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Authors: Andrew Martin

Flight by Elephant

BOOK: Flight by Elephant
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The Untold Story of World War II’s Most Daring Jungle Rescue


Title Page


Principal Characters

Author’s Note


Millar and Leyden: The Men Without Elephants

The Languorous Dream

The Dapha River

The Red-Hot Buddhas

The Man in the River

Beyond Mandalay

The Railway Party

The ‘Chaukan Club’ Sets Off

The Footprint

The Man With Elephants

The Boy Who Took
Acidalia trigeminata

Sir John Meets the Commandos

The Wizard’s Domain

A Bad Start for Mackrell

War And Tea (Part One)

War And Tea (Part Two)

Captain Wilson Sets Out

Elephant Trouble for Mackrell

Mackrell Reaches the Dapha River

Sir John Encounters His Principal Enemy

The Man in Sunglasses

Mackrell Consolidates at the Dapha River

Captain Wilson Arrives at the Dapha

Havildar Iman Sing

The Commandos Despair of Reaching the Dapha

Grand Tiffins and the Squits

The Drop

Momentous Decisions

Mackrell Returns Temporarily to Civilization

Mackrell in Shillong and Calcutta

The Society of Tough Guys

A Face Like Wood: Dharramsing Decides

A Delivery of Mail

A Long Wait

Subsequently (Part One)

Subsequently (Part Two)

Late Period Mackrell

Select Bibliography


Also by Andrew Martin

About the Author


About the Publisher


(In approximate order of appearance)

Guy Millar: a tea planter. Early in the war, he had been engaged on secret ‘government work’, surveying the terrain of Upper Burma.

Goal Miri: an Assamese elephant tracker, and Millar’s servant.

John Leyden: a colonial administrator in Upper Burma; owner of a pregnant spaniel bitch called Misa.

Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith: Governor of Burma, the elegant product of Harrow, Cambridge, Sandhurst.

George Rodger: British photographer and correspondent for the American magazine,

In ‘The Railway Party’ …

– Sir John Rowland: Chief Railway Commissioner of Burma (the top man on Burma Railways). In 1942, he was sixty years old, and working on ‘the Burma–China construction’, a projected railway between Burma and China. He was the leader of the ‘railway party’ of refugees, and he drove them on hard.

– Edward Lovell Manley: Chief Engineer of the Eastern Bengal Railway, he assisted Sir John on the Burma–China project. In the jungle, Sir John designated Manley his ‘number two’. He was fifty-six years old.

– Eric Ivan Milne: District Traffic Superintendent of Burma State Railways; keen amateur cricketer and committed Christian.

– C. L. Kendall: railway surveyor on the Burma–China project.

– Captain A. O. Whitehouse: officer of the Royal Engineers.

– N. Moses: enigmatic Dutch railway surveyor, sometime magician and ‘international boy scout’.

– E. Eadon: Anglo-Indian ‘anti-malarial inspector’ on the Burma–China project.

– Dr Burgess-Barnett: medical doctor and Superintendent of Rangoon Zoological Gardens. In the jungle, Sir John designated him ‘PMO’ (Principal Medical Officer).

In ‘Rossiter’s Party’ (sub-group of the above) …

– Edward Wrixon Rossiter: Colonial administrator of Upper Burma; member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, accomplished linguist and maverick.

– Nang Hmat: Rossiter’s pregnant Burmese wife.

– John Rossiter: six-month-old baby son of Edward Rossiter and Nang Hmat.

Ronald Jardine: white-bearded devout Catholic; senior employee of Lever Brothers, soap manufacturers.

Frank Kingdon-Ward: botanist, explorer and loner. (He bore the nickname ‘Old Kingdom Come’.)

Gyles Mackrell: fifty-three-year-old former fighter pilot, supervisor of tea plantations, elephant expert; the leader of the rescue.

Chaochali: Assamese; Mackrell’s chief ‘elephant man’.

‘The Commandos’ …

– Ritchie Gardiner: Scottish timber merchant and jungle wallah (a man adept at jungle-living). As one of the ‘last ditchers’ he had helped blow up the infrastructure of Rangoon to keep it from the Japanese.

– Lieutenant Eric McCrindle: timber merchant and jungle wallah.

