The Burma Campaign

8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Indian Artillery

Given the common numeral shared by all, the story of the 8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Indian Artillery is often confused with those of the 8th H.A.A. Battery, Royal Artillery and the 8th (Belfast) H.A.A. Regiment, R.A.

The Battery was originally raised on 1st April 1941, as part of the ‘S’ Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Indian Artillery.  The Regiment was re-titled as the 2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, I.A. the following day. 

One section, ‘A’ Section, was sent to Bahrain during the second half of 1941 to man the anti-aircraft defences there.[1]  In or around October 1941, the 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, with the 7th Battery and the three remaining sections of the 8th Battery, moved to Calcutta.  The Regiment became the first Indian anti-aircraft unit to deploy in the Calcutta area.[2]

On 27th December 1941, the 8th Battery Headquarters, with ‘B’ and ‘C’ Sections with two 3-inch guns each (a troop), embarked at Calcutta on board the S.S. ‘Kut Sang’ for Rangoon.  ‘D’ Section remained behind in Calcutta with the 2nd H.A.A. Regiment.  The 8th Battery, commanded by Major R.A. Roberts, disembarked at Rangoon on 31st December 1941 and all unloading was completed the following day, New Year’s Day 1942.[3]   The Battery moved immediately to Syriam where the following day it reported it was ready for action.  ‘B’ Section under 2nd Lieutenant Blenkinsopp, R.A., left Syriam for Martaban on 11th January 1942 and arrived the next day.  The section had orders to protect the Martaban-Moulmein ferry. The section fired 38 rounds at “three waves of Mitsubishi 97s” during a Japanese air raid on Moulmein aerodrome on 16th January 1942.[4]  The guns were again in action on 20th and 22nd January.[5]

On 16th January 1942, the Battery Headquarters and two sections of the 8th H.A.A. Battery, Royal Artillery, arrived at Syriam to relieve their Indian counterparts.  The 8th (Indian) Battery Headquarters left Syriam with ‘C’ Section for Rangoon by barge on 19th January where a train was boarded which carried the men to Martaban the next day.  On 26th January 1942, B.H.Q. and ‘C’ Section left Martaban for Kyaikto where these elements came under the orders of the 17th Indian Infantry Division.  Two days later Blenkinsopp’s ‘B’ Section came under heavy 3-inch mortar fire and was forced to withdraw with mortar bombs falling all around.  These two guns left Martaban on 31st January 1942 to rejoin the Battery.  On 2nd February 1942, the Battery moved to Mokpalin and established gun sites to defend the Sittang Bridge.  One of the sites was on the far bank of the river and on 20th February 1942, B.H.Q. and the one section crossed the river to join the other section.  Later that night, the section under 2nd Lieutenant Ram Dass came under machine gun and mortar fire.  The enemy weapons were suppressed the next morning by shrapnel fired by the guns of the section.  During the afternoon of 21st February 1942, the Battery withdrew to Abya.  The following morning, while firing at the enemy, one shell exploded prematurely above the command post, wounding 2nd Lieutenant Blenkinsopp, killing two men and wounding a Viceroy Commissioned Officer and six men.  On 23rd February 1942, the Battery withdrew once again, this time to Waw, before moving back further to Pegu the next day.  Three days later, on 27th February 1942, the Battery withdrew to Hlegu to protect the headquarters of the 17th Indian Infantry Division and a nearby road bridge.  Throughout this period, the Battery was in constant action, on one occasion firing 299 rounds from four guns in 30 minutes.[6] 

[Note; the war diary for February 1942 is missing.  The details above for February 1942 are taken from a “resume” prepared later.]

On 1st March 1942, the Battery was at Hlegu, with two guns deployed for action.  The Battery was ordered to move back to the Prome Road near Taukkyan on 7th March, where the withdrawing Anglo-Indian force attempting to withdraw northward from Rangoon was halted by a Japanese roadblock.  The Battery was in action the following day, and during the afternoon was able to get away, arriving at Takkyi that afternoon, where it claimed one Japanese fighter as a ‘probable’.  The next day, the Battery went to Tharrawaddy where on 11th March 1942, one damaged gun was sent for repair to Prome.  A second gun was also out of action at this time and although badly damaged it was hoped that it too might be repaired so it was taken along.  The Battery withdrew to Prome, arriving on 17th March 1942 but left immediately for Magwe. [7]

