Operation Lightning

This was the British seizure of Akyab island in the Arakan western coastal region of Burma by Brigadier C. R. Hardy’s 3rd Commando Brigade within ‘Talon’ (3/4 January 1945).

At this time General Heitaro Kimura wished his Burma Area Army to fight the decisive battle for Burma in the region of Mandalay and Meiktila in the central plain between the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers with Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army and Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army on the left and right respectively. To this end he had demanded the virtual denudation of the Arakan coastal region so that the 28th Army could be made as strong as possible to face the advance of the Lieutenant General Sir Montagu Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army in the Irrawaddy river valley.

Thus when Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison’s Indian XV Corps began its ‘Talon’ offensive in Arakan on 12 December 1944, there was little that the remnants of the 28th Army in this area could do but fall back, generally inland from the Mayu river valley to the east into the Kaladan river valley, so seeking to maintain a link across the Arakan Yomas with the rest of the 28th Army.

The primary objective of ‘Talon’ was the capture of Akyab island, and late in 1944 there began to emerge the possibility that this key target might fall to Christison’s formations more rapidly than had been estimated. The Mayu river valley was the responsibility of Major General Tokutaro Sakurai’s ‘Sakurai’ Detachment of Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya’s 55th Division, and feeling that his detachment would be unable to hold the Mayu valley for much longer, Sakurai asked the 28th Army for permission to withdraw. Authorisation for this retirement was granted, and the ‘Sakurai’ Detachment was ordered to rejoin the rest of the 55th Division at Prome in the Irrawaddy river valley. The withdrawal began on 26 December, and by the end of the month the detachment had concentrated south of Myohaung, covered by Major General Tomotoki Koba’s ‘Matsu’ Detachment operating in the Kaladan river valley. On 31 December, Koba ordered the 1/111th Regiment to evacuate Akyab island and withdraw to Ponnagyun, whence it was to move to rejoin him in the area to the north of Myohaung.

Meanwhile, on 27 December Brigadier J. E. Hirst’s Indian 74th Brigade of Major General G. N. Wood’s Indian 25th Division reached Foul Point at the southern tip of the Donbaik peninsula opposite Akyab island, and on the same day captured orders revealing that there were two battalions of the 111th Regiment in the Kaladan river valley in addition to one battalion of the 154th Regiment.

Christison concluded that there could not be more than one battalion holding Akyab, and that this objective should therefore be attacked without further delay. The Joint Force Commanders immediately set to work on the plans which were required in anticipation of the receipt of orders from the Allied Land Forces South-East Asia Command. Brigadier B. C. H. Gerty’s Indian 53rd Brigade crossed the Mayu river and occupied Rathedaung and Kudaung island on 31 December without opposition, while Brigadier R. A. Hutton’s Indian 51st Brigade, finding that the Japanese had pulled back from Hparabyin, carried out a sweep of the Mayu peninsula from the Kyaukpandu/Atet Nanra track to the south to Foul Point to ensure that the Japanese had left no stay-behind parties to disrupt the British lines of communication.

Major General G. McI. I. S. Bruce’s 82nd (West Africa) Division had meanwhile reached Htizwe and was preparing to begin its move to Thayettabin, where Major General F. J. Loftus-Tottenham’s 81st (West Africa) Division had run into stubborn opposition from the 54th Division’s ‘Matsu’ Detachment, most of which had been moved there when Koba became aware of the thrust down the Yan Chaung.

On 30 December the Joint Force Commanders directed Rear Admiral B. C. S. Martin’s Force ‘W’ (otherwise Task Force 64 and comprising the Australian destroyers Napier and Nepal, British sloop Shoreham, two infantry landing craft and several motor launches), the Indian 25th Division and Hardy’s 3rd Commando Brigade to attack Akyab on 3 January and secure the ground commanding the anchorages.

In ‘Lightning’ proper, 1,000 men of the 3rd Commando Brigade, supported by one squadron of medium tanks and one regiment of medium artillery as well as by some light and heavy anti-aircraft guns, were to embark in the two infantry landing craft, after these had reached the Naf river from Chittagong, and land on the northern beaches of Akyab island at 12.30 on 3 January with the support of Napier, Nepal, Shoreham and several motor launches. The Indian 74th Brigade, delivered from Foul Point on the mainland in the Indian sloops Jumna and Narbada and the motor launches ML-387 and ML-829, would follow and, passing through the commando brigade, capture Akyab by 5 January.

Naval support was to be given by Rear Admiral A. D. Read’s Bombardment Force (Task Force 61) comprising the cruisers Newcastle, Phoebe (fighter direction ship) and Nigeria together with the destroyers Pathfinder, Raider and Rapid, and the Arakan Coastal Forces. Air support was to be provided by No. 224 Group of the RAF with some 200 aircraft.

On 2 January, an artillery air observation officer saw no sign of any Japanese forces on the island, landed in a rice field and was assured by the inhabitants that the Japanese had indeed departed. On receipt of this information Christison and Air Vice Marshal the Earl of Bandon also arrived by air and received a warm welcome from the islands’ inhabitants. Orders were immediately issued for the landing to take place as planned, but without the preliminary bombardment. A meteorological report from South-East Asia Command headquarters of an imminent storm led Martin to consider turning back the assault craft carrying the commandos, but Christison insisted that the operation must continue, and the storm did not in fact happen. Akyab town was occupied on 4 January and patrols soon reported that all the ground commanding the anchorages was clear.

Work on the repair of the airfield began at once, and a squadron of Supermarine Spitfire fighters was able to operate from it in time to disperse the first Japanese air attack a few days later. By this time all opposition in the Mayu peninsula had ceased and, in the Kaladan valley the 81st (West Africa) Division was holding a firm base in the hills south-eastern of Thayettabin facing Japanese forces, estimated to be a regimental group with artillery, in the Teinnyo/Myohaung area. Though operationally an anti-climax, the landing on Akyab was of considerable training value, and was followed on 21 January by the ‘Matador’ (iii) landing of the Indian 71st Brigade on Ramree island. The early occupation of these two islands came at a most opportune moment for the planned ‘Dracula’ landing near Rangoon.