Sikhs in British Armed Forces : Second World War - Burma
First Burma Campaign 1942
Before recounting the part played by the 1st/11th Sikhs in the First Burma Campaign it is necessary to explain the effect which the general unpreparedness for war of the British Army and the expansion of the Indian Army had on the Battalion.
For over two years the 1st/ 11th Sikhs had been drained of good officers, noncommissioned officers and men for supplying drafts to battalions overseas and for new battalions raising in the Regiment. The only drafts which the Battalion had received from the Regimental Centre at Nowshera consisted of reservists, most of whom were totally unfit for active service and had to be dispatched to various static units for garrison duties in India. No modern weapons had been issued to battalions on the North-West Frontier and few officers and men had ever seen 2-inch mortars, 3-inch mortars, Bren light machine guns, anti-tank rifles and mines, wireless sets and armoured carriers with which infantry then were equipped. Only six days before moving to join the 63rd Brigade one officer, two Viceroy's commissioned officers and a hundred men had been taken away from the 1st/ 11th Sikhs as a potential draft for the 5th Battalion in Malaya.
On arrival in Jhansi it was found that the 63rd Brigade was to be a part of the 23rd Indian Division, under the command of Major-General Savory, who was Commandant of the Battalion at the outbreak of war. Although little information was available, the Brigade was informed that units would have six months in which to reorganize and train before going on active service. The Battalion was still under strength and had received no new equipment by the end of January. The order to mobilize on the 1st of February was therefore a surprise and totally unexpected.
The Battalion had to reorganize on a new impromptu war establishment which included both mules and motor transport. Some four hundred recruits arrived from Nowshera to make the Battalion up to strength, but the majority of these had only five months' service, so since trained men had to be taken away to form the anti-tank, anti-aircraft, mortar and pioneer platoons and to provide personnel required for mule drivers and motor drivers and Brigade Headquarters, rifle companies consisted of inexperienced officers, untried noncommissioned officers and recruits. There were not more than twenty trained men in each company.
The situation in Burma had so deteriorated that, although an assurance had been received with the mobilization order that the Brigade would not be sent into action until two months' training had been carried out, the Brigade was ordered overseas to reinforce the hard-pressed forces in Burma, just over a fortnight after mobilization orders had been issued and before new arms and equipment had been received.
On the 19th of February the lst /11th Sikhs, together with the 2nd/13th Frontier Force Rifles and the 1st/ 10th Gurkha Rifles, the other two battalions of the Brigade, entrained for Madras en route for what was then an unknown destination. The spirit and morale of the Battalion had to be seen to be believed. These Sikhs, mostly mere boys from the far-flung corners of the Punjab, not really knowing for what they were required to fight, set off into the great unknown with a blind faith and an indomitable spirit which, after the first shock of battle, were to carry them triumphantly through the long, arduous retreat in Burma.
On the 24th of February the Battalion arrived at Madras and immediately embarked. It was a tiring and arduous day for all, since most of the new equipment had been dispatched direct to the port of embarkation by ordnance depots and had to be unpacked, distributed and stored away. In the evening the Battalion bade farewell to Subadar-Major and Honorary Captain Thakur Singh, who was leaving the Battalion to go on pension. Subadar Budh Singh then became Subadar-Major. The ship pulled out into the harbour and sailed two days later on the 26th of February in a convoy with three other ships. Fortunately the weather was calm and the next few days were spent in keeping the men fit and in unpacking the new weapons of war. By a system of trial and error it was discovered how they all worked and the men then proceeded to fire them over the stern of the ship. This was the only opportunity which the men had to fire their new weapons before going into action. In the meantime, the transport personnel and mules had left for Calcutta, where they were collecting armoured carriers and trucks and then sailing from there to Rangoon.
