Roadblock Battles on the Retreat from Burma

I’ve already posted about Japanese Roadblocks in Burma. Japanese strategy involved infiltrating whole regiments behind enemy lines then installing road-blocks to cut off the retreating Allies. So I went looking for examples of road-blocks during the period 14 December 1941 – 24 May 1942. To make my life easier, I’ve just copied out the extracts.

1942 7th Armoured Brigade - Rangoon to Imphal Map
1942 7th Armoured Brigade – Rangoon to Imphal Map

9 February 1942: Paung

This incident is from the War Diary of the Armoured Car Section, Rangoon Battalion, Burma Auxiliary Force (BAF). It involved two Rolls Royce Indian Pattern armoured cars, dating from 1922, each with a single Vickers .303inch machine gun (although the turret had mountings for four).

Rolls Royce India Pattern Armoured Car - Outram
Rolls Royce India Pattern Armoured Car – Outram

Armoured Car Section, Rangoon Battalion, Burma Auxiliary Force – War diary of the Armoured Car Section:

“Eagle” and “Hawk” left Thaton at 1200hrs on 9th February for Martaban and the Gurkha Rifles officer and the sub-section commander travelling in the leading car “Eagle”. On reaching a point approximately 12 miles from Martaban the sub-section met a Gurkha Rifles patrol who informed the sub-section commander that the patrol had made contact with an enemy patrol in the vicinity of a point approximately eight miles from Martaban and, being outnumbered, had to withdraw [the Japanese had landed a detachment west of Martaban and had in fact established a roadblock around milestone 8, near Paung]. The sub-section commander warned crews of the positions and it was decided to endeavour to reach Martaban. When within 10 miles of Martaban the sub-section was subjected to an attack by enemy bombers but suffered no casualties or damage to the vehicles. The sub-section encountered fire from their front and both flanks by enemy LMGs using armour piercing bullets. In the leading car, “Eagle”, the Gurkha Rifles officer, the sub-section commander and the driver were wounded and the Gurkha Rifles officer subsequently died of his wounds. The enemy fire was returned by both cars and, despite his wound in his leg, the driver of “Eagle” was able to turn his car round and drove back in the direction of Thaton. After proceeding approximately one and a half miles the engine of this car seized as its radiator had been badly pierced during the action and the car was subsequently towed to Thaton by a lorry. The remaining car, “Hawk”, engaged the enemy at the road block, but in attempting to turn about the engine stalled and the driver was unable to restart the car. In a brisk engagement lasting approximately fifteen minutes the enemy fire from the west side of the road was silenced but the car commander and the driver were wounded. The driver was eventually able to restart his engine and drove the car back to Thaton arriving at 18:30hrs. The wounded were treated at the CCS and sent to Pegu Hospital. The damaged cars were sent to Rangoon and subsequently to Myitnge and thence to Mandalay where it was found impossible to repair them. [the road block was subsequently cleared at bayonet point by two companies of 3/7th Gurkhas on the afternoon of February 9th. The Martaban garrison withdrew on its own initiative, reaching Thaton on 11th February.]

The mention of “armour piercing bullets” might just reflect the light armour of the armoured cars, or might indicate the presence of anti-tank rifles.

Rolls Royce India Pattern Armoured Cars
Rolls Royce India Pattern Armoured Cars

19-23 February 1942: Sittang

I’ve included the Battle of Sittang because the Japanese attempted to capture the bridge and block the road. It was essentially a preliminary to a roadblock battle. They failed to capture the bridge but got very close and hampered British evacuation of the east bank. Ironically the British demolished the bridge and left two brigades of 17 Division on the wrong side of the river.

Field Marshal Viscount Slim has this to say about Sittang (Slim, 2009, p. 18):

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.

1942 - Burma - Sittang Bridge
1942 – Burma – Sittang Bridge

From Wikipedia: Battle of Sittang Bridge

Now in retreat, they [17th Indian Infantry Division] finally received permission to withdraw across the Sittang on 19 February. They disengaged from the enemy under cover of night, and fell back 30 miles (50 km) westwards along the track that led to the bridge.

The Japanese 214th and 215th Regiments advanced, aiming to cut the British forces off at Sittang.

On 22 February, the Malerkotla Sappers and Miners, led by Richard Orgill, had prepared the rail-cum-road bridge for demolition. However, the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade and 46th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 17th Division were still further to the east, cut off.

Fearing paratroop landings, Smyth deployed the 1/4th Gurkhas to the western end of the bridge to hold it against attacks from the rear while the 17th Division crossed. He was obliged to send them back again when the Japanese 33 Division attacked from the east. Their first charge nearly took the east end of the bridge, and a British field hospital was captured. 3rd and 5th Gurkhas, approaching the bridge from the east, counterattacked and drove off the Japanese in “a furious battle”.

