36th Division with its two British Brigades, the 29th and the 72nd, renewed their advance south towards Mandalay on the left bank of the Irrawaddy in January 1945, after a short delay imposed by unseasonal monsoon conditions. Their first target was Mongmit, almost a hundred miles away. 10th Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment was, as ever, with 72nd Brigade and advancing through the teak forests of the Shan, becoming engaged in a series of short, sharp fights with the Japanese around Mabein.
36th Division was now reinforced with the addition of the newly arrived troops of 26th Indian Brigade, and was soon to become the target of Japanese forces operating out of Mongmit. The Japanese intended to destroy 36th Division at Myitson, on a bend in theShweli River.
That February, 26th Indian Brigade and the much weakened 10th Battalion, which was now down to little over 250 men, were to become involved in the severe fighting that was the battle of Myitson. The strong, but untried, 26th Brigade led the attack on Myitson on
1st February, which failed, trying again on the 8th. This time they were successful and established a defensive perimeter which was subjected to a violent series of Japanese counter-attacks. From 11th February the Gloucesters were fed in over the next two days to the support of the beleaguered 26th Brigade.
The jungle fighting was fierce and confused, troop movements hampered by tall elephant grass. At one time “D” Company was separated from the rest of the Battalion and both were cut off. In their account Majors Wills and Collier recalled:-
“15th February. 26 Bde HQ withdrew early in the morning and the battalion, less “D” Company, concentrated in the battalion headquarters area, salvaging as much food and ammunition as possible from the Bde dump. [“A” and] “C” Company were in contact with the enemy during the withdrawal and suffered 3 wounded.
“The battalion, less “D” Company, had been cut off from the River by Japanese snipers, and it was decided to withdraw some 400 yds to the North and form a perimeter on the river bank preparatory to a further advance the next day. As much rations and ammunition as possible were carried and the remainder buried or destroyed. The battalion dug in on the bank of the SHWELI and spent an uneventful night.
“During the 15th February, “D” Company were shelled intermittently and repulsed several small harassing attacks without suffering any casualties.
“16th February. At first light the battalion moved off down a narrow track through thick and tall elephant grass. “A” Company were leading and after a series of “leap-frog” moves, “A” Company contacted “D” Company at 0930 hrs, no opposition having been met.
“D” Company held the NAMMEIK CHAUNG crossing for 4 days, and the feelings of the men, when relieved, can well be imagined. The only supplies received by “D”
Company during this period were brought across the Chaung on the night of 15th/16th February.
“D” Company claimed 40 enemy casualties – 20 killed, including 3 officers, and 20 wounded.”
The battle of Myitson came to a climax on the 17th February, before the Japanese melted away, defeated. 10th Battalion, already weak at the start of the action had lost 2 officers and 117 men. 26th Brigade’s casualties had been of a proportionately similar
order of magnitude. Lance-Corporal Ronald Spreadbury noted in his diary on 18th February:-
“Good news this morning, about 250 Japs killed in yesterday’s attack. Supplies are flown in, food and ammo were very short, all O.K. now. Plenty of aircraft about. Gunners blow up food and ammo dump at old position.”
It had been a magnificent feat of arms by the soldiers on the ground, but the conduct of the battle led to some savage recriminations at the top, and the colonel of 10th Battalion was sacked. Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Butler, who had long been with the battalion, had only recently been promoted and taken over from Lieutenant-Colonel Hose. He wrote a long and detailed analysis of the battle and its aftermath, explaining and justifying his own actions while being highly critical in particular of the commander of 26th Indian Brigade, Brigadier Jennings. According to Butler, Jennings “was a gunner ho knew little about Infantry tactics. He was brand new and a great talker.”
Both Butler and Jennings wrote their own reports after the battle, which were passed up to General Festing. Lieutenant-Colonel Butler bitterly concluded his analysis with the “Finale”:-
“. . . The Brigadier [Jennings] read my report. He said it was untrue; he was always a blusterer when he got rattled. He was very worried when he read my story. He then took away his original report and re-wrote it to correspond a little with mine.
“After reading my story he made a much better effort at twisting the facts to suit himself. However, if I could have talked to the General [Festing], I knew that I could point out all the discrepancies between the two reports, and my witnesses would prove me
right. What I did not know, was the Comd. 26 Bde had told a wonderful story of how he skilfully got out of his perimeter with a perfectly worked out rearguard scheme. He had handed over to me, without hurry, fuss, casualties or loss.
“My coy. commander of “A” Coy had also told the Brig. how I withdrew “B” Coy about 50 yards to hold the rear shoulders of 26 Bde perimeter on the higher ground, and how he and “C” Coy had to fight their way back unaided. The brigadier, not knowing the ground or what happened, had invented his story of :
“Retiring to the Shweli river perimeter and leaving “A” & “C” Coys fighting”
from this story of the Coy comd of “A” Coy. The brigadier’s story had no grain of truth in it, as O.C. “A” Coy would have told him if asked. He had gone on leave before I was recalled.
“The parting words of the Brigadier to me were: “Either you or I have got to go, and it is you in this case.” I thought, if I get a fair hearing, it will be YOU.
“At Divisional H.Q. –
“The divisional commander [Festing] wrote his report, chucked the papers on the floor, and told his D.A.A.G. that that was finished. He said the brigadier has made comments on my story in a second report (I had not seen) and said, “if he wants to read it and comment on it give him some paper and a pen.”
“The General was usually a very fair man and I was flabbergasted. I knew him; I was one of his C.O.s, and he had been most friendly four days before. Now I was treated like a small office boy, thrown out without being allowed a word in my defence.”
10th Gloucesters, who had trained as an armoured regiment in India, and who had then trained instead for combined operations, had been sent into the fighting in Burma with 72nd Brigade completely untrained for infantry jungle fighting. What the battalion had learned had been learned on campaign and on the field of battle, at great human cost in sick, wounded and killed.
After Myitson, 36th Division continued its march south – Mongmit, the ruby mines of Mogok, and finally, Mandalay, to which 72nd Brigade were carried by air ahead of the rest of the Division in April. For a brief while, 36th Division came under the command of
Lieutenant-General Bill Slim’s Fourteenth Army but in May returned to India, where 10th Battalion was to remain for the rest of the war.
Following the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered on 15th August 1945. Lance-Corporal Spreadbury’s diary laconically records:-
“Japs ask for peace. What news. We celebrate with the next three days off.”
Picture: Private Hale, Corporal Foreman, Private Crossley, Corporal Bent and Lance-Corporal Lawrence at Poona, 1945, with the Japanese flag captured at Taungye in 1944 by Corporal Bent.