Michael Flatley

Name: Michael Flatley
2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment
Service Number
: 4751650
Date of Death:
26 May 1944
Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

Michael Flatley – with thanks to Andrew Maloney for the photograph

Michael Flatley was born in Batley on 15 January 1916. His parents John and Catherine (Kate) Flatley (née Cooney) married in the latter part of 1903. John was born in Co. Mayo in 1881, whereas Catherine was born in Batley in September 18831 to Irish-born parents. And it was with Catherine’s parents, Michael and Bridget Cooney, that the married couple were living at the time of the 1911 census, in a house they listed as being 25 Ambler Street. This portion of the street was also known as Cooper Street, and the enumerator on his forms listed the address as being Cooper Street.2

John, who previously worked as a mason’s labourer, was now employed in a woollen mill. Kate also worked in the textile industry as a rag sorter. Also in the house was the Cooney’s 27-year-old nephew (and Catherine’s cousin), Michael Merriman, along with John and Catherine’s two young daughters, two-year-old Kate, and Elizabeth, age one. But the house was by no means big. The census lists it as having only two rooms, and bearing in mind that the kitchen (if indeed there was a separate kitchen) was to be counted amongst the rooms, the conditions must have been cramped for five adults and two children from essentially three separate family units.

The other striking thing about the census entry is the family information provided for John and Catherine. In addition to their two surviving (at this point) children, in their short married life four other children had been born and died. The longest surviving of these lived only eleven months.

In fact, Michael was the couple’s ninth of 13 children traced. Of these, only Michael and four others survived into adulthood. I have listed the children born, many at yearly intervals, and the catalogue of deaths to attempt to give some sense of scale of loss. But nothing can adequately illustrate the sense of pain and despair, with a succession of tiny coffins making their way for burial in Batley cemetery – often within days or weeks of birth.

  • Patrick, born February 1904 and died September 1904, age six months;
  • William, born and died May 1905, age seven days;
  • Annie, born and died August 1906, surviving for only two days;3
  • Mary, born August 1907 and died July 1908, age 11 months;
  • Catherine, born September 1908;
  • Elizabeth, born January 1910 and who was buried on 2 October 1911
  • John, born and died August 1911, surviving for only 19 days;
  • Mary Ann, born January 1913 and died September 1913, age eight months;
  • Michael, born January 1916;
  • John, born March 1917 and died May 1918, age 18 months;
  • John, born January 1920
  • Nora, born March 1921
  • Mary Anne, born October 1922

So, that was Michael’s family background, all within the parish of St Mary of the Angels.

After leaving school, Michael retained his association with St Mary’s church. He also became a member of Batley’s Irish Democratic League Club. As for employment, Michael worked in the textile industry. The 1939 Register records his occupation as a spinner. His employers, prior to his military service were Messrs. G. and J. Stubley Ltd. Bottoms Mill, Batley.

The Register, taken weeks after the declaration of war, shows the Flatley family still living at 25 Cooper Street, Batley.4 Now the household consisted of parents John and Catherine, and their grown-up children Michael, John, Nora and Mary Anne. The other surviving child, Catherine, married two years earlier and had left home. It was only a matter of months later that Michael, too, left home, to serve with the Army.

He served as a private with the 2nd Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment and, prior to his death in May 1944, had spent the last two years of his life in the India subcontinent. Here he was involved in what was described as “one of the most gruelling campaigns of the war” – the campaign of guerrilla warfare carried out by British Empire troops, known as the Chindits, in Burma.5

Burma (now Myanmar), part of the British Empire in this period, was invaded by Japan in January 1942. The capital, Rangoon, fell in March 1942 and British forces were driven over the border into India in a 1,000-mile retreat.

The Chindits, named after the Chinthe which was a Burmese mythical creature and temple guardian, were forces comprised primarily of the British Indian Army and Gurkhas. Under the leadership of their founder Major-General Orde Wingate DSO, they undertook guerilla-style warfare, all part of the wider campaign to recapture Burma. Entering Burma, in small mobile units linked by wireless communication, they operated deep behind Japanese lines. They disrupted Japanese communications and attacked their supply lines, blowing bridges, railway tracks and blocking supply routes, then melted back deep into the cover of the jungle. This harassment of the enemy aimed to cause confusion, disrupt their plans and divert their resources

The environment in which they operated was difficult. A combination of disease, topography with Burma’s jungle-covered mountain ranges and several rivers dissecting the country, its climate with monsoon conditions affecting roads and communications, and also its dangerous wildlife, all made operations extremely challenging.

Two Chindit expeditions were launched. The first, codenamed Operation Longcloth, took place between February and June 1943 and involved 3,000 men who marched over 1,000 miles and were supplied by airdrops. Around 27 percent (818 men) of the original force were killed, wounded or posted missing. Many of those that did eventually make their way back to India over a period of several months were unfit for further service.6 This experimental operation provided a learning experience for the next time.

The second operation involved over 20,000 soldiers, mainly made up of British battalions supplemented by Burma Rifles, Gurkha and Nigerian battalions and a company of Hong Kong volunteers, in what became known as a Special Force. Operation Thursday, as it was known, took place between March and August 1944.

In June 1944, John and Catherine received news that Michael had died in India as a result of illness. However, looking at other details, outlined below, it appears he actually died in Burma.

Later that year, a letter from his Company Commander, Captain J. R. Vasey, revealed more about the circumstances surrounding his death. Expressing sympathy with the family, and explaining Michael had been doing a fine job serving in the Chindit campaign, he wrote:

I was present of the time of Pte. Michael Flatley’s death. His great friend and mate throughout this campaign was cleaning his rifle when we suddenly heard a shot, and found your son had been shot through the neck. Fortunately, Pte. Flatley knew no pain, as it was instantaneous.7

Michael was originally buried in Sahmaw War Cemetery, Burma (Myanmar). According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, this was an original ‘Chindit’ cemetery containing many of those who died in the battle for Myitkyina (17 May to 3 August 1944). His body, along with those of several other comrades, was exhumed in June 1954 for reburial in Taukkyan War Cemetery. This is the largest of the three war cemeteries in Myanmar, and was begun in 1951 for the reception of graves from cemeteries, including Sahmaw, which were difficult to access and could not be maintained.

Taukkyan War Cemetery – Taukkyan – North of Yangon (Rangoon) – Myanmar (Burma), Photo by Adam Jones, https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones/11816663713, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Michael is remembered on Batley War Memorial.

1. The 1939 Register gives her date of birth as 22 October 1882, but this does not fit with other sources including the GRO Indexes which give her birth as being registered in the March quarter of 1884, and the baptism register for October 1883 which gives a September 1883 birthdate;
2. 1911 England and Wales Census, The National Archives (TNA) Ref: RG14/27245;
3. Annie Flatley’s birth and death were registered as this. There appears to be an error in the Batley Cemetery Register, where her burial is registered under the name of Mary Flatley;
4. 1939 Register, TNA Ref: RG101/3608B/011/42 Letter Code: KMEX;
5. Batley News, 21 October 1944;
6. Role of the Chindits in the Burma Campaign, https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/vj-day-75-role-of-the-chindits-in-the-burma-campaign/;
7. Batley News, 21 October 1944.

Other Sources:
1891 and 1901 Censuses;
Batley Cemetery Burial Register;
Batley’s Roll of Honour website, http://www.batleysrollofhonour.com/;
Chindits, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chindits;
Commonwealth War Graves Commission;
GRO Indexes;

With thanks to the Batley’s Roll of Honour website for allowing me to use their research.