The Forgotten Army: West African Troops in Burma, 1945

Content note: this blog draws on contemporary sources which contain terms for Japanese people now considered offensive. The author has expanded these derogatory shortenings in his quotes from the material.

Map showing Japanese positions in Burma in 1944.
Map showing Japanese positions in Burma, 1944. Catalogue ref: MPI 1/569

The ‘Forgotten Army’

They have been called the ‘Forgotten Army’ – the British Fourteenth Army who, in 1944 and 1945, fought a brutal and gruelling war in the jungles of Burma (now Myanmar) but who largely went uncelebrated in Britain. This was partly because, as my colleague Katherine has pointed out, even in 1945 the Ministry of Information found that only around half the population had a basic grasp of the situation of the war in Asia.

The Fourteenth Army’s contribution to the defeat of the Japanese war machine has received some recognition in recent months due to it counting Captain Sir Tom Moore as one its veterans, him having served in the 146th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps.

But the Fourteenth Army is also noteworthy for its truly international make up and size: over a million men in 1945, drawn from every corner of the Commonwealth. There were many Indian and Australian units in the Army but also soldiers from three African divisions: the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions, and 11th (East Africa) Division.

In this blog I would like to focus on the bravery and contribution of the men of the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions, particularly the men of the 2nd West African Infantry Brigade as they sought to assist the taking of Southern Burma from the Japanese, one hill at a time, in brutal close quarters fighting in early 1945.

I’d like to focus too on how these men received the news that they would not have to fight again, as VJ Day was announced while they were in their rainy season quarters.

Black and white photograph of Rangoon (now Yangon), capital of Burma (until 2006) taken before Japanese occupation in 1942.
Photograph of Rangoon (now Yangon), capital of Burma (until 2006) taken before Japanese occupation in 1942. Catalogue ref: WO 252/34

The Fourteenth Army and the 1944-45 Burma campaign

The Burma campaign was one of the longest in the Second World War – in part because the Burmese rainy season, which runs from May to October, made fighting sustained actions impossible for much of the year, but also because of the dense vegetation which covered much of this theatre of war.

Japanese forces had captured Burma in 1942, causing the British administration there to flee to India. A new government had been installed that was sympathetic to the Japanese. Japanese forces and their allies had fended off Allied offensives in 1943, and at the beginning of 1944 they decided that attack was the best form of defence and launched a disastrous attack towards India. In the 1944-45 campaigning season the British and their Commonwealth, American and Chinese allies were determined to recapture Burma.

As the rains ceased in late 1944, the offensive began. XV Corps, which included the 2nd West African Brigade, were involved in the invasion of the coastal Arakan region (now Rakhine State).

2nd West African Brigade

From December 1944 the 2nd Brigade, part of the 82nd West African Division, was engaged in fighting across the coastal Arakan region, heading towards the area around Taungup (Toungup).

Their war diaries, held by The National Archives (WO 172/9572), give us an idea of the ever present danger of enemy attack in the region’s dense terrain, where the fronts of the brigade and its adversaries from the Japanese 54th Division were so close together and shifting.

The diaries show how the supply and communication lines of the brigade were continuously strained and under threat. In March the diary records that roving Japanese patrols sought to ‘all day cut our Lines of Communication’.

War diary entry of 2nd West African Brigade HQ for 18 March 1945, detailing the delivery of fresh bread via air drop.
War diary of 2nd West African Brigade HQ for 18 March 1945, detailing the delivery of fresh bread via air drop. Catalogue ref: WO 172/9572

Also clear is how the remote location of the unit made getting enough rations and medical attention for the troops tricky – the diary often indicates that the Japanese troops made efforts to disrupt food supply drops by Allied plans (which was how much of the Fourteenth Army received its supplies).

On 15 March, after a week of heavy fighting attempting to take the road to Taungup, the officer writing the diary is pleased to note that despite ‘the Japanese still sitting on our doorstep…15 “grocery” planes delivered the goods and we had excellent bread for the first time for three weeks’. Casualties in the brigade’s field hospital were around 200 though, he noted, a sign of the toll that the near constant fighting in early March had taken.

