Editors Note: In August 2016, Dr. Geoff Babb, an associate professor in CGSC’s Department of Joint Multinational and Interagency Operations, accompanied a 20-person element of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles on a battlefield study program to Burma (Myanmar). – This is his report.
I first traveled to Burma in 1984 as part of the United States Army Foreign Area Officer training program. This began my lifelong interest in the China Burma India (CBI) theater of WWII and the fascinating country of Burma now known as Myanmar. Some 32 years later it was my great good fortune and privilege to have an opportunity to return to Burma as a guest of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles (1RGR) currently stationed in Brunei. My role in their battlefield study program was as one of two civilian history subject matter experts. I provided the strategic, operational, and multinational context of the campaigns conducted from 1942-1945 for a group of 18 officers, sergeants, corporals and riflemen assigned to this storied unit of the British Army. Major John J. Jeffcoat, one of the unit’s company commanders, initiated the invitation to me. “JJ” recently attended CGSOC and the second year program at SAMS at Fort Leavenworth. He wanted an historian with knowledge of the CBI and of adult educational methods to be part of his team.
I began teaching at CGSC in 1991 and earned a doctorate in history in 2012 from the University of Kansas. My dissertation was on American Military Advisors to China from 1941-1951. My research included the role of the American military, the British Indian Army, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces in the fighting in Burma. The theme of the 1RGR battlefield study was “Defeat Into Victory,” the title of General William J. “Bill” Slim’s classic book about the efforts of the Allies in the CBI from 1942-1945. The battlefield study followed the three key periods of the book: defeat and retreat; training, re-equipping, and reorganizing; and finally, the successful defense along the eastern Indian border and subsequent offensive to destroy the Japanese military in Burma.
Note: The CGSC foundation supported my dissertation research trip in 2010 to key sites in China including visits to Chongqing, Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital from 1937-1945, and Hong Kong, captured from British forces in December of 1941.
(Click the image at right for a list of the sites we planned to visit and the planned classes.) The battlefield study began with the first major engagement of the conflict in the CBI, the Battle of Sittang Bridge. The failure to stop the Japanese attack and the debilitating losses among key British Indian Army formations at the Sittang River led to the fall of the key port of Rangoon in the spring of 1942. This severed the key line of communication to China and initiated a series of battlefield “defeats” that drove Allied forces back to India and China. Seven days and hundreds of miles later we returned to the Sittang River analyzing the June 1945 Battle of the Bend as part of the offensive campaign to retake Rangoon and gain a “victory” over the remaining Japanese forces out of Burma. I provided the overall context for the campaigns and battles, the other historian, Gavin Edgerly-Harris, curator of the Brigade of Gurkha’s Museum in Winchester, England, provided details of Gurkha units and individuals. The officers of 1RGR used individual battles and actions to teach and practice tactical planning and appropriate small unit doctrine.
The purpose of this article is to outline a British Army battalion-level “battlefield studies” program that uses historical campaigns and battles to educate and train its officer and enlisted leaders. The program uses adult learning techniques to facilitate: the understanding of the geography and the terrain; the study of selected battles in their strategic, operational, joint, and multinational context; and, an appreciation of the actions of units on the ground through readings on the historical events as well as applying current tactical doctrinal methods. This allows the participants to relive and replay key actions and decisions of leaders at all levels with an eye on how these campaigns and battles might be planned and fought today– from Army to platoon.
The program goes far beyond a terrain walk without troops or a battlefield tour. The ultimate focus is on building a tactically sound, cohesive leadership team that is not only aware of the historical legacy of British Indian Army units across the sweep of the campaigns in Burma, but also practices working through tactical doctrine and problem solving models. Outlined below are the key day-by-day activities we conducted that may provide some ideas for future unit extended battlefield studies to be conducted by the United States Army or by American soldiers invited to participate in a similar program with our British allies. The battlefield study was guided by daily advance sheets and included eleven “stands” or lecture-discussions, and group analytical and planning activities conducted over the eight days.
