Operation Albacore

This was an Allied plan for Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell’s Chinese Army in India to invade and recapture the northern part of Japanese-occupied Burma as part of the Allied effort to reopen overland communications with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist forces in south-western China (August 1943).

The plan was based on the use of the Chinese Army in India, itself centred on the Chinese divisions which had fallen back from the Japanese ‘B’ (iii) conquest of Burma and were now concentrated in northern India, where they were being retrained and re-equipped by the USA.

Precursor to the definitive 'Plan X', the 'Albacore' plan was posited on the assumption that the Japanese were not deployed in strength in the area to the north of Kamaing, and sub-elements of the basic plan were 'Albacore 1' for the defence of the Ledo base area; 'Albacore 2' for the occupation of Shingbwiyang on D-15 and the despatch of patrols to the lines of the Tarung and Tanai streams; and the four-phase 'Albacore 3' that comprised 'Albacore 3A' for the seizure of Jambu Bum, 'Albacore 3B' for the seizure of the line linking Lonkin and Kamaing, 'Albacore 3C' for the seizure of Mogaung and Myitkyina, and 'Albacore 3D' for the seizure of Katha and Bhamo.

'Albacore 3A' called for Lieutenant General Sun Li-Jen’s New 38th Division to advance from the Tarung Hka line on D-day or 1 December 1943 if D-day had not been announced by then. One regiment was to drive up the Tanai valley, adjacent to and east of the Hukawng valley, another was to take the line of the Nambyu river and head south to occupy the Jambu Bum. The third regiment was held in reserve.

When the 38th was near the Jambu Bum, Lieutenant General Liao Yao-hsiang’s New 22d Division would move into the Shingbwiyang area. One of its regiments would protect the 38th Division’s right flank, and the other would fly to Fort Hertz in 'Ledo Striptease'.

'Albacore 3B' called for the New 38th Division to advance from a line just below the Jambu Bum in two columns (one up the Tanai Hka valley, the other along the road to Kamaing), with the New 22nd Division kept in forward reserve.

In 'Albacore 3C' the New 38th Division was to take Mogaung, and the New 22d Division was to follow until Mogaung had been taken, when it was to swing around the Kumon range to attack Myitkyina from the south while the regiment earlier sent to Fort Hertz closed from the north.

In 'Albacore 3D' the New 38th Division was to take Katha and the new 22nd 22d Division was to take Bhamo.

Stilwell was confident of success as the Chinese Army in India was now well trained, well equipped and in good condition both physically and morally. If the Japanese did not make any major reinforcement of their forces in the area of Myitkyina and Pao-shan area, the operation had a good chance of success, and Stilwell also believed that if Lieutenant General G. A. P. Scoones’s Indian IV Corps did its share by driving into Burma from the Manipur area, the the Japanese could not make any such reinforcement. Stilwell planned to take Shingbwiyang and build an airstrip there from which to supply one division with all its requirements for a push toward Mogaung. When the Ledo Road reached Shingbwiyang, two divisions driving south could be supplied by air. All going according to plan, Stilwell expected that the Ledo Road would reach Shingbwiyang by 31 December.

Underlying these plans and hopes was the Chinese estimate of Japanese strength and dispositions. The Chinese believed that the Japanese forces in Burma were commanded by Lieutenant General Masakasu Kawabe’s Burma Area Army, headquartered in Rangoon, with command in northern Burma exercised by Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 15th Army headquartered in Maymyo. Under the 15th Army were four divisions, namely Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka’s 18th Division in the Mandalay area, Lieutenant General Genzo Yanagida’s 33rd Division in the Monywa area, Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya’s 55th Division in the Akyab area, and Lieutenant General Yuzo Matsuyama’s 56th Division in the Lashio area. The Chinese also believed that there were four Thai divisions in the Shan States area of eastern Burma. There were also unverified reports that four more Japanese formations (14th, 16th, 21st and 23rd Divisions) were also in Burma.

