The Travels of Hyman Rose (Haim) during WWII
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In 1943, when Hyman Rose, the third son of Rabbi Rose, turned eighteen, he was drafted into the Air Force to serve as one of the ground staff.
Throughout his military service one of his major difficulties was finding suitable food to eat, without breaking the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). During basic training for example he was forced to live on a diet of vegetables, cheese and fish in order to avoid eating non-kosher meat and chicken. In spite of this diet he managed to come second in a national five-mile running race.
Following basic training he was sent to Blackpool, a popular holiday resort by the sea, to train as a wireless operator. In Blackpool he and his fellow servicemen were billeted in former holiday homes, twelve to fifteen to a room, and were taken to the local baths once a week to bathe. They were provided with breakfast and “high tea” a light meal served at six in the evening that took the place of dinner. Again the only food that Hyman could eat was bread, butter and tomatoes.
The six-month course took place over the summer and after lessons they could do whatever they liked, as long as they were back home by a certain time. Hyman utilised the opportunity of living by the sea to learn to be a life-saver. His fellow servicemen would swim in the nude; Hyman was the only one who wore a swimming costume because he didn’t want the others to see that he was circumcised.
He remained in Blackpool until shipped out to the Far East on the “Lorna Doone”, an old ship dating from WWI. The voyage took two weeks. After passing through the Suez Canal, their first port of call was Bombay (Mumbai) on the west coast of India. At the time India was still ruled by the British, who were reinforcing their military presence in the Far East to counteract the very real threat of Japanese expansion in the area. Bombay served as the first port of entry for thousands of troops, military materiel and industrial goods, and as the base of the Royal Indian Navy.
For some reason Hyman and his fellow servicemen had been issued dress uniforms of some thick white material that were unbearable in the heat. In addition each man had to carry a large, heavy kitbag, and a Sten submachine gun that weighed over three kilograms. Hyman also carried with him a large dictionary, a talit (prayer shawl) and tfillin (phylacteries). Carrying all this, they were required to march to their camp. Unfortunately their officers would not allow them to take advantage of the local inhabitants who offered to help them – for a price.
From Bombay on the west coast they crossed India by steam train to Calcutta (Kolkata), the capital city of West Bengal, located in the northeast corner of India, close to the border of what is today Bangladesh. The journey took three days. Calcutta served as an important transit camp for the British army that was advancing into Burma (Myanmar), where Japanese forces still remained undefeated. In Calcutta it was so cold in the mornings that they played football to warm up. When Hyman wrote home telling his family about this fact, he was reprimanded by his officer. Only then did he realize that his mail was being censored.
From Calcutta they travelled north east to Ranchi, an important Army and Royal Air Force base that served as the headquarters for the Chindit campaign in Burma, and where wounded from the front were treated. The Chindits were a special force created by Orde Charles Wingate, the same British officer who, when stationed in Mandatory Palestine, had set up Special Night Squads, a joint British-Jewish counter-insurgency unit. The Chindits operated deep behind enemy lines in north Burma in the war against Japan.
At Ranchi Hyman was taught to drive a jeep which formed part of a unit consisting of both army and air force personnel. The army supplied an officer, sergeant, corporal and a private. The officer had a jeep of his own and an Indian batman, while the sergeant drove a truck. From the Air Force there was a pilot, an officer also with an Indian batman and a jeep, a corporal who was a mechanic and two wireless operators, one of which was Hyman. Hyman was responsible for one of the jeeps to which a water tank was attached, and for the weapons. This was one of the units sent into Burma.
They spent most of their time driving on roads so dusty that all they could see was the vehicle in front. Only when the dust had cleared were they able to look back and see the roads and bridges on which they had driven. The sight was so alarming that they could hardly believe they had lived to tell the tale. From time to time they were forced to halt to allow an elephant to cross the road. One doesn’t argue with an elephant!
Hyman celebrated Pesah (Passover) that year at Imphal, the capital of Manipur state, close to the Burmese border. The city lay in a plain surrounded by hills, where the British had established their main forward supply base in the area. The Battle of Imphal took place from March until July 1944, a hard-fought battle in which Japanese armies attempted to destroy the Allied forces at Imphal and invade India, but were driven back into Burma with heavy losses. This proved to be the turning point of the Burma Campaign.
