An Infantry Company in Arakan and Kohima
Clear the “Massif”
March 13. Heard this morning that my “Able” clearing was off, as Japs had left. The refuse and kit they left behind included 30 dead bodies and 25 graves.
Jack Sumner went round on one of his tours of the Battalion localities and visited us in the morning and had a cup of tea and then went on to “C” Company.
A “bombshell” exploded over the telephone at 1330 hrs. when I was told that “B” Company was to go to “Poland” south of the B. to M. road, to reinforce “A” Company. This was a blow; we were terribly comfortable here and everything was now well organized. But that is always how we find things; get yourselves really dug in and comfortable, and a dollar to a doughnut you will be on the move.
After giving the routes and final destination to platoon commanders, I left at 1400 hrs. with Kingshott and platoon representatives. The administrative arrangements produced certain difficulties—all stores, reserve ammunition, rations for tomorrow had to come up to us in carriers after dark. This meant that the balance of today’s had to be carried on the man for supper. The carriers will have to be escorted and then, in the dark’, all the kit will have to be unloaded and manhandled to the position—mules out of the question, as they are too slow and in view of enemy shelling.
I met Mervyn (O.C. “A” Company) on “Poland,” and between us we worked out the positions that the two companies will occupy. “A” Company were to concentrate on the northern end and cover the road, and “B” Company to occupy the forward end, which has very much thicker jungle, with one platoon on the rear end of “Rabbit,” which is not now occupied by us.
The Company arrived at 1700 hrs. and had no casualties from enemy shelling; enemy artillery is forever active on the tracks and the open paddy between the road and Tatminyaungwa. Sorted the Company out into new positions; 12 Platoon in rear of Company H.Q., 10 Platoon on the next bump beyond, and 11 Platoon on “Rabbit.” I went over to “Rabbit” before 11 Platoon with a reconnaissance party (to make certain no enemy were up there); there was a heap of equipment in the cutting between “Poland” and “Rabbit”—anti-tank gun ammunition, saddles, clothing and mess-tins, etc., which were all Japanese.
11 Platoon connected by telephone, and Company H.Q. by line to “A” Company, who are on the phone to Battalion.
When the Company were settled in I accepted Mervyn’s invitation for hot supper in his H.Q.
No sign of stores coming.
At 2200 hrs. we heard the carriers rumbling on the track, but decided to leave the kit there as it was too late to get the men out; it would have entailed half the Company on the move to bring up five carrier-loads of kit, and in the complete darkness would have taken three hours up our narrow winding track.
March 14. Blankets, rations, ammunition and water pakhals were unloaded by the Colour-Sergeant last night and placed under guard in the bushes. It took the chaps about one and a half hours in daylight to get all the kit up to the position; the track up here is very narrow and steep.
Saw much of Mervyn and Pat Wylde of “A” Company in the morning and had some midday tea and chocolate. Mervyn does the same as I; he receives two pounds of chocolates about every fortnight from “Tony’s” in Calcutta.
March 15. Terrible nights in this place. Small battles going on around us and behind in the 162 feature. Jap shells, aimed at the road and track just behind us, fall short and do not clear these features, but land in our position. The monkeys at night simulate the movements of humans. They jump from tree to tree and scratch about in the undergrowth. Apt to make some of the men jumpy; one will sling a grenade, and then perhaps two or three others will start, followed by a stand-to. This, perhaps, is precaution in the right direction and means that the men are on their toes, but at the same time is a little unnerving to some. One thing I will say is that the chaps, however jumpy they may get, have never to my knowledge fired a round at night without an order, and I know no order has ever been given.
Also during the night there is a continual pitter-patter of dew falling from leaf to leaf, and a mist which forms at about midnight and does not completely lift until 0900 hrs. The mist during the hours of darkness cuts the visibility down to about three feet—all very eerie.
More rations came last night and were collected this morning. I received some letters, papers and chocolate.
March 16. Fairly quiet night. A few grenades were being thrown in the 162 area—probably “C” Company patrols on the north-west face. Also some shots from south “Cain.” Our artillery were sending over concentrations and harassing fire most of the night.
