The Burma Campaign

Burma Railways Battalion, Burma Auxiliary Force

 The Battalion was formed on 2nd May 1879 as the Rangoon and Irrawaddy State Railway Volunteer Rifle Corps.  On 8th August 1884, it was re-titled the Burma State Railway Volunteer Corps.  The Battalion amalgamated with the Toungoo Volunteer Rifles on 23rd November 1885.  It became the Burma Railways Volunteer Corps on 30th June 1899.[1]  As part of the Indian Defence Force Act of 1917, all the units of the Indian Volunteers became units of the Indian Defence Force and the Battalion was re-titled the 21st Burma Railways Battalion on 1st April 1917.  With the formation of the Indian Auxiliary Force in 1920 the Battalion was again re-titled as the Burma Railways Battalion from 1st October 1920.  It retained this title when transferred to the Burma Auxiliary Force in April 1937, following the transfer of units to the Burma Army with the separation of administration from India.[2]  

In 1913, the then Burma Railways Volunteer Corps headquarters was in Rangoon with companies at Prome, Toungoo, Pegu, Insein, Maymyo, Ywataung and Yaméthin.[3]

The Battalion was a volunteer infantry force rather than one of railway engineers.  It can be imagined the effect on the running of the railways of calling up railway employees for full time military service and like all such volunteer units, prior to the war, the Battalion acted as little more than a club with military associations.  The requirement to “become yearly an efficient member of the Burma Railways Battalion of the Auxiliary Force, India” formed part of the agreement signed by employees of the railways.[4]  The intention was that in times of internal disturbances the volunteers would provide security and guards for key points on the railways and for stations.[5]

In January 1940, the Battalion was composed of a headquarters and three companies, with detachments at Rangoon, Insein, Toungoo and Myitnge.[6]  The officers of the Battalion were formally “militarized” by order of the Governor of Burma, in August 1940.[7]

On 8th February 1941, the Battalion was reported to be composed of a headquarters and three rifle companies, with a strength of 22 Officers and 407 Other Ranks.

Following the Japanese invasion, the Battalion performed largely static guard duties.  

Lieutenant, acting Major, John Douglas Lewis, Burma Railways Battalion (Operating Unit), B.A.F., was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership and energy in organising trains to evacuate the 1st Burma Division from Toungoo up to 24th March 1942.  On 22nd February 1942, he and Lieutenant Howard disposed of three unexploded bombs dropped at Toungoo.[8]

During the retreat to India the Burma Railways Battalion was listed as forming part of the Lines of Communication Troops.

There was a severe shortage of trained experienced railwaymen in India and during the evacuation from Burma arrangements were made by the Indian Army to recruit the maximum number of Burma Railways personnel.  Most of the officers were immediately commissioned into the Indian Engineers (I.E.).  Several units were raised and mobilised at Jullundur, the recruitment being done by the Burmese officers themselves.  The units included ‘Burma’ in their title and included the maximum number of balanced trades.  The units known of are:

- 165 Railway Operating Company (Burma), I.E.
- 168 Railway Construction Company (Burma), I.E.
- 170 Railway Operating Company (Burma), I.E.
- 172 Railway Workshop Company (Burma), I.E.
- 174 Transportation Stores Company (Burma), I.E.[9]

29 December 2019 

[1] Burma Army List January 1940.

[2] "Sons of John Company", Gaylor J, Parapress, Tunbridge Wells (1992 & 1996)

[3] The Quarterly Army List, December 1913 - digitised by the National Library of Scotland

[4] Anglo-Burmese Library. Members Area (, accessed December 2016.

[5] “Indian Armed Forces in World War II, The Retreat from Burma 1941-42”, Prasad, B, Orient Longmans (1954)

[6] Burma Army List January 1940.

[7] “Some Personal Memories of Burma and the Burma Railways”, Reginald Melville Ward Lowe, Anglo-Burmese Library, accessed December 2019.

[8] WO 373/30/121.

[9] “The Corps of Indian Engineers, 1939-1947”, Prasad, B, Historical Section, Ministry of Defence, Government of India (1974)