The British recapture of Burma in 1945 hinged on a successful crossing of the Irrawaddy River and the subsequent destruction of the Japanese forces on the east bank of the river. Mandalay was the obvious target and was assigned to the XXXIII Corps on the 14th Army's northern flank. The IV Corps were on the left flank and their initial goal was to seize Meiktila, an important communications centre astride the Japanese lines of communication and a location for which the Japanese would be certain to fight. The 17th Indian Infantry Division, with attached armour from the 255th Indian Tank Brigade, was to cross the Irrawaddy River through a bridgehead established by the 7th Indian Infantry Division and to drive on to capture Meiktila. The 99th Indian Infantry Brigade was left at Palel, to be flown in to Meiktila when captured. The two infantry brigades and their supporting tanks drove down the Gangaw Valley behind the 7th Indian Infantry Division and were concentrated at Pauk, 40 miles or so west of the Irrawaddy by 12th February 1945.
The 7th Indian Infantry Division crossed the river at Nyaungu on 14th February and established its bridgehead. The 17th Indian Infantry Division began crossing on 18th February and three days later set off for Meiktila. The 255th Indian Tank Brigade formed two regimental groups to support the 17th Indian Infantry Division. During the breakout, the Royal Deccan Horse was with the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade and Probyn's Horse with the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade. The tank regiments were equipped with Shermans and supported by the armoured cars of ‘B’ Squadron, Prince Albert Victor’s Own (P.A.V.O.) Cavalry and the 16th Light Cavalry, the first armoured regiment to be commanded by an Indian officer, Lt. Colonel J.N. Chaudhuri. First went the reconnaissance troops of the tank regiments with ‘B’ Squadron, P.A.V.O., formed into a composite group called 'Tomforce'. Next went the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade on the left, followed by the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade on the right. Each column was led by tanks and the whole force was covered by a large 'cab rank' of Thunderbolt fighter-bombers overhead. After heavy fighting, Taungtha was taken on 24th February and the 255th Indian Tank and the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigades, with Divisional Headquarters, swept past towards Meiktila. That afternoon, Thakbuton airfield, thirteen miles from Meiktila, was captured. The fly-in of the 99th Indian Infantry Brigade from Palel began the next morning.
Although the Japanese recaptured Taungtha in what was now the Division’s rear, the 17th Indian Infantry Division launched a four-pronged attack on Meiktila on 28th February 1945. It was defended by a large part of the Japanese 168th Infantry Regiment from the 49th Division, and miscellaneous anti-aircraft and lines of communication troops, in all about 4,000 strong. The 255th Indian Tank Brigade undertook a flanking movement to the north and east of Meiktila so as to attack from the east; the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade came in from the north; and the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade came in from the west, largely on foot over difficult terrain. By the day's end, the town was largely surrounded and it took three further days of close quarter fighting before it was finally captured. The fly-in of the 99th Indian Infantry Brigade was completed the same day, involving 353 Dakota aircraft sorties and was achieved without the loss of a single aircraft or man.
As anticipated, the Japanese reacted strongly and a large enemy force was assembled to retake Meiktila: the 49th Division with a full regiment, part of a second and an artillery regiment; the 18th Division with four regiments and additional artillery; and a further regiment, the 4th Infantry Regiment, from the 2nd Division. However, the Japanese units were already in a weakened state and were to prove unable to co-ordinate their actions effectively. The British adopted an active defence, taking advantage of their mobility and armour. The 99th Indian Infantry Brigade defended the town and Thakbuton airfield was abandoned. A supply strip to the east of Meiktila was developed and air supply started. Armoured columns sallied out of the town every day and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
Five columns were sent out on sweeps on 5th March and a second series began on 9th March with the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade heading towards Pyawbwe and the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade towards Mahlaing. A third series of sweeps followed between 13th and 14th March. The airfield was attacked by the Japanese on the night of 14th March and by the morning they had part of it under shellfire, stopping the landing of supply aircraft and delaying the planned fly in of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 5th Indian Infantry Division, which had only just begun. Supplies were now dropped by parachute. However, the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade's fly-in was resumed later on 15th March when the Japanese guns were suppressed. The newly arrived Brigade came under command the 17th Indian Infantry Division, just in time as the airfield was attacked by the Japanese 18th March, effectively closing it. Attacks by the 48th and 99th Indian Infantry Brigades to clear the Japanese from around Nyaungbintha and Kinde were launched on 19th March, but made little headway. However, the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade achieved more success clearing the area to the south. Attention now returned to the airfield, but by 27th March, the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade had achieved only partial success. It would take until 31st March before supply dropping by parachute was stopped and planes began to land again.
Elsewhere, the main Japanese defence of the Irrawaddy River Valley, centred on Mandalay, had given way and the survivors were streaming away east and south. Around Meiktila, the Japanese had begun pulling out on 29th March, and after several days fighting to clear the road, the 5th Indian Infantry Division and a huge transport column broke through to the 17th Indian Infantry Division two days later. The battle for Meiktila was effectively over.
06 December 2017