Launching the Arakan Campaign

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82nd west african division82nd West African Division, Gold Coast Regiment (Lee 2013)

In May 1942, the Allied Forces retreated from Burma (Myanmar), a jewel in the crown of Britain’s colonies, in the face of Japanese victories. On May 7, 1942 the Japanese had entered Myitkyina, in Kachin State, and had completed their thrust into the Arakan (Information and Owen 1946, 197). A tentative campaign, code named “Cannibal,” was hatched with the design of retaking Akyab Island in Arakan, in the southwestern part of Burma. Arakan is largely cut off from the rest of Burma because of the Arakan or Rakhine Hills, but is open to the Bay of Bengal through a long coast as well by land to East Bengal (Bangladesh).

This campaign would become known as the First Arakan Campaign. In late December the campaign was launched, but for a number of reasons it failed, including a lack of training in jungle warfare, necessary amphibious vehicles being unavailable, and a lack of adequate air support. By June 1943, all Allied troops had fallen back to India (Information and Owen 1946, 199). The British learned from this failure, however. By May of the same year, troops serving in North Africa and the Middle East were being transported to India to begin their jungle warfare training. This included thousands of of West African soldiers.

Gerald Hilary Cree was British officer commanded the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in Burma within the Fifth Indian Division, 1943-1944. In 1943, he was moved from where he had been stationed in Palestine and Iraq to Ranchi, India (Cree Reel 1, 00:00:35). There his battalion underwent jungle training, having only served in the deserts of East Africa and the Middle East previously. His battalion had been moved to India after the failure of the First Arakan Campaign, 1942-1943, which Cree often spoke of with colleagues in India, trying to learn from their mistakes (Cree Reel 1, 00:06:20). Cree states:

When we first got there, the First Arakan Campaign had come to an inglorious conclusion. You know, we got pretty severely dealt with in the Arakan in the first campaign, and we lost a lot of men and achieved no success at all. And there was a good deal of alarm and despondency at the time caused by the Japanese habits of getting around behind, infiltrating and getting around behind you, cutting you off, resulting usually in a wholesale withdraw on our part, you see, leaving the Japanese in possession of all our stores (Cree Reel 1, 00:06:35-00:07:35).

The solution was a new strategy in which British troops would hold their position. ” . . . The answer was to sit tight, you see, and rely on being supplied from the air” (Cree Reel 1, 00:08:17). Rather than break and fall back because they were cut off, air supplies allowed the Fifth Indian Division to instead encircle the Japanese. This had not been possible in the First Arakan Campaign because eastern India had not been developed with an eye on supplying military action. Although the British had focused on the construction of a coastal road from Chittagong to Maungdaw during the monsoon season and had built several air strips, these had been insufficient for a campaign with air support; the projection of power into Arakan in December of 1942 had depended on ground troops and amphibious units largely unsupported by air, and its objective of capturing Akyab failed (Information and Owen 1946, 199).

In August 1943, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten was appointed as the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia of the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) and immediately put in place a strategy that would culminate in the Second Arakan Campaign. Previously, most martial actions had halted during the monsoon season as it was considered impossible to move and engage in the mud and heavy rains the shifting wind patterns brought. However, Cree recalled that “Mountbatten arrived and said the war would go on just the same” (Cree Reel 1, 00:15:07) but Cree remarked that although it did, “and we were able to get through some way or another, it was far from pleasant” (Cree Reel 1, 00:15:14). There were no changes in operations, for as Cree stated, “The order was that the monsoon did not exist. Mountbatten had abolished it” (Cree Real 1, 00:15:27). This change was put into place across the Southeast Asia theater (Information and Owen 1946, 201). The Bengal-Assam Railway began development by the United States Railway Engineers during late 1943 to 1944, and the British began aggressively developing air capabilities with the plan that while rail and roads would be used, the principle means of supplying troops on campaign would be through air support (ibid).

