by Nickii Wantakan Arcado
Desperately and gallantly the two brigades still east of the river fought to break through to the great Sittang railway bridge, held by their comrades, their only hope of getting their vehicles, and indeed themselves, over the six-hundred-yard-wide stream. Then came tragedy.
- Field Marshal Sir William Slim
5:22 am, February 22, 1942. Burma British forces, mainly the 17th Indian Infantry Division, were falling back against Japanese advancement. The had already given everything they had at the Battle of Bilin River. Weak, tired, and, disheartened, infantry members retreated back to the bridge admits heavy enemy artillery. But then an unfortunate decision was made; blow up the bridge before it could be seized by the Japanese. The division and other units that happened to be on the bridge found themselves stranded.
Strategic Importance of an Occupied Burma
Initially, the Imperial Empire was interested in Burmese conquest for the sake of obtaining raw materials. These included exploiting oil from fields around the city of Yenangyaung and conquering rice fields in order to provide food to Japanese soldiers.
Eventually, the Japanese soon realized that Burma’s proximity to both China and India provided an advantage to the Imperial Army’s wartime occupation strategy. Taking control of a vital landmark in Rangoon would grant the Imperial Army the opportunity to cut Allied forces from the land link to China, preventing them from providing aid via supply routes to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang forces. Furthermore, the occupation of Rangoon (and Burma as a whole) would allow the Japanese to launch an attack against British forces that were stationed in India. The closest Indian state to Burma was Assam, a state that was within reach of the city of Calcutta, the residency of the British Raj aka the rule by the British Crown of India. With such proximity to the head of state, the Japanese hoped to defeat India and force the British to retreat, essentially cutting off British influence in Asia.
The Defeat of the 17th Indian Division
The Japanese were beginning to rack up several successful war campaigns, with the most recent being the defeat of Singapore on February 15 despite the country having 80,000 remaining troops. Eight days later, Japan set its sights on advancing to Rangoon. After defeating the 17th Indian Division on the Salween River (95 miles east of Rangoon), due in large part to the multiple areas that the Imperial Army was able to easily cross over to, the Japanese forced the division back to the Sittang River (now 65 miles northeast of Rangoon). With the withdraw to Sittang, the line of communications to China was cut, effectively allowing the road and railroad north out of Rangoon to come under Japanese artillery fire.
A major problem began to show fruition. None of the division’s three Indian brigades had trained at the brigade level, nor had the division trained as a division. Tactically, the British would have been better off to have concentrated their men, but strategically they needed to engage the Japanese as far forward as possible so as to gain time. The strategy took precedence over tactics.
Unfortunately for the division, they had not trained at brigade level nor division level for that matter. As such, the decision to spread troop members across multiple areas to engage the Japanese as far forward as possible proved to be detrimental when compared to the option of concentrating the men for the sake of creating a stronghold. A culmination of other events led to the division’s uneventful circumstance of being surrounded by the Japanese, those of which included the poor organization of the infantry, lack of allied coordination, heavy aerial attacks, and automotive failure during fallback. Failing to expedite a strong bridgehead* on the Japanese side, Major General "Jackie" Smyth VC ordered the bridge to be destroyed, cutting off two-thirds of his division who was still at the far side of the river. Desperate, afraid, and with no means to cross the river, they fought for survival.
The Eventual Conquest of Rangoon
As the division was the only formation between the Imperial Army and Rangoon, the loss at Sittang Bridge leads to the capture of Rangoon and parts of lower Burma. Smyth was immediately dismissed by Commander-in-Chief, India, General Sir Archibald Wavell. Brigadier David "Punch" Cowan took his place in commanding the remaining survivors. Smyth never received another command. The 17th Division was left with only 3,484 men, roughly 40% of their original troop numbers.
The defeat of the 17th division effectively opened the opportunity for Japan to conquer Rangoon. After actions at the Battle of Pegu, the Taukkyan Roadblock, and efforts from the Australian-British-Dutch-American Command to prevent further conquest, (ABDACOM), Rangoon fell to Japanese control in March.
Flag of the State of Burma created in spring 1942 to be a Puppet state of the Empire of Japan. On August 1, 1942, the Burmese Executive Administration was established, dedicating and engaging all civil and administrative activities to the benefit of the Japanese military administration, Source: Wikimedia
- Slim, William. "Defeat Into Victory (London: Cassell, 1961)." The original edition was published in (1956): 444.