– Captain Ernest Boyt: as above. Very gung-ho; willing to march through uncharted jungle with ‘just biscuits and cheese’.

– Second Lieutenant Bill Howe: rice trader (therefore not a jungle wallah); at thirty, he was the youngest of the Commandos, and the most ebullient.

A unit of the Special Operations network called The Oriental Mission, and a sub-group of the Commandos:

– Major Lindsay

– Captain Cumming

– Corporal Sawyer

Captain Fraser: escapee from Japanese captivity; he lost his glasses in the process.

Sergeant Pratt: escaped with the above, losing his boots in the process.

Captain Reg Wilson: tea planter, and officer in a special operations unit called V Force. A handsome, chain-smoking young Yorkshireman who ‘loved sport and loved action’, Wilson was dispatched by the British authorities to replace Mackrell as head of the rescue.

Dr Bardoloi: Wilson’s Principal Medical Officer.

Havildar Iman Sing: Gurkha sergeant and jungle wallah.

Wing Commander George Chater: RAF pilot, sometime dinner guest of Sir John Rowland.

Dispatched to attempt another rescue after Mackrell abandoned the Dapha camp:

– Mr Black: senior liaison officer with the Indian Tea Association relief effort.

– Captain Street: officer in the 2nd Rajputan Rifles.

– Webster: a policeman.

Havildar Dharramsing: Gurkha sergeant and jungle wallah; Mackrell’s principal assistant in the later stages of the mission.


This book is principally – and closely – based on the diaries of Guy Millar, Gyles Mackrell, Sir John Rowland, Captain Reg Wilson, Second Lieutenant Bill Howe and Ritchie Gardiner. Given the circumstances it is amazing that these diaries were written at all, but they are often sparse, and sometimes dwindle into telegraphese. Therefore, I have made some small embellishments. All quoted speech is as recorded in the diaries, but sometimes I have speculated as to a character’s thoughts based on the preoccupations of the particular day and time as transcribed.

I have occasionally tried to evoke jungle scenes based on my having visited the jungles in question rather than because they are precisely so described in the diaries. And if, say, Gyles Mackrell mentions that it is raining on Thursday and Saturday, I might have concluded – given that he was in the middle of a monsoon – that it was raining on the Friday in between. I contend that it would be impossible to tell this story without such interventions, and it is a story that deserves to be told.

Andrew Martin


In the monsoon season of 1942, deep in the jungles of the Indo-Burmese border, Captain Reg Wilson wrote of our principal, Gyles Mackrell, that he ‘knew what an E. could do’. An ‘E’ was an elephant.

Mackrell knew how to manage elephants as beasts of burden; he also knew how to kill an elephant with a single bullet if – and only if – it had gone rogue. He knew how to manage the elephant riders, or mahouts, who were known to be stroppy, a tendency exacerbated in many cases by a bad opium habit. If a cane and rope suspension bridge had been washed away by a swollen river, Mackrell knew whether it might be possible to cross that river on the back of an elephant; he knew which of any given herd of elephants might be best suited by strength and temperament to attempt the feat, and whether it might be best accomplished by the elephant swimming or wading. He would be perfectly willing to climb aboard the elephant himself rather than leave the job to the mahouts because he was a man who not only enjoyed a physical challenge, he also seemed to live for risk taking.

Gyles Mackrell went to the sort of minor English public school where the sinks had two cold taps, where a lecture on the Benin Massacre was classed as ‘entertainment’, where visiting military men donated leopard skins and trophy animal heads for the adornment of the library rather than books, and where the pedagogical aim was to produce young men capable of assuming the white man’s burden. It was not an intellectual environment and Mackrell was certainly no intellectual. In an age when ‘bottom of the class’ was an official status (since the rankings were published every term) Mackrell repeatedly occupied that very position. Yet he had great practical intelligence, and the diaries disclose an elegant, spare writing style. He was not the all-purpose ‘hearty’: he does not seem to have featured in any of the first, second, or even third elevens; his school did not make him one of those Edwardian boors with a caddish moustache and a racist turn of phrase, but in his late teens he did have a hankering after a life of adventure, and the British Empire was there to provide it. So Gyles Mackrell became a tea planter in Assam, India.

BOOK: Flight by Elephant
9.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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