Operation CANNIBAL First Arakan 1942-1943

Discussion in 'Burma & India' started by TTH, Feb 4, 2018.

  1. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    I have read bits and pieces about the First Arakan in a number of books (Louis Allen, Slim, Michael Hickey, John Moremon), and from what I have read it was one of the most disastrous operations of the war. What I find particularly inexplicable is that it happened long after Singapore and the first Burma campaign, by which time I would have thought the army would have at least learned what not to do against the Japanese. I am also puzzled by the fact there does not seem to be a complete book-length account of CANNIBAL, or at least none that I can find. I am interested in hearing comments from forum members about the campaign as well as reading suggestions. If you know a good book about all this I'd like to know of it too.
  2. Skoyen89

    Skoyen89 Senior Member

    Have you tried 'The Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War 1939-45; The Arakan Operations 1942-45' Edited by Prasad. Bought mine from Abebooks for £20 last month.

    It doesn't mention 'Cannibal' in the index but does cover First Arakan from Oct 1942 in great detail. As an aside wasn't Cannibal the amphibious attack planned on Aykhab that did not take place? I have other volumes in this series and they are great - they don't really go below Battalion level so have no individual accounts but are very detailed and as a way of understanding the overall flow of the campaign they are the best I have seen. They also have great maps.
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  3. bamboo43

    bamboo43 Very Senior Member Patron

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  4. wtid45

    wtid45 Very Senior Member

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  5. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    From my research on First Arakan (my grandfather was there so I've been digging into it in detail), there is one feature that comes up again and again in the War Diaries and on which it seems the whole campaign ultimately faltered: the 'FDL Chaung' on the coastal side of the Mayu Range which stopped the main British advance dead and gave the Japanese time to bring up strong reinforcements.

    This was a deep tidal creek (chaung) about a mile north of Donbaik which was occupied and gradually fortified by the Japanese, creating in effect a formidable natural trench line that blocked the route along the coastal plain towards Foul Point about 9 miles further along the Mayu Peninsula. Foul Point was the tip of the peninsula and had to be taken to allow the amphibious assault against Akyab to proceed. The fighting degenerated into WW1-style assaults on a fortified line, and one personal account (Col. R.A.G. Nicholson) decries the fact that lessons that should have been learned from the last war seemed to have been forgotten here. In his opinion, the Division/Army planners were making their schemes for the Donbaik area off the map without understanding the nature of the terrain and defences, but overruled any disagreement during conferences.

    I've put some maps of the area and detailed sketches of the chaung in this thread. I've not researched much into what was happening inland, but this is what happened on the coastal side (the 'Donbaik Front'):

    47 Brigade Assault

    The chaung was held only very lightly at first: carrier recce patrols seem to have got down to Foul Point unhindered at the start of January. On the 8th, 1 Inniskillings made a probe in company strength on Donbaik village itself and reached it without opposition; however, they were then attacked from the nearby jungle and forced to withdraw back up the coast, and then unexpectedly took fire from the chaung which inflicted heavy casualties and forced the company to break up.

    On the 18th, the Inniskillings made an attempt to capture the chaung with a frontal assault. Support was artillery concentrations and smoke-screens (sixteen 25-pounders of 494 Battery & 316 Battery of 130 Field Regiment, plus the 3.7-inch howitzers of 8 Mountain Battery) and 12 brigaded bren-gun carriers operating on the beach. 1/7 Rajput were on their left flank, taking the jungle-clad hills which overlooked the chaung (in particular a feature called 'Twin Knobs'). The attack was a disaster, stopped by heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. Three of the carriers were knocked out by a captured British 2-pounder anti-tank gun (Havildar Parkash Singh won the VC here for going out to rescue the crews under fire, and the gun was knocked out by 494 Battery). 'A' Coy 1 Inniskillings and 'D' Coy 1/7 Rajput managed to work around the jungle flank and tried another attack the next morning but were mauled by concealed machine-guns in the jungle behind them - they attribute this to poor patrolling which is a repeated theme in the early part of First Arakan. By the 20th, all units of 47 Brigade had been pushed back to their start lines.

    55 Brigade Assault

    The next attempt to take the chaung was on 1 February. 55 Brigade, supported by eight Valentine tanks ('C' Squadron, 146 Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps) made heroic efforts but were unable to overwhelm the myriad machine-gun posts now dug in to the chaung. Despite heavy harassing fire from the artillery, the Japanese had clearly been able to reinforce and continue to fortify the chaung, and it is at this point that the notorious bunkers such as 'Sugar 5' (known for its arty target identifier - S5) begin to be mentioned

    I wrote a more detailed account of the disastrous tank attack in this thread.