Jungle fighting at close quarters ensued, which lasted most of the day. The bridge was again nearly taken, and the attackers again beaten off. At dusk on 22 February, the British Indian Army still held the bridge.
“My unpleasant and devastating news”
Smyth had ordered his sappers to get ready to blow the bridge. At 4:30 am, in the early morning on 22 February, it became clear that it might fall within the hour. Smyth’s choices were to destroy the bridge, stranding more than half of his own troops on the wrong side, or to let it stand and give the Japanese a clear march to Rangoon. According to Smyth, “Hard though it is, there is very little doubt as to what is the correct course: I give the order that the bridge shall be blown immediately.” Yet only the Number 5 Span, counting from the east bank, dropped into the river, while Spans 4 and 6 were damaged but remained in place.

From Wikipedia: Japanese invasion of Burma:

On 22 January 1942, the main body of the Japanese 55th Division began the main attack westward from Rahaeng in Thailand across the Kawkareik Pass. The 16th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 17th Indian Division guarding this approach retreated hastily westward. The Japanese division advanced to Moulmein at the mouth of the Salween River which was garrisoned by the 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade. The position was almost impossible to defend, and had the River Salween, almost 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide, behind it. The 2nd Burma Brigade was squeezed into a progressively tighter perimeter, and eventually retreated over the river by ferry on 31 January after abandoning a large amount of supplies and equipment. Part of the force was left behind in Moulmein and had to swim the river.

Sittang Bridge
The 17th Indian Division fell back northward. They attempted to hold the Bilin River and other fallback lines as they did so, but had too few troops to avoid being continually outflanked. The division eventually retreated toward the bridge over the Sittang River in general disorder. The retreat was delayed by incidents such as a vehicle breaking through the bridge deck, air attacks (including, allegedly, accidental attacks by the RAF and AVG), and Japanese harassment. The delays allowed Japanese parties to infiltrate to the bridge itself, and the poorly organised defence of the bridge was in danger of collapsing. Fearing that the bridge would fall intact to the Japanese who would use it to advance on Rangoon, the divisional commander, Major-General “Jackie” Smyth, VC, ordered it to be blown up on the morning of 23 February 1942, with most of the division stranded on the enemy-held side.

Many of the men of the 17th Division who were trapped on the Japanese-held side of the river made their way across to the west bank by swimming or on improvised rafts, but had to abandon almost all their equipment, including most of their small arms. This later led some to question the decision to blow the bridge, arguing that the river itself did not offer much of an obstacle to the Japanese, and that more harm than good was achieved, as it resulted in the stranding of two brigades and delayed the Japanese capture of Rangoon by ten days at most.

Jon Latimer goes into more detail, particularly on the Japanese attacks (Latimer, 2004, p. 59-60):

For Smyth, 22 February was a day of unmitigated disaster. At 0100 1st/4th Gurkhas were ordered to cross and guard against Japanese airborne assault from the west, taking the company of Dukes there under command. Smyth had by now arrived, and Brigadier Noel Hugh-Jones with Headquarters 48th Indian Brigade and transport was beginning to cross. Smyth ordered Hugh-Joses to take charge of the bridge defences; the staff officer from Army who brought the news of a parachute threat also informed Smyth that 7th Armoured Brigade with two regiments of light tanks had arrived at Rangoon, but would not be available for two or three days. There was no news of the Japanese. Smyth had placed FF2 to the north of the Kyaikto track to warn against outflanking, or so he thought. At 1430 the previous day it had been heavily engaged by 215th regiments and withdrawn north-west, crossing the river by country boats and proceeding towards Pegu. No report of this contact ever reached Smyth. Sakurai had instructed 215th Regiment to go straight for the bridge and during the morning its 1st Battalion occupied ‘Buddha Hill’, which overlooked it. They then attempted to rush the nearby ‘Pagoda Hill’.

Smyth was with a field ambulance just behind 3rd Burma Rifles on the east bank. Fiver minutes after he left, the Japanese burst into it screaming and yelling, bayoneting the wounded and capturing Smyth’s senior medical officer. … But 4th/12th Frontier Force Regiment held firm on ‘Pagoda Hill’, although attempts to clear ‘Buddha Hill’ failed despite determined leadership from Captain S. H. J. E. ‘Sam’ Manekshaw before he was severely wounded. A second Japanese attack was held in the afternoon, but pressure was mounting all the time, and the Malerkotla Sappers were desperately trying to prepare the demolitions, completely two spans by 1800. All local boats had been collected by 24th Field Company, but unfortunately Smyth ordered their destruction, although three motor ferries on the east bank were already captured by the Japanese.

At 0530 on 23 February three colossal roars announced to all participants that one span was now in the river.

