The Burma Campaign

12th (Lower Burma) Battalion, The Burma Rifles, Burma Territorial Force

Early in 1939, the Governor of Burma approved the formation of a new battalion of the Burma Territorial Force, the 12th (Lower Burma) Battalion, The Burma Rifles.  The Battalion Headquarters and two rifle companies were raised, some of the men being transferred from the 11th Battalion, and the new battalion became active on 1st October 1939.  A further two companies were to be raised in 1940.  Based in the Mingaladon area, the Battalion provided guards for key points around and near the town, including railway bridges.  It remained under the command of the Rangoon Infantry Brigade Area until Rangoon was evacuated in March 1942.

In October 1940, the Battalion was reported as having a strength of three British Officers, 16 Indian/Burman Officers and 367 Other Ranks.[1]  Railway bridge guards were provided at this time, one platoon being assigned to each for three bridges (see below).

In early 1941, the Battalion was authorised to raise an additional company.  The return for February 1941 shows a strength of three British Officers, 19 Indian/Burman Officers and 696 Other Ranks.[2]

In March 1941, additional guards were provided for local V.P.s (Vital Points), which included wireless stations, pumping stations and water outlet valves.  A detachment was later provided for guard duty at Government House in Rangoon.

On 1st April 1941, the Battalion was officially embodied for service and its strength increased to five companies.   A guard of one company was provided for the defence of Mingaladon aerodrome.  In July 1941, a platoon was provided as guard for the railway bridge across the Sittang River.  Additional guards were provided for the A.V.G. (American Volunteer Group) points near Mingaladon aerodrome.

In December 1941, the battalion had detachments in Central Area on guard duty at key railway bridges as follows:

- Kabayaung River Bridge  -  two sections
- Pegu River Bridge  -  two sections
- Pyu River Bridge  -  two sections.

On 15th December 1941, a company took over the defence of Zayetkwin aerodrome, near Mingaladon.  This detachment was known as ‘Z’ Aerodrome Defence Company.  Mingaladon aerodrome was bombed by the Japanese on 23rd December and although only two men were wounded there was extensive damage to the barracks.  Zayetkwin aerodrome was bombed again in early January 1942, this time two men were killed and two were wounded.  The Battalion next took on further guard duties in and around Mingaladon, relinquishing the guarding of railway bridges to the 11th Battalion from 15th January.

By 1st February 1942, the Battalion had grown to consist of a Battalion Headquarters and five rifle companies, with 70 recruits under training.  One company each was at the Mingaladon and Zayetkwin aerodromes while the remainder of the battalion continued to guard Vital Points in the Mingaladon area.  During February desertions, always high in this unit, increased as many men became increasingly concerned for the safety of their families.

Throughout February the 12th Battalion was responsible for maintaining intelligence gathering and warning posts in the Pegu district, covering the bank of the Sittang River in expectation of Japanese infiltration.  The Zayetkwin aerodrome company was evacuated on 24th or 25th February and moved with the Royal Air Force to the Highland Queen airfield near Hmawbi.  The Battalion was reinforced briefly during this time by the 5th and 12th Garrison Companies to help with airfield protection.  On 24th February, Jemadar Abdulla Khan and five men with two followers, were sent to form a Depot for the Battalion in Maymyo where they reported their arrival to the 10th (Training) Battalion, The Burma Rifles.  After the Sittang Bridge disaster, the Battalion handed over all mortars, machine guns, Bren guns and spare rifles to help re-equip the front line units which had lost their weapons in their desperate escape across the Sittang River.

The Battalion left Mingaladon on 6th March 1942 for Tharawaddy, and despite delays caused by the Japanese roadblock at Taukyyan, arrived there the next day.  The day after, the Battalion moved on t Prome.  During this time, the ‘Z’ Aerodrome Defence Company accompanied the R.A.F. as it withdrew to Magwe.  The Battalion was put on patrol and intelligence duties south and south east of Prome from 12th March.

On 18th March, the Battalion left by boat for Magwe.  It was by now greatly reduced in numbers through the desertion of many Burmans while at Prome.  On the same day, the Battalion came under command of Central Area.

Arriving at Magwe around the 19th/20th March, the Battalion was joined there by the ‘Z’ Aerodrome Defence Company and took over anti-parachute duties for the aerodrome and its approaches.  The opportunity was taken to re-equip with abandoned R.A.F. motor transport.

The Battalion became Corps Troops to Burma Corps on 13th April and then Divisional Troops, 1st Burma Infantry Division on 15th April.  Two days later the Battalion was assigned to ‘Magforce’.  By this time the Battalion comprised Battalion Headquarters, two companies of Karens, two companies of Indian reinforcements and the Magwe detachment of the Mandalay Battalion, Burma Military Police.[3]

During the night of 17th/18th April, ‘Magforce’ formed the rearguard for the 1st Burma Infantry Division as British forces withdrew further north.  ‘Magforce’ took part in the attack on 18th April by the 1st Burma Infantry Division to clear Yenangyaung of Japanese forces blocking the Division’s withdrawal.  The Battalion first relieved the Cameronians of a position recently captured from the Japanese.  A company of the 12th Battalion, actually an attached company of Gurkha reinforcements for 48th Indian Infantry Brigade, launched a failed attack, leaving the remainder of the Battalion to take up holding positions.  Yenangyaung was bypassed by the main body of the Division which took up an all round defence east of Yenangyaung near Twingon, where ‘Magforce’ was disbanded.  The Battalion spent the night of 19th/20th April on protection duties.  On 20th April, the Battalion came under orders of the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade and successfully crossed the Pin Chaung, escaping the Japanese blocking force in and around Yenangyaung.

The next day, the withdrawal continued and the battalion moved by lorry to Mount Popa and then on to Mandalay which was reached on 23rd April.  There, the Battalion absorbed men from the Depot of the 11th Battalion and recruits from Maymyo.  On 25th April, the Battalion Commanding Officer., Lt. Colonel P.C. Watson, was appointed as Commander Sagaing and left the next day.  Without their commander, on 26th April, the Battalion left for Myitkyina, under the command of the 11th Battalion.  The 11th and 12th Battalions boarded a river steamer and headed for Katha.  Here it was decided to march across to Naba which was reached on 2nd May.  

The combined battalions now came under the orders of the Commanding Officer of the 4th Battalion, The Burma Rifles and all were ordered to take charge of the area and hold it until the last of the hospital trains had passed through.  Whilst in Naba, the Battalion suffered further desertions.  The trains passed through the next day and the remaining men headed for Indaw which was reached on 4th May.  The next day, the few who were left were paid off.  Under the terms of their service as Territorials they would not normally be required to serve outside of Burma.[4]

Elsewhere the small party under Lt. Colonel Watson headed for India via Kalewa and reached 51 Rest Camp (near Imphal) on 17th May, by way of Tamu.  On 4th June 1942 the remaining 42 officers and men joined the Burma Army Details Camp at Hoshiarpur.


[The remains of the war diary are available at the National Archives at Kew as WO 172/984.  A transcription of the file, together with extensive footnotes gleaned from other sources, can be read or downloaded here.]

 09 November 2017


[1] WO 106/3657

[2] WO 106/3657

[3] “Burma Invaded 1942”, Enriquez C.M.

[4] War Diary 11th Burma Rifles, WO 172/983