Second World War – Burma
Sikhs in British Armed Forces:Second World War – Burma
Third Burma Campaign 1945
Sikhs in action at Pagan
Before proceeding with the next phase of operations, it is necessary to give a general picture of the situation in Burma at the end of 1944. The defeat of the Japanese in the Arakan and at Imphal had been followed by an Allied advance out of Assam and Manipur into Burma itself. The XXXIII Corps had thrust forward as far as Kalewa and the stage was set for the crossing of the Chindwin, the first of the great river barriers of Burma, and for an advance towards the Irrawaddy.
A small but firm bridgehead had been established on the east bank of the Chindwin, and the largest Bailey bridge in the world built across the river. A pause then followed to enable the build-up of supplies for further operations. It was decided that the XXXIII Corps should drive straight for the Irrawaddy from Kalewa, while the IV Corps, now under General Messervy, moved down the Gangaw valley with the object of crossing the river farther south behind the Japanese main forces at Mandalay.
The 7th Division formed part of the IV Corps and was to move on Pakokku, on the Irrawaddy.
ADVANCE TO THE IRRAWADDY
On the 29th of December the l st / 11 th Sikhs left Kohima in motor transport and arrived in Tamu, in the Kabaw valley, on the same evening. Here Major Spink, finishing his notes on the First Burma Campaign, wrote
” After Rangoon fell we had to go back because our one slender line of supply was threatened. We had no planes and air supply was a mere conjecture of the future. Now, nearly three years later, we are on the same road again, but this time with a difference-tanks, guns, lorries pour down the road in a steady stream-moving south! The continuous buzz of aeroplanes, speeding on their many and nefarious missions, is entirely ours! We are on the same road, with a difference, for we are tried and trusted veterans of war, and we are moving south! Jubilantly we shall go back to avenge our gallant comrades who are no more. We are the same Battalion on the same road, with a difference, for it has not been achieved without cost; only one officer remains to point out the landmarks of the way, while many tried and trusted comrades who fell in the Arakan and in Imphal teaching the newcomers the way of it all have died to make this new advance possible. But we are on the right road, the road leading south, the hard, dusty road we know of old. We shall keep faith with those who died.”
From Tamu the Battalion moved to the Gangaw valley, where the 7th Division was concentrating. Early in January the Division commenced moving down the Gangaw valley; the 89th Brigade was in reserve and the Battalion did not go into action. The leading troops encountered slight opposition in Gangaw and thereafter small determined Japanese rearguards held up the advance of the Division for some days. The 89th Brigade was therefore sent on a wide encircling movement to cut off the main Japanese forces in front of the Division.
On the 18th of January the 1 st / 11 th Sikhs set out with the Brigade and arrived at Yebo, on the main road, on the 27th of January, having covered a hundred and eighty miles over very difficult country in eight days. Although this was two days before the date set by General Evans, who had taken over command of the Division from General Messervy, it was just too late to cut off the Japanese. However, the threat to their rear had been sufficient, since it had forced them to pull back quickly and had enabled the Division to continue its advance.
The 89th Brigade then moved south down the main road and seized Pauk and the high ground to the east overlooking the Irrawaddy, while the Sikhs occupied the village of Sinthe. During this period the fighting was not intense, and consisted only of encounters with small Japanese rearguards hindering the Allied advance. Pakokku, a few miles east of Sinthe, was held by the Japanese in strength, so the Sikhs were ordered to patrol down the Yaw Chaung towards Myitche and if possible occupy the town. The Battalion encountered no opposition and secured the town on the 5th of February. Myitche was situated on the Irrawaddy, so the Battalion had the distinction of being the first troops to reach the river south of Mandalay.
THE CROSSING OF THE IRRAWADDY
The 33rd Brigade was ordered to carry out the assault crossing of the Irrawaddy just north of Pagan, so Myitche became the scene of feverish activity as preparations were made for the crossing. Meanwhile the 1st/ l 1th Sikhs were sent to carry out a feint crossing some six miles farther south in order to distract the enemy’s attention from the main crossing.
The Sikhs commenced to reconnoitre and patrol both banks of the Irrawaddy at the point selected for the feint crossing. All assault craft had been allotted for the main crossing, so the Battalion was forced to rely on country boats and local boatmen, who were reluctant to cross the river. However, after some persistent persuasion, they finally agreed to take the patrols to the eastern bank on the 11th of February. These patrols found that the southern end of Pagan on the far side of the river was unoccupied by the Japanese, so the Divisional Commander, on receiving this information, decided to turn the feint into a crossing and the Battalion prepared to cross in force.
On the night of the 12th of February the Sikhs, together with a battery of mountain artillery, moved over to an island in the middle of the river from which the crossing was to be made. This was no easy feat. It was a pitch-black night, only six country boats were available to cross three hundred yards of water and all sorts of stores had to be carried two miles across the island in local bullock carts. However, in spite of these difficulties, the Battalion was safely hidden in its concentration area by dawn and immediately prepared for the crossing.
At 11 o’clock in the morning came disturbing news. A patrol which had been sent to the far bank with a wireless set during the night reported that the enemy were now holding Pagan. The Sikhs’ efforts to attract the enemy’s attention had met with now unwanted success. It was too late to change the plan by landing farther south, since a high wind and a heavy swell prevented boats being moved downstream.
At 4 a.m. on the 14th of February “B” Company, under Major Merrick, set off in fifteen large, unwieldy, country craft. All went well until they neared the far bank, when they were met by a hail of machine-gun fire. The local boatmen immediately panicked, stopped rowing and cowered in the bottom of the boats. Neither persuasion nor threats would induce them to go on, and the boats began to drift downstream completely out of control. The men did their best, but the boats were too unwieldy in the strong current for them to handle and they were carried away. After drifting for some time the boatmen were eventually persuaded to row and to take the Sikhs back to the island. “B” Company was very lucky to have only one man wounded, but it was quite obvious that it would not be possible to carry out a landing on the opposite bank without some form of assault craft which could be handled by the men themselves.
However, this abortive attempt had drawn a large party of Japanese from the main crossing and had undoubtedly assisted the 33rd Brigade in establishing a bridgehead farther north.
