IT was in the first weeks of June that Nine and 161 Brigades reached Bombay from Iraq, and moved by road and rail across the centre of India to their concentration area at Chas in Bihar Province.
Chas was an uncomfortable place in which to train. As an introduction to India it was lamentable. The heat was humid and enervating, and mosquitoes abounded in the jungle clearings. In the paddy fields walked the men and women from the nearby villages, and along the dusty roads lurched sleepy bullock carts. There were rivers to cross and distant hills to watch in sunlight or sudden storm. Every unit was at half strength or less because of men away on leave. The Indian units, except for small maintenance and vehicle parties, were sent direct to their regimental depots for well-earned leave. Those who remained were kept fully occupied in training, and in maintaining the daily routine of existence and work. New changes were taking place every week. Fresh units joined the Division, and a rapid transformation occurred between the ways of the Desert and the methods and requirements for the warfare of Burma.
When the Division first reached Bihar, Briggs was called in to Ranchi by Lieutenant-General W. J. Slim, now commanding Fifteen Indian Corps. It will be recalled that General Slim was last mentioned in this narrative in January 1941, when he was wounded and evacuated to hospital soon after the capture of Kassala, Tessenei and Agordat. Since that ill-fated day the former commander of Ten Brigade had led the Tenth Indian Division from Syria to the Caspian Sea, made contact with the Russians in Persia, and led his Corps in the fighting withdrawal from Burma in 1942.
He told General Briggs that the Fifth Indian Division was to go down to the Arakan front in a few months' time, ready for the new campaign that was to open there at the end of the year.
Briggs expostulated, and asked why, considering that there were two fully-trained jungle divisions (the 19th and 25th), and that all jungle text-books stated that troops should not be committed to battle without a year's jungle training. Slim then said that he had particularly asked for the Division, owing to its battle experience, flexibility, and high morale; the morale in Burma was at this time very low. Of course Briggs objected no longer.
At the end of June the Division adopted the organization of combined animal and motor transport. A Divisional Headquarters battalion was added, to relieve the strain on the nine infantry battalions in the brigades. Hitherto they. had had to provide detachments for escorts, traffic control duties, and local defence tasks. In addition, the strength of the rifle companies was increased to enable them to turn to a man-handling basis without unduly weakening the rifle sections. Most of the vehicles with less mobility in jungle country than the 15-cwt, four-wheel drive truck were dispensed with. The principle was accepted that all baggage and non-essential stores would be dumped at the start of operations and moved forward by pool transport only when possible during static periods.
The need for close support of the infantry by artillery units, in country in which the normal 25-pounder regiment was thought unable to operate, was met by providing a mixed regiment of 3.7-inch howitzers and 3-inch mortars. The 28th Field Regiment became a Jungle Field Regiment with one battery of sixteen mortars, and two batteries each of eight howitzers. The regiment had no mules, but a larger establishment of jeeps.
The Division was entitled to a regiment of mountain artillery for jungle warfare, and one was tentatively allocated. But the C.R.A., Brigadier Mansergh, was not quite satisfied that this regiment was ready for active service. With other senior officers of the Division he happened at this time, during August, to be making a tour and reconnaissance of the Arakan front, and as a gesture of courtesy he called in to see the positions of the forwardmost artillery, the 2nd (Derejat) Mountain Battery, which with the, 12th (Poona) formed the 27th Mountain Regiment. Both these batteries had fought with distinction and endurance in the first campaign across Burma. Each had marched some 1,200 miles, and they had lost but two guns between them.
They were on the point of being amalgamated with the 24th Mountain Regiment, which had the 11th (Poona) and 2oth Batteries, to form a full regiment, rather than a light mountain regiment which each had been hitherto. Mansergh was shown round the position of 2 Battery (Major P. Hartley) at Bawli Bazaar, and was impressed that the men should be in such excellent shape after five months of continuous action in over 200 inches of rain; most of this period had been spent under canvas, with no cover for the mules. Further investigation showed that the other three batteries were equally sound, and Mansergh decided without hesitation that the 24th Mountain Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Humphrey Hill, was what he was looking for.
The chief event of July was the arrival under General Briggs' command of 123 Brigade, led by Brigadier A. V. Hammond, who was shortly to be superseded by Brigadier T. J. W. Winterton. The battalions of this brigade, which had fought through the first campaign in Arakan, were the 2nd Suffolks (Lieutenant-Colonel Hopking), the 2/1st Punjab (Lieutenant-Colonel W. G. Smith), and the 1/17th Dogras (Lieutenant- Colonel W. A. Crowther).
To command 161 Brigade came Brigadier D. F. W. Warren, who had already served in Burma as G. S. O. 1 of the 14th Indian Division. August saw the arrival in the Division of 56 Anti-Tank Regiment and 74 Field Company I.E., the latter being attached to 123 Brigade. The Guides Cavalry left the Division at the end of the month.
While General Briggs and his G. S. O. 1 visited the Arakan front for a fortnight, an animal management team toured the Division and gave lectures and instruction in the handling and care of mules. Those officers and men who were not on leave received visits from the Army and Corps Commanders; they went to conferences, attended lectures on Burma, on battle drill, on recent operations in Arakan, or tactics against the Japanese; and they read training instructions. Then, the Fifth Indian Division moved away from the steamy neighbourhood of Chas to the cooler and more hilly landscape of Lohardaga, forty-five miles west of Ranchi.