“RAF 194 Squadron deliver supplies by parachute to 25th East African Brigade (11th East African Division) on the Tamu-Sittaung road, Burma” (“194 SQUADRON DROP SUPPLIES 25TH EAST AFRICAN BRIGADE Allocated Title (JFU 140)” 2015)

May through September of 1943 the group trained in jungle warfare, and then the entire Fifth Indian Division moved to Arakan from Ranchi in October or November of 1943 (Cree Real 1, 00:15:46). The SEAC had originally planned on a massive amphibious assault on coastal Southeast Asia. However, at the Tehran Conference, the meeting between U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, it was determined to allocate the resources that had been set aside for this action back to Europe (Information and Owen 1946, 201). This meant that instead of a naval invasion that British would launch a land invasion through the mountain pass of the Arakan Hills, which opened Arakan up the Bangladesh along the western coast.

Along with Cree’s Fifth Indian Division, the Seventh Indian Division and the 81st and 82nd West African Division, all part of the Fourteenth Army, took place in the invasion. These latter two divisions, composed primarily of West African troops organized into Nigerian, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Gold Coast regiments, fought in Burma under the command of British officers from 1943 to 1945 and 1946. Among them was Edward Medland, a non-commissioned officer who served in the First Battalion Gold Coast Regiment of the 82nd West African Division. He had moved with his division, embarking from Lagos and moving by ship through the Suez Canal to Karachi (Medland Reel 1, 00:18:12). From there there they also went to Ranchi for training to jungle warfare. Actually, Medland noted that the divisions were placed about 60 miles from Ranchi “in the jungle” (Medland Reel 1, 00:18:55). The African troops experiences of India were limited, and while white soldiers could make trips to Ranchi when given a weekend leave and board at a Church of England Institute, the lack of facilities for the African troops meant that they usually remained in camp even when given leave (Medland Reel 1, 00:19:10). Building a fire, singing songs and drinking palm wine was the usual way of making merry in the camp, and Medland fondly recalled such times spent in India with his African soldiers like this as “we liked a drop of it if we could get it” (Medland Reel 1, 00:20:00).


Film dated 1944-10-31, “The 81st West African Division is in the process of pushing the Japanese from Mowdok, India (Bangladesh) to the Kaladan River, Burma” (“Story West African Troops Allocated Title (JFU 116)” 2015)

From Ranchi, Cree and the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment train (“and etcetera”) moved, no doubt in part over the newly constructed Bengal-Assam Railway, to Chittagong, and then forward into the Arakan (Cree Real 1, 00:16:00). They moved, arduously, from Chittagong to the front, coming first to Cox’s Bazaar on the coast, which had been the staging point for the first campaign (Cree Real 1, 00:17:15). From there, they proceeded via river steamboat to the Teknaf Peninsula (Cree Real 1, 00:17:28). Teknaf is the southernmost point in mainland Bangladesh, and sits at the mouth of the Naf River (which Cree refers to as the Teknaf River). The Naf River forms the modern border of Bangladesh and Burma. The peninsula was “garrisoned for a month or two” and the British remained there through December of 1943 (Cree Real 1, 00:17:40). Soon after Christmas, they moved into the Arakan proper and launched an offensive against the coastal town of Maungdaw (Cree Real 1, 00:18:22; Information and Owen 1946, 201). This was an important port town because it was “the terminus of the Buthidaung railway” (Cree Real 1, 00:18:38). The Japanese were able to put in at Maungdaw and transport goods into the interior, and its strategic importance was obvious. The 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was charged with the capture of Maungdaw.

There was a network of inland waterways, or “chaungs” (tidal creeks), and they planned to make a seaborne assault using these creeks and surprise the enemy (Cree Real 1, 00:19:10). Using light boats, two companies rowed towards Maungdaw, coming ashore, picking up their boats and carrying them across to the next waterway, and then rowing across it until they reached Maungdaw where they then engaged it on foot (Cree Real 1, 00:20:20). Cree led two more divisions that marched up across land and attacked, and although they were met by some “token” Japanese resistance, they managed to take the port (Cree Real 1, 00:20:30). Although it is sometimes given that the offense against Maungdaw was launched on January 19, Cree reported it was taken by January 11 (Cree Real 1, 00:20:45; Information and Owen 1946, 201).

