When Britain tamed ‘superman’

Before 1944's battle of the Admin Box, the British were the whipping boys of the Burma campaign. After the battle, they had the supposedly invincible Japanese on the run. James Holland explores one of the Second World War's forgotten turning points

Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in Burma, March 1944. (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On the night of 9 February 1944 – deep in the province of Arakan in western Burma – Trooper Norman Bowdler of the 25th Dragoons’ C squadron was on turret duty.

He was struggling to keep his eyes open. Following three successive nights of ferocious Japanese attacks, he, along with every other man in his crew, was absolutely exhausted.

Out in front, to the north, was an open paddy field, swathed in a low mist that came up to a man’s waist. Bowdler could see the soft outline of the hills and the Mayu range of mountains beyond. The rest of his crew were down in their trench, asleep, when suddenly Bowdler heard a strange creaking noise. Immediately he found his sleepiness had vanished as every sinew in his body strained to this warning sound of imminent danger.

A moment later, to his horror, Bowdler saw a line of figures emerging out of the mist, running straight towards him – already not much more than 50 metres away. “Really, really close,” he recalled. His heart lurched and for a split second he thought his time had come. But the others on turret duty had spotted the enemy, too, and quickly the shooting started. “The moment they appeared out of the mist like that,” said Bowdler, “everybody in the unit seemed to open fire all at once…”

Smoke and shells

The advancing enemy troops immediately dropped to the ground, sheltering behind the paddy bunds; since Bowdler could no longer see a specific target, he decided to hold his fire. None of his mates were so particular, though, and continued shooting, flashes of fire and tracer tearing the night apart so that soon the stench of cordite and smoke from spent shells was heavy on the air. Bowdler was waiting for one of the Japanese to actually jump up onto his tank, and had his Tommy gun ready as well as his pistol and a number of grenades.

Still the Dragoons continued their display of firepower, until the smoke was getting so thick and rolling back on them that they were in real danger of giving the enemy a perfect smokescreen from which to crawl forward and renew their attack. Eventually, though, and much to Norman Bowdler’s relief, someone shouted “Ceasefire!” From being engulfed by an indescribable din one moment, in the next there was suddenly deathly quiet once more, except for the cries of some wounded Japanese out in the paddy.

Bowdler kept quiet and continued to grip his Tommy gun, but no more Japanese appeared through the mist that night. Whether the Dragoons had been right or wrong to fire so excessively was debatable, but it had certainly stopped the enemy before them in their tracks.

And not a moment too soon. Since the Japanese 55th Infantry Division had launched a surprise attack on the 7th Indian Division’s administrative area four nights earlier, they’d given Allied positions in the Arakan a serious mauling. The Japanese had overrun the divisional headquarters and cut off the crucial Ngakyedauk Pass, the Allies’ only link to the main supply routes in and out of the Arakan. On 7 February they’d attacked the division’s main dressing station – shooting, bayoneting and hacking to death with swords the wounded as well as medical staff. The screams had gone on long into the night. It had been a slaughter.

With the administration area surrounded, it fell to Brigadier Geoff Evans to organise its defence. Hastily turning the administrative area into a defensive box, Evans made sure every man – whether a clerk or cook – had a weapon, and ordered them all to stand and fight. As Norman Bowdler and his colleagues had displayed in a blaze of firepower on the night of the ninth, the newly renamed Admin Box was to be held at all costs.

Humiliated no more

In the months leading up to the battle of the Admin Box, much had changed in the Allied camp. Since the Japanese had first invaded Burma two years earlier, the British had suffered one humiliation after another. In November 1943, however, a new Allied command had been created to unite British forces as well as American and Chinese. South-East Asia Command (SEAC) also gained a fresh-faced supreme commander in Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. At 43, he was young and, despite sitting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, was inexperienced at high command. Yet there was no doubting his charisma, energy and vision, and he immediately won over the difficult US commander in the theatre, General Joe Stilwell, as well as Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Mountbatten immediately appointed General Bill Slim as his new 14th Army commander, based on little more than gut instinct. It was to prove a shrewd decision. Slim had been in the theatre since the beginning and had repeatedly proved himself, standing out while others around him flailed and failed. He now wasted no time in tackling what he viewed as the four big failings of the British so far.

Cutting the red tape

First was the problem of logistics. Burma was one of the most difficult places in the world in which to fight. There was little infrastructure, distances were vast, and getting supplies to the front was difficult, to say the least. Cutting through red tape, constructing new roads and passes, and building up forward stockpiles, by early 1944 the situation was improving.

The second was illness. Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, blood poisoning and dengue fever were rampant. In the autumn of 1943, men in the 14th Army were falling sick at a rate of 1,200 each day. By imposing draconian measures to ensure the men took malaria pills, and by setting up forward treatment units, the health of the army soon improved, too.

The third was training. Every single man needed to learn how to fight and, more importantly, how to use the jungle to his advantage, rather than fear it. Troops were taught rigorous patrolling and improved skills in camouflage, while a more asymmetrical approach to fighting the Japanese was encouraged. Slim also drummed into every man that there could be no more retreats.

