2nd Burma Rifles
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2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles

The battalion was first formed on 22nd December 1917 as the 2nd Battalion, 70th Burma Rifles.  Upon creation of the 20th Burma Rifles in 1922, the 2/70th became the 2/20th Burma Rifles.  When Burma was formally separated from Indian in 1937, the “20th” was dropped from the regiment title and the battalion became the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles. [1]   By this time the battalion had earned the following battle honours:

- Egypt, 1917
Moplah, 1923
- Burma 1930-1932.

In 1937 the battalion was stationed at Mandalay and arrived from there at Maymyo in November 1938, coming under command of the Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area. On 1st December 1940, the battalion moved to Moulmein, coming under command of the Tenasserim Infantry Brigade Area, from which 2nd Burma Brigade was organised, coming into being on 1st July 1941. As part of the strategy to defend the landing grounds in Tenasserim, the battalion was sent to Mergui on 1st October 1941. The battalion remained at Mergui, dispatching a company to Bokpyin on 26th December.

The battalion remained at Mergui, dispatching "D" Company to Bokpyin on 26th December and which remained there until 5th January 1942.  On 6th January, the troops at Mergui came under the command of the "Tenasserim" Division - the 17th Indian Infantry Division.  At this time the troops at Mergui were the 2nd Burma Rifles, two companies of the 3rd Burma Rifles, two detachments of the Kokine Battalion, Burma Frontier Force and two sub-sections of the Burma Sappers and Miners (engineers)

On 16th January, the two companies of the 3rd Burma Rifles left Mergui for Tavoy by sea and by road.  Following the loss of Tavoy, however, it was decided to evacuate Mergui by sea.  This was done on the evening of 21st January and the 2nd Burma Rifles reached Rangoon on the evening of 25th January where they took up the quarters of the 3rd Burma Rifles at Mingaladon.

On the night of 31st January, the battalion left Mingaladon by train for Papun where on 5th February the battalion came under the command of the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade.  Moulmein had fallen on 31st January and the British defence plan was now focussed on holding the line of the Salween River.  Japanese pressure soon mounted and between 8th and 13th February there was confused fighting on this line as more and more Japanese troops crossed the river.  It was soon decided the line was untenable and the British withdrew behind the Bilin River line by 15th February.  To the north of the line, the 2nd Burma Rifles were still covering Papun, under the direct command of 17th Indian Division Headquarters.  Japanese attacks on this new line began on 16th February and on the 20th a further withdrawal was made, this time to the Sittang River.  Further disaster followed with the untimely destruction of the railway bridge over the Sittang, after which the remnants of the 17th Indian Division reorganised on the west bank near Pegu.  Throughout this period, the 2nd Burma Rifles remained at Papun and on 23rd February, following the Sittang battle, the battalion was ordered to withdraw from Papun and join the 1st Burma Division.

2nd Burma Rifles at Papun
(Indian Official History)

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The 2nd Burma Rifles had been out on their own at Papun and a slow withdrawal towards Shwegyin and the Sittang River now ensued.  On 28th February the 2nd Burma Brigade, located at Nyaunglebin, attempted contact with the battalion to order their return towards Toungoo, preferably via Pyu.  The 2nd Burma Rifles came under the command of the 2nd Burma Brigade on 14th March 1942.  The next day F.F.4 came under command of the 2nd Burma Brigade and was placed under command of the 2nd Burma Rifles.   By now orders had been issued for a withdrawal northwards to Toungoo by the 1st Burma Division, of which the 2nd Burma Brigade formed a part.  This began on 15th March and would lead to the transfer of the division to the Prome front, joining up with British troops in the Irrawaddy valley to form 1st Burma Corps or "Burcorps".  The battalion entrained for Taungdwingyi and on to the Irrawaddy front on the night of 21st/22nd March 1942. The battalion arrived in the Allanmyo area, via Pyinmana, on 22nd March before crossing the Irrawaddy to Thayetmyo by the 25th March.

On 29th March, the 2nd Burma Brigade received orders to occupy the area Allanmyo-Thayetmyo astride the Irrawaddy River valley.  The 2nd Burma Rifles and a Garrison Company at Thayetmyo were tasked with guarding the main approaches up the west bank of the Irrawaddy. 

By now the 2nd Burma Rifles was around 430 strong, losses in the main owing to sickness and desertion.  Two companies, "C" and "D" had been merged in to one on 28th March.  The battalion was detached on a mobile role away from Thayetmyo, moving to Minde on 1st April.  By 4th April, the 2nd Burma Brigade had crossed the Irrawaddy and was located in Thayetmyo when orders were received to withdraw to Minhla.  The 2nd Burma Rifles were ordered to conform to the general brigade withdrawal.  The battalion reached its allotted position on high ground to the west of Minhla during the night of 13/14th April.  Here it was shelled from the East bank of the river and had three men wounded, one of whom died the next day.

