Lord Louis Mountbatten had now been appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia, covering the land forces in India, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Sumatra, and, for offensive operations, Siam (Thailand) and French Indochina as well as sea and air forces. The Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, the American General Stilwell, was responsible for Allied land forces in China.
It was a remarkable rise for a man who had begun the war as the commander of the destroyer HMS Kelly, in which he had survived being nearly sunk in the North Sea in 1940, and later was sunk in her off Crete in 1941. From there he had become the British commander of Combined Operations which brought him into the circle of the most senior military staff. Now Churchill asked him to take on the highly political role of uniting Allied efforts in the Far East.
Mountbatten began with a tour of the troops in the Arakan in northern Burma. They were often called the ‘Forgotten army’ because their campaign in northern Burma received so little attention. Mountbatten was to begin his morale boosting talks to the troops with the line ‘You are not the forgotten army – nobody has ever heard of you’:
WEDNESDAY, 15 DECEMBER
I left at 0800 with General Briggs in his open desert car. We drove to the foot of the Mayu Range and there transferred into jeeps to drive across the Ngakyedauk Pass. A road has been constructed across this Pass in three weeks; a truly miraculous feat. We have only recently captured this territory from the ]apanese, and there is no other lateral road in our hands that crosses the Mayu Range since the Japanese hold the Buthidaung—Maungdaw Road.
Our sappers (mostly Indian troops, who, when their enthusiasm is aroused, work much harder than British sappers) have constructed a road which leaves the Corniche standing. At present only jeeps can use it but it is going to be improved for heavier traffic. At places there is a sheer drop of several hundred feet where the road has been blasted out of the soft rock. I insisted on driving myself, mostly in double low gear 4-wheel drive. Going up hill was all right but going down hill was really rather terrifying as if one failed to take a corner correctly one would go for six.
One of the difficulties in the Arakan is that there is practically no stone except in a few places where there is a very soft local stone which breaks up too easily. The result is that most of the stone for metalling the roads has to be imported into the country. Another alternative is to import coal and bake bricks which are used to metal the roads. Unless roads are metalled they become impassable during the monsoon.
As we climbed to the top of the Mayu Range the wild nature of the jungle became more and more apparent; although very beautiful and full of wonderful coloured birds it is a hell of a country to have to fight over. Personally I cannot imagine more difficult terrain and all the soldiers admit that it is the most difficult country for fighting in the world.
Japanese snipers can sit up in the dense trees and pick off our men as they advance. The Japanese have also constructed a series of strong positions known as bunkers in which they have machine guns. The bunkers are so arranged that they cover each other and there is no case on record of British troops having at any time successfully captured a Japanese strong position.
It is true that during the last two months they have pushed the Japanese back in the Arakan some 7 miles in very successful outpost fighting but this is largely because they had not constructed really formidable strongpoints in this district.
Wingate pointed out to me that it was equally true to say that the Japanese had never captured a British strongpoint in the jungle. When I replied: ‘Well that’s encouraging anyway’, he said: ‘Not at all, the only reason they have not captured any strongpoints is that the British have never succeeded in building any strongpoints!’
An interesting point is that plenty of hessian canvas has been hung over the road to prevent the Japanese observing the quantity of transport being used on the Pass. Hessian has also been used to prevent nervous drivers from seeing the sheer drop where the road passes over a precipice. This is considered to have minimised serious accidents on this difficult road.
My talk was punctuated by the sound of firing as the Japanese were counterattacking the positions we had recently captured. I saw the only unwounded officer of Queen’s Patrol who, with only 7 killed and 18 wounded, had killed 30 Japanese and wounded 50 in a recent engagement. It is only during the last month that the casualty rate has turned in our favour, the Japanese used to kill two or three British to one Japanese and now we kill nearly two Japanese to one British.