Visited all the platoons in the morning. Mervyn came at 1100 hrs. for a cup of tea and chocolate; “Tiny” also present. Mervyn stayed for lunch and the Padre joined us, as I had a service for the Company at 1330 hrs. in 12 Platoon area. After that I took Tom to 11 Platoon on “Rabbit” for a service with them.
During the morning an enormous artillery concentration began at 1000 hrs., and the tanks (one squadron of them) were shooting up the bunkers at close range on the south-western features of Point 162. “C” Company of the Queen’s and the K.O.S.B. assaulted and took the northern and north-west features of Point 162. (This is to be known as the “Massif” in future.) The noises off were terrific and from this position we had a grandstand view of the concentrations and the tank poundings. From what I gathered from Dick over the phone, opposition was negligible on the K.O.S.B. front and the enemy had altogether flown from their positions on “C” Company’s. Nothing could have survived the pasting the objectives received.
The following is a brief account of the above which appeared in S.E.A.C. (S.E.A.C., the Fourteenth Army’s own jungle newspaper). a few days after the operation:—
“The heaviest barrage put down for an equal force of infantry in the history of the present campaign preceded the advance and capture by British troops of the 7th Indian Division of the north-west face of ‘Massif,’ one of the few remaining features north of the Maungdaw —Buthidaung road still believed to contain enemy elements. In a 45-minute barrage, the divisional artillery of 25-pounders, mountain guns and mortars, assisted by medium guns, poured down 9,000 shells on the north and north-west face of the feature. As the barrage lifted, squadrons of tanks of the 25th Dragoons blasted the target from close range with their guns and poured in machine-gun fire. Then, from their start line in Letwedet chaung, British troops of the Queen’s and K.O.S.B. Regiments moved up on to the shell-torn ridges. No opposition was encountered.”
A few shells landed between 1O and 11 Platoons at 1630 hrs. “A” Company had casualties.
March 17. Mervyn and I were called in for an “O” Group conference at 1100 hrs. at Battalion H.Q., which was some two and a half to three miles farther back. Stayed to lunch. Briefly the Battalion have been ordered to clear the “Massif” of Japs tomorrow. “C” Company were to feel forward to a line by 0730 hrs., and “B” Company are to take on and move across the line by 0800 hrs. Our piece of country actually takes in the centre piece of Point 162 and about 200 yards beyond. From here “D” Company take over and move to the eastern edge of “Massif.” The operation is to be completed by 1400 hrs. The K.O.S.B. are to move along parallel to us to our north.
None of us go much on the prospects of this operation. Nothing is known of the Jap strength or their positions, if any, beyond the outer rim of the “Massif,” as no patrol has ever been inside this feature. The whole operation is to be rather in the nature of a partridge drive. One battery of 3-inch mortars are in support, in case we bump opposition.
Both on the way to the Battalion and back to “Poland,” Mervyn and I ran the gauntlet of enemy shelling in the jeep. This, I think, is so far one of my worst experiences of shelling. The track was plastered behind and in front of us as we moved forward, and we passed several 15 cwts. and the odd carrier still burning or immobilized by the side of this much-pitted track. There was only one thing to do; we had to keep going through it; it would have been useless to stop, as the enemy could plainly see us in the open. I suggested that we moved off the track over the paddy fields. The going was rough and tortuously slow, but at least we got out of the line of this shell fire. On the way into the Battalion the enemy were using 75’S, and we just went flat out down the track, but on the return we were up against 75 and 105 mm. which exploded within thirty yards of us. Reached the Company at 1600 hrs. “Tiny” had guessed what was billed for tomorrow. There was no packing up to do as we are to return here tomorrow night, and “A” Company are looking after the fort in our absence.
