The Burma Campaign

5th Battalion, The Burma Rifles

The 5th Battalion, The Burma Rifles was formed on 1st April 1940 at Mandalay by Major B.J. Devenish-Meares.  Manpower was found by milking the regular battalions of The Burma Rifles by manning one company with Burmese/Burmans.

In June 1941, the Battalion was located at Meiktila, under command of the Southern Shan Area.  The Battalion joined the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade Group in the Southern Shan States following the formation of that brigade on 1st July 1941.  In November and December 1941, the 5th Battalion was located at Mong Pan.  The Brigade's role was to defend the eastern frontier, and it comprised the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the 1st and 5th Battalions, The Burma Rifles.  The 1st Burma Infantry Brigade Group became part of the 1st Burma Infantry Division when that formation came into being in July 1941.

In January 1942, the 1st Burma Infantry division was relieved of the defence of the Shan States by the Chinese Army and began concentrating south of Toungoo.  On 8th January, the Battalion received 50 reinforcements, Chins and Kachins, from the 9th Battalion, Burma Rifles.

On 8th February 1942, the 5th Battalion was ordered to join the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade in the area between Mawchi and Kemapyu, on the Salween River and near the border with Thailand.  The Battalion arrived in position near Mawchi via Kemapyu on 14th February.  'C' Company was detached to cover the Loikaw area, to the north of Mawchi.

5th Burma Rifles in the Shan States

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A warning order was received on 25th February to rejoin the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade in the Toungoo area.  On 1st March, the Battalion moved to Kyauktaga, with the F.F.1 column led by Captain Turner under command.  On 7th March, the 1st Burma Infantry Division was ordered to attack Shewegyin and Daiku, with the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade attacking on the right to secure Pyuntaza and Daiku.  The 5th Battalion moved forward to Nyaunglebin in readiness for this attack.  The initial attack was made by the 2nd Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment on 11th March, but the attack failed and the Rajputs withdrew through the 1st and 5th Burma Rifles to Tawpathi.

It was then decided to withdraw the 1st Burma Infantry Division to the Irrawaddy front.  As part of the initial stages of this withdrawal, the 5th Battalion pulled back to Thategon on 14th March, and to Kyauktaga the next day.  Here, on 17th March, the Battalion was in action against the Japanese driving north towards Toungoo.  After an initial stand, the Battalion withdrew again and by 21st March was concentrated at Oktwin where it was ordered to Prome on the Irrawaddy front.  The Battalion set off on foot the next day across the Pegu Yomas hills.  After a long and arduous march the Battalion rejoined the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade on the Prome road on April 3rd, just two days after the second anniversary of the formation of the Battalion. 

The 1st Burma Infantry Division was now deployed in the area around and south of Allanmyo.  However following the failure of 17th Indian Infantry Division's counter attack in the Prome area, the British once more withdrew and the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade found itself on the east bank of the Irrawaddy protecting a sector from Migyaungye south to Sinbaungye.  The 5th Battalion withdrew through this area between 3rd and 9th April before pulling back further from Migyaungye towards Yenangyaung on 11th April.  During this time the Battalion provided the Brigade rearguard.  A brief skirmish occurred between the Battalion and the advancing Japanese on 13th April at Kunon Taung.

By 15th April, the 5th Battalion had taken up a position at Pado village, close to the Irrawaddy, as part of the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade's defence of the Yin Chaung.  The next day, after a stiff fight, the Brigade again withdrew, this time as far as Twingon, just to the north of Yenangyaung.  However, the way across the Pin Chaung was denied by an enemy roadblock, Japanese troops having got around the 1st Burma Infantry Division's left flank.  A difficult battle followed before a route across the chaung was found.  At 1400 on 19th April, the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade began crossing the chaung, with the 5th Battalion acting as rearguard once again.

After a short rest at Mount Popa, where there was an outbreak of cholera, the Battalion was once more on the move northwards.  On 1st May 1942, the Battalion was given the role of escort for the transport of the 1st Burma Infantry Division as it worked its way around Monywa, now occupied by the Japanese.  The comparative safety of Alon was reached the next day.

The end in Burma was now in sight and the 5th Battalion joined the general retreat to India via Kalewa, which was reached on 8th May.  The retreat continued to Tamu, where the Battalion arrived on the early evening of 11th May.  On 4th May, many of the remaining Kachins in the Battalion had been allowed to leave to join the Kachin Levies.  This was followed on 11th May by most of the Chins who left to join the Chin Levies.  The remainder of the Battalion left Tamu for Palel on 12th May and then on to camp at Milestone 109.

The battalion was disbanded officially on 20th May 1942, just less than two years and one month after formation.

 

[The war diaries of the battalion were destroyed during the retreat, however the Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel B.J. Devenish-Meares, later reconstructed the war diary from his private diary, in Hoshiarpur in December 1942.  The file is available at the National Archives at Kew as WO 172/978.  A transcription of the file, together with extensive footnotes gleaned from other sources, can be read or downloaded here.]

6 November 2017