The Forgotten Wargames Army: XIVth Army in Burma (Part 7 – 254th Indian Tank Brigade at Imphal 1944)

Stuart III light tanks of ‘B’ Squadron, Indian 7th Light Cavalry

For those who are still awake, here’s the next instalment of my series on the XIVth Army and specifically Commonwealth armoured units of the Burma Campaign.  What was originally going to be one simple article and then expanded to become two articles, is now about to become five articles…  Please try to control excitement…

In the last part I looked at the XV Corps Armoured Group, which was a temporary grouping of armoured, armoured recce and supporting units that fought during the 2nd Arakan Campaign of 1944.  This time I’m looking at one of the main permanent armoured formations, which fought from the Battle of Imphal in 1944 to the Battle of Mandalay and the final defeat of the Japanese Army in Burma in 1945.  The 254th Indian Tank Brigade was continually in combat for far longer than the other two tank brigades in Burma, so I’ve split this article into two: this part will deal with the Battle of Imphal and its immediate aftermath and Part 8 will deal with the 254th Indian Tank Brigade’s part in the final destruction of the Japanese armies in Burma.  Lastly, Part 9 will discuss the 255th Indian Tank Brigade.

254th Indian Tank Brigade

254th Indian Tank Brigade started life in April 1941 as the 4th Indian Armoured Brigade, assigned to 2nd Indian Armoured Division at Risalpur.  A short time later, the Indian Armoured Brigades and Divisions were re-numbered, partly to avoid confusion with British formations of the same number and partly as a counter-intelligence measure.  It therefore became the 254th Indian Armoured Brigade, assigned to the 32nd Indian Armoured Division.  In September 1942 the brigade moved to 44th Indian Armoured Division at Ranchi and the title changed again in October 1942, when it was re-designated as a Tank Brigade.  This subtle difference in title indicated that their primary role was now one of close infantry support rather than massed armoured exploitation.  Tank Brigades would ordinarily be equipped with ‘Infantry Tanks‘, but following the disastrous 1st Arakan Campaign of 1942-43, the Valentine was judged unsuitable for jungle warfare and the Churchill was simply not available due to the build-up in preparation for the Normandy Landings.  Consequently, the Indian Tank Brigades were in the process of replacing their Valentines with US-built medium tanks (Lee, Grant and Sherman) and light tanks (Stuart III).

In November 1943 the brigade became independent as it was placed in the reserve of Lieutenant General Bill Slim‘s XIVth Army.  The brigade had three armoured regiments; the 3rd Carabiniers (Prince of Wales’ Own Dragoon Guards) and the 25th Dragoons were equipped with Lee medium tanks, while the Indian 7th Light Cavalry were equipped with Stuart III (M3A1) light tanks.  In addition there were the motorised infantry of the 3/4th Bombay Grenadiers, the engineers of 401st Field Squadron, Royal Bombay Sappers & Miners, a troop of Valentine bridgelayers crewed by the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) and other supporting elements.  The armoured regiments were at full strength (plus roughly a squadron’s worth of spare tanks in reserve for each regiment) and were organised along the following lines:

Stuart-equipped regiments in India/Burma now had a 3-inch Mortar Troop to partly make up for the lack of heavy HE capability.  They were also well furnished with 37mm HE and Canister rounds, which were simply unavailable to the Stuarts of 7th Armoured Brigade in 1942.  The 37mm Canister rounds proved particularly deadly against infantry in the open and also proved effective at clearing vegetation to open lines of fire and expose hidden bunkers. 

The 3rd Carabiniers were completely equipped with Lee medium tanks and had no Grants or Shermans.  Their Recce Troop was equipped with Daimler Dingo Scout Cars.  Like the Stuarts of the 7th Light Cavalry, the Lees had HE and Canister rounds for their 37mm turret gun, but it’s not clear if their 75mm sponson guns were also furnished with 75mm Canister round.  Such a round was certainly manufactured and its use by US troops in the Pacific is well documented, but I’ve not found a specific reference to 75mm Canister rounds being used in Burma (accounts of canister fire from Lee/Grants could simply be 37mm Canister).

However, as described last time, the 25th Dragoons (along with ‘A’ Company of the 3/4th Bombay Grenadiers and a troop of the 401st Field Squadron, Royal Bombay Sappers & Miners) were almost immediately sent to form the core of the XV Corps Armoured Group in the Arakan, leaving the 254th Tank Brigade with a reduced establishment of only one regiment each of Lee and Stuart. 

Lees of ‘C’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers

 

The Battle of Imphal

In December 1943 the 254th Indian Tank Brigade was sent to Imphal in Manipur province, which was being defended by Lieutenant General Geoffry Scoones‘ IV Corps (the brigade was commanded by General Scoones’ younger brother, Brigadier Reginald Scoones).  In February 1944 the Japanese HA-GO Offensive erupted in the Arakan and correctly anticipating a further offensive against Manipur, Slim placed 254th Indian Tank Brigade directly under IV Corps command.