At one point Hyman and his group were attached to an artillery unit. The Japanese had built a system of bunkers in the mountains that were immune to artillery fire. It was the job of this unit to locate the position of the bunkers using field-glasses, and radio their locations to the British planes that came to bomb them. This sometimes brought the unit under attack by Japanese gunners.
Following this they were attached to a front line army unit, belonging to the 19th Indian Infantry Division under the command of Major General Rees, which now began pushing south into Burma.
Hyman and his unit reached Mandalay a few days after it fell to the British on 20 March 1945. The streets were filled with Japanese dead. From Mandalay the British forces continued south to Rangoon, the Burmese capital. It was Hyman’s job to cook breakfast for everyone, most of which he couldn’t eat himself because it was not kosher. They were supplied by air with dry biscuits, tinned spam, toilet paper and sardines. Hyman, who could only eat the biscuits and sardines, continually lost weight. There was no fresh food to be had whatsoever.
Their next stop was the town of Toungoo, 140 miles north of Rangoon. In 1940, the British Royal Air Force built an airfield north of the town, which served as a base for fighter aircraft operations in the area. After living in the base for some weeks, Hyman and his fellow servicemen were billeted with a Burmese family. All slept on the upper floor of the house to avoid snakes and deadly insects. In spite of this precaution Hyman was bitten by a mosquito and the bite turned septic. Since there was no medical help to be had, Hyman resorted to a folk remedy his mother had told him about; he urinated on it! Sure enough it did the trick and the swelling died down.
There was not much for them to do, so Hyman utilised the time to study Hebrew from a small book of Hebrew texts he had with him. At Toungoo he was able to purchase eggs and vegetables from the army mess.
They finally reached Rangoon which fell to the British in early May 1945. Here they were issued with a mat and sheet and slept on the floor of a deserted building. Hyman took advantage of the opportunity to visit a synagogue which housed about eighty Torah scrolls. The synagogue, hidden by trees, had been overlooked by the Japanese and remained intact.
From Rangoon they moved to a reserve camp in the jungle. A show was arranged in which a female singer entertained them. While she was singing a large snake slithered onto the stage towards her, and a soldier came forward to crush it with his rifle butt. When she realised what had happened, the singer uttered a scream, and then continued singing as though nothing had happened.
After returning to Rangoon they boarded a ship that took them across the Indian Ocean to an unknown destination. Five days into the voyage the ship changed course to Calcutta. Hyman landed on 11 August 1945 and went straight to the synagogue, where he found himself surrounded by Jewish servicemen from all the armed forces. An American soldier informed them that America had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, and that WWII was over. Everyone present cheered with joy. It was only then that Hyman realised that the ship which had brought him to Calcutta had been on its way to Japan.
The High Holy Days were fast approaching, and Hyman had made up his mind to celebrate them in a place where there was a large Jewish community that could offer suitable arrangements for observant soldiers. First he tried Delhi, then Bombay, where he ended up at Byculla, an area populated by many Baghdadi Jews. Here he found suitable conditions for celebrating the Jewish New Year.
Whilst in Bombay Hyman received orders to report to the signals centre, where he worked shifts and started to attend synagogue on a regular basis. One Sabbath eve he was befriended by a certain Eddy Simon who invited him home for Kiddush (Sanctification ceremony of the Sabbath). This is how Hyman met his future wife, Faustina Ruth Simon, daughter of Benjamin and Mazal Simon, and sister of Eddy, whose family originated from Bagdad.
Having served a year and a half overseas, Hyman was entitled to a trip home. He sailed back to the UK on a military ship, on which ordinary servicemen had to serve the officers in the canteen, carrying crates of soda water and beer. After two short weeks at home Hyman returned to Bombay. Here he remained until just after India gained its independence from Britain in August 1947, when he returned to the UK to be demobbed. At a base in the north of England Hyman received his discharge papers and a suit in which to travel home.
So ended the travels of Hyman Rose during WWII.
Based on a personal memoir