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The EK1

The Struggles through the Northern Passes

Awards of the George, Albert and British Empire Medals (Military Division) and Appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire

Escape routes from Northern Burma in 1942

In 1942 war came with a sudden and savage fury to the British colony of Burma as Japanese troops invaded the country which was defended by British, Indian, Burmese and Nationalist Chinese troops and by USA aviators contracted by the Nationalist Chinese government.  Because the lowland Buddhist Burmans preferred rural agriculture to industry or military service there were many Indian workers, soldiers and policemen in Burma.  Also there were Indian businessmen and money lenders who were often detested by the Burmans, as was the British colonial presence.  Very soon gangs of Burman thugs known as dacoits were attacking and killing Indians and looting Indian properties and possessions.  Burman nationalists quickly sided with the Japanese although the hill tribesmen mainly preferred British rule and protection.

As British troops retreated before Japanese attacks wealthy Indians sailed from Rangoon to Calcutta or Madras whilst poorer Indians trekked to the Arakan coast and made for Chittagong in British Indian territory.  But many Indian government, dock and railway workers were persuaded to stay in Burma by British officials who promised safe evacuation if Upper Burma could not be held against the Japanese invaders.  But Japanese air attacks devastated wooden-built Burmese towns and villages, causing panic and the flight northwards of thousands of Indian, Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Burmese and British civilians.  Meanwhile many Indian and Burmese police and sepoys (soldiers) deserted from their units; the Burmese went home but the Indian deserters fled northwards, carrying their arms and often acting as brigands.

Most of the British, Indian and Burma Army troops, and some of the Chinese troops, who marched out of Burma ahead of the Japanese invasion in 1942 took the route north along the Irrawaddy River, then up the Chindwin River to Kalewa and finally up the Kabaw Valley to Tamu from where the Indian Princely State of Manipur could be reached by a mule track.  Other Chinese troops marched eastwards into Yunnan.  British and Indian refugees mainly marched with their own troops on the Kabaw Valley route, suffering enormous privations; thousands died from Burman dacoit attacks, starvation and exhaustion.

But there were groups of Allied soldiers and refugees who had marched or been moved by road or train to Myitkyina in northern Burma; they were evacuated by air to India until the 6th May when Japanese air attacks closed down Myitkyina airfield.  The people who remained at Myitkyina when air evacuations ceased were mostly ill-clad and poorly prepared Indian clerical and general workers and their families who then had options of walking over wild terrain to Assam; the routes available used the Hukawng Valley leading to the Pangsau Pass, and the Chaukan and Diphu Passes.  None of the routes were pleasant and only the fittest survived as monsoon weather descended onto the Patkoi mountain range lying along the Burma-Indian border.

The Government of India basically distanced itself from the refugee problem although British officials in Manipur and Assam did what they could with the slender resources allocated to them. These officials constantly requested information from Burma as to Japanese movements and the numbers of refugees and the routes being used, but the Government of Burma had collapsed and with that collapse any semblance of British authority vanished into the monsoon mud.  In his book Burma. The Longest War Louis Allen wrote: The exodus of the Indian refugees reflected little credit on the foresight or compassion of the governments of India and Burma.  Had it not been for the gallant and selfless work of volunteers like the Assam tea planters, many thousands more refugees would have died”.  In the final estimate over 500,000 refugees reached India by various routes, and it is believed that up to 50,000 others died trying to walk there.

Above: Ledo Railway station today

The Hukaung Valley – Pangsau Pass route to Ledo

Most refugees stranded at Myitkyina, plus some military units and groups of leaderless, demoralised and mutinous soldiers, marched to the Hukaung Valley and then through the jungle wilderness of the valley to the Pangsau Pass at 3,700 feet (1,136 metres) elevation, from where a mud track dropped steeply down to Ledo in Assam; this route was 268 miles (431 kilometres) long.  There was no proper road, only a path that led over steep ridges and across rivers fiercely swollen by monsoon rain.  The very few inhabitants near the route were tough Naga tribespeople.

When the Japanese invaders occupied Rangoon in March 1942 the land route used by the USA to move supplies to Nationalist China was cut.  A new land route had been planned from Ledo in Assam over the Pangsau Pass into northern Burma, and although a road did not exist when the refugees arrived some British officials were on the ground mobilising local labour to prepare a route, starting with a jeep track.  The bulk of this work was undertaken by the Indian Tea Association (ITA) at the request of the Government of India.  The ITA mobilised hundreds of European tea estate managers and thousands of their Indian doctors, mechanics, vehicles and drivers, elephants and mahouts, camp managers, maintenance staff, cooks and labourers on two-month voluntary contracts (1).  This injection of disciplined and well managed labour into the situation saved the lives of thousands of refugees and also built motorable roads that the British and USA forces did not have the engineering capacity to construct at that time.

Left: Hukawng Valley terrain

In the wet swamps of the Hukawng Valley isolated British officials and ITA men attempted to cope with streams of malnourished and ill refugees, distributing what rations that the Royal Air Force dropped on the route.  One of the biggest problems was the banditry practised by the armed Punjabi Indian deserters from Burma military and police units; this lawlessness often happened under the eyes of British and Indian officers who abdicated responsibility for the recalcitrant sepoys.  Rations were grabbed by the deserters and sold to refugees, and whatever else that could be seized from the miserable civilians, many of whom were dying, was extorted.  Some of the refugees themselves stole extra rations and sold them to other refugees.  Refugees whose children were in dire medical conditions were tricked into paying for sometimes worthless injections by at least one refugee medical compounder (orderly) who pretended to be a doctor.

But there were good soldiers on the route as well as bad; a disciplined group of Burmese Chin soldiers marched smartly along with their chain of command and pride intact, and the groups of Gurkhas that marched up the route were praised for their retention of unit and personal discipline and their cleanliness and willingness to help others.  Whilst some mutinous Sikhs were seizing and selling air-dropped rations, a group of Gurkhas lost five men drowned as they prepared a river crossing for the refugees.  Some British troops also behaved in lawless ways, seizing what they wanted by force, but an example of the opposite side of human nature was provided by No. 7364750 Private B. Katz, Royal Army Medical

Corps.  Private Katz stopped at a temporary camp on the trail, assisting the official who was managing it by performing any required duties, and this diligence was later rewarded by a Mention in Despatches (2).

As well as air-dropping supplies officials in Assam sent forward 50-pound (23 kilogram) loads of food carried by local tribal porters.  However these groups of porters could not penetrate far down the Hukawng Valley as each porter himself consumed two pounds (one kilogram) of the food in his load every day, on both legs of his journey; sick refugees would be carried on the return leg.  The barefoot porters became very susceptible to sores and diseases caused by decomposing refugee corpses that lay on or oozed into the footpaths being used, and to the malaria, dysentery and cholera that was always present with the refugees.  Nobody wanted to risk disease by touching the suppurating corpses in order to bury or burn them, but the Gurkhas, Assam Rifles and some others were prepared to do that job in the temporary campsites.  Most of the refugees defecated on the track or on the ground where they slept, adding to the medical problems.  Over 200 porters are recorded as having died in service, and the tribal statistics of these fatalities were:  63 Garos, 59 Khasis, 52 Pnars, 13 Abors, 13 Tea Garden Labourers, and 2 Government Porters. 

