Remembering 'John': the mild man of the Jungle
Discovering the remarkable John Salmon, V Force Burma and B Squadron 22 SAS, Malaya
Those of you who have read Tony Irwin’s brilliant book on his time as a V Force officer in Arakan – ‘Burma Outpost’, essential reading for anyone wanting to get beneath the skin of fighting the Japanese in Burma – might have wondered at the identity of ‘John’, the remarkable officer who joined Irwin’s team in 1943 and whose exploits he describes extensively in the book.
There’s much in the book about this extraordinary character, but he is given no surname. Here is one story:
John has just been in, and a very shaken John he turned out to be. It has been the custom of our Force to stick out our necks, and do seemingly ridiculous things. I feel John's latest effort was almost too good to be true. The Army had moved up and were about eight hundred yards from the main Jap positions. All that separated the two forces was a long, straggling village, so, like the madman that he is, John chose the most comfortable house in that village, set up the Union Jack and moved in, slap in the middle of no-man's-land. He had not been there two hours when two shells from our own guns landed in a barn that was attached to his "mansion." I saw the shell holes and do not exaggerate when I say that they were within twenty yards of his room. That would have been enough for most people, but instead of moving, he just dug himself a couple of slit trenches, and rejoiced because one of the shells had killed a cow and that meant a fresh roast for dinner. (It had not occurred to him to dig the trenches before.) Dinner over, he retired to his bed, the most forward camp bed in the Arakan, and certainly the only one in the front line. About midnight, he was awakened by one of his Scouts and told that many Japanese had entered the South end of the village. He got up and pulled on a pair of trousers and grabbed his Tommy gun. As he ran downstairs he heard the most terrifying racket coming from the end of his garden, and looking out, saw about thirty Japs making towards him. There was no cover save the slit trench and he dived in there, only to find it already filled with the prone bodies of his men… Then suddenly; when the Japs were only a few yards away, they turned and made for the next-door house, some fifty paces distant. They surrounded it and set it alight, then performed a war dance, shouting their battle cry, firing into the air and waving bayonets and swords and flags. They had gone to the wrong house and by some wonder had not seen John as he leapt for the trench. For twenty minutes he had to stand, like a settler of old, protecting his plot from the Redskins, watching this murderous and, as he thought, drunken dance, wondering the whole time whether the Jap was making a fool of him and just prolonging the agony. The most sensible thing that he did that night was to refrain from firing, because though he might have held off for a short while the thirty men that danced before him, he could not have survived the fire from a further thirty who lay in the chaung a hundred yards away, unbeknown to him, until they got up to go. Eventually they tired of their sport and made off for their own lines, and only then did he come out of his hole. With great care he approached the still burning house, and inspected the damage. Fortunately no one had been in the place, as most of the locals had fled with the approaching of the armies. All around the building he found Japanese flags, stuck in defiance to the Jack, the stickers assuming, I suppose, that the morrow would bring no flying Jack. As dawn broke, and the sun came over the hills, the brightness of the colours of the Union Jack could be seen from the enemy lines; a shout of dismay came from them and a burst of fire flickered amongst the ashes of the house next door. All that day the Jack flew proudly and the Jap lobbed over a few mortar shells, but they did no damage. As night fell, the flag was lowered, and John moved over to another house, but the Jap refrained from repeating his performance of the previous night, which was wise of him, for a party awaited his coming.
V Force was an organisation tasked with creating ‘watch and ward’ networks across the hills between Burma and India, working with local villagers to warn of Japanese activity. I’ve given a talk on the subject to the Kohima Educational Trust which can be found here here.
John was awarded a Military Cross for his work with V Force. His citation reads:
Captain Salmon has been instrumental in procuring valuable information regarding enemy dispositions and movements. This has entailed frequent penetrations into localities strongly held by enemy troops. These missions have been undertaken without escort and at great personal risk, involving sojourns in occupied territory for up to three days at a time, to obtain the information required. Throughout, Capt. salmon has displayed a devotion to duty and disregard for his own safety, worthy of the highest praise. No matter what the difficulties, he has shown great courage and determination.
