Chapter Fourteen - Ambouna 1942
No one could call Ambouna a cushy number for the troops, who were under canvas on the outskirts of the aerodrome. Most of the men had been here for three months now. Those among them — the majority, that is — who had lived their lives in civvy street until they were called up were thoroughly 'browned off' already. The old soldiers had known worse places, much worse; things here were going to get much worse, too, but they were spared from knowing that just then.
The military camp area was in the form of a square, enclosing about two acres. The RAF Regiment (RAFR) occupied roughly half of the available space and the remainder was divided between the Pioneer Platoon, RAMC, RASC, REME, NAAFI, RA detachments and the officers' lines. The two recently-built warehouses, the church tent and the NAAFI tent, together with a small diesel fuelled electricity generating unit, were situated near the centre. The cookhouse and the hospital occupied partitioned off sections in the new warehouses.
Also on the island was a small detachment of The Royal Navy, which was stationed in the docks and had wired the area off from the land side. Their main purpose was to man the radio post, a solitary naval gun and the single guard post in the centrally-placed entrance through the wire; they also maintained a lookout on the clifftop and supervised the civilian Indian dockers.
Guard duties in the main camp by the airfield were the sole prerogative of the RAFR, who maintained a sentry on each corner of the enclosure and at the guard rooms situated at each of the two entrances in the triple dannert barbed wire that surrounded the site. One was in the centre of the north (seaward) side and the other in the south. The wire had been installed more to keep pillaging natives out than against any prospective enemy, as the Royal Navy was confident that neither Jap nor Bosch would be able to penetrate this far.
There was a cooling breeze coming in off the sea most mornings, but afternoons brought the hot dry desert winds, which lifted the shade temperature up to 110°F during the summer months. However, although their CO did not seem to know the meaning of the word 'siesta', the troops were allowed to take turns at having an afternoon off by the sea, which usually worked out at three times a week. There was also a 'comforts' bus available to take those who wanted to go into Ambounadi during the evenings when they were not on duty.
Women in those days were still to some extent regarded as fragile flowers by the top brass (probably taking their own mollycoddled womenfolk as typical examples of the gender) and therefore incapable of withstanding such rigours as men could be exposed to. They were mistaken, of course, as had already been demonstrated by nurses in the Burma campaign and on other fronts. The decision had therefore been taken that no WRNS, ATS, WAAF or RAMC female personnel should accompany the men, and consequently even the small military hospital was solely manned by those of the male sex.
Ambounadi at that time was little more than a large village, with the souk as its only shopping centre. The only brick villas had been erected by the Victorians and occupied previously by employees of the East India Company. Unfortunately, apart from shopping, entertainment here for the troops was limited to an insalubrious native café and one establishment in the so-called town where young and not so young Thai ladies were allowed to offer their charms for sale. No-one was permitted to sell alcohol there in any of its many forms, so the opportunity to drink booze was therefore limited to visits to the NAAFI bar. While the officers' mess had everything available, from crème de menthe to bottled Guinness, all that was offered in the men's NAAFI was thin Indian beer and the soul-destroying Australian gin and rum.
The attractions of those bus trips were dampened somewhat by notices signed by the MO and displayed in bus, NAAFI, and on the regimental notice boards, warning of the ease with which VD could be acquired, the difficulty of getting rid of it (antibiotics were at that time not yet available) and its life-long possible effect on self, wife, and generations to come. In support was a tract from the Padre, bearing the simple Old Testament edict:
'AND THE SINS OF THE FATHERS SHALL BE VISITED UPON THE CHILDREN, UNTO THE THIRD AND FOURTH GENERATIONS.'
If none of that deterred, there was the final reminder from the MO: 'Short Arm Inspections for all ORs Will Take Place by Companies in the Medical Tent on the First Monday of Each Month.'
Regarding the hospital, which was manned by one doctor and four medical orderlies, it was fortunate that owing to there being little or no free fresh water in the vicinity of the urban area (the few tropical rainstorms were quickly evaporated by the hot wind or absorbed into the sand), there were no mosquitoes and therefore no malaria on the island; so the work of the medical staff was confined to a broken limb now and then, contusions resulting from drunken brawls, dysentery, the odd appendectomy and an occasional dose of clap, which had been asked for and caught in spite of the ample warnings. Fortunately, there had as yet been no case of pox on the island.
