Remarkable footage shows Brit helping Burmese refugees in WW2

November 1, 2010 | by | 0 Comments

This remarkable footage chronicles a British tea planter’s mission to save refugees fleeing Burma in the second world war – using a herd of elephants.

Remarkable footage shows Brit helping Burmese refugees in WW2

Gyles Mackrell helped hundreds of refugees to cross the Monsoon-flooded crossing to India when the Japanese invaded in 1942.

Incredible films shot by Mackrell himself, alongside letters and diaries written by those involved, are now on show at the University of Cambridge.

During the Japanese invasion, ruling British troops were forced out and tens of thousands of Burmese nationals tried to flee to safety in neighbouring India.

The torrential rains of the Monsoon had caused rivers at the narrow border crossing with India to flood, making safe passage impossible.

Thousands of refugees camped on the banks of the Dapha river waiting desperately for the waters to recede surviving on food supplies dropped by the RAF.

Remarkable footage shows Brit helping Burmese refugees in WW2

But Mackrell, then 53, a supervisor for tea exporters Steel Brothers, had access to elephants and launched an operation to help the stranded refugees.

Dr. Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies, where the collection will be housed, told of the significance of the event.

He said: ”The story is a sort of Far Eastern Dunkirk, but it has largely been forgotten since the war.

”Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it.”

The devastating Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 led to evacuation of the capital, Rangoon, in March and the retreat of the army in April.

A mass evacuation began as many wounded, sick and starving Burmese crossed through dense jungle in the hope of reaching the Indian border.

Thousands perished on the arduous trek and those that reached the Dapha river crossing were faced with the impenetrable swollen river.

The British administration did not have the local knowledge or resources to help but Mackrell, who had spent most of his life in Assam, had elephants and knew the local tribes.

Remarkable footage shows Brit helping Burmese refugees in WW2

Mackrell’s diaries reveal that he received an SOS on 4 June 1942 from a group of refugees who had crossed the Dapha by forming a human chain.

He wrote: ”I promised to collect some elephants and move off as quickly as I could as they told me the party behind would be starving, especially if they got held up by the rivers.”

In a series of epic marches he reached the Dapha on 9 June to discover a group of 68 soldiers who had become trapped on an island when the waters rose rapidly.

Footage shot by Mackrell shows his party’s effort to reach the soldiers with elephants struggling up to their tusks in tumultuous rapids, barely moving.

But as the river fell in the early hours of the morning the elephants were able to reach the island and evacuate the soldiers.

Mackrell and his colleagues then set up camp on the Dapha helping a stream of refugees to cross the dangerous river to asylum in India.

Despite low supplies and fever, which forced Mackrell to return briefly to Assam to recover, his party had saved around 200 people by September 1942.

Railroad engineer John Rowland, who was part of one of the last group to cross, tells how the desperate refugees were eating fern fronds.

He wrote in his diary: ”There is no nutriment in the additional diet, at all events it forms bulk and with luck it is hoped to spin out the rations for 24 days, after which, if no relief party or aeroplane arrives with rations, it is recognised that we must die of starvation.”

In the event, a plane dropped the much-needed supplies just in time.

Mackrell received the George Medal for his efforts and was celebrated in the British press as ”The Elephant Man”. He died in Suffolk in 1959.

A note in the collection by Sir R E Knox, of the Treasury’s Honours Committee in London, recommends that the percentage chance of death faced by Mackrell ”could be put, very roughly, at George Medal: 50 to 80%.”

Remarkable footage shows Brit helping Burmese refugees in WW2

But as the war progressed his act of bravery was eclipsed by the achievements of ”Britian’s forgotten army” of Commonwealth subjects.

The collection, which also includes accounts of some of those who were rescued, has been donated by Mackrell’s niece and an independent researcher, Denis Segal.

Dr. Annamaria Motrescu, research associate at the Centre, said that Mackrell’s amazing exploits would now be open to a new generation of researchers.

She said: ”Mackrell was embarrassed by the attention he received and even worried that people would think he had returned to the Dapha in the pursuit of a second medal.

”In fact it’s a remarkable story of courage, spirit and ingenuity that took place at a time when no-one was sure what the consequences of the war in the Far East would be.

”It deserves to be remembered.”

A short film, chronicling the epic rescue mission and using the footage that Mackrell took himself, will also be released on the University’s YouTube site.

It can be viewed from today (Mon) at

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