The Abors were the most resilient and disciplined of the porters and one of the Sardars (Leaders) of the Abor Porter Corps, Tanong Tamuk, was Mentioned in Despatches (3).  An award of the Albert Medal (4) was made to another Abor Porter with the citation (5):

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the Albert Medal to Tanbuk Irang, in recognition of his gallantry in the following circumstances: — On June 3rd, 1942, Tanbuk Irang, an Abor volunteer carrier working on the Ledo refugee route, found an Anglo-Indian woman and child in great distress at Shamlung on the Burma side of the Patkoi range.  He carried the child over the range up a track most of which was knee deep in mud.  The woman was too exhausted to follow, so he put the child down by the side of the path and went back and carried the mother up. He laid, her down and went on with the child, and so continued carrying them alternately till he reached Pahari, six miles from where he had found them.  There he did not find the assistance he had hoped for and continued in the same manner another four miles to the camp at Nampung.  Tanbuk Irang, on his trips backwards and forwards, covered 30 miles of appalling track, for 20 miles of which he was carrying either the mother or the child.  All the parties in this area have been working at considerable personal risk; the majority of them have succumbed to sickness and in considerable numbers have died.  By this feat of  gallantry and endurance, and at great risk of himself dropping from exhaustion and being lost, Tanbuk Irang undoubtedly saved two lives.
Left: Abor tribesmen

When the porters finally refused further service on the refugee route because of the health risks, an Indian Army unit, 55 Animal Transport Company (Mule), Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC), continued carrying supplies forward from Ledo.  The Company Commander, Captain William Francis England, was later appointed to be a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) with the citation:  Captain England repeatedly volunteered to assist in getting refugees from Burma into LEDO during the months of June, July and August 1942.  He made several journeys up the road and on each occasion he brought in sick refugees on mules.  He personally suffered considerable hardships in this work which was purely voluntary.  These journeys were performed under appalling conditions of rain and mud.  He frequently ran short of food and water in his attempts to get in touch with refugees and rescue them.  He showed great courage and determination in his efforts and at a modest estimate I consider that at least 100 refugees owe their lives to his voluntary work. (6)  What is not stated in this citation is the equal dedication to duty displayed by the Indian officers and men of 55 Animal Transport Company who worked in appalling monsoon conditions whilst participating in Captain England’s rescue work.

Another soldier later appointed MBE was Captain Alasdair Ramsey Tainch, 16th Punjab Regiment attached to RIASC. (7) Tainch was not afraid to take direct physical action in confronting and disarming deserters, and he spent a lot of time on the refugee track encouraging malnourished despondent refugees to stay alive and also treating their medical afflictions such as septic leech and sand-fly bites.  In one incident Tainch removed 350 half-inch maggots of four different species from a hole in a small boy’s head; the boy survived.  Tainsh observed that elephants used by a Burma trading company to evacuate its employees had left holes in the track that became death-traps for weak refugees who fell into them, as the unfortunates floundering in the mud did not possess the strength to pull themselves out.  One exhausted lady was found to have died in the act of childbirth with the delivery uncompleted.  An example of the inability or unwillingness of the Government of India to provide support for the ITA effort was evidenced when an ITA request for 30 Government Medical Assistants and 30 Compounders to be sent forward resulted in the appearance of just one Medical Assistant (8).

Spalte 2
Above: Assam Rifles sepoys on the final Chaukan rescue.  All were awarded the BEM.

The withdrawal of porter labour led to the ITA personnel who had been managing forward camps in Burma (9) being themselves withdrawn and replaced by personnel of the Assam Rifles led by Captain G.E.A. Keene, 16th Punjab Regiment, who was the Assistant Commandant of 2nd Assam Rifles.  These soldiers, mainly Nepalese men, made an impact by disarming mutinous troops and enforcing military discipline, and their presence, supported by air drops, provided security that allowed exhausted refugees to remain in temporary camps on the refugee track until the monsoon rains eased off.  As the Japanese had sealed off the southern end of the Hukawng Valley all remaining refugees on the track were marched into Assam by November 1942.  There were no accurate statistics but it is believed that a total of over 30,000 refugees attempted the journey through the Hukawng Valley and that 23,000 of them survived and got through to Assam.  Captain Keene was later appointed MBE and his citation is shown later in this article.

The Chinese 5th Army in the Hukawng Valley

The Chinese 5th Army marched out of Burma to India on the Pangsau Pass route but its 7,500 men caused congestion and were inclined to seize all air-dropped supplies for themselves, ignoring the refugees.  The Political Officer at Margherita in the Assam Valley, a police officer named Eric Lambert, volunteered to divert the Chinese troops away to the south-west of the Pangsau Pass, using footpaths through the Naga Hills.  This remote area was occupied by hard Naga tribesmen, feared for their head-hunting ability.  Lambert achieved a successful diversion, working hard and sometimes violently to prevent Chinese soldiers from looting food and livestock from Naga villages and from demolishing Naga houses for firewood. 

Lambert brought the Chinese safely out of the hills and for this he was later awarded the Chinese Army Medal (First Class) and was commissioned as a General in the Chinese Army.  No. 24996 Havildar Bombahadur Pun and a section from the 2nd Assam Rifles escorted Lambert in the Naga Hills, and the Havildar later received the British Empire Medal (BEM) (10) with this citation: Havildar Bombahadur Pun was in command of a party who escorted Mr. Lambert, Political Officer, Rangpang Area, when the latter went out into Burma to guide in the Chinese 5th Army.  The work of Havildar Bombahadur Pun was very highly commended by Major General Y.K. Yang, Chief of Staff of that Army, and Mr. Lambert, the Political Officer, has written of him as follows: “I write to record a very fine piece of work put in by Havildar Bombahadur Pun of your Battalion and the seven men who were working under him throughout the whole of my recent expedition to rescue the Chinese 5th Army.  This Havildar held his men (and the porters) together under very adverse circumstances.  His leadership was of the finest quality and I cannot speak to highly of his work and that of his men.  The going was very bad, sickness rife, camp material very rarely available, and the food problem always serious.  As you know we met many Chinese on the way; it says quite a lot for the discipline and tact on either side that there were no incidents.  His name was brought to the notice of the Chief of Staff of the Chinese 5th Army.  I should like again to stress the very fine work done by these seven men from whom I never once heard a grumble and whose work throughout was of the highest quality.”

I strongly recommend that Havildar Bombahadur Pun be awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Meritorious Service for his very fine work during this difficult and delicate undertaking. (11)

Above: Tea Garden near Ledo

Some Chinese troops marched through the Pangsau Pass to Ledo, and it is appropriate to quote the words of Brigadier Dysart Whitworth MC (12) in a lecture he gave in 1943 about the evacuations along the Hukawng Valley route: A small detachment of a Chinese medical unit, marching under the famous surgeon General Robert Lin, found an old English lady of 70 lying exhausted a little way out of Shinbwiyang.  They made a bamboo chair for her and carried her the whole way to Ledo, where she arrived very little the worse.  In the Chinese we have, in my opinion, allies to be proud of.”

