Chapter Eighteen - The Biters Bitten
It was February 1943 and the British troops had now been prisoners for over eight months. The roadway to the oil-wells was finished and there was less heavy work for the prisoners to carry out. Over a quarter of their number, however, had perished by this time. Of those left, their clothing had worn out, and most of them, little more than skin and bone, were wearing bits of rag for loin-cloths; the Japs had ceased to worry about them wearing their cotton identification numbers.
In the early days, planes had landed regularly on the airfield runway, making deliveries, loading fuel, and sometimes bombing up. Nowadays though, landings of undamaged aircraft were rare. Those that did come were usually planes with perforated fuel tanks, engines out of action, or bits missing from wings, that limped in. A few times it had been aircraft on fire that landed, keeping engines turning until the fire-fighting staff were able to extinguish the blaze, or they blew up.
With many of their guards worse-tempered than ever, the men guessed that the war could not be progressing in their favour. The supply boat now came less often, with sometimes more than a month between visits; so their captors were having their own rations cut down to a minimum, and many of them were not only losing weight, but becoming ill.
The reasoning behind the Japanese hierarchies' decision to capture and occupy the island, had gradually been lost sight of. The original intention of landing fifty thousand troops on the island and launching an attack on the Indian west coast, could not be attained. The Burma theatre, where they were being held and even pushed back in places; the Pacific islands, where the Yanks were slowly advancing towards the Japanese homelands; these fronts were absorbing all the troops they could scrape together. So now, instead of forming a handy base from which they would have been able to open a second front on the west Indian coast, Ambouna was, in effect, a white elephant, if only those responsible had dared to admit it.
Suzuki was still in charge of Wicker's squad and occasionally, when he had the opportunity, he would try to cheer them up, with phrases like, 'Aesta Engerissu come'. Indeed, the men just could not understand why, with the African mainland less than six hundred miles away, no attempt had yet been made to rescue them.
The position was, however, in the context of the Allies' overall tactics, that these few men were expendable. Ambouna could certainly have been recaptured before now. With more planes and shipping available, Allied Command had been able to keep the island and its surrounding approaches under constant surveillance for some time. Since India was no longer under threat of invasion and because, also, they were now able to sink more than half the shipping and disable most of the aircraft that tried to reach Ambounadi Port, maintaining a presence on the island was thought to be more of a liability than an asset to the Japanese war effort.
The vitamin boost that Chalky had received a few months earlier had enabled him to turn the corner and, although still painfully thin, he was now back with his work squad. One day in late February, 1943, in the course of a conversation with the English sergeant in charge of the sea-water party, the latter happened to mention to him that the native fishing boats were mostly still drawn up along the beach late every afternoon. Later that evening, Chalky drew Wicker to one side.
'I've been thinking old chap - it doesn't look as though our boys are going to make any attempt to release us in the near future and I very much doubt if we'll still be here alive, if we have to go on like this for much longer.'
'I'm told there's dozens of fishing boats nearby, and we're only about six hundred miles from the nearest bit of north Africa, that's roughly a hundred and twenty hours sailing with favourable winds, I should say at a guess.'
'But I reckon we'd be seen and rescued long before we hit Oman or The Yemen. What say we try and break out one night, and pinch one of those fishermen's sailing boats? I have checked, and they're drawn up on the beach only a couple of miles from here, as the crow flies.'
'I don't know how you feel, but I'd rather risk dying while making an effort to do something positive, than rot to death on our feet here.'
Wicker hesitated before replying;
'I've never done any sailing in my life, so it wouldn't be any use relying on me for any help. Left to me we'd probably end up in Japan!'
Chalky told him that he had done no end of sailing, having been stationed at a seaside resort customs post. He had noted that the prevailing wind now was southerly, which would be ideal for their purpose, and he had no doubt he could steer by the stars at night and the sun by day, without a compass. He could soon show Wicker what to do when it was his turn to take over the watch.
'Let me sleep on it - I'll make up my mind before the morning,' his friend told him.
'It's no-go Chalky, old friend, and for two reasons; The first, and most important, is this; How will those b***ards act, when they find out we're missing on the first tenko after we've hopped it? They won't believe that our lads don't know where we've gone, and they'll torture them. And when they don't get anywhere with that, they'll withhold rations from them all for days on end, and more will die in consequence.'
