Operation Longcloth

01 March 1943

No. 5 Column moved north during the morning of March 1, 1943, through impressive country. They were on the edge of an escarpment and a broad valley opened before them, with the high hills of the Mangin Range opposite. Beyond was the Meza Valley and, beyond that, the railway and important communications hub of Indaw. They would then face the formidable Gangaw Hills and, finally, the Irrawaddy.

This area, the Mu Valley, was easily defended as it was separated from the railway by hills offering few passes. There was also a good motorable road from Pinlebu in the south to Mansi in the north. Both were believed to hold Japanese forces, as were Pinbon and Thayethon.

As Bernard Fergusson’s column descended into the valley, Orde Wingate arrived and gave his Column Commander further orders. Fergusson was given free rein to strike out across country – to his intense relief. He had had enough of “bumping” other columns and “constant liability to thunderous reproaches from a great leader with unattainable demands …”

Once again, the going was bad – not enough jungle cover on the higher ground and, lower down, almost impenetrable country following the Chaunggyi stream. Villagers warned of Japanese troops in the area (although their information lacked precision). When they bivouacked for the night, other columns arrived and settled in nearby. Fergusson, as ever, was anxious to get on. They moved off at first light and soon reached the motorable road running east-west across their line of march. This appeared on maps as a track – the enemy had been busy. There were the unmistakable footprints of Japanese soldiers wearing rubber shoes.

Fergusson blocked the road in each direction and began to cross – always an anxious time: “…a column takes 10 minutes to pass a point and is a thousand yards long.” His precautions proved wise. The column rear bumped into coolies carrying kit for a Japanese patrol just 10 minutes ahead of them. The coolies were bribed to say nothing.

Fergusson then found himself between a rock and a hard place. The jungle grew even thicker and No. 5 Column’s lead ahead of the Brigade was dwindling. Even worse, Wingate turned up again and laid into the Column Commander, urging faster progress, using his patent method of cutting through dense jungle.

The Column marched on and soon burst through to the main road. This time, Bernard Fergusson was determined to get well clear of Brigade. They took a chance and used the road. “The sensation of walking along a main and motorable road, for the first time since the Kabaw Valley, was a strange one. Men with anti-vehicle grenades led the column and brought up the rear, for the possibility of meeting truckloads of infantry, or even armoured cars, was by no means remote … It was a solemn thought to think that the road ran ahead of us straight into Pinlebu, with nothing on it between us and the enemy.”

Fergusson then received a shock: he bumped into the other Columns; they had moved ahead of him! They had avoided the difficult jungle by the simple device of using the road earlier on. Wingate then appeared and repositioned No. 5 Column as lead. “I was not to halt until after dark and then only for four hours; thereafter not again until I had reached the point on the main road where he had told me to turn off to the eastward …”

Torrential rain began at four in the afternoon, soaking the men in 30 seconds: “Even on the road it was heavy going and the mules slithered and slipped in all directions.” They halted after dark near Sakhan village, the rain then slackened off and they managed to cook. When they moved off at 11 pm, a trying day ended badly for Major Fergusson: “… the marching was thoroughly unpleasant … I took a nasty fall into a ditch and twisted my kneecap so badly that it bothered me for the rest of the campaign.”

03 March 1943