A foretaste of the campaign ahead could be had from the training extracts issued during this period of reorganization and re-equipment: 'Speed our Training' was the great dictum. The Division, two of whose brigades had been used to fighting the Germans and Italians, had now to learn about the Japanese. Units which had sped about the Desert in lorries had to learn to use animals instead. The enemy was described, as "a fanatic" and, therefore, "a menace until he is dead."
"His morale at the moment is high from his past successes; his training is good; at present he fears the disgrace of capture more than death. Our morale is good, and our training will shortly be better than his; we shall destroy his morale as we destroyed the Italian and German morale in the Desert. The way we shall do it is thus; it will be our fanatical aim to KILL JAPS; hunt him and kill him like any other wild beast. He is not a superman; he is a good fighter and nothing except death will stop him from obtaining his object. But against experienced troops who know what to expect, he is a nuisance value and plays into our hands. He is anything but a silent and good bushman, and in movement his security is bad. He prefers to keep to trails, and thus is a 'gift' to us when trained in jungle warfare. He is a very bad shot. We could outplay him, too, at his sniping and concealment. Finally, the Jap's stamina is no better than our own, and he simply hates our artillery and mortar fire."
The Japanese tactics were based on deception and rapid manuvre, and they relied on surprise manuvre rather than on assault, preferring to force our retirement by infiltrating troops to block our lines of communication and to raid our larger headquarters. The jungle called for better junior leadership than any other theatre of war. Mental and bodily endurance would he essential. Individual fieldcraft, observation and concealment had to be learned and practised. Japanese characteristics and methods were studied with care; the troops were trained in fire discipline and control to avoid shooting at mere noises; they were taught to treat the jungle as a friend, able to supply them with shelter and food. Aggressive patrolling was to be the basis of our tactics.
General Briggs issued his Five Commandments that every member of the Division had to learn:
1. Be determined to kill every Jap you meet, and then some.
2. Be determined not to let the Jap frighten you with ruses and induce you to disclose your positions and waste ammunition. Ambush him and do unto him as he would unto you.
3. Be determined to hold fast when ordered, whatever happens. The Jap will then have to give you the target you want, whilst our reserves are on the way to help you.
4. Be determined to carry out to the letter every task given to you, whether on patrol, in attack or defence. No half measures. Plan for all eventualities, after anticipating enemy reactions. Plans cannot be too thorough. Be observant and suspicious.
5. Be determined---even fanatical.
Among the most unaccustomed and essential aspects of training were the malaria precautions. Units were instructed to become mosquito-minded, because malaria could be as great an enemy as the Japanese. Every man, at seven o'clock in the evening, rolled down his long sleeves and tucked his trousers into socks or gaiters. His face, neck and hands were smothered with anti-mosquito cream, a tin of which he also took to bed with him. Every man not on duty slept beneath a mosquito net which was tucked under the blankets. Sentries and others who were not sleeping wore veils and gloves, and applied mosquito cream every two hours to the exposed parts of the body. Early morning spraying squads visited all tents and huts. The enforcement of these precautions was rigorous. and the penalty for negligence severe.
Each of the three brigades in turn took part in an exercise, attacking a hill with air support and tanks. The country to the west of Lohardaga resembled the hills of Arakan, with thick jungle, streams, muddy roads, and few villages. But heavy rain caused many difficulties in supplying the troops in these outlying parts of Bihar, and imposed delays on a training programme that was already overcrowded and hurried. The actual problems to be faced in the coming campaign in Arakan were faced round a large-scale model of the country. Syndicates from each brigade, and from the Services, worked out their plans of attack, and expounded these to the directing staff and for the benefit of all present.
These exercises and rehearsals much resembled those held near Baghdad, but with one fundamental difference. This time it was quite certain that the experience gained would be used in battle, and against an enemy about whom only 123 Brigade and a few officers knew much at first hand.
By the beginning of October it was decided that the Fifth Indian Division was ready to enter the fighting area. 123 Brigade would go first, and Nine Brigade, which had been the last to reach India from Iraq, and was thus behind the others in training, would move last to Arakan.
A BOAT steaming from Calcutta down the Hoogly River and eastwards across the mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra would bring you to the coast near Chittagong. Turn south here and follow that coastline past Cox's Bazaar to the little port of Maungdaw, which lies up the broad Naf River. This is more like an estuary or an arm of the sea, and is protected from the Bay of Bengal by the elongated Teknaf Peninsula. You are in Arakan, a coastal area of Burma that is divided from the central plain and Irrawaddy Valley by the mountains of the Arakan Yoma. The main port of Akyab lies another sixty miles down that coast, and farther still is the island of Ramree.
From a narrow coastal strip some four miles in width, intersected by tidal waterways (known as chaungs), planted with paddy, and studded with villages of teak houses and thatched huts and clumps of trees, rises the Mayu Range. These hills, the ridge having a height of between 1,200 and 2,000 feet, are sheer, rocky, and thickly covered with jungle. Beyond this range lies a valley through which flows the Kalapanzin River. The small town of Buthidaung has been built on its banks. Going still farther east over several ranges of mountains, higher than the Mayu, you would reach the valley of the Kaladan.
