Burma: The Forgotten War


    Battalion Colours

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    Burma: The Forgotten War

    Post by Battalion Colours on Thu Nov 01, 2012 2:06 pm

    Very little has been written about the Canadians who served in Burma during WW II and here is one such story:

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    Captain Roy McKenzie

    The family request for information about Roy McKenzie placed on the Burma Star website, was one of the first Chindit stories I ever read concerning a survivor of Operation Longcloth. Nephew Jack Oullette placed the material on the website I am guessing, sometime in the early 2000's, but sadly his given email contact address is now unattainable. My hope is that by reproducing the information here, this might somehow re-open the communication channel and allow us to make contact and exchange details about the life of his Uncle Roy.

    Whether this happens or not is down to my old friend serendipity, but in any event the story of Roy McKenzie is more than worthy and should take it's place amongst these pages.

    Roy McKenzie was originally from Ontario, Canada, but had made his own way over to England at the beginning of the war and joined the British Army. He was to become to my knowledge, one of three Canadians to take part in the Chindit operation of 1943. The others being Kenneth Wheatley who acted as Air liaison for column 8 on Longcloth and George Faulkner who was chief medic in column 2, and who later wrote the medical debrief contained within Wingate's own official report for 1943.

    Here is what Jack Oullette wrote about his Uncle, as seen on the Burma Star website pages:

    Canadian born
    Captain Roy McKenzie
    Seaforth Highlanders
    3rd Btn 2nd Gurkha Rifles (see Regimental cap badge depicted above)
    Muleteer Transportation Officer
    3 Column 77th Brigade in 1943

    My uncle, Roy McKenzie, returned briefly to visit my parents after the war, in the uniform of Captain in the British Army. He was accompanied for a short time by another uncle, both brothers of my mother, who was a Private in the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division. I just about remember this, being about 8 years old at the time, and it seemed to me that they flitted in and out of my life like a lost post-card. They were my heroes then, for an instant in time, and still are in spite of time and circumstances.

    Roy left a small steamer trunk with my mother and it wasn't long before I gained access to discover an assortment of keepsakes with, as I recall, some weapons, including two "kukri" knives, and photos, letters, etc. My little adventure was soon discovered, and this treasure chest was removed from my sight as quickly as it's owner had vanished. When I asked my mother where my uncles had disappeared to the answer was always sketchy and remained so over the years. I was told something to the effect that they had been "different" when they returned, albeit that they had, after all, been pretty rough around the edges before they had enlisted, the sons of a widowed mother during the depression. But they knew how to party in a serious way when the War was over, like many returned men, and they must have made quite a mess in my little home town and turned their sister into "the enemy", since she vowed that she would not have them back.
    And so it was; I never saw them again and they were hardly ever spoken of again. "These things happen" has never been quite adequate for me and I've tried to put their stories together, starting with Captain Roy McKenzie, British Army, possibly Military Cross, Muleteer transportation officer, 3 Column, 1st Chindit Expedition in 1943.

    Roy obviously made his way to the U.K. early in the war and his trail has been picked up in 1943 as a Captain in the Chindits, attached to the 2nd King Edward VII's Own Ghurkha Rifles, part of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. According to Harold James, (Lt. in the same unit at the time, and author of "Across the Threshold of Battle") he was a transportation officer, which was not an official title but a job to be done in the "3 Column" section of the brigade under Major Michael "Mad Mike" Calvert. Details are sketchy, but he apparently led his muleteers, with the column, across the river into Burma and participated in the demolition of the railway facilities as well as other operations. He is said to have been responsible for at least one ambush of Japanese troops, helping to make possible the railway attack.

    Following these operations behind the Japanese lines, Wingate split up his brigade and sent them back to India in their various ways and Captain McKenzie was apparently charged with leading a group back. We find him, according to James, back in India with the rest of the survivors of this very difficult raid, taking leave and "r and r" (rest and recuperation) in Kashmir. Beyond that I have not been able to trace Uncle Roy's whereabouts or activities until he returned to visit my parents briefly after the War. I have not been able to verify anything in relation to his possible decorations or what became of him after the War, beyond a couple of reports that he was seen in Windsor, Ontario.
    Although it is late, I would certainly value any information about Roy that might turn up. I regret not knowing him as I grew up and not knowing sooner how this brave soldier served his King and Country.

    As a postscript to Jack's story, Gavin Edgerley-Harris - Assistant Curator and Archivist of the Canadian Military Museum added:

    "Roy McKenzie was commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders on 2nd November 1942 and was seconded to 3rd battalion, 2nd Gurkhas. He served in No. 3 Column 77th Bde as Mule officer.

