WWII Elephant Man rescue revealed on film

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The Independent Online

Photographs, diaries and remarkable amateur film charting the epic rescue of refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion of Burma during the Second World War have been made available to the public today.

53-year-old tea exporter Gyles Mackrell, dubbed the Elephant Man in the British press, organised for hundreds of soldiers and ex-pats to be taken across the swollen Dapha river on elephants during the British retreat in 1942.

He orchestrated the effort in response to the hundreds of refugees bound for India who were trapped by rising waters during the monsoon season.

Click here or on the image above for more pictures and diary entries

Startling images, now exhibited at Cambridge University’s Centre for South Asian Studies, show elephants ploughing through the swirling rapids with up to three people on their backs.

Publication of the archive casts new light on a rescue which has been called the 'forgotten Dunkirk'. The 13 minutes of early amateur footage have been made accessible to all on video sharing web site YouTube (See bottom of article).

Dr Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies, said: "The story is a sort of far eastern Dunkirk, but it has been largely forgotten since the war. Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it.”

Published diary entries lend further insight into the lengthy mission, which took place between June and October 1942. Mackrell’s diary entry from 7 June, records:

“Got the elephants loaded early and spent a long time finding a place to cross. The river was very high and we failed at several points. At last Gohain got over with Phuldot a tusker. The rest tried to follow but 4, including a big Mukana which was frightened of water, got washed away and landed again on the left bank."

"I took off their loads and tried to get them to swim over without them but through the influence of this Mukana, all were frightened and we had to give it up.”

Mackrell’s actions followed the evacuation of Burma’s capital Rangoon in March of 1942. As tens of thousands were forced to trek on foot out of the country, many became trapped by burst rivers during the monsoon rains.

In the absence of an organised evacuation, tea planters like Mackrell, who had access to elephants and mahouts (elephant riders), became the refugees’ only hope.

By September 1942 about 200 people had been saved. But the last group was yet to be rescued. Acting on faulty intelligence, the British administration in Assam which orderedMackrell to pull out. But Mackrell continued the effort regardless.

In a September 5 diary entry, Mackrell writes:

“I opened the letters brought from Dapha by the elephants. Amongst these were two instructing me to stop any further attempt to rescue this party (Rossiter’s?)...I decided it was impossible to withdraw in the then existing circumstances but that I must do all I could to help.”

The collection at Cambridge has been donated by Mackrell’s niece and an independent researcher, Denis Segal. It includes not just his films and diaries, but papers and accounts by some of those who were rescued.

The diary of a John Rowland, a railroad engineer whose party were some of the last to be helped to safety across the river by Mackrell, is also among the collection. A 12 October diary entry recounts:

“What can I say to you for the very gallant rescue of my party which you achieved in spite, so I am told, of orders to the contrary. Well, Mackrell, I guess it’s just thank you very, very much, thank-you over and over again…I hope we shall meet again somewhere sometime – Again I say thank you for the rescue of myself and party. If it had not been for you many of us would not be alive today.”