Operation Journalist (ii)

'Journalist' (ii) was the British advance of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army after the Battle of Imphal from Assam and Manipur in north-eastern India behind the decimated and retreating remnants of Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s Japanese 15th Army to the Kabaw valley and the line of the Chindwin river in the north-western part of Japanese-occupied Burma in preparation for 'Extended Capital' (August 1944/January 1945).

Transferred from Lieutenant G. A. P. Scoones’s Indian IV Corps to Lieutenant General M. G. N. Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps, Major General T. W. Rees’s Indian 19th Division moved to the south-east from Imphal via Tamu in the Kabaw valley to take a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Chindwin river at Sittaung; Major General C. G. G. Nicholson’s 2nd Division and Major General D. D. Gracey’s Indian 20th Division of Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps also staged through Tamu and then advanced south along the Kabaw valley before heading to the east to take a bridgehead over the Chindwin river at Kalewa, with one brigade of the Indian division seizing a bridgehead at Mawlaik; and Scoones’s Indian IV Corps struck farther to the south after reaching the Kabaw valley before Major General G. C. Evans’s Indian 7th Division and Major General D. T. Cowan’s Indian 17th Division separated as each headed to the south-east to take Pakokku and Myitche before securing a bridgehead on the eastern side of the Chindwin at Nyaungu, with Brigadier W. A. Dimoline’s 28th (East Africa) Brigade progressing still farther to the south to reach Seikpyu.

A key element in the advance of the Indian XXXIII Corps was the Battle of Pakokku and associated Irrawaddy river operations. These comprised a series of battles which were instrumental in facilitating the eventual capture of Rangoon in summer 1945.

The scene was set for these battles as early as March 1944, when the Japanese 'U' offensive by Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 15th Army against Imphal and Kohima failed. The thrust of the 31st Division at Kohima had been a costly failure, eventually forcing it into a disastrous retreat, while the 33rd Division, 15th Division and the Indian National Army’s 1st Division had suffered a similar fate at Imphal. The Japanese and their ally lost at least 50,000 dead, and whereas in previous years there had been a lull in the fighting, the monsoon of 1944/45 was different as the Allied command decided that it was time to target the heart of the Burma Area Army. Slim’s plan had been pursuit, right through the monsoon months, of the defeated Japanese in Kohima and plains of Imphal with Major General H. R. Briggs’s (from 5 July Evans’s) Indian 5th Division down the Tiddim Road and Major General C. C. Fowkes’s (from January 1945 Major General R. Mansergh’s) 11th (East African) Division down the Kabaw valley until the two formations met at Kalemyo. The next offensive plan centred on the occupation of central Burma, as far south as Mandalay, in 'Extended Capital' to exploit farther to the south and destroy the Japanese forces in the Shewbo plains to the north of the Irrawaddy river in a region where armour could be used most effectively. The British and allied forces crossed the Chindwin river and the spearheads of the 14th Army’s Indian IV Corps and Indian XXXIII Corps were moving into the chosen battle areas, which surprised the Japanese as they had not anticipated any major operations during the monsoon period. The 14th Army was now faced with a major obstacle in the form of the Irrawaddy river covered by determined Japanese in well-sited defences. In its middle reaches, the Irrawaddy river is about 2,000 yards (1830 m) wide and dotted with sand bars which at the time were both treacherous and shifting. An opposed direct crossing would have been very expensive and thus offer only a low chance of success.

The new situation required a different plan using deception to make surprise crossings of the Irrawaddy river to fight major battles in the plains around Mandalay and in the low hills of Meiktila. Since there was not enough equipment to make an opposed river crossing, Slim planned more than one crossing with nicely conceived deception plans to conceal the location at which the real assault crossing were to be made. It was decided to make crossing in sufficient strength to the north of Mandalay to draw the main part of the Japanese strength in that direction, while delivering the main crossing in the south of the Japanese concentrations below Mandalay. The revised 'Extended Capital' plan was centred on the Indian IV Corps less the Indian 19th Division (Major General G. C. Evans’s Indian 7th Division, Major General D. T. Cowan’s Indian 17th Division, 28th [East African] Brigade, 'Lushai' Brigade, and Brigadier C. E. Pert’s Indian 255th Tank Brigade), which was to move due south, down the Gangaw valley for nearly 300 miles (485 km), seize a bridgehead across the Irrawaddy river at Pakokku and then strike to the south-east at Meiktila and Thazi with mechanised forces and supplies delivered by air.

This next operation across the Irrawaddy river was to be a magnificent stroke of courage and deception, and ultimately was also the key to the destruction of the Japanese forces in Burma. This involved an advance through the Gangaw valley and a crossing of the Irrawaddy river at Nyaung U. Thereafter a quick thrust would be made in the direction of Meiktila, whose seizure was to cut off the Japanese fighting in Burma’s northern and central regions.

The operation by the Indian 7th Division was started by by the Indian 114th Brigade, which moved to Tamu, constructing a stretch of 180 miles (290 km) of road, suitable for motor transport, from Tamu to Gangaw in 15 days. The Indian 114th Brigade and the headquarters of the Indian 7th Division moved along the main axis, which was the Kaley valley road. The advance was to begin on 19 January 1945, when the main tasks of the Indian 7th Division were to advance and seize the Pauk area up to and including the crossing of the Yaw Chaung by a date no later than 1 February 1945, and to seize a bridgehead over the Irrawaddy river between Chauk and Pakokku to pave the way for an advance to Meiktila by a date no later than 15 February 1945.

