Maj. E.R.B. Hudson
A Close View of the
Disaster at the Sittang Bridge, as told to Bob Bergin.
When the Japanese invaded Burma in January 1942, their main thrust
from Thailand came through southern Burma instead of the central part
of the country where the British expected it. Their 55th Division
broke through British defenses at the Kawkareik pass, then headed for
Moulmein, an important town at the mouth of the Salween River. The
Japanese took Moulmein ten days later, and the British withdrew to the
Bilin River. After a fierce battle there, the British started to fall
back to the Sittang River, the last major obstacle between the
Japanese and Rangoon, the Burmese capital and a port vital to the
British. Their decision to demolish the bridge across the Sittang on
23 February left two of the Indian Army 17th Division's three
brigades on the wrong side of the river at the mercy of the pursuing
Japanese Army, which killed or captured most of the marooned
troops, then moved upstream and crossed the river easily. The
way to Rangoon was open.
The British decision to blow the bridge when they did has been
debated almost from the moment the fuses were lit. Historian Jon
Latimer called it "a defining moment in the decline and fall of the
Maj. E.R.B. "Roy" Hudson had a unique view of that moment. A young
subaltern in the British army, he set some of the explosive charges on
the bridge. Today he lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he settled
after his retirement from the British Army in 1959. His recollections
of the night of 23 February 1942 and the days preceding it remain
The following account is based on an interview with Major Hudson on 27
January 2007 at Chiang Mai. The interview was recorded, and Hudson
reviewed an edited transcript for accuracy. --B.B.
* * *
to war in Burma with the Malerkotla Field Company, a rather special
unit. It descended directly from the cavalry and infantry of the
Ruler of Malerkotla that first saw in action in the year 1446. In
India, in the old days, there were three armies, one from Bengal,
one from Madras, and one from Bombay. And there were many different
Indian states that maintained an infantry battalion, a gunner
battery or a camel corps. Six of the states kept an engineer unit,
known as sappers and miners.
was raised and kept in being by a little state named Malerkotla.
Every time there was trouble in the British Empire, the ruler of the
state, the Nawab of Malerkotla, put the unit at the disposal of the
Imperial Service. The Malerkotlas were reorganized as Imperial
Sappers and Miners in 1892. They earned great battle honors during
Boxer Rebellion, in World War I at Ypres and Flanders, and in
Afghanistan and north India.
out from England in early 1941. I was bored with the phony war in
Europe, and volunteers were needed to expand the Indian army. I
joined the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners. By November 1941, I was
the senior subaltern of the one of their affiliated units, the
Malerkotla Field Company, which was preparing for service in Burma.
We landed in Rangoon in December 1941, and spent Christmas in the
Shan states in central Burma. My section was sent out on tasks in
support of 13th Indian Brigade. After the Japanese
invaded and Indian Army 17th Division started to pull
back to the Sittang, the Marlekotlas were part of the reinforcements
sent to the 17th Division.
ordered to prepare for demolition of the road and railway bridges
south of Kyaikto, a small town east of the Sittang. The 17th
Indian division had been withdrawing through Kyaikto all through the
night of 20 February. After the last troops crossed the bridge at
about 0800 hours, the commander of the 3/7th Gurkha
Rifles gave me the order to blow it. When that was done, my section
got in our truck and we joined the end of a long, slow-moving line of
vehicles and marching infantry that were heading for the Sittang
bridge, about fifteen miles away.
turned into a long, exhausting journey. There was no real road, just
a track cut through the jungle and cleared by burning. Everything
was covered with ash. Aircraft appeared in the sky, three RAF
Hurricanes. I saw the RAF roundels. The next thing I knew, the
Hurricanes came down to treetop level and started to machine gun us.
We jumped out of our trucks, ran in amongst the trees and threw
ourselves flat. For the rest of that day, we were sporadically
attacked by the RAF and even by American Volunteer Group (AVG)
Tomahawks, who thought they were attacking Japanese columns. We
spent much of the day diving for cover. It slowed us down
tremendously. It was at dusk before we reached our company
headquarters near the Sittang bridge.
filthy and hungry. I had just settled into my "bath, canvas,
officers for the use of," when our company commander Maj. R.C.
Orgill came by and told me that he had orders to prepare the Sittang
bridge for demolition. That was not an easy task. It was a single
track railway bridge with huge girders. There were eleven spans, and
each span was 140 feet long. Our company was to cross the river and
start work immediately, but Major Orgill set another task for me. He
showed me a small railway bridge marked on the map. I was to take a
few sappers and blow up it up.
