~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

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 ~ COMBINED OPERATIONS in BURMA ~

Operation Romulus in support of the 14th Army advance in Burma - Jan 1945

This account covers the landings on the north east coast of Burma - Akyab, Myebon and Kangaw. There were set-piece battles and cat and mouse manoeuvrings on both sides, with danger and death constant companions while on operations. The author's father, Sgt Alexander Pirie, MM, served  in 3 Troop, Royal Marine Engineering Commandos, whose heroic efforts in clearing beach obstacles and preparing roadways are, deservedly, recounted below.

Background

Attempts to remove the Japanese from Burma had run into difficulties and, by May 1942, the Allies were retreating. But even while the retreat was in progress, General Archibald Wavell, the Commander in Chief in India, was making plans to mount further offences.

Back in the UK, plans and preparations for the invasion of occupied Europe were progressing apace but, nonetheless, arrangements were made to send 17,000 men to India, in support of General Wavell's plans. Their specific purpose was to drive the Japanese out of the north Arakan area of Burma.

 [Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017].

In November 1943, the South East Asia Command (SEAC), with Admiral Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander, was established with its HQ in New Delhi, India. Soon, changes in the organisation of the military high command and the political administration in the area, were changed. By May 1944, the military and political administrations were separated and General Wavell, became Viceroy of India, while General Claude Auchinleck was given control of the forces in India. Importantly, SEAC, under Mountbatten, assumed control over the Bengal and Assam provinces in the north east of the country, which were closest to the enemy in Burma. The new arrangements would help Mountbatten direct all operations against the Japanese, using forces available to him in India and Ceylon. The top priority was to help General William Slim's 14th Army stop and reverse the relentless Japanese advance.

Convoy to India

So, 3 Special Service Commando Brigade was to be sent to India for action in Burma. It comprised Nos 1 and 5 Army Commando, 42 and 44 Royal Marine Commando and an HQ detachment that included 3 Troop, Royal Marine Engineer Commando. 1 Troop of No 10 (Dutch) Commando also travelled to India, only to be sent back to participate in the liberation of Holland.

On 11th November 1943, the troops assembled at Gourock docks on the River Clyde, in Scotland. It was a time of very mixed emotions for the young men waiting, in miserable weather, to go aboard His Majesty's Troopships (HMT) Ranchi and HMT Reina del Pacifico. On the 15th of November, convoy KMF 26 formed up and made its way down the Clyde estuary and into the Atlantic. Amongst Ranchi's passengers were troops of 1 Commando, 42 RM Commando and 3 Commando Brigade HQ, which included 3 Troop Royal Marine Engineer Commando. Reina del Pacifico carried the balance of 3 Special Service Brigade, 5 Commando and 44 RM Commando.

There were 15 escorts and 22 merchant ships and troop transports in the convoy carrying almost 17,000 soldiers. On the 26th November, as the convoy made its way through the Mediterranean, it came under aerial attack twice within the space of an hour. Ranchi was hit by a bomb which damaged her foc'sle before passing through the forward heads and generator room, killing 1 man. HMT Rohna, carrying 2015 US troops, was hit by a wireless controlled glider bomb launched from a Heinkel 177. 1015 troops and 123 crew died as she sank. 600 men were picked up by the escort USS Pelican. Although this was the largest single loss of US troops at sea, it was hushed up for years by both the US and British governments. It was not until 1995 that the incident was formally recognised and commemorated in a memorial.

The Ranchi detached from the convoy and sailed independently to Alexandria for repairs, causing a delay in the passage of half of 3 Special Service Brigade. Christmas and Hogmanay were spent in Alexandria but, on the 9th of January 1944, they embarked on SS Pulaski at Port Tewfik arriving in Bombay on the 21st of January. They then proceeded to Kedgaon Camp near Poona about 75 miles inland to the east. Brigadier Nonweiler, the Commanding Officer of 3 Commando Brigade (the Special Service part having been dropped due to its  Nazi ‘SS’ connotations) was not impressed describing it as “A cold, windswept bleak and bare hill, mottled with large black rocks – Kedgaon should mean acres and acres of sweet nothing.”

The Assault Plan

General Sir Philip Christison's XV Corps had twice previously tried to re-take Akyab with its strategic port and airfield. This third attempt, under Romulus, was codenamed Operation Talon. SEAC laid plans to regain the initiative with an assault and re-occupation of northern Burma and from there to renew the offensive in the Arakan. Existing units would be strengthened to their former levels with fresh troops and units trained in assault and attack.

 [Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017].

On the wider front, by the middle of 1944, the tide had started to turn in favour of General Bill Slim's 14th Army. In December 1944, XV Corps were once again ready to confront the Japanese in the Arakan. The objective was to destroy or capture the Japanese 28th Army before it could retreat across the mountains into the valleys of the rivers Irrawaddy and Kaladin,  through the Arakan Peninsula, finally escaping via local rivers and chaungs back to the open sea. Key to XV Corps' task was the successful outcomes of the battles of attrition at Kohima and Imphal in Central Burma. Without their success in destroying the Japanese “Golden Triangle”, the Burmese campaign would have been a longer and more costly affair.

3 Commando Brigade were attached to XV Corps and became part of the 25th Indian Division under Major General G N Wood. The Brigade were trained to lead assaults directly on to landing beaches defended by enemy forces so General Christison decided to utilise this skill by invading the Arakan from the sea. The plan called for coordinated landings in 3 areas, Akyab, Myebon and Kangaw. 3 Commando Brigade would spearhead the assaults, establish a beachhead, advance and secure the area before the main forces landed.

