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Gurkhas of 50 Indian Parachute Brigade get ready to emplane. Photograph credit: Here
In early May 1945, it was the troops of 26 Indian Division who eventually reclaimed Rangoon from Imperial Japan. Codenamed Dracula, the seaborne invasion forces defied the rough seas, beating the overland divisions of Operation Extended Capital to the city. British, Empire, American and Chinese forces had maintained a continuous front facing the Japanese since the war in Burma started in December 1941, so reclaiming Rangoon four and a half years later was the great prize. There was considerable disappointment within 17 Division that it was unable to get to Rangoon first, as this division had been fought out of Burma in 1942. Before 26 Division could land, however, the Japanese defences on Elephant Point needed to be neutralised. To that end, a battalion of Gurkhas from 50 Indian Parachute Brigade were dropped in the early hours of 1 May, codenamed Operation Castle.
The Burma campaign is increasingly associated with pioneering new tactics; using reports from the RAF Squadron Leader in charge of the Visual Control Post (VCP) and the SOE teams on the operation, this blog will show that the assault on Elephant Point was rather more interesting than many of the main ‘go-to’ books on Burma would suggest. Indeed, Squadron Leader Tull wrote:
‘The team for this operation was intentionally larger than necessary in order to safeguard against casualties and to give the maximum number of people experience in this new type of warfare.’
the ‘new type of warfare’ referred to by Tull is well established today, with much of what happened just south of Rangoon in 1945 being played out in the recent Iraq and Afghan conflicts. Taking Elephant Point included cooperation between Special Forces, RAF, local guerrillas, paratroopers, and American allies; close air support coordinated (to some extent as will be shown) by air power specialists on the front line with the troops; lastly, it included careful consideration for what is now called ‘collateral damage’.
Reading some of the historiography, there is little to no sense of new tactics being tried out, tactics in their infancy, but easily recognisable in today’s wars. Here are a few excerpts from well known texts on the war in Burma:
‘The overture to the landing [26 Division] was on D -1, the 1st May, when a heavy bombing attack was delivered on all located defences on both sides of the Rangoon River. Some hours later, a battalion of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade dropped at Elephant Point. A party of about thirty Japanese, either left for observation or just forgotten, offered resistance to the Gurkha paratroops. One wounded Japanese survived.’ Field Marshall Slim, Defeat into Victory, p.506.
‘It was as well Slim had accepted Dracula might beat Extended Capital to Rangoon. One of the main problems involved in the landing was the short time available for preparation and the situation within 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, so that only a composite battalion group was available and had to be dropped by 38 US aircraft with no experience of parachutists. However, the first lift landed on target on 1 May and advanced without opposition, but unfortunately they got ahead of schedule and were bombed by SAF despite being some 3000 yards from the objective at Elephant Point, suffering 40 casualties in the lead company. The second lift arrived and was briefly held up by a Japanese bunker, then rained on for three days while the whole area was inundated by a spring tide to a depth of 3 feet.’ Jon Latimer, Burma, The Forgotten War, p.414.
‘The six assault convoys of DRACULA had set off from Akyab and Kyaukpyu on Ramree Island between 5pm on 27 April and 5am on the 30th, to cover the 480-odd miles to Rangoon. Early in the morning of 1 May, a Force 136 detachment and a Visual Control Post were dropped five miles west of Elephant Point. Half an hour later the parachute battalion (a composite battalion of 50 Indian Parachute Brigade, the reformed survivors of Sangshak) was dropped from thirty-eight Dakotas. The drop went well, but the parachuted Gurkhas were unlucky later. They marched to within two-and-a-half miles of their objective, the guns at Elephant Point, which was being bombed by Liberators. Some of the bombs fell short and caused over thirty casualties among the paratroops, at which the Visual Control Post cancelled the bombing. Late afternoon saw the Gurkhas, after a trudge through the same torrential rain which had bogged down 17 Division, on top of the Japanese gunners. There were thirty-seven of them, and only one survived. The landing craft could now come in, once a channel had been swept through the mines.’ Louis Allen, Burma, The Longest War, p.479.
