Plaque Unveiled for Lt John Young
|The Lord Provost and Gordon Graham
On the morning of the 30th of March 2011 the Right Honourable Robert Winter, Lord Provost of Glasgow, unveiled a granite pavement plaque outside number 7 Jedburgh Gardens, a tenement property in the west end of the city.
On the morning of the 30th of March 1944 John Young, a 24 year old Lieutenant (acting Captain) in The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders attached to the 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment watched, through what must have been very tired eyes, the arrival of a fresh battalion of Japanese reinforcements coming to the aid of the battalion he had been fighting for three days and nights.
Little has been heard about John Young during the intervening 67 years but his story was no secret. Anyone really interested in the Burma campaign would have found him in “A History of The Assam Regiment” by Peter Stein, “Springboard to Victory” by C E Lucas Phillips, “Not Ordinary Men” by John Colvin and more recently in “Kohima, The furthest Battle” By Leslie Edwards, “Road of Bones” by Fergal Keane and “Kohima 1944” by Robert Lyman.
I first came across John Young in the Burma Star Association website where someone, presumably a Burma campaign veteran, had placed an account of the story largely taken from “Springboard to Victory.” My involvement in the subject comes from a purely amateur interest in modern history and a personal interest in tracing my father’s footsteps during World War Two; quite a challenging task as he was one of a relatively small number of British soldiers who saw active service against all four of his country’s enemies. Having fought the Vichy French, the Italians and the Germans my father’s division then went east where among other things he was in one of the first gliders to land at Broadway in early March 1944. His name is also John, he is also Scottish and using “John” and “Jock” while searching brought up the case of John Young.
Lt John Young
If you wrote the John Young story as a work of fiction it would be dismissed a being ridiculously far fetched. Truth is indeed even stranger. John Young was a 19 year old Glaswegian working as a clerk when he joined the Territorial Army in the Spring of 1939. He became a private in The Glasgow Highlanders, (the TA battalion of the HLI) and by the following year was a Sergeant Instructor before being offered an emergency wartime commission in The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In 1942 he sailed for India where he was attached to 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment eventually becoming OC of A Company with the rank of Acting Captain.
When in early 1944 it became clear that the Japanese intended to move against India, among the measures taken to delay their advance was the order to 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment to move forward from Kohima to Jessami and defend it “To the last man and the last round.” The CO of the battalion, Lt Col. Brown, ordered John Young to take his company, reinforced by an additional platoon bringing the strength up to 120 men, further forward to the village of Kharasom, prepare a position there and defend it under the same orders, “to the last man and the last round.” With all the benefit 67 years of hindsight brings, it can be argued that such an order was totally unnecessary.
By that stage in the war British and Indian troops were well aware that surrendering to the Japanese wasn’t an attractive option and, as events at Kohima and elsewhere later proved, they were very capable of fighting to the bitter end without that sort of order. Lt. Col. Brown was in fact unhappy with the order and raised the matter with his divisional commander. John Young knew nothing of this exchange and by the time the order was eventually cancelled he was in action and had lost, permanently, radio contact with the battalion.
|L to R: Mr Jim Gibson, The Lord Provost, Gordon Graham and Cllr James Mackechnie
So it was with that solemn instruction that he and his men prepared a very strong position at Kharasom from where he sent out patrols to watch for the enemy who duly approached on the 27th of March. Remaining hidden in their trenches and bunkers John Young’s men effectively ambushed the leading elements of a Japanese battalion estimated at 1200 men. Early in the determined attacks that followed Young lost his second in command as well as his radio link. For the next three days and nights they threw back attack after attack unaware of an unsuccessful attempt to reach them with orders permitting withdrawal. Conscious only of the need to win time for the defence preparations in Kohima, Young and his exhausted men fought on, not giving a yard of ground.
The fourth day brought the depressing sight of another, fresh enemy battalion complete with elephant drawn artillery. John Young understood that his position was now both surrounded and bypassed and that it would serve no useful purpose to allow his men to be wiped out. With water and ammunition running low he made his decision and called his platoon commanders to his bunker and ordered them to wait until darkness then break out and make their way back to the battalion. His orders were to fight to the last man; he would stay and be the last man and, in any case, he explained, he would not leave the wounded.
