GUY G. TEMPLE
Lieutenant | King's Own Scottish Borderers
In a theater of war divided by race where the enemy's humanity was reduced to that of an animal, the abilities and relationship of the African soldier under command of white officers was an intimidating question. After the fall of Singapore, the Japanese were seen as the superior soldier in the Pacific theater, but early fighting in Burma quickly showed that it was the African who was to be most feared. They were savage fighters, loyal to their officers, could sense trouble, and were always right. The Japanese perceived the Africans' ferocity in battle as an indication that they were all cannibals and the Africans took advantage of this fearsome perception. British officers trusted their men completely, shared everything, and formed a degree of friendliness with other ranks not seen in most theaters. In Burma, this comradery developed out of necessity and led to a great understanding of each other.
In other armies of the time, these farmers from uneducated backgrounds would have been relegated to duties of menial labor. The commander of the R.W.A.F.F., however, saw an opportunity to use them as colonial troops in Burma and accepted the challenge of forming them into a fighting force led by subalterns pulled directly from officer training. Duty in Africa was most desirable for the young officer seeking adventure among other benefits – it was a challenging responsibility to lead African troops, but guaranteed an increase in pay, generous leave, and only a three-year commitment unlike a career in the Indian Army.
The Burmese terrain was punishing. The entire coast inland to the Irrawaddy was cut by the sharpest ridges of knifelike spines densely covered in jungle. Bamboo thickets and elephant grass reduced visibility to near zero and often the enemy was only spotted when one stumbled into him. When artillery was not firing missions, the buzz of "knife grinder" grasshoppers was oppressively loud. Miles and miles of marches snaked lengthy paths as the West Africans cut through the country. What could have been significantly less travel if done linearly was drawn out through winding trails seeking the easiest route. For the platoon leader running patrols, this mileage was infinitely greater. Inclines that felt nearly vertical felt impossible to navigate, but the African porter with careful steps, feeling with toes, rarely dropped a load from his head.
Within the 5th Gold Coast Regiment, rules were rather relaxed (as was the case in many of the West African units) and the 5th, in particular, saw many of their African ranks dispose of their boots in favor of speed and silence. They never complained even in the worst conditions. Relentless rains turned hot, dusty days into thick muddy days and they slept under the stars regardless. It was drastically different from the era of Lieutenant Temple’s father who served in India at the height of an Empire filled with pageantry and pomp. Temple had just married before departure for Africa and if life in Ghana took any adjustment, the Burmese jungle was certainly a lifestyle change.
The lieutenant was a stark contrast among the black men in his platoon, both in appearance and background. He was well-educated, the son of a gentleman and was frequently dwarfed by brawny Africans. Behind round wireframes, he had shrewd, confident eyes, and a smile always seemed to ready to break. His fair skin was an immediate giveaway to his status as an officer and frequently necessitated paint or grease to camouflage – not to blend into the jungle, but to blacken his skin enough that his Anglo features were less recognizable to a Japanese soldier. Still, Temple felt frequently targeted and would be wounded three times throughout his Burmese campaign.
The first action for the 5th Gold Coast Regiment occurred on February 16th when they closed on the village of Mindanywa. Hardly more than a hamlet set near a fork on the banks of the Praing Chaung, a small but obstructive stockade common to many Burmese villages encircled the settlement leaving only a few entrances and exits that required investigation. The men of the battalion had not yet been able to test the methods they had practiced and would soon find these fortified villages were never pleasant to clear. They were overly careful and wary of the Japanese soldier who was known to hide in and under houses to shoot blindly through walls; in woodpiles, hen coops, tobacco patches, and in mango trees. A light machinegun cut the silence and initiated their first combat that did not end for three days. For the entirety of the battle, the cunning Japanese masked their numbers so well that only a single armed soldier was spotted. The battalion fought so hard to take the village from ghosts. They could not even estimate casualties inflicted after finding one dead body. The regiment immediately struck off east toward Htittaw where the narrow valley opened into a plain of paddy fields. The 8th G.C.R. led the brigade, leaving a patrol to contact the 5th when they arrived in the area. The 7th was ahead as well but lost radio contact among the sharp hills.