Right: A hut built by Naga villagers for refugees  on the Pangsau Pass route

Captain B.K. Bose’s parachute descent into the Hukawng Valley
The Government of India made an initiative to alleviate the medical needs of refugees in the Hukawng Valley when 50 Indian Parachute Brigade was tasked to despatch a medical officer by parachute onto the refugee track.  This lone insertion was made by Captain B.K. Bose of the Indian Medical Service who volunteered to jump into the Hukawng Valley with medical supplies to succour the refugees.  This very brave man had recently joined the Parachute Brigade and was not jump qualified, but as all the other medical officers were dispersed he volunteered immediately.  After a special short qualifying course Captain Bose, with the approval and support of his wife, successfully parachuted into the Hukawng Valley and tended to sick and malnourished refugees.  He died whilst marching back to India along the refugee track, but the details of his death remain a mystery.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates Captain Benoy Krishna Bose (MZ/26047), Indian Medical Service attached to 152nd Battalion Indian Parachute Regiment, on its Delhi/Karachi 1939-1945 War Memorial.  ‘Date of death 10th November 1942.  Age 26.  Husband of B.K. Bose of Hooghly, Bengal, India." (13)

The Chaukan Pass Route

Some soldiers and civilian refugees from Fort Hertz and a very few from Myitkyina made for the Chaukan Pass, elevation around 8,000 feet (2,440 metres) although it was not a recognised route into India.  The pass had been a traditional elephant migration route, and Burmese invaders had used it when they descended on and occupied Assam in the early 19th Century, but in 1942 it was rarely visited because of its wild forbidding country, lack of maintained foot or bridle paths, and the torrential monsoon rains that quickly caused rivers to rise and become impassable (14).  The distance from Myitkyina in Burma over the Chaukan Pass to Margherita near Ledo, the railhead in Assam, was around 450 miles (725 kilometres).  Some well-disciplined and well-led groups of fit men, carrying sufficient supplies to stay alive, were able to traverse the Chaukan Pass on foot for survey duties in dry weather, but once the monsoon rain started the whole situation changed and elephants had to be ridden in order to cross the turbulent and swollen rivers. 

Above: Sketch map showing the Chaukan Pass route

One large party of refugees led by the sixty years old Sir John Rowland, the Chief Railway Commissioner in Burma, ignored the practicalities of travel in monsoon weather and became stranded in a very unhospitable location.  This party included the District Commissioner of Fort Hertz, his pregnant wife and her six-month old baby.  Kachin tribesmen porters hired in the Fort Hertz area initially agreed to carry supplies for Sir John’s party over the Pass and down to the confluence of the main Noa Dihing River and its largest tributary the Dapha River; but on reaching the top of the pass the porters decided to return to Fort Hertz and Sir John’s group struggled slowly along until it had to stop through exhaustion and lack of food.

Left: Refugee shelters on the sodden Pangsau Pass route

Brigadier Whitworth had attempted to stop anyone from using the Chaukan Pass as he wished to concentrate resources on the Pansang Pass route, but as Government authority on the Burma side of the border had almost ceased to exist the Brigadier’s entreaties were often ignored.  The rescue officials in Assam wanted British personnel stranded at Fort Hertz to wait there until the monsoon ended, when flying could resume into the local airstrip, but the refugees were doubtless concerned about further advances by the Japanese who had by then seized Myitkyina.  In his lecture referred to above the Brigadier later commented on Sir John’s saga: “At the top of the pass the porters deserted and they (the refugees) tried to struggle on down the narrow valley of the Noa Dihing.  A quarter of the way down the valley they were forced to halt and for six weeks could move neither backwards nor forward.  They were found by the RAF but their camp was in a most unsuitable dropping-place.  In one month I reckoned that sufficient food to keep them for two and a half years was dropped over them, yet they picked up only barely sufficient for their meals – a terrible waste of precious flying hours." (15)  

Through general ignorance of conditions on the Chaukan Pass route most refugees expected to meet rescue and support parties once the Pass had been crossed, as was happening on the Pangsau Pass route.  But nobody on the Assam side was preparing to meet refugees on the Chaukan route because it was not appreciated that this route would be used.  The maps being used by refugees showed villages along the Noa Dihing River where it was assumed that food could be bought and porters hired, but in fact these villages were no longer occupied as there had been disturbances between the resident Mishmi tribespeople and Nagas living to the west.  The Mishmis were a small hill tribe whose specialities lay in skilfully hunting deer for their musk, using bows and poisoned arrows (16), and in netting and trapping fish.  Fortunately for refugees using the Chaukan route small parties of Mishmi men sometimes went fishing and hunting in the otherwise deserted upper Noa Dihing Valley.

What in fact saved the approximately 250 soldiers and civilian refugees who got through the Chaukan Pass and survived (40 or 50 of their colleagues had set out with them but died in the Noa Dihing Valley or soon after arrival in Assam) was that soon after starting to walk the Rowlands Party, about 150 persons strong, realised that an advance party had to get through quickly to warn officials in Assam that the Chaukan route was in use.  Two men, Guy Millar and John Leyden, went ahead with Nung porters and a Miri elephant tracker named Goal.  Despite a bad fall that injured Leyden the advance party struggled through severely challenging terrain and constant torrential rain for nearly two weeks to reach the Dapha River, which flowed into the Noa Dihing from the north.  On the way a sambhur deer was shot by Goal, and the Nungs ate it raw. 

Above: Sketch of the Myitkyina - Fort Hertz - Ledo topography

The Dapha River appeared to be uncrossable and the party did not have the strength to march up into the hills to find a ford; however a very brave Nung demonstrated that the Dapha could be crossed on foot, despite the loose boulders on the bottom, if the current was not fought but was used to move a man downstream as he crossed.  The party formed a human chain and got everyone across.  Shortly afterwards human footprints were found that led to a hut where three Mishmi fishermen were smoking their catch of fish; the smoked fish were quickly consumed by the starving advance party.  With the Mishmis to guide them the advance party moved on and arrived at an ITA camp at a location named Simon (known locally as Sangmo), 18 days after leaving the Rowlands group.

Above: Mackrell's elephants crossing the Dapha River

Gyles Mackrell and his elephants

In another nearby ITA camp located at Namgoi Mukh was Gyles Mackrell, a Great War RAF pilot who had earned a Distinguished Flying Cross and who now worked in the Assam tea gardens.  He was an elephant expert, owning a team of his own domesticated elephants that he used for shikar, or hunting purposes in the remote foothills of Assam.  When Millar and Leyden (17) met him Mackrell was sending elephant loads of refugees’ supplies forward to locations where Abor porters started carrying the supplies up the Pangsau Pass route.  Mackrell quickly realised that a crisis situation was developing up on the Chaukan route and he mobilised 17 elephants with their mahouts to get across to the north bank of the Noa Dihing; this was not easily achieved as the river was rapidly rising. 

Mackrell pushed his men and a Mishmi guide hard for two days to get to the by now very swollen Dapha River.  Tracks made by wild elephants could be used but the mahouts had to cut away branches above the tracks that snagged on the loads of the domesticated elephants.  On an island 60 yards (55 metres) from the bank were 68 men from the Burma Rifles Lashio Battalion, the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Public Works Department.  These men had moved on through the Chaukan and past the Rowland group and had not eaten for seven days, meanwhile the river was rising around them.  Attempts that day to get elephants across to them failed as the current and the raging waters carried down whole tree trunks and other debris that unnerved the beasts.

