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

As I research Bandoola Production’s  Soldiers of Empires 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.

Met Major Towers RE who was a airfield construction engineer in Imphal, India (near Burma) 1944. Presumably he was a technical person since he was building airfields in the relative safety of the rear area. He was physically unremarkable and had not volunteered for the special forces or the Chindits.

It is also fair to note, that working on airfields in the rear is at the more comfortable, safer end of soldiering. It certainly was when I did it.  Some might think that such work would lead to softness and risk aversion.  It might well, but not in Major Towers.

Major Towers surfaced in 14th Army Headquarters asking around for advice. He had been asked to go, alone, to do a reconnaissance on foot of an airfield near Indaw about 130 miles behind the Japanese lines. I assume this was to see if Wingate’s Chindits could be supplied from such an airfield.  The instruction has the hallmark of Wingate about it i.e. rather ambitious!

Now Major Towers could probably have lost this instruction or successfully resisted it 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 some British behind-the-lines-types, enigmatically called X and by chance he did bump into X. This X was rather surprised at the 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. (I wonder if he used a Cone Penetrometer to see if the earth would support an aircraft. Might have). The kind of reconnaissance he did was not the sort which you could do with binoculars from a nearby hill. I imagine he had to poke about on the airfield.

He then set off back  with X, who took him most of the way back and but then left him to complete the journey. Alas, Major Towers, by now alone, was then charged by a buffalo and gored in one arm which was then useless to him. He pressed on 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, come close. He now had gangrene in his arm but he drew his pistol and got them to build a bamboo raft at gun point. When it 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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