By this time the situation in Burma had become critical. The Japanese had forced the small British forces over the Sittang river and were pressing on to Pegu, some fifty-five miles north-east of Rangoon. The Army Commander had just decided to abandon the city and take up a stronger line of defence farther north. Rangoon had been deserted by the civilian population, who had fled after the first enemy air raids some days before, and there were only a few troops left to work the port until the last possible moment. Captain Spink, in his notes describing the arrival of the Battalion in Burma, wrote
" After taking several different courses we eventually arrived at Rangoon on the 3rd March. As we drew near, the ship grew strangely silent and the apprehension increased for we were,. approaching a city of the dead! Not a sound came from the quay or the town behind, and overhead vultures floated lazily over the deserted city. From the quay one or two officers gazed at us curiously and as we drew near shouted disembarkation orders. An officer of the Royal Burma Navy prepared to work the derrick; there was no labour. A baggage party was rapidly detailed under the quartermaster and within half an hour the battalion disembarked, formed up and began to march through Rangoon. Not a sound could be heard, here and there a corpse could be seen, here and there a bombed and blasted building stood in ruins and over all an evil sense and smell of death pervaded the desolate city. We crept through hurriedly with occasional fearful looks behind to one side or the other. We came to the race-course by the railway and rested. The battalion was to proceed to Hlawga, some twenty miles away. The situation was obscure; no one knew where or how near the Japanese were. So by the railway we rested and waited; posted air sentries and dug slit trenches and then lay back, reflected and attuned ourselves to modern war. Evening came and we still rested; there was no train and no one knew when one might arrive; we had no food; it was cold; we had no cardigans, only shirts and shorts; we slept. About midnight a train arrived suddenly. We awoke and scrambled in. We chugged away for hours it seemed and in the dawn we detrained. For the first time we saw signs of order, not chaos. The Brigade staff met us and we marched to our camp area, where our kit had preceded us by lorry."
On the 4th of March the 1st/ 11th Sikhs rested in Hlegu. There was no news of the fighting and training was discussed. However, at about noon on the next day a warning order was received, instructing the 63rd Brigade to join the 17th Indian Division and to be prepared to move to reinforce the hard-pressed Pegu garrison. The Brigade Commander and commanding officers were also called forward. Lieutenant-Colonel McLaren, commanding the Sikhs, immediately set off with a small reconnaissance party and the Battalion hurriedly prepared to move. At 5 o'clock in the evening Battalion Headquarters, "A" Company and a part of "B" Company set off in lorries. The transport for the remainder of the Battalion did not arrive until just before midnight and their move was postponed until the next morning.
Early on the 6th of March the remainder of the Battalion caught up with "A" Company and the whole Battalion arrived at a cross-roads four miles south of Pegu, where they were halted and debussed. Information about the fighting was still very vague, but it was learned that the Japanese had encircled the Pegu garrison and established a road block somewhere this side of the town. The Brigade was ordered to take up a position to secure the cross-roads. This position was to be held at all costs, since the Pegu garrison was to break through the road block and fall back towards Taukkyan, where the road from Pegu joins the Rangoon-Prome road. The Brigade was disposed with the Sikhs on the right, the Gurkhas on the left, and the Frontier Force Rifles in reserve, with a troop of tanks in support. While the Sikhs were taking up this position some opposition was encountered by "C" Company, which was moving forward to cover the deployment. No casualties were suffered, but there was a considerable amount of firing, which helped to increase the strain on already overstrained nerves.
At about midday three tanks appeared down the Pegu road, and it was learned that the Brigade reconnaissance party had tried to break through the road block in carriers, escorted by the tanks, but Lieutenant-Colonel McLaren and the Commanding Officer of the Frontier Force Rifles had been killed, while the Brigadier and the Commanding Officer of the Gurkhas had been severely wounded. This was very sad news and it was a hard blow to the Battalion to lose its Commanding Officer so early on. Major Windsor-Aubrey, Second-in-Command, therefore took over command.
