Operation Turret

This was the British landing of Brigadier J. F. R. Forman’s Indian 4th Brigade of Major General C. E. N. Lomax’s Indian 26th Division at Letpan in the Arakan western coastal region of Burma (13 March 1945).

Soon after he had been instructed in mid-February to continue his Indian XV Corps’ Arakan operations, which had started in ‘Talon’ and continued with sub-elements such as ‘Lightning’, ‘Pungent’, ‘Matador’, ‘Block’, ‘Mike’ and ‘Sankey’, Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison had been warned by Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, heading the Allied Land Forces South-East Asia command, that air transport for his corps would be reduced significantly from the end of February to allow the capability to be switched to the main front, along the Irrawaddy river between Mandalay and Meiktila, after the Indian IV and XXXIII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army had crossed this significant river barrier.

Christison had recently decided that the northern group of Lieutenant General Shigesaburo Miyazaki’s 54th Division in the area of An, controlling the western access to the more northerly of the two main routes across the Arakan Yomas into the valley of the Irrawaddy river, was stronger than he had initially believed, and that the whole of the 121st Regiment might be holding the coast from Dalet southward to Taungup, and not just Taungup itself, controlling access to the more southerly of the two main routes. If this eventuality, Taungup was probably the responsibility of Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya’s 55th Division, and the other two regiments the 54th Division would be in the area of Dalet and An.

Unless it could destroy the 54th Division, the Indian XV Corps might not be able to halt any Japanese efforts to reinforce the Irrawaddy river front via the An Pass. Christison thus felt compelled to muster the largest possible force for the task while air supply was still available to him, establish maritime lines of communication for the forces attacking An and Taungup and, in the same time frame, trim his forces in the forward area to the strength which could be maintained with the supply element which would still be available to him.

An enveloping attack was to be made on An by Major General H. C. Stockwell’s 82nd (West Africa) Division with Brigadier R. F. Johnstone’s 22nd (East Africa) Brigade under command. Using Brigadier C. R. A. Swynnerton’s 1st (West Africa) Brigade and Brigadier A. H. G. Ricketts’s 4th (West Africa) Brigade, the two units available to him in the area to the south-east of Kangaw, Stockwell was to advance via Kyweguseik and Dalet to tackle An from the north; the division’s third element, Brigadier E. W. D. West’s 2nd (West Africa) Brigade, was to pass through the beach-head of Major General G. N. Wood’s Indian 25th Division at Ruywa to attack An from the west; and the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade was to pass through a beach-head to be gained by the Indian 26th Division at Letpan to attack An from the south. In addition, the Indian 25th Division was to capture Tamandu as a maintenance centre for the forces attacking An, clear the road to the south in the direction of Kywegu and return to Akyab Brigadier R. A. Hutton’s Indian 51st Brigade and Brigadier C. R. Hardy’s British 3rd Commando Brigade by 1 March. A very small detachment was to remain at Kangaw to keep the area clear and to aid the 82nd (West Africa) Division to take Kyweguseik. One brigade group of the Indian 26th Division was to be used to take Letpan and, after the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade had passed through this area toward An, was to be ready to advance to Taungup.

On the other side of the notional front line, Miyazaki had also changed his plans to accommodate the current situation, and also to shorten the front his division had to hold. Miyazaki now ordered his northern group, comprising the 111th Regiment and 154th Regiment, to establish a firm base at Letmauk with an outpost line along the Dalet Chaung, plan and build defences covering An, and establish a mobile reserve to counterattack any force which succeeded in crossing the Dalet Chaung. At the same time, Miyazaki ordered his southern group, comprising the 121st Regiment, to persevere with its current responsibility of covering the road linking Taungup with Prome on the Irrawaddy river and also of holding Taungup as its base.

Even as the northern group was taking up its positions, however, Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army ordered Miyazaki to send, starting on 26 February, the headquarters of the 54th Infantry Group with the ‘Koba’ Force (two battalions of the 154th Regiment) to Minbu in the Irrawaddy river valley. Thus the northern group now had only five battalions (four infantry and one reconnaissance) with which to try to stem the advance by the four brigades under command of the 82nd (West Africa) Division. Miyazaki now disposed his reduced northern group in three task forces: the headquarters of the 154th Regiment with one of its own battalions and the reduced 54th Reconnaissance Regiment on the Dalet Chaung; the headquarters of the 111th Regiment with one of its own battalions, the reduced 14th Anti-Tank Battalion and the reduced 54th Artillery Regiment at Letmauk; and one battalion of the 111th Regiment in the area of Tamandu. There was one battalion of the 111th Regiment as the northern group’s reserve.

By 27 February all but one of the moves ordered on 18 February had started, the exception being the ‘Turret’ assault on Letpan. Already Christison’s formations and units were experiencing difficulties, however, for there was strong Japanese resistance in the area of Dalet and also between Ruywa and Tamandu. Moving to the east along a jungle track from Ruywa, the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade had been checked at the foot of a steep ridge west of Sabagyi, and was here ordered to turn to the north and make for the road linking Letmauk and An. The headquarters of the Indian 25th Division and Brigadier J. E. Hirst’s Indian 74th Brigade had landed at Ruywa, which was already protected by Brigadier B. C. H. Gerty’s Indian 53rd Brigade.