2 March 1942: Waw Canal

7th Armoured Brigade (“The Desert Rats”) reached Rangoon from India on 20 February 1942 (The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942). The Stuart I tanks of brigade quickly got into action at the Waw canal:

On 2nd March a Troop was patrolling an irrigation canal and came under heavy fire from 75mm guns that knocked out two Stuart tanks, killing two troopers and wounding another in a third tank.

Latimer basically repeats that (Latimer, 2004, p. 67):

7th Armoured Brigade [arrived] with American-made Stuart tanks … Their first contact was made at the Waw canal on 2 March, when a troop of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was engaged by a 75mm gun which knocked out two and damaged the third.

1942 - Burma - 2RTR M3 Stuarts Near Rangoon
1942 – Burma – 2RTR M3 Stuarts Near Rangoon
1942 - Burma - The village of Waw on fire
1942 – Burma – The village of Waw on fire

4 March 1942: 37mm anti-tank guns and tank-on-tank

7th Hussars, also with Stuart I tanks, then ran into a problem near Pegu (Latimer, 2004, p. 68):

Seventh Hussars, which had relieved 2nd Royal Tanks, were ambushed south of Pegu by Japanese 37mm anti-tank guns, in turn counter-attacked by the supporting 1st West Yorkshire Regiment company and overrun, killing most of the gunners. Soon afterwards the Hussars encountered three Japanese tanks, brought with difficulty from Thailand, and knocked them out.

Latimer is a bit vague on the timing of this incident but The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942 has more to say about it and makes the dating clear:

With 1st Bn. West Yorkshires from 17th Indian Division, 2nd RTR were in action on 2nd March to try to recapture Waw village, but were unsuccessful. The Japanese resumed their offensive on the night of 3rd/4th March, and ‘C’ Squadron, 2nd RTR were attacked at first light in heavy mist. The Squadron’s tanks were surrounded and over-run with yelling Japanese who advanced right up to the tanks. Some of them carried explosives attached to long poles which they attempted to drop into the turrets. However, the Stuarts Machine Guns and the tank commanders’ Tommy guns produced deadly fire. Fortunately, 7th Hussars, who were due to relieve 2nd RTR, were now quite close, so Major Rudkin gave the order for each tank to find its own way back to RHQ across country. The going was extremely bad and obstacles were tackled for which the tanks could never have been designed. It was a nightmare journey as the tanks found it hard to pick a suitable route due to the mist. The situation was made worst by the occasional sniper who infiltrated across the road behind the tank whose shots kept the heads of the tank commanders down. Somehow every of ‘C’ Squadron’s tanks arrived back safely although the crews were bruised and shaken.

Meanwhile ‘B’ Squadron 7th Hussars (commanded by Major G. C. Davies-Gilbert), had arrived in Payagyi to find the Japanese had already arrived there. One troop leader, noted that in the thick mist visibility was down to ten yards and wireless communication was appalling. ‘B’ Squadron HQ behind came was under attack from enemy ambush, the first of many the Brigade was to be involved in during the next few months. At about 11:00 ‘B’ Squadron took up a position on the Payagyi crossroads to keep the village under observation, but it was now appallingly hot and as the crews could not dismount the felt like ‘fried eggs in a pan.’ Infantry assisted by ‘A’ Squadron, 7th Hussars (commanded by Major C. T. Llewellen Palmer), cleared Japanese infiltrators from a wood, and when two Type 95 Japanese tanks appeared in the areas and were engaged by the Squadron. Compared to the experienced tank crews of the Brigade the Japanese tanks seemed not to know how to move and operated and remained stationary in the middle of an open field. They were knocked out immediately before they knew 7th Hussars were there. The Japanese tanks were very much the same as the Honey (Stuart) and obviously copied from an American design and in fact carried cans of American oil.’ Elsewhere Colonel Fosdick, CO 7th Hussars, had his Stuart tank hit by anti-tank fire which blew off a track, and a ‘B’ Squadron tank was also hit and disabled. A Troop from ‘B’ Squadron was send to assist 7th Hussars RHQ, but all three tanks were hit repeatedly by four anti-tank guns man-handled into position in the night. The Forward Observation Officer (FOO) of the Essex Yeomanry, put down a ‘stonk’ on the enemy position, and a tank from, ‘A’ Squadron, with a company of West Yorkshire infantry, mounted an attack which captured the Japanese anti-tank guns, inflicting heavy casualties. Soon three more Type 95 Japanese tanks approached and were engaged by two Troops from 7th Hussars in hull-down positions. Two of the Type 95s were knocked out at 1,000 yards range and the third abandoned by its crew.

