The Burma Campaign

3rd Burma Rifles

As part of the expansion of the post-war interim or new Burma Army, it was planned to raise a number of new Burma Rifles battalions.  These were to be manned by Burmans, as opposed to Karens, Kachins or Chins.  By the beginning of May 1945, the raising of the new units had been scheduled as part of a phased programme.  In Phase 3 the intention was to form two new Burma Rifles battalions, one of which was the 3rd Burma Rifles:[1]

- 1st Burma Rifles - to be raised at Meiktila beginning 1st June 1945, formed of Burmese personnel of the pre-war Army who had returned to their homes in 1942

- 3rd Burma Rifles - to begin forming after the completion of the 1st Burma Rifles and to be formed of former Patriotic Burma Forces (P.B.F.) officers and men.[2]

However, it was also recognised that a larger number of P.B.F. men might become available for enlistment and that additional Burma Rifles battalions would be needed to absorb them. Meanwhile the expansion of the new Burma Army continued.  On 4th August 1945, Major G.E. Thunder, then serving with the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment at Mandalay, was ordered to proceed to Meiktila en route for Simla prior to taking over his new appointment as the Commanding Officer, 3rd Burma Rifles.  In addition to the appointment of Thunder, certain other officers and unit clerks were also appointed at this time.  It was intended that the 3rd Burma Rifles would begin forming on 1st January 1946 at Syriam, near Rangoon.[3]  It is thought the 3rd Burma Rifles began to form after this date and before the end of 1945.  Thunder, now a Lt. Colonel, returned to Mandalay on 2nd November 1945.[4]

For the time being the British insisted that the commanding officers of the four new Burma Rifles battalions should be British.  However, in the 3rd and 4th Burma Rifles, two former P.B.F. officers, commissioned as Majors, were given the rank of Lt. Colonel and appointed as the unit Second-in- Command and Commanding Officer designate in February 1946.[5]

On 8th August 1946, the 3rd Burma Rifles was stationed at Syriam where it was joined by 2nd Lieutenant We Lin, formerly of the Patriotic Burma Forces, who had been attached to the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment since the end of February that year.[6]  Two Burmese Officers (P.B.F.), were transferred to the 3rd Burma Rifles from attachment to the 1st Chin Rifles on 13th August.  These postings were followed on 4th September 1946 by that of 2nd Lieutenant Maung Kyaw also from attachment to the 1st Chin Rifles.  Further postings from the 1st Chin Rifles followed on 10th September, being those of Lieutenant Ya Myint and 2nd Lieutenant Min Din.[7]

Throughout 1946, each Burma Rifles battalion underwent a 24 week basic training programme.  The programme was supplied by the Burma Regimental Centre together with a platoon of instructors.  A company of Gurkhas from the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion, The Burma Regiment was attached to each Burma Rifles battalion to perform regimental duties while the battalion completed training.  In the case of the 3rd Burma Rifles the attached company came instead from the 2nd Burma Rifles.[8]

The 3rd Burma Rifles became permanently stationed at Mingaladon and came to be known as the “Bodyguard Battalion”.[9]

Prior to independence all units of the Burma Army underwent “Burmanisation” by which process all remaining British officers and N.C.O.s left and were replaced by Burmese.  The first Burman Commanding Officer of the 3rd Burma Rifles was Lt.Colonel Kyaw Zaw who took command early in 1947.[10]

Although an accord reached between the British and the majority of Burmese leaders agreed on 28th January 1947 reduced tensions in Rangoon, trouble still occurred in Central Burma, stirred up by the Communists aiming to disrupt the elections for Ministerial Burma scheduled for April.  In some areas the 'dacoits' were actually in control and in February Aung San asked for help and the Burma Government requested a military operation.  This was Operation “Flush” and 'Flush Force' was assembled to undertake it.  In addition to British and Indian units, the force also included the 5th Burma Rifles and three companies of the 4th Burma Rifles under the Burman Lt. Colonel Ne Win.  The operation began on 2nd March 1947 and was deemed over on 2nd May.  The men of the 4th and 5th Burma Rifles performed well.  In May, other security operations took place in the delta area where the 3rd Burma Rifles also gave a good account of itself. [11]

In the first years of independence the Government of the Union of Burma faced armed opposition from a wide range of dissident groups: the Communists; the People’s Volunteer Organisation (P.V.O.) and ethic minorities, chiefly the Karens.  Despite the launch of a leftist policy to counter the Communists’ appeal, the government suffered a severe reversal in June 1948 when elements of the 1st, 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles mutinied, with some members defecting to the rebels.[12]

