The Arakan Campaign, Burma – 1942–43

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The Arakan Campaign, Burma – 1942–43

8th Gurkhas and XV Corps in the Arakan, 1943-1945.  For much of 1943-1945 units of the 8th Gurkhas saw action in the Arakan region of southern Burma. The region, characterised by jungle-covered hill-ranges, interspersed with ricefields and scrubland, has always presented challenges as a theatre of war, however the British Indian XV Corps, led latterly by General Sir Philip Christison, who had taken over from General William ‘Bill’ Slim after his promotion to head of the 14th Army, had despite the conditions achieved many notable successes against Japanese forces in the region in the long and gruelling pushback of Imperial Japan from 1943 onwards.

The first of these occurred in early 1944 when diversionary Japanese attacks near Sinzweya, designed to funnel British troops away from their impending massive offensive in the north at Kohima and Imphal, were met not with the expected Allied retreat but with a carefully planned and solid defence at what became known as ‘The Admin Box’, with initially attacked units digging in and being rapidly reinforced by reserves, turning the tables on the Japanese and crushing them in a pincer movement between the 5th and 26th Indian Divisions, including units of 8GR.

After a pause in March, the British and Indian troops resumed their offensive into the Arakan, with regular air drops of supplies giving them a serious advantage over the by-now starving Japanese troops, railways, tunnels and lines of communication were taken as a matter of priority, with a defensive hill known as ‘Point 551’ in the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road area proving a difficult site to take. It was finally taken on April 6th, in a triumphant note to the effective conduction of the campaign in the Arakan, by units of 8GR. An artillery officer observing the Gurkha assault is recorded as stating ‘I am just witnessing one of the most glorious sights of the war, the Gurkhas attacking’.

For much of the rest of 1944 the 8GR units involved focused more on consolidation and patrolling of newly re-taken Burmese territory and fully clearing the Arakan, but as part of XV Corps would see more action in early 1945 with the further assaults towards Rangoon. 1/8GR took part in the assault on Ramree Island (necessary for the establishment of airbases for the final Central Burma campaign) in February 1945, helping clear out ferocious final resistance and opening the way for Operation Dracula and the final push towards Rangoon.

 

Gurkhas and Armour in the Arakan Despite the rough terrain proving difficult to traverse, even for men and mules, tanks and armour played a key part in the Arakan campaign and often served right alongside the frontline troops such as the Gurkhas, the ferocity of one complimenting the overwhelming force and defence of the other. Such an example occurred in January of 1945, when men of the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles led an assault near the town of Kantha on the Myebon peninsula on January 17th 1945. As a preliminary to landing further troops and sweeping north to cut off Japanese forces retreating from the recently-captured Akyub Island, 3/2GR fought up through Kantha to take a fortified pagoda position, supported by accurate fire from tanks of an armoured regiment (with fire being directed from a tank officer fighting in the thick of the action alongside the Gurkhas).

At 1300 Hours, “D” Company moved up through Kantha village and deployed for the assault […] covered by fire from the tanks […] the flanking platoon fought its way up the slope against fierce opposition. Jemadar Dal Singh, although wounded, won the pagoda stump and brought a Bren gun into action against defenders on the reverse slope of the knoll. When he collapsed from loss of blood, Havildar Bhopal Ale took over and in brisk exchanges hurled grenades and even brickbats, keeping the enemy at bay until fresh supplies of ammunition arrived. At 1530 hours the position had been won at the low cost of nine wounded

The action was described by the Battalion commander as “A wonderful performance of reckless daring and light-hearted gallantry mixed with very fine fieldcraft”.

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