Fortunately again, the troops had come early enough in the spring to be able to do most of their manhandling of stores before the worst of the summer heat was upon them. So now, while the Pioneers were still sweating their guts out hoping to finish concreting the extension of the aircraft runway by the weekend, having already completed the building of the two large camouflaged warehouses, the officers and senior NCOs of the RAF regiment were having difficulty in finding sufficient work to keep their men's hands from being idle. Indeed, apart from drill, occasional manoeuvres, the usual army nonsense, bore-hole drilling for the ever-shifting latrines, cookhouse fatigue and sentry-go, their main task was the thankless daily Ack-Ack fatigue up the mountain. It was to the RAFR that fell the task of driving across the desert each morning with a load of provisions, and when their truck could take them no further, humping them the rest of the way up to the mountain-top gun post. Fortunately, the gunners had to collect their own water from a mountain stream. One other duty, namely, radio communication with the Allied Africa Command, the mountain-top wireless post, fell to the regiment's signals platoon. The communications post in the docks was manned by the navy.
They had experienced no enemy air-raids so far, which was just as well — since, apart from the three Dakotas by the runway (borrowed from the Yanks), which did not qualify at all, the sole air defence of the island was in the incapable hands of three Bofors guns mounted on top of the mountain and manned by a troop of RAs, plus a few sand-bagged Lewis gun positions on the perimeter of the camp site; those last antique light machine guns were leftovers from the Great War. The Bofors, incidentally, had taken over a fortnight to manhandle and hoist up the mountain.
Sergeant John Wicksteed, 'Wicker' to his mates, stood six feet tall; he was now forty-three years of age and in addition a really tough nut. His unusually dark hair as yet showed no sign of grey and his nearly black eyes gave him an appearance that was somewhat akin to the expression of a curious hamster. Having been a regular soldier in the Suffolks, he had finished his time a couple of years before the outbreak of war. The old soldier had been disgusted when, having volunteered at the outbreak of war to take up arms for his country once more, he had eventually been posted to the 'Brylcreem Boys'. When he had protested, Wicker was told that he and others like him were needed to 'stiffen 'em up', which was exactly what he had been doing during the six months he had now spent with them. Having previously served his time in India, he was one of the few men who were able to withstand the heat here without complaint. And now he was as defensive of his young RAF regiment as he had been of his old Fifth Suffolks, in spite of his new mob not yet having acquired any battle honours to display on their colours and regimental drums; or annual celebrations either, like his beloved Suffolk's Minden Day. Not that he'd come across any of those percussion instruments so far; they would probably need to await the peace before acquiring them. He hoped they didn't have to earn their colours by doing any fighting in this hot God-forsaken hole.
Although far from being dim, Wicker was equally far from claiming to have any academic qualifications. His choice of a 'mucker' here in Ambouna was therefore rather surprising. Sergeant White, BSc was only just thirty. Although his first name was William, he was not known by it; there was not a man in the sergeants' mess who knew him by anything other than Chalky, the name he had been re-christened with when he joined the regiment at its formation. Short and plump, his sleepy azure blue eyes that in a girl might have been described as dreamy gave the lie to a mind that was as alert as a squirrel's. Before being called up he had been a customs officer, and Chalky possessed an endless supply of tales concerning attempts at smuggling that his team had detected over the years — not all of which were fit to be to be related in gentle company. Chalky's alert mind, indeed, together with an ability to learn quickly, had earned him quick promotion and he had already been asked if he would like to attend an OCTU course with a view to obtaining a commission. He had refused, not wanting to be parted from old Wicker, who had not only taught him the ropes but whom he knew would be a mountain of strength in time of trouble — which, unlike his superiors, he personally thought was sure to come. He kept those opinions between himself and his friend, though, not wishing to be a scaremonger. The thing that had drawn them together in the first place had been their mutual love of the card game of cribbage, and they relaxed by playing it during much of their spare time.
It was now Monday evening on 8 June, 1942, the day when the Japanese fleet shelled Sydney, Australia for the first time. On that self-same day, the lessons learned from the sinking of HMS Repulse and The Prince of Wales and from the Pearl Harbour catastrophe were put into effect (or rather, tried out) by the Yankee navy for the first time in the Pacific, with results that both sides were to regret at the time.
