Browsing through a treasure house: the literature of the Burma campaign
By the late Gordon Graham MC*
This wonderful piece was written for Dekho, the magazine of the Burma Star Association (now the Burma Star Memorial Fund) in 2010 by the late Gordon Graham. I found it today when going through some papers and thought others would enjoy reading it. Gordon, who was a friend for many years, loved books, and books about the Burma Campaign became a passion in the last quarter of his life. He donated his entire library to SOAS: this now forms the Burma Campaign Memorial Library. If you need to find any published material on the Burma Campaign, you’ll find it there. Of course, many more books have been published about the Burma Campaign in the past decade. In due course, someone will need to bring Gordon’s list up-to-date.
In addition to reminding myself about books I still need to read, this article brought a tear to my eye. Gordon Graham died, aged 95, in April 2015. He was a force of nature; I will never forget him. His abiding legacy is, of course, the Kohima Educational Trust.
A fellow-veteran recently asked me if I could make a list of the fifty best books on the Burma Campaign. I replied that I could not trust myself to be impartial. My choices would reflect my experience. However, I could envisage lists on different parts of the campaign – the 1942 retreat, Arakan, the Chindits, Kohima, Imphal, the CBI theatre etc – each compiled by someone who had either participated or had consulted someone who had or had at least studied the literature in the context of the whole.
Nevertheless, my friend’s suggestion prompted me to browse afresh through the bibliography of the Burma Campaign Memorial Library (located in the School or Oriental and African Studies). It comprises more than 1,000 titles. The earliest are eyewitness accounts, written while the war was still going on. In its aftermath there began a stream of memoirs, biographies, regimental and formation histories, official histories, fiction, even poetry. Hundreds of articles were published in journals and newspapers. Lectures were given. Diaries and letters were circulated. Overshadowed at the time, Burma 1942-1945 has come to be recognized as one of the great tragic dramas of history, when empires collided and thousands died. The literature is both cause and effect of this.
The Memorial Library is still growing. According to cumulative numbers, the peak year was 1945, when, fifty-four books were published. After 1946, when thirty-six books were published, the flow subsided. Only seven books about the Campaign were published in 1950.
Then the memoirs and histories began. The average in the 1950s was eleven, rising to eighteen in 1959. Bill Slim’s great definitive work Defeat into Victory was published in 1956. In the 1960s fiction and regimental histories added new dimensions. In the ’70s the flow dwindled, reaching a low of four titles in 1977.
In 1979 an extraordinary resurgence began. There were more titles published in 1980s (127) then in the ’50s (113), and the ’90s exceeded all the other decades with 268 titles. While some of this outpouring may have been prompted by the fiftieth anniversary in 1995, much was probably also due to veterans’ reaching their reflective years and deciding to record their memories, and to increasing interest of military historians. Forty-four books on Burma were published in 1998. The end of the century was thus marked by an incredible crescendo. The Burma Campaign was discovered by new generations. For example, BBC correspondent Fergal Keane met by chance the son of veteran John Shipster, author of When The Mist was on the Rice Fields, from whom he learned about the Battle of Kohima. Keane’s book on Kohima Road of Bones was published in 2010 as a result of this meeting.
The annual output abated in the 2000s to about ten books a year. The veterans’ generation is passing. Historians are taking over. There is much still to be written, for example about the Japanese experience. There are hundreds of books in Japanese awaiting assessment by bilingual scholars in the cool light of history.
The existing literature is both a treasure house and a memorial in words to those who died, much of it written by soldiers who came home and lived their tomorrow for which their comrades gave their today.
Here is a sampling:
The Campaign as a whole
Slim’s Defeat into Victory (1956) and Louis Allen’s Burma The Longest War (1984) are the benchmarks of this category. A Burma veteran walked into his local bookshop the other day and offered the bookseller his copy of the paperback edition of Defeat into Victory. Sold for three shillings and six pence in 1958, its pages were faded and frayed. It was held together only by Scotch tape. It had been precious to him, and he thought someone else might like to have it.
There are no doubt tattered copies of many books from the immediate post-war era. Among the earliest was Frank Owen’s The Campaign in Burma, published by HMSO in 1946. Some famous names appear in this category – Auchinleck, Wavell and Mountbatten - but only as authors of dispatches which they wrote for the London Gazette, documents of more interest today for the discretion with which they were written than for the light that they throw on events. By contrast, recently published titles such as Jon Latimer’s Burma The Forgotten War (2005), Julian Thompson’s The Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Burma (2008), or Robert Lyman’s Slim Master of War (2004) are the fruits of perspective and research which were not available to earlier writers.
