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The Battle of the Irrawaddy Shore

Photo: A truck of 36th Division in the advance down the Irrawaddy Valley towards Mandalay.


In the first of a two-part article, John Grehan describes those remarkable few weeks in 1945 when the Fourteenth Army pushed the Japanese out of central Burma. But could they reach the Burmese capital in the south before the summer monsoon washed away the roads and flooded the fields? It was a race against nature, a race against time — it was the race to Rangoon.

The Japanese were on the run. They had failed in their bid to invade India, being heavily defeated at Imphal and Kohima in spring 1944. It was now time for the Allies to take the offensive and recapture Burma.
Such an operation was fraught with problems, not the least being the country itself. Its climate is particularly unfavourable for campaigning, with the predominant feature being the annual monsoons. Its effects were described by General Sir George Giffard, Commander in Chief of the 11th Army Group in India and Burma, in his despatch on operations:

Men of the 11th East African Division on a ferry crossing the Chindwin River to Kalewa, January 1945. [All Images sourced through Historic Military Press unless otherwise stated]

“While the South-West monsoon has a bad effect upon the health of troops and causes them also acute discomfort from wet, its really worst effect is upon the communications in the country… In Assam and Burma there is very little stone, most of the hills, which are clothed in forest or bamboo, being composed of a soft shale quite useless for road making. The making of roads is, therefore, very difficult as they have to be built to a high standard in order to stand up to the torrential rains which fall between May and October. The heavy rains also make the ordinary native tracks very nearly impassable as they get so slippery on the steep hillsides that neither man nor beast can stand up on them. Finally, as can be imagined, these heavy rains make the rivers and streams into very formidable obstacles, all of which have to be bridged to allow the passage of troops and transport. Indeed, campaigning in the monsoon in Burma may be said to be one of the most arduous operations anywhere in the world today.”

Whilst it was true that General William Slim’s Fourteenth Army had been able to make some progress during the 1944 monsoon, no large-scale operations could be considered until the skies cleared and the ground hardened.

Plan Y

Plans were therefore laid to drive vigorously into central Burma after the monsoon in autumn 1944, with the aim of capturing Rangoon, the Burmese capital, before the heat of summer broke with the start of the following year’s monsoon. It was a tough objective, against a tough enemy, but Slim knew his men had the beating of the Japanese: “We had learned how to kill Japanese,” he later wrote, “how to build roads and airfields with little equipment and strange materials. Our troops had shown themselves steadier, more offensive, and better trained than ever before. They did not now accept any country as impassable, either for the enemy or themselves … Our troops had proved themselves in battle the superiors of the Japanese; they had seen them run … They had smashed for ever the legend of the invincibility of the Japanese Army. Neither our men nor the Japanese soldier himself believed in it any longer.”

Sherman tanks cross the Irrawaddy and advance on Meiktila.

Slim’s men may have learnt how to fight the Japanese and overcome the terrain but these factors were not to be taken lightly. Yet, as Allied air forces in this theatre now outnumbered those of the Japanese, it meant that the Fourteenth Army would not be entirely reliant upon long and tenuous lines of communication but instead could be, in part at least, supplied from the air. Whatever plan was adopted, the Fourteenth Army would have to cross two major rivers, the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy. The first of these was crossed in late autumn 1944, as a preliminary objective, with three bridgeheads being established at Sittaung, Mawlaik and Kalewa. When the main operation was due to start, the Fourteenth Army would break out from the bridgeheads into the Shwebo plain. This was a dry, open expanse of land where the Allied armour, no longer confined to jungle tracks, could be fully utilised for the first time.

If the enemy could be brought to battle in such country he was certain to be at a grave disadvantage. General Heitaro Kimura knew this as well as Slim. When the Fourteenth Army began its great offensive on 3 December 1944, breaking out of its bridgeheads over the Chindwin, Kimura deployed only light forces to delay the Anglo-India divisions’ advance. He concentrated his forces instead behind the Irrawaddy and challenged the Fourteenth Army to dare cross it.

Finally, as can be imagined, these heavy rains make the rivers and streams into very formidable obstacles, all of which have to be bridged to allow the passage of troops and transport. Indeed, campaigning in the monsoon in Burma may be said to be one of the most arduous operations anywhere in the world today.

Of the three plans considered during 1944 for the recapture of Rangoon, the one that was adopted, Plan ‘Y’, was to use 33 Corps, with the 19th Division attached, to force its way across the River Irrawaddy north and west of Mandalay. This, it was expected, would draw Kimura’s divisions into that area. Whilst the battle was raging to the north, 4 Corps would advance from the south up the Gangaw Valley and suddenly appear at Pakokku, almost 100 miles downstream, and storm across the Irrawaddy. Once over the river, 4 Corps would rush eastwards to capture Meiktila, the main administrative centre of the Japanese Fifteenth and Thirty-Third armies, with the help of airborne forces.

An aerial view of a Bailey Bridge being constructed across the Chindwin River at Kalewa. At the time that this was completed, for use by the men of the 11th East African Division, it was the longest such bridge in the world.

