Review in the Journal of the Families in British India Society – Issue 26 – Autumn 2011
The author joined the Indian Army (2nd Bn, 9th Jat Regiment) in 1933 and served till Independence in 1947. Towards the end of his life, he wrote out a memoir of his Indian career – not once but three times, and it is the final version that his daughter Penny Kocher has edited for publication.
The attention to detail, the honesty of the work (even to the author’s own detriment) and the vivid writing make this an outstanding military memoir. The style is easy and conversational with the slang of the period. The vignettes are vivid. Things which the participants took for granted are explained: how Church Parade in India was (ever since the events of that May Sunday in 1857 at Meerut) with full weapons including rifles and bayonets, how to relieve oneself on the field of battle, how promotion worked (or didn’t), arrangements for the partition of the Indian Army after Independence, etc.
Hislop’s career included a period on the NW Frontier, a brief tour in Malaya at the beginning of World War II – luckily for him he was recalled just before the Japanese invasion and fall of Singapore. His next posting was back to the NW Frontier- Waziristan, followed by two tours in Arakan, Burma, as at long last the war started to turn against the Japanese. At the end of the war he was in Delhi preparing the Indian Army for Independence and partition.
Engagements are clearly explained with good maps. There are lively sketches of the characters he met. He is generous too: Freddie Buckley, his CO in Waziristan, comes across as humourless and sometimes difficult (his sepoys called him “Hitler Sahib”), but Hislop pays ungrudging tribute to his efficiency as an officer. Where he cannot be kind he suppresses names. His dreadful Burma CO remains anonymous.
The editing is discreet. The introduction has a useful section on the Indian Army. At the end there is a summary of the Malaya campaign (with perhaps too much on Singapore which Hislop was not concerned in). I would have liked more on the other campaigns:Burma and the NW Frontier and Waziristan. An index would also have been useful. But these are minor points.
There is less material readily available on the Indian Army in the 1930s to ‘40s than on earlier periods, so it is good to have a lively, intelligent and informative account. Those whose ancestors were involved in these events will wish to have a copy of this excellent book.
Review from The Society of Friends of the National Army Museum
We receive a large number of self-published memoirs or diaries edited by close family members, clearly of great significance and importance to the writer or the family. It can be genuinely saddening when the result is of little merit, either historically or literary. This is far from that. John Hislop’s narrative, originally not meant for publication, (indeed, he notes that the National Army Museum may be interested*) but edited by his daughter and published by a company it seems set up for the purpose, is a valuable testament.
Hislop came from a military family, but one predominantly based in the ranks. His father had risen to be a commissioned Quartermaster but it was not a well-to-do family. His passing through Sandhurst into the Indian Army and regimental life on the North West Frontier was an achievement.
It is an incredibly detailed account of the life and workings of the Indian Army; there are particular efforts to distinguish between the workings of the ‘British’ and Indian Armies; to demolish snobbery and preconceptions. But it is not a product of ‘anecdotage’ constructed through a nostalgic, ‘chota peg’ haze.
In places there is annoyance, bitterness and anger – all honestly expressed. In truth, in many places you can sympathise with the author. He served with the 2nd/9th ]at Regiment, primarily on the North West Frontier and then taking them to Malaya in the early days of WW2. A posting to a staff course perhaps saved him; staff appointments followed before regimental duty again in 1943, in a different battalion of the Jats, eventually becoming temporary commanding officer. One would have thought that he would have gone further, but a temper and readiness to ‘speak truth to power’ seem to have put paid to that – as he admits.
This is an extremely vivid, detailed and historically useful narrative. It is a good, if not easy read and the editor has evaded many of the pitfalls of the less adept (checking with primary source material, for example). If you have an interest in the Indian Army this is a must-have.
*John Hislop’s original hand-written manuscript is held by the National Army Museum.
Review in Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Military memoirs can be a difficult read for the civilian. There is no guarantee that a good soldier will produce good writing so this book came as a pleasant surprise. It is a gripping story, even for those with but a shaky idea of the essential role the Indian Army played in Burma during the Second World War. Penny Kocher is the author’s daughter and explains in an Editor’s Note how her father, who died in 1993, spent a retirement year writing about his life as an officer with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Jat Regiment.
This book is a well-edited version of a much longer manuscript, now lodged with the National Army Museum in London. John Hislop entered Sandhurst in 1932 as a ‘gentleman cadet’ and because he came from humble background, was charged the lowest fee of £15 per term. The Indian Army was a popular choice for young officers because promotion was quicker than in the British Army. His first posting was to the Khyber Pass ‘a most exciting and dangerous place’ he tells us with the relish of a young man.
Hislop found many misconceptions about the Indian Army that were current at the time, some of which have been perpetuated and not helped by the ‘Carry On’ film. There was an unstated feeling that the Indian Army was somehow second best, and that Indians soldiers were shabbily treated by their British officers. In fact there seems to have been more camaraderie and respect between the officers and men of the various Indian Army regiments than there was between the British themselves. A poor Commanding Officer could ruin a regiment, and Hislop notes at least one,who did not stir out of Headquarters for weeks during a holding operation against the Japanese in Burma in 1944. Conditions in the Arakan were dreadful. Ration supplies were so poor that the men had to survive on tinned beetroot and chapattis for days. Heat exhaustion and sunstroke felled officers and men attempting to wade through waist-high streams in what seemed like a meaningless pattem of advance and retreat. ‘At times I think it was only pride that kept me going,’ the author admits. His honesty and frankness make this one of the most readable and revealing accounts of the campaign in Burma. After deciding to leave the Indian Army in 1947, and not wishing to join the British Army, Hislop trained to become a chartered accountant. He faced opposition and ridicule from the profession, based on prejudice against Indian Army officers, but the same tenacity that kept him going during the war ensured his success in his post-war career.
