Rees’s 19 Division, the first to cross, was also the first to achieve its object:
The recapture of Mandalay.
The 4/4 Gurkhas had taken the summit of Mandalay Hill, but in the subterranean chambers bored in the hillside the Japanese defenders survived and came out to snipe at the attackers who were waiting for them to emerge, thumbs ready to press the buttons of vigilant machine guns. It was the engineers who solved the problem, and in a particularly gruesome way. Under the surface of this hill, with its temples dedicated to an ideal of tranquility and non-violence, they burst open the concrete casings with explosive, poured petrol through the gaps and then fired Very lights into them. Anti-tank projectiles were used to blow down steel doors, through which petrol drums were rolled and exploded with grenades. This ghastly inferno was the key to victory. By 12 March, Mandalay Hill was clear. It would have been cleared earlier, the Indian Army Official History states, but ‘Major-General Rees had decided not to bomb the sacred places, the pagodas, though [a] lot of machine-gun fire was poured on the garrison from the air. Rees had served in Mandalay as a young officer, and no doubt knew its importance as a religious centre. But the casuistically distinction between aerial bombardment and explosives igniting petrol drums is not easy to follow. Or perhaps the purpose was aesthetic rather than moral: when Compton Mackenzie toured Mandalay in 1947 in preparation for his Indian Army History, a Gurkha battalion commander explained to him the difficulties of removing the Japanese without destroying the hill, and, he commented, he could wish that ‘the Americans had always been as scrupulous in Italy. ..I could not help contrasting the lot of Mandalay Hill with that of Cassino.
Fort Dufferin was next. 5.5 inch howitzers breached the walls, Thunderbolts bombed the bridge on the south side of the moat, 8/12 Frontier Force Regiment and 1/6 Gurkhas probed the approaches. But the Japanese reacted strongly. Their guns stopped the tanks accompanying the Gurkhas and the attack came to a halt. For several days the British guns continued to pound the walls, but the 50-foot earth ramparts behind them simply absorbed the shells.
Rees then decided to use a tactic remarkably similar to those of the Japanese ninja, the silent, invisible killers of samurai fiction. ‘Exercise Duffy’, as it was called, was meant to achieve a secret entry into the fort, to establish a foothold which could then be exploited. Rees was insistent that it was to be inexpensive in terms of casualties:
“The operation I intend is one of surprise; a silent start and rapid seizing of the bridgehead, NOT the forcing of an entry at all costs by bludgeon methods. If the surprise operation at reasonably light cost is not possible owing to enemy vigilance and preparations, then it will not be pressed home at all costs.”
The operation was entrusted to 1/15 Punjab and 8/12 Frontier Force of 64 Brigade (Flewett). They were to leave behind their steel helmets and change their boots for rubber-soled shoes. They would be brought to the walls in the darkness by engineers manning assault boats, with scaling ladders at the ready, and six man-pack flame-throwers and a machine-gun company would augment their firepower when the attack went in, which was at 10 pm on 17 March. They reached the north-east and north-west corners of the Fort in the darkness, but as they made for the breaches the guns had opened, the Japanese opened fire, sinking one of the boats. In the early hours of the 18th, a platoon which had a foothold on the railway bridge in the north-west corner (the railway ran right through the west side of the Fort) was met by automatic fire and driven back. The flame- throwers never got near enough to be of use. Realizing that any of his men caught on the walls by the morning light would be mercilessly shot down, Rees called off the attack at 3.30 am.
After the failure of ‘Exercise Duffy’, the battering began again. The RAF bombed the north wall, to little purpose, and 6-inch howitzers made seventeen more breaches in the north and east walls, on the theory that the Japanese could only man a small number of breaches and in the end would not be able to defend them all. B25s used skip-bombing with 2000lb bombs, the kind of thing that had been used against the Mohne Dam. The result was a 15-foot hole in the wall, and nothing more.3 Rees described for ” the BBC, again, a typical day’s assault on the Fort in the earlier phase -10 March-:
“Let’s get under cover. The Frontier Force are attacking Mandalay Fort now. You can probably hear the noise of the shelling, mortaring, shooting. I’m fairly close to the walls myself, standing, looking half round a concrete wall. Our chaps are advancing steadily, bunching a little more than I’d like to see them. They’re going very well. The tanks are advancing, firing very hard at the walls. You can see where our medium guns, firing direct, have made breaches in the walls of the fort. You can see the bullets flicking the ground just ahead of me. I think actually they’re our own tank bullets. The tank Besa’s co-axial firing just ahead of the infantry, smothering the operation. I can see one of our infantry running across now, just near the fort wall.
I’ll get my glasses on. I can see the breach, but there’s a big moat, this side. I can now see some of our leading infantry. They’ve just doubled to behind a concrete shelter which the sappers have built before the war, because we’re standing now in the sapper lines just north of Mandalay Fort, actually called Fort Dufferin, with a palace in- side.
