Operation Talon

This was the British third and final offensive in the Arakan western coastal region of Japanese-occupied Burma in succession to ‘Romulus’ (4 January/9 February 1945).

Possessing an area of 14,200 sq miles (36778 km²), Arakan is separated from the rest of Burma by the Arakan Yoma mountain range, which reaches a maximum height of 10,049 ft (3063 m), and its terrain is characterised by jungle and coastal swamps. Although rice is produced in the area and exported through the port of Maungdaw, the area’s chief strategic prize was the island of Akyab, whose airfield the British desired for the twin purposes of protecting Calcutta and other important cities in north-eastern India, and of projecting air power toward Rangoon. The latter was considered a prerequisite for any amphibious assault on southern Burma. The airfield was also seen as a vital link in the chain of all-weather airfields required for any subsequent amphibious assault, such as 'Zipper', on the Malay peninsula.

The nearest supply port for the British was at Chittagong in India, from which overland communications to the south were nonexistent. Transport was therefore largely by water, and the only real road in the region was from Maungdaw inland across the Mayu mountain range via two tunnels. The climate is fairly dry from October to April in the north-east monsoon, but during the south-east monsoon of April to October as much as 200 in (510 cm) of rain fall in the region.

In this area Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison’s Indian XV Corps was faced by Lieutenant General Shigesaburo Miyazaki’s 54th Division of Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army: the division’s task was to defend the Mayu peninsula and the Kaladan river valley. The army’s other major formation was Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya’s 55th Division, which garrisoned several ports and part of southern Burma, with a regiment on Mt Popa, and the army’s other component was Major General Tsunoru Yamamoto’s 72nd Independent Mixed Brigade, which was stationed around the oilfields at Yenangyaung on the Irrawaddy river.

The 54th Division’s role was to hold the coastal plain as long as it could to prevent the eastward movement of the Indian XV Corps across the Arakan Yomas to reach the plain of the Irrawaddy river, and thereby cut the north/south lines of communication servicing Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army in the Sittang river valley and Lieutenant General Masaki Honda’s 33rd Army in the Salween river valley. These two armies were the main formations of General Heitaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army. The 28th Army had previously included Lieutenant Seisaburo Okazaki’s 2nd Division, but this had been redeployed to the 33rd Army and thence to Indo-China.

Otherwise known as the 2nd Arakan Campaign, in December 1944 ‘Romulus’ (ii) had taken Major General F. S. Loftus-Tottenham’s 81st (West Africa) Division and Major General G. McI. S. Bruce’s 82nd (West Africa) Division of the Indian XV Corps to the south down the valley of the Kaladan river, and Major General G. N. Wood’s Indian 25th Division to Foul Point at the tip of the Mayu peninsula, so Sakurai thus had little option but to base his defence on the two main passes over the Arakan Yomas, that between An and Ngape in the north leading to the Irrawaddy river at Minbu, and that at Taungup in the south leading to the Irrawaddy river at Prome. Miyazaki thus concentrated his overextended force at Kangaw (154th Regimental Group covering An) and at Taungup (121st Regimental Group), though important roles were allocated to the comparatively small forces holding Akyab island (Major General Toba Koba’s ‘Matsu’ Detachment of the 111th Regimental Group) and the Myebon peninsula at the mouth of the Kaladan river and Ramree and Cheduba islands farther to the south. Miyazaki appreciated correctly that Christison needed these islands to secure his flank before he could attempt any inland move, to serve as bases for British tactical support aircraft, and to form the base area for the 14th Army’s vital southern ports. This last was indeed one of the two primary Allied requirements of ‘Romulus’ (ii) and ‘Talon’, namely the elimination of the 28th Army so that some of the Indian XV Corps could be reallocated, and so that the ports of Akyab and Kyaukpyu (the latter on Ramree island) could be used to supply not only the Indian XV Corps but also Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army as it advanced to the south after ‘Extended Capital’.

It was planned that 46,000 men should be supplied through Akyab, requiring the unloading of 850 tons per day during February and March 1945, dropping to 600 tons per day from May onward, when the surplus divisions of the Indian XV Corps were to be reallocated. Kyaukpyu would supply 36,000 men, requiring the unloading of 450 tons per day in February rising to 650 tons per day from March in order to develop a stockpile for the 14th Army.

