West Africa to the 81st Division in the Arakan in Burma - J W Mitchell

BQMS JOHN WILLIAM MITCHELL (1911-1987) – Extracts from my father’s scrapbook - ‘War Time Memories’

An article kindly written by Diana Martin

BQMS J W Mitchell

Royal West African Frontier Force (1941-1945) and The 81st (West African) Division

Introduction & Background

This article on West Africa to the 81st Division in the Arakan in Burma was kindly written for us by Diana Martin and talks us through her father’s enlistment, training & subsequent posting to the Royal West African Frontier Force. In Sierra Leone and Nigeria he was involved in the recruitment and training of west Africans into what became the 81st (West African) Division which was then involved in the heavy fighting in the Arakan in Burma. 
 
The article is based on her father’s own personal memories and the scrapbook that he made when he was in hospital for a year in 1945-46. The scrapbook has been donated to the Imperial War Museum by Diana and her sister Valerie. The IWM object number is Documents 20564 – The private papers of J W Mitchell. BMMHS would like to thank Diana & the IWM for allowing us to publish this article and also Alan Hunn for his encouragement.
81st (West African) Division, 'Black Tarantulas'
J W Mitchell’s scrapbook details his time spent in Sierra Leone and Nigeria as a gunner with the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, West African Artillery (WAA), Royal West African Frontier Force (Later the 81st West Africa Division) and in India and Burma, as a Battery Quartermaster Sergeant, with 62nd Anti-Tank Battery, 1st Anti-Tank Regiment, WAA, where he and the Regiment were part of the Fourteenth (the Forgotten Army) under General Bill Slim, in the Arakan, up to his demobilisation (February 1946).

Wartime Memories - Enlistment & Basic Training

My father was working as a Booking Clerk with London Underground at Marble Arch in London when in January 1941 he enlisted for Active Service and went for basic training at Conway, North Wales.

Royal West Africa Frontier Force

After eight weeks training my father volunteered with 53 others for Sierra Leone (the white mans’ grave) with the Royal West African Frontier Force.  The Force, its symbol being the Black Tarantula,   consisted entirely of volunteers, British and African and was originated by Lever Bros as a small force to protect their representatives who travelled ‘up country’ bartering for palm oil and kernels for shipment to England.  The Force was later adopted by the Government and finally militarised.

Tropical Diseases

Stationed in Freetown, many comrades died of diseases, Blackwater Fever, Yellow Fever, Meningitis, Malaria, Dysentery and at one time in June 1941 over 60% of the unit were in hospital including my father.

The town is surrounded by jungle, which is almost impenetrable with its 20 feet high grass growing everywhere.  Snakes of all sorts abound, and there are millions of monkeys, some more or less tame; spiders the size of pennies and ants over half an inch long.

 

 Drinking water was taken from streams but always has to be boiled before use.There is plenty of fresh fruit, which grows in abundance and include bananas, pineapples, limes, mangoes and oranges, while vegetables grown are onions, spinach, tomatoes and bread fruit, which is an excellent substitute for potatoes.  There are practically no sanitation arrangements, even in town, there being only a sort of cesspool at the corner of every street where refuse is emptied and in which the natives do their washing’.  My father’s only leave home in four and a half years was in February 1942 when he gave an interview to the Hayes News.

‘Despite the difficulties, humour was still alive – We had some beetroot issued in our rations the other day and our native cook could not have seen any before, because he dished it up as “afters”…….with custard!’  An incident from one of my father’s letters which my Aunt sent to the Daily Mirror.

Recruiting and Training West African Soldiers

My father worked with Paramount Chiefs primarily in Sierra Leone and Nigeria (travelling by train or paddling upstream) recruiting, training and educating native soldiers from thousands of tribal villages in the jungle and bush country of the four colonies.  Of fine physique, the men averaged 6’ and could carry loads weighing up to 80lbs on their heads over long distances – hunters, fishermen and craftsmen joined the skilled tradesmen and educated recruits to multiply the size of the force many times.  Revolutionary progress was made as former illiterate men were taught to operate AA instruments, such as the Heightfinder and Predictor.  There were approximately equal numbers of Christians, Muslims and others.  For the great majority it was the first time they have ever been more than a few miles from their own homes.