At this juncture, Christison was ordered by the Allied Land Forces South-East Asia command to contain the maximum Japanese strength in Arakan by destroying the Japanese forces in the An area, and by operating toward Prome from a bridgehead in the area of Taungup. To provide the Indian XV Corps with the opportunity to adjust it plans in order to comply with its new instructions, a reduced level of air supply was to be provided to 7 March, when it would be wholly discontinued. The removal of the air supply facility rendered impossible any attempt at the wide encirclement required to ensure the wholesale elimination of the Japanese force at An, and even the more limited aim of pinning and severely damaging it was wholly reliant on the opening of a maintenance area at Tamandu by the time air supply ceased.

On 1 March, Christison issued new orders to the Indian 25th Division and 82nd (West Africa) Division: the former was to take Tamandu by 4 March and establish a brigade there to facilitate the opening of a forward maintenance area, and the latter was to leave its 1st (West Africa) Brigade at Dalet for an advance on Letmauk from the north, and to move with the 4th (West Africa) Brigade and the divisional troops down the western bank of the Dalet Chaung, then along the coast road to Tamandu, from which it was to attack Letmauk from the west. Meanwhile the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade, which was already moving toward Letmauk from the south, was to block the road between Letmauk and An, and patrol toward the latter. The idea of sending the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade to Letpan for an advance on An from the south was abandoned. Christison advised Leese that until a reinforcement of his inland waterways transport fleet, promised but as yet not delivered, the Indian XV Corps could not undertake operations toward Taungup and would therefore not be able to pin any of the 55th Division in Arakan.

By 3 March the 1st (West Africa) Brigade was grouped at Dalet for the attack on Letmauk from the north. On the next day the Indian 74th Brigade entered Tamandu after a small but intense action a few miles to the south of it. On 6 March the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade cut the road between Letmauk and An, but was soon driven back into an area to the west of the road. On 7 March the headquarters of the 82nd (West Africa) Division, the 4th (West Africa) Brigade and the bulk of the divisional troops reached Tamandu from the north. Stockwell now planned to make a frontal attack along the road from Tamandu to An via Letmauk road as soon as the forward maintenance area at Tamandu was capable of supporting such an operation, which in fact occurred on the following day, when the Japanese had been cleared from the hills overlooking Tamandu from the east.

It was already clear that the advance on An would take longer than had been planned, and the end of the Indian XV Corps’ air supply facility now made it imperative for Christison to trim the number of troops in the corps’ forward areas. Though the tactical situation had seemed promising on 7 March, when Letmauk had been surrounded, it was now considerable less attractive as a result of Miyazaki’s skill in the use of his reserve to clear the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade’s block on the road between Letmauk and An road, and also of the end of the air supply facility. This latter had an immediate and deleterious impact on the West African troops, who took it to mean that something had gone wrong and therefore suffered a decline in morale. The changed situation required a modification of Christison’s basic scheme, and on 9 March new orders confirmed that the corps’ task was now to force the Japanese northern group to the east of An and contain it there until the monsoon, to establish a beach-head at Letpan, to sever the road between Taungup and Tamandu road, and to exploit to the south as far as the Tanlwe Chaung in an effort to prevent the withdrawal of men of the 54th Division or 55th Division from Taungup and the coastal area. There was now no intention of the destruction of the northern group or of an advance on Prome.

The Indian 26th Division was to land a brigade group at Letpan before 14 March, establish a base there and then exploit to the south toward the Tanlwe Chaung. The division’s other two brigades were to remain on Ramree island, ready to be sent back to India from 20 March, and four days before this the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade was to move to Tamandu, rather than to Letpan as originally planned, for operations in the area of An under the command of the 82nd (West Africa) Division. The Indian 25th Division was to pull back from the Tamandu-Ruywa area to Akyab between 13 and 31 March, transferring responsibility for the Tamandu area to the 82nd (West Africa) Division. Having driven the Japanese northern group to the east of An, the 82nd (West Africa) Infantry Division was to use the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade to contain the Japanese until the onset of the monsoon, and was to relieve the brigade of the 26th Division in the area of Letpan and Tanlwe Chaung. The division was next preferably to destroy or otherwise to contain the Japanese forces at Taungup and along the coast until 15 May. Eventually the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade was to move to Letpan from An and remain there during the monsoon, while the 82nd (West Africa) Division withdrew to the area of Chittagong farther to the north.

The drive on An achieved little in the way of real progress during the next week, for Miyazaki had brought forward his reserve battalion and now launched a series of counterattacks to which the West African troops responed only dispiritedly. The 4th (West Africa) Brigade, supported by a medium tank troop of Brigadier G. H. N. Todd’s Indian 50th Tank Brigade and medium artillery, advanced from Tamandu on 12 March and during the next day encountered the Japanese in the hills around Shaukchon. The Japanese opposition succumbed only during the evening of 14 March, and Letmauk was not occupied until three days later.