    Second 55 Brigade Assault

    55 Brigade made another attempt on 18 February. The artillery had been hammering 'Sugar 5' but although some subsidiary bunkers had been knocked out, this one appeared impervious. The attack opened with a massive bombardment (1056 rnds 25-pr HE, 224 rnds from the howitzers), and two companies of the Inniskillings managed to enter the seaward (western) end of the chaung and fight hand-to-hand, capturing several strong-points. 2/1 Punjab was almost destroyed trying to storm S4, S5 and M16, and the Rajputs and Dogras attacking the eastern end of the chaung were unable to make any headway against showers of grenades and incessant machine-gun fire from the defenders. The Inniskillings kept their foothold all day and brought up reinforcements under the cover of darkness, but Japanese reinforcements arrived at the same time and after a fierce fight 1 Innisks was forced to withdraw.

    6 Brigade & 71 Brigade Assault

    The final attempt to break the line at the chaung was on 18 March. Both 6 and 71 Brigades were supposed to be involved but much of 71 Brigade had to be shifted inland just before the attack started to counter the Japanese reinforcements now arriving. A staggering amount of shells were fired in the run up to the attack (listed as over 12,700 HE and over 8,500 3" mortar rounds), four 'Deceit' operations were launched in the preceding days, and Blenheims and Hurricanes bombed and strafed the area. Sappers from the R.E. pushed a wheeled trolley loaded with 500lbs of explosive onto 'Sugar 5' and detonated it, but the bunker still remained in action. A 3.7-inch howitzer was manhandled in pieces up to a gun pit constructed 100 yards from the chaung and fired point blank at it, but was still unable to penetrate.

    On the morning of the 18th, 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, managed to get into 'Sugar 4' and on top of 'Sugar 5' but were cut to pieces by supporting posts. Japanese artillery could drop 'SOS' calls directly onto their own defensive line as the defenders were so well protected that they were safe from the fire, while the attackers in the open suffered terribly. The Royal Scots suffered the same fate in a renewed attack on the bunkers overnight.The attack was called off and no ground was gained for the heavy losses. According to Ronnie Nicholson, O.C. of 130 Field Regiment:

    This large expenditure of amn had very little effect on the enemy, as in his underground defences he was immune from fire of weapons of the calibre brought against him. This fact was realised by those who had the experience of the previous attacks, especially that carried out by 55 Bde on 18 Feb.

    It is interesting to note that while the British attack was being prepared on the DONBAIK front, a fact that could not possibly have escaped the notice of the Japs due to the big bombardment carried out in the 'DECEIT' plans which disclosed the fact that the bulk of our Arty was on this front, and to the fact that he met British troops only in this sector, whereas previously the line had been held by Br and Indian tps, he did not desist from launching his main attack on the RATHEDAUNG front EAST of the MAYU and in working round the right flank of 47 Bde on the THAYETPYIN - LAUNGCHAUNG front.

    The Japanese plan, his resumption of the offensive, and his faith in the ability of a detachment in well constructed defences to hold any attack of ours, supported by a great superiority of supporting weapons, cannot but be admired.

    British forces continued raids, artillery operations and bombing (by Vengeance dive-bombers) right up until 4 April, it seems hoping to destroy 'Sugar 5' and occupy the chaung before the monsoon set it. By the 1st, a gun pit overlooking S5 and a track leading to it had been completed, and preparations were made to bring forward a 25-pounder and two 2-pounder anti-tank guns. The situation on the other side of the Mayu Range deteriorated rapidly, however, and the units at Donbaik were pulled back. They barely made it out, and were almost encircled by Japanese forces pushing into the hills behind them. 6 Brigade HQ was overrun and the Brigadier killed, and there was a desperate rush from Indin to Kyaukpandu which featured men in trucks and carriers blazing away with rifles and bren guns as they drove full-pelt past a Japanese-occupied wood, and a critical rear-guard action by the artillery.

    If you wanted to point to one thing that caused the failure of the entire First Arakan Campaign, I think that 'Sugar 5' could be it. It prevented the capture of 'FDL Chaung', and failure to capture the chaung meant that the coast could not be secured, and failure to secure the coast meant that the attack on Akyab could not proceed. So much was thrown at the chaung (as Nicholson notes, much of the artillery and the best of the British troops) that the inland flank was unable to hold the Japanese advance.The 25-pounders and howitzers in theatre were unable to penetrate a bunker like that, but heavy artillery and other resources were unavailable. The Japanese forces at Donbaik were greatly outnumbered in terms of manpower and artillery, but their fixed defensive positions were formidable. Had the bunker line not been there, the outcome might have been very different.
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2018
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  6. Rothy

    Rothy Well-Known Member

    There are a number of official reports available from the London Gazette website including some on the Arakan campaign. They were published after the war and may be the same as those to which bamboo 43 refers. They are free to download. You might have to make a couple of searches to find them all. It seems that the search results offer individual pages but there is an option to download the complete relevant supplement.