Medland and the Gold Coast Regiment had first moved to Calcutta, and then by rail to Dimapur. Dimapur was the terminus of the was the main supply depot for the Fourteenth Army. From here, the regiment moved down into the Arakan, no doubt passing through Chittagong on their way to Maungdaw (Medland Reel 1, 00:24:10). Medland recalled that when they arrived, the “Fifteen Corp” (the Indian XV Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Philip Christison) had attacked and were regrouping (Medland Reel 1, 00:24:38). From Cree’s recollections, it seems clear that Maungdaw was already taken by the arrival of Medland and the African divisions, although Medland suggests, perhaps erroneously, that with the arrival of the West African Divisions, Maungdaw was re-engaged and captured.

“Arakan Battle Front (No Sound)”(“Arakan Battle Front – No Sound” 2015)

With the capture of Maungdaw, it became a bridgehead from which to stage attacks into the interior. The Fifth Division Indian Division focused its efforts on clearing Japanese in the areas surrounding Maungdaw, while much of the others focused on Mayu Range and the railway tunnels linking Maungdaw to the towns of Buthidaung and Letwedet. So while Cree and his troops would soon be engaged in the The Battle of the Admin Box, where the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was sent in as reinforcements, the West African divisions proceeded to Buthidaung, the northern rail head that ran from Maungdaw.

Map of the movements of the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment

Map of the movements of the 82nd West African Division

The Second Arakan Campaign in many ways marked a turning point in the war as the Allied forced went from falling back or furtive attempts at offense to the development of a more successful strategy to retake Southeast Asia. The strategy Cree called “staying put” was a success, and rather than falling back, Allied troops were supplied by air drops and managed to hold their ground. The victory in the Battle of the Admin Box was proof that the new strategy of strong defensive lines supplied by air would be key to turning the tide in the Arakan as well as Burma’s interior.

“Burma, Arakan Front, 1943” (“Burma – Arakan Front (1943)” 2015)


“194 Squadron Drop Supplies 25th East African Brigade Allocated Title (JFU 140).” 2015. Accessed December 14.

“Arakan Battle Front – No Sound.” 2015. Accessed December 14.

“Burma – Arakan Front (1943).” 2015. Accessed December 14.

“Cree Gerald Hilary IWM Interview (10469).” 2015. Accessed December 14.

Information, Great Britain Central Office of, and F. Owen. 1946. The Campaign in Burma. His Majesty’s Stationery of Office.

Lee, Adrian. 2013. “Griff Rhys Jones: My Dad’s Forgotten War.” July 6.

“Medland Edward IWM Interview (10466).” 2015. Accessed December 14.

“Story West African Troops Allocated Title (JFU 116).” 2015. Accessed December 14.

An Interim Period Between Occupations in Singapore

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Soh Guan Bee recalled that people knew the Japanese were losing the war only by inference. Radios were censored, as were other forms of media from the outside, and the movie reels were replete with stories of Japanese triumphs. But when the B-52s began bombing Singapore, Soh recalled that everyone knew the Japanese must be losing the war. Even though the civilian population had to take great precautions because of the bombing, it was welcome as Soh recalled everyone knew it meant “liberation” was coming for Singapore. When surrender came, it was not known until the following day, when it appeared in the papers.

Soh had worked in a Japanese air force office and naval office as he’d trained as a fitter. His job at the time of surrender was in a mechanic shop that had been taken over by the Japanese on Orchard Road. He left for work that day not knowing of the surrender, and had been puzzled as to why the buses were not running, and assumed it had broken down. He then discovered the Japanese had surrendered. It was announced on the radio, but it seems Soh first mentioned that he found out through the paper, but later suggested he first found out from the radio announcements. He made his way to work anyway, where the “jaga” (watchman) told him to return home, and that the workshop was all locked up. Soh’s telling is a bit unclear, but it seems he returned to the shop the following day, but was was told to return home as there was “no reason to work today.” It seems he went to perhaps retrieve his tools, but found the shop still locked up and boarded. As he returned home, he saw “lots of Allied soldiers coming in” and so he knew the “Japanese are no more.”

