The Burma Campaign

4th Burma Rifles

The nucleus of the new 4th Battalion, The Burma Rifles arrived at Prome on 22nd December 1945, ready for the Battalion to be formed by Lt. Colonel G.R.A. Vallance.  The Battalion was a Burman battalion, with the majority of recruits being former members of the Patriotic Burma Forces (P.B.F.).  At this time Prome was occupied by the 82nd (West African) Infantry Division.  With Lt. Colonel Vallance, there were two British Officers and more arrived in the first week of January 1949 bringing the total to six.  On 5th January a company of instructors arrived from the Burma Regimental Centre, Hoshiarpur, India.  This company, from the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion, had a strength of four Governor's Commissioned Officers (G.C.O.), 72 N.C.O.s and four Gurkha other ranks.  The next day six newly commissioned officers of the former Patriotic Burma Forces arrived.  The number of recruits for the Battalion was 75.  A "hard core" of eleven experienced warrant and non commissioned officers joined the Battalion on 8th January 1946 from the 25th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment.  On 18th February work began to build a new camp for the Battalion however on 12th March a new site was chosen in the 82nd (West African) Divisional Artillery area at Milestone 173 on the Prome-Shwedaung road.  It was expected that the new camp would be ready by 1st May.  By the end of February the Battalion strength was reported as: 35 Officers; six G.C.O.s; 192 Indian Other Ranks (Gurkhas); 236 Burma Army Other Ranks.[1]

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.  In the 4th Burma Rifles this was Lt. Colonel Ne Win.[2]

Recruiting of Burman soldiers was slower than expected and on 14th March the 4th Burma Rifles was ordered to send small recruiting parties to the Arakan and to the delta.  That day a party was sent to Tharrawaddy and Thayetmyo and another was sent to the delta to report to the 2nd Karen Rifles.  The next day another party left for the Arakan.  Work on the new camp began on 22nd March and on 28th March it was reported that recruits were "coming in fast" from Tharrawaddy.  At the end of March the Battalion strength was: 24 British Officers; four British Sergeants; 39 British Lance Corporals; six G.C.O.s; 199 Indian Other Ranks; 297 Burma Army Other Ranks.  On 8th April the Inspector General Burma Army issued a directive that all recruits not of the P.B.F. were to be sent to the 1st Burma Rifles at Meiktila.  As a result, between 10th and 12th April 149 men were sent to Meiktila.  These men would have been former members of the Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police who had served with the British before and during the war with Japan whereas members of the P.B.F. served with the Burma National Army on the side of the Japanese until late in the war.  On 28th April recruits from the Arakan arrived with the Battalion at Prome and at the end of the month the number of Burma Army Other Ranks on strength was 397.  Two additional parties of recruits arrived from the Arakan, the last of these on 3rd May.  On 10th May, a further 22 non-P.B.F. recruits were sent away from the Battalion, the men being sent to the Burma Regimental Centre at Myingyan.  Training continued within the Battalion area and parties of officers left to attend various courses throughout the period.  On 16th May, fourteen instructors arrived from the 1st Karen Rifles: one Subedar; two Corporals; seven Lance Corporals; four riflemen.  Work on the new camp continued.  By the end of May the number of enrolled men (Burman other ranks) with the Battalion was 762.  In June, the Battalion moved to the new camp site.  In July work began to complete an assault course.  Nine Japanese Surrendered Personnel (J.S.P.) began work on this project on 8th July and the work was completed on 23rd July.[3]

In July 1946, it was thought that the 4th Burma Rifles would move from Prome to Magwe, some time after October 1946 and when the required level of training was reached.  However it appears that this move never occurred.  On 2nd August, 2nd Lieutenant Ko Gyi was posted to the battalion from the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment to which he had been attached for training.[4]

The Battalion was formed of four rifle companies of Burman troops with a company of Gurkhas from the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion, The Burma Regimental Centre, attached.  This company was used to undertake regimental duties while the remainder of the 4th Battalion continued with its training.  The training consisted of a 24 week programme of basic training, the programme and a platoon of instructors being provided by the Burma Regimental Centre.  Each company followed the training programme and started at different dates.  By the end of August 1946, 'A' and 'B' Companies had completed the 24 week basic training.  In the beginning training was difficult as many of the instructors did not speak Burmese well but the situation improved later when Burman N.C.O.s took over, having completed courses in Meiktila and Maymyo.[5]

On 8th August 1946, the 4th Burma Rifles at Prome  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]

Training reached an advanced stage in August with a three day battle drill demonstration given by the 7th Battalion, The Baluch Regiment.  The demonstration was attended by the Commanding Officer, officers and N.C.O.s of the 4th Burma Rifles.[7]

The time came to put the new Burma Rifles battalions to the test.  On 25th August, it was decided to send a company sized detachment from ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies of the 4th Burma Rifles on internal security duties to Thayetmyo under the command of the 4th Battalion, The Border Regiment.  This detachment left mounted on DUKWs by road for Thayetmyo two days later.  They returned from internal security duties at Thayetmyo on 5th and 6th October 1946 having performed well.[8] 

