27 March 1943
Orde Wingate led the way out on March 27, 1943, planning to cross the Irrawaddy at Inywa on the night of the following day. In Major Fergusson’s No. 5 Column, Animal Transport Officer Bill Smyly was ordered to kill the mules. Some were shot but, with worries about the noise, the order came through to kill them silently. This resulted in a ghastly experiment. Smyly had had enough; he turned the animals loose in the jungle.
Fergusson’s men joined Brigade HQ and 7 and 8 Columns on the Hehtin Chaung. There would be no supply drops until the Irrawaddy was crossed and there would be no foraging in the villages, for security reasons.
Some Chindits – including sections of Major Gilkes’ 7 Column – took the longer but safer route to China. This Column split into three dispersal groups. One headed for India, the other two later decided to make for China.
Fergusson summed up the difficulties of those heading for India: “Our troubles arose from the fact that all seven columns eventually found themselves, in late March and early April, in a great bag formed by two wide rivers – the Irrawaddy and the Shweli – and across the mouth of this bag ran a motor road. The Japanese were able to bring up substantial reinforcements to patrol the road, to confiscate all the boats they could find on the rivers, and to occupy all the villages where we hoped to victual and many of the columns, like my own, had lost in action the wireless sets on which we depended for supplies from the air.”
Michael Calvert’s No. 3 Column was moving independently, about 20 miles from the main body. They took a final drop near Taunggon, but suffered terribly on the return. The same can be said of Major Scott’s No. 8 Column. They went far to the north, hindered by growing numbers of sick and wounded. A skilful pilot rescued a large party of sick and wounded who could go no further when he put his C-47 down in a small jungle clearing.
Major Fergusson’s No. 5 Column were now close to Hintha village and they found the jungle impenetrable, choked with prickly bamboo. He had no choice but to take the entire column through the village. The Column Commander went in first at night, grenade in hand and escorted by two companions. It seemed peaceful enough. There were four figures sitting around a fire. Fergusson assumed they were Burmese and approached. He introduced himself and suddenly realised they were Japanese. Only a few feet away from them, he tossed the grenade into the fire and fled. He then ordered Rifle Platoon Commander Philip Stibbe to go in with his men to clear Hintha with the bayonet. Stibbe was wounded in the action. Fergusson also had grenade fragments in the leg. In a long and fraught night they found it impossible to break through the village but eventually found a way around the enemy positions. Fergusson ordered “second dispersal” sounded and the column broke into smaller parties, setting out independently for a pre-agreed RV. Unfortunately, not everyone had that RV.
Stibbe’s platoon covered the withdrawal. Stibbe spent time on a casualty pony but soon reached the point where he could go no further. He was left behind, but in the company of Rifleman Maung Tun, who kept him alive by foraging for food. He never returned from one of these missions and Stibbe became a prisoner. Maung Tun had been captured, tortured and executed, but he never revealed Stibbe’s whereabouts.
As Fergusson’s dispersal group neared Inywa they heard firing and assumed the Brigade’s crossing was being opposed. Some elements of Gilkes’ 7 Column had come under fire on the river, while in mid-stream. Fergusson was aware that Wingate had ruled that dispersal groups should be no larger than 40, but he took the opposite view. Whilst his Column had shrunk significantly, as some groups had failed to make the RV, he still felt his force was large enough to deal with any likely opposition. Furthermore, he decided to leave the troubled Inywa area, heading north and east with the aim of crossing the Shweli and entering the relatively friendly Kachin hills. He learnt that most of his missing elements had joined up with Major Gilkes’ 7 Column. On the negative side, his first attempts at crossing the Shweli were thwarted by lack of boats and the presence of Japanese in the locality.
The decision to cross the Shweli was to change Bernard Fergusson’s life. His men were ferried across the Shweli in the night hours by Burmese boatmen, but they were betrayed. At dawn they found they had been left on a huge, jungle-covered sandbank, with a fast-running channel separating them from the far bank.
Fergusson described the scene confronting him: “There was no word for it but ‘nightmare’. The roaring of the waters, the blackness of the night, the occasional sucking of a quicksand were bad enough, but the current was devilish. At its deepest it was about four feet six or a little more. I am over six foot one and it was more than breast-height on me. The current must have been four or five knots. It sought to scoop the feet from under you and, at the same time, thrust powerfully at your chest. The only method of progress was to lean against the current,
to attempt to keep an intermittent footing, to maintain your angle against the stream, and kick off the ground whenever your feet touched it. If once you lost your vertical position, you knew as a black certainty that you would disappear down the stream forever.
“It was not until almost within reach of the bank that the river shallowed to a couple of feet and, even then, it was all one could do to make one’s way upstream against it. Although the crossing could not have been more than 70 or 80 yards, one finished at least 40 yards further downstream than the point of the sandbank.”
Now Fergusson faced the worst moment of his life. Over 40 of his men refused to attempt the crossing and stayed on the sandbank. The Column Commander made it clear that they could either wade or stay put, to be captured or killed by the enemy. He left a moving account of that dreadful moment in the dawn light: “I made the decision to come away. I have it on my conscience for as long as I live, but I stand by that decision and I believe it to be the correct one. Those who may think otherwise may well be right. Some of my officers volunteered to stay, but I refused them permission to do so.”
A total of 46 men were left behind. Some drowned in subsequent attempts to cross. Fergusson added a comment revealing that war wounds are not always physical: “The crossing of the Shweli river will haunt me all my life and, to my mind, the decision which fell to me there was as cruel as any which could fall on the shoulders of a junior commander.”
Fergusson now led a group of nine officers and 65 men – most of those who remained on the sandbank were soon taken prisoner by the Japanese.