Christmas 1942

The Christmas Day Menu 1942 as served in the jungle

‘Cables from home were sent to Lagos, and thence by train to Iwo and finally by pigeon to our location in the jungle.’  Christmas 1942 was spent in the jungle – see Christmas Day menu within photographs.

Sometimes instructed by Missionaries, the men learned English from the blackboard where simple and familiar objects such as a house or tree were shown to the recruits who would repeat the name several times.

The Eviction of the Axis from North Africa and the 81st Division ships to India

By August 1943 West Africa was relieved from any chance attack from the North by Germany or Italy and so the native army which was built up from illiterate bushmen from the jungles of West Africa turned to the menace in the East – Japanese aggression of Burma!

With the eviction of the axis from North Africa, West African units became available to operations elsewhere.  They represented one of the first instalments in the British Commonwealth’s declared intention to concentrate its manpower against the Japanese, as victory developed in the West. By September 1943 my father was on his way with his West African comrades sailing on HM Volendam from Freetown to Bombay and then via Calcutta on HM Jaladurga to Chittagong.

For the British personnel to work there year after year, some to die, in what is one of the unhealthiest climates in the world, their arrival in India for Burma, is merely a continuation of long foreign services that has now a wider acknowledgement.’

Article from ‘New Statesman’, India’s leading newspaper January 1944.

Burma and the Arakan

The Royal West African Frontier Force was deployed just over the Burmese frontier down the Kaladan River which flows into the sea at Akyab.  Monsoon over, the 81st West African Division was the first ever to be mobilised for overseas service.  A component of the 15th Indian Corps, to which it acted as a ‘Special Force’, the Division began its climb (relying on air drops for its supplies) in October 1943 eastwards over precipitous hills with the Kaladan as its objective.

In the Arakan, the West Africans helped deny the Japanese one of the most important gateways to India.  But before the West Africans could fight the Japanese they had to get to them.  

Along the West African way went the division to fight the Japanese.  It is only a young division but already stories of gallantry have gathered round it.  A Gold Coast platoon, for example, led a bayonet charge immediately after wading neck-deep across a river. 

Since last March British, Ghurka and West Africans have been playing this kind of deadly hide and seek in the heart of the enemy’s country.  They have killed men, destroyed supplies and broken communications again and again.  Japanese losses were 5 to 1.

Surrounded and cut-off by the Japanese

‘Our Division was cut off by the Japanese and we were entirely supplied by air throughout the second campaign, Dakota aircraft being used for this purpose.    Money was frequently found by us stuck to trees or bamboo and strangely always up-side-down!  We found out that the purpose of this was for Japanese patrol guidance’

For two days, a column of 250 sick and wounded along with their escort which recently marched through the worst jungle in Burma’s Arakan, found that the only way to get on, was along a ledge sometimes only 8 inches wide.  The cliff face of the Pi Chaung precipice below them was a sheer wall of several hundred feet – but moving in single file by the light of bamboo flares and torches in the dead of night, every man safely got across.  Patients were strapped to their stretchers during the descent”.  All were from the 81st Royal West African Frontier Force.

Newspaper articles (unknown source) within my father’s scrapbook at the time reported
A Happy and Sincere Greetings to Sgt J W Mitchell and family. From his African soldier L/Bdr [Lance Bombardier] Charles C Ijomah. Dear Sgt, Lets be sober and look forward, for the Victory is drawing near gradually. [signed] Charles Ijomah”
The money was frequently found in trees or Bamboo. Always upside down as there Japanese used it for patrol guidance.

