Operation Longcloth

11 March 1943

Fergusson’s No. 5 Column rested up after the crossing. They marched on for a few miles then called a halt in dense jungle. The Column Commander realised that to push on hard would endanger them, as the enemy would calculate their likely progress and would soon be on their heels.

The other side of the Irrawaddy felt safe but, within a short period, the country between the Irrawaddy and the Shweli would begin to feel like a prison. Fergusson struck out for Pegon on the 11th, hoping to reach it the following day. He would then call for a supply drop on the 13th. The jungle was the thickest they had encountered so far. On the 12th they marched along a virtually dry chaung. They avoided the road to Pegon and planned to descend on the village through the mountains that hedged it. At midday on March 12 the Column heard aircraft and were shocked by a wireless message revealing that the Pegon drop provisionally arranged for that day had just been delivered. Fergusson couldn’t believe that his request was honoured without the usual confirmation. They spent the night at the head of the Myauk Chaung. On the morning of the 13th they moved off, climbing heavily then stopping at noon for three hours. There was a Sick Parade and Platoon Commanders inspected their men’s feet and rifles. The wireless was in operation. The men ate whatever was available to them. It was less than four miles to Pegon and Fergusson planned to give his men a rest that afternoon. The problem was that the route down from the mountains was so steep that it was impossible to get the mules down. By 16.00 they were no nearer the village than in the morning.

A drop had been confirmed for the following day, the 14th. Eventually, a track was discovered and an advance party managed to reach the drop site before the aircraft arrived at 10.00. The signal fires were ready for them.

Fergusson wrote: “Out of that drop we got five days’ rations and the petrol, as well as much mail, newspapers and Penguin books. The only things missing were the boots and clothing for which we had indented and of which we were in dire need.” They were now well ahead of the Brigade and making for Inywa, where the Shweli and Irrawaddy come together. With time to spare, No. 5 Column waited for the aircraft to arrive with the all-important boots and clothes

– anxiously awaited as the men were now infested with lice. Then came the news that aircraft couldn’t be spared for another drop.

The Column continued to rest on the morning of March 15. They left the village at 15.00, moving in a south-easterly direction and then south, making for Mogok village. In the late afternoon they were caught crossing open ground by a Japanese aircraft. Fergusson noted: “Luckily, at the moment we were spotted we were heading east, whereas our true direction was south …”

The going was unpleasant: “… the next few days of marching were desperately thirsty and only the strictest water discipline got us through them. The soil was red laterite and the jungle low dry teak; the only life that flourished there was red ants, with the most vicious sting imaginable. They would stand on their heads and burrow into you as if with a pneumatic drill. If you were unlucky enough to brush a tree with your sleeve, you would spend the next 15 minutes in a torture compared to which the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was a holiday with pay.”

The next day, March 16, they found a few stinking waterholes at noon. They found two more that night and drank them dry. By morning, enough water had oozed into them to fill their water bottles for the trials ahead.

Wingate’s Columns were now being hunted in a waterless plain heavily patrolled by Japanese forces. They were near the limit of the range of supply-dropping aircraft. The four columns would have to go hungry for extended periods. There were only five aircraft earmarked for supply drops and two were Hudsons, unsuited to this role. Their only comfort was the presence of meat on the hoof.

17 March 1943