Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Postblogging April, 1944: Technical Appendix: The Road to Mandalay

I'm stealing images from Google Earth again. Credit is to Prabin Pebam, and the original is very evocative of what an evening in Imphal must be like. I am tempted to tick "original size," but I'd probably get into trouble. And totally commission Pebam for any design work that you might have.  

As I'm taking the Sun to be low in the southwest, it follows that we're looking north through  towards the valley of Assam, not south through the mountains towards the holy mountain of Mandalay on the banks of the Irrawaddy. 

That is

I did not intend to talk about this road today, or even this year. General Slim is going to lead the Fourteenth Army over the mountains and down into the valley of the Chindwin on his way to Rangoon after the monsoon. The victory of 1945 can be construed as one of a British (Indian) army over the m main forces of an enemy in a continental war, not since Wellington, etc etc. That strikes me as logic good for someone high on Mackinder*, and the real point that we would do well to focus on is that Slim replaced Monty as CIGS after Viscount Alamein's short and stormy tenure, and in defiance of Monty's recommendation that he be succeeded by Crocker. So there's some interesting politics right there, with Slim being inferentially the more Labour-friendly CIGS. Is he there to deal with the political firestorm that National Service has turned out to be? Is his retrospective reputation burnished by his political indispensability? What does the retrospective narrative of Fourteenth Army tell us about politics and arms at mid-century? I have not concealed my preference for engineers and artillerists at Chief of Staff over career staff officers like Slim, be they ever so attractive and successful commanders. The last thing we need in the commanding heights of society is even more "managers" than get there on their own.  

 I have thoughts about Fourteenth Army's victorious advance into Burma, I am saying, thoughts that I have barely begun to formulate, and next year would have been a good time to talk about the Army's Main Line of Communications.

But here's the thing: the logic of doing a "technical appendix" to my techblogging is to follow up the leads as they occur in the moment, and in the last one, we ran into Stabinol. I linked to the Highways Department Final Report on Chemical Soil Stabilizers [1975], so you will know that Stabinol was one of a number of products advertised as soil additives that will turn poor-wearing compacted soil beds into hard-wearing ones, thereby greatly reduced the cost of road building and maintenance. You know that it did not pass the tests, and, if you did the same Google search that I did to find the PDF, you know that the named, "Stabinol," has been recycled for a proprietary formulation of chlorpropamide, an adult diabetes treatment drug. 

It was a technological blind alley, is what I am saying. But that is not nearly the end of the story. This blog has very lightly touched on the good, soft Earth, once bound by a tight grass sod, now by concrete turned to bitumin. It is a bit of a miracle that we can do the things we do on this Earth, fly off great airliners and move millions of tons of stuff on tractor trailers. It is because of the quotidian miracle of civil engineering, which makes the countryside roadable. 

I call this miracle "quotidian" because it is a polite way of saying "boring." That is, we erect might superstructures of history of technology in order to tell the kinds of stories that interest us. (The politics of right now! And, also, what about this "economic insecurity" thing?) Those foundations do not shift, which is important; but we do not care to investigate just why this is the case. But should we be using history of technology if we do not know this stuff? I think not. 

So, now, the Road to Mandalay.

That's Sinatra. Mouth wide, tweaking all over the stage, and rewriting the lyrics to turn a "Burma girl" into a "Burma broad." Stay classy, Frank!

Let's get this out of the way: there were two armies in Burma. The first fetishised Burma as exotic east. Kipling's poetry implies a certain grasp of what "roads" and recurrences mean in Buddhist metaphor, but, in general, Buddhism is not well served in the English-speaking world by the people who have appointed themselves the tradition's translators and evangelists, and I am certainly not going to test Kipling's Buddhism here.

The second, well, the second lived Buddhism. It is, I think, something that we do not take seriously enough in contemplating the Japanese Army in World War II. What did it mean for Japanese soldiers to be stationed in the exotic south of Theravadan Buddhism, where the holy language was Pali, not Sanskrit? In particular, what did it mean to be in the land that leveraged the volcanically sudden shift in the region from Mahayana to Theravada just at the beginning of the Shogunate? Burma has been a road for Buddhist proselytisation from long before the rise of the great heresy. Does Japan bear the burden of this trauma, in the way that the Reformation still lurks under the papered-over confessional divides of our continent? 

I don't know; I am just asking, but the roads of Burma have been the roads of proselytism across long ages of East Asian history. And that's probably where I want to stop talking about roads as ideas if I want to finish this post in reasonable time at a reasonable length.

