III.—THE BATTLE FOR THE OILFIELDS.
27. Operations South of Prome. On the 26th March the Japanese commenced to operate against the positions held by 1 Burcorps in the Irrawaddy valley. Prome was bombed on the 26th $!arch and three quarters of the town was burnt. On the 27th March four to five thousand Japanese and Burmese were reported to be on the west bank of the Irrawaddy opposite Tonbo. On the same day, at the request of the Generalissimo, I despatched from Chungking a telegram ordering offensive operations on the Irr'awaddy front in order to relieve pressure' on the Chinese Fifth Army, which at this time was heavily engaged. On the 28th March the Japanese advance guard on the east of the Irrawaddy attacked the 17 Division reconnaissance unit, the 1 Glosters, at Paungde and fighting continued throughout the day. Commander 1 Burcorps decided that this was a good opportunity for offensive action. Accordingly a force consisting of one armoured regiment and two infantry battalions attacked early on the 20th March and recaptured Paungde, but during the day a strong enemy force appeared at Padigon, six miles to the north. Another enemy force in considerable strength, after surprising and overcoming a commando unit on the west bank, crossed the river from Padaung and occupied Shwedaung establishing road blocks across the main road, thus cutting off the force at Paungde.
28. During the following 48 hours fierce fighting took place and, although the tactical situation was not unfavourable to the. Imperial Forces, the familiar Japanese tactics of establishing road blocks in their rear forced the 17 Division to abandon their main object of destroying the enemy in the Paungde area in order to reopen their L. of C. This brought about the withdrawal of the 17 Division to the Prome area, which was completed by the evening of the 30th March. During this fighting the enemy was actively assisted by traitor Burmans and some Japanese were found to be wearing Burmese clothes. The commando unit referred to in paragraph 27 was surprised by Japanese soldiers who had disguised themselves in this manner.
29. Withdrawal to the Dry Zone. On the 30th March the Commander-in-Chief in India arrived by air in Burma and on the 1st April I accompanied him by air from Mandalay to Magwe, proceeding by road to Corps Headquarters at Allanmyo. At a conference which' took place here on the afternoon of the ist April the Commander-in-Chief agreed that, in view of the difficulties of the country and the fatigue of the troops in 17 Division, a withdrawal from Prome to the Allanmyo area should commence forthwith, and that this withdrawal might have to be continued even further north into the dry zone south of Taungdwingyi, where the country was more open and more suitable for the employment of tanks. On the evening of the ist April the enemy attacked Prome and penetrated the defences held by the 63 Infantry Brigade securing the high ground south of the town. The 17 Division was forced to withdraw on the 2nd April north and northeast of Prome. On the 3rd April the 17 Division moved back through 1 Burma Division, in position in the area Dayindabo-Pyalo, to the area Ywataung-Kyaukpadaung-Bwetkyichaung, the 48 Infantry Brigade and the 7 Armoured Brigade, less one regiment, moving during the night of the 3rd to 4th April to Satthwa. On the 3rd April 1 Burcorps issued an Operation Instruction covering the possibility of a withdrawal to the line Mjinhla-Taungdwingyi and the withdrawal from Prome, which was originally intended to stop at Allanmyo, was, in view of the tired state of the troops, continued to this line, which was reached by the night of the 4th-5th April except by the 2 Burma Brigade, moving up the west bank, which did not reach Minhla till the night of the Sth-gth April.
During this period the enemy air force was very active and there was a considerable amount of bombing and machine gunning in the forward area.
30. Dispositions for the Defence of the Oilfields. The dispositions of 1 Burcorps on the 9th
April were on the general line Minhla, Migyaungye, Nyaungyatsan, Thadodan and Taungdwingyi. It will be noted that the stretch of front from Minhla to Taungdwingyi was over 40 miles and that in consequence there was no depth. With this in mind, I had on the 4th April requested General Tu Yu Ming, commanding Chinese Fifth Army, to send one Chinese regiment* to hold Taungdwingyi so as to enable 1 Burcorps to form a reserve. General Tu informed me that he had already ordered one battalion to Taungdwingyi. The fire power of the Chinese battalion was, however, not more than that of a company of Imperial troops. A regiment was therefore promised.
After further consideration I decided that at least one Chinese division was required to hold Taungdwingyi and accordingly I asked the Generalissimo, who arrived in Maymyo on the 6th April, to make a division available for this purpose. He promised that he would do so. In the event, however, only one Chinese battalion reached the Taungdwingyi area. The failure of the Chinese to supply a division for the defence of Taungdwingyi had the most serious consequences.
