This account covers the landings on the north east coast of
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.
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.
[Map courtesy of Google
Map Data 2017.]
Back in the UK, plans
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 ship, 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
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 was attached to XV Corps and became part of the 25th Indian
Division under Major General G N Wood. The Brigade was 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
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).]
planning preceded all major amphibious landings and this
one was no exception. The operation that delivered landing craft and related equipment
from western theatre of war to the Far East,
was codenamed Appian. Most craft broke their journeys for repairs, maintenance
and refitting work, at
HMS Saunders, on the Bitter
Lakes in Egypt
9th LCT Flotilla, which was part of this operation, lost 6 LCTs and over 50 men to stormy
weather in UK waters in October, 1944, proof, if
it was needed, that the human cost in putting 3
Commando Brigade ashore that day on the Arakan beaches, was already high.
From their forward base on the Naaf
river at Teknaf, 3 Commando Brigade prepared for their first objective to land
Japanese troops from the
island of Akyab.
The invasion fleet assembled prior to D-Day the 3rd
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
Depending on your viewpoint the landings on Akyab by 3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
maneuvred 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
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).]
would be 5 landing beaches, Able, Baker, Charlie (Green and Red),
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 was to land its Sherman Tanks at H+15 in support of 42 Commando. 5
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, and 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 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. However, 4 landing craft, including an Obstacle Clearance Unit craft, were hit and suffered
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 where it 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 was, 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 was 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 they were working, with the ever
present danger of shells and mortars from 74th
Brigade`s mortars and the tank`s 'Brownings', falling short. 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 was ordered to hold the
line at Kantha, while the 74th Brigade moved northwards
beyond the peninsula.
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 together
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.
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.
[Photo; Men of No. 3 Commando rest at Akyab while waiting to
embark for the Myebon Peninsula, 11 January 1945. © IWM (SE 2300).]
On the 19th and 20th of January, the assault group prepared for the attack on Kangaw. COPP
teams were dispatched on a vital, 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.
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
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
‘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 was to land at H+60 or to lie off until
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.
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.
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
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 then 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
An initial recce of the northern beach 'Item' found a good, hard, sandy surface. This was
to be followed up with a 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.
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.
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’.
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 was
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
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 an 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,
quickly accounting 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
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
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
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
only 50 yards ahead of 4 Troop 1 Commando`s position. This countered Japanese
infiltration on the left.
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 was 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
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.
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.
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on an article researched and written by Bill Pirie. Edited for website presentation by
Geoff Slee and approved by Bill before publication. Additional photographs
and maps were subsequently added. Bill's father, Sgt Alexander Pirie, MM, served in the Royal Marines.