As discussed in the last part of this series of articles, I’m presently looking at the British and Indian armoured units that fought in the Burma Campaign of World War 2. In the last article I looked at the British 7th Armoured Brigade, which fought to delay the Japanese advance into Burma during 1942, then the 50th Indian Tank Brigade, which after having a difficult ‘birth’ in the 1st Arakan Campaign of 1942/43, went on to provide armoured units to XXXIII Corps for the relief of Kohima and Imphal in 1944 and then to support operations by XV Corps to finally drive the Japanese out the Arakan in 1944/45.
This time I’ll be looking at the XV Corps Armoured Group and specifically the 25th Dragoons, who gave the Japanese their first real bloody nose in Burma.
XV Corps Armoured Group
Following the defeat of the 1st Arakan Campaign of early 1943, Lieutenant General Bill Slim‘s XV Corps immediately began the process of learning the lessons of the campaign, re-training and planning a renewed offensive. With the elevation of Slim to command the new XIVth Army later that year, command of XV Corps passed to Lieutenant General Phillip Christison, who continued Slim’s good work in hardening the army for jungle warfare and also developed Slim’s plan for a new Arakan offensive, with the limited objective of recapturing Akyab Island and its all-weather airfield and port.
The XV Corps plan was for the 5th Indian Division to attack down the Arakan coast, with the Mayu mountain ‘spine’ on their left. On the other side of the mountains, 7th Indian Division would attack down the Kalapanzin Valley. On the extreme left flank, the 81st (West African) Division would use it’s ultra-light capability to penetrate the dense jungle of the Kaladan Valley and guard against any Japanese attack from that direction. The 26th Indian Division would be in reserve at Chittagong, with the & 36th Indian Division in deep reserve at Calcutta. Elements of these divisions, along with elements of 3 Special Service Brigade, would be made available to mount amphibious attacks along the coast.
With the 50th Indian Tank Brigade having been withdrawn to India in 1943 to re-train for Operation ZIPPER, XV Corps was lacking an significant armoured capability. It had some light armoured recce capability in the form of the Mechanised Wing of the 3rd Gwalior Lancers and the 81st (West African) Recce Regiment, but what XV Corps needed was a full regiment of medium tanks armed with 75mm guns that would be capable of destroying the types of bunkers that had been encountered during the previous Arakan Campaign. Slim therefore ordered 254th Indian Tank Brigade to transfer one of its two Lee medium tank-equipped armoured regiments to XV Corps. The regiment selected was the 25th Dragoons, which was a new regiment, having been raised in India in 1941 from a cadre of the 3rd Carabiniers. They were moved with the utmost secrecy to the Arakan.
Some peculiarities of the 25th Dragoons’ organisation were that the Recce Troop (referred to as the ‘Scout Troop’ in most accounts) consisted of Universal Carriers and Jeeps instead of armoured wheeled scout cars. The Intercom Troop however, included four Lynx Scout Cars (Canadian Ford version of the ubiquitous Daimler Dingo). As soon as Japanese counter-attacks became apparent on 4th February, an ad hoc reserve squadron was created from spare tanks and personnel in the regimental rear-echelon area. This unit, designated as ‘R’ Squadron, was placed temporarily under the command of 5th Indian Division (the rest of the regiment at that time was with 7th Indian Division). Unfortunately I have no information as to the strength of ‘R’ Squadron.
Owing to the secrecy of their move (not only to conceal the fact that tanks were being moved to the Arakan, but also to conceal which units were on the move), all markings were ordered removed from the vehicles of the 25th Dragoons. Hardly any photos of 25th Dragoons’ tanks show markings of any kind, not even squadron markings. However, some bore individual tank names, which were usually painted in white above or near the top of the side-doors or front-quarter and sometimes at the top of the glacis, and occasionally a number on the upper glacis, being perhaps a troop number or individual tank number.
A tank regiment couldn’t survive in isolation and was going to need a lot of support from other arms, so ‘A’ Company of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Bombay Grenadiers (Motor Battalion) was assigned to provide close infantry support. The Motor Company organisation was large, with four platoons, each of three sections. This allowed a platoon to be assigned to provide close security for each of the armoured regiment’s four squadrons. A troop of the 401st Field Squadron, Royal Bombay Sappers & Miners, along with an independent troop of 6x Valentine Bridgelayers would ensure that roads, tracks and bridges in the area of operations were capable of dealing with 30-ton tanks. The Engineer Field Troop included some Universal Carriers for engineer recce tasks (e.g. going forward to survey routes, bridges, harbour areas, etc).
