'Dunkirk of the East': How thousands of Brits travelled the ‘Road of Death’ in Burma

In March 1942, thousands of British and Indian civilians fled Burma when Japanese troops arrived. Their escape route would become known as 'The Road of Death'. Seventy years on, a survivor recalls the most harrowing journey of his life...

Holly Williams
Saturday 17 March 2012 01:00 GMT

Burma, in the spring of 1942, and the Japanese are coming. British and Indian ex-pats suddenly need to get out of the country, and fast. But getting home is not going to be easy: an incredible journey, lasting up to three months and undertaken by foot, through jungle and swamp, from the north of Burma over the mountainous border and into India.

It's a story rarely told, despite being one of the most difficult, desperate mass evacuations in human history. Astonishingly, some 220,000 refugees survived the harrowing journey, of up to 300 miles long; 4,268 are recorded to have died en route, from sickness, exhaustion, malnutrition, starvation or drowning – although the true death toll will never be known.

Narasimha Ramamurthy, known as Ram, was aged just 13 when he made the trek from Burma, across Nagaland – a north-eastern hill state, now part of India – and through the state of Assam, before continuing the journey down India to the safety of Madras (today's Chennai). Now 84, and living in London, he recalls those traumatic experiences ahead of this year's 70th anniversary of the event. "It was challenging – but you have no other way to go, it is a question of survival of the fittest," he explains. "You can't think about it. You just walk."

Ram's father worked as a civil engineer for the British government near Mandalay; in December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Rangoon, his boss told him he must return home to India. This was never going to be easy: his salary was modest, and he had a family of 11 to get out. A British officer helped finance their escape, and the family – with the exception of Ram's father, who was obliged to remain behind to help the war effort – travelled north, the Japanese not far behind.

During that winter, the Allies offered assurances to those in Burma there would be aeroplanes, or at least boats, for the evacuation, and many thousands did leave this way. But after the fall of Rangoon in January 1942, sea routes were closed. Then the Myitinka aerodrome – many people's last hope – was bombed out of action. The only option was to walk to India.

A tale recorded in Geoffrey Tyson's 1945 book, Forgotten Frontiers, reveals just how ill-prepared some of those unfortunate travellers were. Many refugees fled to the escape route north only really ready for air travel, with just money, jewels and papers on their person, and their most expensive, precious garments on their back. This created some tragically surreal sights: "Not a few [women] were found dead at lonely spots in the Naga country, clad in the fine evening gowns which in happier times they had purchased in London, Calcutta or Rangoon," wrote Tyson.

Ram, his mother, brothers and sisters – the youngest of whom was a baby of just six months – might not have been dressed in finery, but they were hardly clothed in the sort of gear suitable for a 122-mile jungle trek route known as 'The Road of Death'.

"We each took what we could carry of rice and salt, and what we were wearing; we couldn't take any more," begins Ram. "It was raining most of the time – it was difficult, slippery. We had shoes but in some places we had to walk barefoot for safety."

They set off on 23 March 1942, and soon established a tedious, trudging routine: starting at seven in the morning, stopping at noon to cook rice porridge, then walking till six, with rice porridge again for dinner. By this time it would be dark, and they would lie at the side of the path and try to sleep. They were helped on their journey by the Naga people. "My mother couldn't walk up the hills well and the little children had to be carried, and one of my brothers was sick. For a very small sum, the Nagas carried them," Ram recalls.

There were camps along the road, but these weren't always hospitable: one, they were warned not to go into, as it was riddled with typhoid. There were seven different routes out of Burma, which varied in length, difficulty and condition – and while Ram's family went on a more straightforward and sensible path, even on that route there were many deaths. Diseases such as tuberculosis, dysentery, and malaria flourished. Exhaustion and lack of food also swiftly picked off weaker travellers – and left families with terrible decisions to make.

"I can still remember a man with a moustache lying dead, right on the path. The side is too steep, you'd fall down, so the only way to go is over the body. It had rained, the body bloated up – I still can see it, it was terrible," Ram remembers. "And there was a man who had two children; his wife had died on the way somewhere. He was carrying both children, and he got to the point when he couldn't carry them any more, and he didn't have anything to feed them, and nobody else could carry them, so he had to lie the children against a tree to die – and he walked on. These are choices you had to make."

Surviving travellers were also liable to suffer some peculiarly horrible physical complaints. So-called 'Naga sores' were common: they began like a blister, before growing to five or so inches in diameter, half an inch deep, destroying the skin and the flesh below, and filling with a foul-smelling pus. These frequently attracted maggots: one account recalls the removal of about 350 maggots from a hole in a little boy's skull. Amazingly, he survived.

Insects also plagued the refugees. A diary entry from later in the summer, by a Captain JR Wilson, recalled the horrors of things that go bite in the night – and all day long too. "One is bitten by something as soon as one exposes any part of one's body! Early, Dim Dams [a small, fly-like insect], then huge horse flies, all day leeches, at dusk midges and just at dark and onwards sandflies in myriads and some mosquitoes. No wonder this area in uninhabited."

Ram and his family walked for two weeks. Their total journey, including a bus and then train through India, took five. The whole family successfully made it to Madras – although his sister's one-year-old baby died within a week of their arrival.

