In Burma by January 1944, the Japs had consolidated their grip up to the perimeter of their ‘42 and ‘43 conquests.
The war in Europe had not at that time turned in flood against Germany, for the main Allied forces had still to make their landing on the continent. But while they were not yet in that battle they might safely be counted out of this one. This year, therefore, was for Japan the Now or Never. The Jap High Command decided to carry the war into India, and to break up the base where powerful armies and air and sea fleets were building up for the coming Allied general assault on Japan.
The Allies, meanwhile, suffered a change of plans. Before Teheran these had included immediate amphibious operations somewhere in South East Asia, but at that conference SE Asia Command’s landing craft were allocated to European waters and as the Supreme Commander has disclosed, were actually employed to force the Anzio bridgehead.
Accepting this severe deprivation, Lord Louis Mountbatten still resolved to place the most aggressive interpretation on the instruction to “defend the frontiers.” The Fourteenth Army Commander, Lieut-General Sir William Slim, KCB, CB, DSO. MC., was ordered to clear the Akyab peninsula as far south as possible so as to command the mouth of the River Naff for sea supply and secure the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road. The available troops were 15 Indian Corps, commanded by Lieut General Sir Philip Christison, KBE, CB, MC.
A glance at the map shows how the Arakan campaign of ‘44 was dominated by the outstanding feature known as the Mayu Range. This range physically split the front; the plan of the enemy was to use it tactically to split the army which occupied it. A captured enemy Order of the Day signed by Colonel Tanahashi says of it: “The Mayu Range is a fortress given to us by Heaven, to furnish us with defences, obstructions and concealments, with water, with quarters, with supplies of building materials unlimited. Indeed a thing of immense value. Its mountains and rivers will shortly become an unforgettable new battleground.”
East of the Mayu Range lies the Kalapazin Valley. Bearing in mind the lesson of the Arakan campaign of 1943, (when the Japs struck up this valley, crossed the Range and fell upon the L of C of our troops attacking Akyab along the coastal belt) General Slim proposed to advance not only down the Kalapanzin us well as the coast but also to throw out a further flank screen in the distant valley beyond the next mass of hills, namely; the Kaladan Valley. The 81 West African Division were assigned this important task. They not only guarded the Kaladan but their presence there compelled the enemy to divert troops towards it which he urgently needed for his plan to “Invade India.” The first appearance of these magnificent-looking warriors in the Arakan had an unexpected and most uplifting effect upon their British comrades in the line. There is evidence that it had a correspondingly, depressing effect upon the enemy.
To link the two main forces in the coastal belt and Kalapanzin Valley it was necessary to make something more than the trails which ran through the passes of the Mayu Range. There were two; the Goppe Pass. a mule track. and that other more famous Ngakyedauk Pass, then unfit even for mules, Ngakyedauk has since entered into the immortality of soldiers’ language as the “Okeydoke’ To a Bradford lad in the West Yorks “Okeydoke” recalled beautiful Buttertubs Pass as it threads its’ way from Wensleydale to Swaledale; to a Scot from Inverness with the KOSB’s it resembled his beloved Glen Shiel. Gunners who ranged on “Okeydoke,” and infantrymen who slogged it out there with rifle and bayonet and grenade, found something homely of their own there. It was an illusion, for the Arakan bears no likeness to Britain, but it comforted men in lonely and desperate hours.
The sappers and miners of 7 Indian Div. equipped with bull-dozers and pneumatic drills, graded its slopes, widened its rock ledges and smoothed out its elbow bends, making the pack-road capable of bearing the armour, guns, and supply columns of an invading army.
As the engineers and road-builders reached the banks of the Kalapanzin River the dusty battalions of British and Indian infantry, followed by long columns of motor transport, began threading their way up the steep slopes at the western entrance. Corps Commander Christison was building up his two-fisted attack.
His plan was to force the enemy to fight on as broad a front as possible. He had 5 Indian Div west of the Range and 7 Indian Div east of it. They shared the crest, which, running parallel as it dees to the British main L of C from north to south, was the axis of advance. Pressing equally all along the front, 15 Corps now began their steady forward movement. They had to fight hard, and learned to match their cunning against the enemy’s before they came up against his main positions. These covered the 15-mile Maungdaw-Buthidaung road which tunnels the Mayu Ridge and provides the third great artery between one side of the mountain and the other. The tunnel area was especially strongly fortified.
