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A Battle in the Burma Campaign

Paungde 27th March 1942

by Lt-Col. C.E.K. Bagot, MC
(Back Badge 1946)

The Japanese Army in Burma resembled a large crab, whose large claws kept widely encircling the only lines of communications to India, in order to envelop and cut off our army in the rear, while its main body pushed relentlessly forward to devour the catch. The Burma Army, disorganised and exhausted after their heavy reverses and losses before the fall of Rangoon, needed to reach the suitably defensive terrain round Prome (165 miles from Rangoon) in good order, there to obtain reinforcements flown from India, to join up with the Chinese Army coming down from the north, and above all they needed time to rest and reorganise for battle again. To obtain these it was necessary to delay the advance of the enemy main body and to avoid encirclement by the claws. The 28th were the fittest and best equipped unit in the Army at that time, and therefore the most suitable.

While the main body of the army had only to keep an eye on the progress of the enemy's claws, the troops at the sharp end had two kinds of battle to fight. One in front to gain information and hamper the enemy's advance, and one to break out of the yellow belt which meanwhile was encircling them in rear. This process of fighting the enemy in front and rear was repeated by the 28th from Rangoon to Prome throughout the month of March 1942, without relief. Thus the Burma Army obtained respite from fighting, and the firm base to rally on which they so badly needed. To have achieved this task, to continue the process subsequently throughout the campaign, and still survive as a fighting unit, though weak in numbers, is a tribute to the tremendous fitness of all ranks, and to the value of tradition in what was a desperate campaign. Apart from patrol activities, which were day-to-day, the 28th successfully fought 5 distinct battles between 7th March and 30th March, each attended by different circumstances.

Paungde - 27th March 1942

26th March 1942 found us carrying out our normal roll about 15 miles south of Paungde, some 40 miles from Prome, to which the main body of our army had withdrawn. I received orders to withdraw to Paungde and remain for 24 hours, then withdraw a further 25 miles to Shwedaung. We were having a minor dispute with some Japanese patrols about midday and were following our usual practice of clearing our front before withdrawing, when I gave orders to "D" Company to withdraw to a locality half a mile west of the town of Paungde and to dispose themselves in an outpost position behind which I hoped to rest the Battalion. The Japanese advanced guard was located about 15 miles south of our position at 1600 hrs. I then ordered "B" Company and "A" Company to withdraw to a bivouac area in a wood 1 mile west of Paungde in rear of "D" Company's outpost. "C" Company, consisting of only 1 platoon, remained with me, covering the withdrawal, and completing certain demolitions. This was accomplished by midnight and at 0200 hrs on 27th March I reached the Battalion in bivouac feeling confident that we had left the enemy sufficiently far away to enable us to have some badly needed sleep and rest.

A column of Burma Frontier Force was under my command for the purpose of reconnaissance, and these kept certain small villages around Paungde under observation. We were desperately tired and our reserve supply of food had almost run out. Major A.V. Morton, my Second-in-Command, went on a journey to the rear in order to reconnoitre Shwedaung, and to contact Lieut. Grist our Quartermaster, who had gone foraging. I had a look round the Battalion before turning in. The picture of officers and men flat out under the trees in that still, bright moonlit morning, motionless in sleep, was a pathetic sight. I remembered thinking how defenceless they were at that moment, so far from the main body and protected only by a weak and equally tired outpost.

I was roused an hour later by Capt. Dillon, who informed me that a Burma Frontier Force man had come in and stated that thousands of Japanese had wiped out his column, he was the only survivor, and that the Japs were now entering Paungde. I could not believe this, if true, it must be a new enemy force coming in from the south-west. I ordered Capt. Johnson (commanding the outpost) to investigate this report. Two hours later (about 0630 hrs) he returned limping and reported that his patrol had come under fire from rifles and machine guns in the town, losing 1 man killed. I ordered breakfast as soon as possible and warned the Battalion to be ready to advance shortly after 0800 hrs. Proceeding myself to the outpost with the Carrier Platoon and Mortar Platoon, I placed these north of the road in such cover as we could find amongst the rice mills and low banks of the paddyfields.

