The Burma Campaign

Churchill Tanks in Burma and India

At some time during late 1944 or early 1945, the War Office decided that Churchill tanks should be used against the Japanese in Burma and, later, Malaya.  The plan was to convert an existing tank brigade and the formation selected was the 254th Indian Tank Brigade, at that time serving with the XXXIII Indian Corps in Burma.  Preparations were initiated and tanks were soon being shipped out to India.[1]  It was not possible to withdraw the 254th Indian Tank Brigade to re-equip at the height of what turned out to be the final campaign in Burma.  However, common sense dictated that the Churchill tank should be evaluated in operations on terrain over which it would, in future, be expected to fight.  

The Churchill Tank in Burma

One Churchill tank was duly sent from India to Burma to undergo trials as to the suitability of the type for action in Burma.  It appears that this may have been a Mk V, fitted with a 95mm howitzer, although only one specific reference to the mark of this Churchill has been found to date.  The tank had been trialled previously in Delhi before despatch to Burma.[2]  The tank, together with its British crew but without ammunition, arrived at Shwebo on 22nd February 1945, and was taken over by No. 111 Forward Delivery Squadron, which served the 254th Indian Tank Brigade.  The Brigade was then operating with two British regiments (battalions), the 3rd Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) and the 150th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps (York and Lancaster), equipped with the American M3 Lee, and one Indian regiment, the 7th Light Cavalry, equipped with M3 Stuart light tanks.[3]

On 17th March 1945, the Churchill and a Lee left Shwebo for Ngatayaw and joined the Squadron there during the afternoon.  The Squadron was soon on the move again, crossing the Irrawaddy on 19th March and by the next day all tanks in the care of the Squadron had crossed the great river and arrived at Kyautalon.  The next move was to Myotha on 23rd March, where the Squadron remained until18th April, when it moved with all tanks to Welaung.  On 23rd April, the Headquarters, 254th Indian Tank Brigade telephoned the Squadron and asked for the Churchill to move forward later that morning.  However, it was not possible to send the tank as it was experiencing carburettor trouble.  On 25th April, the Squadron was on the move once more, this time to Magwe, with the tanks distributed over the available transporters and formed into two convoys identified as 'A' and 'B' Groups.  The total number of tanks in these convoys was 13 Lees, two Stuarts and the solitary Churchill.  The Churchill travelled in 'A' Group.  Due to the lack of transporters, three Lees, two Stuarts and a Valentine bridgelayer were left in Welaung.  On 27th April, the Brigade ordered that three Lees and the Churchill be delivered to units by 08:00 on 28th April and these tanks left for Taungdwingyi the next morning.  The Churchill was delivered to the 3rd Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers), where it came under the command of the Commanding Officer of the Regiment.  It seems that the Churchill remained in Headquarters Squadron for the duration of the trial.[4]

This solitary Churchill acquitted itself well during the following month, despite several difficulties.  When it arrived at Shwebo in February 1945, it did so without any ammunition, although it was understood that some was on the way.  Subsequently, smoke shells were received but the high explosive ammunition was mislaid en route and never arrived.  Attempts were made to include the tank in battle however these failed, either due to the Japanese withdrawing before the tank could be committed or due to the tank being out of action due to technical faults or bad ground.  The performance of the Churchill under operational conditions was the subject of an interim report, prepared by the Headquarters, 254th Indian Tank Brigade.  The report covered the period of the trial "up to 15th May 1945".  A number of technical troubles were documented, including problems with the carburettors.  The crew reported that the interior was not excessively hot and that there was adequate room for the stowage of personal kit.  It was noted that the tank had performed at least as well as the Lee on approach marches.  Indeed, on one occasion the Churchill made a 'faultless' river crossing where some of the accompanying Lee tanks became stuck.  The report concluded that it had not been possible to appraise the tank in combat for it had never been in action.[5]

The 3rd Dragoon Guards supported the advance of the 20th Indian Infantry Division south along the Irrawaddy Valley.  Prome was captured on 3rd May 1945, the same day that Anglo-Indian troops entered Rangoon, and thereafter, the 3rd Dragoon Guards was involved in only limited action before withdrawing into harbour at Tharrawaddy.  Towards the end of May 1945, the 3rd Dragoon Guards prepared to move to Rangoon where it was to embark for India.  The movement order issued on 26th May 1945, gave the route and order of march.  In the administration section of the order, mention was made that the Headquarters Squadron was to carry a mixed load of 'POL' (Petrol, Oils, Lubricants) for the Churchill tank.  Clearly, the trial vehicle issued to the regiment in April was still present at the end of May.  After arrival at Rangoon on 28th May, the Regiment made ready for the return to India.[6]

