Inniskillings in the Arakan Campaign, 1943

Mayu Peninsula, Arakan. [Click on map to open]

The setting for the 1943 Arakan campaign can be found in the Despatches sent to the Secretary of State for War on 27 September 1943 by Field Marshal The Viscount Wavell GCB CMG MC ADC, Commander-in-Chief, India:

Early in autumn I set on foot preparations for a sea-borne expedition to recapture Akyab. It was at first intended to be carried out at the beginning of December, but neither the shipping, troops or necessary air force could be made available for various reasons, principally the prolongation of operations in Madagascar. By the middle of November I was forced to abandon hope of being able to mount a seaborne expedition against Akyab, and decided that the only chance of capturing it was by an advance from Chittagong down the Arakan coast to secure the Mayu Peninsula, whence an attack on Akyab could be launched from short range. This plan had the disadvantage that it made surprise most unlikely, and Arakan was a most unfavourable theatre, into which I should certainly not have made a deep land advance on any scale had sea transport been available. I also realised that the troops available had had little opportunity of training in jungle warfare. I hoped, however, that, if the advance in Arakan could proceed rapidly, it would be difficult for the Japanese to reinforce in time; and considered it was better to take the risks involved than to remain inactive on this front during the winter.

Instructions for this operation were issued to G.O.C.-in-C., Eastern Army, on the I9th November 1942. The progress and results will be described in a subsequent despatch. By the end of the year I4th Indian Division had crossed the Burmese frontier and had occupied Maungdaw and Buthidaung, from which the Japanese withdrew without fighting. The division was preparing to push on down to Foul Point at the southern end of the Mayu Peninsula, from whence it was intended to launch an assault on Akyab. Unfortunately, rain had already delayed the progress of the division.

(Extract from Supplement 37728 to The London Gazette, 18 September 1946, beginning Page 4669.)

The Mayu Peninsula, a ridge some 1,500 feet high, running down between the Bay of Bengal in the west and the Mayu River to the east, was covered in dense bush traversed by rivers, some flowing to the Bay of Bengal, others emptying into the River Mayu (See Sketch Map). One good vehicle road ran down the west coast that, in the main, enjoyed a wide beach, whereas the route on the east was classed as inadequate. Some tracks suitable only for porters crossed the ridges, with the only really viable mule pass cutting across ridges between Kyang Daung in the east and Kyaukpanduwama on the coast. Passes between the ridges did not need to be occupied by the Japanese where they had blocked them with felled trees and improvised anti-personnel boobytraps in the form of 'punjis', well concealed razor-sharpened bamboo stakes of various sizes. The battlefield naturally favoured the defending Japanese commander who could neglect manning the passes and keep his agile force south near Donbaik ready to deploy forward into prepared strong points. He also had good communications with the support available from Akyab. That agility displayed in 1942, to infiltrate, outflank, surround, and then reduce a company or battalion-sized group, while another group moved to block and deny routes to reinforcements, was an enduring Japanese tactic well suited to the terrain.

The Inniskillings, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J R C Crosslé, moved to Maungdaw on the west coast at the head of Arakan Carrierthe Mayu Peninsula, with a forward base at Kyaukpanduywama. A carrier patrol (left) that had moved down the coast had reached Foul Point at the end of the peninsula on 4 January without contacting any Japanese. The 47 Brigade operation was launched with the 1/7 Rajputs advancing on the east side and reporting many Japanese in the area of Pagaing, Sinoh and Thitkadu villages. Brigade directed the east side to be cleared and the Inniskillings' C Company, commanded by Captain Robin, was detached to the 5/8 Punjabis.

Moving through a pass, the Punjabis advanced on Myinbu to the south of the villages. At the same time, The Inniskillings with A and B Company, and minus C (detached 5/8 Punjabis), D and Headquarter Company (remaining at Kyaukpanduywama), crossed the Donbaik pass with Laungchaung and Thayetpyin as objectives, the latter protected by an unfordable watercourse with mangroves growing thickly on its banks. There was no opposition to C Company, but the Battalion's A Company found Burmese rebel fighters (Mughs) in Thayetpyin. Having stripped off, Captain Coates led an unclothed assault group in a swim across the 'chaung' to attack the village, whereupon the Mughs fled as soon as they caught sight of 'the Skins'!*

Following these actions, the Battalion began crossing back to the west coast. It was around this time that a carrier-borne patrol was engaged by the enemy near Donbaik. The Brigadier, with a self-inflicted severely reduced capability on the coast, ordered forward Lieutenant Leclezio's platoon with the carriers from D Company. The platoon, although it managed to ambush and kill many of the enemy, was itself attacked from the rear. The platoon commander and most of the platoon were killed. The Brigadier then sent forward the remainder of D Company and when it attacked the Japanese position, Lieutenant Hanson's platoon was repulsed and suffered heavy losses. The remnants of a severely depleted D Company went firm to hold a line some one and a half miles north of Donbaik.

