09 March 1943
On March 8 Fergusson and Calvert had been given discretion on the issue of whether to cross the Irrawaddy, but then Southern Group’s No. 1 Column got back in touch – after a long radio silence – and announced their crossing of the Irrawaddy during the night of March 9/10. This made up Wingate’s mind. Northern Group columns would also cross, on 10-13 March, south of Tigyaing.
On the morning of March 9 Fergusson heard, with a mixture of relief and annoyance, that Jim Harrison’s missing gorge group had already joined John Fraser at Tigyaing. This group had reached the RV two hours early, found no-one there and decided to press on to the river. Fergusson’s main body set off for the ferry town – a nervous march across open paddy. They could be seen for three miles in any direction. The main body arrived safely and met up with Fraser. Fergusson then set the wheels in motion. Three platoons were told to enter the town, take control of the boats and form a perimeter around Tigyaing. The main body would then enter. Within minutes of their arrival, a Japanese aircraft flew over the town and dropped leaflets, urging the Chindits to surrender. No. 5 Column’s Commander felt that the Japanese wouldn’t have bothered with leaflets if they were positioned to intercept them before a crossing. Nevertheless, there was a Japanese garrison at Tawma, just eight miles south west, across the marshes. They had to crack on as quickly as possible.
Fergusson marched his men in, in threes, to make an impression on the locals. The town soon developed a festive atmosphere and the shops opened. Jim Harrison’s platoon was soon across and the boats were readied for the next group. Bernard Fergusson got his first look at the Irrawaddy: “My first reaction was to thank my stars I had come to a ferry town; getting across without the help of proper boats was obviously out of the question. It was fully a mile wide; although much of the space was filled up with sandbanks, the actual channel was not less than half a mile.”
Around 20 boats were soon busy. The men had to splash across the shallows from the waterfront to the main sandbank, where they embarked. Two platoons were told they were next.
Immediately opposite the crossing point was Myadaung village and beyond were the hills around Pegon, the location of their much-needed supply drop. They bought up supplies in Tigyaing – eggs, potatoes, rice, vegetables and fruit. Men and animals continued to cross over to the big sandbank, with others coming forward as boats became available. The afternoon was running thin but it looked as though they could be over before dark. About 45 minutes before dark, only one platoon remained to cross. It was brought in to hold a smaller perimeter around the waterfront. Suddenly, the atmosphere cooled, the waterfront crowd melted away and the boatmen – instead of bringing their boats back – disappeared downriver. They had just one boat still under command when this happened. Fortunately, another boat, on the other side of the river, was commandeered before it could shove off and retreat.
Major Fergusson later heard that 200 Japanese were marching towards them, following the Tigyaing bank from the south. The Longcloth force still had around 60 men and 10 animals waiting to cross. It was a slow business yet all but completed when they were fired on from the main river bank, just south of the town. Fergusson and the few still on the wrong side stayed stock still. All they could do was wait for a boat. It should be possible to get everyone over in one trip. Fergusson described the last minutes: “Out of the blackness came the creaking of a boat. We filled it with the remaining Bren gunners, with Cairns, Peter Dorans and a few more odd men. As they were getting in, the other boat came … and grounded safely … The rest of us got in …”
The heavily-laden Column Commander struggled to enter the boat. He was hauled in by the seat of his trousers. Fergusson crossed the river, under fire, in unflattering fashion: on his knees, with his behind in the air. He couldn’t move for fear of capsizing the small boat, which rolled at any excuse.
It proved difficult to form up on the other side of the river but, eventually, they succeeded and marched out of the village and away from the Irrawaddy. Major Fergusson wrote: “… it was not long before we were bedded down, after the most exciting day of my young life.”
Michael Calvert’s No. 3 Column had a similar experience, with the rearguard coming under fire. They crossed successfully but at the cost of seven dead and six wounded. Now on the other side, Calvert had to leave his wounded with the villagers. One was given a lethal dose of morphine, as an act of mercy. Calvert decided to reach out to the Japanese Commander who would eventually find the remaining five. He left a note which included the sentence: “I leave them confidently in your charge, knowing that with your well-known traditions of Bushido, you will look after them as well as if they were your own.” Much later, Calvert learned that his note had worked – the wounded were treated reasonably.