The 81st Advances and the art of jungle manoeuvre

General Loftus-Tottenham aiming to have his first task accomplished by Corps ‘D Day’ (14 December) advanced a crow’s flight 100 miles and brought his Division to a line due east of Buthidaung to form a continuous front with the rest of 15th Corps.  He did it in sixty days.  Where the enemy chose to stand and fight, he took them on with sufficient strength to ensure rapid success while by passing them with is main forces.  The enemy was never aware of his line of advance ‘Foxer Force’ – its name is self-explanatory – once induced them to rush up the east bank of the Kaladan convinced they had got behind the 81st.  The Division was in fact going in exactly the opposite direction ‘Holforce’ (West African Frontier Force in an infantry role) guarded the notorious Soutcol Route traversing the jungle from Pi Chaung to Taung Bazaar.  General Loftus Tottenham was giving the enemy a demonstration of the art of jungle manoeuvre and he was helped by the enthusiasm of his men who repeatedly undertook long outflanking marches to emerge in the Japanese rear.

Article from my father's scrapbook

Cutting the River Kaladan and the Capture of Akyab

The 81st were the first to cut the Kaladan with a river block.  Gambians made a daring night crossing of the river at Tinma to lead the Division into the final phase – the advance into the lower Kaladan in synchronisation with the opening of the full Corps offensive.

Though the Japanese continued for the rest of the campaign to shell our troops heavily, they were now continuously on the retreat.  Gold coasters undertook a dangerous enveloping march through exposed paddy fields.  The Nigerians pushed hard to the east and were the first to cross the Lemro river, blocking the northern Japanese escape route from Myohaung.  Akyab fell to the 25th Indian  Division; the 81st felt it was their reward too.  Lord Louis Mountbatten who had signalled the Division his congratulations on the speed of its advance down the Kaladan now flew in to give thanks personally to the men.  They swept on in rare spirits to link up with the 82nd at Myohaung.  They had earned the honourable though unofficial name of 15 Corps Special Force. They had been separated from the main front for 120 days, had marched 350 miles and killed 356 Japanese.’

Portion of J W Mitchell's Map showing penciled diversion routes to outflank the Japanese

Show me the way to go Home

April 13th and my repatriation order comes for me for to go home…….after four and a half years!’

‘It was with mixed feelings that I left the Royal West African Frontier Force, glad that I was at last on my way home, but sorry to leave a gallant little body of men in which I had personal pride, and had myself played a somewhat small part to create.  Fortunately, I left them near Madras, India, where they were enjoying a well earned rest, and was glad to know that owing to the not expected quick capitulation of the Japanese, the West Africans were never required for action again……I had been with them from beginning to end………..’

 

"Show me the way to go home"

The war in the Far East finally ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The 14th Army by 1945 was a truly multinational force with divisions drawn from Great Britain, India and West Africa and small contingents from other countries within the Empire. The campaign in Burma had been fought against a determined enemy over difficult and dangerous terrain, by troops a long way from home. 

Over 350,000 thousand African troops fort in East Africa, defeating the Italians in Somaliland and Abyssinia and the Japanese in Burma. The West African Frontier Force, The King’s African Rifles and the Northern Rhodesia Regiment won many battle honours.  The Africans proved to be notable jungle fighters.  Compared to the Europeans, they were more resistant to tropical diseases and heat, and their sickness rates were amongst the lowest in Burma.

Postscript: A break from the front line

Although my father didn’t come home to Europe for several years, he did enjoy 14 days with ‘Lucky Dip Leave’ in September 1944 travelling to Simla in the Himalayas – a journey of 2,000 miles, taking roughly 5 days.  Travelling by rail via Chittagong, Calcutta, Lucknow, Allahabad, Cawnpore, Delhi and Kalka and then 58 miles up the Himalayas by mountain railway to Simla.   My father and his colleagues stayed at the Viceroy’s Lodge where he relaxed playing tennis, horse-riding, sight-seeing, watching a J B Priestley play at the Gaiety Theatre performed by the Simla Amateur Dramatic Society consisting from the European population.   

 After 2 weeks my father wrote ‘The end of a wonderful leave, and again we return to Burma………..’

Diana E Martin 

18th June 2019

Further Reading

 
 

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