On 30 April 1942, the last of General Slim’s forces crossed the Irrawaddy via the Ava bridge at Mandalay. Shortly thereafter, the bridge was blown up to slow up the Japanese advance, and try and buy time for the battered Burcorps to retreat to India. April had been a tough month, but it was not over yet. The Army still needed to cross the Chindwin and traverse the Chin Hills to what they hoped would be the safety of India, shielded by the coming monsoon. At the time, this retreat was likened to a Far Eastern Dunkirk.
General Iida’s plan had been to pin the Allied armies against the Irrawaddy and destroy them with their backs to the great river. To do this, 18 and 55 Divisions advanced straight for Mandalay along the road and rail communications, while 56 Division was to attempt a hook through the Shan states on the right flank of the Japanese advance after Toungoo fell at the beginining of April. This flanking movement of the 56 Division was intended to move with greater speed having been given the added mobility ‘of an independent motor transport battalion of 250 vehicles’. This was the battle for central Burma.
The road from Toungoo runs east through Mawchi, just beyond which it swings north towards Bawlake and then on Loikaw, Taunggyi, and about 230km later hits the road that runs roughly northeast from Mandalay towards Lashio:
The speed of the advance was hampered by SOE’s Oriental Mission. Not yet known as Force 136, and only absorbed into Colin Mackenzie’s India Mission during this month, SOE managed to contribute something significant to the debacle in Burma in 1942, as written about in ‘Burma 1942: SOE’s role in ‘Defeat into Victory’.
Here’s the diary report of Captain Arthur Thompson, one of the Oriental Mission officers in charge of fighting the rearguard action on the road from Toungoo. It starts on 23 March, the day after he and his company of Karens from 1st Battalion the Burma Rifles arrived at Toungoo and encamped on the aerodrome:
Received orders to proceed with all Karens of the Battalion (totalling 135) to MAWCHI to report to Capt. BOYT. We were to leave 2 days later with rations for 10 days and to get 25 bullock carts from F.F.3. [Frontier Force Rifles, one of the colonial units for the defence of Burma]. We were limited to rifles and 60 rounds .303 per man, and 4 Tommy-guns; our Bren guns, cup-dischargers, tools etc being taken away to the PROME front.
Met Major Lindsay and Capt. Klein who gave me a rough idea of what work we would be doing in Karenni.
Arranged with F.F.3. to take over the bullock carts next morning. Drew rations for 10 days from Supplies Dump.
The battalion moved off in the evening to entrain.
Heavy firing broke out at about 0800 hours to the West and North-West sides of the aerodrome. Company stood to. I went over to F.F.3. who were under mortar-fire and found that they were preparing to move Northwards, and that they had already sent the bullock carts (except 3) away. Moved these 3 carts over to our position.
By now firing more intense and fair amount of mortar and shell fire around our position, so we moved to new area covering the South-Eastern corner of the aerodrome. It was now about 1000 hours.
I went over to locate the CHINESE H.Q. with Sub.Major KAN CHOKE to see if we could take a more useful part in the action. We were fired on when about 200 yeard [sic] from their H.Q. and had to return. On our way back, met Major WITHERS who was about to move up the road Northwards. Neither of us could give the other any clear picture of what was happening.
Stayed in our position until about 1300 hours and sent out close patrols. Capt. SANDEMAN then arived with about 2 of his mounted infantry and we decided to approach the CHINESE H.Q. again. As we did so we were again fired on with LMG’s and once more had to return to our position.
Capt. SANDEMAN left, going North-East, at about 1400 hours and I understand he was killed soon afterwards.
We prepared to move off at about 1400 hours, and spent some time destroying various stores etc. which had been left intact by the R.A.F. ground staff.
As [sic] approximately 1400 hours we moved in a South-Easterly direction with the three bullock carts carrying some rations and sick men. We had no maps and as a result got into difficult going for the carts which slowed us up.
By about 1730 hours we had reached the SITTANG RIVER and during the crossing one bullock cart was bogged and had to be abandoned. On the East bank we were fired on from a village and only as we were about to attack did we realize that it was a CHINESE CAVALRY PATROL.
Continued moving South-Eastwards until about 2100 hours, when we halted for the night at a friendly Karen village a few miles from the Toungoo-Mawchi Road.
Three men were lost on the aerodrome.
Carried on with guide towards the road at an early hour. Met Jemadar from 5th Battalion with Bren-gun (one magazine) who joined us. Near 10th mile (?) fired on from village (which I later learned was a THOMPSON KAREN stronghold).