Some much needed motor transport was received by the Battalion on 4th September when four 15cwt trucks were received from Rangoon from the 26th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment which disbanded during the month.[9]

A general strike began on 23rd September 1946, and 'C' Company was designated to undertake internal security duties in Prome, with Company Headquarters at the railway station.  'D' Company remained under training and completed this during the third week in November 1946.  On 31st December 1946, the unit strength was 30 officers and 665 other ranks.[10]

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 4th Burma Rifles was Lt.Colonel Ne Win who took command early in 1947.[11]

The 1st Burma Brigade was formed at Prome in January 1947 and it is likely that the 4th Burma Rifles came under command of the new brigade.  The Battalion had been visited on 2nd December 1946 by Brigadier General Smeeton, Commander of the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, who gave a talk to all officers present about the new brigade.[12]

In February 1947, there was an incident within the 5th Burma Rifles involving the refusal of Burman officers to order their men to assemble on parade.  The incident was labelled a mutiny and the Commanding Officer of the 5th Burma Rifles, Lt. Colonel Roper, was later replaced by an officer from the 4th Burma Rifles, who was thought to be more popular.[13]

The 4th Burma Rifles next went into action in March 1947 amidst the political and ethnic conflicts that were a major feature of the approach to Burmese independence.  Although an accord reached between the British and the majority of Burmese leaders, agreed on 28th January 1947, reduced tensions in Rangoon, trouble continued to occur in Central Burma, stirred up by the Communists aiming to disrupt the elections for Ministerial Burma scheduled for April.  In some areas the 'dacoits', mostly Communist sympathisers, were actually in control.  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 Lt. Colonel Ne Win.  The intention was to use most of the force to flush out the 'dacoits' in an encircling drive north from Pegu, with a British battalion lying in wait for them at Tatkon, ready to cut off their escape.  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.[14]

Beginning in November 1947, the British commanding officers of the Burma Regiment and Burma Rifles battalions were replaced by the Burmese commanding officers designate.  Lt. Colonel Ne Win, former Commanding Officer of the 4th Burma Rifles, was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed commander of the North Burma Sub-District.[15]

Conflict in the new state of Burma was never far away and there were lingering resentments amongst the Communist rebels, some of this as a result of the treatment they felt they had received at the hands of the Burma Army.  The 4th Burma Rifles under the command of Lt. Colonel Ne Win were accused of acting with unnecessary harshness and of stealing from the rebel villages.  Government repression began to force the Communists into civil disobedience, strikes and mass protests.  On 27th March 1948 the government ordered the arrest of the Party’s leaders but most escaped and organised cadres in rural areas.  Armed fighting broke out on 2nd April 1948 and at first was mainly concentrated in the Pegu district whilst spreading throughout Central and Upper Burma in Myingyan and Toungoo, near Bassein in the delta and in the Arakan.  By May pitched battles were being fought between Communist insurgents and the government forces.[16]

Despite the launch of a leftist policy to counter the Communists’ appeal, the government suffered a severe reversal in June when elements of the 1st, 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles mutinied, with a few members defecting to the rebels.  Agitators had undermined the reliability of the 2nd Burma Rifles and the only Burma Rifles battalion the government could depend upon with confidence was the 4th Burma Rifles.  However these claims were disputed by the British Services Mission, Burma, who at the time believed that the 2nd Burma Rifles, manned by mostly veterans of the two Chindit campaigns, was the most dependable of the Burma Rifles.  The claim for the reliability of the 4th Burma Rifles may stem from the fact that it was once commanded by General Ne Win, then commander of the North Burma Area and who in 1962 seized power in Burma (by then Myanmar) in a coup d’état.[17]

The reliability of the 4th Battalion is further called into question given the dispersal of the Burma Rifles battalions following the mutinies.  Steps were taken to remove both the units affected by mutiny and the remaining Burma Rifles battalions to locations remote from the area of operations.  The 1st Burma Rifles was removed from the operational area.  The 3rd Burma Rifles at Mingaladon was 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 were in the Pegu area.  The mixed class battalion, the 2nd Burma Rifles formed from Karens, Chins and Kachins many of whom had served with the British and on the Chindit operations of 1943 and 1944, were felt to be more reliable.[18]

Worse was to come with major defections to the insurgent cause in August 1948.  The 1st and part of the 3rd Burma Rifles deserted to the insurgents on 9th and 10th August.  The 4th, 5th and 6th were found to be unwilling to fight and suffered a trickle of deserters.  They were kept in being on the government side by being posted to garrison duties away from the contested areas.  During July and August 1948, two companies of the 4th Burma Rifles were sent to Bassein to deal with disorder in the Delta area.  The 5th Burma Rifles were effectively isolated on Akyab Island.[19] 