7 March 1942: ‘Thik Hai’ at Pegu

The Stuarts of 7th Hussars hit another road-block on 7 March in an incident that included the last cavalry charge against British troops (Latimer, 2004, p. 69):

At 0830 on 7 March 7th Hussars met a road-block, which they attacked, although after they got through it was closed again in front of 48th Indian Brigade. There were more confused fighting in which the Commanding Officer of 1st/7th Gurkhas was killed before a renewed attack alongside their affiliated regiment, 1st Cameronians, cleared it. A part of Japanese in a ditch were causing great trouble until Rifleman Whyte of the Gorbals1 and Lance-Naik Padam Sing Rai of Aisyalkarka in eastern Nepal attacked them. Whyte with a Bren-gun and Padam Sing by hurling grenades from a haversack. They slumped in the ditch and swapped cigarettes. ‘Taught them bastards a lesson, Johnny’, said Whyte. ‘Thik Hai2, Johnny?’ he asked. ‘Thik Hai, Jock’, replied his friend. But the brigade had become totally disorganised and many sub-units were now moving independently. Two companies of 1st/4th Gurkhas encountered a mounted platoon from 214th Regiment which cased after them. They lay down and shot several riders, the horses jumping them and disappearing into the trees. Thus, having faced the last cavalry ‘charge’ encountered by British troops, they continued. Fortunately for 17th Indian Division, 55th Division had shot its bolt and, although followed by 11sth Regiment, there was no further contact.

(1) The Gorbals is an area of Glasgow and presumably the recruiting ground for the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
(2) ‘Thik Hai’ means ‘All right?’

Again The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942 has more to say about the road-block south of Pegu:

Withdrawal to Rangoon: The 7th Hussars were ordered to retire through Pegu to rejoin the rest of 7th Armoured Brigade at Hiegu. When they arrived in the town as darkness was falling. The town had been severely bombed and the whole place was blazing from end to end and were lucky to still find the only bridge standing. Meanwhile the enemy had erected a road block three miles south west of the town and 7th Hussars halted while ‘A’ Squadron moved down to the block to ascertain its strength. It was apparent that it was quite impossible to get through and probes were made in various directions to get round the flanks, yield not alternative routes. Lt-Col Fosdick decided to move the regiment closer to the road block and leaguer for the night and due to Japanese small-arms fire and an expected night attack the crews had to stay in the tanks and spent one of the most harassing nights most would remember in the war.

Dawn was most welcome, with the only trouble coming from sporadic mortar fire. At an Orders ‘O’ group first thing in the morning decided that the block should be cleared by a company of infantry supported by one troop from ‘A’ Squadron. The small force set off after 7 a.m., and as when it reached the road they were submerged by a panic-stricken mob of refugees in complete disarray. It looked like the refugees would hamper the whole operation and it was impossible to move without running them down. Eventually ‘A’ Squadron’ had to threaten to open fire, but the Japanese did the job for them. Along with an Officer from the Essex Yeomanry with us as OP and ‘A’ Squadron moved towards the road block an on On coming round a bend it suddenly came up against the road block which consisted of two lorries drawn across the road and another obstruction some 300 yards farther down the road. The country on either side was heavily wooded and there was no way round. The lorries were easily moved by the tanks, but immediately came under a hail of small-arms fire. The Troops from ‘A’ Squadron took up a fire position and saturated the whole area with the Brownings Machine Guns for ten minutes. While this was going on the infantry most gallantly cleared the block and the Essex Yeomanry put down a concentration on the area. During this engagement the Japanese threw some kind of Molotov cocktails at the tanks knocking out one. The force pushed on to the next block, fast under heavy fire and were relieved to find it clear. The infantry had provided gallant support and clearing the jungle on either side, although the company commander had been severely wounded during the engagement.

Having got through the road block the forces pushed on stopping a few miles up the road where it linked up with a patrol of 2nd RTR and another Troop from 7th Hussars which had escorted the Brigadier through the block the previous night. The lead Troop was not in not contact Squadron HQ, as the Troop commanders aerial had been shot away and was getting very worried about the rest of the column when it appeared behind them.

1942 - Burma - 7th Hussars M3 Stuart on the road in Burma
1942 – Burma – 7th Hussars M3 Stuart on the road in Burma
1942 - Burma - Burning vehicles on the side of the road
1942 – Burma – Burning vehicles on the side of the road
1942 - Burma - Japanese destroy M3 Stuart tank with molotov cocktails
1942 – Burma – Japanese destroy M3 Stuart tank with molotov cocktails

7-8 March 1942: Taukkyan

The 1st Glosters started the campaign 640 strong with 87 attached followers i.e. Non-Combatants Enrolled (Latimer, 2004). Apparently they turned themselves into a motorise formation (Latimer, 2004, p. 64):