‘Talon’ was the responsibility of the Indian XV Corps, whose formations were the Indian 25th Division, Major General C. E. N. Lomax’s Indian 26th Division, the 81st (West Africa) Division, the 82nd (West Africa) Division, and Brigadier C. R. Hardy’s British 3rd Commando Brigade. Naval support was provided by Rear Admiral B. C. S. Martin’s Force ‘W’, and air support was entrusted to Air Vice Marshal the Earl of Brandon’s No. 224 Group of the RAF.

As the monsoon ended, the XV Indian Corps resumed the advance on Akyab for the third year in succession. The Indian 25th Division advanced on Foul Point and Rathedaung at the end of the Mayu peninsula, being supplied by landing craft over beaches to avoid the risk of Japanese attacks against their lines of communication. The 82nd (West Africa) Division cleared the valley of the Kalapanzin river before crossing a mountain range into the Kaladan river valley, while the 81st (West Africa) Division advanced down the Kaladan river, repeating the move it had made in 1944. The two West African divisions converged on Myohaung near the mouth of the Kaladan river, cutting the supply lines of the Japanese troops in the Mayu peninsula. The Japanese evacuated Akyab island on 31 December 1944.

The 82nd (West Africa) Division next attacked to the south along the coastal plain, while Indian 25th Division, with the 3rd Commando Brigade under command, made amphibious landings farther to the south to catch the Japanese in a pincer movement.

‘Talon’ was scheduled to begin on 3 January 1945, when the Indian 25th Division and the 3rd Commando Brigade were to land on Akyab island from 12.30. However, on 2 January an artillery observation officer saw no sign of any Japanese garrison, which as noted above had been withdrawn on 31 December 1944 as it was wholly outflanked by the advance of the 81st (West Africa) Division on the mainland, and the operation therefore went ahead without opposition or bombardment.

Even before this, though, Christison had planned his next move, in this instance against the Myebon peninsula, where there was still a Japanese garrison. The joint force commanders now worked quickly to prepare a double operation against the Myebon peninsula and Ramree island, the former to allow an overland advance against An and the latter to complete the Allied hold on the Arakan coast’s two best ports.

The Myebon peninsula landing was to take place on 12 January, with the 3rd Commando Brigade securing a beach-head through which Brigadier J. E. Hirst’s Indian 74th Brigade of the Indian 25th Division was to pass on its way to attack Kangaw. The operation went as planned, and by 17 January the whole of the Myebon peninsula was in British hands, and the Indian 74th Brigade had begun its exploitation toward Kangaw on the far side of the estuary of the Myebon river. Farther to the north, the 82nd (West Africa) Division, now commanded by Major General H. C. Stockwell, had relieved the 81st (West Africa) Division in the Kaladan river valley and pushed to the south to take Myohaung on 25 January as it tried to cut the 54th Division’s lines of communication at Kangaw.

The ‘Matador’ (iii) landing on Ramree island was launched on 21 January, when Brigadier R. C. Cottrell-Hill’s Indian 71st Brigade of the Indian 26th Division came ashore just to the west of Kyaukpyu and secured a beach-head. On the following day Brigadier A. W. Lowther’s (from 19 January Brigadier J. F. R. Forman’s) Indian 4th Brigade of the same division passed through and developed the attack south in the direction of Mayin on the island’s west coast. The defence (by one battalion of the 121st Regimental Group) now stiffened, and Lomax had to commit his whole division to a methodical elimination of the Japanese defenders. Ramree itself fell on 9 February and, recognising that further resistance was counterproductive, Miyazaki ordered the survivors to be evacuated on this same day. An attack by warplanes of Lieutenant General Bushi Hattori’s 5th Air Division allowed one Japanese destroyer and a squadron of motor launches to pick up 500 Japanese troops, and fighting finally ended on 17 February.

Cheduba island had been evacuated by the Japanese, and the ‘Sankey’ landing by Royal Marine commandos on 26 January met no resistance.

After the clearance of Ramree island the Indian 26th Division was relieved (by Brigadier R. F. Johnstone’s 22nd [East Africa] Brigade from corps reserve) so that it could ready itself for the assault on Taungup. Meanwhile the Indian 25th Division was involved in one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Burma campaign as it moved against Miyazaki’s main position at Kangaw, held by the 154th Regimental Group. Wood planned his attack with the 3rd Commando Brigade in the lead to secure a beach-head over the Daingbon Chaung, allowing Brigadier R. A. Hutton’s Indian 51st Brigade to pass through and link with the Indian 74th Brigade advancing from its crossing of the Min Chaung to the north. The two Indian brigades would then move against Kangaw from the south, the 154th Regimental Group thus being trapped between the Indians and Commandos and the 82nd (West Africa) Division moving south.

