Friday, March 23, 2018

About Ledo Roads in Assam, India and Duxford, UK

Below is an article I had written for an Indian fortnightly twenty nine years ago:

In it is a description of the Ledo Road that was crucial for the Allied effort to defeat the Japanese in Burma and China during WW II. This road was supposed to have made it easy for the allied supplies to reach China. 

Or so thought the Americans led by a prickly bully called General Joe Stilwell. The road was named after him for sometime. Now its Ledo Road. 

Ledo today is a large urbanised village in the North East of Upper Assam, India. Back then it was just a village, surrounded by Tea Estates. The rail line ended here.  

A Tea Estate near Dibrugarh

During World War II a road was planned from the rail head at Ledo, over Pangsau Pass, to Kunming in China so that supplies could be sent quickly to a besieged China. By April 1945 this 1079 mile long road was ready for use. But was used only three times.

All that effort was wasted. It was a one way road. And the first convoy took almost two months to reach Kunming.  

Air transport to Kunming from the three airfields around Dibrugarh had been infinitely more successful for the previous three years of the War. Even though according to a book called "Saga of CNAC # 53"by US Capt. Hank Fletcher 1441 planes were wrecked. He accused Genl. Stilwell of trying to stop aerial transport as "he would loose control of everything that would be delivered in China." On page 256 he writes that the Burma Road "..turned into one of the greatest wastes of lives and materials during WW II."

The transports would fly out and be back the same day- unless they crashed or were shot down. To protect the large planes RAF and USAF fighter squadrons were based in Dinjan (Balijan), Mohanbari & Chabua airstrips. The route was called the Burma Hump.  

Chabua Airfield in 1944 (from the Web)

SEQUEL-  Twenty Eight years after I had written the article in Frontline, I was in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, UK to see WW II planes and tank at the Imperial War Museum. 

Duxord is an old RAF air base that will be 100 years old in 2018. It was one of the most important Battle of Britain aerodromes during WW II, and now has a static and a “living” museum for planes from WW I & WW II. 

Many of the English, European and US WW I & WW II planes on display fly. Thrice a year many are taken out for  brilliantly choreographed air shows full of action and mock fury, with reconstructed old planes looping the loops, dropping dummy bombs, and facing real ack ack guns firing dud shells, cordite smells and smoke. 
Exciting and good fun

Preserved too are some of the old hangars, barracks, offices of the air base including the control tower and street lamps.

 Some of the WW I & WW II aircraft  that fly in the air shows here are Sopwith Triplane, Fokker Triplane, de Havilland Tiger Moth, Grumman Bearcat, Lancaster, Muscat, Yak and a Zero. There are many more. There is also a tank museum at Duxford, in which are tanks similar to the ones that had fought in the Kohima battle and in Meiktila, Myanmar.

Expensive joy rides in ancient planes, including a Spitfire, are given every day of the year except for three days around Christmas. During a flight in a 1933 de Havilland Dragon Rapide 

1933 de Havilland Dragon Rapide
Sopwith Snipe - perhaps

a year ago I saw more than a dozen, distinctive red brick buildings on the other side of the road from the museum. In guide maps these bungalows with lawns and a large mess with larger lawns are shown to be on Ledo Road and Burma Road. Last December I walked on these roads.

Opposite the Imperial War Museum and off a very noisy express way is a tree soundproofed patch of peace. Duxford’s Ledo Road runs into a Burma Road too- just like the original one in Upper Assam

 where the Ledo Road met the Burma Road at Shingbwiyang (Myanmar) about 165 kms later.

 In Duxford these two curving picturesque green bordered lanes are only 400 metres or so in length. On Ledo Road are attractive and functional single and two storied red brick buildings that housed officers and their families during WW II. These were designed in 1935 by the Royal Arts Commission under Sir Edwin Lutyens, and now have heritage status, which means that they cannot be knocked down. Both roads curve gracefully to dead ends. The houses on these roads are in use.