Here's a Google Earth version of the terrain between Imphal and ...Burma in general. We lose the country roads that lead up out of the basin into the mountains which, Google tells us, end mysteriously at the border between India and Burma. These would be the "bridle paths" along which the Japanese managed to advance a division-plus of troops, including tanks and medium artillery: a remarkable achievement that does not deserve to be brushed off with cliches about the teeming masses of Asia and their remarkable ability to do manual labour.

What we are seeing here is terrible terrain for a military advance. Writing in the prewar era, British military engineers identified a single, 20 foot road as an appropriate axis of advance for a division, not an army. Admittedly, the Sacred Way to Verdun supported an entire army on this front, carrying 23,000t of munitions, 2500t of materials (larger bulk loads), and 190,000 men in a single week, but this was an unparalleled effort, with quarries open right along the way simply throwing gravel down between vehicles. Peak volume on a single military road in the upcoming war,will be 16,000 vehicles in a twenty four hour period at a traffic check point on the Naples-Rome road just prior to the final attack at Cassino. This is basically managed bumper-to-bumper traffic, and an interesting comment on the often glossed-over value of absolute air superiority.** 

Now I want to take a brief plunge into history. Kirke starts his paper on roads in war with the roseate memory of an 1839 march on Kandahar in which a British Indian army 50,000 strong, including followers, with 30,000 camels, made over 1000 miles in 130 days through at least potentially hostile territory, launching an improvised bridge across the Indus at Sutlej on the way. Could this be done today, Kirke rhetorically asks? No! the army of the internal combustion engine era is paradoxically both more and less mobile: far faster, but far more roadbound. George Weale of the South African Engineers offers some parallel examples, When Eighth Army was  pursuing the fleeing Armoured Army Africa, it had to  follow the ancient coastal road between Sirte to Tripoli, which the Italians had improved as the Via Balboa. That road travels on a fairly typical geological formation for the region, consisting of a natural bank, or bund, between salt marshes and the sea. In one stretch of 20 miles, there is only enough bund for a single roadbed. Although improved with a macadam formation and seal coat, it very nearly failed, and required a heroic roadbuilding effort, conducted in the midst of the advancing army, to keep the pursuit alive. It is as well to remember that elsewhere in the Western Desert, it was routine for there to be a whole skein of subsidiary roads braided beside the main route for taking tanks, guns, marching infantry, and "A Echelon" vehicles. Without this ability to spread out, Eighth Army came very close to wearing its way through its road, bringing the campaign to a premature close.

If this little tidbit doesn't adequately illustrate the relationship between civil engineering and military movements, at least I hope that the reader is as idly curious about the ancient coastal route between Tripoli and Cyrenaica. Apparently, the road goes coastwise because of this is where the wells, which are actually taps into the subterranean aquifer running out to sea, lie.    

Another fascinating fact about main communications lines and military engineering, drawing, again, from Weale's account. Cassino was such a vital target precisely because the main route from Naples to Rome led through it, and, necessarily, nowhere else. Having been levelled and cratered by bombing, the route was thoroughly obstructed, and the lower town flooded by breaches in the drainage system. Having planned in advance for a civil engineering coup de main, Allied engineers gathered 37 buldozers, 9 motor graders, 7 mechanical shovels, 22 dump trucks, 266 other trucks and 35 40 ton tank transporters with three road construction companies and improvised asphalt-making plant, and bulldozed a road through the ruins (although they cheated and used the railway embankment) in 36 hours. The 16,000 vehicles in 24 hours was not achieved by a miracle, but by a massive commitment of materiel, equipment and men. This is not something that we expect to see on the Tamu-Kilewa Road. Mountainous terrain, weather, time, and an exiguous rear Line of Communications area are  constraining the Allies' ability to build roads. I show you a potential route of advance above, but it is not one that will take the investment of resources needed to turn it into a satisfactory support route. 

And yet the attack happens. How? 

True to the military historian's tradition of making the geography as illegible as possible, the road is identified by beginning and end points that rarely show up on maps. or, when they do show up on maps, are offered in the most unhelpful way possible. Grousing aside, here are Robert Sutherland Colquhoun's maps.***  


At this scale, the Tamu-Kalewa section seems pretty unimportant, which is a lesson about scales. Distances differ depending on how you travel them: fly, drive, walk or dig. Here's what Tamu-Kalewa looks like if you dig the distance:

Ordinarily, I would grouse about the counterintuitive orientation of the map, but ICE is limited here by the foldout format. We take what we can get, and remember that the north-south orientation of the previous map is left-to-right here. 

