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.
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.
The Battle of Mandalay
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.