Karamjeet Singh Judge – A hero – Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay

Karamjeet Singh Judge –

Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay

Karamjeet Singh Judge (1923-45) served as a Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army in Burma.

His actions on 18th March 1945 during the Battle of Meiktila (Burma Campaign) earned him a place in history as one of many courageous Indians who were awarded Victoria Crosses in recognition of their bravery.

Here’s a bit more about Karamjeet Singh Judge and his sacrifice during the Second World War.

On 18th March 1945 Lieutenant Judge, a Platoon Commander, was ordered to capture a strategically important cotton mill located just outside Myingyan, Burma.

The conditions for an attack were extremely difficult on that day. Lieutenant Judge faced very well defended enemy positions and intense enemy fire. He was supposed to have back up from British tanks but their ability to assist was held back by the unsuitability of the terrain.

Despite the difficult conditions Lieutenant Judge’s platoon spearheaded the British advance in what would come to be known as the Battle of Meiktila. During the battle Lieutenant Judge ‘dominated the entire battlefield by his numerous and successive acts of superb gallantry’ (London Gazette 1945). He continued to inspire his troops, personally leading numerous infantry charges and could always be found at the front with his men.

At one stage whilst leading an infantry attack, Karamjeet was confronted by two Japanese soldiers only 10 yards ahead charging towards him with their bayonets fixed – without hesitation he protected his platoon and fought off the Japanese.

Towards the end of the battle the final pockets of Japanese resistance were proving difficult to clear. The remaining three Japanese defended bunkers began to hold up both the infantry and tank advances. To put an end to this Lieutenant Judge displayed his valour and directed fire from the tanks at the same time as leading a small section in to clear the bunkers.

For what would be the final time, Lieutenant Judge showed the courageous leadership he would later be remembered for. At the same time as directing fire from the tanks he took it upon himself to lead a small section to clear the bunkers. As he approached the first bunk an enemy light machine gun opened fire. This fatally wounded Lieutenant Judge. His death spurred on his section to put an end to the long battle as they attacked and cleared the remaining bunkers. It was a sad day for the Punjab Regiment. They had lost one of their youngest and most courageous officers. However, had it not been for Lieutenant Judge’s action the Battle of Meiktila would have proved much more costly for the British and Indian Forces.

It was this type of commitment and immeasurable courage in putting the cause before self that exemplified the soldiers of the two and a half million strong British Indian Army – the largest volunteer army in history.

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Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay

The concurrent Battle of Meiktila and Battle of Mandalay were decisive engagements near the end of the Burma Campaign. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as the Battle of Central Burma. Despite logistical difficulties, the Allies were able to deploy large armoured and mechanised forces in Central Burma, and also possessed air supremacy. Most of the Japanese forces in Burma were destroyed during the battles, allowing the Allies to later recapture the capital, Rangoon, and reoccupy most of the country with little organised opposition.

The Situation in 1945

The Japanese situation

In 1944, the Japanese had sustained several defeats in the mountainous frontier regions of Burma. In particular, at the Battle of Imphal and Battle of Kohima, the Japanese Fifteenth Army had suffered disastrous losses, mainly resulting from disease and starvation.

The heavy Japanese defeat prompted them to make sweeping changes among their commanders and senior staff officers in Burma. On 1 September 1944, Lieutenant General Hyotaro Kimura was appointed commander of the Burma Area Army, succeeding Lieutenant General Masakazu Kawabe whose health had broken down. At this stage of the war, the Japanese were in retreat on most fronts and were concentrating their resources for the defence of the homeland. Kimura had formerly been Vice-Minister for War, and had held other posts with responsibility for mobilising Japanese industry for the war effort. It was hoped that he could use the rice fields, factories and oil wells of Burma to make the Japanese forces there logistically self-sufficient.[1]

Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka was appointed to be Kimura’s Chief of Staff, with day-to-day responsibility for operations. He had formerly commanded the 18th Infantry Division in Northern Burma, and had a reputation for inflexible determination. (In a reversal of roles in the aftermath of the Imphal disaster, the former Chief of Staff of the Burma Area Army, Lieutenant General Eitaro Naka, was transferred to command the 18th Division.)[2]

