Douglas Garnett escaped death in Burma, earned the Military Cross for exemplary bravery but remained modest about his heroic actions
The war in Europe might have ended in May, 1945, but the violence continued in the Far East for more than three months. On the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, we hear the stories of some of the men who fought so very far from home.
Steven Russell begins with a soldier who managed to escape death in Burma and truly earned his Military Cross for bravery.
It’s a pretty safe bet that men like Douglas Garnett would despise our celebrity culture and the self-obsessed nature of social media. Men like Douglas Garnett were modest about their bravery during the Second World War. They simply got on with it. Forgot it, if they could.
Which is how Tony Garnett grew up, knowing his professional soldier father was courageous ? had been awarded the Military Cross, indeed, for “exemplary gallantry” ? but had to wait decades after Douglas’s premature death to learn anything approaching the full story.
In fact, it was only this week ? when he dug out long-forgotten army information more than 70 years old ? that Tony put considerable detail to the limited sentences of the MC commendation.
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The form relates to 1944, as a multi-racial force became embroiled in savage fighting to stop Japanese soldiers taking India, following their conquest of Burma. The document, signed by eight senior officers and recommending an immediate award of the Military Cross, makes it clear how Douglas put his life on the line.
“On 25 May 1944 at Moirang Crossroads Major Garnett’s battery was supporting the 2/5 RGR (Royal Gurkha Regiment). As it was getting dark the position was attacked by four enemy tanks advancing from the South which...opened very heavy fire with 47mm shells on our positions, causing serious casualties in the first few minutes. Major Garnett at once brought down accurate fire on the tanks.
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“Ignoring the heavy fire of the tanks, he stood upright on the parapet of the trench in order to spot the flashes of the enemy tank guns...Further accurate fire directed by Major Garnett soon drove off two more tanks and the fourth later struck a mine and blew up.
“Meanwhile, casualties had been heavy and all available S.B.s [secondary batteries] and nursing orderlies were fully employed.
“A 3.7 Howitzer of 6 Battery sited in an anti-tank role with the 2/5 Gurkhas had received a direct hit on the Gun Pit, killing the officer and wounding all but the number one. Major Garnett at once went to this gun, organised the dressing and evacuation of the wounded and raised a scratch gun team...At first light this gun was able to bring down effective fire on the enemy.
“Throughout the whole night’s action Major Garnett’s outstanding courage, coolness and complete disregard for his personal safety under murderous short range shell fire was an inspiration. The prompt and accurate manner in which he brought down fire on the tanks was most heartening to the morale and was a primary factor in the breaking up of the enemy attack.”
Douglas, of the Royal Artillery, received the Military Cross and a letter from King George VI. He wrote: “I greatly regret that I am unable to give you personally the award which you have so well earned. I now send it to you with my congratulations and my best wishes for your future happiness.”
Something to be proud of, then. But not an episode allowed to resonate through Tony’s childhood. “I didn’t know anything about it, apart from the fact he got an MC, until a long time after he’d died,” he admits. “He never talked about it. Never talked much about the war at all, really ? apart from the fact he never forgave the Japanese.”
He certainly didn’t blow his own trumpet. His diary of those awful months in 1944 as the British, Indian forces and Gurkhas tried to push back the Japanese gives no clue that he was honoured for his bravery.
May 26 finds Douglas and his men supporting a Gurkha attack on Ngangkhalawai. “There was a tank attack shortly after dark, which knocked out the gun, killing all the detachment... Fighting continued all night in pitch dark among the... pits filled with water. Both sides suffered a fair number of casualties.” That, really, is all he says of the incident.
“He wasn’t particularly communicative anyway,” says Tony, who was born about two weeks after the start of the Second World War. “Put it this way: I only really got to know him well when he was very ill. When he retired from the army, he took up an ex-army officer’s job as education accounts officer in the army school of education at Beaconsfield. When he was ill, I used to drive him around.
“My mother had all his medals (after he died) and then, after she died (in 1977) they were in a box ? getting a bit dusty; a few cobwebs here and there ? and I thought ‘I’d better do something about these’.”
Tony, a former sports editor of the EADT and Ipswich Star, produced a framed tribute to his father. It includes his medals and the MC citation. There’s also a note from a brigadier, sent in 1956. “Dear Garnett, congratulations on your well-deserved mention in dispatches, for your gallant and distinguished service in Burma and on the eastern frontier of India. We are all proud of this recognition, and yet another fine example set by the Gunners.”
Edward Douglas Garnett was born in Cheshire in 1907, his family in the Lancashire cotton industry. His father was well down the family pecking order so, in about 1920, he bought a farm in Suffolk: Kelsale Hall, near Saxmundham.