The night passed without incident, but early in the morning of the 7th of March considerable firing suddenly broke out on "D" Company's front, spreading to both "C" and H.Q. Companies. The situation was very confused and for some reason which was never cleared up "D" Company and a part of H.Q. Company started to retire. However, they were stopped and the position was restored. This was probably started by fifth columnists, who were very active in the area, and was partly due to the lack of training and experience of officers and non-commissioned officers. Shortly ,after this, on checking over the position, it was found that two Viceroy's commissioned officers and twenty-four men were missing from the mortar and signal platoons and it was later learned that these Viceroy's commissioned officers had surrendered and persuaded the men to desert to the enemy. This was a disgraceful affair which quite naturally badly unsettled the Battalion. However, in spite of the very confused situation, the position was held and the Pegu garrison, having fought their way through the road block, passed through the position and withdrew to Taukkyan.
At about 5 o'clock in the evening orders were received to withdraw to Taukkyan. After marching some way the Battalion was ferried back in lorries and the rear element arrived in the vicinity of the town at about midnight.
ATTACK ON THE ROAD BLOCK AT TAUKKYAN
While the Commanding Officer was at Divisional Headquarters at a conference the Sikhs lay on the roadside waiting for orders. They were filthy, hungry, weary and utterly bewildered, and most of the men fell fast asleep until they were rudely awakened by the return of the Commanding Officer. They had had two nights without sleep and two days without food and now they were to do a march across country in order to plat in an attack at dawn on a road block established about four miles farther north on the Prome road. The whole of the Burma Army was entirely surrounded, so the road block had to be broken at all costs. The 1st / 11th Sikhs and the 1st / 10th Gurkhas were the only fresh troops available and therefore had to do the breaking.
The Battalion was to be in position about a thousand yards east of the road and the Gurkhas in a similar position on the west of the road by 7.30 a.m. on the 8th of March, while the Frontier Force Rifles were to hold a position astride the road some way south of the road block. At 8.45 a.m. a battery of field artillery was to put down a concentration and the Gurkhas and the Sikhs were then to attack from opposite sides.
The Battalion moved off at 1 o'clock in the morning in two columns of two companies, with Battalion Headquarters in the centre. Naiks Indar Singh and Pritam Singh, of the intelligence section, were leading the way and they had the only map in the Battalion. These two naiks did excellently, for they led the Battalion straight to the forming-up area, where they arrived just before 6 o'clock in the morning. It was still dark, so the Sikhs lay down and rested until dawn. It was light just after 7 o'clock and the Sikhs found that they had halted in some flat, open rice fields with a six-foot-high oil pipe-line on their left between them and the road. The enemy appeared to be in a strip of jungle covering the road block some five hundred yards away. "B" and "C" Companies were to do the attack and "D" Company was to pass through on the capture of the objective, while "A" Company was to be in reserve with Battalion Headquarters near the pipe-line. The companies therefore moved out into their forming-up areas under cover of an early morning mist and waited, lying in the open. There was absolutely no cover and the men had no tools for digging. "A" Company unfortunately gave the Battalion position away by firing at two Japanese horsemen who appeared out of the jungle in front and immediately withdrew. About half an hour later seventeen Japanese aircraft appeared and circled over the enemy position and then made straight for the Battalion. They dive-bombed and machine-gunned the Sikhs in run after run, while a field gun and some machine guns also opened up from the jungle. The field became an inferno. Bombs, shells and machine-gun fire plastered the whole Battalion area, throwing up earth and splinters in all directions and inflicting severe casualties on the Battalion. They were good these young Sikhs, better than was expected, and they lay and took it, although some withdrew to the pipe-line, thinking that it would give them better cover, but unfortunately they were an easier target.
There was no sign of the guns opening up at 8.45 a.m., so Captain Spink, who was taking the leading companies forward, moved off with "B" Company to attack the road block. As soon as "B" Company started forward the other companies, for some unknown reason, also got up and followed suit. In two minutes some six hundred Sikhs were charging across the rice fields, all with fixed bayonets and in the finest dispersed formation. This was too much for the Japanese, who immediately abandoned the road block and fled.
