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The Battle of Pokoku and Irrawaddy River operations were a series of battles fought between the British Indian Army and the Imperial Japanese Army and allied forces over the successful allied Burma Campaign on the China Burma India Theater during World War II. The battles and operations were instrumental in facilitating the eventual capture of Rangoonmarker in summer 1945.

Preparation

Early December 1944 Major General G. C. Evans took over command of the British Indian Army. The Japanese 31st Division thrust at Kohima had been a costly failure, eventually forcing it to a disastrous retreat. The Japanese 33rd Division, Japanese 15th Division and the INA 1st division had suffered a similar fate at Imphal. The Japanese and allied forces lost at least fifty thousand dead. In previous years there used to be lull during the monsoon period but not this year (1944-45). The command decided that it was time to target the heart of Japanese Army in Burma. General William "Bill" Slim's plan through the monsoon months had been pursuit of the defeated Japanese in Kohimamarker and plains of Imphalmarker with 5th Indian Infantry Division down the Tiddim Road and 11th East African Division down the Kabaw Valley, until the two joined hand at Kalemyo. The next offensive plan centred on the occupation of Central Burma, as far South as Mandalaymarker to exploit further South and destroy the Japanese Forces in the Shewbo Plains, North of Irrawaddy, where armour could be used. Allied Forces crossed River Chindwin and the spearheads of both Corps of the Fourteenth Army { IV and XXXIII Corps} were moving into selected battle areas, which surprised Japanese as they had not anticipated any major operations during the monsoon period. The British Fourteenth Army was now faced with a major obstacle (Irrawaddy) covered by determined Japanese. The Irrawaddy River in its middle is about two thousand yards broad and dotted with treacherous and shifting sand bars. An opposed direct crossing would have been very expensive with low percentage of success.

Offensive Plan

The new situation required a different plan, revolving under surprise and crossing of the Irrawaddy Rivermarker for fighting major battles in the plains around Mandalaymarker and in the low hills of Meiktila. Since there was not enough equipment to make an opposed river crossing, Slim planned more than one crossing with adequate deception plans as to where the real assault in strength was to take place. It was decided to make sufficiently strong crossing North of Mandalaymarker to draw main enemy forces, while making the main crossing in the South of Japanese concentrations below Mandalaymarker. The revised plan pertaining to 7th Indian Infantry Division was IV Corps less 19th Division (7th Indian Division, 17th Indian Infantry Division, 28th East African Brigade, Lushai Brigade, and 255th Indian Tank Brigade) to move due South, down the Gangaw valley for nearly 300 miles, seize a bridgehead on Irrawaddy at Pokoku and then strike Southeast with mechanised forces at Meiktila and Thazi, with air maintenance.

7th Division Plan

Next operation across Irrawaddy Rivermarker, was to be a magnificent stroke of bravery and deception, that was to make possible the destruction of the Japanese army in Burma. This involved advance through Gangaw Valley and crossing of Irrawaddy Rivermarker at Nyungu. Thereafter a quick thrust to Meiktilamarker, capture of which was to cut off Japanese Army fighting in the North and Central Burma. The operation of the 7th Indian Infantry Division was initiated by 114th Indian Infantry Brigade by their move to Tamu, over a motorable road; constructing a stretch of 180 miles (over 280 Kilometres) of motorable road from Tamu Gangawmarker in 15 days 114th Brigade and Divisional Headquarters moving along the main axis Kaley Valleymarker road,. The advance was to begin on 19 January 1945 and the 7 Indian Infantry Divisional tasks were:

  • Advance and seize the Pauk area up to and including crossing of Yaw Chaung by not later than 1 February 1945.
  • To seize a bridgehead over the Irrawaddy between Chauk and Pokoku suitable for advance to Meiktilamarker by not later than 15 February 1945.


Battle of Pokoku

The Japanese had been defeated in the Battles of Kohima and Imphalmarker and offensive to destroy Japanese Forces North of Irrawaddy River was planned with a surprise crossing of the River. 7th Indian Infantry Division and other formations were to seize a bridgehead on Irrawaddy at Pokoku by 15 Feb 45 and move southeast with mechanised forces. Operations of 7 Division initiated by 114 Indian Infantry Brigade was led by 4/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles . The battalion left Merema on December 4, 1944, and reached the area on 3 February, 1945 and close to given objective Pokoku on February 5, 1945, after C Company (Major Beytagh) cleared the road. The Japanese shelled the troops from their positions in Kahnla, a village on the South Bank of the Irrawaddy.