Maungdaw fell to the British on 8 Jan, but Razabil was a harder net. This is a natural fortress in the foothills between the Mayu Range and the sea, commanding the road. Bombers of the Strategic Air Force from the newly-created and integrated Eastern Air Command (Maj-General George E. Stratemeyer) pounded this bastion with concentrated weight, medium artillery shelled it and “General Lee” tanks, deployed for the first time in Arakan, lent their support. Much of the fortress area fell and Jap casualties were considerable, but the central position held. The Corps Commander decided to switch the main weight of his assault to Buthidaung in the Kalapanzin sector, while maintaining strong local attacks on Razabil. He was able to do this with comparative ease because his foresight had provided him with that invaluable lateral communication, “Okeydoke Pass”
But somebody else had plans. Enter Lieut-General Hanaya, Jap Commander in the Arakan. He proposed to invade India, and had a meticulously worked-out time-table for that design. The British pressure on his front now compelled him to accelerate his movements. In charge of his striking force he placed Colonel Tanahashi, victor of Arakan, l943. The Jap plan was both to break up the British-Indian advance and to split the entire front, sealing off the eastern half not only from its western partner but from its own L. of C. The seizure of “Okeydoke” would achieve both these objects. On the night of ¾ February Taniahashi struck.
So confident was he that his blitz krieg would succeed that he threw in almost all his available forces. Leaving only one battalion in reserve. When heavy losses fell upon him therefore, he had no replacements at his command. He even brought up gunners without their guns reckoning to capture ours. The Jap troops had orders not to destroy our vehicles, which would be required for the march on India.
A few days before the enemy struck seaborne patrols had captured documents in a raid behind the enemy’s lines which warned us of recently arrived reinforcements from the Solomons. From this and other signs Christison sensed trouble. The tanks of 25 Dragoons) had been withdrawn from Razabil for maintenance. That same afternoon Christison ordered them over the “Okeydoke.” To deceive the Japs into believing that our armour still concentrated west of Mayu the Corps Commander sent up a squadron of reserve tanks continue operations at Razabil. At the same time one brigade of 7 Div was placed in reserve for the coming offensive. Both next day went into action to meet the new threat. The tanks came as a complete surprise to the Japs who did not know they were even in the valley.
Flooding over ‘Aaung Bazar by a 33-mile forced march, the Japs swept on to the heights of the Mayu Range north of the so-called 7 Div Admin Box at Sinzweva. This had a few days earlier become a Corps Administrative area supplying 7 Div, a brigade of 5 Div (who were the link between the two sectors of the front ), and a large number of Corps troops, including a couple of artillery regiments, ack-ack and anti-tank batteries and the tank unit. There were thus encamped there nearly 8.000 administrative troops, pioneers, sappers. Signallers. ordnance and medical units, mule companies, and native road builders, together with a considerable amount of equipment. Protection was organised to resist any interference up to a large’ scale raid. What now struck the Admin area, however, was a tornado of six thousand men. A further four thousand formed an outer ring.
A few hours before dawn on 6 February the Japs attacked 7 Div H.Q. Div Commander Maj-General F.W. Messervy, C,B.. DSO., with his staff, narrowly escaped capture—or, more probable, massacre. Grenade in hand he led a party along the bed of a chaung to, the Admin area, where he re-formed his HQ. Fresh parties kept coming in for several days, and throughout this period a Soldiers’ Battle raged. Signallers, sappers, cooks, clerks, all seized the rifle and fought like veteran infantry. Gradually the enemy was halted, though not before he had practised appalling atrocities against our wounded.
Tanahashi pressed on round the flank and rear, towards the Goppe Pass. He did not in fact reach Goppe; a little short of it, he ran into 18 Mule Company, who stood their ground resolutely and engaged him. Tanahashi, believing that Goppe Pass must be strongly held, and urgent to capture Bawli Bazar (15 Corps HQ) and cut the Bawli - Maung road, decided to storm straight over the 2,000-foot Range between Goppe and “Okeydoke.’ He burst through a large concentration of British rear echelons on the western slopes of the Mayu where he was again fiercely challenged. But driving on with barbaric energy, he reached the road where he blew up bridges, set fire to dumps, way-laid convoys, and finally dug-in in the nearby jungle from where he kept traffic under continual fire. In the end his raiders had to be liquidated to the last man. The Japs’ success in interfering with our L of C was less than they had hoped, for much of the supply of the troops on the western side of the Mayu continued to pour in by sea.
