Operation Battle of the Admin Box

The 'Battle of the Admin Box', which is sometimes known as the 'Battle of Ngakyedauk' and the 'Battle of Sinzweya', was fought between Japanese and British troops in the Arakan western coastal area of Burma (5/23 February 1944).

Japanese forces were attempting a local counter-offensive against a British offensive with the aim of drawing British reserves from the central front in Assam, where the Japanese were preparing their own 'U' (ii) major offensive. After initial setbacks, the British recovered to thwart the Japanese attack in Arakan, pioneering the methods which would lead to greater British victories in the course of the following year.

The battle takes its name from the 'administration area' of Major General F. W. Messervy’s Indian 7th Division, which became a makeshift, rectangular defensive position for Messervy and his staff after their divisional headquarters had been overrun on 7 February.

During 1941 and early 1942, the Japanese army had driven the British, Indian and Chinese forces from Burma in 'B' (iii). During 1943, the British had attempted the 'Cannibal' limited offensive into Arakan, the western coastal province of Burma. The aim of this first Aakan offensive was to secure Akyab island at the southern part of the Mayu peninsula: the island possessed an important airfield, from which the Imperial Japanese army air force had launched raids on Calcutta and other Indian cities, and which also featured prominently in the British plan to retake Burma.

'Cannibal' had failed disastrously. Because the British-led Indian army was in the throes of a huge expansion, most of the Indian and many of the British formations and units committed to the offensive lacked training and experience, exhausted units had to be left in the front line, and the men’s morale declined. British tactics and equipment were not suited to operations in the region’s jungle-covered hills, and Japanese units repeatedly achieved surprise by crossing rivers and hills which the British had dismissed as impassable. Finally, the Allied command structure was inefficient, with Major General C. E. N. Lomax’s single overworked headquarters of the Indian 14th Division trying to control a large number of sub-units and also a large line-of-communications area.

During the following months, the Allies reorganised, engaged in extensive jungle training, and prepared for a renewed effort in 1944. Under Lieutenant General W. J. Slim’s British 14th Army, the 'Cudgel' second Arakan offensive was to be launched by Lieutenant General A. F. P. Christison’s Indian XV Corps.

The Mayu peninsula is a coastal plain indented by several chaungs (tidal creeks), and separated from the fertile valley of the Kalapanzin river by the jungle-covered Mayu hill range. Major General H. R. Briggs’s Indian 5th Division, which had already experienced heavy fighting in East Africa and in the Western Desert campaign in North Africa, attacked down the coastal plain and Messervy’s well-trained Indian 7th Division attacked down the Kalapanzin river Valley. Major General F. J. Loftus-Tottenham’s 81st (West Africa) Division was advancing farther to the east down the Kaladan river valley, but would not directly affect the battle. Two other divisions, Major General F. W. Festing’s British 36th Division in Calcutta and Lomax’s Indian 26th Division at Chittagong, were in reserve.

The advance in this second Arakan offensive began cautiously, but steadily gained momentum. On 9 January 1944, the Indian 5th Division captured the small port of Maungdaw. While it reduced the Japanese positions to the south of the port (the village of Razabil and a hill known from its shape as the Tortoise), the Indian XV Corps prepared to take its next major objective, which was a part of the Mayu hill range where two disused railway tunnels provided a route through the hills linking Maungdaw with the towns of Buthidaung and Letwedet in the Kalapanzin river valley. To reposition troops and resources for this attack, the engineers of the Indian 7th Division improved a narrow track, known as the Ngakyedauk Pass, across the hills, while a large administration area, later to be known as the 'Admin Box', was established at Sinzweya near the eastern end of the pass.

Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s Japanese 28th Army defended Arakan and southern Burma, and its 55th Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya, occupied the Arakan coastal region. Most of the division’s troops (five battalions) were grouped as the 'Sakurai' Force in the Mayu area under the control of its infantry group headquarters commanded by Major General Tokutaro Sakurai. It is worth noting that each Japanese division had a separate headquarters to administer its infantry units which, as in this case, could take tactical control of any substantial detachment from the division.

