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Post My Father's Stories of the Burma Campaign
Created by John Eipper on 01/13/18 5:01 AM

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My Father's Stories of the Burma Campaign (John Heelan, UK, 01/13/18 5:01 am)

John E asked on January 12th about my father's stories from the Burma campaign in WWII.

I remember many. I was reared on such stories, as my father had been a long-term professional soldier serving in Silesia in WWI, Dunkirk, North African desert, Iraq, India in WWII and ending up in the Burma Campaign as part of General Bill Slim's 14th Army (aka the "Forgotten Army").

The last war left him with respect for most of his opponents but a deep hatred of the Japanese Army for the cruel ways they treated people (e.g. captured nurses, civilians and prisoners). As an example, at one reunion of 14th Army veterans, one of the attendees dressed as a Japanese soldier as a joke. He got beaten up by the other attendees.

JE comments: Prince Harry should have spoken with John Heelan before going to that costume party as a Nazi.


John, have you written your father's stories down?  Please, please do.  If you wish, WAIS can give them a permanent e-home.  And what about his serving in Silesia?  Was this after the Great War, as part of the Versailles arrangement?  I had never heard of British combatants on the Eastern Front(s) of WWI.

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  • Allied Occupation Troops in Post-WWI Silesia (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 01/14/18 5:38 AM)
    On 11 February 1920 the Inter-Allied Commission decided to send French, British and Italian troops to North Silesia, which was contested between Germany (Freikorps) and Poland.

    There were 3325 Italians in this force. They were attacked by rebellious nationalist Poles on 4 May 1921. The Italians suffered 25 casualties.

    The contingent remained there until 9 July 1922. The local problem was solved with a plebiscite, but Germany was punished heavily and lost vast ethnic German areas all along the new borders.

    The Western forces, including Italians, Americans, Czechoslovakians, and others, were sent to North Russia (Murmansk), at first to fight against the Germans and then the Bolsheviks from August 1918 through October 1919.

    Troops were also sent to Vladivostok to fight the Bolsheviks: 28,000 Japanese (later reaching 75,000), 7500 Americans, 4000 Canadians, 2000 Italians, 1500 British and 1000 French.

    Something completely unknown: In January 1916 a Russian contingent arrived in France via the Transiberian railroad and then from China by sea. In September 1917, however, the Russians did not want to fight anymore and were arrested. Only about 100 agreed to continue the fighting. They joined the French Foreign Legion and at the end of the war most of them remained in France.

    In my last WAIS post about the members of the Trimarium, I wrote Serbia but should have said Slovenia.  Sorry.

    JE comments: I was aware of the Russian Legion that fought in France after 1916. See Jamie Cockfield's excellent book, With Snow on Their Boots (1997).

    John Heelan's father must have been part of this occupation force in Silesia.  John (next) clarifies.

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    • Polar Bear Battalion in Arkhangelsk (Patrick Mears, Germany 01/14/18 5:51 PM)
      I just read Eugenio Battaglia's post (14 January) with interest.

      A friend of mine, Gordon Olson, was for years the Grand Rapids (Michigan) official City Historian and also was a member of the Board of Trustees with me for The Historical Society for the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

      Godfrey Anderson was a resident of Grand Rapids and had been a member of the Polar Bear Battalion that was sent to fight the Bolsheviks near the city of Archangel in the aftermath of World War I. Anderson transcribed his recollections of that experience, which Gordon edited for publication. The book was published in 2010 while I was still living in Grand Rapids, and it was introduced in town with some fanfare. It is a very interesting read that still may be purchased online.


      JE comments:  Many of the Polar Bears were Michiganders.  Uncle Sam must have assumed we thrive in the cold. There is a monument to the Battalion in the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, next door to Royal Oak.  See below--the monument has more gravitas in black and white.

      I'm going to pick up a copy of Anderson's book.

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  • British Troops in Post-WWI Silesia (John Heelan, UK 01/14/18 6:00 AM)
    John E (13 January) asked how it was possible for my father, a British soldier, to have served in Silesia during WWI.