Japanese losses in Burma and India in 1944 had been catastrophic. They were made up with drafts of conscripts, many of whom were not of the best physical categories. Kimura’s staff decreed that their divisions in Burma should have a strength of 10,000 (compared with their paper establishment of nearer 25,000), but most divisions mustered barely half this reduced strength.[3] Furthermore, they lacked anti-tank weapons. To face massed Allied armour, they would be forced to deploy their field artillery in the front line, which would affect their ability to give concentrated fire support to the infantry. Expedients such as lunge mines (an explosive charge on the end of a long pole), or suicide attacks by men wearing explosive charges, were not effective if the enemy tanks were closely supported by infantry.

Other losses handicapped the Japanese. Their 5th Air Division, deployed in Burma, had been reduced to only a few dozen aircraft to face 1,200 Allied aircraft. Their 14th Tank Regiment possessed only 20 tanks.[4]

Kimura accepted that his forces stood little chance against the numerically and materially superior Allies in open terrain. He therefore intended that while the Twenty-Eighth Army defended the coastal Arakan Province, relying on the difficult terrain to slow the Allied advances, and the Thirty-Third Army continued to fight rearguard actions against the American and Chinese forces which were trying to open a land route from India to China, the Fifteenth Army would withdraw behind the Irrawaddy River.[5] He hoped that the Allies would be overstretched trying to overcome this obstacle, perhaps to the point where the Japanese might even attempt a counteroffensive.

The Allied Situation

Series of maps showing the progress of the battles and their relation to the South East Asian theatre of war

The Allied South East Asia Command had begun making plans to reconquer Burma as early as June 1944 (while the Battle of Imphal was still being fought, although its outcome was clear). Three main options were proposed. One was to reoccupy Northern Burma only, to allow the Ledo Road to be completed, thus linking India and China by land. This was rejected, as it could use only a fraction of the available forces and fulfilled only an out-of-date strategic aim. A second option was to capture Rangoon, the capital and main seaport, by a seaborne invasion. This was also impractical, as it would require landing craft and other resources which would not be available until the end of the War in Europe. By default, the plan adopted was for an offensive into Central Burma by the British Fourteenth Army under Lieutenant General William Slim, to reconquer Burma from the north. The operation, originally codenamed Operation Capital, which was intended to capture Mandalay in Central Burma, was renamed Operation Extended Capital to encompass a subsequent pursuit to Rangoon.[6]

In support of Fourteenth Army’s offensive, the Indian XV Corps would advance in the coastal province of Arakan. The corps was also ordered to seize or construct airfields on the coast and on islands just offshore, which could be supplied by sea and which would be used as bases from which aircraft would supply Slim’s troops. The American-led Northern Combat Area Command, consisting mainly of Chinese troops, would continue its advance to link up with Chinese armies attacking from Yunnan province in south-west China and thus complete the Ledo Road linking China and India. It was hoped that XV Corps and the NCAC would distract as many Japanese forces as possible from the decisive front in Central Burma.

The chief problems which Fourteenth Army would face were logistical. The advancing troops would need to be supplied over crude roads stretching for far greater distances than were ever encountered in Europe. Although expedients such as locally constructed river transport and temporary all-weather coverings for roads (made from coarse hessian sacking material impregnated with bitumen and diesel oil) were to be used, transport aircraft were to be vital for supplying the forward units. Disaster threatened as early as 16 December 1944, when 75 American transport aircraft were abruptly transferred to China, where the Japanese Operation Ichi-Go was threatening American airfields.[7] Although aircraft were hastily transferred from the Mediterranean theatre to replace those despatched to China, continuing threats to deprive Fourteenth Army of the support of American transport aircraft were to be a constant concern for Slim during the forthcoming battles.[8]

The Fourteenth Army was supported by 221 Group RAF, which operated B-25 Mitchell bombers, Hawker Hurricane and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters and long-range Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bombers.[9] They could also call upon the B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the Far Eastern Strategic Air Force. The most important aspect of air support was probably the Combat Cargo Task Force, which included both British and American squadrons of transport aircraft, in particular the ubiquitous C47. Fourteenth Army required 7,000 sorties by transport aircraft every day during the maximum intensity of the fighting.[7]