There was no Armoured Brigade Headquarters within XV Corps, so in January 1944 an ad hoc Armoured Group Headquarters was created under Colonel S. H. ‘Atte’ Persse of the Indian Armoured Corps (who had earlier been directly tasked by Slim to get the 25th Dragoons, plus support to the Arakan) to take control of the growing number of RAC/IAC units and their supporters.
As mentioned above, the only ‘armoured’ unit initially under the command of XV Corps Headquarters was the Mechanised Wing of the 3rd Gwalior Lancers. This regiment belonged to the ‘Indian States Forces’ (ISF), which were units raised by the myriad of quasi-independent ‘Princely states’ and seconded to the Indian Army. The Mechanised Wing comprised two squadrons of Universal Carriers. The regiment’s Horsed Wing, comprising two squadrons of the very last horse-mounted cavalry in Commonwealth service, was assigned to 7th Indian Division as their divisional recce element.
I’ve got very little exact information on the organisation, uniforms or markings for 3rd Gwalior Lancers, though as the Corps Recce Regiment their vehicles should have carried the XV Corps badge shown above, which was three ‘V’s on a red disc. The Vs represent a corps of three divisions advancing south and when added together as roman numerals add up to 15. The Vs could be white or black – both are seen in photos. The Arm-of-Service (AoS) sign should have been a green-over-light blue square, with ’44’ serial and a white bar across the top to signify corps troops, with white squadron signs signifying an unbrigaded regiment. I doubt that these were painted on the horses’ arses however, but never say never…
As the 81st (West African) Division had been sent to the dense jungle of the Kaladan Valley, the division’s heavier elements were largely left behind with XV Corps. 81 WA Recce Regiment was therefore adopted to supplement the 3rd Gwalior Lancers in the Corps Recce role. The regiment comprised three squadrons; ‘A’ Squadron being Nigerian, ‘B’ Squadron being from the Gold Coast and ‘C’ Squadron from Sierra Leone.
Each Squadron had two mixed Recce Troops with Universal Carriers and ‘armoured scout cars’ of an unknown type (probably Dingos) and two Assault Troops, being large motorised infantry platoons, with four rifle sections apiece. The HQ Squadron also included a 3-inch Mortar Troop transported by Universal Carriers.
The men of 81 WA Recce Regt unusually continued to wear KD uniforms through the first half of 1944 and generally wore steel helmets. By contrast, the rest of 81 WA Division in the Kaladan Valley left their helmets in depot, wore bush-hats and began to receive JG uniforms (by air-drop) in January 1944. 81 WA Recce Regt’s vehicles were marked with the divisional sign of Ananse, the cunning spider of West African legend, depicted in black with two white eyes, facing downward on a yellow background. The yellow background was usually square when painted on vehicles, though circular when worn as a uniform badge and there is a photo of an 81 WA Recce Regt Carrier with the circular version painted on the side of the barbette (between the headlight and the Bren-port). The AoS sign was that of an infantry division recce regiment; green-over-light blue with ’41’ serial. Squadron signs were white.
As mentioned in the last article, ‘C’ Squadron 149th RAC was temporarily attached from 50th Indian Tank Brigade and was a late addition to the XV Corps Armoured Group, arriving in April 1944 to replace the departing 25th Dragoons and being withdrawn the following month to rejoin its parent regiment at Kohima. The squadron was equipped with Sherman V medium tanks and as such, was the first Sherman unit to fight in the Burma Campaign.
XV Corps slowly built up the pressure on the Japanese 55th Division in the Mayu Peninsula through November and December 1943 into January 1944. 81st (West African) Division had crossed over the mountains into the Kaladan Valley, where it was steadily advancing on Kyauktaw, meeting only light resistance, building roads and airstrips as it went. 7th Indian Division by contrast, was meeting stiff resistance in the Kalapanzin Valley, though was making reasonable progress. 5th Indian Division advanced down the western side of the Mayu Range until it reached the Maungdaw-Buthindaung road, facing the ‘Razabil Fortress’ which had proved to be an insurmountable obstacle 12 months previously. During this period, the 81st West African Recce Regt had one squadron guarding the Naf Peninsula west of the Naf river, while the rest of the regiment patrolled the western side of the Mayu Range from Maungdaw to Bawli Bazaar, watching for Japanese infiltration in concert with covert recce parties from ‘Z Force’. The 3rd Gwalior Lancers did likewise east of the Mayu Range, with some patrols east of the Kalapanzin River.