The shop remained closed, with the jaga charged with not admitting anyone as it had come under the “British Administrative Rule” or “BMA.” The Japanese, he said, behaved as usual and were busy simply “packing up.” His own boss simply packed up and said, “I’m going back,” and left them be.

Reprisal killings began immediately. Soh reported that members of “Force 136,” a general name for British-sponsored or condoned resistance groups, began targeted killing and torture, mainly along Rangoon Road. Soh identified them as “communists” who had come down from Malaya and were composed of not only Chinese but Malays and Indians as well. They identified themselves as “liberation people.” The individuals targeted were informants, police under the Japanese administration, and perhaps others. Although Soh did not think of himself as a collaborator, he still expressed his fright that perhaps if he were out in the area he might be targeted as well, as who knows who might have a grudge or might even mistake him for someone else. They were armed and in uniform, although Soh recalls that they were wearing different uniforms. Many mistook them for Allied soldiers, and in fact he may have initially as well. The group even set a headquarters up in a hotel on Rangoon Road. However, once the British arrived, by boat and by parachute, the Force 136 quickly faded away as a visible group. The interim period was over, and the colonists returned to reestablish their own form of occupation and oversee the logistics of the Japanese surrender.



“20393. Chinese Civilian in Singapore Malaya during Japanese Occupation 1942-1945.” Text. Imperial War Museums. Accessed December 3, 2015.

Life Under Occupation

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In late 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army launched its attack on British Southeast Asia.  The British has long been cognizant of the threat, and had developed what was known as the “Singapore Strategy” in which the city was to become a key defensive position, an impregnable island of resistance in case of a Japanese attack. When the Japanese invasion came, from the northern part of Malaysia as expected, British forces were inadequate and subsequently were forced to continually fall back. Key cities fell in quick succession: Penang on December 17, Taiping on December 22, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, and Japanese troops here in Johor by January 15 which fell on the 27th of that month (Abshire 2011, 92, 94). Japanese bombing raids inflicted causalities as the British attempted to hold out. On February 8, 1942, Japanese troops began crossing the Straits, and on February 15, the British waved the white flag and surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. Occupation officially began the following day.

Life under the Japanese occupation in Singapore could vary depending on where you were and who you were.  Joseph Seah, a Christian Chinese Singaporean, reported that because his family lived in an area that had no Japanese trading companies, and therefore there was little interference in their daily lives by the Japanese.  Rumors reached them about what has happening outside, but their lives were mainly quiet although there were occasional visits by Japanese soldiers.  The war was felt mainly in their stomachs and their pocketbooks.  “Patented medicines” became almost impossible to find, and therefore many people turned to Chinese herbalists.  Seah even reported that they began a small apothecary garden in their own backyard to grow herbs used to treat common afflictions.  Seah recalled that throughout the war, some doctors had medicines available, but they were very expensive.  Other medicines could be had on the black market, and his own family purchased quinine because of the fear of malaria given that the “care of the environment” such as  clearing drains was no longer occurring as it had under the British.  Seah recalled riding his bicycles around; most of the bikes’ tires were not pneumatic, so the ride must have been a bit rough.  The Japanese has seized most of the cars, and besides some private taxis, most cars on the road were Japanese, with a few buses running although the ticket price was quite expensive. Moving outside carried certain dangers, and Seah saw his mother beaten for not bowing “low enough” to a Japanese sentry, and also saw a friend beaten for failing to get off his bicycle as he went through a checkpoint.  Money was very difficult, and Seah often worked as a “procurer,” getting lists of people’s requested goods, often simply household commodities, and going to seek it from others willing to sell or trade those items.  The lack of money was the most pronounced aspect of Seah’s experiences under the Japanese occupation.  Other parts of life were unaffected.  The family continued to attend church at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and there was no interference with services.