At Akyab and Myebon, 3 Commando Brigade would be followed by the 74th Brigade who would then advance to the North of the Myebon peninsula. At Kangaw, 51st Brigade would follow through to Kangaw village after 3 Commando Brigade had consolidated the landing beach and surrounding area. The 74th and 51st would then march northwards in 2 columns with the aim of squeezing the enemy between themselves and the 82nd (West African) Division advancing Southwards. Opposing them were the Japanese 54th Division under Lieutenant-General Miyazaki which included the 111th and 154th Regiments and 55th Cavalry Regiment.

[Photo; A DUKW reversing into a landing craft at Akyab during the embarkation of No. 3 Commando for the Myebon Peninsula, 11 January 1945. © IWM (SE 2297).]

Meticulous planning preceded all major amphibious landings and this one was no exception. The operation that delivered landing craft and related equipment to the Far East was codenamed Appian. Most craft broke their journeys at HMS Saunders on the Bitter Lakes in Egypt for repairs, maintenance and refitting work. The 9th LCT Flotilla, which was part of this operation, lost 5 LCTs and 50 men in October 1944, which proves that sacrifices were made in putting 3 Commando Brigade ashore that day on the Arakan beaches.

Akyab

From their forward base on the Naaf river at Teknaf, 3 Commando Brigade prepared for their first objective to land and clear Japanese troops from the island of Akyab. The invasion fleet assembled prior to D-Day the 3rd of January 1945. At 12.30 (H Hour) the assault troops' landing craft approached the island's northern beaches. The island was undefended so the landing was used as a training exercise. The island was quickly secured and a supply base established for future operations. The tasks assigned to 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando were to support the initial assault troops with flamethrower teams, clearing mines and other obstacles from beaches and beach exits, construction of the landing beach, development of exits and acting as the beach party for landing both 3 Commando Brigade and 74th Infantry Brigade.

Depending on your viewpoint the landings on Akyab by 3 Commando Brigade provided a crucial staging post with airfield - ideal for future operations, a valuable training exercise or unashamed showboating. The latter is particularly unfair since the Commandos did not know the Japanese had left the island. They expected to be opposed and approached the landing beaches without the benefit of air support and Naval bombardment to soften up the enemy defensive positions. For 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando it was also a realistic event as they provided the technical/engineering support required to land all the troops and their kit.

[Photo; The Arakan Campaign January 1943 - May 1945: Landing craft on the beach at Akyab Island. © IWM (CI 885).]

3 Troop landed in 2 waves from H+15 to H+30, fully loaded with tools and equipment. They set to work minesweeping the landing beach and laying Sommerfield track, a lightweight mesh, to create beach roadways and exits from the beach for heavy lorries carrying supplies, stores, transport vehicles and armaments. Having surveyed the area they bulldozed a route through thick scrub off the beach to an existing cart track for access to the hinterland. 3 Troop successfully landed all stores, vehicles and personnel of both Brigades. They also demolished Japanese bunkers and searched for and cleared booby traps in the Brigade`s billets. Two primed 150 kg bombs were found at the airfield and rendered safe by the OC, Capt Hawdon, and team. They carried bombs back to Brigade HQ which caused great consternation amongst the less well informed. After a short rest period preparations began for the next operation at Myebon.

Myebon

The Myebon peninsula was believed to be reinforced by a Japanese garrison providing flank protection for any withdrawing forces. The locals were sure there was a battalion strength presence, possibly the 55th Cavalry Regiment, well armed with 75mm guns.

In the early hours of January 9th, Brigadier Campbell-Hardy and other senior Army and RAF officers, took passage from Akyab on the Narbada, en route for Hunters Bay, when it came under fire from the shore. Returning fire, the Narbada silenced the gun, thought to be a captured British 2 pounder, but sustained minor damage and some casualties. They arrived in Hunters Bay and joined the crew of Motor Launch (ML) 854, a Fairmile ML of the 13th/14th flotilla. They were to personally reconnoitre the proposed landing area, which was believed to be a concentration area for Japanese reinforcements moving north.

The Myebon beaches (map opposite) were in a narrow estuary between the Kyatsin and Myebon Rivers. The Myebon river was about 1500 yards wide, deep and fast flowing, which made navigation and anchorage difficult. ML 854 made its approach stern first to give itself an escape route should things turn hot. During the approach, after about 600 yards, various obstacles were observed designed to hinder any attempted sea borne landing. Campbell Hardy noted that the black sand beach was a mixture of surface silt and thick mud at low tide. A sandbank ran across the front of the beach which contained a line of wooden stakes about 300 yds from the beach. These coconut tree stakes were 15ft high and about 12inches thick and were positioned about 8 to 10 ft apart. It was the solidity of the defences that convinced Campbell-Hardy that the beaches would support a landing.

Unknown to those aboard the ML, its movements were being closely observed from the shore and as ML 854 started to make its way back out to sea the Japanese opened fire with small arms and explosive shells. They ripped through the ship's wooden hull and superstructure, narrowly missing all aboard. Fire was returned and with only two minor casualties, ML 854 re-joined the Narbada. The wooden construction of the launch allowed the explosive shells to pass through without detonating and causing major damage or serious casualties.

The reconnoitre had established two important facts relevant to the forthcoming operation - there was definitely enemy activity in the area and the underwater obstacles required further examination. Two days later, ML 854 returned to the Myebon beaches and the proposed landing site. This time she stopped short, took cover under the trees on the shoreline and tied up. This was a secret, clandestine operation, so noise was kept to a minimum by reducing verbal commands and lowering the bow anchor carefully by hand. Four members of a Combined Operations Pilotage Party (COPP team), in two canoes, manoeuvred to closely examine the previously discovered underwater obstacles. After an hour's anxious wait ML 854 received the signal flash that the COPP team were returning. They reported that sharpened coconut stakes had been securely fixed in place by the Japanese to hinder any landing attempt. It was evident that the stakes would have to be neutralised prior to any landing; another job for both the COPP team and ML 854.

