The Arakan Campaigns
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December 1942 to April 1944
Location: The Arakan, Burma
First Arakan Campaign
In September 1942, General Wavell had issued directives for a British return to Burma, and the same month the 14th Indian Division left Chittagong on a journey south through Cox's Bazar and down to the bottom of the Mayu Peninsula. The only road south was a four-foot wide track, and although the heavy supplies were sent by sea part of the way, much had to be carried by the troops and progress was almost imperceptible.
Thirteen inches of rain fell on one day in November and monsoon conditions reigned in the Bay of Bengal, but by the beginning of December the division was slogging towards Cox's Bazar, Tumbru and Bawli Bazar where the two brigades separated, one holding to the coast and the other driving parallel on the left for Buthidaung as the first drove for Maungdaw. A flank guard of irregulars operated inland to provide intelligence led by Lt-Colonel J.H. Southern.
On arrival, the brigades found Japanese units holding strong defences along the line of the road between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, and were then instructed to wait for the arrival of two more brigades, 123rd and 47th Indian Brigades who arrived on 17th December. It was then discovered that the Japanese had withdrawn into the Peninsula itself, but it was January before the Division was ready to move forward again.
The Japanese had in fact dropped back into strong defences around and south of Kondan protecting the town of Rathedang. The Japanese waited and watched and even allowed a patrol from the 47th Indian Brigade to reach Foul Point, but when first a company and then a battalion attempted to follow up a week later than ran into a well-laid trap of fox-holes deep in the scrub.
The 14th Indian Division pressed forward, while more battalions of the 47th Indian Brigade followed on down the Mayu Peninsula and attempted to storm Donbaik and the Japanese defence lines in vain. Units from 123rd Brigade split on to both sides of the Mayu river, one battalion attempting a direct attack on Rathedaung itself, the rest trying to take Kondon from the north.
The Japanese positions held and while the two Indian Brigades were battling fiercely but making little headway a new Japanese division was being assembled under an expert commander to take advantage of the extended positions of the Indian units.
Throughout February and March, the Kondan-Donbaik-Rathedaung triangle was the scene of bitter fighting. March saw Wavell release the experienced British Brigade to mount an assault on Donbaik and a new force was created to guard the eastern Arakan flank. However, by the end of the month the growing evidence pointed toward a powerful Japanese threat growing across the Kaladan, and the British and Indian units in the Arakan had lost over 3,300 killed and wounded during the attack on Donbaik. All close observers were convinced that the whole enterprise had been ill-advised from the start.
Wavell, however, did not agree and rejected the advice of General Lloyd, commander of 14th Division and dismissed him, replacing him with General Lomax who was more optimistic. Wavell and Lomax exhorted the units east of the Mayu range to 'stick it out' and the survivors of the 6th British Brigade to hold fast around Donbaik. Both men felt the approaching monsoons would enable the brigades to build up their strength for success when the monsoon ended. They did not take account of the rising toll from malaria.
On 1st April, the 47th Brigade commander realised that the Japanese were infiltrating between his positions and moving towards the coast. He abandoned his heavy equipment and made for the coast. However, a Japanese column was well-ahead of him and had a roadblock set up on 3rd April at Indin. 6th Brigade units destroyed this and the orders were, at last, issued for a complete withdrawal from the Peninsula back to the Buthidaung-Maungdaw line, but two nights later a strong Japanese force surrounded Indian and captured the Brigade commander and his staff, all of whom died in a reportedly barbaric fashion not far off in the jungle.
The remaining British and Indian troops marched northwards as the Japanese planned to occupy the tunnels of the Buthidaung position and pursue the British out of the Arakan. On 14th April Lt-General William J. Slim was appointed to command all troops in the area.
At the beginning of May, the Survivors of the 14th Indian Division were back behind the Maungdaw-Buthidaung line and the Japanese 55th Division was pressing them hard. General Slim had a hope of salvaging something and sent down two fresh brigades but once he realised the condition of the men of the 14th Division he made plan for a further gradual withdrawal.
On 3rd May, a battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers was attacked in their positions on the left flank. The Japanese drove through and across the Tunnels road and there was no practical alternative to a hasty withdrawal to the new line curving up from Nhili to Bawli and Goppe Bazars, then down across the Mayu. There the Japanese were content to leave the British almost undisturbed.
