A Very Ordinary Story Chapter 8.

A Very Ordinary Story


WWII - FROM WEST TO EAST - 1943-1946

I had not been back with the Battalion for very long when I was sent off on Small Arms Training Course at Netheravon, and four weeks later, after I had completed my course, I found that the Battalion had moved to Watten in Caithness, between Thurso and Wick. St Andrews was too good to last long! During our stay in Caithness we were issued with 6-pounder anti-tank guns and I was appointed platoon commander of that lot and was honoured with my own bren-gun carrier, it was certainly a lot better than slogging it out in an ordinary infantry company. After doing a fair amount of training in all aspects of warfare, inexplicably we were sent to Chichester to be disbanded! This meant that we would be broken up as a unit and would be posted individually or in groups to other units, not necessarily The Black Watch. I, along with some others, was notified that I was to be posted overseas once more and that I would require tropical kit. A friend of mine, John Fotheringham, who hailed from Burntisland, volunteered to go in my place, he knew that I was not long married and was trying to do me a good turn. Needless to say his application was turned down and it was with great sadness I heard later that he had been killed in action during fighting in Italy. So, by December that same year (1943) I was on the high seas, bound for India and presumably Burma later on.

Our voyage was remarkably uneventful. As the Mediterranean was clear we were able to go the short route via the Med. and Red Sea instead of by the more circuitous route round by the Cape, eventually disembarking at Bombay. We were then immediately moved to a place called Deolali at which was a huge transit camp where we sojourned for a week or two, to allow us to become accustomed to the change of climate and wait for a further posting. Soon after that a contingent of us, about 20 officers, were sent off to a training brigade, based in Bhopal State in Central India, right in the middle of jungle country. The area was a well-known part of India for its tiger hunting and the then Prince of Wales had often been on safari, as a guest of the local Nabob. I never saw a tiger all the time that I was there. We, the officers, were attached to the 12th. Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters and were given eight weeks of intensive jungle training on how to fight and survive in the jungle. Our Company Commander was a Captain Dickinson, (Dickie), who was a decent sort, and treated all the troops under his command with respect and would go to any length to look after their welfare. For some reason, he and I became very friendly and perhaps, because of that, I was a bit privileged, for at the end of our training, instead of being sent off to Burma with the other Officers, I was retained and attached to the Battalion, in Dickie's Company, as an instructor in jungle warfare.

Conditions were a bit primitive; we were under canvas for a long time and eventually a few bashas (huts) were erected to provide mess-rooms etc. I remained with the Sherwood Foresters right up to the end of the war, but I was still a Black Watch man and wore my Regimental dress uniform on the more formal occasions. Our job was to give the troops sent from home some idea of what the jungle was like and to train them in jungle warfare. More or less how I had been trained when I first arrived there.

I had a platoon sergeant, 3 corporals and 3 lance corporals to help me, training approximately 30 men in a platoon with four platoons to a Company. Eventually I gained promotion to a Captain, and before getting my own Company to command, was given the job of training the officers of a battalion of the Royal Scots in the modern methods of jungle warfare as laid down by the War Office. These officers and their men had just come out of Burma after a strenuous campaign against the Japanese, and there was I, who had never seen an angry man, far less any enemy, given the task of teaching seasoned fighters how to do their job! I think that was just about the worst task I have ever been asked to do. However I put a bold face on it and must have done not too badly for it was shortly after that, that I was given HQ Company to command, and that was one of the more pleasant jobs I had. It did not involve much footslogging and strenuous exercises in the jungle. HQ Company was the Admin. Company for the battalion, it contained the clerical staff, the Pioneers (tradesmen), the cooks (who became stretcher bearers in action). In fact, all the people required to look after the efficiency of the fighting troops. After some time, the powers that be suddenly realised that, there we were, training troops in jungle warfare without any experience of the real thing.

