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Obituary1, The Daily Telegraph, Saturday, 7 October 1995

Ronald Kaulback

Ronald Kaulback ... was an adventurer in the uncharted regions of Tibet during the 1930s, and a formidable commander of tribesmen in Burma in the Second World War.

Ronald John Henry Kaulback was born on 23 July 1909 at the Royal Military College, Ontario, where his father was staff adjutant. Young Ronald grew up near Richmond, Yorkshire.

He was educated at Rugby, where he distinguished himself at athletics, rugby and rifle-shooting, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read the History Tripos, German and Russian. He played [rugby] for the LX Club and the Harlequins. In the summer vacations he played the balalaika in London restaurants with Medvedev's Russian Orchestra.

A high-spirited young man, Kaulback was known for his pranks, the most notorious of which was the ducking of Hector Mappin2 in Grantchester mill pond in 1928; the incident occupied the popular press for days.

Kaulback had intended to enter the diplomatic service but in 1933 was urged by Gen Sir Percy Sykes and Gen Sir Percy Cox, both Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, to join Capt Kingdon-Ward's next expedition to Tibet.

Kingdon-Ward, a celebrated Himalayan explorer and botanist, agreed to take Kaulback on condition he provide a witness of good character. Kaulback – somewhat rashly, in view of the Mappin incident – offered his senior tutor at Pembroke as referee.

"Dear Captain Kingdon-Ward," wrote Jock Lawson in reply to the explorer's inquiry, "I have known Kaulback well through three tumultuous years at this college, and can confidently recommend him to you as an Explorer-Companion, or as a Buccaneer, or probably best of all as President of a South American Republic."

Kaulback, Kingdon-Ward and about 60 coolies set out in March from India. A month later they reached Tibet, and pushed on into unknown territory; a missionary following them with mail and money was ambushed on the road, and had his throat slit. During the next few weeks conditions worsened. The party had to camp on small ledges in fierce blizzards.

In July, Kaulback was forced by the Tibetan authorities to return alone, by another route. On his journey he discovered a hitherto unknown pass 14,000 feet high, a river and a town.

Kaulback was plagued by rainforest leeches – on one occasion he counted 600 on his person – and bitten by a Russell's viper (he bound his arm with a tourniquet and gradually released the poison). He lived on corn cobs and cucumbers.

Between them Kaulback and Kingdon-Ward covered 2,500 miles of country never before seen by Europeans. During the next six years Kaulback led his own expeditions into the mountain country on the Sino-Tibetan border. He tried in vain to find the source of the Salween river, and surveyed and mapped an area of 50,000 square miles.

Kaulback had been assigned by the Natural History Museum at South Kensington to collect lizards, snakes, insects, birds and flowers in Upper Burma. He sent back one new species of snake (which was named trimesurus Kaulbacki), five new lizards (one of them named japalura Kaulbacki) and three new frogs.

To remind the museum staff of his hardships Kaulback thrust a handful of bedbugs, preserved in formalin, into one package. He was subsequently upbraided by an enraged bedbug specialist: it turned out that the packet had contained a new variety of bug but the formalin had corroded its legs and made it unclassifiable.

Kaulback was also pestered by bloodsucking flying insects, and one night ordered one of his men to chase them away. He woke the next morning to find the man still rushing around with a butterfly net, his mind, as Kaulback put it, "a seething blank". A more effective way of dealing with the creatures, Kaulback found, was to put a pig in his bed as bait, and retire to the roof.

His travels in Tibet were facilitated by the award of a Royal Geographical Society Murchison Grant in 1937. They were made easier still when he was ennobled by the Governor of Zayul: this entitled him to wear the 4 inch "noble amethyst earring" in his left ear3, and to requisition porters and baggage animals for free.

Kaulback's books Tibetan Trek (1934) and Salween (1938) went into several editions.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Kaulback returned immediately to England. He was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, and after a period as an instructor at the Heavy Weapons wings at Netheravon and in Canada asked to be given the chance of action. In 1943 he was sent to Force 136 in South-East Asia.

Lt-Col Kaulback led an intelligence party working behind the Japanese line in the Lashio area of Burma. When 14th Army began its offensive in 1944 his force turned to guerrilla warfare and sabotage; it staged a number of successful ambushes and destroyed several bridges.

In 1945 Kaulback was OC Tactical Wing, Force 136, north of Rangoon. He had under his command 13,000 Karen tribesmen, all keen to kill Japanese. With these he liquidated 13,500 Japanese soldiers, at negligible loss to his own force. To keep count he told his men to bring back the left ear of every Japanese killed; for each ear they were rewarded with five rounds of ammunition.

Kaulback was appointed OBE in 1946.

After VJ day he moved with his family to Ardnagashel House on Bantry Bay in County Cork, which he converted into a hotel; guests could engage in wildfowling and trout and salmon fishing. A genial host, Ron Kaulback was known for his splendid curries, and would treat friends to poteen.

[After] the house was destroyed by fire in 1968 [, it was largely rebuilt and re-established as a restaurant in 1969 until he retired in 1974. Several years later he moved to Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, where he lived until his death in 1995.]

He married first, in 1940 (dissolved 1984), Audrey Howard-Sneyd; they had two daughters and twin sons. He married secondly, in 1984, Mrs Joyce Woolley.


1: The material for this Obituary, was evidently provided by Ronald Kaulback's brother Bill, sourced from his survey of the family genealogy:

The Kaulbacks, Lt Col R J A Kaulback DSO MA FRGS, published privately,1979
2: This incident may not have been unconnected with a subsequent episode recounted on p 13 of The Miami News of 8 July 1929, involving Mappin (surely a look-alike of Gussie Fink-Nottle) and the delightful Miss Olive Ridsdel. Click here for a link to this report.
3: The details of how the earlobe was enabled to accommodate this are not for the squeamish.

Other vignettes which he occasionally and benevolently recollected for the benefit of grandchildren include such war-time episodes as
  • Removing somebody's appendix by torchlight
  • Avoidance of the use of toothpaste, traces of which would have betrayed their whereabouts to the enemy
  • Air-drop of 500 left-foot boots with no sign of their counterparts – he had a low opinion of War Department's logistic skills
  • Seeing entire detachment of Japanese troops wading into lake and deliberately drowning to avoid having to surrender themselves and their weapons at the end of the war
  • Aspirations of Karens being completely neglected by Mountbatten in postwar political settlements – he held the last Viceroy of India in pretty low esteem

    For first-hand contemporary accounts of high-level British duplicity in their promises to the Karens, and Kaulback's disgust with Mountbatten's dishonourable treatment of Karen aspirations, please see the link www.rainbowends.org/karen/witness.htm.

    Click here for the full text of Kaulback's witness of events.

    Click here for further details of HMG's contemptible dishonesty, and here for just a smidgeon of further geopolitical background to the whole situation.