    I'm on my mobile at the moment else I'd post the links

    Last edited: Feb 8, 2018
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  7. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    Bisheshwar Prasad's "Arakan Operations 1942-45" is probably the best choice for info about the First Arakan. I personally haven't read it so I can't tell you how good it is but having some other his books it's probably good. Only other books that exclusively covers operations in Arakan is "Battle of the Box" by Patrick Turnbull but it mostly cover the Second Arakan and the Battle of the Admin Box.

    Personal accounts are rare. John Prendergast was Second in Command of 1/15th Punjab Regiment which was holding position near Rathedaung. In his book "Prender's Progress" he give some info about bad planning, low morale and problems which his battalion was facing during campaign. While this is covered in just one chapter it's generally a good book which I recommend.

    Scott Leathart arrived in Arakan with 3/9th Gurkha Rifles only in closing stages of the campaign, so you won't find much details in his book "With the Gurkhas".
  8. Skoyen89

    Skoyen89 Senior Member

    It is very good - detailed at a Battalion level and a good overview of the campaign, with great maps. I have the volume covering Imphal and Kohima - which others do you have and are they of interest?
  9. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    There were four books that covers Burma Theater and one that cover Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. The one you mentioned about Imphal & Kohima is "The Reconquest of Burma I" and the one I have too. Others were "Retreat from Burma", "Arakan" & "The Reconquest of Burma II". I have "The Reconquest of Burma II" but also have "The Campaign in the Western Asia" from the same authors which covers operations in Syria, Iran and Persia.
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  10. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    Well this operations wasn't too far after Malaya and Burma disasters. By that time Indian Army is still in process of reorganization and expansion, There were too many partially trained recruits and inexperience offices in the units. Proper training schools and programs on the Army level were developed after the First Arakan and by that time training for the Jungle Warfare was conducted and developed mostly on the divisional level. Two units particularly developed good training programs based on experiences of early fighting with Japanese, 17th & 23rd Indian Division led by Cowan and Savory respectively.

    There were lot of other problems too. RAF was still mostly equipped by outdated planes and couldn't win Air Superiority over Arakan. Units lost large number of men due diseases especially during monsoon period as there was still not enough proper medicine or not effective enough. But probably the greatest problem was bad planning and not good enough leadership.
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  11. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    Here are some quotes from Col. Nicholson that agree with Sol's post above. These come from "Account of operations of 130th (Lowland) Field Regiment in the Arakan Campaign by Colonel R. A. G. Nicholson" [CAB 106/23] which was written immediately after the campaign and typed up during his posting to the School of Artillery in December 1943:

    The run up to the campaign:

    No acid for batteries was available. Wireless sets were giving endless trouble after the Monsoon period. Everyone concerned on the Div Staff did their utmost but the long and inadequate Line of Communication proved too difficult a problem to overcome - especially at this time when the disturbed conditions in Bengal were upsetting all railway moves. It was, however, irritating to learn that units in Calcutta were finding little difficulty in obtaining full scale equipment, whereas units about to enter operations were starved of many essentials. Large consignments of urgently required stores were often frequently discovered waiting at some station - incorrectly addressed - and no action being taken.

    It can truthfully be said that few operations can have been started under such unfavourable conditions with regard to the training of troops, and equipping them on an adequate scale. In so far as the Arty were concerned, it was soon discovered that Ordnance Depots did not contain personnel with a knowledge of 25-pr equipment.

    The general effect of all this was one of extreme irritation on the part of all those whose main anxiety was that units should at least start the operations properly equipped. The knowledge that not one single proper Brigade Group exercise had been carried out - or could be carried out before the date of operations - was a source of amazement to many.

    The natural result of all these facts was that the impression gained ground that an operation of some sort had to be undertaken, but that its success or failure was apparently of such minor importance that it did not matter whether the troops were trained properly or were properly equipped.

    Troop quality, plus planning failures during the run up to the final assault near Donbaik in March:

    It was clearly impossible to anyone who had studied the ground, and knew the standard of the training and quality of the troops which were to be employed, to expect such an operation to be completed in one morning with a further advance of 1500 yards through jungle in the same afternoon. It was only too evident that the plan had been made off the map which hardly showed the real nature of the country.
    O.P. officers... reported that the Indian troops were considerably worried by these activities and used to fire blindly in any direction, often holding their weapons up above their weapon pits, taking no aim and discharging a large quantity of amn at nowhere in particular. It took some considerable time for him to settle down and cease this useless form of retaliation, despite numerous orders that fire was not to be opened on these occasions.

