This trained decoy unit, the first in history, became a thorn in the Japanese side in the jungles of Burma
For the first time in military history a field unit of a specialist deception force was in direct contact with the enemy in the last week of January 1944 the Sikh company of D’ Force fought men of the Japanese 55th Division in the Valley Abakan (W Burma). Till then the task of misleading an adversary had always been delegated to an HQ staff where strategy was concerned, or tactically to a unit detached from the battalion, brigade, or division involved in the field But physical conditions in Burma, to a large extent nullifying the value of air attacks, were considered ideal for testing the frequently debated concept of specially trained, specially equipped, small tactical deception units. The result was the creation of ‘D’ Force Roughly of battalion strength (1,000-1.200 men), D’ Force was made up of eight companies, each company about 50 per cent of the strength of a normal infantry company, but with a higher proportion of automatic weapons (Brans and Thompsons), a 2in mortar per platoon and bolstered by portable explosives produced by a special section in Delhi. Of these companies two were British, six Indian, of whom two were made up of Parthian two of Punjabi Muslims , one of Sikhs and one of Jets.
Bara sat, a remote Bengali village in the swampy country some 1 6 miles north of Calcutta was selected as the depot the ‘Force’ came into being in November 1943 At that time I was serving an attachment to the Chin Hill guerillas in the area. But in early January 1944 a signal came to the effect that I was to assume command at the end of the month. Three companies had already departed for Burma — the Sikhs and one British to Abakan, a company to — by the time I took over Then, within a week came news of the surprise Japanese offensive, code name Ha-Go. Aimed at Chittagong Leaving Barisal immediately with a Parham and the second PM companies I arrived in Abakan just as The Battle of the Admin Box’ (see ‘War Monthly’ Issue 23) was at its height
Both D’ Force companies, the Sikhs commanded by a young Czech Karle Lubbock and the British under Nick from the King’s African Rifles, were on the east side of the Maya Range, besieged in subsidiary boxes’ (defensive positions) It was encouraging to be greeted with glowing reports of their activities Before Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya launched his offensive Lubbock had been asked to cover the southward advance of 7th Indian Division’s 114th Brigade and above all to give the impression that it was still in its original positions He had been completely successful. Every night he and his second- in-command Captain Ronald Norman, seconded from the Commandos, harried Japanese positions over a wide front By means of explosive devices which could be set off by time fuses at any given hour and lavish employment of automatic weapons and mortars, he created the impression that not only that 114th Brigade was still in position, but also planning to strike in an easterly direction The official 7th Division history commented There was very little Lubbock would not take on from simulating a tank squadron deploying for battle and setting fire to the river His personal courage had become almost legendary when he was killed in action towards the end of the 1 943-4 campaign’.
It was galling not to be able to reach either Lubbock or Nicholson However, within 48 hours of installing ourselves in a jungle smothered valley and being joined by the second British company, we were called upon to give flank protection to a battalion due to assault one of the last Japanese strong points on the Pass. Like most D’ Force operations it was to be carried out by night. This was routine for the Parthian, mostly veterans of the NW Frontier or of the 1 941 Ethiopian campaign, but with one or two exceptions, the British were receiving their baptism of fire This constituted a double ordeal, confrontation with the Japanese, the most deadly of opponents, and with the night-time jungle, capable of inspiring a very genuine terror until familiarity bred contempt
Reaching the valley down which we had to discourage any Japanese advance involved a 2-mile march parallel with an enemy-held ridge. Though there was no moon.
progress was not as silent as it might have been with the result that halfway we were subjected to heavy, but comfortingly inaccurate mortar fire The Athens were unmoved, but the incident acted like a tonic on the untried British. In fact I blessed the Japanese, for by their very inaccuracy they were providing tangible, as it were, proof of my assertions that in battle sheer noise was often the most unnerving factor, and that of the many millions of projectiles fired, only a minute proportion found their mark Morale was still further boosted when not a single casualty was reported after we had withdrawn before dawn with our task accomplished One sergeant who shortly before leave in Barasat had been informed of his wife’s infidelity and had volunteered to lay the forward explosive screen, in the hope, I suspected, of finding a hero’s death, kept repeating in a rather bewildered tone: But it’s too easy too bloody easy.’ A few days later the siege of the ’ Box’ ended
The companies were regrouped to the west of the Maya Range, but were soon again in action. Though the Japanese offensive had failed at the cost of crippling losses, the campaign was far from over Hanaya tried to regain ‘face’ by staging a number of suicidal counter-attacks and clinging desperately to his main positions on the 16-mile long road, designated the Golden Fortress’.