The final challenge, and possibly Slim’s toughest, was to improve morale. The men called themselves the Forgotten Army; in their minds they had built up the Japanese into supermen whose cruelty and barbarism were understandably feared. Low morale was endemic but, by improving conditions, training and health, and boosting resolve, the 14th Army began to change. And during the clearing of forward enemy positions in December 1943 and January 1944, the fruits of these changes began to become evident.

There was a further component, however, and that was an overhaul of Allied air forces, in which Mountbatten played a key part. Spitfires were introduced, as were improved radar and ground control, and soon these agile planes were knocking the Japanese Oscars and Zeroes out of the sky – dogfights that were watched by those on the ground, further boosting morale. By the end of January 1944, the British had gained air superiority over the Arakan front, so the final piece in the jigsaw could be put into place: forward air supply. If troops were to stand firm and fight, they needed to be supplied in the field, and this could only be done by air drops: Dakotas and Commandos flying low and dropping supplies right on top of them.

Every British commander, from Mountbatten down to battalion and company, understood that further failure against the Japanese was now unthinkable. The war against Germany was being won, and the Americans were in the ascendancy in the Pacific. SEAC might be bottom of the priority list, but that was no excuse. Defeat had to be turned into victory.

Yet though the 14th Army was about to launch its own offensive in the Arakan, the Japanese had stolen a march. They struck first in what was to be a two-fisted punch, initially in the Arakan, with the aim of encircling and destroying first 7th Division, then 5th Division to the west of the Mayu Range. After that they would draw in British reserves there before launching the main strike far to the north-east at Imphal – and then press on into India.

The Japanese had assumed that the British would do what they had always done – cut and run. But the men of 7th Division, both the forward brigades and those at the Admin Box, stood their ground. The battle lasted 18 days, and the men at the box never budged – despite repeated attacks, despite constant shelling, mortaring and sniping, despite the rapidly rising stench of rotting corpses, and despite the growing number of wounded.

At the centre of the box was General Frank Messervy, who escaped the overrunning of his divisional HQ and took his place among his men, revolver by his side and rifle slung over his shoulder. While he continued to command his division, Brigadier Evans was left to manage the battle. Key to this was active patrolling and the blasting of enemy positions in the surrounding hills by the tanks of the 25th Dragoons. By night, each unit strictly remained where they were in their trenches. Anyone moving was to be shot.

The Japanese flung more and more men at the battle with increasing desperation. Running out of ammunition and rations, the troops formerly considered ‘supermen’ were, in those two and a half weeks, completely broken – so much so that as the Admin Box was relieved and the Ngakyedauk Pass opened once more, General Messervy was able to go straight back onto the offensive. Soon he was pushing the enemy back – this time for good.

It was a devastating blow for the Japanese, and severely upset their plans for their invasion of Assam in north-east India. All of the senior commanders involved offered to commit seppuku, although imperial headquarters recognised that losing them in a mass suicide was hardly going to help. Japanese efforts in the subsequent battles of Imphal and Kohima – in which the Allies extinguished Japanese plans to invade India, and drove the enemy back into Burma – were arguably doomed before they began because of defeat in the Admin Box.

Fortitude and stoicism

For the British, it marked a significant turning point. “It was a victory,” wrote Captain Anthony Irwin, who had fought at Dunkirk as well as in the Admin Box, “not so much over the Japs but over our fears.” That was true, but it was also the first time the British had ever beaten the Japanese in a significant battle.

The Admin Box provided the formula for the British to go on and drive the Japanese out of Burma. Mountbatten claimed that it was as important a turning point as Alamein. It certainly deserves to be better remembered.

It is also an extraordinary story of heroism, fortitude and stoicism. For those who lived through it, it was a nightmare: a battle of brutal attrition that devastated a tiny corner of Burma, which quickly became a stinking, ravaged area of death and destruction. “The place,” said Norman Bowdler, “was hell by the time we got out.”

Eastern catastrophes

Before the fightback in the Admin Box, British forces had hit rock bottom in Burma in 1942 and ’43…

Shortly after their entry into the war, the Japanese seized Malaya and Singapore, and soon had the British on the run in Burma, too. The loss of Burma was not only a humiliating blow militarily but also damaged British prestige. It was followed by civil unrest in India – and then came the Bengal famine, one of the region’s worst ever humanitarian disasters.

Late in 1942, General Noel Irwin, commander of what was then called  Eastern Army, launched a strike into the Arakan in western Burma, only for his forces to receive a bloody nose. After five months of bitter and bloody fighting, in which men had repeatedly been flung ineffectively at the Japanese networks of bunkers, they found themselves back where they had started. It had been a further dismal, humiliating failure.

Then, in 1943, the maverick British general Orde Wingate launched his first Chindit expedition – employing guerrilla tactics to harry Japanese forces behind enemy lines in north-east Burma. By the autumn of that year, Wingate had won backing for a much bigger operation in the spring of 1944, despite the very questionable results of the first operation. This was to prove a further drain on General Slim’s meagre resources – and it wasn’t until victory in the battle of the Admin Box that Britain’s habit of losing in the east would be reversed.

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James Holland is an author and historian. His books include The War in the West: Germany Ascendant, 1939–1941 (Bantam, 2015).