By 24 February … The Glosters equipped themselves as best they could from salvaged lend-lease motor transport and other equipment, including twelve mortars and two Italian Breda anti-aircraft guns with jeep wheels replacing those on the carriages, so that although weak in numbers, they were entirely mobile. (Latimer, 2004, p. 64)

The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum: Rearguard in Burma has this to say about the road-block at Taukkyan:

7th December 1941 found 1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment based at Rangoon, one of only two British battalions in Burma employed in internal security duties. When the Japanese invaded Burma at the beginning of the 1942 1st Battalion was guarding the approaches to the capital, road, riverine and at Mingaladon airfield. After British defeats at Sittang and Pegu, the road to Rangoon lay open and the decision was made to evacuate the city in February 1942. Under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bagot, the Gloucesters patrolled the streets, guarding against looting and preparing the demolition of the oil refinery at Syriam, which was blown up on 7th March. Their first action against the Japanese was at Taukkyan on the 7th/8th March. It was here that the main force of the understrength Battalion took part in the successful breaking of a Japanese roadblock to the north of Rangoon which had cut off 17th Indian Division, the Rangoon garrison and General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Burma Army, with Army Headquarters from their line of retreat.

That phrase “successful breaking of a Japanese roadblock” doesn’t really convey the difficulty of the task. Jon Latimer has more to say about breaking of the road-block at Taukkyan. It wasn’t an easy thing (Latimer, 2004, p. 70-71):

As a pall of smoke hung over the abandoned city [Rangoon], the advance guard set off towards Tharrawaddy but ran into a road-block at Taukkyan, held by III/214th Regiment. The first to encounter them were three carriers of 2nd Dukes under Captain J. A. A. Chritison. He and four soldiers were killed and two of the carriers destroyed. Attacks were launch on the road-block first by 1st Glosters and 1st West Yorks supported by B Squadron, 7th Hussars, then by 63rd Indian Brigade, but all to no avail. The scene at Taukkyan was one ‘of indescribable confusion and congestion’, noted Captain Terrence Dillon. The whole army in Burma, other than 1st Burma Division to the north, ‘was concentrated within a two-mile stretch of the Prome Road, thousands of vehicles crammed into the plantations on either side’. The villages either side of the road were practically all enclosed in woods and while these woods and villages entailed jungle fighting, noted Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Bagot commanding 1st Glosters, ‘there was no jungle in Burma during the course of the campaign, which was comparable to some found in Assam … or parts of Malaya. The snake-infested impenetrable jungles so freely talked about in connection with this Campaign were a myth.’ Nevertheless, the situation looked grim as Alexander made a plan for an all-out attack the following morning. If this plan failed, the alternative was even more desperate: the army was to split into parties of twelve and ‘make their way to India independently’. That night a Japanese attack on 2nd/13th Frontier Force Rifles reached Battalion Headquarters, killing the Commanding Officer and Adjutant. One Japanese officer attacked the chief clerk before bin shot by Captain Rahim Khan, although the chief clerk’s greatest fear was being shot by Khan, who only hit the Japanese with the sixth round from his revolver. But it was the last straw for the exhausted Japanese. they had not expected the British to abandon Rangoon, and Sakurai was determined not to get involved in a fight that would slow its capture, and Colonel Sakuma Takanobu of 214th Regiment authorised the blocking force to break off contact after dark in order to continue the advance into Rangoon west of the Prome road.

At first light on 8 March the British assembled to attack. The raw soldiers of 1st/11th Sikhs saw two mounted Japanese scouts and opened a wild, uncontrolled fire. When a platoon went forward they were fired on and returned, ‘like a troupe of dancing girls, laughing and chattering[;] they were obviously hysterical’, recalled a regimental report. They ‘were horribly untrained these recruits – they were horribly inexperienced these NCOs – and what of ourselves the Officers and VCOs? … The men were bewildered, shaken, hungry and utterly weary.’ But in the confusion 7th Hussars found the road open, and the British poured northwards covering 28 miles and, by ferrying on motor transport, another 35 the next day.

The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942 has this to say:

Twenty-four miles north of the city at Taukkyan the Japanese 33rd Division, was moving swiftly from east to west in its drive to capture Rangoon and had erected a formidable road block across the main road. This road block consisted of two 75mm guns and several machine-guns firing from the flanks it was going to be a tough nut to crack. Waiting to get through the road block (as it could not be bypassed) were most of 17th Indian Division, all of 7th Armoured Brigade and General Alexander and his entire Army HQ. Lt-Col Fosdick, CO 7th Hussars, sent a Troop of ‘B’ Squadron with infantry support to clear the block. One Stuart tank was hit by a 75mm shell and the infantry took heavy casualties. The Essex Yeomanry guns then supported ‘B’ Squadron, 2 RTR, along with 1st Bn. Gloucestershire Regiment also they failed too. The situation appeared so bad that at one point General Alexander even suggested to Lieutenant-General Hutton that the British troops might disperse and try to fight their way north through the jungle. However, a third attack was planned for dawn with ‘A’ Squadron 7th Hussars, 1/10 Gurkhas, 1/11 Sikhs supported by RAF bombing and all artillery available. At first light on 8th March Major Bonham-Carter led ‘B’ Squadron, 2 RTR, towards the road block only to discover that the enemy had gone.

