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