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The Sikhs and Burma's Forgotten War
By JON LATIMER
Jon Latimer was born in Prestatyn, Flintshire in 1964. He earned a degree in Oceanography from Swansea University in 1982. Subsequently he enjoyed a varied and interesting career working as an oceanographer and environmental scientist. He also served in the Territorial Army for sixteen years with The Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began writing in 1994 and is a regular contributor to magazines. He is author of Deception in War (2001), the acclaimed Alamein (2002) and, most recently, Burma: The Forgotten War, from which the following essay has been adapted.
The Sikh Times, Dec. 30, 2004
Photo: Burma: The Forgotten War by Jon Latimer
Last autumn saw the 60th anniversary of Field Marshal Viscount William Slim's great campaign to reconquer Burma with his Anglo-Indian Fourteenth Army. The Japanese military government of the time was brutal and aggressive. Somebody had to defeat it, and not simply by naval blockade or atomic bomb. The Japanese Army itself had to be defeated to avoid a claim of betrayal in the style of Germany post-First World War, and Burma was that place. Slim and Fourteenth Army achieved a truly great victory.
By 1939 Indian regiments had been grouped into larger regiments, including 11th Sikh Regiment, but Sikhs were widely represented among other units. John Shipster joined 7th/2nd Punjab Regiment, which like most Punjabi units, was of mixed race: two companies of Punjabi Mussulmen, one of Dogras and one of Sikhs. When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, among the garrison was 4th/12th Frontier Force Regiment (F.F.R.), or 4th Sikhs as they referred to themselves (having been so-called until 1903). Sikh soldiers were not always easy to command, but to their British officers they were less a regiment than a state of mind, and none would exchange them for another. Their divisional commander, Major-General Jackie Smyth, won a Victoria Cross (V.C.) serving with 15th Ludhiana Sikhs (later, 2nd/11th Sikh Regiment) in France in 1915.
Many Sikhs also served in the Burma Frontier Force (B.F.F.) and James Lunt saw his old friend Sandy Sandeman, once of the Central India Horse, leading a mounted column of B.F.F., mostly Sikhs: 'The curb chains jingling as they went, and the dust hanging over them in the still morning air. Behind them there lingered the smell of leather and sweating horses, and we were left with an unforgettable memory in a war which was waged mostly with machines. The Guides must have looked like that, I thought, as they scouted ahead of 'Bobs' on the way from Kabul to Kandahar.'
However, such archaic methods were never going to stop the Japanese military machine, and the British were soon driven from Burma in what was the longest retreat in their history. It would be two more years before the tide of war turned. In early 1944 the Japanese attempted an invasion of India, beginning in the coastal strip of Arakan. There, a platoon of 1st/11th Sikhs was sent to mask a Japanese post and seize it if possible, which they did. They then fought off violent counter-attacks after which the position was surrounded, preventing resupply. Asked by radio how long they could hold out, the platoon commander replied: 'Without food for 6 more days; without ammunition, as long as you like, we have bayonets.' It was no idle boast, as the Sikhs repeatedly proved. The attack resumed on 11 March as the Japanese fought a rearguard action, Naik Nand Singh of 1st/11th Sikhs won the V.C., taking three trenches despite being wounded, before his platoon cleared the position.
Following victory at Imphal and Kohima, Fourteenth Army prepared to reconquer Burma. Major E.E. Spink of 1st/11th Sikhs recalled the last time they had been along the Kabaw valley in Tamu, retreating. 'Now, nearly three years later, we are on the same road again, but this time with a difference - tanks, guns, lorries pour down the road in a steady stream - moving south! The continuous buzz of aeroplanes speeding on their way many and nefarious missions is entirely ours! We are on the same road, with a difference, for we are tried and trusted veterans of war and we are moving south! Jubilantly we shall go back to avenge our gallant comrades who are no more . . . We shall keep faith with those who died.'
Lieutenant Jim Allan's British battalion was forced out of a position in Arakan. He joined a Sikh company of 2nd/13th Frontier Force Rifles that retook the hill. 'Because of the narrowness of the approach the leading Sikhs inevitably became casualties but those following leapt over their bodies to meet a surprisingly large number of Japanese still alive on the position. The defenders suffered the disadvantage of having to climb out of their trenches to meet the Sikhs and most of them never made it . . .' The Sikhs lost 5 dead and 4 wounded in this action.
During the attack on Mandalay, another British unit was held up by snipers. John Hill watched as a Sikh machine-gun fired at a Japanese position. 'The No.1 on the gun, firing, was shot stone dead through the head from the enemy position. Without hesitating, the No.2 by his side pushed No.1 away, laid an aim and fired, silencing the Japanese position; for cool courage that takes some beating. That was their standard of training and discipline: No.1 is killed, 'Fall out No.1, carry on No.2!' - exactly as in parade-ground drill for the Vickers machine-gun.'
At the same time, the battle of Meiktila saw the debut of the latest of a long line of Sikh units, the Sikh Light Infantry, successors to the Sikh Pioneers which along with the other pioneer regiments had been disbanded in the 1930s. But the story was the same as Sikh gallantry was displayed repeatedly. Sikhs had played a leading role throughout the war and Slim later wrote that he thought the best battalions in the army (in which around 120 battalions, British and Indian, had served), were 1st/4th Gurkhas and 1st/11th Sikhs.
With the war's end many units were reorganized to divide the Indian Army between India and Pakistan marking the end of an era. Many Sikhs swapped units, but for many British officers it was different. With Independence approaching they were obviously surplus to requirements. In July 1946, John Shipster finally took leave of 7th/2nd Punjab Regiment at Singapore. He felt enormous sadness. 'Surat Singh, my young Sikh orderly, accompanied me and my baggage to the docks. He bade me farewell, saluted and said the Sikh battle cry 'Sut Sri Akal' (God is strong), which I had heard so often. I didn't dare look back.'