Disaster of the Sittang Bridge – February 1942 Part I

The Retreat into India: Aerial reconnaissance photograph of the bridge over the Sittang River, known as the Sittang Bridge, which was destroyed in the face of the advancing Japanese on 23 February 1942.

The Scapegoat – Major General Jackie Smyth VC MC

For many years, the disaster of the Sittang Bridge in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1942 was held up at the Staff College, Camberley, as an example of how not to conduct a bridge demolition. When the bridge was blown, some two-thirds of the 17th Indian Division was stranded on the enemy side of the Sittang River. The divisional commander who ordered its destruction was acting Major General Jackie Smyth VC MC. He was sacked and reduced to his substantive rank of colonel. He was not only relieved of command but also removed from the army; he never held another military post for the rest of the war. In fact, the demolition of the bridge turned out to be merely a minor irritation to the Japanese, barely affecting their headlong drive to Rangoon (now Yangon) and the conquest of Burma.

Was Smyth totally responsible for this debacle? What prompted him to take what was seen as precipitate action? Were there others involved? Was it convenient to make him, as he himself considered, the scapegoat for the loss of Burma? Or was he, as many of those directly affected by the demolition thought, merely incompetent? Was his judgement affected by a serious medical condition?

Burma is a mass of dense jungles, with rivers carving steep gorges through precipitous mountains and ridges, but it also has wide open plains and rivers sometimes with a breadth of a couple of miles, which are often crossed by ferries rather than the few bridges. Of these rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Salween are the largest (see map on page 136). The former is the main artery, navigable for 800 miles, being joined 50 miles west of Mandalay by the Chindwin. The Salween is only navigable at its mouth, with the towns of Martaban (now Mottama) and Moulmein (now Mawlamyine) either side of the 3-mile-wide estuary. Eighty miles west of Martaban, the Sittang River flows north to south, presenting a significant obstacle during the monsoon season.

In 1942, crossing the Sittang required ferries, with the exception of a single-track railway bridge carrying the Rangoon–Martaban line. The bridge was about 500–600 yards long, with eleven spans of 150 feet each. The river below the bridge widened out to about 1,000 yards and had a strong current. Roads were mere cart tracks and most were impassable to wheeled traffic, the main movement being conducted on the rivers. The exception was the Burma Road running from Rangoon to the Chinese border at Wanting, one of the surviving lifelines supplying Nationalist China and a constant source of concern to the Japanese. Drenched in the monsoon from May to October and parched for much of the rest of the year, the country is inhabited by a people with widely differing, independently minded tribal regions and cultures—the Shans, Nagas, Karens and Burmans, for example.

Burma was one of the more unpleasant places in the world in which to fight. Disease, climate and terrain made it arguably the worst. Foot rot, dysentery, ulcers, gangrene, malaria and other tropical infections unknown to doctors were rife. A mosquito found every area of unprotected skin and leeches every orifice—the latter were only successfully dealt with by a lighted cigarette end. Clothing disintegrated and boots fell apart through sweat and in the damp heat or monsoon downpours. Weapons rusted instantly and supplies of drinking water, food and ammunition depended not on a quartermaster’s direction of a sophisticated European or North African echelon but a haphazard system of mule trains struggling through rivers, mud and over barely passable tracks. Maps were few and unreliable. Jungle training, in 1942, had been virtually non-existent and the closeness of the bamboo and pitch-black night instilled fear even in the stoutest hearts. Radio equipment was basic below divisional level and hardly worth its weight, with batteries, so the staff tended to rely on an erratic telephone system.

The Japanese soldier, with his veneration of ancestors and total loyalty to the Emperor, was vastly different to his European, Indian or Burmese enemies. Regulations forbade soldiers to be taken prisoner and his highest duty was to be killed in battle, which would automatically allow him to join his gods. Suicide was the accepted way out if captured or overrun, as even then suicide was aggressive—the soldier lay on a primed grenade so when his body was moved the grenade exploded, killing him and his enemy. Discipline was brutal, but bearing in mind many of the recruits came from a harsh peasant existence where life was vicious and cheap, it had negligible effect. Although the Japanese Army lacked the quantity and sophistication of its opponents’ technical hardware, its soldiers’ ability to live off the land on a diet of rice and to be able to put up with extraordinary privations made them a formidable foe. Contrary to Western belief, the Japanese were not initially well-trained jungle fighters; however, they had considerable combat experience and were well trained in the basics. They were not reliant on roads and were experts at by-passing opposition and using the unexpected approach, outflanking their enemy. They achieved astonishing (to Western eyes) distances with aggressive speed. Perhaps their major asset, however, was that the Japanese were totally underestimated by almost everyone on the British side from General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C), downwards. Major General H. L. ‘Taffy’ Davies who served on Field Marshal Slim’s staff, and subsequently commanded a division, said,

At this time there was no real appreciation of the formidable character of the foe we were facing. General Wavell himself regarded the Japanese as a second-class enemy. This illusion persisted even after we had lost Malaya and Burma and after the experience of the Americans in the Philippines and elsewhere. In fact the Japanese Imperial Army, with its savage, hardy and completely fanatical infantry element, constituted as formidable an enemy as have ever been faced by any British Army. In addition Japanese armies had been specially trained in ideal training areas, for the type of campaign on which they were setting out.