The Japanese were confident that they could repeat their success of the previous year in a local counterattack, and perhaps even advance on Chittagong, the Indian port on which the Indian XV Corps relied for its supplies.The Japanese also intended that by launching their attack, codenamed 'Ha', during the first week of February, they would force the British to send reinforcements to the Arakan region from the central front, thus clearing the way for the 'U' (ii) Japanese main offensive there, which was scheduled to begin in the first week of March.

Beginning on 5 February, the 'Sakurai' Force infiltrated the front lines of the Indian 7th Division, which was widely dispersed, and moved to the north undetected on the small town of Taung Bazaar. Here the Japanese force crossed the Kalapanzin river and swung to the west and south, and on 6 February fell on the headquarters of the Indian 7th Division. There was heavy fighting, but after destroying their equipment and documents, the Indian 7th Division’s signallers and clerks split into small parties for a retreat to the 'Admin Box'.

The 'Sakurai' Force then advanced toward Sinzweya and the rear of Indian 7th Division. The Japanese 1/213rd Regiment, which was known as 'Kubo' Force from its commander), crossed the Mayu hill range at a seemingly impossible place in order to set ambushes on the coastal road by which the Indian 5th Division was supplied. The Japanese 'Doi' Force still holding Razabil and the railway tunnels area launched a subsidiary attack to link with the 'Sakurai' Force, and made smaller raids and diversions, while unexpectedly large numbers of Japanese fighter aircraft flew from Akyab to contest the skies over the battlefield.

It was clear to the Indian XV Corps that the situation was serious. However, the 14th Army had spent much time considering counters to the standard Japanese tactics of infiltration and encirclement, and the forward divisions of the Indian XV Corps were ordered to dig in and hold their positions rather than retreat, while the reserve divisions advanced to their relief.

The next obvious objective for the Japanese was the administrative area at Sinzweya, defended by headquarters and line of communication troops together with the 25th Light Anti-Aircraft/Anti-Tank Regiment. As Messervy was in the jungle and out of contact, Christison in his capacity as corps commander, ordered Brigadier G. C. Evans, who had recently been appointed commander of Indian 9th Brigade, part of the Indian 5th Division, to make his way to the Admin Box, assume local command and hold the Admin Box against all attacks. Evans reinforced the defenders of the box with the 2/West Yorkshire Regiment of his own brigade, and the Indian 24th Mountain Artillery Regiment. The most vital reinforcements of all, however, were two squadrons of M3 Lee medium tanks of the 25th Dragoons. The defenders were later joined by part of the 4/8th Gurkha Rifles of the Indian 89th Brigade, part of Indian 7th Division. and also the artillery of the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment and the 6th Medium Regiment.

Under Evans’s supervision, the Admin Box was developed into a defended area in a clearing which measured a bare 1,200 yards (1005 m) in diameter. Ammunition dumps were piled at the foot of the western face of a central hillock, 150 ft (46 m) high, named Ammunition Hill. When Messervy reached the Admin Box, followed by several of his headquarters personnel who had made their way in small parties through Japanese forces, he left the defence of the box to Evans while he himself concentrated on re-establishing control over and directing the rest of the division.

Meanwhile, Douglas C-47 Dakota twin-engined transport aircraft of the Allied air forces dropped rations and ammunition to the cut-off troops, including the defenders of the Admin Box. The aircraft flew a total of 714 sorties, dropping 2,300 tons of supplies. The Japanese had not foreseen this development: while they themselves ran short of essential supplies, the Indian units could continue the fight with full stomachs, weapons supplied with ammunition and the wounded salved with adequate medical equipment. The Japanese tried to supply 'Sakurai' Force with a convoy of pack mules and Arakanese porters, following the route of Sakurai’s original infiltration, but this was ambushed and the supplies were captured.

The first airdrop missions met opposition from Japanese fighters, and some of the transport aircraft were forced to turn back, but three squadrons of Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighters, operating from new airfields around Chittagong, gained air superiority over the battlefield. Some 65 Japanese aircraft were claimed shot down or damaged for the loss of three Spitfires, though the Japanese fighters also shot down several Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighter-bombers and other aircraft. Whatever the actual figures, the Japanese fighters were quickly driven from the area.