On the night of 11th/12th January ML 854 again made the trip to Myebon, carrying 8 COPP team members. The same routine was followed but this time 6 of the 8 man COPP team in three canoes, headed for the proposed landing area. Their objective was to lay delayed action charges to the obstacles timed to detonate 20 minutes prior to H-Hour. Two of the team were held in reserve with instantaneous charges should the initial six not return. At 05.00 hours, with daylight dawning, ML854 with the 8 man COPP team headed back out to sea. They had accomplished their extremely hazardous mission unobserved by the Japanese who were heard talking and giving orders.

[Photo; 3 Commando resting at Akyab while waiting to embark for the Myebon Peninsula, 11 January 1945. © IWM (SE 2300).]

There would be 5 landing beaches, Able, Baker, Charlie (Green and Red), Dog Island and Easy. The plan was to seize and hold the Myebon peninsula as a relatively secure base to launch further operations against the enemy. 42 Commando was to make the initial landing on Charlie Red, with elements of 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando, to secure a beachhead. There would be 2 waves at H Hour and H+3 which would then aim to secure Pagoda Hill and 2 other features, ‘Camel’ and ‘Tiger’ to protect the landing beaches. A Troop of the 19th Lancers were to land their Sherman Tanks at H+15 in support of 42 Commando. 5 Commando would land at the same beach at H +25, assemble at Agnu and then proceed to Myebon village which had a pier extending into the Myebon river. They would then take up positions at features ‘Rose’ and ‘Onion’ to protect the right flank for the incoming 1 Commando which would land at Charlie Red at H+60. 1 Commando would then proceed to the northern end of the peninsula to Guangpyu, via a feature called ‘Bugle’ to secure the northern slopes of Kantha and hence the whole of the Myebon peninsula. 44 Commando would be held as a floating reserve available to land at H +2hrs if required. In the event that 42 Commando`s landings on Charlie Red failed, 5 Commando was to land on Baker beach, establish a beachhead and hold. The pattern for Charlie Red would then be repeated. The overall plan envisaged that the whole peninsula would be secured in around 24 hours by the establishment of defensive units on both banks at Kantha, at Myebon village by the night of D Day / D +1. The Kantha chaung, a small inland river, at the northern end of the peninsula was vital as it provided the only road to the north.

Back on Akyab, during the 11th (D – 1), 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando's preparations for the attack began in earnest. They would have the same role as before except this time they were to act as beach party on landing. To do this effectively they needed to know what vehicles were being carried on the various landing craft and the order and timing of disembarkation. Consequently all the craft carrying 3 Commando and 74th Brigade were loaded by 3 Troop. The attack, codenamed Operation Pungent, was launched in the early morning of 12th January 1945. On ML854 the COPP team, returning to base after laying their demolition charges on the enemy's beach obstacles, met the incoming landing force. All aboard witnessed the charges going off as planned. The resultant explosions created a 25 yard gap in the defences allowing the Commandos a narrow corridor to reach the beach.

The naval bombarding force comprised 2 Indian navy sloops Narbada and Jumna and the MLs, with Narbada also serving as the Headquarters (HQ) ship with Brigadier Campbell-Hardy on board. 42 Commando formed up on the Narbada and left as planned at 07.20hrs to make their initial assault run towards the shore and through the narrow gap blasted in the wooden stakes. They landed exactly at H Hour, 08.30hrs under cover of a smoke screen on a high but receding tide. The landing craft carrying A Troop of 42 Commando was hit by enemy artillery fire which wounded the Troop Commander and 1 senior non-commissioned officer (SNCO) and killed one marine. No difficulty was experienced in passing through the gap in the stakes but shortly after deployment the craft came under indiscriminate and random fire from the defenders, which was returned by supporting MLs.  4 landing craft, including an Obstacle Clearance Unit craft, were hit and suffered casualties.

One of the landing craft hit by enemy fire carried A Troop of 42 RM Cdo. The Troop Commander, Captain Eric Langley RM, was wounded and later awarded a Military Cross (MC) for his role during the action. The craft was hit by two shells and set on fire but, despite his own injuries and the death and destruction around him, he quickly restored order, declined a suggestion to retreat out of range and jumped into four feet of water and thick mud, 100 yards offshore, to lead his men on to the beach as their landing craft sank behind them. On being helped to firm ground by two other marines, Langley collapsed through loss of blood. But as soon as a tourniquet had been applied to the wound, he rose to follow his troop to the front line.

Once ashore, 42 RM Cdo prepared to advance off the beach to take up positions inland. Elements of 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando then landed at H + 45, but not before their LCM had come under fire on approaching Dog Island and grounded just inside the stakes about 200 yards from the shore. The heavily laden troops waded to the shore in chest high water and knee deep thick, glutinous mud. They struggled ashore, absolutely exhausted by the effort. It was becoming apparent that the landing beach, Charlie Red, was likely to be similar. The mud was 4 feet deep in places and, as the tide receded, the walking distance increased for incoming troops, making a bad situation worse.

As the second wave comprising 42 Commando came in, one Landing Craft Tank (LCT) attempted to land a Sherman tank of A Squadron of the 19th Indian Lancers. The beach was too soft to support the tank which became firmly stuck in the soft mud. Commander R D Hughes, RN, in the second wave then attempted to land Brigadier Campbell-Hardy together with LCTs 2420, 2361 and 2444 onto Dog Beach, but once more the landings proved impossible. The LCTs returned to the Narbada where the decision was taken to attempt another landing, but this time, on to Baker Beach.