Most of Slim’s divisions were on a mixed Animal and Mechanical Transport establishment, which allowed them to operate in difficult terrain but restricted their tactical speed of movement to that of marching men or mules. In anticipation of fighting in the open country of Central Burma, Slim reorganised two of his divisions (Indian 5th Division and Indian 17th Division) as partly Motorized infantry and partly Airportable infantry formations.[10]

At this stage of the war, few British infantry reinforcements were available. In spite of expedients such as drafting anti-aircraft gunners into infantry units, the strength of Fourteenth Army’s British formations and of the British units in its Indian formations was dropping, and Indian and Gurkha units were increasingly to bear the brunt of the actions which followed.[11]

Intelligence

In the coming campaign, both the Allies and Japanese were to suffer from lack of intelligence about the enemy, and make incorrect assumptions about their opponent’s intentions.

The Allies had undisputed air superiority. In addition to the results of aerial reconnaissance, they also received reports from behind enemy lines from the reconnaissance units V Force and Z Force and the resistance liaison organisation Force 136. However, they lacked the detailed information available to commanders in Europe through Ultra radio intercepts, partly because Japanese radio security seems to have been good (until near the end of the battle, when their signal and staff arrangements largely collapsed), and partly because Japanese linguists were lacking at all headquarters levels.[12]

On the other hand, the Japanese were almost blind. They had very few aircraft with which to fly air reconnaissance missions, and they would receive little information from the Burmese population which was becoming disillusioned and restive under Japanese military control. Some formations had set up their own intelligence organisations; for example, Twenty-Eighth Army had created a branch of the Hikari Kikan, known as Hayate Tai, whose agents lived deep under cover in the frontier regions of Burma and in some of the remoter regions of Southern Burma.[13] However, these agents could not acquire or report information quickly enough to be tactically useful in a fast-moving mechanised battle.

Opening movements

As the monsoon season ended in late 1944, the Fourteenth Army had established two bridgeheads across the Chindwin River, using prefabricated Bailey bridges. Based on past Japanese actions, Slim assumed that the Japanese would fight in the Shwebo Plain, as far forward as possible between the Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers. On 29 November, Indian 19th Division launched British IV Corps‘ attack from the northern bridgeheads at Sittaung and Mawlaik, and on 4 December, Indian 20th Division under Indian XXXIII Corps attacked out of the southern bridgehead at Kalewa.

Both divisions made rapid progress, with little opposition. The 19th Division in particular, under Major General “Pete” Rees was approaching the vital rail centre of Indaw, 80 miles (130 km) east of Sittaung, after only five days. Slim realised at this point that his earlier assumption that the Japanese would fight forward of the Irrawaddy was incorrect. As only one of IV Corps’ divisions had so far been committed, he was able to make major changes to his original plan. The 19th Division was transferred to XXXIII Corps, which was to continue to clear the Shwebo plain and attack towards Mandalay. The remainder of IV Corps, strengthened by Fourteenth Army’s reserve divisions, was switched from the army’s left flank to its right. Its task was now to advance down the Gangaw Valley west of the Chindwin, cross the Irrawaddy near Pakokku and seize the vital logistic and communication centre of Meiktila by a rapid armoured thrust. To persuade the Japanese that IV Corps was still advancing on Mandalay, a dummy corps HQ was set up near Sittaung. All radio traffic to 19th Division was relayed through this installation.

To allow the main body of their divisions to retreat across the Irrawaddy, the Japanese had left rearguards in several towns in the Shwebo Plain. During January, the Indian 19th Division and British 2nd Division cleared Shwebo, while the Indian 20th Division had a hard battle to take Monywa, a major river port on the east bank of the Chindwin. The Japanese rearguards were largely destroyed.[14] The Japanese also retained a foothold in the Sagaing hills, north of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay.