Early on the 15th of February two men of the Indian National Army,( A force of Indians fighting for the Japanese) carrying a white flag, crossed the river from Pagan. These men reported that the Japanese on the far bank had moved up northwards and had left a company of the Indian National Army to hold Pagan. This company, they said, wished to surrender. Major Merrick immediately volunteered to take his company across the river. Only three country boats were available, so he set out with one platoon. There were no local boatmen and the men had to paddle the unwieldy craft themselves. All went well and the Sikhs crossed without encountering any opposition. As Major Merrick reached the far bank the company of the Indian National Army marched down to the river and laid down its arms. More boats were hurriedly collected and by evening Battalion Headquarters and “A” and “B” Companies were securely established in Pagan. The remainder of the Battalion, with the exception of “C” Company, who . were protecting the southern flank of the Division west of the Irrawaddy, crossed with the mountain battery the next morning.
Pagan used to be the ancient capital of the Burmese kings, and is noted for its countless pagodas, many of which dated back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Burmese here welcomed the Battalion and deprecated the Japanese, who had looted most of the priceless treasures from their ancient temples and removed them to Tokyo.
HOLDING THE BRIDGEHEAD
The 1st /11th Sikhs contacted troops from the main crossing the next morning and were given the task of protecting the right flank of the bridgehead. On the 17th of February the Battalion moved some two miles south of Pagan and took up a position on the Chauk road. Patrols were pushed out southwards and soon made contact with parties of the enemy moving north, apparently with the object of reinforcing the Japanese opposing the main bridgehead. “B” Company therefore set off down the road early on the 18th of February to drive back the enemy. A patrol was sent ahead and it was not long before it contacted a company of Japanese in position near a ruined pagoda. Two men of the patrol were wounded, but “B” Company pushed on and the enemy withdrew to a large red pagoda about half a mile farther south.
The ground here was very open and Major Merrick considered that he could not advance without support, so he sent Lieutenant Proudlock back to Battalion Headquarters to explain the situation. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton asked Brigade Headquarters to send a troop of tanks and then ordered Captain Pritam Singh to take a section of mortars forward to support “B” Company. He then moved forward with a small headquarters to the ruined pagoda.
The tanks arrived at about 11 o’clock and “B” Company advanced. The enemy were driven back and withdrew to some high ground to the south. While “B” Company and tanks pursued the retreating Japanese down the east of the road, the Commanding Officer and mortars moved forward to the red pagoda. On the right of the road the ground was very broken and here over a hundred Japanese were hiding in a village and were not spotted by “B” Company in its pursuit away on the left. As soon as “B” Company had moved forward, the Japanese debouched from the village and counter-attacked the red pagoda. Battalion Headquarters and the mortars were completely surprised and were lucky to get away towards “B” Company in a 15-cwt. truck just as the enemy closed in on the pagoda. Captain Pritam Singh, however, was badly wounded in the first few minutes and, although Major Webster and Lieutenant Proudlock made every effort to carry him away, he had to be left behind in a very exposed position. Nevertheless, he had a very lucky escape, since a Japanese officer brandishing a sword came right up to him, but, believing him to be dead, he passed on.
“B” Company was still pursuing the Japanese and was unaware that another party of the enemy had closed in behind it, when the Commanding Officer eventually caught up with it. He immediately ordered Major Merrick to turn about and counter-attack the pagoda.
It was now the turn of the Japanese to be surprised. The tanks moving back in support of “B” Company inflicted heavy casualties on them, blasting some out of their positions with their 75-mm. guns and catching others in the open with their machine guns. After some confused and brisk fighting the Japanese were thrown back, leaving some fifty killed on the field. “B” Company’s casualties were slight, although Major Merrick was unfortunately mortally wounded gallantly leading his men in the latter part of the action.
The story of this action would not be complete without mentioning the exploits of Sepoy Pertap Singh, the driver of the truck. He followed up the tanks, driving across the open picking up the wounded. The Japanese naturally directed a considerable amount of fire against the truck, but Pertap Singh refused to remain behind under cover and calmly drove around under continuous fire to collect dead and wounded. But for his gallantry, for which he received the Military Medal, it would have been very difficult to have retrieved the wounded without losing further casualties. During the whole of this time Captain Pritam Singh had been lying in the open and all attempts to bring him in had failed. However, he was eventually spotted by a tank and brought back. Two platoons of “A” Company, called forward by wireless, now arrived and covered the withdrawal of “B” Company to the Battalion position.
This sally forth had broken up the enemy column moving north and had inflicted serious losses on the Japanese, who were trying to concentrate against the main bridgehead.
Throughout the next night “D” Company, under Major Dykes, holding a position some two miles east of the Battalion, was heavily attacked, while subsidiary attacks were launched against the Battalion. “D” Company was greatly outnumbered and had to fight hard all night to hold its position, but the enemy was eventually beaten back with considerable losses along the whole front. Lance-Naik Maghar Singh was responsible for holding an important post in “D” Company’s position, and there is no doubt that it was chiefly due to his great courage and determination that the enemy were prevented from infiltrating at a vital point in the perimeter. He was bombarded with grenades throughout the action and was severely wounded on three separate occasions. However, he refused to leave his machine gun and threw the enemy back time after time until they finally withdrew. After this there was little enemy activity and the Battalion spent two quiet days. On the 23rd of February the Japanese put in another determined attack during the night and were again repulsed with further losses. During this action Lance-Naik Dalwara Singh displayed outstanding gallantry, when his section had suffered heavy casualties and his Bren gun was put out of action. Seeing that his position was in danger of being overrun, Lance-Naik Dalwara Singh jumped out of his trench and ran over to the Bren gun under heavy enemy mortar and automatic fire and brought the gun into action. He was almost immediately wounded, but he continued to fire his gun and hold the enemy in check. The Japanese redoubled their efforts to rush his post and Dalwara Singh was wounded again in the left arm. Despite his second wound, he kept the gun in action until the enemy were finally driven off. The great courage of Lance-Naik Dalwara Singh alone prevented his section position from being overrun and materially assisted in the defeat of the enemy. The Japanese had suffered so much during these battles that they now abandoned their attempts to reinforce the troops opposing the crossing farther north and withdrew.