Jemadar (Viceroy's commissioned officer) and six men, I set off into
a dark, moonless night to find the bridge we were supposed to
destroy. I walked the river bank all the way to the Sittang bridge
and back, but never found it. I came to realize that what appeared
as a bridge on the map was really a culvert, with about forty foot
of earth on top of it. The few pounds of gelignite I had would not
make much difference, so I fixed the charge to the railway tracks,
then set out in my truck to rejoin my unit at the Sittang bridge to
obtain further orders.
a long queue of vehicles waiting to cross. The bridge was narrow,
and planks had been placed over the sleepers of the single track
railway so that trucks could drive over it. It stood probably
seventy or eighty feet above the river, and driving required care
and a bit of nerve. One driver had put a wheel over, and his truck
became wedged between the girders. They would have chucked it into
the river, but they couldn't budge it. There was no way to lift it
out. It took four or five hours to get it out of the way.
queue started moving again, I got back in my truck. On the approach
to the bridge, I heard the sound of firing. At first I thought
someone was burning bamboo to have a cup of tea--bamboo crackles
when you burn it--but it was rifle fire, and then machine guns. Once
across the bridge, I told the driver to go on to where our
headquarters had been set up on the west bank, about three miles
further on. I took a Tommy gun and ran back across the bridge. On
the east bank I found another officer with a Bren gun, and the two
of us set up a defensive position.
we could see people from a nearby village get into the water and try
to swim away. We saw the splash of bullets as the Japanese fired on
them with machine guns. They killed every one of them. What had
happened was that the Japanese had cut between the first of our
retreating brigades and the two that followed. The first brigade
formed a small bridgehead on the east bank.
back down the bridge then and saw Major Orgill. My duty was to be on
the bridge with him, so I walked to where he was. We found that the
bridge had already been partly prepared for demolition. Timber boxes
were fixed around the girders of three adjacent spans to contain the
charges, but someone had removed all the explosives. (We found the
explosives cached on the west bank. Later we learned that it was the
Governor General of Burma who had ordered their removal. He felt
that preparing the bridge for demolitions would hurt the morale of
started on the three spans where the work had been started. I took
the center span. There was a shortage of demolition stores. The
charges on the center span were to be set off by electric
detonators; charges on the other two by "Fuse Instantaneous
Detonating" or "FID"--which was not reliable.
finished about three o'clock in the afternoon. We had been under
fire much of the time and could hear bullets pinging off the girders
as we worked. Our chaps had to climb all over them, but only two
sappers were slightly wounded. When everything was ready, I unrolled
the electrical wire and found there was not enough to reach the
bank. I had to set up the exploder box on the bridge itself, about a
hundred yards from the west bank.
carried a galvanometer, a little testing device that put a very weak
current through the circuit. I was very nervous when I hooked it up,
but the little light flickered, and I knew that the circuit was
complete. I reported to my Officer Commanding that the bridge was
ready to be blown--although I would have to be on the bridge to do
later, the Japanese laid down a tremendous barrage of mortar and
artillery fire on the bridgehead. The bridgehead commander, Brig.
Noel Hugh-Jones decided to withdraw the troops holding the east
bank. That left me with the exploder box, standing in the middle of
the bridge, while several hundred infantry passed by me. Finally,
one of the Gurkha officers found an old Vickers machine gun, and
built a little sandbag emplacement in front of me. I was a bit safer
then. When everyone was withdrawn, I was told that if I saw a
Japanese step on to the bridge, to blow it up.
waited and watched, but nothing happened. Brigadier Hugh-Jones
decided to reform the bridgehead, and the same infantry who had
passed me by now returned to the east bank. By then it was about
five o'clock in the evening. I had eaten nothing all that day and
hadn't slept in over sixty hours. My topi (pith helmet) had fallen
in the river and I had been working in the sun. I must have looked
knackered. Major Orgill had a look at me and told me to get back to
Orgill put one of our subalterns on the exploder box, Bashir Ahmed
Khan, who everyone called "BAK." He actually was from the state of
Malerkotla and the only native officer in the unit who had not been
replaced by Royal Engineers. He was very efficient.
the two or three miles back to our headquarters. I ate and cleaned
up, felt much better, and went back to the bridge. It was a pitch
black night. I found my little group on the bank, one or two smoking
cigarettes, Major Orgill among them. They had found some more
electric wire and BAK was able to run it off the bridge. They had
dug a deep foxhole in the river bank near a bridge abutment and set
up the exploder box there. Major Orgill said everything was all
right, and told me to go back and get some sleep. About four o'clock
in the morning, I was woken by a huge explosion. I knew the bridge
had gone up.
happened was that as the night went on, Brigadier Hugh-Jones became
nervous about the Japanese capturing the bridge intact. Enemy
pressure had increased; the bridge was continuously being swept by
fire. He thought the Japanese could land a raiding party behind us
and take the bridge. At about 0400 he rang the general officer
commanding of the division, Maj. Gen. J.G. "Jackie" Smyth, a
Victoria Cross holder from the First World War. Smyth was eight
miles away when he should have been up front.
making the call, Hugh-Jones asked if Major Orgill could guarantee to
blow up the bridge if the Japanese took the bridgehead after
daylight. Orgill said he could not make any guarantees; anything
could happen during the night. The Japanese might overwhelm the
defenders, or enemy mortar fire could cut the electric wires on the
charges. Orgill said he was ready now, but he could not say he would
still be able to do it tomorrow. That was when Hugh-Jones decided to
phone for permission to blow the bridge. His phone call was taken by
Brig. D.T. Cowan, who woke Smyth. It took five minutes get a
had two options. He could say "no" and risk the bridge being taken.
