Battle of the Admin Box

Battle of the Admin Box
Part of the Burma Campaign
IND 002994 7th Indian Division Sikhs in Ngakyedauk Pass.jpg
Sikh troops of 7th Indian Division man an observation post in the Ngakyedauk Pass area of the Arakan, Burma, February 1944
Date 5–23 February 1944
Location Arakan, Burma
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
 United Kingdom
Empire of Japan Japan
AzadHindFlag.png Azad Hind
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Philip Christison Empire of Japan Tohutaro Sakurai
Strength
at start:
2 infantry divisions
1 armoured regiment
reinforcements:
2 infantry divisions
1 infantry division
Casualties and losses
3,506 total[1]
3 Fighter Aircraft[2]
3,106 killed
2,229 wounded[3]
65 Fighter Aircraft[2]

The Battle of the Admin Box (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Ngakyedauk or the Battle of Sinzweya) took place on the Southern Front of the Burma Campaign from 5 February to 23 February 1944, in the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II. The Japanese attempted a local counter-attack against an Allied offensive with the aim of drawing Allied reserves from the Central Front in Assam, where the Japanese were preparing their own major offensive.

After initial setbacks, the Allies recovered to thwart the Japanese attack, pioneering the methods which would lead to further Allied victories over the following year.

Contents

Situation in early 1944

During 1941 and early 1942, the Japanese army had driven Allied troops (British, Indian and Chinese) from Burma. During 1943, the Allies had tried a limited offensive into Arakan, the coastal province of Burma. The aim had been to secure Akyab Island at the end of the Mayu Peninsula. The island possessed an important airfield, from which the Japanese Army Air Force had launched raids on Calcutta and other Indian cities, and which also featured prominently in Allied plans to recapture Burma.

This offensive had failed disastrously, for several reasons. Because the British Indian Army was being massively expanded, most of the Indian (and British) units committed to the attack lacked training and experience. Exhausted units were left in the front line, and their morale declined. Allied tactics and equipment were not suited to the jungle-covered hills, and Japanese units repeatedly achieved surprise by crossing rivers and hills which the Allies had dismissed as impassable. Finally, the Allied command structure was inefficient, with a single overworked division headquarters trying to control a large number of sub-units and also a large line-of-communications area.

During the following months, the Allies reorganised, engaged in extensive jungle training, and prepared for a renewed effort in 1944. Under British Fourteenth Army, the offensive was to be launched by Indian XV Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Philip Christison.

Second Allied offensive

The Mayu peninsula consisted of a coastal plain, indented by several chaungs (tidal creeks), and separated from the fertile valley of the Kalapanzin River by the jungle-covered Mayu Range of hills. The 5th Indian Infantry Division, which had already experienced heavy fighting in East Africa and the Western Desert and was commanded by Major-General Harold Rawdon Briggs, attacked down the coastal plain. The comparatively inexperienced but well-trained 7th Indian Infantry Division under Major-General Frank Messervy attacked down the Kalapanzin Valley. The British 81st (West Africa) Division was advancing further east down the Kaladan River valley, but would not directly affect the battle. Two other divisions, the British 36th Infantry Division and 26th Indian Infantry Division, were in reserve.

The advance began cautiously at first, but steadily gained momentum. On 9 January 1944, 5th Indian Division captured the small port of Maungdaw. While they reduced Japanese positions south of the port (the village of Razabil and a hill known from its shape as the Tortoise), the Corps prepared to take the next major objective. This was part of the Mayu Range where two disused railway tunnels provided a route through the hills linking Maungdaw to the towns of Buthidaung and Letwedet in the Kalapanzin Valley. To reposition troops and resources for this attack, XV Corps improved a narrow track, known as the Ngakyedauk Pass, across the hills, while 7th Indian Division established its main administration area at Sinzweya, near the eastern end of the pass.

Japanese moves

The Japanese Twenty-Eighth Army under Lieutenant General Shōzō Sakurai commanded the troops in Arakan and in southern Burma. Its 55th Division under Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya occupied Arakan. Most of the division's troops (five battalions[4]) were grouped as Sakurai Force in the Mayu area, under its Infantry Group headquarters commanded by Major-General Tohutaro Sakurai, no relation to the Army commander. (A Japanese division had a separate headquarters to administer its infantry units which, as in this case, could take tactical control of any substantial detachment from the division.)

The Japanese were confident that they could repeat their success of the previous year in a local counter-attack, and perhaps even advance on Chittagong, the port on which Indian XV Corps relied for supplies.[5] Also, it was intended that by launching their attack (given the name HA-GO or Operation Z) in the first week of February, they would force the Allies to send reinforcements from the Central Front, thus clearing the way for the main Japanese offensive there, planned to begin in the first week of March.