In mid-March we were called upon to cover an advance down the coastal road after the fall of , the most westerly of the Golden Fortress’ bastions. A company of a Punjabi battalion had established itself some eight miles inland, to the east, but it would be our task to push a further three or four miles into the interior. The area was practically trackless. At that time of the year, the dry season, the easiest method of progress was via the middle of a change
11 (river or stream) in whose bed the trickle of water, that during the monsoon swelled to a racing current, was seldom more than a few inches deep. We were to take up a position covering the junction of two changes. Our maps showed them to be the main approaches from the east and thus the axis for a threatened Japanese counter-attack. The position was to be occupied an hour before darkness and be held till 0700 the following day This, it was calculated, would give the Punjabi company time to withdraw and dig in with the rest of the battalion along a ridge dominating the coastal road from the east.
Having selected a Python and a British company for the job we struck inland about midday. The jungle was so thick that we had to march in single file on the one available narrow track knowing the Punjabi company had gone ahead we were perhaps a little careless. Nevertheless after four or five miles, at a spot where the track looped through a bamboo clearing, I was overcome by that strange feeling of impending danger that becomes inherent after months of active service. Noticing that in parts the bamboo had been flattened, I called a halt At exactly that moment, there were shots from the right. The Python ahead of me
Shouted, dropped his rifle and turned, pulling open his tunic to reveal blood oozing from his chest The Python behind me dropped dead. The company reacted automatically raking the bamboo with fire while the Python Subedar (chief Indian Company officer) Mean Gull lobbed over a couple of grenades. On the bamboo fringe were two dead Japanese I wondered if they were strays lost in the jungle, or whether the Japanese had already surrounded the Punjabis, There was no way of telling and no alternative other than to push on.
The Punjabi company commander was a worried man. On top of the information we brought him, he had just received a message from V’ Force (a local intelligence- gathering unit) that the Japanese were heading our way, possibly in regimental strength It seemed unlikely that the night would be quiet. The positions we took up by nightfall dominating the junction of the two changes, were eerie and claustrophobic. Jungle covered the chaotic ground while the changes ran through tunnels formed by intertwined foliage. To add to one’s discomforts, the jungle was a mass of thorn bushes whose gossamer tendrils, armed with a myriad needle points, had a habit of wrapping themselves round one’s face. Once night fell, a platoon was sent a couple of hundred yards up each change to lay explosive effects timed to go off at two-hour intervals as from 2200 This done there was nothing else to do but sit back and wait in the inky blackness.
The advance of what, judging from the muffled sounds of splashing footsteps, was a small patrol coincided with the detonation of the first batch of explosives. The Japanese halted, then pulled back All was quiet till round about 0100 when there was sporadic mortar fire lasting the best part of an hour. Though one or two mortar bombs fell very close, it was obvious that the Japanese were in ignorance of our exact whereabouts We did not reply I hoped to draw them down the changes into what would have been a classical ambush; a dream which came near to being realized
Just before 0500 the Japanese began to push down the main, left-hand change probably in some strength. Unfortunately the strain imposed by the heavy night and extreme tension proved too much for one of the Bran gunners. Suddenly he fired a prolonged burst into the darkness. The effect was instantaneous. The fire was returned, but too experienced to fall into what they must have guessed to be a pre-laid trap, the Japanese withdrew once more. I now felt that first light would be the signal for a heavy bombardment followed by an attempt to rush us; nothing happened. We had been ordered to withdraw at 0700, but I hung on for an extra hour just in case
Marching rapidly we reached the coastal road, now covered by the whole Punjabi battalion dug in along a low ridge, by midday. We were lucky, for the Japanese force which must have advanced barely an hour after our departure, and whose attack the Punjabis were able to throw back that afternoon, was reckoned to be well over a thousand strong. Had they decided to make their habitual dawn onslaught, it is unlikely that there would have been any ‘D’ Force survivors.
