The second Chindit expedition behind Japanese lines in Burma had begun earlier in March. As the patrols pressed into the jungle they soon came into contact with the Japanese.
An early battle developed at ‘Pagoda Hill’, where Brigadier Calvert found himself having to coax some of his fresh, inexperienced troops into battle. They very quickly responded to his leadership but immediately found themselves thrust into one of the bloodiest clashes of the whole expedition:
A number of the first wave of Staffords were now in front of me, scrambling up the slope without a pause as if the whole thing had been their idea and they couldn’t wait to get at the enemy’s throat. I was close on their heels at the top and it now occurred to me that the Japs had been strangely quiet.
Some shots had come down at us but not as many as I had expected, which probably meant we had regained the initiative by then and taken them unawares. Then, to my surprise, the Japs leapt up as we went at them and charged into us. Two sides charging at each other was certainly not going according to the military rule books.
We clashed in an area of about fifty square yards on the hilltop and the air was filled with the sound of steel crashing against steel, the screams and curses of wounded men, the sharp crack of revolver and rifle shots, the eerie whine of stray bullets and the sickening crunch of breaking bones.
Everybody slashed and bashed at the enemy with any weapon that came to hand, yelling and shouting as they did so. In Europe the cold steel part of it would have been restricted to bayonets; out here there was more variety, with the Japanese officers wielding their huge swords and the Gurkhas doing sterling work with the kukri, the curved knife they used with such deadly effect.
The official report I quoted earlier summed it up: ‘The characteristic of this fighting was its savagery… rifle and bayonet against two-handed feudal sword, kukri against bayonet, no quarter to the wounded …‘
In front of me I saw a young Staffords subaltern, Lieutenant Cairns, attacked by a Japanese officer who viciously hacked off his arm with a sword. Cairns shot the Jap point-blank, flung away his revolver and picked up the sword that had maimed him before leading his men on, slashing fiercely at any Jap within his reach.
Finally he dropped to the ground mortally wounded, but that gallant youngster refused to die until the battle was over. I was able to speak to him before he closed his eyes for the last time. ‘Have we won, sir? Was it all right? Did we do our stuff? Don’t worry about me.‘
Is it any wonder that, so many years later, some of us still have nightmares? There is glory in a fight like this. But there is horror in it, too, as young lives are brought abruptly and brutally to an end and young bodies maimed and made useless. Later Cairns was awarded the Victoria Cross; but he never knew it.
At the time, of course, there is no room for such thoughts as these, no room for anything except the fight. I can still remember the faithful Young and Dermody battling at my side, Young shouting anxiously, ‘Be careful, sir, be careful’ as he shot at any Jap who came within his vision.
Then, at last, we drove them back behind the pagoda and there was a brief intermission as both sides lobbed grenades over and around the battered house of worship; fortunately the Jap grenade has a lot of bark but not much bite, so they did little harm. But they added to the noise and confusion and I found it difficult to think out our next step amid the shambles of the battleground.
In the back of my mind I felt sure that one last heave would win us the day. Then someone came up and said we were short of ammunition. It occurred to me at once that if we were short the Japs, who had been in action longer, would be even shorter. That was one important point to our advantage.
Calvert was able to rally his troops one last time, for a surprise attack that won them the battle. See Michael Calvert: Fighting Mad: One Man’s Guerrilla War
Different sources give different dates for this action, I have followed what appears to be the correct date from Mike Calvert’s memoirs. The original record of the action, and the recommendation for the VC, had been given to Major-General Wingate. They were lost when Wingate’s plane crashed in the jungle on 24th March and all on board were killed.
By the time Mike Calvert had resurrected the process of recommending an award for Lt. Cairns two of the three witnesses to the action had been killed in the fighting themselves. The recommendation was not finally approved until 1949, it was announced in the London Gazette on 20th May 1949:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the VICTORIA CROSS to:— Lieutenant George Albert CAIRNS (198186), The Somerset Light Infantry, attd. South Staffordshire Regiment. On 5 March 1944, 77 Independent Infantry Brigade, of which the 1st South Staffordshire Regiment formed a part, landed by glider at Broadway (Burma).
On 12 March 1944, columns from the South Staffordshire Regiment and 3/6 Gurkha Rifles established a road and rail block across the Japanese lines of communication at Henu Block. The Japanese counter-attacked this position heavily in the early morning of 13 March 1944, and the South Staffordshire Regiment was ordered to attack a hill-top which formed the basis of the Japanese attack.
During this action, in which Lieutenant CAIRNS took a foremost part, he was attacked by a Japanese officer, who, with his sword, hacked off Lieutenant CAIRNS’ left arm. Lieutenant CAIRNS killed this Officer; picked up the sword and continued to lead his men in the attack and slashing left and right with the captured sword killed and wounded several Japanese before he himself fell to the ground.
Lieutenant CAIRNS subsequently died from his wounds. His action so inspired all his comrades that, later the Japanese were completely routed, a very rare occurrence at that time.