During all this time troops of the IV Corps were streaming across the river and had cut off the main Japanese forces south of Mandalay by occupying
Meiktila. The 7th Division, however, had to remain static and hold the bridgehead until the whole Corps had crossed the Irrawaddy.
On the 21st of February the 89th Brigade moved south as far as Monakton and took up a position in the dry, arid area north of Singu, which covered the approaches to Chauk and the oilfields. The Brigade was now disposed with the 4th/8th Gurkhas astride the main road to Singu and the l st / 11th Sikhs in position three miles east of the Irrawaddy with “D” Company farther east in the village of Tetma, while the King’s Own Scottish Borderers were in reserve.
It was soon apparent that the enemy was beginning to concentrate in front of the Brigade preparatory to a further attack on the bridgehead. The main concentration was in front of the Gurkhas, who forestalled his plans by sallying forth with tanks and attacking the Japanese in their concentration area with excellent results. Another enemy column advanced on “D” Company at Tetma and occupied a position astride the track, about six hundred yards south of the village. This party was unexpectedly encountered by two Sikh patrols which had met and joined forces to return to “D” Company along this track. The Sikhs, thinking that this was only an enemy ambush, fixed bayonets and charged. Such was the ferocity of the charge that the patrol went straight through the Japanese position, which was found later to be held by about a hundred and fifty men. Of the fifteen men in the patrol, eight were killed and seven seriously wounded, but, in their wild charge they had killed twice their own number and so shattered the morale of the Japanese that they evacuated the position and withdrew south.
“A” Company, under Major Webster, now relieved “D” Company in Tetma and two days later encountered an even larger Japanese column advancing on the village. This column launched a determined and sustained attack on “A” Company throughout the night of the 15th of March, The Sikhs, well supported by the Battalion mortars, beat off all attacks and in the morning collected twenty enemy bodies on or near the wire around their position. “A” Company’s casualties were negligible and no one was killed.
Other than the Tetma battles little of interest occurred and on the 22nd of March the 1st/ 11th Sikhs handed over to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and passed into Brigade reserve on the bank of the Irrawaddy. It was with a certain amount of relief that the Sikhs moved back to the river. For them the past month had meant hard living under difficult conditions. They carried out continuous long-range patrolling over soft sand with few tangible results to show for their efforts. In addition, the heat had been considerable and water was very scarce. After a few days’ rest the Sikhs moved forward and took over from the Gurkhas on the 27th of March.
After the Gurkhas’ sallies the enemy had withdrawn to Singu, a suburb of Chauk, some five miles farther south. In order to keep contact with the enemy, the Sikhs established a patrol base on a hill feature called Fantasia just north of Singu. This, as its name implies, was a thoroughly unhealthy spot with little natural cover and dominated by enemy observation posts. It attracted a considerable amount of artillery fire. It was during a spell of harassing fire that Major J. Frith, R.A., commanding 347 Battery, was killed. He had lived with the Battalion for a long time and, both in the Arakan and during this campaign, had given the Battalion unfailing and invaluable support.
By the beginning of April the IV Corps had passed through the bridgehead, linked up with the 19th Division, who had captured Mandalay, and defeated in detail the main Japanese forces south of the town. The 7th Division therefore was able to return to the offensive and advance south down the Irrawaddy. Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton left the Battalion on the 16th of April and Lieutenant-Colonel Spink became Commandant.
The Division now came under General Stopford’s XXXIII Corps, since the IV Corps had now moved farther east and was advancing down the Sittang’ valley towards Toungoo.
ADVANCE DOWN THE IRRAWADDY
The 33rd Brigade carried out a wide encircling movement to the east and the Japanese, fearing encirclement, withdrew from Chauk, which was entered on the 19th of April. The enemy had been taken completely by surprise, so the 33rd Brigade was ordered to advance south and capture Yenangyaung. The Japanese resisted stubbornly, but were thrown back and the 33rd Brigade occupied the town on the 21st of April.
The main Japanese forces, which had garrisoned Chauk and Yenangyaung, had withdrawn to the west bank of the Irrawaddy, so the 89th Brigade was ordered to cross the river and capture Salin to cut off as many of these Japanese forces as possible.
The 1st/ 11th Sikhs were ordered to cross the Irrawaddy at Kyaukye, a village some ten miles north of Yenangyaung, and to secure a bridgehead. At 8.30 p.m. on the 23rd of April “A” Company, under Major Webster, led the second assault crossing of the Irrawaddy, but this time in craft more suited to the task. The crossing was unopposed and by midnight the Battalion was firmly established on the western bank. The whole crossing proceeded with a smoothness and speed which, in view of its inexperience, were most satisfactory and reflected the greatest credit on all ranks, particularly “A” Company, who without any previous knowledge of these craft paddled itself silently across with a speed that was most impressive.
The 89th Brigade then passed through and established itself astride the main road and captured Salin. The enemy were now withdrawing rapidly southwards to avoid the advance of the 7th Division and then swinging eastwards across the Irrawaddy while other Japanese forces were withdrawing from the Arakan over the An Pass towards Thayetmyo. The 89th Brigade was therefore ordered to advance south and cut off and destroy these enemy columns. On the 25th of April the 89th Brigade set off for Minbu with the 1st/ 11th Sikhs in the lead. Little opposition was encountered, since the enemy was using tracks farther west, and on the 30th of April the Battalion entered Minbu without opposition. Minbu was an attractive place almost undamaged and full of abandoned dumps of ammunition and other enemy equipment.
On the 2nd of May the Sikhs again led the Brigade in a series of forced marches, over deep muddy tracks, which the premonsoon rain had made almost impassable. Despite these difficulties, the Battalion covered over fifty miles in three days and by the 6th of May had cut the first Japanese escape route at Yenema. “A” Company, which was advancing some six miles ahead of the Battalion, had a short, sharp engagement with a party of Japanese, who arrived in Yenema at the same time. Sepoy Bawa Singh distinguished himself in this action by getting his Bren gun into action quickly and killing fifteen of the enemy with three long bursts from a Bren gun.