The landings were launched on 21 January, and Miyazaki immediately ordered the ‘Matsu’ Detachment to fall back in front of the West Africans and keep open the road to the An pass.

The hardest fight on this stage of the campaign was the Battle of Hill 170 between the 3rd Commando Brigade and the 54th Division on 22/31 January. In 'Talon', the 3rd Commando Brigade had been tasked to assault the Arakan peninsula at Myebon, where it was to take and hold the dominant features of the southern Chin Hills. The achievement of this task would cut the lines of supply and escape of the Japanese toward Rangoon and secure the beach-head for the British. The battle for Hill 170 was the climax of the Arakan operations, and its outcome broke the spirit of the 54th Division. Had the 3rd Commando Brigade’s position fallen, it would have endangered all the British forces which had landed on the Myebon peninsula.

After it had carried out its unopposed landing on Akyab island, the 3rd Commando Brigade undertook operations around the Myebon peninsula and on the surrounding islands. During one of these patrols, a group of commandos from No. 5 Commando had a brief contact with a Japanese force, and killed four Japanese without suffering loss themselves.

On 12 January, the 3rd Commando Brigade had made a landing on the peninsula. Coming ashore in the second wave behind No. 42 (Royal Marine) Commando, No. 5 Commando carried the advance inland until it came under machine gun fire from a hill that had been named 'Rose' by the planning staff. In the morning of the following day, after air support had been called in and Sherman medium tanks of the 19th Lancers had arrived, No. 5 Commando launched an attack on the position and the attack was finally successful, the Japanese defenders opting to fight to the death.

For the next two days, No. 5 Commando patrolled right through the peninsula as the Japanese were cleared from the area, and was then withdrawn to the beach-head for rest. After this, the brigade captured the village of Kantha as a preliminary move on Kangaw, across a number of waterways on the mainland, where Christison had decided that he wished to cut the Japanese line of withdrawal. The area lacked roads, and the terrain was difficult inasmuch as it comprised mangrove swamps and rice paddies which initially prevented the landing of tanks and artillery. The whole area was dominated by a small wooded ridge known as Hill 170.

At 13.00 on 22 January, the leading elements of the 3rd Commando Brigade landed 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of Kangaw. There was no naval or air bombardment in an attempt to surprise the Japanese. The brigade’s units were allocated different objectives. No. 1 Commando, in the lead, was to take and hold Hill 170, codenamed 'Brighton' and 700 yards (640 m) long, 300 yards (275 m) wide and 1,000 ft (305 m) high, with the support of No. 5 Commando. No. 42 (Royal Marine) Commando was to assume responsibility for the security of the beach-head between the 'Thames' and 'Mersey' tidal creeks. No. 44 (Royal Marine) Commando was to advance to the 'Milford' and 'Pinner' valleys to the east of Hill 170: 'Milford' was secured on 22 January and 'Pinner' on the following day. All the objectives were secured against only minimal Japanese resistance.

During the night of 23/24 January, the Japanese attacked 'Pinner' and an artillery barrage of a weight unprecedented for this theatre of the war fell on Hill 170: this barrage continued for the next four days.

On 26 January, Hutton’s Indian 51st Brigade, supported by a troop of the 19th Lancers' Sherman tanks, arrived from the beach-head and assumed responsibility for the positions of No. 44 (Royal Marine) Commando on 'Milford' and 'Pinner'. On the night of 28/29 January, the Indian 51st Brigade attacked Kangaw and the 'Perth' and 'Melrose' heights, which dominated the road to the east from Kangaw, but only partially achieved its objectives as the resistance of the Japanese along their line of withdrawal was stiffening. However, the Indian brigade did secure Kangaw and occupied positions to dominate the main road.