Steps were taken to remove the units affected by mutiny to locations remote from the area of operations.  The 1st Burma Rifles was one of the units removed from the operational area and the 3rd Burma Rifles at Mingaladon were not considered reliable enough to relieve them.  The 4th Burma Rifles was also taken off operations and sent to Moulmein.  The 5th Burma Rifles remained isolated on Akyab Island and the 6th Burma Rifles remained in the Pegu area.[13]

There were further major defections to the insurgent cause in August 1948.  Around 600 men of the 1st Burma Rifles in the Thayetmyo area deserted to the insurgents on 9th August.   They were followed the next day by part of the 3rd Burma Rifles at Mingaladon airport, together with most of the No. 3 General Transport Company, around 250 men in total.  The 4th, 5th and 6th were found to be unwilling to fight and suffered a trickle of deserters.[14]  Those of the 3rd Burma Rifles who defected were led by their commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Ye Htut.  He was Japanese trained and sympathetic to the Communist cause.  Many of the men who deserted were less than committed, having been persuaded by their officers to join the insurgency rather than any great personal motivation.  Morale was generally poor as witness the eventual fate of the men of the 3rd Burma Rifles.[15]

The 1st Burma Rifles had been removed from its operational area around Pegu to Thayetmyo where the mutiny occurred, extending the control of the insurgency to Thayetmyo town and the Prome and Tharrawaddy districts.  The 3rd Burma Rifles mutinied at Mingaladon and in the beginning occupied the Hmawbi and Wanetchaung areas.  The men of the two battalions attempted to collaborate to seize Rangoon by joining forces in the Hmawbi-Wanetchaung area before marching on the city.  However the plan came to nothing.[16]   

The 1st Burma Rifles were stopped at Letpadan by a combined force of Union Military Police and Levies, supported by the Burma Air Force.  The survivors withdrew to Prome.[17]  The deserters of the 3rd Burma Rifles also came under air attack and were dispersed into the Hmawbi-Tantabin area.  The Burma Air Force had considerable effect on the defeat of the mutineers of the 1st and 3rd Burma Rifles.  Cannon and machine gun attacks were made by Spitfires and improvised anti-personnel bombs were dropped by Auster aircraft.  The fear generated by aerial attack was such that the mutineers placed a price on the heads of the pilots.  Thayetmyo and Allanmyo were recaptured by government forces, forcing surviving elements of the 1st Burma Rifles to cross the Pegu Yomas to the Communist strongholds around Pyinmana and Toungoo.  The final defeat of the 1st Burma Rifles occurred when Prome was retaken from the north and south by the 2nd Karen and 1st Kachin Rifles respectively.  From the area around Hmawbi and Tantabin the remnants of the 3rd Burma Rifles were reported to have provided murder squads for infiltration into Rangoon.[18]  

Of those of the 3rd Burma Rifles who remained loyal to the Government cause, some saw action later in 1948.  In the Arakan (Rakhine State), the Muslim ethnic minority, the Rohingya, had sought to establish greater autonomy or even independence from Burma.  The newly independent government of the Union of Burma refused to grant this and local fighters, Mujahideen, subsequently began to attack police stations and soldiers in the area.  By June 1948 government control of the Arakan was reduced to the city of Akyab and most of the northern portion of the state was in the hands of the Muslim insurgents.  In September 1948 part of the 5th Burma Rifles was surrounded by the Mujahid rebels north of Sittwe and reinforcements were rushed from Rangoon to their aid.  After several weeks of fighting the 3rd and 5th Burma Rifles and the 1st Chin Rifles were successful in driving the Mujahideen back into the jungles to the north of the state.[19]

Simmering tensions and inter-communal strife flared into armed conflict between the Government and the Karen nationalists at the end of January 1949.  Major fighting between the Karen insurgents and Government troops occurred at Insein between January and May 1949 and in the Mandalay-Meiktila area between March and April.  By 2nd February Insein was occupied by around 2,000 troops  of the K.N.D.O. (Karen National Defence Organisation).   The 2nd Karen Rifles at Prome mutinied on 5th February and attempted an unsuccessful advance on Rangoon to help their brothers at Insein.  They were halted at Wetkaw Bridge near Letpadan by elements of the 3rd Burma Rifles led by Lt. Colonel Chit Myaung [Chit Myaing], together with other Government troops.  The Karens commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Mya Mg and some of his officers and men were captured and the rest dispersed, many of whom later made their way to Toungoo.  In February the 5th Burma Rifles were brought back from the Arakan to join the 3rd and 4th Burma Rifles and the 1st Chin Rifles battling with the K.N.D.O. at Insein.[20]

On 8th March 1949 the strength and location of the 3rd Burma Rifles who was reported as:[21]

- Battalion headquarters:   Sale Barracks, Rangoon
- Two platoons:   Maubin
- One company and three platoons:  Insein.

