In Burma British forces were falling back in the face of the Japanese advance. The principal force, 17th Indian Infantry Division had been badly mauled and was trying to get back to the the bridge over the Sittang River.
Desperately and gallantly the two brigades still east of the river fought to break through to the great Sittang railway bridge, held by their comrades, their only hope of getting their vehicles, and indeed themselves, over the six-hundred-yard-wide stream. Then came tragedy.
Field Marshal Sir William Slim
In the early hours of the 22nd the decision was made to blow up the bridge, in the belief that it was about to be seized by the Japanese. The 17th Division and other units on the wrong side of the bridge found themselves stranded.
Bill Norman was with the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (‘The Dukes’), one of the units seeking to keep the bridge open. He vividly describes the situation as they attempted to hold the route open:
We linked up with the rest of the Battalion about half a mile South of the bridge, which crossed the River Sittang.
Hastily strung out our platoon position was in some hard baked paddy fields with a railway crossing our front about four hundred yards away. Six hundred yards, half right, was a hill with houses that stood out. About the same distance, half left, there was a lower hill on which a good number of the division’s transport vehicles were parked. To our immediate rear there was a very muddy stream, which was half dried up, making it difficult to cross at any great speed. The rear bank of this stream was about ten feet high with a row of quite tall trees along it, so were unable to see anything to our rear beyond these trees. There were some troops on our right flank but seemed to be small in number and I did not know who they were.
As it was almost dark we were hastily strung out into some kind of defensive position and told to have each alternative man awake for two hours while the other slept. This did not work out too well and we spent the night in a semi-daze, not seeming to be asleep or awake, though we were soon wide awake when anything happened. We all felt very cold throughout the night, our shirts had become wet with the day’s sweat and the night came so quickly they did not have a chance to dry out.
After a few hours had passed the Japs started to call us, giving us the creeps and the feeling that you wanted to be just a little closer to the man next to you. We kept quiet in order to conceal our position though the temptation to yell something back was strong. Our silence did not last long before somebody thought he saw something and loosed off a round or two.
Then somebody joined in, then another, until almost everyone was as it and it took us NCOs some effort to stop it. Dire threats from Ginger prevented it from occurring again and we gained control over our fire.
I remember how we had scoffed at the Burma Rifles the night before. All was not fantasy, though, and several times during the night there really was the enemy out there and we opened fire, but this time it was under control. We stood up at dawn and wondered what the day would bring. There was a lot of talk of hearing a very loud explosion in the early hours and that the bridge over the river had been blown up, but not having heard it I put it down to yet another rumour. The country was a place full of rumours and superstition.
A Jap reconnaissance plane nipped in very low and waggled its wings over our position, so low that you could clearly see the face of the pilot. Everyone shot at it and it came down with a sickening crash which put great heart into us and we all cheered. Credit was given to an Anglo-Burmese from an auxiliary 18pdr battery because he looked so spectacular firing a Lewis Gun from a tripod. He certainly did a very good job but with so many people firing it could have been anyone not me though, because I was still saving two magazines for a close target.
Bill Norman’s full account of the battle from 16th-23rd February, written in memory of Sergeant ‘Ginger’ Yarnold can be found at Euxton.