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The Race to Rangoon Legacy of Liberation

In May 1942, the remnants of the British Burma Army, battered and demoralised by defeat and the driving monsoon rains, retreated across the Chindwin River towards the Indian border leaving Burma under the domination of Imperial Japan.

Japanese forces enter Tavoy, Burma cheered on by Burmese, 1942 © IWM

Nearly three years later, in the winter of 1944/45, a renewed and battle-hardened Commonwealth force returned to Burma, to liberate the country from the Japanese but also to reconquer it for the British Empire. The battles of Imphal and Kohima in the summer of 1944 marked a turning point in the Burma Campaign. Japanese forces, which had seemed nearly unbeatable, were routed by Commonwealth forces. Japan lost tens of thousands of men during the battle and many more during the harrowing retreat, through monsoon rain, back across the Chindwin River.

Meeting of Indian and British troops during the Battle of Kohima © IWM

Even as battle raged in the jungled hills of Imphal and Kohima, Allied planners were considering several options for reconquering Burma. They chose an attack into central Burma around the city of Mandalay, followed by an overland advance south towards Rangoon. Commonwealth forces of Fourteenth Army would cross the Chindwin and engage the Japanese on the Shwebo Plain, where they could capitalise on their advantage in tanks and airpower in the comparably flat and open country.

Despite the vast size of the British Indian Army, only a relatively small force consisting of IV Corps and XXXIII Corps would attack across the Chindwin. Given the lack of roads and railways in the mountainous jungles of the India-Burma border, they would primarily be supplied from the air.

ACROSS THE CHINDWIN

Once across the Chindwin, however, Commonwealth forces soon discovered that the main force of the Japanese had abandoned the Shwebo Plain and retreated across the Irrawaddy River. Reacting quickly, HQ altered the plan: XXXIII Corps would clear the Shwebo plain then head southeast for Mandalay, while IV Corps, who had yet to cross the river, would remain on the Chindwin’s west bank and charge south towards the vital Japanese logistical centre of Meiktila.

British troops crossing the Chindwin River near Sittaung, Nov 1945 © IWM

COASTAL OPERATIONS

Meanwhile, on the Burmese coast, Commonwealth forces of XV Corps facing the Japanese in Arakan province continued their advance through January 1945. Indian and West African units along with Royal Marine Commandos fought through varied and challenging terrain, from the coastal plain to jungled hills and heavily islanded river deltas, but they were making progress.

Lieutenant George Arthur Knowland

During the fighting on 31 January, in what became known as the Battle of Hill 170, Lieutenant George Arthur Knowland of No.1 Commando was in command of a forward platoon of 24 men which came under heavy Japanese counterattack. For twelve hours Lieutenant Knowland and his men held off an attack by 300 Japanese troops. Throughout, he moved amongst his men distributing ammunition while engaging the enemy with his rifle and grenades.

When the light machine gun crew were wounded Knowland rushed forward to man the gun himself while the men were evacuated. During a subsequent attack he took up a light mortar and, firing it from the hip, rushed forward. When his mortars ran out, he fought with his rifle until the enemy where nearly upon him, at which point he picked up a sub-machine gun from a fallen comrade and continued firing into the enemy until fatally wounded. Lieutenant Knowland was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was 22 years old. He is buried in Taukkyan War Cemetery Plot 11. Row J. Grave 1.

The advance in Arakan and the capture of several islands and airfields along the coast greatly assisted the Commonwealth air forces in supplying troops fighting in central Burma, which by late February where in position to strike at Meiktila and Mandalay.

The Battle of Meiktila

The Indian 17th Division led IV Corps’ advance on Meiktila. Fully motorised, with a tank brigade attached, they first secured an airfield close to Meiktila so further troops and supplies could be flown in for the attack on the city. The battle began on 28 February. Amongst those fighting was Naik Fazl Din of the 7th Battalion, 10th Baluch Regiment, a Muslim Jat from the Hoshiarpur District of Punjab who’d joined the army shortly after the outbreak of the war. On 2 March, Fazl Din was commanding a section during an attack when they came under fire from several Japanese bunkers.

