Battle of Ramree Island

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Battle of Ramree Island
Part of the Burma campaign
SE 002256 landings on Ramree island.jpg
British troops in landing craft make their way ashore on Ramree Island, 21 January 1945
Date14 January – 22 February 1945
Location19°06′00″N 93°48′00″E / 19.10000°N 93.80000°E / 19.10000; 93.80000Coordinates: 19°06′00″N 93°48′00″E / 19.10000°N 93.80000°E / 19.10000; 93.80000
Result Allied victory
Belligerents

 United Kingdom

 Japan
Commanders and leaders
Cyril Lomax Kanichi Nagazawa
Strength
26th Indian Infantry Division
1 squadron 146th Regiment RAC
3 Commando Brigade (elements)
II Battalion (reinforced to 1,000 men), 121st Infantry Regiment
54th Division
Casualties and losses
none 500 killed (possibly only 20 survivors)
20 captured
500 escaped to mainland
Ramree Island is located in Myanmar
Ramree Island
Ramree Island
Burma (Myanmar)

The Battle of Ramree Island (also Operation Matador) 14 January – 22 February 1945, in the Second World War, was part of the XV Indian Corps offensive on the Southern Front in the Burma campaign. Ramree Island (Yangbye Kywan) lies off the Burma coast, 110 km (70 mi) south of Akyab (now Sittwe). The island had been captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in early 1942, during the invasion of Burma.

In January 1945, the Allies invaded Ramree and Cheduba Island nearby, to establish airbases for the supply of the mainland campaign. There are reports of Japanese soldiers being eaten by saltwater crocodiles in the inland mangrove swamps; the Guinness Book of World Records has listed it as "worst crocodile disaster in the world" and "most number of fatalities in a crocodile attack" but scientists and historians have dismissed this as implausible.[1]

Background[edit]

The early capture of Akyab made the 26th Indian Infantry Division (Major-General Henry Chambers) available for an attack on Ramree Island, 110 km (70 mi) to the south, the island being 80 km (50 mi) long and 32 km (20 mi) wide, flat and an obvious site for airfields.[2] A plan was ready by 2 January, when it was clear that the advance of the Fourteenth Army (Lieutenant-General William Slim) would soon pass beyond the range of its airbases at Imphal and Agartala; replacements at Chittagong, Akyab and Ramree would be needed.[3]

On 14 January, the 26th Indian Division was ordered to attack Ramree on 21 January, as a Royal Marine detachment from 3 Commando Brigade occupied Cheduba Island.[4] The Japanese garrison of Ramree consisted of the II Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment (Colonel Kanichi Nagazawa), part of the 54th Division, with artillery and engineer detachments to act as an independent force.[5]

Prelude[edit]

The battle started with Operation Matador, an amphibious assault to capture the strategic port of Kyaukpyu at the north end of Ramree Island and the airfield near the port, south of Akyab across Hunter's Bay. The invasion force was led by three Joint Assault Commanders, Captain Bush RN, Major-General Cyril Lomax and Wing Commander H. Smith. Reconnaissance carried out on 14 January 1945, found that Japanese forces were placing artillery in caves overlooking the landing beaches on Ramree and the Royal Navy assigned the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, the escort carrier HMS Ameer, light cruiser HMS Phoebe, the destroyers Rapid, Napier, Norman and Pathfinder, with the sloops Flamingo and HMIS Kistna.[6]

The large number of ships was intended to provide more firepower in support of the landing force. On 21 January, an hour before the 71st Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier R. C. Cotterell-Hill) was to land, Queen Elizabeth opened fire with 69 rounds of 15 in (380 mm)-shell from the main battery, the fall of shot being watched by aircraft from Ameer. Phoebe also joined the bombardment, along with Consolidated B-24 Liberators, North American B-25 Mitchells and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts of 224 Group Royal Air Force (RAF), under the command of HQ RAF Bengal and Burma, that strafed and bombed the beaches.[6]

Battle[edit]

Men of the Wiltshire Regiment from the 26th Indian Infantry Division prepare a meal beside a temple on Ramree Island.

