Elephants crossing river

The remarkable story of a daring World War II operation in which hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance through Burma were rescued by elephant is to be told in full for the first time.

The story is a sort of Far Eastern Dunkirk, but it has largely been forgotten since the war. Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it.

Dr. Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies

Letters, diaries and - remarkably - amateur films shot during the expedition, which was organised by a British tea planter called Gyles Mackrell, will be examined in detail following their donation to the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge.

A short film, chronicling the epic rescue mission and using the footage that Mackrell took himself, is available to view above.

It explains how, amid the chaos of the British retreat from Burma early in 1942, Mackrell mounted an operation to save refugees who were trapped by flooded rivers at the border with India using the only means available to get them across - elephants.

Dr. Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies, where the collection will be housed, said: "The story is a sort of Far Eastern Dunkirk, but it has largely been forgotten since the war. Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it."

Born in 1889, Gyles Mackrell was 53 when, in January 1942, the Japanese invaded British-held Burma. He had spent most of his life in Assam, where he was working as an area supervisor for Steel Brothers, a firm exporting tea.

The initial Japanese advance was devastating. Burma's capital, Rangoon, was evacuated in March and by April the army was in full retreat. This prompted a massive evacuation, in which tens of thousands of people, many of them wounded, sick and starving, were forced to trek on foot for hundreds of miles, through dense jungle, in the hope of reaching the Indian border

and safety. Large numbers died on the way.

Even those who made it to the border, however, struggled to find a way into India. By May, the torrential monsoon rains had flooded the narrow river passes dividing the two countries. Crossing on foot was impossible and the British administration did not have the resources or local knowledge to help.

As a result, groups of refugees began to camp out on the banks of rivers hoping that the waters might recede or that a rescue might come. Many were kept alive by the RAF, which dropped food supplies wherever it could.

It was in the absence of any organised evacuation that tea planters like Mackrell became the refugees' only hope. Through his work, Mackrell had access to elephants, which were the only reliable means of crossing the flooded rivers. Importantly, he also knew the jungle and local hill tribes.

His diary, which forms part of the collection, reveals how Mackrell received an SOS on 4 June, 1942, from a group of refugees who had managed to cross the Dapha River by making a human chain. "I promised to collect some elephants and move off as quickly as I could," he wrote, "as they told me the party behind would be starving, especially if they got held up by the rivers."

In a series of epic forced marches Mackrell reached the Dapha by 9 June, and almost immediately sighted a group of 68 soldiers who had been trapped on an island mid-river when the waters suddenly rose.

Despite their best efforts, his party could not reach them at first - the films Mackrell shot show elephants up to their tusks in raging rapids, unable to make any progress at all. Then, miraculously, the river fell briefly in the small hours of the morning and a window opened in which the soldiers were evacuated.

In the weeks that followed, Mackrell and his colleagues set up camp on the Dapha and helped across a stream of refugees.

They themselves were frequently short of supplies and afflicted by fever, and at one stage Mackrell himself had to go back to Assam to recover, before returning to the Dapha as soon as he was fit.

When operations finally ceased in September 1942, about 200 people had been saved - the last group against instructions from the British administration in Assam which, acting on faulty intelligence, thought that the party had moved off and were ordering Mackrell to pull out.

The collection at Cambridge has been donated by Mackrell's niece and an independent researcher, Denis Segal. It includes not just his films and diaries, but papers and accounts by some of those who were rescued.

The diary of John Rowland, a railroad engineer whose party were some of the last to get across, captures the desperate nature of the refugees' situation. At one stage the group was so short of food, they were eating fern fronds.

"There is no nutriment in the additional diet," Rowland wrote, "at all events it forms bulk and with luck it is hoped to spin out the rations for 24 days, after which, if no relief party or aeroplane arrives with rations, it is recognised that we must die of starvation." In the event a plane spotted the party and dropped supplies just in time.

Also in the collection is a short note by Sir R E Knox, from the Treasury's Honours Committee in London, recommending that the percentage risk of death Mackrell faced during the evacuation "could be put, very roughly, at George Medal: 50 to 80%."

Mackrell did eventually receive the George Medal - about which he was always modest - and died in retirement in Suffolk in 1959. Briefly, in 1942, the British press celebrated his achievement, dubbing him "The Elephant Man", but as the war progressed in Burma, his exploits became a forgotten footnote eclipsed by the achievements of what was, in any case, referred to as Britain's "forgotten army".

The collection, now with the Centre of South Asian Studies, will now give researchers the chance to revive the tale not just of Mackrell, but others like him who helped to save hundreds of people during the desperate summer of 1942.

"Mackrell was embarrassed by the attention he received and even worried that people would think he had returned to the Dapha in the pursuit of a second medal," Dr. Annamaria Motrescu, research associate at the Centre, said. "In fact it's a remarkable story of courage, spirit and ingenuity that took place at a time when no-one was sure what the consequences of the war in the Far East would be. It deserves to be remembered."

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