Operation Dracula (ii)

This was the British airborne and amphibious capture of Rangoon, capital of Burma (1/3 May 1945).

The operation was planned and executed in the hope of preventing Lieutenant General Heitaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army from organising a last-ditch defence of the region as its formations fell back down the valleys of the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers before the advance of Lieutenant General Sir Montagu Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps and Lieutenant General F. W. Messervy’s Indian IV Corps of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army (1/3 May 1945).

In December 1941 Japan had entered World War II by attacking US territory (Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands group and the Philippine islands group) and the Far Eastern colonial possessions of the UK (Hong Kong, Borneo and Malaya) and the Netherlands (Dutch East Indies). After occupying Thailand, the Japanese invaded southern Burma during March 1942 in ‘B’ (iii). The British, Indian and Burmese forces were outmatched and were forced to evacuate southern Burma and Rangoon, the colony’s capital and major port, on 8 March. This made the British defence of southern and central Burma impossible, as there were then no proper alternative supply routes overland from India. The British and Chinese forces had therefore to leave Burma and withdraw through northern Burma into north-eastern India.

After a period of stalemate as the Allies planned how best to retake Burma, by 1944 the Allied forces in India had been rebuilt and could now operate on the basis of a much improved logistical infrastructure, which made it possible for them to contemplate an offensive into northern Burma as the first step in the reconquest of the whole country. The Japanese attempted to forestall this with their ‘U’ invasion of north-eastern India, which led to the catastrophic Japanese defeat in the Battle of Imphal, and the Japanese also suffered other setbacks in northern Burma. The losses they sustained in these reverses were to handicap their defence of Burma in the following year.

In July 1944, Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Allied South-East Asia Command began to create definite plans for the reconquest of Burma. The Battle of Imphal was still being fought, but it had become clear that the Japanese would be decisively defeated and driven into a retreat without supplies of food, medicine and ammunition, and in the process suffer still heavier losses.

One of the several strategic options examined by the South-East Asia Command was an amphibious assault on Rangoon under cover of carrierborne aircraft and, more importantly, land-based aircraft operating from bases in the Arakan western coastal area of Burma after this had been retaken specifically for the purpose. This assault on Rangoon was initially designated ‘Plan Z’, and was formulated at much the same time as ‘Plan X’ for the recapture of northern Burma by the Chinese and US forces of Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell’s US-led Northern Combat Area Command with the limited objective of completing the Ledo Road linking China and India, and ‘Plan Y’ for the British-led recapture of central Burma by Slim’s British 14th Army.

‘Plan Z’, which was later developed into ‘Dracula’ (ii), was seen as offering a number of benefits. The loss of Rangoon would be still more disastrous for the Japanese in 1945 than it had been for the British in 1942: it was the principal port by which the Japanese forces in Burma received reinforcement and supply, and it also lay very close to the other Japanese overland lines of communication with Thailand and Malaya. Thus a British advance to the north or east from Rangoon, over a distance of only 40 miles (65 km) to Pegu or across the Sittang river respectively, would cut the Burma railway, Japan’s only viable overland link with Thailand. Thus a British recapture of Rangoon would effectively compel the Japanese to withdraw from almost all of Burma, in the process having to abandon much of their equipment as the retreat would have to be made on foot by tracks or through jungle.

Despite the manifest attractions of ‘Plan Z’, the Allies decided an amphibious assault on the scale required had a requirement for resources, including amphibious vessels, escorting warships and heavy engineering equipment, which could not be made available until the campaign in Europe was effectively concluded. (It is worth noting that at this time the Battle of Normandy was still being fought, and even the most optimistic of Allied leaders dis not expect the defeat of Germany to be encompassed before the end of 1944.) ‘Plan Z’ was therefore postponed in favour of ‘Plan Y’, which then became ‘Capital’.

When amphibious vessels and the other panoply of amphibious warfare began to become available later in 1944, they were first used in operations in Arakan to provide for the capture of Akyab island, which had an important airfield, and Ramree island, on which other airfields could be constructed, allowing the 14th Army to be nourished by transport aircraft with supplies landed in Arakan as it advanced into central Burma. It was then intended that the amphibious capability would be used to take islands off the western side of the Kra isthmus, linking Thailand and Malaya, as forward bases for ‘Zipper’, which was the British plan for the reconquest of Malays and Singapore.

