OPERATION DRACULA

Gurkha paratroopers check their equipment before being dropped on a series of strategic points around Rangoon.

The Japanese Army was retreating in much of Southeast Asia. The battle of Imphal swayed back and forth across great stretches of the wild country of Burma. In Meiktila, north of Rangoon, a Japanese counterattack ground Lieutenant General William Slim’s 14th Army to a halt. It was the last week of March 1945 and Rangoon had to be in Allied hands before the mid-May monsoons or the fighting would grind even slower. Slim depended very heavily on air resupply from planes based in India, planes that would be grounded in the monsoon.

With the northern, overland, route to Rangoon seemingly blocked, a plan for an amphibious assault of Rangoon up 24 miles of the Rangoon River was prepared and approved. Soon after the approval, the planners discovered several problems with the plan as written: the river was mined; coastal guns, especially on the west bank of the Rangoon River at Elephant Point, would hamper minesweeping operations; and a seaborne assault on the guns was out of the question because the coastal waters were too shallow to allow any ship with large enough guns to come within range. Already short of transport aircraft and not really wanting to jeopardize the scanty resupply missions, Slim’s staff reviewed other methods of assaulting these guns, which were at the mouth of the Rangoon River and the Gulf of Martaban.

The staff decided that an airborne assault was necessary but initially could not decide whether the assault should be by parachute or gliders. For a variety of weather and drop zone reasons the staff eventually ruled out using gliders so Slim reluctantly approved the parachute operation. The weather experts picked 2 May as the date for the amphibious assault. The paratroopers would have to go in the day before in order to secure the guns and the waterway entrance. The mission was code-named Operation Dracula.

Parachute forces in the Indian Army had been formed in October 1941 when British Army and RAF jump instructors established an Air Landing School in Delhi and the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was activated, also in Delhi. The first brigade commander was Brigadier W.H.G. Gough, who was already jump qualified; he was later replaced by Brigadier M.R.J. Thompson. The 50th Brigade included three national Parachute Battalions: 151st (British), 152nd (Indian), and 153rd (Gurkha). The Air Landing School was later moved to Campbellpore and Chaklala (now in Pakistan). In October 1942 the 151st (British) Para Battalion was redesignated as the 156th Para Battalion and transferred to the Middle East. Two months later the 3/7th Gurkha Regiment, recently returned from fighting in Burma, was converted to a parachute unit and designated the 154th Gurkha Para Battalion.

Early training had the same problem in India as it did in many other countries—lack of transport aircraft and a limited supply of parachutes. Because India was at the far end of the priority logistics chain the only aircraft available for jump training was the Vickers Valencia, a twin-engine biplane with a troop carrying capacity of 20. The pilot and observer sat in the Valencia’s open cockpit in the nose of the plane. The Valencias, known affectionately to the Indian paras as “Flying Pigs,” had a cruising speed of about 85 miles per hour and could take off and land on short runways. An exit hole was cut in the floor of the plane for the jumpers.

In April 1942, Leslie L. Irvin, the American parachute manufacturer, visited India. Irvin soon established a local factory in Kanpur to make parachutes for the Indian Army. By June the supply of parachutes had improved and continued to improve throughout the war.

When it was first established, the jump school required all prospective students to pass a color blindness test. This test produced a high failure rate. When official requests were made to dilute this requirement, they were turned down. The problem was solved by an inventive method. Since many of the RAF medical examiners did not speak any of the local dialects, it was necessary to administer the test using an Indian Army officer as an interpreter. The failure rate plummeted. Eventually the test requirement was dropped.

Jump training lasted for three weeks with five jumps required for qualification: on the first jump, the jumpers exited one at a time; then came slow pairs, then quick pairs, then the entire stick; by the fifth jump the students jumped with weapons and equipment, and conducted a simple tactical exercise after landing and assembling. Equipment containers were attached to bomb racks which were located just forward of the exit hole. These containers were usually released halfway through the exiting stick by the jumpmaster. Timing the release of the equipment containers was absolutely critical to avoid injuries. The first Indian to make a parachute jump was Lieutenant A.G. Rangaraj of the 152nd Para Battalion.

By the spring of 1945 plans were already in effect to split up the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade to form the cadre of the newly-created 44th Indian Airborne Division. A composite battalion group from the many units of 50 Brigade was formed to implement Operation Dracula. The battalion group was under the command of Major G.E.C. (Jack) Newland and was composed almost entirely of members of the Gurkha parachute units.

The battalion group was formed as follows: staff and A and B companies of 153rd, C and D companies of 154th, and special personnel for battalion headquarters and support companies from both battalions as necessary. In addition, a section of combat engineers from 411th Parachute Squadron Indian Engineers, a section of the 80th Parachute Field Ambulance, two pathfinder teams, and detachments from the brigade signal and intelligence units were attached. By mid April the battalion group was assembled at Chaklala for training; it was joined there by the support attachments. A reserve force was designated, and briefings and rehearsals began. The force was then moved to Midnapore, where it remained for ten days, until 29 April.