Left: Mackrell's lead elephant Rungdot with Mishmis riding and behind

But at 0200 hours the next morning the river level began to fall and at first light at 0530 hours a mahout was moving his elephant towards the island from where he brought back the first three stranded men (18).  The remainder of the men were recovered during the day, and just in time, as two hours after the operation ended the river rose dramatically and swept over the island.  

After carefully feeding (19) the rescued men and administering first aid to most of them to treat bruises and leech bite sores, 66 of the 68 men were sent down to the ITA camp, one of them dying on the way and others dying shortly afterwards.  Ten elephants moved with this party, both to carry sick soldiers and to return with loads of rations; the Mishmi guide, a village head man, went back as well to recruit more of his tribesmen who might be willing to move up towards the Chaukan to search for other refugees.  Of the two soldiers who stayed with Mackrell, one of them, Sepoy Bringet Rai of the Burma Frontier Force, was still carrying his light machine gun that he had doggedly refused to discard. 

Fifteen Mishmis came up from the ITA camp and were transported by elephant across the Dapha from where they moved up the Noa Dihing; Mackrell recompensed them with silver rupees and a little opium, which they were partial to.  Sadly the head man organising them was to die soon of dysentery.  Mackrell also put food dumps up in trees (so that wild elephants could not disturb them) for any future parties of soldiers and refugees.  Then 27 Sikhs appeared across the Dapha, and were ferried over by elephants; these men were starving and 15 of their comrades had died further up the valley.  The ten elephants despatched for supplies had not returned and Mackrell felt the need for another official back at his ITA camp both to maintain discipline and to organise fresh supplies of food and medical stores for the Chaukan route, and also to ensure that the soldiers that he was sending back were being well cared for.  At that moment 38 Gurkhas and Sikhs appeared across the Dapha and were ferried over, followed the next day by a small group of Garhwalis and Nepalis.  News was given that the Rowland party was attempting to move slowly down the Noa Dihing.  Fortunately for posterity Gyles Mackrell was an enthusiastic amateur cine photographer and he photographed several scenes of his mahouts rescuing soldiers and carrying them across rivers.

Death by and rescue from drowning, and the award of a George Medal

More small groups of officers and men were leaving the Rowland party and pushing down the Noa Dihing on their own, and one of these groups is of interest as some of the men in it had been involved in special operations; Rowland referred to them as the “Commandos”.  The group, led by Captain J.R. Gardiner, Corps of Royal Engineers, got into difficulties in the Noa Dihing and Corporal F. Sawyer, a radio operator, was drowned (20). 

Above: The Commando group

Another of the group, Captain John Fraser (21) of the Burma Frontier Force, became trapped underwater below a log, and was rescued by Gardiner.  For this act John Ritchie Gardiner was awarded the George Medal (22) and his citation graphically describes the circumstances: Captain Gardiner, as a member of a timber firm in Rangoon, was one of the final demolition party to leave Rangoon by sea. His services at that time were conspicuous. He was later commissioned and posted to the Burma Levies and remained in the Kachin Hills north of Myitkyina until the decision was made to attempt to reach India by the Chaukhan Pass after the monsoon had broken; a journey which was extremely hazardous and caused the greatest privations to the persons undertaking it.

 On the 12th June, 1942, during this march Captain Gardiner rescued an officer from certain death by drowning at great risk to his own life. While the party were crossing a mountain torrent in spate by means of two fallen trees, the officer and a corporal slipped off the tree. The corporal was washed away and drowned, while the officer managed to clutch a branch of the tree where he hung on. The current was extremely fast. The remainder of the party which had already got across were too exhausted to render help, but Captain Gardiner, who was behind the officer, managed, although he was up to his waist in water with a very precarious foothold on the tree, to get a grasp of the officer. After several minutes struggle he released the pack from the officer's back and eventually dragged him out on to the bank.

At this time, members of the party were subsisting on one and a half cigarette tins of mouldy rice for ten mens’ daily rations. They were thus in an extremely exhausted condition, and the physical effort required to drag the officer out of the stream could not be undertaken without serious risk of failure, with the inevitable result that both, men would have been swept away and drowned. Captain Gardiner disregarded his own personal safety in his single-handed effort to rescue a brother officer.

Gardiner and the rest of his group carried on down the river to meet up with the Mishmis sent upriver by Mackrell, and the Mishmis led them back to the Dapha Camp. Ritchie Gardiner later managed Force 136 special operations in Burma from a base in Calcutta and was rewarded with the appointment of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) (23).

The second interesting officer in this group (24) was a Major Lindsay who had a connection to Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India.  Despite an injured leg Lindsay moved straight on to Delhi from the Dapha Camp, carrying sketch maps of both the location of the Rowland party and the Dapha Camp and promising that he would get things moving; soon supplies were air-dropped on the Dapha Camp for the first time and Mackrell’s biggest logistical problem was solved.

Left: Marker at Lekhapani Station, Upper Assam

The final rescue from the Chaukan Pass route

The wet conditions at the Dapha Camp led to much sickness and to both the desertion and evacuation for medical reasons of many porters; Gyles Mackrell himself ran a high fever for a time.  Despite this a programme of forward patrols often led by a 2nd Assam Rifles Havildar (Sergeant) named Imansing Gurung, searched to make contact with more refugees, stocked food dumps, and cleared footpaths in preparation for future rescues of more refugees.  As on the Pangsau Pass route military officers came forward to manage the situation, but the refugee administrators had confidence in Mackrell’s ability and maintained him in command of the Chaukan route rescue efforts, to the chagrin of the younger officers who wished to handle the situation themselves.  After a consultation visit by Lieutenant Colonel R.M. Pizey (25) in mid-June, where attempts were made to make Mackrell agree to stop further rescue attempts until after the monsoon, Mackrell decided to move back for a time to have discussions with authorities in Shillong, the chief city of Assam, and in Calcutta.  By now Mackrell realised that he needed to use boats on the Noa Dihing River if he was to get the less mobile refugees in the Rowland party out.  Traditionally boats had not come up the river beyond the Miao Gorge near the location of the ITA camp, so their use would be controversial and perhaps dangerous amongst the rapids and whirlpools in the upper river.

During his meetings in Shillong and Calcutta Mackrell achieved his aims – the rescue efforts would not be abandoned and three boats with their boatmen would be sent to the Noa Dihing from Bardapur in Cachar.  Back on the Chaukan route there were a couple of dramatic developments.  On the 18th and 19th July 74 men arrived at the Rowland camp at Tilung Hka on the upper Noa Dihing River, having marched over the Chaukan from the Fort Hertz area.  Fifty of the men were sepoys of the Burma Rifles and Burma Frontier Force and the remainder were Burma Corporation workmen; over half of the men were sick or needed rest but many could march forward and the 60-year old Sir John decided to go down-river himself with these new fit men and a few of his colleagues.   Sir John’s second-in-command, Edward Lovell Manley, was left in charge of the 25 sick and immobile bodies at Tilung Hka. 

