The Queen's in Burma 1943-1945
1st Bn The Queen's In Arakan
Training in the Teknaf Peninsula
The Battalion moved to the Teknaf Peninsula in the Arakan in August 1943, and while they were there they were able to absorb a draft of 100 officers and men who had arrived direct from England. These reinforcements had been several weeks on the move, and had no experience of the climatic conditions and no jungle training. It was greatly to their credit that they settled down so well and so quickly.
During this period D Company had a standing patrol on a track, the place was marked on the map as Elephant Point. It lived up to its name. No animals had been seen, but one afternoon a wireless message was received at Battalion Headquarters that the patrol had been forced to move from their position by a herd of elephants which had rampaged through their camp, scattering and trampling on equipment.
While based at Teknaf many patrols were carried out, it was splendid training as the Battalion lived under operational conditions though not actually in contact with any active enemy. Supplies had either to be carried over a mud road which, as the rains were not yet over, was impassable six days out of seven, or by local boat (sampans) up the marshy creeks off the Naf river. From here they had to be manhandled or carried on mules through the swamp and mud to camp.
On the 26th November orders were received for the Brigade to capture the road from Maungdaw to Buthidaung. On the 1st December the other two Battalions in 33 Brigade, 4/1st Gurkha Rifles and the 4/15 Punjab Regiment, attacked the Awlanbyn West feature and later that afternoon Band C Companies of the Queen's were ordered to move on to Awlanbyn East after dark. B Company, commanded by captain M A Lowry, were to make for Ngakragyaung and C Company, Captain J A Hamilton, on to Point 206. If opposition was strong they were to withdraw.
The two companies moved off at 2000 hours crossing about 1000 yards of paddy. B Company ran into strong opposition and accordingly withdrew. They were counter attacked by a Japanese patrol as they returned to their own position. The Japanese leader killed two men with his sword before being despatched by Corporal Cunningham with his Tommy gun. The enemy patrol persisted and under a shower of grenades managed to get their casualties away, except for their leader.
C Company got on to Point 206 unopposed, but as B Company had already met the enemy in strength, they were ordered at 0400 hours to withdraw. Unfortunately, this order did not reach Captain Hamilton until dawn, by which time his company was being fiercely attacked. In fact, the night's operations had stirred up a hornet's nest.
Corporal (later Sergeant) Wright, one of C Company's stretcher bearers, recalls the calmness of Captain Hamilton during the dawn attack. The company was then faced with a fighting withdrawal, down the hill and across a 1000 yards of open paddy fields, swept by enemy fife. They got back about midday. This difficult operation cost the company seven killed and twenty wounded. Some, including Captain Hamilton himself, had been left behind in the paddy, and for some time it was impossible to get them in. Later they were brought in by men of B Company, under Lieut J E Taylor. It was a disappointing end to a gallant attack. Captain Hamilton was awarded the Military Cross, while Corporal Wright received the Military Medal.
After the Awlanbyn feature had been cleared the Battalion was ordered to capture Hill 182. The feature was covered with thick bamboo jungle with only one track leading to it, so narrow as to only allow troops to advance in single file. Although our force outnumbered the enemy on this occasion, the nature of the terrain nullified our numerical superiority. D Company, Major G B Shaw, carried out the attack after a really first class artillery barrage on the feature. The leading platoon, after spending a long time cutting its way up the hill, finally debouched on to a narrow track which led to the enemy position - the track as usual being commanded by Japanese light machine guns.
The Company Commander detached one platoon to undertake a flank attack; it had to hack its way through dense bamboo. Lieutenant A S C Hobrow said it took so long that at one time he had almost lost hope of getting through at all! Get through they did, and put in an attack with great dash routing the Japanese. Unfortunately, Sergeant Rae leading the forward section with great gallantry was killed.