31. Lack of Information. I feel it is necessary to comment here on the lack of intelligence at my disposal. Owing to the hostility of the local population and to the total lack of air reconnaissance, information was most difficult to get. It appeared, however, from such identifications as were obtained that 1Burcorps were opposed only by the Japanese 33 Division but that this Division was assisted by a considerable number of traitor Burmans. On the Chinese front only the Japanese 55 Division had been identified. The operations which took place about this time illustrate clearly the advantage which the initiative confers on a highly trained force which has the assistance of the local population in a country of great distances and poor communications. The successes which the Japanese gained cannot all be ascribed to their superior training and, at this time, superior morale.
32. Destruction of the Oilfields. On the l0th April it became apparent that enemy columns were moving north on tracks south-west of Taungdwingyi. On the nth April a Corps striking force consisting of the 7 Armoured Brigade and the 48 Infantry Brigade moved south to attack the most easterly of these columns. Contact was established on the morning of the 12th April and by 0800 hours the 48 Infantry Brigade was being heavily pressed and bitter fighting took place in which the Corps striking force more than held its own. Another enemy column on the east bank of the Irrawaddy was attacked by the 1 Burma Brigade. Owing to the non-arrival of the Chinese division which had been promised for the defence of Taungdwingyi, the Commander 1 Burcorps .now felt that he could not continue to hold Taungdwingyi and also cover the direct approach to the oilfields, and he represented this opinion to me. To have abandoned Taungdwingyi would have opened the right flank and rear of the, Chinese Fifth Army, whose advanced troops .were still south of Pyinmana, and it would, also have uncovered the communications of the Imperial Forces through Mandalay.
On the 12th April therefore, I ordered 1 Burcorps to hold Taungdwingyi at all costs. This order was received at Headquarters 1 Burcorps on the morning of the 13th April and orders were then issued for the 48 Brigade and the 7 Hussars to come under command of the 17 Division and 7 Armoured Brigade less one regiment to come under command 1 Burma Division. Enemy pressure on the 1 Burma Division south of Magwe continued on the 13th and 14th and this caused a wide gap to. be opened between the two Divisions. Moving across country the enemy pushed into this gap threatening the oilfields. Orders for the destruction of the Yenangyaung oilfields
were issued on the" night of the 14th April and the denial scheme was successfully carried out during the following 48 hours. It required two full daylights to complete the destruction ending with the blowing of the power house, which took place when the Japanese were already in the outskirts of Yenangyaung.
By the 16th April 1 Burma Division, less 2 Burma Brigade on the right bank of the Irrawaddy had withdrawn to" Kadaung Chaung, seventeen miles south of Yenangyaung. The 2 K.O.Y.L.I., who had been cut off in Myingun fought their way out and rejoined their Division.
33. The Fight at Yenangyaung. On the 17th April the enemy established road blocks north and south of the Pinchaung, immediately north of Yenangyaung, cutting off 1 Burma Division and some of the Corps Troops. The 2 Royal Tanks and Corps Troops fought their way out north but, by the time i Burma Division reached Yenangyaung on the night of the 17th April, the road blocks had been re-established. After this action the greater number of the enemy dead were found to be clad in khaki uniforms and wearing felt hats of the type used by Gurkha and Burma Rifle units.
34. Meanwhile the 113 Regiment of the Chinese 38 Division had been moved from Mandalay to Kyaukpadaung and placed under command 1Burcorps. On the morning of the 18th April this Regiment and the 2 Royal Tanks attacked the enemy road block north of the Pinchaung, but the attack went wide and failed to dislodge the enemy. An attack by 1 Burma Division failed to clear the block to the south. On the evening of the 18th April information was received that an enemy column was moving north by Magwe. During this time the 17 Division and 7 Hussars holding Taungdwingyi and Natmauk were unmolested by the enemy.
35. On the 16th and 17th April, I Visited Corps Headquarters and Headquarters of the Chinese Armies at Pyawbwe. At this time, and indeed previously, I impressed on General Stilwell the importance of Meiktila as a big centre of communications and I promised that, if possible, I would make the 7 Armoured Brigade, available for the defence of this place. Arrangements had already been put in hand to dump at Meiktila stocks of 87 octane spirit and lubricants and a dump of supplies had already been formed there since the 17 Division had, at this time, to be supplied through Meiktila and Pyawbwe.
