In March 1942 there was a large garrison of British Indian troops in Bago (Pegu), one of the largest remaining since the 17th Divison had been scattered and decimated at the Sittang Bridge disaster. A decision has been made not to contest Yangon(Rangoon) which was quickly evacuated and the Pegu garrison evacuated the city to join the Yangon troops heading north. The Pegu troops included infantry and armour which met the Japanese at the towns of Paya Gyi and Hlegu , where they were successful against the Japanese Ha-Go tanks and “sticky bomb” molotov cocktails, and they pushed through the road block erected to join the retreat north. It was a tactical victory to the British Indian troops – rare during this period.
By April 1945 the advancing allied troops had swept away much of the resitance of the Japanese who were in disorganised retreat towards the Sittang and Salween rivers – hoping to get to Thailand.
General Kimura flees
Maj. Gen Matsui in Rangoon was surprised to learn that his superior General Kimura had already left the city and was now in Mawlamyine. Kimura had left orders that Matsui should attack the advancing allies. The annoyedMatsui assembled all remaining military units, bureaucrats and civilians who were quickly armed and partially uniformed and sent to defend Bago and Payagyi.
By the time they got near Payagyi the allies were already there, the small Japanese garrison having been ravaged by airstrikes and artillery. The allied commander sent tanks to block the road from Rangoon to the Sittang, and then moved on Bago.(Pegu)
The Japanese set up their defences
Thus Matsui and his garrison quickly set up defences in Bago along the west bank of the river, waiting for the allies to arrive. When they did the Japanese blew the main railway bridge outside of the town.
The brave attack of the Frontier Force
However, the upper girders of the bridge were still above the water and gave crossing points. Allied tanks and artillery were brought up to the east bank to give covering fire as in single file and under the machine guns of the defenders, soldiers of the Frontier Force Regiment bravely struggled across the girders to cross the Pegu River, and then they mounted a bayonet charge to clear the bunkers and machine gun nests. After savage fighting the Frontier Force advanced on towards Bago (Pegu)
Meanwhile the 1/10 Gurkhas and 7/10th Baluch Regiment met strong resistance near the main road bridge in the town. The 1/3 Gorkha Rifles and 4/4 Bombay Grenadiers also made little progress while a deep ditch held up the tanks of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse The Japanese countered fiercely .
Now the heavens opened and the monsoon began. The allies were held back further due to Japanese attacks which delayed the mass fording of the Bago River.
The Japanese abandon the city
On the morning of 1 May, Indian patrols found that the Japanese had withdrawn. The 17th Division rapidly crossed the Bago River and resumed its advance. However the countryside was flooded, and the advance was slowed to a crawl. Slim immediately put all of IV Corps on half rations to help the supply lines.
The Japanese had been ordered to defend Bago to the death. But things changed- on 30th April, General Matsui had received another order from his superior General Kimura to abandon Bago and return to defend Rangoon to the death. Matsui was furious as the British had already by-passed Bago and blocked access to Rangoon (Yangon). Although he could have continued to resist in Bago for some days if necessary, he withdrew but his forces came under attack as they moved along the exposed road to Hlegu. Thus Matsui ordered them to retreat off the roads, over the open land and into the hills west of the town in the hope of joining the general evacuation of the Japanese forces towards Thailand.
The Japanese remember their dead
By the time Bago (Pegu) fell, “Operation Dracula” (the code for the amphibious assault on Yangon )) was already underway and the undefended city was liberated. The spirited defence of Bago had denied the 17th Division their intention of getting to Yangoon first.
The Japanese suffered heavy casualties during the battle. After the war the wife of one of the senior offices sponsored the building of a pagoda dedicated to peace. It is located along the retreat route of the defeated defenders of Bago