Operation Pungent

This was a British landing by Brigadier C. R. Hardy’s 3rd Commando Brigade at Myebon in the Arakan western coastal region of Japanese-occupied Burma as the second phase of ‘Lightning’ (12 January 1945).

The scene for this undertaking was set by the fact that the British-led forces had regained command of the Bay of Bengal and completed the capture of Akyab island off the Arakan coast of western Burma some three weeks earlier than first envisaged. The original plan by Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison’s Indian XV Corps had envisaged the use of Major General C. E. N. Lomax’s Indian 26th Division to capture Akyab in ‘Talon’ and then to exploit this success with the clearance of the Japanese forces from the northern part of Arakan in ‘Romulus’ (ii) with advances to the north-east and east, in the direction of Minbya and Myebon respectively, in order to cut off and destroy the Japanese forces operating in the Kaladan river valley. Thereafter, on or about 1 March, the Indian XV Corps was to release at least half of its strength for use in the operation to take Rangoon.

However, the rapid mopping-up of the Mayu peninsula and the decision to employ Major General G. N. Wood’s Indian 25th Division for the capture of Akyab meant that the Indian 26th Division would be available for other tasks for a period of at least two months. Under Christison’s leadership, the Joint Force Commanders thus created a plan for the capture of Ramree island, farther to the south along the Arakan coast, by the Indian 26th Division. The new plan had been completed by 2 January 1945, two days before the occupation of Akyab. As it became clear in the first week in January that Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army, driving on Meiktila between the Irrawaddy river and the southern part of the Shan Hills, would soon be out of the effective range of its current air support bases at Imphal and Agartala, it would therefore require new support bases at Chittagong, Akyab and Ramree along the west coast paralleling the land advance to the south in the direction of Rangoon.

Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, commanding the Allied Land Forces South-East Asia, had a ready-made plan for the capture of Ramree island, and this was accepted by Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten, heading the South-East Asia Command, on 9 January.

By this time the Japanese had decided to abandon Akyab, their main Arakan base and a location they had defended assiduously against all attacks since the autumn of 1942, and in December 1944 Lieutenant General Shigesaburo Miyazaki, commanding the 54th Division, had been instructed instead to hold the An and Taungup passes over the Arakan Yomas and thereby prevent any British eastward advance from Arakan, thereby protecting the rear of Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army in the Irrawaddy river valley, which was the area in which the Japanese expected the decisive Burmese battles of 1945 to take place. Miyazaki decided to base his defence on strongly defended areas at Kangaw and Taungup, which covered the An pass and the Prome road respectively.

Miyazaki deemed the Kangaw bastion area as being more important than the An position, and allocated the 154th Regiment to Kangaw and the 121st Regiment to Taungup, and positioned his reserves for rapid deployment to either of these areas as and when required for a counterattack. He ordered the ‘Matsu’ Detachment, based the 111th Regiment, to leave a sub-detachment at Akyab to cover its communications with Kangaw, and itself to operate as a covering force in the Kaladan river valley with the task of delaying the Indian XV Corps for as long as possible. When forced to withdraw, the ‘Matsu’ Detachment was to fall back on Kangaw. Miyazaki also stationed detachments at Myebon and Ramree, and on his line of communication at Tamandu and Kywegu. Myebon and Ramree were therefore nothing more than outposts, and Miyazaki had no intention of any longer-term defence of Akyab.

Having gained Leese’s approval, the Joint Force Commanders on 14 January instructed the Indian 26th Division to assault Ramree town, at the northern end of the island of the same name, on 21 January in ‘Matador’ (iii), and a Royal Marine detachment to occupy Cheduba island in ‘Sankey’. The Indian 25th Division and the 3rd Commando Brigade were meanwhile starting to exploit ‘Talon’ and ‘Romulus’ from 8 January, as soon as it was clear that Akyab and the ground covering the anchorages had been secured.

Brigadier B. C. H. Gerty’s Indian 53rd Brigade, strengthened by an additional battalion, occupied Ponnagyun on 8 January and was ordered to hold Akyab and establish, to the east of the Kaladan river, firm bases from which raids would be made to cut the road linking Minbya and Myohaung. The rest of the Indian 25th Division, with the 3rd Commando Brigade under command, was to occupy the Myebon peninsula and strike to the east in the direction of Kangaw, where the coast road, which was the last line of communication to the Lemro river valley left to the ‘Matsu’ Detachment, passed through a defile.

So that Wood could concentrate on the Myebon operations, the headquarters of the Indian XV Corps took the Indian 53rd Brigade, already involved in heavy fighting as it tried to reach Minbya, under direct command.

Scheduled for 12 January, the assault on the Myebon peninsula was to be made by the 3rd Commando Brigade, through which the Brigadier J. E. Hirst’s Indian 74th Brigade was then to pass as soon as an adequate beach-head had been secured. The infantrymen were then to advance to the Kantha Chaung and advance in the direction of Kangaw.

The naval forces allocated to the landing were commanded by Captain D. C. Hill, and comprised the light anti-aircraft cruiser Phoebe which because of her draught could not approach the shore but could provide anti-aircraft covering fire and protection from seaward, destroyer Napier, Indian sloops Narbada and Jumna, four minesweepers, 45 landing craft (three infantry landing craft, five tank landing craft, 12 medium landing craft, 18 assault landing craft, four personnel landing craft and three support landing craft) and four motor launches.

Four commandos, embarked for transit in the sloops and minesweepers and the three infantry landing craft, transferred to the assault craft early on 12 January and, under cover of a smokescreen laid by RAF aircraft and the fire of the supporting landing craft and the motor launches, the first wave landed and quickly overcame light opposition near the beaches before the defences could be manned fully. Neither stores not supporting vehicles, including tanks and vehicles, could be landed over the muddy beaches, and the engineers therefore had to blast a hard-bottomed exit from a small beach on a nearby rocky promontory.

Thereafter, the commandos made steady progress: they occupied Myebon on 13 January, and two days later had reached a point only 1 mile (1.6 km) from the Kantha Chaung. From there the Indian 74th Brigade took up the advance and, against determined opposition from small Japanese forces in most difficult country, had by 17 January secured the whole peninsula, including the Kantha Chaung, and begun its exploitation as ordered.