World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Howard Woodcock

Howard Woodcock - BBC Radio Interview With Jack Shaw.

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Howard Woodcock
Location of story: (Kohima/Imphal) Burma - Mandalay Road.
Unit name: 16th Field Regiment R.A. 2nd Infantry Division - Captain (Retired) 14th Army.
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Howard Woodcock.
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This is a transcript made from an audio recording of a BBC radio interview between Howard Woodcock and Jack Shaw.
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Jack Shaw: How many parades have you taken down at Sheffield, can you remember that?

Howard Woodcock: I think I’ve been involved in the last nine or ten. Time just goes by and I’ve been doing it for several years now. I think they asked me to do it because you don’t get volunteers to do a job like this. I think that as long as I can put one foot in front of the other, I shall be asked to do it.

JS: You are leading the Parade Of The Veterans.

HW: I’m leading the Parade Of The Veterans. We form up behind the Territorials, the Sea Cadets and all the other services. Traditionally, we’re the last on parade and the first off, and we form up in front of Cole Brothers. There should be about three hundred of us; I’m just hoping the weather stays fine. Most of us are ex-servicemen, mostly old veterans and they go on parade because they treat Remembrance Day as something special.

JS: What time will it start?

HW: Well, we form up about twenty five past ten and the parade marches off at twenty five to eleven. Of course, the dignitaries come out of the City Hall, onto the steps and the service starts just before the silence at eleven o’clock.

JS: So, we’ll not let the grass grow under our feet because you can’t do that this morning, you’re a very busy man.

HW: I’ve got to be on parade.

JS: We’ll return to the war years shortly, but let’s find out first of all, something about your beginnings. You’re a Sheffield lad.

HW: Oh yes, I was born in Pitsmoor.

JS: Right, and brothers and sisters, have you got?

HW: I’ve got a sister.

JS: Younger sister?

HW: Younger sister, yes.

JS: And so, did you go to school up at Pitsmoor?

HW: Yes, I started at Firshill School, and then we moved to Ecclesall, and I went to Greystones School, and from there, I went to KinG Edward’s.

JS: And during that time, the family business was already up and running.

HW: Oh yes, it was started over a hundred years ago by my grandfather – comparatively small before the war, and began to grow after the war of course with the advent of the aeroplane really, particularly in the travel business, it mushroomed tremendously fast when people could get abroad easily, and that was a rapid advancement in world travel.

JS: Were you shortly after Thomas Cook, because he was a Baptist wasn’t he?

HW: Yes he was.

JS: I think he started the travel business by shipping church people around.

HW: He was a teetotaller as well. But so was my grandfather. I was brought up a Methodist.

JS: Was it always expected that you would follow into the family business when you left school?

HW: I think so, yes. I used to plague them as a little boy after school sometimes, interrupt their work by asking stupid questions about the business. I think they accepted the fact that I wanted to go into it.

JS: While you were at King Edward’s School, did ideas come into your head then that one day you might be a soldier?

HW: Not at all, not really until about 1936, being in the business, we went on a small cruise which included Hamburg, and I remember seeing all the Nazis and the Brown Shirts and swastikas flying about. That was when I first realised that there was going to be a problem, and then of course, my father took me to hear the great Winston Churchill at the City Hall, when he was an Independent. People were calling him a war monger. He was saying exactly what ought to happen, which was that we ought to be arming ourselves to the teeth to fight Hitler. Not a lot of people were taking much notice of him in 1936, but of course, he was right. Then I began to realise that life wasn’t going to be too good.

JS: We’ve had a gentleman on this morning, talking about what it was like in 1938, at Kristalnacht; a Jew. So the writing was on the wall even in 1936, two years before then.

HW: That’s right.

JS: So you felt that despite old Chamberlain coming back with ‘Peace in our time’ pieces of paper, that was only a ‘stay of execution’, as it were.

HW: I think so, I think we were putting off the evil day, but who wants a war? People right at this moment were not keen on sending troops to protect women and kids who are being killed, which is something I’m a bit…………… I’m still a soldier at heart, and I think we ought to go in and stop it happening as a United Nations Force, a big force, or not go in at all. I think putting off the evil day is cutting lives. It’s costing lives of women and kids and that’s what’s happening today. Look at Rwanda; thousands, scores of thousands of innocent people being killed and it worries me that we can’t do anything about it.

JS: How old were you when you first started thinking about joining up?

HW: I was seventeen, and I decided I was going…………they brought conscription out in May of 1939, and conscription meant you had six months, even though we knew there was a war coming. When you were called up at nineteen, you had six months’ service, then you had to serve two and a half years I think, in the Territorials. I thought, if I get into the Territorials first, and learn how to be a soldier as a Territorial soldier, when I’m called up at nineteen, I shall know what it’s about, and enjoy the experience. Like many others, I joined the Territorials, I joined the Field Artillery at Edmund Road in May of 39, at the age of seventeen. I had to have a letter from my father, signing me in, and I had to queue for an hour, to sign in. There was a queue three or four deep, to join the Territorial Army. So many were joining for two shillings (10p) a day. So many were joining that they had to form a second regiment. We had two regiments of artillery at Edmund Road, and the regiments were about seven hundred men – because all over the country, young men were volunteering to join before they were called up.

JS: That’s something that’s not documented very much about the Second – I know about the First World War, there was a sort of jingoism around and there were songs like, ‘Oh We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’, and all that sort of………….. there wasn’t anything like that about the Second World War, but there were still enough people who wanted to be in there.

HW: I think it would be the same again. You know, sometimes we run down the young people in this country, but, at the end of the day, if the country was facing a real problem, the young people of this country would………because we were all young people. They would want to serve their country as they did two generations ago.

JS: And when you signed up, you say your father actually signed for you.

HW: He had to because I was under eighteen.

JS: Does that mean you’d got the backing of the family then?

HW: I had the backing of my father who was an old soldier, and my mother, I can’t remember my mother being too much against it, although she didn’t like it.

JS: I think we’ll play a piece of music here, because you played this piece of music, or, you heard it along with your mum. This is the Pathetique, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the slow movement. You played this together, why, was this an emotional moment?

HW: It was a favourite piece of mine and a favourite symphony of my grandfather’s, who taught me to appreciate good music. He loved Tchaikovsky and this was his particular favourite. It was my particular favourite, and my mother and I sat down and played this on my last day at home in 1942 when I was finishing my embarkation leave before I went out to the Far East for four years.

JS: It’s very very sad this…………

HW: We played it together.

JS: It’s very very sad this, this is the slow movement, just before Tchaikovsky died himself.

HW: Incidentally, I was sitting in the Regent Cinema on the Friday before the war started, and I was sitting there with her when the notices came up on the screen that the Territorial Army was mobilised. We had to report to our barracks that evening. I was with my mother when that happened.

JS: This was really doom laden music, and as I say, Tchaikovsky wrote it just before his death, do you think your mother knew something that you didn’t realise?

HW: Maybe she did, but Jack, my mother never allowed anybody to touch those records, and if I hadn’t have come back, I don’t know what would have happened to them, but certainly, the first day I was back from the Far East, at the end of 1945, my mother and I sat down and we played that together.