The assault troops were slightly delayed when a motor launch and a landing craft struck mines but landed unopposed on the beaches west of Kyaukpyu at 9:42 a.m., securing the beachhead by the afternoon. The following day, the 4th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier J. F. R. Forman) landed, took over the beachhead and occupied Kyaukpyu and on 23 January, the 71st Infantry Brigade advanced southwards, down the west coast. Two days later Mayin was occupied and the troops reached the Yanbauk Chaung the next day. Resistance at the chaung from the troops of the II Battalion, 121st Regiment increased and on 31 January, the 71st Brigade was ordered to move inland, north-east towards Sane, then head south towards Ramree town. The 4th Brigade was to keep the defenders at Yanbauk Chaung under pressure and follow up vigorously should they retire.[6]

(On 26 January in Operation Sankey, a Royal Marine force landed on Cheduba island, about 6.2 mi (10 km) from the south-west coast of Ramree Island and found it unoccupied.) On Ramree, the Japanese garrison put up tenacious resistance but on 1 February, the 71st Indian Infantry Brigade reached Sane and parts of the 36th Indian Infantry Brigade, from reserve, took Sagu Kuyun Island and relieved the marines on Cheduba Island.[6] When the British outflanked a Japanese stronghold, the 900 defenders abandoned the base and marched to join a larger battalion of Japanese soldiers across the island. The route took the Japanese through 16 km (9.9 mi) of mangrove swamp and as they struggled through it, the British encircled the area. Trapped in deep mud-filled land, tropical diseases soon started to afflict the soldiers, as did scorpions, tropical mosquitoes and saltwater crocodiles.[7]

On 7 February, the 71st Indian Infantry Brigade and supporting tanks reached the town of Ramree and found determined Japanese resistance. The 4th Indian Infantry Brigade had advanced to Ledaung Chaung and then moved east to reinforce the attack; the town fell on 9 February. The navy and the 26th Indian Infantry Division then concentrated on blockading the chaungs (small streams) on the east coast to prevent the Japanese from escaping to the mainland. A Japanese air raid on 11 February seriously damaged a destroyer with a near miss and forty small craft were sent by the Japanese from the mainland to rescue the survivors of the garrison. Japanese resistance on the island ended on 17 February and the Allied blockade was maintained until 22 February, sinking many of the rescue craft and inflicting many casualties on the Japanese troops hiding in the mangrove swamps; about 500 troops managed to get away. Cheduba Island was not garrisoned and the 22nd East African Brigade was sent to hold Ramree Island.[8]

Aftermath[edit]

Analysis[edit]

In 1965, the British official historian Stanley Woodburn Kirby wrote that the Japanese defence of the island and the escape of about 500 men against "fearful odds", had been courageous and determined.[7] It took until 16 April for the airfield to be used for transport sorties, Akyab having come into use on 1 April. It had been vital to complete the occupation of Ramree Island quickly, as Operation Dracula against Rangoon needed to commence in the first week of May at the latest, to have a chance of finishing before the monsoon.[2] The experience in co-operation between the 26th Indian Division and the navy in the war of chaungs and small ports along the Arakan coast was intended to be exploited in the attack. An estimate put naval gunfire support from 4 January to 13 March for the land operations at Akyab, Ramree and Cheduba at 23,000 shells. The navy also carried 54,000 men, 1,000 vehicles, 14,000 long tons (14,000 t) of stores and 800 animals.[9]

"Crocodile attack"[edit]

Some British soldiers, including the naturalist Bruce Wright, who participated in the battle, claimed that the large population of saltwater crocodiles native to the mangrove swamps on Ramree Island preyed on the trapped Japanese force at night and ate many soldiers. Wright gave a description in Wildlife Sketches Near and Far (1962), quoted by Frank McLynn,

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.

