Malt and Myanmar (Part II)

Beer on Wheels

These notes will record a further story of beer, Burma and World War II. (For Part I, see here). It’s a matter of delivery of beer by truck to the field. Not just any beer, mind, but beer brewed en-route.

The arrival of the British in Burma, now Myanmar, in the 19th century was the consequence of three wars with a complex history.

Suffice to say that by 1885 Upper and Lower Burma, the lower part having been secured by mid-century, were under British fief. The usual colonial pattern followed. Establishment of British trading houses and banks. Plantations. Garrisons. Clubs – the Pegu Club in Rangoon, famously. Cricket grounds, breweries, churches. Etc.

Turning to the Second World War, beer again produces a story so outré one thinks only a novelist could have conceived it.

It is the so-called mobile brewery introduced by Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979). Mountbatten was the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command between 1943 and 1946. This brewery is specifically associated with Burma, although it may have been fielded elsewhere.

The beer was intended for forward fighting units, not rest and recreation centres or other rear areas. This contrasts, say, with the American brewery in Nice, France in 1945 I discussed earlier.

These mobile mini-plants were first publicized in 1943. Burma had been lost by then. Allied raiding, bombing and other harassment were in progress, with planning for a land invasion underway. This started in late 1944 and culminated in April of the following year.

A story in November 1943 in Australia, originating in Britain the same year, states that a 15-cwt truck carried a mash tub, boiler, cooler, and fermenting tub. It took three days to make the beer, and it would last as long. It was said the yeast contributed vitamin B. This probably softened the message for readers who might view askance the provision of beer to soldiers!

Further details appear in an article “Mobile Brewery at the Front” by Edwin J. Kirschner, a retired U.S. Army officer and historian. It was published in August 1991 in Defense Transportation Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4 (via JSTOR, so paywall or institutional access).

Kirschner first gives an impressive, concise account of Japanese military conquest in Southeast Asia post- the Pearl Harbor attack. He then explains:

At this juncture, the Allied forces in Southeast Asia were not winning. Mountbatten’s first offensive was to instill a winning frame of mind into his men by putting some fresh morale-building activities to use, such as films, theatrical shows, news bulletins, periodical publications … and a mobile brewery.

Kirschner states that Lt. Gen. Sir Reginald Denning was entrusted by Mountbatten with execution of the “traveling brewery” plan. Reginald Denning was a decorated, long-serving soldier who by this time had an administrative command. He was of the famous family that included senior members of the Bench** and the Royal Navy.

Getting the mobile brewery into the field appears to have been the immediate responsibility of Major-General Hugh “Alf” Snelling. See this Australian news account in 1945, one that addresses the great importance of supply and services in warfare. It makes sense that the man directly responsible to provide food and drink to the forces would get beer on wheels to the troops.

Published histories of the 14th Army in Burma, and of Snell’s outstanding work in logistics, confirm his role in the breweries. See e.g. the biography (2013) of Field Marshal Viscount Slim by Russell Miller.

No taste notes of the beer seem to have survived, or perhaps lurk in an obscure archive. Similarly for the design, testing, and implementation of the scheme.

A dossier deep in a Ministry of Defence file cabinet probably has the full story. A reasonable supposition though is that the army took technical advice from British brewing ranks on how to make drinkable beer on truck. Maybe the breweries on HM ships, and other wartime devices to provide beer in the field, were planned by the same small group.

The only advantage I can think of for mobile brewing in the tropics is, the beer would ferment fast, hence the three days mentioned. If drunk as quickly, probably it didn’t sour.

For Part III of this study, see here.

Note re images: the first image was sourced from the Wikipedia entry “India in World War II”, here, and is in the public domain. It pictures Indian infantry in Burma. The second image, of a 15-cwt (3/4 ton capacity) Bedford truck, is from Wikipedia as well. It was sourced here, and believed also in the public domain. All intellectual property in both belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Many thanks to my friend Gary Hodder in Toronto for drawing my attention to this story.

**We have a few lawyers who read these annals, and not one, trained in the British common law tradition, will be unaware who this Denning was.