On 17th June, the Regiment was given a farewell address by Lieutenant-General Sir M.G.N. Stoppford, the commander of the 12th Army.  Towards the end of his speech, Stoppford discussed the fact that once back in India, the regiment would re-equip with Churchill tanks and then return to action against the Japanese, which at the time was a very real prospect.  Stoppford said, " Now you are packing up and going back to the other side of India [Ahmednagar] and being fitted out with Churchills.  Now, I saw a lot of the Churchill tank before I came out in 1943 and everybody from the driver upwards spoke very highly of them, and when you get them I am sure you will like them."  The next day, the Regiment embarked for Madras.  Thus the only known excursion of a Churchill tank in Burma came to an end.[7]

Churchill Tanks in India – Conversion of the 254th Indian Tank Brigade

By June 1945, according to one Royal Armoured Corps report, 85 Churchill tanks and three Churchill bridgelayers had been sent out to India.  Another R.A.C. report claims that 308 Churchills, including 'Crocodile' flamethrowers, were with South East Asia Command (S.E.A.C.) by the end of June 1945.  If these figures are correct, there were enough tanks to equip the chosen brigade, the 254th Indian Tank Brigade, and to provide for almost 100% reserves.[8]

During July 1945, the 254th Indian Tank Brigade, having returned from Burma, became established at Ahmednagar, in Maharashtra State.  On 12th July 1945, the Headquarters of the Brigade issued a 'training instruction'.  The document stated that the purpose of the Brigade was now to convert to the Churchill tank and to be ready for operations in the infantry support role any time after 1st October 1945.  The order of battle of the Brigade would be the 3rd Dragoon Guards and the 149th Regiment, R.A.C (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry).  The 150th Regiment, R.A.C. was not included as, due to the shortage of personnel and tanks, the regiment was not expected to be ready before 1st January 1945.  The 146th Regiment, R.A.C. (Duke of Wellington’s Regiment), was attached to the Brigade, replacing the 7th Light Cavalry, and this unit, equipped with Sherman tanks, was expected to be ready by around 1st December 1945.  In the absence of any information from higher headquarters, it was assumed that the Brigade would next be in action in Malaya and training was to take into account the terrain types most likely to be encountered there.  The instruction mentions the inclusion of nine 'flamethrowers' per regiment and these would have been Churchill 'Crocodiles'.  The infantry of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Bombay Grenadiers remained with the Brigade to provide close protection for the tanks, a role which had proven very successful in Burma.  The instruction noted that, unless otherwise instructed, the first batches of Churchill tanks to arrive would be allocated to the 149th Regiment, R.A.C., to allow that unit to begin troop and squadron training.  It was expected that this regiment would then provide some pre-course training cadres for members of the 3rd Dragoon Guards and the 150th Regiment, R.A.C.  It was also anticipated that some tanks would have to be loaned to the Fighting Vehicles School at Ahmednagar, to support training.  In addition to gun tanks, each regiment was to include a ‘Crocodile’ troop.  Also under command of the Brigade was the No. 2 Independent Bridge Group, R.A.C., which would replace its Valentine vehicles with Churchill bridgelayers.  The proposed order of battle and vehicle markings to be adopted by the Brigade can be seen here.[9]

At the beginning of July, the 3rd Dragoon Guards had been in transit camp at Madras but from 8th July began to move to Ahmednagar.  All elements of the Regiment arrived there by 12th July.  Regimental and squadron training took place between 16th and 22nd July and there were many comings and goings as men were repatriated to the United Kingdom under the 'PYTHON' scheme and as replacements were drafted in.  The Regimental Orders dated 14th July 1945, listed those who were to attend courses for conversion to the Churchill tank, all of which began on 16th July.  The courses mentioned were:

- Vehicle-Mechanic Churchill Conversion (Tech 7B), duration four weeks, commencing 16th July,
- Instructors - Churchill (D&M 1-C), duration six weeks from 16th July,
- Crew Commanders - Wireless (W/T) (1-N), duration three weeks.