    It was at this period that Comd 71 Bde had to issue an order regarding the numerous cases of self-inflicted wounds in the left arm. The order was to the effect that in addition to disciplinary action, no casualty thus caused would be evacuated beyond the A.D.S. It is regrettable that this has to be recorded, but it shows the state of training and quality of the troops employed to fight the best troops of the Japanese armies in Malay and Burma.
    Brig. CAVENDISH was placed in command and was called to a conference at which the C-in-C, the Army Comd and Div Comd were present. Brig Cavendish informed me that he had asked for 6" Hows, but was informed that he could not have them. During the many discussions on the Arty support, it was agreed by all that for Phase 1 of the operation, which was the capture of S5 and S4 by the 1 R.W.F. before dawn, no artillery fire should be put down prior to zero. It had been proved that in all previous attacks, the enemy defences were impervious to the fire of 25 prs or 3.7 Hows and arty fire only served to warn the enemy of the impending attack, so that he manned his weapons the second it lifted.

    Brig CAVENDISH stressed this point to the Higher Comd, but was apparently overruled, as the final arty plan consisted of a 15 minute bombardment prior to zero.

    It is worth recording that this decision was received with profound dissatisfaction by all who had the experience of previous failures. It was also regrettable that 3 days elapsed between the last DECEIT and the real attack. The value of 3 false attacks was lost as the Jap no doubt realised that the final preparations for a real attack were being made during these three days.

    The result of the poor planning for the 18 March attack:

    From the time table of events, it is only too evident that the Japs, warned by the bombardment before zero, were ready and as on all previous occasions, manned their weapons as soon as the fire lifted. The bombardment of S5 was never expected to achieve anything, as a 3 hour bombardment in the 55 Bde attack on Feb 18th had failed to damage this fortified post.

    The point Sol makes about tropical diseases is a recurring theme in the war diaries. 130 Field Regiment (the bulk of the artillery on the Donbaik front) was losing an average of 2 men per day, mostly to malaria. The long Lines of Communication meant that it could take well over a month for an evacuated man to return to the Regiment, even if they had only spent a few days of that in hospital, and this resulted in a constant drain of well-trained men. The infantry loss rates were much higher, on the 28th the diarist for 5/8 Punjab even reports that in his unit there is a “certain amount of scurvy due to lack of vegetables in rations”. 'Blanket' treatment for malaria wasn't yet available, but 130 Field Regt.'s diary does report that it came in towards the end of the campaign and had a positive effect immediately: "Since the introduction of MEPACHRINE tablets on 15 March the number of cases of malaria has decreased. There have been a few cases of dysentery."

    [Thanks to Bazooka Joe for pointing me to the Nicholson file in the National Archives, by the way, as I'd completely missed it and it's proved to be a goldmine of info - hopefully one more trip to the archives and I'll have everything on the 130th to put on a disk for you as promised]
    Last edited: Feb 12, 2018
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  12. sol

    sol Very Senior Member

    If I'm not wrong Slim's "Defeat into Victory" gives good account about problems in the higher command during the First Arakan. As more and more units were sent into Arakan they are came under 14th Indian Division Command. I think that at one time 14th Indian division had under its command no less than 9 Brigades plus various support and logistic units making it the largest Commonwealth/Empire division during the WW2. If you consider that division was split in two by Mayu range with only practical crossing by road between Maungdaw and Buthidaung through tunnels way back from front lines it was really hard for Lloyd to control all those units over such large area. Things get even worse when Irwin dismissed Lloyd and personally took command over division while retaining command over the Eastern Army.
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  13. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    Thanks for posting the link to that file. I've finally had a chance to get up to TNA to see it and it's a slim but interesting file, well worth a look for those who can get to the archives. For those who can't I'll put up some of the more notable pages.

    First is a memo regarding Churchill's opinion on the operation:

    Last edited: Mar 21, 2018
  14. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    An exchange of messages between Churchill and President Roosevelt (Churchill referring to himself as 'Former Naval Person'):

    DSC_0460.jpg DSC_0459.jpg
  15. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    And these four pages lay out the high-level plan for the 1942/43 reconquest of Burma, helpfully explaining exactly what CANNIBAL and the other operations were:

    DSC_0465.jpg DSC_0469.jpg DSC_0473.jpg DSC_0478.jpg
  16. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    And this document details air strength. Can anyone explain the abbreviations in the left column? (the type is quite faint, but seem to be HB, MB, LB - heavy/medium/light bombers maybe? - SHF and THF):

  17. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    I would make them:
    HB = Heavy Bomber
    MB = Medium Bomber
    LB = Light Bomber
    SEF = Single Engine Fighter
    TEF = Twin Engine Fighter
  18. PackRat

    PackRat Well-Known Member

    Ah, that'll be it! The single-engine fighters must have been mostly Hurricanes, but any idea what the British twin-engine fighter being delivered in 1942 was?

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