It later transpired that this enemy party was a reconnaissance party sent ahead to choose a camp site for the night for the Japanese column, which was only half an hour’s march away.
On the 6th of May the 4th / 8th Gurkha Rifles were ordered to do a forced march to relieve the Sikhs on the ground at Yenema and so enable the Battalion to press on south-west and cut another possible Japanese line of withdrawal down a track following the Pani Chaung in the next valley to the west.
Accordingly, “C” Company, under Major Heath, was ordered to move at midnight, while the rest of the Battalion followed at 7 o’clock the next morning after being relieved by the Gurkhas. “C” Company reached the valley of the Pani Chaung and then turned over a small range of hills before dropping down into Shandatgyi. While the forward platoon of “C” Company was moving over these hills and down to Shandatgyi itself, Major Heath sent a small patrol to the village of Kaingngegyi on the Pani Chaung, barely half a mile away. The patrol reported the village occupied and a large party of Japanese bathing in the river. With a section of 3-inch mortars in support, the company attacked the village with the two platoons under Subadar Bachan Singh. Unfortunately the enemy were on the alert and “C” Company met with very stiff resistance on the edge of the village. About eighty Japanese were found to be holding a strong position with five machine guns in well-sited bunkers. The leading platoon suffered heavy casualties close up to the enemy defences, which were located behind a strong bamboo stockade just inside the village.
The wounded were in a very exposed position and lying so near the enemy trenches that it was impossible to put down either further supporting fire or to set fire to the village until they had been collected. This was a long, tedious and costly business in which Subadar Bachan Singh displayed great courage and devotion to duty. With complete disregard of his own personal safety, he personally led three men forward to knock out an enemy post which was preventing the collection of the wounded. Under very heavy fire at close range, this party crawled forward to within a few yards of the enemy trench, when it was held up by a six-foot bamboo fence. Subadar Bachan Singh could not force his way through the fence, so he bombarded the enemy post with grenades. His three companions were almost immediately killed, so he crawled back and collected
another party. He then led this party round to a flank to assault the post from another direction. Subadar Bachan Singh was again stopped by the bamboo fence and the party suffered several casualties. Realizing that further attempts to take the strong-point would cause additional casualties unless some supporting fire was arranged, Subadar Bachan Singh ordered two men to give him covering fire while he crawled forward and dragged six wounded men back to safety.
The forward platoon having now rejoined from Shandatgyi, the company put in a full-scale attack under cover of the Battalion mortars, which arrived just in time to get into action. Although 347 Battery of the 136th Field Regiment was moving with the Battalion and a troop had been brought into action some miles up the Yenema track, it was not possible to give “C” Company artillery support.
The company set fire to the village with smoke grenades, but in spite of this the enemy resisted stubbornly and they were driven out only after some fierce and bitter fighting. Subadar Bachan Singh again displayed great gallantry in this attack and personally led the leading troops forward in the assault. It was largely due to his initiative and example that the Sikhs managed to rout the enemy in their strong position. Some thirty-three bodies and a mass of equipment were recovered at the end of the day.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Spink, arrived on the scene just as “C” Company put in its first attack. It was quite obvious that this was the ideal spot in which to block the valley of the Pani Chaung, and he ordered the remainder of the Battalion forward as quickly as possible and take up positions to block the valley while “C” Company’s battle was still in progress.
“C” Company had had a very tiring day and had suffered some twenty casualties, but the men were in the best of spirits after their successful attack and immensely pleased with the loot, which included a large number of binoculars, swords and other trophies, among which were five bottles of Imperial Japanese saki!
From the number of officers killed and the amount of equipment captured, the village appeared to have been occupied by some form of headquarters, but the Commanding Officer was fairly certain that the main body of the enemy had not yet moved into the Pani Chaung valley. Villagers reported that parties of enemy troops had been moving south down this track and there was a large party of enemy at present resting at Okpo village, some five miles due north.
On receiving this information, Lieutenant-Colonel Spink ordered a fighting patrol of twenty men of “D” Company, under Jemadar Mehar Singh, to raid this village during the night of the 7th of May. Despite its fifteen-mile march earlier in the day, this platoon covered five miles of most difficult country and reached the village at about midnight. Jemadar Mehar Singh placed ‘stops all round the village and then set fire to it. The Japanese were taken completely by surprise and ran out in disorder and the platoon, aided by the light of the fire, killed twenty-five Japanese before being forced to withdraw by sheer weight of numbers. This patrol returned at dawn on the 8th of May and reported its
remarkable action. It seemed incredible that the platoon should have gained such a success in a strange and difficult country, and Lieutenant-Colonel Spink sent out an officer with a small patrol to collect more information. Not only had Jemadar Mehar Singh raided the correct village but the twenty-five enemy bodies were still lying there. This patrol of twenty men had covered approximately thirty miles in twenty-two hours and had successfully ambushed a large party of the enemy-an outstanding achievement.
Throughout the 8th of May patrols scoured the valley of the Pani Chaung and reported the presence of enemy troops some twelve miles to the north. At about 5 p.m. Brigade Headquarters reported that the main body of the enemy had pulled back from Yenema and had turned west and might be expected down the Pani Chaung during the night of the 8th of May. Some four miles north of the Battalion position the main track from the north divided into three. One led to a valley five miles west of the Pani Chaung; one turned east and crossed the Yenema track some five miles north-east of Shandatgyi, while the main track led to Shandatgyi through the Battalion position. Accordingly, two platoon ambushes were organized for the night of the 8th of May on the enemy’s most probable lines of advance. The platoons moved out to positions about two miles. north of the Battalion.
Jemadar Bhag Singh and his platoon occupied the ambush on the main track. At about 9 p.m. a very large enemy column ran into this ambush. In the running fight that ensued, Jemadar Bhag Singh fought a very clever rearguard action and delayed the Japanese advance on to the Battalion position for nearly seven hours by constantly forcing the enemy to deploy before a succession of small ambushes. When about half a mile from the Battalion Jemadar Bhag Singh broke contact and slipped back into “C” Company’s area. A few minutes later, at about 3.30 a.m., the leading elements of the enemy bumped “C” Company.