The Chinese were wrong, however, for the Burma Area Army in fact totalled six divisions in the form of the four known to the Chinese and also Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato’s 31st Division and Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 54th Division which had both arrived in 1943, as well as Major General Yoshihide Hayashi’s 24th Independent Mixed Brigade that was currently being organised. The 54th Division was deployed to the Arakan western coastal region of Burma, and the 31st Division was deployed into central Burma opposite Manipur. The Thai divisions could be disregarded for they never met Allied troops in battle and their presence in eastern Burma freed no Japanese troops for service elsewhere.

'Albacore 2' called for one regiment of the New 38th Division to move forward to cover the forward extension of the Ledo Road and to reach the Tarung, which was the line of departure for the projected campaign in northern Burma. If not previously announced, D-day was to be 1 December 1943.

The orders which Sun Li-jen’s received for his 38th Division left him little opportunity for the exercise of any initiative. He was instructed to send the 112th Regiment forward to shield the advancing road builders. The 2/112th Regiment was to occupy the Tarung Hka villages of Sharaw Ga and Ningbyen, the 1/112th Regiment was to occupy Yupbang Ga, also on the Tarung, and the 3/112th Regiment was to occupy Ngajatzup at the northern edge of the Taro plain. This deployment, which dispersed the regiment, was designed to hold the line of the Tarung and Tanai rivers by controlling the fords, and to prevent Japanese movements north out of the Taro plain. 'X' Force expected that the 112th Regiment could drive off the maximum expected resistance, which it had assessed as just scattered parties of Burmans under Japanese leadership.

Sun received his orders on 5 October but hesitated over committing his division to any forward movement. Brigadier General Haydon L. Boatner, commanding the combat troops in the Ledo area, saw no good reason for this inasmuch as Sun’s formation possessed ample logistical and tactical air support, and faced only insignificant Japanese opposition. The Chinese battalions finally began to move south.

Ordered to occupy Sharaw Ga and Ningbyen, the 2/112th Regiment moved deeper into Burma with the reinforcement and support of the the 5th Company of the 114th Regiment, a US hospital unit, and engineer and quartermaster troops. Some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the north of Sharaw Ga and many weeks before the planned D-day, at about 12.00 on 30 October the Chinese met their first Japanese outpost, which was manned by men of one of the 56th Division's regiments that held Sharaw Ga and the two villages to its south on the Tarung Hka. The Chinese drove back this outpost and the advance guard moved on to the riverside clearing in which lay Sharaw, but was checked until the fall of night by mortar and machine gun fire. On the following day the remainder of the battalion came up, and the Chinese tried to take the village, which lay between two hills.

The hill to the north was lightly held. The Chinese quickly overran it, then came under such heavy fire from the second hill that they had 116 casualties. On 1, 2, and 3 November the Chinese attacked, achieving nothing and losing 50 more men. Then they went on the defensive and dug in, but managed to patrol and keep in touch with the regimental command post at Ningam Sakan.

The 1/112th Regiment had much the same experience at Yupbang Ga, the most southerly of the three villages held by elements of the 56th Regiment of the 18th Division. Encountering a Japanese force that was both well led and nicely entrenched, the the 1/112th Regiment halted and dug in, and was quickly isolated by a roadblock placed between Sharaw Ga and Ningbyen, the latter the central of the three villages held by elements of the 56th Regiment.

The 3/112th Regiment was similarly brought to a halt on the northern edge of the Taro plain outside Ngajatzup on a tributary stream of the Tanai Nka river. As in the locations in which the 2 and 3/112 Regiment had been halted, the opposition was not the Burman levies which had been expected, but elements of the 55th Regiment of the 18th Division.

There was considerable Chinese and US surprise at the revealed presence of this high-quality Japanese unit, as intelligence reports had not even hinted at any real Japanese presence in the area. Compounding this failure of intelligence and reconnaissance, the Chinese were also reluctant to admit that the Japanese were present in strength.