In the early months of 1943 our forces had been driven back from the Mayu Peninsula to a line that ran across the map from Nhila on the Teknaf Peninsula, over the waters of the Naf River, through Bawli Bazaar, over the Mayu Range to Goppe and Taung Bazaars. The Japanese had advanced no farther than Maungdaw and Buthidaung, and stayed there during the monsoon period that summer. There followed several months of static warfare, active patrols, occasional brushes, constant rain, disease, and a gradual rise in the morale of our troops, who had been much dispirited by our reverses in the first Arakan campaign.
Throughout the monsoon our forward defences were occupied by the 26th Indian Division. Then, in October, came the Seventh Indian Division (Major-General Frank W. Messervy,--- whom we have encountered before as commander of Gazelle Force, of Nine Brigade at Keren, of the Seventh Armoured Division in the Cauldron battle). This division and Brigadier Winterton's 123 Brigade took over responsibility for the front. Both the Fifth and Seventh Indian Divisions formed General Slim's Fifteen Corps, whose headquarters were moved forward to Chittagong.
Opposing our troops in Arakan was the Japanese 55th Division.
In the middle of November, when General Slim became the commander of the newly formed Fourteenth Army, Lieutenant-General A. P. F. Christison assumed command of Fifteen Corps. His orders were to capture the vital metalled road that ran from the coastal port of Maungdaw through two tunnels in the Mayu Range to Buthidaung. This lateral road was vital, for so long as the Japanese controlled it they were able with speed to move troops from one side of the hills to the other. But until such time as we captured this main road, our forces needed a lateral route of sorts across the range. Accordingly, Messervy's Sappers and Miners made a jeep track along the slender Ngakyedauk Pass, which, after climbing high into the hills, follows the winding chaung of the same difficult name. The British troops soon simplified it to the "Okeydoke Pass."
When this track was made, at first to take jeeps, and later widened for lorries and medium tanks, the Seventh Indian Division moved across it to the eastern side of the Mayu Range, and took up positions in the Kalapanzin Valley. Already since September 1 14 Brigade had been operating in this valley. It had been maintained over the Goppe Pass by mule and down the Kalapanzin River by Burmese sampan. This move was made possible when 123 Brigade arrived in the Waybyin area during the last ten days of October and relieved one of Messervy's brigades (the 89th) west of the hills and on the Teknaf Peninsula. For the next two months the brigade patrolled with energy, seeking to gain mastery of No-Man's-Land, and to retain the initiative in minor operations while avoiding commitment to major engagements. As always, detailed information of the enemy positions and defences was required. New officers and men had the opportunity to gain experience, while, those members of 123 Brigade who had already fought in Arakan with the 4th Indian Division renewed their acquaintance with the country and taught the newcomers such wisdom and knowledge of jungle warfare and the Japanese as they had themselves gained earlier that same year.
On November 9 General Briggs assumed operational command of the front west of the ridge of the Mayu hills, with 123 Brigade forward, and Warren's 161 Brigade guarding our lines of communication north of Bawli until the end of the month. Then it moved south to hold the coastal plain by Waybyin and Zeganbyin, and Teknaf across the water.
Units erected their tiny bivouac tents among the glens east of the main road, they stretched large tarpaulins on bamboo frameworks and camouflaged their habitations as best they could. Black leeches, an inch long, sucked men's blood and had to be evicted from the flesh with a glowing cigarette end. Tracks had to be made off the road, the gunners dug their gun pits and kept on improving them, and signallers toiled up and down hills laying miles of telephone cable or carrying pack wireless sets on their backs.
The dust of the one and only road reminded veterans of certain tracks in the Desert. Each day parties of Arakanese, dressed in gaily coloured shirts and skirts called longyis, threw water on the road surface to subdue the billowing dust. While little boys ran up and down, having great fun with tins of water that they fetched from nearby pools or from a muddy chaung, the men and even their women worked on this never-ending job of repair and maintenance. Wide wicker hats shaded them from the sun that beat down on the landscape, shone upon white palm flowers waving on long stalks, and brought out the rich colours of paddy and watercourse, bamboo plant and palm tree.
Up and down the road pass ambulances, jeeps, trucks and lorries. Mules lurch past with their creaking loads, mountain guns can be seen strapped in sections to the mules, wireless vehicles bump along with a slender rod aerial swaying at the back. Little sign boards painted with the numbers of each unit show where to turn off the road for a particular brigade or regimental headquarters. On either side the upswished dust coats the trees with a yellowish film. There goes General Briggs in his jeep---the red pennant flies from the bonnet. Behind is an ambulance with red crosses on its body. Farther on the Sappers are repairing a bridge, and every vehicle has to follow a rough diversion that causes the passengers to bump and swear as the driver turns down the bank, steers the jolting truck across a stretch of paddy field, and roars up on to the road once more.
It is up and down this road, with its dust, its bridges, and its hold-ups, that everyone moves. But along the peaceful chaungs pass sampans, rowed from the stem by an upright Arakanese. Scores of these little boats ferry stores across the river at Bawli Bazaar, while the new Mountbatten Bridge is being completed . Sampans take stores and dispatch-riders over the Naf to Nhila and the Teknaf Peninsula. Signal cables run beside the road, fastened on poles, tied to trees, hitched to a building, buried under a track crossing. And Madrassi linemen can be seen on top of ladders, armed with pliers and tape, or rolling huge drums of cable, or ringing and buzzing with their telephones when testing the line or looking for a break. A motor-cycle roars by, a man shouts a greeting in Tamil, and the dispatch-rider, wearing his blue and white armband, has vanished round the corner on his way to Divisional Headquarters.