The twenty-person group assembled in Rangoon (Yangon) on Aug. 22, 2016, having flown in from Brunei, the United Kingdom and the United States. The updated advance sheets outlining the readings, requirements, and study questions were distributed. The two history SMEs, two company commanders, and the study second-in-command charged with the administrative aspects of the program had been in contact over the preceding two month building the required documents and selecting and assembling the readings and other materials. Of note: the unit brought a “black box,” a footlocker with butcher paper, markers, maps, posters, and the other accouterments needed to establish an ad hoc classroom setting at each site. Over the course of the study classes were held in a hotel lobby and on a hotel rooftop overlooking a battlefield; in a roadside hut; in an imperial palace foyer; in a Buddhist temple; on a railroad station platform; and on a small river craft retracing the route of an opposed river crossing. The study was facilitated by the extensive use of computer tools and aids to share readings, conduct on the spot research, and access on-line historical documents. Google Earth was a very useful tool to help determine locations and routes of march. The key activities of the battlefield study are outlined in the following paragraphs.
On the morning of Aug. 23, after a lecture and discussion in the hotel conference area on the strategic and operational situation that led to the Japanese invasion of Burma in February 1942, the group moved by bus from Rangoon to the site of one of the most tragic defeats in the early months of WWII. After gaining an appreciation of the area and the terrain from Rangoon to Waw, the group bused across Sittang River. After moving to some high ground overlooking the remains of the destroyed bridge to view the battle area, the group gathered in a hut on the river bank and discussed the readings on the battle and analyzed the key decisions of the battle were made. This was followed by an in-depth discussion of why and how the Japanese conducted their attacks in the area of the bridge and what, if anything the British India Army (BIA) forces might have done differently.
The group then walked across the post war constructed bridge to get an appreciation for the distance those soldiers who were trapped on the east bank after the bridge was blown had to swim to escape. (This included a Gurkha unit that suffered a significant number of losses.) The group then got on a bus for the overnight trip to Pagan (Bagan) an ancient capital with over 3000 pagodas and temples that is arguably the religious and cultural center of Burma. Of Note: Tour buses and local guides were contracted for all but the Pagan leg of the trip, which was conducted by regular commercial bus transport.
Arriving in Pagan on the morning of Aug. 24, we were met by our new guide and checked into the hotel for a brief rest and chance to freshen up. We then toured of the city and its cultural sites with a side visit to the river to look at a riverboat of the type that was used to transport military troops and equipment during the war. Later that day a lecture-discussions based on tailored readings were held focusing on the key aspects of the 1942 fighting retreat back into India and China, the initial defense posture along the India-Burma border, and a failed counterattack in the southern Arakan region. The discussion of the “defeat” aspect of the first six months of the war was a necessary and useful prelude to the follow-on classes on the second key theme, the recovery, rebuilding, reorganization, and training of Allied forces in India including the 22nd and 38th Chinese Divisions at Ramgarh in Bihar Province by American trainers and advisors under the direction of Joseph S. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell.
The second day in Pagan moved to a key aspect of the “victory” phase, the crossings of the Irrawaddy which happened in early 1945. While taking advantage of its current geographic location if not the chronology of events, the group boarded a small boat, for a class on opposed river crossings and a three hour journey up the Irrawaddy, the largest river in Burma, to Pakokku, the site of one of the key crossings. The 7th and 17th Divisions of the 4th Corps of Slim’s 14th Army both successfully crossed south of Mandalay and north of Pagan in early1945. From Pakokku we traveled by bus to Mandalay, crossing the Chindwin which is the third of the major rivers in Burma that played a major role in the conflict in that country. The 14th Army would begin its offensive to retake Burma by first crossing the Chindwin. (The Chinese forces were forced to deal with a fourth major river in Burma, the Salween.)
August 26 began in Mandalay with a lecture-discussion of the 1944 Japanese offensive into India. Their plan called for the destruction of the British Indian Army along the central India-Burma border and then a sweep south down the Brahmaputra River with the possibility of the bringing about the political collapse of India and the formation of an independent Indian government. (Indian National Army forces were operating with the Japanese in this offensive.) The key battles and decisions in the close run, but ultimately successful defense at Kohima and Imphal by Allied forces, were outlined and discussed. As with the previous lectures and discussion, the global and regional strategic situations were covered to set the stage as well as the operational situation in the CBI. This provided the context for a detailed examination of tactical fight and especially those Gurkha units that had been involved.