By the end of February it was clear from reports by Z-Force covert recce parties, allied native irregular units and signals intelligence that the Japanese were massing just across the Indian-Burmese border from Imphal.  IV Corps assessed that the more exposed Commonwealth formations (20th Indian Division in the Kabaw Valley to the east and 17th Indian Division at Tiddim to the south) would probably benefit from armoured support if they had to make a fighting withdrawal back to the Imphal Plain, so ‘A’ Squadron of the 3rd Carabiniers was sent east to 20th Division and ‘A’ Squadron of the 7th Light Cavalry was sent south to 17th Division.

The Japanese Operation U-GO offensive began in earnest on 6th March 1944.  The Japanese 15th Army launched three infantry divisions over the border to surround and besiege the Commonwealth IV Corps at Imphal; The 33rd Division, with 14th Tank Regiment under command, would advance from Kalemyo to take Tiddim and advance up the Manipur Valley to Imphal, detaching one regiment to cut the Silchar Track (a minor supply route to the west of Imphal).  The 31st Division would cross the border north of Imphal and drive west to take Kohima, thus cutting the main supply route to the railhead at Dimapur.  The 15th Division would advance in the centre, to directly assault Imphal.

‘A’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers spent the first two weeks of March with 20th Indian Division seeing no sign at all of the enemy.  However, that all changed on the 16th, when one of its troops supported two companies of Gurkhas in repelling an attack by the Japanese 213th Infantry Regiment, inflicting heavy losses.  On the 18th a second major attack was similarly beaten off with help from the Carabiniers.  With the offensive only just started, the advance of the Japanese 213th Infantry Regiment was already stalling due to the presence of just a single squadron of tanks!  In exasperation, the Japanese commander ordered forward two platoons of the 1st Company of the 14th Tank Regiment, consisting of six Type 95 Ha-Go Light Tanks in an attempt to ambush the Lees. 

The Japanese commander chose his ground carefully; attacking the Lees from the flank, where the armour would be thinnest and where the Lees’ 75mm guns would be slow to bear.  Six Japanese tanks attacked six British tanks and the result was annihilation… for the Japanese.  Five Type 95 were destroyed outright and one was captured intact (and duly driven back to Imphal, to be later presented to Slim).  ‘A’ Squadron’s losses were light; no tanks were lost, though the Squadron Sergeant-Major was killed by fire when he exposed his head above the rim of his hatch.  Thanks to the efforts of ‘A’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers, the 20th Indian Division was able to fall back unmolested from the Kabaw Valley and establish defensive positions on the Shenam Saddle and the mountains either side, thus blocking the eastern approaches to Palel and Imphal.

However, the situation in the south had not gone as smoothly.  The order for the 17th Indian Division to withdraw from its exposed forward positions beyond Fort White had arrived too late and they were already under strong attack by the Japanese 215th Infantry Regiment, while the 214th Infantry Regiment was moving around their flank to take Tiddim and attack them from the rear.  ‘A’ Squadron 7th Light Cavalry arrived in the midst of this deteriorating situation and on 18th March a single troop was rushed forward to make contact with 17th Division.  This was to be the very first time that an Indian tank unit had gone into action.  However, that troop found the road blocked in the area of Milestone 99 and they were soon under strong infantry attack.  With one tank becoming bogged and the other two tanks being knocked out one by one, the crews fought on foot, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy with the dismounted AAMGs until being finally overwhelmed.  Only one survivor escaping to tell the tale. 

On 22nd March, ‘A’ Squadron got its revenge as it supported an infantry attack on the same area, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy.  A further attack succeeded in recovering the three tanks lost in the first engagement at Milestone 99, though the Japanese had in the meantime succeeded in getting behind them and cutting the road at Milestone 96.  An attack by Stuarts and infantry from both sides of the roadblock put the enemy to flight and then the entire squadron spent the next week supporting the 17th Division’s rearguard as it successfully disengaged and re-established defensive positions on the Imphal Plain.

On 29th March the main road from Imphal, north to Kohima and Dimapur was cut by the Japanese 15th Division and IV Corps was officially under siege.  However, reinforcements from 5th Indian Division (fresh from the fighting in the Arakan) had already made it through just before the road was cut and among them were the men of ‘C’ Squadron 150th RAC, from 50th Indian Tank Brigade.  With their tanks still stuck at the Dimapur railhead, the squadron was allocated sixteen Lee medium tanks from 254th Tank Brigade’s reserve stocks (some sources say that these were ALL of the reserve Lees at Imphal) and was then assigned to the 3rd Carabiniers as their fourth armoured squadron, designated ‘YL’ Squadron (for Yorks & Lancs – the origin of 150th RAC).  Back at Dimapur, the rest of the squadron crewed five more reserve Lees (also dragooning some Gunners, Signallers and REME fitters in as tank crew) and went into action in support of 2nd Division at Kohima.  Thus ‘C’ Squadron 150th RAC was the only armoured unit to fight both in the siege AND in the relief force!