At one place a sign will lead to a water-point made by the Sappers; farther up is the barbed-wire cage for any prisoners-of-war that may be taken. On the right a board with a red cross and the letters M.D.S. reveals the presence of a Dressing Station and one of the three Field Ambulances. Another jeep goes jolting along, a blue flag fluttering in the dust-laden breeze. The pipe and a flash of the sun on spectacles show that Brigadier Warren is visiting one of his battalions.
Perhaps a small convoy of heavy lorries with the sign of the three Roman fives-more like crossed hockey-sticks---approaches, from Fifteen Corps Headquarters, laden with stores or ammunition or rations. One or two of the vehicles that use this road bear the golden arrow of Messervy's division over the hills above Buthidaung. Few have time to stand and watch the constant procession of human beings and mechanical transport and animals that go this way. Only the Military Police on duty, perhaps, can stand and watch, because these men must guide and control, halt and send on, divert and direct.
Nor were the Military Police idle at this time. To control the traffic up and down the narrow road was no easy task. And the surface of that road had to be preserved, the clouds of dust diminished, the trucks slowed down. Certain bridges were one-way only, and there were other patches of the road subject to strict police supervision. Near Zeganbyin a warning signboard had been erected. On it were painted these sombre words: "Stop! If you drive your vehicle past this point you probably won't come back. They didn't." And an arrow pointed down to a picture of the fate that might await any driver who passed our forward defence line through ignorance or lack of caution.
On Christmas Eve the road was brightened north of Maunghnama by a temporary sign erected by the Assistant Provost Marshal of the Division: "A Happy Christmas from the A.P.M Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men, and 15 m.p.h. if you please!"
And a notice at the foot of the Ngakyedauk Pass indicated forcibly, with the pregnant words "A jeep can go anywhere" and a picture of one falling over the precipice, the dangers that awaited every user of that pass.
One day in the middle of December, an open jeep brought a Very Important Personage to visit the Division. This was Lord Louis Mountbatten, fresh to his post as Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, resplendent in Naval uniform, and impressive by his commanding presence. The effect upon the troops was profound, the enthusiasm for Mountbatten's genial informality undisguised, the appreciation of his talks from a jeep bonnet heartening. The Fifth was the first Indian division that Mountbatten visited on the battlefields of Burma. Back in Britain he had been primed about the poor morale he might expect among the troops. Not only did his personal contact with the Division, and, later, with Messervy's Seventh Indian Division across the hills, do much to change Mountbatten's misgivings into confidence, but his presence in the forward areas, acted as a vigorous tonic to morale. He spoke to and shook hands with all officers and N.C.O.s. at informal parades, he addressed the British ranks as a crowd, and to certain Indians he spoke individually, using, but three Urdu expressions. He pretended to understand the excited replies. They referred to him as "Mounting Batten," while to the British he became "Supremo.
While inspecting Winterton's 123 Brigade, Lord Louis watched an artillery shoot laid on a Japanese position especially for his benefit. The shoot did not go according to plan, for the rounds kept falling short. The Forward Observation Officer on the telephone kept firing corrections of "up 50," but without appreciable result. Eventually Mountbatten impatiently seized the telephone and shouted to the startled gunner at the other end of the line, "Up 1,000." Great was the amusement of all those watching when a cloud- of dust and smoke was observed well beyond the target.
The first engagement of 161 Brigade was Operation 'Jericho,' which opened as the old year passed away to make way for 1944.. The great obstacle that barred our successful advance down the coast to enable us to gain control of the road linking Maungdaw with the Tunnels and Buthidaung was the Razabil Fortress. Here, on the hillocks that guarded a pair of T-roads, the enemy had entrenched himself with prodigious care and forethought. Before the Division could assault this Fortress, the low hills that led to it had to be secured.
And the first of these was Point 124. This feature lay on the .west of the main road. It overlooked on the southern side an important gap at Hathipauk which led through these foothills and gave access to the coastal flats, intersected by numerous winding, tidal chaungs. South-west across this stretch of desolate coast, with its few little villages, lay the port of Maungdaw. Although we could approach this place without using the Hathipauk gap, we could not supply troops there by road so long as Razabil remained in enemy hands. So it was that Point 124 presented itself as the first objective of Warren's Brigade, which had under temporary command the 3/9th Jats.
While the 4th Royal West Kents moved round secretly to attack from the south and east, Salomons' 4/7th Rajputs assaulted the hill from two villages on the west. All four of the rifle company commanders had made a night reconnaissance of the position, and these patrols, though they heard the Japanese soldiers in their defences, were not molested. Then, on December 30, the battalion moved up to its assembly area in darkness, and crossed the Hathipauk Chaung before daybreak. The hour had been chosen deliberately, to allow our men to cross after the moon had gone down, and at low tide, for at any other time it would have been impossible to wade across. Supported by the mortars of the 28th Field Regiment, two Rajput companies were to advance on one route, two companies on a second.