“He was what I’d a call a farmer who farmed for the game-shooting, rather than the farming,” says Tony. “It didn’t make any money and was a total nightmare. It was, anyway, when my father took it over.”
Douglas went to Charterhouse, then graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. 39160 Garnett was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant at 20 and a lieutenant in 1931. From 1933, he served in India and Pakistan, proficient in Urdu. Promotions followed: captain in 1938, major, then lieutenant colonel in 1945.
In 1938 he married Eileen Mary Blois-Brooke, known as Kit, in Meerut, India. Her family owned Ufford Place, near Woodbridge. Her father was the son of Sir Ralph Blois, of Cockfield Hall, Yoxford.
Douglas’s first diary entries for 1944 give little hint of what was to come. January 1 sees him arriving in the Indian city of Gaya at 4.30am. “Station waiting room mosquito-infested... Spent all afternoon searching for my luggage...Played bridge in the evening.”
Ian Grant’s 1993 book Burma: The Turning Point suggests the Imphal/Kohima campaign was when momentum shifted. “It signalled the start of four months of intense and savage fighting, the heaviest along the road from Imphal to Tiddim in Burma. After three weeks the Japanese were not only defeated but virtually annihilated... The door to Burma was now wide open and undefended, and General Slim’s Fourteenth Army flooded through it to win the great victories of 1945.”
The war in the Far East was finally halted by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on August 14th, and the following day was declared Victory in Japan Day.
Intriguingly, it appears Douglas was at Judson College in Rangoon, Burma, to witness Japanese general Heitaro Kimura and senior staff officers surrendering their swords to General Sir Montagu Stopford.
Douglas took pictures. They show, says Tony, how members of the guard of honour were all over 6ft 1in. To hammer home the sense of superiority over the defeated forces? “I think the guard of honour was made up from father’s regiment.”
Douglas served in India and Pakistan until 1948. He was then stationed in Dover, went to Hong Kong, had a spell in Northern Ireland and was commandant on troop ships sailing to Korea.
He died in 1964.
Tony is proud of what his father achieved, and his courage. “I understand he was a fairly severe officer. He didn’t stand any nonsense. He loved the Gurkhas; had great respect for them.”
“One thing I do recall was that he told me how there were Japanese snipers in nearby trees. One was accurate but the others were not. Before running from one trench to the other they would put a helmet on top of a pole. If a bullet struck it they would wait until the less talented marksman was on duty...”
Japan attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The next day, Japanese forces landed in Malaya. Hong Kong fell on December 25, and in mid January Japan invaded Burma.
On the 20th he’s posted to 21 Mountain Regiment and is taken to Kennedy Peak, Burma. “Position very high, 8900 ft, and very cold.”
January 22: “During the night the Japs ran through OP Wood [OP is observation post] three times...” One man is killed. January 28: Three soldiers killed and three wounded by a Japanese shell.
By the middle of March, Japan is bent on seizing the key military centres of Imphal and Kohima in India, about 70 miles from the border with Burma. The allies fight to stop them. The fierce Battle of Imphal will last until July.
On March 25, Douglas Garnett is reporting the death of two men as a command post is hit. Their medical officer is hurt when a bomb lands. “A sticky day.” The following day “three bombers and nine fighters came and beat us up on the road with bombs and MG”. [Machine-gun fire.]
In April they move on to Imphal Turel, where Douglas collapses with dysentery “and went to bed on arrival in my valise in a ditch, with a ground sheet as a roof”.
Later, he’s targeted by a Japanese 75mm gun as he moves along a crest, “but had plenty of time to duck below as I saw them fire”.
Then, late in May, he and his men come to Moirang. Julian Thompson talks about it in his 2002 publication The Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Burma.
“On the evening of 26 May, 2nd/5th Royal Gurkhas were attacked by four tanks preceded by artillery fire. One was blown up on a minefield laid by the battalion, one ran into the position, while the other two sat on a bund and fired down into the position. The battalion took about 50 casualties before the two tanks on the bund were destroyed.
“The wounded were lying in waterlogged trenches, while... the MO [medical officer] did his best for them, in the dark, being unable to show any light.”
Some days later, “we were engaged by a Japanese infantry gun whose first short burst hit the middle of us, leaving me the only one of seven untouched. Outram had both legs blown off”. One man was killed, others wounded.
These months are dreadful, but pivotal.
The Colonial Film project, which has catalogued images relating to the British empire, explains: “Hoping to avoid a parallel to the end of the First World War, where the German Army marched homewith its arms and plausibly ‘undefeated’, it was hoped that the formal surrender of swords would make the reality of defeat incontestable.”