Captain Gerald Fitzpatrick - "No Myanmar, No Maymyo" 8/11/00
Captain's Fitzpatrick talk turned out to be an ambitious expose of British high command's errors (chiefly Churchill's) over the course of the Second World War, to which he has dedicated a large part of his life to researching and exposing. After his own battalion of poorly supplied, poorly supported troops was devastated by a retreat action in Burma, it became personal.
Had Captain Fitzpatrick concentrated more on the Burma action it would have been a shorter talk, and perhaps a little more what the audience were expecting! However, we were treated to some fascinating insights on life through the war, especially so close to Rememberance Day.
Fitzpatrick is a Leeds born half-Irishman, who nearly joined the IRA as a way out of Leeds in the Depression. Instead, he, along with most of his peers, joined up, thus fulfilling his teacher's prophecy that "in ten years time you'll all be in the army". Fitzpatrick's war started gently enough, posted at Folkestone, which Hitler had earmarked as his landing base and therefore decided not to bomb. Not that people on this side of the channel knew that, however, and the train carriages in which the soldiers were billetted were wired up to self destruct in the event of an invasion.
Jabbing the intricate atlas drawn on the whiteboard with his umbrella, Fitzpatrick pointed out the parts of the world that in 1940 were still considered irrelevant to the progress of the war ( to Churchill). Singapore, India, Hong Kong, these places were sinecures where "old boys in plumed hats" were farmed out to. Relegation to India was the fate of those who had failed to prove themselves on the European frontline. The focus shifted somewhat when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbour (7/12/41). But the threat was being underestimated, the general consensus being "send a Man O'War over and that'll fix them". The people in the Asian hemisphere were paying a heavy price for that indifference, particularly, Fitzpatrick pointed out, the Australians, whose troops were not receiving the support requested.
Fitzpatrick and his men arrived in Burma three months before the fateful Pearl Harbour attack that brought the Americans into the war. Everyone was much cheered that the Americans had finally got off the fence at last. However the mood soon soured as the troops were besieged in unfamiliar terrain. Two regiments were in Burma, the Duke of Wellington's and the King's Yorkshire Light Artilleries. A battle at Satang Bridge on 5/3/41 sent the troops into retreat. Fitzpatrick explained how artillery was too limited to attack, and Waverley of the British High Command ordered that the men 'live off the land'. He bitterly recollected how handfuls of groundnuts sustained him: " that's what they said I should live on". The promised reinforcements were too tied up in Libya to effect a rescue.
For a moment Fitzpatrick looked around the room. "No Chinese here, that's a shame". He went on to explain how Chinese reserve troops effected an amazing raid on Japanese positions before the exhausted regiment's eyes. " It was an unforgettable sight". He had already mentioned the high quality of Chinese soldiers, and lamented that British troops had not been better organised to work with them against the common foe. I wished at that moment that there had been some Chinese in the room to receive the complement!
The retreat south took a heavy toll on the regiment. 79 men survived, and they were emaciated and sick. Those suffering from jungle sores on their legs had to be strapped to mules as the skin hanging off their legs made it impossible to walk…. At the end of it all, Fitzpatrick said he "didn't know whether to shoot or salute" the officer sent out from London for three days to congratulate them. He just asked himself why he and his men had ended up in a such a shambollically organised campaign.
I was moved by his words "History is going on today. We are all a part of history, although I have a bit more history than you". The situation in Asia is so different today, we can plan careers and futures in a globalised world, but it must be important to appreciate how things have changed, if not to try and prevent such things re-occurring,, then at least to realise how lucky we are, and remember those people that fought to create such a world for us.
Captain Fitzpatrick's book "No Myanmar, No Maymyo" will be out in December.
summary by Kate Mulrenan (Nov 00)