The two leading companies crossed the chaung without incident. No sooner had the sepoys started to climb the hill towards Point 124 than the Japanese opened fire with mortars and small arms. The resistance was fierce, the enemy well dug in, and our own guns hampered by the proximity of our men to the target, and by the thick undergrowth on the slopes. Though the rest of the 4/7th Rajputs crossed the chaung, by midday Salomons' entire force found itself pinned to the ground, unable to advance. More than ninety casualties had been suffered, and these could not be carried back until darkness fell and gave cover. Then Colonel John Young, with the stretcher-bearers of 45 Field Ambulance, came right forward into the battle area and cleared all our casualties before daybreak.
Outstanding during this first attack was the exemplary conduct of Major C. C. Ansell, who commanded 'A' Company and led his devoted men up the hillside with absolute disregard for his personal safety. His gallantry was inspiring, for he went on until gravely wounded, having been shot through the stomach and in the face. For his leadership that day he was awarded an immediate D.S.O., and he survived to command his battalion nearly four years later.
The 4/7th Rajputs attacked Point 124 continuously for the next six days. On several occasions the leading sections reached the triple fence of barbed wire round the top trenches before being driven back down the slope by hand grenades that the Japanese soldiers lobbed at them.
Each little scrub-covered hilltop had rings of trenches dug round the summit, and each was covered by the fire of at least one machine-gun from another hillock. When a particular hill was attacked by our men, the defenders would fire a red Very light and at once take cover. This was the signal for all other Japanese posts giving covering fire to open up with machine-guns on the post being attacked. The enemy soldiers holding the post would lob showers of grenades over the parapet, when the assaulting troops were only five or ten yards from the crest.
A policy of strangulation, starvation, and attrition was adopted, but it was not until January 7 that the enemy positions were found to be abandoned. The Japanese had slipped away by night; the sounds of their retreat were covered by the wind and the teeming rain.
Two days later the Royal West Kents drove the enemy off the next hill beside the road, Point 141, and the British companies moved into positions from which they could watch if not dominate the Razabil Fortress.
Meanwhile what of Langran's Nine Brigade, the last to arrive in Arakan, and now ready to do battle against the Japanese for the first time? Early in the New Year the Brigade gathered its parts near Wabyin. Cree brought his West Yorkshires across from the Teknaf Peninsula, and to this battalion fell the task of leading forward to reach the line of the road between Maungdaw and Keinchakata. This latter place was the nearest point we could approach to Razabil without becoming engaged in a desperate struggle for the fortress itself.
During those first days of January, while the West Yorkshires travelled from Nhila to Bawli Bazaar by river steamer, the rain fell with prolonged force. The dust on the road and tracks vanished within an hour. In its place reigned deep mud, so bad that the Engineers closed our one all-important road to traffic. Only brigadiers and wounded men might use jeeps. The rest walked, and a few went to and fro on horseback. The mules squelched their way through the mud, their drivers urging them along, cheerful despite the rain that lashed at their broad-brimmed hats and monsoon capes. Across the Mayu Ridge blew the dreary, penetrating mist. And then the rain ceased, the sun shone again, and steam rose from the sodden earth towards a cloudless sky.
Once more the scars of bare rock gleamed on the range the clear sunlight bathed the coast and the hills. The sky was reflected in the sluggish chaungs. A soft wind fanned the grasses and swayed the growing crops in the flat paddy fields. Clumps of trees showed where the villages lay. And the sun served not only to disperse the damp gloom that had descended on the neighbourhood when the rain teemed down, but to emphasize the tawny layers of dust that hovered intermittently above each track and stretch of the road. No sooner had the dust died away in one place than it was churned tip farther along the same route. No sooner had the first disturbance settled than another jeep, a pair of lorries, or a dozen mules would appear round the corner and send the dust swirling up to blur the blue sky and to coat the leaves of such trees as grew beside the road. The dazzling sun gave a hazy brilliance to the view of a landscape that, for all the forces of destruction and suffering waiting in its shadows and on its crests, was very beautiful.
On January 6 the West Yorkshires set out, prepared to cross the chaungs that barred the way to Maungdaw. Abroad among the companies was that spirit of suppressed excitement and expectation for the action for which they had spent many weary hours training. In the words of one company report, written in block capitals in pencil: "The real thing again, everyone determined to show the Jap that here was a force ready and capable of proving false the myth of his supposed superiority and of retaking the ground he has held far too long."
That evening 'A' Company (Major C. O'Hara) led the way to a point on the first chaung where a number of folding assault boats had been assembled. The men embarked and propelled themselves to the far bank, using the boats as a ferry service. Six boats were hauled out of the water; the remainder were left behind for Dunlop's 'B' Company, who were following. The six boats, saturated by the first crossing and now doubly heavy, were carried across two miles of paddy fields to a second chaung. Again the boats were launched, and the crossing made without mishap or enemy interference. Though exhausted by this strenuous advance, the leading company reached Babapara village during the night and prepared defensive positions for the morning.
When Dunlop's men had moved through into Lettha village, 'C' Company (Major J. P. Roche) advanced south-west, skirted some opposition in Kanyindan, and chased the few remaining Japanese soldiers out of Maungdaw.
On January 9 Kanyindan was cleared of enemy troops. These withdrew south to cross the wide Magyi Chaung, only to find themselves ambushed near the iron bridge by Lieutenant Hazell's guerilla platoon. Ten Japanese were killed at nightfall. At the same time, 'C' Company, under Major Brian Sellars, moved eastwards to capture a village named Zullapara that guarded the approach to Razabil and to Keinchakata. The enemy strongly opposed this attempt, and fighting lasted throughout the night. Then, in daylight, mortars and artillery aiding, the Japanese. were driven out and the village occupied completely.