On 26th January 1944, 5th Indian Division launched Operation JONATHAN; a deliberate assault on the Razabil Fortress. The assault started with a dawn bombardment by the Allied Strategic Air Force, followed by wings of RAF and IAF Vengeance dive-bombers and a heavy barrage by 5th Division and XV Corps artillery, concentrating mainly on the fortified hilltop known as ‘TORTOISE’. Unfortunately, while the Liberator heavy bombers were accurate, some Mitchell medium bombers attacked the wrong target and tragically succeeded in destroying one of the 25th Dragoons’ tanks and damaging two others, with one man killed and six wounded.
As the barrage lifted, the tanks of 25th Dragoons moved forward in their very first engagement, blasting at close range the Japanese bunkers that had been exposed by the high-explosive onslaught. The tanks proved highly effective in this role, but couldn’t negotiate all of the terrain and couldn’t be everywhere at once. Consequently, as the infantry moved forward, the Japanese infantry, who had remained relatively safe in their deep bunkers and tunnels, some of them 30 feet underground, now re-emerged to cause horrific casualties among some units. For example, the Sikh Company of the 1/1st Punjab Regiment was reduced to only 21 men.
During this battle, ‘A’ Squadron of the 81st West African Recce Regiment was unfortunately misused by 5th Division to support an infantry attack in the manner of tanks and as a consequence suffered the loss of four Carriers in quick succession to a 37mm anti-tank gun. The tanks of 25th Dragoons by contrast suffered only light damage to a few tanks (ironically in some cases to British anti-tank mines re-used by the Japanese) and had only very light casualties.
After three days of fruitless assaults, Operation JONATHAN was declared a failure and 5th Division consolidated along the road from Maungdaw to the Tunnels, as General Christison wondered what to do next. However, the Japanese were about to take that decision out of his hands. Since August 1943 the Japanese had been formulating a plan to launch a limited invasion of India, taking Manipur province and its capital Imphal before the Monsoon (which falls roughly June to September each year) and then using Imphal as a firm base for a further invasion of Assam once the rains ceased. This plan, designated Operation U-GO required a preliminary diversionary attack into the Arakan and this subsidiary plan was designated Operation HA-GO.
Operation HA-GO struck 7th Indian Division with thunderclap surprise on 4th February 1944. Sakurai-Butai, being the main attack force consisting of a heavily reinforced infantry regimental group, struck north up the eastern side of the Kalapanzin Valley, infiltrating 114 Brigade’s lines to capture Taung Bazaar. It then crossed over the Kalapanzin and attacked the main body of 7th Division from the rear. One battalion group, designated Kubo-Butai also passed west over the Mayu Range on the 5th, to cut the main Maungdaw to Bowli Bazaar road at Briasco Bridge on the 6th. The main part of Sakurai-Butai struck southward, cutting the Ngakyedauk Pass on the 6th and linking up on the 7th with Doi-Butai, advancing from the south. A wedge had now been driven into the heart of XV Corps, separating the 5th & 7th Indian Divisions.
However, the Japanese did not have it all their own way, as the Horsed Wing of the 3rd Gwalior Lancers detected the Japanese move at Taung Bazaar, giving 7th Division and XV Corps some warning of the impending attack. As the mist lifted on that same morning, a Carrier patrol of the Lancers’ Mechanised Wing also caught a Japanese supply column in the open and completely wiped it out, thus depriving Sakurai-Butai of much-needed supplies.
Even so, many units were in abject confusion and individual battalions fought as isolated units. 7th Division Headquarters suffered worse, as it was quickly overrun. Thankfully though, General Frank Messervy and most of his headquarters personnel managed to escape the disaster and made their way by whatever means they could to Sinzweya.
The village of Sinzweya sits at the eastern end of strategically-critical Ngakyedauk Pass and housed the XV Corps ‘Admin Area’. This location contained the bulk of the corps’ forward logistical, medical, engineering and administrative elements, as well as a number of field, medium, light AA, heavy AA and anti-tank artillery batteries. It also had the misfortune to be the convergence point for Sakurai’s and Doi’s columns.