The Japanese Invasion
Covering the first half of 1942, this category ranges from correspondents’ field dispatches such as Bombs over Burma and Trek Back from Burma to Ian Lyall Grant’s authoritative work, published in 1999 with a Japanese co-author. Other accounts signal their contents dramatically in titles such as Walkout with Stilwell in Burma, A Hell of a Licking, Muddy Exodus or The Underrated Enemy. There are also graphic accounts, some unpublished, of the sufferings of refugees who had to walk out of Burma as the Japanese advanced.
Almost half of the thirty-one titles in this category record the achievements and travails of West African troops, some reflecting the belief of their officers that their record was undervalued at the time. Their most notable protagonist is John Hamilton, whose book on the 81st West African Division was published in 2001. There are very few accounts of the ill-fated 1943 Arakan campaign, well described in Robert Lyman’s chapter in his book The Generals on General Irwin. Of the books about the successful 1944 campaign, the best are probably Patrick Turnbull’s Battle of the Box (1979) and Arthur Swinson’s Success in the Arakan (1968).
Assam, Manipur and the advance into Burma
The battles of Kohima and around Imphal in 1944 were turning points of the campaign, and the fifty-three titles in this category do this justice. They include such classics as Ian Lyall Grant’s The Turning Point (1993), Ursula Graham Bower’s Naga Path (1954), Arthur Campbell’s The Siege (1957), Lucas Phillips’s Springboard to Victory (1966), David Rooney’s Burma Victory (1992), and Arthur Swinson’s Kohima (1968). These and most of the other titles were written by participants, but the epic story of the Japanese invasion of India and their defeat has attracted a new generation of historians, including John Colvin No Ordinary Men (1995), Les Edwards’s Kohima (2008), Fergal Keane’s Road of Bones (2010) and Robert Lyman has two books in preparation.
With the exception of Slim, the top commanders (Mountbatten, Giffard, Scoones, Stopford, Leese) left no records. One Brigadier (Victor Hawkins, who commanded the 5th Brigade of Second Division) wrote a personal account, which survives as an unpublished typescript. Among notable accounts by serving soldiers are two books by David Atkins (The Reluctant Major and The Forgotten Major - 1986 and 1989); Rex King-Clark’s The Battle for Kohima (1995); and Harry Seaman’s The Battle for Sangshak (1989).
What was known as the CBI (China-Burma-India) theatre, under Stilwell’s command, consisted of Chinese and American troops, from the latter of whom have come most of the sixty-two titles listed. The Stilwell Papers, edited by Theordore H White (1949) reveal both Stilwell’s brilliance and his bitterness, knowledge of which are indispensable to an understanding of this theatre of war. Two illuminating works are Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1977) and Charlton Ogburn’s The Marauders (1959). Stilwell did not write for publication but was the subject of numerous biographies. Vinegar Joe’s War by Nathan Prefer (2000) sounds attractive. The CBI bibliography is notable for its dramatic titles, eg Still Time to Die, Wrath in Burma, Chancy War, Shots Fired in Anger, Who Stole My Mule? and Confusion Beyond Imagination.
Wingate, like Stilwell, left nothing in writing. He was killed in an air crash in 1944. Chindit veterans have been prolific. The thirty-five titles describing the expeditions in 1943 and 1944 are mostly written by participants. They have a good story to tell and an eccentric and controversial leader, a good subject for biographies which includes Leonard Mosley’s Gideon Goes to War (1955). Christopher Sykes’s Orde Wingate (1959) is a more substantial work. The best-known accounts of the expeditions are by Michael Calvert (three books) and Bernard Fergusson whose Beyond the Chindwin (1945) and The Wild Green Earth (1946) are classics. Most of the Chindit books are personal stories of courage and suffering. Shelford Bidwell’s The Chindit War (1979) is an overall account.
The twenty-nine titles under this heading cover mainly V Force and Z Force, networks of pre-war Burma hands who operated behind Japanese lines. There are also numerous accounts of the guerrilla warfare waged by hill tribes – Karens, Chins and Kachins. There are many tales of individual courage, notably Ian Morrison’s Grandfather Longlegs (1947). Ian Fellowes-Gordon’s Amiable Assassins (1957) and Sir Geoffrey Evans’s The Johnnies (1964) are two moving accounts of the parts played by the hill tribes in the allied victory.