However Tanahashi scored when he detached a force to double back along the crest of the Range to cut “Okeydoke” Pass, linking up with another Jap column which had pushed through from the south east. The wedge had been driven between 5 Div and 7 Div. and the latters supply route severed.
Tokyo went to town on the news. The giant presses roared, showing the East with their headlined triumphs, “Victory! Victory Annihilation! The British Are Trapped! The British in Full Flight!’ Night and day the Jap radio blared “The March on Delhi has Begun.” Tanahashi, Victor of Arakan, will be at Chittagong within a Week’ “New British 14th Army Destroyed in One Thrust.” Traitors drew up proclamations for parades under the walls of the Red Fort and Tokyo Rose crooned persuasively to the Allied troops in the Pacific “why not go home? Lt’s all over in Burma.’ It really appeared to the Japanese that everything was in the bag, and so it was. Unfortunately for Tanahashi the neck of the bag was still open.
He had forgotten the AIR.
Through the Air would pour the stores and supplies which were denied land passage. The troops thus “trapped.” instead of yielding their ground, ditching their equipment and seeking to escape across the hills, would hold fast and hold on with sheer guts, certain that within measurable time the power would be brought them to drive the enemy from his encircling lines. Meantime, on General Slim’s orders, both the supplies to sustain such “encircled” troops and the aircraft and air crews to carry them and had been assembled and were ready to go in. Ten days’ rations for 40,000 men had been already packed and dumped against exactly such an emergency by Fourteenth Army’s “grocer” Maj.General Alf Snelling; the first of the series of similar services which this remarkable organiser was able to do the army in this rear of continuous fighting.
Nor on the combat side was the Army Commander caught napping by Tanahashi’s violent recoil to his initial offensive. General Slim had placed 26 Indian Division (MajGeneral C. E. N. Lomax, CB, DSO, MC. at Chittagong to cover the road to India. This officer in particular had deserved well of the army for his conspicuous work in building up the morale of his division unit by unit in patrol work during the long disheartening period after the Arakan failure of ‘43. Still further back, in Calcutta, another division was brigaded and ready to move forward on requirement. Such dispositions are not completed overnight, and they are a sufficient answer to the ignorant jibe that Arakan 1944 was one more example of “waiting for something to hit us”.
Meantime in the Admin area none sat down to wring his hands over his fate but all set to work like men to shape it. Maj-Generai Messervy brought in the West Yorks, who later renforced by a company of KOSB’s and a battalion of 2 Punjabs. With tanks and artillery a formidable Protected “box’ was very rapidly built up. Tanks and guns formed a protection for HQ, hospitals and soft vehicles. Later the “box’ was ringed with barbed wire. Every man was told bluntly what the situation was and of the further steps being taken by the Corps Commander to meet it. From Supreme Commander Lord Louis Mountbatten came a heartening message telling them that he had directed powerful reinforcements towards them.
Immediate evidence of his resources was what the garrison saw with their own eyes in the sky above them. Jap Zeros had at one time been a fairly common sight in Arakan. The recent arrival of the Spitfires over the front had changed that. These Spitfires were the first starting innovation in Burma produced by the new South East Asia Command. But on the eve of Tanahashi’s thrust the zeros returned to the scene. Jap documents revealed that the Jap Air Command believed that if the RAF fighters could be “drawn” into combat they could be wiped out. Though the Japs did not give close air support to their ground troops they appeared over the battle area many squadrons at a time, looking for trouble with our fighters.
They did not return home disappointed. The Allied fighters of Third Tactica1 Air Force, then commanded by Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin. KBE, CE, DSO, rushed at them. The air was filled with dog fights. Ten days after their first challenge the Jap fighters broke it off. Three Spitfires had been lost. Third TAF’ claimed 65 Jap fighters destroyed, probably destroyed, or damaged. Thereafter the Allied fighters flew in close support, solitary strafing or recce as they pleased and practically unimpeded. During the height of the aerial battle the huge, and mostly defenceless aircraft of Troop Carrier Command flew between the sky fights and the roof of the jungle to deliver vital stores of war to the troops fighting it out in the savage hand-to-hand battles on the ground.
