It was a decisive victory for Japan . Field Marshal Sir William Slim, who took Burma command soon after the battle called it “the decisive battle of the first campaign” and this it is often remarked on as a key event in the loss of Burma for the British. It resulted in the immediate loss of moral to both military and civilians alike, which, together with very obvious mismanagement of the battle (resulting in approximately two thirds of the British Indian forces being left on the wrong side of the bridge once it was blown) led to key changes in British command. Burmese nationalist rejoiced.
It was the inevitable result of the conflicting strategies of General Hutton, who wanted defence in depth of all major areas, and of his subordinate, General Smyth V.C. who wanted tighter defence of strategic locations, all governed by General Wavell’s overall lack luster authority.
But more importantly it was this. The 16th Brigade of Major General John Smyth’s 17th Indian Division had few experienced officers and lots of raw recruits with new weapons that they had not been trained to use. The command was a product of bad and unimaginative training. The British were well supplied with motorized transport which used the generally well maintained road and rail network. Military training was limited to the defence of these logistic arteries.Little thought was given to being outflanked ( the general Japanese tactic) as swamps, forests and other natural barriers such as rivers and mountains were regarded as impassable by the British training method.
Even historians confuse the countryside of southern and central Burma as being covered in jungle – it is obvious from the photographs the area is generally rural farming land or scrub trees. The jungle in Burma is west of the Irrewaddy. However the entire area is covered in mosquitoes, snakes and the temperatures easily lead to disease, fevers and cholera.
The 214th and 215th regiments of the Japanese had little motorized transport –only some tanks and they invaded with over 100 Thai elephants to carry dismantled mountain guns.
By the time the British Indian forces had been forced back to the Sittang much of their equipment had been lost which was when possible repaired and reused against them by the Japanese. their Indian and Burmese allies in the succeeding three years of conflict). Rail transport had ceased and a hastily built roadway over the railway lines on the Sittang bridge enabled some of the remaining transport to cross on February 21st and 22nd , but a vehicle jammed on the bridge and prevented further vehicle movement.
Since the battle of the Bilin River the Japanese made a two day cross country trek to outflank the retreating British who were concentrated along the narrow roadway, and on the morning of February 22nd Japanese forces attacked the east bank defenses out of the northeast – through Sittang village. Additional attacks continued into the night.
Defenders repeatedly attacked Pagoda and Buddha Hills, both of which were on a ridge which dominated the area, giving a clear area of fire over the whole area for the Japanese.
The Japanese outflanked the British and Indian defenders of the bridge by going though Sittang village, and approaching from the north
Although the Indian troops were holding their positions, confusion was so great that the officer in charge of bridge demolition believed most of the division had crossed the river, whereas the actual battle commander were not in communication with him. However, both were in communication with the overall command miles back in Abya who were panicked into thinking the Japanese were about to cross the bridge. Thus the demolition party on the west bank blew the bridge at 05.00 hours on February 24th.
The loss of the bridge trapped the majority of the 17th Division on the east bank.
The able bodied of the 17th Division abandoned their equipment and weapons and swam or rafted across the mile-wide river. Few prisoners were taken – most were butchered and bayoneted to death.
This beach was the scene of much tragedy as soldiers, able bodied and wounded alike tried to swim the mile wide Sittang River.
The defeat marked a real turning point in British colonial history.
Famous people involved in the battle:
“Sam Bahadhur” Manekshaw ( Field Marshal and late C.I.C Indian Army).
Field Marshal S. H. F. J. Manekshaw was severely wounded defending Sittang Bridge from Japanese attack. He received an immediate award of Military Cross.
Major Bruce Kinloch, MC
Who was awarded the Military Cross for helping rescue his men trapped on the eastern side to the Sittang after the bridge was blown
For information on battle sites east of the Sittang click here
For information on battle sites west of the Sittang click here
For more information on these are other sites please contact: www.dtctravel.com