Did not like moving by day as enemy planes continuously about, so halted first West of the THANDAUNG road junction at PATHECHAUNG, where the Chinese had an H.Q. and many wounded from TOUNGOO.
Moved up the road late afternoon. A few miles past PATHECHAUNG met O.M. [Oriental Mission] lorry with Capt. SAYRES of 2 A.T. Coy. who was going down to the CHINESE H.Q. to try to release a Burman Jemedar of the 1st Battalion who was being held by them. Went back with him and after much trouble got the Jemadar released. Caught Company up and finally bivouaced at about 0100 hours. Sent message up to Capt. BOYT by the lorry asking for food.
Marched throughout day. Villages deserted. Crossed the PALETWA bridge and halted for the night about 4 miles from BAWGALAGYI (which we did not know of).
Capt. BOYT and Lt. BRYCE SMITH arrived early with food and one truck which shuttled troops on to BAWGALAGYI. Went back to PATHECHAUNG with Capt. BOYT to hand over demolitions of the road to CHINESE. They were not interested in anything except the PALETWA bridge which they said they would blow if needs be.
BAWGALAGYI. Instructing LEVIES in the use of rifle, grenade, etc.
Went back to TAWSO on road recce. Troops continued training levies.
Lt-Col. SWALE-RYAN arrived. Prepared plan for attack by Company on KYAUKKYI. News received that CHINESE surrounded at TOUNGOO and that the PALETWA bridge was blown. Moved Company forward to cover this major demolition, while some LEVIES under Lt. BA THEIN added further craters to the zig-zag road above bridge.
March 31st/April 2nd
Continued covering road and demolition party, and firing up booby traps etc.
At about 0030 hours several lorries, armoured cars and motor-cycles arrived on far end of destroyed bridge. It was thought by Sub. Major KAN CHOKE (who commanded the three forward platoons) better to allow the enemy to approach close to our positions before opening fire, in view of our limited armament. At about 0130 hours four scouts passed through our forward platoon and then returned to signal the main body of the enemy up. Fire was opened up at about 20 yards range and many casualties inflicted on the enemy. Thereafter there was sporadic firing for [90 mins] when the Japanese overran the left hand platoon and threatened the line of withdrawal. A withdrawal was therefore made, the two remaining forward platoons being covered out by the reserve sections and a new position was taken up a little West of BAWGALAGYI. The enemy did not follow up. We had lost 25 men and had knocked out about 30 Japanese.
Lt-Col. RYAN left for MAWCHI by car instructing me to keep in touch with him by telephone and on no account get heavily involved with the enemy.
Capt. KLEIN left for HOLADUR across country. It was now about 0900 hours.
Lt. BA THEIN and I blew the road in two places at BAWGALAGYI and heavily booby trapped the craters etc. The telephone line West of our position was cut.
At 1200 hours a rifleman arrived having escaped from the enemy and said that the Jemadar commanding the captured platoon had first been beheaded.
At 1600 hours the enemy force was seen from our O.P. [observation post] moving up the road about [half] mile away in column of march. I estimated that strength at 700-800 men and reported to Lt-Col. RYAN in MAWCHI by phone. He ordered our immediate withdrawal to TAWSO.
As we prepared to move an O.M. lorry arrived and I was able to get away most of the stores and the sick men, up to TAWSO. Nothing was left undestroyed in the village. Lt. BA THEIN went back to blow the road between BAWGALAGYI and TAWSO.
We moved back to TAWSO laying innumerable booby traps on the road. At 2100 hours we were in position there. I was on the phone to Lt-Col. RYAN who said we were to withdraw to KYICHAUNG at once where we were to try and delay the enemy. There were two wooden bridges which were to be burned if possible.
We withdrew at about 2300 hours and moved towards KYICHAUNG. One of the wooden bridges was set on fire and just after I and Subedar BA GYAW had left it, it blew up. The second wooden bridge we blew in orthodox fashion.
Took up a position just West of Kyichaung at about 0400 hours.
I received a chit from Lt. BA THEIN saying that he was moving to HOLADUR so his orders were only to accompany me this far and that further demolitions were ahead which I would deal with myself. He sent with the chit a box of detonators and some safety fuse. I heard then that he had just left and I could not understand why he did not come to see me himself. He had worked well this far.
Capt. BOYT tried to get me on the phone but I could not hear him very well so decided to go back to BEEMUKO where he was. Before I left Sub. Major KAN CHOKE and I blew two further demolitions at the KYICHAUNG and I reajusted our position to cover them.
