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What follows is a transcription from the original found in the National Archives. I have made no changes from the original except to add in square brackets where one word was unintelligible. Afterwards, some context and issues with the source are discussed.
Abbreviations / definitions used in the order in which they appear:
RFN – Rifleman
tps – troops
ORs – Other Ranks (ie not officers)
PW – Prisoner of War
Bn – Battalion
Oolia – don’t know what this is, suggestions welcome from readers!
BOR – British Other Rank
4395 RFN BHIMBAHADUR RAI, 1/7 Gurkha Rifles Confidential
Was captured at PAAN in about Jun 1942 with about 12 other Indian Army soldiers. After capture he was bound with ropes and taken by road and rail to MOULMEIN. He was lodged in the Jail with other Indian tps (with him were 5 other Gurkhas). He was asked to give his parole which he did in order to plan an escape and avoid ill treatment. He was searched before being admitted to the jail but NOT on his first capture at PAAN. Such things as were found on him were all burned and he was unable to take anything into the jail with him. He was thoroughly searched but NOT stripped naked, though his boots were taken off for examination. On his first capture the soldiers started to rough handle him but this was stopped by the officer in command, and throughout his captivity ORs took every opportunity of ill treating him though the treatment he received from officers was correct. He was fed for one month like an animal off the floor, no crockery or cutlery of any kind being given him. During this period he received only scraps and leavings after the Japs had fed. After this he received cooly rations of dhal, rice, dried fish, etc which were sufficient. He was used in doing various coolie jobs and locked up after they were finished.
At this time he saw lots of other prisoners in MOULMEIN jail but is unable to say how many there were. He saw, however, only about 15 British PW who were very badly treated.
Burmans were very hostile at this time and he is of the opinion that they reserved their worst hate for Gurkhas and Britishers, and he saw a British Captain (SICRAIL ?), 3 Bn Burma Rifles, killed by them, though the Japs tried to prevent it.
Throughout he was never interrogated nor, as far as he knows, were any other sepoys questioned.
He was tied up and under lock and key for about 3 months and was then again asked to give his parole, this he did and was then allowed out in charge of one sentry. With him was one other sepoy, a Karen. Both of these slept outside the jail on a maidan about 50 yds from the edge of thick jungle. One night it was bright moonlight and taking advantage offered by the changing of the sentry, both he and the Karen made a bolt for it and got clean away. They made their way to THATON and when there split up, the Karen telling him to find his own people and that he himself would return to KARENNI.
BHIMBAHADUR then sheltered with an [undecipherable] for about a week near THATON. After this the Oolia became apprehensive and turned him out. He then made his way to Karen country where he stayed. Karens were, without exception, very good to the British and to Gurkhas. During his wandering he met but few Indians but such as he met were friendly and well disposed. Karens at all time sheltered and fed him. Whilst in the Karen country he joined up with a Major SEAGRIM and served with him for about 2 years.
One day the party were surprised by the Japs and all were killed or taken prisoner. Major SEAGRIM was taken alone to MOULMEIN. BHIMBAHADUR heard later that he was taken later to RANGOON but heard nothing of him thereafter.
One other British officer, who was dropped to them by parachute, was seen to escape, he does NOT know his name but he held the rank of Capt in the British forces. The one remaining British officer was killed by a Jap with a pistol. He does NOT know his name either. (Note : From his description this man was probably a BOR; he was anyway the party’s wireless operator).
- – 2 –
BIMBAHADUR RAI was taken to PAPUN together with the remainder of his party – 2 Gurkhas and many Karens. He was again put on to cooly work but was NOT confined. All were employed in this way. At this time the Jap senior officer gave orders that these prisoners were NOT to be ill-treated, and they were quite well treated. Food was short but the Japs themselves seemed to have but little. Prisoners were NOT searched at any time. This treatment would appear to have resulted from the Jap belief that the Asiatic prisoners were NOT soldiers and had been taken on locally by the British to work for them. Later the Japs attempted to turn the Karens and Gurkhas into soldiers. But this they refused to do saying that they were coolies and would do cooly work but not soldiering. They were, however, impressed and started off for RANGOON, where it was planned they should do some training. They got near MOKPALIN when they came in for heavy bombing and straffing. During this a number of Japs were killed. BIMBAHADUR and another Gurkha named KURKABAHADUR RAI were then able to make their getaway.
These two subsequently heard that there were some ‘SAHIBS’ in the Karen country and they accordingly made their way to them, reached them and joined forces with them.
He remained with them for about 5 months and then requested that he be allowed to go on leave. The request was granted and he was flown out to RANGOON on 3 Jun 45. KURKABAHADUR RAI chose to remain behind and is still serving with the party.
Note by Interrogator. Rfn BHIMBAHADUR RAI has on him a letter testifying to his good character; a copy of this att. The original has been returned to him. He can give NO dates with the exception of the date of his first capture.
He can give NO names save that of KURKABAHADUR RAI.
Context and Commentary
Although the word ‘Interrogator’ has been used, it should perhaps be remembered that this was not necessarily an interrogation so much as a debrief. Since there is no date on the document, we can’t know exactly when it took place, but we know that Bhimbahadur came out of Burma on leave in June, so it is likely that this ‘interview’ took place during that month in 1945. This would mean that, despite the fact that Rangoon had been recaptured by Allied forces, the war was still on and likely to go on for some time in the minds of most because they would not have known about the progress of the atomic bomb project. This means that Bhimbahadur was potentially an important source of information having been behind the lines for three years. There are, however, a few issues with this evidence which highlight the care that needed to be taken not only by his interrogators, but later by historians as well.