So intense was the fighting that not even the brigade’s senior officers within their headquarters were any safer than their troops. The diary records how, on the 15 March 1945, the HQ was hit by Japanese shelling, killing three men and injuring the Commanding Officer Brigadier E Western, who had to be relieved of his duties.

What is striking about the brigade’s diary, and that of one of its units, the 3rd Gold Coast Regiment (WO 172/9625), is how often the ambush took the form of near point-blank ambush, and descended into hand-to-hand combat.

On the 7 March 1945 the 3rd Gold Coast Regiment was involved in particularly heavy fighting on what the brigade diary called a ‘great day’. Ambushed by three 105mm artillery guns at 200 yards (183 metres) range, eight men from D Company were killed and another 10 wounded.

War diary entry of 3rd Gold Coast Regiment for 7 March 1945, detailing the battalion's capture of three Japanese guns.
War diary of 3rd Gold Coast Regiment for 7 March 1945, detailing the battalion’s capture of three Japanese guns. Catalogue ref: WO 172/9265

The Company responded by launching a rapid charge of two platoons, led by a Lieutenant Heffer. The speed and ferocity of this counter attack was ‘completely successful’, the Japanese gun crews fleeing from the advancing Gold Coasters. Heffer and his men made good their work, destroying the guns by putting grenades down the barrels. But this rudimentary decommissioning was not without cost, as Heffer lost his right hand from the grenade blast.

The evening before in the same operation, the Gold Coasters had also been involved in achieving what was thought to be a first in the 1944-45 Arakan campaign – the capture of a Japanese tank. The diaries of the 3rd Gold Coast Regiment and the Brigade HQ tell how, having moved further up the road they were tasked with controlling, the men of the 4th Field Company West African Engineers laid anti-tank mines across the road to prevent a Japanese counter-attack.

They were prescient, as two tanks advanced towards them that evening. The first of these drove over a mine and was immobilised. Men from the 3rd Gold Coasters then advanced to strafe and grenade the tank, nearly completely destroying it.

West African honours

The bravery of the West African soldiers is evident from their war diaries, but The National Archives also holds records of individuals being honoured for great feats of courage.

Document showing recommendation of Agure Grunshi for Military Medal, 1945.
Recommendation of Agure Grunshi for Military Medal, 1945. Catalogue ref: WO 373/40/140

WO 373/40/140 contains the recommendation for a Military Medal awarded to Corporal Agure Grunshi of the 82nd (West African) Reconnaissance Regiment, part of the 82nd West African Division. In February 1945 during the Arakan campaign, Grunshi saved several of his comrades’ lives when they were attacked on patrol and jumped into a deep river while wearing full equipment to try to escape. He removed his equipment and saved six of eight men from drowning, all under sustained enemy fire.

Corporal Musa Banana, again of the 82nd Reconnaissance Regiment, received a Military Medal for his actions also during the Arakan campaign. On 23 February Banana’s unit was on patrol when it was attacked from both sides and the rear. Together with his patrol sergeant, IS Nupe, Banana took turns charging a Japanese machine gun position to try to relieve his unit (WO 373/40/139).

Document showing recommendation for Musa Banana for the Military Medal, 1945.
Recommendation for Musa Banana for the Military Medal, 1945. Catalogue ref: WO 373/40/139

At one point Banana ‘rushed through a shower of Japanese grenades and planted his own grenade in the midst of a party of Japanese, killing two and wounding others’. Despite in the course of this attack being wounded himself by grenade splinters, Banana continued to work through the night, until he and his comrades could retreat in an orderly fashion. His ‘leadership, endurance and disregard for personal danger’ were deemed ‘worthy of the highest commendation’.

‘Rumours of Japanese surrender were current and feeling was high’

The 2nd West African Brigade began withdrawing from active combat zones towards the end of March; after some reorganisation they focused principally on digging in and constructing their quarters for the rainy season (there is some talk on how well the gutters are holding up).

