Private Arthur Leslie Howney
Unit : 13th Battalion The King's Regiment.
Served : Burma (captured)
Army No. : 5629998
Camps : Rangoon Jail
My thanks to Steve Fogden for this account.
The Story of Arthur Leslie Howney, My Chindit Grandfather.
This is my Nan at Rangoon War Cemetery. She is standing over the grave memorial of her husband, Arthur Leslie Howney. The photograph is about twenty years old, and was a turning point in my families understanding of a man who until then had been rarely spoken of. Nan came back from Burma a different woman, one who had lost a weight from her heart. She had finally said goodbye to her love in a proper and fitting manner.
When she too left us in 2006, after being the central figure in all our lives, I decided to try and find out what had happened to this man from North West London, and how he ended up in the jungles of Burma. My starting point was to acquire his Army Service Records from the offices in Glasgow.
My grandfather enlisted into the British Army in December 1940, this would have been a difficult decision for many family men back then. The need to join up and help serve their country against trying to stay and raise their young families must have been a heart-wrenching dilemma. After his initial infantry training Arthur was posted into the 9th Devonshire's, a new battalion of men from all over the British Isles. His first posting with the Devon's was to be coastal defence duties all along the East of England. This was to be the main task of many newly drawn battalions' back then, as Churchill felt that a German invasion was imminent after the disaster of the Dunkirk landings. Another battalion acting out exactly the same duties at the time were the 13th King's Liverpool's. Their fate, and that of my granddads were to be intertwined just a few months later when a call was made for fresh garrison troops to be sent out to India. These were needed to help police the ever more restless population who were looking to exploit the troubled times to enhance their push for independence. And so in late 1941 the 13th King's travelled to India as part of convoy WS 14 (Winston's Specials). They travelled aboard the troopship 'Oronsay', taking the long journey around the cape and stopping off on their way at places like Freetown and Durban before docking at Ballard Pier, Bombay.
The fate of the 13th King's was to be forever changed when they were handed over to a man named Wingate! He had wanted the chance to test out his theories of 'long range penetration'. This was basically sending troops behind enemy lines to cause damage and disruption, and keeping them supplied from the air. The 13th King's were to become his guinea pigs. Arthur Leslie Howney was to join these troops in late 1942, as one of about two hundred reinforcements, which replaced the ill and unfit from amongst the original number. At the age of 33 he would have found the physical requirements for the operation extremely tough.
The usual route for reinforcements in India was to spend time at camps to acclimatize to the heat, dust and noise of the sub-continent. The most famous of these was Deolali; this would be a likely destination for Arthur as most soldiers passed through the camp at sometime during their Indian adventures. From here they would travel to their relevant training areas by train, journeys by which often took days on end in crowded carriages. Training for the potential Chindit operations comprised of continuous marches across the arid plains and scrublands in central India. The marches were arduous and designed to weed out the weak of mind as well as the unfit soldier. Failure to complete these 50mile strolls meant the end of your chance to take part in the forthcoming expedition.
A general exercise day on these trips began with breakfast at 4.15 a.m. with the days march starting at 5a.m. Strict rules were to be adhered to at all times, no drinking water while on the move, columns to proceed in single file, and all officers to eat and sleep with their ordinary ranks. This was to promote full respect amongst all soldiers and helped build a strong team ethic on which they would rely in the jungles of Burma. Punishments were given for any breach of these rules including, loss of rations, isolation from the group, and even floggings for the consistent offender! The marches were tough and with only a 10-minute break every 2 hours or so, only the hardiest of men survived to take part in the field exercises that followed. Columns were broken down into platoons of around 100 men. These groups were then responsible for all their own basic needs, these included defence of bivouac (camp area), food (mostly bully beef and army biscuit), and the collection of decent water. The rations issued to the platoons were standard British army fair and must have become monotonous in practice, but going without food in the Burma jungle for days on end, meant these meals became extremely precious. Sometimes food rations could be supplemented by local jungle fair. The Chindit became partial to peacock, monkey (this resembled pork apparently), and in the jungle itself eventually even the trusted mule was not exempt from the cooking pot. The men trained in unarmed combat and were expert with their knives and bayonets. Apart from mule husbandry and jungle survival the soldiers needed to be skilled users of map and compass. This and being a strong swimmer were vital for their safe return to Allied held areas after the operation had ended. So it was that the selected soldiers moved into the camp that was to be their training area for the forthcoming operation into Burma. Some of the men had been training for the task for two or three months, others for a few short weeks, and as the Christmas season drew near, others were recruited almost at the last minute.