Bhimbahadur Rai reported that he was captured in June 1942 in Pa’an. Pa’an is to the east of Rangoon, and on the eastern side of the Salween River:
Map Credit: Steve Rothwell, ‘Japanese Invasion’, online HERE
Pa’an was reached by the Japanese on 11-12 February 1942, while the rather more notorious bridge over the River Sittang was blown up on the night of 22 February. The demolition of the Sittang Bridge cut off most of General Smyth’s 17 Division to the east of Rangoon, and has been interpreted as a decisive turning point in the First Burma Campaign. For Bhimbahadur to be captured in Pa’an approximately four months later suggests that perhaps the date of his capture is incorrect. If he was accurate with his date of capture, what was he doing in this time? Why is there no mention in his interrogation report? Was this part of his debrief left out of the report or is it ‘missing’ time?
The report then highlights the murder of a British officer of the 3rd battalion Burma Rifles. Bhimbahadur supplies a rank, a unit, a suggested surname, and we can work out an approximate date in 1942. For the authorities at the time and for us 75 years later, this is tantalising – who was this officer? It would normally be easy to find out; look up the records of the Burma Rifles and there should be a personnel list, or a mention in a war diary of the officer going missing. Not in this case. The war diary for the 3 Battalion Burma Rifles was torn up and thrown in the Sittang. The only record is brief, having been written from memory by another officer in 1943. A search of the CWCG website using the parameters provided yield no match. Was the man a Captain? Was he in the Burma Rifles? Was he 3rd Battalion? Did his surname begin with ‘S’? Any or all of these could be incorrect, especially given that Bhimbahadur remembers just one date of his entire three year experience.
Bhimbahadur then went on to describe how he managed to escape. He went on the run with an unknown Karen who seems to have made the decision to leave Bhimbahadur to ‘find his own people’. This seems odd too. There were Gurkhas who had settled in Burma having never lived in Nepal, but certainly they represented a very small percentage of the population. Was Bhimbahadur a ‘Burmese’ Gurkha who could have gone to his village? A reasonable answer to this seems to be no because he evidently did not make for ‘his own people’.
The next part of Bhimbahadur’s adventure takes him to ‘a Major Seagrim’. Major Hugh Paul Seagrim is, today, fairly well known. He was quite well known in 1945 too. Seagrim had been recruited by SOE’s Oriental Mission in January 1942 and tasked with raising guerrillas to fight as left-behind parties after the Japanese invasion. After the Army retreated to India, Seagrim, cut off, stayed behind the lines in 1942. In 1946, a book called ‘Grandfather Longlegs‘ was published, written by Ian Morrison, which told Seagrim’s story; in August 2017, Philip Davies published his ‘Lost Warriors’ which also tells the story of Major Seagrim. If the Karen who Bhimbahadur escaped with went back to the Karenni region, as the report says, then Bhimbahadur ended up in the same area, for this is where Major Seagrim was. From Moulmein, it is over 200km to where Seagrim was hiding out.
Bhimbahadur served with Seagrim ‘for about 2 years’. Given that he was captured in June 1942, and that he was a prisoner for at least three months, the earliest Bhimbahadur could have reached Seagrim is probably October 1942. That would mean that the earliest date two years later for serving with Seagrim would be October 1944. By then Seagrim was dead. The attack by the Japannese which Bhimbahadur relates took place in February 1944. Two British officers, Captains Jimmy Nimmo and Fred McCrindle of SOE, were killed in this attack. Seagrim managed to escape, but later gave himself up because of the severity of Japanese reprisals against the Karen. Seagrim was, as the report says, taken to Rangoon where he was executed in September 1944. There were no British Other Ranks (BORs) in this SOE mission, Operation Harlington. All other personnel besides the three British officers were Karen.
Once again a prisoner, Bhimbahadur was taken to the nearest large town, Papun. This would have presumably happened in the immediate aftermath of his capture in February or early March 1944. The SOE teams for Operation Character did not deploy into the Karen Hills until exactly a year later. Here, again then, there seems to be ‘lost’ time in Bhimbhadur’s account.
His interrogators worked out that the dates did not quite tally, for where it is written that Bhimbahadur stayed with the ‘Sahibs in the Karen country […] for about five months’, the ‘five months’ part has been circled and above it has been written (what looks like) ‘not correct’. Given the accuracy of the date for going on leave in June 1945, he can’t have joined SOE/Force 136 teams in January because they were not there. Even if he had joined them in January, what had he been doing for the last 10 months since capture? It seems those questioning Bhimbahadur had their doubts.
Bhimbahadur, the interrogator notes at the end, had a letter ‘testifying to his good character’. Perhaps he needed it, or perhaps there are good reasons for his lack of memory and the gaps in his chronology. A number of inferences could be made based upon this examination of his interrogation report. Investigation of those inferences is the next step for the historian, if he or she wanted or felt it worth pursuing. It is only then that judgements could be made about a man who, whatever way you look at it, had an extraordinary war.
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