By Brigadier KRS Trevor CBE DSO
(Extract from ‘Three Quarters Of A Century Or Seventy Five Not Out’ the personal recollections of Brigadier KRS Trevor CBE DSO Late CO No 1 Commando)
This is about No. 1 Commandos operations in Burma. The 14th Army under General Slim had been advancing and by the end of 1944, 15th Indian Corps were ready to take the offensive and to support the advance of 4th Corps from Kohima and 33 Corps from Imphal. The task was to drive the Japs 28th army out of the Arakan. General Christison proposed to use 3 Commando Brigade which was composed of No. 1 and No. 5 Army Commandos and No. 42 and 44 Royal Marines Commandos on assaults from the sea to support 25 and 26 Indian Divisions. He needed an airfield to support the advances and wished to capture the facilities at Akyab and Ramree and decided to attack Aryab island first. On 3rd January 1945, a full operation was carried out with Army Commandos in the forefront and the island was occupied and there were no casualties as the Japanese had pulled out in advance of the attack. It all went extremely well and was disappointing that there were no Japanese there to receive the attack. On 12th January 1945, the raid on Myebon peninsula*, which is situated between the Rivers Kyatsin and Myebon, was carried out. The combined operations pilotage party were known as Copp and they managed to go in early one morning and remove the stakes which the Japanese had placed in front of the landing beaches to hold up any landing craft which tried to land. 42 Commando were in the first flight and behind a smoke screen managed to land at high tide, but by the time 1 and 5 tried to land the tide had receded and there was thick mud everywhere. It was the most difficult landing we ever did.
The attack on Myebon was successful and lasted several days. Eventually the 74 Brigade passed through the Commando positions and secured the peninsula. The Japs were now denied the waterways for any supply or possible evacuation.
On the night of 19/20th January the Copp party were able to select beaches up the Daingbon Chaung for a landing to attack Kangaw. The Japanese with 54 Division under Myazaki were thought to be concentrated around Kangaw which was a small village. They had also 111 Group of about 5,000 men and a matzu detachment in reserve at Kaladan. The plan was on 22nd January 1945, for 74 Indian Infantry Brigade which had the 2nd Battalion Oxford and Buckinghamshire Regiment the 14th/10th Baluchis and the 3rd/2nd KEO Gurkas with some tanks of 19 Lancers to strike for Kangaw. At the same time 3 Commando Brigade were to come by water to land near Kangaw in order to try and turn the Japanese left flank. For 3 Commando it meant a five mile approach up the Daingbon Chaung which was about 25/35 yards wide and flanked by overhanging mangrove trees growing in swamps on either side. Our objective was Hill 170 with a code name Brighton. It was about 800/1000 yards long north 15 South; a wooded feature over 160ft high at the highest point way in the middle of a flat paddy field with steep sides.
The plan was for the No. 1 Commando leading the assault supported by 5 Commando had to seize the hill and 42 Commando were to hold the banks of the Chaung at the beachhead. On 23rd January, 42 Commando were to advance and capture Kangaw itself. 44 Commando were to seize and hold Pinner. On 25th January, 51 Brigade composed of 19th Battalion Hydrabads, the 16th/10th Baluchis and the 2nd Punjabis (all Indian Brigade) were to advance. One of the advantages 1 Commando had over the other units was that we had brought from North Africa when we were with the Americans, Garand self-loading rifles with a bore of .3” with which they were armed. These rifles give a very high rate of fire, we also had the normal British – .303 LMG’s, 3” mortars and American Thompson Sub-machine guns. We decided not to wear steel helmets but would wear our green berets. To support our operation we had some Z-craft with four 25 pounders of 18th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. They were going to move up and down the Chaung and fire from a moving Z-landing craft. We had 5.5 medium Artillery to give support from Myebon and also naval fire from the sloops in the Indian Navy Narbada and Jumna which were ships which would carry us to the release point. For air support we had B25 Mitchells of 224 Group RAF who would lay a smoke screen in advance of the landing. No. 1 were able to capture Hill 170 without much opposition but at night there was a strong counter-attack which was beaten off and we found nine dead Japs. One of our soldiers in No. 1 managed to strangle a Jap with his hands whom he found in a small basha (hut) at the bottom of the hill.
Next, 42 Commando were ordered by Campbell Hardy, our Brigadier, to attack Milford*, 44 Commando which were now on Pinner were bombarded during the night for eight hours on January 23rd, and sustained over 61 casualties. On 24th January, 18/19 Hydrabads came to relieve 44 Commando on Pinner and 44 Commando who had been badly shaken moved to the South West end of Brighton. On 26th January, the whole of 51 Brigade were holding Milford, Berwick and ‘Duns’. 42 Commando were withdrawn from Milford onto HQ in Brighton in anticipation of an all-out Jap attack on Brighton. So Brighton, (Hill 170) was now a Brigade position. By 29th January, no attack on Brighton had come and 51 Brigade managed to take Melrose partially cutting off the link between the matzu detachment and the rest of the Jap Division, and 74 Brigade began to advance from Kantha. Two fresh Battalions arrived at Myebon en route to relieve the Commandos in Brighton.