On the ground, the fighting for the Admin Box was severe and for the most part of a hand-to-hand nature. On the night of 7 February, some Japanese troops captured the divisional main dressing station and, in what was undoubtedly a war crime, murdered 35 medical staff and patients. This may well have increased the resolve of the defenders, who were now aware the type of fate which would befall them if they surrendered. Japanese fire caused heavy casualties in the crowded defences and twice set ammunition dumps on fire. Each Japanese attempt to overrun the defence was thwarted by the tanks, to which the Japanese had no counter once their few mountain guns had exhausted their ammunition. The Japanese tried an all-out attack on the night of 14 February and succeeded in capturing one hill on the perimeter. With tank support, the 2/West Yorkshire recaptured the hill the next day, although the battalion suffered heavy casualties.

By 22 February, the Japanese had been starving for several days. Colonel Tanahashi, commanding the 112th Regiment, which constituted the main body of Sakurai’s force, stated that his regiment was reduced to 400 men out of an original strength of 2,150 men, and refused to make further attacks. On 24 February (though some sources say 19 February), Tanahashi broke radio silence and retreated without authorisation. On 26 February, Sakurai was forced to terminate the operation. The Indian 26th Division had relieved Indian 5th Division, which sent a brigade to break through the Ngakyedauk Pass to relieve Indian 7th Division. 'Kubo' Force was cut off and suffered heavy casualties as it sought to return to the Japanese lines.

Although the total British casualties were greater than those of the Japanese, the latter had been forced to abandon many of their wounded to die, and some 5,000 Japanese dead were counted on the battlefield. For the first time in the Burma campaign, the Japanese tactics had been countered and indeed turned against them, and this was to be repeated on a far larger scale in the forthcoming 'Battle of Imphal'. Moreover, in terms of morale the fact that British and Indian soldiers had held and defeated a major Japanese attack for the first time was widely broadcast.

The value of Allied air power had also been amply demonstrated, and this too was to be a vital factor in the overall Allied victory in the Burma campaign. At the Japanese surrender meetings in Rangoon on 11 September 1945, Major General Jiro Ichida, the deputy chief-of-staff of General Heitaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army, read a statement which identified two unforeseen and vital factors which had put the Japanese at a 'disastrous disadvantage': these were, firstly, Allied air supply, which permitted ground forces in Burma to consolidate their positions without being forced to retreat and thus rendered the Japanese infiltration and encircling tactics abortive; and, secondly, Allied air superiority, which so disrupted Japanese supply lines, both in Burma and farther afield, that starvation and illness overtook thousands of Japanese troops facing the 14th Army and also denied them the essential supplies of fuel, equipment and matériel with which to fight better equipped and supplied Allied forces.

In the second week of March, Brigadier D. F. W. Warren’s Indian 161st Brigade, part of the Indian 5th Division, finally captured the Tortoise and the other fortifications around Razabil by a flanking manoeuvre, before the division was withdrawn into reserve. The Indian 26th Division and British 36th Division resumed the offensive late in March and early in April. The 36th Division had captured the railway tunnels by 4 April, and on 6 April, men of the 26th Division captured a vital hill, named Point 551, which dominated the area and where the Japanese had won an important victory just under a year earlier.

At this point, the Indian XV Corps' operations were curtailed to free transport aircraft and troops for the 'Battle of Imphal'. As the monsoon began, it was found that the low-lying area around Buthidaung was malarial and unhealthy, so the British-led forces withdrew from the area to spare themselves losses to disease. The Japanese had moved Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 54th Division to the Arakan theatre, and concentrated a force of four battalions under Colonel Koba of the 111th Regiment against Loftus-Tottenham’s 81st (West Africa) Division in the Kaladan river valley. With the support of a unit of the collaborationist Indian National Army and local Arakanese, this force mounted a successful counterattack against the isolated West African division, forcing it to retreat and eventually to withdraw from the valley.

Akyab remained in Japanese hands until January 1945, when the 'Talon' renewed British advance combined with the 'Lightning' amphibious landings to drive the Japanese from Arakan, inflicting heavy casualties by landing troops to cut off their retreat down the coast.

The lightly armed 1/1st Guerrilla Regiment of the Indian National Army had been directed to participate in the Japanese diversionary attack. The battalion departed Rangoon early in February, but by the time it reached Akyab early in March, the Japanese offensive was nearing its end. The battalion subsequently marched up the Kaladan river valley and moved slowly but successfully against British-led African units before crossing the Burma/India border to occupy Mowdok, near Chittagong.