Beginning on 5 February, Sakurai Force infiltrated the front lines of the 7th Indian Division, which was widely dispersed, and moved north undetected on the small town of Taung Bazaar. Here they crossed the Kalapanzin River and swung west and south, and on 6 February they attacked the HQ of 7th Division. There was heavy fighting, but 7th Division's signallers and clerks eventually had to destroy their documents and equipment, and retreat. (Other radio operators listening on the division's frequency heard a voice say, "Put a pick through that radio", then silence.)[6]

Sakurai's force then followed up towards Sinzweya and the rear of 7th Division. A Japanese battalion (I/213 Regiment, known as Kubo Force from its commander), crossed the Mayu Range at a seemingly impossible place, to set ambushes on the coastal road by which the 5th Indian Division was supplied. The Japanese still holding the railway tunnels area (Doi Force) launched a subsidiary attack to link up with Sakurai and raids and diversions, while unexpectedly large numbers of Japanese fighter aircraft flew from Akyab to contest the skies over the battlefield.

Battle of the Admin Box

It was evident to all of XV Corps that the situation was serious. However, Fourteenth Army had spent much time considering counters to the standard Japanese tactics of infiltration and encirclement. The forward divisions of XV Corps were ordered to dig in and hold their positions rather than retreat, while the reserve divisions advanced to their relief.

The next obvious objective for the Japanese was 7th Indian Division's administrative area at Sinzweya, defended by headquarters and line of communication troops, with 25 Light AA / Anti Tank Regiment, RA. As Messervy was in the jungle and out of contact, Christison, the Corps commander, ordered Brigadier Geoffrey Evans, who had recently been appointed commander of 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, part of the 5th Indian Division, to make his way to the Admin box, assume command and hold the Box against all attacks.[7] Evans reinforced the defenders of the box with 2nd Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment) from his brigade and 24 Mountain Artillery Regiment, IA. The most vital reinforcements of all were two squadrons of M3 Lee tanks of the 25th Dragoons. The defenders were later joined by part of the 4/8th Gurkha Rifles (from the 89th Indian Infantry Brigade, part of 7th Indian Division) and also the artillery of 8 Heavy Regiment RA and 6 Medium Regiment RA.[7]

Under Evans, the Box was converted into a defended area. The clearing measured a bare 1,200 yards (1.1 km) in diameter. Ammunition dumps were piled up at the foot of the western face of a central hillock, 150 feet (46 m) high, named "Ammunition Hill". When Major-General Messervy reached the Admin Box, followed by several of his HQ personnel who had made their way in small parties through Japanese forces, he left the defence of the Box to Evans while he himself concentrated on re-establishing control over and directing the rest of the division.[7]

Meanwhile, Allied Dakota transport aircraft dropped rations and ammunition to the cut-off troops, including the defenders of the Admin Box. They flew a total of 714 sorties, dropping 2,300 tons of supplies.[citation needed] The Japanese had not foreseen this development.[8] While they ran short of supplies, the Indian formations could fight on. The Japanese tried to supply Sakurai Force with a convoy of pack mules and Arakanese porters, following the route of Sakurai's original infiltration but this was ambushed and the supplies were captured.[9]

The first air-drop missions met opposition from Japanese fighters and some transport aircraft were forced to turn back but three squadrons of Spitfires, operating from new airfields around Chittagong, gained air superiority over the battlefield. Sixty-five Japanese aircraft were claimed shot down or damaged for the loss of three Spitfires. Whatever the true figures, the Japanese fighters were quickly driven from the area.[2]

On the ground, the fighting for the Admin Box was severe and for the most part hand to hand.[7] On the night of 7 February, some Japanese troops captured the divisional Main Dressing Station. In what was undoubtedly a war crime thirty-five medical staff and patients were murdered.[10] This may have increased the resolve of the defenders who were now aware what fate would befall them if they surrendered. Japanese fire caused heavy casualties in the crowded defences and twice set ammunition dumps on fire. All attempts to overrun the defenders were thwarted by the tanks, to which the Japanese had no counter once their few Mountain guns were out of ammunition. The Japanese tried an all-out attack on the night of 14 February and succeeded in capturing one hill on the perimeter. The 2nd West Yorkshire with support from the tanks recaptured it the next day, although they suffered heavy casualties.[11]

By 22 February, the Japanese had been starving for several days. Colonel Tanahashi, commanding the main body of Sakurai's force (Japanese 112 Infantry Regiment), stated that his regiment was reduced to 400 men out of a nominal 2150 and refused to make further attacks.[11] On 24 February, he retreated without authorisation. On 26 February, Sakurai was forced to break off the operation. XV Corps's reserve divisions had relieved 5th Division, which sent a brigade to break through the Ngakyedauk Pass to relieve 7th Division. Kubo force was cut off and suffered heavy casualties trying to regain the Japanese lines.

