The war against Japan now seemed inevitably to have the same outcome as the war against Germany. An equally unrelenting grind towards the end also seemed to be in prospect – which looked very likely to be even more bloody than the end in Germany.
Even as the guns fell silent in Europe the military planners were looking closely at which units could soon be shipped out to the Pacific and prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan. Only a tiny group of very senior figures in Britain and America had any inkling that a new weapon might just provide an alternative route to end the war.
Two main battlegrounds dominated the remaining fighting. For the Americans it was Okinawa:
On 8 May Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. We were told this momentous news, but considering our own peril and misery, no one cared much. “So what” was typical of the remarks I heard around me. We were resigned only to the fact the Japanese would fight to total extinction on Okinawa, as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects. Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon.
The main thing that impressed us about V-E Day was a terrific, thundering artillery and naval gunfire barrage that went swishing, roaring, and rumbling towards the Japanese. I thought it was in preparation for the next day’s attack. Years later I read that the barrage had been fired on enemy targets at noon for its destructive effect on them but also as a salute to V-E Day.
For the British the campaign in Burma had finally turned the corner. The 14th Army had been racing down south to take the major port of Rangoon before the Monsoon came – and everything seized up. On the 2nd May Gurkha paratroopers had surprised the Japanese with an airborne attack and the city had fallen soon afterwards. With the port in their hands it was very much easier for the Allies to consolidate their position.
‘Consolidating the position’ fell to the infantry. The Border Regiment, from the far north of England, were out in front. George MacDonald Fraser remembered events in his distinctive way:
[Y]ou did feel the isolation, the sense of back of beyond. Perhaps that came, in part, from being called “the Forgotten Army” – a colourful newspaper phrase which we bandied about with derision; we were not forgotten by those who mattered, our families and our county. But we knew only too well that we were a distant side-show, that our war was small in the public mind beside the great events of France and Germany.
Oh, God, I’ll never forget the morning when we were sent out to lay ambushes, which entailed first an attack on a village believed to be Jap-held. We were lined up for a company advance, and were waiting in the sunlight, dumping our small packs and fixing bayonets, and Hutton and Long John were moving among us reminding us quietly to see that our magazines were charged and that everyone was right and ready, and Nixon was no doubt observing that we’d all get killed, and someone, I know, was mut- tering the old nonsense “Sister Anna will carry the banner, Sister Kate will carry the plate, Sister Maria right marker, Salvation Army, by the left — charge!” when a solitary Spitfire came roaring out of nowhere and Victory-rolled above us.
We didn’t get it; on the rare occasions when we had air support the Victory roll came after the fight, not before. While we were wondering, an officer – he must have been a new arrival, and a right clown — ran out in front of the company and shouted, with enthusiasm: “Men! The war in Europe is over!”.
There was a long silence, while we digested this, and looked through the heat haze to the village where Jap might be waiting,and I’m not sure that the officer wasn’t waving his hat and shouting hip, hooray.
The silence continued, and then someone laughed, and it ran down the extended line in a great torrent of mirth, punctuated by cries of “Git the boogers oot ’ere!” and “Ev ye told Tojo, like?” and “Hey, son, is it awreet if we a’ gan yam?” [Cumbrian dialect – “go home”] Well, he must have been new, and yet to get his priorities right, but it was an interesting pointer.
But if we resented, and took perverse pleasure in moaning (as only Cumbrians can) about our relative unimportance, there was a hidden satisfaction in it, too. Set a man apart and he will start to feel special. We did; we knew we were different, and that there were no soldiers quite like us anywhere.
Partly it sprang from the nature of our war. How can I put it? We were freer, and our own masters in a way which is commonly denied to infantry; we were a long way from the world of battle-dress serge and tin hats and the huge mechanised war juggernauts and the waves of bombers and artillery.
When Slim stood under the trees at Meiktila and told us: “Rangoon is where the big boats sail from”, the idea that we might one day get on one of those boats and sail halfway round the world to home might seem unreal, but it was a reminder that we were unique (and I don’t give a dam who knows it). We were Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition.
I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, ‘I was there’.”
Mind you, as Grandarse remarked, we’d have to get out of the bloody place first.