Life after Hill 170: Akyab, 1945

Larry adjusted the flame of his dilapidated hurricane lamp and inserted a cigarette between his lips. The light from the oil lamp fell gently upon the features of Captain Charles Beard who was seated opposite him. Away in the distance a radio was playing but it was all but drowned out by the insistent shrilling of the crickets. He sipped at the hot mug of coffee his batman had brought him.

He began writing to his girlfriend, Margery, and haunted by his recent experiences, his letter had a somewhat melancholy air, perhaps explained by the final two sentences: “A very good friend of mine in this unit – Nick Bryant by name – had many worldly sins for which to account. They were all washed away about two weeks ago when he died with a machine gun burst in his stomach.”

The men of No. 5 Commando were now in Akyab for a rest period after their recent epic battle for Hill 170. They were treated to two ENSA shows and had the pleasure of being entertained by the renowned beauties Frances Day and Patricia Burke within a fortnight of each other. Another visit – perhaps not quite so easy on the eye – was from the Brigade Commander who took a salute at a march past after having inspected the unit.

Patricia Burke entertains pilots of an RAF Squadron while sitting on the wing of a Republic Thunderbolt Mark II © IWM (CF 374)

Larry spent time in the Troop Office, writing more letters and signing them off with a variety of ‘Goonish’ pseudonyms such as Lieutenant Tooting-Smythe and Bertie Hope-Flatwater. He watched the Troop Clerk, ‘Titch’ Shoreman, hard at work with, “his tongue following his writing like a faithful dog.” The sun shone unrelenting but a slight breeze blew Larry’s letters and papers off the table and hither and thither on the floor. He retrieved them, swearing softly and decided to pop along and see Captain John Sergeant. It being a Sunday, he found him unshaven and undressed and writing letters. Larry picked up John’s tom-tom drum and tapped out some noisy rhythms. The tom-tom was beginning to crack under the strain of being beaten by every officer who dropped in to visit John. The two squabbled about several unimportant topics for a short while and ended up having a brief tussle during which time John’s mosquito net was torn and his towel dirtied. Larry made a rapid and strategic withdrawal. Boredom had started to get to them all.

A couple of diversions relieved the tedium towards the end of February. A Brigade Swimming Gala provided an alternative to a favoured pastime of imbibing large quantities of rum and Larry swam for the No. 5 team, helping lead them to overall victory.

The Stephens Special (or ‘The Death Dive’) – Larry Stephens self-portrait

Rum was back on the agenda again though when the officers were invited to a party at the Sisters’ Mess of the local hospital. According to Larry it was, “the usual combination of liquor, food, liquor, liquor, small talk and liquor. I became enmeshed (I know not how),” he said, “with a pudding-faced female who prefaced every remark with: ‘well – I know you’ll think I’m awfully bla-a-a-asé but…’  I was somewhat stinko, as usual, and she was sitting opposite me with her knees drawn up under her chin.

‘Isn’t it awfully chilly,’ said she.

I remarked that I found it a little warm, too warm in fact.

‘Oh well,’ she said, ‘I suppose you’re wearing far more clothes than I am.’

‘Yes,’ replied I, ‘For instance, I’m wearing pants.’ After that remark she left me, thank God.”

Larry later discovered that one of the other officers, “who had been outside with her earlier on (looking at the stars, of course) had her pants in his right-hand trouser pocket…

He always was absent-minded.”

Men of 3 Commando Brigade rest at Akyab © IWM (SE 2300)

Further information

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
Get some unique rewards and your name in the back of the book when you pre-order

Brigadier KRS Trevor CBE DSO’s account of The Battle of Hill 170

Patricia Burke performs for British Troops at Akyab © IWM