The First Battle of Arakan

More than anything the British did, the monsoon season of 1942 prevented the victorious Japanese from continuing their drive from Burma into Eastern India (today’s Bangladesh). The victories in Ethiopia and the Western Desert, and the stalled German advance at Stalingrad which precluded any German attack across the Caucuses Mountains, allowed formations to be transferred to India to fight the Japanese. The British and Indian Army in Bengal began to rebuild, and Field Marshal Wavell, the new Commander in Chief – India (He didn’t get along with Churchill and was fired from CinC – Middle East) knew the reorganized, but demoralized and unexperienced troops, needed a victory if they were expected to stop a renewed Japanese offensive into India, or advance into Central Burma. The capture of the Arakan Peninsula in Western Burma fit the bill: it was lightly defended, geographically isolated, and Akyab Island at its southernmost tip was perfect for extending air power over the Bay of Bengal and south central Burma. The task fell to Lt-Gen William Slim’s VVV Corps in southern Bengal. The attack would commence as soon as the monsoon ended.

The Indians struck first. In 1942, the Indian National Congress (INC), who wanted to cut all ties with Britain, was decidedly pro-Japanese (The decision was just pragmatic politics: For the first eight months of 1942, the Japanese were victorious everywhere, the British nowhere). The INC assumed that India was too large and too populated to be fully conquered by Japan and the Japanese would just oust the British, and put the INC in charge, leaving them be. (The Japanese trend of not doing so in Taiwan, the Philippines, Manchuria, China, Malaya, Indochina, Korea, and the Dutch East Indies notwithstanding.) In August, Mahatma Gandhi called for mass peaceful civil disobedience to disrupt the British in preparation for the expected Japanese advance into India after the monsoon. Gandhi might have called for peaceful disobedience, but INC did not respond peacefully. Gandhi’s message of “Do or Die” was taken in its most aggressive interpretation. Massive protests occurred across India but those in Eastern Bengal were decidedly violent and specific in their choice of targets. (Today, the “Quit India Movement” is considered “mostly peaceful”…) Indians attacked British and Indian Army and government facilities, including factories, roadways, and railways that supported the war effort. For the months of August and September, the mostly untried troops of Wavell’s India Command did battle with INC formations, guerillas, and their supporters, mostly in Eastern Bengal. The British and Indian troops slowly gained control and when the Japanese didn’t attack, the uprising lost steam. (The Japanese pulled troops from Burma to reinforce New Guinea and Guadalcanal.) The Quit India Movement delayed preparations for the Arakan Offensive by several months.

But training troops, defending coastlines, and fighting guerillas was tedious stuff, and the Arakan Offensive looked to be a sure victory. The peninsula was defended by only a single Japanese regiment, and Slim’s VVV Corps could put the entire 14th Indian Division plus supporting troops into the attack. Slim was an excellent trainer of troops, had literally created his own hundred ship “navy” to patrol the long coastline in case of Japanese amphibious attack, and did exceedingly well in the chaos of the uprising. So the commander of the British Eastern Army, Lt-Gen Noel Irwin, a toxic martinet who hated anyone more competent than he, decided to “let” Slim continue with the static duties and train new formations in Bengal. Irwin took command of the Arakan Offensive directly.

On 17 December 1942, the 14th Indian Division launched its attack. The Arakan Peninsula is actually two peninsulas: the Arakan in the east and the separate Mayu peninsula in the west. The Mayu peninsula is separated from the coast of western Arakan by the wide Mayu River and is itself split in two by the Mayu Range which runs along its length. The 14th’s plan was to conduct a frontal assault in two prongs: one down the Arakan Peninsula proper, and the other down the Mayu Peninsula to the west of the Mayu Range. A separate supporting advance well inland to the east by a long range penetration group, Orde Wingate’s Chindits, and another separate amphibious assault at the tip of the peninsula, were cancelled. The attack was initially very successful and the surprised Japanese fell back. Japanese intelligence in Burma was so bad that they didn’t know about the Quit India uprising, much less the preparations for the Arakan offensive.

Nevertheless the Japanese stopped the 14th’s advance just before the New Year. The 14th Indian Division was a new formation that was raised and trained in the flat deserts of Baluchistan. They were sent east when the Russian counterattack at Stalingrad made their presence in the Middle East superfluous. The steep and jungle covered spurs and draws of the Mayu Range took its toll on the troops that had never completed, or in some cases, started their jungle training. The delay gave the Japanese a chance to dig in.

By December 1942, Japanese advocates of the banzai charge-at-all-costs were mostly dead for obvious reasons. On Guadalcanal and New Guinea, they figured out that although banzai charges were glorious, they were also wasteful, especially on the defensive. The Allies on the Arakan Peninsula had an overwhelming numerical superiority. To stop Irwin’s four brigades, Col Kosuke Miyawaki had just a reinforced battalion on the peninsula, the rest were defending Akyab Island. The 14th’s pause allowed them to dig in.

When Irwin resumed the advance, his men ran straight into one of the soon-to-be iconic features of the Second World War: the Japanese log and earth bunker. Each bunker was dug deep, had a four or five foot thick roof, and was manned by 5 to 20 men with 3-4 machineguns and anti-tank guns. Each was impervious to artillery fire and mutually supported by two or three other bunkers. Between 7 and 13 January 1943, a single Japanese battalion stopped a two brigade attack east of the range and river at Rathedaung. West of the range, a lone company at Donbaik, defending a tidal stream between the mountains and the beach, massacred a two brigade assault. At high tide, the stream was impassable, at low tide, its banks rose seven feet. Moreover, whenever the Indians and British managed to penetrate the stream-line, the Japanese company commander just called artillery on his own position, which murdered the attackers in the open, while the defenders sat impervious in their bunkers. The offensive stalled with heavy casualties.

Far to the north in what might as well have been his chateau, Irwin threw thousands of barely trained reinforcements into the battle, with the same result. By March, the Japanese themselves were reinforced. Despite growing evidence of Japanese buildup on the west coast of Burma given by Slim’s homegrown Burmese intelligence network, Irwin demanded another assault. Irwin sent Slim down to the 14th Indian Division, not to take command, but just to make sure the division commander was doing as he was told. He returned with bad news.

Slim reported the division commander was overwhelmed. The 14th’s commander had to control nine disparate and geographically separate brigades instead of the usual three. Slim offered to take his HQs down to help but was refused. Even worse, the Japanese were ready to attack. Slim had learned the hard way in Central Burma that mountainous jungle is not impassable by properly trained troops. The Japanese could isolate the eastern prong whenever they were ready. Then they could easily cross the mountains and smash the flank of the western prong. Irwin disagreed and fired the division commander. Then on 29 March, he headed south and Inwin, the Eastern Army commander, took command of the division.

The Japanese struck less than a week later, and in just the manner Slim predicted. A British brigade was overrun and destroyed, three were cut off, and the front collapsed. Irwin summoned Slim and his other division headquarters, the 26th Indian, to take control of the battle, but by then the situation was unsalvageable. The 14th Indian Division was subsumed under the 26th’s headquarters, and everybody fell back to India with the cut off brigades abandoning their equipment. And again, the monsoon saved India from Japanese invasion, just as it had the year before.

Irwin blamed Slim and attempted to relieve him and the 26th’s Division commander for the lost battle. However, Wavell could see through his bullshit and relieved him instead. The failure to properly train killed many good British and Indian soldiers on the Arakan Peninsula, the Allied troops in Burma and India wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

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