The Burma Campaign

3rd Battalion, The Burma Rifles

The 3rd Battalion was one of the regular battalions of the Burma Rifles transferred from India in 1937, formerly the 3rd Battalion, 20th Burma Rifles (Kachin).  The Battalion was raised originally by Major E. Burd in Mandalay from the Burma Military Police as the Burma Battalion in July 1917.  It then became the 85th Burma Rifles in 1918.  On 1st April 1921 it became the Kachin-Chins Battalion and the 3rd Battalion, 70th (Kachin Rifles) in November 1921.  In 1922 the battalion was designated the 3rd/20th Burma Rifles (Kachin).  On creation of the 20th Burma Rifles in 1923, the battalion became the 3rd Battalion, 20th Burma Rifles.[1]

Before the outbreak of the war the 3rd Battalion, The Burma Rifles was based at Maymyo in the Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area.  On 29th March 1939 the battalion moved to Mingaladon, in the Rangoon Infantry Brigade Area.  In 1941 a company was detached to Rangoon.

After the start of the Japanese war, the Battalion came under command of the 2nd Burma Brigade Group on 27th December 1941, and two companies were sent to Mergui.  When the Japanese invasion threatened Tavoy, these two companies were moved there by sea on 17th January 1942.  One company moved out of Tavoy to a point on the road near Kyaukmedaung where, together with troops from the 6th Battalion, The Burma Rifles, it was attacked on the night of 17th-18th January.  The second in command of the Battalion, Major V.A. Chiodetti, was killed in action here.  Along with the remainder of the Tavoy garrison the two companies of the 3rd Battalion disintegrated and made their way in small groups to Moulmein, on the Salween River.  Of the two companies of the 3rd Battalion sent to Tavoy, only 30 Chins, led by Subedar Sima Zam, later returned for duty.[2]

The Defence of Moulmein

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The 17th Indian Infantry Division was very critical of the performance of the Burma Rifles battalions under its command and on 25th January issued an order for their reorganisation.  All weapons and equipment except for rifles and gas masks were to be removed from 3rd, 4th and 6th Battalions and given to the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade to replace losses in the brigade.  The 3rd and 4th Battalions were to be amalgamated into one battalion under the command of the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade. Officers and men of the 6th Battalion considered valuable for this new amalgamated battalion were to remain and the rest were to return to their depot.  At the time of this decision, the 3rd Battalion and survivors of the 6th Battalion were in Moulmein and the 4th Battalion was reorganising near Martaban, on the other side of the Salween River.  However, the Japanese intervened before these changes could be enacted.[3]

By the 26th January, the Battalion Headquarters and two remaining companies of the 3rd Battalion formed part of the defence of Moulmein under the command of the 2nd Burma Brigade Group.[4]  The Japanese attack on Moulmein began on 30th January and met with stiff resistance from the defenders.  However, it was decided that the town could not be held and amid much confusion the survivors of the 3rd Battalion withdrew with the defenders of Moulmein by steamer on 31st January, 1942.  At least part of the battalion, the Headquarters and the remnants of one company, were left behind on the wrong side of the Salween and had to cross the river as best they could, broken up into small parties and without equipment.  The Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel G.D. Taylor and two of his officers found themselves hiding under a jetty while a Japanese mortar team set up above them.  After dark, Taylor went to investigate strange noises from the other side of a wall.  There he found Jemadar Malligarjunan and some fellow sappers of the 60th Field Company.  Taylor wrote:

Moulmein Town Defences

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"Peeping round a wall I was staggered to find the Sappers industriously building a petrol-barrel raft with their Jemadar giving instructions in loud whispers.  Having completed the raft, they launched it, but the Jemadar apparently not being satisfied, had the raft pulled ashore and taken to pieces to replace a leaking barrel.  It was then re-launched, but still the Jemadar was not happy about it and had it rebuilt a second time. Then he smiled his satisfaction, came up to me, and saluting smartly said "Raft taiyar hai, Sahib" (The raft is ready, Sir).  We climbed aboard but, as we dared not use paddles, the Jemadar and his men stripped and gently slid the raft into the water and guided it to safety.  By keeping calm and cool in the face of the enemy, he saved me, two other officers and all his men from capture.[5]

