The Retreat to India
See: Actions - 1942 for a summary of the significant actions and engagements of the Japanese invasion and the British retreat.
The withdrawal from Prome to the new line was complete by 8th April, with the Corps striking force being designated as the 1st Burma Infantry Division, with the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade at Migyaungye, the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade at Thityagauk and the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade at Kokkogwa and with elements of the 7th Armoured Brigade in the area east of Kokkogwa. The 17th Indian Infantry Division was to the east in the Taungdwingyi-Satthwa area. The 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade was in Minhla, under ‘Burcorps’ command. Contact with the Japanese had been lost but from 10th April, patrols moving south of the line clashed with Japanese advance parties. The Japanese probed the line on 11th April, and were observed in the Alebo area but when the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade entered the town the next day, the Japanese had gone. Too late, the Brigade withdrew to protect Migyaungye which was now in Japanese hands. Attempts to recapture the town on 13th April failed and the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade pulled back. That same day, Slim became concerned that the Japanese were attempting to work around the left flank of the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade. He ordered the 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade to reinforce the east bank and the 5th Battalion, 1st Punjab Regiment and the 7th Battalion, The Burma Rifles crossed to Magwe. The 13th Indian Infantry Brigade sent its reserve battalion, the 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry to Mingyun and was then ordered to cover the withdrawal of the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade. The 1st Burma Infantry Division was then to pull back to the line of the Yin Chaung. The 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was detached from the 7th Armoured Brigade to form the 1st Burma Infantry Division reserve, at the point where the main road crossed the Yin Chaung. The 48th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars reverted to the 17th Indian Infantry Division before pulling back from Kokkogwa to Taungdwingyi.
On April 14th, the 1st Burma Infantry Division pulled back to the Yin Chaung line, taking into reserve the Magwe garrison, known as ‘Magforce’ and formed from the 5th Indian Mountain Battery, the 1st Battalion, The Cameronians and 7th and 12th Battalions, The Burma Rifles. On the west bank, the 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade fell back to Minbu. The next day, demolition of the oilfields began and was completed on the 16th April. This freed the 1st Burma Infantry Division to pull back, however the Division’s commander, General J.B. Scott, decided his men were too tired and the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade too disorganised to begin withdrawal from the Yin Chaung that night. This was to prove near disastrous for the Division, as the Japanese 214th Regimental Group had penetrated through to the Pin Chaung, north of Yenangyaung, cutting off the Division’s retreat. On the morning of 16th April, other Japanese forces attacked the 1st Burma Division along the line of the Yin Chaung. With ‘Magforce’ acting as rearguard, the Division withdrew to the Kadaung Chaung by the evening, having been under air attack most of the day. The Rear Divisional Headquarters and all transport not required, were ordered north of the Pin Chaung, to the Gwegyo area. With them went most of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. During the night, the Japanese established a roadblock north of the chaung, effectively separating the tanks from the Division’s transport. This block was cleared during 17th April and the transport subsequently reached Gwegyo. However, the Japanese had ejected the 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment from the northern part of Yenangyaung and had also established a roadblock, south of the chaung at Twingon. The 1st Burma Infantry Division’s line of retreat was now blocked and it was separated from much of its transport and the armoured reserve.
By the night of 17th/18th April, the 1st Burma Infantry Division reached positions south of Yenangyaung and realised the full horror of the situation. A coordinated attack was planned for next day, with the Chinese 38th Division and British tanks attacking from the north, while the Division attacked the Japanese on the Pin Chaung from the south. The attack began on the morning of 18th April with limited success. ‘Magforce’ reached the first objective but the attack by the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade was held up. The Chinese attack did not materialise and the 1st Burma Infantry Division became surrounded on three sides. Eventually, on the afternoon of 19th April, General Scott ordered the division to get away by a track to the east, where another ford over the Pin Chaung had been found. The wheeled vehicles had to be abandoned however the wounded were carried to safety by the single squadron of tanks left in support of the Division. The Chinese attack finally materialised and, with the support of British tanks, was effective in covering the further withdrawal of the Division. Already having been reduced to around 4,000 men, the 1st Burma Infantry Division lost around a further fifth of its force at Yenangyaung, including most of its transport and equipment including eight guns, two Bofors and nearly all the mortars. By 21st April, it had withdrawn to the Mount Popa area to rest and reorganise.
