The Burma Campaign

3 Mobile Naval Base Brigade

Ceylon: July 1943 – February 1944

The formation was organised in the summer of 1943 in Ceylon at a time of raised threat of Japanese invasion or raids on naval bases on the island.  The original intention may have been to form a formation capable of supporting amphibious landings of the type being planned in the Far East at the time.  The Brigade H.Q. opened at Old Provost Barracks, Colombo on 24th July 1943.  It was formed within 1 Royal Marine Group, M.N.B.D.O. I.  The C.O. was Brigadier J.H.G. Wills.  Under command were:

- 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M. under Major J.F. Maxfield - formed 1st August 1943,[1]
- 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M. under Lt. Colonel J.T. Hall,
- 24th Battalion, R.M. under Lt. Colonel F.A. Milliken - formed 24th July 1943,
- ‘S’ Searchlight Battery, R.M. under Major R.R. Belford,
- Brigade H.Q. Defence Platoon - formed 24th July 1943.

It seems that it was intended to create two Mobile Naval Base Brigades, the number ‘1’ and ‘3’.  The 1 M.N.B. Brigade is referenced once in the war diary of the 1st Coast Regiment and also in the war diary for the 1st R.M. A.A. Brigade.  The 1 M.N.B. Brigade was dated as being formed on 1st August 1943, however the role and responsibilities of the brigade were taken on instead by the 1st R.M.A.A. Brigade, by then at Gulunche in India under the command of the Headquarters, Indian Expeditionary Force, later XXXIII Corps.[2]

The 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M. was under command of the 3 M.N.B. Brigade for administration but remained under the command of the 24th A.A. Brigade for operations.  The 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M. was formed on 1st August 1943 and made up of:

- ‘Kent’ Battery (from the 1st Coast Regiment, R.M.) – operating 6-inch coast defence guns,
- ‘X’ Battery – trained to operate 4-inch coast defence guns,
- ‘Portsmouth’ Battery – formed from the Anti-Motor Torpedo Boat Battery (A.M.T.B.) as a Bofors battery.[3]

The 24th Battalion, R.M. was made up of Headquarters Company and ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies.[4]

On 3rd August 1943, the 1st Coast Regiment, R.M. under Major D. Johnston was temporarily placed under command of the Brigade.  This Regiment was formed of:

- ‘Devon’ Battery,
- ‘Z’ Battery,
- ‘Chatham’ Battery.[5]

The ‘Z’ Battery located at Sober Island, Trincomalee was relieved by ‘X’ Battery of the 3rd Coast Regiment on 11th August 1943.  It was thought that the 1st Regiment would shortly moved to the Royal Marines Camp at Wilson’s Plains, together with ‘R’ Searchlight Battery.  [In fact ‘Chatham’, ‘Z’ and ‘R’ Searchlight Batteries all moved to India at around the end of September 1943 to come under the command of the 1st R.M.A.A. Brigade then training for combined operations under H.Q. Indian Expeditionary Force, later H.Q. XXXIII Indian Corps.]  On 17th August 1943, the Brigade moved to Philston Camp, Katukurunda, south of Colombo.  There the 2nd Landing Company, R.M. under Major U.R.S. Burke came under command on 23rd August.[6]

Royal Marines training with coast defence gun at Ceylon, September 1943.

Royal Marines training with a coast defence gun, Ceylon - September 1943.

(Imperial War Museum)

The role of the Brigade, designated an ‘Emergency Infantry Organisation’, was to defend the Royal Navy landing ground at Katukurunda from either an airborne or seaborne attack.  However, on 5th September 1943 the role of the Brigade was amended.  In the event of either a raid or a major invasion on the island of Ceylon, the Brigade was to provide an infantry brigade headquarters, two infantry battalions and an independent infantry company.  In the event of an emergency, the Brigade would come under the command of the 11th East African Infantry Division.  The 24th Battalion, R.M. was one of the infantry battalions and the second was formed from the 3rd Coast Regiment and ‘S’ Searchlight Battery, organised into three infantry companies and to be called ‘Coast’ Battalion.  The independent infantry company was provided by the No.2 Landing Company.  While located at the Naval Air Station, Katukurunda, the 1st Coast Regiment, R.M. was to supplement the defence of the aerodrome.  By 10th September, the 24th Battalion, R.M. was up to strength with four infantry companies – ‘A’ to ‘D’.  The 3rd Coast Regiment moved to Paiyagala Camp on 16th September.[7]

