Operation Longcloth

23 April 1943

Bernard Fergusson’s bedraggled score or so Longcloth survivors set out for the Myene valley and the Chindwin, 20 miles distant. There was five miles of open paddy to cross and that would have to be done by night. Despite their starved condition, they had covered 100 miles in the past six days. Yet Fergusson remained cautious: they marched by moonlight for the next two days, laying up by day.

On the morning of the 24th they reached Myene village but found the villagers “surly and suspicious”, according to Fergusson, as a result of recent Japanese “bullying”. Fergusson’s party stocked up on rice at Myene and at the next village. They took guides to continue their trek, with four of the party finding it difficult to keep the pace. One of the guides then said that there were British soldiers across the river and the pace quickened. On reaching Sahpe village, only 500 yards from the riverbank, the headman told them that they had just missed a British patrol.

The patrol had recrossed the river, using the available boats. However, two small boats suddenly appeared and Fergusson sorted out his group of four officers, 25 other ranks and a Chinese national. He ordered eight men to stop making tea and get into the boats. They went with no reluctance; soon, all were across the Chindwin. Fergusson reached Imphal on April 26.

Fergusson’s moving description of how it felt to be out deserves to be quoted in full: “The next few days seemed like a dream and to this moment they still have something of that quality. The trouble I had with the Assamese sentry on the west side of the Chindwin, because I didn’t know the password; the kindness of Colonel Murray and his officers; the difficulty he had in persuading his Headquarters that I was not, as had been reported, dead; the news they gave us of the arrival of Denny Sharp’s party six hours, and of Mike Calvert’s six days, earlier; the simple Thanksgiving Service which I held in default of a padre at the top of a hill above the Chindwin, on Easter morning, the day after we crossed; the drive from roadhead to Tamu in an ambulance; the remorseless burning of our clothes by a disdainful Field Hygiene Section; dinner with Jack Dalrymple, who had given me luncheon three months before, and his general; the drive to Imphal in a staff car and the warmth of our reception there; the refusal of the men to be parted from their rice, and their insistence on cooking some every few hours, to the astonishment of all beholders; the arrival of Orde Wingate four days after me; his reproaches because, not being dead, as he had heard, I had wasted the obituary notice which he had been composing all the way back (I should have liked to have seen it); my failure to recognise the men in hospital with their beards off … all this is of the stuff of dreams. I weighed myself and found that I had lost three out of my usual twelve stone.”

Gradually, news of the other dispersal parties came in. Some crossed the Chindwin. Others went in a different direction. Bill Smyly was amongst those who reached Fort Hertz. He was burdened with malaria and dysentery.

With Long Range Penetration proven as a mode of warfare, the much larger campaign of 1944 followed, with Bernard Fergusson leading 16 Brigade. He concluded his account of Operation Longcloth in 1943 with the following comments: “Wingate went home and to the States. He captured the imagination of Mr Churchill and of President Roosevelt and it was thanks to them that in 1944 his force entered Burma, not with forlorn parties as in 1943, but with the best backing that the ingenuity of man could devise. Every Brigade except one was flown in, constituting an operation that the world admired and applauded, and it was just my luck that mine was the one which had still to walk.”

Operation Longcloth