The brigade, and indeed the army, were preparing too for a resumption of fighting in the autumn, but they were given a reprieve by the end of the war on 15 August. The brigade’s diary betrays the officer writing’s anxiety for the end of the war. On 10 August it is noted that feeling around the possibility of a cessation of hostilities was running high. News among the troops in Burma on 11 August was ‘persistent and it seemed the end could not be long delayed’ – by this point the Japanese government had indicated its intention to surrender, but we cannot determine how much news had reached these troops, especially as on the 12th the officer records that the unit ‘still awaited’ news on the terms. However on the 15th the brigade received the news they hoped for. The day was ‘spent very quiet’, with the African troops ‘holding a Wassa’ in the evening 1.

The rest of the diary for August records the activities of soldiers no longer fixated by the concerns of war – thanksgiving services and sports days. The men of the brigade, transported from Ghana to the Burmese jungle to fight a war not of their making, must have been relieved that they would not have to fight again – it was the contributions and sacrifices of this truly global Forgotten Army that in part had made this peace possible. 

Notes:

  1. Despite researching, the author has been unable to determine exactly what kind of event a Wassa is. Any comments or suggestions are welcomed.

14 comments

  1. PeterTx52 says:

    “this blog draws on contemporary sources which contain terms for Japanese people now considered offensive. ”
    no need to apologize. anyone who is knowledgeable about WW2 would know that such terms were used.

    dont succumb to historic presentism

  2. David says:

    A very interesting read, in particular reflecting on how the action in Burma affected events elsewhere. It’s sad that Burma is still a place of conflict today. However I don’t think historical records should be censored in the name of political correctness.

  3. Warwick says:

    What on earth were West African subjects of a European imperial power doing fighting to defend and restore that empire’s dominion in SE Asia ?

  4. David Horsley says:

    Many West Africans were comfortable with their British Empire status: Although I am personally most familiar with Sierra Leone, it was true perhaps to a lesser degree in Ghana and Nigeria.
    Especially in SL the British were seen as liberators, ending the slave trade, and the climate there greatly restricted the number of British Imperialists keen to seek meagre gains at high risk of disease and death (fortunately diamonds had not yet been discovered.) Every office in the Sierra Leone Administration had been at least once occupied by a black individual with the sole exception of Leader of the Armed Forces. There was some racism, but always with widespread opposition except in the upper ranks of the army, and even there not vaguely resembling attitudes among Nazis and in Japan.
    My own steward, Pa Dauda had fought in Burma with the King’s West African Rifles, and was proud of his career and highly held in our small town on that account.
    I should perhaps say that I was there ten years after independence as a teacher in a school which had only one white (Lebanese) pupil and about 3 white teachers in a staff of 24 under an excellent black headmaster who took his chemistry degree in Hull.

  5. Hannah says:

    This is such an interesting read as my grandad was part of the Australian army in this conflict. He died a few years before I was born and wouldn’t speak of what he had seen to my mum so we know very little.

  6. David Matthew says:

    There has been a lack of information generally in history (except “The World at War Series” on Thames TV) on the campaign and without the efforts of the RAF in dropping supplies which was critical to the campaign. I agree that censoring historical documents because of political correctness is wrong. The reason troops from over the Commonwealth fought for the ‘British Empire’ was it was seen as protecting ‘the Motherland’, just like ANZAC troops and the Canadians for example fought with Britain during the First World War.

    The “World at War” episode on the Far East is very good, even after 45 years and is based on first hand accounts and Government documents which had recently been released in 1972.

  7. Mike says:

    Responding to Warwick, they were serving the British Empire, the biggest Empire the world has ever known. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth’s total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. (Google)
    Unfashionable and unacceptable as that might be in the 21st century, there were many from all over the world who were proud and keen to serve the Empire wherever they could and many paid with their lives, including in Burma.