Of course, with books like these which cover the entirety of the war in Burma, it is impossible for the authors to research and write about everything in great depth. As ever, ‘The art of being a good historian is in knowing what to leave out’ – which applies to any piece of writing, from small blogs like this to PhD theses to publishing projects. But, little focused pieces like this can fill some of the gaps…
SOE was only ‘warned’ about Operation Dracula on 9 April; eighteen days later the men embarked upon HMS Waveney at Ramree Island, preparatory to sailing on 30 April. As Major James Evans, who wrote the signals report for the operation concluded, ‘Bearing in mind the short notice which we received of the operation and the inaccessibility of 26 Division HQ it was a minor triumph to get the sets and operators aboard in time.’
The SOE / Force 136 cooperation plan, written on 19 April anticipated four SOE teams supporting the operation. These were codenamed Dog, Panda, Cow and Yak. Dog and Yak were already in the field. Dog had been parachuted into the Pyapon area on 24 April; Yak, a Burmese agent, had been operational since January. Yak was to provide a welcome on Cow’s drop zone, while Dog would receive Panda. The Panda team would then move south and provide the reception for the Gurkha paratroopers while Dog began diversionary operations to occupy the Japanese. SOE had an estimated 500 locally recruited Burmese levies to support the operation. On 28 April, intelligence from these SOE teams on the ground advised that the Japanese had pulled north leaving behind only those troops manning the bunkers on Elephant Point.
The mission had been planned to a very tight schedule The Pathfinders were to land at 0600 on 1 May. Among them was Major Hedley, former Chindit, now on his second SOE operation. With him was the RAF contingent, including Squadron Leader Tull. There were nine men in the RAF VCP team, including four officers and five sergeants. Major Hedley set out the operational schedule in his report:
0630 – Straffing of Tawkai
0630 – 0800 – Paras to land
0800 – 0815 – Airstrikes south west of Tawkalaik
0815 – 0830 – Airstrike north east of Tawkalaik
0900 – 1000 – 96 Liberators to bomb Elephant Point
0930 – 0945 – Bombing and straffing of positions Tawkalaik to Thaunggon
0945 – 1000 – Bomb and straf Thaunggon
1000 – 1100 – ‘Cab Rank’ of six Mosquitoes on standby. If no instructions from the VCP then to attack Thaunggon.
1030 – 1100 – 48 Mitchells to bomb Ywathitkon
1100 – 1120 – P47s to attack west end of Thaunggon
1200 – 1215 – Bombing of Ywathitkon and Thaunggon
1215 – 1230 – One squadron to attack east end of Ywathitkon
1245 – 1345 – Cab Rank of Mosquitoes
1400 – 1430 – Two squadrons to attack west of Elephant Point
1445 – Assault on Elephant Point by paras. Aircraft to attack south east of Elephant Point.
1515 – 1830 – Cab Rank
Hedley wrote that ‘the support laid on was extremely heavy and the whole operation was to be a step by step assault on a timed programme.’ In his opinion, if there had been any enemy other than those at Elephant Point, such support would have been welcome, but such a time restrictive plan was to have some serious consequences. In terms of VCP coordination with the aircraft allocated to support the operation, Squadron Leader Tull was not in control of the Mitchells, they ‘could not be stopped’. The ‘Cab Ranks’ of Mosquitoes would only attack on orders from Tull, and the rest of tactical bombing outlined above would go ahead unless Tull stopped it. This would of course depend upon signals working.
When the Pathfinders landed on their drop zone at around 0550, they were met by Captain Planell of the Panda SOE team. He informed Hedley that the only Japs left were the ones on Elephant Point. Tull immediately called off the air strike due to go in on Tawkai. Hedley sent villagers off to warn Tawkalaik and Thaunggon, with instructions to congregate in the safety of the paddy fields. Meanwhile, Planell’s levies recovered the supplies and signals equipment which had been dropped anything up to a mile away due to their deployment from one aircraft while the red light was still on. Other aircraft, seeing the drop being made, had chosen to dispose of their cargo too.
