The Burma Campaign

2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles

The Battalion was first raised at Maymyo on 22nd December 1917 as the 2nd Battalion, 70th Burma Rifles, part of the Indian establishment.  Upon creation of the 20th Burma Rifles in 1922, the 2/70th became the 2/20th Burma Rifles.[1]    When Burma was formally separated from Indian in 1937, the “20th” was dropped from the regiment’s title and the Battalion became the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles.  

In 1937, the Battalion was stationed at Mandalay and moved from there to Maymyo in November 1938, coming under command of the Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area.  On 1st December 1940, the Battalion went to Moulmein, coming under command of the Tenasserim Infantry Brigade Area, from which the 2nd Burma Brigade was organised, coming into being on 1st July 1941.  As part of the strategy to defend the landing grounds in Tenasserim, the Battalion was sent to Mergui on 1st October 1941.  The battalion remained at Mergui, dispatching "D" Company to Bokpyin on 26th December.  The company remained at Bokpyin until 5th January 1942.  On 6th January, the troops at Mergui came under the command of the "Tenasserim" Division - the 17th Indian Infantry Division.  At this time the troops at Mergui were the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles, two companies of the 3rd Battalion, The Burma Rifles, two detachments of the Kokine Battalion, Burma Frontier Force and two sub-sections of the Burma Sappers and Miners (engineers).

On 16th January, the two companies of the 3rd Battalion left Mergui for Tavoy by sea and by road where they joined the 6th Battalion.  Following the loss of Tavoy, however, it was decided to evacuate Mergui by sea.  This was done on the evening of 21st January and the 2nd Battalion reached Rangoon on the evening of 25th January.  Here, the Battalion took up the vacant quarters of the 3rd Battalion at Mingaladon.

On the night of 31st January, the Battalion left Mingaladon by train for Papun where on 5th February it came under the command of the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade.  Moulmein had fallen on 31st January and the British defence plan was now focussed on holding the line of the Salween River.  Japanese pressure soon mounted and between 8th and 13th February there was confused fighting on this line as more and more Japanese troops crossed the river.  It was soon decided the line was untenable and the British withdrew behind the Bilin River line by 15th February.  To the north of the line, the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles was still covering Papun, under the direct command of the Headquarters, 17th Indian Infantry Division.  Japanese attacks on this new line began on 16th February and on the 20th a further withdrawal was made, this time to the Sittang River.  Further disaster followed with the untimely destruction of the railway bridge over the Sittang, after which the remnants of the 17th Indian Division reorganised on the west bank near Pegu.  Throughout this period, the 2nd Battalion remained at Papun and on 23rd February, following the Sittang battle, it was ordered to withdraw from Papun and join the 1st Burma Infantry Division.

2nd Burma Rifles at Papun

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The 2nd Battalion had been out on their own at Papun and now began a slow withdrawal towards Shwegyin and the Sittang River.  On 28th February, the 2nd Burma Brigade, located at Nyaunglebin, attempted contact with the Battalion to order their return towards Toungoo, preferably via Pyu.  The Battalion came under the command of the 2nd Burma Brigade on 14th March 1942.  The next day F.F.4 came under command of the 2nd Burma Brigade and was placed under command of the 2nd Burma Rifles.   By now, orders had been issued by the 1st Burma Infantry Division, of which the 2nd Burma Brigade formed a part, for a withdrawal northwards to Toungoo.  This began on 15th March and would lead to the transfer of the Division to the Prome front, where it joined with British troops in the Irrawaddy Valley to form the 1st Burma Corps or "Burcorps".  The Battalion entrained for Taungdwingyi for the Irrawaddy front on the night of 21st/22nd March 1942. The Battalion arrived in the Allanmyo area, via Pyinmana, on 22nd March.  It was immediately dispatched across the Irrawaddy, taking up positions in Thayetmyo by 25th March.

On 29th March, the 2nd Burma Brigade received orders to occupy the area Allanmyo-Thayetmyo astride the Irrawaddy River Valley.  The 2nd Battalion and a Garrison Company at Thayetmyo were tasked with guarding the main approaches up the west bank of the Irrawaddy.  By now the Battalion was around 430 strong, losses in the main owing to sickness and desertion.  As a result, two companies, "C" and "D", had been merged into one on 28th March.  The Battalion was detached on a mobile role away from Thayetmyo, moving to Minde on 1st April.  By 4th April, the 2nd Burma Brigade had crossed the Irrawaddy and was located in Thayetmyo when orders were received to withdraw to Minhla.  The 2nd Battalion was ordered to conform to the general brigade withdrawal.  The Battalion reached its allotted position on high ground to the west of Minhla during the night of 13/14th April.  Here it was shelled from the East bank of the river and had three men wounded, one of whom died the next day.

The general withdrawal to India was now in full swing and the 2nd Burma Brigade withdrew up the West bank of the Irrawaddy.  By 30th April, Pauk was reached and from here a long and arduous march was made northwards.  On 12th May, lorries arrived to transport the Battalion to Kalemyo but the destination was then changed to Imbaing.  From here the withdrawal continued by stages until on 23rd May 1942 the 2nd Battalion arrived at Palel where it moved into a rest camp for the night.  The next day, the Battalion moved by lorry to a temporary camp at Milestone 109, some 24 miles beyond Imphal.  Here, on 25th May, the Battalion paraded and was inspected by His Excellency, Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief.

The following day, at a conference of Burma Rifles battalion commanders, it was decided to allow all men who wished to, the opportunity to return to their homes in Burma.  On 19th May, the 2nd Battalion strength had been around 220 all ranks and 46 followers.  On 31st May, after the men returning to Burma had declared themselves, 146 Kachins, Chins and Karens elected to stay with the battalion in India.