This first such encounter was an especially difficult battle for the Americans to fight, since they did not have (nor intend to have) any kamikaze pilots. The Japanese could not only pilot their 'flying bombs' right on to the Yankee warships, but they only needed to carry sufficient fuel for the outward journey. Thus, having twice the range, they could reach their targets much earlier in the battle. Because there was as yet no radar, the first the Yanks knew of an impending attack was when the planes appeared over the horizon; thus, the enemy was able to destroy many aircraft while they were still on board ship.
In this devastating five-day naval battle that was executed solely by means of carrier-based aircraft, in which the fleets were too far apart to see or fire at each other, the Yanks lost over sixty planes, a destroyer and a tanker, plus one aircraft carrier sunk and one damaged. Although both sides claimed victory, the Japanese never revealed their losses. What is certain, however, is that they were prevented from landing on Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the Solomons. Was this momentous day to be the turning point in the far-eastern war? The ORs knew nothing of that on Ambouna, however.
Although the sergeants ate separately in their own mess, unlike the officers they had no bar of their own. Thus it was that early in the evening on this same June the 8th that Wicker and Chalky were playing cribbage by the doorway of the still-hot NAAFI tent, listening to the sound of the latest news emanating faintly from the wireless inside. They had just heard of the Russians' claim that they had launched a successful attack on Sebastopol in an attempt to reclaim it from Jerry. The bad news from Sydney and of the air battle between the fleets was not yet being broadcast locally.
'You can't believe a bloody word the Ruskies say; ten to one they're still running hell for leather —' Chalky was interrupted in the middle of his caustic comments by his mate.
'There he goes again,' said Wicker, his keener sense of hearing catching the distant thrumming of an aircraft's engines. They both looked up and saw the source of the sound in a tiny speck moving westward across the sky over the island.
'Too high to see who's it is, or for it to do any bombing — or recceing either, for that matter, and it's well out of range of our Bofors. So it doesn't really matter a lot to us.' That was the opinion of the tubby one, but his mate thought differently.
'I wouldn't be too sure about that if I were you, Chalky my son,' he observed. 'For one thing, because you can take it from me it's a Jap, and this is the fifth Monday in a row we've heard one of 'em come over like that. And no one's going to tell me that the buggers are going to waste fuel time and time again in coming over here for nothing.'
In that, the old soldier was quite right. Although the Allies did not know it, already Japanese scientists and technicians had improved upon the sample spy camera that they had obtained from the leading German Zeiss optical company, to such an extent that they were now able to photograph and identify objects as small as three feet across from a height in excess of 15,000 feet.
After a minute or two's silence in which each of them ruminated on his own thoughts, Chalky took out a much-fingered photograph of a pretty young woman. As he gazed on it, his eyes became moist. Shaking his head vigorously to disperse the embryo tears that were about to overflow, he told his mucker, 'I've never mentioned it to you before, Wicker, because I know you'll think I'm daft. But ever since we stepped out of that plane I've been possessed with the certainty that I'm never going to see dear old England again, together with all it stands for and what it holds for me. I realise only too well that there's no reasoning behind it all, and I'm not the slightest bit superstitious. Yet I know for sure that I'm never going to leave this island on my own two feet.'
Wicker knew his friend too well to try to argue; instead he made soothing noises and gently tried to lead the conversation into other channels.
On the following Sunday morning, the Nippon High Command were conducting a strategy committee meeting in Tokyo and Tojo himself was in the chair. Without any apparent signal, all stood and bowed formally, first to their Prime Minister and then to each other. Some bowed lower than others, according to rank and age. Bowing is a very sophisticated etiquette with the Japanese, and woe betide any who contravene the guidelines of their protocol.
When everyone was seated once more, the Prime Minister opened the discussion as follows: 'The naval victory, gentlemen, was ours, but an empiric one. I very much regret to say that although we lost fewer ships and aircraft than our enemy in this latest sea-air battle, we lost too much — too much equipment and too many men. Why? Because our enemies have far greater production capacity than we do ourselves, plus vast reserves of men, so they can thus afford to lose more. Therefore, if we continued to confront the Americans at sea, and our losses were to carry on at the current rate, in the long run they would swamp us in the air, on the sea, and ultimately, on land.