  8. Mike says:

    The other reason Warwick, other than a sense of pride and duty to the British Empire, was that joining the Army offered a small wage and a square meal daily to young men from poor families. This also carried the risk of serving many miles from home and actually going into battle and dying.

  9. Susan Kolu says:

    Let’s remember all the brave men who were part of the ‘forgotten army’ fighting in Burma. My dad was with the Argylls & Sutherland Highlanders in Scotland and volunteered to go to Burma. He was sent to Nigeria where he was assigned to the West African 82nd Division and then shipped to India. From there the 82nd fought their way down to the Arakan in Burma and were instrumental defeating the Japanese.
    The fighting in Burma was pure jungle warfare and these brave men suffered from so many diseases, tremendous heat, monsoons and a hidden enemy. The soldiers who became prisoners of war were treated worse than animals and suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of the Japanese.
    Those who returned home hardly spoke of the horrors they encountered and suffered for the rest of their lives. Dad came home all of 95lbs of him with malaria and beri beri and had horrific nightmares for the rest of his life. Let us never forget these brave men.

  10. Martin Staunton says:

    African troops in particular were felt to have more of an immunity to the effects of malaria prevalant in the theatre. West Africans in particular may also have been perceived as being well suited to Jungle warfare. The 2 West African Divisions (81st and 82nd) had a unique supply system based on human porters and as such were well suited to the extreme terrain of Burma – the inclusion of the 3rd West African Brigade (3 battalions of the Nigeria Regiment) amongst the 6 Chindit Brigades should not be underestimated. The remaining 5 W.A. Brigades saw service in the Arakan inland from the coastal region of Burma. By way of background, W. African troops had already seen service in E. Africa in 1940-41. One legacy of this is the naming of the El-Wak Military Barracks in Accra, Ghana after a Kenyan border town recaptured from the Italians end 1940. Post war agitation by WW2 veterans there were also arguably part of a movement which ultimately sought independance for Ghana, the first such nation from the British Empire in Africa….

  11. Catherine Norman says:

    Thank you for this research <My father was an officer with the West African soldiers . He would not talk about his war but this kind of information shows me that his war in Burma was more eventful than he ever admitted .

  12. Ian Geary says:

    In the days of the WW1 and WW2 the Empire was a stabilizing force to millions of peoples and they looked to it as their government. You must not forget the benefits to them of an organized society where they could at least feel part of a grand organisation albeit that was using them. In return they fought for the Crown, very bravely . Sadly of course, after the Empire went chaos often came into its place and I wonder how many , if any, missed the days of the Empire?

  13. René Chartrand says:

    Very interesting and rather unexpected indeed. On the pertinence of some people in the “British Empire and its Commonwealth” (as Churchill put it) rallying to defend it, there were excellent reasons. Recalling that people in the British realm were not of the Germanic Aryan “Master Race” nor had the Japanese ethnic superiority complex must be considered. Thus, many in the Empire and Commonwealth obviously made the decision that they were better off helping the Allies win the war. In the millions that volunteered, I can add my own French-Canadian nationalist father who joined the British Royal Air Force. Many years later, when I asked him why the British rather than the Canadian forces, he first answered that if he was going to be commanded “by the English, it would be the real English” and not English Canadians, adding that, most of all, “something had to be done about Hitler.”

  14. James Stirling says:

    My father, Captain Evan Stirling, RAMC, served in the 5th West African Field Ambulance from March 1945,supporting the 8 1st and 8 2nd West African divisions fighting the Japanese in Burma
    My recent application for a Burma Star medal has been rejected as I am having difficulty proving the Field Ambulance served in Assam or Bengal to qualify for the award
    His close association with the West African troops continued till the end of the war there and he was MO on one of the ships which repatriated these troops to Gold Coast and Nigeria in late 1945/early 1946
    He was based in Lagos working as a Doctor waiting to be demobilised in September 1946,but was sadly killed in a services air crash in Nigeria in June 1946
    Any further information about the 5th Field Ambulance service in India would be most welcome in order to appeal the rejection of the award of a Burma Star

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