This was one of the classic military blunders of the war. General Iida’s master plan was for Rangoon to be captured from the west and he was sure the British and Indian forces would stay and fight for Rangoon, as he would have done in similar circumstances. So after General Sakurai, GOC, the Japanese 33rd Infantry Division, had very efficiently blocked the main road, and after passing his whole formation across it at Taukkyan, he ‘obeyed’ his rigid orders and abandoned their roadblocks. When he arrived in Rangoon General Sakurai was astonished to the city undefended and empty. The British, and Indian formations retreating from Rangoon were equally surprised at being given a head start.

From Wikipedia: Taukkyan Roadblock:

It was an attempt to clear a roadblock held by elements of the Japanese 33rd Division, which was preventing the evacuation of the main force of the Burma Army from Rangoon. After heavy fighting throughout 7 March 1942, and a counterattack that night, the roadblock was taken on the early morning of 8 March, with little resistance.

The Japanese army had moved around the garrisons on the Pegu road, and had established a strong roadblock at Taukkyan. As a result, the whole of Burma Army, including the Army HQ for Burma, the bulk of 17th Indian Division, and 7th Armoured Brigade were caught in Rangoon, unable to retreat northwards.

It became apparent that the roadblock needed to be cleared, as otherwise the bulk of the Burma Army would be surrounded. The first attack, on the 7th, was made by a troop of M3 Stuart light tanks, from the 7th Hussars, with infantry support; however, they withdrew with the loss of one tank and heavy infantry casualties. A second attack was made by a squadron of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment with artillery support, and by the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, but this was unsuccessful. The final attack that day was made by two companies of the 2nd/13th Frontier Force Rifles, which again failed, and the surviving forces withdrew to establish a defensive perimeter for the night. The Japanese launched a heavy counter-attack during the night, but despite being pushed into hand-to-hand combat, the battalion was still holding its place the next morning.

The only fresh troops available were the 1st/11th Sikhs, withdrawing from Pegu, and the 1st/10th Gurkha Rifles. A plan was prepared for them to attack the roadblock at 8.45 on the morning of the 8th, with artillery support. A squadron from the 7th Hussars would support the attack; other units involved included a detachment of the Burma Military Police, attached to the Gloucestershire Regiment. Whilst moving into position, the Sikhs were attacked by a force of Japanese aircraft, taking severe casualties; the Gurkhas, meanwhile, lost their way to the forming-up area and did not arrive in time.

The artillery barrage failed to materialise, and the 11th Sikhs and 7th Hussars moved toward the roadblock, with the Sikhs breaking into an unexpected bayonet charge. The small garrison present immediately abandoned the roadblock and fled, leaving the British forces in control without any significant resistance.

The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum: Rearguard in Burma

After this action [Taukkyan on the 7th/8th March], the Battalion transferred from Burma Army Command to become became the Reconnaissance Regiment of 17th Indian Division, covering its retreat.

29 March 1942: ‘Useless venture’ at Shwedaung

“Burcorps was created on 13 March 1942 to take control of the scattered British, Indian and local troops retreating through Burma in the face of a sustained Japanese offensive” (Wikipedia: Burma Corps)

7th Hussars, with infantry support, also broke through the road-block at Shwedaung but many allied troops remained trapped to the south (Latimer, 2004, p. 81-83):

II/215th Regiment crossed the Irrawaddy by ferry to seize Shwedaung on the evening of 28 March, a superb position for a rearguard or road-block just as Strike Force1 cleared it heading south to Paungde.

During the morning the BFF column covering Paungde had been heavily attacked, and 1st Glosters launched a two-company attack to relieve it. Strike Froce planned to attack the next day, but shortly before first light firing was heard to the east, where D Company, 1st Glosters, at Padigon were heavily attacked by 214th Regiment. When Brigadider J. H. Anstice arrived at 07700 hours to take command, a runner appeared to say D Company were surrounded and being bypassed to the west and north. An attacked cleared this block but ny now I Company, 2nd Dukes, to the south was also under attack and needed reinforcing. With the block at Shwedaung now know to Headquarters 17th Indian Division, Cowan ordered Anstice to withdraw to Prome in the early afternoon via Shwedaung or Padigon, whichever seemed easiest. He chose Shwedaung.