2nd Burma Rifles Withdrawal to India
(Indian Official History)

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The general withdrawal to India was now in full swing and the 2nd Burma Brigade withdrew up the West bank of the Irrawaddy.  By 30th April, Pauk was reached and from here a long and arduous march was made northwards.  On 12th May lorries arrived to transport the battalion to Kalemyo but the destination was then changed to Imbaing.  From here the withdrawal continued by stages until on 23rd May 1942 the 2nd Burma Rifles arrived at Palel where they moved into a rest camp for the night.  The next day the battalion moved by lorry to a temporary camp at Milestone 109, some 24 miles beyond Imphal.  Here, on 25th May, the battalion paraded and was inspected by His Excellency, Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief.

The following day, at a conference of Burma Rifles battalion commanders, it was decided to allow all men who wished to the opportunity to return to their homes in Burma.  On 19th May the battalion strength had been around 220 all ranks and 46 followers.  On 31st May, after the men returning to Burma had declared themselves, 146 Kachins, Chins and Karens elected to stay with the battalion in India.

Early on it was thought the remaining men of the Burma Rifles battalions staying in Burma would form a reconnaissance unit and those staying in India but not required for this purpose left for Ranchi on 2nd June.  Those returning to Burma began their journeys on 5th June.  The next day, all ranks remaining in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th and 10th Burma Rifles battalions were formed into a composite Burma Rifles battalion, with a total strength of 20 G.C.O.s and 308 Other Ranks, and an unknown number of British Officers. [2]   The Composite Burma Rifles Battalion was commanded by Lt. Colonel C.H.D. O'Callaghan, former commander of the 2nd Burma Rifles.  This unit left for Ranchi on 8th June, arriving there on five days later.  En route an additional three coaches were added to the train, holding four British Officers and around 180 Other Ranks from the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Military Police.  After some confusion the Composite Battalion left for Hoshiarpur, where the Burma Army was being concentrated, on 23rd June, with a strength of seven British Officers, 23 G.C.O.s, 323 Burmese Other Ranks, 69 followers and 72 families.  The train carrying the men and families reached Hoshiarpur late on 26th June and the night was spent on the train.  The men began moving into camp the next day.  On 29th June a further six G.C.O.s and 54 Burmese Other Ranks arrived to join the battalion.

Proposed reorganisation of Burma forces included the retention of the 2nd Burma Rifles and the creation of new infantry battalions.  The battalion was retained, initially as part of the Composite Burma Rifles Battalion, and built up in strength by selection of the best Burmese men from the Burma Frontier Force units. GHQ India was anxious to include this unit in the special force brigade then being formed.  At Hoshiarpur the battalion was reorganised and re-equipped before moving to a rest camp at Dharmsala in August.  The 2nd Battalion Burma Rifles came under Indian command in June 1942 and was allotted to the 77th Indian Brigade, under Wingate’s command, and moved to join the brigade at Saugor in September 1942, where preparation began for the First Chindit Operation.

[The remains of the war diary for 1942 are available at the National Archives at Kew as file WO 172/975, only the months of January and April-June 1942 survive.  A transcription of the file, together with extensive footnotes gleaned from other sources, can be read or downloaded here.]


Chindit Operations - Service with 'Special Force'

With the 77th Indian Brigade, the battalion moved to Assam in January 1943. On 15th March the battalion re-entered Burma with the Chindits, organised as one HQ platoon and seven platoons, one platoon attached to each Chindit Column to provide reconnaissance and interpreters. The battalion CO, Lt Col. Lyndon Grier Wheeler, 16th Punjab Regiment, had served as a Major with 3rd Burma Rifles during the retreat to India.  Whilst with No. 5 Column, Wheeler was killed on 4th April by a stray bullet at the village of Zibyugin.  He achieved the distinction of being awarded a posthumous DSO.

In May, the battalion re-crossed into India following the conclusion of the "Wingate Expedition", with casualties of three British Officers (including Lt Col Wheeler) and seven others killed and 180 missing, of whom 120 had been allowed to shed their uniforms and stay in Burma. In June the battalion was at a holiday camp in Karachi and rejoined the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade in August 1943, at Jhansi.

In his official report on the expedition, Wingate wrote of the 2nd Burma Rifles:

"I would like to record here that I have never had under my command in the field as good a body of men as the 2nd Burma Rifles. Their Commander, Lieut. Colonel Wheeler, and myself were hopeful that the work of a reconnaissance unit for a Long Range Group would make full use of their good qualities, but we were surprised by their excellence in the face of the enemy. As a result of the experience we gained, the following conclusions may be drawn. The Burman hillman is an ideal soldier for aggressive reconnaissance. He is not at all ideal in defence. He is not ideal if ordered to attack a strongly held position. But in carrying out rapid, bold and intelligent patrols in the face of the enemy, in obtaining local information, in making propaganda, in handling boats, in living off the country, and in loyal service to his officers he is without equal. This therefore is the use to which he should invariably be put.