Japanese gains in the Shan States against the Chinese Sixth Army forced changes in Allied plans. Although plans had been made for further withdrawals, it had been intended to hold south of Mandalay for as long as possible. This intention was now abandoned and the general withdrawal brought forward. Key to success was the controlled movement of Indo-British and Chinese troops through Mandalay and across the Irrawaddy via the only bridge at Ava. Movements to this end began on the night of 25th/26th April, with the Chinese 38th Division moving to the Ava bridge area. This move was covered by the 1st Burma Infantry Division, with the 1st Burma and the 13th Indian Infantry Brigades under direct command, after which the Division moved to the ferry crossing at Sameikkon. The 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade, on the west bank, was ordered to fall back through the Myittha Valley via Pauk, protecting the right flank of the main retreat. The 17th Indian Infantry Division crossed the Ava Bridge, leaving behind the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade which, with the 7th Armoured Brigade, formed the rearguard at Meiktila, and the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade at Kyaukse.
Having sent much of its transport to cross by the Ava Bridge, on the morning of 27th April, the 1st Burma Infantry Division began crossing the Irrawaddy by ferry at Sameikkon. River steamers operated by the divisional engineers and the Royal Marines of Force ‘Viper’ provided the ferry. In addition to the troops, 450 mules and ponies, 260 bullock carts and 560 bullocks were carried across the river. All were across by the evening of 28th April. The exhausted division rested through the next day and most of 30th April, before moving off for Monywa that evening. The plan was for the 1st Burma Infantry Division to withdraw up the Chindwin Valley, while 17th Indian Infantry Division fell back along the Shwebo-Yeu route to Kalewa. Meanwhile, the 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade had left Pakkoku for Pauk on the evening of 28th April, and thus the Pakkoku-Monywa road was left unguarded, an opportunity soon seized upon by the Japanese.
On the Allied left, disaster had befallen the Chinese Sixth Army in the Shan States and the Burma Road was cut in two places. The 48th Indian Infantry Brigade battled to hold the Japanese at Kyaukse, covering the retreat of surviving Chinese troops to the Ava Bridge. The Brigade pulled back through the bridgehead held by the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade on the evening of 30th April. The last troops in the Mandalay area now crossed the Ava Bridge and at midnight engineers dropped two of the bridge’s giant spans into the river. The Japanese had failed in their attempts to trap ‘Burcorps’ and the Chinese Fifth Army in the great bend of the Irrawaddy. Now began the final act in the drama as ‘Burcorps’ hurried to complete the retreat to India while the Japanese once more strove to cut them off.
In the sector of the 1st Burma Infantry Division, on the east bank of the Chindwin, the 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment (around 150 men) and the steamer patrols of Force ‘Viper’ defended the river town of Monywa. Headquarters, 1st Burma Infantry Division and the divisional engineers were four miles to the south, at Ma-U, while the 1st Burma and 13th Indian Infantry Brigades were further to the south and east, wearily approaching Chaungu. The administrative staff of ‘Burcorps’, assorted followers and many wives and children had gathered in Alon, north of Monywa, awaiting transport up the Chindwin to Kalewa. The main road and the railway connected all four towns. On the evening of 30th April, the Japanese opened fire on Monywa from across the river, having taken advantage of the exposure of the road up from Pakkoku. Interpreting reports of this action as meaning that Monywa had fallen, Slim ordered the concentration of the 1st Burma Infantry Division at Chaungu with the aim of retaking Monywa as fast as possible. He also ordered two brigades from 17th Indian Infantry Division to join the 1st Burma Infantry Division – the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade at Myinmu and the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade at Sagaing. Both were to travel by rail and detrain at Chaungu. ‘A’ Squadron, 7th Queen’s Own Hussars was also attached.