A highly recommended book.
Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones Hon.Sec and Editor
Review for the Sandhurst Foundation
ln the summer of 1956, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck opened the R.M.A Sandhurst’s Indian Army Memorial Room with its fine stained glass commemorative windows. Before a large gathering of forrner lndian Army officers, with one of whom I was staying as a guest, “the Auk” gave a message which few present will ever have forgotten, a message telling us to look back on the lndian Army with pride for its splendid achievements, but that its era was now over, history, and nostalgia would serve no purpose.
John Hislop’s reminiscences, edited by his daughter, follow “the Auk’s” counsel excellently. After passing out from Sandhurst in 1933 Hislop served in lndia with the 9th Jat Regiment and in staff appointments until the end of British rule in 1947. His various chapters cover service in the golden years before 1939, operations on the North-West Frontier and in Burma in the Second World War, and the turmoil of the final two years before independence.
Readers will learn much interesting detail about operations in Waziristan and Baluchistan before the outbreak of war, tactics needed for protection on long marches – an officer in charge of a flanking picquet might find himself moving over thirty miles per day over mountainous ground for several consecutive days, and all the problems of food supply and water. ln 1942-43, as protection as much because of anxiety over a possible German invasion via a defeated Soviet Union as of local insurgents, the equivalent of five divisions were engaged in operations in the North-West Frontier provinces. Hislop was then moved to the even more dfficult conditions of Burma, fighting the Japanese in the unfamiliar conditions of sticky heat, only a few roads and these very poor, rain, lush jungle and leeches.
Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the author’s description of how the lndian Army actually worked; the Jat Regiment battalions, for example, were structured around two companies of Hindu Jats, one company of Punjabi Moslems and one company of Musulman Rajputs, a mix requiring not only good purely military leadership to ensure the respect of all but sensitivity for different cultures and beliefs. Hislop’s long service revealed many examples of good leadership. Sadly there were also examples of bad command by others; lessons for officers in any army at any time.
A valuable addition to the history of the lndian Army, written with pride and no nostalgia.
Dr Anthony Clayton, Academic Staff RMA Sandhurst 1965-1993
Review in Durbar, the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society
This is a thought-provoking and occasionally disturbing account of the service of a British officer of the Indian Army between 1933 and 1947. Not originally intended for publication, its appearance now may be a contentious issue for some, but it delivers precisely what its title indicates – a soldier’s story. That it does so ‘warts and all’ is a refreshing departure from some of the more edited versions of regimental history that we are used to, though it does not make for comfortable reading. Yet, for all that some connected with the Jat Regiment will undoubtedly regret its appearance, one message that comes through strongly is the love John Hislop had for his regiment and his soldiers.
Hislop’s early pre-war career followed the usual pattern, spending his first year with a British Army battalion before joining his regiment, 2nd Battalion 9th Jat Regiment for a series of postings primarily in the North West Frontier area. Hislop became Quartermaster in 1936 and then Adjutant in 1938, a position he held until May 1941 during which time he took the regiment to Malaya. Only there for three months, Hislop was detailed for the short war course at Quetta and therefore missed the sad demise of his battalion and but for this twist of fate we would probably not be reading this story now. He did well and was rewarded with the job of Brigade Major, Jullundur Brigade, followed nine months later by GS02 Waziristan District. His account of frontier duties reinforces much that has been said by others before him.
He returned to regimental duty in August 1943 when he joined 5th/9th Jats in Burma as 2nd-in-command and it is here that problems arose. He clearly did not get on with his CO, Adjutant and Quartermaster and was not squeamish in stating his very robust criticisms of them. Here we should remind ourselves that these opinions were of a personal nature and were recorded as such. Operationally, Hislop recounts some remarkable journeys and duties, including a hair-raising reconnaissance for two forward company positions. Largely made by river, he tells of having to pull their dugout canoes along by grabbing hold of bushes at the side because of the fast and treacherous current. One leg of the journey took four days in one direction; ten hours on the return journey, such was the speed of the river. There are other similar anecdotes. After a spell of leave in India the Battalion returned to Arakan and in mid September 1944 Hislop assumed temporary command of the Battalion, the unnamed CO having been medically evacuated.
Although told unofficially that he had been recommended for permanent command, he blew the chance away with a spectacular falling out with his Brigade Commander. Hislop stayed on as second-in-command for a while before a brief leave in UK (to get married) and then return to Delhi to the Directorate of Military Operations. As Independence loomed, Hislop decided that his army days were over and he settled for a new life in ‘civy street.’
John Hislop does not disguise his bitterness at failing to reach substantive Lieutenant-Colonel though he recognised that he was partly to blame. He was obviously a proud and principled man who had the best interests of his soldiers at heart, but was also a prickly character who did not suffer fools gladly and was at times his own worst enemy in his dealings with those of less strong convictions. Bland he was not, otherwise, given his strong performance at Staff College, as a Brigade Major, and the way he pulled his Battalion together when in temporary command, we may have heard more of John Hislop.