 On 21st July, 'A' Squadron sent four Other Ranks to the Fighting Vehicles School to attend courses on the Churchill.[10]

The 149th Regiment, R.A.C. had fought at Kohima and Imphal (less ‘C’ Squadron in the Arakan) until August 1944, when it returned to Poona (Pune).  On 1st January 1945, the Regiment was at Uruli Camp, where it appeared that it might re-equip with British cruiser tanks, for on that day, the unit was issued with four Cromwell tanks.  The next day, a training team of three British Other Ranks for Cromwell tanks arrived from the Fighting Vehicles School at Ahmednagar.  Between 18th and 21st February, the Regiment moved to Pashan Camp, Poona.  A large number of men were identified for repatriation under the 'PYTHON' scheme and a composite squadron was formed from those who would be remaining in India so that training might continue.  The Regiment was advised that reinforcements to replace those repatriated were expected to arrive in India during mid-April 1945.  On 3rd April, the Regiment received a warning order to proceed to Ahmednagar, where it would remain as G.H.Q. Troops under the command of the 50th Indian Tank Brigade.  The Regiment subsequently moved to Ahmednagar on 20th April and four days later 355 British Other Ranks were posted to the unit from the R.A.C. Depot (India).  By now it seems it had been decided that the Regiment was to remain in the infantry support role and re-equip with the Churchill.  A training instruction was issued on 29th April 1945, in which regimental courses listed.  These included conversion courses for gunners and driver-mechanics, to start as and when Churchill tanks became available.  Individual training courses at the Fighting Vehicles School were also identified and the start date for these was also dependent on the availability of Churchill tanks.  Meanwhile, it seems that the Regiment also continued with trials of the Cromwell tank for on 3rd July, Brigadier Carr-White, O.B.E., visited the unit and witnessed trials with this tank. By the beginning of August, the Regiment had come under the command of the 254th Indian Tank Brigade.  It seems that Churchill tanks were issued to the 149th Regiment, R.AC. sometime between April and the end of July for on 3rd August, the war diary of the 149th Regiment, R.A.C., records that three Churchill Mk VI tanks were struck off strength and sent to the 3rd Dragoon Guards.[11]

The 150th Regiment, R.A.C. had left Burma on 15th June for Ahmednagar by way of Madras.  On arrival at Ahmednagar, the Regiment soon became involve in training for conversion to the Churchill.  On 6th August, two officers were sent to the Fighting Vehicles School at Ahmednagar to attend courses, one to a Technical Officer's Course for Churchill conversion, and one for a gunnery instructor's conversion course.  Further conversion training followed during August.  However, it appears no Churchill tanks were issued to the Regiment, at least during the first half of August, according to strength returns submitted by the unit.[12] 

The organisation of the tank regiments within the 254th Indian Tank Brigade had been agreed by General Headquarters, India on 1st August 1945.  However, this was not forwarded to the Brigade, until 28th August, apparently.  The memo, when received, confirmed that the three regiments should be reorganised on the war establishment ‘WE 1/113/1 for a Standard British Tank Regiment without increment’.  Work had been underway to develop new war establishments for the Churchill regiments but on 2nd September 1945, the Brigade received a signal that the development of these was now being suspended due to the end of the war and that the British establishment should continue to apply.[13]

Notes written after a tour of inspection of the 254th Indian Tank Brigade, dated 13th August 1945, record that the marks of Churchill tanks being supplied were Mk V and Mk VI tanks.  It was also noted that there was a shortage of practice ammunition for the 75mm gun, as what was available had been allocated to the 50th Indian Tank Brigade.  It was expected that all stocks of ammunition would be replenished by the end of August.[14]

The inclusion of Churchill 'Crocodile' flamethrower tanks in the order of battle of each regiment is 'confirmed' by reference to them in a 'Readiness for War' report prepared by the Headquarters, 254th Indian Tank Brigade, dated 15th August 1945.  In this report, it was noted that training for the flamethrower troop of the 3rd Dragoon Guards was being held up by the lack of gas bottles for the 'Crocodile' trailers.  The report also noted that the 400 Scorpion Squadron continued to form part of the Brigade order of battle.  This unit had served with the Brigade in Burma, equipped with Matilda 'Scorpion' mine clearing tanks, but had seen little action due to the Japanese having made little use of extensive minefields.  Now, it was thought that the Squadron might convert to the armoured personnel carrier role and be equipped with converted Lee/Grant tanks, of which a number were understood to be in store at Kirkee (Khadki).[15]

