The Retreat to India
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The 1942 Campaign

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 April 8th, with the Corps striking force being designated as 1st Burma Division, with 1st Burma (Migyaungye), 13th (Thityagauk) and 48th Indian (Kokkogwa) Brigades and elements of 7th Armoured Brigade (east of Kokkogwa).  The 17th Division was to the east in the Taungdwingyi-Satthwa area.  The 2nd Brigade was in Minhla, under Burcorps command.  Contact with the Japanese had been lost but from April 10th patrols moving south of the line clashed with Japanese advance parties.  The Japanese probed the line on April 11th and were observed in the Alebo area but when the 1st 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 April 13th failed and the 1st Brigade pulled back.  That same day, Slim became concerned that the Japanese were attempting to work around the left flank of the 13th Brigade.  He ordered the 2nd Brigade to reinforce the east bank and the 5th/1st Punjab and the 7th Burma Rifles crossed to Magwe.  The 13th Brigade sent its reserve battalion, 2nd KOYLI to Mingyun and was ordered to cover the withdrawal of the 1st Brigade.  Burdiv was then to pullback to the line of the Yin Chaung.  The 2nd Royal Tank Regiment were detached from 7th Armoured Brigade to form the Burdiv reserve, at the point where the main road crossed the Yin Chaung.  The 48th Brigade and the 7th Hussars reverted to the 17th Division before pulling back from Kokkogwa to Taungdwingyi.

 

On April 14th, Burdiv pulled back to the Yin Chaung line, taking into reserve the Magwe garrison, known as Magforce, formed from the 5th Indian Mountain Battery, 1st Cameronians and 7th and 12th Burma Rifles.  On the west bank, the 2nd Brigade fell back to Minbu. The next day, demolition of the oilfields began and was completed on the 16th.  This freed Burdiv to pull back however the Burdiv commander, Bruce Scott, decided his men were too tired and the 1st Brigade too disorganised to begin withdrawal from the Yin Chaung that night.  This was to prove near disastrous for Burdiv, as the Japanese 214th Regimental Group had penetrated through to the Pin Chaung, north of Yenangyaung, cutting off Burdiv’s retreat.  On the morning of April 16th, other Japanese forces attacked Burdiv along the line of the Yin Chaung.  With Magforce acting as rearguard, Burdiv withdrew to the Kadaung Chaung by the evening, having been under air attack most of the day.  Rear Divisional HQ and all transport not required were ordered north of the Pin Chaung, to the Gwegyo area.  With them went most of the 2nd RTR.  During the night the Japanese set up a roadblock north of the chaung, effectively separating the tanks from Burdiv’s transport.  This block was cleared during April 17th and the transport subsequently reached Gwegyo.  However the Japanese had ejected the 1st Glosters from the northern part of Yenangyaung and had also established a roadblock, south of the chaung at Twingon. Burdiv’s line of retreat was blocked and it was separated from much of its transport and the armoured reserve.

By the night of April 17th/18th, Burdiv 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 Burdiv attacked the Japanese on the Pin Chaung from the south.  Burdiv attacked on the morning of the 18th with limited success.  Magforce reached their first objective but the attack by 13th Brigade was held up.  The Chinese attack did not materialise and Burdiv became surrounded on three sides.  Eventually, on the afternoon of April 19th, Bruce 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 single squadron of tanks left in support of the division carried out the wounded.  The Chinese attack finally materialised and, with the support of British tanks, was effective in covering the further withdrawal of the division.  Already reduced to around 4,000 men, Burdiv lost around a further fifth of its force at Yenangyaung, including most of its transport and equipment including 8 guns, 2 Bofors and nearly all the mortars.  By April 21st it had withdrawn to the Mount Popa area to rest and reorganise.

Japanese gains in the Shan States against the Chinese 6th 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 was now abandoned and the 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 April 25th/26th with the Chinese 38th Division moving to the Ava bridge area.  This move was covered by Burdiv, with the 1st Burma and the 13th Indian Brigades under direct command, following which the division moved to the ferry crossing at Sameikkon.  The 2nd Burma Brigade, already 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 Division crossed the Ava bridge, leaving the 63rd Brigade which, with the 7th Armoured Brigade, formed the rearguard at Meiktila, and the 48th Brigade at Kyaukse.  

