The Malayali Platoons at the Dimapur - Tedim track

Indo Burma Border 1942 – The story of Jamadar Gopala Krishna Warrier

I did not believe that there existed any book in the history of this world, so dedicated to a simple Malayali soldier, but I was wrong, for there is one as the author states prominently on its first page. My heart swelled when I saw that his English officer had written it proudly and prominently and quite rightly I guessed that both the writer and the dead men must have been buddies. What made this man who by hereditary profession should have been stringing garlands or doing some such work in a temple, march against the Japanese at the remote jungles bordering Assam and Burma? What happened to him? Would you not like to find out? If so read on…

Maj David Atkins, his officer wrote thus, in dedication:
Dedicated to the memory of Jemadar Mohan Singh (a Sikh) and Jemadar Gopalkrishna Warrier (a Malayali) who died building the Tiddim Track on 24th December 1942 and 14th January 1943 respectively.

Gopala Krishna Warrier was a dark skinned, buck toothed, short man from Travancore as described by his superior officer. He was a jamadar, meaning in the British Indian Army, that it was the lowest rank for a Viceroy's commissioned officer commanding platoons or troops themselves or assisted their British commander. It was later renamed as Naib Subedar in the JCO or junior commissioned officer category. He hailed from E Kalalda, Quilon and was in charge of a group of transport soldiers doing back breaking work of driving a number of Ford 3 tonners from Canada, ferrying goods and supplies, part of the 309 GPTC, during the buildup of Dimapur in the preparation for a war with the Japanese at the Indian borders in Assam.

Today you have so many youngsters from Assam working in Kerala, but this was a time when it was just the reverse. A time when the allied wanted to desperately shore up the border from the marauding Japanese, who had managed to get Singapore to capitulate, taken Burma and driven the British and all the Indian working class out of Burma and across the mountains back into India. Now they were digging their heels in Rangoon and planning the next steps with India. On the Western front, the Axis powers led by Germany were chalking up many a victory and were poised at the gates of Leningrad. In the East, Japan had entered the war with a roar, bombed Pearl Harbor, got the Americans involved and the Great War was on. As people died in the thousands and the entire world was in disarray, the Japanese earned victory after victory, until the mountains, lack of supplies and an inhospitable terrain stopped them at the Arakan mountain range dividing British India on one side and the fallen British Burma on the other, with not only the Japanese but the budding INA led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The Naga and the Chin hills presented the armies some of the most difficult jungles in which the allies had to fight a war, and prevent a potential Japanese conquest into British India. 

Why do I say potential? Because it was not really in the plans, but on the other hand, the humiliated British did want to take back Burma, Malaya and Singapore while the INA wanted to march into India. The Japanese, in a veritable quandary were rethinking their strategy, while cooling their burning heels in Rangoon, and taking their time. It was this time which afforded the British to build up at the inhospitable border, racked with monsoons, malaria and disease, and put together a few plans to build roads leading into Burma, roads which could carry men and machinery, weapons and tanks. Easier said than done, as you will soon see. Some would wonder why such a network was being considered during wartime, and well, it was because all movement was across the bay in ships until the war. During the war the Bay of Bengal no longer afforded safe passage with the prospect of monsoon winds and bad weather, air attacks, mines and submarines. So the bosses had to resort to building a twisting, turning road which dropped into valleys, climbed up mountains, ran past fjords and rivers over new bridges and would they hoped, be all weather and not just fair weather.

It was in this inhospitable country that two platoons of Malayalis, a third comprising Tamil and a fourth from Andhra, all in all four platoons forming the 309 General purpose Transport Corps totaling to 450 recruits, literally broke their backs on, after arriving with a few hundred badly designed and hurriedly constructed, 3 ton Canadian Ford trucks. Their story is hardly known, and their efforts totally forgotten, but for the small book written about them by their commander, the inimitable Major David Atkins. He had a tough task, commanding a group of people who had no training, who had seen no war and who had never been under command or orders. They spoke a mish mash of six languages. David Atkins spoke two, English and Urdu (sparingly) which again was foreign to the people he commanded. What could have transpired?