In the Achband jungle of Patharia, in the Central Provinces of India the 77th Brigade trained hard. Marching miles each day, learning how to control mules for transporting their kit and fording fast flowing rivers. All of these things they would need to make the journey into the Burmese jungle a success. The men were separated into fighting units of column strength. This would be around 400 men, made up of infantry soldiers, Burma Riflemen who were jungle experts and local to the areas to be traversed, demolition engineers, signalmen and RAF officers who liaised with the Aircrews during the airdrops along the way. The 13th Kings were mainly attached to the columns of Major Scott and Major Gilkes who are the commanders of 8th and 7th columns respectively. Others were attached to Bernard Fergusson's column 5 and also to Brigade HQ. It is not possible to place my grandfather to a column as none is mentioned on his service record. The Chindit operation of 1943 was called 'Longcloth'; it was undoubtedly an experiment by the British forces to see the validity of Wingate's ideas. As such the numbers given up to it were fairly small, around 3000. This was increased dramatically for the next operation the following year. The groups marched up to the river Chindwin and across it in February 1943, and then ventured out into the Burmese jungle with mischief in mind towards the Japanese invaders. The tasks undertook by the men included cutting the communication lines of the Japanese and also destroying railway lines. Also the soldiers keen to engage the enemy at every opportunity successfully achieved the destruction of fuel depots, bridges and infantry positions. The columns would weave in and out of the dense jungles of teak and thick bamboo, hit the Japanese units with surprise attacks and disappear again before their hosts knew what had happened. This continued almost without loss up until late March and many miles into the operation. Wingate had decided to have the troops supplied with food and other kit by airdrops at designated points along the route, and it was possibly this, which was the expeditions eventual undoing. As time went on the groups became more and more hungry and short of supplies. As things became more desperate more risks were taken. Soon the Japanese began to close in on the positions of the columns and eventually some were cornered at a confluence of two rivers, the area around where the Irrawaddy River meets the Shweli River is where the men had their major conflicts with the Japanese. This is where and when I feel Arthur was caught out and got into trouble. The men had dropped into smaller 'dispersal groups' and were attempting to retreat back to the Indian border across the Chindwin. He was reported missing from his unit on the 18th April. As I write I do not know what happened to my granddad and I feel it is unlikely that I ever will, apart from the fact he was captured and died a POW in a Japanese prison camp. This was probably Rangoon Jail as it was the closest prison camp to where he was buried in June 1943, and is where most POW's remembered at Rangoon War Cemetery were held. Rangoon War Cemetery lies about 5 miles from the port area of the city, and about 3 miles away from Rangoon railway station. It is reached by a long lane that leads from the main road. It was first used as a burial ground immediately after the recapture of Rangoon in May 1945. Later the army moved in several other graves found at various sites around the city. These included the soldiers who had died in Rangoon Jail as prisoners of war. The total number of burials is 1391; this includes 67 soldiers whose graves cannot be precisely located. Arthur Leslie Howney's memorial plaque (below) is one of the 67 and he is described as 'Buried near this spot".
Arthur's place of capture and his journey to his place of interment are unknown to me. I have contacted many different organisations to try and find out his movements. These include the Commonwealth Graves Commission, the National Archives and the International Red Cross at Geneva. All the above possessed no information about him and no Japanese index card exists to Arthur, so this leaves the last 6 weeks of his life unexplained. Consensus and probability point towards Rangoon Jail as his final place of rest, or at least on the journey to that establishment. So the short passage that follows describes the typical POW's existence within the Jail.
