Daniel Berke, Captured Behind Japanese Lines (Pen & Sword, 2021)
The Chindits’ operations behind Japanese lines in Burma during World War II still arouse great controversy. Were they morale-inspiring victories or the follies of a vainglorious commander, or both? For the men involved, many of whom never came back while others languished as Japanese PoWs, there is no doubting their courage. Frank Berkovitch was one of those soldiers, and this is his story as told by his grandson.
Berkovitch joined the 13th Battalion, King’s Regiment at the outbreak of war and was sent to India in 1941. Berke leaves him there to discuss Orde Wingate, who would command the Chindits, and the fearsome and brutal Japanese enemy. Berkovitch would join Wingate’s Chindits as a Bren-gunner and one of Wingate’s batmen. After intense training, he crossed the Chindwin with the Chindits to fight the Japanese. Berke describes Burma, then and now, before narrating the Chindit expedition, providing information where his grandfather didn’t. Berke also travelled to Burma, following the route of the Chindits. The most poignant moment is when he starts on his return journey and realises that he was no longer following in Berkovitch’s footsteps because his grandfather didn’t make it back to Allied lines. The Japanese had captured Berkovitch in the Chindits’ desperate struggle to escape from Burma, and he would spend two awful years in a Japanese camp, the horrors of which are almost indescribable. Then on 30 April 1945, Berkovitch and his surviving comrades were freed by the advancing Allies. Frank Berkovitch’s physical war was over, though his mental war continued in tortured memories. Berke concludes his account with Berkovitch’s complete memoir, all of 8 pages; a brief description of the tragic fate of Michael Calvert; and a short biography and defence of Orde Wingate.
Berke does a lot with very little in this moving book that is part history, part travelogue. He only had a few pages of memoir to work with but managed to integrate that into a broader narrative of Chindit operations that focuses on all the main themes. Berke’s personal account of following his grandfather’s path to try and understand him is woven through the text, including valuable insights into Burma then and now. The result is a rewarding read for those interested in the war in Burma and those who recognise that history isn’t something consigned to dusty books on seldom visited shelves, but is contained in our experiences, both personal and collective.