Force Viper - Escape
Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines
Period/ Conflict: World War II
Date/s: April 1943
Only 58 of the original 106 Force Viper Marines got out of Burma alive.
Cecil Hampshire’s book On Hazardous Service provides the best description published of Force Viper’s operational activities in Burma. Seven out of the eight Marines aboard one of the boats were drowned when a sudden storm on the Irrawaddy quickly capsized the vessel. Johnston took his remaining men up the Irrawaddy, destroying all Burman river craft that they found, before ferrying withdrawing troops across the broad river. Travelling up the Chindwin he performed similar tasks at Kalewa and Shwegyin. Then the Marines transported a Gurkha brigade upriver to Sittaung where the boats were destroyed, the Marines acting as rearguard on the brigade’s march into India.
Johnston and three Marines were sent further upriver to Homalin on a special mission delivering cash to a British official to pay head-hunting tribesmen for allowing British and Chinese troops to transit tribal territory, but the official was no longer there to receive the money and most of it was thrown into the river.
After destroying his boat Johnston and his team walked over the high Naga hills into Manipur. Major Duncan Johnston, Lieutenant Peter Cave (posthumous award) and Ex.2340 Marine John Hilton Marriott were Mentioned in Despatches.
Two members of the Burma Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve had been attached to Force Viper during most of its adventures and one of them, Lieutenant William Guthrie Temple Penman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The unit reached Calcutta on 25 May, followed three weeks later by a Sergeant and seven Marines who were thought to have been killed but who had marched out of northern Burma into Assam.
Another Marine, William Doyle, although wounded by shrapnel in the lower legs pluckily walked out of Burma from Myitkyina to Assam through the deadly Hukawng Valley. His varied challenges and adventures are well-described in James Leasor’s book The Marine From Mandalay.
Major Duncan Johnston later joined Detachment 385 (HMS Lanka) which contained Royal Marine Commando assault troops specialising in small-boat deception raids and agent insertions and extractions, but he was accidentally shot and killed by one of his own men off the Burma Arakan coast in February 1945; he was buried at sea.
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