There are sixty-eight books about what happened in Burma just before, during and after the Japanese occupation. The authors are either Burmese or old Burma hands or British citizens trapped by the war, several of whom, including Maureen Baird-Murray (A World Overturned – 1997) and Hilda Corpe (Prisoner Beyond the Chindwin – 1955), are women. Among Burmese authors is Thakin U Nu, post-war Prime Minister when he wrote Burma Under the Japanese in 1954. Some of the titles are political, notably Hugh Tinker’s Burma: the Struggle for Independence 1944 to 1948. Anyone who read all seventy-six books in this category would have a good knowledge of Burma as it had been ruled by the British, was ruled during the campaign by the Japanese, and attained post-war independence which sowed the seeds of the military dictatorship under which the country is now suffering.
Reference to Gurkha regiments occurs in many books about the Burma campaign. The fact that there are nineteen books exclusively devoted to the exploits and histories of Gurkha regiments is a testimony to the loyalty and admiration which they inspired in their officers who transmitted their feelings into personal stories and history. Two of the books are by a Gurkha officer who became a professional writer – John Masters (Bugles and a Tiger, 1956 and The Road Past Mandalay, 1961) relate his experiences as a Gurkha officer. A curio in the Gurkha list is Scot Gilmore’s A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurkha Rifles. The most famous Gurkha officer/author is of course Bill Slim.
Unit and Formation Histories
Pride of regiment is an important factor both in withstanding defeat and achieving victory. In the Burma campaign, unit commanders had an exceptional degree of local discretion. This gave birth to no fewer than 113 histories of regiments, units, services and formations featuring the Burma campaign. Such histories tend to be read only by those who served in the units they describe, which is a pity since together they form a mosaic of the whole campaign. A sample of such titles (juxtaposed in the bibliography only because their authors’ names begin with H), illustrates the richness and variety of this genre:
John Hallam History of the Lancashire Fusiliers 1935-1945 (1993)
Gerald Hanley 11th East African Division in the Kabaw Valley 1944 - 1946
Peter Hart At the Sharp End: from Le Paradis to Kohima, 2nd Bn the Royal Norfolk Regiment (1998)
Norman Havers March On (Second Bn The Dorsets) (1992)
A H W Haywood The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force (1964)
John Hill China Dragons: A Rifle Company at War (2nd Bn Royal Berkshires) 1991
Harry Homer No Tigers in the Jungle (The RAF Regiment in Burma)
Many of the regiments no longer exist. The literature is their monument.
Of the fifty biographies listed, thirty-one cover five subjects – Wingate twelve, Mountbatten seven, Slim five, Wavell five, Stilwell two. Biographers, one notes, write with more frankness when their subjects are dead. Robert Lyman’s The Generals, published in 2007, broke new ground by juxtaposing biographies of the Japanese commanders with the British, and by including assessments of less known British generals such as Hutton, Smyth and Irwin.
The 131 titles have are in a sense the heart of the matter – individual stories about facing death, overcoming fear and embracing survival. Very few of these autobiographical stories are by professional writers. They are written from the heart, sometimes as a cathartic, sometimes to circulate privately to family and friends. Many of them reveal that the authors are searching for meaning. A high proportion were written long after the events they describe. George Macdonald Fraser, one of the few Burma veterans who became professional writers, recorded in his Quartered Safe Out Here (1992), his experiences with the Border Regiment in the 17th Indian Division. John Shipster’s When The Mist was on the Rice Fields was published in 2000.
It is hard to think of a theatre of war where medical services faced a greater challenge. In the early phases of the campaign disease took more men out of action than wounds. Evacuation of causalities from jungle battlefields was a Herculean task. Fortunately for posterity, a good number of doctors and nurses (who contribute nine of the twenty-six books) recorded their experiences. The best-known medical author is Gordon Seagrave, whose books on the life of a Burma surgeon are a testament to his skill and courage. Many of the medical books are infused with humanity, and some with humour. Leslie Wilson’s A Son of the Raj (1996) and William Ashford-Brown’s Cold Hands are examples. For serious students of medical military history, there are four official tomes, one British, one American and two Indian, totalling more than 3,000 pages.