Training in the 149th Regiment, R.A.C. was held up due to the slow arrival of tanks from the Ordnance Depot in Kirkee.  The problem seemed to be the availability of railway flat cars to transport the tanks.  Training had also been affected in the 150th Regiment, R.A.C., the reason given was that most of the men were on leave. The 2nd Independent Bridge Troop, R.A.C. was severely hampered in its efforts to begin training, not surprisingly, by the lack of any Churchill bridgelayers to train with.  It was understood that the vehicles were at Kirkee but without the bridges.  Unless a minimum of two vehicles with bridges were made available immediately, it was thought doubtful that the unit would be ready by 1st November.[16]

The Headquarters, 254th Indian Tank Brigade concluded in the 'readiness for war' report of 15th August 1945, that of several factors affecting the preparations for a return to action, the main one was the slow delivery of tanks from the depot at Kirkee.  To date, the Brigade had received only 23 Churchill tanks, despite the tanks having arrived at Kirkee two months previously (June 1945).  It was noted that the 149th Regiment, R.A.C. was its full vehicle establishment except for 20 Churchill tanks and a few motor vehicles.  Observations were also made on the readiness of the 146th Regiment, R.A.C., then attached to the Brigade.  This regiment held only twelve Sherman V tanks and nearly three quarters of the men were from recent intakes.  However, it was thought that the unit could be ready for operations two months after tanks and equipment were issued.[17]  (In the event, the 146th Regiment, R.A.C., converted its 'A' Squadron to armoured cars which were then sent to Sumatra in December 1945.  The balance of the regiment remained at Ahmednagar and later moved to Poona.[18])

Training on the few Churchills available continued and there was some shuffling of the tanks between units.  On 26th August, six Churchill Mk VI tanks were received by the 149th Regiment, R.A.C., followed by a further fifteen on 29th August, giving a total received during the month of 21.  However, on 5th September, eleven Churchill Mk VI were transferred away from the Regiment. Nine more Churchill Mk VI were disposed of on 9th September but ten Stuart V light tanks were received by the Regiment on 13th September.  This list is difficult to reconcile with total number of vehicles received by and transferred from the Regiment during the month, as listed in the war diary at the end of September:

Received during the month:
- Stuart Mk V – 11
- Sherman Mk V – 4.

Disposed of during the month:
- Stuart Mk V – 2
- Churchill Mk VI – 10.[19]

On 17th September, the Headquarters, 254th Indian Tank Brigade, was notified that it was being allotted to the North Western Army, under the Headquarters, Northern Command, for frontier defence duties.  The Brigade was now to consist of the 3rd Dragoon Guards, the 17th Horse (The Poona Horse) and the 18th Cavalry (King Edward VII’s Own). The Brigade was to be ready to move at short notice.  The inclusion of the 17th Horse was amended on 23rd September, when the Brigade was informed that this unit would be replaced by the 45th Cavalry.  The Brigade advance parties began moving to their new location, Risalpur, at the end of September.[20]  As for the British tank regiments that remained behind at Ahmednagar, the 146th, 149th and 150th Regiments, R.A.C., orders were received that for all purposes other than training they were to come under the command of 110 Lines of Communication Area (Poona), with effect from 4th October.  For training, the Regiments came under command of Headquarters, Southern Army.[21]

By now, some Churchills must have been issued to the 3rd Dragoon Guards for on 28th September, in anticipation of the unit’s change of role and imminent transfer to the North West Frontier, the Regiment transferred twelve Churchills to the 150th Regiment, R.A.C.  Training continued in the 150th Regiment, R.A.C. but was limited by the lack of equipment and the shortage of men following repatriations to the United Kingdom.  In October, training covered such subjects as: maintenance of Churchill tanks; route marches with infantry; and ‘internal security and the Churchill tank’.  During November, however, the Regiment began preparing for its eventual disbandment and all tanks and motor transport were returned to the Ordnance Depot at Kirkee.[22] 

On 30th October 1945, the 149th Regiment, R.A.C. was informed that it had been classified by General Headquarters, India as surplus to requirements and that it was to provide reinforcements for the 3rd Dragoon Guards and the 2nd Reconnaissance Regiment.  The changes in the unit vehicle park that month were:

Received during the month:
- Churchill Mk VI – 1
- Stuart Mk V – 2.