Thanks to the early warning provided by the 3rd Gwalior Lancers, XV Corps HQ at Bowli Bazaar was able to quickly and accurately assess the Japanese intentions. General Christison ordered the 26th Indian Division to move forward immediately from its reserve position at Chittagong, to secure the Goppe Pass, re-take Briasco Bridge (with the assistance of ‘R’ Squadron, 25th Dragoons, which was now frantically forming at Bowli Bazaar) and counter-attack to relieve 7th Indian Division. 5th Indian Division was ordered to counter-attack through the Ngakyedauk Pass and likewise relieve 7th Division. 36th Indian Division was also ordered to move forward from Calcutta. 7th Division (plus 9 Brigade from 5th Division) was put immediately on to ‘air-supply’ courtesy of the RAF, while 5th Division was to be supplied by sea via the recently-captured port Maungdaw.
Brigadier Geoffrey Evans, commander of 9 Brigade, was also ordered to take command of the ‘Admin Box’ position at Sinzweya and to defend it at all costs. Evans swiftly moved to Sinzweya, taking with him two infantry battalions (later joined by a third) and a mountain artillery regiment. He was soon joined there by two squadrons of the 25th Dragoons and the Armoured Group’s support elements (the Engineer Troop, Bridgelayer Troop and ‘A’ Company, 3/4th Bombay Grenadiers). Evans was also soon joined by General Messervy and the survivors of 7th Division HQ.
The Japanese assumed that they were going to defeat each isolated Commonwealth ‘Box’ in the same old way; surround them, cut them off from supply and grind them down until they folded. However, this wasn’t the same old Commonwealth army… This army had spent the last year training intensively and organising itself for just this sort of battle. The surrounded boxes would now sustain themselves from supplies delivered by air and hold out to act as ‘anvils’, while the 5th and 26th Divisions would act as the ‘hammers’, crushing the Japanese between them. Slim had tried to do this before, but his men now had the training to achieve it and with air superiority and unprecedented levels of integration between land and air forces, the supplies could now be carried by air largely unmolested, while the Vengeance dive-bombers and Hurribombers could provide precision close air support and harry the Japanese lines of communication. XV Corps also had the tanks of 25th Dragoons and the Japanese simply had no answer to this new development.
Over the following weeks, the Japanese dashed themselves to pieces on the ‘boxes’ of 7th Division and particularly the Admin Box, all the while being hard pressed by 5th Division attacking from the west, 26th Division from the north, 81st (West African) Division in the east and RAF and IAF from the air. The besieged boxes were even supporting each other, launching attacks and strong patrols to support other boxes under attack, as well as providing mutual artillery support. The 25th Dragoons in particular were constantly on the move, sallying out with strong infantry support to attack Japanese strongpoints and break up incoming attacks.
The Japanese had planned to use the supplies captured from overrun Commonwealth units to sustain themselves, but apart from the 7th Division Headquarters, no units had been overrun and the Japanese were now starving and running low on ammunition. At last on 24th February, the leading elements of General Briggs‘ 5th Indian Division, supported by the tanks of 25th Dragoons, broke through the Ngakyedauk Pass to relieve the Admin Box. XV Corps ‘switched off’ the air supply system and supplies and reinforcements were soon flowing once again from Maungdaw, Bowli Bazaar and through the Ngakyedauk Pass. However the Japanese, although severely weakened by heavy casualties, starvation and lack of supplies, were still dug into the hills around them and for the next few weeks, the 25th Dragoons were sallying out constantly from the fortified boxes, destroying one Japanese strongpoint after another.
The Japanese had suffered their very first major land defeat in their war against the Commonwealth. However, the main event had now opened in Manipur province, as Operation U-GO commenced with a three-pronged advance on Imphal and Kohima. With the 26th and 36th Indian Divisions already in the process of relieving the 5th and 7th Indian Divisions in the Arakan and the 25th also moving into the region, Slim was frantically shuffling the pieces around on the board. XXXIII Corps, which for the last year had been preparing for Operation ZIPPER, was ordered to entrain for Dimapur and from there advance by road to Imphal (the road was still open at Kohima at this point). However this would take several weeks to achieve. The best option to reinforce Imphal would be to fly the battle-hardened 5th and 7th Divisions straight from Chittagong to Imphal and Dimapur; literally fly them straight from one battlefield and into the heart of another!
