By Robert Asketill
Today is ‘Army Day’ in Britain when troops are on parade in many towns to remind the citizens of the realm of their past glories. On this day, it is important to remember some of the heroics carried out by empire soldiers during the Second World War. Forgotten, except for a small troop of Ghurkhas, is the part played by the two million Empire troops. Of course it would be impossible to parade regiments of now foreign armies, but today the thoughts of some of us go back to the King’s African Rifles, the 4th KAR of Uganda.
In particular a famous battle took place in Burma where Ugandan troops took on the Japanese who were well dug in on a series of high ridges in an area of sheer cliffs and escarpments, thick jungle with bamboo clumps, and footpaths of sodden clay on which no mule or Landrover could make way; worse still, every hundred yards seemed to produce a small flowing river.
It was an area of hell with the screams of the mules stuck up to their bellies in the mud. Only the individual men, and with the greatest difficulty, could manage that terrain but war is war and in this case the Japanese had to be cleared out of a defensive position to allow the British and Commonwealth army to pass through to eventually retake the country. The place chosen for the battle was Leik Ridge and the 4th Uganda KAR and the Indian 17th Mountain artillery regiment were picked to fight it. So it was on about the10th October 1944 that the 4th KAR stood ready in the cold rain mostly knee deep in mud to make the attack but all knew it was going to be one of the worst fights so far against the dug-in Japanese.
Apart from the difficult terrain, the only way forward was a narrow cleared section covered by Japanese machineguns. So this was a fight was to the death. The hour came; it was 10am and C. Company, being closest to the one possible route to the summit of the ridge, had orders to make the first assault. The Ugandans, blowing their bugle ‘Charge!’ and bellowing their war cry crashed up the hill with guts and determination. But halfway up, came the rattle of enemy machinegun fire and the snap of rifle fire. ‘C’ company immediately took a scattered crouching position in the stinking thick jungle undergrowth but made it clear to the following ‘A’ company that they were still going in, this time with bayonets fixed.
There was a pause for half an hour and then came that ear-splitting war cry and that bugle as they charged again but found themselves against a sheer wall of rock, still under the machinegun fire but, worse still, the enemy lobbed several grenades from above the cliff. There could be no advance: twenty seven of ‘C’ company lay dead and wounded. And the night silence was pierced by the calls and cries of pain from those brave lads not yet dragged back from the battle area. The rain came down in buckets and the 4th KAR had to hold their position with no shelter and a shortage of food. Behind them a whole army was held up.
Then on the 17th October, when ordered back to a more comfortable position, one Corporal Sebbi Alijabu who spoke excellent English made it clear that the Ugandans wanted another chance to attack: their honour as fighters was at stake, a honour gained on the 24th November 1918 when the 4th KAR had received the surrender of Germany’s army commander, Von Lettow, in the town of Abercorn, North Rhodesia. On the 22nd the renewed assault began with ‘C’ Company mainly improving the track and ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies urging them to move faster.
The final burst was made with bugles blowing, the young bugler in ‘C’ Company gamely contributing “Come to the cookhouse”. 8th Platoon led by Corporal Sebbi Alijabu, who must have thought he was an armoured tank, reached the top of Leik Ridge but died doing so together with his entire platoon except for two wounded. Other platoons fought like tigers and only Platoon Sgt Major Ali Farajalla remained alive and unwounded.
Let’s not forget Leik Ridge on this ‘Army Day’. It was the fiercest engagement fought by 4th K.A.R during the Second World War and they were without their artillery support as the Mountain Battery had been bogged down with the rain and mud and could not get into firing position. There were many wounded and dead. They were Ugandans fighting for the King of England.