In Midnapore, the air support linked up with the paratroopers. Air support was American C-47s; the pilots had no previous experience dropping parachute troops. Special racks for equipment bundles had to be constructed. Canadian jumpmasters, who had worked with the Gurkhas before, were pressed into service. One full dress-rehearsal jump was conducted and went well. On 29 April, the battalion group was moved to Akyab, its staging base (or ‘perching area’), where it was joined by the reserve element. The reserve was to be dropped in a separate operation. Final briefings were conducted— intelligence reports estimated that opposition at the target would be light.

The battalion group was to be flown to its target area in 40 C-47s manned by the 1st and 2nd Air Commandos, American Air Corps units with no experience in parachute drops. The 1st Air Commandos was the unit that had towed gliders for Brigadier Orde Wingate’s second Chindit expedition into Burma when it went behind Japanese lines in March 1944.

At 0230 on 1 May, the pathfinder aircraft, two C-47s, took off. Forty minutes later, the main body departed. The 400 mile approach flight was marked by incredibly bad visibility and deteriorating flying conditions. The fighter escort had to turn back. At 0545, the green light came on as the first planes reached the leading edge of the drop zone, five miles west of Elephant Point, and the Gurkha paratroopers jumped. The drop was absolutely perfect. Everyone landed on the drop zone. There was no opposition on the ground and the Gurkhas assembled quickly. There had been only five minor jump casualties.

The paratroopers moved west for two-and-one-half miles. A stop was called to wait for their target to be engaged by air support. Despite being almost 3,000 meters from the target, some of the bombs fell short and one of the Gurkha companies suffered 15 killed and 30 wounded. At 1530, the reserve force jumped in, another perfect drop. At 1600 a pre-arranged supply drop was also perfect.

Also at 1600, the leading company reached Elephant Point. By now it was raining steadily as it had been for most of the day; the rain became heavier by 2000 that night.

The Japanese troops in the bunkers immediately opened up with machine-gun fire. Small ships at the mouth of the river also opened up. Air support was directed to suppress the fire coming from the ships and the paratroopers began their assault on the bunkers. Japanese opposition was light but stubborn. Hand-to-hand fighting followed and then the paratroopers attacked the bunkers with flame throwers, soon overcoming stiff resistance. A flare indicating success was fired and the Gurkhas began to consolidate their position. It rained heavily for three days. The battalion area was eventually covered by three feet of water.

The next day, 2 May, the amphibious landing was conducted. The paratroopers watched the minesweepers enter Rangoon River, followed by the amphibious assault force as it headed north. On 3 May, Rangoon fell. On 8 May, the monsoons began, two weeks early.

On 5 May, the paratroopers moved from Elephant Point to the university area in Rangoon and conducted anti-looting patrols in the area. Ten days later, the paratroopers left for India where they would join other units that were forming the 44th Indian Airborne Division.

Mission Critique

Of what are considered the minor airborne operations of World War II, Operation Dracula is thought by some military experts to be one of the finest examples of the economical and effective use of paratroopers. As always, in this mission the Gurkhas delivered when the time came. Weather, one of those factors that cannot always be counted on in military operations, especially special operations, played a small part in this operation’s execution. It was a factor in planning because it determined the timing of the operations and it was a factor in the execution because it hampered movement of the paratroopers in the objective area, but as it turned out, it was only a minor factor in the execution phase. The major factors here were speed, surprise, and purpose, just as McRaven advocates in the criteria for a successful execution. In the planning phase, both Vandenbroucke and McRaven would be pleased with this mission because it involved coordination of several elements, including two by air (aerial delivery of the paratroopers and, later, air support against the ships at the mouth of the river), and simplicity. It is interesting that even though the pilots of 1st and 2nd Air Commandos had no previous experience dropping paratroopers, they were dead-on at Elephant Point.

This operation was another of those special operations, like the Amphibious Scouts setting up lights for the Leyte channel, which was very important to larger operations that depended on them. There is little doubt that early capture of Rangoon, before the monsoons, put the Japanese off-balance instead of giving them the upper-hand for several more months.

SOURCES

Karim, Afsir; The Story of the Indian Airborne Troops; New Delhi; Lancer International; 1993

Neild, Eric; With Pegasus in India—The Story of 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion; Singapore; privately published by Jay Birch; undated

Norton, G.G.; The Red Devils—The Story of the British Airborne Forces; Harrisburg, PA; Stackpole Books; 1971

Praval, K.C.; India’s Paratroopers—A History of the Parachute Regiment of India; London; Leo Cooper; 1975

Tugwell, Maurice; Airborne to Battle—A History of Airborne Warfare 1918–1971 London; William Kimber; 1971

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