However, the battle for the Arakan was ongoing, as the fresh 26th and 36th Divisions took over the fight, still supported by the XV Corps Armoured Group which was now reinforced by the Shermans of ‘C’ Squadron 149th RAC. 81st West African Recce Regt now took on something of a new role. While one squadron continued with the traditional mechanised recce role in support of 36th Division near Maungdaw, the bulk of the regiment left its armoured vehicles behind and instead operated in support of the Commandos of 3 Special Service Brigade, conducting raids along the Arakan coast, causing havoc to Japanese lines of communication and destroying a number of artillery pieces. However, with the point of crisis now moved to the IV Corps front at Imphal, the Arakan offensive was halted and the new front line established along the Maungdaw to Buthidaung road. The assault would be renewed after the Monsoon.
In late May 1944 and with the Monsoon imminent, the XV Corps Armoured Group was disbanded. The 25th Dragoons and ‘C’ Squadron 149th RAC were already moving back to Cox’s Bazaar, where their tanks were to be put into storage for use by 50th Indian Tank Brigade after the Monsoon. The men of 149th RAC were sent north to rejoin their regiment at Imphal and the 25th Dragoons were withdrawn into India to re-equip with Sherman III and Sherman V DD tanks and to re-train for Operation ZIPPER. The Engineers and Bombay Grenadiers returned to 254th Indian Tank Brigade at Imphal. In August the 3rd Gwalior Lancers were withdrawn to India in August to completely mechanise and finally say goodbye to their horses. The 81st West African Recce Regiment continued in their water-borne recce/raiding role throughout the Monsoon and completely divested themselves of their AFVs. When the 82nd (West African) Division arrived later that year, the 82nd West African Recce Regiment was also immediately converted to the amphibious role and both regiments joined the 3rd Arakan Campaign when that kicked off in December 1944.
In May 1945, ‘A’ Squadron of the 25th Dragoons was called upon to provide armoured support for 19th Indian Division on mopping-up operations in central Burma. Leaving their tanks in India, the men were flown to Meiktila and there took charge of sixteen ‘clapped-out’ Sherman Vs of the 255th Indian Tank Brigade. The squadron was split into two half-squadron groups, with one group going to Kalaw and the other to Toungoo. This proved to be a depressing and demoralising experience for both groups. The Japanese, although beaten and fleeing from Burma, still had teeth and even succeeded in destroying a Sherman with a 75mm gun, killing a troop commander and his gunner. In another incident, the popular squadron 2ic was also killed. Yet the Japanese remained elusive and the tanks were unable to decisively get to grips with their enemy. After a month of fruitless driving around central Burma, ‘A’ Squadron was finally recalled to Meiktila and the men were flown out to rejoin their regiment; there to be either repatriated home or to prepare for the long-awaited Operation ZIPPER (now assigned to 50th Indian Tank Brigade, following that brigade’s final withdrawal from the Arakan in June 1945). However, the Japanese surrender in August 1945 meant that Operation ZIPPER never happened. Some elements of the plan were used for the re-occupation of Malaya, but the 25th Dragoons were not required and stayed in India until their final disbandment in 1947.
Modelling & Painting
The Lee models shown above are by Battlefront Miniatures/Flames of War. They’re actually painted for the 3rd Carabiniers of 254th Indian Tank Brigade. As mentioned above, the Lees of the 25th Dragoons were almost completely devoid of markings and don’t seem to have even had squadron signs painted. Similarly, the Shermans of the regiment’s ‘A’ Squadron at Meiktila in 1945 probably still carried the markings of their previous owners (254th Indian Tank Brigade) and would have been a mixed bag.
The 81st West African Recce Regiment Universal Carrier model is by Skytrex. Markings described above.
The Vengeance dive-bomber was scratch-built for me from balsa and plasticard by the supremely talented Martin Small.
The Shermans of ‘C’ Squadron 149th RAC were marked for 50th Indian Tank Brigade and are described in Part 5.
I covered the paint colours and recipes in Part 5. The vehicles fighting with XV Corps Armoured Group in the 2nd Arakan Campaign would almost exclusively have been painted in S.C.C. 13 ‘Jungle Green’.
Anyway, that’s enough waffle for now. Next time I’ll be looking at the 254th Indian Tank Brigade and there’ll be a lot more photos of my models!