Under the impression that this was another ambush, the whole column, including some seventy three-ton lorries and nearly as many bullock carts, closed up on their forward troops within a few hundred yards of the company. The artillery forward observation officer and mortar observation post, aided by a good deal of noise, put in some very effective shooting. As soon as the Japanese recovered from their surprise, they attacked strongly under cover of a 75-mm. gun and an anti-tank gun.
While this attack was developing, Subadar Naranjan Singh, who had been in the western ambush position, began to appreciate the situation. By the sound of the firing he judged that Jemadar Bhag Singh was falling back towards the Battalion. He therefore decided to move east and his platoon struck the centre of the enemy column just as it had been brought to a standstill by “C” Company. Subadar Naranjan Singh immediately attacked and caused considerable casualties and damage to the enemy. Amongst other things, the platoon managed to hit and destroy, with anti-tank rifle grenades, two three-ton lorries full of troops. Almost simultaneously the Commanding Officer ordered a platoon of “D” Company to move up the eastern bank of Pani Chaung and attack the column from the eastern flank, in an endeavour to silence and capture the 75-mm gun.
These unexpected flank attacks in the centre of the very congested and vulnerable column completely disconcerted the enemy, who began to withdraw at about 7.30 a.m. “B” Company, under Major Redding, was at once ordered to follow up and force the Japanese to deploy and fight again. As soon as this had been done the Commanding Officer ordered “A” Company to be prepared to move through the jungle to the west in an encircling movement in order to strike again at the enemy flank and rear. “A” Company thereupon concentrated in “C” Company area ready to move.
By 8 o’clock “B” Company had reached a point about four hundred yards along the track from “C” Company’s position. The Japanese had not expected a follow-up and their fighting troops had fallen back on to their congested transport, which they were vainly trying to turn round and sort out. As soon as the enemy had recovered from surprise, they counter-attacked with the fanatical ferocity of complete desperation. “B” Company suffered heavy casualties and it seemed that it might be overrun by superior numbers of the enemy. The Commanding Officer therefore decided to change his original plan and ordered “A” Company to assist “B” Company.
By the time the situation in “B” Company area had been restored, it was nearly 2 o’clock. The enemy had managed to prepare a very strong rearguard position covering their column. In view of this and the fact that the men were now very tired, the Commanding Officer decided to do nothing further until nightfall other than maintain contact with patrols.
Soon after dark, at about 8 p.m., the enemy began probing “C” and “B” Companies’ positions and it appeared as if they were trying accurately to locate our posts before putting in an attack. At about midnight this attack developed, but was not pressed home with great determination.
At this time “D” Company reported the noise of motor transport, and the Commanding Officer, realizing that the attack was probably a feint to cover a withdrawal, asked the gunners to harass the track. At about 4 a.m. enemy pressure on “B” and “C” Companies’ positions ceased and as soon as it was light “D” Company moved forward down the road to the track junction and killed six Japanese stragglers, but the main party had pulled out and was withdrawing with all speed down the westerly track. It was in the course of this battle that Lieutenant Amar Singh was killed when gallantly leading his men. He was first wounded and was lying in the open about fifty yards from the enemy. Sepoy Sarwan Singh immediately dashed forward under heavy enemy machine-gun fire and brought him back to safety. However, Lieutenant Amar Singh was so badly wounded that he died shortly afterwards.
Meanwhile, the 4th/8th Gurkhas had been relieved by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers at Yenema on the 9th of May and had taken up a position at Shandatgyi with two companies at Taungdaw in the next valley. This effectively blocked the last route open to the Japanese. These companies were savagely attacked for three days before the Japanese finally abandoned their transport and dispersed in the jungle in small parties.
The enemy column when it first struck the Battalion was approximately two thousand five hundred strong and had seventy-five lorries and some sixty bullock carts. All this transport and much valuable equipment was captured, while between five and six hundred of the enemy were killed. Oi’ this number the Battalion accounted for over two hundred and fifty.
On arrival at Mindon the 89th Brigade, less the 1st/ 11th Sikhs and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, were ordered to Thayetmayo to take up monsoon quarters, reorganize and refit for the autumn campaign. The Battalion and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers were placed under the temporary command of the 268th Brigade and ordered to work as independent columns and clear two tracks down to Kama, where the 268th Brigade had been established to prevent the escape of the shattered remnants of the 54th Japanese Division.
On the 21st of May the Battalion moved out of Mindon just as dawn was breaking. The operation was scheduled to take five days, the first and longest march of which was to take them as far as Kabaing, some fifteen miles south of Mindon. The monsoon was just breaking and, after several days of heavy rain, the track was deep in mud, while the various streams which had to be crossed had become raging torrents, waist-deep in water, and presented a difficult obstacle for both man and mule. Sun and rain followed each other intermittently and the atmosphere was oppressive and steamy. The track wound up and down over the hills and the heavy mud, which clung tenaciously to one’s feet, the stifling humidity and the constant inclines made the march an arduous and tiring performance. It was a very weary battalion that eventually began to approach Kabaing.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon Major Redding, commanding “B” Company, which had left some four hours ahead of the Battalion, came through on the wireless to say that they were now half a mile north of Kabaing, and that Kabaing was reported by villagers to be occupied by a party of about a hundred Japanese with two or more guns.
While “B” Company patrolled forward, the Battalion closed up and at about 3.30 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Spink met Major Redding and moved forward to his leading platoon. While the Commanding Officer was viewing Kabaing through the trees, a patrol returned and confirmed the report that the village was held. It also reported that a sentry post with a light machine gun, which was acting as an outpost to the village, was covering the crossing across the stream just north of the village.
This was bad news; the men were tired, it was getting late, an air-drop was expected at any moment and the Battalion had to get into position and dig in quickly, since more parties of Japanese were expected through Kabaing that night. A villager, however, agreed to lead the Battalion across the stream at a point where it was thought to be under cover from the sentry post. This was very
risky, but the Commanding Officer decided to send “C” Company forward. since it was essential to get on to the high ground south of the stream.
