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. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060031799.
“Arakan Battle Front – No Sound.” 2015. Accessed December 14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYuvXoYoiI8.
“Burma – Arakan Front (1943).” 2015. Accessed December 14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXq1w4ci5bs.
“Cree Gerald Hilary IWM Interview (10469).” 2015. Accessed December 14. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80010247.
Information, Great Britain Central Office of, and F. Owen. 1946. The Campaign in Burma. His Majesty’s Stationery of Office.
“Medland Edward IWM Interview (10466).” 2015. Accessed December 14. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80010244.
“Story West African Troops Allocated Title (JFU 116).” 2015. Accessed December 14. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060030425.