The fighting intensified in the mountains all around Imphal and most critically, elements of the Japanese 15th Division had managed to take the Nunshigum Ridge, which is an isolated feature, rising 1,000 feet above the Imphal Plain, only a short distance to the north of Imphal and directly overlooking the northern roads and IV Corps’ critical airfields.  There was absolutely no way that continued Japanese occupation of Nunshigum could be tolerated and the 1/7th Dogras were tasked with taking it back, supported by ‘B’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers. 

The attack was launched up two narrow spurs (the only routes up the mountain that tanks could traverse) and each spur would be scaled by a troop of Lees.  The resistance was furious as the Japanese infantry threw themselves in suicidal attacks with lunge-mines and satchel-charges in desperate attempts to destroy the tanks.  The tank commanders were forced to defend their tanks from the turret with Tommy-guns, pistols and grenades and casualties were horrific, with both Troop Commanders and the Squadron OC, as well as all of the infantry KCOs being killed or wounded.  In many cases the tank turret crews also became casualties as they took over the commander’s seat and tanks were commanded by drivers, who directed the fire of the 75mm gun crew from their driver’s hatch!  With the attack stalling and virtually leaderless, the Squadron Sergeant-Major took control of ‘B’ Squadron, while the Dogras were rallied by a junior Subedar (the lowest rank of VCO).  Working their way along the ridge, bunker by bunker, the remaining Carabiniers and Dogras finally silenced the last enemy position and Nunshigum was taken, never to fall again. 

Lees of ‘B’ Sqn 3rd Carabiniers and infantry of 1/7th Dogras advance on the Nunshigum Ridge

On 20th April, ‘YL’ Squadron was sent into action on the southern sector, supporting elements of 17th & 20th Indian Divisions in the fighting for a succession of villages on the open paddy to the west of Logtak Lake.  These villages were thickly vegetated and surrounded by earth banks and thick hedges and the Japanese quickly turned them into fortified ‘islands’ among the dry paddy.  Key among these were the villages of Bishenpur (which marked the point at which the Silchar track emerged from the western mountains and joined the main Imphal-Tiddim road), Ningthoukong and Potsangbam.  Bishenpur was strongly held by British and Indian forces, but the other villages changed hands several times in bitter fighting over the following three months.  ‘YL’ Squadron’s baptism of fire was a hard one, as the Japanese managed to bring their new Type 01 47mm Anti-Tank Gun, which while obsolete by European standards, was more than capable of knocking out a Lee or Stuart and represented a considerable threat in the open paddy fields (I have a scenario for one of the early battles for Ningthoukong here). 

‘A’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers and a troop from the 7th Light Cavalry were also committed to the Bishenpur sector 0n 25th April, though in that disastrous action, ‘A’ Squadron was reduced to just three tanks still in action, with one tank even being knocked out by a very lucky direct hit from a 320mm spigot-mortar (which had been brought to the battle on the back of an elephant)!  Nevertheless, most of the tanks were able to be repaired and were quickly back in action within a few days.  One Lee was even recovered and repaired by the Japanese, who added it to the strength of 6th Company, 14th Tank Regiment.  This battle is the subject of another scenario here and I have another scenario for a battle fought over the same ground on 8th May 1944 here (this last scenario formed the basis for our 2011 Bovington demo-game).

Meanwhile, in the north-eastern corner of the Imphal Perimeter, most of the 7th Light Cavalry were now in the hills, supporting 23rd Indian Division on the Ukhrul Track, particularly where it crossed a key terrain feature called the Litan Saddle.  In front of the 7th Light Cavalry was the newly-arrived 50th Indian Parachute Brigade.  However, the Paras’ defensive box at Sangshak was quickly surrounded and eventually overwhelmed by the rapid Japanese advance, leaving a gaping hole through which the Japanese poured, capturing the critical Litan Saddle!  A counter-attack was immediately organised with 7th Light Cavalry and part of ‘A’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers in support.  This counter-attack cleared the saddle of Japanese and that sector remained quiet for several weeks.  However, on 10th June the Japanese launched another strong attack and took several features overlooking the Ukhrul road, known as the Turret, the Bastion and the Beacon.  Hard fighting by the infantry, supported by ‘B’ Squadron 7th Light Cavalry soon regained the Turret and Bastion, though the Beacon was too steep for the Stuarts to climb.  The solution was found in a bulldozer equipped with a winch; the (unarmoured) bulldozer was able to climb the slope and then winch the Stuarts up the hill, allowing them to join the attack.