Although the Battalion had cleared the road block the Sikhs had undergone a great strain and had been badly shaken. Only "B" Company had managed to maintain any organized control in the attack, and it was difficult to control the remainder, who were all mixed up and did not know what they were supposed to do on arriving on the objective. A large number continued on into the jungle and were later collected by Brigade Headquarters farther down the road. Captains Spink, Hodges and Sampuran Bachan Singh collected as many men as possible and patrolled up the road to some high ground at a road junction without incident. Captain Spink decided to hold the high ground and the Sikhs took up a good position. The men were nearly at the end of their tether, but they had begun to calm down when about fifty Japanese counter-attacked, while four Japanese aircraft straddled the position with twelve bombs. The men were difficult to hold and the Japanese captured one section post. However, Captains Spink and Hodges immediately restored the situation and the Japanese withdrew. There was no sign of the Commanding Officer and Battalion Headquarters, who were supposed to have moved forward as soon as the road block had been captured, so Captain Spink took over command. Battalion Headquarters had remained on the pipe-line and then lost touch with the Battalion. The Commanding Officer had moved forward towards the road block, but he failed to contact the Battalion. He then tried to get in touch with Brigade Headquarters without success, so he assumed that the attack had failed and withdrew northwards along the Irrawaddy. There was also no sign of the Gurkhas, who should have attacked the road block from the west. It was later, learned that they had lost their way to their forming-up area and had not been able to carry out the attack.
There was no more enemy interference and the Sikhs were now firmly established on the high ground. Traffic now started moving north up the road. Every conceivable type of transport, loaded to capacity, appeared up the road, and there seemed to be no control whatsoever. The whole of the transport of the Burma Army streamed through the Battalion position and was clear soon after midday. The Battalion spent a quiet afternoon waiting for the fighting troops to break contact at Taukkyan and withdrew northwards. The first troops appeared at about 4.30 p.m. They were tired and dirty, but still marching well. Just after 6 p.m. the last troops had passed through and the Sikhs were ordered to withdraw and act as rearguard to the Army in Burma.
The Battalion marched back five miles along the road and then was held up by the transport, which was completely blocked along the road. It was therefore decided that the 17th Division would march across country so as to leave the road free for the transport. The Sikhs had a very tiring march for ten miles across rice fields. There were interminable halts, when the men dropped down in their tracks and slept and had to be awakened and pulled to their feet when the march restarted. There was a rest for about an hour at dawn and the Battalion slept until about half-past eight, when it again received orders to march. Before moving, Captain Spink ordered a check and found that the Battalion was only three hundred and fifty strong. Where the remainder was nobody knew. The transport was now clear, so the Division moved back to the road and the Sikhs once again did rearguard.
At about 11.30 a.m. there was another halt for an hour in a copse, where the Staff Captain and Quartermaster prepared a small but welcome meal. While the Sikhs were covering the other two battalions away, Japanese artillery opened up on the position and parties of the enemy were observed advancing across the rice fields about a mile in front. However, the Sikhs withdrew without interference and marched until about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, when lorries arrived to ferry the Brigade back. The Battalion immediately took up a position to cover the withdrawal and it was not long before the advance elements of the Japanese arrived and attacked "C" Company, who were holding a position astride the road. "C" Company held back the Japanese and the Battalion was able to break contact, embus in lorries and withdraw without incident to the railway station at Tykohi, some ten miles farther north. The remainder of the brigade was resting at Tykohi, where the Battalion's first reinforcements were waiting to rejoin., These were very welcome and brought the strength of the Battalion up to four hundred and twenty men. The Brigade was waiting to move by rail to Thonze in two trains. The Frontier Force Rifles and Gurkhas were to move first, followed by the Sikhs, who were again to act as rearguard. The first train left at 8 p.m., but the Sikhs did not leave until 4 a.m. on the 10th of March. After detraining at Thonze the Battalion halted for only a few hours before marching on to Tharawaddy, where they were ordered to take up a position on the right flank of the Brigade. Approximately one hundred and eighty stragglers rejoined there and the Battalion was nearly six hundred strong.