Naik Fazl Din

Unhesitatingly, Fazl Din personally attacked the nearest bunker with grenades, then led his section against the other bunkers under heavy fire. When assisting his Bren gunner who was attacked by a Japanese officer wielding a sword, Fazl Din was run through himself. When the officer withdrew his sword, Fazl Din tore it from him and killed him with it. Despite his terrible wound, he continued to fight and encourage his men, before staggering to HQ to make a report. He died soon after. He was 24. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial, Face 39.

After a few days of bloody fighting the city fell to Commonwealth forces, but Japanese reinforcements rushed to the area and the Commonwealth troops found themselves besieged. Over the following weeks, they fought hard to repulse several ferocious Japanese attacks determined to retake the strategically important city.

The Battle of Mandalay

British infantry advance along a dusty road to Mandalay, March 1945 © IWM

Meanwhile, by 7 March the Indian 19th Division leading XXXIII Corps’ advance had fought its way to within sight of the Mandalay Hill with its many pagodas and temples. The following evening a battalion of Gurkhas, led by an officer who had served in Burma before the war, stormed Mandalay Hill. Small bands of Japanese soldiers held out in bunkers and tunnels and had to be flushed out over the following days.

Fighting their way through the streets of Mandalay city, 19th Division were held up by the moat and thick walls which surrounded Mandalay Palace. Its 10 ft (3m) thick walls resisted bombardment, making a direct assault impossible. An attack through a railway tunnel near the north and west walls was driven back. Finally, on 21 March, they prepared to make an assault through the city’s sewer system but before it went ahead the Japanese abandoned the fort and began to pull back south towards Meiktila.

WAR IN THE AIR

Air support was vital to Commonwealth land forces, with 75% of all supplies delivered between January and May 1945 arriving by air. Meanwhile bomber and ground attack squadrons were on call to attack enemy formations, strong points and transport.

Flying Officer Bruce Norman Reed

Flying Officer Bruce Norman Reed, a Canadian flying with 113 Squadron RAF, was one such ground attack pilot. Born in Toronto, Canada in 1922, Bruce worked for the telephone service before enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. In 1943 he was posted to the UK and swiftly on to India.

On the morning of 28 March while on a mission to attack Japanese troops near Mandalay, his Hurricane fighter was shot down and Bruce was killed. He was 22 years old. His body was recovered from the crash and buried in Mandalay cemetery before being brought to Taukkyan War Cemetery after the war. He is buried in 25. E. 5.

The fall of Mandalay prompted anti-Japanese uprisings by local guerrilla forces and the defection of the Burma National Army to the allied side. By the end of March, the Japanese Army in Burma was beginning to disintegrate. Having thrown everything into the battles of Meiktila and Mandalay, they had lost men and equipment which could not be replaced. On 28 March, with the bulk of Japanese forces broken and scattered, Mandalay firmly in Commonwealth hands and insurgent uprisings in their rear, the Japanese command gave the order to break off the siege of Meiktila and retreat south to Rangoon.

Race to Rangoon

Commonwealth forces now had little over a month to fight the 280 miles to Rangoon before the monsoon hit. Over the following weeks the two Commonwealth forces drove south from Meiktila and Mandalay, battling scratch formations of Japanese troops aiming to delay them. On 27 April, leading troops of IV Corps ran into a strong Japanese rear-guard at Pegu (Bago) just north of Rangoon. Torrential rain the next day heralded the imminent arrival of the monsoon, and although the Indian troops made several determined attacks, they could not dislodge the Japanese force.

On 1 May, Indian patrols found that the Japanese had withdrawn, and engineers quickly bridged the Pegu River, but it was too late. The monsoon broke that day and Commonwealth forces were still 40 miles short of Rangoon.