    This always puzzled me as well, as I knew nothing about Versailles and WWI at that time. So my later conclusion was the two were linked. "The Upper Silesia Plebiscite was an arrangement made as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty and implemented in March 1921. It was intended that the plebiscite would determine part of the border between Poland and Germany. An Inter-Allied force of British, French and Italian troops was sent to this hostile and turbulent area for peace keeping operations." (See http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/other-aspects-of-order-of-battle/order-battle-british-silesia-force/ )

    The photograph in this article of the Royal Munster Fusiliers--my father's first enlistment--makes me wonder is he was in it. A later family photograph, now lost, shows him and his companions with "snow on their boots."

    JE comments:  Note the durable "snow on their boots" metaphor, which was also used to refer to the Russian troops sent to the Western Front in 1916.  (See Eugenio Battaglia from earlier today.)  I stress the metaphor part:  snow doesn't stay very long on the boots once you warm up.

    Too bad that photo was lost, John.

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    • Memories of a Child in WWII Britain (John Heelan, UK 01/18/18 4:38 AM)
      I have written elsewhere in WAIS about my memories as a child during the Blitz.

      In 1941, aged three or four, in common with some 800,000 other children, I was "evacuated" from London to a place of relative safety in the country, in my case a small mining village on the South Yorkshire Moors and lodged in the house of a miner with two daughters of my age.

      I often wondered "why South Yorkshire Moors?"  It is strange the hidden influences that affect on our lives. Later research suggested that the reason was that the surviving regiments from Dunkirk (my father belonged to one of them) were stationed in a camp on the Moors created to house them for recovery and retraining. Mining was a reserved occupation in those days that avoided conscription, and I clearly recall the man of the house being bathed by his wife in front of the fire--pithead showers were well in the future at that time.

      I also recall the journey to South Yorkshire, a 4-5 hour journey in those times. My impression now is that the train was a troop train as it was crowded with men in Army uniform. blocking the corridors by lying down wherever they could find a space--Dunkirk survivors maybe? Somewhere in the Midlands, the train came to a halt for an hour or so and all the lights were turned off. "Air Raid on" was muttered, so the lights were turned off to avoid the train itself becoming a target, I suppose.

      As to "hidden influences," I enjoyed my evacuation, acquiring a South Yorkshire local accent--which my Londoner cousins would imitate for a couple of years in jest, as well as a love of the countryside that eventually led me to choosing to live always in rural surroundings and even becoming a farmer.

      As a teenager I later met my hosts and their daughters when they were visiting London.  It was a strange feeling.

      As to being a "place of safety," one day a lone German aircraft (I can recall seeing the Iron Cross on its side) shot at a group of us children who dived into bushes surrounding a pond from which we used to retrieve frog spawn. I can still hear the shells whistling through those bushes. Even nastier, we children were told never to pick up any toys or footballs found on the road. Apparently they were anti-personnel devices aimed at troops from the local camp.

      JE comments:  Fascinating, John.  Did the government provide a stipend for your hosts?  Feeding an extra mouth in wartime is a sacrifice.  And if your father was stationed nearby, do you recall him visiting you during your "exile"?

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      • Memories of a Child in WWII Britain: A Follow-Up (John Heelan, UK 01/20/18 8:37 AM)
        JE asked whether the host families of UK WWII-era child evacuees (I was one) received payment. Yes, the hosts received weekly money via the local Post Office.

        John also asked whether my father, who was encamped nearby, ever visited me.

        I have no direct memory of a visit, as his regiment was soon shipped to the next theatre of operations. In his case I think it was North Africa ("The Desert Rats") fighting Irwin Rommel's AfrikaCorp in the battles of El Alamein and Tobruk. Then he was sent to the Middle East (Palestine I think) and eventually India and Burma.

        As kids we always marched alongside platoons of soldiers as they passed our house.

        JE comments:  What became of your South Yorkshire host family, John?  You mentioned their visit to London when you were a teenager.  Did you stay in touch afterwards?

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