These roads were probably named by an American Squadron that was posted here in early 1944. The Americans had taken over Duxford from the RAF in early 1943. The Ledo-Shingbwiyang section of the original Ledo Road was completed in December, 1943. By that time a massive air lift of civil and military supplies had started from Dibrugarh to Kunming.  USAF fighter squadrons based in Mohanbari, Chabua or Dinjan used to escort the transport planes for part of the way. Some of these squadrons were later posted to Duxford in 1944.  

The Ledo Road was first during WW II. The first convoy left Ledo on 10th January, 1945 and reached Kunming on 28th February. It was used twice more and given up. One plane flying the Hump could deliver more freight in ten days than twelve trucks. 

Since then it has been used twice. In the 1950s only. In 1955 by the Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition from London to Singapore, an account of which is given in a book called First Overland. 1958 saw an English group go and return this way from London to Australia. The account of this travel is in a book called The Impossible Takes a Little longer by Eric Edis- a member. Three years ago a Chinese convoy had come overland by this Road to participate in a trade fair in Guwahati. After that – nothing.

I shall end with some pictures:

A Victoria Cross holder is interred here at the Kohima WW II cemetery. He was the son of a famous tailoring firm owner in London of the 30s.

This is what the Pangsau Pass part of the Ledo Road looked like in the 80s. Its a bit better now.

Shingbwiyang Lake in Burma's Hukawng Valley as seen from Pangsau Pass (3233') on the India-Burma border.

The Hkamti Range, known to pilots as the Burma Hump. From Jahu Natu, now renamed as Vijaynagar in East Arunachal Pradesh, India.
A wrecked Curtis-Wright in a school in Morni, Dhubri, West Assam. A string of airstrips had been made across Assam , Bengal and Bihar to refuel and service planes flying to Dibrugarh, Silchar and Imphal.
Or, it could be a North American. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Beethoven's Vienna

                        Vienna's woods- Beethoven used to live in nearby Grinzing 

Of Beethoven's many homes in Vienna

Beethoven died at about 5.45 pm on the 26th of March, 1827, as a violent snow storm battered Vienna. A flourish that the genius would have loved. He had echoed it in several of his creations - with aggressive exultation in his Fifth Symphony, and with triumphant joy in the Ninth. Beethoven died in an apartment in Schwarspannierhaus (House of the Black Robed Spaniards) in the heart of Vienna behind the present day Votiv Church. The last of 65 homes he had lived in since he arrived in Vienna in November 1792 from Bonn to be closer to the patronage of the Court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna, according to Mozart, was "the best place in the world" for young musicians. After hearing seventeen-year-old Beethoven perform, Mozart had said, "Keep an eye on that one - some day he will give the world something to talk about!"

        Vienna is too large for the diminutive country it is the capital of now. Today, this capital of the once vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, retains some of its importance as headquarters of many international organizations. It remains an exceedingly attractive imperial city. It has wide roads, magnificent churches, baroque buildings with statutes bristling on top of them and their ornate and spacious entrances. Statues are every where in Vienna even in their vast parks. Many of its monuments were damaged seemingly hopelessly during the last minute spiteful and unnecessary saturation bombing by the Allies just before World War II ended. Most of them, including Stefi- the imposing, magnificent and spacious baroque 14th C cathedral in the heart of Vienna, have been carefully and lovingly restored and still reflect the glory of a grand and historic city. The Imperial Court encouraged artists, architects, musicians and scholars. For the exceptionally talented it was the most welcoming of all the cities of Europe. It is still the music centre of Europe. All kinds of music. Rock, jazz, and classical. Vienna, learning perhaps from its late recognition of Beethoven's immense genius, now encourages and tolerates all kinds of ideas- in art, architecture and music. Even in politics.

      One visit is not enough to appreciate Vienna's old pubs and coffee houses, its amazing variety of buildings, Gothic churches, its separate theatres for aristocrats and commoners from Imperial times and the Red period (1920s), its museums, including a butterfly, electricity and war museum, and its quaint alleys and sylvan walks. Vienna has changed immensely since Beethoven lived in most of its sections from time to time. At that time there was a wide fortress wall enclosing the Stephansdom (Dom means Cathedral) quarter- Vienna's ancient heart. It was replaced by a broad Ring Road (Ringstrasse) finished in the 1860s. Most of the fine and old looking buildings were not around during Beethoven's time. When he walked in Hofburg compound there were no museums across the road and the statue of Marie Theresa did not provide a perch for pigeons. The new and the most dominant wing of the Hofburg had not been built. The twin-pinnacled Votive Church, behind which he died in Schwarzpannierhaus, was not there. The Burggarten, Prater and the Schonbrun's gardens where he liked to walk have their green spaciousness still intact.