Previously unknown beach obstacles were encountered in the form  of anti-boat mines placed about 15 yards apart in two staggered rows above the high water mark. Principal beach master, Lt R V Kettle, RINVR, was one of those killed by the beach mines.

3 Troop RM Engineer Cdo were, by now, safely ashore and despite exhaustion from the effort of wading through the mud and water, Sgt Alexander Pirie and party, including Corporal Newbert, immediately led a mine clearing party to tape safe routes off the beach between exploded mines. This done, they proceeded to locate, mark and remove the mines, the horns of which protruded from the mud and sand in some cases. Until this was done, supporting 5 and 1 Commandos could not land in strength to complete their mission to come ashore and secure the beachhead.

When 3 Troop had successfully cleared the beach of mines and the booby-traps, 5 Commando came ashore on Charlie Red and moved inland as 1 Commando came ashore. Their CO, Brigadier Ken Trevor, described the landing as “the most difficult we ever did”. They met little opposition as they moved off the beach in the direction of a feature called ‘Tiger’ where there was a suspected enemy gun position. 5 Commando, meantime, continued their inland advance meeting little opposition. However, as they approached a hill, codenamed 'Rose', they came under machine gun fire and suffered a number of casualties as their advance came to a halt.

The landing area was now secure but the next wave of landing craft would use other beaches to avoid the energy sapping walk to the beach through mud and water which the initial landings had experienced. However, while 44 RM Commando were supposed to land on Dog Beach on Dog Island, due to signal failures, they were taken to Charlie Red on a receding tide that was close to low water mark - the worst possible scenario. The landing craft beached short leaving the troops with a 300yd struggle ashore in worsening conditions. It took 3 hours for all the men to reach the shore. Many lost their boots and socks to the suction and all of them and their equipment were in no fit condition to carry on. 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando effectively supported the landings despite the absence of their heavy equipment and supplies which were still on the transports waiting to land.

A recce of Charlie Beach confirmed that it could no longer be used for landings, so Easy Beach was selected for its firm sand and good load bearing qualities. However, it was three quarters of a mile away and separated from Charlie Beach by a mass of sharp rocks and boulders. This  required the construction of a linking road around the point between the two beaches because Charlie Red had the best exits off the landing areas onto the peninsula. Considering the heavy weight of military vehicles, the roadway was constructed from rocks using the only tools 3 Troop had - 3 shovels, 4 picks 4 sledge hammers and explosives!

Major obstacles were removed using explosives and large rocks filled in hollows and provided foundation where it was needed. Smaller rocks filled in minor crevices and smoothed out the surface. Incredibly, the road was open to traffic in just 4 hours and the first tanks and DUKWs (heavy amphibious road vehicles) crossed it by dark. From  about 1600 hrs, all loaded landing craft were directed to Easy Beach with cargoes of stores, ammunition and supplies for the advancing troops and support units. On D+1, further improvements were made as more tools and explosives became available. This allowed the heavy equipment and the tanks to move inland via Charlie Red. The route became known as ‘Hawdon`s Causeway’ after the OC of 3 Troop RM Engineer, Commando Capt F.E. Hawdon RM. Without the roadway, the campaign might have stalled due to lack of support from the heavy armour and supplies.

On Baker Beach, between 1320 and 1352 hrs, an attempt was made to land tanks together with 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando’s heavy equipment even though the vehicular exits off the beach were far from ideal. One tank and one bulldozer were successfully landed from LCT 2420 but when LCT 2361attempted to unload her first tank, it toppled over as it emerged. About this time the Japanese opened fire on Baker Beach with a battery of 75 mm guns. The first rounds flew overhead but they quickly established the range so the commanding officer of Narbada signalled LCT 2361 to withdraw with all its remaining load on board. As she left the beach one 75 mm shell fell 20 feet ahead and the next 20 feet short, but she got clear with her valuable cargo of tanks and equipment intact. In the meantime 3 Troop RM Engineer Cdo and Tank Corps personnel righted the toppled tank.

During the attempt to land the tanks on Baker Beach, the Narbada, from her position near the pier on the Myebon River, together with six motor launches, supported the operation by firing on Japanese machine guns positioned on the east and west banks in the area of Chaunggi. They also engaged the 75 mm battery which had fired on the LCT. When the landing was abandoned, the enemy directed their fire on the Narbada. The first four rounds overshot by 300 yards, but, unfortunately, one hit ML 831 and put her out of action. She was later towed back to Akyab by Jumna. When all craft had withdrawn from the river the Narbada took up position beyond the range of the Japanese guns.

The hope of securing the whole peninsula by the end of D Day had not been achieved. However, the beachhead was secured and all Commandos were firmly ashore with the supplies and equipment they needed. It was necessary to clear ‘Rose’ so the troops took up appropriate positions for the night in the knowledge that all remaining enemy defensive positions would be softened up by air and naval bombardment before ground troops moved in.

As planned, D Day+1 began with an air and naval bombardment of the ‘Rose’ feature, the latter courtesy of Narbada and Jumna. At 10.15hrs, 8 Japanese bombers (Oscars) attacked both ships with most bombs falling quite close, two exploding within 50 feet of Narbada. The Jumna shot down one bomber and the Narbada, two.