The Battalion was dug in by nightfall ready for the usual counter attack. This duly arrived during the dawn stand-to when some 70 of the enemy rushed B Company and Battalion Headquarters area. A Japanese' party hacked their way right up to the parapet of B Company Headquarters where a shower of grenades put them to flight. The main attack came against Battalion Headquarters which was dug in across a track leading to the reverse slope of Point 182. Out of the darkness the attackers burst in with the bayonet. The forward Bren post fired once before being over-run and the attack reached the middle of the Headquarters area. The leading Japanese went to ground ten yards in front of Lt Colonel H G Duncombe who despatched him with a well-placed grenade. The flag which the Colonel took from the body of this man is now in the Regimental Museum. Enemy light automatics peppered the position from the flank. High pitched Japanese voices were heard in a nullah thirty yards to the front; this proved their undoing as a bombing party led by Major Grimston wiped them out. Major Grimston had played cricket for Sussex and the Army, and an onlooker comments on his graceful action with the grenades, "like a good return to the wicket from the deep."
Captain J Sumner, the Medical Officer, who had brought in several of our wounded under fire and had al so forcibly brought in two unwilling wounded prisoners, was awarded the Military Cross, and Sergeant Burt the Military Medal.
The Japanese were the most noisy fighters, and our own policy of silence was a very effective answer and much more efficient both for control and surprise.
The patrols and was celebrated, the skirmishes went on. Christmas Day
the food was wonderful - duck and green peas, plum pudding and cakes and beer. A carol service in the forward area was sung in whispers!
On the 9th January 1944 the Battalion was on the hills overlooking Letwedet Chaung. The overall plan now was to drive down the right flank against the Japanese positions on the Maungdaw - Buthidaung road and to encircle Buthidaung on the left. The centre, of which the Queen's were forward troops, was to be strongly held and to dominate the Japanese by vigorous patrolling. The Battalion was ordered to find out everything possible about the enemy positions in this area, and patrols were sent out by day and by night into Letwedet village and on to Hill 162. These patrols called for great nerve and enterprise. Captains Hobrow and Taylor, Lieutenants Smyth, Frisby and Scott and Sergeants Thatcher and Tangney were outstanding leaders. 17 platoon had a pasting from enemy mortar and small arms fire, and Lieutenant P Halfhide was badly wounded. Sergeant Sawyer assumed command and brought the platoon back to the Battalion area. He was awarded an immediate Military Medal for his splendid leadership and gallant example.
On 5th February 1944 the sound of confused battle noises behind the Battalion was heard from the direction of the Ngakyedauk Pass. On the next day 7 Division Headquarters was overrun, but the General and most of his staff got away and set up a new Divisional Headquarters. 33 Brigade then found they were isolated. A considerable amount of aerial warfare was taking place, but the Japanese air force was defeated, giving us supremacy in the air.
The absence of roads, the hilly country and the dense jungle vegetation enabled the enemy to get behind our forward positions on many occasions. The counter measures adopted by formations and units were all-round defence and supply by air. These defensive localities were known as 'boxes'.
This was the opening of the major Japanese offensive in the campaign, and they used the tactics which had proved so successful for them in the earlier years. Orders came to stand fast at all costs, and for the first time the British were not to fight their way out! The Brigade was put on half rations and arrangements were made for air supply. Ammunition came in the first drop, followed by all nececssary supplies.
On 7th February fighting broke out just behind the Battalion position in Wet Valley. A large party of Japanese had surprised a mortar battery and had almost wiped them out. C Company deployed to reach the mortars, but had made little progress by nightfall. Confused fighting continued throughout the night and the Company got split up. Captain J Mullins withdrew, having obtained a good knowledge of the enemy strength. The Battalion heard over the wireless that the remainder of the company under Captain G K P Tattershall had fought their way out of the valley, joined up with a few survivors from the Mortar Battery and had managed to get into 7 Division Box, which became known as the Admin Box. Sadly, captain Tattershall was killed soon after in one of the enemy attacks.
A Company, Major M L Mansel, was detached from the Battalion to become Brigade reserve where they had an active time. The remainder of the Battalion, now only two companies strong, drew itself in around Battalion Headquarters and formed the Braganza Box.