But before the formation of the 309th GPT, let’s see how the situation was in Malabar and Travancore. As I wrote in a previous article, the south was starting to suffer from the effects of a terrible famine. Jobs were becoming scarce and many an able bodied person joined the Indian army, for it was a source of food and some money.  The political situation was bad, with the heavy handed rule of Dewan Sir CP and all the other issues going on with anticommunist moves, the Punnapra Vayalar uprising and so on. All in all, it was a good idea to join the British Indian army and keep your stomach full and have a steady income. As records were to show, some 160,000 people from Travancore joined up either in the army or in labor battalions working in Burma. Many of them were formally attached to the newly formed 309th which was part of the RIASC or the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. They were not really considered fighting material and were usually part of these labor corps, responsible for the provisioning, procurement and distribution of food, living supplies, fuel, munitions etc. to the forward units. All mechanical transport (except at the front lines) and animal transport (mules, horses and elephants to name a few) were the responsibility of the RIASC.

It was in these circumstances that our story starts. Presumably Warrier joined up in the army even before the war, for we see that from the outset, he was a JCO, a Jamedar. His boss, Staff Captain David Atkins had just escaped dismissal by court martial, the dismissal being contended for two very interesting reasons. The first was that he, in charge or the Army supplies at Delhi had requisitioned 20 million bottles of Rum instead of 2 million (an act which was to later help the army in very distressing conditions). The second was diverting all spare flour supplies to Karachi with the feeling that the soldiers at the western front would needed them, when all of a sudden, many military units had to be rushed to Assam to stave off a potential attack by the Japanese who had taken Burma. To get the supplies diverted from Karachi to Assam was going to be very difficult indeed and the army laid all the blame on Atkins. But there was a shortage of officers, especially those who spoke Urdu and so Atkins found himself promoted to Major instead and transferred out of Delhi and ordered to head the 309th GPTC which was to be formed at Jhansi, South of Delhi.

The events which transpired were to expose not only Britain’s total unpreparedness for an attack from the East and a war on India’s frontiers, but also  its inability to handle the difficulties and logistics in mounting a counterattack on the inhospitable and terrible mountain jungles of Assam. That they prevailed in the end was a combination of many acts of fate, some superb tales of valor, individual grit and determination of many a soldier and their supporting units. The Kohima and Imphal battles, the effects of disease and lack of supplies on the Japanese, who got stranded on the mountains, fighting the British and the issues they had with the INA units are all part of another story, this was a period in 1942, well before the war heated up in those cold mountain jungles.

Many a story of valor has been written about those larger battles on the Assam front, a few have been written about the miserable trek of the Indians who fled Burma, but the story of the 309 GPTC is a rarity. The men so slated to form this new company under Atkins were fresher’s from the South, kind of irregular as they say, for most other companies had picked their men from the Northern regions. Atkins who himself was new to the workings outside an office, waiting for his new junior officers and men, was summoned to the station to take charge of his 400 or so men who were asleep at the station. The Punjabi VCO introduced the group as ‘a very bad sort – the Telugus are  black and ugly,  the Tamils obey, but they are smooth like girls, but most of the men, sahib, are Malayali and they are very clever, Sahib, but bad. Yes indeed, much bad! They have hit our colonel on his illustrious head, they have chased the Subedar Sahib into his house, and they have fought with the military police’.

A Marathi Havildar who was later put in charge of the two Malayali platoons added that the ‘malayalis sit and make much talk, and that they did not love the king emperor or the sahibs. After they had settled down, the first of the rebellions had Atkins rush to mediate, over the food quality, which as you can imagine, was not right for the Malayali, for he wanted rice and not wheat rotis. The second was over the fact that some of the Punjabi officers had tried to bugger some of the young Tamil recruits. Thus started the days of the 309 Madrasi Company.

