Operation Longcloth

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03 March 1943

At around 4 am on March 3, No. 5 Column left the main road and entered the Nam Maw hills, known as “Happy Valley”. They had trouble finding a place to bivouac as the whole area was paddy. Eventually, they found a small wood. It was “thoroughly unsound” but, again, they took a chance: “So ended about the nastiest march of my life”, wrote Fergusson.

The Column’s rations would run out next evening. Fergusson could call in another air drop but the delay could lead to his force being intercepted before reaching the railway. The Column Commander preferred to use No. 5’s silver rupees, to buy rice from the villagers of Taungmaw, together with unhusked paddy for the mules. The men filled their spare socks

with rice. Fergusson was warned about the state of the track ahead yet neglected to ask for a guide. The going soon became impossible for animals. They retraced their steps and took a better route, this time with the help of a guide. There followed a good day’s marching in beautiful country and it was at that point that it was dubbed “Happy Valley”. At the valley’s end was the Mankat Pass, leading into the Taung Chaung Valley. Their luck held: it was unoccupied by the Japanese, despite its obvious attractions to infiltrators. Ahead was the flat basin of the Taung Chaung – a mix of jungle and paddy. Beyond were the low hills leading to the railway and No. 5 Column’s main target. Fergusson noted: “Six miles to our left, but hidden by the broad shoulder of a hill which intervened, was Banmauk, with its reputedly formidable garrison.”

Fergusson lost a man in Happy Valley – his first casualty. He suspected that he may have fallen asleep during a halt. “We hoped he might catch us up, but he never did, and nothing has been heard of him since.”

They covered 22 miles on March 4 and 18 on the next. Fergusson was told by a friendly priest that there was a small, 20-strong detachment of Japanese at Nankan, the next station south of Bonchaung, and another post at Meza Station, this of unknown strength. During the night of March 5/6 they bivouacked just three miles from Bonchaung Station. They had been across the Chindwin for 18 days and had yet to see a Japanese. The Column Commander had made his attack plan. His men assumed they would attack by night, but they were wrong: “To blow the bridge and gorge by daylight would be far quicker and better than to do it by night; and although never until today had it occurred to me that a daylight operation would be possible, the unexpected scarcity of Japs in the area put a new complexion on it.”

He knew that blowing the bridge and gorge would be much easier than getting out of the area afterwards and crossing the Irrawaddy without being hit by the Japanese. Fergusson wrote: “Even though in all probability he was not expecting us to cross the Irrawaddy, but to withdraw to India, he would quickly become aware of his mistake; and, with the new network of motor-roads which he had been building everywhere, it would not take him long to switch his troops from one area to another as information about our movements reached him.”

This shaped Fergusson’s thinking on the greatest challenge, a successful crossing of the immense width of the Irrawaddy. It would take several nights to cross in penny packets in their modest collection of rubber boats. Instead, he would make for the ferry town of Tigyaing, to the south east, “and try to cross in one bold stroke. It was some 20 miles from

Katha and still farther from Wuntho, the two garrisons most likely to come out and hunt us.” The aim was to cross at Tigyaing Steamer Station on around March 9.

No. 5 Column prepared a force to blow the Gorge, two miles south of Bonchaung Station. This consisted of half the Commando Platoon, under Lieutenant Jim Harman, escorted by a platoon under Lieutenant Philip Stibbé. Another fighting group was to make for Nankan and keep the small enemy force there fully occupied. A third party would make for the gorge, while a fourth – the main body – would take the track leading to Bonchaung Station. They would destroy the three-span girder bridge at the station’s southern end. The rendezvous for everyone was a small stream in the Kunbaung Valley, about 25 miles away, up until noon on March 8. Everyone tried to sleep, putting the trials ahead out of their minds.

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