Throughout the campaign, the Battery had to improvise transport to move the guns.  It had been sent to the 17th Indian Infantry Division in a mobile role but with only the vehicle complement of a static unit.  This lack of proper transport now cost the Battery one of its guns.  The gun sent to Prome for repair was returned fit for action on 17th March 1942, but later that same day it was lost in a traffic accident near Allanmyo.  It seems that the towing vehicle, a 3-ton, four wheel drive truck, was not heavy enough to control the 9-ton, 3-inch anti-aircraft gun on hilly roads.  In this instance, the truck-gun combination ran away on a downhill section and despite the driver making the turn over the bridge at the bottom of the hill, the swinging gun hit the bridge parapet.  One man was killed and the gun badly damaged, this time beyond repair.  It was moved off the road, cannibalised for spare parts and left for later recovery by a heavy workshops team.[8]

The withdrawal continued and the Battery reached Mandalay on 21st March 1942.  The two serviceable guns travelled from Yenangyaung up the Irrawaddy River on an oil flat towed by a river steamer, while the transport went by road.  Japanese bombers launched a major raid on Mandalay on Good Friday, 3rd April 1942, but the guns were unable to fire at the planes as they were not seen until they were departing.  Much of the town was destroyed in the resulting fires.  The guns did however go into action on 7th, 23rd and 24th April when the Japanese attacked the town again.  Two days later, the town was abandoned by the British and the Battery pulled out of Mandalay for Shwebo where, together with a light anti-aircraft unit, it was ordered to defend an airfield.  Several casualties were incurred here during a Japanese air raid on 27th April 1942.  The Battery left Shwebo and arrived at Ye-U on 2nd May 1942 but on 4th May orders were received to destroy the remaining two guns and all ammunition.  This sad task accomplished, the Battery left Ye-U on the final retreat to India.  At Shwegyin, on 8th May 1942, all transport was wrecked and the personnel marched off to the ferry where they were taken on to Kalewa by boat.  From Kalewa, the Battery proceeded on foot to Tamu, which was reached on 13th May 1942.  The next day, motor transport took the men to the 51st Staging Camp at Milestone 105.  By now the monsoon had broken, and a miserable time was endured in the rest camps.  At this time, many men came down with dysentery and malaria.  The unit moved to Dimapur on 28th May 1942 where the next day it left by train for Ranchi.  The Commanding Officer, Major R.A. Roberts however did not travel with his unit, and was instead admitted to hospital where sadly he died on 7th June 1942.[9]  At Ranchi, on 14th June 1942, all those present and fit were given a month’s leave. [10] 

After returning from Burma, the Battery was at first ordered to reform and refit at Kulti, near Asansol, but the orders were changed and instead the Battery was to reform at Malir, Karachi.  Thus the officers and men of the battery re-assembled again at Malir on 23rd July 1942.  Captain N.A. Whitehead was promoted to Major and took command of the Battery.  The main body remained at Malir until May 1943.[11]  The Bahrain section, meanwhile, returned to India and disembarked at Karachi on 24th July 1942, where it is presumed to have joined up with the main body of the Battery to reform.[12]  

At this time, one other element of the Battery was also deployed in action in Assam.  On 24th April 1942, the 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, I.A. recorded that it was deployed at Digboi, Assam, less one battery, less one section, deployed ‘overseas’.  On 9th June 1942, ‘D’ Section, 8th H.A.A. Battery is reported to have been under command of the 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, I.A. at Digboi, the Section being attached to the 7th Battery.[13]  Later, the regimental war diary refers to this sub-unit as ‘4’ Section” and records that the section moved to the Panitola area on 23rd January 1943, where it remained until moving to Ledo on 26th April 1943.[14]

As to the whereabouts of its 8th Battery, up until now the 2nd Regiment had received little word.  On 26th July 1942, R.H.Q. received the first official news since the Battery had returned from Burma, being told of the Battery’s presence at Malir.[15]  Finally, in May 1943, the 8th Battery was ready to be reunited with its detached section and return to the command of the 2nd Regiment in Assam.  It arrived from Karachi and relieved the 14th H.A.A. Battery at Lekhapani on 11th May 1943.  The Battery was at Ledo and Lekhapani on 15th June 1943.  The site at Lekhapani was handed over to the 13th H.A.A. Battery on 24th June 1943 and that at Ledo the next day, and the 8th Battery then went to the Manipur Road Base.  ‘A’ Troop arrived at Manipur Road on 25th June and ‘B’ Troop arrived the next day, along with the Headquarters of the 2nd Regiment.   On 15th September 1943, the Battery arrived at Dergaon and moved to Mohanbari on 22nd December 1943.  Other than the movements recorded above, there was little of note recorded by the Battery in its war diary during this period.[16]