On the eastern side of the perimeter, the 23rd Indian Division, frequently supported by ‘A’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers, was fighting hard to maintain control of the Shenam Saddle, once again fighting over dominant mountain peaks and high ridges, the most critical of which was known as ‘Scraggy’.  Again, the tanks were critical to the defence and the Japanese couldn’t counter them.  The Japanese army commander had originally sent the 14th Tank Regiment to that sector, hoping to break through the pass and smash the enemy’s centre using his tanks.  However, following the earlier disastrous encounter with British tanks and with the defenders of the Shenam Saddle unwilling to budge, the 14th Tank Regiment was ordered to make its way back south and then to follow the Tiddim road to join the battle at Bishenpur, where the more open terrain would theoretically be more suitable for the tanks.  This manoeuvre would take the best part of a month to complete.

North of Imphal, the Japanese units on the Kohima/Dimapur road had got closest to Imphal and had established a strongpoint straddling the road at Kanglatongbi.  123 Brigade, with ‘C’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers and ‘C’ Squadron 7th Light Cavalry fought almost continuously from late April onwards to clear the road and on 25th May finally recaptured Kanglantongbi.

A Valentine Bridgelayer deploys its bridge, allowing the Lees of 3rd Carabiniers to bypass Japanese defences near Bishenpur.

The fighting around Bishenpur in the southern sector continued to swing back and forth several times during April and May.  ‘YL’ Squadron were in the thick of the action in the hills west of Bishenpur and on the Silchar Track, while ‘A’ Squadron 3rd Carabiniers, along with a troop of the 7th Light Cavalry, were fighting among the paddy fields and villages alongside Logtak Lake.  The Valentine Bridgelayers of 2nd Independent Bridging Troop RAC made themselves invaluable as they bridged the deep ‘nullahs’ that cut across the plain between the mountains and the lake, thus allowing the tanks to bypass fortified villages and attack from the flank.  Having been in action every day since their arrival at Imphal, on 23rd May the personnel of ‘YL’ Squadron were flown out to rejoin 150th RAC and their tanks were redistributed to 3rd Carabiniers, which was now reduced to three weak squadrons.

A Lee of 254th Indian Tank Brigade. This one has the long 75mm gun and Sherman-style cupola. Note the two holes low on the glacis plate: these are twin .30 Cal MG ports and some tanks of 3rd Carabiniers were actually fitted with the MGs at Imphal.

In late May, with the monsoon having begun, the Japanese 214th Regiment circled around Bishenpur via the western mountains, to get behind that fortified town and cut the main road to Imphal at the village of Marbam.  They also seized the isolated, steep-sided peak of ‘Red Hill’ (Point 2926, which overlooks Marbam at the northern end of Logtak Lake) and even came within a whisker of capturing 17th Indian Division Headquarters!  This new incursion was very close to Imphal itself and General ‘Punch’ Cowan, GOC 17th Division immediately organised a counter-attack. 

With the tanks of 254th Tank Brigade being run ragged all around the Imphal perimeter, numbers were starting to get critical.  The only uncommitted armoured reserve left to IV Corps was just two troops of Stuarts belonging to the 7th Light Cavalry and these were now sent to Cowan’s aid, along with an understrength Carabinier troop of two Lee tanks that were sent back from ‘A’ Squadron at Bishenpur.  After several days of fighting, the Carabiniers once again proved their mettle as ‘mountain troops’, as one of the Lees fought its way up the precipitous slope, onto the very peak of Red Hill (shortly before losing control and careering all the way down the other side)!  The back of the Japanese defence of Marbam and Red Hill had been broken and would completely collapse two days later on 29th May.  Of the 400 or so Japanese troops sent to Marbam, only 40 survived the battle.

In the north, the Japanese 31st Division was being ground down around Kohima by the leading elements of XXXIII Corps; principally the British 2nd Division, the 28th East African Brigade and the 7th Indian Division.  As mentioned above, the only armoured support available to the leading elements of XXXIII Corps was initially formed by five reserve Lees, crewed by the ‘rear party’ of ‘C’ Squadron 150th RAC (50th Tank Brigade), who had been left behind at Dimapur when the rest of the squadron went forward to form ‘YL’ Squadron at Imphal. 

Lees of ‘C’ Squadron 150th RAC laager in jungle somewhere near Kohima. the Sherman V is an attached OP tank belonging to 18th Field Regiment RA, which was otherwise equipped with Priest self-propelled 105mm guns.  It’s difficult to see here, but the Sherman has the circular form of the XIVth Army badge painted centrally on the transmission housing.