JS: And I can imagine how moving that was. Well, I’ve got a call here from a listener saying that one of the reasons so many people joined up in 1939 was that there was no work in Sheffield. Do you think that was a factor?

HW: That could have had some influence on it.

JS: And it would still be the case today presumably wouldn’t it?

HW: It would be, yes. But I was almost too young to understand what was going on, but I’m sure he’s right.

JS: You were already in the Territorial Army, how did you get a commission?

HW: Well, I was in the Territorial unit of course, and my Battery Commander was Major Douglas Brown, of H.L. Brown’s, the jewellers.

JS: It’s almost like the old lads……………….

HW: It’s a family; the Territorial Army is a family, that’s why it’s so successful. A lot of the units are comprised of local people – friends. They joined in batches, you know? A great thing the Territorial Army, I’m a great believer in it. How I’d got my commission, well, I’d been in a year and I’d learnt a lot about gunnery, thank goodness, which helped me when I went for my commission. When I was eighteen and three quarters, Major Brown called me into his office and said, “I’d like to send you out for a commission.” So I’d an interview and I went to Catterick. I had five of the hardest months of my life, in a squad of forty prospective officers. Only twenty of us got through, but my biggest advantage was that most of the others had come from O.T.C.’s and they hadn’t really even been in the Territorial Army……………..

JS: What’s that, O.T.C.’s?

HW: Officer Training Units at the universities (Officers’ Training Corps) and things like that. They were all great people, but my big advantage was I’d had a year of hard training in the art of gunnery, which helped me get through. Of course, I was Second Lieutenant when I was nineteen and a quarter and I got posted to a crack regular regiment and a crack regular division that had come back from Dunkerque. That was the beginning of five – I say wonderful years, I mean, some of them were pretty horrible, but wonderful years really, in a great division and a great regiment, which was my university for life.

JS: When did you get posted to the Far East?

HW: Well, I was posted first to East Yorkshire, where my regiment was, and a year later, in March of 42, we were posted out to the Far East. We were originally intended to go to the Middle East and to North Africa to support Montgomery, but Ghandi and all his supporters were creating problems in India, and there wasn’t a full British division. All the divisions in India were Indian divisions with British officers and British units, but we were switched to India because they were anticipating a lot of civil unrest there. Of course, we remained one of the only all-British divisions out in that ‘theatre’ of war – in Burma we were.

JS: So when you were actually posted out there then, there was no fear that the Japanese would actually be knocking on the door of India.

HW: No no, that wasn’t in the frame at all.

JS: So you didn’t feel really miserable about being posted to the Far East.

HW: No no.

JS: But the Japanese Army was eventually, knocking on the door of India and seemingly invincible then – Singapore had fallen, they marched straight through Burma, and at that juncture, I suppose the allies had not put up much resistance had they?

HW: Well, we hadn’t anticipated the rapid advance of the Japanese Army.

JS: Do you know, I went to Singapore last year and I was amazed to find that when the Japanese started landing in Singapore, the Governor of Singapore was actually at a dance and stayed there all night.

HW: Well, they were operating under fairly peacetime conditions. The Japanese just moved extremely fast and Singapore was a tragedy. It’s all been well documented and General Percival was in charge of an army that was just unprepared. And then of course, they came straight up into Burma and, not that we hadn’t got good troops in Burma, we just didn’t have enough troops there to stop the tide of advance and we weren’t very well trained in general warfare. We were very lucky to evacuate so many troops out of Burma into India to retrain and reform. Of course, the mountains between India and Burma formed a natural barrier and halted the Japanese because they’d extended the lines of communication so much, we were able to reform ourselves under General Slim and organise ourselves into a great fighting army, the Fourteenth Army.

JS: And the climax of the war in the Far East was fought on those high hills between Pakistan and Burma, Nagaland.

HW: Well, India and Burma, yes. In Nagaland at Kohima, which was the last final bulwark against………………… before getting into India, anyone who held the mountains there could flow down into the Indian plains and the Japanese of course, were hoping to get a lot of support from the Indians and were expecting to get into Delhi, but they were stopped on Kohima Ridge.

JS: Did you think they’d be helped by the Indians?

HW: I don’t think they would have been, no; not enough to walk across India. I think that was ‘pie in the sky’.

JS: So here we are, we’re at Kohima Ridge, you’re a captain by this time.

HW: Well, I was a lieutenant; I became a captain during the battle. One of our officers was badly wounded.


 

JS: At Kohima Ridge, you’re facing an army that’s undefeated, cock-a-hoop, taking all before it, and you were face to face with them.

HW: Yes, that was where the garrison held out long enough; brilliantly with the Royal West Kents, long enough for us to be flown out of India and flown up straight into battle to relieve the garrison, relieve the Siege of Kohima, and then fight the battle to take the ridge and the mountains on each side. Of course, all this was going on in Imphal as well, there were five Indian divisions down there, which had become surrounded, fighting very gallantly, and fighting the Japanese fifty miles further south. Theirs was a great battle too, the Battle of the Imphal Plains and the Battle of Kohima were the turning point.
So really, the big battle of Burma was won on Indian soil and we were at Kohima, which is a very Christian community. Today it is about eighty percent Christian. I went to the opening of the new cathedral, a Catholic cathedral on Kohima Ridge, only in 1991. They don’t want to belong to India. They hold it against us that we didn’t give them independence – very friendly towards the British.

JS: There’s a Baptist school there.

HW: There is a Baptist school and Baptist churches and they’re very Christian. We had this tremendous battle. It was a battle of attrition – we weren’t prepared to give ground, the Japanese weren’t prepared to give ground, and just fought to the death.

JS: A lot of hand to hand fighting.

HW: A lot of hand to hand fighting on Kohima Ridge itself.

JS: What about this tennis court?

HW: Well, the fulcrum of the whole battle was Kohima Ridge, which had been a military ridge with depots on it, and the high commissioner for the Nagaland had his bungalow there, and he had his tennis court there. The tennis court is still there. It’s now got raised concrete lines because it’s right in the middle of the cemetery and it’s right in the middle of where this fierce hand to hand fighting took place, day after day, week after week.

JS: So it took place on the tennis court.

HW: The tennis court was right in the middle of the battle. It now stands by the Cross of Sacrifice in the cemetery there, which has about one and a half thousand dead in it – our dead. It became quite famous in military history.

JS: Well, the casualties were horrific, now, I don’t know if you can remember as far back, or if it’s gone out of your mind, but, you’re in the minutes before the battle starts and you know you’re going to get a command to go over the top and have this hand to hand stuff, and you’re going to be firing your guns, what do you do in those silent minutes before you know you’re going to do something that you know might be the end of you?

HW: Well, we’re really talking about sharp end soldiering. When you’re involved in sharp end soldiering, you do go through some very fearful moments.

JS: Do you sing, or are you quiet?