2nd Burma Rifles - Trek to India 1942

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From quite early on it was thought the remaining men of the Burma Rifles battalions staying in Burma would form a reconnaissance unit and those staying in India but not required for this purpose left for Ranchi on 2nd June.  Those returning to Burma began their journeys on 5th June.  The next day, all ranks remaining in the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th and 10th Burma Rifles battalions were formed into a composite Burma Rifles battalion, with a total strength of 20 G.C.O.s and 308 Other Ranks, and an unknown number of British Officers.[2]   The Composite Burma Rifles Battalion was commanded by Lt. Colonel C.H.D. O'Callaghan, former commander of the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles.  This unit left for Ranchi on 8th June, arriving there on five days later.  En route an additional three coaches were added to the train, holding four British Officers and around 180 Other Ranks from the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Military Police.  After some confusion, on 23rd June the Composite Battalion left for Hoshiarpur, where the Burma Army was being concentrated, with a strength of seven British Officers, 23 G.C.O.s, 323 Burmese Other Ranks, 69 followers and 72 families.  The train carrying the men and families reached Hoshiarpur late on 26th June and that night was spent on the train.  The men began moving into camp the next day.  On 29th June, a further six G.C.O.s and 54 Burmese Other Ranks arrived to join the Battalion.

The proposed reorganisation of Burma forces included the retention of the 2nd Burma Rifles and the creation of new infantry battalions.  The Battalion was retained, initially as part of the Composite Burma Rifles Battalion, and built up in strength by selection of the best Burmese men from the Burma Frontier Force units. G.H.Q. India was anxious to include this unit in the special force brigade then being formed.  At Hoshiarpur, the Battalion was reorganised and re-equipped before moving to a rest camp at Dharmsala in August.  The 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles came under Indian command in June 1942 and was allotted to the 77th Indian Brigade, under Wingate’s command, and moved to join the brigade at Saugor in September 1942, where preparation began for the First Chindit Operation.

[The remains of the war diary for 1942 are available at the National Archives at Kew as file WO 172/975, only the months of January and April-June 1942 survive.  A transcription of the file, together with extensive footnotes gleaned from other sources, can be read or downloaded here.]

As part of the 77th Indian Brigade, the Battalion moved to Assam in January 1943.  On 15th March, the Battalion re-entered Burma with the Chindits, organised as one Headquarters platoon and seven reconnaissance platoons, with one platoon attached to each Chindit column.  The Battalion Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel Lyndon Grier Wheeler, 16th Punjab Regiment, had served as a Major with the 3rd Battalion, The Burma Rifles during the retreat to India.  Whilst with No. 5 Column, Wheeler was killed on 4th April by a stray bullet at the village of Zibyugin.  He achieved the distinction of being awarded a posthumous D.S.O.

In May, the battalion re-crossed into India following the conclusion of the "Wingate Expedition", with casualties of three British Officers (including Lt Colonel Wheeler) and seven others killed and 180 missing, of whom 120 had been allowed to shed their uniforms and stay in Burma.  In June, the Battalion was at a holiday camp in Karachi and rejoined the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade in August 1943, at Jhansi.

In his official report on the expedition, Wingate wrote of the 2nd Burma Rifles:

"I would like to record here that I have never had under my command in the field as good a body of men as the 2nd Burma Rifles. Their Commander, Lieut. Colonel Wheeler, and myself were hopeful that the work of a reconnaissance unit for a Long Range Group would make full use of their good qualities, but we were surprised by their excellence in the face of the enemy. As a result of the experience we gained, the following conclusions may be drawn. The Burman hillman is an ideal soldier for aggressive reconnaissance. He is not at all ideal in defence. He is not ideal if ordered to attack a strongly held position. But in carrying out rapid, bold and intelligent patrols in the face of the enemy, in obtaining local information, in making propaganda, in handling boats, in living off the country, and in loyal service to his officers he is without equal. This therefore is the use to which he should invariably be put.

There appeared to be little difference between Karens, Kachins and Chins in general excellence, except in areas inhabited by their respective tribes."

With the expansion of the Chindits, 2nd Burma Rifles joined the 3rd Indian Infantry Division (Special Force) in August 1943, at Jhansi, and underwent an increase in size to provide reconnaissance sections for each Chindit Column.  In February, the sections moved with the Chindits to Assam before embarking on Operation Thursday and the Second Wingate Expedition on 5th March 1944.  In September, the Burma Riflemen withdrew to India, having suffered 13 killed or died, three missing and eight wounded.  Later that month, the battalion moved to rest camp at Dehra Dun.

Officers of the 2nd Burma Rifles 1944

Officers of the 2nd Burma Rifles 1944 courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library web site, click here.

The men in the photo are named at this link.

2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles

Men of the 2nd Burma Rifles 1944 courtesy of the Anglo-Burmese Library web site, click here.

In December 1944, the Battalion provided three detachments to join Special Force in anticipation of further long range penetration operations in Burma during 1945.

Captain (temporary Major) Hugh Graham served with the 2nd Burma Rifles from November 1943 and participated in the Secind Wingate Expedition in 1944.  His memoirs may be viewed here.

During March and April 1945, the Battalion was reformed as a regular, four company infantry battalion at Hoshiarpur in India but remained in India until August 1945.  It was designated part of the new, interim Burma Army.  The story of this new unit is told here.


[1] Indian Army List October 1936.

[2] The 3rd and 6th Battalions had effectively been disbanded during the retreat.  The 7th and 8th Battalions were largely manned by men of Indian origin and were formed into an additional composite battalion that was designated the 1st Battalion of the new Burma Regiment in October 1942.