It took the Japanese about a week to cross the Sittang River with enough force to continue the offensive. Gen Harold Alexander (we will hear his name again) the brand new “General Officer Commanding-in-Chief” of Burma, ordered Rangoon evacuated, and military supplies and port and industrial facilities destroyed. (The destruction of the Burmah Oil Company’s fields, now known as BP, resulted in 20 years of litigation and endless fodder for the postwar British tabloids). But to escape, the Japanese had to be convinced Rangoon would be heavily defended. To that end, the British 7th Armoured Brigade counterattacked the Japanese at Pegu on 3 March, resulting in one of the few Allied tank battles with the Japanese in the war. Without adequate infantry support the Honeys of the 7th Armoured fell back but the attack was ultimately successful in convincing the Japanese that the Allies would attempt to hold Rangoon.
The Japanese plan was to infiltrate, as they had done so very many times so far in the campaign, around the British to the north. However this time they’d audaciously use an entire division, and then simultaneously assault Rangoon from both the east and west. On 6 March 1942, the Japanese 33rd Division reached the Rangoon-Prome Road, which headed west then north away from the city. For the withdrawing British, the road was the only route of evacuation. The Japanese commander duly set up a roadblock at Taukkyan with his lead regiment, and continued on to his attack positions with his other two.
The British were trapped.
Alexander’s HQ, the remnants of the 1st Burmese and 17th Indian Divisions, the 7th Armoured, and thousands of civilians needed that road to escape. Rangoon looked to be another Singapore.
All day the British threw themselves in increasingly desperate assaults on the roadblock. They had to break out, or face certain death or captivity. The “Desert Rats” of the 7th may have given the Germans and Italians the “what-for” in the Western Desert a few months prior, but they could not push aside the tenacious Japanese defense, whose Molotov cocktails left the road littered with burning wrecks. That night, Gen Alexander himself moved forward to organize one last attack with every available fighting unit in the army to overwhelm the roadblock. If it failed they would have to surrender. The assault would begin just after dawn.
As the sun rose in the east, exhausted Sikhs, Punjabi’s, Brits, Burmese, and Gurkhas stepped off with steely determination in one last do-or-die attempt to break out.
But the Japanese were gone.
The Japanese roadblock wasn’t meant to encircle Rangoon or prevent the British from escaping. The regiment’s mission was to protect the flank and rear of the Japanese columns as they made their way to the attack positions west of the city. When that happened, the regimental commander, confident and proud in the fact that he accomplished his mission under difficult circumstances, dismantled the roadblock and moved out to his own attack positions in rigid adherence to his orders. The escape route was clear.
For the rest of the day, the Japanese attacked east into an unoccupied Rangoon, as the British, just a few miles to the north and nearly parallel, escaped west.
The Army of Burma would live to fight another day.