HW: You don’t sing, you don’t even feel like talking. There’s always the odd wise-cracker who will raise spirits by saying something, but when the chips are really down, nobody’s talking. I think you may have seen on war documentaries occasionally, they show you a close-up of a face of somebody waiting to go over the top. You can see the fear in their eyes. I’ve experienced this because I used to, as an Artillery Officer – Artillery Troop Commander. I was never with my guns, I was always with a wireless set with a couple of signallers with the leading Companies of Infantry, because they took Artillery Officers with them to direct artillery fire – close-up artillery fire in the attack, either to knock out enemy positions that were causing trouble, or the worst, to fire smokescreens to help them get out in a hurry if they had to. My job wasn’t to get killed, but it was to get right up to the front so that I could see and do my job, so I used to go in with the infantry. We used to be waiting because we knew when the attack was going to start because the barrage would lift. Then they’d go straight in, hoping the Japanese would still have their heads down, which they never did. They were always waiting for us no matter how much shellfire they’d had. It was during those moments when one felt the fear. I used to look along the lines of the infantry guys and I could see the fear. They were all praying Jack. They were all praying that they would be spared.

JS: What, atheists as well?

HW: Everybody; I think everybody prayed. They must have prayed, whatever their religious beliefs really were. There was only one thing to do, it was to pray.

JS: So you prayed.

HW: I prayed, I prayed very hard, but my mind had to be active. I was thinking about the battle, and being an artilleryman, I was thinking about what I was going to have to do, which was helpful. It was always helpful having responsibility. When you’ve got a lot of fear, having a lot of responsibility is very helpful. It gives you something to really grasp on to. I used to use some words that the king, George the Sixth had used at Christmas, 1939 or 40. I used to repeat these words to myself, in my head – just close my eyes and repeat them in those vital two or three minutes, or five minutes, or whatever it was before we were suddenly having to go in, and they were these well known words: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown,’ and he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That should be to you better than the light and safer than the known way.’” I would repeat that, just repeat it to myself, and the moment you go in, you go into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God, and you never think you’re the one who is going to be hit – you BELIEVE you’re going to come through it. And then of course, as soon as the balloon goes up, you’ve so much to do and think about, that the fear goes. When the chips are really down, you’ve got something to think about to do your job. You lose fear to a great degree; you feel anger and you become belligerent. I mean, I’m not a killer by any means, but you do become very belligerent. In my case, I used to get not pleasure, but I used to get satisfaction out of doing my job and seeing my shells landing on the enemy.

JS: And your colleagues, they were Ghurkhas, Indian Nagafolk, close colleagues, why are they sometimes called ‘The Forgotten Army’ Howard?

HW: Well, we were so far away and the media were concentrating, as they always do (and they still do) they were concentrating on what they thought would hit the headlines, and of course, quite rightly, although there were a quarter of a million British out in the Far East, the big battles were being fought in North Africa and Italy, and France. Just after Kohima, we heard the news that we’d landed on the Normandy beaches, I mean, that was tremendous news. And so, we weren’t really reported very much. The media never really got out to see us. There was very little material in terms of film on the battles out there. And so, we were called ‘The Forgotten Army’ and we’ve always called ourselves ‘The Forgotten Army’. I once mentioned this to the Queen Mother. She was at a parade, she came up and had a chat with me, and she said, “How is it that you people of the Burma Star Association, are such, even to this day, so close in comradeship and have so many reunions, more than the other armies?” I said, “Well ma’am, we were known as ‘The Forgotten Army’ and it pulled us closer together." She said, “You are wrong, you were not the forgotten army,” she said, “The King and I used to think about you every day.”

JS: You have a poem there Howard haven’t you, that was written by one lady who actually lived in Kohima, a Naga-lady, and she didn’t forget you either, would you like to read that?

HW: well this is a poem that can be applied to any one of the two and a half thousand war grave cemeteries and plots that there are in the world – and by the way, they do a wonderful job – the war grave commissioner – fantastic. And so, all this relates to Kohima, which was her township and she’s referring to those who released Kohima from the Japanese. It really applies to all those who lie in graves and there were two and a half million over this century (20th), British and Commonwealth, who gave their lives for freedom and peace. Two and a half million, so even though this refers to the Kohima Cemetery, it refers to all our dead wherever they lie and all our missing dead, who have no known grave. It really applies to everybody. The lady’s name was Istarin Kiri and she was born in 1960, after the battle. She was educated at the Baptist English School at Kohima, and it’s a beautiful poem. It’s called ‘In Grateful Dedication’:

Ours is the today, dearly ransomed in blood
That freely flowed yesterday
A sacrifice, the oldest tennis court
Was too poor to contain
Gallantly lay they their lives down
What price, what price a soul
For the fair Kohima
To her, old faithful dead
You can never, never die
While you live on in our hearts
And generation to generation
Repeats the story of your sacrifice
May the skies never close over you
May the rains woo you softly
The mountains be hushed before you
May you rest in eternal peace.

It’s a beautiful poem.

JS: It is indeed, we’ve had some beautiful poems today, and that was another one by a lady, but this is a Naga-lady. Now, you were wounded later weren’t you? You were mentioned in dispatches, how were you wounded?

HW: I was wounded after the Battle Of Kohima, down near Imphal. I was in an attack; the only time I ever went out – my regiment was attached to an Indian division for a battle. I was normally with British troops, the Camerons, the Royal Scots, the Norfolks, the D.L.I.L., you name it. Once, I went out with Indian troops and I went out with the Sixth Battalion of the Mahratta Light Infantry as a Forward Observation Officer. Of course, it wasn’t bad news; I wanted to fight with them, but it was bad news in one way, that I was white and they were black, and the Japanese picked off anybody they could see who was white in the Indian Army. They were frequently led by British officers. So, my two signallers and I heavily rubbed KIWI boot polish into our faces, round our neck and our hands to try to make ourselves look black. It didn’t really work. I would have got wounded anyway. We got into a battle, a really close battle and I got shot up, I got a burst of.............I was talking on the radio, in fact, I was too close to use my own guns, I was directing tank fire and putting tank shells through bunker slips. It was like playing darts, I was quite enjoying getting the bull’s eye. There was a burst of fire and there were bullets all over the place. I got hit by four bullets down the right thigh and my leg.

 

JS: Did word get back to your family that you were wounded?

HW: Well, it did of course after I.............yes, and that worried me. On the way back down the hill, because we had to do a quick withdrawal – I managed to walk down the hill for fifteen hundred feet, I might say, it was the only way to get out of the battle. My biggest worry was, first of all, my mother, and the second worry was, were there any Japs still around? And so, we were expecting to have to fight our way out. But I was worried about my mother because I knew she’d get a telegram and I knew how she’d take it. She wouldn’t know how badly I’d been wounded, and of course, I was quite right. She got a telegram three weeks before she got any note from me, and it shook her so much, that she.........I mean, I wasn’t killed. If you can imagine the effect of telegrams to people who’d lost their husbands or their family; absolutely horrendous. But she feared the worst, and she lost her hair. It was twenty five years before........... she had to wear a wig, and it was twenty five years before her hair grew sufficiently for her to do without the wig. Every time I was with my mother – she was a very attractive, handsome, growing older lady, but, I always felt guilty and that lived with me all the time. It shook her, but this was happening all over the country.