On 28th July after a five-day trek Sir John’s party met with a forward patrol led by Havildar Imansing Gurung and the Havildar carefully led the refugees down to the Dapha Camp, now run by Captain Street of the Rajput Regiment; during this journey Sir Rowland estimated that he had to remove hundreds of leeches from his body every day as the wet jungle ground was carpeted with the creatures.  After resting at Dapha for five days to recover from their exertions Sir John’s party moved on to Margherita.  The second dramatic and tragic incident was that Captain Street, who was running a very high fever and in a delirious state, overdosed on anti-biotics, went to bathe in the icy-cold Dapha River water, and came out and killed himself with his own revolver (26).    

Mackrell returned to the Dapha Camp on 22nd August and proceeded with a plan to remove the remainder of the refugees from the old Rowland Camp at Tilung Hka.  Twenty-five men from the 2nd Assam Rifles were now on the Dapha under Havildar Dharamsing Gurung, as well as a group of porters.  All the men at the Dapha River expected to be withdrawn because of the privations that they had suffered, and it was no secret that the administrators in Assam wanted rescue efforts halted until after the monsoon period.  But Mackrell appealed to the men to make a last effort to rescue the refugees, especially the baby and pregnant mother.  After a night’s deliberation Dharamsing reported to Mackrell that the men would go forward.  Mackrell moved over the Dapha River and pushed up the Noa Dihing with elephants, sending an advance party ahead.  On 4th September contact was made with a group of refugees and sepoys struggling down the river bank, this group included the District Commissioner of Fort Hertz and his pregnant wife and baby.  A Gurkha had lagged behind due to blindness caused by bee stings but he eventually arrived.  This group was sent down-river, but Edward Manley, two Europeans and four servants were still at Tilung Hka, as one of the Europeans, Captain A.O. Whitehouse of the Royal Engineers, was suffering from peripheral neuritis and could not move his legs.  Manley had four-days’ rations which he reckoned could keep his group alive for eight days.

Above: Havildar Dharamsingh with rifle and his Support Party

Mail arrived up-river from the refugee administrators ordering Mackrell to move all his men back down-river and abandon rescue attempts as the ITA personnel were being removed from the field; but in view of the fact that the administrators did not know the exact situation on the Chaukan route Mackrell decided to ignore this order and continue up-river.  On 7th September a ‘striking party’ of volunteers went up-river with food to keep Manley’s men alive.  These volunteers were Naik Gyanbahadur Rai, in command as Dharamsing was suffering from fever, Compounder Havildar Sonam Lama, Lance Naik Manichand Rai and six Government Porters – Gungabahadur, Tami, Santabir, Chintamani, Dilbahadur and Karnabahadur.  These nine men carried forward fresh onions, cigarettes, potatoes, sugar, butter, apple rings, milk, corned beef, soap, Lysol disinfectant, gentian violet for treating fungal infection and an inflatable mattress for Captain Whitehouse.

Above: The Striking Party with some members of the Manley group of refugees

Behind the ‘striking party’ Dharamsing and other men in a ‘support party’ cut a path and established food dumps.  Meanwhile the three boats had arrived, the boatmen having to haul them over rocks at the side of the river whenever they met rapids.  Mackrell tried to get the boats up-stream loaded with rations but the river and its rapids defeated him.  Luckily good news was not far away as on 20th September Dharamsing’s ‘support party’ met up with Gyanbahadur’s ‘striking party’ coming down-river with Manley and his remaining refugees.  Captain Whitehouse had been carried all the way apart from when he was floated around cliff faces to men waiting to catch him below.  The refugees were weak and Mackrell with his party of elephants and 63 men – mahouts, sepoys, porters, boatmen, rescued Europeans and their servants – took nine days to move carefully back to the Dapha Camp.

Right: The Mishmi guide who led Mackrell to the island rescue. He later died from dysentry.

Awards made to rescuers on the Chaukan Pass route

Edward Manley was determined that those sepoys and porters who had come to the rescue of his party should be properly rewarded.  He also approached the chain of command, requesting that Gyles Mackrell should be forgiven for disregarding the order he had received to abort the rescue operations.  Higher authority used Nelson’s blind eye when considering Mackrell’s disobedience and arranged for him to receive a George Medal with the citation:

Mr. Mackrell, while in charge of the elephant transport, heard that a number of refugees were attempting to reach Assam over the Chaukan pass.  In appalling weather he led his elephants by forced marches over a route hitherto considered impracticable.  At great personal risk and after several vain attempts he took them across the flooded river, the bed of which consisted of shifting boulders.  He thus rescued 68 sepoys and 33 other persons who were facing starvation.  Without medical assistance he fed and doctored them until they were fit to proceed.  He fell ill with severe fever, but remained behind and was responsible for saving the lives of over 200 persons.  Mr. Mackrell showed the highest initiative and personal courage, and risked hardships which might easily have proved fatal.

In his book Forgotten Frontier, written to publicise the efforts that the Indian Tea Association made during the 1942 evacuation from Burma, Geoffrey Tyson wrote about Gyles Mackrell:  “ . . . it was his judicious mixture of speed and caution, his conception of concentrated striking power and leadership, his attention to detail and his highly developed sixth sense of what will “go” in the jungle and what will not, which brought the Chaukin rescue operations to their final successful conclusion.  At some stage or another, either forward or at the base, almost everybody else made a miscalculation.  Had it been otherwise they would have been less than human.  But on the big issues, in spite of the fact that he spent long periods in the isolation of the Dapha area, let it be written that Mackrell’s judgement was uniformly right.”

Mackrell himself wrote at the end of his diary entries: “I close this diary with the statement that I have already made to everyone, that too much credit has been given to me, too little to Millar and Leyden, not nearly enough to the (Assam) Rifles, Porters, Mahouts and that without all the latter splendid fellows, and unless Millar and Leyden had got through in the first instance, little or nothing could have been done in time to save the bulk of this party.”  To this list RAF flying crews must be added, as their skilful air-dropping of supplies in narrow and dangerous valleys saved many lives.

Thanks to Edward Manley’s effective lobbying, supported by Rowland and Mackrell, awards of the British Empire Medal (Military Division) were made to No. 24461 Havildar Dharamsing Gurung, No. 25962 Naik Gyanbahadur Rai, No. 25531 Havildar Imansing Gurung, No. 26848 Lance Naik Manichand Rai, and to No. 26038 Compounder Havildar Sonam Lama.  The individual citations are copied at Annex B to this article.  Manley was also specific about the porters Gungabahadur, Tami, Santabir, Chintamani, Dilbahadur and Karnabahadur receiving awards.  As their names cannot be found in the London Gazette we must hope that they received worthwhile monetary awards.

Above: Men rescued from the island including Bringet Rai with his gun

Once Manley’s party was at Margherita the Chaukan Pass rescues were over.  However it appears that a military reconnaissance of the Pass was made the following year as the citation for the MBE appointment to Captain Keene, who had been prominent on the Pangsau Pass route, states:

Major Geoffrey Abbot Exshaw Keene, 16 Punjab Regiment, Assistant Commandant 2 Assam Rifles (Now Commandant 3 Assam Rifles).

