Operation Sulphur (ii)

'Sulphur' (ii) was the British movement of Major General D. T. Cowan’s Indian 17th Division from refitting in India, after the Battle of Imphal, to the front in Japanese-occupied Burma as part of Lieutenant General F. W. Messervy’s Indian IV Corps (January 1945).

On 20/21 February Brigadier R. C. O. Hedley’s Indian 48th Brigade and Brigadier A. E. Cumming’s (from 13 January Brigadier G. W. S. Burton’s) Indian 63rd Brigade, which were the division’s motorised elements, with the main strength of Brigadier C. E. Peat’s Indian 255th Tank Brigade (less one regiment left with Major General G. C. Evans’s Indian 7th Division) under command, crossed the Irrawaddy river between Myitche and Nyaungu, and advanced on the vital Japanese communications centre of Meiktila against the resistance, at first only minimal, of Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army of General Hyotaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army. The division reached Taungtha, half-way along its line of advance to Meiktila, on 24 February.

On this day there was a high-level Japanese staff meeting in Meiktila to assess the possibility of a counterattack in the area to the north of the Irrawaddy river, and the fact that this meeting was called and held suggests that the British attack most certainly took the Japanese higher command elements by total surprise: thus it came as a considerable shock to the meeting when it received a report, from an officer on Mt Popa, that 2,000 vehicles were moving on Meiktila. At first the staffs of the Burma Area Army and 15th Army assumed the report to contain an error, and initially reduced the size of the reported force by nine-tenths as all they could believe was that the report was of a raid. The Burma Area Army had already ignored an earlier air reconnaissance report of a vast column of vehicles moving down the Gangaw valley.

It was only on 26 February that the Japanese finally came to appreciate the real scale of the threat facing them and started to prepare Meiktila for defence. The town lies between lakes to the north and south, constricting the length of the front available to any attacker. The 4,000 defenders were the bulk of the 168th Regiment of Lieutenant General Saburo Takehara’s 49th Division, supplemented by anti-aircraft and line of communication troops. While the Japanese attempted to prepare their defences, the 17th Division captured an airstrip 20 miles (32 km) to the north-west at Thabutkon, and into this was flown Brigadier G. L. Tarver’s air-mobile Indian 99th Brigade, the division’s third brigade. Fuel was also para-dropped for the armoured brigade.

Three days later, on 28 February, the 17th Division attacked Meiktila from all sides, supported by heavy artillery and air attacks. Part of the 63rd Brigade moved on foot to establish a roadblock to the south-west of the town in order to prevent the arrival of Japanese reinforcements into Meiktila while the main body of the brigade attacked from the west. The 48th Brigade attacked from the north down the main road from Thabutkon, and ran into a strong position around a monastery on the edge of Meiktila. The 255th Armoured Brigade, with two infantry battalions and a battery of Sexton self-propelled 25-pdr guns under command, left another roadblock to the north-east and made a wide sweep around Meiktila to take the airfields to the east and attack the town from the south-east. The main weight of the supporting artillery fire and air attacks was assigned to 255th Armoured Brigade’s attack.

After the first day, Cowan pulled the armour out of Meiktila during the night, though he left patrols to defend the area already captured. On the following day, Cowan had Lieutenant General Sir Frank Messervy, commander of the Indian XIV Corps, and Lieutenant General Sir William Slim, commander of the British 14th Army, paying great attention to the progress of the operation to take Meiktila, both commanders being worried that the Japanese might hold out for weeks. In the event, and despite desperate resistance, the town fell in less than four days.

Although the Japanese apparently had useful quantities of artillery, they were unable to concentrate their fire sufficiently to stop any single attacking brigade. In an improvised effort to bolster their anti-tank defences, some Japanese soldiers crouched in trenches, clutching 551-lb (250-kg) aircraft bombs, with orders to strike the detonator when a tank passed over the trench. Most of these suicide defenders were shot by an officer of the 255th Armoured Brigade and Indian soldiers.

The Japanese troops hastening to reinforce Meiktila were dismayed to find that they were now faced with the need not to hold but to recapture the town. The Japanese forces engaged were the 106th Regiment and remnants of the 168th Regiment of the 49th Division together with the division’s 49th Artillery Regiment; the 55th Regiment and 56th Regiment of Lieutenant General Eitaro Naka’s 18th Division together with the division’s 18th Mountain Artillery Regiment, the 214th Regiment attached from Lieutenant General Nobuo Tanaka’s 33rd Division, the 119th Regiment attached from Lieutenant General Yoshihide Hayashi’s 53rd Division, and the 'Naganuma' Artillery Group; and the 4th Regiment of Lieutenant General Seisaburo Okazaki’s 2nd Division, and the 'Mori' Special Force, which was a battalion-sized long-range raiding force. Many of the Japanese regiments, especially those under the 18th Division, were already weak as a result of their involvement in the heavy fighting of the preceding weeks. The Japanese totalled perhaps 12,000 men with 70 pieces of artillery. The Japanese divisions had no contact with each other, lacked information on the Allied forces and their strengths and, moreover, lacked even proper maps.

