The 28th at Letpadan, 19th March 1942
(Back Badge 1948)
Letpadan was a small town some 88 miles from Rangoon, on the withdrawal route of the Burma Army to Prome. It marked the end of the dense jungle country through which we had passed throughout our withdrawal from Rangoon. Letpadan has acquired some historical importance too. In General Alexander's report, he writes: "The only engagement of any note was an attack by the 1st Glosters, supported by tanks, against a force of Japanese and traitor Burmans at Letpadan on 19th March. This attack was successful in capturing the town and inflicting losses on the enemy."
In fact, the town was entered by the Japanese vanguard (60 sappers and 300 infantry according to a captured Japanese order) at 0400 hrs on 19th March and driven out by less than 200 Glosters by 0930 hrs the same morning, Without the support of tanks or any supporting arms which were not part of the Battalion.
On 15th March I was ordered to move from Tharrawaddy to cover the withdrawal by train of the 46th Indian Infantry Brigade and on completion to move to Orthegon, 15 miles north of Letpadan. I selected "D" Coy. (Capt. R. Johnson) to carry out the operation of hitting the enemy, and with "A" and "B" Coys. scoured the country on a wide front. "D" Coy. were kept back, and sent M.T. on reconnaissance duties to Letpadan.
On 16th March I was instructed about the next move backwards of the 17th Division to commence on the 20th. I sent Major A. Donald (Burma Police, attached to the 28th) off on a special mission. After 24 hours he returned and informed me that the Jap advanced guard was resting 8 miles south of Letpadan and were due to arrive in the town at 0200 hrs on the 17th March. Local inhabitants had returned to the town and were preparing a big civic reception for the Japs. I passed this information to the Commander, 17th Division, with the comment that the 28th were preparing an even bigger reception for the Japs.
About 1600 hrs on 17th March Major Donald reported to me, and at 1830 hrs I sent him to Letpadan with a section of "C" Coy. and 2 MG carriers, to turn all the people into their houses and forbid them to leave. An hour later, during darkness, "D" Coy. took up positions from which they prepared to ambush the enemy entering the town. The enemy never turned up and the troops were withdrawn at daybreak, very disappointed.
The operation was repeated the next night, with the same result. It was now clear that we had been given away and the enemy were waiting for us to clear out. I sent a daylight patrol of the Burma Frontier Force into Letpadan and informed them that we would be withdrawing 20 miles that night, ordering them to start withdrawing at 1900 hrs. Late in the afternoon we made preparations to withdraw, and I moved a number of our vehicles back a few miles. From then on, everything went like a picnic. At about 2000 hrs the B.F.F. patrol came back and we saw bonfires being lit at Letpadan. This was the traitor Burmans letting the Japs know that we had cleared out. I sent a B.F.F. patrol, under cover of darness, to watch the approaches to Letpadan. About 0200 hrs on the 19th they returned to report that a party of 50 Japs had crossed the river, but followed the river to the north-east, instead of entering the town. This was unexpected and annoying. I ordered "D" Coy. with all supporting MGs and mortars available, up to Sitkwin. Thence a patrol was to proceed east to Sidon Ashe to locate the enemy party. At the same time I sent an officer's patrol to watch the entrance to Letpadan.
At about 0400 hrs a report from my officer's patrol announced that several hundred enemy, with pack mules, were entering the town. The plan was to send Lieut. Sibley's platoon down the main road, on the eastern side, on the assumption that he would be taken for a patrol, in order to create a diversion, while the main striking force slipped down the western route, which was better covered by natural features, and attack the town from the rear.
As daylight approached, Sibley's platoon reached a copse, about half mile from the town, debussed and advanced on foot, when a Jap dawn patrol, coming out from the town, met them and got shot up. The survivors scuttled back to the cover of houses. After some further exchanges, Sibly advanced to a copse from which some enemy were firing at them, the enemy withdrawing. After about half an hour, firing opened up in their rear and it was evident that an attack was being made on their transport. Sibley was in a dilemma. He had to secure his transport. He ordered Sergt. Biggs, with one section, to hold the front, while he returned with the rest of the platoon to save his transport. He saved the lorries and ordered them back to HQ and then took positions to cover the withdrawal of Sergt. Biggs' section. Two enemy platoons attacked from the jungle on the east and cut off Sergt. Biggs' section. They held their position for an hour and I sent a message to Sibly to withdraw to HQ.
