Following the Japanese Army’s failure to break through to the rail links at Kohima they began a long and harrowing retreat SW towards the railhead at Kawlin and back across the Irrawaddy River. Their retreat was made worse by a complete collapse of their ever fragile logistics train and it was a ragged half-starved collection of units that finally made it across the river.
One of the units following up was the Indian 2nd Division and this describes one of their patrols in pursuit and their involvement in a short skirmish north-west of Kawlin.
It is Thursday afternoon on July 6th 1944. Cpl. John Alexander checks his watch as he leads his eight man section of the Border Regiment through the jungle to the south east.
Three thirty-five, a couple of hours before teatime,’ he murmurs to himself.
Cpl. J Alexander (Thompson .45)
L/Cpl. Forrest (Sten gun)
Pte. Brough (SMLE)
Pte. Gregson (Bren gun)
Pte. Hutton (SMLE)
Pte. MacGregor (SMLE)
Pte. Ross Medic (SMLE)
Pte Wilson (SMLE)
Cpl. Alexander orders L/Cpl. Forrest to lead a scouting party of three to stand of trees (A). L/Cpl Forrest sneaks across leading Ptes. Brough and Wilson. They are about halfway across when they come under rifle fire from some Japanese in stand of trees (B) It is largely ineffectual and the three scouts reach (A) where they start to return fire. In the meantime, hearing the firing, Cpl. Alexander leads the rest of the patrol towards the paddy field with a view to supporting the scouts with fire from there.
Although entering the paddy field area is easy enough the patrol struggles through the morass made heavier by the recent monsoon and the stronger members have frequently to go back and help the the two younger recruits through. As they struggle forward they hear the sounds of firing change with the louder Lee Enfields predominating and the sharp bark of the Japanese 8mm Arisaka rifle sounding only occasionally.
L/Cpl. Forrest becomes aware that the firing from the stand of trees is dropping off and is faced with a life or death dilemma. Does the rifle fire mean that the Japanese in the trees have been hit or have they retreated leaving one soldier to cover? More worryingly, have they left one rifleman to draw his fire while the other two are circling round to his left with grenades? As a 20 year old soldier with less than a year in the army who had never been out of his native Northumberland before basic training at Catterick and being shipped out to Burma, and whose only previous employment was working in a bicycle shop in Ashington, the burden of decision making lies heavily upon him. He orders Brough and Wilson to continue firing while he crawls to the left and watches for the remaining Japanese.
The rest of the patrol finally reaches the edge of the swampy paddy field and Cpl. Alexander gets the Bren gun crew to cover the tree line while he crawls stealthily forward with Ptes. Hutton and MacGregor towards the trees at (B). The scouts fire dwindles as they get closer but suddenly there is a burst of rifle fire from the trees beside the ploughed field and in retaliating one of the scouts is hit immediately. There seems to be at least half a dozen enemy rifles in the trees. Cpl. Alexander tells MacGregor to throw a grenade into the stand of trees ahead (B) while he throws a smoke bomb in between his group and the trees. The HE grenade goes off but the smoke one doesn’t. Cursing, he throws another smoke bomb which also doesn’t explode. He orders everyone to stay still and gets MacGregor to throw one of his smoke bombs. This works perfectly and Alexander motions the patrol forward.
Enemy fire from beside the ploughed field continues to lash the trees where the scouts have gone to ground as the patrol eases into the stand of trees (B) where they find one dead Japanese. Cpl. Alexander gets his people into position - especially the all-important Bren Gun. At his signal all five of the patrol cut loose at the enemy position beside the ploughed field and a gratifying hail of fire sweeps the area. They continue to fire for several minutes while the return fire dwindles then ceases. There are some shouts from the tree line at which Pte. Gregson empties another magazine in their direction. There is no return fire.
In the silence that follows Cpl. Alexander ponders the orders given before the patrol and tries to apply them to his present situation. There is - or there was - a group of Japs in front of the ploughed field who are now suppressed, dead, retreated or waiting in ambush. He has three scouts at tree stand (A), one of which is wounded or dead. There are two Japanese riflemen who were in his present position but whose present whereabouts are unknown.
The nearest radio is 2 miles back with Lt. Forrester at platoon HQ so Corporal Alexander is forced to adapt to a tricky tactical situation. After thirty seconds of thought he tells Gregson to give the ploughed field tree line a going over with a couple more Bren mags and then turn to cover the ruined hut up ahead while he and the two others sneak up to it. After the Bren fire and with no return fire, one of the scouts shouts over asking to help his wounded mate back to platoon HQ. Cpl. Alexander agrees and tells the remaining scout, L/Cpl. Forrest, to pull back to the original tree line then crawl up to join the patrol via by moving to the right of - but not through - the paddy field.
L/Cpl Forrest makes it to the patrol’s position without incident. Leaving the lance jack in charge of the Bren crew Cpl. Alexander takes two men and crawls to the hut, which they reach without attracting any fire. It seems deserted although there are some signs of recent use; they get a bit of a scare as a goat walks past the far doorway. They head back to the tree stand where the rest of the patrol are with a pause for suspected movement which turns out to be a false alarm - the goat again.
Cpl. Alexander sets the Bren crew up aiming at the ploughed field area overseen by the lance jack. Collecting a couple of grenades each and he, MacGregor and Hutton crawl towards the round rice patch while the Bren sweeps the tree line once more. Despite the short distance Mac and Hutton seem reluctant to get closer to the ploughed field and Cpl Alexander tries to gee them up by whispering ‘Let’s get this done and we're finished for the day'. After a few seconds more they are in place. There is no sign of life and the Bren is firing away in short bursts.
Cpl Alexander tells them to each throw a grenade - 'when the Bren changes mags, you each throw a grenade'. They wait and as the Bren ceases briefly they each throw their grenades. Three loud explosions are followed by yet another spray of Bren fire for good measure. Corporal Alexander shouts ‘Cease fire’ to the Bren crew and he and the two men creep forward to the tree line. There they find a shabbily dressed dead Jap at the edge of the trees. They keep moving forward and find another dead Japanese further in, plus another very badly wounded; both are in threadbare uniforms.
After checking that the badly wounded Jap isn't nursing a grenade Alexander tells the medic, Pte. Ross, to treat him if possible. Japanese prisoners are quite a rarity for a variety of reasons. The wounded man seems to have NCO badges but Ross says he's on his last legs unfortunately. Alexander asks Ross how long before the wounded Jap goes and Ross tells him ‘Minutes probably.’ Alexander says ‘Okay, we'll wait’. They sit and drink tepid water from their chaggles and talk quietly and about ten minutes later the enemy NCO dies without opening his eyes.
Alexander and Ross search the bodies for any info, notes or maps, but they are a poor lot. They have little ammo, little food. Just a few letters, and a notebook on the NCO. Alexander takes what papers there are and the section heads back to platoon HQ a couple of miles back.
Cpl. Alexander checks his watch again - it is three forty-five.
A few minutes later. L/Cpl Forrest’s group came under fire from a group of Japanese in the trees around the ploughed field, Pte Brough is wounded and the other two are suppressed. However, in the meantime Cpl Alexander’s group have reached the stand of trees and open a devastating volley of fire in return.
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