The Indian National Army
The writings on the Indian National Army (thirty-nine titles) have one thing in common with those of the Chindits - both are built round the personalities of legendary leaders, both of whom were killed in air crashes. Eleven of the thirty-nine INA books are about Subhas Chandra Bose. The INA became a cult in Bengal after the war. Most of the books are by Indian authors, and celebrate the career of the INA from its foundation in Singapore in 1942 until the end of the war as a contribution to the cause of Indian independence. There are three books on the list which aim to place the INA in the neutral light of history - Hugh Toye’s Springing Tiger (1959), Gerard Corr’s The War of the Springing Tigers (1975) and Leonard Gordon’s Brothers Against the Raj (1990).
The War at Sea
Burma was a land war, except for operations on the Arakan coast. Amphibious operations were extraordinarily difficult against a coastline dominated by jungle and mangrove swamps, and limited by a shortage of landing craft. Accordingly, the list of books on naval operations consists of only twelve titles, four of which deal only incidentally with the Burma theatre.
The War in the Air
By contrast the RAF and the US Air Force were major factors in the war and made victory possible. They pioneered air supply in the field and evacuation of casualties in small aircraft. The second Chindit expedition used gliders towed behind transport aircraft. The air delivery of war materials from Assam to China involved incredible organization, planning and courage. Transport planes over “The Hump” were lost at an average rate of more than one per day. The achievements of the air war are amply documented in 112 books of which one author (Norman Franks) wrote five. Some of the RAF squadrons, notably 194 Squadron (The Friendly Firm), formed strong fellowships which lasted into the 21st century. Aircrews perhaps had more time to write than those who fought on the ground. Whatever the reason, there is no sector of the war in Burma which is more comprehensively represented in literature. Like the legendary Flying Tigers, who started their war in Burma before moving to China, many of the authors devised romantic titles for their stories like The Flying Carpet Salesman, Silently into the Midst of Things, The Tattered Eagle, Fire by Order, Chasing After Danger, and (of course) Forgotten Skies.
Equally prolific is the field of fiction – 110 titles. Few of the authors served in Burma, but many found it a dramatic setting for tales of imagination. One novelist who did serve in Burma is Brian Aldiss (A Soldier Erect, 1974). Other notable novels were written by H E Bates (The Purple Plain, 1947, and The Jacaranda Tree, 1949); Russell Braddon (End of a Hate, 1958); Tom Chamales (Never So Few, 1957); Nevil Shute (The Chequer Board, 1947); and preeminently Paul Scott, whose Raj Quartet has the war in Burma as a backdrop. Scott also wrote two Burma-based novels – Johnny Sahib (1979) and The Mark of the Warrior (1979). Melvyn Bragg’s The Soldier’s Return concerns the life of a Burma veteran after the war. The earliest novel written in wartime Burma was by Pearl Buck (The Good Earth). Entitled The Promise, it tells the sad story of a Chinese conscript who found himself fighting the Japanese in Burma.
Of the 500 or so books written in Japanese only one or two have been translated. This is a trove that waits to be unlocked for English readers by bilingual scholars. Three books written in English by Japanese are Yuji Aida’s Prisoner of the British; Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma; and Izumiya Tatsuro’s The Minami Organ. Gerald Hanley wrote an imaginative story about a Japanese soldier in his See You in Yasukuni (1969). A unique collection by John Nunneley in collaboration with Japanese veteran Kazuo Tamayama records tales by Japanese Soldiers about the Burma Campaign (2000). Starting with Louis Allen’s The Longest War, military historians, including Robert Lyman and Fergal Keane, have explored the lives of the Japanese generals who conducted the war in Burma. Books juxtaposing the experiences of Japanese and allied soldiers who fought against each other remain to be written. There are 300 titles about the war in Burma in Japanese in the Burma Campaign Memorial Library.
There are many printed publications other than books – journals, newsletters, poetry, essays, newspaper articles. A major entry is the complete archive of DEKHO from its Volume 1 Number 1 (1951). Also in this category are oddments like tear sheets from comics, lecture notes, cartoons, brochures, language phrase books, and picture books. Among little known classics are the letters home by Clive Branson, a young British communist who made contact with his Indian counterparts before being killed in the Arakan, and stories, poems and letters to his wife of Alun Lewis, a revered Welsh writer, also killed in the Arakan. One can also read texts as disparate as Slim’s radio talks and lectures from 1947 to 1957 and a short poem about Kohima written in his later life by a private soldier of limited education. He left it with instructions to his widow that it should be sung to the tune of Red River Valley.
A treasure house indeed.