John Neville Shipster
Mist Over the Rice Fields is the war memoir of John Neville Shipster, an infantry officer who served with the 2nd Punjab Regiment in Burma during the Second World War and later with the Middlesex Regiment in Korea. Shipster was awarded an immediate DSO for heroism in the Arakan battles and wounded three times during the course of the Burma campaign. After interludes in insurgent Malaya, occupied West Germany and Hong Kong, Shipster was ordered to Korea where he served with the 27th Commonwealth Brigade. After a distinguished military career, the author retired with the rank of colonel.
At the outbreak of the Second World War the author was a student at the prestigious public school, Marlborough. Possessing the requisite academic credentials, Shipster applied for a fast track commission in the rapidly expanding British Indian Army. After a wearisome voyage to Bombay, Shipster underwent a training regime he would later find to be completely unsuited to the jungle battlefields of Arakan and Kohima. Newly commissioned into the Indian Army, Shipster enjoyed the relative ease of garrison life until the Japanese entry into the war in December 1941.
Shipster was assigned to the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Punjab Regiment as an infantry platoon commander. As with most Indian Army battalions, the 7th was a heterogeneous force consisting of companies of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Given that none of the warrant officers, NCO’s and men of the battalion spoke English Shipster necessarily devoted himself to the study of Urdu. Shipster’s account of the qualities (and peculiarities) of his fellow soldiers and the routine of life in the Indian Army makes for insightful reading. Throughout 1942 the 7th Battalion (part of the 7th Indian Division) prepared for the coming Japanese offensive in Burma.
The author’s first experience of battle came at Arakan where his battalion was engaged in heavy, chaotic fighting with units of the Japanese 55th Division. Shipster’s memories of this battle are alternately fragmented, hazy and vivid. He saw ragged Japanese corpses, a close friend killed by a sniper and an enemy soldier die by a burst of fire from his own weapon. Shipster partly fills in the gaps in his memory by reviewing the general course of the battle, considering the leadership of the opposing forces and summarising the tactical lessons drawn from the battle. The fighting at Kohima is described in much the same way, with the author’s personal narrative interrupted with peripheral, if interesting, content.
Shipster’s account of the pursuit of the Japanese Army after Kohima is actually more compelling than his recollections of combat. He describes the nature of the pursuit, the difficulties of operating in dense jungle and the terrible ordeal of the retreating enemy. Indeed, unlike many Allied veterans, Shipster empathised with his enemy, respecting not only Japan’s martial prowess but also the universal experience of war. Years later Shipster travelled to Japan where he met with Japanese veterans to share recollections and to explore the mentality of his wartime enemy.
Following the Japanese surrender the author and his unit were airlifted to Siam to disarm Japanese forces and repatriate Allied POW’s. Upon landing on the pockmarked airfield in Bangkok the scruffy looking Shipster was greeted by a smartly turned out Japanese honour guard. After a pleasant stay in Siam the author’s battalion sailed to Singapore where a communist insurgency was beginning to take shape. On a sightseeing excursion into the Malaysian countryside Shipster only narrowly escaped from an insurgent ambush. An unnamed officer travelling with him was captured and later ransomed for $50,000!
With the demobilization of the Indian Army Shipster returned home to England in 1946 before being posted to occupied Germany with the Middlesex Regiment. It was here that the author met his wife, a child search officer working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organisation. The couple returned to England briefly before the regiment was activated for overseas deployment.
In 1949, as tensions with China escalated over possession of Hong Kong, Shipster’s battalion formed part of the modest reinforcement sent to bolster the garrison. However, no sooner had tensions eased in Hong Kong than war broke out in Korea. Shipster’s under strength battalion was attached to the hastily assembled 27th Commonwealth Brigade. Fighting as a company commander with the Middlesex Regiment, Shipster participated in the fighting around the Pusan Perimeter, the advance deep into North Korea and the dramatic retreat that followed the Chinese intervention. In 1951 the brigade was relieved and Shipster, with his weary battalion, returned to Hong Kong. Though the author remained in the Army for many years after Korea, it is here that his memoir closes.
Mist Over the Rice Fields is a fine, thoughtful account of an infantry officer who survived two bloody wars in Asia. Perhaps the only significant drawback to Shipster’s memoir results from the periodic interruption of his narrative due to wounds or failings in memory. These gaps are found primarily during the Second World War chapters and are partly filled by secondary sources and the accounts of other soldiers who served in Burma (Empire and Japanese). These rather understandable disruptions aside, Mist Over the Rice Fields succeeds in painting a memorable picture of the jungle fighting in Burma and the British Army in the early years of the Cold War.
(Reviewed by K.H. Roberts)