The little-known story of an intrepid Second World War rescue operation out of Burma by a British tea-planter dubbed ‘The Elephant Man’ recently made international headlines
Visitors to Southeast Asia often go trekking on elephantback—notably in the Golden Triangle region, straddling the Northern Thai, Myanmar and Laotian borders. Such outings often take in visits to hill-tribe refugee camps before participants make their return-leg ride back to base-camp via a raft or oversized inflatable inner tube. This kind of organized tourist jungle jaunt is so consistently popular it has become an established backpacker rite of passage. Most punters are unaware, however, that such expeditions have a venerable, historic heritage.
“It’s a remarkable story of courage, spirit and ingenuity,” said Dr. Annamaria Motrescu of Cambridge University Centre of South Asian Studies. Moreover, the escapade “took place at a time when no one was sure what the consequences of the war in the Far East would be.”
The mission in question was executed back in 1942 by a British tea-planter named Gyles Mackrell—dubbed by the press of the time as “The Elephant Man.” It saw the colonial-era trader braving torrential monsoon floods on elephantback in order to rescue hundreds of refugees from starvation. The episode played out amid the chaotic British retreat from Burma, while Japanese forces plundered a brutal advance in South and Southeast Asia.
Researchers are piecing together the unlikely tale of derring-do via Mackrell’s personal cache of letters, diaries and amateur films shot during the expedition, bequeathed to the Centre of South Asian Studies by Mackrell’s niece.
“The story is a sort of Far Eastern Dunkirk, but it has largely been forgotten since the war,” said Dr. Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the centre. “Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it.”
Born in 1889, Gyles Mackrell had spent most of his life in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, where he was an area supervisor for tea exporters, Steel Brothers. He was 53 when the Japanese mounted an initially devastating assault on British-held Burma in January 1942. By March, the Burmese capital of Rangoon was evacuating; in April, the army was beating a full retreat.
Tens of thousands of people—many of whom were wounded, sick and starving—fled on foot, trekking hundreds of miles through thick jungle towards the safety of the Indian border. Those who did not die en route and made it to the border in May then faced flooded narrow river passes dividing the two countries. Some groups of refugees consequently forced to camp out on the riverbanks stayed alive on food supplies airdropped by the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Other, less fortunate exiles had to subsist on fern fronds.
Mackrell knew the jungle and fluently spoke the dialects of local hill-tribes. Crucially, his work also granted him access to pachyderms—apparently the only reliable means of crossing the monsoon-flooded rivers.
“I promised to collect some elephants and move off as quickly as I could,” he wrote in his diary, after receiving an S.O.S. on June 4 from a group of refugees who had managed to cross the Dapha River by making a human chain.
In a series of epic forced marches, Mackrell reached the Dapha by June 9. He sighted a group of 68 soldiers
trapped on an island mid-river. The films Mackrell shot show elephants tusk-deep in torrential rapids, struggling to make progress downriver. But when the waters fell briefly in the early morning hours, a window opened in which the soldiers were evacuated.
In the following weeks, Mackrell and his colleagues set up camp on the Dapha to help across a stream of refugees. His rescue party were themselves frequently short of supplies and fever-stricken; at one stage Mackrell himself had to go back to Assam to recuperate, before returning to the Dapha upon his recovery.
The dramatic operations had saved around 200 people by the time they ceased in September 1942. Mackrell even rescued the final group of refugees against the orders of the British government, who, acting on faulty intelligence, had ordered his party to relocate.
The archive features a note by Sir R. E. Knox, from the Treasury’s Honours Committee in London, noting the risk of death Mackrell faced during the evacuation “could be put, very roughly, at George Medal: 50% to 80%.” Indeed, Mackrell eventually received the George Medal. He was briefly celebrated as “The Elephant Man” in the British press in 1942—though “Mackrell was embarrassed by the attention he received,” according to Dr. Motrescu.
However, as the war progressed, his exploits became a forgotten historical footnote. He died in retirement in Suffolk in 1959. A short film chronicling the epic rescue mission using Mackrell’s footage is online at Cambridge University’s YouTube channel.