BOOKS OF THE DAY
The Wild Green Earth. By Bernard Fergusson. (Collins. 10s. 6d.) THE exploits of No. 5 Column during Wingate's 1943 operations, and its commander's skill and honesty as a writer, are already known to readers of Beyond the Chindwin. To that book The Wild Green Earth is a sequel. In 1944 Brigadier Fergusson returned to Burma at the head (metaphorically speaking, for his 4,000 men and 600 animals had to advance for several hundred miles in single file owing to the appalling country) of x6 Brigade. This formation—the first in the British Army to see action against all three Axis armies, to say nothing of the Vichy French—formed a kind of surreptitious spear- head to Wingate's Special Force. Fergusson's mission was to insert his troops into the Indaw area of Upper Burma, where their arrival was to synchronise roughly with the fly-in of two further Brigades (n under Calvert and III under Lentaigne). Special Force, thus concentrated astride a bottleneck in the Japanese road and rail communications, was to hold an enclave into which regular forces were to be flown in strength and towards which IV Corps was to advance overland. This ambitious but sound plan had in the end to be modified when, a few days after the first airborne phase had been successfuly completed, the Japanese 15th Army crossed the Chindwin and forced IV Corps on to the defensive round Imphal. • Wingate's death in an air crash, which occurred at this juncture, combined with the preoccupations of the High Com- mand to impose on his forces in the field a role, or rather a series of .roles, which dissipated instead. of concentrating their striking power; and, although very considerable results were achieved, their pattern was a haphazard one of which Wingate would have 'dis- approved.
In order. to reach Indaw without risking the element of surprise which the airborne forces so badly needed, Fergusson moved his Brigade to Ledo, to the south-east of which General Stilwell's Chinese-American force was fighting its way slowly towards Myitkina, and marched south over the Patkai Hills towards his objective, 400 miles away. " Marched" was for many days hardly the mot juste. The gradients were often one in two, mule-loads had to be man- handled up them, and steps and traverses to be made and remade-after the heavy work of cutting back the jungle had been done. The rain was continuous and torrential, the cold intense, wireless communica- tion and supply-dropping extremely difficult and leeches abounded. After these arduous and primitive struggles it was pleasant to find " every mod. con.;' as one officer put it, at hand to facilitate their crossing of the Upper Chindwin.' Gliders brought motor-boats from India and were snatched off again by Dakotas from the sandbank on which they had landed. Further downstream, a patrol of the Black Watch landed to create a diversion which successfully dis- tracted the attention of the nearby Japanese garrison. War cone-
spondents were flown in to describe a scene which reminded Fer- gusson of Blackpool, but which did in fact represent a triumph of ingenuity and organisation.
Thereafter there was more strenuous marching until Fergusson reached the pleasant valley, two stages north of Indaw, where he established the stronghold known as " Aberdeen." Here, in the heart of enemy territory, a Dakota strip was quickly constructed ; bulldozers, jeeps, A.A. guns, a garrison of West African troops, and other amenities were flown in, and 16 Brigade concentrated for the attack on Indaw. " Aberdeen "—unlike Calvert's " White City," provocatively situated astride the railway—was never attacked by the enemy except from the air, and was invaluable as a staging-post which served virtually all the scattered units of Special Force.
The attack on Indaw, after bitter and confused fighting in which our troops suffered severely from lack of water, failed. Fergusson's men, heavily burdened, had marched for 40o miles without a day's rest, and for various cogent reasons he was only able to commit half of them, and those the weariest, to what even with fresh troops would have been a tricky operation. He cut his losses and withdrew to " Aberdeen." Detachments of his troops saw further action in the savage fighting round " White City," but 16 Brigade had fought its last battle as a Brigade. The plans had changed again, and there was no role for Fergusson, whose men were pronounced by the doctors to be unfit for a further protracted campaign. They were flown out to India.
Having told his story, Fergusson goes on to summarise the lessons which two years of Long Range Penetration taught him. These concluding chapters arc full of that imaginative common sense which is the best kind of wisdom and comes from digesting your experience properly. Whether he is dealing with the semi-technical problems of air supply, or assessing the Japanese as an adversary, or praising the mule (whose equability as an air-passenger he might have added to his other virtues), he writes persuasively and with humour:
How much did Wingate achieve? Fergusson writes: " Public praise of him was fulsome ; military judgement prejudiced ; neither was discriminating. . . . He was hard to serve, and difficult to com- mand ; but . . . he was a great soldier." Wingate's critics—and they are legion—argue that his operations were ineffective because they did not " affect the main battle," and imply that Wingate regarded playing Red Indians on his own as an end in itself. Nothing could be more unjust. Wingre always insisted that forces engaged on Long Range Penetration were essentially subsidiary forces and could achieve little of real strategic value unless followed up in strength by regular forces. Both in 1943 and in 1944 this was the original plan—a plan influenced but not made by Wingate. In neither year, when the time came, could the forward movement of our main torces take place, for reasons which had not been envisaged when the plan was made ; and both campaigns saw Wingate take the arena alone, in a role to which—however much he may have enjoyed playing it— his clear and searching military thought was fundamentally opposed.