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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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