This officer was in command of the party which carried out the Chaukan Route Recce in April & May 1943; on him rested the whole responsibility for this very difficult operation.  He carried out this task very efficiently, his leadership, cheerfulness and physical endurance being an example and inspiration to all ranks. (27)

Gyles Mackrell’s cine films

Gyles Mackrell was a keen amateur movie photographer and luckily several of his films made in North-Eastern India are available for downloading from the internet (27); Film 1 includes dramatic footage of brave elephants and their courageous Mahouts actually rescuing refugees in the Chaukan Pass.  Film 2 shows men of the 2nd Assam Rifles involved in receiving supply drops and moving items forward by elephant in order to stock dumps on refugee routes. The films also contain interesting footage of the Abors, Mishmis and tea plantation workers who were the human backbone of the rescue efforts. Thanks to these films we can witness the very difficult nature of the terrain and the climatic conditions that prevailed during the rescue operations, and we can see Indian support workers in their dress of the day working with their boats and elephants. 

The Diphu Pass

The Diphu Pass lies at an altitude of 15,000 feet (4,570 metres) and is almost due north of Putao (formerly Fort Hertz) at the point where China, India and Myanmar (formerly Burma) meet.  One man is known to have used it to escape from Burma into Assam.  He was Francis “Frank” Kingdon-Ward, a renowned explorer, botanist and plant collector.  Frank Kingdon-Ward knew the area well and in his opinion he was not taking any exceptional risks.  He left Fort Hertz in mid-May 1942, walked over the pass to Rima on the Tibetan border and arrived at Sadiya in Assam in Mid-July, having covered 400 miles (640 kilometres) on foot (28).

Above: Digboi CWGC Cemetery near Ledo


Citations for appointments to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire made to civilian officials and India Tea Association personnel (30).

  Two Appointments to OBE:

Christopher Jerome Harrison, Toklai Experimental Station, Jorhat, Assam.

 Mr. Harrison was responsible for the camps on the Pangsau Pass route. He worked in the most advanced camps, giving first aid to the refugees and cooking for them himself. Working for long periods in appalling conditions he was always ready to go forward to bring in the sick and infirm. In July he led a last rescue party over the pass and brought in over a hundred persons who otherwise could have hardly survived. Throughout, his courage, resource and cheerfulness were outstanding.

Frank Woolley-Smith, Tea -Planter, Tingiri, Hoogrijan, Assam.

 Mr. Woolley-Smith took charge of the evacuee route from Shinbwiyang via the Pangsau Pass when the evacuation by this route started. In spite of a very frail constitution his qualities of leadership were magnificent. He administered his charge from Nampong Camp 36 miles from railhead and was constantly ahead of this point dealing with the difficulties that arose in forward camps, and encouraging those stationed in those camps. His work was invaluable and was performed with complete disregard of his own personal safety and comfort.

  Appointment of MBE:

Cornelius William North, Assistant Superintendent, Burma Frontier Service.

Mr. North was sent to Shinbwiyang in the Hukawng Valley in February, 1942, to assist in the arrangements for making a road through that Valley to Assam. In early May the vanguard of the Myitkyina road evacuation, both military and civilian, started to arrive at Shinbwiyang. These numbered over 20,000 and, in addition, two contingents of the Chinese Army numbering 10,000 passed through Shinbwiyang. Mr. North very gallantly refused to leave his post and organised, as far as he was able with the limited resources available, the passage of these refugees from the Chindwin ferries onwards. With such supplies as could be dropped from the air Mr. North, in the most appalling conditions and at the risk of his own health and safety, accommodated, fed and looked after 1,600 sick people who had been left behind. Without his assistance there is no doubt that most of the refugees stranded at Shinbwiyang would have perished. He showed exceptional initiative, energy and devotion to duty.



All these men served in the 2nd Battalion Assam Rifles, and the citations were initiated by their Commandant

  1.     No 24461 Havildar Dharamsing Gurung

This Havildar has been out almost continuously since the Ledo Road Project was first commenced in March 1942, firstly as a Platoon Havildar of a Platoon doing guard duties on that project at Miao, and later when the refugee traffic from Burma commenced, on refugee work.

The Platoon of which he was Platoon Havildar was ordered to move from Miao to Nampong Camp on the Jeep Road under Mr. G.E.D. Walker, India Police, who was in command of the Abor Labour Corps and, later, worked rescuing refugees at the furthest refugee camps on that route.  Mr. Walker’s report on this Platoon reads as follows:-

“They were magnificent.  There were no casualties, and little sickness amongst them.  They worked harder than any platoon the Officer Commanding has seen and, during the past eight years, he has seen several.  Their discipline and bearing were excellent, as was their jungle craft.  On the Refugee route they brought in sick Refugees, issued rations, cooked, in fact did everything including burying corpses.  The Officer Commanding Abor Labour Corps feels that such excellent work should not go unrecognised.”

This platoon was withdrawn to H.Q. in June 1942 but very shortly afterwards it was necessary to send Havildar Dharamsing Gurung out again in command of a party of men to help in rescuing the last party of official, and other refugees who were endeavouring to come out of Burma over the Chaukhan Pass route.  This was at the height of the monsoon period and throughout, in spite of suffering from fever continuously, Havildar Dharamsing displayed the highest qualities of self sacrifice, courage, and determination.  Mr. Manley who was in charge of the last members of the Chaukhan refugees writes of him as follows:-

“I write this to express, on behalf of myself and our whole party, our appreciation of the assistance given us by Havildar Dharamsing Gurung who in spite of suffering from fever, came forward with a support party and placed rations in lower camps which we badly needed.  This party of seven gave us the greatest help, and we understand that it was largely due to the loyalty and willingness of Havildar Dharamsing that this small, and last, relief party was organised.  He had already covered the track as far as Camp 6 and had had to return through illness, and it says a great deal for his courage that he was willing again to make the attempt.  Mr. Mackrell assures us that it was with the greatest reluctance that he had to place the forward party in charge of someone else, this being entirely due to Dharamsing’s state of health.”

Mr. Mackrell, India Tea Association, who was in charge of the whole rescue party, writes of him as follows:-

“I wish especially to thank Havildar Dharamsing Gurung for the very great assistance he has given me in the rescue of the remaining members of the Chaukhan Party.  Had it not been for his loyalty and willingness to accompany me on another attempt, to rescue these people, I do not think I should have been able to carry it out, and in all probability those at TILUNG HKA would have died.  He has worked splendidly for their relief, in spite of being frequently ill himself, the sole reason for my having to ask him to leave the forward party in the hands of Naik Gyanbahadur whom he recommended, and who did magnificently.  Had he not been suffering from fever I should have put him in charge of the forward party to TILUNG HKA, but even as it was he did invaluable work, although ill, with his support party in rationing the camps and improving the tract.  I trust his invaluable assistance on the Chaukhan rescue scheme will be suitably recognised.”

Since his return this Havildar had been in hospital for a month suffering from the effects of his sustained and courageous effort.


  2.    No. 25962 Naik Gyanbahadur Rai

This young and recently promoted Non-Commissioned Officer has been out with his platoon ever since the Ledo Road Project was first commenced.  When the refugee traffic from Burma commenced the platoon was ordered to march from Miao, on the Ledo Road, to Nampong Camp on the “Jeep Road”, a most difficult move as a large part of it was through trackless jungle.  The platoon then moved to the posts furthest out on the “Jeep” Road and assisted in the work of rescuing refugees until withdrawn to HQ in June 1942.  Of their work during this period Officer Commanding Abor Labour Corps, Mr. G.E.D. Walker, India Police, writes:-

“On the Refugee route they brought in sick Refugees, issued rations, cooked, in fact did everything including burying corpses.  The Officer Commanding Abor Labour Corps feels that such excellent work should not go unrecognised.”

