The Burma Campaign

8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery

The 8th Heavy Antiaircraft Battery, Royal Artillery served in Burma during the first campaign and later in Bengal and the Arakan.  There it became associated with the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Antiaircraft Regiment, R.A.  The 8th H.A.A. Battery is often confused with the 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, Indian Artillery and with the 8th (Belfast) H.A.A. Regiment, R.A.[1]

The 8th H.A.A. Battery, R.A. had been raised as an independent battery in India on 1st April 1929, having converted from the 23rd Heavy Battery, R.A., which had arrived in India from Singapore in November 1926.[2]  It moved from Bombay to Peshawar in September 1932.[3]  The Battery was stationed at Peshawar when war was declared on 3rd September 1939.  A detachment was sent from India to Aden in September 1939 and by 17th September, at least one officer (Lieutenant T.R. Gemmell) and 30 Other Ranks from the Battery were present in Aden.  The men were attached to the 9th Heavy Battery, R.A. as reinforcements for the anti-aircraft section, along with 75 Other Ranks of the 18th Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA.  Lieutenant Gemmell was attached to the 15th (Singapore) Anti-Aircraft Battery, H.K.S.R.A.[4]  At some time, two sections (the equivalent of a troop of four guns) were deployed at Calcutta, being present there by at latest March 1940.[5] 

The Battery had an important role to play in the formation of the anti-aircraft branch of the Indian Artillery.  In September 1940, a group of Indian officers and N.C.O.s formed No.1 Indian Anti-Aircraft Technical Training Battery, and the nucleus of what was to become ‘R’ Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Indian Artillery, at Colaba, Bombay.  The new battery began training new recruits with four 3-inch guns and a predictor, range finders and other equipment supplied by the 8th H.A.A. Battery, R.A. which had moved to Bombay for this purpose.  The 8th H.A.A. Battery moved with these Indian elements by sea to Karachi in December 1940 and went into lines at Drigh Road Camp.  Soon after, the other guns of the Battery returned from Calcutta.  By now, the Anti-Aircraft Training Centre (A.A.T.C.) had been formed and in May 1941, the A.A.T.C. and the 8th Battery moved from Drigh Road to Karachi proper.[6]

At the beginning of May 1941, the Battery was ordered to send one section overseas, “destination unknown”.  No. 4 Section was redesignated as No. 1 Section and embarked, without guns, on board the H.M.T. ‘Lancashire’ at Karachi on 5th May 1941.  The ship arrived at Basra on 10th May 1941 and No.1 Section disembarked the next day.  By 22nd May, two gun positions had been prepared.  At Karachi the next day, No.2 Section was given orders to move to Basra, taking with it its own guns and those of No.1 Section, all 3-inch weapons, and the next day embarked upon the H.M.T. ‘Esperance’, a Free French ship, which set sail later that day.  The Section disembarked at Basra on 30th May 1941.  The guns travelled on board the S.S. ‘Itaura’ and were unloaded between 31st May and 1st June 1941, the unloading of ammunition and equipment not being completed until 3rd June.  Both sections moved out of Jubelia Barracks to their respective gun positions at the airport and at Makina.[7]

On 15th October 1941, the detachment at Basra was redesignated as the 8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, R.A., with two sections each of two guns, and under the command of Captain G.H. Eden.  Battery Headquarters closed down at Karachi and the Battery Depot was formed there.  Personnel needed to fill out the new battery were sent to Basra from Karachi and the 69 British Other Ranks remaining at Karachi were posted to the 1st (formerly ‘R’) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Indian Artillery, at Drigh Road.  The 8th Battery remained at Basra throughout November 1941.[8]  By December 1941, it appears that the Battery had come under the command of the 8th Anti-Aircraft Brigade.  On 17th December 1941, Brigade H.Q. ordered that the 8th Battery should come under the command of the 61st H.A.A. Regiment, R.A. which had arrived in Basra from the United Kingdom on 2nd December.[9]

