The battle of Shwedaung – the retreat of 1942


The Buddha with the Golden Spectacles, Shwedaung The battle of Shwedaung was a series of grim incidents during the British army’s retreat north in   March 1942.  When the British garrison evacuated Rangoon the majority headed towards Pyay (Prome). They were harried all the way by the advancing Japanese, especially from the air.

There were a series of incidents which led up to this battle – the British had  their armour and and trucks “glued” to the roads (  trains had ceased to operate) whilst the Japanese exhibited far more maneuverability  – their shock troops were lightly armed and could move fast across mountain and stream.However the allied press making the best of this dreadful situation.

“Burma Corps” and in particular the civilians had lost heavily against the Japanese advance,  but the newspapers stil operating under allied control gave different propaganda.



Letpadan, Burma

Letpadan, Burma

At dawn on Thursday a party from the Gloucester Regiment on the Irrawaddy’ front raided Letpadan in which about 600 Japanese were well beaten and dispersed to villages which our artillery later attacked.

Japanese casualties were 70 killed, but ours were slight. A river patrol on Wednesday contacted a party of traitor Burmese and Japanese, armed with light machine guns and mortars. They killed at least 30; our casualties were negligible”.

In reality the Gloucesters were ordered to attack a celebration which was being given by the Burma Independence Army for their Japanese allies. The B.I.A. had just been in a successful fight against the British on the west bank of the Irrewaddy at  Hinthada (Henzada). After the action the Gloucesters pulled out and resumed the retreat north

The British headquarters were now in Pyay (Prome), and it was there that they heard that the  Japanese were approaching the town of Paungde. Is  a pretty town with  many interesting buildings.

The British try to retake Paungde

Chettiar's house. Paungde, Burma

Paungde.Chettiyar’s  (money lender’s) house – now a restaurant

General Alexander ordered General Slim to retake Paungde and a motorized troop was sent south including the  7th Hussars and several infantry battalions, they moved fast and had soon passed through the town of Shwedaung 8 miles south of Pyay. Unknown to them Japanese General Iida had ordered his 33rd Division to push north to take Prome quickly. On the evening of March 28th the  Japanese II/215th battalion crossed the Irrawaddy to the east bank and made a night march towards Shwedaung, which they reached after  the British column heading south had passed through.

British headquarters in Pyay learned of the Japanese advance and ordered their column back whilst sending a relief forces south to help them.

Thus Shweduang was being approached on both south and north by British forces,    and Shweduang was now occupied by the  newly formed Burma Independence Army and Japanese forces, who now formed barricades.

Fight with the Burma Independence Army

The B.I.A.  infantry met the British tanks just north of the town in the open fields between the road and the Irrawaddy and they were routed by accurate infantry and tank fire.

Battle of Shwedaung

The open ground where the inexperienced B.I.A. attacked British armoured cars

B.I.A. had 1,300 men in the town and casualties were large, 60 killed, 300 wounded, 60 captured and about 350 ran away. The British pushed on into the town but were held up by well organized Japanese defence.   The British attemped a night attack  and the first Hussar troop broke through and pushed onto Pyay, but the second troop was not so lucky.

 Failed attacks by tanks

Three tanks were attacked by petrol bombs and put out of action and another reached the bridge on the main road.

The bridge at Shweduang

The bridge at Shwedaung

Here a Japanese threw an anti tank mine and blew off one of the tank’s tracks. Two of the tanks crew were killed and the officer captured but later escaped. Another push by the British from the south failed. There was now a column of vehicles over one mile long trying to get through. Another attack was made at dawn on March 30th, one tank hit a mine on the bridge, and two toppled down the ditches on either side of the bridge.

Fighting in the town

Infantry fighting now continued in the main town west of the bridge on the banks of the Irrewaddy.

Japanese field hospital at battle of Shweduang, Burma

This house, built in 1924, was a Japanese field hospital during the battle of Shwedaung,

The Shwe Myat Hmam Pagoda

In the  centre of the town is the well known  Shwe Myat Hmam – the temple of the Buddha with golden spectacles

The Buddha with the golden spectacles at Shweduang

The Buddha with the golden spectacles

A British colonial official donated a pair to help his wife’s eye problems – it worked apparently. This was one of several donated over the years. The temple is old, but not as old as the legend makes it out to be, which  is that it was built following a dream of the queen of King Duttabaung of the Pyu people,who according to tradition reigned for 70 years and passed away at the age of 105 in  373 B.C. He donated the first pair of spectacles apparently – not bad as they were not invented yet!

 Massacre of British and Indian troops

The Shwe Myat Man Paya at Shwedaung

The Shwe Myat Man temple with the Martyr’s memorial (to General Aung San and the other victims of the 1947 assassination) on the left.

This was also the area of a tragic incident. The British commander ordered the troops battling through from the south to split up and make their own way back to Pyay.  Troops began to surrender – and a group of 70 Indian soldiers commanded by British officers tried to surrender to a B.I.A . unit commanded by their leader Nan Yiang. However, troops behind those surrendering opened fire on the B.I.A. and killed the two Japanese advisers. The B.I. A. opened up on the surrendering troops, killing them all.

In hindsight the action at Shwedaung was unnecessary – the British could not hold the Japanese advance by just keeping to the roads and they were constantly outflanked. Trying to defend Paungde was impossible. The senior British officers probably needed the help of the Buddha’s spectacles.

The surviving British headed north, their dead pushed into mass graves.

Massacre of Royal Marines at Pandaung

But the action was still not over. While Japanese aircraft bombed the retreating troops on the road to Pyay, more tragedy was happening on the west bank of the Irrawaddy at the village of Pandaung.

Kyay Thon Paya, Paungde, Burma., the scene of the massacre

Kyay Thon Paya at Pandaung

The village was occupied by the Royal Marines who acted as a flank guard to the relief column on the west of the Irrawaddy River. However, the Japanese III/215 Regiment attacked at night on the 29th and the outnumbered Marine fought their way out, save for 17 who were captured and bayoneted to death against the wall of the temple.  There was one survivor of the massacre, who though badly wounded managed to rejoin the retreating British forces.

Japanese attack Prome (Pyay)

Pyay seen from the Bridge

Pyay seen from the bridge. During the first and second Anglo Burmese wars the banks below the town were defended by stockades. The loss of Pyay to the  British in 1852 led King Pagan to have the surrendering commander’s family executed. The commander was the son of the Burmese hero Maha Bandoola.

Pandaung  is now connected to Pyay (Prome) by a large bridge which affords excellent views of the Irrawaddy. There are many things to see in Pyay, temples, markets and museums, but few visit the King’s Hill (Mingyi Taung).

Myingyi Taung Pyay

Colonial era building on Myingyi Taung

On Mingyi Taung ( King’s Hill) are the remains of the colonial administrations residences which were also occupied by the Japanese during the war. The former governor’s residence is still used by the Myanmar government.

It was from Mingyi Taung that the order was given to try and defend Paungde, leading to the disaster at Shwedaung, and it was from here that the order was given to vacate Pyay and retreat further north – leading to another disaster for the British – at Yanangyaung

For more information on this or other locations within S.E. Asia contact:

Posted on by TOBY in Asia, Burma, Myanmar, Remembrance Tour, Tours, Walking tours 4 Comments

4 Responses to The battle of Shwedaung – the retreat of 1942


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