 Schonbrun Palace-  Beethoven once lived near here as he found its gardens inspiring

      A good way to understand Vienna's attractions could be to follow Beethoven's tracks. It was from Vienna that in October 1802, thinking his end was near, he wrote a letter to his brothers - the famous Heiligenstadt Testament. His house in Heiligenstadt in the 19th District can still be seen, but no longer stands alone. He blamed his approaching deafness on Vienna, especially its water, which now is amongst the purest that one can get in any large city any where in the world. He writes: "Ah, how could I possible admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed." This was the Vienna of which cynics still say, "People look back to its past with hope."

Beethoven's conquest of the city has been more permanent than Napoleon's. There are four memorials or statues to him. One, of him sitting, is near the Concert House close to the Schwarznberg Platz and a bust is near Nussdorf where he liked to go for walks and is called Beethoven Ruhe (Peace). There is a street in this bustling village called Eroicgasse as he had stayed nearby in No. 26 Kahlenberger Strasse. Close by are the woods where he walked and the vast Danube that he loved to see in all its moods. The Vienna, which he could see from the hills of the Viennese woods has changed considerably.

During his stay in Vienna and its suburbs, Beethoven shifted house sixty-five times. He would leave because he did not like being stared at, he did not like people listening to him playing, for principles, or in one case because he wanted to be close to his friends. Yet while hopping from house to house he produced incomparable sonatas, concertos, marches, and symphonies.

            Some of his houses are marked with plaques saying that Beethoven had lived there. A short stroll away from Heligenstadt is a house, where he had stayed, in Grinzing (No.2 Pfarrplatz) in the 19th district. It is now a Heuriger cafĂ© where people drink fresh wine, eat heartily and sing raucously. Here, in 1817, he had begun working on his Ninth Symphony. The corner statue, embedded in its wall, of St. Florian is still there as it had been in his time. Next door is St. James's church rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Turks in the late seventeenth century, this being almost the last point that the invaders had got to before they were beaten back. Beethoven had come here to escape the rigours of Vienna, a city that he could not adjust to for long stretches. He had tried to leave it once, but didn't after three rich Viennese admirers in 1809 put together 4000 florins annually "to shelter Mr. Ludwig from need" for the rest of his life. Without being wealthy he would never be in want.

      His homes in Dobling, Modling, Heiligenstadt, Eisenstadt and Baden, which stood in rural isolation during his time, are now surrounded by rows of neat houses and shops. At Baden he composed sections of Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. He lived in Hetzendorf about 10 minutes walk from the Schonbrun (1750) Palace of Maria Therese to be near its gardens. In them, sitting under a favourite oak tree, he finished the opera Leonore (Fidelio).

     A lot of his homes must be still standing but it is difficult to trace them. House numbers and names of streets have changed more than once. No. 45 Alsergasse, where Beethoven stayed in 1792, became No. 125, Haupstrasse and then No. 30 Alserstrasse. Some don't exist any longer, such as the Schwarzspannierstrasse, where Beethoven died, near the newly named Beethovengasse,. It had been torn down in 1905. Neverthless, a wide ornate entrance with a plaque and flags remind people in a typically Viennese way that Beethoven lived here.