Cowan ordered 16th and 63rd Indian Brigades to provide one battalion each to attack Shwedaung from teh north, and during the afternoon of 29 March 4th/12th Frontier Force Regiment encountered some 1,2000 BIA men a mile north of Shwedaung and hammered them; 60 were killed, 70 captured, 300 wounded and 350 deserted. The BIA never again attempted to intervene directly. At last light Strike Force began its breakout attempt across paddy fields in bright moonlight. With 1st Glosters pinned down by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, two troops of 7th Hussars supported by 1st West yorks attempted to break through. One succeeded, but the second was intercepted and halted by Japanese armed with petrol bombs.

Bagot spoke with Anstice to say his men were too few and too exhausted to break through, but Anstice insisted they try at 0200, and when this also failed, he planned to attack at daun with his entire force. During the night Colonel Harada Munaji commanding 215th Regiment heavily reinforced Shwedaung, a large village of mostly two-storey wood and bamboo buildings but with some brick-built. As day broke, the British column was spread a mile south along the road – like most in Burma raised some 3 feed about the surrounded paddy – nose-to-tail and often double-banked. They Japanese made various attacked but were beaten off and during the morning six aircraft joined in, although two were shot down. But eh problem remained of how to break through. The tanks were largely restricted to the road and vulnerable to mines and petrol bombs. The infantry were inexperienced, particularly in the art of picqueting a route to protect the vulnerable soft-skin vehicles. An attack at 0730 made no headway, with some tanks toppling over the embankment approaching the bridge, and the Japanese close in again. To the north, 4th/12th Frontier Force Regiment and 2nd/13th Frontier Force Rifles supported by 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and 1st Indian Field Regiment also attacked but were equally unsuccessful.

About midday, with the situation desperate, A ad B Squadrons 7th Hussars and Headquarters Strike Force bypassed the village adn broke clear, although they lost four tanks and numerous trucks and suffered many casualties. The guns of 414th Battery, Royal Horse Artillery drove out like their forebears at Fuentes de Onoro in Spain in 1811. They were then sent north of Prome. C Squadron 7th Hussars, the infantry, gunners, sappers and most of the vehicles remained stuck south of the road-block.

Total British casualties amounted to some 400 on what the 7th Hussars war diary called ‘this useless venture’.

(1) ‘Strike Force’ comprised 7th Armoured Brigade, 1st Glosters, 1st Cameronians and 2nd Dukes all under the command of 7th Armoured (Latimer, 2004). 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was absent from the 7th Armoured Brigade because divisional communications relied on its radios. By this stage 1st Glosters was the divisional reconnaissance battalion for 17th Division, presumably because of the motor transport it had acquired earlier in the campaign.

From Wikipedia: Burma Independence Army – Battle of Shwedaung:

One action in which the BIA played a major part was at Shwedaung, near Prome, in Southern Burma. On 29 March 1942, a detachment from the British 7th Armoured Brigade commanded by Brigadier John Henry Anstice was retreating from nearby Paungde. Another detachment of two Indian battalions was sent to clear Shwedaung, which lay on Anstice’s line of retreat and was held by the II Battalion of the Japanese 215th Regiment, commanded by Major Misao Sato, and 1,300 men belonging to the BIA under Bo Yan Naing, one of the Thirty Comrades. Two Japanese liaison officers named Hirayama and Ikeda accompanied the BIA. With Anstice’s force and the Indian troops attacking Shwedaung from two sides, the roadblocks were soon cleared, but a lucky shot from a Japanese anti-tank gun knocked out a tank on a vital bridge and forced the British to retreat across open fields where Bo Yan Naing ambushed them with 400 men. Eventually the British and Indian force broke free and continued their retreat, having lost ten tanks, two field guns and 350 men killed or wounded. The BIA’s casualties were heavy; 60 killed, 300 wounded, 60 captured and 350 missing, who had deserted. Hirayama and Ikeda were both killed. Most of the BIA’s casualties resulted from inexperience and lack of equipment. Though Burmese political leader Ba Maw and others later eulogised the BIA’s participation in the battle, the official Japanese history never mentioned them.

The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942 again provides a lot of detail on Shwedaung:

On the 28th March General Alexander asked Slim to take the offensive to relieve pressure on the Chinese. General Cowan sent Brigadier Anstice with 7th Hussars, two troops of Essex Yeomanry, three infantry battalions, including the 1st Bn Gloucesters, to re-occupy Paungde and advance on Okpo, both on the main road and railway line 25 and 50 miles south of Prome. Two thousand Japanese held Paungde, and after initial success the British and Indian Brigade was driven out after inflicting heavy casualties. However, worse was to come as a strong Japanese force had appeared in Shwedaung only 10 miles south of Prome, thus cutting off Brigadier Anstice’s withdrawal.

