From behind our lines to behind theirs: a tale of Engineer Reconnaissance in Burma 1944.

Major Towers RE gored by a buffalo on a close reconnaissance well behind Japanese lines.

As I research Bandoola Production’s book/documentary about the Battle of Imphal, I keep coming across amazing stories. Some are not relevant to our narrative but deserve to be more widely told. I found this one in A Flower from Lofty Heights; Geoffrey Evans and Antony Brett James.

Major Towers RE was an airfield construction engineer working in the relative safety of the rear area of the Burma front in North East India. He was physically unremarkable and had not volunteered for the special forces or the Chindits. Working on airfields in rear areas is at the more comfortable end of soldiering. (It certainly was when I did it!)  Some might think that such work would lead to softness and risk aversion, but not in Major Towers.

Major Towers surfaced in 14th Army Headquarters asking for advice. He had been asked to go alone, on foot, to survey an airfield near Indaw about 130 miles behind the Japanese lines. This was probably to establish whether Wingate’s Chindits could be supplied from such an airfield. The instruction has the hallmark of Wingate about it i.e. rather ambitious!

Major Towers could probably have avoided this mission but he did not and set off with some local porters. He was assisted across the Chindwin River which was more or less the front line and then he marched east over jungle covered mountain ranges towards Indaw. He was told to keep an eye out for a British SOE operative enigmatically called X. By chance he did bump into X who was rather surprised at Major Towers’ mission and offered to help.

X took him the 120 miles across jungle clad mountains to the airfield. The area of the airfield was thick with Japanese but he spent 3 days doing his reconnaissance probably with the little used Cone Penetrometer to see if the earth would support an aircraft. This was no ‘binoculars-from-a-distant-hill’ kind of reconnaissance. He was required to poke about at some length on the Japanese occupied airfield.

He then set off back. SOE’s X, who took him most of the way back but then left him to complete the journey. Alas, Major Towers, by now alone without porters, was then charged by a buffalo and gored in one arm which was then useless to him. He pressed on to the Chindwin River one arm hanging uselessly from his side. He had no means to cross the river, so he hid on the river bank to see what turned up.

Two Burmese National Army soldiers, who were on the Japanese side, passed close to his hiding place. He now had gangrene in his arm but he drew his pistol and instructed the Burmese soldiers to build a bamboo raft at gun point. When the raft was completed he chased them away, mounted the raft and with one armed paddled nearly across to the other side. As he got close to other side the raft sank and he only just staggered ashore on the home side.

He was barely alive but was found by a friendly patrol and eventually evacuated back to hospital in Imphal with his report.

Context is everything but time and again whilst researching the wider aspects of the Battle of Imphal I come across these amazing feats from very ordinary people.

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