'The other reason is, who's going to look after the men in our squads when we ain't there? You know as well as me that they won't find anyone to stand up for them like we do - most of the other NCOs who aren't already in charge of squads have torn off their stripes, anyhow.'
'So, I'm real sorry, mate, because, like you, doing nothing to help ourselves is driving me nuts.'
As things were to turn out, they couldn't have made a break for it anyhow.
The two awoke together the following morning to the sound of rapidly approaching aircraft engines. Dawn was just breaking, as they and many others poked their heads out of their tent openings, in time to see a twin-engined aircraft appear from across the sea, to sweep low over the camp and disappear in south-westerly direction. It was moving fast, and in the half-light its markings had been indistinguishable. Wicker was saying,
'If that ain't a Bristol Blenheim, my nose is a bloody bloater!', when there was a flash like lightening over the oil-wells five miles off, and this was followed, moments later, by a single explosion which drowned his last words. Within seconds they saw flames rising on the horizon.
'That's goodbye to the oil-wells then,' observed Chalky quietly, 'And the Jap gunners on the hill must have all been asleep, because I didn't hear a single round fired, did you?
'With a bit of luck, they'll all have to commit hara kiri!'
'But I wonder how they'll get their own back on us for that attack.' It was, in fact, the oil storage tanks and refinery that had been destroyed by that first five hundred pound bomb.
Wicker was about to reply, when he realised that he could still hear the sound of distant aircraft; instead of dealing with the question, he observed;
'I think he's circled the island and running in for a second bite of the cherry, Chalky.' The sky was brightening every minute and when the plane came over low again, this time they could see the RAF roundels on sides and wings quite clearly. As the aircraft passed overhead, the gunners, who were no longer asleep, took aim, and the three quick-firing Bofors guns loosed off their clips of shells almost simultaneously. Not surprisingly, all missed their target, which sped on its way to drop a second bomb, this time indeed rubbing out the oil-wells, to return home safely, mission accomplished.
Among the prisoners, all was confusion, however, with screams from wounded and dying filling the air; fifteen Bofors shells that had missed the Blenheim light bomber, had landed in the camp beneath it, to explode among the Britishers' lines, which were in the direct line of fire from the mountain top. There were limbs, pieces of flesh, blood, and dying men scattered everywhere and several tents were on fire, to add to the chaos.
All the medics came running over from the hospital carrying their stretchers and what was left of their first-aid equipment, which was very little. All they could do for a start was to go from man to man applying tourniquets and bandages that had been washed after being used many times before, to staunch the bleeding, before carrying the worst cases that still had a chance of survival back to their hospital. The tragedy was that Japs' lines had remained untouched by this catastrophe.
A recce plane came over high in the sky an hour later and circled the island before returning the way it came. That afternoon, after its photographs had been developed and analysed, yet another plane, this time, a larger Wellington, came over at about ten thousand feet.
As it approached the mountain top, prisoners saw what at first looked like a swarm of bees appear from beneath its belly. As the strange swarm descended, it began to spread out, and the 'bees' enlarged, until finally they carpeted the mountain with a thousand small but deadly bombs. All the gunners died, and their ammunition dump exploded. The goat herd was unhurt, but he lost sixteen of his goats. Thankfully, because of the earlier catastrophe, what was left of the POW mountain party had remained in camp, helping to salvage equipment and look after their less badly wounded comrades.
Chalky had escaped injury, but Wicker was in hospital, awaiting his turn to have a piece of shrapnel removed that had penetrated into his buttock to lodge in the right-hand loop of his ischium. Total casualties, were fifty-seven British dead, seventeen seriously injured, and seventy walking wounded.
The only two squads to be sent out that day was one with a couple of trucks, to collect the dead goats from the mountain and take them to the Jap cookhouse, the other, a burial party.
In the meantime, at RAF area headquarters at Masirah, which is off the coast of Oman, a more detailed examination was being carried out on all the recce plane's pictures, as a consequence of which the position of the POW section was identified, together with the damage that had been done to it...
