The Burma Campaign

8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery

The 8th Heavy Antiaircraft Battery, Royal Artillery served in Burma during the first campaign and later in Bengal and the Arakan.  There it became associated with the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Antiaircraft Regiment, R.A.  The 8th H.A.A. Battery is often confused with the 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, Indian Artillery and with the 8th (Belfast) H.A.A. Regiment, R.A.

The 8th H.A.A. Battery had been raised as an independent battery in India on 1st April 1929.[1]  On 23rd November 1935, it was taken into the newly raised 5th Anti-Aircraft Brigade which formed at Hong Kong.  This Brigade was redesignated the 5th A.A. Regiment, R.A. on 1st May 1938 and later renamed the 5th H.A.A. Regiment.  In January 1939, the 8th H.A.A. Battery reverted to being an independent battery at Peshawar, India.  The Battery was stationed at Peshawar when war was declared on 3rd September 1939.  A detachment of the Battery was serving at Aden on this date.  A troop from the 8th H.A.A. Battery was part of the Aden Garrison on 9th December 1940.  War diaries for the Battery for 1941 are filed under Middle East Command and cover the period May-October 1941 during which time the Battery served in Iraq and possibly Persia (the 5th H.A.A. Regiment remained in Hong Kong and was lost when the island was taken by the Japanese in December 1941.)  

At the end of December 1941, following a heavy air raid on Rangoon in which a number of antiaircraft guns were lost, the Battery was sent to reinforce Burma.  It arrived equipped with eight 3.7-inch guns and was stationed at Rangoon from early January 1942 until 6th March 1942 when the evacuation of Rangoon began.  The denial scheme was put into operation at Rangoon at 02:00 on 7th March and huge stockpiles of stores and equipment were destroyed.  Amongst the items to be destroyed was much of the equipment belonging to the 8th Battery, which together with the 3rd Indian L.A.A. Battery, took their remaining guns to the defence of the bridge at Hlegu where they were joined by the 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery from Pegu.  The whole British force continued to withdraw northwards from the Rangoon area and by 9th and 10th March was concentrated around Tharrawaddy on the Irrawaddy River.  At this time all of the antiaircraft batteries were together with the force and were later deployed to defend Shwedaung, Prome, Allanmyo and Magwe.  By the time the 1st Burma Corps or ‘Burcorps’ came into being on 19th March 1942, the 8th H.A.A. Battery was assigned as Lines of Communication Troops.  By now it had been reduced to only four 3.7-inch guns.  On 25th March, ‘Burcorps’ issued orders that the 8th H.A.A. and the 3rd Indian L.A.A. Batteries were to come under the command of the 17th Indian Infantry Division for the defence of Prome.

The Japanese advance continued and the British were forced to withdraw from Prome to a new line south of Magwe.  This new withdrawal was complete by 8th April.  The 8th Battery remained at Magwe during this period until forced to pull out from Magwe to Yenangyaung.  On 15th April, as the Japanese closed in, orders were given for the destruction of the oilfields at Yenangyaung.  As it attempted to withdraw further northwards, on 16th April, the 1st Burma Infantry Division found its line of retreat blocked by a Japanese force that had come around the British flank and down from the north.  An attack to clear the Japanese began on the morning of 18th April and by evening the 1st Burma Infantry Division was gathered in a defensive box south of Twingon.  Here, the 8th Battery was surrounded and overrun but later recovered when a 3.7-inch gun was used in the ground role, firing over open sights to great effect.  Eventually, after having abandoned much of its equipment, the 1st Burma Infantry Division found a way through the Japanese and broke out of the encirclement on the afternoon of 19th April.  Amongst the equipment lost were four 3.7-inch antiaircraft guns, although it is not known how many of these belonged to the 8th Battery.