The way to Rangoon would be open then, and reinforcements still
landing in Rangoon would be cut off. Option two was to blow the
bridge. This would deny it to the Japanese, but would cost Smyth the
loss of two of his brigades on the east bank.
gave the order to blow the bridge. Cowan called Hugh-Jones and said
"blow it." When Hugh-Jones passed the order to Major Orgill, BAK was
standing next to Orgill and heard him say that he would like it in
writing, but Hugh-Jones refused. The troops on the bridgehead were
ordered to withdraw. Orgill told BAK to wait for five minutes after
he received an all-clear signal, first light the fuses, and then
actuate the electrical exploder.
exactly that. There was a tremendous bang. A rush of water surged up
the bank, collapsed the sides of BAK's foxhole, and almost buried
him alive. Two of the spans went down immediately. The third was
badly damaged, but did not collapse completely.
bridge was blown, the Japanese took no further interest in it. They
went up river and looked for another place to cross. The 16th
and 46th Indian Brigades that had been withdrawing toward
the Sittang were now left on the east bank, encircled by the
Japanese. Because the Japanese broke off the battle when the bridge
was blown, many of our troops on the east bank were able to cross
the river. A party of Malerkotla sappers, still on the east bank,
helped by making flotation devices out of bamboo, petrol tins, or
anything that floated. Some of the troops got across, but many
drowned trying. Some were able to clamber over broken bits of the
bridge with the help of rope strung between the downed sections.
Jackie Smyth said later that about thirty-five hundred escaped the
Japanese. That left about five thousand who were killed or captured.
left on the far bank would later be very critical of Smyth and
Hugh-Jones. Hugh-Jones collapsed on the river bank as he knew that
the bulk of 17th Division was still on the east side. His
hair turned white almost over night. He was put on a hospital ship
and eventually evacuated. After the war he asked repeatedly to be
court-martialed. One day, he went to the seaside, took off his
clothes, walked into the sea and never came back.
Smyth was given the sack immediately by Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell.
They traveled back to Calcutta together, with Smyth in the back of
the plane where Wavell never spoke with him.
happened at the bridge has been questioned. It was a serious error
for Smyth, the divisional commander, to be eight miles away from the
bridge that night, and out of touch with what was happening. He left
Hugh-Jones in charge to get medical attention and to be closer to
his rendezvous with Lieutenant General Hutton early next morning.
health was a big factor that affected his judgment. He was in almost
constant pain from an anal fissure. His health problems started
earlier that year, while he was still in India. He was scheduled to
go to the Middle East and suddenly given command of the 17th
India Division on its way to Burma. In February, when the 17th
was already fighting in Burma, the senior Medical Officer in Burma
insisted that Smyth go before a medical board. The board was held,
and as it turned out, Smyth's own Medical Officer headed it, and
Smyth had "had a word with him beforehand." It was no surprise that
the board pronounced Smyth fit, but recommended two months rest at
the first opportunity. Smyth's pain continued and it was difficult
for him to sit in a jeep. He was given injections of arsenic and
strychnine to keep him going.
seem obvious that if a senior officer is not fit, he should report
in sick, and be treated like a normal casualty. The troops have a
right to expect this. It is their lives on the line. Smyth was proud
of never having reported sick in the whole of his service. His
refusal to do so affected the outcome of the 1942 Burma campaign.
After he left Burma, Smyth spent eight months in hospital in India.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
 Burma: The Forgotten War (London: John Murray,
2004) 58. [B.B.]
 Cf. [Field-Marshal Viscount] William J. Slim,
Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India,
1942-1945 (NY: Cooper Square, 2000) 14: "By the afternoon of
the 24th, all that had reached the west bank of the eight
battalions that had been cut off was under two thousand officers
and men, with five hundred and fifty rifles, ten Bren guns and
twelve Tommy guns between them. Almost all were without boots,
and most were reduced to their underwear.... This was the decisive battle
of the first campaign. After it, however gallantly our troops
fought, there was little hope of holding Rangoon. And when
Rangoon went, as it did on the 9th March, the whole army in
Burma was cut off from the outside world almost as effectively
as had been the two brigades on the east bank of the Sittang."