This short battle near the present Commonwealth war cemetery north of Yangon in Burma was costly to the retreating British, but a lucky escape for the main garrison which could have been killed or captured, if the Japanese had not strictly followed their orders to capture Rangoon ( Yangon), and avoid other actions or objectives.
The previous commanders in the field for the British, Smyth and Hutton, had been replaced following the debacle of the Sittang Bridge and General Harold Alexander had taken command. Following General Wavell’ orders, he did nothing to save Rangoon. When he took command it was too late anyway.
The situation was already a disaster – thousands of civilians fleeing north east to India – easy prey to dacoits ( bandidts), and now the military garrison of Rangoon followed
The British Press made the most of a potential disaster
EARLY CRISIS. BRITISH TROOPS’ VICTORY How a Collapse Was Averted. (British Official Wireless) LONDON, April 20.–
First Japanese Defeat.
“On March 7 the immediate future of Burma was decided in a few hours. A danger of complete collapse had drawn very near. It was averted by a handful of British troops. The Hussars smashed a ring round them at Pegu. The Rangoon garrison with the Gloucesters in the front drove resolutely into a road-block at Taukkyan. ‘The enemy had brought up tanks, guns, infantry and troops and they had built across the road and the railway obstacles of earth and trees at intervals covering several miles and had flanked and dominated them by many strongpoints whose fire swept every approach. The position was an improvised fortress. “With gallant but inadequate artillery support the Gloucesters advanced to the assault. Pushing relentlessly up the road and through woodlands to the right and left, bombed all the time from the air, shelled by 75’s and under a hail of machine-gun bullets, they pursued the Japanese from cover to cover. That night survivors of the sadly thinned battalion slept in the heart of the enemy defences. The next day the attack began again with the dawn. Much hard fighting lay ahead but enough had been gained to open the way to success and on March 8 the Rangoon garrison broke through. “Taukkyan-Pegu was the first de feat inflicted on the Japanese army. It was a small battle but one fought for a great prize. Had the Japanese won it, Burma would have been lost to Britain. The success was shared by the Gloucesters, on whom fell the heaviest losses, the Hussars, a squadron of the Royal Armoured Corps, a Frontier Force of rifles from the Punjab, 2 anti-tank batteries and some field artillery
This was the official British coverage.The facts were a little different.
The British Indian army in Burma was larger but tactically and practically outmatched by it’s battle hardened opponents.
The Japanese had quickly advanced from the Thai border, and not stopped by the blowing of the Sittang bridge, they had crossed the Sittang River at several points, outflanking the retreating British.
Sakurai receives his orders.
The Japanese divisional commander General Sakurai had received orders to sweep around north of Rangoon and attack it from the west. He was determined to take the city.
The plan was for the main Japanese force to cross the Pyay -Yangon ( Prome – Rangoon) road at Yetho, Hmawbi, some miles north of Taukkyan, and by following the railway line south which ran parallel to the road outflank the fleeing Rangoon Garrison to enter the city.
The Japanese did not realise they were passing a fleeing garrison, and the British did not realise they were being passed by a huge Japanese force.
However, in order to protect the Japanese crossing of the Pyay Yangon road Sakurai had ordered the construction of a road block some miles south .
British troops, having previously passed this point were told that the Japanese had been spotted crossing the road, an a truck headed south. This was the first victim of the road block which was hit by artillery fire.
The Japanese line of advance
The Japanese crossed the Pyay-Yangon (Prome-Rangoon)b road as they traveled along the railway line from the Sittang River. Even though the British had prematurely blown the Sittang railway bridge to avoid the Japanese crossing the wide river, the Japanese crossed by boats north and south of the location of the bridge. Indeed, once the British abandoned their positions the Japanese found they could cross the bridge as the collapsed central spans were still above the water.
The barricade were set up some 60 yards north of a bend in the road at Sattweddaw, near this location, just north of this toll both on the now widened road.
The barricade consisted of two mountain guns mounted in the ditches at the side of the road, one pointing north and one pointing south. On the left of the guns there was clear paddy fields, and on the right rubber plantations running down to the present day Taukkyan War Cemetery West and east of the barricades, the area were covered by machine guns and infantry, and the barricade was reinforced after the British truck from the north was destroyed.
The first to encounter the barricade from the south were British tanks of the 7th Hussars at about 3.00pm- one tank was hit and two other broke through and headed north. Two armoured carriers of the Gloucesters failed to pass it and suffered 20 dead and 26 wounded.
The Frontier Force attempted an attack on either side of the road supported by tanks but failed
The Japanese then attacked the British (who had formed a perimeter 500 yards south of the roadblock) at 10.00pm which cost the British 21 dead and 54 wounded.
The British HQ was now strung out along the road, past the present war cemetery at Taukkyan, and dispersed into the rubber plantations at the sides of the road. The decision was to attack the Japanese in the morning.
They were waiting for more attacks, and also preparing for an attack in strength
The Japanese abandon their positions
However, once the Japanese forces had crossed, the barricades were abandoned, which the British found out when they attacked at dawn.
The Japanese commander Sakurai followed the orders his superior General Iida to take Rangoon, but if he had been a little less inflexible and held the barricades, he would have captured the whole of the British general staff, including the Burma Front Commander. General Harold Alexander.
General Slim later remarked that if the roadblock had been maintained “nothing could have saved the British, tied up as they by their mechanical transport were to the mechanical ribbon.”
The British were very lucky, but very bloodied as well. General Alexander slept in his car, the field hospital was full of dead, dying and wounded, and this just a few miles away from the centre of Yangon ( Rangoon).
Worse was to follow on the headlong retreat to India. Already the route was strewn with bodies of civilians having fled Yangon earlier, and now it was to be the fate of many of the fleeing troops to die alongside the road north.
This action is interesting for a number of reasons.
a) It shows the superior maneuverability of the Japanese forces compared to the British in 1942.
b) It shows the very substantial function of luck , and missed opportunities in military engagements.
c) It was an early example of why the Japanese disparaged the quality of British and Indian troops.
d) The outflanking techniques were used by the British against the Japanese in Burma in 1945, and then it was the Japanese in headlong retreat.