Major Hugh Seagrim was the leader of a small group of officers, the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136, working behind the lines in Burma. He had been responsible for bringing the Burmese nationalist leader Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) into talks with the British military. In the jungle of Burma he worked with Karen tribesmen to resist the Japanese occupation, leading sabotage on Japanese communications. The work of Force 136 featured in the fictional ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’.
However the Japanese soon learnt that British officers were involved in these operations and set about hunting them down. The impact of the Japanese hunt on the local people led Major Seagrim to give himself up on 15th March 1944. He was to earn the highest award for bravery for an action not involving direct combat, the George Cross:
Awarded the George Cross for most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner. Major Seagrim was the leader of a party which included two other British and one Karen officer working in the Karen Hills of Burma. By the end of 1943 the Japanese had learned of this party who then commenced a campaign of arrests and torture to determine their whereabouts. In February 1944 the other two British officers were ambushed and killed but Major Seagrim and the Karen officer escaped.
The Japanese then arrested 270 Karens and tortured and killed many of them but still they continued to support Major Seagrim. To end further suffering to the Karens, Seagrim surrendered himself to the Japanese on 15th March 1944. He was taken to Rangoon and together with eight others he was sentenced to death. He pleaded that the others were following his orders and as such they should be spared, but they were determined to die with him and were all executed.
There can hardly be a finer example of self-sacrifice and bravery than that exhibited by this officer who in cold blood deliberately gave himself up to save others, knowing well what his fate was likely to be at the hands of the enemy.
His brother, Major Derek Seagrim, had been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his attack on the Mareth Line in Italy just a year before. There is a full account of the Seagrim brothers at britishmilitaryhistory.
Meanwhile the Japanese were marching in force on India. Lieutenant Walton of the Frontier Rifles was out on reconnaissance and was able to make this report on his observations from the banks of the River Chindwin on the 15th March:
At about 18.30 hours I saw men going north up the bank to collect boats, which were spaced at approximately twenty—yard intervals along the bank.They brought them down to the river.
These boats were approximately eight feet long and four feet wide with sharp prows. After darkness fell sections of six boats were brought together, lashed with bamboos and then lengths of decking placed on top.
Various sections were then joined together and one end fixed to the bank on the eastern side.The other end was allowed to swing with the current across the river until it hit the western bank, a distance of approximately 300 yards.
Almost immediately a number of men crossed the bridge with ammunition boxes and these were followed by bullocks, horses, ponies and more bullocks. The ponies were seen to be carrying what looked like dismantled mountain guns.These were followed by approximately 100 men carrying white and green boxes, and each man made at least two journeys.
This traffic continued to my knowledge until approximately 02.00 hours [on the 16th], and almost certainly until daylight. As daylight broke, a motor boat dragged the far end of the bridge up stream back to the far bank, where it was dismantled, the decking removed and the boats taken upstream and dispersed along the river bank. As soon as daylight came all noise and most movement ceased.
This was the progress of the Japanese 132 Division, marching across Burma carrying all their own supplies through the jungles and over the mountains. The explosive last push of Japanese expansion was about to begin.