— Wright[10]

If Wright was correct, the Ramree Island crocodile attacks would have been the worst recorded in history. The British Burma Star Association seems to lend credence to the swamp attack stories but appears to draw a distinction between the twenty Japanese survivors of one attack and the 900 Japanese who were left to fend for themselves in the swamp. In his memoir, An Odyssey in War and Peace, Lieutenant-General Jack Jacob (Indian Army) recounted his experiences during the battle,

Over a 1000 soldiers of the Japanese garrison retreated into the crocodile-infested mangrove swamps. We went in with boats and interpreters using loudhailers asking them to come out. Not a single one did. Salt-water crocodiles, some of them well over 20 ft in length frequented these waters. It is not difficult to imagine what happened to the Japanese who took refuge in the mangroves![11]

These figures have been disputed by other historians, who call the event an urban myth.[12] McLynn wrote

Most of all, there is a single zoological problem. If 'thousands of crocodiles' were involved in the massacre, as in the urban (jungle) myth, how had these ravening monsters survived before and how were they to survive later? The ecosystem of a mangrove swamp, with an exiguous mammal life, simply would not have permitted the existence of so many saurians before the coming of the Japanese (animals are not exempt from the laws of overpopulation and starvation).[13]

The British official history (War against Japan volume IV, The Reconquest of Burma, 1965 [2004]) referred only to "crocodile-infested mangrove swamps".[7] In 2016, Sam Willis reported having found documentation indicating that the Japanese soldiers mostly drowned and/or were shot and that crocodiles scavenged on their corpses afterwards.[14]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Russell 1987, p. 216; Kynaston 1998, p. 135.
  2. ^ a b Saunders 1975, p. 350.
  3. ^ McLynn 2011, p. 433.
  4. ^ Woodburn Kirby 2004, pp. 214–215.
  5. ^ Woodburn Kirby 2004, p. 215.
  6. ^ a b c d Woodburn Kirby 2004, p. 219.
  7. ^ a b c Woodburn Kirby 2004, p. 220.
  8. ^ Woodburn Kirby 2004, pp. 219–220.
  9. ^ Allen 1984, p. 468.
  10. ^ McLynn 2011, p. 13.
  11. ^ Jacob 2012, Ch 2.
  12. ^ Platt et al. 2001, pp. 15–18.
  13. ^ McLynn 2011, p. 14.
  14. ^ Crocodile massacre of troops debunked as wartime myth, by Anna Pointer, in The Times; published December 10, 2016; via ProQuest

References[edit]

  • Allen, Louis (1984). Burma: The Longest War. London: Dent Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-460-02474-7.
  • Jacob, J. F. R. (2012). An Odyssey in War and Peace. Roli Books. ISBN 978-81-7436-933-8.
  • Kynaston, Nick, ed. (1998). The Guinness 1999 Book of Records. Guinness Publishing. ISBN 978-0-85112-070-6.
  • McLynn, Frank (2011). The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph, 1942–45. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-17162-4.
  • Platt, S. G.; Ko, W. K.; Khaing, L. L.; Rainwater, T. R. (2001). "Man Eating by Estuarine Crocodiles: The Ramree Island Massacre Revisited". Herpetological Bulletin (Spring 2001). British Library Serials (75). 209068329. Retrieved 14 March 2021.
  • Russell, Alan, ed. (1987). The Guinness Book of Records 1988. Guinness Books. ISBN 978-0-85112-873-3.
  • Saunders, H. St G. (1975) [1954]. Royal Air Force 1939–45: The Fight is Won. III (repr. 2nd ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 978-0-11-771594-3. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  • Woodburn Kirby, S. (2004) [1965]. Butler, Sir James (ed.). The War Against Japan: The Reconquest of Burma. History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. IV (Imperial War Museum Department of Printed Books and Naval & Military Press Uckfield ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 978-1-84574-063-4.

Further reading[edit]

  • Wright, B. S. (1962). Wildlife Sketches: Near and Far. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press. OCLC 8099292.

External links[edit]