Tan Ban Cheng recalls a very difficult experience in which the Japanese were much more a part of daily life.  He spoke about the roundups of young men for forced labor.  All individuals were issued badges or armbands (Seah just recalled having a paper pass issued, which must be produced if asked).  Those involved in “essential services” would not be round-ups.  However, those who were not were vulnerable to such roundups, which Tan recalls increasing occurred towards the end of occupation.  Many of these young men “did not come back,” and Tan relates that it was later learned that many of them had been sent to Malaya or Thailand where they were involved in rail construction.  Tan himself was a student, and he joined a Japanese language school, known as Queen Street Japanese School, in the evenings run by what were called “gunzoku” which Tan described as “auxiliary to the military.”  The classes were of mixed ages and genders, and were for the most part conducted in Japanese with a bit of broken English.  The staff was entirely Japanese except for a few groundskeepers.  Each class culminated in a written exam, for which students would receive a certificate upon successful completion.  Armed with his certificates, Tan went on to join the Teachers’ Training College at Saint Joseph Institution where a Japanese curriculum had been instituted to replace that of the previous regime.

The contrast between the two men’s experiences are apparent.  The impacts of the Japanese occupation were, for Seah, more indirect.  Shortages and poverty, the indirect results of the occupation through inflation and the disruption of the movement of goods, was the primary impact.  For Tan, it was the introduction of a new educational system and from close contact with Japanese educators and other professionals.  It underlines that there was not “one” experience of occupation, but different individuals had vastly different experiences.

Abshire, Jean E. 2011. The History of Singapore. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.

“SEAH, Joseph Japanese Occupation of Singapore 日治时期的新加坡, Accession Number 001558.” Accessed December 1, 2015.

“TAN Ban Cheng ( Dr ) 陈万清 Japanese Occupation of Singapore 日治时期的新加坡, Accession Number 000392.” Accessed November 30, 2015.

“Drifting About”

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The documents from the “Index to statements, miscellaneous memorandum ” Rakuyo Maru ” interrogation” provide a gloomy picture of the experiences of the British and Australian POWs who were aboard the doomed Rokuyo Maru, a passenger vessel headed to Formosa which was torpedoed on 12 September 1944 (“Rakuyo Maru”). 1,317 Australian and British prisoners went into the water. Only 60 British and 92 Australians were recovered, by three submarines which had returned to the area (“Japanese Left Prisoners To Drown 600 A.I.F. Men Missing From Transport,” 1944).

The document, “”Rakuyo Maru” interrogation,” along with first person accounts, such as those that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, 18 November 1944, provide window into this tragedy. Page after page of the report on individuals who went into the water describe men going delirious, dying from exhaustion, becoming blind and helpless, or who simply slipped off the oil-coated rafts at night. Men consumed saltwater in their thirst, going mad by hastening their own dehydration. Many simply swam off, were seen going under, or took their own lives in their desperation (“Rakuyo Maru”).

An anonymous North Queenslander described how, by the beginning of the third day, many men had become delirious, seeing things such as a “creek of freshwater” which they often attempted to leave their rafts in order to reach (“Survivors’ Stories of Heroism and Tragedy”). These delusions help us understand better the large number of men reported as delirious and drifting from the rafts, or delirious and drifting alone. The Queenslander described efforts to save these men, but coated in oil it was difficult to hold on to them or manage to get them into the rafts without great personal risk.

Men attempted to stay together, but at night many drifted away and were separated from the others. Many of those individuals’ fates remains unknown, but in all likelihood they would have succumbed to exposure or thirst. Many men are reported to have been drifting alone, or having a raft that drifted away or was carried away by “the tide.” A New South Wales survivor recalled that the rafts, slick with oil from the downed ship, were hard to hang onto or board, and that many men slipped out of them, some unable to regain them again (“Drifted About,” 1944). This helps account for the dozens of men who were reported as having “disappeared from the raft at night.”


Works Referenced:

The Sydney Morning Herald. 1944. “Japanese Left Prisoners To Drown 600 A.I.F. Men Missing From Transport,” November 18.

The Sydney Morning Herald. 1944. “Drifted About,” November 18.

The Sydney Morning Herald. 1944. “Survivors’ Stories of Heroism and Tragedy,” November 18.

“‘Index to Statements, Miscellaneous Memorandum ’ Rakuyo Maru ‘ Interrogation’: NAA: B3856, 144/1/128 Attachment 6.” 2015. Accessed November 24.