Commandos in the 14th Army in Burma

Commandos in the 14th Army. Yup. Commandos in Burma. What is that about? Some infantry units of the 14th army had commando platoons and/or companies. These are not the British Commandos formed to fight in occupied Europe. They were something else. The question is, what where they? Who were they? What were they for?


Introduction

I first bumped into the concept of commando platoons in Jemina Fawr’s excellent series of blog posts on the 14th Army in Burma (Jemina Fawr, 2020):

Some uniquely Burma oddities were ‘Commando Platoons’ and ‘Assault Platoons’. Details are scant, but these seem to have often been re-purposed Carrier or Assault Pioneer Platoons, plus Sniper Section and these terms could either mean a long-range patrol unit or a unit equipped for assaulting bunkers and other fortifications.

After reading this I assumed the commando platoons were repurposed carrier platoons. Bevis (1999) states that Gurkha battalions did not have carrier platoons, so it is possible they didn’t have them because they had commando units instead. Now I don’t think this was the case.

I’m going to collect what information I can about the commandos in the 14th Army on this post. I don’t have much to go on at the moment, but hopefully it will grow over time.


Burma The Turning Point

Ian Lyall Grant’s book, Burma The Turning Point: The seven battles on the Tiddim Road which turned the tide of the Burma war, mentions commando platoons and companies a couple of times.

Light Infantry Division

Grant’s focus is 17th Indian Division so it is possible commandos were unique to this unit. I can’t help wondering if this is related to the divisions reorganisation as a Light Infantry Division.

As a result of these experiences, and of the Cameron report, an important change was authorised in September to the organisation of the Infantry Battalions in 17 Light Division. Sections were reduced in size, each section having one bren gun, two tommy guns and six rifles. This reduction enabled a fourth platoon to be added to each company and increased the automatic weapon strength significantly. (Grant, 1993, 42-43)

Commandos are not mentioned here, but who knows what other changes were made at the same time as the reduction in squad sizes and the addition of the fourth platoon to each company.

Commando group

The first reference to commandos is to a “command group” of four platoons from 17th Indian Division conducting a raid. “Group” is a bit ambiguous and this could just be a ad hoc group of platoons which may or may have been commando platoons. On the other hand, “group” might be a red herring and this might actually be a normal, for 17th Indian Division, company formation of four platoons.

The purpose was clear, to raid the enemy positions and cause disruption and casualties. A commando raid.

Aggressive patrolling continued in January. Of many examples one of the most successful took place on January 24th [1944] … Captain Roy Gribble led a commando group of four platoons down this tack to attack a Japanese position on hill overlooking Monglang. With great skill he got this position surrounded without being observed. The frontal attack achieved complete surprise and overran part of the position while a Japanese platoon being rushed up as reinforcements was ambushed and suffered heavily. The raiders then withdrew having killed some twenty-five enemy and wounded rather more. (Grant, 1993, p. 48)

Commando company of a battalion

2/5th Gurkhas had a commando company. 2/5th was one of the battalions within of 48 Brigade, 17th Indian Division. According to this excerpt the battalion had a whole commando company, not a platoon. Seems quite generous, but maybe.

Captain Hume and the commando company of the 2/5th R Gurkhas formed 48th Brigade’s rearguard coming down from the top of the range. They were delayed waiting for a distant outpost to come in and were finally obliged to leave without it (it arrived later in the night). The rearguard passed milestone 11 of the Kalewa road at 1900 hours and the demolition there was blown behind them at 1915. (Grant, 1993, p. 69)

Commando company of a brigade

The 48th Brigade featured at the Battle of Sakawng (20-25 March 1944). The brigade has a commando company made up of the commando platoons from the three battalions of the brigade (2/5th Royal Gurkha Rifles, 1/7th Gurkha Rifles, 9th Border Regiment).

Cameron’s plan was for a small force to clim to the top of the ridge north of the road and to take its way along the crest, thus guarding the right flank. Meanwhile the 1/7th Gurkhas, who were to lead the advance, would split into three. One company would advance high up on the slope and two companies further down. The reserve company, preceded by carriers, would move along the road. A commando company, made up from the commando platoons of each of the three battalions in the brigade and commanded by Major Robin Parry, would cross the Kaphi Lui, climb up onto the high ground on the south side, guard the left flank and threaten milestone 107 and Khuabem.