” C” Company therefore moved across the stream and occupied the high ground without opposition. This was most unexpected and furthermore it looked as though “C” Company had not been observed by the enemy.
Leaving “A” Company to lay out a dropping zone for supplies and to cover the tracks on the north side of the stream, the rest of the Battalion moved forward on to the high ground which overlooked Kabaing from the south-west.
By half-past four “B” Company was established on a high hill directly overlooking Kabaing. It was almost too good to be true, for the Battalion held all the dominating ground round the village and had not been detected by the enemy.
” D” Company had already been warned for the attack on Kabaing and moved to a rendezvous in “B” Company’s area. The Company Commander, Major Brough, went forward for a reconnaissance and reported that a large party of Japanese were bathing in the stream, which lay between Kabaing and “B” Company. He also stated that the company would have to cross some five hundred yards of open ground to reach the village.
However, despite these difficulties, the Commanding Officer decided to attack under a mortar concentration without previous registration. This was the only way in which sufficient surprise could be achieved to get “D” Company over the five hundred yards of open rice fields. Captain Proudlock, the Mortar Officer, was profoundly disturbed, since he could not fix the position of his mortars accurately on the map on account of the very thick jungle and the inaccuracy of the map.
The Commanding Officer went forward to “B” Company with a wireless set, and “D” Company moved to the edge of the jungle, while the rest of the Battalion dug themselves in.
The attack was due to start at 5 p.m. Two minutes before the hour a burst of firing broke out in “A” Company’s area and everyone’s heart sank. The Adjutant, Captain Cunningham, immediately came up on the wireless set from Battalion Headquarters and reported that an enemy foraging party had come across to the village held by “A” Company, who had been forced to open fire; they had killed four Japanese. He was at once followed by Major Brough, who asked, in a furious voice, what was happening. He reported that the Japanese, who had been bathing, had all scuttled back into the village, that all chance of surprise was lost and that the attack across the rice fields must now be a costly business.
However, the firing had come from the direction of the track down which the enemy must obviously have been expecting our forces, and since only a few shots had been fired Lieutenant-Colonel Spink felt that the enemy would assume that it was merely a clash with an advance patrol. In addition, the enemy still did not seem to be aware of our presence in the hills to the south-west. Lieutenant-Colonel Spink therefore ordered Major Brough to continue with the original plan.
At five minutes past five the mortar concentration of a hundred bombs commenced and “D” Company began its dash across the rice fields. Surprise was complete and overwhelming. The Japanese, on hearing “A” Company’s fire, had manned their positions, which were all sited to cover the main track across the stream north of the village.
No battle could have gone more perfectly to plan! By sheer good luck the mortar concentration came down perfectly, catching the Japanese in the open as they rushed to man alternative positions covering the open rice fields across which “D” Company was attacking. “D” Company crossed the open with a dash and speed which, after its tiring march, would not have been thought possible. Before the enemy had recovered from the first shock of surprise, “D” Company was in with the bayonet. Under the inspired leadership of Major Brough and Subadar Gurcharan Singh, it passed into a complete frenzy. The Japanese never had a chance, and although they fought doggedly it was soon over.
By 6.30 p.m. the last strong-point had been taken. Some fifteen to twenty of the enemy escaped to the south-west, but the rest were dead. Seventy-three enemy bodies were counted in Kabaing, of which over fifty had been killed with the bayonet. Booty included three guns and five heavy machine guns, as well as a mass of miscellaneous articles. The Battalion’s casualties were three killed and nine wounded. Lance-Naik Bhag Singh was awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal for his gallantry and devotion to duty in this attack. He led his section forward with great dash tinder heavy enemy fire and captured the first trench. He personally killed three of the enemy with his bayonet and then led his section forward to the next line of trenches. His section was soon held up by a light machine gun and he himself was wounded. However, with complete disregard for his own wounds, he charged the enemy post singlehanded. He was again hit by a burst of machine-gun fire in the chest, but he charged on and succeeded in killing the two Japanese manning the gun. Despite his now very serious wounds, Lance-Naik Bhag Singh led his section forward and captured his final objective.
As the attack went in, the first Dakota aircraft arrived and dropped supplies and ammunition.
The Battalion was forced to delay its departure from Kabaing by one day to enable an airstrip to be constructed and casualties flown back. This delay allowed the Japanese to keep ahead and the march to Kama was uneventful, although some stragglers were periodically encountered on the way, which was littered with abandoned equipment. The Battalion arrived at Kama on the 26th of May and remained therefor a few days before moving on.
On the 2nd June the Sikhs arrived at Thayetmyo, on the west bank of the Irrawaddy, some two hundred miles north of Rangoon, where they were to spend the monsoon and train, re-equip and generally reorganize in preparation for the next campaign, which, as far as they were concerned, was scheduled to start on the 15th of October. The first few days were spent in settling in, cleaning
up and preparing for a large party to go out on leave. Unfortunately, the expected air-lift did not materialize and only forty men were able to get away. Captain Sarkar, who had been Medical Officer to the 1 st / 11 th Sikhs since 1943, left the Battalion at this time. All ranks were very sorry to see him go, as he looked after everyone with great care and tended to all the wounded throughout two long and arduous campaigns. He won the Military Cross with the Battalion for his courage and devotion to duty in tending the wounded under fire on several occasions in the Arakan. His place was taken by Captain Roy, who is still with the Battalion today.
On the 8th of June Lieutenant-Colonel Spink was ordered to Rangoon with a party of thirty men to take part in the Rangoon Victory Parade. They drove down the main Prome road, which had only just been cleared of Japanese, and saw with interest the various positions the Battalion had held in 1942. Although the Japanese had done little or no maintenance, the road was still in good condition and after the tortuous jungle tracks it was a very pleasant change to drive once more along a macadam surface. Rangoon was not so badly damaged as one had been led to believe, and was an absolute hive of activity, as stores, vehicles and personnel continued to pour in through the port. On the 15th of June a most impressive parade, unfortunately marred by rain, was held for the Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral The Lord Louis Mountbatten, who took the salute at the march past. Representatives of the American, French, Dutch, Chinese and local Burma patriot forces took part, as well as contingents from all the British and Indian divisions which had fought; in the Burma campaign.