Soldiers captured by the Japanese in WW2 were looked upon with scorn and regarded as cowards. The first thing the Japanese captor would say to the unfortunate man was that his Japanese equivalent would have fought on to the last and died rather than be taken by his enemy! Generally treatment was better the nearer you were to the fighting zone, this was because here you were dealt with by your opposite number, who at least had some idea of what each had gone through to end up a prisoner. There was at least some mutual respect at this stage, but that would be less so as you were moved to the more centralised and purpose built camps and jails. Without fail you would be interrogated by your captors, this might be by the senior ranking officer available or if you were unlucky by the Kempai Tai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo. A Burmese interpreter was often used to bridge the language barrier; many were English speaking having held decent jobs during British rule. The questions asked generally were to find out the intention of your force, the amount of troops involved, the objectives and all other intelligence and plans.
The journey to a more full time jail often took days sometimes even weeks. This was purely down to the location of your capture and when an armed escort was available to take you to your final destination. If you were lucky transport could be as luxurious as a truck or train, but many allied POW's had to march long distances before they reached the place of internment. Once there, say for instance Rangoon Jail, you were placed in solitary confinement for a number of days depending on your rank. The idea here was to keep you from the other inmates long enough to interrogate further, and to prevent anyone giving you help or advice. Jail life was harsh and squalid, food was in short supply and conditions were often cramped, dirty and basic beyond most of our comprehension.
Conditions in Rangoon Jail in 1942 and onwards were as unpleasant as anywhere else that the Japanese were holding POW's at the time, but did not reach the levels of inhumanity as say the 'death railway', or some of the other camps on the small Pacific islands. Prisoners were kept in barracks allotted to nationality and rank. At Rangoon the blocks were long thin buildings all converging on a central courtyard, like spokes of a large wheel. The blocks housed POW's from America, Australia, India, and China and of course the British soldiers. All were kept separate to prevent communication and attempted escape planning. But generally the POW's managed to speak to each other by some means or another. They often used code or whistled tunes to get their messages across. One example of this was the tune 'the Campbell's are coming', whistling this tune warned the inmates of the approaching Japanese guards. This piece of information was told to me by a former Rangoon Jail inmate Denis Gudgeon, who was a Chindit from the 1943 operation.
There were no beds in the small cell rooms, which were situated off long corridors. Sometimes there were so many to a room you could not lie down with your legs straight out. This was not just uncomfortable but was a disaster when trying to keep disease from spreading through the jail. Toilets were holes dug in the ground with boards to stand on when you needed to go. Each morning and at the end of the day was 'Tenko' or role call. All soldiers had to be present and answer their name and camp number in Japanese. Failure to comply or answer any request was dealt with by swift and brutal beatings by the guards. These often involved the use of rifle butts or hard bamboo poles. POW's also had to bow to all Japanese guards whenever they entered the room or area, failure meant another beating.
Above is a photo of the Rangoon Jail, 3rd May 1945, which shows clearly the layout, and size of the premises.
Medical attention was poor and sporadic even though there were medics both allied and Japanese available. The Japanese were not worried about POW's suffering from any ailments that did not have the capability of transferring to them. Cholera was one of the few diseases that were acted upon immediately, as it directly put the Japanese at risk. The diseases and ailments rife in Rangoon Jail included dysentery, beriberi, and jungle sores. (Note. Chindits suffered more than most at Rangoon. Of the 200 Chindit soldiers held there over 60% died. This was probably due to their lack of food and water when behind enemy lines just prior to capture).
