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Honour Thy Father

  • Posted on 09 Jun 2021
  • 13 min read

By Myles Sanderson

On the 70th anniversary of VJ Day in August 2015, The Times published the following letter from me:

“Sir, In March 1944 my late father John Sanderson, a captain in 152nd Battalion of 50th Indian Para Brigade was one of the few survivors of the Battle of Sangshak. Ordered to withdraw, he made his way back for three weeks through the jungle, then tasked with parachuting into a Japanese camp to liberate British PoWs.

As the Administrative Officer of 2nd Wessex in Reading, 35 years later, he was interviewing an elderly man for a post in the barracks. The man looked at him in astonishment. When asked why, the interviewee replied; ‘I was a prisoner in a PoW camp when you dropped in to liberate us. I will never forget your smiling face.‘”.

John Sanderson: I will never forget your smiling face

A week later, a handwritten letter dropped into my letterbox. It was from Major Maurice Bell, Chairman of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade Association, who wrote that he had fought alongside my father at Sangshak. I drove down from Oxford to Portsmouth to spend the day with Maurice Bell, who had been the Brigade Signals Officer at Sangshak. On a shelf in Maurice’s home was a framed photograph of Lieutenant Basil Seaton, who was one of the handful of Sangshak survivors on that three-week trek back to Imphal through the Burmese jungle. My father had spoken sometimes of Basil Seaton and, of course, of Maurice Bell.

Maurice Bell: Sangshak survivor

Maurice described receiving the order to withdraw over the radio, after the six-day battle on that barren, volcanic hilltop on the India-Burma frontier. He recalled the crackling message: “Fight your way out. Go south then west. Air and transport on lookout. Good luck. Our thoughts are with you.”. Maurice told me: “A moment of bliss, as there dawned the possibility, however slim, of a future life.”. Maurice would enjoy a long life. He was a very lucid 96 year-old when we met. Not long afterwards, however, he and his lovely wife Sylvia, a wartime nurse, both passed away. I recounted Maurice’s story in my father’s biography Secret Service in the Cold War (Frontline Books/Pen and Sword 2019).

My father John had spoken occasionally about Sangshak when I was growing up. He told me of the supplies dropped from C47 Dakotas that floated down into Japanese hands and how a Japanese officer wielding a Samurai sword fell dead directly in front of him. Just over a year after Sangshak, my father took part in the Battle of Elephant Point. 152 Bn had been reformed in March 1945, providing the cadres of the new 1st and 4th Battalions of the Indian Parachute Regiment.

John Sanderson with fellow Indian Paras

The Indian Parachute Regiment was part of the new 44th (Indian) Airborne Division. Their insignia comprised the same Pegasus flashes and winged beret badge as the Parachute Regiment in England but bore the legend ‘India’ as they were of the Indian rather than the British Army. 44th (Indian) Parachute Division was assigned the task of neutralising a Japanese coastal artillery battery on the mouth of the Rangoon River, at a place called Elephant Point, so that mine clearance teams could render the river safe for the force tasked with sailing up the river to capture Rangoon.

As the Indian Para Division was not yet ready, a battalion-strength battle group was formed from two of the Division’s Gurkha parachute battalions, which dropped on Elephant Point on Mayday 1945 and captured the Japanese battery. At the end of the war in the Far East, when vengeful Japanese prison camp guards started murdering Allied prisoners of war, John was part of a parachute task force that dropped on a Japanese PoW camp in Thailand to prevent a massacre of the inmates.

When John died aged eighty in 2001, I discovered a full account of his early military life amongst his papers, before he sailed to India to join a Sikh regiment and, subsequently, 152 Bn. At sixteen in 1937, he joined the Territorial Army, signing up with the Queen’s Westminsters, King’s Royal Rifle Corps in London. During the Battle of Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940, he was posted to Dover, issued with a motorbike and tasked with picking up shot-down pilots. On December 28th 1940, he was granted an emergency commission.

Following officer training, John was posted to the 7th Battalion, The Loyal Regiment at Ravenscar on the Yorkshire coast. He told me: “Here, my platoon distinguished themselves by breaking all the windows in a seafront hotel with machine-gun bullets. I was then given command of a platoon and sent to a lovely little village called Staithes, where we had to build concrete defences on Runswick Bay. It was one of the loveliest little places I had ever seen; we lived on holiday huts.”.

After seeing a bunker built by John’s platoon on the web, my wife and I drove up to Yorkshire with our two sons to find it. Following the coastline north from Ravenscar, past Whitby, we came upon the remains of bunkers, no doubt built 7th Bn, The Loyal Regiment in 194 and perched precariously on the cliffs. At Runswick Bay, it was easy to find my father’s bunker, part of which had broken off and slipped down the grassy dunes onto the beach below.

A Royal Engineers veteran who runs the local café told us that the local council had been stopped by the locals from removing it twenty years ago. It was part of their local heritage. We glued a wooden commemorative plaque to the bunker. It is just a temporary tribute but it shows that the 7th Bn is not forgotten. It also recalls the Indian Parachute Regiment.

John Sanderson volunteered for the Indian Army in November 1941 and sailed to India in March 1942, where he joined the 6th Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment as Adjutant. After the Arakan Campaign of 1942 and 1943, John volunteered for Airborne Forces, earning his parachute wings at the Airlanding School at Chakala, near the Punjabi town of Rawalpindi.

Back in Britain, John’s former 7th Bn comrades were training for the eventual invasion of France in June 1944. Like so many of John’s Indian Para comrades, many of them never returned home. But John came home. Lest we forget.

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