On Christmas Day 1941, Rangoon suffered a heavy air raid in which a number of antiaircraft guns were lost.  The 8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, R.A. was by this date back in India and was sent to reinforce Burma.  The Battery, under the command of the now Major Eden, entrained with four 3-inch guns at Karachi and left for Calcutta on 1st January 1942.  Having arrived at Calcutta on 6th January 1942, the Battery did not embark upon the S.S. ‘Neuralia’ until the afternoon of 11th January, with the guns loaded on board the S.S. ‘Kut Sang’.  The ships set sail later that day.  The Battery arrived at Rangoon and disembarked on 16th January 1942.  The arrival of the British unit was something of a surprise as two sections of the Indian 8th H.A.A. Battery had been expected.  The British 8th Battery arrived with its four 3-inch guns, four gun tractors, six motor cycles, fifteen 15-cwt trucks and with eleven 3-ton lorries to follow.  The original orders had been for the British 8th Battery to go straight to Martaban and Moulmein but due to the unsatisfactory way in which the equipment had been loaded, it was decided that it would be easier to send the Indian 8th H.A.A. Battery instead.  The British battery immediately went out to Syriam and moved into positions previously occupied by the 8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Indian Artillery, which subsequently left for Martaban.  The British 8th H.A.A. Battery went into action for the first time on 29th January 1942 and scored the possible destruction of one enemy plane.  The Battery, which traced its lineage to a unit that fought in the Crimean War, noted that this was the first time that the Battery had “… fired a round in anger since 1855 when it assisted in taking the “Quarries” on June 8th 1855 [author: during the Battle of the Great Redan]”.[10] 

The British were unable to hold the Japanese in southern Burma and by early March 1942 it was clear that Rangoon would have to be evacuated.  The denial scheme was put into operation at Rangoon at 02:00 on 7th March and huge stockpiles of stores and equipment were destroyed.  Amongst the items to be destroyed was much of the equipment belonging to the 8th Battery, which together with the 3rd Indian L.A.A. Battery, took their remaining guns to the defence of the bridge at Hlegu where they were joined by the 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery from Pegu.  The whole British force continued to withdraw northwards from the Rangoon area and by 9th and 10th March was concentrated around Tharrawaddy on the Irrawaddy River.  At this time all of the antiaircraft batteries were together with the force and were later deployed to defend Shwedaung, Prome, Allanmyo and Magwe.  By the time the 1st Burma Corps or ‘Burcorps’ came into being on 19th March 1942, the 8th H.A.A. Battery was assigned as Lines of Communication Troops.  On 25th March, ‘Burcorps’ issued orders that the 8th H.A.A. and the 3rd Indian L.A.A. Batteries were to come under the command of the 17th Indian Infantry Division for the defence of Prome.

By 1st April, the 8th Battery was at Allanmyo, where it was in action almost daily.  The Japanese advance continued and the British were forced to withdraw from Prome to a new line south of Magwe.  The 8th Battery left for Satthwa on 6th April 1942 in the early hours and was in action later that day, where two Japanese aircraft were possibly shot down.  The next day, the 8th Battery moved to Magwe via Taungdwingyi, arriving on 9th April.  It remained at Magwe until forced to pull out to Yenangyaung, then in the area occupied by the 1st Burma Infantry Division, on 13th April.  On 15th April, as the Japanese closed in, orders were given for the destruction of the oilfields at Yenangyaung.  As it attempted to withdraw further northwards, on 16th April, the 1st Burma Infantry Division found its line of retreat blocked at the Pin Chaung by a Japanese force that had come around the British flank and down from the north.  Battery H.Q. and No.1 Section managed to withdraw to the Pin Chaung without too much trouble in the early hours of 17th April, but No.2 Section was surrounded by the Japanese and suffered several casualties.  Some surrendered but many men broke away and when British tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment arrived to drive the Japanese away, the rest also got away to rejoin the others.  With the aid of No.1 Section, No. 2 Section was to reform.  A short while later that morning, No.1 Section deployed a single gun in the ground role against Japanese troops on high ground in Yenangyaung, inflicting a number of casualties.  Just before 10:00, the Battery complete, less two guns, made its way through the Japanese roadblock under heavy mortar and machine gun fire.  The two guns of No.2 Section and several lorries were briefly abandoned but all were later brought through by tanks.  On the road to Meiktila, the next day the Battery reorganised as a four-gun section.  Meiktila was reached on the afternoon of 19th April.  Eventually, after having abandoned much of its equipment, the 1st Burma Infantry Division found a way through the Japanese and broke out of the encirclement on the afternoon of 19th April.[11] 