These supply operations were under the direct command of US Brigadier-General William D. Old, pioneer of the China ‘Hump’ route and none could have desired or chosen a mere energetic and intrepid leader. When the fist flight of heavily laden Dakotas was driven back General Old stepped up to the pilots seat of the next flight and led them in himself. The planes were attacked, gunned, and some of the crews hit, but the goods got through.
The job grew:- By night as well as by day the supply aircraft rose from the Allied airfields. The crews simply turned their aircraft round and flew again. They slept barely five hours in the 24. The ground crews serviced them, the RIASC supplied them, all-round the clock. Many boarded the loaded planes then and flew; sometimes unescorted, over the Jap lines to help the supply-droppers heave out their vital cargo into the narrow target areas of the besieged ‘boxes’. It was magnificent “Combined Ops”. The pilots of the supply crews were themselves “combined.” British, American. Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and Indian.
Five hundred sorties carried 1,500 tons into battle. With food, ammunition and weapon replacements came cigarettes, kit, oil, petrol and ‘Jane floating down in SEAC daily newspaper from the skies, even beer (and one thrice-blessed unit got a whole formation’s ration). Tanks, waiting for fuel, watched drums of it cascading down on parachutes. Before the aircraft left the tanks were moving into action.
The huge twin-engined aircraft were sitting birds for enemy fighters and ground fire. But only one was lost and she, too, delivered her goods. In such circumstances “encirclement” becomes a technical phrase.
Arakan, indeed, carried forward logically, and demonstrated in the fire of battle, the soundness of that revolutionary technique of land-air war which so seized Wingate’s audacious mind. Casting about always to find a means to overcome the advantage the Jap held in his jungle mobility. Wingate had said “the vulnerable artery is the L of C winding through the jungle. Have no L of C on the jungle floor. Bring in the goods, like Father Xmas, down the chimney.” Many considered this crazy but not ‘the men at the head of South East Asia Command, who shared with him these ideas concerning the mobility not merely of raiding columns but of entire jungle army corps. The RAF had never once failed during Wingate’s first footslogging march into Burma in 1943 to find their supply-drop site and to deliver their loads. Upon this basis Fourteenth Army were now building a completely new concept of jungle logistics. Arakan was its first vindication.
But meantime, down in the bowl of the Admin Box, under the guns of the enemy on the surrounding hills, men were only conscious of the fact that a most desperate battle called for every ounce of guts and endurance that the British and Indian soldier could pull out. All day long thick clouds of smoke rose from the “box” and the sound of explosion reverberated round the hills as first one and then another ammunition or petrol, dump blew up. Three times stocks of ammunition were reduced to a dangerously low level. Luckily, the Japs did not realise it and the tireless airmen quickly replaced each loss. But the enemy continued also to pour in art unceasing torrent of mortar bombs, grenades and shells of every calibre. Snipers roped to trees and even “built” into tree trunks, took pot-shots at regular intervals but each shot brought forth such a volley of fire from the box’ that very few enemy snipers lived long enough to do much harm.
The casualty stations overflowed while a depleted medical staff laboured like demons—or shall we say like angels with demoniac energy— to cope with the growing number of dysentery and malaria patients, as well as the wounded.
The devotion of the doctors and their orderlies was truly moving. Some of them paid the final, terrible price of duty. It was impossible to hold every point in strength, and one night in pitch darkness, the enemy overran the medical dressing station on the edge of the “box.” They burst in upon the place, shouting and howling like dervishes. But their savagery was not that engendered by battle. Forty-eight hours after occupying the dressing station a senior Jap officer entered and ordered all wounded to be massacred. Orderlies and patients tried to escape by crawling out on their bellies in the darkness through a deep nullah. Some of the patients were too weak, and others too severely wounded even to stir on their stretchers. The Japs went from bed to bed bayoneting every man that showed the least sign of life Their heartrending cries and groans were heard by their comrades beyond the nullah, helpless to rescue them.