JS: So, you’d fought hand to hand, you’d seen some of your colleagues die, you’d seen some of your colleagues wounded and so on, and then it was all over and you came back home, how do you adjust after an experience like that?

HW: Well, it’s not very easy. I came back to Sheffield and I had a big family welcome, a wonderful welcome, but I couldn’t settle, and with hindsight, it took me a long time to settle. Years and years, it took me to settle, but certainly for the first four or five years.....................my nerves, I think all of us, we.........it hadn’t shown in battle that our nerves were going, but that’s the old story. By not letting it out, and keeping it all inside, you eventually have a day of reckoning, and, it got me down. I got a bad attack of shingles when I got home, and I couldn’t settle and I found it difficult being with the family. I no longer seemed part of the family and it was a difficult time, and............

JS: I suppose you came home and people were whittling about...........

HW: Oh people were grumbling about the food ration, the butter and the meat, and how many ounces of this they’d had, and how many ounces of that, and when you relate it to a chap who’s been – I went twelve and a half weeks without a bath, and living like rats we were, and getting reasonably – I ate so much corned beef, it’s untrue. I couldn’t tune in.

JS: I can understand that. Have you been back to Kohima?

HW: Well, I’ve been back twice, I went back in 91 with some colleagues from the Second Division, to the opening of the cathedral, and there were also some Japanese there who’d been fighting against us.

JS: What do you feel about the Japanese now?

HW: Well, you retain this feeling of hate for how they behaved during the war, and the cruelty and the way they treated the prisoners. I’ve seen them shooting our stretcher bearers down, and they didn’t fight according to the rules of war. But I’ve met one or two, and I think when you’re face to face with them, you’re old soldiers and you’re prepared to talk, and it’s like all over the world, when in face to face contact with somebody, you look for the good and don’t think about the bad. I’ve got one particular good Japanese friend who lives in London, who tried to speed up relations between Britain and Japan on a personal sense, and he holds an honorary O.B.E. for that. He’s a great character, and he understands our problem.

JS: And when Remembrance Day comes round, do all these thoughts you have of your colleagues come flooding into your mind?

HW: They do. During the silence, I repeat in my mind the names of my all personal friends who died. It’s hardly long enough. I’ve visited all the graves. The last grave I visited was perhaps the most important one for me, and that was last November when I went to Burma, with Rita, my wife and two friends. We went to the cemetery at Kyonkadun near Rangoon, and where there are seven and a half thousand buried and where there are colonnades with the names of twenty six thousand who have no known grave. In Burma, it was very difficult for the Graves Commission to find the dead, and the twenty six thousand are remembered on tablets and one of those was my battery commander during the battle of Kohima, and afterwards down through Burma. After I’d been wounded and I got better, I went back to the regiment. I hitch hiked back and did a month’s fighting after four months in hospital. Wilfred Foster was my Battery Commander and I was one of his two captains. He was like an elder brother to me and I loved the guy. We used to go to church together, he was a very religious man, we used to go to church together in the days before we were actually in action. He always carried The Bible in a small pack, he was a regular soldier of twenty nine. I mean, he seemed like my uncle and I was only twenty two and a half. His grave’s in Rangoon and I knew where it was. Rita and our two friends held back as I went to the grave. I stood in front of Wilfred’s grave, and that was a very moving experience. You know, I’m fairly stoic in front of the graves, but this one, it shook me. By the grave was a magnolia tree and unknown to me at the time, our friend, Pat Colbur, found a leaf off a magnolia bush right by Wilfred’s grave, and as we were sailing up the Irrawaddy - it was my birthday a few days later - and she’d taken the leaf, pressed it, and there it is. The listeners can’t see it but you can.

JS: I can indeed.

HW: That’s a magnolia leaf from just by Wilfred’s grave and it’s here with me today. Now that’s the last grave, I’ve now seen all the graves of all our regiment who died. That’s what I think about today, but I think about all the thousands. I think about those on Kohima Ridge because the graves there, you’ve got brigadiers, colonels, everybody down to privates. You’ve got doctors, you’ve got stretcher bearers, you’ve got padres, and the point is, death showed no favours either in the first war or the second war. They’re lying there and I believe in visiting war graves……….

JS: I’m going to stop you there because I know you’ve got to be off.

HW: Yes I have.

JS: You’ve got to be off, you’re going to lead the Veterans’ Parade and you could talk a long time. Thank you very much indeed for what you’ve said to us. Doris from Eastwood in Nottingham says that she’s a regular listener to Radio Sheffield and has rung to say how much she’s enjoyed the programme and she’s appreciated the emphasis that we’ve put on Remembrance Day today, and she thinks it’s been beautifully done…………..

HW: Can I just finish with the Epitaph from our War Memorial?

JS: Please do.

HW: Which is, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today,’” so we should remember our tomorrows and particularly, today is one of those tomorrows and if any of you who are listening can get down to town, or to your local service, well, that would be great.

JS: And in town, at Sheffield, it’s half past ten at what used to be Coles’……..

HW: Well, Division Street.

JS: Division Street, yes. Howard Woodcock, ex-Captain in the Royal Artillery, thank you for today and thank you for all those other days as well. This is the other piece of music that you wanted, and I’m sure it’s just right, thank you.

HW: Thank you Jack.
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See also "Make Me A Soldier, A Burma Soldier:http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A8766156




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Make Me A Soldier, A Burma Soldier (Part One)

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: D. Howard Woodcock
Location of story: Assam (Kohima/Imphal) Burma - Mandalay Road.
Unit name: 16th Field Regiment R.A. 2nd Infantry Division - Captain (Retired) 14th Army.
Background to story: Army

 

The Second Division served in India and Burma for 3½ years, 1½ years in action. Howard Woodcock was wounded in action near Imphal, and was out of the fighting for four months. He was mentioned in 'Despatches'. He was finally dembilised in 1946.
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The following has been transcribed from an audio recording of a talk (with slides), given to The Rotary Club.

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I joined the Territorial Army in May, 1939. In the morning, I tried to join the navy, but it didn’t suit me. In the afternoon, I had to queue to join the territorials at Edmund Road, for nearly an hour to get in. My father had to sign me in because I was seventeen and a half. I joined the Sheffield Territorials as a gunner. I stayed with them for a year, first in Sheffield, then on the coast. When I was 18¾, my battery commander, who was Douglas Brown (of H.L. Brown, the jewellers), suggested that I might like to go for a commission, which I did. I got through the interview, then I went to Catterick where I had five months of hard training to get my commission.

There were forty of us that started and twenty of us finished. I was the only grammar schoolboy there, the others were public schoolboys, all very posh, they’d been in the public school, A.T.C.’s, all born leaders, but they knew damn all about gunnery. I had the advantage of having had a year as an artilleryman, and I knew my gunnery, and that pulled me through. I got a very good posting. When they put the twenty postings on the board, most of them were to reserve regiments. I started at the bottom and when I looked up, I found I was one of the two on the top, and I was posted to the crack second British Infantry Division, one of the three regular division that at the start of the war, came back from Dunkirk. I was posted to a regular artillery regiment, the 16th Field Regiment and the Fourth Infantry Brigade. I could have fallen through the floor. I thought, “I can’t cope with a regular regiment." Anyway, I joined the regiment in March of 1941.