At 8.30hrs, 5 Commando, supported by tanks, attacked the ‘Rose’ feature. The area was cleared and no prisoners were taken since the Japanese preferred to fight to the death. 42 RM Commando came through at 11.00hrs to attack and clear Myebon village meeting enemy opposition on ‘Cabbage’. Although the attack on ‘Cabbage’ was successful, casualties were taken, one being the OC 42 RM Commando, Lt Colonel H.D. Fellowes. 1 Commando then attacked ‘Onion’ while 44 RM Commando advanced from the beachhead to ‘Rose’ to be held in reserve. Troops from the 74th Brigade were now landing at the beachhead also to be held in reserve. By nightfall of  D +1, the  Commando Brigade controlled almost half of the peninsula at a line across at the ‘Cabbage’ and ‘Onion’ features.

3 Troop RM Engineer Cdo undertook further mine clearance in the Charlie beach area including the paddy field beyond and the proposed road inland.  A roadway was bulldozed up the peninsula to provide the means of supplying the advancing troops. 3 Troop moved up and dealt with mines, demolition equipment and booby traps found stored and lying about on captured features. At the end of a busy day when much had been achieved the Commandos settled down for the night in readiness for the next day`s push forward.

On the morning of D Day +2, 1 and 42 RM Commandos left Myebon village and moved northwards on both sides of the peninsula. 42 RM Commando were hit by heavy and accurate fire from the area of Hill 200 (Bass), which halted their advance. The area between the features ‘Bugle’ and Hill 200 was strongly held by the Japanese so 5 and 44 RM Commandos moved up behind 1 and 42 RM Commandos to clear enemy troops from ‘Onion’, ready for a Brigade assault the next day.

The plan envisaged a Brigade attack on Hills 163 (Worthington) and 200 (Bugle), preceded by air and naval bombardment. The air bombardment never happened but the attack went ahead. 1 Commando cleared Hill 200 after meeting heavy resistance, after which 44 RM Commando passed through and secured Hill 163 without opposition. By this time, some tanks had made their way forward to within 30 yards of Kantha chaung and inflicted heavy casualties on the fleeing enemy. However, one of the tanks became stuck and a troop of 42 RM Commando came under heavy enemy fire while crossing a paddy field as they went forward to protect the tank. They had to withdraw. After dark, the tank was recovered by 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando when 5 Commando assaulted and cleared ‘Bugle’. Except for the Kantha area and the route going north, the peninsula, was under the control of 3 Commando Brigade.

D Day + 3 began with patrols from 1, 5 and 44 RM Commandos pushing forward to the line of the Kantha chaung. A few enemy stragglers were mopped up and valuable intelligence captured. A battalion from 74th Brigade passed through to form a bridgehead on the southern side of the Kantha chaung. To assist this advance 3 Troop RM Engineer Cdo was engaged for a day and a half in bridging the chaung for tanks and transports working with elements of the 93rd Field Company R.E. All engineers at Kantha came under considerable enemy shelling and sniping from overlooking features while working, with the ever present danger of shells and mortars falling short from 74th Brigade`s mortars and the tank`s 'Brownings.' During this phase of the Myebon operation 3 Troop gained the mysterious name of the Brigades 'Glamour Boys'. When the job was done, 3 Commando Brigade were ordered to hold the line at Kantha while 74th Brigade moved northwards beyond the peninsula.

From the 17th to the 19th, 3 Commando Brigade held the line at Kantha and patrolled the area to ensure the Myebon peninsula was clear. The captured documents recovered at Kantha and information from the interrogation of the only two prisoners taken, indicated that there had been 250 Japanese troops on the peninsula of which 40 had escaped. Just over 200 of the enemy had been killed at the cost to 3 Commando Brigade of 5 killed and 30 wounded. On the 20th 3 Commando Brigade was ordered back to the beachhead for rest, recuperation and preparation for the next operation - the attack on Kangaw.

The logistics of the operation at Myebon show that on D day and D+1, 6,635 personnel, 41 vehicles, 71 animals and 325 tons of stores were successfully landed.

 Kangaw

After the capture of the Myebon Peninsula the Japanese were unable to evacuate the Arakan using the many waterways. This left them with the Myobaung to Tamandu road as their only practical escape route. General Christison determined to sever this route near the village of Kangaw, which lay 8 miles inland from Myebon ‘as the crow flies’. Due to the difficult terrain, a river borne approach to the village was decided upon.

On the 19th and 20th of January the assault group prepared for the attack on Kangaw. COPP teams were dispatched on a vital, but extremely hazardous mission to find suitable landing sites. In all, 50 vessels were assembled, including the Narbada and Jumna, moored off Myebon, which would provide covering fire together with a ‘Z’ Lighter “Enterprise” carrying four 25pdrs operated by the 18th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

3 Commando Brigade boarded their landing craft. They headed south east from Myebon down the Theygan river turning north into the Diangbon chaung where small marker buoys had been placed by the COPP teams. It was a tortuous 27 mile route to Kangow from their starting point in Hunters Bay with the last 18 miles along narrow, winding chaungs bordered by thick mangrove trees. As in all raids, the element of surprise was crucial, so the journey was best accomplished without alerting the enemy.

[Photo; Men of No. 3 Commando rest at Akyab while waiting to embark for the Myebon Peninsula, 11 January 1945. © IWM (SE 2300).]

3 Troop RM Engineer Commando sailed in 2 main sections, No 1 in a LCT carrying a bulldozer with stores and No 2 in a smaller LCM. 3 landing beaches had been identified by the COPP teams - 'George', on the banks of the Diangbon chaung between the ‘Thames’ and ‘Mersey’ waterways, 'Fox' beach was inland on the ‘Mersey’ and 'Item' beach inland on the ‘Thames’. The 3 recce parties would control the landings. They comprised the OC and QMSI (QuarterMaster Sgt Instructor ) at the southern chaung (‘Fox’), Maj Hunter, 41 Beach Op and Sgt Pirie 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando at Diangbon ( ‘George’ ) and a Beach Commander and Beach Master of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) at the northern chaung (‘Item’). The rest of 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando were to land at H+60 or to lie off until required.

