Frontispiece from Captain Duncan Guthrie’s Jungle Diary
Very often, on the TV and in books, the jungle conditions of Burma are given prominence for being so inhospitable. Conditions certainly weren’t easy, but perhaps it is all relative. Special Operations in the mountains of Crete or the deserts of North Africa had their challenges too. The aim of this post is to put the conditions in Burma in perspective, by relating the experience of an Indian doctor who went behind the lines with Operation Character’s team Hyena.
The doctor was Major B.C. Dewanjea, born 14 December 1920. He is recorded as being 5’2″ tall, weighing 110lbs and an agnostic. His next of kin is noted as his father, who lived in Munshiganj District, Bengal. Dewanjea was trained as a physician at Rangoon University, and he was in that city when war with Japan started. Dewanjea was commissioned on 21 February 1942 as he retreated from Burma to India via Maymyo, Meiktila and Kalewa, attached to Number 1 Burma Field Ambulance. He was recruited into SOE / Force 136 in July 1944.
His first posting with Force 136 was to Camp Tweed as chief Medical Officer. Camp Tweed was a holding camp for SOE personnel, but it was ill-sited. It was in a malarial hot spot, and such was the rate of sickness that it was not long before the camp was closed down. By September 1944 Dewanjea is recorded as being in Calcutta at headquarters. In February, he completed parachute training at Jessore, and then he was dropped into Burma in March 1945 to join Hyena.
Captain Dewanjea jumped to a reception of Character personnel that had deployed in February. In his report, Dewanjea noted that two of his party received minor abrasions during the jump, but otherwise all landed safely. This had not been the case for Captain Duncan Guthrie and Rifleman Lu Dan (spelt ‘Ludang’ in Dewanjea’s report), who had exited their Dakota for the Karen Hills on 24 February. Guthrie missed the open paddy and broke his ankle landing in trees. Lu Dan also had a fractured ankle. Dewanjea was originally going to be deployed to treat these men at the end of February, but signals from the field said it was not necessary. When Dewanjea was eventually deployed a month later, he was keen to see the two men, but Major Turrall and Lt. Col. Howell (Hyena area commander) reckoned he ‘should not bother unnecessarily about them.’ They were being kept hidden and fed by Karen villagers. In Lt. Col. Howell’s report, he wrote that Dewanjea was unable to go to the wounded men because the area was ‘thick with enemy search parties.’
With reservations, Dewanjea had trusted officers from the Calcutta office when they assured Dewanjea that his medical equipment would be on the ground ready for him to collect when he landed. On arrival, he was informed by Major Turrall that his rucksack had been buried and now ‘it was impossible to find the books and medicines.’ A few days later, on 27 March, one of Hyena’s levies was fatally wounded when walking down to the drop zone to receive a supply drop. It was common practice to leave booby traps on the paths to injure and kill unsuspecting Japanese, but on this occasion it was set off by the ‘wrong’ side. Dewanjea wrote ‘There was hardly anything to give the poor man as we had literally Nothing [sic] medical with us by then.’ Two men bitten by snakes were more fortunate, for despite the lack of antidote, they were treated successfully. Dewanjea wrote that ‘Snakes of both Cobra and Viper variety were seen, but most of those seen were non poisonous.’
In April, Major Turrall was wounded with grenade shrapnel during an attack on the town of Kyaukkyi, and Dewanjea was sent to treat him ‘passing through enemy infested country.’ Turrall’s wounds ‘did not seem to be serious although Major Turrall was rather shaken.’ Dewanjea advised rest, but Turrall ignored this advice only to be ‘suffering from exhaustion’ a few days later. Ordered to stay with Turrall as they were the group most likely to sustain battle casualties at this point, Dewanjea made a discovery: ‘When I was with Major TURRALL my personal stethoscope and certain medicines were found.’ Dewanjea seems to have been of the opinion that his things were hidden from him. Relations between Turrall and the doctor certainly appear to have been fractious, enough for Dewanjea to have complained to Howell about Turrall’s behaviour.
In early May, Turrall sent Dewanjea to Pyagawpu with radio crystals, which Dewanjea took as the opportunity to finally see Guthrie and Lu Dan. He reached them on 7 May, and his assessment (in one source) was that they both needed immediate evacuation due to ‘probable mal-union’ which would leave them permanently crippled if not treated properly. In Dewanjea’s own report, he wrote that ‘In both it was malunion, both were crippled and both needed immediate evacuation.’ Howell still wanted to keep Guthrie in the field as adjutant, but an intervention by Lt.Col. Haytor ensured they were both evacuated on 22 May, three months after their injuries were sustained. Records in the IWM confirm Dewanjea’s diagnosis; Guthrie had suffered a malunion, and he ended up crippled for the rest of his life.
In the middle of May, Lt. Col. Howell decided that a central dressing station should be built near the main Hyena HQ; ‘a hospital basha was built’ about 4hrs trek from the Lysander strip at Lipyekhi. Although the site of the hospital was described by Howell as ‘good’, as the fighting developed casualties were not brought in ‘owing to difficulties of transportation’ so there was apparently little for Dewanjea to do. Since Dewanjea was infantry trained, Howell therefore put Dewanjea to work training mobile levies, as well as being an admin. officer and accountant and interpreter. He also ended up leading levies out to ambush Japanese forces during August.
During August, Flight Lieutenant Arkell crashed his Lysander on landing at Lipyekhi. Dewanjea was about 10 miles away sat in an ambush position and so unable to offer any help. By the time he got back to treat him, Arkell had been evacuated.
In Dewanjea’s report, he lists the diseases he had to treat in ranked order:
- Ulcers, junglesores etc
- Nutritional – beri beri, rickets etc
- Septic sores
He was amazed that there were not more nutritional diseases, and wrote that cases of Dysentery increased after July as ‘enemy bodies could be seen almost everywhere in the footpaths and the tracks.’ Jap bodies were left because it was thought that they had a severe affect upon the morale of the enemy.
In September there was an outbreak of cholera and about 4000 inoculations were carried out which prevented the death toll progressing beyond 27. On 23 September, Dewanjea was relieved by Lieutenant John Price of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Lt. Col. Howell summarised Dewanjea’s contribution:
‘although Capt. DEWANJEA did not have much opportunity to exercise his medical skill yet he ably fulfilled the second main requisite of a military Medical Officer in that he moved around the country and raised morale. His spirits were always cheerful and his attitude towards the enemy offensive in the extreme, whilst he was never deterred by their presence from moving wherever he was ordered or considered it his duty to go.’
Dewanjea concluded his own report with:
‘I feel it necessary to mention that I was not granted my proper status as a medical officer, and on a number of occasions my advice on medical matters was not acted upon.’
Elsewhere, there is an addition to this concluding comment:
‘[A] medical officer should be treated as such, not as a spareprick who could be kicked about from all places.’
From this example, although snake bites are mentioned and a list of diseases provided, the impression is, perhaps, that it was not the jungle that was the doctor’s worst enemy. Being properly equipped and being allowed to do his job was Dewanjea’s chief difficulty.