Meanwhile, in Thayetmyo, a good deal of work had been put in on the lines and in making ranges and parade grounds for training. However, the Battalion was not destined to reap the benefit of its labours, and on the l7th of June the Brigade, less the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, recrossed the river to Allanmayo, en route for further operations in the Pegu area, where the 7th Division had been ordered to relieve the 5th Indian Division, with whom the 1 st / 11 th Sikhs had fought in the relief of Imphal the previous year.
On the 19th of June the Battalion moved by motor transport to the Brigade concentration area at Hmawbi, on the main Rangoon-Prome road about thirty miles north of Rangoon, and arrived about noon, having stayed the night at Okpu.
It was there that the Brigade bade a sad farewell to Brigadier Crowther, D.S.O., who had been posted to command the 17th Indian Division. He had commanded the Brigade throughout all the fighting from the very early days in the Arakan.
The 89th Brigade was ordered to hold a sector along the west bank of the Sittang river, which included the Rangoon-Moulmein railway (the bridge over the Sittang at Nyaungkashe was destroyed in the withdrawal in 1942). The task of the Brigade was to prevent the Japanese crossing the Sittang to reassume the offensive or extract their forces trapped in the Pegu Yomas farther west.
On the morning of the 23rd of June the Battalion moved to Waw on the railway some thirteen miles west of the Sittang, and on the next day went on to relieve the 3rd/2nd Punjab Regiment, of the 5th Indian Division, six miles farther east at Abya. After the short rest in Thayetmyo everyone was very fit and in the best of spirits. On the 25th of June the 4th/8th Gurkhas passed through the Battalion along the railway to relieve the Burma Regiment at Nyaungkashe, while the 3rd/6th Gurkhas moved up along the canal to Myithko, about ten miles farther north on the Sittang.
The 7th Bn. The York and Lancaster Regiment was now placed temporarily under the command of the Brigade and was located in the Waw area.
The monsoon had broken some ten to twelve days before, so the Brigade was dispersed over a large area in completely flooded country. The whole area was submerged with the exception of villages, railways and canal banks. The railway was the only line of supply and this was easily threatened by the Japanese, who could move in boats up the old Sittang river channel, which swung westwards towards the railway south of Nyaungkashe. In addition, all our artillery had to be located in sectors of the railway and this greatly restricted the artillery we could employ. The Japanese were better placed on the east bank of the river, having a secure line of supply and ample gun positions with excellent observation posts.
For several days little happened and the Sikhs concentrated on building up defences (digging was quite out of the question in the flooded countryside) and sending out patrols to search villages in the area. The patrols found no sign of Japanese activity, although the 4th/8th Gurkhas had several minor clashes with small Japanese bridgeheads still holding out on the west bank of the Sittang and were subjected to a good deal of shelling.
On the 2nd of July one platoon of “C” Company was ordered to Satthewagon to protect the line of supply to a company of the 4th/8th Gurkhas established north of the railway line. On the same day a large party of three hundred officers and men was sent on leave, leaving the Battalion only some five hundred strong. The Sikhs were therefore very under strength, but it was advisable to get men away on leave so as to be ready to fight another campaign in October.
On the 3rd of July “C” Company, less one platoon, was ordered to Payabyo, just south of Waw, to take over from the York and Lancaster Regiment, who had been withdrawn from the Brigade. There was already one company guarding numerous bridges along the railway, so that the Sikhs had only Battalion Headquarters and two very weak rifle companies available to act as a striking force for the Brigade At this time there was indication that the Japanese were reinforcing their small bridgeheads on the west bank of the Sittang, while the 3rd / 6th Gurkhas reported increased activity in the neighbourhood of Myithkyo.
On the night of the 3rd of July heavy firing broke out down the railway line and shelling could be heard in the 4th/8th Gurkhas’ sector. Havildar Didar Singh, commanding a platoon of “B” Company which was guarding the forward bridge in the Sikhs’ area, had been heavily shelled all day and now reported that Jemadar Bhag Singh, with the “C” Company platoon, was also engaged
but not very heavily. All communication to Jemadar Bhag Singh had failed, as both telephone lines had been cut and the wireless was out of order. Brigade Headquarters reported that the 4th / 8th Gurkhas were surrounded and after a heavy concentration of shelling were being strongly attacked.
As dawn broke, Havildar Didar Singh reported that two parties of the enemy were dug in on his front, one on the railway between himself and the nearest Gurkha platoon, situated on the bridge just west of Nyaungkashe, and another near a pagoda between himself and Jemadar Bhag Singh. Shortly afterwards Sepoy Babu Singh arrived from Jemadar Bhag Singh and reported that the platoon was surrounded, had been very badly attacked all night and was running short of ammunition. He had divested himself of his clothing, donned a loin-cloth and crawled along a flooded stream; he then mingled with some villagers whom the Japanese were clearing from the village, and passed within a yard of a Japanese sentry to get to the Battalion. He later received the Military Medal for his gallantry.
Jemadar Bhag Singh and the twenty-two men of his platoon had done magnificent work. They had held off a determined attack by a hundred and fifty of the enemy for over eight hours and finally forced the enemy to withdraw to the far end of the village. On the wire round the platoon position were thirty-three enemy bodies.
“A” Company, under the command of Major Webster, was at once ordered to clear Satthewagon village, establish contact with Jemadar Bhag Singh and, after clearing the pagoda area, to be prepared to take up a position in Satthewagon. Owing to the difficult nature of the country it was 11 o’clock before the village was finally cleared.
“A” Company then proceeded to reconnoitre the pagoda position in strength and drew very heavy automatic and mortar fire. The enemy position was located on an isolated mound around the pagoda and was surrounded by flooded rice fields often waist-deep in water. Sepoy Gurdial Singh was the leading man of the section detailed to discover the strength of the enemy. He succeeded in reaching a point thirty yards from the enemy position, when he was wounded. He signalled to the remainder of the section to give him covering fire and crawled nearer the enemy. Although Sepoy Gurdial Singh was again wounded, he continued to crawl forward, to within a few feet of an enemy machine-gun post and then lobbed grenades into the post, killing three Japanese and silencing the machine gun. It was now quite obvious that this position could not be taken without adequate artillery or air support. So, since it was now late, it was decided to postpone the attack until the next day, when air support could be arranged.
