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When the British were the refugees

The just-released film Dunkirk deals with a famous retreat in World War Two but there was another such withdrawal in the war, involving women as well as men that is not so well known. It took place in Burma in 1942, following the surprise Japanese invasion of that country.


9780750982399Sean Sheehan


It was the longest retreat in British military history, involving not just a British army but hundreds of thousands of Indians and many thousands of British civilians. Two books on the subject, written from very different perspectives, have recently been published and they both deserve reading.

“Reporting the retreat” is about the twenty six war correspondents, men and one woman, who reported on the army’s retreat for newspapers and magazines. What they wrote was subjected to wartime censorship – resulting in a form of ‘fake news’ – but they used their notes to later write more objective and critical accounts. They were courageous and resilient, knowing full well that the invading Japanese would treat them no differently to the soldiers they accompanied.

There is a chapter devoted to the civilian refugees, most of whom were Indians working in the paddy fields, rice mills and the docks. Some of the war correspondents shared their dangerous journeys to safety and “Reporting the retreat”, written in crisp and clear prose, covers how the correspondents reported on what they witnessed.

Colonial-Era House in Mynamar by Adam Jones WikiCommons
Colonial-Era House in Mynamar by Adam Jones / WikiCommons

The suffering and endurance of the civilian refugees is the subject matter of “Exodus Burma”. Felicity Goodall begins her dramatic account with the Japanese bombing of Rangoon in December 1941 which killed a thousand citizens and created mass panic.

Indians fled because they feared the Burmese more than the Japanese; racial tensions had been simmering for a long time between the native population and the Indians who had been encouraged to work in Burma by the colonial masters who ruled both countries.

The British in Burma maintained a system which Goodall describes as one of apartheid: “At the top of the heap were the British, while at the bottom were the Burmese” with the Indians in-between.

The system was racist but, as in apartheid South Africa, while some of the white people were racists themselves most just went along with a system that provided them with a privileged lifestyle. The Japanese invasion turned their world upside down and they were forced to retreat as refugees with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Reporting the Retreat front cover“Exodus Burma” tells an engrossing tale and the author makes good use of the diaries that some of the refugees kept during their long treks to safety.

They thought Mandalay would give them refuge but Japanese bombers reduced the town to what a survivor called ‘a city of the dead – an unburied Pompeii’. Like so many Indians, they had to continue walking for hundreds of miles and many died before reaching safety in northeast India.

“Reporting the retreat: War correspondents in Burma”, by Philip Wood, is published by Hurst & Company.

“Exodus Burma: the British escape through the jungles of death 1942”, by Felicity Goodall, is published by The History Press.





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