As soon as they had dug their position the Sikhs, very hungry, very dirty and very weary, lay down and slept. For four days and nights, with practically no food or sleep, the Battalion had marched and fought and marched again. The men had suffered shock after shock, but they had pulled through. The Brigade remained in Tharawaddy for three days and the Battalion had a chance to rest and clean up, while Captain Spink took the opportunity of reorganizing the Battalion and carrying out some elementary training. The men soon recovered and their wonderful spirit gradually returned. They were all firmly determined that the chaos of the past would not be repeated. It never was. In four days they had learned a bitter lesson and they now knew what war was. They felt also that they were experienced troops and their confidence grew, never to desert them again.
There was no sign of the Japanese at Tharawaddy, but orders were issued to withdraw to Okpo. The Brigade marched eight miles to the railway and then was lifted back to Okpo in a baggage train.
The new Brigade Commander, Brigadier Barlow, met the Brigade on the railway station and the officiating commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Edwards, returned to his battalion. Lieutenant-Colonel Windsor-Aubrey and the rest of Battalion Headquarters were also at the station and they at last rejoined the Battalion.
The Sikhs held the position astride the road at Okpo and here they were visited both by General Alexander, wino had assumed command of the Burma Army, and the Divisional Commander, General Cowan. Although a patrol under Captain Grant engaged an ~enerny patrol some miles in front of the Battalion, no contact was made with any formed body of the Japanese. However, on the 19th of March the Brigade was again ordered to withdraw, this time to Putsu. The Sikhs again marched across country some few miles before entraining and the withdrawal was carried out without incident. At Putsu the Brigade was told that there would be no further withdrawal and the town would beheld at all costs. This was good news, as everyone was getting tired of withdrawing without meeting any Japanese, and the Sikhs immediately prepared a strong defensive position. In the evening, just as the Battalion had completed wiring its position, orders were again issued to withdraw, this time to Prome. Everyone was bitterly disappointed, as the men were all hoping to get a chance of cracking the Japanese. They had taken a great deal of trouble over their defences and were now quite confident of being able to deal with the enemy.
This time the Sikhs moved by rail and reached Prome on the 26th of March to find the town in flames from the enemy bombing of the previous day. The Sikhs took up a strong position astride the main road about three miles south of the town and in line with a boom which had been constructed across the Irrawaddy. The remainder of the Brigade was in Prome itself.
At--this time the Japanese were advancing into Central Burma with three divisions up the Sittang valley and two up the Irrawaddy. They had nearly a sevenfold superiority and were therefore constantly able to outflank the weak Allied divisions and force their rearguards to withdraw by threatening their rear. In the Sittang valley the Japanese had been delayed for some time by the 1st Burma Division, which had moved down from the Shan States when Pegu fell, but the enemy had recently captured Toungoo from the Chinese armies, which had relieved the 1st Burma Division and taken over charge of the Sittang front. In the Irrawaddy valley there was only the battered 17th Division at Prome available to oppose the vastly superior Japanese forces, since the 1st Burma Division was still moving over from the Sittang and could not arrive for some days.
General Alexander's chief preoccupation at this time was to gain time for the thorough destruction of the great oilfields in the Yenangyaung area. The 17th Division had been instructed to carry out a series of delaying actions, which in view of the Japanese superiority and encircling tactics would be both difficult and dangerous.