After this incident I left Abakan to visit the company attached to 20th Indian Division, then holding the Shaman Ridge, a vital position controlling one of the main approaches to the Imphal plain in Manicure, India. There was little scope for specialist activities in the semi-static warfare that had developed. The company had shown that it was capable of taking over any job. and was manning a small sector of the perimeter. During the time I spent with them two attacks on the ridge, preceded by exceptionally heavy bombardments, were repulsed The atmosphere was lively, but one of the most anxious moments came when the Japanese tried to burn us out. Taking advantage of a slight breeze, they set fire to the jungle (fortunately thinned by shell fire) at the foot of the hump back mound into which we had dug. In addition rainfall in the whole area of Manicure and the upper Chindwin, almost the world’s heaviest, leaves the ground so sodden that forest fires are unknown Though some of the scrub blazed fiercely for a few minutes, the flames did not progress
In mid-April I returned to Abakan where the unexpected Japanese recovery after the Box’ had thrown 15th Corps’ plans out of gear. As it was obvious Akyab Island could not be recaptured before the monsoon, it was decided that 25th and 26th Indian Divisions, now forming 15th Corps, would concentrate in the coastal area after the ‘Golden Fortress’ had been overrun They would be protected to the south by the newly occupied ‘Golden Fortress’ and by the Maya Range in the east
Two ‘D’ Force officers killed
Such a concentration meant the withdrawal of all units to the east of the River Kalapanzin and from its valley. These units were in close touch with the Japanese. Their retreat, mercilessly harried, resulted in heavier casualties than at any time other than during the peak of the Box’ battle. They would have been even heavier but for Lubbock’s Sikhs and a British company now commanded by Captain Ronald Norman. For several nights both were able to simulate defensive positions, phone troop movements, and to stage brief counter-attacks with great effect The Sikhs, however, had to pay a grim price Their previous luck deserted them in the final stage. Caught in an open paid field, both and ‘Teddy’ Cotterell, his second-in-command, just turned twenty and a newcomer to ‘D‘ Force, were severely wounded Both died before they could be transported to the nearest field hospital
Once the monsoon broke in May, D’ Force was with drawn to the Barasat depot to refit and undergo a further period of training prior to the resumption of full-scale operations in Abakan in the 1944-45 dry season. Experience had shown that Abakan both did and would, in view of the nature of future planning, provide the ideal setting for our activities. Thus, though two companies (the Jets under Captain Conrad Roman, today a well known artist, and a PM company under Captain Booth, a landscape architect in peacetime) were sent to Fourteenth Army in Central Burma, to participate in the dash for Rangoon, the remaining six were allotted to 1 5th Corps
The Abakan campaign opened auspiciously The Japanese 54th Division, which had taken over from the tough but battered 55th, was unable to offer any serious opposition to the initial advance of 25th Indian Division advancing down the Maya Peninsula and 82nd West African Division, re-attached to 1 5th Corps in the Kaladan Valley By the end of the year 4/18th Narwhal Rifles had reached Foul Point with only a narrow strip of sea between themselves and Akyab Island Three days later Akyab was captured without a shot being fired. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Japanese had pulled out to the more easily defended jungles and hills of the mainland
The Corps’ next major objective was Ramree Island, its enclave of flat ground on the north coast being needed urgently as an airfield from which supplies could be flown direct to Fourteenth Army The task was assigned to 26th Indian Division (Major-General Cyril E N Lomax. DSO) with four D’ Force companies under command Opposition to the dawn landings of 21 January on the northern beaches round the town of Kyaukpyu was smothered by naval and air bombardments. It looked as though the island might be cleared in a few days rather than in the three weeks anticipated. But the commander of the island garrison (2nd Battalion, 121st Regiment) abandoning Kyaukpyu, withdrew the bulk of his force to the south of a tidal change almost bisecting the island from west to east, and from this natural position was able to break up all attempts to effect a crossing.