Under colonial rule, the Public Works Directorates in Burma built a metalled road from Kalewa to Kalemyo, and an unmetalled one to Fort White. In the Kabaw Valley beyond, a few villages were linked by bullock cart tracks passable in the dry season, by 1945 in disuse and overgrown with nine-foot buffalo grass. Prewar, a trace was surveyed from Kyigon to Tamu, but not worked on, and in 1942 the refugees used the cart tracks. About that time, the PWD bestirred itself to work on a new road alignment between Indainggyi and Tamu, clearing a 50ft width for several miles and dumping some teak for bridge building. With the Japanese advance on Tamu, this was all abandoned. In the Spring of 1944, roadbuilding was again begun, this time south from Tamu, and again abandoned as the Japanese pre-empted plans. 

In the wake of Kohima, just to be redundantly repetitive, the Staff decided to attack, and asked for an all-weather, two-way road with all bridges capable of taking 70t loads, able to take 350t.day in the monsoon and operable at that time 4 days out of 7. 

Setting equipment, men and material aside, there is also the question of the engineering. The classic permanent way, as of 1945, is waterbound macadam. That's quite a nice Wikipedia article, but just to repeat, or elaborate on what it has to say, a waterbound macadam road consisted, traditionally, of a layer of broken stone on a prepared base. Once the rock was laid, it would be rolled with heavy rollers and washed. The rolling abrades the rock, creating dust, which the washing packs down, eventually creating a waterproof surface that generations of high-pressure, steel-rimmed heavy wagon wheels will just further compact and harden. The coming of the pneumatic tyre on the bicycle in the 1890s (no, seriously!) caused a bit of a crisis, as the suction of the lifting tyre dismantled the roads, and led to their being sealed with a binder of asphalt. 

Depending on conditions and expected uses, a roadbuilder might also work in concrete, and the WWI era introduced the bituminous road, of asphalt laid directly on suitable soils, but none of these options were viable in Burma. Timing, dictated by the expected date of the next monsoon, 15 May 1945, demanded the use of novel techniques. "Soil construction" would be needed, if only because an alternte roadbed could not be brought in. It was at this point that Stabinol was considered, and that is why this is a "Technical Appendix" thing. 

Stabinol, as we have seen, was not a viable option. Instead, the army engineers in theatre went with the obvious alternative: 76 miles of road made out of cheap Bengali carpet. Admittedly, that doesn't sound very professional, so let's go with Colquhoun's preferred "Prefabricated Bituminous Surfacing." The jute carpeting was woven in really long lengths, soaked in asphalt, and then rolled up in improvised plants, carried to the required point, and unrolled. PBS was not just a brainstorm in the winter of 1945. It had had a year of proving, notably as surfacing for the forward landing grounds in the Normandy campaign, where it attracted positive attention for its dust-abating properties.

That means that this post is premature in a second way. I have just let the cat out of the bag on another of the Secret Weapons of D-Day: sacking soaked in asphalt. You heard it here first!

Here's what happens when a DC-2 loaded to 30,000lbs lands on a PBS runway. You can do it, in other words. You just don't want to do it often.

Anyway, I am not going to be the guy who claims that PBS made a good roadbuilding material. If I were being snide, I'd say that I was letting Mr. Colquhoun do that.  But that wouldn't be fair, either. R. S. is not arguing that PBS makes for good roads. He even includes some pictures of it failing.

(Plus, as you can see, a picture of a laying  machine that the lads rigged up, which kind of reminds me of a meat wrapper.) Colquhoun's point is that it was the best that was available. In building the Tamu-Kalewa Road, the final route was actually a mix of traditional and modern methods, as the Kyigon-Kalewa portion was not reached until 15 April 1945, and had to be used (on the prewar track) at the same time that it was being improved to main route of communications standards. This called for a more traditional building method, made possible by the fact that this part of the route was through a worn sandstone gorge. A single outcropping of limestone on the chosen route was nearly enough to provide broken-rock gravel for the full route, but sufficed for this section. That gives us an interesting basis for comparison.

That comparison is that the 18 miles of conventional Telford-macadam construction on the Kyigon-Kalewa leg required 70,000 tons of material, while the 76 miles of soil/PBS road up the Kabaw Valley required only 14,000. So from this perspective, PBS wins out.

