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Beyond the Chindwin (Pen and Sword Books, 2009; 256 pages)

Discussion in 'The Pacific and CBI' started by dgmitchell, Oct 8, 2009.

  1. dgmitchell

    dgmitchell Ace

    May 9, 2008
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    Major-General Orde Wingate was one of the more colorful characters of the Second World War. For example, he was known to wear an alarm clock around his wrist and an onion, on which he would occasionally snack, around his neck. Initially assigned to command an anti-aircraft unit in Britain, he was soon reassigned to the East African Theater where he helped to liberate Ethiopia from Italian occupation. Following his assignment in East Africa, Wingate was reassigned to Burma, where he led the now-famous Chindits in their offensive actions behind Japanese lines.

    Wingate’s areas of occupation are studied much less than the battlefronts in Europe and the Pacific, but they are no less interesting. More importantly, the suffering and hardship endured by Wingate’s troops are worth no less attention than the trials and triumphs of troops in more familiar battlefronts of the war.

    Bernard Fergusson commanded Number 5 Column of Wingate’s 1943 expedition into Burma and recorded his memories of the experience less than a year later in Beyond the Chindwin (Pen and Sword Books, 2009; 256 pages), now newly republished by Pen and Sword Books offers a wonderful examination of the daily experiences of the soldiers, both English and Gurkha, who fought with Wingate in Burma. Fergusson brings a surprisingly bright tone to his reflections, even though a majority of his soldiers, including good friends, never returned from their excursion into Japanese-controlled territory.

    The vast majority of the time that Column 5 spent in Burma was spent trudging through the jungle and facing limited Japanese opposition. In time, the Japanese did bring in additional troops, and that made Column 5’s eventual retreat from Burma far more difficult than its period of actual operations in the territory. Prior to that retreat, however, Fergusson and his men faced far greater risk from starvation and exhaustion than they did from actual encounters with the Japanese.

    Facing the slow wasting death that comes from inadequate sustenance, Column 5’s perseverance becomes all the more remarkable in that it happened while they were in a combat zone for many months. Even more remarkable is the apparently callous indifference that Column 5’s supply coordinators in India demonstrated in the face of Fergusson’s requests for resupply. After learning that a requested drop of rations on the 20th of the month could not be made until the 23rd, Fergusson noted:

    “This was the nineteenth and officially our last day in rations, though I had warned the men to keep something in hand as in any case I was not expecting a drop until the 20th.

    I wirelessed back:

    ‘O.K.; but see Psalm 22, verse 17.’ (‘I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.’)

    The answer came back directing me to the reference of ‘It is expedient that one should die for the people.’ I was not amused.”

    The failure of supply drops is a common and constant theme throughout Beyond the Chindwin and a far more ever-present danger than that posed by the enemy.

    Because so much of Column 5’s experience in Burma is limited to marching through jungles while the men slowly starved, Beyond the Chindwin can at times be repetitious. Also, Fergusson offers little material that considers his encounters with Wingate. It is not clear whether or not that is because Fergusson simply did not encounter his commanding officer with sufficient regularity to include more information about him, but more consideration of Wingate would have been valuable to readers.

    Despite its flaws, Beyond the Chindwin is a welcome re-issuance of a first person account of the experiences that Orde Wingate’s men faced during their 1943 operations in Burma. Readers who enjoy such personal explorations of the soldier’s war time experience or who want to better understand what the troops on the ground in the jungles of Burma might have encountered will appreciate this book. All readers will appreciate and admire the men who fought so bravely in this largely forgotten theater of the war.

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