Albert John Harris

Story of Albert John Harris

Burma & Malaysia

I was born on 10th December 1922 and men were being called up at age 19. So I was 19 on the Wednesday in 1941 and on the Thursday I was in the army. I had 16 weeks training in Reading and put in the Infantry in the Royal Sussex Regiment. We were guarding the RDF station at Woodbridge. Bawdsey Manor was one of the main radio detection finder stations at Felixstowe. The part of the coast where we were was quite exposed and flat — easy to invade. When there was a full m oon, we had to stand to because they assumed that the Germans would make a commando or parachute raid just to knock the RDF station out. I had twin Bren guns and I distinctly remember Neville Chamberlain saying “we’re not fighting the good Germans, but the bad Germans”. As I was standing with my machine gun, I wondered how I would be able to tell which was which!

I fought in Burma and Malaya during WW2 and went there in December 1942. I lost some good friends being in the Infantry but looking back it was a fantastic experience especially in Burma. We actually used elephants there and in the jungle you could be 50 yards from a Japanese and not know they were there. When the Japanese attacked Burma their lines of communication were widely stretched. They had attacked so many countries and areas that they never had enough ships. After what had happened in Malaya and Singapore the Japanese thought they could frighten the British to leave India. By 1943/4 we had 1 million Indian troops (5 to 1 British). The Japanese were incredibly cruel to their enemies, their captives and their own people. They were trained to be like this, they had no compassion whatsoever. Even though the Burmese were Buddhists like themselves, they were cruel even to the natives who had not fought them but welcomed them into their country. Except for the Kachims and Karens of North Burma who were Christians and gave the British Army every assistance. The Japanese were even more cruel to them when they refused to accept them as friends. The Japanese called it the Greater Asia CoProsperity Sphere. They were equally cruel to the natives of the Philippines and New Guinea. In fact during their occupations the Japanese made no friends in any country whatsoever.

For instance, the Japanese wanted everyone to bow to them as a mark of respect. There were terrible recriminations if people did not do this correctly. Burma was a rich country compared to the rest of Asia — they exported vast quantities of rice to India and they had teak wood and oil. When we flew into Burma I was 21 and our Officer was younger than me, he was just out of Sandhurst. He was what we called a VC man, we wondered where he got his information on Japanese fighter planes! We were flying into Burma in a Dakota with 29 fully equipped soldiers and behind me there were 4 parachutes. We flew at 8000 feet over thick jungle during the monsoon season. The officer told me to put the Bren gun (there were no doors on the plane) towards the open door and lay on the corrugated floor with the muzzle pointing outwards. When I asked the officer what would stop me sliding out — he said 2 other men would hold my ankles! All 3 of us would have gone out the plane if we had done this. The plane was yawing and pitching. I asked the Officer if he had told the pilot because all I would have shot was the tail of the plane. That was my introduction into North Burma. We all felt that life in the war was very cheap.

We were under the command of the Americans General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and our job was to take over from Merills M….. who had captured Mychyna Airfield and reopen the Ledo Road. Originally the Burma Road went up through into Mandalay and supplied China with arms. By occupying Burma they shut the road so the road was reopened further north by the allies. It was a fantastic feat of engineering. We were in Burma for 18 months and all supplies were dropped by parachute the whole time from Dakota planes. The American Dakota planes could accommodate 29 fully armed soldiers, fly on one engine, not fast but reliable. From 1936 for the next 20 years ½ million of these aircraft were built. They were made under licence in Japan. The Japanese called them Topsys. They are still flying somewhere. Fighting in the jungle, there were no front lines, they could get round you and we could get round them. We formed perimeters and waited for their attack. Fighting was mostly at night. The Japanese were masters of camouflage — you could almost walk on them before you realised they were there. It meant that we had to stay in our positions for long periods and could not fire mortars or use the guns.

Our first experience was in the Arakan in 1944. Whatever they did we were never surprised. There was a hill called 551 like a block pyramid — you could not get up to the top except on your hands and knees as it was sheer. They picked this place because it covered a tunnel going through the road to Buithidang and by holding this hill 551, they controlled the road. They could not reinforce it because we were surrounding it . No one really knew how many Japanese were up on top of hill 551. We were there with the largest field gun in Burma, 7.2 inches and the shells weighed 94 lbs. It was like a turkey shoot, the air was so clear you could see 4 ½ miles as the crow flies without your field glasses and they were firing these field guns every day from 9am till 4pm. Our planes (RAF Vengeance Dive Bombers) fired bombs too, 2 x 500 lb bombs strapped to each wing. Eventually the hill was reduced in size by 6 ft! We could not believe that the Japanese were still at the top of hill 551 and it took 2 attempts to capture it. These Japanese troops were crack troops who had captured Singapore — their best troops called the Imperial Guard. In one night 5000 Japanese marched from Buithidang. In 12 hours they marched 30 miles (or more really considering the terrain). All they had was what they carried on their backs and their mules. Their idea was to capture these big guns and go on to India . We were the second lot of troops to relieve battle of the Admin Box — they weren’t. They died of starvation, the Admin troops held their ground. They were supplied by air for 3 weeks. The wounded in the field hospital were bayoneted . In the end no one surrendered to the Japanese. Bodies were left in jungle where they fell. For the Admin Troops of the 7th Indian Division the Battle of the Admin Box in the Arakan Yomas must have been a nightmare. I never saw one Japanese plane, we had air superiority. Japanese supplied by Burmese — plenty of rice around.

Although I came from London it was amazing how quickly we adapted to the noises, heat, monkeys of the jungle. A panther used to come to our camp every night because we had taken his water hole! He didn’t attack us — there was no chance against a Bren gun! We had boa constrictors, tigers. We were 7000 feet up and had the monsoons — when they started they came across the Bay of Bengal, the cloud was almost at sea level. I reckon we had 200 inches of rain in 2 or 3 months. You could be on dry land and the following morning be in 2 feet of water. It affected the equipment — you filled up your mess tin with food and walked back to your bivvy and the food was swimming in water. Luckily the rain was warm! Temperatures were100 degrees F. We were ready to take Malaya in 1945 (Operation Zipper scheduled for 9 September 1945) when the 2 atom bombs were dropped on Japan. This saved hundreds of thousands of lives because 10,000 Chinese communists in Malaya 1948 held up the British for 2 years. There were 100,000 allied troops and if fighting the Japanese had continued many lives would have been lost.

In Malaya after the surrender we had 300 Japanese as prisoners. They were use to clear trees etc. We were able to watch at close range just how formidable they were. Our RSM wanted a football pitch made from a coconut plantation. He called out the Royal Engineers — a 15cwt lorry, a sergeant and 2 sappers turned up! They placed 8oz slabs of gun cotton a few feet up the trees. Down came the first 6 trees. Right said the RSM “where is the bulldozer? “We have no bulldozer” said the Sergeant, “we are a demolition team — we were told that you wanted some trees knocked down”. On hearing these words the RSM, in his best Bermondsey accent, told the Engineers to depart the scene at the same time chasing them back to their lorry! The RSM decided to use the Japanese prisoners. The 300 Japanese divided into 6 groups. with 1 soldier in charge of 50 men. The coconut trees were 30-40 feet high and 2 feet in diameter, the roots in the ground spread about 20 feet. One soldier climbed the tree with a rope on his back. Meanwhile the other 49 were cutting the roots with a long shovel spade tool, razor sharp. On the command of one man the other 49 pulled the tree down. They carried the tree away, filled in the hole. In 2 weeks we had a full size football pitch, and the fallen trees became the seats.

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