One last thing here. You will  have noticed that I added an "Old Europe" tag to this posting. I use that label for when I am going to talk geography and technology in the hair-raising context of antiquity-before-aniquity, let's-recite-some-poetry-out-of-Tolkien time. The reason for the tag is finally unveiled in my last para.  70,000 tons for 18 miles. Telford, Macadam, and all the great French road engineers of the Eighteenth Century that get left out of our Whig version of the history of roads are just refining ancient technique. People have been building roads by breaking big rocks into little rocks and laying them along suitable routes (usually watershed partings) since days before history. 

And to build those roads, they are laying roughly a Great Pyramid's worth of broken rock for every 1500 miles of 20 foot width roadbed. The Great Pyramid of Giza deserves to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but, measured by human effort, there is another wonder under our feet, passing without notice as the road goes ever on. 

Have you ever read about a road, and a military operation up that road (hint: 'Market Garden') and wondered why there was only that road? A very common reason is that there is no gravel close enough to the proposed route to be worth carting it in for roadbuilding. One of these days, I may get around to talking about our grand intellectual history of the "Second" (that is, "Calvinist") Reformation, and about the County of Breda, and about quarries. I have certainly buried a narrative about gravel and roadbuilding on the West Coast in this blog already, and I am wondering, as I write this, about just why there was no permanent roadway between the lowlands of India and Burma in 1945. Is it a matter of gravel? Is there a story about another Reformation (the Mahayana>Theravada one) constrained by a limited supply of rock worth breaking? 

Quarries, rocks, soil, mud, Stabinol: we really need to be more aware of why we can be free on the land more.

*So that's an oblique reference to Halford Mackinder's "geopolitics" and his concept of a Eurasian "heartland," sometimes used to argue that a British "peripheral" strategy is doomed to fail, or doomed to fail nowadays because of that cutting edge new technology, the railway, etc. But when I googled the name, the first thing that came up was a book on the question of "university extension," from back in 1890, and the second is the the linked book, which looks interesting. Halford Mackinder, more than just a strawman!

**E. G. St. G. Kirke, "Military Roads," Army Quarterly 27, 1 (October, 1933): 120ff; Captain C. M. Singer, "Modern Roadmaking and the Needs of the Army in the Field," Army Quart. 29, 2 (1935): 329--38;  George Weale of the South African Army Engineers, ("Military Roads in East Africa, North Africa, and Italy," CEW 1: 338ff. Kirke also published on railways in war. He is one of those interwar Army Quarterly writers that I would really like to know more about, but Google only yields this interesting hit. His grandson, following in the family tradition?

***Colquhoun has three papers in volume 1 of CEW that it should not be hard for you to track down. I am not going to cite them here, because I am trying to build up to the punchline, such as it is.


  1. Pallets! http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/52/hodes.php

  2. It's a bit weird to see the whiteboard pallet presented as normal, and the CHEP as some kind of weird, Australian(!) interloper. CHEP pallets can be interlocked on trucks, as they can be entered from the sides, and so stowed wide as well as long. (If you have to do that in your refrigerated spaces, you know that some order writer is Doing It Wrong.)

    Meanwhile, whiteboard pallets tend to be pieces of junk put together out of scrap wood that disintegrate faster than they can be unloaded. I guess that's the consequence of the vend-to-own strategy. A particular pallet is associated with a particular load, and usually both are a bit expendable. (Stuff the store needs comes on CHEP or, increasingly, plastic. Stuff that people want the store to take comes on whiteboard. It's not a general rule, but it'll do.)

    Since the salvage has to come out of the stores if they are going to go on operating (cue screaming matches between managers and truck drivers), you have to ship the pallets back. "Recycling" is not an option at the front. Although in the old days, we burned the broken up pallets along with cardboard and wooden packing crates. But that's the real old days --long before I joined the industry.

    I imagine that the same applies at the warehouses and further up the chain. Empty pallets have to cycle in the opposite direction as loaded ones, or there will not be space for anything else. Having a pallet depot at the back of the chain makes sense.

    Now, you can get to a weird place where the trucks are half-taken up with salvage and undeliverable loads, but I only know that from WWII experience. Though I would not completely rule out Pepsico ending up there in the next few years, with delivery trucks cycling back and forth with half their space taken up by orders that have been refused delivery, with no storage room at the bottling plant. The flip side of that is the tendency to treat trailers and even shipping containers as improvised storage spaces.

    Did I have a point? Probably not, so I'll just wind it down, instead.

    1. Good points well made about the chep ones. #pallets