Having now begun to withdraw towards Mandalay, further deliberations resulted in orders to pull back even further, across the Irrawaddy River, leaving the defence of Mandalay to the Chinese Army.  The British withdrawal across the Ava Bridge began on the night of 25th/26th April.  All available antiaircraft guns were concentrated for the defence of the town and the Ava Bridge.   The three H.A.A. batteries, the 8th British, the 8th Indian and the 1st B.A.F., had between them nine 3-inch or 3.7-inch guns remaining.  Japanese aircraft made many raids on the bridge and although Mandalay was burnt to the ground, the bridge remained intact.  By midnight on 30th April, the final elements of the Indo-British forces had safely crossed and two of the huge spans of the bridge were blown into the river.

The route of the final withdrawal to India led across the Chindwin River at Kalewa, by way of Yeu and Shwegyin, where troops could be ferried up the river to Kalewa.  The 8th Battery struggled with their guns as far as Kaduma before having to admit defeat and destroy them.  As much of the surviving British force gathered at Shwegyin, on 10th May, it came under severe threat of destruction when a strong Japanese force arrived and quickly seized the knoll overlooking the jetty.  The withdrawal continued however, thanks to the infantry and tanks managing to keep the Japanese at bay.  Under cover of a final artillery barrage, which saw all remaining ammunition being fired off, the remainder of the force got away to Kalewa from where the last troops left on the night of 11th/12th May.  The survivors of the 8th H.A.A. Battery reached India towards the end of May.  During the campaign, the Battery was credited with shooting down four Japanese aircraft and suffered 70 casualties. 

On 22nd June 1942, the Battery moved to Dalhousie before moving to Bombay on 31st July 1942, where it came under the command of the 3rd Indian Anti-Aircraft Brigade.  The Battery was under this command at Bombay on 10th February 1943.  It seems then that the 8th H.A.A. Battery moved to the eastern frontier area (Bengal) as it is listed later in 1943 as being under the command of the 13th (British) Anti-Aircraft Brigade.  This brigade was responsible for the area: Chittagong, Agaratala, Bengal and Assam airfields.  The war diary places the Battery in the Chittagong area between January and March 1943 and at Dohazari, to the south of Chittagong on the Sangu River, between October 1943 and February 1944.  It should be noted that the 8th H.A.A. Regiment was also part of the 13th A.A. Brigade at this time.  In September 1943, the 8th H.A.A. Battery was still serving under the 13th A.A. Brigade, which in addition to the areas listed above, was now also responsible for Cox’s Bazaar (see below).

In March 1944, the 8th H.A.A. Battery is listed as serving under the XV Indian Corps, together with the 8th H.A.A. Regiment.  The war diary has the Battery providing air defence of the Tumbru-Bawli Bridge, inside Burmese Arakan, during this month.  While still part of XV Corps Troops, the Battery was at Maungdaw, on the Naf River, Arakan, between April and August 1944.  When the 8th H.A.A. Regiment returned to India in May 1944, the 8th H.A.A. Battery remained in the Arakan to support the XV Indian Corps.

In September, 100 men were sent to 51 Reception Camp and when the Battery was withdrawn from operations in October 1944, it went to 66 Rest Camp, handing over its equipment to the 23rd Battery, 8th H.A.A. Regiment.  It seems at least some men were then selected and posted as infantry reinforcements.

In December 1944 a number of Anti-Aircraft/Anti-Tank, Light Anti-Aircraft and Heavy Anti-Aircraft units were broken up in India to provide reinforcements for the British infantry who were desperately short of men.  Amongst the units disbanded was the 8th H.A.A. Battery.  The war diary states that 25 British Other Ranks were posted to the 2nd British Infantry Division as infantry reinforcements.  The Battery was placed in suspended animation on 28th February 1945.

31 December 2017

[1] The sources for this article were: “History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, The Far East Theatre, 1941-46”, Farndale M., The Royal Artillery Institution (2000);  “Indian Armed Forces in World War II, The Retreat from Burma, 1941-42”, Prasad Bishewar (ed), Orient Longmans (1959); “The War Against Japan, Volume 1 – India’s Most Dangerous Hour”, Woodburn Kirby S., HMSO (1958).