Beethoven occasionally shifted house for interesting reasons. In October 1806, for instance, his host and patron Prince Lichnowsky wanted Beethoven to play for him and some of Napoleon's officers in his house in Troppau, whom he hid in an adjoining room. Beethoven, when he found them, stormed out into the rain. From Vienna, he wrote "Prince, what you are, you are by chance and by birth There will be thousands of princes, but there is only one Beethoven." Pro-Republican Beethoven had become very anti-Napoleon. By November 1803, he had finished writing the notes for his third symphony, the Eroica, which he completed by May 1804. It was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but by the time the symphony was completed, Napoleon had crowned himself emperor. A disgusted Beethoven, then living in Prince Esterhazy's house, 'das rothe Haus' (now gone) and opposite the Schwarzpanierhaus (also gone), tore the title page, raging, "Is he then, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on all the rights of man and ...become a tyrant." Later, when Napoleon was defeated at Vittoria on 21 June 1813, Beethoven celebrated Duke of Wellington by writing the very formal Battle Symphony (Wellington's Victory), which he completed in 1814.

        From 1804 to 1808 Beethoven had shifted eleven houses, fought off adoration even from Napoleon, who had once sent troops to ensure that the composer was not troubled during his invasion of Vienna, changed patrons to be financially secure. Yet he was able to produce during this time the stirring Fifth, the Pastoral or the sixth symphony, the Violin Concerto, the G Major Piano Concerto, and many other lesser but brilliant works.

         From 1822, Beethoven began work on the moving choral movement (Ode to Joy by Schiller) of the Ninth Symphony and within that year, he changed four homes. He began the year in 61, Kothgasse, moved to 20 Pfarrgasse, then to a more spacious home at 62, Parkgasse across the Wien stream bridge. Beethoven used to shave by the window in the morning, and when this became known, knots of people would stand worshipfully to watch him work on his face. Naturally he moved. This time to 32 Hauptstrasse, a lively villa owned by Baron Pronay whose reverence irked him so much that he shifted yet again, this time to 94, Rathausgasse in Baden to share lodgings with a locksmith.  By the time he had finished his breathtaking Ninth Symphony in early 1824, he had lived in five houses.

       The Ninth symphony was moulded at a time when the by now stone deaf Beethoven was in torment. He was waiting for death again, and yet was struggling to hope. In this magnificent symphony he introduced voices for the first time, and the theme was deliverance through joy. His disability would have crippled a lesser man. He overcame it resoundingly in the Ninth Symphony even though his critics said he had defied all canons of composition. An admiring Berlioz defended him, saying, "So much the worse for Law." Yet Vienna accepted it hesitantly. Though immensely successful now, the best works of Beethoven were not understood in his time. After one performance in 1808 in Vienna where the thundering Fifth and pastoral Sixth symphonies, the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy, and the Piano Concerto No.4 were performed with Beethoven himself playing, a music critic disdainfully described it as "unsatisfactory." Much later, after another performance the applause was so thunderous that his assistant conductor had to turn Beethoven to face the rapturous audience.

        Beethoven's earliest homes, especially in old Vienna or in the Stephansdon Quarter - whose narrow alleys and ordinary homes even today are crammed with beautiful historical surprises from about five centuries ago, is a passage of discovery. Pasqualati's house in Molkerbastei, the Esterhazy Palace, and the Prince Lobokowitz house are well-known, but as with the homes in other places, the rest are extremely difficult to track. Beethoven's longest stay, 1804-1808, 1810, and 1815, was at Pasqualati Haus, which is opposite the Rathaus. Here he commenced composing the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the opera Fidelio, the string quartets and a piano concerto. His fourth floor apartment is a museum.

         Next to the mid 19th Century Greichische Kirche (Greek Church of Holy Trinity) in the old Fleischmarkt, close to Stephansdom (Dom means Cathedral), is Griechenbeisl a 500 year old restaurant. Beethoven was amongst the many famous musicians, scholars and artists who ate here. In Vienna, one of Beethoven's compulsory haunts was the Graben in the Stephansdom Quarter. This is the area close to St. Stephen's Cathedral Some of the shops from Beethoven's time still exist. Here is still the office of Artaria- one of his publishers with whom he had several legal fights.

      He loved to walk in the Hofburg Complex, which was a collection of palaces where the Hapsburgs lived, and since his time expanded with dramatic and more imposing extensions. It now houses the President of Austria, several museums, the famous Spanish Riding School, the National Library and a few interesting churches of course. Another of his favourite walks was the Prater, once an exclusive hunting forest for the Emperors but given to the public in 1766. It is now one of the world's largest amusement parks, and definitely the most varied.