On the 27th of March there was some confused fighting at Letpadan, where the Gloucestershire Regiment was surrounded and had to fight its way out with the help of the Cameronians. Both battalions passed through the Sikhs' position at midday, and shortly afterwards the Battalion was ordered to withdraw and take up a position north of Prome, since reports had been received that a Japanese column was moving up the west bank of the Irrawaddy with the intention of crossing the river farther north to strike at the rear of the Division. However, at about 7 p.m. on the 30th of March the Japanese attacked Prome from the south. The forward positions held by the 5th/ 17th Dogras, the Burma Frontier Force and a company of the 2nd/ 13th Frontier Force Rifles were quickly overrun, while all headquarters in the forward area were accurately mortared, proving that Japanese fifth columnists must have passed back accurate information about the British dispositions.
Although the 63rd Brigade had scarcely been engaged, an immediate withdrawal was ordered at about 11 p.m. The Sikhs -took up a covering position through which the rest of the Brigade withdrew. The Japanese did not , follow up and the Sikhs held on until 6 o'clock in the morning, when they were ordered to withdraw. The Battalion passed through the 48th Brigade, who were holding a covering position a few miles farther north, and pressed on after a short halt for food. The Japanese were now following up in trucks and it was reported that an enemy column was attempting to outflank the Division and establish a road block in its rear. It was therefore decided that platoon posts should be established along both sides of the road. This was to be very tiring work, since it involved a considerable amount of doubling and was beyond the capabilities of the British and Gurkha battalions, which were almost exhausted. The whole task of flank protection therefore devolved on the three Indian battalions, the 1st/ 11th Sikhs, 2nd/ 13th Frontier Force Rifles and the 4th/ 12th Frontier Force Regiment. The Division marched twenty-nine miles and it was covered the whole way by these battalions. The weather was overpoweringly hot, the roads were hard and dusty, there was no water, and enemy aircraft were active all day and at about 4 p.m. bombed the Division, causing considerable casualties. Seldom has a division marched harder or faster under such trying conditions as the 17th Division that day. Out of that very fine division the 1st /11th Sikhs had the distinction of being singled out by both the Corps and Divisional Commanders and complimented on the excellence of their march discipline.
The next morning the Division set off again at dawn with the prospect of another twenty-five miles before them. However, after about ten miles lorries arrived and the troops were ferried back in turn. The 63rd Brigade took up a position at Kyaukpadaung, while the other two brigades held Allanmayo, some ten miles farther west.
The Division remained in these posiitions on the 2nd of April, but it started off for Taungdwingyi, some sixty miles farther north, the following evening. The 1st /11th Sikhs were ordered to protect the flank of the Division by moving along a rough track for fifty miles through the jungle on the east of the main road. The Sikhs set off at 6 o'clock in the evening and had great difficulty in moving along the track, which was extremely rough, in the dark. The Battalion continued marching until 1.30 the following afternoon, when the men and animals were exhausted. The Sikhs therefore rested through the heat of the day for a bathe, food and sleep, but they again set off at dusk. The going was much easier the second night and the Battalion made good progress, but, since it was still some distance from the road at noon, it was decided to rest again during the heat of the day and continue the march in the evening. The Sikhs arrived back on the main road at about 8 p.m. and then had two hours' more marching before reaching an outpost position occupied by the 16th Brigade. The forward position was held by the 4th /12th Frontier Force Regiment, who, thinking that the Sikhs were the forward elements of the Japanese, opened fire. The Quartermaster of the Sikhs galloped down the road on his horse through a hail of bullets, and managed to stop the fire before any damage was done. The Sikhs were most fortunate to have only one man wounded and they then passed through the Frontier Force Regiment and had a rest. They had covered sixty-two miles in fifty-two hours over appalling tracks and difficult country. The Battalion, except for the poor unfortunate mule leaders, were then ferried back in lorries to Taungdwingyi, where the Burma Corps was, for the first time, taking up a position on a reasonably concentrated front.
The Burma Division was holding Yenangyaung and Magwe and the 17th Division was in Taungdwingyi, while the 48th Brigade and the 7th Armoured Brigade were holding the area between the two divisions. Along thi