The Battle of Donbaik - 18 March 1943 - Colonel MA Demetriadi OBE TD
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Colonel MA Demetriadi
by Colonel MA Demetriadi OBE TD
I was interested to read in the Summer 2OOO issue of DEKHO! the account by Sergeant Major Martin McLane of 2 DLI with whom I have in past years marched past at the annual parade of 2nd Division Veterans at York. 6 Inf Bde was a very close-knit formation in which we all knew each other well after years of close training following Dunkirk: I remember well all the Officer personalities whom McLane mentions in his account. When 1 Royal Scots from 4 lnf Bde joined us for the Arakan campaign they too quickly became similarly assimilated.
Time plays tricks with one’s memories, however, after all it is now 57 years since these events, but I’m afraid McLane couldn’t have met Jack Hawkins on this occasion as we had left him behind in India where he was forming the 2 Div Concert Party whose shows we greatly appreciated and enjoyed on our return from Arakan and in the Kohima/Imphal campaign the following year.
I was 10 (later Adjt) of 1/RWF at Donbaik and, although only a few years younger than McLane, have the advantage of access to a very detailed (if highly illegal!) personal diary kept by CO 1 RWF - Lt Col AH Williams DSO OBE TD - his After Action Reports, and my own Int Sec War Diary, so perhaps I might be allowed to record the sequence of events.
1 RWF relieved 2 DLI in the line on 13th March, having spent two days in rehearsal on similar ground to the attack we had been ordered to make on Sugar 4 and Sugar 5. On 14th the date for the attack was put off from the 16th to the 18th and on the 17th (St Patrick’s Day) a Coy of DLI took over the position of B Coy RWF who were to move into a reserve position for the night ready later on to take over the positions of the left hand of C Coy in the jungle as they put in their attack on Sugar 10, South Bank of the Chaung and M16.
The battle on the 18th March has been described often and well. It was to be yet one more attempt to overcome Sugars 4 and 5, and the Operations Order called for 1 RWF in Phase I to capture Sugar 4 and 5 as well as Sugars 10, 14, 16, 18, 19, 24 and M 19 and other strong points. Zero hour was set at 0540. Phase II, was for 2 DLI to clear a flat jungle area between two map reference points under a creeping barrage with a zero hour of 0645. Phase Ill, covered an attack by 1/Lincolns at 0710, Phase VI a similar attack by DLI at 0850 with further Phases planned for D plus 1 and D plus 2.
As McLane reports, the RWF attack was repulsed with heavy losses - in addition to the CM Anders, A Coy lost two P1 Comds killed and the third wounded. The total Battalion losses that day were 13 Officers and around 150 ORs.
At 0100 on 19th 1/RS came up to attack, but the first Coy was repulsed from M 17 and S4 with the Coy Cmd and all three P1 Comds wounded so that the second Coy was halted and the attack called off, as were the later Phases. Speaking after the War, Field Marshal Sir William Slim said of this last attack on
Donbaik:“It was a battle which should never have been fought, It is a hard thing to say but it is so .... The last and final assault.... were led by the Royal Welch Fusiliers and on that day they showed valour which Ithink has rarely been surpassed. They stormed the position, they took it and were on top of those bunkers but they could not get inside them. They stood there until, I am afraid, most of them had been knocked out by the machine guns and artillery. As a place of sheer courage, I do not think it has ever been surpassed...”
The general scene was very much as described by McLane but I beg leave to doubt that OPs could see Japs carrying supplies from as far away as Foul Point. The front was a mile north of the village of Donbaik which was a further nine miles north of Foul Point. I suspect that the Japs were seen moving from Donbaik to the front line. The RWF Battle Patrol carried out a similar ambush on 16th March but without success.
The death of Brigadier Cavendish will probably never be completely resolved. Colonel Tanahashi, the Comd of the Japanese 112 Infantry Regt reported to 55 (Jap) Div HO:“At dawn we burst into the village of Indin. A lightning attack was put in on 6 Bde HQ, and the Bde Comd, his Adjt (sic) and staff, five or six men in all surrendered. I was interrogating them through an interpreter when, immediately afterwards, the British began to pour a fierce concentration of fire into Indin from both North and South.... I was wounded... Brigadier Cavendish and five or six of his men were killed at this time.”
According to Louis Allen in ‘Burma the Longest War’ the news of what happened reached the DLI at seven that morning. The Durham Bn then moved into Indin to find the Royal Scots there had suffered heavily. The British Official History mentions in a footnote that “According to Japanese reports he (Cavendish) was killed a little later by his guards or our own military fire.” However Ogawa Tadahiro the Japanese Medical Officer who saw the corpse and signed the death certificate points out that from the position and posture of the body and that of Japanese bodies near it, he is convinced that Cavendish was killed by fragments from British artillery fire.