There appeared to be little difference between Karens, Kachins and Chins in general excellence, except in areas inhabited by their respective tribes."

With the expansion of the Chindits, 2nd Burma Rifles joined the 3rd Indian Infantry Division, the cover name for ‘Special Force’ – the Chindits - in August 1943, at Jhansi, and underwent an increase in size to provide reconnaissance sections for each Chindit Column. In February, the sections moved with the Chindits to Assam before embarking on Operation Thursday and the second expedition on 5th March 1944. In September the Burma Riflemen withdrew to India, having suffered 13 killed or died, three missing and eight wounded. Later that month, the battalion moved to rest camp at Dehra Dun.


Officers of the 2nd Burma Rifles 1944 courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library web site, click here.  The men in the photo are named at this link.

Men of the 2nd Burma Rifles 1944 courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library web site, click here.

The role of the Battalion was primarily reconnaissance or scouting, usually in platoon strength, one platoon per column, the standard tactical unit employed by 'Special Force', in advance of British, Gurkha and West African infantry.  They were not trained in intelligence and public relations duties and usually only spoke their own language, and in this way differed from the specialists of the Burma Intelligence Corps.  The advantage given by the Battalion was that the men could move through areas occupied by Burmese civilians causing less disturbance than British, Gurkha or West African troops whilst gaining information on local routes and food and water sources.  They could:

(i        Slip into villages without causing the same level of disturbance caused by British, Gurkha or West African troops
(ii)         Question and calm local Burmese civilians encountered
(iii)        Disguise themselves as locals if necessary when entering villages suspected of being occupied by the Japanese or their supporters
(iv)        Arrange for supplies from local villagers ahead of the arrival of the main column
(v)        Find and mark routes in ahead of the column known only to local villagers and not marked on maps. [3]

In December 1944, the battalion provided three detachments to support ‘Special Force’ operations being considered in Burma for 1945.  However by January 1945 it appeared that ‘Special Force’ would not be required after all and on 5th February 1945 it was disbanded due to a shortage of British manpower, lack of transport aircraft and changes in strategy making Long Range Penetration operations unnecessary.  By this time many officers and men of the Battalion had been detached and were serving in other capacities.  The Burma Intelligence Corps, suffering from something of a manpower crisis due to the lack of suitable Burmese-speakers generally, requested a number of men from the Battalion.  In January 1945, Major Watson of the Burma Intelligence Corps visited the 2nd Battalion Depot to select men suitable for work with the B.I.C., subsequently submitting a list of 107 men for transfer. [4]  

In January 1945 the allocation of the officers and men of the Battalion was given as follows:

                                                                                    Governor’s                   Burma Army
                                                            Officers            Commissioned             Other Ranks
Personnel available:                                  76                      55                                1,400
(i) Attached to Force 136 [5]                         3                      -                                    170
(ii) Required by CAS(B) [6]                           7                      -                                      -
(iii) Required by the Burma Intel Corps           -                      -                                    107
(iv) To complete the Battalion to                  52                     48                                   815
war establishment                     
(v) Required by I.F.B.U.s (from surplus) [7]    4                      32(n/a)                            306
                                                                66                     48                                1,398

During March and April 1945, the battalion was reformed as a regular, four company infantry battalion at Hoshiarpur in India but remained in India until August 1945. The battalion appears in the XII Army order of battle for 30th September 1945, under command of 253 Sub Area, South Burma District - a static command for internal security and administration. At this time the battalion is likely to have been based in the Rangoon area and was part of the new Burma Army. In January 1946, the battalion moved to Syriam and during May 1947 was involved in successful anti-dacoit operations north of Prome and in the Thayetmyo area. Responsibility for internal security duties was transferred to the new Burma Army in June 1947 and the battalion is believed to have been in existence when Burma became independent on 4th January 1948. 

[1] Burma Army List January 1940.

[2] The 3rd and 6th Battalions had effectively been disbanded during the retreat.  The 7th and 8th Battalions were largely manned by men of Indian origin and were formed into an additional composite battalion that was designated the 1st Battalion of the new Burma Regiment in October 1942.

[3] “Burma Intelligence Corps”, WO 203/48

[4] “Burma Intelligence Corps”, WO 203/48

[5] Force 136 – the name by which Special Operations Executive operated in India, Burma and South East Asia.

[6] CAS(B) – the Civil Affairs Service, Burma, run by the Government of Burma to aid reconstruction and rehabilitation of areas of Burma recaptured from Japanese occupation.

[7] I.F.B.U.s – Indian Field Broadcasting Units, operated by Force 136 (Special Operations Executive) to broadcast propaganda to the Japanese and civilians under their occupation.



23 May 2016


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