Movietone at War: Alec Tozer in Burma
March 1942 – British Movieone News cameraman Alec Tozer was accompanied by George Rodger while searching for stories in Burma. George Rodger was the renowned stills photographer of Time Life based in London. They had heard that Rangoon was about to be taken by the Japanese. They wanted to get close enough to film something. They had each been equipped with a Jeep.
When Rodger and Tozer reached Rangoon, on March 4th, they found that it was deserted except for men manning the Fire Station, and various demolition teams who had set explosives to destroy all public buildings. At the docks, the American Technical Group and Chinese technicians had destroyed the entire stock of military equipment destined for China, this included over 1,000 vehicles.
After getting all their pictures, Rodger and Tozer joined a convoy leaving Rangoon. They could stay no longer because the Japanese were fast approaching and cutting off trunk roads going north.
7th March 1942 – the Fall of Rangoon. By the time the Japanese had taken the city, Rodger and Tozer were well away from Rangoon on the road back to Mandalay. They had a big problem getting their film away. There were no dispatch riders and each coverage had to be taken by them personally to the dispatch centre at Maymyo where Rodger’s still pictures were censored. Having dispatched their film, it was necessary to send an advisory cable to their London offices to state that the material was on its way. To do this, they had to go to the telegraph office in Mandalay, 43 miles further on from Maymyo.
The pair were now joined by Wilfred Burchett, an Australian journalist working for The Daily Mail. Burchett rode with Rodger in his jeep. The various war fronts were spread across Burma and were changing by the day. The trio now had to choose where to go, always bearing in mind that they would have to be able to get away from the war front back to safety.
10th March 1942 – Alec Tozer with Rodger and Burchett got their chance to be up at the front line. The three decided to go in one Jeep. Retreating British forces were in danger of being cut off. General Bruce Scott gave the order to attack the Japanese at Shwegyin and re-take the town. The intrepid trio decided that they would go in with the attacking force. Tozer filmed the crossing of the Madauk River under machine gun fire. This was a feint as the main thrust was to be twelve miles further up the river. Tozer, Rodger and Burchett went to the main crossing point. The attacking force was a mixed one consisting of Sikhs, Rajhputs, Gurkhas, Punjabis as well as some loyal Kerens from the Shan States.
The three cameramen crossed the river with the troops who came under fire. They troops in the boat returned fire. It was thought that the fire was coming from shot guns and, therefore, the opposing forces were Burmans who had gone over to the Japanese. The Burmans gave the Japanese advance warning of the approach of the Indian forces.
After landing on the river bank, they walked all through the night until they were confronted by the main Japanese force.
George Rodger wrote in his book “Far On The Ringing Plains”, published by MacMillan and Company in 1943:
Firing broke out in all directions. Bullets whipped through the jungle and mortar bombs fell among us. I dived under a rotting log for cover. With one accord, the Indians dispersed into the jungle either side, for the mortars were ranged on the path we were following. Then, as they made contact with the enemy, all hell was let loose. Hoping to get pictures of the fighting , we kept working forward, running for a few yards and then clapping down in the damp jungle mould for a few moment to regain our breath. But, though the battle raged all around me and shots were fired as close as ten yards, I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the enemy. Neither Tozer or I got a single picture.
“To hell with this” said Tozer as he slumped down beside me at the foot of a tall tree.
“And anyway”, he went on, “It’s obvious in this damned thicket, if we do see any Japs, they’ll be within five yards of us, and it would take a better man than I to stand up and take their photographs”. I agreed wholeheartedly. Then Burchett arrived, equally disgruntled. He hadn’t seen anything either.
The Indians forced the Japanese into retreat and the photographers followed them. They were able to snatch a few shots of the action as they made their way into the town. The Japanese left snipers in the buildings, many of which were burning. Eventually, they were cleared out and the rest ran off into the jungle.
On the way back to headquarters, Tozer was driving the Jeep with Rodger sitting next to him and Burchett in the back seat. Rodger bent down to remove a rag that was wrapped round the clutch pedal. As he did so, a sniper’s bullet pierced the windscreen and, had he not bent down, he would have been hit.
The Movietone At War articles are based on extracts and research for my forthcoming book: “Movietone At War”.
Additional link: Life Photographer in Burma – George Rodger’s photos in Burma 1942.
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