After a few days, ‘C’ Squadron 150th RAC were joined at Kohima by 149th RAC (also from 50th Tank Brigade), equipped with Grant tanks, though minus its ‘C’ Squadron, which was operating Shermans in the Arakan.  Further armoured support soon arrived in the form of the 45th Light Cavalry equipped with Stuart III and the armoured cars of Prince Albert Victor’s Own (11th Frontier Force) Cavalry (or ‘PAVO’ for short).  These latter two regiments belonged to XXXIII Corps Troops and were primarily involved in keeping the route back to Dimapur open and clear of Japanese road-blocks.  

Fox Armoured Car

The PAVO were mostly equipped with Daimler Armoured Cars and Dingo Scout Cars, though also included motorised infantry, 3-inch mortars mounted in India Pattern Wheeled Carriers and MG-armed ‘Humber’ Armoured Cars in the Regiment HQ and Squadron HQs.  The ‘Humbers’ had a three-man turret, which allowed room for a radio operator, making them ideal HQ cars.  From the description, these would initially appear to have been Humber Mk III Armoured Cars, though photographic evidence actually reveals them to have been Fox Armoured Cars, which were Canadian-built copies of the Humber Mk III, being identical in terms of bodywork, but mechanically different and armed with Browning .50-cal and .30-cal MGs instead of Besa 15mm and 7.92mm.  The regiment’s ‘Dingos’ may also actually have been Canadian-built Lynx Scout Cars.

The fighting at Kohima was almost certainly some of the most intense and brutal close-quarter fighting of the war and casualties were heavy on both sides.  However, over two months of bitter combat XXXIII Corps had managed to steadily lever the Japanese out of their deeply fortified positions around the town.  As at Imphal, the tanks seemed to be everywhere, providing intimate close support to the infantry.  At last on 31st May, the starving and shattered survivors of the Japanese 31st Division began to pull back from Kohima and this withdrawal soon turned into a rout.  As the 7th Indian Division pursued the Japanese up into the mountains and over the border into Burma, the 2nd Division, with 149th RAC at the fore, pushed on down the Imphal road, tackling numerous Japanese road-blocks and strongpoints along the way.

Back at Imphal, the Japanese 33rd Division, despite having taken horrific casualties from three months of continuous attacks plus starvation and disease, now renewed their attacks around Binshenpur.  At long last, the Japanese 14th Tank Regiment was to be committed en masse to the battle.  This unit had started the campaign with 66 tanks; mostly Type 97 Shinhoto Ch-Ha Medium Tanks, with a company of Type 95 Ha-Go Light Tanks, a company of Type 01 Ho-Ni 1 75mm Tank Destroyers and a platoon-sized company of M3 Stuarts, captured from the British 7th Armoured Brigade in 1942.  The regiment had initially accompanied the 213th Infantry Regiment to the Shenam Saddle, though as described above, had lost six tanks while trying to ambush the 3rd Carabiniers and following further attempts to support the fruitless attacks in the Shenam Saddle, had then been withdrawn from that sector to support the main advance up the Tiddim Road.  The regiment was already down to 40 tanks by this point.  The Ho-Ni 1 tank destroyers (the regiment’s 5th Company) were then for some reason left behind at Fort White and the regiment then lost another six tanks in combat at Torbung.  A steady trickle of breakdowns and combat-losses continued to whittle down the regiment’s strength until they were finally committed to combat in early June, by which time they had been reduced to only three light tanks and eleven medium tanks.

At dawn on 8th June, the Ha-Go light tanks of 1st Company 14th Tank Regiment, with the mediums in overwatch support, led yet another assault on Ningthoukong.  Only one Ha-Go managed to cross the stream, yet it gave valuable support and the Japanese managed to establish a toe-hold within the village despite strong resistance from the 1st West Yorks (with Sgt Harold Turner of the 1st West Yorks earning a posthumous VC).  The 3rd Carabiniers were unable to intervene, as the paddies were now flooded and the only approach to Ningthoukong from the north was along the embanked main road, which was covered by Japanese anti-tank guns. 

The Japanese 14th Tank Regiment arrives!

Preceded by a massive artillery barrage, an even stronger Japanese attack erupted on the 12th and the rest of 14th Tank Regiment joined the general assault in an effort to eject the British and Gurkha infantry from Ningthoukong.  The 3rd Carabiniers attempted to intervene along the embanked road, but the leading tank was knocked out and the rest of the troop withdrew.  Nevertheless, most of the Japanese tanks had bogged down and the surviving 2pdr anti-tank gun claimed two of them.  A third tank was destroyed by a PIAT wielded by a Gurkha officer.  Three more bogged tanks were attacked by Gurkha Rifleman Ganju Lama, who had already won the MM a few weeks earlier for destroying two tanks on the Tiddim Road.  He now destroyed all three tanks with a PIAT and despite serious wounds, killed the crews as they attempted to escape.  Lama was awarded the VC.