Later, Tony Irwin and John were sleeping in a house close to the Major General Frank Messervy’s 7 Indian Division HQ near Sinzweya in northern Arakan when the Japanese Ha-Go offensive began. They were awakened to the sound of gunfire and shouting on the morning of 7 February 1944:
I lay there listening to it for a few minutes, and John, who had come with me, shouted across the room to say that it was time to get moving. I was just going to object when I heard the cheer. Above the sound of firing it came, clear through the morning air—Banzai! and then shouts and a scream or two and then more roars of Banzai and cheers like a rugger match. It was without doubt the Yellow Men, and without doubt time we got up. The speed with which John and I dressed beat all records, and we ran out…
The two men remained together throughout the siege of Sinzweya which followed, and were witnesses to the notorious massacre of staff and patients at the Medical Dressing Station. If you can, get hold of the book and read the story of the siege for yourself (pp.88-127). It’s a remarkable one. Suffice it to say, without John, Tony Irwin would not have had a book to write. One of their many adventures was at the start of the Japanese siege of the ‘Admin Box’ at Sinzweya. All was confusion:
Then after the battle had started and we had been pushed back into the petrified Box, John and I had gone into the [Ngakyedauk] Pass alone to pull out about ten ammunition trucks that had been abandoned by their drivers when ambushed an hour before. We had gone in alone and terrified, not knowing why we had gone. We had walked alone up the Pass a mile to where the ambush had been " blown " and there we had sat in the driver's seat of strange lorries and reversed and turned, got stuck and gone jerkily forward, stopped and reversed, and turned again, alone up the Pass where the Japs were. Then a Gurkha Captain had come along and there were three of us, and later some of the drivers returned and we got all the trucks back into the petrified Box with the loads of food for the starved guns. That was the bravest thing that we ever did, but we did not know it because we were all numb with fatigue and it was rather a relief to be up the Pass away from the guns and the dust and the fearful smells of a bloody battle, and it was not until we had climbed into the cabs of the lorries that we realised just how alone we were and then it was too late to do anything about it. And then it had been John and I who had realised that the neck of the Pass was undefended and open to the enemy, and we had collected up an Indian bridging company and marched them into the neck and shown them where to dig in and told them to shoot anything or anyone they saw who came from the West, for he must be an enemy. They had been frightened and when two shells had landed near-by they thought to run, so we fell them in in three ranks and we had a thirty minute drill parade in the neck of the Box within yards of the enemy and they regained their confidence and stayed in the neck, holding off the enemy until the Box was opened.
This is one of my favourite passages, which I’ve quoted elsewhere:
On the night of the attack on the M.D.S., John and I held our little [Rorke’s] Drift with about twenty men. From the moment the moon got up, which was about eight, it became very obvious that there was to be no sleep for any of us. We were frightened, really desperately frightened, At about nine that night the Japs started to open up with scores of L.M.G.s and rifles, all firing bright-red tracer. The noise can only be compared with a Hollywood film.
“Were you at Dunkirk, Anthony?"
“Yes! a picnic after this.”
So, who was ‘John’? His full name was Captain John Reginald Salmon RA. He was a remarkable man who enjoyed an extraordinary career both in the army and then afterwards. He was given a commission in the Royal Horse Artillery in 1937 at the age of 17, was awarded a Military Cross for his work in Burma and received a Mention in Despatches for his service with the SAS in Malaya. He passed away in 2007. Here is his obituary.
His two sons and daughter have shown me some of the photographs from John’s time as the Officer Commanding B Squadron 22 SAS. They are remarkable for what they show of the work the SAS were doing among the aboriginal people of the Central Highlands to protect them from the communist guerrillas. Here is John:
This one shows John (right) with his Squadron Sergeant Major, WO2 Matthews, together with local villagers.
There are lots more. I hope to be able to persuade the National Army Museum to show them in an exhibition, and to use them in my (forthcoming) book on the Emergency.
The reformed SAS did not have a good reputation early in the campaign in Malaya. One of the reasons this improved dramatically from 1953 and 1954 was the appointment of men like John Salmon and another SAS stalwart, with whom I had the opportunity to discuss operations in Burma and Malaya, the late Colonel The Lord John Slim. Together they exemplified Irwin’s summary of the best of the British soldier, in both places:
“The British Army will be remembered best, not for its countless deeds of daring and invincible stubbornness in battle, but for its lenience in conquest and its gentleness in domination.” (p. 129)
It was by such ‘dauntless men who knew their duty, and who did it’ (Pericles) that the war in Burma was won, and the insurgency in Malaya defeated.
A lovely photograph of John and his beloved wife Billee has been sent to me by their daughter, Judy.
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