Maungdaw presented the grim spectacle of a derelict town. The Arakanese had fled; grass grew over the warped verandahs; half-ruined shacks with caved-in roofs stood side by side with more solid brick buildings which had been robbed of doors and windows, and chipped by shell and bomb alike. In every corner among the piles of rubble and fallen beams lay perished rubber gas-masks and the oozing contents of food tins that had burst. And these combined to pervade the ruins with a putrid stench that was well-nigh intolerable. All trace of the bazaar had vanished. The streets had become dusty tracks invaded by an army of thriving weeds. And a little way downstream, where the Naf River and the green hills north of Teknaf came into view, stood the mouldering steamer station, with its wooden piers bleached by the sun, its little red tin hut rusted and empty, and the muddy water lapping at the green slime level. The bridge across the Tat Chaung linking Maungdaw and the island to the north had been destroyed.
But the West Yorkshires did not dawdle in the town of the dead ---a place of bitterness and weeds, of mould and neglect, of evil smells and dismal memories.
General Briggs had by now issued orders that a bridgehead across the Magyi Chaung was to be formed at Nyaunggyaung. From here the battalion would patrol southwards and seek out the rear defences of Razabil. But this was the beginning of trouble. While Cree's headquarters and one company remained in the village of Nalpannya, the other three companies moved eastwards across the paddy fields to the main road. Sellars' 'C' Company dropped off at Bagona. to maintain a halfway base, and 'A' and 'C' Companies under Majors O'Hara and Roche crossed the main road and started north among the foothills. Their object was to comb these densely covered hillocks and thereby approach to within a few hundred yards of the southern edge of Razabil Fortress. They were out to discover the flanks and rear of the Japanese position.
So far the enemy had not opposed these moves, but on the evening of January 14 Roche's leading sections came upon what appeared to be a main enemy defence position. The company established itself on a hill where the Japanese had dug a considerable system of communication trenches and other defence works. O'Hara's men settled on the rear half of this hill, and only some thirty yards separated the two companies, who were linked by a trench. The enemy had but recently given up this strong redoubt, and the position seemed strong if isolated.
During that night large parties of Japanese moved north over the coastal paddy fields. They attacked Sellars' platoons in Bagona, severed contact between this company and the two companies in the foothills, launched violent but vain and costly attacks upon one company of the 3/9th Jats under Major Petrie-Hay, holding the iron bridge that spanned the Magyi Chaung.
As a result of these night hostilities, Colonel Cree ordered O'Hara to take his company back to the position in the foothills that had been occupied before the northward move began. This was a little way from the main road, and due east from Bagona. It proved to be a disastrous move. Roche's men were meant to do the same, but the message was never received. So long as both companies had been together, they were strong and could resist the enemy. Now Roche's 'C' Company was alone.
The Japanese occupied that part of the hill vacated by 'A' Company, and our men had to block the trench that had linked the two company defences. At half past five next morning, January 16, the enemy attacked from all sides. He strove to drive Roche and his men from their part of the hill. He infiltrated through the dense jungle. He got a machine-gun on to high ground and threatened to enfilade the whole of Roche's headquarters. But a gallant attempt to destroy this fatal gun succeeded and it was driven back, though at some cost to ourselves.
A report was sent back to Colonel Cree by Morse, the sole means of communication that remained intact. Ammunition was needed. Our water point was in enemy hands. We had food for another day, but almost no water. Three stretcher cases needed urgent attention, while three other men had been less severely wounded. Cree said he would do his best to send help, but the company must be prepared to fight its way out.
At first Roche decided to get out by night. But the enemy harassed our positions with artillery during the hours of darkness; any move would be more easily heard by the watchful Japanese; if our withdrawal were discovered, the resultant confusion in the dark would be such as to risk our men shooting one another as well as the enemy.
On the other hand, to retreat in broad daylight entailed crossing open paddy fields, without cover of any kind. The enemy's field of fire would be clear. No sooner had Roche decided on a night withdrawal than it was noticed that the scrub across the road had caught alight, and that a northerly breeze was blowing smoke across our front. This smoke seemed providential, and Roche warned his company to move in half an hour.
The dead were placed in a fire trench and covered over, but no time remained for the burial service. The stretcher cases were wrapped in blankets and carried to one of the exits. Then the scrub fire died down. When the first platoon crossed the road they were caught in heavy fire, the mortar was damaged and could give no support, and the three men on stretchers were hit on the way down.
It was now a matter of every man for himself. Men threw themselves on the ground, crawled behind low paddy bunds, or made a dash for any piece of cover that might protect them from the fierce machine-guns. The more fortunate ones managed to reach a water hole four hundred yards from the enemy. This hole was six feet deep, fifteen feet across, and had two feet of water in the bottom. Here, in the space of the next hour, a score of the company gathered. Outside there were a dozen more men, some of them unscathed, sheltering behind a bund. One badly wounded soldier was calling out for water, of which there was none save the filthy liquid in the hole. Another wounded man shouted for the stretcher-bearers, but of these one was dead and the other a casualty.
