"You're quite right, sir," said the Captain, instinctively warming to his subject. "I've tackled at least a dozen jobs like this in India. With the material available in the jungle and the personnel that we've got here, a qualified engineer could build this bridge in under six months. There are times, I'm afraid, when their incompetence simply makes my blood boil."
"I agree," said Hughes. "I can't help it, but I sometimes feel like screaming at the sight of such inefficiency. You'd think it was quite simple to "
"What about me?" the Colonel broke in. "Do you think I'm pleased with this scandalous state of affairs? I'm absolutely appalled by what I've seen this morning."
"Well, anyway, sir," laughed Captain Reeves, "I don't think we need worry about the invasion of India if this is the line they say they're going to use. The bridge across the Kwai is not quite ready to take the weight of their trains!"
Colonel Nicholson was deep in thought, but he kept his blue eyes firmly fixed on his two companions.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I can see we'll have to take a very firm line if we want to regain control of the men. Through these savages they've fallen into idle, slipshod habits unbecoming to members of His Majesty's forces. We'll have to be patient with them and handle them carefully, for they can't be held directly responsible for the present state of affairs. What they need is discipline, and they haven't had it. It's no good using violence instead. You only have to look at the result—a lot of disconnected activity, but not a single positive achievement.
These Orientals have shown how incompetent they are, when it comes to man management."
There was a moment's silence while the two officers wondered what he really meant by these remarks. But they were quite clear; there was nothing to read between the lines. The Colonel had spoken in his usual forthright manner. He let his words sink in and then went on:
"I must ask you, therefore—and I'll ask all the other officers as well—to show as much consideration as possible at first. But on no account must our patience be stretched to the point of weakness, or else well fall to the level of these brutes. I shall also speak to the men myself. As of today, we've got to put a stop to this disgraceful inefficiency. We can't have the men going absent on the slightest provocation. The N.C.O.s must answer any question put to them promptly and clearly. I don't think I need remind you of the need for firm action at the first sign of sabotage or malingering. A railway line is meant to run horizontally, and not twist about like a switchback, as you so rightly observed, Reeves. , .
In Calcutta, Colonel Green, commanding Force 316, was studying a report which had just come in by the usual roundabout route, a report embellished with the marginal comments of half a dozen military and paramilitary clandestine services. Force 316 (better known as "The Plastic and Destructions Co., Ltd.") had not yet reached the important position that it later held in the Far East, but it was already taking an active, passionate, and exclusive interest in Japanese war establishment in the occupied countries of Malaya, Burma, Siam, and China. What it lacked in material resources, it tried to make up for by the boldness and dash of its agents.
"Well, it's the first time I've ever known them all to agree," Colonel Green muttered. "We ought to do something about it."
The first part of his remark referred to the various clandestine services associated with Force 316, each working in a separate watertight compartment and pursuing an individual policy of its own, with the result that they often came to widely different conclusions. This used to infuriate Colonel Green, who was responsible for planning operations from all the intelligence available. "Ops" was the preserve of Force 316; Colonel Green was not interested in theoretical discussion except insofar as it affected his own line of action. His staff were quite familiar with his views on the matter, since he expressed them at least once a day. A large part of his time was spent in trying to sift the truth from these reports, taking into account not only the information itself, but also the psychological makeup of the various sources (optimism or pessimism, tendency to exaggerate the facts, or on the other hand, complete inability to interpret them).
Colonel Green had a special grievance against the genuine, the great, the famous, the one and only Intelligence Service, which regarded itself as an exclusively intellectual body and systematically refused to co-operate with the operational staff. Instead, it locked itself up in its own ivory tower, never let its precious documents be seen by anyone who could have made use of them, on the pretext that they were too secret, and carefully filed them away in a safe. There they remained for years, until they were no longer of use to anyone—or, to be more precise, until long after the end of the war, when one of the bigwigs felt an urge to write his memoirs before dying, to leave something to posterity, and disclose to an astonished nation how clever the Service had been on one particular date and on one particular occasion when it ascertained every detail of the enemy plan of campaign: the place and time of the impending attack had been accurately determined in advance. The forecast was a hundred per cent correct, since the enemy had indeed struck in the manner foretold, and with the success that had likewise been foreseen.
That, at least, was how it appeared, in a rather exaggerated light perhaps, to Colonel Green, who disagreed with the theory of art for art's sake being applied to intelligence matters. He muttered some inaudible remark as he thought of some of the previous ventures; then
, in view of the miraculous unanimous agreement on the present scheme, it was almost with disappointment that he felt he had to admit that for once the services had done something useful. He consoled himself with the thought— not entirely a fair one—that the information contained in the report had been known to everyone in India for years. Finally he went through it again and made a mental summary of it, with the idea of taking action on it.
"The Burma-Siam railway is now under construction. Sixty thousand Allied prisoners, drafted by the Japanese into a labor corps, are being employed on it and are working under ghastly conditions. In spite of appalling losses, it is calculated that the task, which is of considerable importance to the enemy, will be completed in a few months. Herewith a rough sketch map. It shows several river crossings by means of wooden bridges . . ."
At this point in his summary Colonel Green felt in good form again and almost grinned with pleasure. He went on:
"The Siamese people are extremely discontented with the 'liberators,' who have requisitioned all the rice and whose troops behave as though they were in occupied territory. The peasants in the railway area in particular are showing signs of unrest. Several senior officers of the Siamese army, and even some members of the royal family, have recently established contact with the Allies and are prepared to launch an anti-Japanese underground movement, for which countless peasants have volunteered. They request both weapons and instructors."
"No doubt about it," Colonel Green decided, "I'll have to send a team into the railway area."
Having made his decision, he pondered for some time on the various qualities that would be required by the leader of such an expedition. After ruling out a number of possible candidates, he called for Major Shears, an ex- cavalry officer who had been transferred to Force 316 at the time that special unit had been formed and was, in fact, one of its founder members. This private army had only seen the light of day thanks to the persistent efforts of a few individualists and the reluctant support of a handful of military experts. Shears had only just arrived from Europe, where he had successfully completed several tricky missions, when he had his lengthy interview with Colonel Green. The Colonel gave him all the information available and outlined the general purpose of his mission.
"You'll take only a few stores in with you," he said. "The rest will be dropped to you as and when you need them. About the actual operation, you'll be able to see for yourself on the spot, but don't be in too much of a hurry. I think it’ll be best to wait till the railway's finished and deliver a single powerful blow rather than risk giving the whole show away by a series of minor attacks."
There was no need to specify what form the "operation" would take or what type of stores would be used. The raison d'etre of "The Plastic and Destructions Co., Ltd." made a fuller explanation superfluous.
Meanwhile, Shears was to get in touch with the Siamese, make sure of their good intentions and loyalty, then start training the partisans.
"As I see it, you'll need a team of three," said Colonel Green, "for the moment, at any rate. How does that strike you?"
"That seems quite reasonable, sir," Shears agreed. "We need at least a nucleus of three Europeans. Any more, and we might present too big a target."
"That's settled, then. Who do you plan to take in with you?"
"I suggest Warden, sir."
"Captain Warden? Professor Warden? You certainly don't believe in half measures, Shears. With you, that'll make two of our best agents."
"I understood it was an important mission, sir," was Shears's noncommittal reply.