    He was engaged in the successful operation around Nankan Village on 6th March 1943. On return to India continued with the Battalion and accompanied it to Burma once more, seeing further service in the Arakan. Captain McKenzie was demobilized 1945.

    Medals: 39-45 Star, Burma Star, Defence Medal, War Medal".

    o that is what the family know about Roy and his time in WW2. In 2008 I visited Burma with my family and on that trip was a Burma campaign veteran named Denis Gudgeon. He had known Roy from their time together in Column 3, where Denis had spent many of the long and arduous marches that year in the company of Captain McKenzie, or 'Mac' as he was known to his fellow officers. Denis remembered Captain McKenzie fondly and recalled that:

    "Mac was a lovely genuine man who always considered the junior officers viewpoint and ideas, even if he rarely acted upon them".

    As Jack has already told us Captain McKenzie was made ATO (Animal Transport Officer) for the column in 1943 and soon became attached to his beloved mules. Pictured right, is a group of muleteers from 1943 congregating on the banks of one of the rivers that year, either re-grouping after a crossing or preparing to get their mules across.

    Here is a quote from the book 'Canadians and the Burma Campaign, 1941-45', by Robert Farquharson which recounts the early moments of McKenzie's time behind enemy lines in Burma:

    "His first task was to get the mules over the River Chindwin. Mules are good swimmers once persuaded to enter the water. 'Mac' got his mules into the river, but on reaching midstream, they all suddenly turned and headed back to the shore they knew. Eventually, with patience, persistence and some little profanity, he got the mules across. Once all his charges, 80 mules and 20 horses were over, 'Mac' himself crossed elegantly astride his own charger".

    Captain McKenzie adored his animals and became extremely attached to them during those few months in Burma. Although he could not bear to see the mules suffering as the privations of the expedition began to hit home, he was unable to put the creatures out of their misery himself and often passed this sad duty on to his fellow officers. Denis Gudgeon told me during our discussions that:

    "He (McKenzie) simply loved his mules and could never shoot a sick animal, even when he knew it was the right thing to do, it was heartbreaking to see 'Mac' march away, head bowed, after he had lost one of his mules".

    The photograph seen above shows one of the techniques employed by Chindit ATO's during the operations of 1943 and 1944. In this case tethering lead mules to small country boats and towing them across the rivers, often in the hope that other non-tethered mules would then follow them over. One ATO ordered the column bugler over the river and then to sound the 'feeding' bugle call from the opposite bank, this resulted in a stampede, as the mules raced in to the water hoping for a good meal once they reached the other side.

    The main objective for Column 3 in 1943 was to demolish the railway at a place called Nankan. As Calvert and the column closed in one their target, it was decided that all roads and tracks into the village should be guarded in order to prevent any enemy interference during the demolitions. McKenzie was given the task to secure the western end of these tracks and lay an ambush for any Japanese which appeared on the scene. Captain McKenzie instructed Lieutenant D. Gudgeon to take his precious mules away from the area of the ambush and to stay with them until the days business was over.

    Out of the blue two lorry loads of Japanese soldiers arrived and a firefight took place, between McKenzie at one end of the road and Subedar Kum Sing Gurung at the other, the enemy troops were soon dealt with. You can read the IDSM citation for Subedar Kum Sing as awarded for his efforts at Nankan, here: Second citation on the page.

    As the columns work at Nankan was now completed the order was given to proceed to the next rendezvous point, as the main sections of Calvert's party marched away, Roy McKenzie was given the job of rearguard. He remained in the location for the remainder of the evening and did not catch up with the main group again until the next day. It is possible that the family's recollection of him receiving the Military Cross, could be from his actions during this period of Operation Longcloth?

    Denis Gudgeon also told me that:

    "After the demolitions at Nankan, we marched off in an easterly direction and it was rumoured that we might be heading for the Gokthiek viaduct. This would have taken us many miles deeper into occupied territory and food was becoming an issue. 'Mac' often shared his rations with other men, especially if they had begun to look rough, which some of us had by then".

    On March 29th the order was given for the Chindits to return home to India. Major Calvert sat all his officers down around the camp fire and explained how he proposed to achieve this. In his heart of hearts he dearly wanted to march his entire column of men back across the Chindwin River as one unit, but he realised the logistical difficulties of this plan and broke the column up into nine dispersal groups. Once again he called upon Captain McKenzie to lead one of these parties, giving 'Mac' and another officer, Lieutenant George Worte the responsibility of guiding the Gurkha muleteers back to India and safety. Calvert issued each group with maps and compasses, as much food as the men still possessed and an amount of silver rupees in case they needed to employ the help of local Burmese villagers on their journey out.