At milestone 111 the carriers came under fire from machine guns on the south bank of the Kaphi Lui and from an infantry gun sited on ‘bunker Hill’. A Japanese solderi hiding in a storm water drain above the road lobbed a grenade into the leading bren-gun carrier killing two Gurkhas and a sappper naik (corporal). (Grant, 1993, p. 128)

Two things about that. Firstly, Bevis (1999) is probably incorrect because it seems 1/7th Gurkhas had carriers which suggests all Gurkha battalions did. Secondly, in this excerpt the commando company is from the brigade and each battalion only contributes a platoon. This is contrary to the previous quote about Captain Hume and the “company company” from 2/5th R Gurkhas. It would be unusual for a captain to command a company so I suspect Grant got it wrong and Hume only had a platoon.

At mid-day the Brigade Commando Company attacked Point 4368, a hill called Sandong about two miles to the south. Like all the hills in this area this very steep hill was covered in forest. This feature dominated the entrance from the plain to the hills and the Japanese had prepared a strong and bunkered position on it. It may have been occupied originally by a standing patrol. More likely the decision was taken to man it when the British presence was disclosed in the early morning. In any case by the time it was attacked the position had been manned by a company from 33 Divisional Transport Regiment based on Churachandpur and the attack was unsuccessful. (Grant, 1993, p. 141)


Peter Warwick Hazelhurst (update 21 Nov 2020 18:00)

During the day Adam Landa mentioned the oral history by Peter Warwick Hazelhurst in the Imperial War Museum collection. Hazelhurst was British private who served with 9th Bn Border Regt in India and Burma, 1943-1945. He was in a Commando Platoon in 9th Border Regimen/t, in the 17th Division, during the battle for the Tiddim Road.

Reel 1

Reaction to declaration of Second World War, 3/9/1939. Period as Police messenger in Hoylake, GB, 1939-1940. Period with Home Guard in Hoylake, 1940. Period with Border Regt in GB, 1941-1943: call up, 1941; story for reasons for posting to India, 1941; reasons for short posting to Reconnaissance Regt in Porthcawl; how he enlisted two years under age. Recollections of period with 9th Bn Border Regt in India, 1943-1944: sight of Chindits at Deolali; sight of victims of Bengal famine. Recollections of operations with Commando Platoon, 9th Bn Border Regt in Burma and India, 1943-1944: move to Fort White via Kennedy Peak; Japanese sniper activity at Fort White; withdrawal to Imphal; story of wounding at Black Ridge, 2/1944; evacuation by mule to Imphal. Period of hospitalisation in India, 1944.

Key points:

  • 17 Indian Division was a light division so had only two brigades. Contained five Battalions of Gurkhas and one British (9th Border Regiment).
  • Part of jitter parties. Used to shoot up the Japanese positions to keep the Japanese awake. But Japanese would ambush the jitter parties.
  • Wounded on Black Ridge when part of the commandos. Two commando platoons in this action: one platoon from Borders and another from the Gurkhas. The 9th Border battalion went up the others side.

Reel 2

Continues: Aspects of service with 9th Bn Border Regt in Burma and India, 1943-1944: comrade’s story of his wounding at Patel; Japanese improvisation; further details of retreat to Imphal via Tiddim, 12/1943; New Year celebrations, 31/12/1943; hearing Tokyo Rose; nature of Japanese soldier who wounded him; character of Commando Platoon; Japanese and British use of punji booby-traps; sight of Japanese suicide attack on tank. Recollections of operations with B Coy, 9th Bn Border Regt in Burma, 1945: unit’s advance into Burma; memories of ‘Long’ John Petty; company action at Meiktila; casualties at Kindi; action at Pyawbwe, 4/1945; fighting at Sittang River, summer 1945; contracting blood poisoning; aid given to British by Nagas; shooting vulture out of tree and George Macdonald Fraser’s opinion of the incident.

Key points:

  • Was in ‘B’ Company 9th Border Regiment
  • Was seconded to the commando platoon; most men in commando platoon were from ‘B’ company
  • The commando platoon was attached to battalion HQ
  • Commando platoons were disbanded after Imphal, so he returned to ‘B’ company for the 1945 campaign.

17 Indian Division was reorganised from a Light Infantry Division to a normal Infantry Division after Imphal. It seems to me that losing the commandos was probably part of reorganisation.

Reel 3

Continues: Voyage from India to GB, 1946 including provisions brought back. Attitude to having served in 9th Bn Border Regt. Opinion of Gurkhas and Frontier Force Rifles.

Nothing about commandos


Defeat into Victory (update 21 Nov 2020 19:30)

General Slim’s book, Defeat into Victory, mentions commandos a few times. Often this sounds like normal British commandos, but he mentions Gurkha commandos in 17 Indian Division. What is interesting about that, is this is before 17 Division converted to a light division.

Commando training

Some ‘commando’ training occurred in India. But this wasn’t for the ordinary battalions so I suspect is not the men I’m interested in.

