Ursula Graham Bower, M.B.E. - Kohima

Discussion in 'The Women of WW2' started by dbf, Apr 23, 2010.

  1. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    The Deb who became a guerrilla: The Rodean-educated beauty who saved the Empire from the Japanese | Mail Online

    The Deb who became a guerrilla: The Rodean-educated beauty who saved the Empire from the Japanese

    Through dense jungle, foliage that ripped at skin and clothes, bloated mosquitoes that buzzed incessantly around them, up sheer-sided mountains and down steep ravines, the small band of guerillas moved softly and swiftly.

    The men were headhunters of the Naga tribes that lived in the hills along the Burma-India border, clad in only in short kilts or loincloths.

    There was something unusual, however, about this band of warriors. They were led not by a tribesman, nor a straight-backed Indian Army Sahib, but by a dazzlingly pretty former debutante called Ursula Graham Bower.

    This 30-year-old Roedean-educated girl from Wiltshire had been living among the Naga tribes for nearly five years when the war reached her corner of Asia in 1942. She had been studying the native people as an anthropologist.

    But now, Malaya, Singapore and Burma had fallen to the Japanese army in the worst defeat in the history of the British Empire.

    British and Indian troops had been forced into a horrific treat across the Burmese border, through the Naga Hills into eastern India.

    Rumours were rife that the Japanese would push across the border and break through the gateway of India. If India fell, the British war in the east - and the Empire itself - would be finished.

    But where along the long border would the Japanese come through? It was imperative that the British receive the earliest possible intelligence of such an offensive.

    Accordingly, a special guerilla troop called V Force was set up to patrol the Naga Hills both sides of the border. Native tribesmen, led by British officers, were recruited to patrol the impenetrable jungle and provide early warning of a Japanese invasion.

    Ursula Graham Bower was an early, if unlikely, recruit to this cause. She had first visited India in 1937 with a school friend, on a trip where her mother had hoped she would meet a nice husband. Instead, she fell in love with the Naga Hills and their tribes.

    The Nagas were fiercely independent - they occasionally rebelled against British rule - and merciless to their enemies. Those who had claimed an enemy head in battle wore their victim's hair in tufts on their shields and earrings.

    But they were deeply moral and loyal. As well as studying the tribe, Ursula dispensed medicines to them, and they took her to their hearts. They asked her to name their babies, and some even worshipped her as a goddess, believing her to be the reincarnation of a rebel priestess imprisoned by the British.

    When famine struck the villagers in the years before the war, she procured them government aid, saving many lives.

    Because of the loyalty she commanded among the Nagas, in August 1942 the head of V Force asked Ursula to form her local Nagas into a band of scouts to comb the jungle for the Japanese.

    She became the only female guerilla commander in the history of the British Army, leading 150 Nagas armed only with ancient muzzle-loading guns across some 800 square miles of mountainous jungle.

    Her story is one of the most extraordinary of World War II. But like that of so many of the brave veterans of the war in the east, her heroism has faded from the pages of history.

    Now a new book by renowned BBC correspondent Fergal Keane reveals her incredible tale and tells of the campaign in which she paid a crucial role: the Japanese offensive into India, and the savage battle of Kohima on which the fate of two empires turned.

    Ursula's appointment was supposed to be only temporary. She was a civilian with no military training, and a woman at that. As soon as a suitable officer could be found, she would be relieved of the post.

    At first, she was given no rations. Traversing huge tracts of jungle to direct her patrols, within a month she had lost 35lb. One of her commanding officers must have noticed her emaciation, because she was eventually given rations and a pay rise.

    The expected Japanese offensive did not come in 1942 or 1943, but by early 1944 General Slim was confident that the Japanese would mount an offensive into India, and that his 14th Army was ready for them. But he still did not know which way they would enter the country.

    V Force officers and Nagas crouched in bushes, standing lookout on the narrow jungle paths.

    On one occasion, one of the Nagas came to Ursula with news that his patrol had found a Japanese spy. The captured man turned out to be a black-haired Welsh soldier, bringing rations. Surrounded by headhunters, he was highly relieved to see Ursula.

    And then, on March 28, 1944, two British sergeants arrived at her camp with the startling news that a force of 50 Japanese were heading her way. Had she seen them?

    She had not. 'We were,' she recalled, 'the only thing between [the British front line] and the Japanese', who were somewhere in the jungle. 'We hadn't the foggiest idea where.'

    The enemy could not be allowed to reach the vital railway that lay 20 miles behind Ursula and her men, on which the British war machine depended for supplies.

    With the enemy close, the Nagas asked permission to return to their villages, leaving her alone in the jungle to face the Japanese.

    'I thought this was the finish,' she recalled, although she understood their need to go and protect their families.

    But within 24 hours they were back. They had merely wanted to make their wills and give their ceremonial necklaces to their families for safekeeping. They were ready, they told her, 'to die with you'.

    She fanned her patrols out across the jungle. It was a tense period: 'We lived like gazelle with lions about,' she recorded.

    It was too dangerous to remain in camps at night, so the headhunters dug holes and slept in them. They crept along narrow pig-paths and tunnels they dug through the scrub, single-file, well- spaced so that in an ambush those behind might escape.

    Visibility through the dense foliage could be less than 3ft. As Ursula led her patrols she was, she later admitted, often frightened - but she took care never to show it.

    She was right to be scared. One V Force officer who was captured had had his eyes gouged out by the Japanese before being executed. As a woman, Ursula's torture would have taken a particularly unpleasant form.

    In the event, three Japanese divisions totalling more than 80,000 men crossed into India further east, overrunning several V Force camps. Ursula and her Nagas were forced to wait and see if the fighting would come their way, but - to her intense frustration - she never got to fire her Bren gun.