The Irrawaddy is one of the world’s great rivers. It runs north to south through Burma for 1,348 miles from its Himalayan tributaries to its vast delta on the Andaman Sea. Near Mandalay it is about a mile across. The river was at the end of a long line of communication for the Fourteenth Army which meant that only very limited numbers of specialist craft could be transported the hundreds of miles through the jungle and the hastily-prepared tracks to the river. The means for crossing the river therefore had to be improvised on the spot. A few assault boats were transported from India and the US forces supplied a number of Ranger boats, which were rubber craft with outboard motors. These varied in size, being capable of carrying between five and ten men. There were also nine amphibious DUKWs per division.

Order of Battle

Of the two corps that would force the crossing of the Irrawaddy, 4 Corps consisted of the 7th and 17th Divisions, 255 Tank Brigade with Sherman tanks, the Lushai Brigade (an ad hoc formation of four Indian battalions) and the 28th East African Infantry Brigade. The northern corps, 33 Corps, was composed of the 2nd, 19th and 20th Divisions, 254 Tank Brigade with Lee, Grant and Stuart tanks and 268 Indian Motor Brigade. The 5th Division was held in reserve.

Sherman tanks and vehicles of the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, part of the 17th Division, shown here after crossing the Irrawaddy at Nyaungu to the north of Pagan.

To defend Burma General Kimura had under his command three armies, which, more realistically should have been called corps. The Twenty-Eighth Army, consisted of the 54th and 55th Divisions and the 72nd Independent Mobile Brigade; General Katamura’s Fifteenth Army, of the 15th, 31st and 33rd Divisions; and Lieutenant General Honda with the Thirty-Third Army which consisted of the 18th and 56th Divisions and elements of the 2nd and 53rd Divisions. Kimura also had what was described as the Burma Army Area Reserve which was the 49th Division based in the south of the country.

By 9 January the patrols of the 19th Division of 33 Corps leading the northern thrust had reached the Irrawaddy. They found the Japanese holding both banks of the river. The other divisions of 33 Corps also moved up to the west bank of the Irrawaddy, whilst 4 Corps began its quiet march towards Pakokku north of Pagan, the ancient Burmese capital. Though the Japanese put up a stiff fight for control of the west bank, they eventually withdrew to the east side where both sides knew the battles would take place. Kimura understood that he could not hope to defend the entire line of the Irrawaddy and so made no attempt to do so, concentrating instead on the most likely crossing points, holding his reserves well back.

To disrupt British preparations for crossing the river the Japanese sent numbers of small suicide squads across the river. These were men who would fight until killed, with no intention of returning across the river to the Japanese side. The 19th Division also started sending men across each night to scout out the ground and to look for the best crossing points. As these met only slight opposition, on the 14th an entire battalion crossed the river, and that night the 16/17th began their main crossing. Two days later the whole of the 64th Brigade was on the east bank.

Men of the 6th Gurkha Rifles go into action at Singu on the Irrawaddy bridgehead. [James Luto Collection]

The 4th Corps, meanwhile, had reached the Irrawaddy and sprung its surprise. The 20th Division attacked the town of Myinmu where the river turns south and trapped a body of Japanese on the north bank. During the two-day battle many of the Japanese tried to escape across the river, including 24 soldiers who jumped into the river complete with all their arms and equipment. They all drowned within sight of the bank.

Across the River

The 5th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Division, the only all-British division, was to cross the river opposite the town of Nagazun. Here the Irrawaddy is 1500 yards wide and to help Brigadier Michael West to make the crossing the 1st Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers was added to the brigade. Their role was to occupy an island in the river – Nagazun Island – on the left flank to cover the crossing of the rest of the brigade. This was a large, low-lying, ‘permanent’ island, not one that disappeared when the river flooded during the monsoon, and was therefore cultivated. The man who would act as the RWF’s beach-master, Captain J. Steele, actually rowed across to the island one dark night to scout out the ground. He found no trace of the enemy, though it was thought that it was held by a single Japanese platoon.

British troops of the Fourteenth Army cross the River Chindwin on the way to the Shwebo plain and beyond that the Irrawaddy.

At 22.00 hours on 24 February, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies stared to paddle silently across the river, closely followed by Lieutenant Colonel ‘Jock’ Stocker in a boat containing two Royal Engineers, two signallers, three wireless sets and ten oarsmen. In the strong current a number of the boats were carried downstream and one boat had to return to the northern bank. The troops that did manage to get across that night found that the Japanese had deserted the island. All was now set for the main crossing.

Lieutenant Colonel O.G.W. White of the 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment, described the events of that night as “most confusing”, with the 7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment being the first to cross: “The Worcesters got into mid-stream and soon found themselves in difficulties. Some of the boats began to fill and as they approached the south shore they came under small-arms fire which holed the surviving boats. The Commanding Officer found himself swimming about in the water and by his own personal gallantry saved a number of lives. The opposition being stronger than had been expected, and the difficulties of navigating these obdurate craft by paddle in the four-knot current proving much greater than had been anticipated, the Worcesters were back again on the north bank by midnight.”