The enemy had failed to reduce any of the 7th Division 'boxes' and was being strongly counter-attacked by other formations. The Battalion tasks were now to prevent him supplying and reinforcing his forces to the north, and to destroy any of them that tried to break out to the south. The companies in Braganza Box constantly patrolled their area, but had little contact with the enemy. The position of the Battalion was in fact rather peculiar, as although in the front line and completely surrounded, most of the major fighting took place behind them. Except for the constant fighting patrols which was a most exhausting duty, the time in the Box was not very exciting.
A Company meanwhile had a very active time. From the 9th to the 28th February, when they rejoined the Battalion in the Braganza Box, they had strengthened the Brigade Box and had carried out patrols under heavy machine gun fire. No. 8 Platoon, led by Sergeant Crowther, had a rough time and lost eight men, but by the time the positions were in our hands, the enemy had withdrawn.
The policy of standing firm had been amply justified and casualties had been light, although they included the MT officer, Lieutenant L R Hopkins, killed by enemy shelling. Everyone appreciated that the stand had been made possible owing to the superiority and gallantry of the Royal Air Force, without whom supply would have been impossible and withdrawal inevitable. The Battalion was relieved and came out of the line on 29th February - the first time they had been in a rest position behind our own lines since 1st December 1943.
It was realised that the Japanese should be followed up and attacked before they had time to re-organise, so the Queen' task after this was to attack and take a hill codenamed 'Cain' south of the Maungdaw Buthidaung road. 'Cain' was the usual Arakan Hill, much broken by ravines and nullahs and covered with thick jungle; in shape it was a horse-shoe with the open end towards us. At 0830 hours on 7th March the companies crossed the start line under cover of a bombardment by the whole divisional artillery and after a hard fight 'Cain' was occupied. Regrettably, Second-Lieutenant Highton, who had just joined from the OCTU, was killed and Lance-Corporal Naylor was found dead, he had called out to his section not to come for him as it was too dangerous so to do. The Japanese got away in the night.
Buthidaung had now fallen. On 14th March Major Lowry describes conditions there at this time. "Small battles are going on all around us and behind on the 162 feature. The monkeys at night simulate' the movements of humans. They jump from tree to tree and scratch in the undergrowth, some of the men get jumpy and one will sling a grenade, followed by a stand-to. However jumpy they get they have never to my knowledge fired a shot without an order. Al so during the night there is a continual pitter-patter of dew falling from leaf to leaf. A mist forms about midnight and cuts visibility to about three feet until it lifts about nine in the morning. It's all very eerie."
Difficult and dangerous patrols were carried out almost nightly into the Massif area, in the middle of which some parties of Japanese still lingered. It was much like playing hunt the thimble, as the country inside the feature was so thick that it was impossible to cover every inch, and the enemy by dodging about could escape destruction, though this prevented them from taking any effective offensive action. On 18th March a sweep was made across the feature on the lines of a partridge drive. Stiff opposition was encountered and a withdrawal took place, but not before the Jap positions had a good dose of mortar fire.
On 25th March much firing and mortaring was heard from the rear of the Battalion position. About 500 Japanese were threatening our lines of communication and the large supply base which had been established at the east end of the Ngakyedauk Pass. It was a very hot day and the masses of dust in the valley raised stifling dust. The enemy were on the hills overlooking the paddy over which the Battalion had to move, so tanks moved out to picquet the edges and keep the enemy I s heads down. All the companies were heavily shelled on their way to assist in the de~ence of the Admin Box. Defensive positions were taken up to guard the road and other approaches from the east.
The Battalion remained in the Box until 3rd April when it was known that the Japanese had mounted a big attack in the Kohima area, and so 33 Brigade, which of course included the Queen 's, was ordered to that part of the country.
Our men left the Arakan knowing that they had outfought the Japanese and that all the strenuous and efficient training the Battalion had in India added to their recent experiences of battle, had raised their morale which was to stand them in good stead for the encounters to come.
The Battalion travelled by road to Dohazari, and thence by rail to Chittagong to emplane. There was no' transport for the mules so they marched all the way to Chittagong whence they were flown on, arriving some time later. The animals behaved very well as air passengers with the exception of one who tried to kick a hole in the fuselage.