The Official Website of Author Janet Whitter

Chapter 5 – Two Passages to India

Janet Whitter
Janet Whitter with sister, Jenny.
Peking, 1948
We were to travel in radio silence and by convoy. Our zigzag course made the journey through the Tasman Straights and then to Bombay via Perth and Colombo, rather a long one. Lifeboat drills were taken seriously and we were required to report at a given signal, twice a day, with full survival kit, at our designated lifeboat stations. I had mixed feelings about the prospect of being torpedoed. On the one hand I had been terrified of sharks ever since I had been told tales about them as a three year old on Bondi Beach. On the other I knew that within my survival pack was a big wax paper-wrapped cube containing many closely-packed paper-wrapped Horlicks tablets and was impatient to start on them. Luckily we did not need to open them during the voyage, so they kept turning up as treats months and years later, little by little. By this time the tropical heat of India had long since fused the packs together, making each Horlicks tablet a challenge and involving the long sucking of disintegrating but still firmly stuck wax paper wraps.

Our ship was essentially a troopship with dormitories rather than cabins. We were probably the only civilians travelling, apart from one or two officers' wives. We had the luxury of a superior cabin for four, with an upper and lower bunk on either side and a wash-basin between them, plus a porthole, which meant that we were above the waterline.

Janet Whitter
Janet Whitter aged 8
The journey had no sooner started when Shan became ill and it soon became evident that she had appendicitis. She became rapidly worse and the ship's doctor began to propose an appendectomy on board. My mother, already extremely worried, became even more so when a nurse on board told her that the doctor was seriously alcoholic, suffered from the DT's, and that she should on no account agree to the operation. Radio silence meant that no advice from outside was forthcoming; besides, the Captain was under instructions to remain with the convoy. After what must have been an agonising delay the Captain, brave man, decided to use his initiative. Leaving the convoy against all regulations, he broke radio silence and radioed the nearest port, Adelaide. As we arrived off Adelaide in the middle of the night a harbour launch was waiting. I remember seeing Shan, strapped to a stretcher, being lowered down the ship's side towards the small boat swaying in the choppy seas, and then disappearing into the darkness at top speed, leaving the rest of us on-board. The next day the launch returned to take us to see her in hospital. Her appendix had burst, and although they had managed to operate, she was still very ill and badly at risk from post-operative infection. The ship needed to rejoin the convoy as soon as possible, however, so the following day the launch came again and Shan was raised in her stretcher up the ship's side, and put back in her bunk in our cabin, where she remained for the rest of the voyage.

My mother and Shan were excused from further lifeboat drills, which meant that two unfortunate fellow passengers were designated to be in charge of Jenny and me on these twice-a-day occurrences. Mother had little time, what with her nursing duties, to bother herself very much about us, and besides, needed a certain amount of peace and quiet for her patient. I remember, for instance, being flung out my top bunk by a sudden ship's movement and cutting my scalp on the edge of the washbasin as I landed, with much screaming and blood for a little while – none of which can have been welcome at the time in the 'sick bay'. Consequently, Jenny and I had a wonderful time running wild. Our favourite game was to find the best new hiding places to ensure that when lifeboat drills were signalled we would be impossible to find by our mentors, and I can assure anyone who does not already know this that ships have endless possibilities in this regard. Looking back, I feel sorry for these two individuals, hitherto total strangers to each other, forced to stand side by side twice a day, clutching a wriggling seven year old and a wriggling five year old., plus respective survival kits. What must have been even worse for them was the fact that one was the wife of an Indian Army general while the other was a deserter on his way back to India for his court-martial!

Janet Whitter
Temple of Heaven. Peking, 1948
Arriving in India was a shock. First of all we had to take a three day train journey from Bombay to Calcutta. During the entire journey we were imprisoned in a tiny First Class stateroom with private WC and wash room adjacent. I was unprepared for India and had never before even seen an Indian. The experience was terrifying.

At Bombay railway station it was hardly possible to see the platform, let alone the train, for what seemed to be thousands of rioters milling around, pushing into the train doors and windows and scrambling up the vertical sides of the carriages and onto the top of the train. A station official somehow cleared a way for us through the crowd and we and our trunks were inserted in our a quarters. Before shutting us in he gave us our instructions. On no account were we to let the tap water touch our lips: a crate of bottles of warm soda water was there for all drinking and teeth-cleaning purposes. On no account were we to unlock the door, except at stations where we were told our steward (here a smiling, salaaming turbaned gentlemen was pointed out to us) would duly appear with tin boxes containing our rations. Finally, on no account were we to open the windows, even the tiniest amount, no matter how stifling the heat, for reasons which soon became obvious.

We were relieved when the train set out from the station and thought that until the next station at least we would be free from the alarming activities of the crowds. On the contrary. In no time at all, to my horror, there appeared the grinning upside-down face of one of the many people lying spread-eagled on the roof, only a few inches away from me on the other side of the window pane, accompanied by a pair of skinny black arms and hands with strong bony fingers trying to find a chink to prise open. So it continued for the rest of the journey, with massed assaults on our doors and windows at stations, and people clinging to the exterior of the train between stations. I was terrified. Naturally, at that age, I understood nothing of the desperate need that compelled those people to behave in that way.