The following morning, the Bristol Blenheim, or one like it, appeared once more, this time to be welcomed by small-arms fire from the Jap lines, where they had now mounted their light machine guns in an ack/ack role. Seconds later, another five-hundred pound bomb exploded, this time in their lines, creating more havoc among the Japs than had the Bofors the previous day among the British. The prisoners were never to learn the extent of their casualties, but it took nearly all day to dispose of them all by fire.
The aircraft came round a second time, as it did before, but this time a large box, clearly marked with red crosses, descended slowly into the prisoners' lines by parachute, and thousands of leaflets slowly floated out of the sky, to cover the whole area.
Most of the British immediately each stowed one of these where the Japs would not find them, otherwise they were sure to be confiscated. They were written in Arabic, Japanese and English and had clearly been printed in a hurry. The latter's message was very simple;
BE OF GOOD CHEER
The threat to India is past
Africa will soon be in Allied hands
Berlin is being bombed daily
Germans are retreating from Russia
The men never heard a translation of the Arabic section of the leaflet, but Suzuki, who's English had by this time improved very considerably, gave them a rough translation of the Japanese version, which was;
We are watching you closely
If you continue treating your prisoners badly, or if you confiscate their Red Cross box
We shall bomb you to extinction
Any of you that harm prisoners will be treated as war criminals
A noticeable change in their captors' attitudes was apparent from this time; at midday, when the Japs had mostly seen to their wounded, and cleared up much of the detritus left by the bomb, (all carried out without the aid of prisoners), they sent for a squad of the latter and gave them half of the goat carcasses to carry back to their lines. A couple of butchers were soon found among the men, the animals skinned and cut up ready to make into stew. They had insufficient containers to cook them all in one go, so half the camp ate at four o'clock and the remainder had their share at seven that evening. It was unfortunate they were unable to eke out the meat over several days, but in that heat it would have been rotten by the following day.
They were permitted to retain their medicine chest after its contents had been examined by the Jap doctor. From this time, there was a noticeable change in the prisoners' mood also, as hope dawned once more.
On working parties occasionally, when not being overheard by any of their comrades, guards would ask the men questions, like how well the 'Engerissu' treated their prisoners. Chalky's guard, Khano, erstwhile among the cruelest of the Japs and who had never, like some of the others, handed his cigarettes round, was now was heard to say;
'Watakushi, Khano, goodo to Engerissu sorja taksan taksan;
'Oru dammi dammi, Nippon sorja tobacco arimaseng.'
'Matti matti,oru sorja go home.' Chalky replied sarcastically;
'Aringatoe taksan taksan!'
A week after the bombings, a third Swiss Red Cross ship pulled into the docks; this time, the parcels, or at least some of them, were shared out between the men; it worked out at one between two. Each one contained cigarettes, tinned cheese, milk, spam, vitamin enriched chocolate, aspirin and antiseptic ointment together with bandages and other first aid items. There were still addicts among the recipients who were prepared to swap their share of the food for another's cigarettes. The sensible prisoners eked out their food and made it last for weeks. Others unfortunately became ill, having been unable to resist the temptation to gorge themselves.
The Red Cross ship had also delivered a parcel of letters from home and on the day following the distribution of the parcels, after the contents had been censored by the Japs, the men were called together by the RSM to receive them. There were nearly a thousand altogether and some men had half a dozen, while others had none. Chalky, hoping for one right up until the last moment, was among the disappointed ones.
That evening, having now had his piece of shrapnel removed in antiseptic conditions and while anaesthetised, thanks to the box of medical items dropped by the plane, Wicker was back in their tent recuperating from the surgery. Chalky, disappointed for himself, had collected two letters for incapacitated Wicker; he was a bachelor; and they were from his mother. As the unlucky one handed them over, he did not mention his own disappointment to his friend.
'Will you read 'em for me, old mate,' Wicker asked, still feeling dazed and with blurred vision, after the anaesthetic. Chalky hesitated, although only for a moment, before opening the first envelope. With a breaking voice, he read;
My dear boy,
How your father and sister and I have missed you over the past months, and the strain of not knowing whether you have survived, or if you are lying somewhere the other side of the world in an unmarked grave has been almost more than I can bear. Because we have heard absolutely nothing of you since the War Office notified us that you were missing in action.
I have written to you once a week without fail, in the hope that at least some of my letters will get through, to let you know how much we all love you...