A 3rd Carabiniers Lee at Imphal.

The ‘Third Battle of Bishenpur’ proved to be the last major attempt by the Japanese 33rd Division to push forward across the plain toward Bishenpur and Imphal.  Many of their battalions were now reduced to the strength of strong platoons and the survivors were starving.  On 14th June the monsoon intensified and it rained solidly for several days, flooding the plain around Ningthoukong to a depth of two feet and making offensive movement virtually impossible for either side.  However, the Japanese were still attempting to attack in the hills to the west of Bishenpur and along the Silchar Track and would continue attacking in that sector right through to the end of June.

However, events in the north were very much going the way of the Allies.  On 22nd June, at Milestone 109 on the Imphal-Dimapur road, a patrol from the 1/17th Dogras, together with tanks from the 3rd Carabiniers and 7th Light Cavalry were pushing north when they met a patrol from the 1st DLI, accompanied by tanks from 149th RAC pushing south.  With the Japanese 31st Division already broken in the north and 33rd Division starting to break in the south, only the weakened 15th Division remained fully in action, still fighting with 23rd Indian Division for control of the Shenam Saddle.  However, with the road to Dimapur finally re-opened, the Siege of Imphal was finally over.  

Relief, Reorganisation and Pursuit

Slim declared his intention to continue fighting through the monsoon.  The XIVth Army would not let up for a single moment in its pursuit and destruction of the defeated Japanese 15th Army.  Although reinforcements and replacements had once again started to flow into Imphal, there was very little opportunity for rest and reorganisation in 254th Tank Brigade.  The 3rd Carabiners pursued the defeated 33rd Division down the Tiddim road and eventually reached the 9,000 foot Kennedy Peak, thereby breaking the world altitude record for armoured warfare!  ‘C’ Squadron of 7th Light Cavalry meanwhile, was attached to 11th (East African) Division for the pursuit of the defeated 31st Division over the mountains and into the Kabaw Valley, even reaching the River Chindwin.

A Lee of 3rd Carabiniers at Fort White, near Kennedy Peak, during the pursuit of the Japanese 33rd Division.  The original photo mistakenly identifies this as a tank of the 25th Dragoons, but that regiment was already back in India, having fought in the Arakan with XV Corps, when this photo was taken.  I’m no expert, but the deleted side-doors and riveted hull would suggest that this is a Lee Mk VI (M3A4).  Note the long 75mm gun and Sherman-style cupola.

The detachment of engineers and Bombay Grenadiers who had been detached to XV Corps in the Arakan now finally rejoined the brigade and 149th RAC was permanently transferred in from 50th Tank Brigade, thereby bringing the brigade back to full strength.  149th RAC had also been reunited with its ‘C’ Squadron, which had been operating Sherman tanks with XV Corps, but which now was equipped with Lees (the rest of the 149th RAC was equipped with Grants).  149th RAC were now sent to the Shenam Saddle, to assist 23rd Indian Division in finally pushing the Japanese 15th Division out of the mountains and back into the Kabaw Valley.  However, 149th RAC weren’t at Imphal for very long, as they were withdrawn in August to India, to re-equip with Churchill infantry tanks.  Although they remained on the strength of 254th Tank Brigade, they wouldn’t see front-line service again. 

150th RAC (whose ‘C’ Squadron had seen action at both Imphal and Kohima) was also being formally transferred from 50th Tank Brigade to 254th Tank Brigade at this time, though their move to Imphal was delayed first by the need to fully re-equip from Valentine infantry tanks to Lee medium tanks and also by the monsoon.  They would finally join 254th Tank Brigade on a permanent basis in November 1944, thus bringing the brigade’s front-line strength back up to three armoured regiments; 3rd Carabiniers, 150th RAC and 7th Light Cavalry in Burma, with 149th RAC in India.

There was a further boost to the forward-deployed armoured strength of XIVth Army with the arrival at Imphal of 255th Indian Tank Brigade, which was powerfully-equipped with three regiments of Sherman V (M4A4) medium tanks.  With 254th Tank Brigade still in action, the 255th spent its time at Imphal wisely learning the lessons of the recent battles and training intensively in infantry/artillery/air cooperation and combined-arms battlegroup tactics.  This intensive period of training would reap dividends during the coming offensive, but I’ll talk more about the 255th Tank Brigade in Part 9.