OPERATION DRACULA

While the Battles at Meiktila and Mandalay had effectively destroyed the Japanese as a fighting force in Burma, they had cost valuable time, which the Allies could ill afford. Army HQ resurrected an old plan for a combined air and sea invasion of Rangoon. Forces from XV Corps on the Arakan coast were made available for the assault, and on 1 May, a Gurkha parachute battalion was dropped just south of Rangoon to deal with the coastal artillery batteries which guarded the approaches to the Rangoon River. As the monsoon broke, the Gurkhas quickly overcame the few Japanese troops in the area and silenced the big guns. Minesweepers moved in from a Royal Naval taskforce waiting off the coast to clear a passage upriver, soon followed by landing craft carrying troops of the Indian 26th Division, which began landing on both banks of the river in the early hours of 2 May.

Later that day a reconnaissance flight over Rangoon found that the Japanese had deserted the city, and troops of the Indian 26th Division moved in to occupy it.

Four days later Commonwealth troops advancing from Rangoon met the forward elements of IV Corps advancing across the flooded roadways and fields from Pegu. After three years, Rangoon and its important seaport were back in British hands. Two months later, surviving Japanese forces in Burma attempted to break out and cross the border into neighbouring Thailand but were caught and virtually destroyed at the Battle of Sittang Bend.

The cost of Victory © IWM

Remembrance

A week after the recapture of Rangoon, Germany formally surrendered to the Allies. Throughout the war, the fight against Germany overshadowed events in Burma, and victory in the latter was now swamped by coverage of victory in Europe. Fourteenth Army, and Commonwealth forces in India and Burma more generally, felt themselves to be ‘The Forgotten Army’.

While the Burma Campaign and the men and women who served in it are frequently overlooked, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures those who died will be commemorated in perpetuity. Their graves and memorials remain cared for to this day by the Commission, ensuring that their names ‘liveth for evermore’.

Carved in stone and cast in bronze

Rangoon Memorial is the largest CWGC memorial to the missing of the Second World War. It bears the names of over 26,800 Commonwealth servicemen who died during the campaigns in Burma and who have no known grave. It stands at the heart of Taukkyan War Cemetery, the largest of three war cemeteries in Burma -- the final resting place of over 6,370 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom over 860 remain unidentified, and over 50 servicemen of the First World War. Within the cemetery stand the Taukkyan Cremation Memorial and the Taukkyan Memorial, which commemorate over 1,050 servicemen of the Indian or Burmese army who died during the Second World War and whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith.

Work on the cemetery began after the war when graves were brought in from civil and cantonment cemeteries, isolated jungle or roadside burials and four former battlefield cemeteries across Myanmar (Burma). The graves from each of those four cemeteries now lie in one of the four quarters of the cemetery formed by the memorial and central pathway. In the northwest of the cemetery are those originally buried in Arakan province. In the northeast are those from around Mandalay. In the southeast, Meiktila, and in the southwest are those from northern Burma, including from the original ‘Chindit’ cemetery at Sahmaw.

Rangoon Memorial

Both Memorial and cemetery were designed by architect Henry J. Brown, who worked on several Commission cemeteries and memorials in India, Pakistan and Burma. Brown proposed a central memorial for this site, partly to suit the layout of the cemetery, but also because it allowed visitors to first understand the purpose of the cemetery before experiencing the memorial.

The memorial consists of two long open garden courts, flanked by long colonnades on either side, and joined in the middle by an open rotunda. Brown chose a circular shape for the centrepiece to allow English, Urdu, Hindu, Gurmukhi and Burmese translations of the dedication inscription - “They died for all free men” - to be placed in positions of equal importance.

The memorial was unveiled on 9 February 1958 by General Sir Francis Festing, Commander in Chief of Far East Land Forces and a former commander of the 36th Indian Division, which fought during the Burma campaign in Arakan and at Mandalay. In his address, General Festing said that the memorial presented a picture of a simple truth – that of a multitude of men of many races and widely differing faiths, who gave their lives in a common cause.

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum, Baloch Regimental Centre and Canadian Virtual Memorial.