In Meiktila the Indian 17th Division mustered some 15,000 men, about 100 tanks and 70 pieces of artillery, and would be further reinforced during the battle. Even as the Japanese forces arrived, columns of Indian motorised infantry and tanks sallied out of Meiktila to attack Japanese troop concentrations, and to attempt the clearance of the land route back to Nyaungu. There was hard fighting for several villages and other strongpoints. The attempt to clear the roads failed, and the 17th Division withdrew into Meiktila. The first attacks by the 18th Division from the north and west failed with heavy losses. From 12 March the Japanese attacked the airfields to the east of the town, through which the defenders were supplied by air. Brigadier Joseph A. Salomons’s Indian 9th Brigade of Major General E. C. R. Mansergh’s Indian 5th Division, under command of the 14th Army, was flown into the airfields from 15 March to reinforce the defenders of Meiktila. The landings were made under fire, but only two aircraft were destroyed, with 22 casualties. The Japanese fought their way steadily closer to the airfields, however, and from 18 March Cowan suspended air landings (although casualties could still be evacuated in light aircraft from a separate but smaller landing strip) and supplies were para-dropped to his division.

On 12 March, meanwhile, Kimura had ordered Lieutenant General Masaki Honda, commander of the 33rd Army, to assume control of the battle for Meiktila. Honda’s headquarters staff arrived without the required signal units, however, and therefore could not co-ordinate the attacking divisions properly. Thus the disjointed nature of the Japanese attacks continued. The Japanese made use of their artillery in the front line with their infantry, which accounted for the destruction of several British tanks, but also resulted in the loss of many guns. During a major attack on 22 March, the Japanese attempted to use a captured British tank, but this was destroyed and the attack was repelled with heavy losses.

While Meiktila was besieged, the other major formation of the Indian IV Corps, Evans’s Indian 7th Division, fought several battles to maintain its own bridgehead, capture the important river port of Myingyan, and assist Brigadier R. F. Johnstone’s 28th (East Africa) Brigade against counterattacks on the western bank of the Irrawaddy river. As Major General Tsunoru Yamamoto’s 72nd Independent Mixed Brigade (reinforced by elements of Lieutenant General Shigesaburo Miyazaki’s 54th Division from the Arakan western coastal region) tried to retake the British foothold at Nyaungu, the 2nd Regiment of the Indian National Army under Colonel Prem Sahgal, reinforced by the remaining troops of the 4th Guerrilla Regiment which had opposed the initial crossings of the Irrawaddy river, were now tasked with the protection of the exposed flank of Kimura’s forces and with pinning the British and Indian forces around Nyaungyu and Popa. Lacking heavy arms or artillery support, Sahgal’s forces used guerrilla tactics, working in small units with the 'Kanjo' Force (one regiment detached from Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya’s 55th Division), and were successful for a considerable period of time.

The Indian 7th Division now faced the additional task of reopening the lines of communication to the besieged Indian 17th Division through the two roads that ran through the region, and was forced to call off the attack on Myingyan. Around the middle of March, the leading motorised brigade of the Indian 5th Division reinforced them, and began clearing the Japanese and the Indian National Army troops from their strongholds in and around Mt Popa to clear the land route to Meiktila. Once contact had been established with Meiktila’s defenders, the Indian 7th Division resumed its attack on Myingyan, a port town on the Irrawaddy river, which was taken between 18 and 22 March. As soon as it was captured, the port and the railway linking Myingyan and Meiktila were repaired and brought back into use for supply vessels plying the Chindwin river, which debouches into the Irrawaddy just to the west of Myingan.

The battle for Meiktila largely destroyed the Japanese formations in central Burma, and immediately after the end of the battle the Indian 17th Division moved to the south to break the last Japanese defensive position at Pyawbwe, and then began the advance to the south toward Rangoon. At Pegu, it pushed the Japanese rearguard aside, but was still short of its objective when the monsoon broke, and Rangoon fell to an assault from the sea in 'Dracula' (ii).