March 18. Company left “Poland” at 0630 hrs., wearing fighting order, less packs, and taking haversack rations. “C” Company were in position and we came up as per schedule. George Rothery (“C” Company commander) showed me where his platoons were and the extent to which they had patrolled. The artillery efforts of yesterday had certainly devastated the near slopes and re-entrants, but very little damage was evident inside the “Massif.” Along the track that moved into the feature to our start line I noticed several signposts and arrows (of Jap origin). We saw the old gun pit on one of the highest hillocks, a well-barricaded site with colossal dug-outs around it. This was the gun that fired at us at very close range and used to go zip-bang when we were positioned north of the Letwedet chaung the bang being after we had seen the explosion). Along one of the deep re-entrants, almost a gorge which had precipitous sides, there were dug-outs every five yards. If there were any Japs here we should have had it, as there was no possible way out; in order to get along and into the track we had to slide down some thirty or forty feet of a sheer drop which was only broken by clutching on to bamboo. We saw Jap and British ammunition and grenades, etc., in fairly large quantities.
Navigation through all this was most difficult, and the country was not exactly as per map. On arriving at what I thought was the spur before the Point 162 itself, I did not lead the Company any more, but told Frisby to send a section patrol to what I called our first objective. Before sending the patrol, I asked the F.O.O. to get his mortars teed up ready to fire on to this objective, as it was here, I said, that if there was any opposition we would meet it. I intended this position to be a pivot if necessary for any operation. I had already sent off 11 Platoon on a patrol to the left of us to cover the ground between us and the K.O.S.B.
They returned and reported nothing seen just as the 12 Platoon section went off. About twenty minutes after they left us this section was fired on from the front by a light machine gun, and I heard an agonizing cry and whimper from one of our men. Having bumped the enemy, I sent the rest of 12 Platoon off to see what they could do to the post. They were heavily fired on by this light machine gun, and from another farther to the left. Grenades were exchanged. I got a message back from Frisby, which told me of the above; the man who let out the scream was the leader of the foremost section who was killed by this post that was about ten yards from them up on the high ground. From where I was, in Company H.Q., we could see the smoke and dust from the firing, as this position was barely 100 yards away across a re-entrant.
The ground was densely covered with bamboo and virgin undergrowth, and it was virtually impossible to move off the track if we were to make progress. I ordered 12 Platoon to keep back under cover of our feature whilst I had the enemy position plastered for ten minutes. This, I admit, was a big risk. I was just a little dubious; although I was pretty certain I knew where I was, I could not really be sure that the map was all that accurate as regards distance, and we were only 100 yards away from the enemy. We heard the initial salvo come whistling over mighty close. What shooting it was grand, right on the target first time; made us wince a bit, but we had no casualties.
Time was now about 1145 hrs. This time I sent 10 Platoon off to go feeling round the right flank. Much the same happened to them, first the leading section and then the whole platoon. As in the case of 12 Platoon, there was one narrow track only to the summit. To move off the track and assault was impossible; the slope was too steep and entailed scrambling on all fours, and the jungle was well-nigh impenetrable. This platoon’s 2-inch mortar and one light machine gun were smashed and blown out of the men’s hands. Sergt. Butkas had his tin hat knocked off by a bullet, and Woolridge, another gunner, had a grenade bounce off his helmet and explode; he also got a bullet in his back. We were also sprayed by light machine-gun fire in Company H.Q. whilst I was on the set to Dick in Battalion H.Q.
I had to shout “Wait! “and pick up the instrument and dash to some further cover. C.S.M. Hudson was hit in the wrist. Cpl. French (S.B.) received a ricochet in the side, the bullet wedging itself in the scabbard of his dah and resting against the steel blade. That is the second time French has stopped a lucky one. Frisby had a clean wound through the upper left arm.
With all these small platoon attacks (no room to manoeuvre more than a section or platoon) we had not got much farther, apart from gaining valuable information—we had definitely established that the enemy had three light machine guns at least. In the light of this I got on to the set to the C.O. and told him the position in detail, and said that hammering away like this only gave us further casualties, and that I was not prepared to attack the features unless he was prepared to accept 50 per cent casualties, as we knew nothing of the enemy’s strength and dispositions and we had merely scratched the surface. In my opinion any further effort on our part would have wasted valuable men to really no constructive purpose. (The original orders said “Clear.” There was no intention for a set-piece attack.)