Meanwhile the remainder of "D" Coy. under Capt. Richard Johnson, supported by medium mortars mounted on armoured cars, under "Crusty" Christensen, and 4 medium MGs in carriers under "Lakri" Wood, assembled, unnoticed. Crusty let fly 120 mortar bombs among the buildings in under a minute, while machine guns from the right flank dusted the nearest houses and school. Richard Johnson and his Company HQ struck out for the school, with 2 platoons entering the town on either side. The mortars lifted their fire and the MG carriers moved down the right flank, catching the Japs scurrying across the open for the jungle.
As Johson reached the school building the Japs came to life and opened fire. A bomb was thrown into the building and chaos broke out inside. Those who rushed for the door were met by CSM Jones at the entrance, who had a Bren gun, pumping it fast; others tried to jump out of the 2nd-storey windows but were met by the platoon orderlies and batmen with bayonets pointed upwards. The annihilation of an enemy platoon by a Company HQ must be an almost unique event!
The platoons on either side of the road were having similar success, the Japanese reaction was quite hysterical. The majority, half-dressed, made for the jungle. A few sections tried to put up some resistance, but were borne down and bayoneted. In their enthusiasm I feared that the men would follow the Japs into the jungle and so I called them off and withdrew to Sitkwin at 1030 hrs, where Sibley reported to me that Sergt. Biggs' section was missing. A patrol was sent to search for them but without effect.
About 1600 hrs 4 tanks arrived and I sent "A" Coy (Major Ladds) to search the villages in the area. After 3 hours, no enemy was found, and I sent the tanks back to the Division.
What happened to Sergt. Biggs and his gallant men was related to me after the war. Having held off the enemy, Sergt. Biggs found himself being attacked both front and rear, no unusual situation for the 28th, which he proceeded to deal with in traditional fashion, although greatly outnumbered. Sending L/Cpl. Smith with Pte Winstone and Cpl. Rogers with Pte Hall with bren guns to positions on his flanks to deal with Japs trying to encircle his position, he engaged the enemy attacking in front. At the same time Cpl. E. George, Ptes J.E. Reed, T.G. Pettit, and L.H.J. Osborne moved into a position to meet the enemy attacking their rear. After causing a number of casualties to the enemy, Ptes Reed and Pettit were killed. The enemy then brought mortars to bear on the section, Cpl. George and Pte Osborne being killed and Sergt. Biggs and 3 others wounded.
Sergt. Biggs now decided to try and reach the river on his left and get the remnants of his section away to rejoin the platoon. He almost reached the river when he was confronted by another group of the enemy coming up from the river. There being a ruined house nearby, they got inside, and there, surrounded on all sides, ammunition running out, and most of them wounded, they made their final stand until overpowered. It is gratifying to know that all but one recovered from their wounds and survived captivity, eventually returning safely.
The success of the 28th at Letpadan depended in a large measure on the manner in which Lieut. Sibley's platoon carried out the dangerous task assigned to them.
When discussing the day's events with some of the men afterwards, I commented on the fact that while there was a great deal of firing at almost point blank range during the assault, only one of our men was hit. One man seemed to have the right answer: :The trouble with them is that they never close the disengaged eye."
We maintained patrols in Letpadan for a further week. Thus the enemy advance was considerably delayed, and, in fact, we were never pressed by their advance guard for the remainder of the campaign.
The following messages were received from GOC in Burma and from Commander 17th Division:
"Heartiest congratulations on splendid operation at Letpadan. Congratulate Company Commander from me personally." - General Alexander to Colonel Bagot.
"My heartiest congratulations to you and all ranks. A splendid show and just what I wanted. You set a fine example of enterprise and proved that we can defeat the Jap at his own game. Chief was delighted." - Cowan (Divisional Commander).