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Flight By Elephant: The Untold Story of World War Two's Most Daring Jungle…

by Andrew Martin

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1521,108,298 (4)4
A decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps, Mackrell was a tea plantation overseer in his mid-fifties, with a taste for adventure. Hearing that the Chaukan party was stranded by the monsoon, he knew of only one way to save the fever-weakened and starving refugees. Mackrell undertook a rescue mission given no chance of success by the authorities. The astonishing true story of a middle-aged tea planter, Gyles Mackrell, who mounted an epic rescue mission, with the aid of a herd of elephants and their mahouts.… (more)
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I went into this book with some baseline knowledge of Burma's role in WWII, after reading Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World WarII, which is generally about American forces in Burma, with emphasis on one man's plight there. Prior to that book, I never knew much, if anything really, about Burma, and even less about its role in WWII. "Flight by Elephant" is a story about an exodus through a remote section of the Burmese jungle to escape the Japanese, who were blowing through Burma and taking control of various cities as they progressed north. The book is largely from the perspective of the British, even though they were accompanied by various servants and assistants who were from India or Burma. Many of the individuals featured in the book are British army, but "army" implies a cohesive unit and survival training. This was not really the case, given the fact that they were evacuating entire towns (including pregnant women) through dangerous terrain. The individuals featured in the book are of varying ages and are, in reality, regular citizens trying to escape the Japanese using a somewhat spur-of-the-moment plan and through an unforgiving jungle.

The descriptions of the perils of the jungle were excellent, and the role of the elephants was fascinating (though it's not until you're about 35-40% of the way through the book before you really get to meet the elephants and see how their presence was so helpful...they are mentioned briefly prior to that, but it's not until later in the book when we see their day-to-day activities). Also, prior to the book, I knew nothing of the British role in Burma or Assam, and in that regard, I learned a great deal.

My biggest issue with the book is the lack of fluidity - it skipped around a lot, from one group of escapees to the next, and I found myself sometimes getting lost or bored with some of the content. I think the author was attempting to set the scene for a dramatic rescue via foreshadowing (hence the skipping around), but the large cast of characters and the fact that the book wasn't always in chronological order ended up being confusing rather than dramatic. I think the previously mentioned "Now the Hell Will Start" is a better action adventure tale, at least from a writing perspective. The writing in this book is somewhat dry.

Nonetheless, I do still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Burma's role in WWII, and I think it is a very worthwhile read. ( )
1 vote slug9000 | Mar 19, 2014 |
This is a wonderfully fun book that often reads like an adventure novel but is also the first full-length history about yet another obscure but fascinating story from WWII. The British/Allies exodus from Burma during 1942 due to the surprise Japanese invasion was chaotic and involved thousands of people walking for hundreds of miles over Himalayan mountain-jungles devoid of food. A few hundred took a "death trap" route though a certain high pass that required rescue by elephant from the India side, the only means of transport through the jungle since elephants were capable of crossing monsoon swollen rivers running off the mountains. The lead of this rescue was a local English tea planter named Gyles Mackrell and this is mainly his story.

The neat thing about this book is its possible to follow the route using Google Earth 3D to see up-close the mountains and rivers the trekkers had to contend with, and what better way to learn the geography of remote Assam and Burma. Also, Mackrell had a video camera so there is an archive of B&W videos online for free that are not re-enactments but the exact people and events discussed in the book. This is highly unusual for something from WWII. These added visuals, plus the authors own cinematic writing style bring this part of the world alive. Martin is particularly strong in his descriptions of the jungle and geography. I also learned about the Burmese exodus which I knew little about. This book was clearly written for a British audience, with some excessive genealogical detail in places (easily skipped), and may not find many American readers but hopefully it will for those who like a good adventure. ( )
  Stbalbach | Dec 14, 2013 |
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A decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps, Mackrell was a tea plantation overseer in his mid-fifties, with a taste for adventure. Hearing that the Chaukan party was stranded by the monsoon, he knew of only one way to save the fever-weakened and starving refugees. Mackrell undertook a rescue mission given no chance of success by the authorities. The astonishing true story of a middle-aged tea planter, Gyles Mackrell, who mounted an epic rescue mission, with the aid of a herd of elephants and their mahouts.

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