Atkins’s translator was one Havildar Kuttappan Nair, an NCO, but soon two other Malayali VCO’s arrived, Jamadars Warrier and Koshy. Gopalkrishna Warrier was a dark skinned, short man who Atkins states, looked like a walking mushroom under his toupee, and was to later known as Mickey Mouse for his large ears. Warrier was a joy to work with according to Atkins, but had this disconcerting habit of quoting Shakespeare often. Understandably for an Englishman, managing this group was tough, for example the Malayali platoon had over 20 Krishnan’s and most names had initials. Atkins also found out soon that the Malayali is a great lover of disputes, for disputes sake!

Training continued and it soon dawned that the company’s responsibility was to get supplies to the rough Burmese front. The people from the south could handle heat and humidity, but handling cold weather was going to be testing, as they would all soon find out. Nevertheless, the men shaped up and Warrier was to declare “They say best men, Sahib, are molded out of faults and are better for being a bit bad”! They heard about the malaria and mosquitoes, cholera and typhus in those north eastern jungles and were armed only with mosquito screens constructed by themselves. Their orders were to pick up 134 trucks or as the British called it, Lorries from Delhi and drive out to Agra, then go by train to Calcutta and head to Guwahati in Assam.

There were interesting events such as the one when they found one of the recruits had nice little breasts when everybody was stripped waist up during a physical exam. It is perceived that the recruit was actually a girl who had joined up, anyway he or she was quickly sent home.

The Lorries were beasts, and were fondly called green elephants, and notoriously hard to drive, heavy to steer due to half of its weight tilted up front, horrible gears and a lousy petrol system. Added to it, these Ford 3 tonners made hurriedly in Canada for the war effort had underpowered engines making them very difficult to handle. The green elephants actually proved to be surly pigs and on top of it to be driven by men who had no idea about driving, for the only powered vehicle they had been on had been a bullock cart. But war is war and you learn on the field, as they say, and on the very day when Gandhiji called on the British to Quit India, August 1942, the Lorries and the Malayalis and Tamilians and Telugu platoons drove out of Delhi to protect that same country, under the command of a British major.

Both my wife and I are fond of crème caramel, and many a time, we found it prominently mentioned on all menus while traveling around India. We never thought about it and it was while reading Atkins’s memoir that I chanced on the tidbit that the pudding was part of every railway refreshment room’s offering, perhaps concocted so by Spencer’s of madras. It appears that for a cook to be certified good, he had to know how to make crème caramel to the liking of his British boss! Atkins believed that this had been so for some 200-300 years! So now you know!

Atkins’s biggest challenge was teaching the soldiers driving and how to wear a condom seeing how many of them quickly contracted VD. And thus armed with this kind of important knowledge, the platoons trudged down to Manipur road and on to Dimapur from where their adventures were to start. But let me warn you, this is not a story of shooting or armed combat with slashing sabers and whirling knives. It is a tale of work, hard work on a dirt track running through a steep, rough, torturous and rugged jungle terrain. Their task was to supply the teams building the road in front and preparing for large armies which would come later to battle the Japanese and after victory in the plains, go on to liberate Rangoon.

It was a tale of how officers learned to command, of soldiers learning to obey, learning to drive and handle a beast of an unserviceable truck, up and down a length of some 120 miles of terrible single and double tracks and finally of making soldiers of themselves! The Burma campaign was a low priority war for the British high command in London, for they were more worried about losing Britain and the western fronts, and so the army at Assam had to improvise and help itself most of the time. They had hardly any medicine to fight the many diseases which would soon decimate everyone out on the hills, friend or foe, British, Indian or Japanese, soldiers and refugees.

