by Dylan Weir
On May 2nd, 1945, two 26th Indian Infantry Division brigades landed via amphibious troop carriers on the banks of the Rangoon River in Burma (now Myanmar). Their mission was to reach the capital, Rangoon, and liberate it from the Japanese before the May monsoon arrived. Operation Dracula was the brainchild of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Admiral in the Royal Navy and Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command (SEAC) since 1943. It was a plan with a complicated history, which involved understanding Burma's conflict during the Second World War.
The Second World War saw the British fighting to protect their empire worldwide, with Southeast Asia treated as an afterthought. The British underestimated the Japanese right up until the Japanese attacked them, meaning Burma was woefully undefended when the Japanese invaded the colony in January 1942 to cut off the "Burma Road," a crucial supply route for American aid to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists. The Japanese overran Burma and forced the British troops to make a long, costly retreat to India. For the next two years, Burma was a Japanese colony while the British reinforced their forces in India and turned it into a crucial military base in the region.
In March 1944, the Japanese crossed the border into India, hoping to seize supplies stored in the Imphal Plain and possibly spark a general uprising against the British Raj. However, after lengthy and bloody fighting, the Japanese were defeated and pushed out of India at the battles of Imphal and Kohima by the multinational 14th Army led by General William Slim. Allied commanders sought to capitalize on these dramatic successes by invading and retaking Burma, but some disagreed on the best approach.
Mountbatten conceived of Dracula, his plan for an amphibious landing and assault to take back Rangoon in August 1944. Although he initially gained approval from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Americans, the plan was ultimately tabled in October when it became clear that the war in Europe would not end in 1944, as the Allies had hoped. The war continuing in Europe meant the necessary landing craft would not be available.
With Dracula rendered logistically impossible, General Slim's 14th Army invaded Burma by land in December 1944. By mid-March 1945, Slim's 14th had crossed the Irrawaddy River in Central Burma, but only after heavy fighting against the retreating Japanese. Knowing that monsoon season usually began on May 15th, Slim hoped to travel nearly four hundred miles to Rangoon through Japanese-occupied lands in the next two months. He knew that if he failed to reach the city before the monsoon set in, the Japanese would be given far too much time to dig in. Fearing the prospect of a deeply entrenched Japanese "suicide garrison," Slim requested that a modified version of Dracula be carried out once his 14th was approaching Rangoon, hoping that an amphibious landing would distract the Japanese enough to allow him to take the city without heavy casualties. With the needed equipment now available, Mountbatten ordered Dracula to go forward, with an invasion by one division and a parachute battalion scheduled for May 2nd to beat the monsoon.
On May 1st, a battalion of the Fiftieth Indian Parachute Brigade was dropped on Elephant Point at the mouth of the Rangoon River, where they successfully defeated some thirty Japanese defenders. They were followed by the Indian Infantry brigades, which landed among the heavy rains of the monsoon which had begun that day, two weeks early. The brigades, under the command of Major-General Chambers, began moving up the river towards Rangoon, and by nightfall, they were within twelve miles of the city.
While the 26th made their way up the river, a British pilot flew over Rangoon and spotted a message painted on the roof of a prison used to house around a thousand British POWs. The message stated: "Japs gone. Exdigitate [Royal Air Force slang meaning "hurry up"]." After landing and confirming that the Japanese were gone, the pilot commandeered a boat and sailed down the river to tell the 26th.
Unbeknownst to the British, General Heitaro Kimura, commander in chief of the Burma Area Army, had chosen to leave Rangoon on April 22nd to concentrate all of his remaining forces in the Burmese city of Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) against the orders of his superiors. As a result, the 26th took Rangoon on the evening of May 3rd without a fight. To Slim's disappointment, the early onset of the monsoon meant that the 26th beat the 14th to the city by four days. The Indian troops were welcomed as liberators by the joyous occupants of Rangoon. Operation Dracula was a success.
Allen, Louis. Burma, the Longest War, 1941-45. J.M. Dent, 1984.
Imperial War Museums, United Kingdom. https://www.iwm.org.uk/
Jackson, Ashley. The British Empire and the Second World War. Hambledon Continuum, 2006.
McLynn, Frank. The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph, 1942-45. Yale University Press, 2011.
Slim, William Joseph. Defeat into Victory. David McKay Company, 1961.
Read more about the Burma in WW2