Just before Christmas, I finished writing a new book about a largely forgotten battle that took place in the Arakan in Burma back in February 1944. I can’t say how utterly fascinating it has been to delve in some detail into the war in the Far East and also to write about one of the most gripping and extraordinary battles I’ve ever come across. Think Rorke’s Drift, but swap the veldt for dense jungle and Zulus for fanatical Japanese. I’m not sure many people know much about the war in Burma – Bill Slim is still remembered, the battles of Kohima and Imphal are vaguely there in the consciousness as are the Chindits and the road to Mandalay. Otherwise, it’s all a little hazy. One battle that has been forgotten, though, is the Defence of the Admin Box, which is a great shame, as it is an extraordinary story. Really.
Back in February 1944, a rag-taggle collection of clerks, drivers, doctors, muleteers, and other base troops, stiffened by a few dogged Yorkshiremen and a handful of tank crews managed to hold out against some of the finest infantry in the Japanese Army, and then defeat them in what was one of the most astonishing battles of the Second World War.
The Defence of the Admin Box, fought amongst the paddy fields and jungle of Northern Arakan over an eighteen-day period, turned the battle for Burma. Not only was it the first decisive victory for British troops against the Japanese, more significantly, it demonstrated how the Japanese could be defeated. The lessons learned in this tiny and otherwise insignificant corner of the Far East, set up the campaign in Burma that would follow, as General Slim’s Fourteenth Army finally turned defeat into victory.
It is an amazing and thrilling story, and actually, more gripping than that of Rorke’s Drift, with a more justifiable enemy, and with every bit as many moments of extreme heroism. In this bitter battle of terrifying violence, there was incredible human drama: bloody-hand-to-hand fighting, daring airborne drops, valiant attempts to break the siege, increasingly desperate and suicidal charges by the Japanese, repeated breakthroughs that needed counter-attacking, tragedy, black humour and the ultimate triumph of the defenders.
The British battle against the Japanese had been one of failure and increasing frustration. Humiliatingly defeated in 1942, they had been pushed back out of Malaya and Burma all the way to the Indian border. Not until the following year, in 1943, did they attempt to seize back the initiative, and it ended in disappointment.
By the autumn of 1943, however, the combined British and Indian Fourteenth Army had been formed under the command of General Bill Slim, and in higher quarters, at any rate, there was renewed hope that in the coming dry season, they might finally push the Japanese back.
Slim was an inspired choice. From humble beginnings he had risen up through the ranks and had repeatedly proved his skill as a commander. On taking over Fourteenth Army he developed new doctrine for fighting in the jungle, which included establishing forward supply dumps which were to be held at all costs. His idea was that these dumps, or ‘boxes’, would be the anvil to the hammer of more mobile troops.
Pushing into northern Arakan, in the north-west of Burma, in January 1944, one such Admin Box for XV Corps was established in a clearing in the jungle to the west of the Mayu Hills and to the north of the crucial west-east Maungdaw-Buthindaung road.
Although XV Corps made initial gains, their advance was soon checked and with it came a horrible sense of déja vu. Morale in Fourteenth Army was low: the fighting men simply seemed unable to beat the Japanese in anything like a decisive way, not least because the enemy were able to move through the vast and difficult jungle terrain with much greater ease than the British and Indian troops.
One of the problems facing Fourteenth Army was how to supply their men at the front. Roads were almost non-existent and often little more than lines of viscous mud. Air drops did not work either because the Japanese air force controlled the sky.
Or at least, they did until January 1944. By this time, Spitfires had reached the Arakan and in a series of crucial air battles, the Japanese Zeroes and Oscars, their two mainstay fighters, were routed.
For the men on the ground, seeing Jap planes plunging down in flames into the jungle was a crucial boost to morale. In the battle of the Admin Box, regaining control of the skies would also be critical…
Having seen British intentions, the Japanese now decided the time had come to both strike back and deal the decisive blow, which would take them into India. With the elite 55th Division, General Hanaya Tadashi would attack the XV Corps positions and envelop and capture the supply base the British called the Admin Box. They would then feed off this and push further north. The British would then inevitably reinforce this part of the front, and so the whole operation, code-named ‘Ha-Go’ would draw in British reserves and act as a feint while a secondary and much large offensive swept around to the north and east and attacked through a much-weakened Imphal and Kohima.