Ram's father, when he left to join his family, had an even more difficult journey. "He had a very extreme experience," says Ram. "When he came, his skin was coming off, he could hardly speak." The path the family had taken, via Palel, was known then as 'The Road of Death'; his father's route became infamous as 'The Valley of Death'.

It was about 300 miles through the Hukawng Valley, over the Chaukan Pass at the north-western end of the mountains dividing Burma and India, with treacherous crossings on the Dapha River. It rises to over 9,000 feet at its highest point and is swamp-like at the lowest. Before the summer of 1942, only five European explorers had ever crossed it – and certainly not during the rainy season.

"The lot that came through this area, across the raging Dapha River and over the Chaukan Pass, made a bad decision. They went the wrong way, basically," says Dr Kevin Greenbank, from the Centre of South Asian Studies (CSAS) at Cambridge University. "It was a monstrous, monstrous trek through the jungle, which killed many and left many others debilitated."

Although Ram's father made it out alive, he was terribly emaciated. When his best friend and another of his sons went to meet the train he took to Madras some months later, they walked the length of the carriages but couldn't find him. As they prepared to leave, puzzled, somebody came running after them – a man was trying to call them back. Eventually, they found Ram's father, too weak to get up. He looked at his son and best friend and said, "Are you going away and leaving me?". The journey had ravaged him beyond recognition.

Back in Burma, the evacuation went on for months; people were still arriving in India in September. One party was led by railway engineer Sir John Rowland, aged 60, who made it out in August after a three-month trek, with considerable periods of time spent desperately waiting for rivers to subside, or waiting for help to arrive, just subsisting on a few tablespoons of rice a day bulked out with ferns.

In a letter dated 13 August 1942, he wrote of the Chaukan Pass: "On arrival there our transport porters deserted us ... in a weird and eerie forest which resembled the Wizard of Oz's domain except that there were no wizards, just an unceasing downpour of rain, rain, rain ... mountains 2000' high to climb and the descent down slopes almost like the side of a house ... no foot holes only wet mud and slush, with the rain coming down in torrents morning, noon and night."

There were many astonishing survival tales: a newspaper report from Douglas Wilkie, The Sunday Sun's correspondent in India, reported that "stories of epic courage and pitiful tragedy are accumulating as parties of gaunt and haggard refugees from Burma still struggle into Northern Assam". A blind Indian was led all the way by his two small sons; a crippled man shouldered a spare wooden leg throughout the entire journey, "lest he smashed the other on a rock"; a woman, "exhausted, her feet worn to bone", crawled the last 22 miles. More cheerfully, a pet spaniel thought to have fallen over a cliff was brought in days later by a Gurkha soldier – with a healthy litter of puppies.

But the escape from Burma was a time of heroism as well as grim survival. A major rescue operation was mounted from Assam; groups of British tea planters and Indian workers banded together and journeyed into the jungle to help save the starving parties who had underestimated the length and difficulty of the journey – or who had become stranded by monsoon-swelled rivers.

The most celebrated of these was British tea-planter Gyles Mackrell, who spent the months between May and September 1942 taking his pack of elephants into The Valley of Death. Mackrell was an amateur filmmaker, and he took his camera with him; amazingly, the footage survives.

"There's a point where an island has been formed

in the river, and there's about 60-odd people trapped on it, and they've been on grass rations for a week when [Mackrell] gets to them," recounts Dr Greenbank. "That's the one with the really memorable footage of the elephant really struggling. It's very, very fast running water, but an elephant's a great big thing and can probably stand up to that. But there are tree trunks and boulders underneath the surface being carried along at that speed, too. They are being hammered all the time."

Those 68 refugees had a very lucky escape; Mackrell recorded in his diary on 10 June that "within two hours of the last elephant and man to reach my camp, the snow water came down again and the whole island on which these men had been penned for seven days was swept away by a roaring torrent in which no human being could have survived."

The 53-year-old Mackrell was awarded the George Medal for his bravery, but it was no one-man mission – he was helped by a team of Indians. "It's a really good story," says Dr Greenbank. "It has a heroic element, a great deal of altruism, but it shouldn't just be that there was this one guy because it wasn't – it was a collective effort between this fairly sizeable group of people who built camps, set off on elephants and all of that."

When archive footage of the rescue was released in 2010 – and a third film has more recently been discovered – the evacuation and rescue mission was dubbed as the 'Dunkirk of the East'. But it was an event few people knew about; the evacuation of Burma is not a war story that is part of our national consciousness, despite dramatic tales of dogged determination and elephant-backed rescue.

"It is forgotten," agrees Dr Greenbank. "When I first saw the films, I had no idea what this was footage of – it's just not a story that has been told." There may be several reasons, he suggest: for one, it is part of imperial history, of which the British are not proud. Neither has it been logistically easy for Western academics to research 1940s Burma.

More importantly, perhaps, is that while individuals show incredible resilience in the face of great hardship, the main narrative of the 1942 evacuation was one of retreat. The British were running away from the Japanese.

"It's an Empire story, which isn't great, but it's a failure story which really isn't great," says Dr Greenbank. "We like to think of the Second World War as a positive tale and this is a massive, embarrassing rout for the British. We got absolutely thumped by the Japanese in Burma."

But even if it was a political defeat for the British, for the men, women and children who made it out of Burma and over those inhospitable mountains on foot, sheer survival was a sweet enough victory. Seventy years on, it's surely worth saluting that triumph of the human spirit.

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