BURMA 1942-43

Story

There are two Second World War Honours emblazoned on the Queen's Colours of The Royal Irish Regiment; both were awarded to The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers for actions by the 1st Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in Burma (Myanmar).

The Battle Honour YENANGYAUN was awarded for actions at Yenangyaun during the defence of Burma in 1942 and the distinction BURMA 1942-43, a Theatre Honour, for actions throughout the period 1942-43 that included the Arakan Campaign in 1943.

The 1st Battalion had arrived in India in October 1938 and was stationed in Wellington, South India. War was imminent and, shortly after the Inniskillings had completed jungle warfare training in Meerut, northern India, the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941. Following the Japanese Fifteenth Army invasion of the (then) British colony of Burma on 16 January 1942, the Battalion completed its mobilisation on 5 March and stood ready to be ordered to Burma.

Burma 1942

Following major setbacks in February 1942, Churchill sent General Alexander to take command of the Burma Army. In southern Burma, the Japanese had advanced to outflank the British Garrison at Rangoon (Yangon) near the mouth of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River and, after the destruction of the port and oil facilities, Alexander ordered its evacuation on 7 March. Major General 'Bill' Slim was moved from his divisional command in Iraq and promoted to assume command of the Burma Corps, the new principal fighting formation established in Prome (Pyay), central Burma, on 13 March. Lieutenant General ‘Bill’ Slim’s plan was that the hastily formed Burma Corps would fight the Japanese while withdrawing to the India-Burma border where it would arrive before the onset of the Monsoon, halt the Japanese and assist in preventing the invasion of India. The Japanese were also likely to overrun and capture the vital oilfields complex at Yenangyaun, in central Burma, and the Allies would, as in Rangoon, have to secure and then destroy the facilities.

The 1st Battalion was airlifted from Dum Dum, eastern India, to Magwe (Magway), Burma, on the Irrawaddy and arrived complete by 14 March to join the 13th Indian Brigade, then under command the 1st Burma Infantry Division. The Inniskillings, as an independent unit, would experience many changes of command at both divisional and brigade level as the tempo and outcome of operations forced formations to reorganize. From Magwe, riding a motley collection of civilian, army and RAF Motor Transport (MT) vehicles, the Inniskillings moved south down the road that followed the Irrawaddy to Prome.

Prome Civs FleeThe Battalion concentrated in the Prome area on 19 March and then deployed into a defensive position on the eastern outskirts of Prome, with one company astride the main road two miles to the south. On 27 March, D Company, commanded by Major H F C Lewin, and supported by a machine-gun section and a mortar detachment, was ordered some 30 miles south of Prome. It was to act as a striking force to harass any Japanese attempts to advance on the road to Prome and to clear any enemy attempting to ambush the road. The following day, a patrol located an ambush, but failed to discover its size and strength. When the lead platoon moved forward to destroy it, the Japanese sprang the ambush and overwhelmed both the platoon and the machine-gun and mortar support that had also been sent forward. The Japanese 215th Regiment had infiltrated to the north behind the forward lines, and was blocking the road at Shwedaung (Shwe Taung) and D Company, avoiding further contact, moved off-road into the jungle, returning to Prome on the night of 29 March. This first heavy contact with the enemy resulted in thirteen Inniskillings killed and two wounded.

(Above left, refugees flee along the Prome Road to India (Image © IWM JAR 1240))

The Japanese, during late March, had been increasing offensive air operations, and, following heavy attacks on RAF airfields such as Magwe, the Royal Air Force was forced to withdraw, mainly to India. It meant that the Japanese air threat, especially air reconnaissance, extended over central, and indeed up to parts of northern Burma. On the night of the 30/31 March, the Japanese began their ground attack on Prome. Offensive ambush operations by the 17th Indian Division prevented it from being overrun as it prepared to withdraw complete by 2 April. For the Inniskillings, there followed eight days of a fighting withdrawal northwards. Japanese local air superiority struck a fatal blow on 10 April, killing the Inniskillings' Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel R G S Cox MC, when fighter aircraft attacked the vehicle convoy he was travelling in; the Brigadier he was riding with in the open Jeep was wounded. Ralph Cox, aged 47, was buried in the Battalion's concentration area on the Rangoon to Mandalay Road at Milestone 309.

The race was now on for the oilfield complex further north at Yenangyaung. That night, the Inniskillings moved to a position 4 miles North of Alebo, south of the main Rangoon-Mandalay road at Milestone 300 and the following morning the Japanese made contact with 2/Lt Kelly's patrol. A fighting patrol was sent out to find the wounded and missing, but none were found. Another fighting patrol was then ordered to clear a village near Alebo, aided by three Stuart tanks from 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, where around 50 enemy were engaged. Own casualties amounted to six killed and seven wounded and one of the wounded, 2/Lt H A Wilson, would later die of his wounds aboard a hospital ship. Machine-gun fire and rounds from a mountain battery prevented further Japanese infiltration before orders were received to withdraw.

These minor skirmishes and the ensuing casualties heralded what was going to be a bloody and costly major action for the Inniskillings when they reached Yenangyaung. The Battalion's actions there would later be recognized by the award of a Battle Honour (to read more, please click on the Battle Honour YENANGYAUNG 1942).