Having seen British intentions, the Japanese
THE ADMIN BOX BESIEGED
General Hanaya attacked in two thrusts on 7 February, and immediately 5th Indian Division was pushed back, while outposts of the 7th Indian Division, the other side of a ridge of hills, were swiftly overrun. The Corps commander, General Frank Messervy, fell back with his headquarters to the Admin Box. The same morning, two squadrons of the 25th Dragoons, with Grant tanks, crossed over a hastily and roughly hewn route through the hills to the west known as the Ngakyedauk Pass to safely reach the Box. Also newly arrived there was the 2nd Battalion the West Yorkshire Regiment, some 750 men sent to reinforce the clerks, muleteers and other service troops now based at the Box.
None of those in the Box realized just how close the Japanese were, nor that already, by the evening of 7 February, the enemy had entirely surrounded the position. The defenders were now on their own.
That night, the Japanese attacked the Main Dressing Station, a makeshift field hospital on the edge of the Box, bayonetting many of the patients and dragging the doctors and medical staff with them back into the jungle and then butchering them. Their screams could be heard across the Box; only three men survived.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Rather than cowering at this atrocity, the attack at the hospital only strengthened the will of the defenders. Knowing what their fate would be if they gave in, they fought back with similar ferocity and in a series of long and bitter struggles all around the Box the following day, the Japanese suffered repeated set-backs. Brigadier Evans, commanding the Box despite the arrival of General Messervy the previous day, announced there would be a prize each day for the defenders who killed the most Japanese. One platoon of Yorkshiremen slaughtered over a hundred in one attack in which the regimental sergeant-major, Jim Maloney, fought off and killed a samurai-sword wielding enemy officer.
Over the ensuing days, attack after attack was repulsed. At one point, the Japanese bombers hit Ammunition Hill, a critically important jungle outcrop on which most of the Box’s ordnance was hidden and stored. Shells and ammunition began exploding and detonating and threatened the defenders’ supplies, but working parties were thrown into beating the conflagration and by the following morning it had been saved.
But reinforcements were on their way. Among the first to break through were men of the 1st Lincolnshire Battalion. After a long night march, they attacked through Japanese lines and only cleared a strong position when their commander, Major Charles Ferguson-Hoey, a Canadian, personally grabbed a Bren gun and led his men towards the enemy, firing from the hip and despite already being hit in the head and leg. He later died of his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
That same night, the 7th/2nd Punjabis and 2nd Scottish Borderers also broke through to the Box and with that, the battle finally began to turn.
FINAL JAPANESE ATTACKS
Such was the fanatical will of the Japanese, they continued to keep attacking, even though slowly but surely the defenders were now pushing out of the Box and assaulting the enemy positions in turn. On 22 February, a final suicidal attack was launched by the Japanese along a dried river bed already renamed ‘Blood Nullah’ by the defenders. Attack orders found on a dead officer showed that the enemy battalion had been reduced to just three officers and seventy-three men.
THE END OF THE BATTLE
With more air drops safely arriving, and with more men now reaching the Box, the battle had been won. All around the perimeter, in the nullahs and on the open ground, in the jungle and on the tree-lined knolls and hills around, more than five thousand Japanese dead lay bloated and rotting in the blazing sun. The stench was enough to make the hardest men gag. Vultures had massed in the trees and were feasting on the corpses below; the task now for the exhausted defenders was to bury the dead as quickly as possible.
The stunning victory against the odds at the Admin Box proved to General Slim and all the men of the Fourteenth Army that the Japanese were not invincible; they could be beaten. The key, as Slim had suspected, was to deny the Japanese any of their own British supplies. Hanaya’s men had attacked as they had always attacked: with minimal rations and intending to feed off captured food. Many of his men had barely eaten in days by the time the attack was called off. Holding ground was, as Slim had believed, absolutely vital in defeating the enemy. The Defence of the Admin Box had taught them vital lessons.
It also meant that the subsequent Japanese offensive at Imphal and Kohima met far stiffer defence than might otherwise have been the case, and with that crisis over, Fourteenth Army was able to head back into Burma and continue to push the Japanese ever-further south. The Defence of the Admin Box was thus the turning point in the war in Burma.
BURMA 44: The Battle That Turned the War in the Far East
published by Bantam Press in May 2016