The Commandos were under gunfire much of the time but were able to return fire on Fingers with 3/1 WCM mortars. The RAF also made sorties and bombed the hills.
On 30th January, 1 Commando were warned that they were going to be relieved by the Punjabis but later it was postponed until the 31st January. The Japs reactions to our advance and seizure of these hills around Kangaw so far had been very slow except for very heavy shelling. At least 800 shells per day came on to Hill 170. No. 4 troop were of No. 1 Commando was dug in at the northern hill 170 and No. 1 Commando occupied the northern 1/3 of 16 Hill. All our supplies had to come down the Cahung and through the beachhead about 800**yards from the hill. About this time (which we now know) General Miyazaki made a special order of the day. He said that in the past battle opportunities had been lost because of passive conservative and thick headed NCOs and men were badly commanded and controlled. The fact that the true value of the Imperial Army was not in evidence is primarily the responsibility of every Division Group Commanders and Battalion Commanders. It is extremely regrettable and it is a condition that cannot be tolerated. All officers will be rejuvenated so all actions are carried out with daring and careful planning; moreover precautions must be taken in the following ways. If no order received each defensive area will be defended until death by the last soldier. Those withdrawing without orders will be given the most punishment under the penal code. Reconnaissance and defence are of primary importance. Units will maintain liaison to the front, rear, left and right flanks. Execute and report when given orders. As the enemy is in progress of moving it is extremely weak. Carry out immediate and determined attacks regardless of your strength when the occasion arised. Battalion units will infiltrate and block their path or retreat and make reinforcement impossible. To win a battle the enemy must be killed. Every man will kill no less than three enemy. Kill, kill, kill. To demand this the officers themselves must be courageous, active and daring. One action is better than 100,000 directives. Executive ability must be perfected. Signed: Miyazaki.
On 31st January at 5.45am, Jap artillery put a heavy concentration on No. 4 troop and they were faced by 50 Japanese who had dug themselves in close to the hill. The position was ringed by gunfire preliminary to a major attack. The Japs showered grenades over the forward slip trenches and at 7.30 the Japs attacked on a 100 yard frontage platoon by platoon. In left centre (west side) a Jap suicide party of Jap Engineers with demolition charges at the end of bamboo poles managed to disable by explosives two out of our three tanks after a heavy hand to hand battle. The Jap section managed to climb on board the tanks with the pole charges and blow themselves up with the tanks. Flames shot up at the foot of the hill near 16 centre as the tanks caught fire. Ten men attacked the mortar position but we managed to repulse them. There were no Jap survivors. The battle was now in the area of the north end of the hill in about an area of 100 yards square. Some of the Japs were wearing green berets taken from our dead and 600 of them were on the edge of the hill. Some calling out in English and trying to get us to surrender. At 9.30 we managed to arrange a counter-attack by W troop of 42 Commando with 3 troop of No. 1 Commando on the flank. A landing craft was used carrying a bren gun group from reserve units gave supporting fire. Against strong Jap MG fire the counter-attack was abandoned after a 20 yards advance with heavy casualties.
The next plan was for X troop 42 Commando to counter attack with one Sherman tank (the only one remaining). The Japs brought down heavy fire again and X troop’s counter attack failed. All our guns and mortars were brought to bear on the Jap positions.
Our Forward Observation Officer (F.O.O.), Royal Artillery, was badly wounded and I went forward to see him and thought it would be better to get him back so as to have medical treatment but the Orderly with him and his Signaller said that it would be too dangerous to remove him as he would die if moved so they must stay with him where he was lying in the slit trench. Throughout the day reserve ammunition under control of the RSM were brought forward bren magazines boxes of .300 ammunition and boxes of grenades. There was tremendous fire going on. At 2.00 o’clock, 6 troop of No. 1 Commando counter attacked and lost nearly half of its men. No. 5 Commando on Pinner who had been relieved at noon by 8 Hydrobad Regiment had come back to Hill 170. The whole brigade was now on the Hill. I had moved up to join O/C 4 troop, Roy Semple, in his slit trench who was commanding No. 4 troop.