During February and March 1945 Slim’s 14th Army fought and won the decisive Battles of Mandalay and Meiktila to retake central Burma. Strategically and operationally out-thought, and tactically out-fought, the Japanese were heavily defeated. Most of the strength of Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army and Lieutenant General Masaki Honda’s 33rd Army, two of the three armies controlled by Lieutenant General Heitaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army, was destroyed, and the remnants were forced to retreat eastward into the Shan States, where the British-led Karen levies in the Shan hills blew all the bridges and thereby forced the 15th Army to make its way to the south down the Sittang river valley.

Slim ordered his forces to exploit their victory in ‘Extended Capital’ by advancing to the south in the direction of Rangoon in parallel movements along the Irrawaddy river valley to the west through Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army and along the Sittang river valley to the east through the remnants of the 15th Army. By the end of April, Messervy’s Indian IV Corps, spearheaded by an armoured brigade, had advanced almost 200 miles (320 km) down down the Sittang river valley to approach Pegu, one of the largest towns in southern Burma and a mere 40 miles (65 km) to the north-east of Rangoon, and also just a short distance to the north of the road and rail lines which linked Rangoon with Thailand and Malaya.

Despite this success, Slim was uneasy as, while Messervy and several of his divisional commanders considered that they could possibly reach Rangoon in the first days of May, the 14th Army’s lines of communication had been pushed to the limit of sustainability from their termini in north-eastern India by the pace and distance of the advance. The monsoon was imminent, and when it broke is torrential rains would make many roads impassable and also make resupply by air difficult. Slim also feared that the Japanese would defend Rangoon to the last man, as they had done elsewhere in the Pacific theatre, as for example, at Manila in the Philippine islands group. By that stage of the war, Manila was of less strategic importance than Rangoon, but the Japanese held the city for a month before they were destroyed in fighting which also cost 100,000 civilians their lives and effectively left Manila in ruins.

As the 14th Army would be in a disastrous supply situation if Rangoon was not it in hands by the time the monsoon broke, late in March Slim asked for the revival of ‘Dracula’ (ii) as an undertaking to be implemented before the advent of the rains of the monsoon season. On 2 April Mountbatten ordered the capture of Rangoon by seaborne forces no later than 5 May. As a prerequisite, the IV Corps was ordered to capture the airfields at Toungoo on the Sittang river, three-fifths of the way from Meiktila to Shwegyin, regardless of the cost so that air cover could be provided for the invasion. The airfields were captured by Major General E. C. R. Mansergh’s Indian 5th Division on 22 April.

The headquarters of Kimura’s Burma Area Army was located in Rangoon, and while there were no Japanese dedicated combat troops in the city, there were large numbers of line of communication troops, naval personnel and a substantial contingent of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. This last was a force composed mainly of former Indian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in Malaya, which sought to overthrow British rule in India. Although some units of the INA had fought tenaciously during the Japanese invasion of India and in central Burma, the INA’s morale was in general low. Many of its men were now sure that Japanese defeat was inevitable, and either deserted or readily surrendered readily to the Allied forces advancing on Rangoon.

Kimura had already decided not to defend Rangoon, but to evacuate the city and withdraw to Moulmein, at the head of Burma’s long southern tail. Although ordered by Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, commander-in-chief of the Southern Expeditionary Army Group at Saigon in occupied French Indo-China, to hold Rangoon to the death, Kimura reasoned that this would entail the pointless destruction of his remaining forces. Kimura was opposed by his chief-of-staff, Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka, who had issued orders to fortify positions in Rangoon. It was only with some difficulty that Ba Maw, the prime minister of the nominally independent Burmese government, managed to dissuade the Japanese from turning the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda into a gun emplacement.

On 19 April Tanaka flew to the north with several senior staff officers to assess the situation around Toungoo, and in his absence the remaining staff drew up orders for the evacuation, which Kimura signed. When he returned on 23 April, Tanaka protested, but to no avail. Moreover, because its radio equipment had already been moved to Moulmein, the Burma Area Army could no longer control the battle for Burma from Rangoon.

As the leading British troops (Major General D. T. Cowan’s Indian 17th Division, with the bulk of the Indian 255th Tank Brigade) approached Pegu, many of the rear-area troops and some hastily mobilised Japanese civilians were assembled as Major General Hideji Matsui’s 105th Independent Mixed Brigade. Also known as ‘Kani’ Force, this extemporised brigade comprised men of anti-aircraft batteries, airfield construction battalions, naval anchorage units, non-commissioned officer schools, and many other ‘tail’ elements. This ad hoc force was despatched to the north to defend Pegu, although it was delayed by lack of transport, which had been commandeered for the movement of the Burma Area Army’s headquarters and other units leaving Rangoon, and thus arrived on a piecemeal basis. Even so, for several days it operated in the ‘tooth’ role to hold Pegu and prevent further British advance to the south.