On the Pegu front in April, a Karen and Kachin column of around 2,000 men set off from Toungoo for Rangoon.  The column was delayed at Nyaunglebin for three days by the fierce resistance of the 2nd Burma Rifles.  Nyaunglebin fell on 20th April and the Karens resumed their march on Rangoon, taking Daik-U two days later.  They were halted at Pegu on 1st May 1949 by a force made up of a company from each of the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Burma Rifles together with two battalions of the Union Military Police (U.M.P.).  The rebels were forced to retreat to Toungoo which became the new headquarters of the K.N.D.O.[22]

Pegu District became a major battleground and the ensuing fighting became the most crucial of the Karen-Burmese war.  If the Karens had broken through the Pegu line and reached Insein, the Rangoon Government would have fallen to the K.N.D.O.  The fierce fighting is described by Colonel Bo Kyaw Zaw of the 6th Burma Rifles;[23]

 The enemy forces attacking Daik-U were nearly a thousand strong and well-armed and fully-equipped.  Our troops in the town were one company from our 6th Burma Rifles, a U.M.P. battalion headed by Major Aye Ngwe, and a Sitwundan battalion led by Major Wai Lin.  This combined force was under the command of Major Maung Aye.

I arrived there with one company from our 6th, two companies from the 3rd Burma Rifles led by Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing, and one Gurkha company from 4th Infantry Battalion [The 4th Battalion, The Burma Regiment].  And we positioned our forces on the Highway at the South of Daik-U.  Our plan that night was to hold the town and at dawn we would counter-attack the enemy from the left.

But just before dawn at four in the morning the Karens pushed heavily into the town and the troops couldn’t stand there anymore and had to withdraw.  Once the front line was broken we at the back had to retreat too and Daik-U fell at dawn.  The date was 24th April 1949.  We pulled back into a large village called Shanzu between Daik-U and Phaundawthi.  While Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing [sic] placed his forward command post at just south of the village I took my position at Phaungdawthi with two 25-pounder cannons.  The whole day the Karens tested our new frontline so many times just to find out our positions and strength.

After the dinner [on the night of 27th/28th April] I went to bed and was woken up by the arrival of a company from the 5th Burma Rifles now fighting in the Insein battle.  They arrived in four big trucks and Colonel Kyaw Zaw had sent them to us as a rare reinforcement.  I told them to continue on the highway and report to Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing [sic] at the Command Post a thousand yards ahead.

I then went to bed and again jolted out of the bed by the loud tat-tat-tats of machine gun fire. Time was close to four in the morning.  Then we heard our Sten gun fires from the command post only about a thousand yards away.  When we tried to call them by telephone the contact was suddenly lost as if the enemy had cut the wire.  The enemy was already between us and the Command Post and I had no infantry to protect the artillery.  So I ordered the 6-pounders to retreat to Letkhokekwin Village down south.

Amidst the dazzling rain in the early dawn darkness I then saw a small group slowly walking towards us.  They were Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing and four or five men.  They then told me that Captain Mon Htaw and most of our troops had fallen.  Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing also told me what happened exactly that morning [28th April 1949].

The company sent from the 5th Burma Rifles at Insein was placed as the reserve to the rear of the Command Post to take a decent rest since they were tired from the long journey and the tough battles back in Insein.  At 03:30 in the morning Karens started attacking the front line with just a small force while they sent their main force around our rear.  They overcame the reserve company with machine gun fire and quickly wiped them out by a brutal bayonet charge.  The Command Post with headquarters platoon and mortar platoon were lost in a short time.  More than 100 men including Captain Mon Htaw, 2nd Lt. Saw Lwin, and 2nd Lt. Ko Ko Lay were killed there and Karens had executed all the wounded.