Naik, (then Lance Naik) Gyanbahadur was with his platoon during this period, and his work and energy, were especially brought to notice by his Platoon Commander.  Very shortly after the return of this platoon to HQ it became necessary to send out a party of men under the command of Havildar Dharamsing Gurung to assist Mr. Mackrell of the India Tea Association in rescuing the remaining members of the refugee party of officials, and others, coming from Burma over the Chaukhan Pass route.

Naik Gyanbahadur was second senior Non-Commissioned Officer with this party.  During the whole time he displayed the highest qualities of courage, energy, and self sacrifice.  On the 7th September Mr. Mackrell found it necessary to send forward, urgently, an advanced party to make contact with the last refugee party, which was in charge of Mr. Manley.  Owing to the fact that the senior Non-commissioned Officer, Havildar Dharamsing was ill, Naik Gyanbahadur was put in charge of the party.  Mr. Mackrell writes in his report of Monday 7th September:-

“Sent off Naik Gyanbahadur with the Compunder Havildar, a Lance Naik and six PLC with all possible rations, for the TILUNG party, in response to Manley’s SOS.”

This was a heavy responsibility for this young Non-Commissioned Officer which he shouldered with energy, courage and it was very largely due to his initiative that contact was made with Mr. Manley’s party, and that they were brought back safely to Camp 5.  Mr. Mackrell says that had it not been for Naik Gyanbahadur’s party going forward as it did do “in all probability those at TILUNG HKA would have died”.  Mr. Manley who was in charge of the last party of refugees with whom Naik Gyanbahadur made contact writes as follows:-

“I write to express on behalf of myself and our whole party our very great appreciation of the services rendered to us by Naik Gyanbahadur Rai who was in charge of the relief party sent forward to our camp at TILUNG HKA, which reached us on the 11th September.  With him were . . . . . (names omitted from citation).  All these men gave splendid service and in turn carried Captain Whitehouse, who had lost the use of his legs, up and down the most precipitous precipices and undoubtedly saved his life, as he could not have got out unless he had been carried.  I understand that these men will be suitably rewarded by Government, and I trust they received the very full recognition of their magnificent effort that they so thoroughly deserve.”


  3.    No. 25531 Havildar Imansing Gurung

Within the last year this Havildar has been senior NCO on three expeditions up the Chaukhan Pass, leading to Burma, through almost uninhabited, extremely difficult, little known country.  On the first occasion he went in command of a small party with a guide, to escort a Chinese Survey party to Sadiya.  On the second occasion he was in command of an escort to two officers (31) reconnoitring the route to the top of the Chaukhan Pass.  On both of these occasions he showed initiative, and powers of command, of the highest order.  On the third occasion, when with Mr. Wilson of the India Tea Association, who was endeavouring during the monsoon to make contact with and rescue officials and others from Burma who were making their way over the Chaukhan Pass, this NCO displayed outstanding disregard for his personal safety, as well as exceptional thrust and initiative.  In spite of the fact that, owing to monsoon conditions, the river was unfordable, and the jungle almost impenetrable, this NCO volunteered to go forward with a few porters, in an endeavour to make contact with the lost refugees.  This he succeeded in doing, and was instrumental in saving the lives of many of them.  Mr. Wilson says of him:

“Both Moses and Eden consider they owe him their lives – not merely the fact of contacting them, but by refusing them food, when a meal in their condition, would very likely have been fatal.  His work from Miao forward has been an example to everyone of thrust, initiative and courage.”

Sir John Rowland, Director Burma China Railway construction, himself a refugee, wrote from Dapha on 1st August of this Havildar’s work:-

“Havildar Imansing has done excellent work bringing myself and party here during the month of July from TILUNG HKA, a distance of fiftysix miles under the most trying conditions of weather.  He is an excellent man and in camp helped to make as well as supervise our huts for the night.  I very strongly recommend that a suitable award be given to this man for the good work done by him.”


  4.    No. 26848 Lance Naik Manichand Rai

This young Lance Naik, after having been out with his platoon on the Ledo Road Project, and later on the “Jeep” road at the furthest posts during the Refugee Traffic from Burma, until the latter was closed by the monsoon, was sent out with a detachment of his platoon to assist in rescuing refugees, who were endeavouring to come out of Burma over the Chaukhan Pass.  During this expedition it became necessary to send forward a small party through precipitous country bounded by an unfordable river and virgin jungle, this during the height of the monsoon.  Lance Naik Manichand Rai was second in command of this party which went forward and actually made contact with the remaining refugees under Mr. Manley at TILUNG HKA.  The latter wrote as follows:-

“I write to express on behalf of myself and our whole party our very great appreciation of the services rendered to us by Naik Gyanbahadur Rai who was in charge of the relief party sent forward to our camp at TILUNG HKA, which reached us on the 11th September.  With him were . . . . . Lance Naik Manichand Rai and . . . .  All these men gave splendid service and in turn carried Captain Whitehouse, who had lost the use of his legs, up and down the most precipitous precipices and undoubtedly saved his life, as he could not have got out unless he had been carried.  I understand that these men will be suitably rewarded by Government, and I trust they received the very full recognition of their magnificent effort that they so thoroughly deserve.”

Lance Naik Manichand Rai is strongly recommended for the award of the Medal of the British Empire for Meritorious Service for the very fine example he set to the party in his capacity as second in command of it.


  5.    No. 26038 Compounder Havildar Sonam Lama

This Componder Havildar went out in July 1942 with a party under the command of Havildar Dharamsing Gurung of the 2nd Assam Rifles, to assist in the rescue of the last members of the official, and other refugees who were endeavouring to come out of Burma by the Chaukhan Pass route.  This Havildar showed courage, cheerfulness and disregard of self above the average throughout the expedition.  In spite of the fact that his duties as a Compounder normally entail a more or less inactive role he, from beginning to end, not only carried out his own duties with courage, energy and cheerfulness, but volunteered to go forward with the advance party which without a British officer in control actually made contact at TILUNG HKA with, and brought back, the last party of refugees in charge of Mr. E.L. Manley.  Captain Whitehouse, a member of this party, had lost the use of his legs and arms.  Sonam Lama unremittingly devoted himself to rendering every possible assistance not only to him, but to the whole of this refugee party.

Mr. Manley writes of him as follows:-

“I should like to express the very great appreciation of myself, my whole party, for the services rendered us by Compounder Havildar Sonam La, who came up with the forward rescue party which reached our camp at TILUM HKA on the 11th September.  Havildar Sonal Lama’s help was invaluable, and he gave every possible assistance to Captain Whitehouse who had lost the use of his legs, and had to be carried the whole way.  He took his turn in carrying Captain Whitehouse up and down the most precipitous precipices and with the others undoubtedly saved his life as he could not have got out unless he had been carried.  We understand that all these men, who assisted in our rescue, will be rewarded suitably by Government, and we trust that Compounder Havildar Sonam Lama will receive the full recognition of his service to our party that he so well deserves.”