I met Capt. BOYT at BEEMUKO at about 1700 hours. He had one or two levies with him and about 29 CHINESE SAPPERS. He decided to come down with me to our position for the night as the lorry driver had disappeared. We returned at about 2100 hours to KYICHAUNG.
We were attacked at about 0230 hours. They were almost immediatly in action with one mortar which was followed within [half] hour by another two at longer range. Capt. BOYT took the lorry back to BEEMUKO to get in touch with MAWCHI (on the way back it broke down and he had to jettison the kit and proceed on foot).
The mortar fire was most damaging, as we were not dug in, and although we put one crew out of action they must have put down something like two bombs a minute during our stay.
After about an hour they were seen trying to get round our left flank but this was prevented by fire from Sub. BA GYAW’S platoon. They therefore concentrated on blowing us out of our position and in spite of local counter attack led by Sub. THORAG PE, who was killed, we had to withdraw at about 0430 hours.
We lost 43 men in this engagement, and accounted for an estimated 30 Japanese.
I stayed behind with our remaining three Tommy gunners to cover our withdrawal but they did not attempt to follow up. I finally withdrew at 0530 hours and reached BEEMUKO, after laying further booby traps, at about 0830 hours.
An old lorry was up there and I took it back to where Capt. BOYT had broken down in his lorry to try and salvage the stores left there. With me were two or three CHINESE SAPPERS who were to blow the road near that point. At about that time a Jap plane came over low and machine-gunned the hillside where we had last been in position, and then circled the enemy troops about 4 miles down the road from where I was.
After loading the lorry it refused to work again and I had to send it over to khud-side. We waited there, trying to get a demolition to blow (the fuses were damp) and at about 1600 hours a lorry arrived driven by Lt. HANNA which took us back to BEEMUKO where Capt. BOYT was in position.
Another truck arrived from MAWCHI and with this and the one I was in, we moved back to MAWCHI, blowing each demolition as we went.
We finally passed through the CHINESE positions and arrived at MAWCHI at about 0130 hours.
At 0900 hours we moved North by M.T. towards LOIKAW with all moveable stores from MAWCHI. The Company – now about 60 strong – moved off first, and Capt. BOYT and I moved in the rear, covering any breakdown of lorries.
The company arrived in LOIKAW at about 1900 hours.
Capt. BOYT and I, along with several lorries that had made slow progress, arrived in LOIKAW early morning about 0900 hours.
Went to TAUNGGYI by car to draw kit etc. for Company.
Returned to Loikaw and rested.
Moved off with Company to HPALAING with instructions to watch the PINLAUNG VALLEY. On arrival there met Lt. MCCRINDLE coming back from YADO who said the Japs had outflanked him and were moving up fast. Returned to LOIKAW – 25 miles – mainly on foot. Arrived 2400 hours.
03300 Hours. Met Col. STEVENSON who ordered evacuation of LOIKAW at daybreak.
From 0700 hours onwards ferried troops and stores in lorries up to HSESENG.
Completed days work at HSESENG at about 2100 hours.
Moved to MAUNGPAWN by M.T. Arrived about 1200 hours.
MONGPAWN. Waiting for orders and re-organizing Company. Only 58 strong now due to casualties and about 5 desertions at LOIKAW.
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N.B. 1. See my diary from this date onwards.
2. I am certain that if we had had sme LMG’s, grenade dischargers and tools for digging in we could have done much better. Without slit-trenches we had no protection at all, against mortar fire particularly. Neither had we transport to get the wounded away who had to be left. There were NO desertions while moving from TOUNGOO to MAWCHI and the majority of our losses were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. A few men deserted at LOIKAW.
It was estimated that the actions of Captain Thompson, Lt. Ba Thein, Captain Boyt, Sub.Major Kan Choke and Subedar Ba Gyaw stalled the Japanese advance by up to a week, thus preventing Iida’s rapid hook up through Karenni to the road north of Mandalay. The cost in men was high, from 135 at Toungoo down to 58 by the time Thompson reached Mawchi. The Jemadar who was apparently beheaded was probably Pan Nya, who is listed here on CWCG with an unknown date of death.
Whatever the significance in terms of contributing to foiling Iida’s plan to pin the Army against the Irrawaddy and helping the retreat to India, remembering the Karen men like Jemadar Pan Nya of 1st Battalion the Burma Rifles 80 years on.