The 18th Division had moved forward to garrison north Burma and, from September, the added responsibility of supporting the planned 'U' offensive into north-eastern India. Anxious to prevent interference with this offensive, the Burma Area Army was undertaking a programme to improve its positions all around the perimeter of Burma. In October the 56th Division destroyed a Chinese bridgehead over the Salween river to the north of Teng-chung, and late in September, in anticipation of the dry season and the return of full campaigning conditions, the 15th Army had instructed the 18th Division to use its main strength to fight a delaying action in the Hukawng valley against the Allied thrust which was expected from Ledo. Myitkyina was to be strongly held to block any attack from China.

On or about 24 October one company of the 2/56th Regiment had reached the area of Tarung and Tanai to undertake a reconnaissance. Not finding any Chinese forces immediately to the north of it, the company built defensive positions in and around Ningbyen. It seems likely that at the time of its first clashes with the advancing New 38th Division, the Japanese company had called for reinforcement. A Japanese concentration of unknown size was located in and around Maingkwan, and the remainder of the 2/56th Regiment was hastened forward early in November. It is likely that the 18th Division was reinforced as quickly as possible, and was soon present in a strength well able to meet the 112th Regiment’s three scattered battalions, especially as the initial Japanese tactic was to place blocks across the trails and force the Chinese to make the first attack.

The Tarung Hka, which flows south through the area to enter the Tanai, is river of moderate size with a width of 200 yards (185 m) in the dry season and considerably more than this in the rainy season. Firmly entrenched at Sharaw Ga and Yupbang Ga, the Japanese were holding the river crossings which were the springboards for the offensive Tanaka was planning.

Tanaka made a personal reconnaissance early in November, and then decided to adopt a plan in which he would move the main strength of his division from Ningbyen toward Shingbwiyang and the exit of the mountain road on the India-Burma border with the object of attacking and destroying the Chinese and US forces which would be advancing in a long column along the winding Ledo Road in India. Tanaka’s offensive was scheduled to begin on 15 December.

As their strength grew, the Japanese became more aggressive, and the 112th Regiment then underwent a series of unhappy episodes during November. One of its companies was destroyed on 2 November. The regimental command post was overrun on the following day as its guard was digging in for the night. The regimental commander and a junior US liaison officer escaped, but the chief liaison officer, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas G. Gilbert, was captured. A company of the 1/114th Regiment, rushed up to aid by the reopening of the trail to the 1/112th Regiment near Yupbang Ga, was halted by the Japanese well short of its goal. Air supply brought rations to the besieged 150 survivors of the 1/112th Regiment, but an acute shortage of water had to be met in part by tapping jungle vines.

The failure of the New 38th Division to press its advance resulted in heated exchanges between Sun and Boatner. The latter believed strongly the Chinese division faced only one Japanese battalion, so it only as a result of a negative attitude and poor tactics that the Chinese had let themselves be surrounded and then proceeded to waste their ammunition. Sun believed that he was faced by the entire 56th Regiment faced him along the Tarung Hka and desired reinforcement. On 26 November Boatner informed Major General Thomas G. Hearn, the chief-of-staff of the US Army forces in the China-Burma-India theatre, that the situation was very badly poised and that Sun wished to retreat, and requested Hearn to intervene. As Stilwell was absent on a secret mission, Hearn had to handle the problem, which he did by telling Boatner to act strongly in Stilwell’s name.

A possible difficulty lay in the fact, noted above, that the 'X' Force’s orders to Sun gave him very little latitude and even ordained the location of his several battalions. Moreover, he was not free to reinforce his forward unit without 'X' Force authorisation. The situation began slowly to improve only after 'X' Force started to reinforce the 112th Regiment. The 114th Regiment reached the front in mid-November, and the remainder of the division was by then also on its way.