This guest article was written by Philip Davies, author of ‘Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma – the last great untold story of WWII.’
Britain’s victory in Burma has long been regarded as a sideshow in the Far Eastern war. Even at the time, the British Indian 14th Army was nicknamed ‘the forgotten army.’ But for the Japanese, their offensive into Burma was a fatal strategic catastrophe. It failed in its primary aim of knocking Britain out of the war in the Far East and instead provoked a massive British response and the greatest defeat ever suffered by the Japanese army.
While much has been written about the epic battles of Imphal and Kohima, and the first and second Chindit campaigns, little is known about the hugely successful guerilla campaign that took place in the jungle hills of Burma, lead by two heroic but forgotten Englishmen Major Hugh Seagrim GC, DSO, MBE and Corporal Roy Pagani MM.
These men deserve to be remembered as among the most courageous and resourceful heroes of the most savage conflict in human history. Known as the T.E. Lawrence of Burma, Major Hugh Seagrim volunteered to stay behind the Japanese lines for over two and a half years to raise an army amongst the loyal Karens of eastern Burma. Interwoven into the fabric of Seagrim’s story is the long-overlooked tale of Corporal Roy, or Ras, Pagani, one of the most resolute serial escapees of the war, whose exploits have never been revealed in full before.
Roy Anthony Stephen (hence RAS) Pagani was born in Fulham on 23 July 1915 to an English father and French mother. Shortly after his 18th birthday, he volunteered for the East Surreys, serving first in India and then the Sudan, before returning to Colchester in January 1939. Here he met, Pip, his future wife, who he married just one week before the outbreak of war. In May 1940, as the East Surreys conducted a fighting retreat to Dunkirk, Pagani struck out on his own, found a boat and sailed back to England single-handed.
Four days later he reached the east coast village of Shingle Street, hitched a lift and then walked to the house of his mother-in-law, who promptly fainted when she opened the door. After reporting again for duty, he joined the newly-formed Reconnaissance Corps and promised his new wife that whatever happened, no matter what befell him, or however long it took, he would find his way back to her. Little did he realise that this promise was to repeatedly save his life.
After leaving England late in October 1941, Ras was despatched with the 18th Division to Singapore on the ill-fated Empress of Asia, which was dive-bombed and sunk just outside the city. Just two weeks after arriving, on 15 February 1942 he was ordered to surrender, together with the rest of the Allied garrison of 85,000 troops. Determined not to be captured, Pagani set off alone into the flaming inferno of the city, but was later herded into captivity by the Japanese in Sumatra.
Formed into a labour battalion, the POWs were transported in appalling conditions to Burma. By late October 1942, they were moved up to Thanbyuzayat, the base camp for the Burma end of the infamous Death Railway. For every mile of track laid, 393 men died from malnutrition, disease or brutality.
Ras was determined not to be one of them. Just a month after arriving, he feigned sickness and was able to join the daily working party late and crucially, without an escort. 100 yards from the camp, he melted into the jungle. After several close shaves with Japanese patrols, he travelled north along the line of the railway. Pagani came across a group of friendly Karens, an indigenous hill tribe of Burma loyal to the British and in secret they transported him to the hiding place of Major Seagrim and his guerilla army of Karens.
From here, Pagani became Seagrim’s trusted right-hand man and was charged with licking the levies into shape and leading hit and run attacks on the Japanese and their Burmese Independence Army (BIA) allies. This force delivered some of the most fatal blows to the Japanese forces in Burma, while sustaining very few causalities themselves. As a result, the Japanese manhunt for Seagrim intensified and he was forced into deep cover. Unable to find him, Pagani resumed his original plan to escape clean across Burma to the British lines over 600 miles away in the Arakan. Pagani slowly he made his way across the immense central plain of Burma towards the mighty Irrawaddy river beyond which he knew were friendly Karens and the prospect of real help and safety. Unfortunately, he was seized by a crowd of suspicious Burmese and was set upon, slashed and virtually hacked to death before being handed over to the Japanese.
Enduring weeks of intense suffering, only the memory of his promise to Pip kept him from suicide. Knowing he would be executed if connected with the Railway, Ras assumed the identity of an American pilot and was eventually taken to Rangoon and thrown into the ‘Rangoon Ritz’, a hell-hole of pig-pen cells in the courtyard of the New Law Courts, the headquarters of the dreaded kempeitai, the Japanese military police. The most terrifying ordeal lay ahead: whipped with bamboo canes, forced to kneel as a Japanese officer practised slicing his sword down his neck, and dreaded Japanese water torture.
As the war neared its end, one last harrowing ordeal lay ahead. In April 1945 the fittest of the POWs in Rangoon Jail, including Roy, were taken eastwards on a fearful death march. It was a desperate battle for survival. Stragglers were shot where they fell. Allied planes strafed the column in the mistaken belief they were retreating Japanese. Ras determined that if the right moment came, he would make a break for it, but fortunately it proved unnecessary. Late in the afternoon of 29 April 1945 contact was made with the advancing British troops, and in the nick of time Ras and his comrades were rescued.
Roy Pagani survived the war and returned home, fulfilling his promise to Pip. He received scant attention for his heroic exploits and received a Military Medal through the post, with no ceremony and no idea who had recommended him. After a further spell in the army, he eventually settled down to a quiet life running a taxi service in Clacton. Physically and psychologically scarred, he rarely spoke of his experiences.
On 31 March 2003, this indomitable old warrior died at home aged 87. There were no obituaries.
This guest feature was written by, and posted here with the kind permission of, Philip Davies, the author of Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma – the last great untold story of WWII. This new title is published by Atlantic Publishing, and is on sale now. RRP: £20.