Past meeting - Johannesburg - 11 November 1982
The principal speaker for this evening was Major Alistair Martin. Maj. Martin joined the army in 1941 as a gunner and transferred to infantry in 1943. He was seconded to the Royal West African Frontier Force in June of 1944. When they were sent to India in August of 1944 for training, he was serving with 2nd Battalion, the Nigeria Regiment. this Battalion was part of 1st (West African) Brigade in Burma from November 1944 until 1946. In 1947, Maj. Martin emigrated to South Africa and joined the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. He has been a member of the Committee of the JSE since 1960 and was President from 1968 to 1970. The subject of his talk had its roots in his personal experiences in Burma during "The Campaign in the Arakan".
The Arakan is the coastal strip of Burma on the Bay of Bengal stretching from Chittagong to the south. This area is very difficult for campaigning as there were no roads crossing this area and 2 to 3 hundred inches of rainfall during the five months of the monsoon. Such communications as did exist prior to the war consisted of tracks and a few railway lines (of various gauges) whose railheads were far from the theatre of action. An attempt was made to improve the situation by building brick factories every 10 miles along a proposed route and making the roadway from bricks. It was this very lack of communication facilities that made the West African troops so valuable and led to their deployment in the Arakan campaign.
It is often forgotten, as are so many aspects of the 14th Army's war, that the Burmese front not only controlled the supply lines to China (of great concern to the USA) but also constituted the largest land front against the Japanese. The area saw warfare wash across it many times from the retreat in 1942 until the victorious advance in 1945. There were several offensives in the Arakan, the first of which occurred in December of 42. Following the fall of Rangoon and the withdrawal to Imphal there was a lull during the May to September monsoon season following which the re-equipped Allies launched the attack with much pomp and circumstance. It bogged down in Feb. 43 at the heavily fortified and well dug in Japanese position at Donbaik where 2.5 months were spent attacking on a very narrow front. Despite the increase of force from 3 to 9 battalions and the use of armour this assault failed and the 43 monsoon saw the Allied forces back in Chittagong. In Jan. 44 XV Corps attacked again in the Arakan and there was a Japanese counter attack in Feb. This counter attack spread to the Central and Northern Burmese fronts where the Japanese failed to take Kohima and Imphal despite massive losses and the pressing of attacks throughout the monsoon. After the Japanese had expended their strength along the Chidwin River line the third and final Arakan offensive began in Jan. 45. This advance included Maj. Martin and 1st (West African) Brigade forming part of 82nd West African Division in XV Corps.
It is freely admitted that the African troops were not of the highest quality but they had special capabilities that made them invaluable in this theatre. The country was extremely thick and permitted movement only along the river beds or on tracks along the crests of very steep ridges. Under these conditions conventional transport would have been impractical if not impossible. Even mule trains would have needed a 5 foot path width which was not always available. The West African troops, however, used no transport at all but carried all equipment and supplies as head-loads with the units being augmented with 1500 bearers. Re-supply was executed as airdrops from 2-300 feet altitude after which the air canisters were carried by headpack until they could be broken down to individual loads. The wounded were also carried by head loaded stretchers until they could be evacuated by small aircraft from strips hacked out of the jungle. It is to be noted that these factors resulted in arm aputees being classified as "walking wounded". Since the evacuating aircraft could only take one stretcher at a time as few as 300 stretcher cases would virtually immobilise the group. On one occasion assault boats were head carried by 6 men each for 7 miles to make a river crossing.
In addition to battle casualties, the medical officers had to deal with the question of disease. Maj. Martin stated that the ratio of sick to wounded was 182 to 1. The biggest problem in this area was malaria. Mepacrin tablets were taken daily but they were not a preventive for the disease but rather a suppressant for its effects. The troops were continually reminded of the need for field hygiene but dysentery and other such diseases were still present. As well as the usual jungle diseases, the troops were found to be suffering from venereal disease, yaws, bilharzia and in 6 cases leprosy. These were mostly endemic to West Africa and had been brought out in the men by the stress of the conditions of combat and movement.
Engineering was primarily carpentry as the most usual requirement was for rough rafts on which to cross rivers. Artillery support consisted of 26 3-inch mortars with 15 rounds per gun. The mortars and their ammunition were carried by headpack as was everything else. With the limit of what could be carried fire discipline became critical because it would be possible to fire off the nearly the entire complement of ammunition in a few hours. This did happen from time to time when the "jitterbug" struck and men began blazing away at nothing. Officers quickly learned the Hausa for 'stop firing' but during the jitterbugs it was far safer to stay in one's own entrencment and wait for it to die down.
In summary, Maj. Martin explained that the West Africans may not have been first class soldiers but they were cheerful and hard working. Each man was a volunteer and was glad to be a soldier. Their morale was much better than that of the British troops in the same area. This may have been because they did not miss the NAFI, leave or rest camps which the average Tommy considered essential.
The talk was ended by playing a recording of the men of the unit performing the 'call and response' singing so typical of West Africa. Mr Peter Fox then thanked Maj. Martin on behalf of the Society for his interesting, well illustrated and well presented talk.
At the start of the meeting there was a brief address by Mrs Shearing who comprises the complete Beaufort West branch of the Society. She is currently researching the 2nd invasion of the Cape during the Anglo-Boer War and would like to hear from anybody who can contribute any information about the Tvl and OFS men who took part in this invasion. If you can help please ring 02072 and ask for the Shearings.
Future Meetings - Durban and Cape Town
Neither of these branches will hold a meeting in December
It was with sorrow that we heard of the death of Dr Stan M. Kaplan on 15th November. Dr Kaplan was a Foundation member of the Military History Society and served as its first Hon. Teasurer from Nov 1966 to Mar. 1968.
The subscriptions for 1983 will soon be falling due and in addition to giving a
gentle nudge as to payment I must inform you of the new rates. Your Committee has been forced
to approve an increase in subscriptions because of rising costs but have limited the amount
of the rise as much as possible. The subscription rates are now:
Rod Murchison (726-3111(B))
(Scribe - in festive mood)
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