2 Nov 2010

Elephants' role in rescues revealed

4:22 pm on 2 November 2010

The story of a British tea-planter who rescued hundreds of people in Burma during World War II using a herd of elephants has been told in full at Cambridge University for the first time.

Gyles Mackrell became known as the Elephant Man when he saved scores of refugees by crossing a flooded river in Burma - as Myanmar was then known - in 1942 in the face of the Japanese advance in South Asia.

The BBC reports Cambridge University has pieced together an account of the event from letters, diaries and film.

Mackrell, aged 53 at the time, had spent most of his life in Assam, where he worked as an area supervisor for Steel Brothers tea exporters.

Rangoon had fallen and tens of thousands of people were trekking through dense jungle towards the safety of the Indian border.

By May 1942, groups of evacuees were stranded on the banks of the narrow rivers dividing the two countries because torrential monsoon rains were making the waters almost impossible to cross.

The air force dropped food supplies but the British were able to do little more.

Mackrell, who had access to elephants through his work, learned about the situation on 4 June 1942.

In his diary, he wrote: "I promised to collect some elephants and move off as quickly as I could, as they told me the party behind would be starving, especially if they got held up by the rivers."

After initially rescuing a group of 86 soldiers trapped on a mid-river island, about 200 people had been saved by September that year.

At one stage Mackrell had to go back to Assam to recover from fever before returning to the Dapha.

Afterwards, Mackrell received the George Medal. He died in Suffolk in 1959.