At last, about half past four, when the sun was shining into the faces of the enemy, an attempt was made to escape from the water hole, but a few bursts of fire showed just how hazardous this would prove. It was not till dusk that Roche and his men were able to move off in safety, some to the bridge by Kanyindan, others back to Cree's headquarters in Nalpannya. 'C' Company had lost, in this day's fighting, one officer and eleven ranks killed, another eleven men missing, and two officers and nineteen men wounded.
While the West Yorkshires were battling in the foothills and paddy fields south of the Maungdaw-Razabil road, the 3/9th Jats (Lieutenant-Colonel B. C. W. Gerty) were in Kanyindan and Keinchakata, with Petrie-Hay's company still guarding the Magyi Chaung bridge. On January 16 'D' Company, commanded by Major Ritchie, crossed this chaung and occupied the straggling and heavily wooded village of Nyaunggyaung without opposition. And 'C' Company (Major Lambert) went east to hold the bridge farther up the same chaung by Razabil South. Here they stayed for nine days, overlooked by the Japanese in the foothills south of the fortress, subjected to nightly attacks, sometimes three in one night, and to sniping by day. All supply and evacuation of a score of wounded Jats had to be done during darkness.
The night of the 17th was the battalion's first real tussle with the Japanese. At nine o'clock one of Ritchie's reconnaissance patrols reported that the enemy had occupied the south-eastern corner of Nyaunggyaung wood, three hundred yards from our positions. When the reserve platoon moved out as a fighting patrol, it was attacked on two sides. Meanwhile the main Japanese force had crept south of Ritchie's position and engaged his southerly platoon. The centre of our defences was also attacked, just where the reserve platoon had been before it sallied out to engage the enemy.
Here the Japanese gained a footing, and were followed by Sikh Jifs who set fire to the position with a miniature flame-thrower. Just before dawn the Japanese withdrew, after making repeated attacks against 'D' Company. The dozen Jifs called out in Punjabi to our Jats to come across and join the Japanese. Their temptations were greeted with indignant bursts of firing. Jifs (Japanese Indian Forces) were Indian soldiers, who, being prisoners of the Japanese, had been forced or cajoled into fighting for their enemy.
Two nights later the enemy troops again attacked Ritchie's men, and, although repulsed, they managed to dig themselves in only twenty yards from our forward trenches. Unless the Japanese were ejected, they would be able to cover both the exit from the iron bridge held by Petrie-Hay's 'A' Company, and the track leading from this bridge to Nyaunggyaung. So next morning Colonel Gerty decided to launch a counter-attack from the east, using Petrie-Hay's company and two sections of carriers from the 81st West African Division Reconnaissance Regiment.
No sooner did these carriers stop, after crossing the open paddy and taking up a firing position 300 yards to the flank, than an enemy anti-tank gun opened fire and knocked out three of the carriers. The others were withdrawn. 'A' Company was held up by heavy flanking fire from machine-guns, particularly from one that had been tied high up in a tree. While co-ordinating the Jats' attack, the second-in-command of the Battalion, Major R. H. White, was killed. And Major W. E. Petrie-Hay was badly wounded in the arm. Eventually the Japanese machine-gunner in the tree was brought down by a Jat sniper who crept up close.
It was only on January 24 that the enemy positions were found abandoned, and our troops burnt down all those parts of Nyaunggyuang that we had not occupied.
123 Brigade spent the first fortnight of January in aggressive patrolling among the foothills of the Mayu Range, east of the main road from Hathipauk, and centring round Point 731 and a feature known as 'Wrencat' after the nearby Rehkat Chaung. The 2/1st Punjab, 1/17th Dogras and 2nd Suffolks all had brushes with the enemy among these scrub-covered hillocks. Patrols had sharp encounters on the banks of the many waterways running down into the coastal plain. Names such as Green Hill, Bottle, Tooth, and Mutton Chop became familiar to the British and Indian soldiers as they explored the Japanese positions and approached closer to Point 73 1 and to the eastern part of the Razabil Fortress.
On January 28 the Dogras attacked 'Wrencat,' and its little neighbour 'Wrenkitten' without success. Within a hundred yards of the summit the enemy had placed a bamboo fence with only one gap, and grenades and booby traps prevented more than one of our men from going through at a time. The jungle had been dense bamboo, but the ravages of artillery, mortars and dive-bombers had transformed the hill into one great sand dune, bare and precipitous on certain approaches.
The Dogras had virtually to pull themselves up the hill by the remaining bamboo stumps, always in the face of savage fire. Major Ghulam Qadir led four separate attacks, and won the Military Cross. Again and again the little Dogras climbed slowly up 'Wrencat,' through the black smoke of showers of grenades exploding, and the sun glinting on their bayonets. Each time the men no sooner reached the top than the enemy on neighbouring hillocks opened fire with mortar and machine-gun and forced the Dogras off. A severe loss to the battalion was Subadar Narain, who fell leading an attack on the main Japanese bunkers. He was awarded, posthumously, the Indian Order of Merit.
Though these assaults by two companies failed, they did provide accurate information of the Japanese defences and guns, and the best and worst routes to the summit were revealed at a price five killed and forty-six wounded.
The 2/1st Punjab held the crest of the range, and notably three peaks known by their altitudes as 1975, 1749 and 1619. They patrolled along the ridge to the next peak, Point 1301, in Japanese hands, and also captured the right-hand of three knobs, two of which were already held by our troops. The 2nd Suffolks (Lieutenant-Colonel H. R. Hopking) shared Bamboo Hill with the enemy, and on January 28 made a very determined effort to capture the hill. They reached the top, only to be forced to withdraw.