The trains with the trucks and men reached Manipur road. Atkins found to his horror that there was no hospital, repair shops or anything by way of support at this frontier post. And he heard about the rampant malaria, caused by the feared anopheles mosquito, the characteristic of which was that it rested with its butt in the air. In a matter of days, every single person in his unit, except him were down with illness. All they could witness was the dense jungle, rain and a steady stream of emaciated refugees arriving from Burma. Many arrived and simply died at that entrance point into India. Atkins was ordered to go from Dimapur to Kohima and on to Imphal with his Lorries and men. You can imagine how tough it was when the daily distance covered was just 5 to 10 miles! Some Lorries went over the edge (over the khud as they termed it), many had mechanical and fuel problems, most batteries were flat and so once started with a spare, the truck had to be kept running the whole day!

As the drudgery and hard work continued, Warrier kept pestering Atkins with questions on why a poet like Tennyson used words like jug-jug in his poetry (Atkins brushed Warrier off saying English poets wrote no such thing). How Warrier learnt and memorized this amount of diverse Elizabethan poetry is mystery to me, but perhaps he was a student at the Travancore University, a fact I really could not ascertain!

The terrain was unforgiving, the roads continued to be tracks of slush which these trucks could not really handle and the health of the drivers down to nothing. The Madrasi was less resistant to disease compared to the Northern recruits, perhaps attributed to their eating polished rice which held less vitamins, according to Atkins.

Atkins being born in India was somehow immune to malaria and was the only one in the platoon who did not fall sick. The quinine stocks had been depleted, for they were coming from Malaya, which was in Japanese hands and that meant everybody contracted the fever. During his days of despair and anger, he took to observing his people and some of his jottings would not be alien to us even today – Look at this classic example. The Madrasi soldier when sick had a disconcerting habit, he pulled his shirt out and left it flapping and wrapped a rag around their head! He noticed that they too slowly picked up Pidgin English and Urdu as days went by, with more and more sick personnel shivering and groaning, and Warrier quoting Keats grandly ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret, here where men sit and hear each other groan.’ They struggled to drive the three tonners, having no strength left with malaria bouts every 5-7 hours and no medicines even invented to treat it, so it was just a matter of suffering till it went away. Everybody was sick, looking like bags of bones, tempers ran high and it was an absolute disaster, with nothing got done. But they soldiered on, while the high command complained about the 309 GPTC’s lack of pace and results. Nobody had time to listen to complaints about the trucks, lack of spares or repair shops, lack of experience and so on and a funny facts that only 3-4 out of the 450 men had a watch!

It appears many officers were to remember and comment on this Madrasi unit which stood out for its ‘strange looking’ people and the ghastly green steel Ford 3 tonners. Their problem was that the other companies were issued with long nosed Chevrolets with twin headlights. These were better vehicles which handled well and so the frequent comparison between the Madrasi unit driving Fords and the others driving Chevys always resulted in the former being branded as the losers. But soon enough the Chevy drivers were also bogged down with malaria.

Many a truck went over the ‘khud’ as they ferried goods and men back and forth. The Malayali, Tamil and Telugu driver stuck to their task and held on to the steering wheel for dear life as the Fords sometimes spun off the road and teetered on its edge. The lone headlight on the Fords reduced to a slit produced no light and trucks drove bonnet to boot (actually there was no boot, they were mostly tarpaulin covered backs behind the cabin). The road was dotted with broken down green Ford Lorries and many remembered the sight. Atkins was castigated often by his superiors, but nobody understood his problem with the horribly designed trucks and lack of medicines to fight malaria which every single one in his platoon suffered. Nevertheless, they soldiered on or more correctly, drove on, back and forth.

Dec 1942, the Lorries were directed to the Tedim track. The 6,000 odd men who worked on the road construction cut through the jungles and rock at the rate of 1 mile a day. Mohan Singh was the first JCO to die, owing to rash driving after an argument with Atkins. It was tragic, for in fact Atkins had just the previous week sent recommendation letters promoting Mohan Singh and Warrier. A few days later, Warrier was also dead, at Milestone 48 when he hitched a lift on another truck after his 3 tonner had broken down. That 15 cwt truck he was on, flipped over at a turn and Warrier was crushed in it. In five terrible and difficult months at the border, his life had been laid to waste.