The government forces suffered around 100 casualties, almost entirely from the 3rd Burma Rifles.   Later a memorial pagoda for the fallen was built at the site near Shanzu Village.  Private Hla Thaung was one of those killed while covering the retreat of his comrades.  He was awarded Aung-San-Thuria medal, the highest honour for bravery in Burma.  The Army later established a cadet regiment in his name at Mingaladon to train and educate the miscreant sons of army officers.[24] [25]

The strength of the government force defending Pegu was now two companies of the 3rd Burma Rifles, two companies of 6th Burma Rifles, a Gurkha company of the 4th Burma Regiment, some men of the U.M.P., an old tank, and a platoon of two 6-pounder anti-tank guns.  Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing set up a defensive position once more at Phayagyi village and Myat Htan placed his two 6-pounders at Letkhokekwin village, further to the South.  Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing and Major Tin Maung (Myat Htan), the latter being second-in-command of the 6th Burma Rifles, were commander and second in command respectively.  Major Myat Htan wrote of the aftermath of the fighting around Pegu;[26]

The battle of Pegu was over that day. We found 97 enemy corpses inside the village and captured over 100 of their Brens, Stens, and rifles. In the bottlebrush-bushes east of the village by the railway line the Karen corpse were so numerous we couldn’t even count. The K.N.D.O.’s back was broken there and our 6th and 3rd Burma Rifles were soon relieved by the 3rd Chin Battalion from Insein as the battle there was also nearly over.

A defensive position was taken up in the defile by the Moyingyi reservoir which was then attacked by the Karens on 30th April.  Despite some success in outflanking the government forces, losses forced the Karens to withdraw to Kadok Payagyi where they went on to the defensive.[27]

Fighting to clear the last insurgents in the Pegu District continued up until the end of 1949.  In December Government troops began an operation to clear all remaining K.N.D.O. forces between Rangoon and Pegu.  This final battle in the area took place at the village of Sarbutoun, near Hlegu. The forces involved included elements of the 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles and the newly raised 1st Battalion.  At dawn on 18th December the 6th Burma Rifles defeated the Karen defenders outside of the village.  The 3rd Burma Rifles and the 1st Infantry Battalion followed up and maintained the attack.  That evening the K.N.D.O. abandoned the village.[28]

In February 1950 a large scale operation called Operation “Thunder” was mounted to retake Toungoo, the K.N.D.O. “capital”.  The operation was led by Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw.  Under his command were the regular infantry battalions of the 1st and 3rd Chin Rifles, the 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles and the recently raised 5th Infantry Battalion.  There were also two battalions of Union Military Police.  This force was supported by a detachment of 25-pounder field guns, a tank force comprising a Sherman, two Stuarts, and assorted Bren Carriers (all assembled from scrapped vehicles abandoned by the British), engineer and supply troops.  The attack force gathered at Daik-U and on 18th February marched north towards Toungoo.  Blocking the way was a large and well equipped K.N.D.O. force entrenched at Pyuntaza.  The K.N.D.O. were supported by heavy weaponry including tanks, an armoured-train and 6-pounder anti-tank guns.[29]

The operation began unexpectedly well, taking the Government forces by surprise and finding them unprepared to exploit it.  After the action at Pyuntaza, at Pyu the Karens made a tactical error by being drawn by a feint attack which left open a heavily defended and well prepared position which fell easily to Government troops.  From then on only token resistance was put up by the Karens and the operation proceeded on the by now standard one or two company basis against very slight opposition.  Although the Government claimed to have inflicted very high casualties on the K.N.D.O., their own casualties were very light, only one officer killed and six other ranks wounded.  However the K.N.D.O. did lose heavily in terms of weapons and equipment.  Toungoo was re-occupied by Government forces on 19th March.[30]

In April 1950 there was much trouble in the Bawle Island and Danubyu areas however the situation was restored by troops of the 4th Burma Regiment in Bawle Island and the 4th Burma Rifles in the Danubyu area.  Later, on 10th June, there was a major attack by up to 300 Karens on Yandoon which was eventually defeated by the garrison with naval and air support.  Reinforcements were sent from Rangoon, possibly including a company of the 3rd Burma Rifles after which the intensity of the fighting declined.[31]

After the withdrawal of troops in February 1949 to face the Karen revolt, the situation in the Arakan deteriorated once again.  With little more than paramilitary levies to oppose them, the insurgents advanced southwards.  By early 1950 the rebel bands were astride the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road, and were once more raiding as far as Godusara; in April they drove the Government’s forces from Bawli Bazaar, the principal village north of Maungdaw.  In 1951 the authorities seem to have abandoned all hope of regaining the country north of the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road and to have contented themselves with trying to prevent the rebels from raiding southwards.  In July of that year the 3rd Burma Rifles, composed largely of Arakanese who were formerly enlisted as levies, were redeployed so as to provide additional posts south of Maungdaw and Buthidaung towns; and these measures seem to have prevented raiding southwards, though the rebels were still able to impede the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road, where on one occasion they tried to blow up the tunnel at the 8th mile.[32]

18 March 2018

[1] WO 203/503

[2] The original document lists this battalion as "2 Burma Rif" however the existing 2nd Burma Rifles that had served with distinction with the Chindits was retained.  It was reorganised, with all non-Burmese personnel being posted away, and sent from Hoshiarpur to Burma, arriving at Rangoon on 14th January 1946.  It is assumed that the battalion referred to in the original document (WO 203/503) was that eventually raised as the 3rd Burma Rifles.