Having now begun to withdraw towards Mandalay, further deliberations by the British command resulted in orders to pull back even further, across the Irrawaddy River, leaving the defence of Mandalay to the Chinese Army.  The 8th Battery remained at Meiktila until 23rd April when it moved to Myingyan.  It was then ordered to the north bank of the Irrawaddy across the Ava Bridge on the morning of 25th April, where it took up positions at Sagaing.  The British withdrawal across the Ava Bridge began on the night of 25th/26th April.  All available antiaircraft guns were concentrated for the defence of the town and the Ava Bridge.   The three H.A.A. batteries, the 8th British, the 8th Indian and the 1st B.A.F., had between them nine 3-inch or 3.7-inch guns remaining.  Japanese aircraft made many raids on the bridge and although Mandalay was burnt to the ground, the bridge remained intact.  The 8th Battery was in action every day until ordered to Monywa on the night of 29th April.  By midnight on 30th April, the final elements of the Indo-British forces had safely crossed and two of the huge spans of the bridge were blown into the river.[12]

The route of the final withdrawal to India led across the Chindwin River at Kalewa, by way of Yeu and Shwegyin, where troops could be ferried up the river to Kalewa.  The 8th Battery struggled with their guns as far as Kaduma where on 5th May orders were received to destroy the guns.  Ten minutes later the orders were rescinded but it was too late for two of the guns.  The remaining two guns moved to Pyingaing before being ordered to Shwegyin on 7th May.  As much of the surviving British force gathered at Shwegyin, on 10th May, it came under severe threat of destruction when a strong Japanese force arrived and quickly seized the knoll overlooking the jetty.  The withdrawal continued however, thanks to the infantry and tanks managing to keep the Japanese at bay.  That same day, the 8th Battery destroyed its remaining two guns and all equipment before marching through the night to Kalewa.  Under cover of a final artillery barrage, which saw all remaining ammunition being fired off, the remainder of the force got away to Kalewa from where the last troops left on the night of 11th/12th May.  The survivors of the 8th H.A.A. Battery reached Tamu complete by 15th May 1942.  The next day, the Sections moved off to the rest camp 35 miles west of Imphal to be reunited with Battery Headquarters.  Four days later, a further move was made to the reforming camp at Milestone 105, near Imphal.  During the campaign, the Battery was credited with shooting down four Japanese aircraft and suffered 70 casualties.[13] 

On 25th May 1942, the Battery moved off for Dalhousie, where it arrived on 22nd June and many men were sent on leave.   At the end of July, the Battery entrained for Bombay which was reached on 3rd August, where came under the command of the 3rd Indian Anti-Aircraft Brigade.  On 15th August, the men on leave returned and the Battery took over the duties, role, personnel and equipment of the 1st Reserve Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, R.A., which was disbanded the same day.  The men of the 1st Reserve Battery were used to replace losses and to bring the Battery up to the full establishment for an eight gun, static unit.  Training began on the use of the 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun of which the Battery had had no experience until then.  The Battery remained at Bombay for the rest of 1942.[14]