Most of the senior officers and down to the rank of captain were all regulars, most of them were old enough to be my father and they looked down on me as though I was a baby. I never opened my mouth for about three months, but one thing I did know, I knew my gunnery and that stood me in good stead.

In March of 1942, we sailed in a very big convoy. In front of us was the Eighteenth British Division; they were going to the desert and we were going to the desert to fight with Montgomery. They got diverted to Singapore, and we were diverted from going to the desert, to go to India because Ghandi was creating havoc in India, and they thought it was a good idea to have an all British division there to do the police work. The Indian Army didn’t want us there, and we weren’t popular. A British division cost three times as much to maintain and provision as it's Indian equivelent.

So there we were, out in India, training heavily in combined operations. In 1943, the Japanese pushed right through Burma and pushed the Indian army back into the Imphal Plain, which was alright, because it lengthened the lines of Japanese communications and brought the Indian army into the Imphal Plain where they could use all their armour. It was ground of our own choosing, and that was where they sat right through 1943, stalemate, the Japs sitting on the River Chindwin which was the border of Burma, and the Indian army sitting at Imphal. The railhead for Imphal, was a place called Dimapur, and from Dimapur, it was 140 miles to Imphal. Half way between was Kohima on a high ridge at 5,000 feet, a natural defensive barrier.

In March, the Japanese army decided they were going to invade India and get to Delhi. Three divisions attacked Imphal, came over Chindwin, and further north, the Thirty-first Division of the Japanese army aimed for Kohima and caught everybody by surprise. We didn’t reinforce Kohima properly; there were only about two thousand troops there, and the thirty-first division suddenly appeared at Kohima, and the great siege of Kohima started. These troops had to hang on to Kohima Ridge. If they hadn’t hung on to it, we’d have had another Cassino. It would have been a terrible ridge to capture, it was concentrated into five or six hundred yards square, but our troops hung on by their eyebrows, and the Second Division, at long last, was needed, and we were needed to fight one of the classic battles of the war, which was the battle of Kohima.

We had five divisions that were surrounded in Imphal by the Japanese, for six weeks. We had to win the battle of Kohima, then we had to open up the road down to Imphal. We went into action about fifteen miles short of Kohima because the Japanese were not only attacking the ridge, but they were sending raiding parties and putting road blocks in beyond Kohima to stop relief forces getting through, so our Fifth Brigade, the Camerons and the Dorsets were having to fight their way down the road, knock out all the road blocks to relieve the Kohima Garrison.

Our guns went into action, and suddenly, we realised we were at war. We were sitting there on the right hand side of this long valley, the Kohima Ridge was way in the distance, and that was our target, but we had Japanese raiding parties coming round.

I must first explain how things are formed: a division has about thirteen thousand men. A division is divided into three brigades. Each brigade has three battalions and one field regt., so we had nine battalions and 3 field regiments. We were Fourth Brigade. We were operating with the Royal Berks at this time, but we were defending our guns, and the road carefullly, because it was no good moving up the road and forgetting the Japs who were coming round to try and get behind us and put road blocks in. I was at the time, battery command post officer, I was the senior lieutenant in the battery. My job was to co-ordinate all the artillery, technical work and the two troops and communications with the regiment, and run the gunnery in the battery position. The troop commanders who were the captains, and the battery commander, were forward with the infantry. That was going to be my next step. They wanted so many observation posts; I was sent out with the Royal Berks on the first night, and the next morning, we were sitting there. We’d dug our trenches, when all of a sudden we were raked with machine gun fire and we suddenly realised we were at war. Smoke was coming up, just across a little valley from where these machine guns were firing at us. Of course, it was my great big chance to start my bit of the war, directing artillery fire.

We had two nights of that, in pouring monsoon rain, and at night, we had to sit in the trench, because anything above ground was killed. So we sat in the trench with our heads just above ground, and we could see all these shadows moving about, which were just leaves, plus the jungle noises. It was raining and we were sitting there with the water in the trench, above the level of our boots and were soaked to the skin.

Anyway, I was withdrawn from that and I was whipped out straight onto another hill feature, where Japanese patrols were operating, with the First Battalion Royal Scots, and again, we had the same thing; Japanese patrols coming round behind us. We were coming under machine gun fire that was raking the position. We took hygiene quite seriously in those days; we used to dig a trench and put a bamboo pole over it and we got quite used to the system.

That evening, the colonel came to see me and he said, “We’ve got a job for you tomorrow.” I knew he was telling me something unpleasant, there was a rumour. A whole Japanese brigade, that’s 3,500 to 4,000 Japs, was doing a great big encircling movement to try and capture the rail head at Dimapur. It was rumoured they were coming down the valley, and I had the job of going out on an artillery patrol. The good news was that I had the whole of the divisional artillery on call on my wireless, and I’d absolute priority. I was taking ten Royal Scots with me. A section of the Royals Scots, a corporal and my own men, and it was arranged we’d meet at seven o’clock the next morning. I had to go right down the valley, walk up the river, do a big triangular patrol, then back to the position again, and I didn’t like the look of this. I liked having the whole of the divisional artillery on call, but I didn’t like the idea of looking for four thousand Japanese in a jungle valley. We set off down this hill, and the Royal Scots were looking forward to this. We were dressed in gymn shoes and I’d got grenades all round my belt, tin hat on and we’d all got automatic weapons, a pocket full of sten gun magazines, and my radio. It wasn’t my job to get killed.

Anyway, we’d gone half way down the hill and where we’d come from, there was a hell of a battle going on; we’d passed a Japanese fighting patrol going up the hill, who’d hit the position we’d come out of and the only people who’d had a safe ride that day were us.

The Fifth Brigade fought their way into Kohima and our guns moved into our battle position which was 3000 yards short of the ridge, for five weeks and the whole divisional artillery was concentrated there, and I was there all the time myself. In that position, we were fighting a classic artillery battle; we did everything in the drill book. We fired barrages, moving barrages, moving creeping barrages, and we did everything that could be done with artillery there. My job was Battery Command Post Officer. It was a classic battle of ‘up the middle and round the flanks'.

The Japanese held one half of the ridge and we held the other half. The fighting on the ridge was intense hand to hand fighting. As we expanded our front, yard-by-yard, our infantry were using Japanese dead bodies to revet their trenches. Our wounded and dead were lying out for days, we couldn’t get them. The place was littered with dead men. Stretcher bearers couldn’t do their job properly, many of them got killed; we had loads of casualties. We had four brigadiers who got hit, two of them were killed; we had colonels killed, medical officers and padres. Two Victoria Crosses were won on the ridge there. At lease 3½ thousand were wounded.

The infantry were decimated, they finished up with a third of their officers, and the artillery as well, if they were with the infantry as Forward Observation Officers.