Back in Rangoon, almost all of the remaining Japanese troops left by sea, and nine of 11 ships in one convoy were sunk in a British destroyer attack in the Gulf of Martaban on 30 April. Most of Kimura’s headquarters and the establishments of Subhas Chandra Bose and Ba Maw left by land, covered by the action of Matsui’s troops. Kimura himself left by air.

At first Matsui had believed that his task in the Pegu area was to buy the time needed for the preparation of Rangoon’s defence but, despite his anger on learning of the evacuation, was now in the position in which his units had been pushed into the hills to the west of Pegu, and could neither return to Rangoon nor escape to the east.

The only personnel remaining in Rangoon were some 6,000 men of the INA under the command of Major General A. D. Loganadan, left by Bose to protect the remaining Indian community against attacks by lawless Burmese. Loganadan had no intention of resisting Allied attacks, and planned to hand over his men and all responsibility for the city to the British as soon as they arrived.

While this evacuation was proceeding, the leading elements of the IV Corps were on the final stage of their approach to Pegu. Messervy’s leading armoured troops first met resistance from Matsui’s force on 27 April. Matsui had sent a detachment (mostly mixed line of communication troops, but also including the 138th Battalion of Lieutenant General Shunji Aida’s 24th Independent Mixed Brigade) forward to defend Payagyi, a few miles to the north of Pegu. Matsui’s engineers laid mines (including some improvised from aircraft bombs) and booby-trapped obstacles to delay the British armour. Even more delay was imposed by torrential rain which fell on 28 April and immediately turned dusty tracks into mud and caused streams and rivers to rise in spate.

On 28 April, the leading elements of the Indian IV Corps cut the road between Pegu and the Sittang river, thus finally severing all Japanese overland communications between Rangoon and Moulmein. A small Japanese truck convoy which ran into the road block was wiped out.

The Indian 17th Division cleared Payagyi and several surrounding villages on 29 April, and during the following day launched its main attack on Pegu. The Japanese held the western part of Pegu, and demolished all the bridges across the Pegu river, which separated their positions from the eastern part of the town. Reservoirs and flooded fields prevented the Indian division making any outflanking moves. Men of the 4/12th Frontier Force Regiment scrambled across the girders of two demolished railway bridges which were still partially intact to establish precarious bridgeheads on the western bank, protected by artillery and tank fire. The 1/10th Gurkha Rifles and 7/10th Baluch Regiment met strong resistance near the main road bridge. The 1/3rd Gorkha Rifles and 4/4th Bombay Grenadiers also made little progress, and a deep ditch held up the tanks of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse.

However, on the morning of 1 May, Indian patrols found that the Japanese had withdrawn. The 17th Division rapidly bridged the Pegu river and resumed its advance, but the monsoon had already broken. Within hours, the countryside was flooded, and the advance was slowed to a crawl. Slim immediately put all of the IV Corps on half rations to help the supply lines.

On 30 April, Matsui had received an order from Kimura, now in Moulmein, to abandon Pegu and return to defend Rangoon to the death. Although he could have continued to resist in Pegu for some days if necessary, he accordingly withdrew. As his force did so, it was attacked as it moved along the exposed road to Hlegu. Matsui then ordered his remaining men to retreat into the hills to the west of Pegu.

Although the British knew by 24 April from ‘Ultra’ radio intelligence that the headquarters of the Burma Area Army had left Rangoon, they were not aware that the Japanese were about to abandon the city entirely, so it was believed that the landings would meet strong resistance.

Before it issued its instructions for the reinstatement of ‘Dracula’ (ii), the South-East Asia Command had been preparing ‘Roger’ for a descent on Phuket island off the western coast of Thailand, so the naval and air elements needed for ‘Dracula’ (ii) were thus already available.

Given its proximity to the target area, Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison’s Indian XV Corps in the Arakan region was allocated the task of controlling the ground forces, which were drawn largely from those Christison currently had under his command, and Major General H. M. Chambers’s Indian 26th Division and other forces sailed in six convoys from Akyab and Kyaukpyu on the Arakan coast of western Burma, during 27/30 April.