Ferry ArakanFollowing the fighting at Yenangyaung on 18/19 April, Slim was ordered to continue with the Burma Corps' retreat to the Indian border. For the remnants of the Inniskillings, this meant several days of moving on foot or motor transport, and even by ferry on the Irrawaddy, to the next brigade rearguard position that would cover formations conducting the general withdrawal. It was during one of these moves rearward that the Inniskillings arrived in Taungtha to occupy a bivouac area over the 23-24 April. The Battalion War Diary records 'morale was low'. Those killed in action had been buried in makeshift graves, the severely wounded had been left on the battlefield, comrades and friends had been taken prisoner and the debilitating jungle environment had no doubt taken its physical and mental toll. The state of mind was likely darkened by a seemingly hopeless retreat, constantly harassed and disrupted by an agile enemy on land and in the air, weather permitting. There is a hint of a reinforcement of discipline as the diary next states 'Some time was spent on P.T. & drill'. However, their desperate lot was considerably better than those who had been captured by the Japanese. Ex-Prisoners of War would later describe their captor’s savagery and brutality, especially towards the wounded. In defiance of the Geneva Convention, any wounded or exhausted who fell en route to field prisons, or beyond, were kicked and beaten until they stood, and if they could not - they were bayoneted or had their throats cut, and their unburied corpses left to rot.

One such rearguard Brigade position at Myingyan, beside the confluence of the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin rivers, covered the withdrawal of the Chinese Nationalist General Sun Li-jen's 38th Division. The weakened Inniskillings were allotted a depth (rear) position south of the town astride the main road where the Battalion occupied an industrial (mill) site. When the Brigade withdrew across a bridge that had been prepared for demolition, the Battalion's B Company, commanded by Captain D P Farell, was the last to cross, whereupon the demolition was fired to deny the enemy an easy pursuit. The withdrawal route followed the main road out of the town and then by track to Simekhon (Si Mee Khon) some 26 miles north along the Irrawaddy. Most of the motley collection of MT vehicles had by now been destroyed or abandoned and this march, as described in the war diary, 'was one of the worst during the campaign'. The transport was now provided by mules and bullock-drawn cart and on arrival at the river, the Inniskillings crossed by ferry and headed for Chaung-U. From there the journey continued, negotiating typically what Lieutenant Mike Dickie Steamer Irrawaddy/Chindwindescribed as '...cart track with very sharp bends, steep gradients and narrow cuttings...' to the Chindwin River. There, the Inniskillings boarded steamers. After disembarking, the Inniskillings marched 90 miles up the Kabaw Valley, infamous for its endemic malaria that lent it the macabre nickname 'Death Valley'.

Emerging from Death Valley, the Inniskillings followed the newly laid track that led to Imphal in India. The ill, injured and those exhausted by malaria and dysentery were able to ride on passing vehicles and by 26 May, eight officers and 152 Other Ranks had arrived in India at the end of the longest retreat in the history of the British Army. Two commanding officers, Lieutenant Colonel Cox and Lieutenant Colonel McConnell, had been killed within nine days of each other. General Slim later remarked:

'We brought our weapons out with us, and we carried our wounded, too. Dog-tired soldiers, hardly able to put one foot in front of another, would stagger along for hours carrying or holding up a wounded comrade. When at last they reached India over those terrible jungle mountains they did not go back to an island fortress and to their own people where they could rest and refit. The Army of Burma sank down on the frontier of India, dead beat and in rags. ...'

On the 31 May, the Inniskillings departed Imphal for Ranchi, 200 miles west of Calcutta, where they would receive reinforcing drafts and totally refurbish to be ready for their next action in Burma.

In a Despatches’ ‘Summary’, Wavell stated:

From the above it can be seen that the Indian Command had a full and eventful year in 1942. It had been rudely awakened from a somewhat detached interest in the war by the shock of Japan's aggression and the wholly unexpected disasters in Malaya and then Burma. When the danger approached closely, both the armed forces and the nation were unprepared to meet invasion. Ever since the beginning of the war India had sent troops abroad almost as quickly as they could be trained, and had kept in India, except for the minimum necessary for the defence of the N.W. Frontier and internal security, only new formations under training, with incomplete equipment. In 1942 a considerable proportion of these half-trained formations had been sent to Malaya or Burma in the hope of holding up the enemy. So that in March, 1942, India had not a single fully-trained division. The Air Force, as shown, was similarly ineffective and the Eastern Fleet was unable to control Indian waters. So India stood in greater peril of invasion than for some hundreds of years.


1943

Japanese Flag InniskMusThe Inniskillings, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J R C Crosslé, returned to Burma in January 1943 with 47 Indian Brigade, in the 14th Indian Division, to take part in the Arakan Campaign. The aim of the campaign was limited to the capture of the Japanese occupied Akyab (Operation CANNIBAL), with its port and former RAF airfield, that lay opposite the end of the Mayu Peninsula. The airfield was key to air operations over central Burma. With insufficient assets to mount a seaborne expedition against Akyab, General Wavell, Commander in Chief India, had decided in December 1942 that the only chance of capturing it was by an advance from Chittagong (Chattogram), then in India, across the Burmese border and down the Arakan coast to secure the Mayu Peninsula, from where an attack on Akyab could be launched from short range.

To read an account of the 1st Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers actions on the Mayu Peninsula during the Arakan Campaign, please now click on Arakan Campaign.


The Japanese flag (above) is in the collection of the Inniskillings Museum. It was a national ensign of Japan (Nisshōki or Hinomaru) that the soldiers of the Empire of Japan had covered in warlike slogans such as ‘Kill all the enemy I have seen’. It was not the usual military 'Rising Sun' (Kyokujitsu-ki) war flag, with its rays radiating from the sun, that was normally displayed by the Army of the Empire of Japan. It was, despite the slogans, eventually taken by members of the 1st Battalion The Royal Inniskillings' Machine Gun Platoon and is claimed for posterity by their modest signature near the centre at the fly (right edge). Look also for their individual signatures and these can be seen at the top of the upper right canton. [Image © Copyright Inniskillings Museum]

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