At our meeting on the 17th April, General Stilwell discussed with me his plan for a counter attack south of Pyinmana and I promised to make the 7 Hussars available to assist the Chinese in this operation and orders were issued for them to be prepared to move to Pyawbwe. On the 18th April it became clear to me that the projected Chinese counter attack would not take place and, in view of the situation on the Irrawaddy front, and in the Shan States, I again visited General Stilwell's Headquarters at Pyawbwe on the 19th, having arranged to meet the Commander 1 Burcorps there. At this meeting, I stressed the importance of holding strongly the centres of communication from Chauk to Kyaukpadaung-Meiktila-Thazi.General Stilwell and I were in full agreement and it was arranged that the whole of the 38 Chinese Division should be placed under the command of 1 Burcorps.
36. We then discussed plans for offensive action. The deep penetration made by the Japanese 33 Division at Yenangyaung appeared to present a favourable opportunity for a counter stroke but, owing to the nature and extent of the country, this was beyond the capacity of 1 Burcorps alone, as considerable forces were required merely to find the enemy should he elect to move into the jungle. General Stilwell agreed to make available for a counter stroke the 200 Chinese Division and one regiment of the 22 Division in addition to the 38 Division, and arrangements were made to set in motion the moves of these formations towards Kyaukpadaung and Ywamun as soon as possible. Having made these arrangements I accompanied the Commander 1 Burcorps to his Headquarters between Meiktila and Kyaukpadaung. On arrival there I found that the attacks of the 113 Chinese Regiment and the 2 Royal Tanks had succeeded in clearing the northern bank of the Pinchaung but that 1 Burma Division had been unable to clear the Japanese from the south bank, 1 Burma Division were being attacked by an enemy column which had moved north from Magwe and columns sent out by the 17 Division from Taungdwingyi and Natmauk had not succeeded in relieving the pressure. I told the Corps Commander that 1 Burma Division must fight its way out and that, if necessary, it would have to abandon its wheeled transport. Commander 1 Burcorps issued orders to this effect on the evening of the 19th and by the morning of the 20th 1 Burma Division had succeeded in extricating itself with the loss of a great part of its M.T. On the 21st April, 113 Chinese Regiment crossed the Pinchaung and entered the outskirts of Yenangyaung where it inflicted considerable casualties on the enemy.
37. Operations on the Chinese Front. At this point it is necessary to turn to the events on the Chinese front east of the Pegu Yomas. After the withdrawal of the Chinese 200 Division from Toungoo on the Tst April, the situation on the Fifth Army front was as follows: —
the 22 Division at Yedashe,
the 96 Division in the area Pyinmana,
the 200 Division in the area Yezin with
Fifth Army Headquarters, at Pyawbwe.
The position of this army was not unsatisfactory as it was holding a comparatively narrow front in great depth. There was a lull in the fighting .until the 7th April when the Japanese advanced from Toungoo and attacked the 22 Division in and about Yedashe. Heavy fighting followed and 22 Division suffered severe casualties until it was relieved by the 96 Division and was withdrawn north of Pyinmana on the 18th April.
38. The loss of Toungoo opened up to the enemy the road to Karenni and the Shan States via Mawchi. The Japanese were not slow to take advantage of this opportunity and, on the 5th April, began to develop pressure in this direction. At first the movement was comparatively slow but later, when enemy reinforcements arrived, the momentum rapidly increased especially as there was a failure on the part of the Chinese to carry out the demolitions which had been prepared. Unfortunately the two important bridges at Toungoo and Bawlake were not blown but the demolitions on the Toungoo-Mawchi road were gallantly blown by the Karen Levies after the Chinese had retreated. In these operations the Levies suffered considerable casualties. Karenni and the Shan States were held by the Chinese Sixth Army consisting of 55, 49 and the 93 Divisions. Owing to the great length of the front, the Sixth Army was much strung out and had only a small reserve in the Loilem area.
39. At the beginning of April, Karenni was held by one regiment of the 55 Division but, as a result of the Japanese threat to this front, the whole of the 55 Division concentrated to the south of Loikaw by the 18th April. On the 14th April Japanese tanks were reported in the Mawchi area and, on the 19th April, an engagement took place 20 miles south of Loikaw. On the 20th April a further Japanese attack was made seven miles north of Loikaw from the direction of Mongpai and, at the same time, the encounter south of Loikaw developed into a major battle. Some days prior to this it had been decided to evacuate Kengtung and some units of the.93 Division had already moved west on the Salween, but the great distances and lack of transport made the formation of a reserve by Chinese Sixth Army very difficult. The position in the Southern Shan States was now serious and it will be seen from later paragraphs in my despatch that it was the situation there which affected the whole of my future plans.
* A Chinese division was organised on the basis of three regiments each consisting of three battalions