We were supplied by air continuously because the road was very very bad, the road up from Dimapur was a terrible road. There was a dividing line on the ridge, one side was Japanese, the other British. The number of casualities on there was tremendous: the Royal Berks., the Durham Light Infantry and the Welsh Fusiliers were involved in continuous close fighting. They couldn’t leave their trenches safely during daylight – they could only relieve each other at night by crawling, one lot crawling out, another lot crawling in.

On the fourth of May, after we’d been going about three and a half weeks, we put in a big attack and tanks went into Japanese held ground. One of my colleagues, Bob Makepeace went with a tank. I heard him say that the tank had been hit and he was baling out, and within seconds, he was dead. That was the first officer we had killed. It was fifteen days before he was buried. The tank he was in is still there to this day. Our battery alone fired twenty five thousand shells.

When the battle was won, we then started to move forward and immediately, they formed an armoured advance guard of tanks, carrierboard infantry and an artillery of O.P. One or two of us got allocated to this job. By this time, the big battle at Kohima was over and we now had to open the 60 miles of road down to Imphal.

First of all, I joined the D.L.I. and we went up the road to this place called Viswema and our guns moved up. Our whole regiment was there, it was the only flat bit of land for scores of miles. Our guns were lined up and the infantry were attacking across the valley and a tremendous battle took place here. Later, I was still with the tanks on the road, waiting to go forward with the D.L.I. and the battalion were on the hillside; there was this big ridge and our regiment had the job of firing a barrage onto it for the attack. The colonel told me to get myself round the corner and register our right hand gun of the regiment, by ranging onto this ridge. He said, “Be careful because there are snipers all around there,” so we went round the corner in my carrier and immediately, we were hit by sniper fire on the carrier. We stopped the carrier because I could see the target and I rolled out of the carrier, registered the target, then I threw myself back into the carrier and my driver swung it round and we shot round the corner; we got away with that one. That was rather unpleasant; it was probably the first time I was under close fire.

Then came the Battle of Maram. The armoured column got up there and we were stopped by the Japanese. They decided they would have to put a big attack in on Maram. I was sent with a company of the Camerons up the hill, and I reported to the company commander, who was a big Scot carrying a walking stick. He had a great big walrus moustache and he was smoking a big crooked pipe. He gave his orders to platoon commanders and was cursing Japs, right and left, puffing at his pipe. Then we set off up the hill where we hit Japanese, and had quite a battle. The Camerons lost one or two men there and the Japs were hurling grenades at us, so he decided he’d go back down again and we’d attack under an artillery barrage the next day.

The armoured column got going again, I was going forward with the Dorsets. The Dorsets’ carrier came up and took over, dropping off these infantry units on the way down, to keep the road open; we were skirmishing all the way down the road. It went on and on and on, until finally, I was with the Royal Scots and their carriers, and tanks. On the night before we opened up the Imphal box – my vehicle was the second vehicle in the whole division. There was an armoured car in the middle of the road and there was my bren carrier. We had one or two tanks with us, and the Royal Scots with their bren carriers and we dug ourselves in.

During the night, a Japanese Patrol approached and there was a short sharp battle. Everything went quiet again. It was all very scary because you’re trying to pretend you want to sleep, and you find you’re sitting there shivering with a grenade in one hand and a revolver in the other, hoping you weren’t going to have to use them. Anyway, the next morning, all the dead Japanese were lying on the road, except for one man, he was unconscious. He was the only prisoner I ever saw – the second division only took a hundred and fifty prisoners in a year and a quarter – we didn’t take prisoners. This chap was unconscious and was lying on the floor. A medical officer came up and tried to see if he was shamming or not. He hit him so hard across the face, and although he was unconscious, we couldn’t find a wound on him, so I don’t know what was wrong with him.



 

Anyway, we set off down the road and we’d got twelve miles to go to get down to where the Fifth Indian Division were, on this main road. When we got into the open plain, where they were, we surprised the Japs because we came up behind the Japs who were facing the Fifth Indian Division. We squeezed them out and they all started running. They were like ants, there were scores of Japs running towards a hill about three hundred yards away. They were swarming up this hill and they were really on the run, trying to get out of it. I had the best target I'd ever had that day. I’d got the whole regiment firing eighty rounds a minute into the hillside and moving it around. My two signallers were shooting Japs with their rifles and I was busy on the wireless directing artillery fire. It really was a great moment because we were firing on these troops down the road. They started waving white flags. It was the West Yorks and they weren’t very happy about the Second Division shooting them up.

I’m missing a lot out because there is so much one can say about one’s experiences at these particular times. I do remember the Brigadier Artillery. The commander of the artillery was roaring with laughter. He was so happy that we were being successful and he shouted to me, “Timber,” he knew me as Timber which was short for various other things. He said, “Timber, isn’t this a great day? What a wonderful day, we’ve been waiting for this day.” So then we got withdrawn out of the line. The Japs had gone and we were able to rest. The regiment was taken out of action and we got a bath. My diary tells me that I’d had my first bath for 10½ weeks. We were all absolutely filthy. We tried to shave; I always insisted on my chaps shaving if they possibly could. No matter how dirty you are, if you have a shave you feel a lot better. There’s no fun in growing a dirty great beard. Anyway, we had a bath, then we got orders that our infantry would be decimated, and by that I mean they were down to a third of their number. They’d had killed or wounded, two thirds of their officers and they were then waiting for reserves coming up to reinforce them and to bring their battalions up to strength for another piece of the war, but the artillery, apart from the officers and the observation groups, hadn’t had too many casualties.

By this time, I’m a captain because the troop commander had been wounded and I got promoted. I was then officially, no longer the Battery Command Post Officer, but I’m a Troop Commander and that was how I remained for the rest of the war until the following May, nearly a year. I knew then that my life was always going to be with the infantry. We had officer casualties ourselves – we’d had several wounded and one or two killed.

We heard that we, the Sixteenth Field Regiment were going to go on loan to the twenty third Indian Division, and we’d have to cross the Imphal box. It was thirty miles across this defended box. We went right to the south, to the twenty third Indian Division, and we were then told that we were going to support an attack by the Mahratta Light Infantry, and it was to be a two company attack. One officer was going with the left hand company and I was going with the right hand company. The Mahrattas were very good troops, of course, they weren’t the same colour as us. We rubbed Kiwi shoe blacking into our faces. It didn’t do a very good job, we didn’t really look right. Never did I want to look dark so much before. We set off up this hill and there was a big artillery fire plan – quite a big Japanese position. We went up the hill; the artillery fire plan came down very heavily on the top and was going to try for about half an hour. The infantry were gradually working their way up and the Company Commander asked me to take the company as near as I could to where the fire was coming down. We were going to, a sort of knob on the end of a ridge, and the other company was coming on the outside of it, and we were going to get onto the saddle and attack it from the side. We got right up and we’d taken off as far as we could, so that when they went over the top, they were right close to the Japs. By this time, I was getting fairly experienced with artillery fire, and our own artillery fire was cutting the branches off the trees over our heads. I knew we were pretty close then, I knew our shells were dropping about forty yards away.