There was no sign of the enemy until the flotilla neared the landing area when shelling began. Some of the landing craft were in such poor condition that 4 were taken under tow to complete the journey.

At 13.00 hrs on 22nd January, 1 Commando disembarked at ‘George’ beach under cover of an air borne smokescreen. There was no preparatory bombardment for fear of alerting the Japanese defenders to the position of the beach head. 1 Commando advanced from the beachhead and moved to secure their initial objective, a feature known as ‘Hill 170’ (‘Brighton’). ‘Hill 170’ lay between the Diangbon chaung and the village of Kangaw. It was a 160ft high, wooded outcrop rising steeply out of open paddy fields. It was about 700 yards long running north to south across the narrow gap between the ‘Thames’ and ‘Mersey’ chaungs. 1 Commando secured this position, except for a small pocket on the northern edge of the hill which held them up.

George’ beach consisted of a soft wet mud bank about 4 ft high. It was almost vertical with a strip of mangrove swamp and thick undergrowth about 15 yds wide behind. The beachhead was described as being the smallest in the world, the gap between the trees capable of taking one LCM or two LCA`s side by side - about 20 ft in all. Further inland there was thin scrub with the spikes of mangrove roots protruding about 9 inches tall and too compact to put a foot between them. The ground itself was very marshy with a criss-cross network of streams, the beds of which were a foot or more deep with soft, thick mud. This whole area had been underwater 2 days before when the COPP parties made their recces. Major Peter Young, who had temporarily taken over as Brigade Commander pending the arrival of Campbell Hardy in December, wrote,

“There was no road. The landing was through mangrove and the paddy, for about three quarters of a mile leading up to Hill 170, was swamped by the high spring tides. Even the bunds didn't make proper footpaths being broken in many places. No tanks could be got ashore or guns for the first few days, but we had air support, mediums for the Myebon area and a lighter battery and a sloop. MLs and LCs guarded the chaung”. During this time the shelling of the bridgehead continued while the beachhead came under constant, fairly accurate artillery bombardment from a few enemy guns.

5 Commando followed by 42 RM Commando landed at George beach. 5 moved in support of 1 at ‘Hill 170’. 42 RM Commando moved forward from the beach to establish a bridgehead in the mid ground between ‘Hill 170’ and the beachhead. 44 RM Commando then landed and took over 42 RM Commando`s position who were placed in reserve holding the beachhead. 44 RM Commando were now made ready to move forward, pass through 42 RM Commando and attack another feature codenamed 'Milford'. This was a low ridge to the east of ‘Hill 170’, which they captured without opposition at 1930 hours.

Marine Wilson of 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando was their only casualty, hit in the leg and evacuated. Meantime, the tanks still needed to be landed. It was decided that ‘George’ beach was unsuitable as a landing beach for tanks, heavy guns and vehicles. A recce of the southern beach ‘Fox’ about a mile inland on the ‘Mersey’, provided a suitable alternative. A bend in the chaung provided a fairly firm bank clear of undergrowth which led into a firmer paddy that, with a couple of drying days, would provide a solid foundation for a roadway.

An initial recce of the northern beach 'Item' found a good, hard, sandy surface. This was to be followed up with recce by all the parties but they found a newly positioned Japanese machine gun post and abandoned the plan to land there. As day 1 of the operation came to an end, all Commandos were ashore and the balance of 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando remained afloat for the night in the knowledge that they would have to make the most of ‘George’ and ‘Fox’ beaches the following day. During the night the enemy counterattacked 1 Commando from the northern tip of ‘Hill 170’ but they were beaten back after hand-to-hand fighting. 

Day 2 ( 23rd Jan), 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando landed at 'George' and 'Fox' to construct landing beaches by ramping down the bank and laying Sommerfield tracks and Corduroy, a type of temporary roadway made by laying down logs and matting. The conditions for road making were very poor. Shallow trenches were dug out on both sides of the route and the spoil deposited between the two to raise the level above the water table. Further material was removed from the trenches to form a protective bund. 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando also dug ammunition pits, a difficult task because of the water table and the urgency since stores and kit were now coming ashore. The work at ‘George’ and ‘Fox’ beaches was completed over 2 days.

Day 2 also saw 3 Commando Brigade consolidate their gains. At first light the remaining enemy were cleared from ‘Hill 170’ by 1 and 5 Commandos and 44 RM Commando moved forward to ‘Pinner’, southwest of Kangaw. Unlike ‘Hill 170’, ‘Pinner’ gave a good view of Kangaw and the road, the cutting of which was 3 Commando Brigade's objective.

3 Troop RM Engineer Commando supported the advance to ‘Hill 170’, ‘Milford’ and ‘Pinner’ by building a road through rocks and wet ground. The appearance of a bulldozer and men with shovels, quickly received the attention of Japanese 75mm and 105mm guns. Unbeknown to the Commandos, the Japanese had moved their guns closer to ‘Pinner’ and retrieved ammunition from dumps they had left at the foot of the hill. At 20.00 hrs, the Japanese began their attack on ‘Pinner’ firing at close range into 44 RM Commando with a mortar barrage on their northern flank. The Commandos heard the Japanese moving into position. Shortly followed by a bright red Very flare fired  into the sky from the paddy below. The attack, which involved artillery, machine guns, grenades and hand to hand combat, started in earnest. The Japanese retreated after 8 hours by which time 44 RM Commando had suffered 26 killed and 44 wounded... but they still held ‘Pinner’.