Lomax then decided to make a left hook through the jungle parallel to the change, employing D’ Force to mask this move by keeping up continuous frontal pressure This we managed to do, as usual being particularly active by night and even managing to get a few jitter’ parties over the change, with the happy result that the main body of the Division was able to achieve surprise
Ten raids behind Japanese lines
The next two and a half months marked D’ Force’s apogee With the island cleared and the airfield working overtime, both 25th and 26th Divisions began a series of strikes down the coast in the direction of Taungup to cut the tracks over the Abakan Thomas by which, it was now obvious, 54th Division was hoping to escape and join up with the Japanese 28th Army in the Delta, While these moves were in progress, using Ramree as a base, ‘D’ Force carried out a series of 10 amphibious raids well behind the Japanese lines to confuse and distract the enemy as to the area chosen for the next main assault
For this purpose we found ourselves working constantly with two BUMS-type minesweepers acting as troop carriers, and a group of assault landing craft manned by the Royal Indian Navy Enjoying mastery of both the sea and the air, we were able to take full advantage of the terrain. From Akyab to well south of Taungup the coast is carved up by innumerable chaungs, creeks, and inlets, lined with mangrove swamps, in turn backed by dense jungle. Anywhere it would have been possible for two opposing columns to march within a few yards of each other without being aware of the other’s existence.
There was a reverse side of the picture. Many of the changes were crocodile infested Night landings frequently involved negotiating mangrove swamps where the surface below the trees gave the impression of terra firma, but a step in the wrong direction and one sank, often thigh deep, in clinging slime The tide could be a menace. Many of the inlets were dotted with small islands connected by mud banks at low tide, but separated by deep water when the tide came sweeping in at the speed of a mill race.
Yet another hazard was that on raids planned to last more than 24 hours, the minesweepers were obliged to return to Kyaukpyu after having brought us to the point where we took to the LAS Though the Japanese Army Air Force had virtually been driven from the skies there were still sneak raiders. A small craft at anchor, whose sole AA defense consisted of twin-mounted machine-guns, would have presented too easy a target Once ashore we were totally isolated with no hope either of reinforcement or escape in case of a major Japanese attack It is true that we were provided with radio sets, but unfortunately these were so unreliable that not once were we able to establish a link with divisional HQ.
The first raid, carried out by the Athens not altogether happy while at sea but in their element once they had landed, was eminently successful At least three supply carrying sampan convoys, two with Japanese escorts, were destroyed The Japanese were liquidated, but local paddlers allowed to escape so that they could spread exaggerated tales of considerable enemy’ forces far behind the front line
In the meantime the Sikhs, now commanded by Captain Boyd, a Hull business man in peacetime, supported a Commando landing at Kangaw on the mainland This proved to be much tougher than the Ramree operation no swimmer saves a company
While the Sikhs were taking a severe hammering, Captain Norman’s British company had a lucky escape Having landed just north of Taungup and blown up a bridge on the coastal road, they found their landing craft firmly embedded in the sand with the tide already on the ebb As there had been a slight revival of enemy air activity it was essential to be within sight of Ramree Island before dawn which precluded waiting for the next high tide The company owed its salvation to the fact that Ronald Norman was an exceptionally strong swimmer. Despite rumors of marauding sharks, he did not hesitate to swim out to the minesweeper and return with a life-line This, made fast the stranded landing craft, enabled the company to its way back, though a number came perilously near drowning. Being myself one of the latter, I can confirm that the generous measures of Shahjehanpur rum handed out once we were safely aboard, were more than appreciated
Five companies participated in our biggest single opera¬tion, its object to distract Japanese attention from the early stages of 26th Division’s push on Taungup the landings were planned to cover a wide area which included a number of small beaches clear of mangrove swamps and so suitable beach-heads for larger bodies of troops. This was an area about which the Japanese felt uneasy. Though no major defenses had been dug, aerial reconnaissance had spotted a string of small posts at key points. Thanks to RAF cooperation, we were able to land at five places on a mile front without being observed. From then on, for the four days the operation lasted, it was a question of adopting harrying tactics to give the impression that a major landing, or else a reconnaissance in force to probe the defenses was in progress Once the companies began to fan out they were involved in a number of clashes. The second night the Sikhs surprised and wiped out an observation post over¬looking one of the main chaungs.