The third stage of the battle was when Colonel Pollitt (ex No. 1 Commando) who was Commanding Officer of No. 5 Commando, came forward to offer us help and while he was talking to me was wounded and evacuated. His batman later earned a military medal. Fire power was increased by extra light machine gun groups for 5 Commando and the Sherman tank fired three bursts which managed to cause heavy casualties. By 1600 hours assistance was given by LMGs of the 2/2nd Punjabis who had worked round the left flank of the Hill and I arranged for No. 5 Commando to move up and take over responsibility from No. 4 troop and thus become the new front line except for the front section of No. 4 troop which had been overrun. By 5.15pm some Japanese were seen withdrawing and the 2/2nd Punjabis were able to carry out a night attack from the flank but failed to drive the Japanese off the Hill. Later the Japanese carried out a night attack on No. 5 Commando without success. Early in the morning of 2nd February, No. 5 Commando moved forward and found the Hill abandoned and over 340 bodies lying piled up in heaps all over the Hill. Some of our men lying there were alive but wounded, lying underneath a pile of wounded was the gunner F.O.O. (Forward Observation Officer) with his two men still alive.
On 2nd February, 74 Brigade came across the Minchaung and 82 (West African) Division; West African 2 Brigade closed up. 51 Brigade sent out patrols to Perth. The gap left between these two had left a gap for the Matzu detachment to make their desperate attack on Hill 170. The result of the battle was that the Commandos lost 45 killed and 90 wounded. 50% of these had been in No. 1 Commando, who lost 22 killed and 44 wounded. The battle broke the spirit of Miyazaki’s Division. In the next ten days units of 154 Regimental Group lost 1000 men and quantities of equipment as they tried to escape from 74 Brigade and 51 Brigade and 82 (West African) Division. It was, of course, George Knowland’s section on Hill 170 on which this whole battle hinged. He had received the first blows and the failure to take Hill 170 upset the whole of the Japanese attack. The whole battle cost the Japanese approximately 2500 casualties.
The decorations for this battle No. 1 Commando were awarded a Victoria Cross, (Knowland) 1 DSO, 4 Military Crosses, 2 Distinguished Conduct medals, 13 Military medals, 7 Mention in Despatches and 2 Certificates of Gallantry.
Further searches in the days after the battle around Hill 170 found further bodies making a total of 450. During this battle 25 Indian Division has had 1374 casualties of which 317 had been killed in action, 3 Commando Brigade included in the Division had had 340 casualties of which 66 had been killed in action.
The citation of George Knowland’s Victoria Cross is shown below.
Knowland V.C., George Arthur - 22 years - English
Lieutenant, The Royal Norfolk Regiment, British Army
attd. No. 1 Commando
In Burma on 31st January 1945, near Kangaw, Lieutenant Knowland was commanding the forward platoon of a Troop positioned on the extreme North of a hill which was subjected to very heavy and repeated enemy attacks throughout the whole day. Before the first attack started, Lieutenant Knowland's platoon was heavily mortared and machine gunned, yet he moved about among his men keeping them alert and encouraging them, though under fire himself at the time.
When the enemy, some 300 strong in all, made their first assault they concentrated all their efforts on his platoon of 24 men but in spite of the ferocity of the attack, he moved about from trench to trench distributing ammunition, and firing his rifle and throwing grenades at the enemy, often from completely exposed positions. Later, when the crew of one of his forward Bren guns had all been wounded, he sent back to Troop Headquarters for another crew and ran forward to man the gun himself until they arrived. The enemy was then less than 10 yards from him in dead ground down the hill so in order to get a better field of fire, he stood on top of the trench, firing the light machine gun from his hip and successfully keeping them at a distance until a Medical Orderly had dressed and evacuated the wounded men behind him. The new Bren gun team also became casualties on the way up and Lieutenant Knowland continued to fire the gun until another team took over.
Later, when a fresh attack came in he took over a 2 inch Mortar and in spite of heavy fire and the closeness of the enemy, he stood up in the open to face them, firing the mortar from his hip and killing six of them with his first bomb. When all the bombs were expended he went back through heavy grenade, mortar and machine gun fire to get more, which he fired in the same way from the open in front of his platoon positions. When those bombs were finished he went back to his own trench and still standing up fired his rifle at them. Being hard pressed and with the enemy closing in on him from only 10 yards away, he had no time to re-charge his magazine. Snatching up the Tommy gun of a casualty, he sprayed the enemy and was mortally wounded stemming this assault, though not before he had killed and wounded many of the enemy.
Such was the inspiration of his magnificent heroism, that, though fourteen out of twenty-four of his platoon became casualties at an early stage, and six of his positions were over-run by the enemy, his men held on through twelve hours of continuous and fierce fighting until reinforcements arrived. If this Northern end of the hill had fallen the rest of the hill would have been endangered, the beach-head dominated by the enemy and other units farther inland cut off from their source of supplies. As it was, the final successful counter-attack was later launched from the vital ground which Lieutenant Knowland had taken such a gallant part in holding.
Lieutenant Knowland, who had been born at Catford in Kent, was only 22 when he was killed. He is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Taukkyan, Burma.