On Day 3 ( 24th Jan), 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando removed the remaining enemy ammunition dumps, disposing of the shells in chaungs. They then laid booby traps on the approaches to the dumps, using home made Bangalores and grenades on trip wires, in the certain knowledge that the enemy would attempt to recover their supplies. 5 enemy troops were killed that night and 2 more by other traps laid next day.

3 Troop RM Engineer Commando also helped re-build the beachhead and disposed of a large number of unexploded shells. Shelling of the bridgehead had been continuous and at times very heavy with around 400 per day on average and a peak of 800! on one day. In one 30 minute period on Day 4 (25th Jan), 182 shells were put down around ‘Hill 170’. Fortunately the shells had a high failure rate as an officer of 5 Commando reported that out of a single barrage of 21 shells landing on ‘Hill 170’, 19 failed to explode. He also said “that the lads got up and cheered each dud".

On Day 5 ( 26th Jan ), 51st Brigade landed and took over positions at ‘Milford’ and ‘Pinner’. 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando helped them construct a stretcher bearer track from a large paddy bund and across a tidal marsh with a bridge at its extremity. At some point the route was passed by the enemy's side of 'Pinner' at about 500 yards from their positions. Trees provided some cover but it didn't go unnoticed that 3 Troop worked silently for once! The footbridge was made of large duckboards scavenged from the village huts supported on piers consisting of 3” ammo boxes filled with mud and wired and staked together. Three Sherman tanks were now ashore and despite the saturated ground managed to reach the west slope of ‘Hill 170’.

Over the next 2 days, attacks were launched to the east of Kangaw on the two features which overlooked it, ‘Perth’ and ‘Melrose’. That on ‘Perth’ failed to make an impression but ‘Melrose’ was substantially cleared. 1, 42 and 44 RM Commandos put down a mortar barrage on ‘Fingers’ to neutralise it and advanced across the marsh via 3 Troop RM Engineer Commandos roadway. 5 Commando set up an ambush and patrolled Kangaw but no enemy were encountered. Having held the line for almost 11 days, on the 30th of January the order for the Commandos to be relieved was received. 5 Commando remained under the command of 51st Brigade on the ‘Pinner’ feature while 44 Commando returned to the Diangbon beachhead. This left 1 and 42 RM Commando on ‘Hill 170’. On the morning of 31st January at 06.20hrs the north positions of ‘Hill 170’ came under ferocious attack by Japanese engineers. The description which follows is an extract from the official Japanese report of the attack by 154 Assault Engineer Regiment on ‘Hill 170’, known to the Japanese as UMA fortifications. Taungmaw, where they ‘forded’ the river was codenamed ‘Thames’ waterway. Note the differing times of the action.

“We left the slopes of WANI hill at 04.00hrs 31 Jan, forded near TAUNGMAW loading point, and arrived at the mangrove wood about 200 m from the UMA fortifications on the opposite bank at 07.30 hrs. In accordance with the plan of attack, at 08.00 hrs we had completed deployment. The attack was started simultaneously with arty (artillery) support at 08.15 hrs.

Enemy flanking fire which started from the south slope of UMA position simultaneously with our advance and the violence of the trench mortar fire caused us difficulties in rapid succession and made our approach difficult.

From the centre, OC KODAMA tai with 21 men broke into the west UMA defences at the foot of the hill in one movement, and discovered there one heavy tank, one medium tank, one armoured car and several trucks, waiting in readiness. In the attack on these, 1 Sec (Section) Sjt Kawamoto and 10 men were given the task of burning the 2 tanks, and 2 Sec Cpl Kawaoko and 9 men, that of destroying trucks and fuel dumps. OC Pl commanding 1 Sec, and daring fire from enemy heavy weapons and mortars and a hail of hand grenades, approached the enemy tanks with ignited explosives. As human bombs OC KODAMA Tai and 6 men clung on to the two tanks and bravely blew them selves up with the tanks. Time 08.40 hrs. 2 Sec at the same time as 1 Sec`s attack rushed towards the lorries and fuel dumps, and destroyed and set fire to the fuel dumps and 2 trucks. The south zone of the UMA fortifications were momentarily covered in smoke and flame shot high into the air. The enemy arty was temporarily silenced. At this time, 08.45 hrs, Cpl KAWAOKO and 9 men bravely blew themselves up with the 2 lorries and the fuel dumps.

In conjunction with the KODAMA tai, OC INOUE tai and 21 men from the right flank, found out the position of the trench mortar emplacements on the south side of the UMA fortifications, so 1 Sec, Sjt OKAZAKI and 9 men, were assigned to destroy and burn dumps of military supplies, while 2 Sec, undercover of infantry MG fire, Cpl OGAWA and 10 men were to attack and destroy trench mortar emplacements on the south side of UMA fortifications. OC Pl, commanding 2 Sec, approached the trench mortar positions through a hail of enemy bullets and dashed into position to blow up the 2 trench mortars. Time, 09.13 hrs. OC INOUE Tai and 5 men were killed in action bravely destroying the enemy mortars. Sec advanced quickly to the supply dumps, and demolished and burnt the supplies. The whole area became a sea of fire. Time 09.20 hrs. Sjt OKAZAKI and 4 men died courageously in battle”.

A British account contradicts the Japanese version, Two out of three tanks managed to get away, but the third was blown up by Japanese engineers, killing the crew.

Another British account is in the same vein “We got to the top of the hill and took up positions. Then they came, swarms of them charging up the hill, shouting and yelling. We let them come on and waited. When they were near enough so that we could not miss, we gave them the lot. After some time and very, very depleted, they gave up, leaving their dead and wounded”. Sgt Pirie of 3 Troop RM Engineer Commando stated “you could watch them running round all day with dynamite strapped to them but it didn’t get them very far and at the end of the attacks there was so many dead we just buried them with a bulldozer.”

