Thousands of British civilians rushed to the aid of their military men in May 1940, and their story has been captured in Christopher Nolan’s intimate World War II epic Dunkirk, which released in theatres this Friday. This mass evacuation is a reminder of another operation that took place not very far from India – in the jungles of what was then called Burma, a British tea planter helped stranded refugees flee the country in 1942 on the back of his elephants.
When Japan invaded Burma during World War II, Gyles Mackrell saved more than 200 Burmese men with the help of elephants from his tea plantation. In 2010, Cambridge University released the amateur documentary footage filmed by Mackrell himself (video above).
The story goes that when he received an SOS call from the refugee group which had trekked for miles through the jungle, Mackrell immediately gathered his elephants and set up camp on the bank of the river Dapha along the Indian border. Slowly but steadily, he helped the refugees cross the river on the elephant’s backs.
Dr Kevin Greenbank, an archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University told The Telegraph: “The story is a sort of Far Eastern Dunkirk, but it has largely been forgotten about since the war. Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it.’’
The mission was later nicknamed Trunkirk in a tip of the hat to the elephants.