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Burma 1930 - 1947:

Armoured Formations 1944 - 1947

The use of armour in jungle warfare may seem difficult to achieve, but during the 1941 Burma campaign Stuart tanks of the 7 Armoured Brigade had been deployed in Burma with a degree of success. These tanks were instrumental in enabling the British forces to break out of Rangoon and also assisted in holding the Japanese advance on various occasions. However, as the Burma Army retreated up through the country, the terrain became more difficult for tanks. In the end, only one Stuart tank was brought out of Burma; the rest being lost for several reasons.

To see a pdf copy of the presentation I gave to the Burma Study Day at the Kohima Museum in 2018, please see:

In 1943, Valentine tanks belonging to 146 Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps were deployed to the Arakan during the first Arakan campaign. Unfortunately, a troop of three tanks became disabled during an attack on the entrenched Japanese positions at Donbaik, with all nine crew killed. The 1943 campaign in the Arakan failed in its objectives and showed that the British and Indian forces deployed in Eastern India were not yet capable of taking on and defeating the Japanese.

Meanwhile, India Command had raised its first armoured division with effect from 1 July 1940, with the 1 Armoured Brigade (ex 1 Cavalry Brigade), 2 Armoured Brigade (ex 3 Cavalry Brigade) and 3 Motor Brigade (ex Sialkot Brigade Area). The two British and twenty Indian cavalry regiments were still using horses when the Second World War commenced from a British perspective on 3 September 1939. Mechanisation was a slow process, as tanks were in short supply and significant training was required to operate and maintain armoured fighting vehicles. Right from their conversion, the main theatre for operation of Indian armoured formations was intended to be the Middle East. As the 31 Indian Armoured Division (it was renumbered to avoid confusion with the British 1 Armoured Division) reached a state of operational effectiveness, it was sent in tranches to Iraq and Persia. The 3 Motor Brigade was sent to Egypt where it was all but destroyed by the Axis advance in 1941.

A second armoured division was raised in India with effect from 15 September 1941, with the 4 and 5 Indian Armoured Brigades (later redesignated as 254 and 255 Indian Armoured Brigades). Redesignated as the 32 Indian Armoured Division, this formation was amalgamated with the 43 Indian Armoured Division on 1 May 1943. This latter formation had been raised on 15 August 1942 with 267 and 267 Indian Armoured Brigades. The new armoured division, the 44 Indian Armoured Division, mirrored the reorganisation of British armoured formations by having one armoured brigade (255) and one infantry brigade (268). These two formations were combined for the pragmatic reason that there was still of shortage of tanks and the Chiefs of Staff could not foresee the requirement to deploy three Indian armoured formations. Elements of the 44 Indian Armoured Division were deployed to Kohima in April 1944 as the 21 Indian Infantry Division, but the headquarters of that division later transformed into that of the 44 Indian Airborne Division.

As related above, the focus of the development of armoured fighting vehicles within the Indian Army was on their deployment to the Middle East. Despite the failure at Donbaik in 1943, some officers believed that there could be a role for tanks in the recapture of Burma. One of these was Major General Frank MESSERVY, who had returned to India having commanded two British armoured formations in Egypt and Libya. The arrival of American Stuart (light tanks armed with a 37 mm gun) and Lee tanks (armed with a 75 mm and 37 mm guns) at last gave the Indian and British armoured units a decent tank.

The opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of tanks came in February 1944 with the Battle of the Admin Box. The 7 Indian Division (now under command of Frank MESSERVY) was cut off and surrounded in four ‘boxes’, or defended localities. One such box contained mainly administrative units (hence its name), plus a battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment and the Lee tanks of the 25 Dragoons. The tanks proved extremely useful in both driving back Japanese attacks and counter attacking Japanese positions.

This led to the 254 Indian Tank Brigade (as it now was titled) being deployed to the Imphal plain in support of IV Corps. When the Japanese launched their main offensive in April 1944, the two regiments of that brigade proved crucial in the defence of the plain. In addition, as the Japanese surrounded the town of Kohima, cutting the one road between the base at Dimapur and Imphal, tanks from 50 Indian Tank Brigade were sent to Dimapur to support the 2 Infantry Division, and later the 7 Indian Infantry Division, in breaking the seige of Kohima and the eventual defeat of the Japanese 31 Division in the Battle of Kohima.

With the ability operate tanks in the most difficult of terrain proven, plans were prepared for the recapture of central Burma. This led to Operation Extended Capital, where XXXIII Indian Corps staged a diversionary crossing of the Irrawaddy river to threaten Mandalay, while IV Corps advanced secretly down the Kabaw valley to cross the Irrawaddy lower down. Then the 17 Indian Infantry Division with 255 Indian Tank Brigade under command struck out for the key nodal town of Meiktila. The capture of Meiktila and the fighting offensive defence of IV Corps caused the complete defeat of the Japanese in central Burma. Then followed two thrusts for Rangoon, both employing tanks.

Some tanks were used in the Arakan, during the invasion of Ramree Island, and the key landings at Myebon and at Kangaw. At Kangaw, a savage battle took place as the Japanese fought to extract themselves from being caught between the 82 (West Africa) Infantry Division advancing from the north and the block established by the 25 Indian Infantry Division. Again, the use of tanks proved decisive.

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