So along with one or two others I was sent off to Burma, to be attached to a fighting unit, in order to gain some first hand experience. By this time (late 1944), the campaign was well under way and the British were beginning to get the upper hand. We were sent first to the port of Chittagong where we embarked on a small coaster and sailed down the Arakan Coast to Rangoon, there we were held in a transit camp until transport could be found to take us to our respective temporary units. Rangoon was a lovely city; the only places badly damaged by allied bombing were the dockyard and the railway sidings. I was able to visit the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda, amongst other places. Unfortunately I did not have the time or the facilities to do any proper sightseeing

At that time the Allied troops had captured the flat ground on each side of the Irrawaddy, which consisted of the river, a road, a railway and miles and miles of paddy fields on either side, all bounded by dense jungle, where the Japanese still lurked. You can imagine how we felt, travelling North, up this road in an unprotected Army 3-tonner. However we reached our destination without incident, a small village called Nyonglebin (I think that's how it was spelt), on the banks of the Irrawaddy, which was battalion headquarters. There was very little actual fighting going on at that time. ---So much for getting to know about jungle warfare! The only experiences I got were going out on several jungle patrols. They were really frightening, as, before we could get into the jungle we had to cross the flat paddy fields with absolutely no cover at all and, once we were in we couldn't see anything round about as the jungle was so dense, so we had to tread very carefully. Only on one of the patrols we made contact, but the engagement didn't last long, I think the Japs were outnumbered and they hastily withdrew. On my return to my unit I don't think I was any better at teaching the troops, but at least I had a short time in close proximity to the enemy. It was during my stay in Burma that my majority came through. Of course I knew nothing about it at the time. It was only when I received a letter from Elspeth addressed to Major J. Cunningham, and then read the contents when I found out. Dickie, my good friend, realised that Elspeth wouldn't know about the promotion till I got back to my unit, so he wrote to her to let her know. (A roundabout method of getting information!). On my return, I found that my batman had obtained the crowns (the insignia of a Major) and sewn them on to my uniform and had also managed to obtain the metal ones for my dress uniform. So I was able to flaunt my newfound authority of being a Field Officer right away.

All this happened late 1944, and on my return to the Sherwood Foresters, I resumed command of HQ Company. Things were going well for the Allies at this time and we didn't get so many intakes of troops for training. In fact, after a while, the training brigade broke up and we were sent off to a camp near Ranchi, as an independent training battalion. This place was quite near Calcutta, in what is now Bangladesh. Jungle was not quite so dense and we lived in buildings instead of tents and all in all, life became reasonably pleasant. V.E Day came and went (8th. May 1945), but that made no difference to us, and it was only after V.J. Day (August 1945) that training in jungle warfare was no longer required. Gradually, Army 'spit and polish' started rearing its ugly head and the relaxed atmosphere of life began to disappear. I began to wish that my demobilisation would hurry up; I wasn't really a soldier at heart. However postings started being made from our unit, and I acted as second in command of the battalion while it was being dismantled It was quite some job, transferring men to different units, some being sent home, getting rid of our heavier items of equipment and all the paraphernalia of an infantry battalion. Eventually, only the CO and I were left and we were sent to Delhi, attached to GHQ pending demobilisation, with a fairly open brief, to assist the Military HQ there in public relations which seemed to consist of endless afternoon teas and cocktail parties with the local dignitaries. It was a sinecure! Eventually demobilisation commenced and I was in the second group due for demobilisation.

We had to go to Poona to embark on a flight home, and the journey by train from Ranchi took three days. That was some journey. We were four to a compartment, which had two folding down bunks, and had its own toilet and washroom. There was no corridor on the train, so we, four of us, were stuck together in that small compartment for three days. There was no restaurant car so the train was scheduled to wait at certain stations where we detrained to have a meal. On arrival at Poona I found, along with quite a crowd of other 'demobees' that we were to fly home in the bomb bay of a Lancaster bomber. We were cramped in the bomb bay, sitting face to face. I often wonder what would have happened if the pilot had pressed the wrong button and opened the bomb doors. However we made the first leg to Cairo without any trouble and after refuelling and stretching our legs, on we went. The next stop was Tripoli where a bit of engine trouble was discovered so we spent a couple of days there. Of all things , I bought a box of a dozen eggs to take home with me, I did know about food rationing. They were packed with sawdust in a little wooden box, to this day I still have that box which is now used to contain our shoe cleaning materials! Eventually I arrived home without any further bother and was demobbed at Aldershot, given a civvy suit, a hat, put on the class Z reserve list and sent off home for my demobilisation leave.

WO Letter

Eventually I received a letter from the War Office, thanking me for my services and informing me that I could retain the title 'Major'. On birthdays etc. my daughter in law always sends my card addressed to Major J. Cunningham!

Chapter 9 Civvy Street

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