Tremendous lot of noise going on. A whole lot of smoke now, near the wall itself, which is a very good thing for our infantry. I’m not quite sure which of the firing is the enemy firing. I can see some of our infantry running round the tanks. Not always a wise thing to stand near a tank. Now I can see more of our infantry going across now, they’re running across near the tanks, they’re in slouch hats, Australian hats, Gurkha hats, very clear to see.
Rees’s instructions from the Corps Commander to avoid unnecessary damage to Mandalay were proving increasingly difficult to observe. Slim was confident the Fort could be bypassed, and considered its capture to be a matter of news value rather than military advantage. Rees did not want a repetition of the stalemate at Myitkyina, and sought desperately for ways of substituting cunning for the bludgeon of artillery and air strikes. ‘Duffy’ had failed, but he remembered that, as the Governor of Burma’s Military
Secretary in pre-war days, he had explored the Fort and discovered a culvert which went beneath the moat. He decided to find it again, and an assault unit was got ready to follow a Burmese who knew the plan of the Mandalay sewers. Sappers found that it was possible to approach the Fort from underneath, as they waded through the sewers, up to their thighs in mud.
It would have been a nauseatingly filthy attack. Happily, it was not necessary. In the early afternoon of 20 March, after yet another air-strike had taken place, four Anglo-Burmans – civilian prisoners held by the Japanese – carrying a white flag and a Union Jack came out of the north gate. Already harassed by the incursion of 17 Division into Central Burma, and not wishing to see the morale of his troops deteriorate, the GOC 15 . Army, Katamura, relaxed his order to the defenders. 51 and 60 Infantry Regiments were ordered to put in a final attack on 19 Indian Division and then withdraw. The order was given on 18 March. 60 Regiment occupied the Government Farms Buildings area (called in the Japanese texts ‘the Agricultural College’) on the south edge of the city. During the night of 19 March, the main body of 15 Division withdrew from Mandalay. They were as well informed as Rees: they came out through a drain under the moat.
Slim was at Monywa when the news came through. Air Vice-Marshal Vincent at once detailed a Sentinel light plane from the L5 detachment of 194 Squadron, RAF, to fly him into Mandalay to take the salute at the victory parade, escorted by two Spitfires.
2 British Division got in on the act; but only just. Brigadier Michael West, of 5 Brigade, had been told to link up with his opposite number from 19 Division in Mandalay, and he drove up on 21 March, taking Colonel White, the Commanding Officer of the Dorsets, with him, a troop of Grant tanks, and some armoured carriers. There was no one at the crossroads rendezvous, except a puzzled military policeman, who sent them on to the Fort. They drove through the shambles of the city -White was oppressed by its air of desolation -past the ruins of King Thibaw’s Palace, and on to the parade ground where they found 19 Division drawn up on the site of Government House, in the presence of Slim, Messervy, and three divisional commanders. ‘It was perhaps most fitting’, White wrote later, ‘that the Dorsets gate-crashed this party to represent the 2nd Division, as we and the troop of the 3rd Dragoon Guards with us were the only troops of the Division to fight in Mandalay itself.’ All the more appropriate since the Dorsets wore the battle honour’ Ava’ for the Burma War of 1824-6, during which they had not entered Mandalay. By another odd coincidence, the fourth Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, who was with a Field Broadcasting Unit, was killed in an ambush between Ava and Fort Dufferin on 23 March.3 The flag was hoisted over Fort Dufferin, as soon as 72 Brigade went in, by Rees himself – according to Slim – or by a gunner of 134 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery -according to the Official History. The ceremony was repeated by Slim at the formal parade to make sure everyone realized that more than one division had collaborated in the capture: ‘The capture of Mandalay had been as much the result of operations at Meiktila and elsewhere as of those around the city itself. Every one of my divisions had played its part; it was an Army victory. I thought it would be good for everyone to have that fact demonstrated.’
From: Allen, Louis. Burma: The Longest War 1941-1945. London: Phoenix Press, 1984. ISBN: 1 84212 260 6. Pb. 686p. Illus. Maps. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pages 420-24.
GOING TO WAR ON THE TUBE – CHAPTER 5 BATTLE FOR MANDALAY HILL
After about 6 weeks of fighting on the bridgehead the pressure began to ease, as our Division in the South began “breaking out” of its bridgehead and the enemy began to retreat towards Mandalay. First, the shelling eased off somewhat. Then night attacks became less ferocious and we began aggressively patrolling. They had constructed strong bunker positions around our perimeter and the Indian Airforce attacked these with varying success.
From dead Japanese we gathered notebooks and written messages and these were sent to Divisional H.Q where they were interpreted by C.I.S.D.I.C. personnel. These were Japanese Americans who were loaned to us. One such message from a Japanese Sergeant killed on our wire said “tonight we attack the hated British for the last time – tonight we die, this is glorious!”