The Battery remained at Mohanbari throughout most of 1944.  Much of the time was spent improving the gun positions with the construction of what were described as “Middle East holdfasts”. Training and practice firing were regularly undertaken.  On 6th June 1944, Major Whitehead relinquished command of the Battery to take up that of the 1st H.A.A. Battery, I.A., exchanging posts with Major T.B. Clark, R.A.  According to local tea planters, 1944 was one of the worst years for malaria in the area however the Battery had an exemplary record, recording a sickness rate of only around 2%.  This was achieved despite the monsoon rains and on 9th September 1944, the Battery war diary recorded that by that date it had experienced 21 consecutive days of heavy rain.  Between 17th and 22nd October 1944, the Battery was withdrawn from active operations and sent to Jorhat to begin mobile training.[17]

However, the Battery stayed at Jorhat for only a short time and in early December 1944 handed over its guns to other units.  On 29th December 1944 a farewell parade was attended by the Brigade Commander, 3rd Indian A.A. Brigade, who gave a farewell speech to the Battery.  The next day, the main advance party left Jorhat for Mariani, en route for Galunche.  The remainder of the Battery left Jorhat on 24th January 1945, travelling with the Regimental H.Q. and Workshop and arrived at Galunche on 31st January 1945.[18]

At Galunche, the parent regiment, the 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, came under the command of the 9th Anti-Aircraft Brigade, RA.  The Brigade was responsible for training Indian anti-aircraft units for mobile and combined operations, including amphibious landings.  The Battery appears to have remained with the Regiment at Galunche, until re-regimented there with the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, I.A. on 8th February 1946.[19]

24 February 2020

[1] “The Anti-Aircraft Branch of the Indian Artillery, 1940 to 1947”, Sawyer H.V, unpublished, NAM 1983-09-47

[2] Sawyer

[3] War diary 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, December 1941, contained in error within WO 172/325

[4] The Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-21 (or "Type 97 Heavy Bomber") was known to the Allies by the code name “Sally”.  It was a twin-engined, heavy bomber.

[5] War diary 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/835; War diary 1st H.A.A. Regiment, B.A.F., WO 172/749

[6] WO 172/835; War diary 8th H.A.A. Battery, R.A., WO 172/757

[7] War diary 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/2431

[8] WO 172/2431

[9] Richard Arthur Roberts, born Devonshire, 1907.  Commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, No. 3 (Bombay) Fortress Company, Royal Engineers, Auxiliary Force, India, 17th December 1938.  Promoted to Major, 25th May 1940.  As Major, serving with No.3 (Bombay) Fortress Company, Royal Engineers, Auxiliary Force, India, July 1941.  As Major (38245), Commanding Officer, 8th (Indian) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery, 1941-42.  Died of cerebral malaria after the Burma Campaign, in Assam, 7th June 1942 ( Newspaper Index Cards; Commonwealth War Graves; FindMyPast; Indian Army List October 1939, July 1941; War diary 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/2431)

[10] WO 172/835; WO 172/2431; WO 172/749

[11] WO 172/2431

[12] War diary 1st Indian A.A. Brigade, WO 172/630; War diary 9th A.A. Brigade, WO 172/633; “Indian Formations which returned to India from Overseas”, unknown publication, courtesy of David A. Ryan; Anti-Aircraft - Sites, Establishments and Requirements", March 1942-October 1943, WO 106/4562

[13] War diary 7th Indian H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/837

[14] War diary 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, I.A., WO 172/2423.

[15] War diary 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, I.A., WO 172/830.

[16] WO 172/2423

[17] War diary 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/4793; War diary 2nd H.A.A. Regiment, I.A., WO 172/4784.

[18] WO 172/4793; War diary 8th Indian H.A.A. Battery, WO 172/7548

[19] War diary 9th A.A. Brigade, WO 172/7153; War diary 60th A.G.R.A., WO 172/7516 and WO 172/10069.