Meanwhile, IV Corps began its advance down the Gangaw Valley. To conceal the presence of heavy units of IV Corps as long as possible, the advance of 7th Indian Infantry Division, which was intended to launch the assault across the Irrawaddy, was screened by the East African 28 Infantry Brigade and the improvised Lushai Brigade. Where these two lightly equipped formations met Japanese resistance at Pauk, the town was heavily bombed by Allied aircraft to soften up the defenders.

The route used by IV Corps required upgrading in several places to allow heavy equipment to pass. At one point, the trail of vehicles stretched from Pauk to Kohima, 350 miles (560 km) to the north by road.[15]

Crossing the Irrawaddy

The 19th Indian Division had slipped units across narrow stretches of the Irrawaddy at Thabeikkyin on 14 January 1945 and Kyaukmyaung 20 miles (32 km) south (and 40 miles (64 km) miles north of Mandalay) the next day. They faced a stiff fight for some weeks against attempts by the reinforced Japanese 15th Division to counter-attack their bridgeheads. The crossings downstream, where the river was much wider, would require more preparation. The assault boats, ferries and other equipment for the task were in short supply in Fourteenth Army, and much of this equipment was worn out, having already seen service in other theatres.

Slim planned for 20th Division of XXXIII Corps and 7th Division of IV Corps to cross simultaneously on 13 February, so as to further mask his ultimate intentions. On XXXIII Corps’ front, 20th Division crossed 20 miles (32 km) west of Mandalay. It successfully established small bridgeheads, but these were counter-attacked nightly for almost two weeks by the Japanese 31st Division. Orbiting patrols of fighter-bombers knocked out several Japanese tanks and guns. Eventually 20th Division expanded its footholds into a single firmly-held bridgehead.[16]

In IV Corps’s sector, it was vital for Slim’s overall plan for 7th Division to seize the area around Pakokku and establish a firm bridgehead quickly. The area was defended by the Japanese 72nd Mixed Brigade and units of the 2nd Division of the Indian National Army, under Shah Nawaz Khan. The 214th Regiment of the Japanese 33rd Division held a bridgehead at Pakokku.

The crossing by Indian 7th Division (which was delayed for 24 hours to repair the assault boats), was made on a wide front. The 28th East African Brigade made a feint towards Yenangyaung to distract the Japanese 72nd Brigade while another brigade attacked Pakokku. However, both the main attack at Nyaungu and a secondary crossing at Pagan (the former capital, and the site of many Buddhist temples) were initially disastrous. Pagan and Nyaungu were defended by two battalions of the INA’s 4th Guerrilla Regiment, with one held in reserve.[17] At Nyaungu, 2/South Lancashire Regiment suffered heavy losses as their assault boats broke down under machine-gun fire which swept the river.[18] Eventually, support from tanks of the 116 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (formerly the 5th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders) firing across the river and massed artillery suppressed the INA machine gun positions and allowed 4/15th Punjab Regiment to reinforce a company of the South Lancashire who had established a precarious foothold. The next day, the remaining defenders were sealed into a network of tunnels.[19] At Pagan, 1/11th Sikh Regiment‘s crossing fell into disorder under machine gun fire from the INA’s 9th battalion,[20] but a boat carrying a white flag was seen leaving Pagan. The defenders wished to surrender, and the Sikhs occupied Pagan without resistance.[21]

Slim noted in his memoirs that this action was “the longest opposed river crossing attempted in any theatre of the Second World War.”[17][22] Unknown to the Allies, Pagan was the boundary between the Japanese Fifteenth and Twenty-Eighth Armies. This delayed the Japanese reaction to the crossing.

Starting on 17 February, 255th Indian Tank Brigade and the motorised infantry brigades of 17th Division began crossing into 7th Division’s bridgehead. To further distract Japanese attention from this area, the British 2nd Division began crossing the Irrawaddy only 10 miles (16 km) west of Mandalay on 23 February. This crossing also threatened to be a disaster due to leaky boats and faulty engines, but one brigade crossed successfully and the other brigades crossed into its bridgehead.

Orders of battle

At this point, the Japanese were hastily reinforcing their Central Front with units from the northern front (where the American-led Northern Combat Area Command had largely ceased its operations as its Chinese units were recalled to China) and with reserve units from Southern Burma.

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