However, on the 5th of July the 1st/ 11th Sikhs were ordered to extricate the now isolated Gurkha Company from its position east of Satthewagon, and it was not possible again to carry out further operations against the pagoda position. Later in the evening “C” Company rejoined the Battalion from Payabo.
The situation in Nyaungkashe was steadily deteriorating, although being supplied by air, the Gurkhas were being heavily shelled without respite, while the evacuation of casualties was becoming a matter of urgency. LieutenantColonel Spink was ordered to make every endeavour to open the railway to Nyaungkashe.
On the following two days and nights the Battalion attacked with the utmost gallantry and resolution against impossible odds, but the Sikhs’ efforts were unavailing. The planned air support did not materialize on account of wet weather, while the artillery support, already inadequate, was further limited by lack of ammunition.
During these battles on the 6th of July, Lieutenant Jogindar Singh was killed while gallantly leading a forward platoon of “A” Company, and Major Webster was seriously wounded. Sepoy Ujagar Singh volunteered to bring in the body of Lieutenant Jogindar Singh. This involved crossing two hundred yards of flooded rice fields swept by enemy artillery and small-arms fire. Sepoy Ujagar Singh reached Lieutenant Jogindar Singh and hoisted him on to his shoulder, but he himself was almost immediately wounded. Although his leg was broken and he could not walk, he dragged himself and the body back to cover, where he fell unconscious through exhaustion and pain. There were many other feats of gallantry and it is possible to recount only a few. Subadar Gurbachan Singh, who took over “A” Company when Major Webster was wounded, set a very fine example to his men when the company came under very heavy fire a few yards from the enemy’s position and suffered very heavy casualties. He was always to be seen where the fire was hottest and the situation most critical, cheering and encouraging his men. It was chiefly due to his initiative and able leadership that all the wounded were evacuated and his company successfully withdrawn from its precarious position in close contact with the enemy. Company Havildar-Major Jaswant Singh personally dragged two wounded men to cover from a very exposed position a few yards from the enemy. He then swam with one man across a flooded stream to a place of safety and then returned to accomplish this hazardous undertaking under heavy enemy fire a second time. Lance-Naik Bakshi Singh found himself the only non-commissioned officer in his platoon. He set a fine example of courage and devotion to duty in personally leading his men against impossible odds time and time again until he was ordered to withdraw. It was due to the courage and initiative of this young non-commissioned officer that the platoon, together with all the wounded, was successfully withdrawn.
Sepoy Ralla Singh was the sole survivor of a section pinned to the ground close up to the enemy’s position. He immediately manned the Bren gun and covered the other two sections of his platoon which had been ordered to withdraw. He then saw his platoon commander lying wounded close by and went to his aid. He dragged the platoon commander back bound by bound, stopping only to engage the enemy with his Bren gun. He successfully brought back his platoon commander and the Bren gun through two hundred and fifty yards of flooded fields under continuous enemy fire to safety.
By the early hours of the 7th of July the Battalion was reduced to two weak composite companies. Two officers and five Viceroy’s commissioned officers had been either killed or wounded and the proportion of non-commissioned officer casualties was heavy. Lieutenant-Colonel Spink therefore informed the Brigadier that until air support was available in sufficient strength to neutralize the various strong-points he was unable to put in any further attacks.
The Brigade Commander, however, decided to withdraw the 4th/8th Gurkhas from Nyaungkashe and hold Abya as the forward position, since air support during this period of bad weather was so uncertain and Nyaungkashe was not of vital importance.
Accordingly on the 7th of July the Battalion concentrated farther forward in Sattewagon to assist in the withdrawal of the 4th/8th Gurkha Rifles, which was successfully carried out that night, while the 4th/ 15th Punjab Regiment, from the 33rd Brigade, took over Abya.
By a curious turn of fate the weather on the 7th of July cleared and Royal Air Force support was overwhelming. This, after the Sikhs’ incessant attacks, disheartened the Japanese, who, ironically enough, withdrew from their forward positions at the same time as the 4th / 8th Gurkhas were withdrawing. The 1 st / 11 th Sikhs at once occupied the pagoda position and later reinforced the forward position on the railway. These were now held by a composite company of “C” and “D” Companies under Major Brough.
As soon as the Japanese realized that the 4th/8th Gurkhas had withdrawn they attempted to follow up and reoccupy their advanced positions, but they were thrown back, with considerable loss by “C” / “D” Company on the night of the 8th of July.
The 33rd Brigade now relieved the 89th Brigade, and on the 11th of July the Battalion was withdrawn to Waw and two days later moved to Hlegu, about thirty miles east of Rangoon.
So ended the Sikhs’ last, most bitter and unsatisfactory battle against impossible odds and under the most trying and arduous conditions. The men remained constantly cheerful and fought with the utmost gallantry and resolution. Although not at first apparent, the Battalion had in fact achieved a major success. It was learned from captured orders that the Japanese offensive had aimed at the capture of Waw, in order to extricate their forces in the Pegu Yomas. This offensive was effectively stopped and the Japanese made no further attempt to advance after their attacks on the night of the 8th of July.
At Hlegu General Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief in India, visited the Battalion and met all officers and Viceroy’s commissioned officers, and inspected the men. He was particularly impressed with a guard of honour commanded by Subadar Naranjan Singh. General Stopford, Commander-in-Chief, Twelfth Army, and General Tuker, officiating Commander of the IV Corps, also visited the Battalion and congratulated the men on their bearing and turn-out.
Whilst at Hlegu the 1st/11th Sikhs heard rumours of the Japanese surrender, but no one believed these to be true, since after the recent fighting in the Sittang bend it seemed hardly possible that the Japanese would surrender. However, the Battalion soon learned that this was true, and Subadar Gurbachan Singh represented the Battalion at the actual surrender ceremony at Rangoon on the 19th of September.
Source:The Sikh Regiment – Lieutenant-Colonel P.G. Bamford, D.S.O