Meanwhile, unable to reach Letmauk from the north, the 1st (West Africa) Brigade had abandoned the attempt and had moved to the south to the road linking Tamandu and Letmauk, and in the wake of the 4th (West Africa) Brigade reached Letmauk on 20 March. On this day the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade disembarked at Tamandu, and Stockwell now planned that both of his West African brigades should advance on An, making contact with the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade in the area of Point 1269 to the west of the road linking Letmauk and An, where it had been on air supply since the 9 March.

Meanwhile the Indian 4th Brigade of the Indian 26th Division had landed at Letpan in ‘Turret’ on 13 March from the escort destroyers Eskimo and Roebuck and the Indian sloops Cauvery and Jumna, encountered no opposition, and after establishing its beach-head, began to exploit to the south and inland. In the fighting which followed, a Japanese force with five light tanks was surrounded, three of the tanks being destroyed, and two others and a 75-mm (2.95-in) gun being captured, while the accompanying infantry was dispersed. By 19 March the forward troops were within 5 miles (8 km) of the Tanlwe Chaung, where for the first time the Japanese offered determined resistance.

With the 82nd (West Africa) Division holding Letmauk and approaching An, and the Indian 4th Brigade nearing the Tanlwe Chaung, it appeared that Christison’s instructions of 9 March were within the grasp of the Indian XV Corps, but then it seemed that a significant portion of the Japanese in the north was moving to the east from An toward the Irrawaddy river. The operation toward An had thus failed to achieve its primary objective of containing the northern group. The advance of the 82nd (West Africa) Division had been considerably slower than had been demanded, but whether or not a speedier advance could have prevented Japanese reinforcements being sent from Arakan to the Irrawaddy river valley remains uncertain.

Christison now felt it was still more important to prevent the Japanese from transferring more troops from the Taungup area to the Irrawaddy river valley, and on 21 March new orders placed a greater emphasis on the warning order issued on 19 March. The 82nd (West Africa) Division was to contain the reduced northern group in the area to the west of the An Pass for as long as possible. To increase the pressure on Taungup the division was also to send the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade from Tamandu at once by road to Letpan, where it was to come under command of the Indian 26th Division. The East African brigade was also to be followed by a West African brigade no later than 15 April. Strong diversionary raids were to be carried out along the coast near to and to the south of Taungup while these moves were taking place. Stockwell was to be prepared to move his own headquarters to the Taungup area before the beginning of the monsoon and take over command from the Indian 26th Division, and was also to have one of his remaining two West African brigades in the An area ready to be moved back to Chittagong as soon as shipping became available after the Indian 25th Division had been shipped from Arakan. This would leave one West African brigade at An, and this was also to be sent back to Chittagong by sea before the start of the monsoon, and the port of Tamandu was then to be closed.

Meanwhile the Indian 4th Brigade continued its advance to the south. After driving Japanese rearguards out of several positions, it reached the Tanlwe Chaung on 22 March, and on the following day gained a secure bridgehead on the southern bank of the chaung (creek). By the end of the month the brigade had closed to within 4 miles (6.4 km) of the Taungup Chaung, a forward maintenance area had been established at Kindaunggyi, and the 22nd (East Africa) Brigade had concentrated at Letpan after defeating limited Japanese opposition on its way to the south from Tamandu. In the area of An, the 1st (West Africa) Brigade, with artillery support, succeeded in making contact with the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade to the south of Letmauk on the 24 March. The 2nd (West Africa) Brigade was then withdrawn to Tamandu. By the end of March the Indian 25th Division had concentrated at Akyab in readiness for its return to India.

The Arakan operations were now affected by the decision of late March to launch the ‘Modified Dracula’ airborne and amphibious assault on Rangoon at a time early in May, with the Indian 26th Division providing the assault force. On 2 April Christison issued a directive ordaining that the Indian XV Corps’ task remained unchanged except in respect of the proposed assault on Rangoon. The Indian 26th Division was now to be concentrated on Ramree island, the Indian 71st Brigade was to be recalled from Madras, and the tactical headquarters of the Indian 26th Division and the Indian 4th Brigade, then in the area of Tanlwe and Taungup, were to be relieved as soon as possible by the 82nd (West Africa) Division, whose task was to be recast. Stockwell was now to move his headquarters to the area of Tanlwe Chaung and Taungup, and assume command of all troops on the mainland (including the Indian 4th Brigade) by 5 April, and send the 2nd (West Africa) Brigade from Tamandu to the same area for arrival by 15 April with the rest of the division, less the 1st (West Africa) Brigade, as soon after this as possible. The men and light equipment were to move by sea, and the heavy stores and vehicles by road. The first brigade to arrive was to relieve the Indian 4th Brigade. The 1st (West Africa) Brigade, under the direct orders of corps’ headquarters, was to hold the forward maintenance area at Tamandu and contain in the area of An as large a Japanese force as it could. On assuming local command, Stockwell was to hold the area of Taungup, provide protection for the forward maintenance area at Kindaunggyi, to secure Kyauktaga and then to exploit toward Yebawgyi on the Prome road. He was told that he could count on air supply up to 60 tons per day from Ramree and a further 60 tons by sea.