We met a lot of trouble – the Japs were also resisting the other company coming up the other side. We had a side view of what was going on. There was this bit of a hill at the end, and the Japanese were lined up behind it. We could see the other company coming up the other side and the Japs were lobbing grenades over the tops of their heads, and there was a line of Japanese. A Mahratta corporal next to me with a bren gun, and from the hip with a big five hundred round magazine, he went down this line of Japs, and you know how you put a line of dominos together and you push the end one, and they all go down, they all went down like that; it was very encouraging.

There was a bunker at our end of the position, with machine guns in it, about forty yards from me. It was much too close to use my own guns, but with us, we had a F.O.O., a Fold Observation Officer from the tanks, because there was a tank on the hill, about eight hundred yards away and he was supposed to give fire orders to this tank, but both his signals were killed and his wireless was knocked out. My wireless was working, but I was unable to direct our twenty five pounders onto the position because we were too close to our own shells. I got the wavelength of his tank, and as we were crouching down on the ground, I got onto his frequency and started giving his tank orders. I’d never done this before in my life. I gave them an aiming point, then I said, “Up a bit, down a bit, right a bit.” It was a very high velocity tank. We were trying to put these tank shells through the bunkers – it was like playing darts and trying to hit the bull’s-eye. Things were going quite well, but then the Japs started having a go at us and there were dust and bullets flying all over the place. Suddenly, there was a big swoosh next to me, and of course I got hit by a burst of machine gun fire, but thank God, it didn’t hit me straight; it ricocheted off the ground and the bullets spun into me. They went in like propellers. One of my signallers, Vincent Grant said, “You’re hit.” I said, “Don’t be damn silly.” It was just like being hit, I didn’t realise I’d been wounded. To this day he swears he put his finger into one of the holes and pulled a bullet out. I didn’t know what was really going on, but I was a bit worried by this time. The Company Commander knew I’d been hit, he was close by, and the other company by this time was withdrawing down the hill. He said, “I’m going to fight a rear guard action to get the wounded out, and those who can’t walk, I haven’t got enough stretchers……….” He said, “If you can walk, can you get my walking wounded down the hill?” I was glad to accept the offer of getting down the hill, so I gave my signals instructions to stay near the company commander and help him with communications, and get down the hill as fast as they could. There was a bombardier with me, he was a good guy who’d already won a military medal. He said, “I’ll help you out.” I put my arm round his shoulder and I stood up, when a bullet went between my legs then between his legs, and so, we had a short conference and decided we’d crawl. We crawled down the hill and all these walking wounded were gathering there, these Mahratta guys. There was a corporal who looked as if he was a useful chap, so I gave him instructions to tell everybody to patch themselves up because in three or four minutes, I was taking them down the hill. I couldn’t do much for myself, I’d torn my trouser leg right down and pulled it up to hold myself together because both sides of my thigh were moving and I’d lost a lot of flesh and muscle all down one side. It wasn’t hurting too much.

We set off down the hill. I told them all to prepare to fight. I said, “You’ve got to carry your weapons and if you meet any Japs on the way down, we’ve got to fight our way down.”

I was thinking, “I’m glad I’m getting out of it – I was thinking about my mother. I knew what I was doing, which was probably a bit confusing, but anyway, we went down, and when we got to the bottom, there was this trike and I sent a corporal on to get a Jeep ambulance to come and pick us up. They picked us up and took us along. We were in the hands of the medics and I can tell you, the medical service was absolutely superb. We just relaxed and forgot everything. The morphia and the lobes of sulphonamide powder, which I believe was protective from getting gangrene........I felt an arm across my shoulder and I realised someone was leaning by the stretcher. He said a few kind words and that I’d done a good job, and he said, “You’ll have to stand at the bar for a few weeks when you’re drinking.” He said, “When you get better, get back to the regiment.”

When I got cleaned up in Imphal, they found another bullet in my leg, which I didn’t know I’d got. I went to hospital and I was very well looked after, then I went on leave and eventually got graded A1, after about two months, because I’d got mostly fleshy type wounds, nothing important. Then I got posted to a depot, but I sent my colonel a telegram to explain that I was graded A1, posted to a depot – it was a court martial offence to return to my unit which I was no longer belonged to – what were his instructions? I got a telegram back telling me to hitch hike to the regiment, which I did. I arrived at Dimapur and by this time, the regiment had been withdrawn, having done another two months hard fighting while I’d been away.

I came out of Dimapur, now I’m in the battle area and the rain’s coming down in sheets, and there was a landslide right in front of me, it just came down and an Indian truck had taken the brunt of this. There were two dead Indians there and an Indian driver who was still alive, but both of his legs were tremendously crushed. I had to deal with that problem straight away, as soon as I was back in the war area. It wasn’t a war injury, but I sent the second vehicle back to the hospital for an ambulance and a doctor, and I put tourniquets on this fellow’s groin to try and stop the bleeding; tearing material up and putting stones in it. Was that the way to do it, big stones and pull them in? – until the ambulance came, pushing with my hand to try to stop the bleeding. He died later that night I heard.

Just before Christmas of 44, we went into action again following the Eleventh East Africans. They had forced a bridge-head over the Chindwin, about a hundred miles further south, and the second division was going to go over in a big attack on Mandalay. We had one Indian division on the left and another division coming round the bottom. There was a tremendous encircling movement to capture Mandalay.

I was thrown in at the deep end again; I went out with the Royal Berks on Christmas Day and we hit the Japanese at lunch time, and we had a big battle. A little plane came by towing a banner that said, “Happy Christmas to the Fourteenth Army.” You can imagine the language from the Royal Berks.

Then I went out on a big hook with the D.L.I. and with me was a major from the Ninety-ninth Field regiment - we had a representative from two field regiments – and his name was Arthur Stewart Liberty who died recently, chairman of ‘Liberty’. When he was introduced to Lord Mountbatten before the battle started, he asked him what his name was, he said Liberty, he said, “What’s your job in life?” He said, “I’m a draper sir.” He went on to shake hands with the next man and he hadn’t a clue who he was talking to. He was already a director of ‘Liberty’. Anyway, we went round and we hit trouble on the second day. We were crossing a dry riverbed and I was going behind the leading company, and the Japs opened up from the other side and caused a lot of casualties, stretcher bearers were shot down and so the artillery came. That was why we were there. We came in again and immediately, I was able to get a smokescreen down over the Japanese. When they got back, we set up an attack and we fired an artillery fire plan on the Japanese position, then went across. We’d nearly completed our encircling move, and I’d got my bren carrier with me Stuart Liberty had his bren carrier with him. For two days, mine had been in the lead, but on the last day, he said, “We’re nearly up the road, mine can go in front.”

We’d gone about fifty yards when his carrier went up on a mine. His driver was killed and both of his signallers were wounded. We rolled him in a blanket and put him on my carrier, and we dropped him off at the field ambulance. To this day, he comes to reunion and he always recalls how lucky he was that day, that my carrier wasn’t in the lead, and that is the luck of war.