The Jungle Warfare School run by Army Headquarters turned out a few theoretically trained officers and men, but they all went to form small ‘commando’ units. It would have been better, I think, to have sent them to ordinary infantry battalion to raise the general standard, especially in patrolling – a crying need. (Slim, 2009, p. 40)

Commando men

The next mention is “commando men”. it isn’t obvious from context whether this British commandos or the local variant, but mention of 17 Indian Division suggests is the local innovation.

Meanwhile, the 17th Division showed its spirit. On 17 March [1942] a young major, Calvert, afterwards to become the best known of Wingate’s column commanders, led a daring raid by river on Henzada, a port thought to be much used by the enemy. His scratch party of commando men and Royal Marines inflicted heavy losses on a force of hostile Burmese under Japanese officers who where holding the town. (Slim, 2009, p. 46)

Commando parties

Slim then talks about ‘commando parties’.

The left was protected by the Yomas Intelligence screen, and detachments of the Burma Frontier Force; the right by the Marines in their river craft and commando parties on the west bank of the Irrawaddy working with them. (Slim, 2009, p. 47)

Although this story doesn’t end well.

Meanwhile, the detachment of Marines, commandos, and Burma Military Police sent to secure the west bank of the Irrawaddy had occupied Padaung village. The villagers welcomed them and brought food. A patrol sent out reported no enemy for eighteen miles to the south. Actually, a Japanese force was all the time concealed in the village, and it surprised our men as they were resting. They put up a desperate but hopeless resistance. Some escaped, many were killed on the spot by the Japanese or treacherous inhabitants, but twelve British soldiers and Marines, all wounded, were kept till next day when they were tied to trees and used by the Japanese to demonstrate bayonet fighting to the admiring villagers. (Slim, 2009, p. 54-55)

Commando men (again)

A scratch force of commando men and two companies of Gurkhas was at the same time sent south-west to the river, where a tributary entered it, to guard agains a Japanese attempt to trike inland up to the watercourse and cut us off. (Slim, 2009, 112)

Gurkha commandos

When discussing the retreat of 17 Indian Division in 1942 Slim mentions “Gurkha commandos”.

We had already pushed forward the Gurkha commando detachment to watch the most likely approach from the river. (Slim, 2009, p. 115)

The party on the east bank moved inland to avoid the battalion defending the boom and ran into the Gurkha commando party, whose only wireless set failed to get in touch with the Brigade headquarters at Shwegyin. For some reason the command of the party did not attack the Japanese column, but attempted to withdraw, keeping his men between the enemy and the ‘Basin’. In the dark, the Gurkhas lost touch with one another and broke up into small groups, which made their way back as best they could. The officer himself was drowned trying to swim the Chindwin to escape capture. Some of his men arrived mingled with the Japanese, others made their way back individually, a large number were lost – and no warning was given.

Commando Brigade

Slim (2009) mentions a commando brigade, but I suspect this was a real British commandos rather than the local innovation.

15 Corps in Arakan would have two Indian, two West African divisions, an East African and a commando brigade, and a tank brigade (Slim, 2009. p. 439)


What do I make of it

Okay, I admit, I don’t have much to go on. Only three source so far (Grant, 1993; Hazelhurst, 1999; Slim, 2009). But based on what I have my conclusions are:

  1. Some infantry battalions in 17th Indian Division, whether Gurkha or otherwise, had a commando platoon. I suspect they all did.
  2. Commandos may have been unique to 17th Indian division because it was reorganised as light infantry; the commandos were disbanded when 17 Division reverted to a normal infantry division.
  3. I have no evidence that other divisions had commandos. At least not yet. Please shout out if you have any data.
  4. Gurkhas had carriers, despite what Bevis (1999) says. It did seem unusual for the British to have different orders of battle for one nationality and not the rest.
  5. Commando units were separate and distinct from carrier platoons.
  6. A brigade’s Commando company appeared to have been used for independent action, separate from the other units of the brigade.
  7. Commando companies were used to assault terrain objectives.

That is it.

If nothing else I clearly have to correct my 14th Army Battalion – Order of Battle in Crossfire.


References

Bevis, M. (1999). List B37 BRITISH INFANTRY DIVISION, INDIAN INFANTRY DIVISION 1944-1945 Burma B, CT3, AT2 if Ghurka. MicroMark.

Grant, I. L. (1993). Burma The Turning Point: The seven battles on the Tiddim Road which turned the tide of the Burma war. Zampi Press.

Hazelhurst, P. W. (1999). Peter Warwick Hazelhurst (Oral History). Imperial War Museum Collection.

Jemina Fawr. (2020, 27 March). The Forgotten Wargames Army: XIVth Army in Burma (Part 1). Jemima Fawr’s Miniature Wargames Blog.

Slim, W. J. (2009; first published 1956). Defeat into Victory. Pan Books.

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