The surrender of Nazi Germany saw a muted reaction from those in the frontlines of Burma, due to the recognition that Japan remained “unsubdued”. However, 75 years later, it presents us with an opportunity to reflect on the successes in the Pacific Theatre.
Indian engineers construct a wooden bridge over a shallow stream or ‘chaung’ during the advance to Rangoon.
VE (Victory in Europe) Day marks the acceptance of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies during World War II on May 8, 1945. In most of Europe, the US and Canada, the day saw huge celebrations, crowds in the streets and ringing speeches. It was treated as much less significant by troops on the Burma Front and in the Pacific Theatre.
The muted reaction in those theatres was, of course, due to the recognition that Japan remained “unsubdued”, as Winston Churchill said on VE Day, and seemingly still full of fight. Wartime precedents were not encouraging. Italy, the first of the major Axis powers to give in, had surrendered as early as October 1943, but Germany had continued to fight for a full seventeen months longer. Japan had suffered some defeats since 1942, but her spirit was unbroken, and the Japanese soldier remained the most tenacious of enemies in defence. Allied strategic planners considered it quite possible that Japan would hold out for a year or two longer; and the men doing the fighting were all too aware that their job was not yet done.
But there had in fact been some memorable successes by the Indian armed forces in Burma, around the same time. They were celebrated locally but were eclipsed in the press by momentous events in Europe at the time. Now seems a good time to recall some of them.
Two months earlier, on the Arakan coast of Burma (now Rakhine state in Myanmar), one of the key Allied army formations in the field had been the 51st Infantry Brigade, which as it happened, had just become the first entirely Indian brigade of the Raj-era Indian Army. All three constituent battalions were Indian (the British usually combined a maximum of two Indian battalions with a British or other Commonwealth battalion), and its commander was Brigadier K.S. Thimayya, the first Indian to command a brigade in action. The brigade had been successful and was closely supported from the air by Hurricane fighter-bombers of No 4 Squadron of the Indian Air Force (which, incidentally, had just been re-designated the Royal Indian Air Force). Their successes were adding to the growing narrative of the Indian armed forces’ contribution to Allied victory.
But even more significantly, in this theatre at this time, the main thrust and the most important objective was to try and capture Rangoon before the monsoon broke. Inland from the coastal actions, three great divisions of the Indian Army, nearly 40,000 soldiers, were fighting their way towards Rangoon, southwards along the great Irrawaddy River. The monsoon was already threatening, and it was crucial to reach Rangoon before the rains, as they would make much of the country virtually impassable.
As it happened, aerial reconnaissance on the first few days of May suggested that the Japanese had withdrawn from the city. Allied Prisoners of War held in the Rangoon Jail had scrounged some whitewash and scrawled, in huge letters on the prison roof, the message, “Japs Gone. Extract Digit”. That memorable second phrase was intended, by its parliamentary re-phrasing of the intentionally vulgar military admonition, “Pull your finger out,” to convey authenticity, in a theatre where deception was common.
A few days before VE Day Group Captain John Grandy of the RAF, flying a Dakota transport aircraft, had dropped Allied flags into the jail courtyard and landed at Rangoon’s airfield. The same day, Indian paratroopers landed at the mouth of the Rangoon River. The next day, Hurricanes of the No 7 Squadron of the RIAF, led by their CO Squadron Leader P.C. Lal, flew in support over 26th Indian Division, as they landed on the river banks and marched into the city, literally just before the rains began. This was a highly satisfying closure of a military history circle, as the Allies, including some ill-prepared Indian troops, had been humiliatingly driven out of Rangoon by the Japanese in 1942.
Both Grandy and Lal would become chiefs of their respective countries’ Air Forces, and Thimayya would become the Indian Army Chief.
Perhaps most whimsically, back on the Arakan coast, No 2 Squadron of the RIAF, commanded by the swashbuckling Squadron Leader Jaswant Singh, was coming to the end of a successful tour of operations on the island of Akyab. And on that very day, they were hosting a party to bid farewell to the station and the RAF squadrons they were billeted alongside. The squadron diary records that the party started with a picnic on the beach, which had to hastily relocate indoors as the first showers of the season materialised. A troupe of ENSA entertainers was visiting Akyab at the time, and the squadron was thrilled when three charming hostesses from the troupe joined their party.
Veterans of the squadron are hard-pressed to remember that it was VE Day, but most of them remember the ENSA hostesses who came to their party that evening. Fighting men’s memories can be quite selective!