In March 1945, the Allies had captured Mandalay and Meiktila. This brought to an end the campaign in central Burma. However, Rangoon was further south and the Japanese commander in the field, General Kimura, believed that if his forces could hold up the 14th Army until mid-May this would seriously hinder General Slim, the commander of the 14th Army.
Mid-May was the time when the monsoon was expected to start and this would have severely hampered the allied transport as roads, such as they were, could be washed away and the general conditions for the men of the motorised 14th Army would have become miserable. Slim was also aware of the problems that the monsoon would bring him and he resolved to get to Rangoon before mid-May.
Kimura makes a decision
In early April, Slim ordered the 14th Army to move south. The 268th Indian Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier G M Dyer, and the 5th Brigade from the 2nd Division advanced through the Irrawaddy Valley.
As the Allies moved south along the Irrawaddy valley they found that the Japanese had withdrawn from many of their positions. Left behind were guards who were expected to fight to the last. These guards acted as a delaying tactic but could not hold up for long units equipped with Lee-Grant tanks, but the 4th Corps now met especially stiff resistance in front of the town of Pyawbwe, just 30 miles south of Meiktila.
Outflanking the Japanese
Major General D.T.(Punch) Cowan organised 99 Brigade to move south east of Pywabwe, 48 Brigade to advance directly to the town, and 63 Brigade to bypass the town on the west and come at it from behind. Brigadier Claud Perts’ column “Claudcol” was tod advance to the south west taking the villages of Yindaw, Ywadin, Yanaung and Ywaden – (still reacheable today along an unmade road by motorbike or 4 wheel drive) and then head east to complete the encirclement of Pywabwe.
Yindaw was eventually by passed due to heavy defence and natural obstacles, and the column hit Yenaung where great slaughter was made of exhaustedJapanese units. Claudcol and the other advancing units destroyed much of what was left of Japanese Honda’s miltary equipment, tanks, trucks and staff cars. In the fighting for Pyawbwe over 1,100 Japanese soldiers were killed and 9 Japanese tanks were destroyed. The fighting at Pyawbwe was to prove crucial. The Japanese force in Burma simply could not sustain such losses., and they were short of food and ammunition.
Pyawbwe was taken by taken by textbook maneuvers to outflank the Japanese, similar to Japanese tactics of 1942.
Honda escapes by the skin of his teeth
The Japanese 33rd Army HQ was horrified to hear British Indian tanks approaching from the south west. The British were monitoring Japanese signals and wireless transmission to track enemy movements and locate H.Q.s and other logistical targets, but the 33rd Army had ceased wireless communications, and Claudcol were unaware that their attack could have taken the 33rd Army Headquarters.
Lt. General Honda (General Kimura’s deputy), the infamous Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, and the headquarters staff of the 33rd Army were very nearly captured by the sudden allied advance, but managed to slip through the allied lines by following the railway line south.
George MacDonald Fraser, British author of the Flashman series of novels, fought with the Border Regiment in the 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division of the 14th Army during the siege of Meiktila and the battle of Pyawbwe in Burma. He believed, probably correctly, that soldiering in Burma rivaled flying in the RAF’s Bomber Command as “the worst ticket you could draw in the lottery of active service.” This was so not just because of the Japanese enemy; there were also 15-inch poisonous centipedes, malaria, “spiders the size of plates,” typhus, jungle sores on the wrists and ankles, dysentery, and leeches.