Meiktila
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1944

Meiktila

The British recapture of Burma hinged on a successful crossing of the Irrawaddy 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 they would be certain to fight. The 17th Division, with attached armour from the 255th Indian Tank Brigade, was to cross the Irrawaddy River through a bridgehead established by the 7th Indian Division and to capture Meiktila. The 99th Brigade was left at Palel, to be flown in to Meiktila when captured. The two infantry brigades together with their supporting tanks, drove down the Gangaw Valley behind the 7th Division and were concentrated at Pauk, 40 miles or so west of the Irrawaddy by February 12th.

Capture

The 7th Division crossed the river at Nyaungu on February 14th and established its bridgehead. The 17th Division began crossing on February 18th and three days later set off for Meiktila. The 255th Tank Brigade formed two regimental groups to support the 17th Division. During the breakout the Royal Deccan Horse were with the 48th Brigade and Probyn's Horse with the 63rd. The tank regiments were equipped with Shermans and supported by the armoured cars of B Squadron PAVO and the 16th Light Cavalry, the first armoured regiment to be commanded by an Indian officer, Lt Col JN Chaudhuri. First went the reconnaissance troops of the tank regiments with B Squadron PAVO, formed into a composite group called 'Tomforce'. Next went the 48th Brigade on the left, followed by the 63rd 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 the 24th and the 255th Tank and the 63rd Infantry Brigades, with divisional HQ, swept past towards Meiktila. That afternoon, Thakbuton airfield, 13 miles from Meiktila, was captured. The fly-in of the 99th Brigade from Palel began the next morning.

Although the Japanese recaptured Taungtha behind them, the 17th Division launched a four-pronged attack on Meiktila on February 28th 1945. It was defended by a large part of the Japanese 168 Regiment from the 49th Division, and miscellaneous anti-aircraft and line of communication troops, in all about 4000 strong.  The 255th Tank Brigade undertook a flanking movement to the north and east of Meiktila to attack from the east; the 48th Brigade came in from the north; and the 63rd 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 the town was captured. The fly-in of the 99th Brigade was completed the same day, involving 353 Dakota aircraft sorties and was achieved without the loss of a single aircraft or man.

Defence

As anticipated the Japanese reacted strongly and a large 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 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 March 5th and a second series began on March 9th with the 63rd Brigade heading towards Pyawbwe and the 48th Brigade towards Mahlaing. A third series followed between March 13th and 14th. The airfield was attacked on the night of March 14th and by the morning the Japanese had part of it under shellfire, stopping the landing of supply aircraft and delaying the planned fly in of the 9th Brigade of the 5th Division that had only just begun. Supplies were now dropped by parachute. However the 9th Brigade's fly-in was resumed later on the 15th when the Japanese guns were suppressed and the brigade came under command the 17th Division, just in time for the Japanese attacked the airfield again on March 18th, effectively closing it. Attacks by the 48th and 99th Brigades to clear the Japanese from around Nyaungbintha and Kinde were launched on March 19th but made little headway. However the 63rd Brigade achieved more success clearing the area to the south. Attention returned to the airfield and but by March 27th the 48th Brigade had achieved only partial success. It would take until March 31st before supply dropping was stopped and planes began to land again.

Victory

Elsewhere, the main Japanese defence of the Irrawaddy, centred on Mandalay, had given way and the survivors were streaming away east and south. Around Meiktila, the Japanese had begun pulling out on March 29th and after several days fighting to clear the road the 5th Division and a huge transport column broke through to the 17th Division two days later. The battle for Meiktila was effectively over.

 

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