Major ‘Dicky’ Day, who has died aged 91, was serving with the Gurkhas in 1942 when, in one of worst disasters of the Burma Campaign, the Sittang river bridge was blown up stranding two-thirds of a division on the wrong bank.
In February that year the 17th Indian Infantry Division, which had been weakened by fierce fighting at Bilin, pulled back to the Sittang river. The bridge there, over some 600 yards of fast flowing water, was one of the main gateways to Rangoon.
At a critical moment, the Japanese intercepted a telephone call disclosing the division’s plans, and an orderly withdrawal turned into a nightmare of a retreat. Battle-hardened Japanese units laid ambushes and manned road blocks. The 1st Battalion 4th Prince of Wales’s Own Gurkha Rifles (1/4GR), acting as rearguard to the division, suffered casualties from friend and foe alike.
Day (always known as Dicky), a company commander serving with 1/4 GR, said afterwards: “We were bombed and strafed by the Japanese air force as well as our own air force and the American ‘flying tigers’. As we got to the river, we were strung out over miles, and the Japanese cut the division to pieces.”
Sappers had planked what was originally a railway bridge. Day’s battalion crossed it and was deployed on the western end to guard against paratroop landings. When the Japanese attacked in strength from the east, Major-General Jacky Smyth decided that to save Rangoon he had little choice but to blow the bridge.
Two brigades were left stranded on the east bank. Desperate close-quarter jungle fighting on their part allowed many of the soldiers to escape across the river by rope, raft or sampan; but by the end of the battle several hundred men had been lost — killed, drowned or taken prisoner by the Japanese.
While the Japanese sought another crossing point and went on to take Rangoon, the British and Indian units set out on an arduous withdrawal across central Burma to India. A distance of more than 1,000 miles was covered, mostly on foot, and took three and a half months. Day spoke with pride of the bearing of his men who marched into Imphal in threadbare uniforms, gaunt as scarecrows but with their weapons and cheerful smiles on their faces.
Donald Sidney Day was born at Cranleigh, Surrey, on August 3 1922 and educated at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford. He enlisted in the Army in September 1939 and went to Bangalore, where he took a four-month course at the Indian Army Cadet College. In 1941 he was posted to 1/4GR and arrived with his unit in Rangoon in January 1942 as part of 48 Indian Infantry Brigade.
After recovering from wounds to his back in Imphal, he saw active service in Italy at Monte Cassino. In India, he helped raise two new battalions of Gurkhas and commanded one of these, 26th Gurkha Rifles.
After the war, and a spell tea planting in Assam, he moved to Singapore and Malaya, where he worked for James Warren & Co, a British trading company, eventually becoming managing director of their Malayan operations. He was also a reserve officer in the 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles during the Malayan Emergency operations against communist guerrillas in the 1950s.
In 1964 he returned to England and founded an executive search company and a consultancy which provided assistance to British firms exporting to India and south-east Asia. In his latter years, in Sussex, his interests included game bird rearing, managing local shoots and cricket. In 1978, in Hong Kong, he helped to organise a “Race of Giants” in which veteran Formula 1 champions raced against each other.
Dicky Day married first (dissolved), in 1944, Anita Fairle. He married, secondly, in 1956, Jill Luscombe, who survives him with a daughter from his first marriage and a stepson and a stepdaughter from his second.
Major Dicky Day, born August 3 1922, died September 28 2013
Source: The Telegraph