During the advance south by the 17th Indian Division, this small town became it’s headquarters. It was to become the centre of the last significant land battle in the Far East in the Second World War.
What remained of the once powerful Japanese 28th Army had been trapped in the Bago (Pegu) Yomas (hills), and the Japanese attempted to have the survivors breakout out across the Sittang River and escape into Thailand. To get there they had to cross the main Mandalay – Bago road, where Penwegon is located. The Japanese were hampered by disease (malaria and cholera), lack of communications between units, exhaustion and a growing sense of desperation in all ranks.
Former ally turns against the Japanese
Their former ally, General Aung San of the Burmese National Army had switched sides following secret negotiation with the British ( the BNA now became the Burma Patriotic Army) and was heavily engaged in searching for Japanese troops and killing them. THey had already taken to Japanese staff of the Mingaladon Military Academy and executed them in the Bago Yomas.
The 33rd Army went too soon for the 28th army
The Japanese 33rd Army under General Honda attempted to assist the 28th Army breakout, but it’s attack on the Sittang Bend on 3rd July 1945 was mistimed and occurred before the 28th Army was ready.
The plans are captured
To compound their problems, on 2nd July a Gurkha patrol had captured their plans which pinpointed the exact points where the Japanese would attempt to break out, thus allowing the British to range their artillery on all flanks where the crossings would take place, thus concentrating their firepower to attempt to annihilate the Japanese 28th Army.
The Japanese planned to advance to the Sittang in several columns, under strict rules of engagement forbidding use of firearms in favor of the bayonet and forbidding any radio communications until they had crossed the Sittang by bamboo raft.
Penwegon, the centre of the breakout
One of the routes of march lay directly across 17 Indian Division’s headquarters at Penwegon, and British General Messervy reinforced this critical sector with 64 Indian Brigade from 19 Indian Division. The intelligence was quickly distributed amongst the British forces, which had two weeks to prepare. The result was what has been called a “gunner’s war.”
The monsoon had begun in force, and the British targeted two fields of action, the first for artillery (targeting 12 Japanese crossing points along the highway)and the second using aircraft ( which were able to fly even in the miserable weather conditions) to attack those who managed to cross the road, especially between the Sittang and the Salween rivers.
The Japanese had been living for weeks in the Bago Yomas ( the Pegu Hills west of the main road), with multiplying diseases and starvation raking the ranks, which included comfort women.
Unaware that their plans were known to the British, the Japanese were allowed to silently advanced until many of their ranks were in the targeted exposed positions and then the barrage of shell fire and bombing started. The 28th Army HQ attempted crossing north of Penwegon, with others, including the survivors of the siege of Bago (Pegu) crossing to the south, the vacinity of Kyauktaga ( now a village populated by Burmese Indian Hindus, a legacy of disbanded military units in 1946.
Those who reached the east bank of the Sittang were shelled by artillery targeted by British agents concealed in the hills on that side of the rive. Those not hit had to run the gauntlet of the Burmese.
Of the 9000 troops which started the breakout, less than 4000 reached the comparative safety of Moulmein by the middle of August, when they were met with the news of the Japanese surrender following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nyaung Lay Pin village has a former cemetery created by the British Indian 17th Division for the Japanese fallen in this conflict. The fallen were collected by Japanese volunteers and repatriated to Japan