        Just before Beethoven died he said "Applaud, friends, the comedy is over." Not quite. More than 30,000 mourning Viennese turned out for Beethoven's funeral. In a fitting meeting of Vienna's greatest musicians, Mozart's moving Requiem was sung in the Church of the Augustinians in the Stephansdom Quarter. On the 5th of April, 1827 a final tribute was given in the Karlskirche with a grand and exalted performance of Cherubini’s Requiem in C Minor. After death Beethoven's body moved from Wahring, a village near Vienna, to his final home in the musician's corner in the picturesque Central Cemetery on Vienna's outskirts. Many of the graves here are grandly embellished with expensive and ostentatious woe, but his is a simpler one. It is the largest cemetery in Austria with more than two and a half million graves. Viennese wickedly refer to it as being half the size of Berne but twice as amusing. Beethoven's grave is marked by a plain obelix with just one word- Beethoven. Next to his grave is a memorial to Mozart and Schubert’s grave. Reports of relic hunters were so worrying that about in 1888 his body was exhumed, examined and re-interred. Finally. 

        Perhaps, inspired by Beethoven's iconoclastic ideas, young artists in Vienna concerned with creating new styles at the end of the nineteenth century, made a strange windowless squat cube topped by a dome encased in gold filigree, which they called The Secession. Inside, Gustav Klimit's Beethoven Frieze - a thirty-four metre long decorative painting covering three walls - is the best-known exhibit. It is believed to be a tribute to the path breaking Ninth symphony. Beethoven's radically innovative talent lives on in much of Vienna's breathtaking bold architecture. Among the wildest are Otto Wagner's pavilions, and buildings like the opulent stained glass entrance of the Steinhoff Church (1905) with its brazen and flashy yet attractive interior, the Karl Marx Hof municipal council flats (1930), the glass fronted, but incredibly, blending Haas Haus opposite the venerable Century St. Stephen's Cathedral, the glittering mosaic that surrounds the golden globe shaped chimney of the municipal incinerator, and the crazy, colourful, liveable municipal apartments called Hundertwasser (1985).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On Doggies

This poem originally appeared in Tears & Laughter by Gene Hill. Copyright Gene Hill.:

Just My Dog by Gene Hill (

He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds;
my other ears that hear above the winds.
He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea.

He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason
for being by the way he rests against my leg;
by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile;
by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him.
(I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not
along to care for me.)

When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive.
When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile.
When I am happy, he is joy unbounded.

When I am a fool, he ignores it.
When I succeed, he brags.

Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful.

He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion.

With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace.
He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant.

His head on my knee can heal my human hurts.
His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and
unknown things.

He has promised to wait for me...whenever...wherever—
in case I need him.
And I expect I will—as I always have.

He is just my dog.
This piece originally appeared in Tears & Laughter by Gene Hill. Copyright Gene Hill.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Of Nanda Devi Sanctuary Peaks

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary is a rare Himalayan phenomenon. It is a ring of 21 peaks above 6000 mtrs. Nanda Devi (7816 m or 25,643 ft) is the highest in the Sanctuary. The only outlet is through the Rishi Ganga river. The map below was copied by me from Kenneth Mason's informative history book called Abode of Snow. I then added a peak here and there from my visits  in 1970s.
The Sanctuary has been closed to climbers and trekkers since 1982. 

Recently, trekkers have been allowed to go to the peripheral ridges from the outside. After a recent visit by a friend of mine to Bagini Gad (Glacier) from Dunagir, I was asked to identify some of the peaks. I could not do so satisfactorily. 

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary is in the Garhwal part of the North Indian State of Uttarakhand. The other part is Kumaon. Only in 1934 was this Sanctuary penetrated. It were the legendary mountain explorers Eric Shipton and HW Tilman's group who did it. 

I then asked my expert geographer friend Hermann Soeldner of Oberammergau, Bavaria, Germany to help me out. He has the unique ability of describing the precise shape of peaks from maps. I had sent him some pictures from a 1975 visit to Ramni Glacier inside the Sanctuary. He has identified them- irreproachably correct: