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  • Christina Drummond

Lieutenant George Albert Cairns VC, The Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert's)

Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1944, Lieutenant George Albert Cairns VC, The Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert’s), died in Burma, weakened due to his left arm having been hacked off the previous day by a Japanese soldier during the fighting on the Japanese lines. Despite being so grievously wounded he killed his attacker, picked up the fallen Japanese sword which had taken his arm and continued fighting. For his actions that day he was awarded the Victoria Cross; it was stated in his Victoria Cross citation that the Japanese were completely routed, a very rare occurrence at that time.

The Somerset Light Infantry was attached to the South Staffordshire Regiment in Burma; they were a Chindit battalion, part of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. They had been dug in close to a hill near Henu and Mawlu, an area known as the White City; unknown to them at the time they were close to a small Japanese force who did not know of the British presence. However, on the 16th of March the fighting began. The British were under the command of General Michael Calvert who led the attack in person, and he reported that “At the top of the hill, about fifty yards square, an extraordinary mêlée took place, everyone shooting, bayoneting, kicking at everyone else, rather like an officers’ guest night."

Lieutenant Norman Durant, who was commanding one of the South Staffordshire Regiment’s machine gun platoons, described the action in a letter home to his family: “The first thing I saw on reaching the path was horrible hand-to-hand struggle going on further up the hill. George Cairns and a Jap were struggling and choking on the ground, and as I picked up a Jap rifle and climbed up towards them I saw George break free and, picking up a rifle bayonet, stab the Jap again and again like a madman. It was only when I got near that I saw he himself had already been bayoneted twice through the side and that his left arm was hanging on by a few strips of muscle. How he had found the strength to fight was a miracle, but the effort had been too much and he died the next morning. After a brief "intermission," Calvert’s forces broke the Japanese resistance, driving them from the area: The fighting had been not unlike that depicted in scenes from ancient battles in the closeness of the hand-to-hand grappling before the Japs finally broke. In spite of our casualties, we had all that elation of the winners of a good battle, especially of a bayonet charge…I spoke to Lieut. Cairns before he died. ‘Have we won sir? Was it all right? Did we do our stuff? Don't worry about me.’ Five years later His Majesty graciously awarded Lieut. Cairns the Victoria Cross..…We counted forty-two Jap dead, including four officers. More were shot and killed or wounded by our machine guns as they struggled across the open paddy, with the Japs giving them some covering fire from Mawlu, 800 yards across the paddy on to Pagoda Hill.”

Before the war, Lieutenant Cairns had worked at the Belgian Bank in Sidcup in Kent, where he met his wife, who was another employee. It was she who in 1949 approached her MP to make representations to the War Office for the posthumous Victoria Cross; she had been listening to a broadcast on the radio and heard of her husband’s bravery. The original recommendation been lost due to an aircraft crash, and further delay was caused when the recommendation surfaced, as two of the required three witnesses had been killed. He is buried in the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Burma, and a stone memorial can be located at St. Mary the Virgin Church at Brighstone on the Isle of Wight. George, from London, was 30 years old and had been married for one year.

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