This Force ‘W’ was commanded by Rear Admiral B. C. S. Martin, and included the headquarters ship Largs. The Indian 26th Division was embarked on the headquarters landing ships Waveney and Nith, four infantry landing ships (9,809-ton Glenroy, 12,864-ton Persimmon, 2,938-ton Prins Albert and 7,177-ton Silvio), the 3,194-ton emergency repair landing ship Barpeta, 45 tank landing ships and 110 small landing craft, and a number of merchant vessels including the 11,162-ton British Dunera, 7,575-ton British Empire Rani carrying vehicles and fuel, 8,478-ton Rajula, 5,407-ton Risaldur carrying vehicles and fuel, 1,155-ton Spindletop and 3,560-ton Wing Sang.

The escort comprised the Indian sloops Cauvery, Narbada, Godavari, Kistna, Sutlej and Hindustan. There were also 22 minesweepers from the 7th and 37th Minesweeping Flotillas.

The landing force was covered by Commodore G. N. Oliver’s 21st Carrier Squadron (light anti-aircraft cruisers Phoebe and Royalist, escort carriers Hunter, Stalker, Emperor and Khedive, destroyers Saumarez, Venus, Vigilant and Virago, eight frigates and two sloops).

In ‘Bishop’ (ii) decoy operation, Vice Admiral H. T. C. Walker’s covering group (3rd Battle Squadron, otherwise Task Force 63) with the battleships Queen Elizabeth and French Richelieu, escort carriers Shah and Empress, heavy cruisers Cumberland and Suffolk, light cruisers Ceylon and Dutch Tromp, and destroyers Rotherham, Tartar, Nubian, Penn and Verulam) undertook carrierborne air and gunfire attacks on the Japanese positions at Car Nicobar and Port Blair, in the Nicobar and Andaman island groups in the Gulf of Bengal from which a flanking counterattack was theoretically possible.

TF62, comprising the destroyers Roebuck, Racehorse and Redoubt, undertook gunfire bombardments of Martaban on 30 April and Car Nicobar on 1 May and, in the process, destroyed nine vessels of an 11-ship convoy on 30 April: this last was the main Japanese evacuation convoy from Burma, as noted above. On 5 and 6 May the 21st Carrier Squadron, with the destroyers Virago, Tartar and Nubian, raided the Japanese bases between Mergui and Victoria Point in southern Burma. On 6 May the ships of TF63 shelled Port Blair in the Andaman Islands with battleships, cruisers and the destroyers Rotherham, Saumarez, Venus, Vigilant and Verulam. On 9 May the naval forces return to Trincomalee.

The schedule for the ‘Dracula’ (ii) joint operation was decided by the Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Sir Arthur Power, the Commander-in-Chief East Indies, which was responsible for the amphibious portion of the assault on Rangoon. The planning process encountered several problems which had, of course, to be overcome. The first, but in fact the least likely, was that the amphibious assault armada would be intercepted by elements of the Japanese navy as it approached Rangoon, and it was to ensure that the amphibious flotilla would not be engaged that the 21st Carrier Squadron (four escort carriers, two cruisers and four destroyers) was attached to provide fighter cover for the landings. More distant cover was the responsibility of the 3rd Battle Squadron (two battleships, two escort carriers, four cruisers and six destroyers). The aircraft of this naval screen attacked a number of Japanese airfields and ports two days before the launch of ‘Dracula’ (ii).

The Royal Air Force was to provide support in the form of two wings of long-range fighters of Air Vice Marshal the Earl of Bandon’s No. 224 Group operating from the airfields around Toungoo and Ramree., and the USAAF was to contribute eight Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber and four North American B-25 Mitchell attack bomber squadrons.

Of more realistic concern to the ‘Dracula’ (ii) planning staff was the possibility of land-based threats to the landing vessels carrying the assault troops of the Indian 26th Division. Air support was clearly vital to the operation’s success, and this was the primary driver for the capture of a number of Japanese airfields around Toungoo in the days before the launch of ‘Dracula’ (ii). There was also the problem of the defences in and around the Rangoon river, the waterway up which the landing vessels and craft would have to proceed. The river itself was heavily mined as a result of Japanese defensive measures as well as RAF offensive operations earlier in the conflict, and would have to be swept and cleared of mines before any amphibious assault could take place. Before this could take place, however, the coastal defences along the river banks would have to be neutralised. Of special concern was the Japanese artillery battery at Elephant Point on the western bank of the river between the estuaries of the Irrawaddy and Rangoon rivers. The area’s geography made it impossible to destroy the battery with artillery bombardment or air attack, and weather conditions precluded an early amphibious assault. It was therefore decided that a day before ‘Dracula’ (ii) began on 2 May, a parachute battalion would be dropped near Elephant Point with the task of assaulting and destroying the battery.