Col Peter Young said in his description of the battle “The Bosch could not have stood five hours of it. We got 4 PW- all wounded. Their tactics were sheer brute force and ignorance and their dead were very bunched. They have to be most thoroughly slain, most had 2 or 3 wounds, any one fatal. Heads off, legs like sponges were very common. One officer was killed on one of our tanks; another was blown up by his own pole charge. – The Jap`s were mostly armed with their long clumsy rifles, like spears with their long French style bayonets. Their dwarf-like figures under their mediaeval helmets, their revolting faces with glasses in 2 cases and many with gold teeth, look like creatures from another world.”

At 06.30hrs the Japanese moved forward and re - occupied some of their own weapon pits and 4 Troop, under Lt G. Knowland of 1 Commando, came under attack. With ammunition running low and their position becoming increasingly desperate, 24 men of 4 Troop held off 300 Japanese for over two hours. Lt Knowland himself was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The survivors held onto their position until reinforced by a section of W Troop of 42 RM Commando. They put in a counterattack to regain three of 4 Troop`s positions. However, after about 20 yards they were hit with medium machine gun fire and were beaten back suffering 50% casualties. The Forward Observation Officer, Capt Macgregor RA, part of a three man team, was wounded early on but could not be evacuated due to small arms fire and was killed along with bombardier Sleet as their positions were overrun. His signaller, Bdr Morris was wounded in both legs but survived because he lay under the bodies of his comrades.

Enemy artillery fire into ‘Hill 170’ was incoming from the area around the ‘Fingers’ feature. 25 pounders in the beachhead area returned fire as did a Motor Launch and a LCA carrying 13 Bren Guns as they made their way along ‘Thames’ to clear the banks and to allow the ML to open fire on ‘Fingers’.

1 platoon of 3 Troop 1 Commando, followed up after ‘W’ Troop 42 RM Commando. They moved down the side of the hill to outflank the attackers. and quickly accounted for 10 Japanese dead but were attacked in the process by hand grenades from higher up the hill. 1 Platoon, 3 Troop then took over some of 4 Troops former defensive positions which they held for the rest of the day.

Brigadier Campbell Hardy came forward to see the situation for himself and wrote, It was decided to clear the feature with a “blitz” counter attack by X Troop 42 RM Commando, supported on the left flank by one of the Shermans of the 19th Lancers, from which Capt Smith of W Troop was to direct the shooting onto the NW slope.

The Japanese were still attacking furiously, but the situation was kept in hand. By now, thanks largely to devoted work by men of 12 Troop 1 Commando, the ammunition was arriving steadily and the evacuation of casualties continued throughout. The first ammunition party to arrive was 5 Troop 1 Commando, who also helped to prime grenades, fill magazines and distribute ammunition forward.

At 12.30 hrs the counter attack went in. One periscope of the tank was shot away. The enemy now had three MMG on the ridge, and put down intense fire from which the leading platoon suffered very severely. The second platoon was pinned down on top of the ridge so they took cover in slit trenches where 4 Troop had suffered casualties.

A brief lull followed this counter attack, and it was decided to regain 4 Troop`s forward positions with one platoon of 6 Troop 1 Commando. About 50% of this platoon became casualties and were ordered to withdraw. Another platoon of the same Troop was ordered into position in the 4 Troop area. Casualties among the Bren gunners were replaced time and time again. Twelve men, one after another, were hit behind one vital Bren. The single Sherman, having replaced ammunition and fuel, returned and put effective "tree burst" fire into the north end of the hill, with shells ranged to explode only 50 yards ahead of 4 Troop 1 Commando`s position. This countered Japanese infiltration on the left.

At 1530 hrs 2 Troops of 5 Commando moved forward and attacked the Japanese lines. This phase of the battle lasted for about an hour and a half. They were successful and stabilised the forward positions. 42 RM Commando were now pulled back to join 1 Commando and all Commandos were ordered to stand their ground as nightfall approached. About 1700hrs the enemy’s attacks ceased for the night. In the morning of 1st Feb the two Troops of 5 Commando cleared the area and declared it free of active enemy positions. Troops of 51st Brigade now replaced 3 Commando Brigade who were withdrawn back to the beachhead area.

After the battle

This was the battle of Kangaw. Several dead Commandos were found well forward among the Japanese dead. Some enemy dead were wearing green berets. The Commandos suffered five officers and forty other ranks killed and a further six officers and 84 other ranks wounded. The Japanese dead on and around ‘Hill 170’ alone was 340. It was estimated that in almost 12 days of fighting at Kangaw, the Japanese suffered 2,000 casualties. In the 27 days following the landings at Myebon, around 25,000 personnel, 500 vehicles, 200 animals, and 5,000 tons of stores were landed and transported into the battle area. Total 3 Commando casualties for the whole of the Arakan campaign, amounted to 50 dead and 170 wounded.

The Battle of Kangaw prevented the Japanese escaping via the waterways to the beaches and the open sea. The actions in the Myebon and Kangaw area enabled the 51st Indian Brigade to maintain their strangle hold on the Myobaung to Tamandu road. This meant that the retreating Japanese were now, as planned, squeezed between the 51st Brigade moving from Kangaw, the 74th Brigade moving north from Kantha and the advancing 82nd West African Division.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

Acknowledgements

Based on an article researched and written by Bill Pirie. Redrafted for website presentation by Geoff Slee and approved by Bill before publication. Bill's father, Sgt Alexander Pirie, MM, served in the Royal Marines.

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