The doctors fared no better. The Japs lined up six and in cold blood shot every one dead with a bullet through his ear. One MO, who was carrying out an operation in a dug-out at the time, owes his life and that of his patient to the fact that he had so efficiently blacked-out” his underground surgery that Tanahashi’s tribesmen passed by without noticing it. Another had the presence of mind to fake death when he saw what was happening by falling flat on his face and daubing himself with blood. In the ‘box.’ whenever the account of these horrors was repeated, a hush would fall over the company. Among those who listened were men whose best pals had been with the 80-odd wounded whom Tanahashi butchered.
Night was the cover the Japs sought to work under darkness their chief ally Regularly as the sun fell over the Range these sub-humans donned yet more hideous face-masks and came slithering through the rank grass, whining weird animal calls to keep touch with each other. Then, the bravest defender had to steel himself at his post and remember the Night of the Massacre. Spirits sank with the sun- and rose again as he rose. Men who had never seen the inside of a church since their choir days invoked God’s mercy and His strength. Many scribbled their home addresses on scraps of paper for their mates to drop a line home to the “missus” or “my girl” or “the old folk just in case anything should happen.
In the ‘box’ everything was shared. One officer, handy with a needle and thread, gave all his spare time to stitching buttons on shirts and slacks for anyone that asked the service from Lieut-Colonels to Lance Corporals. Many shared more—their thoughts with lonely comrades. Some would get to thinking that folks at home might miss their letters and imagine the worst and they would begin worrying. They had to be cheered up, and they were. Then there was sometimes the thought that though the air-supply had not failed yet, perhaps. . . .? Men sick to death of biscuits and bully would put a bit aside in their kit as tho’ it were manna. Sleep was safest at the bottom of a slit-trench with the rats.
By day the Japs were less formidable. One suicide squad came in against a post in traditional Imperial sacrifice style. Within two minutes only one remained alive and he was too terror-stricken to move. They displayed the usual Japanese lack of resilience. They tried to use a chaung as a rendezvous simply because it was marked as such in their Operation Orders. A British infantry unit had captured it but as this was-_ NOT in the orders the Jap NCO s still came to use it for their rendezvous. Not a single one lived to pass on his instructions.
But the time for the counter-stroke was now at hand, and Tanahashi’s troops were tiring. Ten days had been set for their task, and ten days’ rations issued for it. They had carried out the plan—and the British had not fled, had not even withdrawn anywhere from the Admin Box from their forward positions in Kalapanzin Valley or from their line on the western side of the Range.
On the contrary, the British were fighting back with growing violence, and had re-occupied Taung Bazar; what was worse fresh troops were coming up from the north. This was not in Honourable Operations Orders, either.
The forward brigades of 7 Div had stood firm the whole of the time and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy as well denied him opportunity to supply his assault troops or return southwards with casualties.
Like the troops in the Admin Box these front-line forces were also supplied entirely by air. One brigade constructed an air-strip on the banks of the Kalapanzin from which wounded were flown out of the battle area by light Allied aircraft under the protection of riflemen and machine gunners who kept the enemy at bay. General Christison’s plan to complete the destruction of Tanahashi’s enterprise fell into two parts. Phase I was to clear the main Allied L and C (the Bawli-Maungdaw road), Phase II was to clear “Okeydoke” and crush the now thoroughly, mauled Jap striking force to pieces against the anvil of the intact British positions in the Kalapanzin Valley. The hammer was Maj-General Lomax’s “Tiger heads” (26 Div) now advancing from Chittagong. It included those Arakan veterans, the Lincolns and the Wiltshires. Indeed, within a very short time of the original “encirclement” the advance elements of this force were already at grips with the most northerly force of the enemy.
The Japs fought it out resolutely but the “Tiger-heads” broke all resistance along the road, destroying or driving the invaders back over the forest of Mayu Range into the Kalapanzin Valley. A battalion of the 18 Royal Garhwal Rifles were the first to arrive, and they took post at the western end of “Okeydoke” to block any further Jap irruption on to 5 Div’s positions. They played a notable part in the final clearing of the Pass in the last battle at Pont 1070. Meanwhile, the 8 Gurkhas and a battalion of 16 Punjabis steadily swept the spine of the Range clean of Japs, killing scores and herding the remainder down into the Kalapanzin for despatch there by troops defending the Admin Box.