The Battery left Bombay and the 3rd Indian A.A. Brigade for Eastern Army on 22nd January 1943.[15]  It moved to Chittagong, arriving on 31st January 1943, where it came under the command of the 8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regimental Group, R.A., a temporary headquarters which assumed command of all anti-aircraft units in the area and was itself under the command of the 88th Indian Infantry Brigade which was providing lines of communication protection at the time.  The Battery then came under command of the incoming 13th (British) Anti-Aircraft Brigade on 14th March 1943.  This brigade was responsible for the area: Chittagong, Agaratala, Bengal and Assam airfields.  By 1st April 1943, the Battery was deployed at Chittagong aerodrome. On 22nd May 1943, the airfield was attacked by up to 26 Japanese bombers and the Battery’s guns went into action, firing 38 rounds and claiming one aircraft destroyed and one damaged, probably destroyed.  Another raid followed on 29th May but only eight rounds were fired for no reported hits.  The Battery began moving to Dohazari, to the south of Chittagong on the Sangu River, from 28th October 1943 and was complete there by 23rd November 1943.  It should be noted that the 8th H.A.A. Regiment, R.A. was also part of the 13th A.A. Brigade at this time.[16]

In March 1944, ‘A’ Troop moved to Tumbru Ghat followed by ‘B’ troop moving to Bawli Bridge on 8th March 1944, followed two days later by the Battery H.Q.  The Battery was ordered to Maungdaw on 24th April 1944 where, upon arrival, it came under the command of the XV Indian Corps, together with the 8th H.A.A. Regiment, R.A.  During May 1944, the Battery undertook many ‘shoots’ in the counter battery role.  When the 8th H.A.A. Regiment returned to India in May 1944, the 8th H.A.A. Battery remained in the Arakan to support the XV Indian Corps.[17]

In September, around 60-70 men were sent to 51 Reception Camp, for transfer to the infantry and as part of the 2nd British Infantry Division.  The Battery ceased operations on 23rd October 1944 and handed over its guns and equipment to the 23rd H.A.A.Battery, 8th (Belfast) H.A.A. Regiment, R.A.  It then went to 66 Rest Camp.  A further detachment of four officers and 25 British other ranks were despatched to the 2nd Infantry Division as infantry reinforcements.[18]

In December 1944 a number of Anti-Aircraft/Anti-Tank, Light Anti-Aircraft and Heavy Anti-Aircraft units were broken up in India to provide reinforcements for the British infantry who were desperately short of men.  Amongst the units disbanded was the 8th H.A.A. Battery.  The Battery was placed in suspended animation on 28th February 1945.

24 February 2020

[1] General sources for this article were: “History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, The Far East Theatre, 1941-46”, Farndale M., The Royal Artillery Institution (2000);  “Indian Armed Forces in World War II, The Retreat from Burma, 1941-42”, Prasad Bishewar (ed), Orient Longmans (1959); “The War Against Japan, Volume 1 – India’s Most Dangerous Hour”, Woodburn Kirby S., HMSO (1958).

[2] “The Lineage Book of British Land Forces, 1660-1978”, Frederick J.B.M., Microform (1984)

[3] Indian Army List, April 1928, July 1936.

[4] War diary Aden Command, H.Q. Army Troops, WO 169/669.

[5] Plan of Operations, 1938: Order of Battle, March 1940 Edition, General Staff, India, WO 212/552.

[6] “The Anti-Aircraft Branch of the Indian Artillery, 1940 to 1947”, Sawyer H.V., National Army Museum collection; “A History of No.2 Anti-Aircraft Training Centre, I. Arty”, Finch A.G., National Army Museum collection.

[7] War diary 8th H.A.A. Battery, R.A., WO 169/1588.

[8] War diary 8th H.A.A. Battery, R.A., WO 169/1587.

[9] “Anti-Aircraft Artillery, 1914 to 1955”, Routledge N.W., Brassey’s (1994); War diary 8th A.A. Brigade, WO 169/669.

[10] War diary 8th H.A.A. Battery, R.A., WO 172/757; Ward diary 1st H.A.A. Regiment, B.A.F., WO 172/749.

[11] WO 172/757

[12] WO 172/757

[13] WO 172/757

[14] WO 172/757; War diary 3rd Indian A.A. Brigade, WO 172/632.

[15] War diary 3rd Indian A.A. Brigade, WO 172/2138; WO 172/757

[16] War diary 8th H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/2347; War diary 13th A.A. Brigade, WO 172/2143; War diary H.Q.R.A.14th Army, W) 172/1843

[17] War diary 8th H.A.A. Battery,R.A., WO 172/4700.

[18] WO 172/4700