This Havildar’s devotion to duty was outstanding and he is very strongly recommended for the award of the Albert Medal for his work under the exceptionally difficult and dangerous conditions under which it was performed.

(This recommendation for an Albert Medal was approved by the three tiers of military higher authority – 252 Line of Communications Sub Area, 202 Line of Communications Area, and General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Army - but it then was altered by the Military Secretary to the award of a British Empire Medal.)


Louis Allen. Burma. The Longest War 1941-45. (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd corrected paperback 1986).
Ian Heath. Armies of the Nineteenth Century: Asia. 3: India’s North-East Frontier.  (Foundry Books 1999).
Harish Kapadia. Treks to Passes on India – Burma Border. Internet article.

Alan & Iris Macfarlane. Green Gold. The Empire of Tea. (Ebury Press, England 2003).
Andrew Martin.  Flight by Elephant.  The Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Rescue. (Fourth Estate, London 2013).
Eric Neild.  With Pegasus in India. (Private publication 1970).
B.R. Pearn.  Official Report on the Civil Evacuation of Burma 1942. (Courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library website).
K.C. Praval.  India’s Paratroopers. (Leo Cooper, London 1975).
Alasdair Ramsay Tainsh MBE, Major.  “. . . and some fell by the wayside.” (Orient Longmans 1948).
Geoffrey Tyson.  Forgotten Frontier. (W.H. Targett & Co. Ltd., Calcutta 1945).
Dysart Whitworth MC, Brigadier.  Lecture given on 4th July 1943 titled: The Evacuation of Refugees and the Chinese Fifth Army from the Hukawng Valley into Assam, Summer 1942.  (Courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library website).
E. Wood CIE MC, Major-General. Administrator General of Eastern Frontier Communications.  Report titled: The Evacuation of Refugees from Burma to India (Assam).  (Courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library website).      

  (1)    In their book Green Gold. The Empire of Tea Alan & Iris Macfarlane take a much more cynical view of the British military requirements in 1942, the response of the Indian Tea Association to those requirements and the reasons for the ITA’s response.  The Macfarlane comments are based on perusal of released ITA documents in the India Office Library. That cynicism may be justified in today’s very different world, but without any doubt the efforts made by all levels of ITA personnel from 1942 onwards in assisting the military saved many lives and greatly helped in winning a world war against a ruthless and savagely cruel foe  

  (2) London Gazette Supplement No. 36287 of 16 December 1943 page 5476.

  (3) London Gazette Supplement No. 36287 of 16 December 1943, page 5479.

  (4) The Albert Medal for Lifesaving was a British medal awarded to recognise the saving of life. In 1971 it was replaced by the George Cross.

  (5) London Gazette Supplement dated 8 September 1942 page 3920.

(6) London Gazette Supplement No. 36287 of 16 December 1943 page 5472.  The preamble to this citation reads: “This officer and his unit were formerly under my command in LEDO Sub Area and have since been transferred to this Sub Area, again under my command, so my recommendation is for the period the officer was in Ledo.”  As this citation wound its way upwards past higher authorities the initial request for MBE was upgraded to George Medal or OBE before the Military Secretary, far removed from the cesspit and charnel house of the refugee route, reduced it back again to MBE.

(7) London Gazette Supplement dated 13 June 1946 page 2793. The citation is not available.

(8) This incident is recorded on page 83 of Geoffrey Tyson’s book Forbidden Frontier, which details the ITA effort.

(9) Appendix A to this article gives examples of citations for civilian awards made for gallantry and fortitude displayed on the refugee track.

(10) The British Empire Medal (formally British Empire Medal for Meritorious Service) is a British medal awarded for meritorious civil or military service worthy of recognition by the Crown.

(11)  The award was notified in the London Gazette Supplement No. 36349 dated 27 January 1944 page 517.

(12) In the London Gazette Supplement No. 36287 of 16 December 1943 Brigadier Whitworth was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).  From his headquarters in Dibrughar, Upper Assam, he had commanded the logistic effort during the refugee evacuation.

(13) This date of death may relate to the day that the CWGC was officially notified of the death rather than the actual date of death.  The information on Captain Bose’s parachute descent comes from the books India’s Paratroopers by K.C. Praval and With Pegasus in India by Eric Neild.

(14) Whilst annexing Assam in 1825 British East India Company troops under Captain John Neufville had boated as far as the Miao Gorge up the Noa Dihing River that flows down the north side of the Pass, and had then marched onwards and defeated Burman troops and their local allies at Dapha, a location that was to feature prominently in the 1942 refugee evacuation saga.

(15) It is not clear if the Brigadier included food also dropped to rescue parties in his ‘two and a half years’ figure, but it is likely.

(16) The musk was a prized ingredient for perfume makers.  The deadly aconite poison came from the Monkshood flowers that grew in moisture retentive but well-drained mountain meadows. 

  (17) John Lamb Leyden, Burma Frontier Service, was appointed OBE in the London Gazette Supplement dated 14 June 1945 page 2957.

  (18) Mackrell later rewarded this mahout with 100 rupees for getting the ball rolling.

(19) Many starving refugees who reached safety in India then died from over-eating.

(20) No. S/230636 Corporal Frederick Sawyer, Royal Army Service Corps, is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial.  His date of death is recorded as 12 June 1942.

(21) Lieutenant John Coleridge Fraser, Burma Rifles, was awarded a Military Cross the following year. See:

(22) From the Warrant of the George Medal: “The Medal is intended primarily for civilians and award in Our military services is to be confined to actions for which purely military Honours are not normally granted.”

(23) London Gazette Supplement No. 37780 of 7 November 1946 page 5465.

(24) Also in this group was Noel Ernest Boyt who was awarded a Military Cross in October 1942 and later was appointed OBE for his service with Force 136.  Another man was Eric McCrindle who was to parachute into the Karen Hills on a Force 136 operation; he was killed in early 1944 in a Japanese ambush.  Yet another “Commando” was William Arthur Howe who was gazetted with a Military Cross in December 1945.

  (25) Lieutenant Colonel Pizey was awarded a Mention in Despatches on page 5476 of the London Gazette Supplement No. 36287 of 16 December 1943.

(26) On the CWGC Rangoon Memorial No. EC/3410 Captain Henry Tyler-Street, 7th Rajput Regiment attached to the Royal Artillery, is commemorated as having died on 13th August 1942, but it is not known if this is the Captain Street who died at the Dapha Camp.

(27) Captain Keene’s award appeared in the London Gazette Supplement No. 36287 of 16 December 1943 on page 5472.

(28) University of Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies. The Mackrell Collection.

(29) An interesting website with good biographical details on Frank Kingdon-Ward is here:

(31) These and other interesting citations relating to the 1942 withdrawal from Burma can be seen in the London Gazette Supplement No. 35882 of 29 January 1943 here:

(32) Sir John Rowland reported seeing a tree high in the Chaukan Pass marked with the words: “A.B. Wartz, 1st Gurkha Rifles, Shillong, arrived here with a party of 92 Gurkhas on the 29th January 1942. Also J. Kennewell, 10 GR.” 

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