1942-03-29 Shwedaung Map
1942-03-29 Shwedaung Map

Two Indian battalions, from 17th Indian Division, were sent to clear Shwedaung from the north and just after 1800 hrs, on 29th March, the advance guard of Brigadier Anstice’s force launched an attack, which failed, as were the two more that followed. However, during the morning of 30th March, 7th Hussars and supporting infantry burst through the Japanese road blocks in Shwedaung. They found that the town was burning furiously, with many trucks on fire as Japanese aircraft machine-gunned and bombed the allied convoys. In one action, the 7th Hussars were attempting to cross a bridge, under heavy fire from the Japanese, but, the bridge had become blocked with vehicles and tanks put out of action by gunfire. It was now that one tank commander (Sgt Hipsey) turned his tank around and re-crossed the bridge and began pushing the knocked out vehicles and tanks out of the way to enable the regiment to cross which they did. However, the Japanese concentrated on his tank and he and his crew were killed.

Several hundred Japanese and rebel Burmese were caught and killed, but the 7th Hussars lost 10 Stuarts, the Essex Yeomanry 2 guns, the column over 300 vehicles and the Infantry over 350 killed or wounded. The Dukes (2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment) suffered the worst, lost 5 officers and 117 other ranks.

Fierce fighting continued and ‘C’ Squadron, 7th Hussars, under Major Congreve, smashed through a road block and a Troop Commander (Lieutenant Palmer) managed to get through to Div HQ in Prome. However, another (Lieutenant Pattison MC) was taken from his knocked-out Stuart, was beaten and flogged with sticks and was tied to a road block. Fortunately when the bombardment to clear the road block stated the first 25-pdr shell to hit the roadblock actually enabled Lt. Pattison to escape in the darkness. Elsewhere two tanks, charged over a road bridge and crashed over the embankment, however, by 1400 hrs the battle was over and the remains of the column, assisted by ‘A’ and ‘B’ squadrons of 2 RTR, from the North, managed to break out as C’ Squadron, 2 RTR had been send on a wild-goose chase to help a column of 1st Burmese Division on 28th March.

13 to 17 April 1942: Yenaungyaung Area

The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942 mention several road-blocks in the Yenaungyaung area:

From 13th to 17th April 1942, 2 RTR were kept busy day and night. They ferried the KOYLI (2nd Battalion, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) up the main road to Milestones 310, then 336 and killed 50 enemy in the village of Tokson and one tank was destroyed when it was hit six times at very close range by a 75mm gun. On several occasions a dangerous alternating sandwich situation occurred as Japanese roadblocks split in three a force consisting of elements of the Burma Frontier Force, 1st Burma Division, 7th Armoured Brigade HQ and of course 2 RTR. At one stage the situation was so critical that General Alexander ‘asked’ Lieutenant-General Joe Stilwell to move the Chinese 38th Division ‘at once’ into the Yenaungyaung area. The British and Indian troops found that the Japanese frequently dressed in the uniform of the Burma Rifles or as civilians and making it difficult to tell friend from foe.

1942-04-11 Yenaungyaung Map
1942-04-11 Yenaungyaung Map

After that the retreat was less about contending with Japanese road-blocks and more about coping with the lack of transport, food, water and medical attention.

1942 - Burma - 2RTR Stuart Tanks during the withdrawal to the Chindwin
1942 – Burma – 2RTR Stuart Tanks during the withdrawal to the Chindwin


The 7th Armoured Brigade – Engagements – 1942

Armoured Car Section, Rangoon Battalion, Burma Auxiliary Force – war diary of the Armoured Car Section

Latimer, J. (2004). Burma: The Forgotten War. John Murray Publishers.

Lone Sentry: Japanese Tactics in Burma

Lone Sentry: “Obstacles” from Intelligence Bulletin, December 1942

Slim, W. (2009; first published 1956). Defeat Into Victory. Pan Military Classics.

U.S. War Department. (1942, December). Intelligence Bulletin, I(4). Author.

U.S. War Department. (1942, 10 September). Tactical and Technical Trends, 7. Author.

The Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum: Rearguard in Burma

Wikipedia: Battle of Sittang Bridge

Wikipedia: Burma Corps

Wikipedia: Burma Independence Army – Battle of Shwedaung

Wikipedia: Japanese invasion of Burma

Wikipedia: Taukkyan Roadblock

3 thoughts on “Roadblock Battles on the Retreat from Burma”

  1. wow, lots of interesting stories here that will make some great scenarios, many thanks.

  2. Curiously, we’ve just refought the actions at Paung roadblock using the scenario in TFL’s “Bloody Burma” book, but converting it to “Crossfire”. It appeared to transition fairly seamlessly…the armoured cars didn’t get through, but it was enjoyable for all players!


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