By Rick Schwertfeger, Captain, Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin, Texas
Editor’s note: Captain Schwertfeger visited the Central Oregon Redoubt last week. Hiking, shooting, eating, music. Absolutely delightful…
Mohbat Sing’s “eyes were dull red and he exhorted his platoon in a gasped-out monologue of Gurkhali oaths and endearments – ‘Come on, you porcupines’ pricks. It’s all right. Move, move, kids! We’re nearly there. Oh pubic hairs, keep at it. You, you…’ – his head turned as he saw me – ‘salaam, sahib! Of course we can do it! …The Gurkhas are coming!’
He broke into a shambling run, followed by all his platoon. How they did it I do not know. The firing increased suddenly, grew to a mad clatter…at first nearly all Japanese; then even; then nearly all ours, the heavy roar of grenades and the powerful grunting stammer of the Bren guns. Wounded men came down the path, a corpse sprawled in it as I lay behind a tree peering forward. Ray came to me – ‘They made two hundred yards,’ he said. ‘I’m passing another platoon through.’
More firing, again Japanese. I passed the 3/9th Gurkhas through the 3/4th. Found Mohbat Sing and promoted him to jemadar (lieutenant) on the spot for gallantry in the field.”
– British officer Brigade Commander John Masters of the 4th Gurkhas, Burma, WWII.
Seeking to learn more about the Gurkhas – renowned, brave Nepalese fighters in the Indian Army with the famed khukuri knives — I came upon a treasure. For British officer John Masters — assigned initially to the 4th Gurkhas — wrote an astonishing two volume autobiography of his military career, covering his service on the Indian-Afghani North-West Frontier in the 1930s, and in the Middle East and Burma in World War II. Masters could really write! BUGLES AND A TIGER: My Life in the Gurkhas, and THE ROAD PAST MANDALAY combine wonderful accounts of the lands and the settings, entertaining droll British humor, succinct and (mostly) loving descriptions of his brothers in arms of numerous nationalities, and crackling battle action.
Sections on Masters’ training and performance as an officer are tremendously interesting — as he goes all the way from Sandhurst through leading battle units, to Staff Officers School and performing staff roles, back to battle commander, and back to staff officer. A three-page description of all the factors staff officers must cover in battle planning was extraordinary. And Masters’ two stints as Adjudant to Brigadier Generals demonstrate the significant impact a skilled, sophisticated assistant can have in both battle planning and during the fighting.
So, this is conventional warfare, you say. What does it have to do with frontiers and irregular operations? Two periods of Masters’ career relate. First, his service and combat on the India-Afghanistan border was by definition “frontier.” The Gurkhas Masters commanded in the Indian Army fought a number of Afghan tribes in the remote, mountainous North-West Frontier terrain; and more broadly were securing the frontier border to forestall any thoughts by Germany or Russia to move through the region and attack India should border weaknesses be perceived.
Secondly, during the World War II campaign to drive the Japanese out of Burma, Masters’ brigade was assigned to train for and operate as a “Long Range Penetration Group (LRP).” Explicitly not guerrillas, the LRP was to operate behind Japanese lines. They came to be called “Chindits,” a bastardization of a Burmese Buddhist term for a lion-headed dragon. The LRP was designed and trained to operate with light weapons, be highly mobile, and be resupplied by gliders and C47 aircraft that would land on airstrips the troops – once they themselves had been inserted by gliders — hacked out of jungle clearings of sufficient size. Such jungle warfare tactics exert extreme stress on soldiers; and 90 days behind enemy lines was considered their limit.
But top commanders make mistakes in war. The drama of THE ROAD PAST MANDALAY reaches a peak when after 90 days in the jungle, high command ordered the Chindits to perform a role of regular troops and establish a “block” to prevent Japanese troops from moving into one of the conventional battles going on. Masters selected a plateau for the brigade to occupy as the block. But because the Chindits didn’t have heavy artillery and still were dependent on C47 airdrops for ammunition and supplies, they became “sitting ducks” for the Japanese.
Masters’ account of the battle to defend the block with insufficient resources against fanatical Japanese attacks is one of high drama, bravery, extreme stress and suffering, and extraordinary heroism. All I could think of was the culminating battle in the Vietnam movie “Platoon.” Masters had to call in fighter air strikes just in front of his troops’ foxholes to get the Japanese off their wire. Masters even had to call in B52 bomber strikes to hit Japanese positions within 200 yards of his men. At times Japanese got inside the wire, just as in that movie. “The telephone buzzed. A young frantic voice shouted, ‘They’re all around! I can see them! They’re in everywhere, I can’t hold—.’”
There is too much more in Masters’ story for any thorough accounting here. Of note is that, previous to Burma, his troops fought in and/or occupied the very places in Iraq that Americans have fought in this century: Basra, Raqqa, Aleppo, Mosul. And back in Burma the culminating fight for Mandalay was “a gruesome campaign of extermination.” The Japanese occupied tunnels under the city.
“Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Verey light down the holes. Explosions rocked the buildings and Japanese rolled out in the open, on fire, but firing. Our machine-gunners pressed their thumb pieces. The Japanese fell, burning. Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and sheets of fire from flame-throwers.”
Masters goes on describing the final victory in Mandalay. But I’ll leave it to you to get and read these two tremendous books. They rank high among “the greatest frontline war memoirs.”
© Rick Schwertfeger firstname.lastname@example.org August 17, 2018