Food was the main topic of conversation for the inmates of the jail; this outweighed all other worries and concerns. The rations were poor and failed miserably to nourish and keep healthy the population of Rangoon Jail. The main staple of the men's diet was rice. Rice, rice and more infernal rice! In general with the rice came small quantities of local vegetables, with very infrequent portions of meat and fish. The men were given a teaspoon of sugar each day when this was available and Burmese green tea to place it in. This tea was drunk without milk and was not to the European palate. If the men were part of the frequent working parties that went out on occasions into Rangoon town, then they took the opportunity to purchase other foodstuffs from the local population. Things like eggs were always popular but eventually the rampant inflation of the weak rupee gave them little reward for their money. If you were a smoker in the jail then you're nerve endings must have been tested to the fullest. Cigarettes were hard to come by and what there was to smoke were harsh tasting Burmese cheroots, but 'beggars cannot be choosers'! The connection between food and the amount of disease at the jail is obvious, but there was one main reason why the biggest killer beriberi was rampant in the prison. The diet was always that of low grade and polished rice. Polished rice was just the grain and none of the husk or kernel. The husk would have been a natural and vital source of vitamin B for the POW's, the main weapon against beriberi. Eventually the men realised that they needed to address this problem, and so they used to collect all the chaff and husk left in the rice sacks. This they made into a paste or porridge which although bitter and foul to the taste they ate without hesitation. They called this substance 'nuka'.
As each year moved towards April/May the POW's grew concerned about the inevitable monsoon. This was not because of the heavy rain it would surely bring, but the stifling and oppressive humidity that allowed disease to thrive. As already mentioned dysentery and beriberi were the main problems, but all these ailments could have been dealt with easily by good diet and regular medical attention. The medical officers at the jail were often devastated at the speed at which men would fall ill and quickly die of diseases they felt could have been dealt with fairly easily with the correct drugs. The procedure seemed too often to be the same. Diagnosis wasn't all that difficult as men lost first their appetite and then their will to live. Medical officers found it difficult to keep the sick in good heart, and often POW's just slipped away in their sleep, even when suffering from painful symptoms. It was as though they had just had enough of the terrible conditions they had to endure and given up on life. On the harsh side the Australian POW's always claimed the 'Pom's' were not tough enough and gave in too easily. I guess that the 'Aussie's' had that bit more experience of the hot climate and benefited from their outdoors existence back home.
The death of a soldier meant a funeral given usually by the highest-ranking officer in that block. The officer who took charge of the majority of these events was Colonel Henry Power of the Dogra regiment from the Indian Army. He had been in the jail since his capture at the battle of Sittang back in 1942. The service was short and comprised of a sermon from the bible and then some well-known hymn's that the POW's would sing together. The body was placed in a casket made from any spare wood lying about, but was eventually as wood became scarce replaced by just rice sacks stitched together to cover the body. The burial took place in the grounds a little distance away from the jail. The event was watched by the Japanese guards usually with some courtesy as they themselves held death and passing with great regard and ceremony. Two things are worth mentioning here; one is that the bible was banned under Japanese rules because of their different religious beliefs. The bibles in Rangoon Jail lived charmed existences changing hands at the drop of a hat to keep them hidden from the Japanese guards. The other thing to mention is that all graves at Rangoon were exhumed in 1945 by the Allies and the Imperial War Graves Commission and transported to Rangoon War Cemetery. As the war drew to its conclusion in Burma, Rangoon was not a safe place to be. The allied forces rightly expected the Japanese to do what they had always done and fight to the last man in the city. But for some reason the Japanese commander General Kimura abandoned the city well before the 14th Army got near. For this I am sure he was vilified when facing his superiors, but as he was hanged by the verdict of the War Crimes committee, I suppose this matters little. This left the prisoners in the jail to face a tricky dilemma, how were they going to convince the allied bombers that the jail was now in their own hands. They achieved this, but not before they were bombed several times, by placing a message on the roof of one of the cellblocks. This message 'extract digit' was code that the RAF understood and could only have been placed by a captive airman. The men could think of nothing worse than to be killed by their own side having survived all that POW life had thrown at them in the past year or two. I have it on good authority that the graffiti artist on Rangoon Jail roof was John Wilde, a Lieutenant in the British Army. It is true to say here that SEAC had agreed amongst headquarters that if the bombing of targets known to have POW's nearby was deemed necessary, that the raids would take place regardless of the consequences to the Allied prisoners!