On 2nd February, the 3rd Battalion was ordered to march to the Sittang Bridge where it was to form the bridge guard.  The survivors of the two companies from Moulmein could barely muster 200 men.   One company had been reduced to the strength of a single section.  Battalion Headquarters had suffered many losses at Moulmein.  A draft of over 200 men was sent to the battalion from the 9th (Reserve) Battalion, Burma Rifles on 15th February.  A detachment of two platoons, commanded by Captains Lincoln and Wood, was ordered upstream to protect crossing points across the Sittang.  This detachment was fated never to rejoin the battalion and was eventually 'war posted' as a company to the 7th Burma Rifles on 17th March 1942.[6]

 On 21st February, the Battalion was on the east bank of the Sittang, with one and half companies to the north, holding the Buddha and Pagoda Hills.  Battalion Headquarters was near the bridge and the remaining one and a half companies were holding the lines to the south around Bungalow Hill.  That night passed peacefully allowing the motor and animal transport of the 17th Indian Infantry Division, the 17th Division Headquarters, the Headquarters of the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade, the men of the 1st Battalion, 4th Gurkha Rifles and of the 12th Indian Mountain Battery to cross the railway bridge over the Sittang. 

Mokpalin - Sittang Bridge

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However at first light on 22nd February, the Japanese attacked the Pagoda Hill position just as the company of the 3rd Battalion was preparing to be relieved by ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies of the 4th Battalion, 12th Frontier Force Regiment.  The 3rd Battalion broke almost immediately however the position was retaken by the companies of the 4th/12th Frontier Force Regiment.  The remainder of the 3rd Battalion defending in the south held firm however.  At around 09:00, the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade on the west bank of the Sittang sent forward a company of the 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment to reinforce the defenders on the east bank.  This company took over the defence of Bungalow Hill and the 3rd Battalion who had held on there were relieved and rejoined the remainder of the Battalion in the centre near the bridge.[7] 

Early that afternoon the troops defending the approaches to the bridge on the east bank were withdrawn to the west, the intention being to hold the bridge by fire from the far bank.  However this order was quickly rescinded by the Headquarters of the 17th Indian Infantry Division and troops of the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade were sent back across the river where they recovered their original positions against very little opposition.  It seems that the 3rd Battalion was retained on the west bank.  On the morning of 23rd February, the troops guarding the bridge were ordered to withdraw across it, before the order to blow the bridge was given at 05:20.[8]

Although initially considered as part of the reorganisation of 16th Indian Infantry Brigade, the remnants of the Battalion were sent with those of the 4th Battalion, The Burma Rifles to Mandalay, arriving there around 11th March.  After acting as line of communication defence troops for a time, the decision to disband the battalion was taken and the remaining men dispersed - the Kachin company reinforced the 5th Battalion, the Chins went to the 2nd Battalion and the balance, around 40 Karens, went to the 4th Battalion.  The 3rd Battalion was formally disbanded on 12th April 1942 at Mandalay.[9]


[The war diaries of the battalion were destroyed during the retreat, however the Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel G.D. Taylor, later wrote an account from memory, in April 1943.  The file is available at the National Archives at Kew as WO 172/976.  A transcription of the file, together with extensive footnotes gleaned from other sources, can be read or downloaded here.]

[1] Burma Army List January 1940

[2] War diary 3rd Burma Rifles, WO 172/976

[3] WO 172/976

[4] The order of battle for the 2nd Burma Brigade for the morning of 30th January 1942 lists the 3rd Battalion, Burma Rifles as being formed with two companies plus a detachment of 54 B.A.O.Rs (Burma Army Other Ranks) made up of survivors of the 3rd and 6th Battalions, Burma Rifles from Tavoy (Operational reports and Order of Battle of 2 Burma Brigade, WO 203/5704).

[5] Quoted in "Burma 1942, The Japanese Invasion", IL Grant and Kasuo Tamayama, Zampi (1999)

[6] WO 172/976

[7] War diary 4th/12th Frontier Force Regiment, WO 172/932

[8] WO 172/932

[9] The war diary of the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles records that a company of Kachins was received as reinforcements on 10th April 1942.  It was noted that this company came from the 3rd Burma Rifles via the 9th (Reserve) Battalion.  The war diary of the 5 Burma Rifles records that on 26th April, ‘1 Coy of Kachins’ was received as reinforcements from the 9th Burma Rifles.  Unfortunately the war diary for the 9th Burma Rifles only covers February 1942 (WO 172/974, WO 172/978).

06 November 2017