The first Arakan campaign had been a failure, the chief reason being as Wavell said 'a small part of the Army was set a task beyond their training and capacity'. General Slim would see that such did not happen again.
The Second Arakan Campaign
After months of training, re-arming and resupplying during which the Japanese left the British alone, General Slim sent out the 5th Indian Division in late December. The 5th moved carefully down from Bawli Bazar to re-establish positions on the west of the Mayu range. At the beginning of 1944, the leading formations came up against the Japanese defence lines running from Maungdaw to Buthidaung. For nearly a week the 5th Indian and the Japanese fought a series of bitter battles north of Maungdaw.
A pause was called for regrouping and on 9th January the Indians mounted a full-scale attack on the port. They found that during the previous night the Japanese defenders had slipped away and left them the wrecked and derelict port. Attempts to move further south were fiercely blocked and the line became static once again.
At the same time, the 7th Indian Division had prepared to move down from Taung Bazar to Buthidaung to attack the inner end of the Japanese defence line. The advance went well until news arrived that the Japanese 55th Division had cut across behind them to capture Taung Bazar and then to cut the Divisions' supply routes both in the north and near Ngakyedauk Pass.
An adequate defence force was quickly organized to hold Maungdaw, and the bulk of both Indian Divisions concentrated into an 'Admin Box' near Sinzweya. The engagement then became an exercise in technique. Both Indian divisions fought off every attack with cool success under sound leadership. The first attempts to supply them by air were beaten off by Japanese fighters and two more attempts to relieve them were blocked. But every day, more Allied aircraft appeared, food and ammunition were dropped in on 11th February and from then on quite regularly, and on 5th February 1944, a relieving brigade broke through Okeydoke Pass and at the end of the month the Japanese called off the siege and withdrew.
Buthidaung was taken by the 7th Indian Division on 11th March and it soon became evident that there was little to prevent an advance down the whole peninsula and onto Akyab.
On 7-8th March, the Japanese General Mutaguchi launched the forward units of his 15th Army on 'Operation U-Go', the March to Delhi. Its primary objective being the capture of the huge stores and administration centre at Imphal, from where the British intended to launch their own 'March on Rangoon'.
Three Japanese divisions were sent across the Chindwin to accomplish this by 12th March, the 33rd Division was marching along the Manipur, their right flank at Witok, heading for Imphal. They had met little opposition, the British forces in the area watching and waiting until it became evident that this was a serious invasion and then moved back onto the Imphal plain to protect the vital stores. By the time the Japanese 33rd Division reached Torbung, the first block was in place, while on the right the 20th Indian Division was at Shenan Saddle well before the Japanese 15th Division had reached there, where they intended to meet up with the right wing of the 33rd Division.
In the north the 31st Division under Mutaguchi made exceptional progress despite the poor conditions. On the map they had only 75 miles to march, but in fact they had covered well over 100 miles by the time they reached Jessami and were still 20 miles from Kohima. They had travelled mainly along tortuous paths over jungle-covered mountains.
In the meantime, General Slim had been busy. He had flown the 5th Indian Division to Imphal from the Arakan and troops were moving down from Manipur and the whole Imphal area was transformed into an armed camp.
Another threat also loomed over U-Go. The 77th Brigade of Wingate's Chindits was flown into the area south-west of Myitkina on the night of 5-6th March where they had set up a defended perimeter, there they were joined by another brigade which was flown in and the 16th Brigade which marched in from Ledo. By the time Mutaguchi's divisions were approaching Imphal and Kohima, Wingate's brigades had established three strongholds, Broadway, White City and Aberdeen from where they intended to take control of the area and cut all Japanese communications.
The Japanese 18th Division was forced out of Hukawang valley by the Chinese and the two Chinese division then combined to chase them out of Maingkwan, while Merrill's Marauders raced down to Waladum where they cut off the Japanese on 7th March and inflicted quite heavy losses. This pattern continued for the remainder of the month. A last hard battle was fought and the Japanese units from the area managed to rescue the 18th Division survivors on the last day of March.