Whilst we were making these dispositions the enemy opened up with quite considerable small-arms fire and mortars. We immediately counter-attacked with fire and after 10 minutes duel the enemy ceased fire. It was then about 0815 hrs. "A" and "B" Companies were embussing preparatory to going into battle, when a vehicle carrying a flag drove out of Paungde coming towards us along the road. It appeared to me to be a red cross flag and I ordered the guns to hold fire. It drove at a fast speed, however, and at the moment when we recognised the Japanese flag, firing from 3 machine guns opened up on us from the vehicle at close range. They were immediately enveloped in a hail of lead from "D" Company and the truck was brought to a standstill. Two Japanese officers were killed and 1 officer and 1 other rank seriously wounded; the latter, with the flag, were sent back to our Divison HQ, but died before reaching there.

Our Carrier and Mortar Platoons opened up with covering fire on to the edge of the wood bordering Paungde. Under this fire "A" and "B" Companies drove practically into the arms of the Japanese about 200 yards from the town and deployed immediately, "A" Coy. to the north of the road and "B" on the south, and advanced quickly into the town. Fighting became general and the enemy were driven from house to house. After the first grenade was thrown into a house, Molotov cocktails were thrown in, and the remaining enemy snipers left to burn. Two columns of refugees appeared, coming out from the town on both our flanks. I sent the Burma Frontier Force Column to investigate the refugee columns. As I suspected they contained a number of armed Japanese dressed in civilian clothes. On the approach of the patrols they broke and ran back to Paungde; some were shot, but many escaped. By 1130 hrs I had a pretty accurate picture of the strength of the enemy forces. There were 2 battalions in the town and I observed an enemy column, estimated about 2,000 strong, moving out from the northern end of the town. They were being kept away by fire from the left Platoon of "D" Company, supported by Carrier and Mortar fire. This force posed a grave menace and I appreciated that the time had come to break off the battle. Having made my report by wireless, I ordered "A" and "B" Companies to break off the fight and withdraw to their original bivouac area. I observed some movement in an isolated copse to the right of "B" Coy. Taking Major Donald (Burma Civil Police Officer attached to my command) and a few men with me we proceeded to investigate. As we appraoched, some enemy left the copse and headed back into the town. We saw a detachment mounting a field gun about 1000 yards away. Our Mortar Officer, Capt. Christensen, was informed. He immediatley drove one of the vehicles on which the mortars were mounted to a position from which he could engage the gun. The Japanese gunners fired 2 rounds at us, but before he could fire a 3rd a direct hit from our mortars put paid to their activities.

About half an hour later "A" and "B" Companies had withdrawn and I withdrew "D" Coy., covered by fire from our mortars, machine guns and carriers. Meanwhile, Major Victor Morton and Capt. Grist had returned and had a meal brewing in the wood behind us. I sent a message to Victor to go back and reconnitre a defensive position covering Padigon, 5 miles north-east and to take the admin. elemenst of the Battalion with him. "D" Coy. were sent straight back to Padigon, while "A" and "B" Coys. had some food prior to withdrawing. The enemy were observed to be advancing towards us from Paungde. We opened fire with our Breda gun and our carriers, and they scuttled back to the cover of the town once more. At 1400 hrs I withdrew "A" and "B" Coys. to defensive positions, with "C" Coy. protecting the left flank at Padigon.

At 1700 hrs to my great relief the 28th were safely in their defensive position and ready to take on the enemy in the next phase of this operation, which commenced at 0400 hrs the next morning. An hour later I received instructions to hold the enemy at all cost pending the arrival of an armoured striking force which was to counter-attack the next day.

A few incidents during the battle: there was a private soldier who as his section was assaulting a house, spotted 3 Japs getting into a firing position behind them. Leaving his section, he turned and slaughtered them alone with his Bren gun. There was a private who during the withdrawal missed his platoon commander, and went back alone among the enemy to look for him. Finding him badly wounded, he carried him all the way back, but he died on the way. There was the company commander who staked his faith in a 12-bore shot gun, and after using up all his shot, exchanged it with a Jap for his rifle. There was the corporal who delivered my withdrawal order to one of the companies, in spite of having had his arm shot off en route.

It was a battle in which the enemy held most of the cards and great risks had to be taken. For the first time, armed Burmans in uniform fought against the Japs. Their lack of fighting skills resulted in a very heavy loss for them. The Japs were not used to the kind of offensive action handed out by the 28th. Never in peace or war had I ever seen a battalion operate with such precision, determination, and such perfect fire and movement co-operation as did the 28th on this occasion.