These attacks were part of Operation 'Jonathan,' at once the most ambitious conception and most complete failure of the month. By night the redoubtable tanks of the 25th Dragoons (Lieutenant-Colonel Frink) rumbled into hiding behind the infantry battalions. They came forward in darkness, hoping to conceal their arrival from the Japanese who watched our activities from the Mayu Range. The tanks were ready for this full-scale offensive against the cross-roads at Razabil and the surrounding hills. Among these were Tortoise and numerous little hillocks that rose from the paddy fields and bore such names as Propeller, Squiggle, Hop, Step and Jump, names often coined in imitation of the shape of the particular feature, and used as an easy and temporarily secure means of reference.
The plan was for our Strategic Air Force to bomb targets in the Razabil area, and for the battalions of 161 Brigade to drive through the foothills to the cross-roads. On January 26 Mitchells, Liberators, and Vengeance dive-bombers roared overhead, and soon a pall of smoke and dust hung above Razabil and Tortoise. Immense explosions reverberated against the Mayu Range. The aircraft returned low down across the chaungs and paddy fields. All that day and the next the Royal West Kents, 1/1st Punjab and 4/7th Rajputs attacked the little hillocks cast of the road. In their support fought the 25th Dragoons. Fire from Mansergh's Divisional Artillery was at their call.
Success was limited, casualties mounted, and the enemy fought tenaciously. Our bombing had been neither effectual nor accurate. Japanese counter-attacks were beaten off at night and in daylight. Though Squiggle was captured by the 1/1st, attacks by the Sikh company under Captain Roxburgh-Smith failed, proving costly against barbed wire and dense machine-gun fire from the hillocks. The company was reduced to twenty-one men before it could be extricated. And the battalion, which entered the battle 163 men under strength, came out with this figure at 279. The Rajputs had also suffered heavily during the month. Twenty-seven men had been killed and 129 wounded. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Salomons, had been promoted to command Nine Brigade instead of Brigadier W. H. Langran, who had returned to India. Major J. Cargill, the second-in-command, took Salomons' place.
Salomons was one of the best-liked battalion and brigade commanders the Division ever had. Few were more highly esteemed than "Sally," by which name he was referred to if not called on every side. He was a bald, lean Scotsman in his forties, a man whose energy astounded officers and men years his junior. He never spared himself, and tramped up one hill after another, or along a series of paths through the jungle, to visit his forward battalions. Accompanied by his liaison or intelligence officer, he became a familiar figure near the battle. If his voice was harsh, this did not reflect his character, for the very opposite was true. He could be quiet and reticent to a degree, and to the casual visitor may have been deceptive. But if he did not appear dynamic and full of fire, in reality he merely weighed the chances a little longer than most, and then, quietly and without fuss, ordered his troops into the attack at the right place and the right time.
His brigade was a happy one, for he welded what he always liked to term "the Brigade Group" into a united team, and his pride and care in its well-being and achievements were shared and reflected. Seldom was he to be seen without a cheery greeting on his lips, and his sense of humour accorded with his youthfulness of spirit.
Although in the Division he commanded an infantry battalion and brigade, he had started his service in 1920 with the Royal Sikh Pioneers, where one of his brother officers was Brigadier Freddie Warren. He served with the Pioneers for thirteen years, until they were disbanded. All officers were then posted to infantry regiments---Salomons to the 7th Rajputs. But as a number of the men were transferred to the Sappers and Miners, volunteers were called for to remain behind to see the men settled in to their new units. Salomons stayed for two years, and was the only infantry officer to have his name on the list of adjutants of the Bengal Sappers and Miners at Roorkee.
From 1935 onwards he served with the Rajputs, and, just as Denys Reid had done some years before him, he commanded the company that was escort to the British Trade Agent in Gyangtse. His appointment was known as "O.C. Escorts, Tibet."
Further variety to his peace-time service was provided by a trip to Chitral as Column Staff Officer, and by a period as Personal Assistant to two Residents in Kashmir.
When the war came, he sailed from India to the Middle East with the Fourth Indian Division.
Of Salomons, one of his officers wrote: " 'Sally' is one of the great names in the Division. He had no enemies, countless friends, and was beloved by the jawans---one can say no more."
Operation 'Jonathan,' a frontal assault directed upon the Japanese fortress of hillocks round Razabil, had failed. Bunkers, wire, bamboo stakes---sharply pointed and known as punjis---and withering fire had brought our ambitious offensive to a halt, with but small gains to record.
The Division learned a lesson. For the future, tactics were based upon those of tanks. Operations in the Desert had proved that to win a tank battle you did not attack enemy tanks on ground of their own choosing, only to find their tanks behind a defensive screen of anti-tank guns and infantry. Rather did you seek to manoeuvre with the purpose of seizing ground which was, or could be made, so vital to the enemy that he was forced to attack you instead. Encirclement, hooks from the left or right flank, and guile were to replace the more direct assault.
Meanwhile, Fifteen Corps decided to switch our main offensive to the eastern side of the Mayu Range. While the coastal plain and the range itself were held and made uncomfortable for the enemy, Messervy's Seventh Indian Division prepared to attack south to seize Buthidaung.
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