Aftermath

Entrance to one of the disused railway tunnels on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road, captured by Allied troops in March 1944

Although total Allied casualties were higher than the Japanese, the Japanese had been forced to abandon many of their wounded to die. Five thousand Japanese dead were counted on the battlefield.[12] For the first time in the Burma Campaign, the Japanese tactics had been countered and indeed turned against them. This was to be repeated on a far larger scale in the impending Battle of Imphal. In terms of morale also, the fact that British and Indian soldiers had held and defeated a major Japanese attack for the first time was widely broadcast.[13]

The value of Allied air power had been demonstrated, and was to be a vital factor in the overall Allied victory in the Burma campaign. At the Japanese surrender meetings in Rangoon on 11 September 1945,[14] Major General Ichida read a statement which identified two unforeseen and vital factors which had put the Japanese at a "disastrous disadvantage":

(a) Allied air supply, which permitted ground forces in Burma to consolidate their positions without being forced to retreat and thus rendered the enemy's infiltration and encircling tactics abortive.
(b) Allied air superiority, which so disrupted Japanese supply lines, both in Burma and further afield, that starvation and illness overtook thousands of Japanese troops facing Fourteenth Army and also denied them the essential supplies of fuel, equipment and material with which to fight a better equipped and supplied, Allied Force.

In the second week of March, the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade (part of the 5th Division) finally captured the "Tortoise" and the other fortifications around Razabil, by a flanking manoeuvre, before the division was withdrawn into reserve.[15] The 26th Indian and British 36th Divisions resumed the offensive in late March and early April. The 36th Division captured the railway tunnels by 4 April, and on 6 April, the 26th Division captured a vital hill, named Point 551, which dominated the area and where the Japanese had won an important victory just under a year earlier.[16]

At this point, operations were curtailed to free transport aircraft and troops for the Imphal battle. As the monsoon began, it was found that the low-lying area around Buthidaung was malarial and unhealthy and the Allies actually withdrew from the area to spare themselves losses to disease.[17] The Japanese, with support from a unit of the Indian National Army and local Arakanese, also mounted a successful counter-attack in the Kaladan Valley, forcing the understrength and isolated 81st West African Division to retreat.

Akyab remained in Japanese hands until January, 1945, when a renewed Allied advance combined with amphibious landings drove the Japanese from Arakan, inflicting heavy casualties by landing troops to cut off their retreat down the coast.

Indian National Army contribution

The lightly armed 1st battalion of the Indian National Army's 1st Guerrilla Regiment had been directed to participate in this diversionary attack. They left Rangoon in early February, but by the time they reached Akyab in early March, the Japanese offensive was nearing its end. The battalion subsequently marched up the Kaladan river and progressed slowly but successfully against Commonwealth African units before crossing the Burma-India border to occupy Mowdok near Chittagong.[18]

Awards for valour

Major Charles Ferguson Hoey of the 1st Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, for conspicuous valour during the fighting at the Ngakyedauk Pass.

References

  • Allen, Louis (1984). Burma: The longest War. Dent. ISBN 0-460-02474-4. 
  • Fay, Peter W. (1993). The Forgotten Army: India's Armed Struggle for Independence, 1942-1945.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. ISBN 0472083422. .
  • Latimer, Jon (2004). Burma: The Forgotten War. John Murray. ISBN 0719565766. 
  • Leyin, John (2000). Tell Them of Us: The Forgotten Army - Burma. Stanford-le-Hope, Essex: Lejins Publishing. ISBN 0952878933. 
  • Mead, Richard (2007). Churchill's Lions: A biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II. Stroud (UK): Spellmount. pp. 132–135. ISBN 978-1-86227-431-0. 
  • Moreman, Tim R. (2005). The Jungle, the Japanese and the British Commonwealth Armies at War, 1941-45. Frank Cass. pp. 109–124. ISBN 0-714-64970-8. 
  • Slim, William (1956). Defeat Into Victory. London: Cassell. OCLC 253543428. 

Notes

  1. ^ Moreman, p.122
  2. ^ a b c Allen, p.178
  3. ^ Allen, p.638
  4. ^ Fraser, David (1999). And we shall shock them: the British Army in the Second World War. Cassell military. p. 307. ISBN 9780304352333. 
  5. ^ Allen, p.177
  6. ^ Allen, p.182
  7. ^ a b c d Mead, p. 134.
  8. ^ Allen, p.187
  9. ^ Slim, pp.236-237
  10. ^ Allen, p.183
  11. ^ a b Allen, p.186
  12. ^ Allen, p.188
  13. ^ Allen, pp.187-188
  14. ^ Park, Keith (August 1946). Air Operations in South East Asia 3rd May 1945 to 12 September 1945. London: War Office. p. 2154.  published in London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 39202. pp. 2127–2172. 13 April 1951. Retrieved 2009-12-09.
  15. ^ Anthony Brett-James. "Ball of Fire:The Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War". http://ourstory.info/library/4-ww2/Ball/fire12.html#ch22. Retrieved 2009-12-22. 
  16. ^ Slim, pp.242-243
  17. ^ Slim, pp.243-244
  18. ^ Fay 1993, p. 285

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