In those last few days before liberation the control of Rangoon passed back and forth between the officers of Rangoon Jail who had audaciously bluffed their way into a position of power, and the Burma Defence Army and the Indian National Army. The later two groups had struggled for power having both collaborated with the Japanese in one way or another during those last years. The INA were keen as you can imagine to undo the dishonour of their actions, and helped the POW command any way they could. The BDA however saw an opportunity to take control of their city, but they knew that realistically the Allies would resume command in a matter of days.
When asked about their time in Rangoon Jail the majority of the men stated that it was a horrific time in their lives. They would rely on each other for comfort and still keep a good sense of humour, this and the ability not to dwell on the horrors they had witnessed got them through. Almost to a man on their return home, these survivors rarely spoke of their time as POW's.
This then is the story, or part story of how an ordinary London man ended up lost to his family in WW2. He was not alone in his sacrifice and indeed all these men's efforts must never be forgotten.
Below is a copy of Arthur Leslie Howney's death certificate. You will notice the simple but uninformative entry for his cause of death, 'Died whilst POW in Jap hands". Perhaps the lack of detail is a blessing in disguise?
Rangoon Jail Confirmed: An Update on my Grandfather by Steve Fogden
Two years ago I began a journey to find out what happened to my Grandfather in Burma in 1943. All we really knew was that he had been sent over to India to serve as garrison reinforcement, allowing other more seasoned units to fight in the Burma campaign. Fate then took over and he became one of Wingate's Chindits on the first expedition, operation 'Longcloth'.
As you will already see from my previous account of his story on this website, he did not survive to come home. On his Overseas Death Certificate it states 'Died whilst POW in Jap hands'. This is all the information we had to go on.
Above is a photograph of Arthur (crouching) probably taken in the Saugor training area in 1942? It would be wonderful to eventually name the other men in the picture.
Thanks to some persistent research and the help of many good people, this April I found two pieces of vital information. One was the 13th King's Casualty roll for 1943, held at the National Archives; the other was the list of deaths recorded for Blocks 3 and 6, Rangoon Jail, from the Imperial War Museum.
The first document gave me Grandad's elusive column placement; he was with Bernard Fergusson's Column 5. He had joined this unit at the training camp of Saugor, in the Indian Central Provinces on the 26th September 1942. These lists also confirmed his Missing in Action date of 18/04/1943. Having read many books about the 1943 expedition this information allowed me to make an educated judgement on his involvement during the operation and his general whereabouts at the time of his capture. Following the dateline from 'Beyond the Chindwin' Bernard Fergusson's account of the 1943 operation, it seems likely that he was with Flight Officer Denny Sharp's dispersal group and was lost near the village of Nanhkin, just a few days march from the safety of the Chindwin River.
The Death rolls for Block 6, Rangoon Jail, finally confirmed to the family that Arthur Leslie Howney did indeed die in the jail. He was, according to these lists, the 5th Chindit to perish in that establishment on the 17th June 1943. It stated his POW number as 420, but no cause of death was recorded. Knowing the incredibly arduous journey Column 5 had endured, this was almost certainly exhaustion, combined with perhaps a wound, malaria and any of the other horrors these men experienced.
On my journey investigating these men I have traced several other families with Chindit connections. It has been very rewarding to talk and swap information with these families and I hope they feel the same. The main reason for writing this update is to help trace other such families, especially those of the 13th King's Liverpool Regiment, who may be interested in the information I now possess. It has helped my family and in particular my Mum, to finally have an idea of what happened to her father back then, I only wish that my Nan were still with us, so she too could share in our discovery.
Can I also thank everyone who has helped me in anyway over the last two years, as each piece of advice or information leads to another door of opportunity.
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