At the beginning of October, the Brigade issued orders for its units to concentrate in the Katukurunda area to carry out general and combined operations training.  It seems that in addition to its defence role, the Brigade was also preparing to revert to the Royal Marines’ main role, the conduct of an amphibious landing and the subsequent defence of a base established as part of such a landing.  The H.Q. 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M. arrived at Harvey Camp, Katukurunda from Trincomalee on 20th October 1943.  Upon arrival at Katukurunda, the Regiment came under the command of 3 Mobile Naval Base Brigade.  ‘A’ Battery however, went to Ratmalana, Colombo where it came under the operational command of the 23rd A.A. Brigade until 21st January 1944.  ‘B’ Battery went to Bamford Camp, Katukurunda on 22nd October where it put four guns into action and used the remaining four for training.  It too came under the 23rd A.A. Brigade for operations until 18th January 1944.[8]  The 23rd L.A.A. Battery left Trincomalee on 25th October for Katukurunda and went into Haliday Camp the following day.  One six-gun troop went to Paiyagala North, near Katukurunda, under the command of the 23rd A.A.Brigade.  The remaining six guns, organised as a second troop, went to Katukurunda under the command of the 3 Mobile Naval Base Brigade but at twelve hours notice to come into action on sites to be designated by the 23rd A.A. Brigade.[9]

Royal Marines training with Bofors LAA guns at Ceylon, September 1943.

Royal Marines training with Bofors light-anti aircraft guns, Ceylon - September 1943.

(Imperial War Museum)

The original defence role allotted to the Brigade was superseded at the end of October 1943 by new instructions.  In the event of a Japanese sea or airborne attack the Brigade, as before, was to field an emergency infantry force consisting of two infantry battalions and one independent company.  This force would come under the command of the 11th East African Infantry Division.  The organisation of this force was changed, however.  As before, one infantry battalion was found by the 24th Battalion, R.M, and the No.2 Landing Company, R.M. provided the independent company.  The second infantry battalion, previously the role of the 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M. was now allotted to the 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M. which, when mobilised, would be referred to as ‘H’ Battalion.  The battalion would be organised as three rifle companies, one each from ‘A’ and ‘B’ Batteries and one from ‘S’ Searchlight Battery, R.M.  The 3rd Coast Regiment remained under command of the Brigade and was located at Katukurunda.  By the end of October, the 24th Battalion appears to have been reduced to three companies once again; ‘A’ – ‘B’.[10]

Royal Marine undergoing jungle training at Ceylon, September 1943.

A Royal Marine negotiates a rope-way as part of jungle training, Ceylon - September 1943.

(Imperial War Museum)

Kent’ Battery, 3rd Coast Regiment, moved to Chatham Camp, Katukurunda for training on 5th November 1943.  A location statement dated 5th November has the 24th Battalion back at four company strength.  That same day, the units of the Brigade were warned of an all-island exercise lasting about ten days which was to begin in early December and called Exercise ‘Fido’.  Three days later, the Brigade commander, Brigadier J.H.G. Wills, left for India to assume command of the 1st A.A. Brigade, R.M.  The Commanding Officer of the 2nd A.A. Regiment, Lt. Colonel J.T. Hall, assumed command in his place.  On 16th November, the Brigade was advised that Exercise ‘Fido’ had been cancelled.  Kent’ Battery left Chatham Camp on 3rd December on completion of its training.  Major D. Johnston assumed command of the Brigade from Lt. Colonel Hall on 9th December.[11]  The next day, ‘X’ Battery took its turn for training at Chatham Camp.  The No.2 Landing Company, R.M. left the Brigade on 13th December when it reverted to the direct command of M.N.B.D.O. I.  On 16th December it was decided that ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies, 24th Battalion, R.M. should be amalgamated and that ‘D’ Company would undergo eight weeks training in early January 1944.  On 20th December, Brigadier H.T. Tollemache was appointed commander of 3 M.N.B. Brigade but Major Johnston continued in temporary command while the Brigadier remained in temporary command of M.N.B.D.O. I.  Johnston gave way to Lt. Colonel Hall who assumed command of the Brigade on 31st December.[12]

For some time, it had been intended that ‘Kent’ Battery would man a 4-inch gun site in Colombo upon completing training in the heavy anti-aircraft role.  However, this was abandoned at the beginning of December due to there being neither a suitable site nor equipment.  The future of the Royal Marines coast batteries within M.N.B.D.O. I was now also uncertain since the Admiralty had rejected the adoption of the 4.5-inch guns.  The Battery therefore returned to Lumsden Camp, as noted above, to continue training under the 3rd Coast Regiment.  It was hoped that by the time that ‘X’ Battery completed training at Chatham Camp, set for 15th January 1944, a decision would have been made as to whether the two batteries would amalgamate into a single eight-gun heavy anti-aircraft battery.[13]