There is one curious footnote to this period of reorganisation; The excellent ‘Warwheels‘ website lists 13x Daimler Armoured Cars, 18x Fox Armoured Cars and 4x Lynx Scout Cars as being on the strength of the 7th Light Cavalry at Imphal during this time.  The document even lists all their registration numbers and gives their Arm-of-Service serial marking as ‘7’, which is the correct serial for 7th Light Cavalry after the reorganisation, so this seems to be based on solid evidence.  However, apart from a few Dingo or Lynx scout cars with the Recce Troop, I can find no evidence that the 7th Light Cavalry ever used armoured cars and every scrap of evidence right up to the end of the war mentions (or photographs) Stuart light tanks.  It’s possible that these were part of a planned (though cancelled) reorganisation, such as that being undertaken by 11th (East African) Recce Regiment in India at this time, who were reorganising as a mixed regiment of Stuart light tanks, Universal Carriers and Fox armoured cars.  Or perhaps they were already in storage at Imphal before the siege started and were being maintained as reserve vehicles?  Alternatively, perhaps they were being held administratively by HQ 7th Light Cavalry for an armoured car regiment such as the 16th Light Cavalry, pending the arrival of personnel?  Or perhaps the author has simply mis-identified the regiment? It’s something of a puzzler.

As the XIVth Army pushed deeper into Burma, the 254th Indian Tank Brigade passed to the control of Lieutenant General Montagu Stopford‘s XXXIII Corps, with whom it would fight for the rest of the war.  Their role as the armoured element of IV Corps was taken by the newly-arrived 255th Indian Tank Brigade.  Next time I’ll look at the battles of 254th Indian Tank Brigade as they fought with XXXIII Corps to finally destroy the Imperial Japanese Army in Burma.

Models, Painting and Markings

The models shown nere are 15mm (1:100th) models from my own collection, painted by me.  The Lees are by Battlefront Miniatures/Flames of War, while the Stuarts are by Forged in Battle Miniatures.  I tried to get US Lee models, as they lack the sand-skirts of the British models (though I did also end up getting some British ones with sand-skirts, due to problems of availability).  The supporting infantry are XIVth Army infantry by Peter Pig.

I discussed the various types of tank and paint colours in Part 5.  The tanks at Imphal would have been almost universally painted in S.C.C. 13 ‘Jungle Green’.  The Stuarts of 7th Light Cavalry were all Stuart Mk III (M3A1), while the Lees and Grants of the other regiments were a mix of marks.  Most seem to have been fitted with long M3 75mm guns, with the remainder having the short M2 75mm gun.  Some of the latter were fitted with muzzle-counterweights.  The distribution of Lee to Grant is mentioned above, though some Lees may have been fitted with Grant turrets, which muddies the waters somewhat!  Of those with Lee turrets, most seem to have been fitted with Sherman-style cupolas with a split hatch, while the remainder still had their old miniature turret-like cupolas (though I’ve never seen a photo of one fitted with the MG originally installed in the cupola by the American manufacturers).

The markings for 254th Tank Brigade are something of a nightmare to exactly pin down.  To start with, the brigade sign is not visible in any photograph or film that I’ve examined.  This may be because the colours are impossible to see in black & white photography (exacerbated by layers of crud on the tanks), or it may simply be because they didn’t paint them on the vehicles. We know that the brigade patch was a red inverted triangle, with a tank-track in black, somewhat macabrely dripping black drops of blood.  This was a pictorial representation of the brigade’s motto ‘Blood on the Tracks’.  This badge was certainly used as a uniform patch, though often with the ‘drops of blood’ cut off.  However, it wasn’t unusual for a formation’s vehicle-sign to differ from the patch worn by the men; 255th Indian Tank Brigade were one such example, so it’s possible that the ‘Blood on the Tracks’ badge was not used as a vehicle sign… 

But I’ve painted it anyway… 🙂

There is also evidence to suggest that the brigade applied for permission to use the XIVth Army badge, though there is no evidence that they received permission.  However, according to a book by Bryan Perrett, one veteran officer of the 7th Light Cavalry described his tank as bearing the ‘shield-shaped’ XIVth Army badge (which is doubly curious, as the XIVth Army badge was usually shown in circular form when painted on vehicles).

The waters are muddied even further by Sandhu’s official history of the Indian Armoured Corps, which shows the brigade’s badge (minus the blood drops) upside-down and with a yellow/orange, not red backing.  I can only assume that his only reference was a faded cloth patch that he was viewing upside-down?  Sandhu’s version is shown on the right.

The brigade’s AoS markings from December 1943 onwards (following the departure of 25th Dragoons) are shown below.  Note that I’ve only listed the brigade’s main combat units, as I simply have no idea regarding the serial numbers for the various supporting elements:

I’ve shown the brigade badge above both with and without the ‘drops’, as well as the XIVth Army badge in its shield form.  As discussed above, the brigade’s tanks might have carried any one (or none) of these badges.

A Lee of 3rd Carabiniers. Note the cupola, short 75mm gun with muzzle counterweight and ‘4’ AoS serial painted centrally on the transmission housing.