Next day the Pathans took a wounded prisoner after a running fight. So rare an event provoked as much jubilation as if an entire battalion had been wiped out. Usually the Japanese fought to the death, and a wounded man preferred to put a bullet through his brain or blow his guts out with a grenade rather than endure the shattering disgrace of capture. I was even prepared to sacrifice one of my precious LCAs and a section to escort him back intact Unfortunately his wounds were so serious that our Medical Officer was unable to save him with the limited equipment at his disposal His death was the occasion of a little unconscious black humor on the part of Subedar Mian Gul who stared sadly at the body and said What a pity we couldn’t keep him alive’. I agreed, thinking of divisional HQ’s Intelligence branch. ‘Yes, Sahib’. Mian Gul went on, ‘I did want to ask him where he got his socks’.
On the last morning the British company came under fire from a solitary hill Always willing to accept a challenge, Ronald Norman who bore, and continued to bear a charmed life, led a charge up the slope, his second- in-command 20-year-old Lieutenant Claude Raymond, Royal Engineers, close on his heels Before they reached the Japanese position Raymond was hit in the shoulder by a rifle bullet. Seconds later, a grenade exploded in his face shattering his jaw In spite of these wounds he carried on, taking part in the short hand-to-hand struggle which ended with every Japanese being killed He then refused to embark on the LCA till the other wounded were on board, staying with the rear party in case a counter-attack should materialize. When at last he staggered to the LCA, his physical resistance had given out. He died before any form of medical attention could reach him. His gallantry earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Possibly as the result of these four days, the Japanese decided to abandon the coastal fringe and pull back into the foothills of the Arakan Yomas. as 26th Division s official history states, ‘a strong fighting patrol of the 7th Rajput Regiment forced Taungup chaung in the darkness and penetrated Taungup Not a shot was fired. Sole inhabitant of the town was the caretaker of the Government bungalow D’ Force remained attached to 26th Division for the climax of the 3j years of the Burma campaign, the seaborne attack to recapture the capital. Rangoon Opera¬tionally it was something of an anti-climax, for like Akyab the city fell without opposition A number of assault craft were blown up by mines in the estuary, but the only casualty of the actual landing was one man gored by a bull.
In June the companies were concentrated at Barasat. In July there was another move; this time to a camp outside Poona to await embarkation with the force designated for the planned invasion of Malaya and Singapore. It was there news was received of the dropping of the atom bombs followed by that of Japan’s surrender. The end of hostilities meant the end of ‘D’ Force. Pulled back to the Barasat depot at the end of August, it was eventually disbanded in February 1 946 after a short but eventful life of 28 months. It had participated in every major action in Burma since February 1944 Decorations included Claude Raymond’s posthumous VC, five Military Crosses, among these the Pathan Subedar Mian Gul and a Jet Jemadar (junior officer). Dip Chand, and four Indian Distinguished Service Medals, yet casualties had been miraculously light. It has its little niche in military history for it was unique, some¬thing indeed of a military freak, probably never to be repeated Patrick Turnbull
Note on ‘D’ Force Organization
In January 1944 there were two British and six Indian companies each commanded by a captain with one or two British subalterns and an Indian Jemadar. In April 1944 a further two Indian and in August another two British companies were added to the strength The company was 100 strong The standard weapon was the rifle but each company had 10 Bran gunners, 20 Tommy gunners (the Tommy guns were not, as in most units, later replaced by Stens) and three 2in mortars There was a generous allocation of transport though most movement was on foot In the largely amphibious Arakan operations of 1 945 there were experiments in 2-man landings, using the kayaks (canoes) normally supplied to the Special Boat Service. During its 19 months of active service D’ Force served mainly in Arakan working at various times with 5th, 7th and 25th Indian Divisions, but for the major period with 26th Indian (‘Tiger’) Division. The Sikh company was attached to the Commando Brigade for the Kangaw land¬ings. For the advance into Central Burma the Jet company was permanently assigned to 19th Indian ( Dagger ) Divi¬sion.