Battle of the Sittang Bridge -19 February to 23 February 1942

 

Buddha Hill, Sittang Bridge

Buddha Hill, Sittang Bridge

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.

Farmland along the Sittang

Farmland along the Sittang

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.

 

Scrub woodland looking south from Buddha Hill, Sittang Bridge, Burma

Scrub woodland looking south from Buddha Hill, Sittang Bridge, Burma

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.

Towards the bridge their were many hills which hindered defence and favoured attack. You can see the the cutting into a hillside by the road going towards the site of the new bridge, the original site in 1942 being covered in scrub forest

Towards the bridge their were many hills which hindered defence and favoured attack. You can see the the cutting into a hillside by the road going towards the site of the new bridge, the original site in 1942 being covered in scrub forest

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 battlefield seen from Buddha hill

The battlefield seen from Buddha hill

The Japanese outflanked the British and Indian defenders of the bridge by going though Sittang village, and approaching from the north

The trail used by the Japanese to take Buddha Hill

The trail used by the Japanese to take Buddha Hill

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 piers of the Sittang Bridge remain next to the modern road replacement

The piers of the Sittang Bridge remain next to the modern road replacement

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.

The road of death at the Sittang

Along this road the retreating  British and Indian soldiers, especially the wounded, were shot or bayoneted to death. Pagoda Hill is in the back ground.

The beach at the Sittang Bridge

The beach at the Sittang Bridge

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 

 

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Posted on by TOBY in Asia, Burma, Myanmar, Remembrance Tour, Specials, Tours 6 Comments

6 Responses to Battle of the Sittang Bridge -19 February to 23 February 1942

  1. Pingback: Burma/ Myanmar:Yangon – Mawlymying –Yangon (3 Nights / 4 Days) | Asia War Tours

  2. Richard Ward

    Good morning
    I’m currently writing about my Dad’s capture at the Battle of the Sittang and his next 3years 9weeks and 3days as a Japanese POW
    Your photos are brilliant and have given me a better understanding of the terrain which will help me tell the story.
    I hope you don’t mind me telling you that the dates you have reported about when the Bridge was blown up is incorrect.
    I have a copy of the war diaries of the Duke of Wellingtons who were in the rear guard to the retreating allied forces,it states in D Companies intelligence summary that the Bridge was blown on the 24th at 0500 hrs.
    Wickipeadea state that it happened on the 22nd !!!!!!
    If you require a copy of the document as proof that I’m not a prankster don’t hesitate to get in touch
    Regards Richard Ward

     
    • TOBY

      Dear Mr. West,

      Thank you for your information. I shall change the text accordingly, and as you say,there are various conflicting accounts as to the date. To visit the area around the bridge gives a very good impression of what actually went on, and the misinformation between British command and panic at the front which produced the tragic outcome. The bridge itself was incompletely blown, some retreating troops were able to clamber across the collapsed spans which sat on the river bed, but Japanese troops arrived very soon after ti was partially destroyed. However the sappers destroyed most of the local boats on either side of the bridge which made retreat even worse, and the Japanese made crossings north and south of the battlefield and outflanked the retreating troops on both sides – the flat ground to Bago ( Pegu) giving them easy access: the British kept to the railway line and the road because they had some vehicles and were very slow.

      The blog also includes details of POW camps and the various railways and roads which were built to access Thailand to Burma, so if i can help further please do not hesitate to contact. I do hope that your father did not suffer under the Japanese incarceration, but that would be very rare unfortunately.

      best wishes

      David Forsyth ,DTC.

       
  3. Sylvie-Anne Goodes

    Dear David, I found your travel blog while trying to find information for my trip to Burma in November 2014. I read with great interest the account of the Sittang Bridge disaster and see there was some question regarding the date it was blown. My father was there as a young officer with the 3/7th Gurkha Rifles. I quote from his account of the disaster “On 23rd February, 1942, the general commanding the 17th Indian Army Division, which had been providing the main opposition to the invasion of Burma by the Japanese 33rd and 55th Divisions, ordered the destruction of the bridge over the Sittang River” He did not mention the time of day this occurred,however, after reading History of 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Riffles it is stated “At 5.30am on the 23rd two tremendous flashes lit the sky, followed by two great explosions.

    Unfortunately my father passed away in 2012. After Burma he was with the 1/7th GR in Malaya. He was awarded the MC and MBE.

    I have his full account of the Sittang Bridge disaster which was published in The Weld Club’s The Weld Anthology in Perth Western Australia.

    Kind Regards,

    Sylvie-Anne

     
    • TOBY

      Dear Sylvie-Anne,

      Thank you for your contact, and for the service of your father.

      kind regards,

      David, DTC Travel

       
  4. Sylvie-Anne Goodes

    P.S my father was one of many caught out on the wrong side of the Sittang Bridge!

     

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