Honoring our Veterans: From defeat, through victory to love.
|I met my uncle Jack only once in the wake of my grandmother's funeral. He was there as a brother to mourn his sister. For him, the wartime experience he shared was something that led him to Italy and to Maria the woman he married and the mother of his children. Years later I revisit what he told me and to his daughter with a keener understanding of what he must have endured but did not share on that occasion. |
John Lyons or Jack, as he was later known, was born in 1919 in Mussoorie India. An Industrial Chemist by trade he joined the 1st Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment in India in June 1941 aged 21. It seems his ability to blow things up would come in handy in the military. He worked for BP after the war in Iran.
After basic training, he, or many in his unit, served on the North West Frontier. Later he mentions the invaluable experiences of night fighting with the mountain tribesmen. He became a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in November 1941. It is unclear which unit he served with in Burma as the situation was very fluid. The highest probability is that he was attached to the 28th Indian Mountain Regiment, 17th Indian Division deployed to Burma on Valentines' Day February 1942 just five days before the Japanese assault at Sittang began. His experience of Burma was to be anything but romantic.
Hopelessly outnumbered by the Japanese, the quickly assembled Indian unit's training and equipment were inadequate for the conditions they were fighting in. The commander of the 17th Indian division Major General "Jackie" Smyth VC wanted to use the river Sittang as a barrier against the advancing Japanese but was instead ordered by his commander General Hutton, Commander Burmese Forces, to defend a bridgehead on the enemy side of the iron railway bridge there. When the Japanese attack came on 19th February 1942 Smyth was authorized to retreat across the river attempting to do so under cover of night hampered by superior Japanese numbers and by infiltrations across the river. Smyth, worried that the bridge might fall into enemy hands, ordered that it be blown up. Sappers did not completely succeed in blowing the bridge. The decision to blow it stranded two-thirds of the 17th Indian Division on the enemy side of the river including its Anti-Tank units with most of their equipment. Jack and a few of his men swam across the river. His retreat to the Chindwin River was without any actual Anti-Tank guns and he and his unit served as infantry in the three-month-long 700-mile retreat to the Indian border. On arrival in India, he had malaria and was utterly exhausted. Later he would say there was nothing funny to say about Burma, it was something he just survived. Smyths' decision had removed the only force capable of stopping the Japanese advance from contention. Rangoon and Burma fell shortly after.
On arriving back in North East Assam Jack was given convalescent leave and tried to board a train at Tinsukia Station. My grandfather was a Major in the British army at that time and working with Logistics and he picked Jack up from the platform giving him plush quarters to ride in back home. Many of the other unwounded battalion survivors slept out in the open just as the monsoon was arriving.
On recovery, and after an interval, Jack was assigned to the 4th Maharatta Indian Anti-Tank Regiment, associated with the 8th Indian Division in the British 8th Army under Montgomery. They landed at Taranto, Italy, in September 1943. Over the next year, they fought their way across the mountains along the spine of Italy. Continually crossing rivers on their way to the next hill or mountain they adopted the slogan "One more river." This included a crucial crossing of the Gari in May 1944 during the Battle of Monte Cassino.
By the Summer of 1944, the Indian 8th Division (XIII Corps) was attached to the American Fifth Army under General Clark and was breaking through the German Gothic line to the North of Rome. The Americans were better fed than the British. Jack later wrote articles describing amusing troubles with maneuvering anti-tank weaponry across the mountains, the fearless though sometimes dangerous Maharattan drivers, and various engagements with Tiger tanks.
Jack met Maria, a beautiful dark-haired Italian woman while sheltering from a bombardment from the Germans just south of Florence. His unit was fondly remembered by those they liberated for their fabulous curries and for their tendency to burn furniture when cold. He later married her and lived in the UK and then by the banks of the Lamone River in Popolano close to where they met.
His daughter Joy was born while still serving in Italy in a British military hospital in Udine North East of Venice. He remained with the army until October 1947 when he was decommissioned in Austria as a member of the British 3 AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery - not Indian). By this time the British Raj into which he had been born no longer existed and he lists a temporary British address in London. The British had left India on 15th August 1947.
Jack saw a lot of people die, mentioning for instance a Colonel Whittey from the Royal West Kents being killed soon after a cheerful conversation over tea. He survived defeat and then victory, fighting in jungles and on mountains with his humanity intact. This was a man who loved his wife and family and apparently wanted to forget, rather than relive, the dark moments of the war in conversation with a generation that had no such experience. He stressed to me my grandfather Henrys' generosity in providing that railway carriage. When he died my biggest regret was that I had not had more time to hear his stories. Like many of his generation, he carried many secrets with him to the grave.
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