The plan had initially called for the withdrawal of the 3rd Commando Brigade on 30 January, but this was halted by a new Japanese counterattack on the brigade’s positions by the 154th Regiment. On the following morning, at 05.45, the 2/154th Regiment launched a surprise attack on Hill 170 under cover of a fierce artillery bombardment and heavy machine gun fire. The focus of the Japanese attack was the northern end of Hill 170, which was held by No. 4 Troop, No. 1 Commando. The troop’s position was ringed by gunfire in a preliminary to a major attack: hurling grenades ahead of themselves, the Japanese attacked by platoons at 07.30 on a front of 100 yards (90 m). Hill 170 was now defended by No. 1 and No. 42 commandos supported by a tank troop of the 19th Lancers. The tanks deployed at the northern end of the hill were attacked in a suicidal assault by Japanese engineers armed with explosive charges on the end of bamboo poles. The engineers destroyed two of the three Sherman tanks after a hand-to-hand battle by climbing on top of them and exploding their charges.

The Japanese infantry continued to attack Hill 170 throughout the rest of the day in assaults whose main weight fell on No. 4 Troop of No. 1 Commando, which was thus under sustained pressure. At 09.30, a counterattack was launched by W Troop of No. 42 Commando and No. 3 Troop of No. 1 Commando, but this had to be abandoned after advancing only 20 yards (18 m) against heavy sustained machine gun fire. The next counterattack was made by X Troop of No. 42 Commando supported by the remaining Sherman tank, but this attack also failed in the face of the heavy Japanese fire.

The commandos then responded by bringing all available artillery and mortar fire down on the Japanese positions. At 14.00, No. 6 Troop of No. 1 Commando put in a counterattack, which failed and cost the troop almost half of its men.

To the east of Hill 170 on 'Pinner', No. 5 Commando was by then relieved by the 8/19th Hyderabad Regiment of the Indian 51st Brigade and rejoined the 3rd Commando Brigade on Hill 170, their machine guns adding to the weight of fire brought to bear on the Japanese. At 16.00, the 2/2nd Punjab Regiment of the Indian 51st Brigade managed to work its way round the left flank of Hill 170 and also engaged the Japanese from there. At the same time No. 5 Commando was moved forward to take over the front line from No.4 Troop, except for one section which had been cut off and overrun. Just after 17.00, some Japanese were seen to be withdrawing from the hill and the 2/2nd Punjab started a flanking night attack, but this failed to drive the Japanese off their positions on the hill. The Japanese responded with a night attack of their own against No. 5 Commando’s positions, which also failed.

An estimated 700 Japanese artillery shells landed on the hill during the last day of the battle. In a day of continuous fighting, much of it hand-to-hand, the men of Nos 1 and 42 Commandos had repulsed and counterattacked the waves of Japanese infantry. Early in the morning of the following day, No. 5 Commando was able to move forward and found the hill abandoned by all but 340 or more Japanese dead. The British losses in the Battle of Hill 70 were 45 dead and 90 wounded.

The commandos' victory in the 36-hour Battle of Hill 170 cut off the escape of the 54th Division. Further amphibious landings by the Indian 25th Division and the overland advance of the 82nd (West Africa) Division rendered the Japanese position in Arakan untenable, and they were ordered into a general withdrawal in the direction of the An pass in order to avoid the complete destruction of the 28th Army.

Vicious fighting continued until 18 February, although Miyazaki had ordered a general withdrawal after he had come to the realisation that the success of the Indian 26th Division on Ramree island raised the possibility of another landing in his rear. Yet by determined fighting and excellent tactical thinking Miyazaki had kept most of his division intact, delayed the Allied advance and maintained Japan’s hold on the An pass (111th Regimental Group and 154th Regimental Group, each somewhat depleted) and on the Taungup pass (virtually full-strength 121st Regimental Group).

Christison was still prepared to continue, but a halt was now forced on the Indian XV Corps by developments elsewhere: the Chinese desperately needed additional airlift capacity, and Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, heading the Allied Land Forces South-East Asia command, decided that the Indian XV Corps’ air supply should be terminated and the Indian 25th and 26th Divisions be withdrawn, the former to India and the latter to prepare for ‘Dracula’. Christison was nevertheless instructed to press ahead with the forces left to him, and sporadic fighting continued up to 1 May.

An was taken on 23 April and Taungup fell on 29 April. Further operations would have permitted the Indian XV Corps to open the way across the Arakan Yomas, but the implementation of ‘Modified Dracula’ on 2 May rendered further Arakanese operations superfluous as it gave Rangoon to the British, and with it the best supply facilities in the region.