Immediately after the Communist rebellion of March 1948 paramilitary police reserve units called Sitwundan (literally “military burden carrier”)[20] were raised by the government under Kyaw Nyein’s Home Ministry as per the power given by the Burma Police Act (1945).[21]  The purpose of the Sitwundan was to attack the Communists and the Karen National Defence Organisation (K.N.D.O.).  More than 150 Burmese officers and other ranks from the 4th and 5th Burma Rifles loyal to Kyaw Nyein’s Burma Socialist Party were initially attached to the Sitwundan units for organizational and training purposes.[22]

It seems that the 4th Burma Rifles was also involved directly in the growing inter-ethnic strife.  In January 1949, in one act of tit-for-tat violence, the 4th Burma Rifles burnt the American Baptist Mission school at Maubin, possibly in response to a raid by the K.N.D.O. on the armoury at Insein and the treasury at Maubin.[23]

The conflict between the Burman government and the Karens boiled over in January 1949.  On 27th January, Pyu and Toungoo fell to the K.N.D.O.  Bassein was attacked the same day but remained in government hands after stubborn resistance by the garrison which included two companies of the 4th Burma Rifles.  Elsewhere fighting for Insein, the largely Karen suburb north east of Rangoon, began on 31st January.  Later, Meiktila, Maymyo and Mandalay fell to the Karens.  Henzada and Nyaunglebin were surrounded but held out.  In the Delta, Twante and the surrounding area were occupied and the Twante Canal blocked.  Large numbers of Karens operated in the area of Pada, Sabudaung, Paunggyi, Tongyi, Thandaung and Mawchi.  Communications between Rangoon and Mandalay were cut.  Pro-Karen troops of the 1st Kachin Rifles assisted in the capture of Meiktila and Maymyo and held the area between Meiktila and Toungoo.  The 1st Karen Rifles and other K.N.D.O. men held the area from Toungoo south to Nyaunglebin.[24]

Throughout this period it seems that at least the bulk of the 4th Burma Rifles remained in the Delta area.  On 8th March 1949 the 4th Burma Rifles deployments in the Delta were:[25]

- Battalion Headquarters:   Maubin

- One platoon and one 3-inch mortar detachment:   Pantanaw

- Two rifle companies:   Bassein.

The Karens launched a major advance on Rangoon from Toungoo in late April.  The force numbered between 500 and 1,000 former Karen and Kachin regular soldiers, supported by an equal number of K.N.D.O.  Nyaunglebin was taken on 26th April, followed by the capture of Daik-U two days later.  Faced with the seriousness of this situation the government flew the 3rd Chin Rifles down from Meiktila to strengthen the Pegu defenders, who consisted of a company from each of the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Burma Rifles.  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.[26]

The fighting at Insein continued until 22nd May when the surviving Karens were forced out across the Hlaing River from where they escaped out into the Delta.  Government troops had regained control of Insein after a siege lasting 112 days.[27]

Near the end of June 1949, the 2nd Chin Rifles began an offensive against the K.N.D.O. in the Delta with the objective of clearing the Twante canal.  By 1st July the battalion had cleared the canal to the 19th milestone and by 14th July the operation was complete.  On this date the 2nd Chin Rifles linked up with the 4th Burma Rifles at Maubin.  It was hoped that the K.N.D.O. east of Maubin would now surrender however they did not despite much publicised negotiations.[28]

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.[29] 

19 November 2017

[1] War diary of the 4th Burma Rifles, WO 172/10326; Quarterly Historical report of the 4th Burma Rifles, 1946, WO 268/161.

[2] “Epilogue in Burma, 1945-48”, McEnery J.M., Spellmount (1990); WO 172/10326

[3] WO 172/10326

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

[5] Quarterly Historical Report of the 4th Burma Rifles, 1946, WO 268/161

[6] WO 172/10320

[7] WO 172/10326

[8] WO 172/10326; WO 268/161; Epilogue in Burma.

[9] WO 172/10326

[10] WO 172/10326; WO 268/161

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

[12] Epilogue in Burma; WO 172/10326

[13] "Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma", Callahan M.P., Cornell University Press (2003)

[14] Epilogue in Burma

[15] “Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces Since 1948”, Maung Aung Myoe, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2009).

[16] "Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948”, Lintner B., Silkworm Books (1999); “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).

[17] A Guide to Intra-state Wars; The Second Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th June 1948, DEFE 7/863

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

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

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

[21] In latter half of 1948, the Burmese government began raising and arming irregular political militias known as Sitwundan. These militias were under the command of Major General Ne Win and outside the control of the regular army.  In January 1949, Sitwundan units were responsible for several outrages against Karen communities which contributed to the outbreak of fighting between the K.N.D.O. and government forces.

[22] Hla Oo’s Blog under the title “Burma in Limbo” (Hla Oo's Blog, accessed August 2016)

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

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

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

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

[27] Guide to Intra-state Wars; Burma in Revolt; Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography - Burma in Limbo; “The Outbreak of the K.N.D.O. and M.N.D.O.”, Yangon Siyin Baptist Church Silver Jubilee Magazine.

[28] The Third Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th September 1949, DEFE 7/866

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