Janet Whitter
The author and Jenny with Mother
and servant, Peking 1948
Trying not to look at or think too much about all these disturbing sights, I tried to make myself comfortable inside the stateroom. This was not easy, as the long seats, which doubled up as beds at night, were squishily upholstered in dark brown leather. This, in the oven-like heat, glued itself to the backs of my bare legs and cooked them. It was out of the question to sit on the floor instead as that was filthy. Worse horrors were to come as soon as daylight faded and night began to fall. Suddenly enormous brown cockroaches, exactly matching the leather upholstery, crept out of every crevice. Before our very eyes, the leather seemed to be undergoing a horrific transformation, as in a science-fiction film. What little sleep we got in that baking-hot infested place was in the early hours, the result of sheer exhaustion.

After what seemed like weeks rather than two and a half days, we arrived in Calcutta and were taken the few miles out to Budge Budge, which was situated on the Ganges Delta on the shores of the main distributary of the Ganges, the Hooghly River. I had always assumed that Budge Budge was a relatively recent settlement, its raison d'etre being the huge oil terminal for wartime oil supplied which throbbed day and night not far from our house. This impression appeared to be corroborated by the apocryphal story, which I completely accepted at the time, that the first oilman to arrive on the muddy river bank did so at monsoon time and had difficulty squelching his boots through mud, hence the pessimistic, onomatopoeic place name. However I have since found out that the original 18th century William Hickey mentioned it in his diaries and even lived there for a time, constructing a fine house for himself and his bibi, or live-in 'girlfriend'.

This was the place where we met up again with our father after a separation of nearly four years.

Janet Whitter
Janet's father
My father would hardly ever talk with my mother or adult friends about his experiences during those years, and with us children the subject was entirely taboo. So it remained for the rest of his life. He was not communicative by nature, but it was clear that his experiences had been so traumatic they were not be delved into uninvited.

He had been stationed at Bhamo where, along with a few colleagues, his task had been the facilitation of information and supplies, via the Irrawaddy river and the Burma Road, between the Allies and 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell commanding Chiang Kai Shek's resistance army in SW China. When the Japanese troops swept into Burma they did so with such rapidity that Jack and friends found their retreat cut off. Pausing only to bury personal effects such as photographs of us, his watch and his beloved pipe (dug up and sent back to him some years after the war's end), he set out with his friends by truck along the rudimentary and dangerous Burma Road. A Burmese outrider went a few minutes ahead on horseback to scan the mountainous track ahead. After only a few miles shots rang out ahead and a riderless horse galloped back. There was no time to be lost. The truck was immediately abandoned and the group scrambled down the ravine as fast as possible. The Japanese search party failed to find them as they crouched in their various hiding places. After what seemed an eternity the soldiers reluctantly gave up the hunt and rejoined their colleagues in the invasion. Very soon after my father’s miraculous escape from capture the Japanese army controlled the whole of Burma.

My father and his companions were still, however, in a very dangerous position. It was unheard of, even for well-prepared cross country jungle expeditions, to arrive without losing members of the party to disease or other mishaps. Indeed, Stilwell's evacuation expedition is the only one known to have been accomplished without fatalities. As a result of their hasty abandonment of the lorry, the fugitives had no route to take. Support from the local Shan tribes en route would be uncertain. Not only were these local tribesmen ignorant of the issues involved, but they would be taking on an enormous personal risk to be discovered giving food and shelter to westerners so impossible to disguise as local farmers or peasants. Burma was not occupied Northern Europe, where bluff and evasion often proved effective. The problem was particularly severe in the case of a blue-eyed six-footer such as Father.

Janet Whitter
Janet Whitter, 1939
After some heated discussion and desperate disagreement about the best course of action the party split into two and set off in different directions. One group set off in what they hoped was the general direction of India. How far they got is not known for none of them was ever heard of again. My father's group set off for China and suffered many terrible experiences during their long and uncertain wanderings across the difficult mountainous jungle terrain. Weakened by hunger and tormented all the time by vicious insects, they had to hack their way through dense vegetation infested with huge leeches, and traverse fast-flowing mountain torrents. Two men drowned while trying to swim across the rivers and they all became sick. In the end Father, delirious and at death's door, was picked up by local tribesman and delivered, the sole survivor, to the Chinese resistance. How he eventually ended up in Kunming he never knew. He lay weak and feverish for some time before he was even identified. It took some months after that before the news of his survival came through to this organisation, and again some months more before London's orders to get him out to India were carried out.

The problem with 'getting him out to India' was perhaps not fully understood from the London perspective. The so-called Chinese air force, run by the buccaneering and ambitious American, Chennault, was for political reasons not in full cooperation with Stilwell. The 'fly boys' (motto: 'God is my co-pilot') were very much individualists and their badly maintained and unpressurised small aircraft were only able to get over 'The Hump', the south east extension of the Himalayas, by skimming along valleys and squeezing between peaks. The air route over The Hump between Kunming and Assam in Northern India, with its 50% failure rate, is described by Barbara Tuchman in her 'Stilwell and the American Experience in China' as 'probably the most hazardous flight route in the world'. Luckily for my father he was still so weak and ill that he was completely unconcerned about the dangers implicit in the flight at the time, and just remembered vaguely admiring the skill of the pilot, climbing, swooping and weaving in between the towering mountain ranges. It was only afterwards when he knew more facts that fear set in retrospectively!

From Assam the rail connection with Calcutta was straightforward, so Father was soon able to continue his convalescence there. However, it was no time to relax, as at this late stage in the war the danger to India was greater than it had ever been. The Japanese were exerting enormous pressure on its eastern borders and in some areas were penetrating India itself. Calcutta, an important link in the allied supply chain, was not at all far from the Burmese border, hence my father's premature return to Budge Budge to oversee the oil supplies from the Hooghly River terminal was essential. In the emergency there was no chance for him to be invalided out. As a consequence, he never did recover fully from the trauma he had experienced in the jungle.

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