Only Atkins remembered him. Jemadar Warrier was a fine officer, a jolly man and above all he was Atkin’s friend, so concluded Atkins as he ended his book, and forlornly packed up Warrier’s belongings to be shipped back to his parents Quilon. I think he was buried at the Rangoon war memorial cemetery, or not, at least his name is mentioned.

Most people do not get the point that at no time was India to become a base for any kind of military operations. While the Americans used the Assam bases to build the Ledo road to China, it was only the Japanese entry into Singapore, Malaya and Burma which forced the British to make new plans in 1942. There was no war infrastructure in place such as roads, trucks or transport trains. All of these had to be hurriedly imported and that is how these Ford & Chevy trucks as well as Jeeps landed up in India and how inexperienced people were put on the supply corps. On top of all that, these chaotic years were compounded by famine in Bengal and Malabar, Travancore, a subject I partly covered earlier. 

There were two journalists who reported later on, during the actual war from that front, and one of them was the great man PRS Mani who wrote about the bravery of Dr Goplakrishnan of Calicut, Havildar Ravunni Nayar, Yakub from Malabar and Kuttiya Pillai. 

There were 10 transport companies and 1,200 Lorries on that front. 309th was one of them and of the 1,200, only 120 lorries plied the 120 mile track at any given time due to disease and mechanical and support issues. Supplies never got to the fronts in time and many fighting units were recalled. Malaria abated, The Dimapur project was scrapped and a new strategy to build a proper Tedim road was now formed. This ‘forgotten army’ as it was called, forged on, without enough tools or support, this was warfare as it really is at its worst, confusion, lack of clear directives, sickness and danger

The records at the Rangoon memorial state starkly ; THEY DIED FOR ALL FREE MEN

GOPALA KRISHNA WARRIER, Jemadar, M, 17185/IO. 309 G.P. Transport Coy. Royal Indian Army Service Corps. Died 14th January 1943. Age 22. Son of K. Madhava Warrier and K. Subhadra Amma, of East Kallada, Quilon, India…

I tried to track down the family of Warrier, but nobody in East Kallada seems to remember them. Atkins, Koshy and Kuttappan Nair continued on with new duties after the Dimapur buildup was scrapped. Their story is continued in a sequel to the first book and their next task was the Tedim road construction. I will cover all that when I write about the rest, looking from the other side, from Burma.

The Reluctant Major – David Atkins
The Forgotten Major – David Atkins
Military economies, culture and in logistics the Burma campaign 1942-1945 - Graham Dunlop
Tedim Road—The Strategic Road on a Frontier: A Historical Analysis - Pum Khan Pau

I tried to find an answer to Warrier’s question and did.
In fact Thomas Nash did write - Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing: Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

A definition of the term Jug-jug goes thus -Jug Jug' can sound like sound without meaning, nonsense syllables; or 'in Elizabethan poetry' it can be, in Southam's words, 'a way of representing bird-song', or, alternatively, 'a crude joking reference to sexual intercourse'." According to Gareth reeves, jug jug could be an approximation of wordlessness, a sound without meaning.

Hope JCO Warrier up there reading this, is contended…..

Burma border pic Courtesy – Burma star association, Ford truck Google pics (thanks to the unidentified owner)


maxhavan said…
Thank you Sir, for making the efforts of these brave Malayali men part of our collective knowledge, retriving it from history. If you hadn't done this, I doubt whether anybody would have. When somebody assumes the role of a historian in India, he is professional devoid of any love towards the subject, churning out material beloved to his political masters. Here people like you are saving our past from the annals of forgotten history. Thank you very much.
Maddy said…
Thanks maxhaven..

As you can see, i enjoy every one of these research trips.
In my opinion, We are what we are, also because of what we were...