The second history SME in the group was Gavin Edgerley-Harris, the curator of the Brigade of Gurkha’s museum in Winchester, England. His focus was to bring the historical legacy of the units and men of the Gurkha Brigade to each and every lecture and battlefield visit. He brought detailed maps from the official history of the Indian Army in WWII and citations of individual Gurkhas in those actions covered by the study. With specifically selected documentation from archival sources, he not only highlighted the legacy of the units involved, but also described the heroic actions of Gurkha officers and men who participated in both the defeats and the victories in this theater. The actions of the forebears of these soldiers from Nepal brought home the service and decorated legacy of this long-serving element of the the British Army.
One of the highlights of the three days spent in Mandalay, another of Burma’s former capitals, was “Gavin Sahib’s” lecture on the genealogy of the Brigade of Gurkhas. From a high of 19 regiments with multiple battalions, the Brigade of Gurkhas now consists of the two battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Its immediate antecedent units are the 2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th Gurkha Rifles that were amalgamated in 1994. His briefing also pointed out the long service in Burma of the British Indian Army from the early 1800s until today. One of the visits conducted in Mandalay was to the 4th Burma Gurkha Regiment, a long lost relative of 10th Gurkha Rifles. A retired Burmese commanding officer was instrumental in allowing the group to visit its military base and spend time in their office’s mess viewing their historical documents, militaria, and honors. The pace of change in Myanmar as its military dictatorship attempts to include greater civilian involvement is significant. An expansion in tourism and greater openness to foreign economic ventures is changing the landscape, the infrastructure, and amenities.
A core activity for the battlefield study in Mandalay was the understanding of, planning for, and re-enactment of a platoon attack as part of the 4th Battalion, 4th Gurkha Rifles action to secure Mandalay Hill, an area that dominates the urban area from the north. The class again began with an outlined of the strategic and operational situation. The group then conducted detailed planning including an orders brief back. The group then moved to the line of departure of the platoon’s attack in March of 1945 and followed that unit’s likely route to the top of the hill. Once at the top the group paid its respects at a monument at the top commemorating the unit (4/4 Gurkha Rifles). From this vantage point they also surveyed the terrain for the next day’s battlefield study in the urban area to the south. Mandalay is the site of the palace of the last Burmese king and the site of a current Myanmar Army headquarters and base with government offices. During the conflict this site was called Fort Dufferin, a more that four square kilometer bastion named for a former British Viceroy of India.
The next morning, Aug. 27, began with a class conducted on the palace grounds (Fort Dufferin) covering the 14th Army’s strategic and operational situation at the end of the battles of Imphal and Kohima, that successfully defended against the Japanese attempt to invade India. The 14th Army’s two plans to go on the offensive and defeat the Japanese forces in Burma, Operations Capital and Extended Capital were then reviewed. The losses suffered by the Japanese 33rd Army in its ill-considered offensive, in addition to the growing allied strength, especially in armor and air power caused a change in plans (Extended Capital) for the crossing of the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy for the allied attack on Mandalay and Central Burma. The group discussed the battle for, and Japanese evacuation of, Mandalay with special emphasis on urban warfare tactics.
Later that day the group traveled up into the hills to the northeast to the city of Maymyo that had served as one of Slim’s headquarters during the retreat in 1942. It was also the site of a battle between Gurkha forces and the Japanese in March 1945. One of the highlights of this side trip was a visit to All Saint’s Church. The altar still bears a commemoration to the British India Army units that served there, including the 10th Gurkha Rifles, a direct forebear of 1RGR. This trip also provided a chance to look at some of the more mountainous terrain in northern Burma and a former hill station where British residents spent the summers to escape the heat of the plain. Several buildings remain that were headquarters or British military facilities before and during WWII. On note, the city (Maymyo) was named for a British general; however, its name has been changed and is now known as Pyin Oo Lwin. This city now sits astride an increasingly busy major land route to China from Mandalay—a distance of about 350 miles. The group returned to Mandalay that evening and prepared for the long trip back to Rangoon, but with a stop at the site of the Battle of Meiktila.