Then we started to move South. This time, of course, on the East side of the Irrawaddy. The advance was pretty horrible in Teak forest where the undergrowth had been burnt and we trudged through deep ash. We moved in two echelons, each with its artillery so that one could support the other.
Madaya was the next big town before Mandalay. The Japs had fought here too. There were mines and booby-traps everywhere for the unwary. We were constantly involved with Japanese stragglers and worse, enemy suicide patrols. Bill Minto, our quartermaster, was involved in quite a battle when ambushed bringing forward our rations with Peter Sibree. He was awarded a Military Cross for his action. Bill Minto never failed us, feeding the battalion under the most trying circumstances.
Thoughts were always for a rest but not for us. Transport became available and we were carried towards Mandalay. Mandalay Hill eventually hove into sight; a very beautiful one but to any attacking infantry soldier, a daunting one.
The hill, covered with temples and shrines dominated, everything. It was obvious when we de-bussed and marched towards the battle area that the Division was not having it all its own way.
Several of our tanks had been knocked out and were burning before the hill. As we arrived the Baluch Regiment were retreating, having been given a bloody-nose. The Recce. Regt. named “Stiletto Force” was stuck around the lower part of the Hill and were pinned down.
We, the 4/4, spread out in what is called “extended order” over a large area and watched feeling vaguely sorry for the troops at the “sharp end”. It was always thus. We were actually lying in an area of cultivated land on which delicious tomatoes were growing. They were the Italian type of tomato and I had never seen them before. We gorged ourselves, as we watched the battle ahead.
The Jap occasionally sent over the odd shell but in the main he concentrated on those troops actually attacking.
A hare, an animal, which I don’t think I ever saw before in Burma, was suddenly put up and began to dash through our position towards the enemy. Gurkhas are like children when something like this happens, particularly when “Shikar” (game) is concerned. There were shouts of excitement and laughter as attempts to catch the poor thing were made. Eventually, it was caught and tossed into the air amid great shouts of “shabash”! All this time the battle raged.
Orders were then given for the Royal Berkshires, with us in support, to make a frontal attack supported by tanks. The General intervened and Col. MacKay our C.O. asked for us to lead and tackle the Hill with a night attack. Hamish, having served in Burma, knew the area well and his plea was accepted.
Our plan was to march at night by compass bearing to the army rifle-butts that lay to the East of the Hill. From here, we would make our assault at night. As the Intelligence Officer in charge of navigation, it was my responsibility to get us there. The intelligence section were well trained at this, but it was always dodgy because they had to be near the leading scouts to guide them.
The battalion started off with our mules but we ran into trouble because we were unable to cross a number of chaungs (canals) quietly enough. At one point we could hear the enemy shouting on the Hill and they were too close for comfort.
It was decided to send the mules back and go onto a ‘man-pack’ basis. This is not pleasant as it means that very heavy weights; ammunition, mortars, bombs etc. had to be carried by men, who would shortly be required to climb a very steep hill, to attack the Japanese who were waiting for them. B Company were sent back with the mules.
Fortunately for me, A Company arrived exactly on target, formed a strong base and sent out patrols.
It was D Company’s turn to lead and C prepared to follow in support. The attack started at 3.00 am and D started off. Fighting started almost immediately and A Company’s base was attacked at the same time. The Japs were driven off with heavy losses.
As dawn broke there was a shout of “Ayo Gurkhali” as they stormed the summit and David Hine, the gunner O.P. with them, directed excellent and accurate fire on the Defenders. It was a tremendous battle; Khukris bayonets and hand-grenades before the hill was ours.
As usual they immediately counter-attacked and sustained losses.
Some Japs took up positions in the many temples and barrels of petrol were rolled down slopes and fired with phosphorus grenades. The Royal Berkshires took over the mopping-up of those who survived our assault.
We carried on fighting around the hill and actually suffered greater casualties than we did in taking the hill.
The moated Fort Dufferin lay at the foot of the hill and contained a beautiful palace. I am glad that I saw this building before it was destroyed. Whether the Japs, the RAF or our gunners did the damage is not known but it was soon reduced to rubble.
The capture of the Hill was a battle honour for the Fourth Gurkha Rifles and together with the fact that we were the first to cross the Irrawaddy caused the General to describe us as a “magnificent battalion” in the despatches. There is a memorial on the Hill to the 4/4 G.R casualties (see photograph).
Lt. Col John Masters, a famous author after the war, a 4th Gurkha in it; was the G.I. of 19 Indian Division. The G.I. is the principal staff officer and is the General’s chief planner and advisor.