That night, the Headquarters of the 1st Burma Infantry Division sent all engineer transport back to Chaungu to ferry forward the troops of the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade when they arrived by train the next morning. The 50th Field Park Company was sent to reinforce Monywa and the Burma Frontier Force detachment, F.F.1, also arrived to help defend the town. Suddenly, the Headquarters itself came under attack at Ma-U and scrambled back to Chaungu. At dawn the next day, 1st May, the Japanese crossed the river and took Monywa, forcing the garrison out northwards to Alon. Given the weak state of its own brigades, the 1st Burma and 13th Indian, the 1st Burma Infantry Division commander launched the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade at Monywa first. The Brigade began detraining at Kyehmon on the morning of 1st May, and the two lead battalions, the 1st Battalion, 10th Gurkha Rifles and the 2nd Battalion, 13th Frontier Force Rifles, advanced up the road to Ma-U, supported by tanks of ‘A’ Squadron, 7th Queen’s Own Hussars. Ma-U was retaken but the Brigade was unable to enter Monywa. During the night a successful defence of Ma-U was maintained in the face of Japanese counter attacks.
A two brigade attack to retake Monywa began on 2nd May, each brigade supported by one field and one mountain battery. The 13th Indian Infantry Brigade made good progress and soon reached the railway station but by mid-afternoon they were held up. However, the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade could make little impression and were held on the southern outskirts of the town. During the morning, the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade, with the 1st Battalion, 4th Gurkha Rifles under command from the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade, arrived and passed through the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade that afternoon to continue the attack. However, little more was achieved than establishing contact with the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade. By evening, no progress had been made and the decision was taken for the 1st Burma and the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigades to withdraw to Alon. By nightfall, the 1st Burma Infantry Division and the 7th Armoured Brigade were forming on Alon while the 17th Indian Infantry Division was covering the retreat at Ye-U to the north. However, the Japanese controlled the direct route to the vital Shwegyin-Kalewa crossing over the Chindwin. On 3rd May, the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade from the 17th Indian Infantry Division was rushed to Shwegyin as ‘Burcorps’’ withdrawal was once again accelerated. The 1st Burma Infantry Division, with the 1st Burma, 13th and 63rd Indian Infantry Brigades, began to pull back to the Ye-U area, covered by the 7th Armoured Brigade. Ye-U was important, as it was here that the track to the Chindwin crossing began and was the route by which the main Indo-British Army must escape to India. At Ye-U, the 1st Burma Infantry Division and the 7th Armoured Brigade, less the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, formed the rearguard. The 17th Indian Infantry Division set up a series of layback positions between Ye-U and Shwegyin and it was through these that the 1st Burma Infantry Division withdrew to Chindwin, starting on 5th May.
The 1st Burma Infantry Brigade broke off from the 1st Burma Infantry Division and made a difficult march on the east bank of the Chindwin. Leaving Pyingyang on 8th May, the Brigade passed through Indaw to Pantha where the Chindwin was crossed. The Brigade moved on to India by Yuwa and the Yu River before reaching Tamu on 16th May. Divisional Headquarters and the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade crossed the river on 9th May, before making the final trek to Tamu. Meanwhile, the detached 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade was moving up the Myittha valley, and reached Pauk on 1st May. There followed a hard march northwards but luckily no Japanese were met. On 12th May, contact was made with the Chin Hills Battalion, Burma Frontier Force, operating in the area, at a point 15 miles south of Kalemyo. On reaching Kalemyo, the 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade was lucky to be met by motor transport, which carried the haggard survivors on to Tamu. On reaching India, 1st Burma Infantry Division could muster only around 2,000 men.
An attack at Shwegyin Chaung by the Japanese on 10th May, proved to be the final operation of the campaign for the 17th Indian Infantry Division. Luckily, the Japanese were at the end of their advance and did not follow up the final withdrawal of the Division up the Kabaw Valley to Tamu, which was reached on 17th May. The final unit, the rearguard 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, arrived two days later. The strength of the 17th Indian Infantry Division was 9,908 men.
The 17th Indian Infantry Division was retained at Imphal to reform with the 48th and 16th Indian Infantry Brigades. The 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade was centred on Kohima, protecting the lines of communications and tracks from the Naga Hills. Most units of the Division spent the next three months resting and refitting from the rigours of the campaign and the retreat from Burma. The 1st Burma Infantry Division and its brigades were now dispersed. The Division would later be reorganised and redesignated the 39th Indian Infantry Division and play an important role in training soldiers for the re-conquest of Burma.
03 December 2017