Exodus Burma

Exodus Burma coverIn August 1942, deep in the jungles of Burma, a young Englishwoman wrote 104 precious words on a scrap of paper in a last message to her soldier-husband. Lillian Mellalieu was one of thousands of British refugees who’d fled from the Japanese when Burma was invaded. Her entire family travelled a thousand miles, largely on foot, hoping to escape to safety in neighbouring India. By the time Lillian wrote the note, four of her family were already dead, killed by starvation, exhaustion and disease.

Lillian and Gordon Mellalieu were among some half a million refugees who made that journey. As they fled they were caught in heavy monsoon rain which turned rivers to torrents and jungle tracks to bogs. Thousands died as they attempted to cross steep mountains, through unmapped and largely uninhabited jungle. Some drowned in the mud, others lay down by the path after placing makeshift crosses at their head. Tropical diseases swept through makeshift refugee camps along the route.

Mixed up with these fleeing civilians, were the soldiers who had held the Japanese army at bay for five months in a fighting retreat. Most were trained for desert warfare rather than fighting the battle-hardened Japanese in dense jungle. They were outnumbered and outflanked as the Japanese swept through Burma in a lightning invasion. Among them was Lillian’s husband Gordon.

As part of the research for her book Exodus Burma, the British Escape Through the Jungles of Death 1942, author Felicity Goodall spent a month travelling 2,662 miles through Burma far from the tourist trail. Her journey took her by boat up the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers, where she visited villages which had been on the refugee route. She talked to old men who remembered paths and roads “black with refugees” making their way to India. The track taken by the American General Joe Stilwell is still known as The Evacuation Route by the locals.

This Exodus of half a million Britons, Indians, and those of mixed race, was an ignominious end to a fairytale life in colonial Burma. Like Lillian Mellalieu’s note it has lain largely ignored in diaries and letters kept in archives. It is a story of heroism and courage, of love and loss.

Hear  an interview with Felicity about the book on BBC Radio 4  Today Programme also Radio 4 Excess Baggage

Amazon reviews include : this is the book I have been waiting for. There is simply nothing else published that tells this incredible story from the viewpoint of the refugees themselves, as most focus on the military retreat and subsequent recapture of Burma……

Felicity Goodall has done a tremendous job in pulling together the many strands to weave a compelling account of the Exodus from Burma.

….I love Felicity Goodall’s writing. She has a knack for finding a story and researching the tiniest human details. She creates drama and story from the archives and breathes life into history. This a wonderful book

…As one whose father made the terrible journey out of Burma I commend it to all readers.
I knew some of the story but Ms Goodall has filled in many of the gaps and the book is written from the human aspect rather than that of the Military.
It is very well written and the research involved must have been exhausting. Truly a forgotten part of WW2 the multiple stories recorded here, and the historical scene-setting to go with them, give a dimension not seen before in this part of our history.
Always harrowing and at times horrific the conditions faced by the many thousands of refugees can only be imagined. The incompetence and idiocy of the official administration (with a few wonderful exceptions) is almost unbelievable – a fact which led, probably, to many needless deaths. At the end of this book you may well agree with my sentiment: God Save the Tea Planters.
This book should be required reading for all politicians.

…A compulsive read.

…a pleasure to read – well-structured and illustrated throughout with photos both old and recent. The author has clearly done an enormous amount of research in the archives to unearth some amazing unpublished accounts and reports from the time.

….I read the entire book in two sessions as it was impossible to put down.

…I cannot recommend this book more highly

…one of those rare books that gripped me throughout



  1. I asked my daughter t give me this book for Christmas. I have been reading it and am moved, upset and sometimes distressed at what i am finding out about my homeland. My parents are Burmese and we finally left in 1952 when I was born. My parents have never talked much about the war. I became a teacher and now a dramatherapist with the NHS and I have my own theories about why and how my parents became the people they were, shaped by the war, as were my wife’s parents in Belgium. Only recently my mother told me about my father having to kill a Japanese soldier and flee.
    I havd also read ‘Through the jungle of death’ by Stephen Brookes. My daughter is about to visit Japan to see her boyfriend who is working there at the moment. My mother told me of a young Japanese woman who on discovering that my mother was Burmese, apologised to her for what her countrymen did there. My father was dreadfully upset when I named my son, Joji after a Japanese musician. I have had a difficult relationship with Burma and am trying to write a fictional book about Burma. Thank you again for what has so far been an excellent and educational and well researched book about Burma. It has quite a place in the British psyche. Yours Ye Min

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