Burma – the Fourteenth Army get across the Irrawaddy

Troops crossing the Irrawaddy River at Katha by boat, January 1945.
Troops crossing the Irrawaddy River at Katha by boat, January 1945.
A lorry of 36th Infantry Division enters the town of Tigyiang during the advance down the Irrawaddy Valley towards Mandalay, 22 December 1944.
A lorry of 36th Infantry Division enters the town of Tigyiang during the advance down the Irrawaddy Valley towards Mandalay, 22 December 1944.

In Burma the tables had turned. After the desperate battles at Kohima and Imphal to prevent the Japanese mounting an invasion of India, the Japanese had pulled back into Burma. The British Fourteenth Army was now advancing south through Burma. There were tremendous transportation problems, and in many areas they were forced to build their own roads. To add to the difficulties the bulk of their air transport was suddenly and unexpectedly transferred to the Chinese front, to shore up positions there. However the largest natural obstacle was the great Irrawaddy River. There was virtually no specialised transport available and the Engineers had to build a range of relatively crude rafts in short order.

On the 14th January the Indian 19th Division had begun crossing at one of the river’s narrower points, where it was only some 500 yards across in the low season of January. General Sir William Slim describes the importance of securing the bridgehead on the other side:

A third battalion crossed on the night of the 16th/17th and, for the first time, on the 17th, the enemy, realizing that a serious attempt at crossing was in progress, collected his rather scattered troops and attacked heavily. This he continued at intervals throughout the day, but all these attacks were beaten off.

By the 19th, the whole of 64 Brigade was in the Kyaukmyaung bridgehead, and was steadily expanding it against increasing opposition. On the night of the 20th/21st, after heavy artillery preparation, the Japanese put in several determined attacks, which were again repulsed with heavy loss after hand-to-hand fighting.

In spite of mounting resistance and growing casualties, the brigade pressed outwards and seized a ridge of scrub-covered rock, eight hundred feet high, parallel to the river, three miles inland, and a bare peak rising abruptly from the river bank, two and a half miles south of the original crossing. These successes deprived the Japanese of direct observation over the bridgehead, blinded their artillery and thus, in fact, ensured its retention.

Farther north, the bridgehead at Thabeikkyin had been reinforced just in time to throw back a series of savage counter-attacks. The Japanese, confused by numerous feints and patrol crossings elsewhere, had not been quick to decide which were the real crossings, and even then the took some time to concentrate against them.

Every hour of this delay was invaluable to the sweating 19th Division, ceaselessly ferrying men and supplies across the river on almost anything that would float.

See William Slim: Defeat Into Victory

The men in the vanguard could have little doubt about the importance of their role. One man was to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his ‘selfless devotion to duty’ in fighting off the Japanese counter-attacks:

In Burma, on the night of 19th / 20th January 1945, Lance Naik Sher Shah commanded the left forward section of his platoon. At 19:30 hours a Japanese platoon attacked his post. Realizing that overwhelming numbers would probably destroy his section, he, by himself, stalked the enemy from their rear and broke up their attack by firing into their midst. He killed the platoon commander and six other Japanese and, after their withdrawal, crawled back to his section post.

At 00:15 hours the Japanese, who were now reinforced with a company, started to form up for another attack. Sher Shah heard their officers giving orders and bayonets being fixed prior to the assault. Again he left his section post and, in spite of Japanese covering from small arms and mortars, crawled forward and saw Japanese officers and men grouped together. He fired into this group and they again broke up and started to withdraw in disorder.

Whilst on his way back for the second time he was hit by a mortar bomb, which shattered his right leg. He regained his position and propping himself against the side of the trench, continued firing and encouraging his men. When asked whether he was hurt, he replied that it was only slight. Some time afterwards it was discovered his right leg was missing.

The Japanese again started forming up for another attack. In spite of his severe wounds and considerable loss of blood, and very heavy Japanese supporting fire, Lance Naik Sher Shah again left his section post and crawled forward, firing into their midst at point blank range. He continued firing until for the third time the Japanese attack was broken up and until he was shot through the head, from which he subsequently died. Twenty-three dead and four wounded Japanese, including an officer, were found in daylight immediately in front of his position.

His initiative and indomitable courage throughout this very critical situation undoubtedly averted the over-running of his platoon, and was the deciding factor in defeating the Japanese attacks. His supreme self-sacrifice, disregard of danger and selfless devotion to duty, were an inspiration to all his comrades throughout the Battalion.

Sher Shah was born on 14 February 1917 in Chakrala Village, near Mianwali, North Punjab, India ( now North West Frontier, Pakistan ). Sher Shah’s Battalion 7/16 Punjab Regiment, affectionately known as “Saat Solah Punjab” is now a part of the Pakistan Army, proudly known as the “Sher Shah Battalion”.

Indian troops coax mules into the water for the 500 yard swim across the Irrawaddy River, January 1945.
Indian troops coax mules into the water for the 500 yard swim across the Irrawaddy River, January 1945.
Gurkhas hold onto their mules as they swim across the Irrawaddy River in Burma during the advance towards Mandalay, January 1945.
Gurkhas hold onto their mules as they swim across the Irrawaddy River in Burma during the advance towards Mandalay, January 1945.

2 thoughts on “Burma – the Fourteenth Army get across the Irrawaddy”

  1. My father with 387 Coy, RASC helped several of the Irrawaddy crossing points including those of 33 Corps, IV Corps at Pakkaku and their own 2nd Division. On 24/25th February 1945, they were told to standby to take troops and epuipment across the Irrawaddy , North if Ngazun, after a bridgehead had been established. However, when it became known that the motor boats could not cope with the fast current, it was decided to use 387 DUKWS for the main assault. Every single DUKW was shot and damaged due to sustained and accurate enemy fire. Some DUKWS became stranded on the sandbanks mid stream and, Driver Harry Bryar lost his life. Despite the conditions, 387 Coy kept the ferrying service open taking successive flights of troops across the river and managed to keep the service going for over 24 hours.
    My fathers Captain, Hugh Clark won the military cross and 6 men from this company won the military medal. Thought you might be interested in my fathers story.

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