From 0645 the Gurkha battalion began landing and by 0715 the troops were ready to move off. Since there really were no Japs, the advance was much faster than the operational planning had allowed. By 0745, the advance had to be halted about half a mile ‘beyond’ Tawkalaik to prevent the RAF from hitting their own troops. Tull managed to prevent the 0800 to 0830 air strike going in against Tawkalaik, but due to poor comms, the advance did not continue for another 90 minutes. Tull then saved Thaunggon from being bombed, but in came the Liberators to hit Elephant Point, and as the extracts above relate, friendly forces were hit.
Hedley reported that a single Liberator dropped six 1000lb bombs ‘in a forward coy [company] position killing 17 and wounding 25.’ Tull wrote that the Liberator machine gunned the position too, and ‘completely wiped out the coy HQ’, killing over twenty and wounding up to thirty. At 1030, it was the Mitchells’ turn to go in, their target Ywathikon, a village the locals had not managed to warn earlier that morning. It is not clear from the reports, but the assumption here is that this is where 24 civilians were killed.
This was not the full extent of the mistakes made that day.
At 1100 the P47s due to attack west of Thaunggan went in. Hedley did not mention it, but Tull wrote ‘Since no casualties were caused to our own troops by this bombing, the incident itself and the acrimonious conversation over the R/T which accompanied it, may well be forgotten.’ After reorganising in Thaunggan, Hedley was sent back to the DZ at Tawkai to help with the local labour and supplies. About 1600, three men were injured in a supply drop. By now the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) was at Elephant Point, so the injured had to be taken there. Hedley continued:
Meanwhile, Tull had been busy on Elephant Point, so his report only briefly mentions this incident of ‘friendly fire’. Between 1400 and 1515, Tull was seeking out drop zones for supplies and trying to find a suitable strip from which to fly out the wounded. He found one, but no aircraft were made available in time, so ‘several men […] died during the night or subsequently’. The remaining casualties ended up being evacuated by sea the next day (2 May).
While Tull was thus occupied, Flight Lieutenant Ball was in charge of the forward VCP, bringing aircraft in on the Jap bunkers. While the smoke from mortars apparently proved ineffective in target marking, one attack was apparently so successful that ‘cannon fire entered through the slit of the bunker and killed about 20 Japs’. By 1700, Elephant point was captured, but there was still intermittent rifle and machine gun fire from a remaining bunker. This was the bunker that is mentioned in all four extracts above, which ‘was eventually wiped out by flame throwers after causing us several casualties.’ There were still a few isolated bunkers to be dealt with the following day, but these were not considered a risk to the seaborne invasion, and in the event, the Japanese abandoned them overnight.
In the morning, Hedley and Tull raised the Union Jack and the RAF flag on Elephant Point. Investigation of the area discovered a further twenty or so Jap bodies, but in Tull’s opinion ‘the heavy bombing of Elephant Point and YWATHIKON had only been moderately successful; there were a large number of bunkers and adjacent positions on the point itself, which were completely untouched.’ Nonetheless, the point was taken and 26 Division could roll in off the increasingly rough seas and secure Rangoon, which was found to be run ‘entirely by the BDA, except for the Chinese quarter, which was barricaded up and picketed by armed Chinese.’
In the conclusion to their reports, the two men had the following to say:
- According to Hedley, the plan for Castle was ‘unsound’. The schedule was to rigid and ‘inflexible’.
- A lack of planning with the ground troops preparatory to going in, coupled with the mission being ‘short and fast moving’ made cooperation difficult.
- It was clear to Hedley that the best use to be made of SOE was providing intelligence and helping out by organising the locals to clear the drop zone and provide transport for equipment.
- Tull wrote that ‘Airborne VCPs are a practicable proposition and account should have been taken of them in planning future airborne operations.
- Tull also thought the plan was ‘inflexible’. In his opinion, safeguarding the possibility of the VCP being out of communications had led to the timed operation that needed to be adapted to the situation on the ground.
- The link up with Force 136 was, wrote Tull, ‘extremely useful’ and should be the norm on future airborne operations (he was thinking of Malaya).
- Liaison with Force 136 was ‘instrumental in saving three villages from annihilation.’
- Tull recommended that future VCPs have a protection group allocated to them.
- Future ops should not rely on local labour to move their equipment as they ‘had a habit of running away once bullets were fired.’