous particulars, the old photographs, the background to cannon manufacturing and ordnance, but with the generous support of their sponsors, Durr Estates, the book was eventually completed.

There is a complete list of the gun batteries, forts and emplacements of the Western Cape, descriptions of cannon design and markings. And the story of the warning signals from Lions Head, the alarm signal system and call-up gun signal system. One chapter is devoted to the Dutch guns and the battle of Muizenberg, followed by a discourse on time guns, gun salutes and the noon gun. Experts will find chapters on gun equipment and the various projectiles, moving and placing of guns, loading and firing procedures complete with drawings and much more. There is even advice on how to spike a gun. Pre-Boer war and Boer war guns are also mentioned, and then follows a list of cannons and their detailed descriptions and history in alphabetical order.
Finally there is the "Standard for the Measurement of and Reporting on historic Cannon" for anyone finding a cannon somewhere which he believes has not yet been recorded. The book has been dedicated to the late Major Darell Hall, who did much to advance our knowledge of artillery.
The reviewer, not a cannon man himself, found the book a most fascinating read and an important manual for any historian. It is hoped that Gerry's and Jon's Cannon Research Project, will continue to search for and uncover more cannons in the future.

The book, P/B. A4, 148 pages, with c/cover, can be purchased from Gerry de Vries, 13 Kingfisher Road, Table View 7441, fax/phone (021) 557 1299, or e-mail for R 160.- incl.Vat, plus P&P.

Reviewer: Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797 5167

South African Military History Society /