The C.O. got in touch with the Brigadier, who okayed our withdrawal some five minutes later at 1400 hrs. The enemy were obviously in some strength, and for another reason I did not like our line of communication:
We were a good 300 yards from “C” Company, the route was up and down, through water, and was completely unprotected: there was nothing to stop a party getting between us and making things very unhealthy. Soon after 1400 hrs. I rolled up the Company, so Platoon and 12 Platoon under “Tiny,” and I left with 11 Platoon as rearguard; the going was very slow as also we had to roll up the phone cable. Just before we left I gave the Japs another five minutes’ mortaring.
On the way back I exchanged a few words with Dick and the C.O. who said “Well done” to us as we passed. Godfrey had heard my conversations on the wireless and phone, and very much agreed with my decision.
Arrived back at “Poland” at 1630 hrs. and spilt the beans to Mervyn. Soon after arrival I had occasion to become annoyed with my platoon commanders for helping themselves to tea from “A” Company before seeing their own men back and settled into their own positions.
March 21. The relieving unit of 26th Division arrived .at about midnight. They took over and I concentrated the Company between their position and “A” Company’s. Moved off at 0400 hrs. and arrived back in the old “Braganza Box” position at 0530 hrs. After reporting arrival to C.O. we then moved forward to our original position overlooking the Letwedet chaung, where the K.0.S.Bs. relieved us.
We noticed two striking changes: one was that the old jeep track had been continued almost to the foot of Company H.Q., and the other was that all the re-entrants that faced south were now filled with medium guns, trucks, ammunition and their vast 10-ton lorries. The gun sites were fairly well camouflaged and were all surrounded by double apron fences and trip wires, etc. It was really rather amazing to see these guns right up here, for although we had occupied the northern slopes of the “Massif,” we knew that there were Japs on the feature who could almost certainly see this array of artillery from a range of some 900 yards. On arriving at the old position, we found a unit of 26th Division also trying to get into it. After using the wireless set and seeing the other commander we got possession of the area; lack of liaison between brigades and divisions. This other company eventually settled themselves around the gun area.
I changed the platoons around this time— 11 Platoon to 12’s old position, 12 Platoon to 10’s, and 10 Platoon around Company H.Q. “C” Company did not move from their positions on north-west of “Massif.”
March 22. Had a good sleep last night; I was very tired. Got the present position more organized and cleaned up. These medium guns rather shake the earth and the sound echoes around the hills; they fired one gun salvoes throughout the day and night every five minutes. The Japs shelled these guns on a small scale.
March 23. Rained from 0445 hrs. until 1300 hrs. Moved my bed into the large dug-out near by; this had been made by the K.O.S.Bs. and was certainly a well appreciated work of art.
The enemy shelled the Battalion, chiefly in the gun area. It was not so pleasant going to and from Battalion H.Q. Several shells landed in the paddy near our company ration unloading point. I went to H.Q. at 1330 hrs. for C.O.’s orders at 1400 hrs. I had several men on charges sentries smoking, and the odd man not alert at stand-to’s for which they received stoppages of pay. It is a pity we get these odd offences; the men are magnificent in the work they do and the difficulties they overcome. Those that have joined us since December have had no real training and have about one and a half to two years’ total service. There are now two Regular soldiers left in the Company
2/Lieut. Frisby and five men of 12 Platoon Olive, Anstiss, Downes, Compton, Wilson—left on a very tricky fighting patrol to “East Massif” and then to Point 162 at 1845 hrs. This is the first time that any patrol has tried the east side. They are not due back until after darkness tomorrow, the 24th. They are to get into the feature tonight, and then to lie up and observe all day the 24th if possible, then to knock out and kill the occupants of a post they see. “Tiny” liaised with the gunners and arranged that we sent the patrol’s blankets, food and rum to them so that the patrol has something on their immediate return.
Spasmodic artillery duels during the afternoon until 1900 hrs. Fierce firing to south-west of us south “Cain,” I should think. A few shots in “C” Company’s area on “Massif” at dusk.