For this purpose General Lomax had been laboriously building up his forces in the valley. His only L of C was the Goppe mule track. But in due course both his own 26 Div and also 36 Indian Div (Maj-General F. W. Festing, DSO) were fully mustered for the final settlement. The Japs generally were in a wretched state by this time. The defenders of the Admin Box had taken savage toll of them—a preliminary count revealed that more than 1100 had been’ buried in this area alone. Two forward brigades of 7 Div, which with a brigade of 5 Div. had never relinquished their positions and had also already exacted their price, now blocked the retreat of the enemy.
Trapped themselves now, and with no transport planes to feed and munition them. the Japanese began to suffer the full pains of siege. Heavy bombers dived on their bunkers and fighters gunned their foxholes. When the planes went home for fresh bomb-loads the artillerymen relieved them, and when they in turn paused the tank gunners opened up. The diary of a Japanese Intelligence Officer which fell into our hands recorded that Tanahashi’s Brigade Group had gone seven days without rations and had existed on wild yams and water. Another entry noted that the owner himself had gone 10 days without food, tho’ even at the end of that time he had reported himself as able to dig bunkers. The enemy, of course. looted what he could from the villages, but he was elsewhere described as being so short of food that he was eating monkeys.
The British attack was pressed home relentlessly by a pincer movement from both sides of the Range. Between them, they left very little of the “March on Delhi.” or on Chittagong either. The Admin Box battle ended when Major Ferguson Hoey led the assault of the Lincoins on Point 315 overlooking it. He fell as it was captured, gaining the VC.
The three weeks’ siege was raised. The breaking of the enemy’s stranglehold on “Okeydoke” followed shortly after by the capture of Hill 1070. It required ten days’ fighting with tank and artillery support to liquidate deep Jap bunkers in this knife-edge feature with its conical peak. Even after it was thought cleared a landslide caused by the bombing and shelling, unearthed another score of the enemy.
Then at last the convoys ladened with food rolled once more down the slopes of “Okeydoke” to the relieved army. At the head rode Mai-General’ H. R. Briggs, DSO, OBE. Commander of 5 Div. coming to congratulate his fellow divisional commander Maj General Messervy, on his magnificent stand. The Battle of Arakan was virtually over, and the Fourteenth Army stood triumphant on its first great battlefield.
They had smashed No. 1 Japanese invasion of India; scored the first major British-Indian victory over the arrogant enemy, killed 4,500 of his finest troops (the figure later rose to nearly 7.000). Even more vital ‘the British and Indian soldier had set up a man to man superiority over the Japanese soldier in the field.
The strategy of the Jap High Command had been completely frustrated. Our troops on the Southern Front had been neither driven out nor annihilated; the road to India had not been forced; the reserve divisions covering the Central Front hadn’t been sucked into the struggle and used-up. They remained intact ready to deal with Part II of the Japanese invasion for which strong enemy forces were already massing along the Chindwin.
Above all the Allies had demonstrated their mastery of a new way of jungle warfare—the land-air technique of combat and supply. In the coming battles on the Central Front entire divisions (5 Div and 7 Div) would be transported by air from Arakan to Assam to reinforce the troops already meeting and breaking the new Japanese offensive. Thus Arakan itself a great defensive victory, directly paved the way towards another and ‘far greater defensive operation which developed into a triumphant Allied offensive along all three fronts.
The enemy was not allowed to rest in Arakan. No victory is complete without pursuit, and Christison pressed fiercely upon the beaten enemy. To Messervy went orders to destroy the remnant of the invading forces. With what grim satisfaction did the commander and troops of the “encircled and annihilated 7 Div” execute this order.
By the time the monsoons broke on the Southern Front in June we had taken the fortress of Razabil as well as the commanding heights around Buthidaung and the strategic tunnels linking either side of Mayu Range. - Our ships sailed unimpeded up the Naff River. Lieut-General Christison thus established a forward line which could be held with a minimum of troops throughout the malarial season while the RAF, operating from all-weather air-strips, continually harried the Jap monsoon quarters.
“The enemy has been challenged and beaten in jungle warfare,” said the Prime Minister in a special message to Supreme Commander Lord Louis Mountbatten and the Fourteenth Army on the morrow of this great victory “His boastfulness has received a most salutary exposures”.