'Pay attention now to the following facts: the undoubted setback we have just received in the vicinity of the Pacific islands, and the current situation, which is that we are at present being held on what we had hoped by now would have been the Indian front, but which is still mainly in Burma. Add to that the unfortunate fact that on this sector we are fighting a constantly-reinforced enemy who is daily becoming stronger and better-trained for the jungle warfare in which we have so excelled in the past; while our long supply lines, coupled with disease, are having the very opposite effect on our tired troops. It is therefore now essential that we re-think our plan of campaign. Since we know that the Americans refuse to commit their fleet, and therefore their troops, to the west of India, because it is against their so-called principles to support anyone else's empire (the British, in this case), it behoves us to take advantage of this fact and stab the British in the back — that is, in other words, to attack India from the west. And to do that, gentlemen, we shall need a base to work from. With this in mind, we have kept the island of Ambouna under regular observation from the air, where the British have kindly been getting it ready for us. Perhaps our Air Chief will bring us up to date with the position on Ambouna, now.' Tojo resumed his seat.
Air Chief Marshal Ushijama, a short, wizened man yellowed from much smoking, stood and bowed deeply to his Prime Minister. He then handed round a series of photographs which he had already extracted from his briefcase. In the husky voice of the chain-smoker, he told them, 'These pictures of the extended runway on the island of Ambouna were taken last Monday. As you can see, the work on it was almost completed then, so I can safely predict, bearing in mind the heat there, that the concrete will be quite hard enough and ready for all but the heaviest of planes to land on as soon as we are ready to make the move. Need I say more, gentlemen?'
Tojo nodded with what is to us the odd Japanese backward movement of the head and then asked the naval chief to tell them how his side of the operation was placed.
Admiral Kyushu stood; he was short, broad and bald. What was more, he was a strict disciplinarian and very short-tempered. Again, after the customary low bow, he gave his summing-up. 'On the one hand, our losses last week have considerably weakened our position, but they can have affected us no more than America's losses have affected theirs, since they cannot build new ships and planes overnight. We still have our two aircraft carriers and their supporting ships in the vicinity of India. If only we can get a foothold on the west coast of India, I feel sure that with Subhas Chandra Boseto recruit and lead Indian troops (which the British have already trained and armed) to fight at our side for His Imperial Majesty, it will only be a matter of time before the entire sub-continent is in our hands. Our position would then be firmly secured there for all time. The island of Ambouna is very poorly defended, so give me a thousand troops and it will be ours within twenty-four hours.'
Before Tojo asked the next member of the committee to report on the state of play in the army, he remarked, 'I'm not all that happy about giving the Bose fellow all this rope. What happens when the war is over if he proves to be a thorn in our sides and turns the population against us, like he has done with the British?'
Assuming a grin that showed his badly-stained teeth (apart from one gold-encased tooth, which shone out like a shilling on a sweep's bottom), the Admiral replied, 'The British treated them with kid gloves, and still do, in spite of their insubordination. These Indians are like dogs. They only need kicking around for a while (like putting a few thousand against a wall and shooting them), to teach them their place. As all the world saw in Korea and Manchukuo, we are quite capable of doing that. Because, in spite of those native people's original resistance, we now have many thousands of them serving in our army, releasing our Nippon men for the front. As they are allowed no promotion, their NCOs and officers are all Nippon, so there's no way they can rebel.' Tojo seemed satisfied, and called upon the next speaker.
Field Marshal Terauchi, unusually big for a Japanese man, got slowly to his feet and bowed. 'Yes, we could take all our fighting soldiers from Malaya, Singapore, Java and Sumatra, since there's no chance of the enemy being in a position to mount an attack on those areas at the present time or in the foreseeable future. The troops there are currently only being used for policing purposes and guard duties, so we can replace virtually all of them with the native troops we're having no trouble in recruiting, and Koreans. In round figures, that would give us ten thousand men over a period of, say, three months, as we obviously cannot take all our men away at once. But I could provide a parachute battalion, for which I have nothing in the pipeline at this moment, within a week, since you are of the opinion that it will take only a thousand of our men to capture the island in the first instance, especially if we can take them by surprise. We can then ferry others in, if they become needed, when they are available. At the same time, we shall be training more for the eventual attack on India.'
Tojo put in another word here. 'Not so much of the "eventual", Terauchi-San. We all have to remember that our enemies are becoming stronger all the time. So if we cannot destroy their position in and to the east of India during the next twelve months, we are probably doomed to defeat — and don't let that word be heard outside this room!'
The meeting continued for another hour, as they discussed the nitti-gritti of their agreed future operations.