The leading company of the 5th G.C.R. ducked from the fire of a friendly Bren gun which they suspected was the isolated 7th battalion. They quickly realized it was a group of Japanese with a stolen weapon when their assailants managed to wipe out half a platoon, beginning a second battle near Point 13. Lieutenant Temple was wounded for the first time, not badly enough to be evacuated, but enough to never again trust any ground despite how innocent it may look. For the rest of his Asian campaign, he lived in continual anxiety of stepping into such an ambush. Dense bamboo thickets and impassable jungle deep with darkness meant that a hail of bullets assured the enemy had revealed himself – a relief compared to waiting for what was invisible and may not even exist. The battle for Point 13 consumed another three days and after no rest, the 5th G.C.R. crossed parched, cracked plains under a burning sun to face the Japanese again at Minthazeik. By April the first campaign appeared to be concluding and the Japanese claim to power in Burma had reached its zenith and was now on the decline. The battalion was tested in three notable clashes and the Africans proved themselves as competent soldiers under young leaders who earned their trust.
The second campaign for the regiment commenced in September after the monsoons had lessened. Both officers and men had pared down their equipment and belongings to afford light and quick travel through the thick jungle. Anything cumbersome to the thousands of steps it took to scale sheer ridges high grass and jungle was abandoned in favor of agility. During this advance to the Kaladan in mid-November, Temple was wounded for a second time when the battalion was defending and patrolling Paletwa.
After almost a year in combat with the West Africans, Temple departed to rejoin his native King's Own Scottish Borderers in February. Among a slew of reinforcements to the 2d Battalion, most of them returnees, Temple took on a platoon of A Company. They departed their positions at Yozayat and crossed the desert country across the Chaungmagyi-Chaung to Sabe. They marched for miles through unnamed villages before finally resting in the shade of an oasis just short of the Irrawaddy. They waited until night provided relief from the day's heat and by dawn, A Company had reached the village of Beywathit. They kept a strict watch on both sides of the river throughout the day. Men, women, and children and several bullock carts were frequently flagged for not complying with regulations, but no actual enemy made appearances. After 48 hours a balloon signaled it was time to cross the Irrawaddy. The battalion was tasked with preparing the beaches for traffic, troops, and materiel. It was a disappointing task to not be part of the initial river crossing, but in time the men began to appreciate how essential their work was to the success of the operation. Within the next few days, the sounds of the battlefront grew nearer, and finally on the 21st word came that the battalion was to move on the 24th or 25th.
B Company was first to test the opposition at Nakyo-Aing on February 23d, clashing briefly before pulling back and reluctantly leaving a platoon behind who fought through the night. At 8:40 the next morning with A Company leading on tanks of the Gordon Highlanders, the attack began under artillery fire. When the leading platoons were within range, the concealed Japanese opened up with machine gun and mortar fire from within the burning village and the tanks returned with booming shots against their bunkers. The mass of flames and smoke made it difficult to see any activity and A Company was stalled against the defense. Both the commander, Major Chisholm, and his executive officer, Captain Charlier, dashed between platoons and tanks to keep the attack organized and moving. Casualties mounted in the three platoons swarming Nakyo-Aing and the Colonel began to send relief from other companies. Major Chisholm had resorted to nearly dragging himself around and Captain Charlier was half-blinded by blood pouring into his eyes from a head wound. They ensured the evacuation of the wounded, including Temple and Geddes, but Lieutenant Dale, unfortunately, had been killed.
Pylvainen, Ian Alexander. Bwanas in Burma: British Officers and African Regiments in Southeast Asia,1944-45, Wesleyan University, Apr. 2010, digitalcollections.wesleyan.edu/object/ir-1067.
Bowen, C. G. West African Way: the Story of the Burma Campaigns, 1943-1945. Publisher Not Identified.