Laurence Rees: In the spring of 1944 Captain Jimmy Evans was on leave, away from his Gurkha regiment, when he suddenly learnt surprising news.
Words of Jimmy Evans: I heard ‘Japs invade India’ or however they put it, and then they’d come right round and cut us off at Kohima. So my whole division up in the Chinn Hills had to withdraw to Imphal, a masterly operation. They knew all about being cut off by Japanese roadblocks and they fought the whole way back, and the Japs had thought we’d behave the same way as in the Burma retreat, but it was a battle the whole way. And by the time we got to Imphal, or they got to Imphal, 17 Division was all intact, all its vehicles – got the whole lot. The Japanese then were at the end of a very long line of communication with this muddy road to bring stuff up.
Laurence Rees: Captain Evans was determined to rejoin his regiment.
Words of Jimmy Evans: The movement patrol people said, ‘Well, the only way you’ll get back in is by air.’ And I went into the little office on the airfield, an RAF chap sitting there, pilot officer I think, and I walked in there with the orderly and I said, ‘Look, I hear you’re flying in rations to Imphal from here, can you give me a lift in?’ He said, ‘What the hell do you want to go there for?’ he said, ‘It’s cut off.’ I said, ‘It’s my battalion.’ It’s hard to explain to him that your battalion is your family, you know, I mean, it was like going back to your family. Anyway we got in. And the Japs had brought some small guns up, and there was a lot of firing going on, and so the place where we’d dug in, they weren’t far away. And so I’d just got back and I was sitting out with a glass with the Colonel talking with him. And one chap who’d been to school with me, he was killed on the way down, he was, he was so brave that he defied the Japanese. They’d got a fixed line on his cookhouse. And he said, ‘Because of the Japanese I’m not going to stop my men feeding,’ and he rushed down to grab up the dishes and the cooking pot and bring it back and of course was felled right there.
Laurence Rees: And Captain Evans soon learnt that the risk to British officers wasn’t confined to attacks by the Japanese.
Words of Jimmy Evans: I saw down the hill a chap who was senior to me, Robin Bishop, three years older than me at school which makes him, you know, a big boy, and he went to Sandhurst, he was a lovely chap, I mean, we looked up to him. He was altogether a nice chap, good rugger player. And I saw him on the night and greeted him for the first time and he said, ‘Hello young Evans, I knew you were in the Fourth.’ And his company were just below us and next morning they said, ‘God, Bishop’s been shot, Bishop’s been shot by his own sentry.’ He’d gone out, leaving his foxhole or bunker or whatever it is, and he’d gone out to pee, and the nights are black, you know, if there’s no moon, always in the Orient, and you probably know this if you’ve been camping or so on, you know you can get two paces and don’t know where you are. So he’d, foolishly or not, he’d gone out to relieve himself and walked back in and he started off in the wrong direction and then coming back from some distance out he was challenged and didn’t hear it. Avoid Gurkha sentries because if they’re told to guard something they do. And so it was very sad, so yeah, he was shot.
Laurence Rees: The battle that spring around Imphal was intense – as Jimmy Evans discovered.
Words of Jimmy Evans: And then I forget who fired first, but firing began, and I was aware, I was given my orders, there was nothing I could do except do the same thing. And I remember for some reason I had two revolvers with six shots in each, two revolvers and some grenades. And there was a Jap just over the top of the hill in a foxhole, and he fired, he fired at me and bobbed down. And I waited till he came up again and fired with the revolver. And this went on for some time. I suppose I’d exhausted my six shots so I thought I’ll have to do something. I’d got a grenade so I took the grenade out, I must have held it in the left hand because, yes, it was in my left hand, my pistol’s here, and I waited until he came up again and I slowly lobbed it over my shoulder, like that. And then, phhrrrrrr, bang, and I was lying on the ground. And my arm was up in the air and it, it was absolutely tingling and it’d got pins and needles slowly coming down. And I looked up and I was lying flat on the ground and it was lying across me, the wrist drooping there, and I couldn’t move it and I couldn’t breathe, I was going [gasps for breath], and I realised I’d, I’d been hit.
And I didn’t know what, but I was breathing [gasps for breath] like that. And I, I can just remember, a bit dramatic, I remember saying, ‘Oh, God, not yet,’ or something like that. And the little piper came up with his first aid bag and he leant over me and he said, ‘Okay, sahib, I’ll get it,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been hit,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I can see that.’ And he took a look then and he said, ‘Oh, that’s alright, sahib,’ he said, ‘That’s quite a small one.’ And he took out first aid. But I said, ‘It’s hurting at the back,’ you know, like that, and I leant forward and I can remember just looking over my shoulder and at him and I saw his eyes open like that, because what he’d seen was where it had come out at the back, and, of course, it had splayed. But the hole in the front actually, it was so small I was never able to boast in the swimming pool, you know. It’s the Japanese, their rifle, their two point whatever it was, was a beautifully made rifle, as Japanese stuff always was, their engineering. And the bullets were small enough, 303, and they again were beautifully made but they were hard, they were hardnosed, and, you know, the softer a bullet is the more it shatters when it hits you, and thank god for me it went through just above the heart and hit the back of my shoulder blade, I suppose, and then went down shattering the ribs, and, in fact, the cleanliness of the Japanese bullet saved my life on that occasion.
Laurence Rees: That night the Gurkhas charged the Japanese positions.
Words of Jimmy Evans: And then the most amazing thing, I mean, from 800 yards away there was a cheer, a British cheer went up from the hill, it was the Northamptons who’d been having a grandstand view and they’d watched it all and as they saw the Gurkhas go over the top they went, ‘Hooray!’ The old Gurkha was the terror of the Japanese, the battalion’s reputation was tremendously high.
Laurence Rees: Captain Evans was taken out of Imphal to hospital where his wound recovered. But his experiences at Imphal cast a long shadow.
Words of Jimmy Evans: I didn’t eat so well for a long time, I don’t know, it must have shaken something up, there. But I did notice that firing and so on did make me jump a bit. I used to go off shooting and we were engaged in jungle training, which I enjoyed, and I used to go hunting, hunting deer for the pot and so on, but it wasn’t quite the same as before.
Laurence Rees: Jimmy Evans was proud to be an officer in command of Gurkha soldiers. But during the war, it seemed that knowledge of the Gurkhas was scarcely commonplace.
Words of Jimmy Evans: I remember going up to London in uniform, wearing my hat for a Gurkha, and people were looking at me as if it was a bit unusual and saying, ‘Well, are you an Aussie, are you an Aussie, mate?’ I said, ‘No, I’m with the Indian army, I’m with the Gurkhas.’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, who are they?’ And in England when I’d say I’m in the Gurkhas for 30 years, people know a little bit, but it wasn’t until the Falklands campaign in which the Gurkhas were not actually involved in action but their reputation was enough to make the Argentineans fear for their necks, that they hit the headlines here, and since then it hasn’t looked backwards.