[3] Burma Army, WO 203/1766; War diary 2nd Burma Regiment,1945, WO 172/7802

[4] WO 172/7802

[5] “Epilogue in Burma, 1945-48”, McEnery J.M., Spellmount (1990); War diary 4th Burma Rifles, WO 172/10326

[6] War diary 2nd Burma Regiment, WO 172/10320

[7] War diary 1st Chin Rifles, WO 172/10329

[8] Epilogue in Burma; Historical summary of the 4th Burma Rifles, WO 268/161; WO 172/10326

[9]The Union of Burma”, 4th edn., Tinker H., OUP (1962)

[10] "Tedim to Yangon, Background and Record of The Moong Family", Khen Za Moong, (1995)

[11] Epilogue in Burma

[12]   “A Guide to Intra-state Wars: An Examination of Civil, Regional, and Intercommunal Wars, 1816-2014”, Dixon J.S., Sarkees M.R., CQ Press, (2015).

[13] The Second Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th June 1948, DEFE 7/863

[14] The Third Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th September 1948, DEFE 7/863; “Review of the Situation in Burma”, British Services Mission, 14th September 1948, DEFE 7/863

[15] “Review of the Situation in Burma”, 14th September 1948, British Services Mission, DEFE 7/863

[16] “Review of the Situation in Burma”, 14th September 1948, British Services Mission, DEFE 7/863

[17] The Third Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th September 1948, DEFE 7/863

[18] “Review of the Situation in Burma”, 14th September 1948, British Services Mission, DEFE 7/863

[20] Guide to Intra-state Wars; Burma in Revolt; Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography; Outbreak of the K.N.D.O. and M.N.D.O.; "Tedim to Yangon, Background and Record of The Moong Family",  Khen Za Moong, (1995)

[21]Review of the Civil War in Burma”, British Services Mission, 21st March 1949, DEFE 7/864

[22] Guide to Intra-state Wars; Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography; Tinker

[23] This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the C.P.B. website and made available in a series of posts at Hla Oo’s Blog under the title “Burma in Limbo” (Hla Oo's Blog).

[24] Private Aung San Thuriya Hla Thaung, died 28 April 1949.  A solider of the 3rd Burma Rifles (Bama Thenatkaing Tatyin - Tha Na Ka) (Serial 88865) was a recipient of Aung San Thuriya Award, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry and bravery in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to members of Myanmar Armed Forces.  He won the award at the Battle of Daik-U during the fight against of Karen insurgency in Myanmar.  On the early hours of 28th April 1949 at the Daik-U battlefront, the Headquarters Company of the 3rd Burma Rifles Battalion was encircled by the attacking K.N.D.O. forces in much greater strength and supported by artillery.  Private Hla Thaung fought back gallantly against the insurgents in defence of the HQ Company.  He fought with bravery and risked his life while killing large numbers of enemy troops and halting the enemy advances towards the position of the HQ Company.  Holding a Bren Gun in his hand, firing non-stop to hold off the enemy until his last dying breath, Private Hla Thaung provided covering fire for the troops of the 3rd Burma Rifles, allowing his comrades to retreat safely from the encircled position.  He fell during this battle and when his comrades found his body after the battle, his fingers were still tightly gripped around the trigger of his Bren Gun. He was awarded Aung San Thuriya medal (Order No. 10/A Htoo/50) for his selfless valour, sacrificing his life in order to save the lives of his comrades and bravery in face of superior number of enemy forces.  Before the battle of Daik-U, Private Hla Thaung fought bravely against the insurgents in the battles of Rakhine Yoma, Irrawaddy Delta Region, Zeegon, Wetkaw and Insein  (Wikkipedia - Hla Thaung, retrieved August 2016).

[25] Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography

[26] Myat Htan’s autobiography, extracts published in “Burma in Limbo”, retrieved August 2016

[27] The Second Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission, 30th June 1949, DEFE 7/865

[28] Myat Htan’s autobiography

[29] Myat Htan’s autobiography; Tinker; The First Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission, 31st March 1950, DEFE 7/866

[30] First Quarterly Report 1950, DEFE 7/865

[31] The Second Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission, 30th June 1950, DEFE 7/867

[32] “The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan”, FO 371/101002 - FB 1015/63