Disposed of during the month:
- Sherman Mk V – 4
- Stuart Mk V – 6.[23]

Officers and men began to be posted away from the 149th Regiment, R.A.C. during November.  No new vehicles were taken on that month but five Stuart V tanks and five Churchill Mk VI tanks were disposed of to the Ordnance Depot at Kirkee.  Vehicles continued to be disposed of during December, with two Cromwell Mk VI and fourteen Churchill Mk VI tanks being transferred to Kirkee on 5th December.  The last thirteen Churchill Mk VI tanks left for Kirkee three days later.  At this point, the Regiment had no armoured fighting vehicles on strength.  This last transfer brought to an end the deployment of Churchill tanks with British units in India.[24]

As for the regiments, the rundown of personnel continued until on 28th February 1946, both the 149th and 150th Regiments, R.A.C. were disbanded at Ahmednagar.[25]

_______________________________

The association of Ahmednagar with the Churchill tank continues to this day.  The Indian Army, Armoured Corps Centre and School established the Cavalry Tank Museum there in February 1944.  Among the fifty or so exhibits are:

- Churchill Mk VII
- Churchill Mk X (Mk VI chassis; Mk VII turret; 75mm gun; Mk VII driver’s visor and MG mount)
- Churchill bridgelayer
- Churchill ARV Mk II (Armoured Recovery Vehicle).

There is also a Churchill Mk VI at the Pakistan Armoured Corps Depot Museum, Lahore.[26]

Photographs of the Indian vehicles may be seen here.

27 April 2018



[1] “Mr Churchill's Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV”, Fletcher D., Schiffer Military History (1999)

[2] The only reference as to the mark of Churchill tank used for trials in Burma is found in the table of contents to the operations report of the 254th Indian Tank Brigade for the period January-March 1945.  Under a section headed “2. Notes on:-“, there is the item “(g) Churchill Tank Mk V”.  (“Operations Report for Period 16th January – 25th March 1945”, War diary 254th Indian Tank Brigade, WO 172/7142)

[3] War diary 254th Indian Tank Brigade, WO 172/7142

[4] “War diary No. 111 Forward Delivery Squadron, WO 172/7376

[5] Operations Report, WO 172/7142

[6] War diary 3rd Dragoon Guards, WO 172/7339

[7] WO 172/7339

[8] Fletcher

[9] “The History of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, 1919-1952”, Barclay C.N., William Clowes (1953); WO 172/7142

[10] WO 172/7339

[11] War diary149th Regiment RAC, WO 172/7344

[12] War diary150th Regiment RAC, WO 172/7345

[13] WO 172/7142

[14] WO 172/7142

[15] WO 172/7142

[16] WO 172/7142

[17] WO 172/7142

[18] “The History of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, 1919-1952”, Barclay C.N., William Clowes (1953).

[19] WO 172/7344

[20] In December 1945, at Risalpur, the Brigade was redesignated the 3rd Indian Independent Armoured Brigade.  In August 1947, it was redesignated once again, this time becoming the 3rd Armoured Brigade (Independent) but was disbanded shortly afterwards. (“Loyalty and Honour, The Indian Army, September 1939 – August 1947, Pt III Brigades”, Kempton C., Military Press, (2003); Bharat Rakshak, Army Today, Armoured Formations, accessed April 2018)

[21] WO 172/7142

[22] WO 172/7345

[23] WO 172/7344

[24] WO 172/7344

[25] War diary149th Regiment RAC, WO 172/10051; “The York and Lancaster Regiment, 1919-1953”, Sheffield O.F., Gale & Polden (1956); “Lineage Book of British Land Forces, 1660-1978”, Frederick J.B.M., Microform (1984).

[26] “Surviving Churchill Infantry Tanks (A22)”, updated 31st March 2018, accessed April 2018; “Mohit S” on Flickr, accessed April 2018.