The attack upon Meiktila. Smoke from the burning village can be seen in the distance. [Gurkha Museum]

Further downstream the Cameron Highlanders also got into difficulty, encountering stiff opposition. Little more than a single company was able to reach the south bank. They then had to land under and assault a cliff, but succeeded in gaining a precarious foothold in the thick jungle grass on the cliff top. However, when they tried to paddle their craft back to collect reinforcements, they failed completely, with the enemy “picking off the boatmen at his leisure.”

At around midnight the Brigadier had to decide whether to continue to cross on a number of fronts or reinforce the single point where the few troops had crossed and were just about holding their ground. The Japanese held a strong position at Mud Point and were well dug in. What Brigadier West chose to do was send the Dorsets to outflank the Japanese position. With two DUKWs and two Royal Engineer F.B.E. boats [Folding Boat Equipment] fitted with outboard motors. The Dorsets sailed round the left hand side of Nagazun Island in the hope that the vegetation would hide them from the enemy.

Colonel White went in one of the F.B.E. boats with Tactical Headquarters and men from ‘B’ Company. “It was a memorable voyage: if for us on the left the enemy provided little thrill, we had plenty of excitement from the sapper driver of the F.B.E. boat. He had little or no experience of piloting a cumbersome craft across a stream on a circuitous course of well over two thousand yards in a strong current. We progressed in a series of ever-decreasing circles, bumping from one sandbank to another.”

However, when they tried to paddle their craft back to collect reinforcements, they failed completely, with the enemy ‘picking off the boatmen at his leisure.’

Gurkhas hold onto their mules as they swim across the Irrawaddy River in Burma during the advance towards Mandalay, January 1945.

White’s boat made it across undetected but the remainder of ‘B’ Company, in one of the DUKWs, were pushed a little way downstream and were spotted by the Japanese. The Dorsets suffered 13 casualties. Eventually, the Japanese were forced to withdraw and the rest of the brigade could cross. The British, however, could not break out towards Mandalay until the village of Ngazum, which blocked all the routes south and east, was taken. The plan was for the Dorsetshire Regiment to attack the north and centre of the village whilst the Worcestershire Regiment would try and move the town’s southern perimeter. To help them the RAF and USAAF and the Sherman tanks of 254 Tank Brigade bombarded the village. The aerial assault began at 13.00 hours on the 25th. “For thirty minutes they pasted the village and seemed to be hitting the targets we had given them,” remembered White. “At 13.30 hrs, the air moved off and down came the guns; it was a grand show to see, and one could feel the battalion’s spirit rise with every pace we took forward to the artillery-concentration line, about six hundred yards farther on…

“At 13.50 hrs. the artillery concentration ceased and the Battalion went in in magnificent fashion under the really close support of the troop of tanks and Manchester medium machine guns, [the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment was a machine-gun battalion] who from their position on the flank could continue firing right up to the time the infantry entered the thickly treed village and even for a few yards beyond.. “It was a most inspiring sight to see two battalions of British infantry advance with bayonets fixed right up under the support of the tank 75s and the machine guns.”

It took until 15.00 hours before most of Ngazun was in British hands. The last position the Japanese held was in a pagoda at the southern end of the village. Here a suicide party hung on until they were all killed the following morning.

Parkash Singh VC

A truck of the 36th Division in the advance down the Irrawaddy valley towards Mandalay.

The 19th Division had already crossed the Irrawaddy but its bridgehead had come under ferocious counter-attacks from the Japanese and no progress inland had been possible. The 20th Division had crossed in support of the 19th on the night of 12/13 February. The Japanese were again taken by surprise but they soon responded and the inevitable counter-attacks were delivered. However, in three days of fighting the bridgehead was gradually enlarged. Not only was there fighting on the land but Japanese attacked from the air and the water. The Japanese went down the river in boats and tried to attack the rear of the bridgehead.

On the night of 16/17 February Jemadar Parkash Singh of the 13th Frontier Force was commanding a platoon which found itself facing the weight of a powerful Japanese attack. For more than three hours the attackers used flame-throwers, artillery, mortars and medium machine-guns to try and dislodge Parkash Singh’s tiny force. His havildar was killed and Parkash himself was wounded, even so he continued to direct the action, dragging himself forward on his hands and knees. He went forward to a 2-inch mortar post and, with his batman also wounded, continued firing until the ammunition ran out. From the dead and wounded he collected the remaining rifle ammunition and distributed it to his men. He then took over a Bren gun and was again wounded whilst using it. Wounded a third time, he continued to urge his men to hold their ground. Finally, he was wounded a fourth time by a grenade burst and died shortly afterwards. Little wonder that Jemadar Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Men of the 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment cross the Irrawaddy at Nagazun.

By the end of February a very large proportion of the Fourteenth Army was across the Irrawaddy, though fighting continued until the second week of May. The next battle was to be fought at Mandalay and then the race to Rangoon before the monsoons arrived would begin in earnest.

This article by John Grehan first appeared inside the March 2015 issue of Britain at War Magazine. This issue also included articles on the realities of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and on the Luftwaffe’s last roll of the dice. To purchase your own digital copy of this, and more of our back issues, please visit our page at Pocketmags:

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