Later, as darkness fell, the last time they saw John Young he was stacking grenades and magazines, ready for the morning. Fifty six of them rejoined the battalion at Kohima where, in the siege that followed, every fighting soldier was vital.
|Gordon Graham, Roy McCallum and Robert Lyman
Months later, when the battle of Kohima had been won and the Japanese had been driven back, the Assistant District Commissioner, Charles Pawsey, went to Kharasom. The villagers told him that on the morning after John Young’s men had broken out the Japanese attacked the position and there was a fierce fight with gunfire and grenades exploding before heavy machine guns silenced the defence. They also told him that the Japanese had buried John Young with full military honours having first shaved his head, a mark of great respect usually reserved for their own fallen heroes.
Living and working in Glasgow as I do, I was surprised that I had never heard of John Young. That sort of conduct doesn’t go unnoticed in Glasgow, at least not often. The second thing that caught my attention was the statement on the website that John Young was awarded the MC for his efforts. The writer actually commented that it was less than generous in the circumstances. As the Military Cross wasn’t available posthumously in World War Two I was reasonably certain that the website information was incorrect and I started to make enquiries. John Young’s army records, available under freedom of information confirmed that he had received no recognition, not even a Mention in Despatches which seemed to me the very least that he had deserved.
Over the next 18 months I researched the story and was greatly assisted by very helpful people all over the UK and as far away as India and the USA. In an archive within Cambridge University I found a letter home from another British officer with 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment written in July 1944 which makes it clear that even four months after his death they didn’t know what had become of John Young. That uncertainty, the death of Lt. Col. Brown himself later in the campaign and the pressures of the period probably combined to keep Lt John Young’s name out of the list of those whose contributions were recognized.
By October 2009 I had gathered together a very thick file of evidence together with copies of all source material. A most helpful civil servant within the Ministry of Defence had quietly found for me the address, indeed the very door in Whitehall, where such things are considered and I sent off the file reasonably confident that something would result. I received a reply, written by a retired senior army officer who had clearly studied the material. He explained, with great courtesy, that a rule had been passed in 1948 that, irrespective of the merits of any particular case, no further awards would be made for World War Two service. Apparently that rule has never been broken.
It was disappointing but there was nothing to be gained by trying to argue the matter. While researching the case I had visited the church which the Young family attended and where John Young is remembered on the war memorial. On hearing why I was looking into the matter a lady there offered the name of a Glasgow City Councillor who, she was quite certain, would take an interest. I contacted Councillor James Mackechnie, provided him with the same file of information I had given the MOD and he, very quickly raised the matter with the Lord Provost, ( in Scotland the equivalent of the Lord Mayor).
There was something typically Glasgow about the way in which a decision in principle to recognize John Young was made so very quickly after I provided the information. There were of course planning considerations to be gone through. A wall plaque at John Young’s former home meant tracing and contacting all eight property owners ( it’s a tenement building), a bronze footway plaque was considered but sadly today, with scrap metal prices sky high, bronze objects in public places need a 24 hour guard so the final decision was a for a granite pavement plaque. The two feet square slab of granite was cut and lettered in Glasgow. The unveiling, despite some serious Glasgow rain, was moving and dignified.
The Lord Provost and Councillor Mackechnie both spoke and spoke well but it was generally agreed that the speech by Gordon Graham MC and Bar, a Burma veteran and current President of The Kohima Educational Trust was the highlight of the event. Robert Lyman also made the effort to be there as did Lt. Col Patil of the Indian Army and representatives from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, The Royal Highland Fusiliers, The Burma Star Association, The Royal British Legion, Hillhead High School where John Young was a pupil and local church and community members. The plaque is to become part of Glasgow’s Heritage Trail.
During the research work I came into contact with many young people in archives and libraries here and overseas. From their response to me and what I was doing it was very obvious that even if they are sometimes uncertain about recent and current conflicts they have absolutely no doubt that their grandfathers’ war was fought for all the right reasons.
Roy McCallum with Gordon Graham