The task was given to Major General E. E. Down’s Indian 44th Airborne Division, but this presented several problems. The formation was in the throes of a structural reorganisation, and many of its officers were on leave, as were two Gurkha airborne battalions, and another, the 3rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion, was about to be transferred to Brigadier C. J. Wilkinson’s 77th Indian Parachute Brigade. With no one unit available, a composite force was put together for the operation. The headquarters company was formed of men from the 2nd and 3rd Gurkha Parachute Battalions, and each battalion provided a further two companies in the form of A and B Companies from 2nd Gurkha Parachute Battalion, and C and D Companies from the 3rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion. A mortar platoon and machine gun platoon augmented this extemporised unit.

The battalion was formed in early April under the command of Major Jack Newland and, after its creation, was transferred to Chaklala, where its strength was augmented by field ambulance and Indian engineer sections, and it undertook training for the operation. When was this was completed the battalion was transported to Midnapore, where for 10 days it assembled its equipment and conducted a rehearsal exercise. Finally, on 29 April it was flown to Akyab island off the Burmese coast, about 200 miles (320 km) to the north-west of Rangoon, and was soon joined by a 200-strong reserve force comprising men from both Gurkha battalions and the 152nd Indian Parachute Battalion. The battalion was to be delivered by 40 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft of the US 1st and 2nd Air Commando Groups.

At 02.30 on 1 May, two C-47 transport aircraft took off from Akyab, transporting several pathfinder teams and a platoon tasked with defending the initial drop zone at Tawhai. The rest of the composite battalion, together with an RAF observation post team and a detachment from the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136, boarded 38 C-47 aircraft, took off 30 minutes later, and at 05.45 jumped over the drop zone. There were only a few casualties, one being a medical officer attached to the battalion. The battalion met no Japanese opposition and, after rallying, moved toward Elephant Point and the artillery battery. The battalion halted 3,000 yards (2745 m) from the battery to allow the B-24 heavy bombers to carry out a preliminary bombing attack on the battery. Despite the fact that all the men were wearing yellow recognition panels and carrying orange umbrellas to identify themselves, C Company was bombed and strafed by the bombers, causing something in the order of 40 casualties. As a result, the battalion’s forward air controller ordered a halt to all further bombing.

Advancing through torrential rain, the battalion reached Elephant Point at 16.00, and there followed a close-quarter action in which flame-throwers were used against several Japanese bunkers guarding the battery. Some 40 Japanese were killed during the assault, and the battalion also sustained several casualties. After the battery had been, secured the battalion dug in around Elephant Point and awaited the arrival of the relief force, which had landed at Thaungang at 15.30, with a supply drop following several minutes later. As it neared the position of the battalion, the surgical team accompanying the relief force was accidentally engaged by the Gurkhas, who wounded four of the team. The battalion remained where it was through the night, although high tides submerged a number of trenches and forced the battalion to higher ground. By the dawn of 2 May, after it had cleared a number of nearby bunkers, the battalion was able to watch as minesweepers cleared the Rangoon river for the columns of landing craft following behind them.

After Elephant Point had been secured, minesweepers were able to clear a passage up the river, and landing craft began coming ashore in the early hours of the morning of 2 May.

Meanwhile, a reconnaissance aeroplane flying over Rangoon detected no sign of the Japanese, and also noticed a message painted by released British prisoners of war on the roof of the jail: ‘Japs gone. Extract digit’. The crew of the aeroplane landed on Mingaladon airfield, but crashed. They then walked to the jail, where they found 1,000 former prisoners of war.

Informed of the Japanese departure, the crew then went to the docks, commandeered a sampan and sailed down the river to meet the approaching landing craft.

The men of the Indian 26th Division began to occupy the city without opposition during the next day. When the Japanese and the functionaries of Ba Maw’s regime had left, a torrent of disorder and looting had swept over the city for several days, so the British and Indians were welcomed as the means of restoring order and ensuring the delivery of food and other necessities.

Units of the Indian 26th Division also moved out along the main roads to link with the formations of the 14th Army advancing from Pegu. On 6 May, at Hlegu some 28 miles (45 km) to the north-east of Rangoon, the Indian 26th Division met the advance guard of the Indian 17th Division as it drove its way through floods to the south-west from Pegu.

The ‘Kani’ Force joined the remnants of Sakurai’s 28th Army, which was falling back from the west coast, in the Pegu Yomas separating the Irrawaddy and Sittang river valleys. During July the surviving Japanese attempted to break out to the east and rejoin the other Japanese armies east of the Sittang, but suffered a very high losses. The naval personnel broke out separately, and were effectively destroyed.