By Philip J Shears
The Kabaw Valley, which means "Black" or "Death" Valley, is pleasant for a short time in winter, but is pestilential for the remainder of the year. The village huts are built on stilts so as to raise them above the monsoon floods. The valley is tree-covered with occasional clearings and is crossed frequently by streams, fairly shallow and wide in the winter, which become deep, raging torrents in the summer. In places the jungle is very thick. The width of the valley varies from about seven miles in the north to half a mile at its southern end. It abounds with mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches.
The Japanese were on the top of the steep, jungle-covered slopes of the Atwin Yomas, overlooking the valley from the east, and they also barred its narrow southern exit.
The daily routine of the battalion was varied and fairly pleasant. It included short patrols lasting about four days, keeping control of no-man's-land, and long-distance patrols behind the enemy lines, lasting from seven to ten days, and usually producing good results. Ambushes were frequent, causing the enemy many casualties, and he did not move forward much from his positions.
The first blood was drawn by D Company when a patrol led by Captain Falconer met a Japanese patrol on the Dathwekyauk Auk track and killed four of them. On returning the same patrol met more Japanese in the village of M Ywatha, killing five of them. This patrol lost one man, Private Green. A patrol of A Company under Captain A. C. Pennington captured the first enemy prisoners, and later half of this patrol, under Sergeant J. Pearson, captured four Burma Traitor Army troops, who were armed and carried anti-British pamphlets. Another patrol of A Company, under Captain I. A. N. Urquhart, brought back very useful information of the enemy defences at Dath Wekyauk Atet.
The combined information gained by patrols of all units revealed the concentration of the 15th and 31st Japanese Divisions between Thaung-dut and Homalin and another force of undefined strength in the Yazagyo area, some thirty miles south of the battalion's position astride the same road.
Japanese Attempt to invade India early in March the Japanese began their assault to invade India, advancing up the Tiddim Road, the Tamu Road, and across the Chindwin father north from Homalin. At that time D Company was occupying a patrol base at Sunle, some four miles forward of the main battalion perimeter. The company was sending out patrols in all directions to a depth of ten miles and more, to gain in advance as much information as possible of the enemy's movements. From reports from loyal villagers and spies it was made apparent that the Japanese were definitely moving northwards.
On one of these patrols Corporal D. George came across a Japanese staff car containing three officers. He killed all three, and before the escort to the car knew what was happening, he scooped up papers and maps and wallets from inside the car and made off into the jungle. He carried out this gallant act entirely on his own initiative, having told his patrol to wait for him when he first saw the car. The papers which he obtained revealed in great detail the dispositions and strength of the enemy on the front of the 20th Division, and also his intentions.
It was generally assumed by intelligence officers that the senior of the three officers killed was the chief administrative officer of the Japanese forces attacking India. Corporal George received an immediate award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
On 11th March A Company, less one platoon, under Major R. P. Ward, took over the patrol base from D Company, which returned to the battalion, and with it and the 4/10th Gurkha Rifles moved into a perimeter east of Witok and off the main road. On 13th March the patrol base was discovered by the enemy when the patrols were out, and A Company H.Q. had to withdraw. That night, after losing three men killed, the two platoons of A Company came into the battalion perimeter. B Company, under Major C. H. Reed, which had gone forward to assist in their withdrawal, suffered rather more severely.
The enemy brought up tanks and artillery and shelled the battalion perimeter during most of the night of the 13/14th and on the following night attacked with infantry supported by tanks. Effective defensive fire, however, was brought down and the attack was repulsed.
With the Japanese advance across the Chindwin from Homalin, there was no other course open but to withdraw the 17th and 20th Divisions, as their long lines of communications became too vulnerable. Consequently, on 17th March the order to retire northwards was given, and Lieut.-Colonel Godley was ordered to proceed to Namuntha Chaung to organise a new perimeter there.
That night the 4/10th Gurkhas and the 2nd Border (under Major Harvey), with a large number of mules belonging to both battalions, set off down a jungle path parallel to the main road, as it was expected that the latter would be watched. Unfortunately, the Japanese had penetrated round the battalion perimeter and had laid an ambush on this jungle track. On the approach of the column they opened fire, and before counter-action could be taken the mules stampeded in all directions; and for a short while there was much confusion. Order was restored by one of the battalion buglers, Private Lennon, who sounded the Regimental Call followed by the "Charge." On hearing this, the men of the battalion cheered, and a number of bayonet charges were launched and the enemy was driven off. Unfortunately, Lieutenant J. Whitehead and C.S.M. Leadbitter were both killed in these charges.
Major Harvey collected the battalion into a box formation, with the wounded in the centre. Captain A. R. Greenwood-Penny, R.A.M.C., who was deputising for the battalion medical officer, did very good work amongst the wounded, but was unfortunately eventually killed from behind by a Japanese sniper who was up a tree.
Sergeant T. Rees, the battalion R.A.P. sergeant, who did fine work in maintaining the R.A.P. organisation and in bringing in the wounded under fire, was later awarded the Military Medal.
At 2 a.m. on the 18th the column continued its withdrawal, but on reaching a deep nullah, which was difficult to cross with the wounded and the few recaptured mules, the Japanese opened fire with mortars and rifles at close range. The mules again stampeded, and the two battalions got broken up into several parties of various sizes. These parties during the next four or five days found their way to the new perimeter and joined the rest of the Brigade Group, first at Brigade H.Q. and later at Moreh. When all were collected, it was found that surprisingly few had been killed or were missing.