On February 5, three companies of the 4/5th Gurkha Rifles, led by Captain Fisher, Major Brown MC* and the Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel J H Turner, made an encircling move on the village of Kahnla. One company moved further left and attacked from Northeast, after coming under intense Japanese attack, while a second Company forming up in Kahnla village for the attack from West; with Hotel Hour at 5-30 PM fought its way, overran half of the Japanese position, including a strong Medium Machine Gun (MMG) bunker. Not less than 30 Japanese were killed and many wounded, while two Medium Machine Guns (MMG’s), three Light Machine Guns (LMG's) and twenty rifles were recovered. One of the Battalion’s wounded was CHM Bhagta Bahadur Gurung, whose outstanding courage and leadership in this attack brought him a well-earned Indian Order of Merit (IOM). Major I M Brown MC was awarded one more Bar to MC (Military Cross). These were two of the 41 major awards won by the Battalion during operations in Burma Theatre during World War II.

Further reconnaissance on the 6th of February indicated remainder objective strongly held and on 7 February 4/1 Gurkha Rifles established firm base for the Battalion. On February 8, the Company led by Major Brown cleared another Japanese position, killing twelve and wounding three Japanese. The main attack planned for early morning hours of February 10, was pressed without any aerial support due to bad weather. The attack began with one Company and tanks from the 255th Indian Tank Brigade (Gordon Highlanders). By the afternoon, three troop companies with armoured support captured their objective. Unfortunately, the Commanding Officer of the battalion was killed in action during the assault. Resistance by Japanese position defended by a battalion was fanatical. One Prisoner of War (POW) was taken and 51 bodies counted. During night 10 February 1945, Japanese launched six unsuccessful counterattacks and on the night of 11 and 12 February 1945, they tried to infiltrate into the Battalion position, without success. On the night of February 13, troops of the 4/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles first occupied positions closer to Pokoku Village, called Sinlan, then proceeded to search and occupy Pokoku itself. With this operation, unique as it was, decimating nearly battalion strength of Japanese, the first stage of 7 Indian Infantry Division task was completed and foothold gained on the West Bank of Irrawaddy Rivermarker, for further operations. The operation was magnificent stroke of bravery and deception, making possible the next phase of offensive for the destruction of Japanese in Burma.

Irrawaddy River operations

After the 7th Indian Infantry Division had captured Pokoku, on February 14, the Allied forces crossed the Irrawaddy Rivermarker at Nyungu, North of ancient Burmese capital of Pagan. 7th Division's crossing was made on a wide front. Both the main attack at Nyaungu and a secondary crossing at Pagan (the former capital, and the site of many Buddhist temples) were initially disastrous. Pagan and Nyaungu were defended by two battalions of the Indian National Army's 4th Guerrilla Regiment, with one held in reserve. The 7th Indian division suffered heavy losses as their assault boats broke down under machine-gun fire which swept the river. Eventually, support from tanks of the Gordon Highlanders firing across the river and massed artillery forced the defenders at Nyaungu to surrender. At Pagan, the defending troops, the INA's 9th battalion, took a heavy toll offering resistance to the (1/11th Sikh Regiment) before they withdrew to Mount Popamarker.By February 20, most of the forces crossed the river and captured Meiktila, as planned. Capture Pokoku by 4/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles opened way for further operations of 17th Indian Infantry Division. On February 19, the 4/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles cleared an island, five miles long and three miles broad, in the Irrawaddy River, off Pokoku, which was interfering with forward movement.

On February 24, the Gurkhas moved south of Pokoku, crossed Irrawaddy River and took over part of Nyungu bridgehead. On February 25, a squadron of the 116th Regiment RAC (Gordon Highlanders),part of the 255th Indian Tank Brigade supported the assault of the battalion and the village was soon secured, in which seven Japanese including an officer were killed. Throughout the month of April, the allies continued to engage the Japanese in the area and this led to the capture of Letse and Seikpyu. On the morning of the 24th of April, leading troops were pinned down with heavy fire from a ridge with a prominent Golden Pagoda and a monastery. The objective was captured by a company of the 4/5 Royal Gurkha Rifles, under Captain G W Maycock, supported by heavy artillery concentration. Thirty-nine Japanese bodies were recovered. By 30 April Battalion secured Pwinbu and then moved to clear Japanese position at Pagan village. From 5th to 8th of May concerted assaults on Japanese positions were launched which a ring around the position from the South on 6th, roadblock in the rear of the Japanese on 7th and assault launched on Pagan Village on 8th.

Victory

While these subsidiary operations, minor in comparison, had been taking place West of Irrawaddy River, the Battle of Mandalay had been fought out. The Japanese had been decisively and finally beaten. The Japanese Army in Burma except for those still East of Sittang River had ceased to exist as an organised and integrated force. On 2 May 1945 Rangoon had been reoccupied and General Slim's plans had been brought to a triumphant conclusion. The monsoon was about to break and the next phase was to be a large scale mopping up operations. On 14 May the Battalion left Pagan for what it hoped would be a fairly permanent monsoon location. After several changes of location, the Battalion arrived at Allanmyo, forty mile North of Prome. Orders were soon received on 27 May to move to Prome for further operational tasks.

Irrawaddy was awarded as Battle Honour to the Battalion 4/5 Royal Gorkha Rifles

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