Battle of Ramree Island
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|Battle of Ramree Island|
|Part of the Burma Campaign|
British troops in landing craft make their way ashore on Ramree Island, 21 January 1945
| United Kingdom
|Empire of Japan|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Cyril Lomax||Kanichi Nagazawa|
|26th Indian Infantry Division||1,000|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown||500 dead (possibly only 20 survivors)
|While it is not known exactly how many Japanese defenders were killed by the Allied forces, it presumed that most from succumbing to diseases and hunger, or were killed by the large crocodile population.|
The Battle of Ramree Island was fought for six weeks during January and February 1945, as part of the Indian XV Corps 1944/45 offensive on the Southern Front of the Burma Campaign during World War II. Ramree Island (Yangbye Kywan) lies off the Burma coast and was captured along with the rest of Southern Burma, during the early stages of the Burma Campaign, by the rapidly advancing Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. In January 1945 the Allies were able to launch attacks to retake Ramree and its neighbour Cheduba, with the intention of building sea-supplied airbases on them. The Japanese garrison of Ramree consisted of the 121st Infantry regiment, part of the Japanese 54th Division. The regiment's commander was Colonel Kanichi Nagazawa.
The battle is also associated with reports of many Japanese soldiers being eaten by the thousands of saltwater crocodiles lying in wait in the swamps. The Guinness Book of World Records has listed it both as "Worst crocodile disaster in the world (disputed)" and "Most Number of Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack".
The battle started with Operation Matador, an amphibious assault to capture the strategic port of Kyaukpyu – located at the northern tip of Ramree Island, south of Akyab across Hunter's Bay – and the key airfield near the port. Reconnaissance carried out on 14 January 1945 disclosed Japanese forces busily placing guns to sweep the landing beaches on Ramree, so the Royal Navy assigned a battleship and an escort carrier to provide heavy naval support to the task force.
On 21 January, an hour before the 71st Indian Infantry Brigade was to land, the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth opened fire with her main battery while planes from the escort carrier HMS Ameer spotted for her. The light cruiser HMS Phoebe also joined the bombardment, along with B-24 Liberators and P-47 Thunderbolts of No. 224 Group RAF, (under the command of HQ RAF Bengal and Burma), which strafed and bombed the beaches. The assault troops landed unopposed and secured the beachhead; the following day, the 4th Indian Infantry Brigade landed.
On 26 January in Operation Sankey, a Royal Marine force landed on the Island of Cheduba, which lies to the south of Ramree, to find that it was not occupied by the Japanese. On Ramree the Japanese garrison put up tenacious resistance. The 36th Indian Infantry Brigade landed with RAF and Royal Marine units. When the Marines outflanked a Japanese stronghold the nine hundred defenders within it abandoned the base and marched to join a larger battalion of Japanese soldiers across the island. The route forced the Japanese to cross 16 kilometres of mangrove swamps and as they struggled through the thick forests the British forces encircled the area of the swampland. Trapped in deep mud-filled land, tropical diseases soon started afflicting the soldiers, as well as scorpions, tropical mosquitoes, and saltwater crocodiles.
Repeated calls by the British for the Japanese to surrender were ignored: the Marines holding the perimeter shot any Japanese attempting to escape, while within the swampland hundreds of soldiers died over the course of several days for lack of food or drinking water. Some, including naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright (who participated in the battle), claimed that the crocodiles attacked and ate numerous soldiers. Wright's description occurs in his 1962 book Wildlife Sketches Near and Far:
- "That night [of the 19 February 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left. . . . Of about one thousand Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about twenty were found alive."
When the British eventually moved in on the swamp, they found that of the nine hundred troops that originally fled into the swamp, only around twenty seriously wounded and weakened Japanese soldiers were left. In all, about 500 Japanese soldiers escaped from Ramree despite the intense blockade instituted to stop them. If Wright's claim is true, however, the Ramree crocodile attacks would be the worst in recorded history. The British Burma Star Association seems to lend credence to the swamp attack stories but appears to draw a distinction between the 20 Japanese survivors of one attack and the 1,000 Japanese who were left to fend for themselves in the swamp.. Furthermore there is no corroboration of the event by British military reports or by interviewed Japanese soldiers and local Burmese. These figures are disputed and the event has been described as an urban myth by British historian Frank McLynn, who opined that only a few wounded Japanese had been consumed, although he did admit that the saltwater crocodiles of the region were both "known man-eaters and opportunistic killers". McLynn's criticisms of the account primarily stem from his personal incredulity that the "Japanese firepower, which tore such holes in British tanks and armor" [sic], would be incapable of dispatching large numbers of crocodiles at night. His suspicions are not cited to any other source, nor are they echoed by other historians. Additionally, although McLynn accused Bruce Wright's existence of being "unverified", his career in the Royal Canadian Navy and subsequently as a scientist and author is described in many additional sources and McLynn's doubts are again notably not echoed by other historians in this area.
- Allen, Louis (1984). Burma: the Longest War. Dent Paperbacks. p. 513. ISBN 0-460-02474-4.
- Russell, Alan, ed. (1987). The Guinness Book of Records 1988. Guinness Books. p. 216. ISBN 0-85112-873-4.
- Kynaston, Nick, ed. (1998). The Guinness 1999 Book of Records. Guinness Publishing. p. 135. ISBN 0-85112-070-9.
- Frank McLynn: The Burma Campaign: Disaster Into Triumph, 1942-45. Yale University Press 2011, ISBN 978-0-300-17162-4, pp. 13-15, 459 (online copy at Google Books)