Anyway, we took this body and dropped it off at the field ambulance, and no sooner had we done that, we were machine gunned by the Japanese Zeros. You’ve probably seen pictures of people on a road with planes coming down with machine guns going and everybody going into the ditch. I beat a brigadier into a ditch and he landed on top of me. He apologised most profusely, but I didn’t mind that because I got into the ditch first. A lot of fighting took place after that and I did a tremendous amount of walking with the infantry. We fought the big battle of Chaulk. It was a set piece battle and when we eventually did it, it was one of those battles where the power of the British Army came to the fore. We’d done a lot of patrolling; we knew the Japanese positions intimately and when we went into the attack with flame throwers, tanks, four abreast behind, the infantry all walking with the tanks, coming overhead we had Hurri-bombers, we had Typhoons firing their rockets and the cartridges from our machine guns were bouncing off our tin hats. We went through this village and wiped the whole place flat. It was so hot we could hardly walk through it. We had nine Lancashire Fusiliers killed one day and twelve wounded, and we killed over two hundred Japs. Once the weight of the British machine got going, the Japs were on the run, they hadn’t got the equipment, and so we really got them.

Now, the last big battle I was in was the assault over the Irrawaddy, and we did a three battalion assault, the Worcesters, the Camerons and the Royal Works Fusiliers. I was sent over with the Worcesters. They were going across during the night, and they got out into the river which was about a mile wide, and some of the boats sank because they were old boats, weren’t properly waterproofed and others that got out in the middle were badly shot up and they never got across; the Worcesters never got anybody over. I was immediately switched over to the Camerons. I got across in daylight with the Camerons. One company went across in front. They had casualties in every boat, their company commander was killed, their medical officer was killed and I came across in the second wave and we didn’t have anybody hit in our boat, we were very lucky. In front of us and behind us, people were hit.

We got over onto the other bank and the War Diary, our official diary says, “Captain Woodcock sent a report in, that the Camerons were being attacked on three sides.” It was all a bit unpleasant to start with, but we dug in, we dug deep trenches and I thought we would be alright for the night. I fired the artillery, the defensive fire tasks and that sort of thing, but I got a message during the night. The Japs had some machine guns which the artillery had been trying to knock out and they’d been the machine guns that had caused all the casualties. I got orders that I had to go out with a platoon that night, crawl along the river bank along the top, get close to the enemy position to identify it, but not too close, so that I could shell it the next morning without any problems to myself. So we did just that; we heard the Japanese talking and they didn’t know we were there. The next morning when it became dawn, I registered the guns on this Japanese position and all morning, I fired a mixture of smoke and high explosive, and not one machine gun fired. The rest of the division came across in swarms, in boats that day. The attack swung left towards Mandalay and the Camerons held the bridgehead and by this time of course, there was no problem at all.

Just before lunch, this young Cameron platoon commander said to me, “That tree, do you think if you went up there, you would see something?” Well I knew it was a foolish thing to do, but I wasn’t going to look chicken in front of a young Cameron – he was only a young fella, at least two years younger than I. Of course, once a Cameron, always a Cameron. I climbed this tree to about twelve feet, up branches. Anyway, that was serving no purpose, I’d kept the guns quiet and why keep risking my own life? The tea was ready – corned beef. It was always corned beef or sardines. I slid down the tree into the trench, and suddenly the tree was raked with machine gun fire; leaves and branches were falling off it. I said to this guy, “It’s your turn after lunch.” He didn’t do that but what he did do was to send a patrol out and found that the enemy had withdrawn; after they’d fired some grenades, they’d withdrawn from the position, leaving chaos and carnage behind, but we’d done our job. Then the colonel sent me back across the river.

I came over with the regiment three days later, and went out with the fusiliers for the next few days, but then there was a big attack going round the south and the other troop commander went out with his party to support the Welsh Fusiliers. The attack had just started when a shell landed right among his party, they were all hit and Signaller Bill Gomme, a wonderful signaller, had a leg blown off and it took him too long to die. He died screaming for his mother. This is war – horrible. I was immediately told to go and replace him, which I did, then we got shelled. I took my carrier up a hill because I didn’t want to take it over the top to join the Royal Welsh. You never go over a crest. I stopped the carrier and I walked up, I had gone about ten yards when in the middle of the track we were going up, was a mine. If we’d gone another ten yards, we’d have gone up with the mine.

I joined the Royal Welsh and that night, I was sent out with a platoon to cut a Jap line of communication. I was sent out on a course and I was flown back into India. On the way back into Burma, I heard that the regiment had been withdrawn and we were going to be taken to India – my war had finished, but two days before they were withdrawn, my Battery Commander, Wilfred Foster was killed, and that really shook me, and when I flew back in, I really felt rotten. I remember putting my head in my hands and saying to myself what I always said, I used to repeat those words time and time again through the battle, "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ’Give me a light, that I can walk safely into the unknown.’ He replied, ‘Walk out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God, that should be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.’” I always used to close my eyes and say this when I got a moment and all sorts of things were happening. It was all that I could do, all I could do was pray. And of course, I was going back to my troop, I was going back to my gunners, I knew I wouldn’t let them down.

Eventually, because the time was getting on, we found we were going to come home, and I was offered the job of Battery Commander on a regular commission, to stay with the regiment, which was still in the Far East, of the Second Division after the end of the war.

In 1991, when I went back to the cemetery at Kohima Ridge, where our regiment had twenty five people buried, we had a chap with us, aged forty five, and he was totally inconsolable as he knelt at the grave of the father he’d never seen.

Of the six Forward Observation Officers we’d had in the regiment, we had three killed and three wounded. The odds weren’t all that good were they?

In York, we have a replica of our memorial in the Cloister Gardens. As you face the Minster, as you go in the gardens on the left, you can see all these cloisters with all the battle honours of the Second Division, Waterloo, Balaclava, all these things, and of course, proudly in the middle, Kohima. The Queen Mother unveiled that, and when we had the silence, all we could hear was a blackbird singing. There were about six or seven hundred veterans there, and a lone piper walking up behind the Memorial, playing ‘Lament Of The Heroes Of Kohima’, and the Camerons, in their full kits and rigout, were sobbing their hearts out; very very moving. It’s worth going to have a look at next time you’re in York. And so, we go back to our war memorial at Kohima. You have to remember, this is in India, where the big battles were fought. It wasn’t until we got over the Chindwin that we were in Burma, and the battles were nowhere near as tough. Kohima was the big battle, and Imphal. I’m sure most have heard those words before, translated from the Greek into English verse: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, ‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today.’” One and a quarter thousand of our division are lying buried behind in the cemetery, and that’s the thought I want to leave you with. We have to look after our tomorrows and we’ve got to pass all the knowledge of remembrance down to our children and our children’s children. It’s vital to remember these people who gave us freedom by sacrificing their own lives; a priceless legacy of freedom. It’s not just a thousand of the Second Division there, in two world wars, it’s actually two and a half million British and Commonwealth men and women. It makes one very humble and it makes one wonder what we’ve done with all the tomorrows we’ve had, particularly since the last war.

Pr-BR