WEEKEND WEB: South Holland’s heroes of the ‘Never to be Forgotten Army’
Arthur Branch (97), Jack Mills (96) and Brian Robinson MBE (94) will be prouder, yet humbler, than most of us on this Remembrance weekend.
The World War II veterans, from Spalding, Holbeach and Donington respectively, are three of the four servicemen still alive and living in South Holland who experienced the arduous and brutal Burma Campaign that lasted from 1941 until 1945.
It started with the Japanese raid on the US naval base of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and the Asian nation’s declaration of war against Britain four days later after which at least 35,000 Japanese troops invaded Burma.
Jack, a qualified surveyor when he joined up as a RAF Reservist at the age of 19, said: “The Japanese wanted the freedom of the seas and because all of our colleagues joined up to fight them, Brian, Arthur and myself joined up as well.
“We fought for our country and just went where needed in Burma which was another world to us as foreigners.
“I remmeber being kitted out with green clothing, tin hats and a Sten machine gun as we were flown in an open-sided Dakota aircraft from India into the Burmese jungle.”
We fought for our country and just went where needed in Burma which was another world to us as foreigners
Despite both of them being RAF Reservists during the campaign, Jack and Arthur had no idea that they had been born on the same farm, just one house apart, in Haconby, near Bourne.
Arthur said: “I was in four different regiments after I joined up in 1940, yet none of us had done any training in jungle warfare.
“In fact, I remember two of our boys took their Sten machine guns to pieces and couldn’t put them together again.
“We’d been in India for quite a while before going to Burma in 1943 and we were wading through the jungle as part of the 19th India Division alongside Indians, Pakistanis, Gurkhas, Sikhs, Rajputs and Punjabis.
“But I didn’t quite make it because when I wanted to change the magazine on my gun after it had run out of ammuntion, the Japanese got in behind and injured me.
“I was flown out of Burma and went to Darjeeling, India, where the nurses saw that I convalesced.”
Brian, awarded an MBE in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List for more than 40 years service on Donington Parish Council, remembers the Burma Campaign as a sobering experience where survival was a case of adapting to a different way of life.
He said: “I volunteered to be in the RAF because it was seen as the thing to be in at school.
“But I don’t think you could tell people the story of how we were treated and how we had to survive.
“We lived in tents where cooking was done in a converted oil drum on a wood fire, with a diet of powdered eggs, powdered milk, dehydrated mutton and bully beef, all served in billy cans.
The Burma Campaign was the longest, continuous campaign fought by the British during the war, in terrain and a climate that claimed the lives of an estimated 18,000 Allied troops.
Central to the Allied victory was the Fourteenth Army, known as the “Forgotten Army” which numbered more than one million men drawn from the British Commonwealth.
Brian said: “We accepted death as an everyday thing and if a bullet had your name on it, so be it.”
The Burma Star Association, to which Arthur Branch, Jack Mills and Brian Robinson belong, was founded in 1951 for those who served in Allied Forces or Nursing Services during the Burma Campaign.
From December 1941 to August 1945, Allied forces led by Lieutenant General Sir William Slim resisted Japanese efforts to conquer south-east Asia in a campaign that started with “a long and demoralising fighting retreat through thick jungle terrain over a distance equivalent to that from Istanbul to London”, according to the Association’s website
However, despite battles in the malaria-blughted Arakan region, across the Chindwin River and Imphal-Kohima Road, Mandalay and Rangoon, the insulting label given to the Fourteenth Army of “The Forgotten Army” stuck.
That was until Spalding Gentlemen’s Club invited Arthur, Jack and Brian to a buffet lunch last month in recognition of their service and sacrifice for Queen and Country.
Club member Colin Harrison said: “If it wasn’t for these veterans, I’m sure that this country wouldn’t have achieved what we have over the past decades and we’re proud of these men.”