The Burma Campaign

1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles

A regular battalion, first raised in Mandalay on 10th November 1916 as two companies of the Burma Pioneers.  It was expanded and designated the 70th Burma Rifles on 19th September 1917.  The battalion became the 1st Battalion, 20th Burma Rifles in 1922 and the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles on 1st April 1937.

Between 1937 and March 1939, the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles was stationed at Mingaladon, under command of the Rangoon Infantry Brigade Area.  On 29th March 1939 the battalion arrived at Maymyo from Mingaladon.

By 16th June 1941, the Battalion was at Taunggyi under the command of the Southern Shan Area before moving to the Loimwe area where it came under command of the 1st Burma Brigade Group.  Loimwe is some 100 miles from the Thai border and the 1st Battalion's war role was to deny the use of the Tachilek-Kengtung road to an enemy invading the Southern Shan States from Thailand and to destroy that enemy if at all possible.

Although the 1st Battalion saw no immediate action following the outbreak of war with Japan, December 1941 and January 1942 were occupied with the preparation and occupation of defensive positions.

Between 2nd and 4th February 1942 the Battalion handed over the Loimwe positions to the Chinese whose troops had arrived in the area.  The Battalion was ordered to Nyaunglebin in support of 2nd Burma Brigade Group.  The move was by route march (foot) via Kengtung, Nammawngun to Hopong.  From Hopong, the Battalion was carried by truck to Shwenyaung and from there by train to Nyaunglebin, arriving on 20th February.  However, instead of detraining the battalion was sent to Pegu only to receive orders to return to Nyaunglebin by march route on 21st February.  However, a stop was ordered at Daik-U, where the Battalion prepared a box position and gave support to the civil authorities before moving on to Nyaunglebin on the 25th February, arriving the next day.  Here the Battalion held defensive positions and mounted patrols as far as the Sittang River and beyond to Pyuntaza.  Daily motorised patrols were sent southwards as far as Payagale, to maintain contact with patrols from 7th Armoured Brigade, and northwards to Kyauktaga.

1st Burma Rifles in the Sittang Valley

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First contact with the Japanese was made by one of these patrols at a road block on a bridge just south of Pyuntaza on 5th March 1942.  An attack was launched by the Chin Company under the command of 2nd Lieutenant Moir and despite initial success, the company was forced to withdraw after Moir was killed.  Further reconnaissance of the block continued, including one episode where a Burmese Havildar, Myaung Kyaw, disguised himself as a local villager in order to enter the road block position, helping to dig trenches for the Japanese.  He returned safely with much useful information.

An attack by the 1st Burma Division was launched on 11th March, to clear the road block and exploit beyond it.  The 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles was assigned to the exploitation role but despite a successful initial attack, subsequent confusion resulted in the follow up attack being cancelled.   The Battalion remained in position just west of the Rangoon-Mandalay road, a mile north of Pyuntaza.  On 13th March, the 1st Burma Division began a general withdrawal up the Sittang Valley.

Losses were incurred by the Battalion following a precipitate withdrawal from Penwegon, it being unable to contact the small patrols that were out at the time.  Further night marches brought the Battalion to Kywebwe, in the rear of the Chinese 200th Division.  The withdrawal continued until Toungoo was reached on 21st March 1942.  Here, all the Karens under command were let go under the command of Captain A.L.B. Thompson with the purpose of reinforcing the local Karen Levies.  All remaining Burmans were sent to Pyinmana.  On 23rd March, the Battalion entrained at Kyungon for transfer to the Irrawaddy front at Taungdwingyi, getting away just in time ahead of a Japanese attack on the nearby landing grounds.

The battalion detrained at Satthwa, 20 miles south of Taungdwingyi on the Prome road, having dropped off the Burman party.  Battalion strength was now a reduced Headquarters Company and two rifle companies, around 50 percent of the total establishment.

At the end of March, the Battalion took up positions on the Prome road covering the withdrawal of 17th Indian Infantry Division from Prome.  Further withdrawals followed to Allanymo, where after having converted to pack animal transport, the Battalion left with the 1st Burma Brigade on 6th April.  Movement along the Irrawaddy was difficult due to the chaotic mix of units and transport, but Migyaungye was reached without enemy contact by 9th April.  While resting here, the Battalion received a draft of reinforcements, a Kachin company transferred from the 3rd Burma Rifles, via the 9th Reserve Battalion.  Battalion strength was now a reduced Headquarters Company and three rifle companies, totalling around 400 men.

Confused orders resulted in some “to-ing and fro-ing” around Migyaungye, and the Battalion returned to the village early on the morning of 13th April.  Whilst visiting the headquarters of the Burma Frontier Force column F.F.5, the Battalion Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel Ruffell, was taken prisoner.  The Battalion was then attacked by the Japanese and some losses exchanged with the enemy.  The Commanding Officer rejoined the Battalion, having escaped, and the Japanese were pushed back.  Other men previously captured were also released.  Some officers were lost or wounded and about 20 men killed.

The next day the battalion withdrew and went into the 1st Burma Brigade reserve.  Ruffell was evacuated and did not rejoin until the end of April.  The command of the Battalion passed to Major G.L. D'Oyly-Lowsley.  The brigade withdrew again on 16th April, with the Battalion providing the rearguard.  A few men were lost to the Japanese who were following closely.

The withdrawal continued along the Magwe-Yenangyaung road, under frequent air attack.  The Japanese successfully outflanked the withdrawal and took up blocking positions to the north of Yenangyaung astride the Pin Chaung.  Attacks to remove them were unsuccessful and on the afternoon of 20th April, the 1st Burma Brigade was ordered to cross the Pin Chaung to the east, with the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles providing the rearguard.  A platoon of Kachins was tricked by the Japanese, who posed as Chinese troops, and were taken prisoner.  The balance of the Battalion crossed the chaung later that afternoon and from there, on 21st April, was sent to Mount Popa where a three day rest stop was made.  From here the Battalion moved to Taungtha on 24th April and after another three day stop, marched to Sameikkon before being ferried across the Irrawaddy.

From Alon, the Battalion moved to Shwegyin where after two days, on 9th May, the Chindwin was crossed by steamer.  As the crossing was being made to Kalewa, the steamer came under air attack but no losses were suffered.  After three days at Kalewa, the Battalion set off on the final leg to India.  At Inbaung several of the Chins left to join the Chin Levies.  The Battalion was taken from Inbaung to Tamu by truck.  After two days there, the Battalion passed through Palel on 15th/16th May before bivouacking at Milestone 109 on the Manipur Road.  The Battalion was formally disbanded between 20th May and the end of the month.


[The war diaries of the battalion were destroyed during the retreat, however the Commanding Officer, Lt Col. B Ruffell, later wrote an account reconstructing the diary, in 1943.  The file is available at the National Archives at Kew as WO 172/974.  A transcription of the file, together with extensive footnotes gleaned from other sources, can be read or downloaded here.]

5 November 2017