Photograph of troops advancing on Meiktila

Imperial War Museum. Via Wikipedia

Meiktila (95.86E 20.88N) was the location of a British airfield in central Burma in 1941. The town straddled the narrow strip of water connecting North and South Meiktila Lakes, which gave the area a somewhat cooler climate during the dry season than is typical of the Burma dry belt.  In 1941 the town was built of red brick and set among numerous trees, and was surrounded by hills of 600'-900' (200-300m) height. The town center was dominated by a 800' (240m) hill to its southeast. The land was heavily cultivated to the east, from which the railroad spur came in, but little developed to the west.

The British fought a brief rearguard action here on 25-26 April 1942 to cover the retreat of the disintegrating Kuomintang 5 Army.

By 1945 the Japanese had expanded Meiktila into a major rear area base complex, with eight airstrips located north, south, east, and west of the town.

Battle of Meiktila. During the central Burma campaign of 1945, the British seized Meiktila and cut the communications of the Japanese forces to the north. The Japanese fought fiercely but unsuccessfully to clear their supply lines, and were forced to retreat in considerable disorder, leaving southern Burma open to the British advance.

In early 1945, Kimura confounded Slim's expectations by refusing to make a stand in the Shwebo Plain between the Chindwin and Irrawady Rivers. Slim's new strategy (EXTENDED CAPITAL) was a masterstroke of misdirection. Slim had XXXIII Corps, the main force on the plains, advance to the Irrawady and threaten Manadalay with crossings to the north and south. Meanwhile, IV Corps (Messervy) launched a surprise attack across the Irrawady against Meiktila, threatening Kimura's communications and forcing him to attack IV Corps. This gave Slim the opportunity to catch the Japanese between the hammer of XXXIII Corps and the anvil of IV Corps.

7 Indian Division (Evans) began crossing the Irrawady at Nyaungu (94.910E 21.198N) in what Slim later described as "the longest opposed river crossing in any theatre of the Second World War" (Slim 1956).The crossing took place on the boundary between 15 and 28 Armies, which was thus the weakest point in the Japanese line. The only defenders in the area were from Indian National Army and promptly surrendered. On 21 February, without waiting for the bridgeheads to be fully consolidated, 17 Indian Division (Cowan) launched its drive against Meiktila.

Kimura had ignored intelligence from 53 Division warning of British activity to the south and now paid a heavy price for his neglect. The chief of staff of Southern Army, Numata Takazo, met with the Burma Area Army chiefs of staff at Meiktila on 24 February 1945, to discuss the possibilities for counterattack against the British, blissfully unaware that Cowan was only 40 miles (65 km) away and advancing rapidly. The town was garrisoned by just4000 troops, many of which were unarmed lines of comunications and hospital troops, although 52 and 84 Airfield Battalions and 36 Field Antiaircraft Battalion were capable of mounting a defense. With the threat to Meiktila becoming clearer, those staff officer who had not left the conference were ordered to remain and organize the defense, and 49 Division was ordered up from the reserve in the south. Katamura also ordered 18 Division and 119 and 214 Regiments, supported by 14 Tank Regiment and most of the artillery from 15 Army, to prepare to attack Meiktila on 10 March. Tanaka opposed this diversion from the Mandalay front but was overruled by Kimura.

By the afternoon of 26 February 1945, Cowan's tanks had reached the airstrip at Thabutkon, 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Meiktila. Cowan had 99 Indian Brigade flown in as soon as the field could be readied, followed by gasoline for the tanks. After clearing a Japanese roadblock the next day, the force raced to Meiktila, as the Japanese closed in behind them and cut the road to the bridgehead on the Irrawady. Cowan was now committed to resupply by air, and he pulled 48 Indian Brigade off the supply line to join the attack. 48 Indian Brigade took the direct road to Meiktila while 63 Indian Brigade moved to the right to advance on the town from the west and 255 Indian Tank Brigade with two infantry battalions made a wide sweep to the east.

The attack on the town itself began on 1 March 1945. 255 Tank Brigade attacked from the east, seized the hill overlooking the town center, and supported the advance into the town. There was ample air and artillery support as the infantry assaulted the system of bunkers in the town itself. Although the rail station was reached before nightfall on 1 March, Cowan pulled his armor back rather than leave it vulnerable to infiltrators in the ruins, and the Japanese reoccupied the rail station. In desperation, the Japanese began turning to suicide tactics, including the use of "human mines" (a soldier in a deep hole with an aircraft bomb and a hammer to set the bomb off when a tank approached.) However, by 3 March, organized resistance had come to an end in spite of the arrival of the first reinforcements from 168 Regiment, 49 Division. The Japanese survivors escaped to Thazi, twelve miles (19 km) to the east, to regroup.

The British at Meiktila were now under seige. 49 Division had concentrated at Pyawbwe, 24 miles (39 km) southeast of Meiktila; 214 Regiment was to the north; 18 Division was to the northeast; and 119 Regiment was to the east. Although 17 Indian Division and 255 Indian Tank Brigade were cut off and surrounded, they were resupplied from air and held their positions. Slim's hammer and anvil tactics went into effect as the Japanese desperately attacked the isolated units in an attempt to clear their communications. Faced with a critical situation, Kimura was forced to commit his forces piecemeal as soon as they arrived, which all but guaranteed defeat in detail. Japanese command and control broke down as signals intelligence was used to identify Japanese command posts and direct air strikes against them. The Japanese had very poor intelligence on the British, had considerable difficulty coordinating their attacks (it did not help that their forces were initially under the command of two different armies), and were vulnerable to spoiling attacks by Cowan's armor. Cowan sent out no fewer than five armored columns on 6 March, and additional sweeps were sent out on 8-12 March and 13-14 March. Though Cowan lost at least a dozen tanks, the sweeps inflicted very heavy casualties on the Japanese.

However, on 15 March the Japanese staged the first of a series of attacks on Cowan's airfields that seriously interfered with the fly-in of 9 Indian Brigade and the delivery of supplies. The artillery from 49 Division was handled particularly aggressively, sometimes being brought right up to the front line to fire shaped charge shells at the British tanks. The British responded by sending up L-5s and Austers to spot the gun flashes for counterbattery fire. 

Myingyan (95.389E 21.459N), at the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawady, fell on 23 March, opening Slim's river supply line. Between 22-24 March contact was reestablished with the isolated Allied forces at Meiktila, and Burma Area Army, caught between the hammer and the anvil, was rapidly being destroyed. The siege had become a tank versus gun duel, but the Japanese calculated that they were expending one gun and fifty men for every British tank destroyed. Since they estimated the British had 100 tanks and they were down to just 20 guns, the outcome was no longer in doubt, and on 28 March 1945 Tanaka ordered Meiktila evacuated

British order of battle, February 1945:

IV Indian Corps (Messervy)

7 Indian Division (Evans)

17 Indian Division (Cowan)

255 Indian Tank Brigade

Japanese order of battle, February 1945:

Burma Area Army (Kimura; at Rangoon)

18 Division (Naka)

49 Division (Takehara; between Mandalay and Rangoon)     
Area army reserve

5 Guerrilla Unit
Also known as Mori Special Force. Originally raised to harrass the Ledo Road.

119 Regment

214 Regiment

14 Tank Regiment
Down to about 20 light and medium tanks

Rail connections



Allen (1984)

Slim (1956)

Center for Military History (accessed 2011-11-11)

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