Having sent much of its transport to cross by the Ava bridge, on the morning of April 27th Burdiv 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 April 28th.  The exhausted division rested through the next day and most of April 30th before moving off for Monywa that evening.  The plan was for Burdiv to withdraw up the Chindwin valley, while 17th Division fell back along the Shwebo-Yeu route to Kalewa.  Meanwhile, 2nd Brigade had left Pakkoku for Pauk on the evening of April 28th 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 6th Army in the Shan States and the Burma Road was cut in two places.  The 48th 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 Brigade on the evening of April 30th. 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 5th 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 Burdiv sector, on the east bank of the Chindwin, the 1st Glosters (around 150 men) and the steamer patrols of Force Viper defended the river town of Monywa.  Headquarters Burdiv and the divisional engineers were four miles to the south, at Ma-U, while the 1st and 13th 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 April 30th, 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 Burdiv at Chaungu with the aim of retaking Monywa as fast as possible.  He also ordered two brigades from 17th Division to Burdiv – the 48th Brigade at Myinmu and the 63rd Brigade at Sagaing.  Both were to travel by rail and detrain at Chaungu.  A Squadron, 7th Hussars was also attached.

That night, Burdiv HQ sent all engineer transport back to Chaungu to ferry forward the troops of the 63rd 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, FF1, also arrived to help defend the town.  Suddenly, the headquarters themselves came under attack at Ma-U and scrambled back to Chaungu.  At dawn the next day, May 1st, 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 and 13th, Burdiv commander, Bruce Scott, launched the 63rd Brigade at Monywa first.  The brigade began detraining at Kyehmon on the morning of May 1st and the two lead battalions, the 1st/10th Gurkhas and the 2nd/13th Frontier Force Rifles, advanced up the road to Ma-U, supported by tanks of A Squadron, 7th 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 May 2nd, each brigade supported by one field and one mountain battery.  The 13th Brigade made good progress and soon reached the railway station but by mid-afternoon they were held up. However, the 63rd Brigade could make little impression and were held on the southern outskirts of the town.  During the morning, the 1st Brigade, with the 1st/4th Gurkhas under command from the 48th Brigade, arrived and passed through the 63rd Brigade that afternoon to continue the attack but little more was achieved than establishing contact with the 13th Brigade.   However, by evening no progress had been made and the decision was taken for the 1st Burma and the 63rd Brigades to withdraw to Alon. By nightfall, Burdiv and 7th Armoured Brigade were forming on Alon while 17th 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 May 3rd, the 16th Brigade from the 17th Division was rushed to Shwegyin as Burcorps’ withdrawal was once again accelerated.  Burdiv, with the 1st, 13th and 63rd Brigades began to pullback 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, Burdiv and the 7th Armoured Brigade, less the 7th Hussars, formed the rearguard.  The 17th Division set up a series of layback positions between Ye-U and Shwegyin and it was through these that Burdiv withdrew to Chindwin, starting on May 5th.  

The 1st Brigade broke off from Burdiv and made a difficult march on the east bank of the Chindwin.  Leaving Pyingyang on May 8th, 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 May 16th.  Divisional HQ and the 13th Brigade crossed the river on May 9th before making the final trek to Tamu.  Meanwhile the detached 2nd Burma Brigade was moving up the Myittha valley, reaching Pauk on May 1st.  There followed a hard march northwards but luckily no Japanese were met.  On May 12th, contact was made with the Chin Hills Battalion, Burma Territorial Force, operating in the area, at a point 15 miles south of Kalemyo.  On reaching Kalemyo, the brigade was lucky to be met by motor transport which carried the haggard survivors on to Tamu. On reaching India, Burdiv could muster only around 2,000 men. 

An attack at Shwegyin Chaung by the Japanese on May 10th proved to be the final operation for the 17th Division in the campaign. 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 May 17th. The final unit, the rearguard 63rd Brigade, arrived two days later.  The strength of the 17th Division was 9,908 men. 

The 17th was retained at Imphal to reform with the 48th and 16th Brigades while the 63rd 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 Division, "Burdiv", and its brigades were now dispersed, later to be redesignated and organised as the 39th Indian Division.

 

Please e-mail Steve Rothwell with comments, additional information and requests for help

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