    Once again Denis Gudgeon told me that:

    "When I eventually got home from my time as a prisoner of war in Rangoon, I was told that 'Mac' had got back safely across the Chindwin, taking about twenty days to complete the journey. He then went off to Srinagar in Kashmir to recuperate from his time in Burma and duly spent all the rupees he still had left from the bag given to him by Mike Calvert at dispersal. Nobody seemed to mind his cheek or his love of a good drink".

    I would suggest a good drink was the very least those returning Chindits deserved after their time in Burma during the early months of 1943.

    Pictured below is a photo of the lead mule and his handler from a column in 1943, as has been mentioned before, the bond between man and beast became very strong during those tough and testing weeks behind enemy lines.

    The last section of this story is a paraphrased transcript of a newspaper article from May 1943, taken from the pages of a local periodical from Roy McKenzie's home city of Ontario. It was one of many articles written about the first Chindit operation, which was used heavily in terms of propaganda and boosting morale, for the success starved British and colonial public of the day.

    'Ontario Captain Among Mule Eating Warriors, in 90 day Jungle Saga'

    New Delhi, May 21st 1943. Eight columns of British and Native troops, with a few Canadian and Australian volunteers and a supply column of 1000 mules, moved into Burma three months ago to smash at Japanese communications. This week the survivors fought their way back out of the jungle, with stories of chaos created among the Japs. They travelled as much as 1000 miles, wrecked railways and bridges, and tied up many more than their own number of Japanese.

    Rivalling the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, the force was led by Brigadier Charles Orde Wingate (39), kin to the legendary T. E. Lawrence. Burmese, Gurkhas and Indian troops were included, along with a regiment of city-bred Britons. The nucleus consisted of veterans from the commando raid in the Lofoten Islands off Norway. Included in this force according to Reuters news agency were several Australian and Canadian volunteers, one being identified as Captain Roy McKenzie, of Windsor, Ontario. The Captain said that he had helped blow up a railway line and had once been swept nearly 2 miles down the Irrawaddy River.

    Certain columns penetrated almost 200 miles into Burma and put out of action the railway line that ran from Mandalay, through Katha to Myitkhina. Demolition charges destroyed the railway in over 75 places, and rendered further operation of this vital line of communication impossible for many months. A Bombay dispatch said that the three month operation had revealed the future pattern of Allied operations within Burma, including the use of wireless to guide in bombers and supplying forces by plane. It is believed that the operation is a precursor to larger incursions into Burma in an attempt to re-open the Burma Road.

    Preston Grover (Associated Press) witnessed the first of these hardened veterans to return home to India after their march from the far shores of the Irrawaddy River. The operation itself had been kept top secret from the outside world for nearly 12 weeks. Grover said that before Wingate's fighters returned to India they had eaten their mules and learned to live off tender bamboo shoots and banana leaves. Men had also tasted snake meat and caught fish with their mosquito nets. Their only communication was by radio, calling in supplies from the RAF, who then dropped in food, spectacles, letters and even some tins of snuff for the kilted Lieutenant Jeffrey Lockett, whose Gurkha troops mistook this to be curry powder and used it in their cooking pots of rice.

    The success of the raid had been seven-fold:

    Blowing up 100 miles of vital railway line and several bridges.
    Delaying the Japanese move toward the Chindwin border with Assam.
    Relieved Japanese pressure on the beleaguered Chinese forces to the north.
    They helped save an encircled force of pro-British Burmese natives.
    They undermined the enemies hitherto sense of security inside Burma.
    Gave British troops invaluable experience in jungle warfare.
    Proved that a well prepared British soldier is the equal of his Japanese counterpart, and proved Wingate's theories of Long Range Penetration and supply from the air.

    Although conditions were extremely harsh for the men, there had been some moments of humour on the expedition. Lieutenant G. C. Bruce from Glasgow told how he took control of Tagaung with only four men. He recounted:

    "We walked into town and met around 30 Burmese who were fighting on the Japanese side. I told them they were foolish to fight for the Japanese and pointed to the sky and said I would call in bombers to destroy them if they continued to resist. Just then 12 of our bombers came roaring overhead, they did not know I was below them and I didn't know they were coming, but it was enough for the Burmese to throw down their weapons and plead for mercy".

    Bruce and his platoon then blocked river traffic on the Irrawaddy for over five days which caused great embarrassment for the bemused and by now panicking Japanese. As the enemy hunted for the Chindits, they began to wonder if the British presence in the area might be the beginning of the Allied re-invasion of Burma. As a result, the Japanese Generals strengthened their numbers in that region, which curtailed any offensive plans they had developed for themselves.


    I highly recommend the following website if your have an interest in the Chindits and the War in Burma.

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    "Honneur et Fidélité"

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