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February 12, 2004

Arakan campaign

A little over a year ago I was given a book entitled "Trombay to Changi" and it is a wonderful record of the reminisences of a group of retired Royal Navy and Royal Indian Navy officers who served in Coastal Forces in Burma and the Bay of Bengal operational theatre.

One senses their frustration that so little of the subsequent history of the War and especially the war in the Far East barely gives their efforts a mention. Its almost a case of "Oh yes, Burma." I can say that in my extensive collection of books on naval history and the history of the second world war, there is almost no mention of the efforts of coastal forces in this theatre. Of the Arakan campaign and of the landings at Ramree Island in particular, the book "The Forgotten Fleet" makes great mention of the destroyers that took part and of the landing craft (there were very few!) but apart from mentioning one incident in which the ML's intercepted and captured some Japanese swimmers, they do not get much of a look in.

There were several flotillas involved in the whole campaign, three officially designated RIN, one a Burmese group equipped with Thorneycroft ML's initially which had escaped from Rangoon as the Japanese entered, and the 49th Flotilla of the South African Naval Force. This group fought in this theatre from 1942 through to the bitter end and got precious little recognition for their efforts. They were later joined (January 1945) by the 37th and the 38th Flotillas, the latter arriving just in time for the push to Rangoon, yet, this small book apart, I have seen almost nothing of their efforts in any "official" account.

To put the record staight, the Arakan campaign was a hard slog for the 14th Army (Chindits) who had to be supplied by air drop and by chaung when the Navy could get a boat up to them. Sometimes the ML's had to take Army patrols up the chaungs and deposit them behind enemy lines, then retrieve them again a week or more later. The trick (remembering that there were no charts for the chaungs and everyone relied on sharp eyes and the skippers local knowledge or the notes of another skipper in the Flotilla), was to get up the chaungs during the night, then lie under camoflage during the day and work your self further up the next night.

The Japanese were also using the chaungs to supply their troops and so, from time to time some really nasty, and usually short, close range dog fights between boats could develop, usually ending with one side or the other in flames. Then, of course, having stirred the hornets nest, you had to get out again, past a now thoroughly aroused enemy! Air cover was not often available so a sharp lookout had to be kept for enemy aircraft and sometimes allied ones as well, who failed to identify a friend in "foe" territory.

None of these boats had refrigeration on board so everything had to be carried either tinned or dehydrated. If they were lucky a raid could produce a source of fresh food and everyone would dine like a king for as long as this lasted.

The boats all operated from different "home" ports at various times, but the Arakan campaign saw most operating at least part of the time from Teknaf on the Northern border of Burma. Here they were occasionally subjected to air attack but as the army moved further South the attacks gradually became a thing of the past. Heat, humidity, mosquitoes and leeches all took their toll. Clothes rotted in lockers, ventilation below decks was not up to the heat and most chose to sleep on deck when the chance offered.

My father told a very funny story of how, on an occasion that their skipper had to report aboard the flagship it was found that none of his tropical uniforms were serviceable - mildew had struck and they were falling to bits, and a whip round of the crew produced a pair of white shorts from an AB, a shirt from the PO Coxswain, socks from another rating and shoes from my father. Only his epaulettes and cap were his own as he went ashore to his briefing and meet the Admiral aboard the smart, newly arrived, battleship serving as flagship.

It speaks volumes that these men put up with it and still joked about it years later.

I have reason to know what scars the campaign left on my father, so I have the greatest respect for all those who served in this forgotten theatre. Between the Coastal Forces and the 14th Army a large Japanese force was tied down defending the Burmese coast and jungle - a force which could have been deployed against the US forces "island hopping". Perhaps it is time for their contribution to receive wider recognition than it has thus far.

"Trombay to Changi" is pretty rare - it was privately printed and distributed, but it is available if you search Amazon and AbeBooks. Best of luck, it makes an interesting read.

You may also wish to read the post on the subject of our declining armed forces , shrinking under the mismanagement of the bombproof Civil Servants and incompetent politicians at An Englishman's Castle.

Posted by The Gray Monk at February 12, 2004 03:22 PM