August 28 began with the movement to Meiktila about 70 miles south of Mandalay. This was the key battle striking the center of gravity of the Japanese Army in central Burma. The Japanese defeat during the month of March and early April 1945, turned the tide and enabled the “Race to Rangoon.” The 14th Army turned south as additional British forces prepared to attack out of the Arakan in the far south of the country. In the north the American Mars Force and the Chinese units with American advisors fought the remaining Japanese in Burma and began to move back to China to assemble for an attack to the east toward Hong Kong. Again, the actions of a Gurkha Regiment played a key role in securing Meiktila.
The group moved to the site where Slim had observed the battle and commented specifically on the combat “artistry” of the actions of the Gurkha unit. Air supremacy, infantry-armor teams, and fire support coordination was finely honed in the 17th Indian Division that was commanded by the same officer for the entire three years (Major General “Punch” Cowan). Slim had successfully transformed his 14th Army. It now had the initiative to quickly overcome the Japanese defenses and shape its future battles. This site visit was followed by the long trip back to Rangoon and preparation for the final battlefield tour. This daylight movement allowed for an appreciation of the terrain from Mandalay to Rangoon.
On Aug. 29, the group was joined by the Commander of 1RGR, Charlie Crowe, for its final battlefield tour. The group moved to a railway station two kilometers east of the Sittang River that would later be used to take the surrender of Japanese forces in the area. In June 1945, 4-8th Gurkhas were ordered to block the retreat of Japanese forces back across the Sittang River. The key activity of the group was to build battalion defensive plan and compare it with that of their forebear unit during the three-day battle. Again, the strategic and operational setting was discussed as well as the overall plan for the destruction of the remaining Japanese forces in Burma. The group was also joined by the British Defense Attache and a member of his staff for this battlefield exercise. A supporting attack in the Arakan and an airborne assault by a Gurkha parachute regiment west of Rangon were also discussed. This force actually got to Rangoon before the 4th Corps of Slim’s Army. While the surrender of Japanese forces would not happen for two more months, victory had been achieved.
On the morning of Aug. 30, the group traveled to the Taukkyan War Cemetery in Rangoon and conducted a wreath laying ceremony complete with a uniformed Gurkha bugler. This immaculately kept site provides the final resting place for over 6000 military personnel who served in Burma and was a fitting place to end the battlefield study. The graves of many Gurkha officers and soldiers who gave their lives for the defense of Burma along with those of many other British and Indian regiments is a reminder of the sacrifice of those soldiers who served in the units with a direct lineage to the 1RGR.
While we were there, a young couple in western dress was having wedding pictures taken in some of the memorial’s buildings. While on the one hand this detracted from the sense of respect, honor, and solemnity of the site, it is also a reminder of a modernizing Myanmar moving into the future, hopefully to enjoy the freedom these men died to engender. With the independence of Burma in 1948, its people were responsible for their own future, not one dictated by Japan. Whether the military government that still rules Myanmar today will continue a transition to greater freedom and democratic rule is yet to be determined.
After this event the group returned to our hotel for one last activity, a discussion of special operations forces in Burma during the war. The Chindits, Merrill’s Marauders, the Office of Strategic Services Detachments, and British officer-led guerrilla groups were discussed in terms of the role they played then and their legacy for special operations forces today. The group was then released for individual sightseeing around Rangoon. There was one additional place of interest for a military historian in the older part of the city. Gavin Edgerly-Harris and I visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral in downtown Rangoon. Within the church is a chapel dedicated to the British military that served in and defended Burma. All four walls of this side room display numerous regimental plaques commemorating the many British units that served in that country. The plaques of the Gurkha Regiments that served in WWII in Burma are on the walls of this chapel. For me this was a fitting end for this memorable battlefield study. I sincerely hope that programs of this type are in the future for United States Army units as it builds its leaders and units for a future certain to be complex, but also having continuities and legacies that stretch back to its past.