The new year brought major change for the men of 3 M.N.B. Brigade who were addressed by Brigadier Tollemache on 4th January 1944 on the future of M.N.B.D.O. I.  Units now began to leave the Brigade, reverting to M.N.B.D.O. I., and handing in guns and equipment as they did so.  First to go was the 24th Battalion, R.M. which completed a move to Colombo on 12th January.  The next day, the battalion was followed by ‘S’ Searchlight Battery, R.M.  On 17th January, Brigadier Tollemache assumed command of the Brigade from Lt. Colonel Hall.  That same day, the Brigade was relieved of operational responsibilities within the Ceylon Army Command defence plan.  ‘X’ Battery rejoined the 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M. at Lumsden Camp, Katukurunda from the Royal Marines Base Depot the same day.  The Batteries of the 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M. ended their operational commitments under the 23rd A.A. Brigade over the next few days: ‘B’ Battery on 18th January; ‘A’ Battery on 21st January; the troop of the 23rd L.A.A. Battery on 22nd January.  M.N.B.D.O. I had been ordered back to the United Kingdom and on 18th February 1944, at Colombo, the 3 M.N.B. Brigade embarked upon H.M.T. C. 85 and sailed the next day.[14]

United Kingdom: March – May 1944

The Brigade disembarked at Glasgow on 16th March 1944 and went to Johnstone Castle.  Two days later, the 2nd A.A. Regiment, the 3rd Coast Regiment, 24th Battalion and ‘S’ Searchlight Battery were all placed under command.  The 3rd Coast Regiment remained formed of the ‘X’, ‘Kent’ and ’Portsmouth’ Batteries and had acquired ‘Devon’ Battery also.  The 2nd A.A. Regiment, shortly after however, came under the command of the 5th R.M.A.A. Brigade on 27th March.  During April, large groups of men were drafted to other Royal Marines establishments.  At the beginning of May, units moved to Largs.  The 3rd Coast Regiment reverted to M.N.B.D.O. I on 5th May.  Lt. Colonel J.T. Hall assumed command once again on 12th May.  The remainder of the 24th Battalion, ‘S’ Searchlight Battery and the Royal Marines Ordnance Depot were disbanded on 15th May and taken on strength of the 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M.  The 3 Mobile Naval Base Brigade finally disbanded on 17th May 1944 with the remaining staff officers and clerks joining the H.Q. M.N.B.D.O. I and the remainder being taken on strength of the 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M..[15]

Notes:

The formation does not appear in the order of battle for Ceylon Army Command, but what is shown as Command Troops, from August 1943, is “R.M. Group, M.N.B.D.O. (India Command OB series).   Under direct command are:

- 1st Coast Regiment, R.M.
- 11th Battalion, R.M.                
- 11th Searchlight Battery, R.M. 

The 2nd A.A. Regiment is shown listed under “A.A. Artillery” as Army Troops.

The order of battle for October 1943 shows, in addition to the 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M., ‘D’ Battery, 1st H.A.A. Regiment, R.M.  This appears to be a mistake and may refer to ‘B’ Battery but this battery had by now become part of the 2nd Regiment.  The R.M. Group, M.N.B.D.O. is listed but the 11th Battalion, R.M. has disappeared, having moved to India.

The November order of battle does not list ‘B’ Battery but does now show the H.Q. 3 M.N.B. Brigade listed under the R.M. Group, M.N.B.D.O., with under command:

- 1st Coast Regiment, R.M.
- 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M.       
- 24th Battalion, R.M.                

29 January 2021



[1] War diary 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M., ADM 202/192

[2] ADM 202/176; War diary 1st R.M. A.A. Brigade, ADM 202/150

[3] ADM 202/192

[4] War diary 3 Mobile Naval Base Brigade, ADM 202/190

[5] ADM 202/190

[6] ADM 202/192; War diary of the 1st Royal Marine A.A. Brigade, WO 172/2139

[7] ADM 202/190

[8] War diary 23rd A.A. Brigade, WO 172/3790; WO 172/4472

[9] WO 172/3792; ADM 202/157; ADM 202/190; ADM 202/192

[10] ADM 202/190

[11] Major Duncan Johnston, R.M. had commanded Force ‘Viper’, a scratch force of Royal Marines manning river boats on the Irrawaddy River, during the 1942 campaign in Burma.  He was killed in action on the night of 22nd/23rd February 1945 while leading an operation against the Burma coast conducted by a party from Royal Marine Detachment 385 ‘Behind Japanese Lines, The Untold Story of Royal Marine Detachment 385’, Oakley D., Royal Marines Historical Society (1996)

[12] ADM 202/190

[13] ADM 202/190

[14] ADM 202/190

[15] ADM 202/190