Mandalay, the former royal capital of Upper Burma, is dominated by the towering Pagoda Hill, which overlooks it centre, the former Royal Palace, which under British colonial authority became Fort Dufferin. The fort still contained the old royal palace, erected on the orders of King Mindon in 1858, but it was also the location of the British administration in central Burma which were overthrown by the Japanese in 1942. To the Japanese this city was the symbol of a Burmese monarchy which they sought to replace with a puppet regime – they were so determined to take it in 1942, and deend it in 1945 -come what may -and these policies led to massive destruction. But there are still many thing to see.
Initially Manadalay had seemed to avoid the crisis suffered by southern Burma by the advent of the Japanese invasion.
British resistance crumbled, and soon Mandalay was awash with refugees, both military and civilian, the latter, more than 100,000 were seeking immediate exit to India – both by river and land starting with the crossing of the Ava Bridge.
With more than 100,000 refugees around Mandalay, the authorities allowed no more than 500 a day to cross the bridge to prevent clogging military defences and retreat.
The Japanese now had airbases in northern Thailand, and by March 1942 there was little to resist their bombing raids over Burma. Pyay (Prome) and Toungoo fell, and now it was Mandalay’s turn. On the 3rd March the railway station, with a munition train on the sidings was blown to bits, together with the main fire station and Mandalay Central Hospital. The bombing continued into April.
The Upper Burma Club
One of the fist casualties, much to amusement of many Burmese and Japanese alike, was the elite Upper Burma Club, an institution housed in the former Premier Queen’s throne room, which only allowed membership to a limited number of Caucasians. They all wore shoes, a great disrespect in this auspicious place to the Burmese
A luncheon party was being held. “We did not know what hit us. One minute we were seated at table, and the next the roof caved in, tables, chairs, food and ourselves scattered all over the room” (1)
The Japanese had the skies to themselves and targeted Fort Dufferin especially over the coming weeks.
Bombing of Mandalay and the destruction of the palace
Untold thousands died in the town from the bombs, the aircraft cannons and the conflagration caused. The administration broke down quickly, especially the fire services , and a city of wooden house was engulfed in flames. The palace , much of which were re-erected teak buildings from the old capitals of Amarapura and Ava was gone forever.
When they occupied the city, the Japanese used Fort Dufferin as a storage for military equipment, the light railway installed by the British still being still functional. They took over a broken city, still to the Burmese the emotional centre of their independence, and to the Japanese a symbol of control over Burma. But the city did not function and they moved their administration of Upper Burma initially to Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) – a less damaged hill station established by the British as their summer capital to escape the heat of the Rangoon.
The retaking of Mandalay in 1945
The British General William Slim used the Japanese tactics of 1942, outflanking – but with more talent – through fake radio messages and other activities he fooled the Japanese commander Hyotaro Kimura that his main strength was aimed at Mandalay, but he attacked Meiktila first which panicked the Japanese as their supplies from the south were threatened and they sent reinforcements, just at the time 19th Division was approaching Mandalay from the North.
Pagoda Hill – the first objective
The division was commanded by Major General Thomas Rees, who wanted to take Mandalay but hopefully to cause as little damage to what was left of the cultural heritage of the city. His first objective was Pagoda Hill.
Pagoda Hill dominates Mandalay, and the 4/4 Gurkhas were tasked with the job of clearing the Japanese garrison. According to the regimental records there was little resistance until they were halfway up.
The tunnels were eventually cleared by throwing in open petrol cans followed by grenades or Very pistol flares. The hill was cleared by 12th March.
The Japanese decide to hold onto the town – for prestige
The Japanese garrison commander, General Seiei Yamamoto, had been ordered (against his will) by General Kimura to fight to the death to defend Mandalay, mostly for prestige purposes. Stubborn resistance was encountered as the 19th division flanked into the town, and General Rees turned his attention to the old palace, Fort Dufferin.
He brought up heavy artillery to pound the the northern walls over open sights, and when this had little result Mitchell bombers attacked the same area. It created a mass of heavily defended rubble – the earth ramparts behind the walls absorbing much of the impact.
Eventually a plan was devised for a “ninja style attack” called Exercise Duffy – Punjaub and Frontier Force troops to cross the moat at night on rubber boats and scale the north west and north east towers.
The Japanese plan to escape
However it was obvious that they would be silhouetted on the top of the rubble and it was called off. So another plan was devised – to gain entrance via the sewers which lie under the moat. As this was being planned on the 13th day of the siege, two figures suddenly appeared carrying a white flag and a British Union flag – they were Anglo Burmese – two of thirty captives in the fort. They said that the Japanese had gone – through the sewers on the south west of the moat.
It now became clear why the Japanese had defended this area of the town so tenaciously. General Yamamoto had never agreed with Kimura’s order of a fight to the death and he had always had an escape plan in his hands. The Japanese assembled in the former Government Farm Building, now part of Mandalay University, and fled south
The gate of the palace were open, but the cost in human life to the 19th Division was high, but especially heavy to the Japanese.