Operation Battle of Ramree Island

The 'Battle of Ramree Island' was fought between British-led and Japanese forces within the offensive of Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison’s Indian XV Corps against Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army on the western front of the Burma campaign in the Arakan coastal region (14 January/22 February 1945).

Ramree island, part of Arakan, has an area of 520 sq mi (1350 km˛) and is separated from the mainland of Burma by a strait with an average width of about 160 yards (145 m). The island is 70 miles (110 km) to the south of Akyab, and had been captured by the Imperial Japanese army early in 1942, during their 'B' (iii) invasion of Burma. In January 1945, forces of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army landed on Ramree island and the neighbouring Cheduba island in order to establish airfields for the support and supply of the 'Extended Capital' mainland campaign.

The early capture of Akyab in 'Lightning' made Major General C. E. N. Lomax’s Indian 26th Division available for an attack on Ramree island some 70 miles (110 km) to the south. Ramree island is 50 miles (80 km) long with a maximum width of 20 miles (32 km), and its essentially flat terrain made it an obvious site for the establishment of airfields. A plan was ready by 2 January, when it was clear that the advance of the 14th Army advancing to the south along the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers toward Rangoon would soon pass beyond the range of its air bases at Imphal and Agartala. Thus replacements at Chittagong, in Akyab and on Ramree island would be needed.

On 14 January, Lomax’s Indian 26th Division was ordered to attack Ramree on 21 January, as a Royal Marine detachment of Brigadier C. R. Hardy’s 3rd Commando Brigade occupied Cheduba island in 'Sankey'. The Japanese garrison of Ramree comprised the 2/121st Regiment, under the command of Colonel Kanichi Nagazawa and part of Lieutenant General Shigesaburo Miyazaki’s 54th Division, with artillery and engineer detachments added so that the battalion could act as an independent force.

The battle for Ramree island began with the 'Matador' (iii) amphibious assault to capture the strategically sited port of Kyaukpyu at the northern end of Ramree island and the airfield near this port, to the south of Akyab across Hunter’s Bay. The invasion force was led by three joint assault commanders, namely Captain E. W. Bush for the Royal Navy, Lomax for the army and Wing Commander H. Smith for the RAF. Reconnaissance on 14 January found that the Japanese forces were emplacing artillery in caves overlooking the landing beaches on Ramree island, and the Royal Navy assigned the battleship Queen Elizabeth, the escort carrier Ameer, the light cruiser Phoebe, the destroyers Rapid, Napier, Norman and Pathfinder, and the sloops Flamingo and Indian Kistna to escort and support the landing.

The large number of ships was intended to provide more firepower in support of the landing force. On 21 January, some 60 minutes before Brigadier R. C. Cotterell-Hill’s Indian 71st Brigade was scheduled to land, Queen Elizabeth opened fire with 69 rounds of 15-in (381-mm)-shell from her main battery, the fall of shot being spotted by aircraft from Ameer. Phoebe also joined the bombardment with her 5.25-in (133.4-mm) guns, along with Consolidated Liberator four-engined heavy bombers, North American Mitchell twin-engined medium bombers and Republic Thunderbolt single-engined fighter-bombers of the RAF’s No. 224 Group under the command of the Headquarters RAF Bengal and Burma.

The assault was delayed slightly when a motor launch and a landing craft struck mines, but then landed unopposed on the beaches to the west of Kyaukpyu at 09.42, securing the beach-head by the afternoon. On the next day, Brigadier J. F. R. Forman’s Indian 4th Brigade came ashore, assumed control of the beach-head and occupied Kyaukpyu. On 23 January, the Indian 71st Brigade advanced to the south along the island’s western coast. Two days later Mayin was occupied and the troops reached the Yanbauk Chaung on the following day. Resistance at the chaung from the troops of the 2/121st Regiment increased and on 31 January, the Indian 71st Brigade was ordered to move inland, north-east toward Sane, then head south toward Ramree town. The Indian 4th Brigade was to keep the defenders at Yanbauk Chaung under pressure and follow up vigorously should the Japanese fall back.

On 26 January, in 'Sankey', a Royal Marine force landed on Cheduba island, about 6.2 miles (10 km) from the south-west coast of Ramree island, and found it unoccupied.

On Ramree island, the Japanese garrison put up tenacious resistance, but on 1 February the Indian 71st Brigade reached Sane and parts of Brigadier K. S. Thimmaya’s Indian 36th Brigade, from reserve, took Sagu Kuyun island and relieved the marines on Cheduba island. When the British outflanked a Japanese stronghold, the 900 defenders abandoned the base and marched to join a larger battalion of Japanese soldiers across the island. The route took the Japanese through 9.9 miles (16 km) of mangrove swamp and as they struggled through it, the British encircled the area. Trapped in deep mud-filled land, tropical diseases soon started to afflict the soldiers, as did scorpions, mosquitoes and salt-water crocodiles.

On 7 February, the Indian 71st Brigade and supporting tanks reached the town of Ramree and encountered determined Japanese resistance. The Indian 4th Brigade had advanced to Ledaung Chaung and then moved to the east in order to reinforce the attack, and the town fell on 9 February. The navy and the Indian 26th Division then concentrated on blockading the chaungs (small streams) on the eastern coast to prevent the Japanese from escaping to the mainland. A Japanese air raid on 11 February seriously damaged a destroyer with a near miss and 40 small craft were despatched by the Japanese from the mainland to rescue the survivors of the garrison. Japanese resistance on the island ended on 17 February and the Allied blockade was maintained until 22 February, sinking many of the rescue craft and inflicting large numbers of casualties on the Japanese hiding in the mangrove swamps. About 500 troops managed to get away. Cheduba island was not garrisoned and Brigadier R. F. Johnstone’s 22nd East African Brigade was sent to hold Ramree island.

It was 16 April before the airfield could be used for transport aircraft sorties, Akyab having come into use on 1 April. It had been vital to complete the occupation of Ramree island quickly, as 'Dracula' (ii) against Rangoon had to be launched in the first week of May at the latest to have a chance of being completed before the onset of the monsoon. The experience in co-operation between the Indian 26th Division and the navy in the war of chaungs and small ports along the Arakan coast was intended to be exploited in the attack. An estimate put naval gunfire support from 4 January to 13 March for the land operations at Akyab, Ramree and Cheduba at 23,000 shells. The navy also carried 54,000 men, 1,000 vehicles, 14,000 tons of stores and 800 animals.

Some British soldiers claimed that the large population of salt-water crocodiles native to the mangrove swamps on Ramree island preyed on the trapped Japanese force at night and ate many soldiers. though the figure remains hotly disputed.