There are plenty of photos showing 3rd Carabiniers Lees with the ‘4’ AoS serial, as well as dark-coloured (presumably regulation red) squadron signs on the turret sides (and sometimes on the turret rear and upper hull front).  The squadron signs were sometimes filled with black and invariably contained a number – either white or black.  I’d originally thought that these were troop numbers (e.g. a ‘C’ Squadron tank with ’12’), but I now thing that these must have been tank numbers (1 to 16) within each squadron.  for example, the ‘C’ Squadron Commander’s tank had ‘1’ and a ‘B’ Squadron tank was pictured with ’14’, which rules out the troop number idea. 

‘C’ Squadron Commander’s tank, 3rd Carabiniers, photographed in 1945. Note the black-filled circular squadron sign with ‘1’, signifying the 1st tank in the squadron.  Note also the large, wonky Allied star that was applied in 1945.

The only markings visible on tanks of the 7th Light Cavalry are the squadron signs, which were painted on the turret sides.  I’ve not found any with visible brigade signs or AoS signs, which is a shame, though not surprising as the tanks were usually liberally covered in stowage.  I decided to paint the XIVth Army shield on mine, in line with Bryan Perrett’s veteran description.  The AoS sign was red-over-yellow in accordance with Indian Armoured Corps regulations (Perrett shows it as yellow-over-red, but I’m not convinced, as the other regiments all definitely had red-over-yellow) and should have had the ‘5’ serial as the 2nd regiment of the brigade, changing to ‘7’ following the arrival of the 149th and 150th RAC.  However, Bryan Perrett’s veteran account describes the serial as ’37’, so I’ve gone with that.

A Stuart of ‘B’ Squadron, 7th Light Cavalry

The squadron signs appear in black and white photographs as being pale coloured, though not as pale as the (presumably) white numbers within.  This would make sense, as according to regulations the squadron signs would have been changed from light blue to yellow when they became the brigade’s 2nd regiment in December 1943.  This is confirmed by Bryan Perrett’s interview with a veteran who stated that as the second most-senior regiment of the brigade, the 7th Light Cavalry had  yellow squadron signs.  However, they don’t appear to have changed the colour following the arrival of 149th RAC and 150th RAC (they should then have switched to bright green signs as the 4th regiment), but that’s hardly surprising, as they were then in near-constant combat throughout the period and probably simply didn’t have time to repaint.  The squadron signs were invariably filled with black, with white numbers; e.g. ’32’ on a ‘B’ Squadron tank and ’37’ on a ‘C’ Squadron tank.  This numbering system makes sense if they were individual tank numbers as counted through the entire regiment (e.g. 1-4 for the RHQ, 5 to 20 for ‘A’ Squadron, 21 to 36 for ‘B’ Squadron and 37 to 52 for ‘C’ Squadron).  This style of numbering system was actually quite common among British regiments in NW Europe).

I’ve no idea what tank or troop numbering systems were used by 149th RAC and 150th RAC.  they may have used one of the systems described for 3rd Carabiniers or 7th Light Cavalry or they may have alternatively used troop numbers (e.g. 1-4 for ‘A’ Squadron, 5-8 for ‘B’ Squadron and 9-12 for ‘C’ Squadron, with ‘HQ’ painted for the HQ Troops) or they may have numbered the troops within each squadron (i.e. HQ, 1, 2, 3 or 4).

The brigade’s AoS markings changed in late 1944 to the scheme shown below.  Note that 7th Light Cavalry were now bumped down the seniority list.  While in 50th Indian Tank Brigade, 149th and 150th RAC actually held the same seniority positions, so didn’t need to change their markings when they transferred to the 254th, other than paint out the old brigade sign and (perhaps) paint the new one:

In 1945 all vehicles were painted with large white Allied stars.  The Lees had ENORMOUS stars on the side of the hull, which actually wrapped around the front-left corner of the hull.  The Stuarts of 7th Light Cavalry had stars either on the hull sides or turret sides.  All tanks were also required to paint a circled star on the turret roof or engine-deck, though I’ve never seen any photos taken from above to confirm this.  

Anyway, that’s enough for now.  Next time I’ll follow the 254th Indian Tank Brigade on the Road to Mandalay (and Rangoon).

This entry was posted in 15mm Figures, Battlefront: WW2, Painted Units, World War 2, World War 2 - British Commonwealth Armies, World War 2 - Burma Campaign. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Forgotten Wargames Army: XIVth Army in Burma (Part 7 – 254th Indian Tank Brigade at Imphal 1944)

  1. steven says:

    I’m still awake. Very timely info since I’m starting up in Burma myself.

    • jemima_fawr says:

      🙂

      Thanks Steven! As you’re awake and on-site, you can correct my spelling of Burmese place-names! 🙂 I’m just finishing off the next part, covering 254th Tank Brigade’s advance to the Irrawaddy, the Battle of Mandalay and the subsequent advance to Rangoon. That should send anyone to sleep, even you… 😉

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