The Battalion, having arrived back at Kyaukpanduywama, was immediately sent south along the beach, and arriving at last light, attacked the following morning, 8 January 1943. B Company, on the right, was halted by effective machine-gun and mortar fire. When A Company, on the left, outflanked the enemy position in a left hook to attack the Donbaik village area, the Japanese withdrew in such haste that they abandoned stores - and a cooked rice meal. Following a Japanese counterattack in strength, A Company withdrew leaving B and C Company to hold the line.

A 47 Brigade attack followed on 18 January. The Inniskillings on the right, with the 1/7th Rajputs on the left, suffered heavy casualties when they met machine-gun and mortar fire from well concealed positions. The Brigade then took up that same line originally established by D Company. Following several unsuccessful Japanese attacks on the position, 47 Brigade was relieved by 55 Brigade and the Inniskillings moved back to Maungdaw. Again, an attack was launched by 55 Brigade on 1 February to take Donbaik, but failed. The Inniskillings returned to the position but now under 55 Brigade's command. During the next attack on 18 February, A and B Company, advancing over open ground met devastating fire. Although some small isolated groups reached their objectives and withstood repeated enemy counterattacks throughout the rest of the day, they withdrew under cover of darkness that evening. Lieutenant Fairweather, having fought off the enemy with two sections of his own platoon and one section from another, returned with only eight survivors.

Lieutenant Fairweather was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry that day. Corporal John Scott was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and Fusilier William Newman the Military Medal (MM) for jointly recovering a damaged carrier. Corporal Daniel Denton was awarded the MM for rescuing gravely wounded comrades while under enemy fire during both the January and February attacks. Sergeant John Dornin and Fusilier Daniel Scobie received gallantry awards, and for volunteering to carry an important message to Battalion Headquarters by swimming for 600 yards through the sea and surf under enemy machine-gun fire, they received a Mention in Despatches (MiD).

The next day, following a limited reorganisation, the remnants of the Battalion transferred to the east side of the ridge where the companies were then engaged in clearing Japanese who had infiltrated by crossing the Mayu from the east bank. B Company's location, guarding the northern pass that was the main mule-supply route from the west coast, was attacked by Japanese who had infiltrated the high ground above the position. Lieutenant Lister's rearguard action in producing intense rates of fire covered B Company's extraction as they moved south off the position, followed some 30 minutes later by the rearguard.

By the 29 March, the Japanese were pressing so hard that the Divisional Commander 14th Indian Division ordered the dumping of all heavy equipment and for 47 Brigade to cross the Mayu ridge over the Sinoh Pass and take up positions at Indin on the coast to cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade out of the Donbaik position. This task could never have been fulfilled with any certainty by the Inniskillings when it was ordered. During a reconnaissance of this task, the Inniskillings' Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Crosslé, was seriously wounded and Major C A Cooper-Key assumed command. As the Japanese onslaught continued, the order was given on 6 April to scatter and exfiltrate through the jungle and across the ridge. Casualty numbers were high. There were undoubtedly many unrecorded acts of gallantry and Fusilier William Megarry was awarded the MM for recovering a gravely wounded man to the Regimental Aid Post. The remnants of the Battalion that succeeded in arriving at the coast moved north until they arrived at the 2nd Division's defensive line south of Kyaukpanduwama.

The 230 survivors were taken north to rest camps and on the 21 April the Inniskillings entrained once again for Ranchi in India. Thirteen members of the Battalion received gallantry awards for their actions in the Arakan Campaign. The 1st Battalion would take no part, during the Second World War, on further operations in Burma, or further east, and remained on garrison duties until VJ Day, defending India until the sub-continent underwent partition when the new states of India and Pakistan achieved independence.

INNISKSAs a result of the actions in Burma from 1942-43, only 38 Inniskillings have marked graves and 332 have no known graves. We remember the 425 men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who died from enemy action and disease when serving in India and Burma. One especially, Fusilier Dunn, undaunted by the difficulties that he no doubt foresaw, and unable to march any further, refused to be a burden to his comrade, and declaring, 'I can take it, remained where he lay to die alone in the Burma jungle.

(By Difficulties Undaunted)

'Skins' is the 1st Battalion's Inniskilling's nickname and is thought to derive from an event following the Battle of Maida 1806, when during a post-battle wash and bathe in the sea, a galloping staff officer arrived to advise that an approaching dust cloud was thought to be enemy cavalry. The naked to near-naked Inniskillings quickly armed themselves and formed to fight the approaching threat that turned out to be nothing more dangerous than a herd of 'scampering buffaloes'. Onlookers from other regiments, given the circumstances and as a play on the word 'Inniskilling', are believed to have thereafter referred to the 1st Battalion as - 'the Skins'.

Images from the Battle of Arakan series of paintings by War Artist, Anthony Gross CBE RA.