The Indian 114th Brigade’s drive was spearheaded by the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force). This battalion had left Merema on 4 December 1944, and reached its assigned operational area on 3 February 1945. The battalion closed on its objective at Pakokku on 5 February after its C Company had cleared the road. The Japanese shelled the troops from their positions in Kahnla, a village on the southern bank of the Irrawaddy.

On 5 February, three companies of the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles made an encircling move on the village of Kahnla. One company moved farther to the left and attacked from the north-east, after coming under intense Japanese attack, while a second company formed in Kahnla village for the attack from the west. Starting at 05.30, the attack overran half of the Japanese position, including a strong medium machine gun bunker. No less than 30 Japanese were killed and many more wounded in this attack, which also took two medium machine guns, three light machine guns ad 20 rifles.

Further reconnaissance on 6 February indicated that the remainder of the objective was strongly held by the Japanese, and on 7 February the 4/1st Gurkha Rifles established a firm base for the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles. On 8 February, the one of the companies involved at Kahnia cleared another Japanese position, killing 12 Japanese and wounding three others. The main attack planned for the early hours of 10 February’s morning was delivered without air support as a result of the poor flying conditions. The attack began with one company moving forward with support from tanks of the Indian 255th Tank Brigade (Gordon Highlanders). By the afternoon, they had captured their objective. The 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles suffered a significant loss during the battle when Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Turner, its commanding officer, was killed. Resistance by the Japanese holding the position was fanatical, as indicated by the fact that only one prisoner was taken and 51 dead were counted. During night of 10/11 February, the Japanese launched six unsuccessful counterattacks, and on the night of 11/12 February they tried to infiltrate the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles' position without success. On the night of 13/4 February, men of the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles occupied positions at Sinlan, closer to the village of Pakokku, and then searched and occupied Pakokku itself. With this undertaking, which effectively destroyed nearly a battalion strength of Japanese, the first stage of the Indian 7th Division’s task had been completed and a foothold gained on the western bank of the Irrawaddy river for further operations.

After the Indian 7th Division had taken Pakokku on 14 February, the Allied forces crossed the Irrawaddy river at Nyaung U, to the north of Pagan, an earlier Burmese capital. The Indian 7th Division’s crossing was made on a wide front. Both the main attack at Nyaung U and a secondary crossing at Pagan were initially disastrous. Pagan and Nyaung U were defended by two battalions of the Indian National Army’s 4th Guerrilla Regiment, which had a third battalion in reserve. The Indian 7th Division suffered heavy losses as their assault boats broke down under the machine gun fire sweeping the river. Eventually, fire support from tanks of the Indian 255th Tank Brigade across the river combined with massed artillery fire forced the defenders of Nyaung U to surrender. At Pagan the defending troops of the Indian National Army’s 9th Battalion took a heavy toll in fighting the 1/11th Sikh Regiment before the survivors fell back to Mount Popa.

By 20 February, most of the British and allied forces had crossed the Irrawaddy river and captured Meiktila, as planned. The capture of Pakokku by the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles opened the way for further operations by the Indian 17th Division. On 19 February, 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles cleared an island, 5 miles (8 km) long and 3 miles (4.8 km) wide, in the Irrawaddy river off Pakokku, as Japanese retention of this was interfering with forward movement.

On 24 February, the Gurkhas moved to the south of Pakokku, crossed the Irrawaddy river and took over part of the Nyaung U bridgehead. On 25 February, a squadron of the Indian 255th Tank Brigade’s 116th Regiment RAC (Gordon Highlanders) supported the assault on the battalion and the village was soon secured; seven Japanese, including one officer, were killed.

Throughout April, the British and their allies continued to engage the Japanese in the area, and this led to the capture of Letse and Seikpyu. On the morning of 24 April, the leading troops were pinned down by heavy fire from a ridge with a prominent golden pagoda and a monastery. The objective was captured by a company of the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles with the aid of a heavy artillery bombardment; the bodies of 39 Japanese were counted. By 30 April, the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles had secured Pwinbu and moved to clear the Japanese position at Pagan village. Between 5 and 8 May concerted assaults were launched on Japanese positions which formed a ring around the position from the south; on 6/7 May a roadblock was established in the rear of the Japanese, and on 8 May an assault was launched on Pagan village.

While these comparatively small subsidiary operations were taking place to the west of the Irrawaddy river, the Battle of Mandalay had been fought in 'Extended Capital'. The Japanese had been decisively and finally beaten. With the exception of those troops still to east of the Sittang river, the Burma Area Army had effectively ceased to exist as an organised force. On 2 May Rangoon was reoccupied and Slim’s plan had been brought to a wholly successful conclusion. The monsoon was about to break and the next phase was to be a major mopping-up operation. On 14 May the 4/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles departed Pagan for what it hoped would be a fairly permanent monsoon location. After several changes of location, the battalion arrived at Allanmyo, 40 miles (64 km) to the north of Prome, but then on 27 May orders arrived for the battalion to move farther to the south to Prome for further operational tasks.