    However, another patrol did encounter the Japanese, and they managed to send a message that a full-scale offensive was en route through the Naga Hills.

    General Slim was taken by surprise. He had been expecting the Japanese to choose an easier route. He never imagined they could drive an entire division of 15,000 men through the 'green hell' of the jungle. As the outlying British positions, hugely outnumbered, fell to the Japanese, armed deserters from Indian Army units descended on remote Naga villages, looting them and assaulting villagers.
    Ursula and her men, supplemented with a platoon of Gurkhas, protected the villages, once capturing 30 looters at gunpoint and marching them off to be dealt with by the authorities.

    The Japanese two-pronged offensive continued, one prong heading south to Imphal, a key British base. The other went north to Kohima ridge. Then, boasted their commander, they would march on Delhi. The British Empire would be finished.

    Slim had thought the Japanese would not bother with Kohima. At most, he thought, they might send 2,500 men against it. Accordingly he left Kohima with a garrison of just 1,500 British, Indian, Nepalese and Burmese fighting men.
    But on April 3, the Japanese 31st Division reached Kohima. The next day the battle began. Under a relentless onslaught of shells, mortar and bullets, outnumbered ten to one, the defenders were gradually beaten back. One by one their positions fell. They were encircled.

    Just when it appeared that Kohima must fall, in the early hours of April 18, a British division from outside broke through the Japanese encirclement. The defenders were relieved, although the fighting went on for another six weeks.
    Eighty miles across the jungle, Ursula Graham Bower - who had been watching the narrow jungle paths for signs of another Japanese offensive - received a consignment of rifles, a wireless-transmitter, more reinforcements and permission to move forward and engage the enemy.

    Through torrential storms, her troops trawled the jungle and she and her Nagas rescued allied airmen who had been shot down.

    Her fame spread: American pilots nicknamed her the Jungle Queen and a comic was devoted to her exploits. Time magazine praised her 'cinema actress looks' and interviewed her mother at home in Wiltshire, who observed that as a girl, Ursula 'never would sit still'.

    The British called her the Naga Queen and sent men to her to be trained in jungle warfare.

    One described the effect she had on them: 'We were captivated. Every one of us said later that if she'd said "I want you to hang yourself by the neck from the nearest tree," I am sure we would have done it. I would have followed her into the jaws of hell. She was an exceptional person.'

    The Japanese offered a reward for her capture, dead or alive. But there was no chance of any of her loyal men betraying her.

    On a visit to headquarters, she was summoned to see General Slim. Quaking with fear that he would relieve her of her command and send her to a typing pool in Delhi, she was ushered into his presence.

    She need not have worried. Slim merely wanted to meet the legendary Naga Queen. He was impressed by what he saw.

    'Thank God,' he announced. 'I thought you'd be a lady missionary with creaking stays.'

    By June 1, the starving, decimated Japanese force on Kohima Ridge had at last abandoned their positions. They had lost 7,315 men, nearly half their division.
    The British and Indian casualties were 911 dead, 266 missing and more than 3,000 wounded. The battle of Kohima, the 'Stalingrad of the East', was won. India was saved.

    The Japanese retreated through the jungle, dying in their thousands from starvation and disease, ambushed by the British and the Naga guerillas.
    Their route back to Burma became known as the 'Road of Bones'. Of the 85,000 men who had crossed the border-four months earlier, only a third returned. It was the worst defeat in Japanese military history. Its purpose served, Ursula's unit was disbanded in November 1944.

    In recognition of her bravery, she was awarded an MBE and the Lawrence of Arabia medal. She married a fellow V Force officer in 1945 and in 1948 returned to Britain. But she missed the hills and the brave Nagas. 'How could one explain that home was no longer home, that it was utterly foreign?' she explained.
    Shortly after, Ursula and her husband, Tim, moved to Kenya to grow coffee - Tim had been a tea planter in India before the war - and had two daughters. After the Mau Mau uprising they settled on the Isle of Mull.

    They lived there surrounded by memories of their jungle years, although the headhunter's shield, complete with human hair, that they had acquired in the Naga hills was given to the Pitt Rivers' museum in Oxford, along with Ursula's photographs of the Nagas. Tim died in 1973, Ursula in 1989.

    Meanwhile, on the Kohima battlefield, a memorial to the fallen reads: 'When you go home, tell them of us and say: "For your tomorrow, we gave our today." ' There is much to thank them for. Had Kohima fallen, India might have been thrown into bloody chaos.

    Had it not been for the heroism and tenacity of those two garrisons - and the young Englishwoman who embodied the courage and endurance of those desperate days - the story of the British Raj might have ended very differently.
    ROAD OF BONES: The Siege Of Kohima 1944. The Epic Story Of The Last Great Stand Of Empire, by Fergal Keane (Harper Press, £25.)

    Smudger Jnr and wtid45 like this.
  2. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

  3. wtid45

    wtid45 Very Senior Member

  4. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

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    pg 3 Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal recipients

    Attachment from The Times, Thursday Jul 26, 1945

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  5. Smudger Jnr

    Smudger Jnr Our Man in Berlin


    A superb account.

  6. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    Blimey , she came from a village very near to me.

    In Leigh Hall, Cricklade, Wilts, Miss Graham-Bower's mother commented on her daughter's fighting blood, added proudly: "An extraordinary girl; she never would sit still."

    INDIA: Ursula and the Naked Nagas - TIME
  7. bamboo43

    bamboo43 Very Senior Member Patron

    Placing this film of Ursula Bower here, as most of the above links are now sadly defunct. You will however have to watch it on Vimeo.

    Last edited: Oct 9, 2021

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