In his book “The Road Past Mandalay” he tells the story of the battle for the hill as follows:-
“The lion-like bulk of Mandalay Hill climbed over the southern horizon. Rising nearly a thousand feet above the plain, the spine of it is covered from end to end by temples, linked by a covered stairway. Under the temples lie cellars and dwellings and storage rooms. The Japanese held the whole complex, in strength, and from it their artillery observers directed a heavy gunfire on to our leading troops.
Pete and I spent an unpleasant hour under its western slope on two successive days. Every movement, particularly of vehicles, drew prompt and accurate fire from 105s and 155s. On our first visit a shell made a direct hit on a jeep twenty feet from us. After picking ourselves up we ran forward to help the man lying there beside the burning wreckage, but he was dead, incredibly shrunk so that I thought it must be a child; but it was a mangled mess of adult humanity, an Indian sepoy, red flesh thrown anyhow into torn green trousers. A dozen more shells were on their way and we left him.
We could make no further advance until we took Mandalay Hill. The general allotted the task to 98 Brigade, and they to the Royal Berkshires. But the 4th Battalion of the 4th Gurkhas was in that brigade, and its commanding officer came forward to protest. Hamish Mackay, very quiet and shy-seeming, in reality full of fire and fey humour, pointed out that he knew the area well having been seconded to the Burma Rifles from 1937 to 1942. Hamish thought he could take the hill with his battalion, that night, using little known paths of approach. The orders were changed, and Hamish was given his head.
On the night of March 10-11 (again, our Regimental Day), the battalion went up to the assault, led by Subadar Damarsing and Jemadar Aiman. All night they fought up the steep, up the long stairway and along the flanks of the ridge. At dawn they took the summit. An hour later Pete and I stood on the highest point of Mandalay Hill, looking down into the city and into the palace of the ancient kings of Burma. Once they had been spacious beautiful, with avenues of shady trees; now three and a half years of war had battered them, and columns of dust rose in the streets where our shells fell, and half the houses had no roofs, and to the south acres of corrugated iron, which had once been a warehouse or factory, glittered dully in the early sun. The Irrawaddy ran wide and yellow on our right and immediately below us the old splendour still lived in the brilliant white of the pagodas climbing down the ridge towards the moat and the wall of the fortress.
We stood, so to speak on top of Mandalay. We also stood, at much closer range, on top of a good many Japanese. The temples, cellars, and mysterious chambers covering Mandalay Hill were made of reinforced concrete. The 4th Gurkhas had taken the summit, and no Japanese was alive and visible; but scores of them were alive, invisible, in the subterranean chambers.
A gruesome campaign of extermination began, among the temples of one of the most sacred places of the Buddhist faith. Sikh machine-gunners sat all day on the flat roofs. Their guns aimed down the hill on either side of the covered stairway. Every now and then a Japanese put out his head and fired a quick upward shot. A Sikh got a bullet through the brain five yards from me. Our engineers brought up beehive charges, blew holes through the concrete, poured in petrol, and fired a Verey light down the holes. Sullen explosions rocked the buildings and Japanese rolled out into the open, on fire, but firing. Our machine-gunners pressed their thumb-pieces. The Japanese fell, burning. We blew in huge steel doors with PIATs (bazookas), rolled in kegs of petrol or oil, and set them on fire with tracer bullets. Our infantry fought into the tunnels behind a hail of grenades, and licking sheets of fire from the flame-throwers. Grimly, under the stench of burning bodies and the growing pall of decay, past the equally repellent Buddhist statuary (showing famine, pestilence, men eaten alive by vultures) the battalions fought their way down the ridge to the southern foot – to face the moat and thirty-foot-thick walls of Fort Dufferin.
Pete brought up the medium artillery, and the 5.5s hurled their 60-pound shells at the wall, over open sights from four hundred yards. The shells made no impression. He called in the air force. P-47s tried skip bombing, B-24s dropped some 1,000 pound bombs, some inside the fort and some outside – among our troops.
We found a municipal employee who knew where the sewers led out of the fort, and prepared an assault party. All the while the infantry fought in the brick and stone rubble of the burning city, among corpses of children and dead dogs and the universal sheets of corrugated-iron. The night the sewer assault was to go in the Japanese withdrew from Mandalay. Next morning coal-black Madrassi sappers blew in the main gate, and Pete walked in, surrounded by a cheering, yelling mob of a dozen races. Just as Pete – but not his superiors – had planned, the ‘Dagger’ Division had taken Mandalay. At the same time Jumbo Morris took Maymyo. Jumbo Morris was commander of 62 Brigade.”
Subadar Damarsing, Jemadar Aiman and Capt. David Hine were all awarded military crosses. Col. Hamish Mackay was given another bar to his D.S.O.
As Mandalay fell to 19 Indian Division, 2 British Division and 5 Indian Division crossed the Irrawaddy to the South of the town and so began the destruction of the Japanese in Burma.