Here Chalky seemed to choke on the words and, unable to continue, he buried his face in his bedding. Although Wicker was feeling dozy, he knew at once his friend was in trouble and asked him what was wrong.
After a few moments in which he tried in vain to recover some degree of normality, the words tumbled out. His lovely young wife had always been weak - her parents' fault really, for spoiling her. He'd always had to take the lead in their daily life, whether it was sending birthday cards, keeping appointments or paying their bills. She was so easily persuaded... in things both good and bad. He'd been worried about how she would manage ever since they left England, and now he was afraid... He hadn't received a single letter from her... Even Wicker's mother had taken the trouble to write. He broke down again and buried his face in his mate's shoulder. Words wouldn't help, so Wicker put an arm round him, and waited patiently.
Suddenly Chalky stood up;
'Bloody fool - me, not you, mate. Can't think what got hold of me, going on like that with you lying there in pain. Let me get you something to eat...'
The following morning, all those able to walk were called out on parade to be addressed by Captain Hamashi Hajimoto himself, for only the second time since they were captured. Wondering what sort of punishment he was about to dish out, the men were amazed to hear him shout,
'Oru men singa!'
They realised later that he thought he was doing them a favour, but they were at first disorientated and therefore silent for a moment, before the Welshman's tenor voice, still clear and lovely, was heard; by the second line, all but a few had joined him;
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
Who bid'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!
Oh Trinity of love and power,
Our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'er they go;
And ever let there rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.
Taffy Thomas had realised that there might have been more appropriate words to sing, but on the spur of the moment he had been unable to think of anything better that the others would all know. In any case, it cheered everyone up, including the Japs, even though they did not understand the words. As they were then promptly dismissed, it seemed that was all Hajimoto had paraded them for.
May 17th, saw the Ruhr and Eder valleys flooded, after Lancaster bombers, specially adapted to carry their British newly invented water-skimming 'bouncing bombs', left their airfield in East Anglia to breach the largest dam in Europe, the Mohne Dam. The operation released millions of gallons of water, destroying the 18,000 horsepower electricity generating station and flooding factories vital to the German war effort, in a daring daylight raid. Incalculable damage was done to Germany's production capacity.
On that same day, Tojo met his council of war in Tokyo. It was not to consult, but to inform and to instruct; and by the time he had finished speaking, some of those present wondered whether their leader was still fully in possession of his intellect.
None of the top brass on Ambouna had so far dared to present a report back on the catastrophic results created by one British aircraft, for fear of the inevitable consequences; so it was assumed that everything in the garden there was lovely.
The premier began;
'As you will know as well as I, the army has failed in its duty to His Majesty The Emperor.'
'Instead of carrying out orders, and thrusting into India proper, it has retreated before the depraved Westerners, and is now losing ground in Burma.'
'What is even worse, much worse, instead of taking the honorable course, some of our men have even allowed themselves to be captured by the Western scum.'
'The general will take careful note of his holy Emperor-God's displeasure.'
One of Japan's most able soldiers, the man referred to looked fixedly before him during the remainder of Tojo's diatribe.
'The situation being as it is, we must put our emergency plan into operation immediately. In fact, submarines are already on their way to Ambouna from Java, having loaded our entire stock of schorkarin (sarin) gas for use in the fight against the British along the entire west coast of India. There are sufficient supplies on board to wipe out tens of millions of the enemy, so that after our brave airforce has dropped it on all the major towns, from Bombay to Colombo, the way will be clear for our soldiers to land, virtually unopposed, after the poison gas has cleared. The Allies will then be forced to withdraw from Burma, to try to retrieve their losses in the west; within weeks all India will be in our hands, and our recent setbacks reversed.'
'Fifty thousand troops are in the process of being withdrawn from other fronts and assembled at Banda Acen in northern Sumatra, ready to follow up after the schorkarin has done its work for us. Any questions - no, the meeting is closed.'
He had not hesitated for long enough to give anyone else a chance to speak; not that any would have dared to, if he had.
The general guessed that the premier had not taken into consideration the feelings or actions of the three hundred million Indians that would be left alive, nor of the reactions of the many armed Princely States, to the slaughter of millions of their race in the process of killing off the comparatively few British. If it ever got that far, of course, he reflected, as he made his way to the lavatory, and there committed hara kiri.