Slim himself, in his memoir Defeat into Victory, admitted:

The strength of the Japanese Army lay, not in its higher leadership but in the spirit of the individual Japanese soldier. He fought and marched till he died. If 500 Japanese were ordered to hold a position, we had to kill 495 before it was ours—and then the last five killed themselves. It was a combination of obedience and ferocity that made the Japanese Army, whatever its condition, so formidable, and which would make any army formidable. All armies talk of fighting to the last round and the last man. The Japanese alone did it.

Second Lieutenant John Randle, commanding a company of the 10th Baluch Regiment wrote, ‘The Japs fought with great ferocity and courage. We were arrogant about the Japs, we regarded them as coolies. We thought of them as third rate. My goodness me, we soon changed our tune.’

Although Burma was secondary to Japan’s main aim of taking all Dutch East Indies, together with Malaya and the Philippines, in order to maintain its oil, tin and rubber supplies using Singapore as its main naval base, it would be useful to seize Rangoon to cut off supplies to the Chinese on the Burma Road. On 15 January 1942, the Japanese crossed the Thai border into Burma and on the 17th, bombed Moulmein. Then, on the night of 30 January, elements of the Japanese 55th Division attacked Moulmein in force, with the 33rd Division circling round to the north. What had the British to face them?

The strategic defence of Burma was a shambles; its administration came under C-in-C India but operationally it answered to C-in-C Far East in Singapore. Complacent, unloved and swept under the carpet was an inevitable conclusion reached by anyone who bothered to think about it. Churchill saw North Africa as the priority and rejected any thought of Singapore being attacked or any need, therefore, to provide extra assets to the region, let alone specifically to Burma. In July 1941, General Sir Archibald Wavell, removed from command of the Middle East where he had failed to grapple successfully with the inadequacies of the British Army, was appointed C-in-C India. Vainly, he tried to be allowed to assume operational command of Burma where he quickly realised how unprepared the staff, units and command and control were to defend it. He anticipated any Japanese attack would come from Indo-China onto the Burma Road and then into India, but the main preoccupation was with Singapore, although, even as late as 8 November 1941, he wrote, ‘I should think the Jap has a very poor chance of successfully attacking Malaya and I don’t think, myself, that there is much prospect of his trying.’

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and attacked Hong Kong the following day, simultaneously landing in the Philippines. With that, Churchill conceded and placed Burma under Wavell’s command, who replaced the army commander there with Lieutenant General Hutton. However, even more changes in the command structure were afoot. On Christmas Day, Hong Kong fell and Wavell was made Supreme Allied Commander of a new coalition in the South-West Pacific of American, British, Dutch and Australian forces (ABDA) with his headquarters in Java (formally on 15 January). Defence of Burma was on his mind but, with no reinforcements available and all his many other problems, there was not much he could do about it. He did, however, make Jackie Smyth a major general and give him command of the 17th Indian Division with the aim of stopping the Japanese as far to the east in Burma as possible. The threat to Singapore was becoming critical and on Sunday, 15 February, it finally surrendered to the Japanese. The ABDA set-up was now ineffective and Burma returned to the command of C-in-C India, as Wavell had always wanted it to.

In the Burma command, inadequate intelligence meant that the British relied entirely on guesswork as to the expected thrusts of the Japanese. The best guess was that they would come from the north, but that was soon shown to be woefully wrong. Contemptuous of the Japanese Air Force, the British planes were aged and barely maintained, and, in practice, outnumbered by the enemy. The army consisted of only two British battalions—the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, which was significantly under strength, and the 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. There were four battalions of Burma Rifles, reinforced by six battalions of the Burma Military Police, which converted to infantry columns in 1941. They included Punjabis, Sikhs and Gurkhas. Artillery and engineers were minimal. There was not only a lack of basic military equipment and arms and ammunition, but also, importantly, a complete absence of essential training, some of which was still based on operations on the North-West Frontier, let alone specific instruction for jungle warfare. The Burma Army was militarily bankrupt.

The main characters in this tragedy were General Sir Archibald Wavell, Lieutenant General Thomas Hutton and Major General Jackie Smyth. The brooding presence of Winston Churchill, far away in London, totally out of touch and issuing a flood of peremptory signals, permeated the atmosphere.

General Sir Archibald Wavell was a man who inspired respect and, for those close to him, affection. He was self-effacing and taciturn and this kept him apart, to a certain extent, from the soldiery who did not take to him in the same way as they did to Generals Slim and Messervy (‘Uncle Bill’ and ‘Frank’). His silences were legendary, yet rather than displaying a lack of comprehension as to what was being discussed, they communicated a feeling of confidence when he made it plain he had missed nothing. Many of his contemporaries found him difficult, Churchill being the prime example, but others, such as Generals Brooke, Dill and Montgomery, much admired him. His critics accused him of being overcautious and lacking in decision-making, vacillating and evasive. Yet, given the immense problems he had to face in high command, the evidence for this is thin. Perhaps his greatest gifts, certainly to those closest to him in times of immense stress and danger, were his imperturbability and self-control; quietly, he despised open shows of emotion. He never flapped and only occasionally lost his temper. He was a modest man who lacked showmanship and appeared mildly surprised at each promotion and higher appointment.

On 22 June 1941, when Churchill removed him from command of the Middle East—‘a new eye and a new hand were required’—Wavell did not disagree; he was tired and dispirited by his failures in Greece and Crete and the near loss of Egypt. He needed a long rest and time to recuperate. However, against advice, he was appointed to command India without even a chance to come home briefly to sort out his private life. It seemed that he was being relieved of one of the most important commands to be put out to quieter pastures, to sit, as Churchill put it ‘under a pagoda tree’. The appointment surprised many as Wavell had no experience of Asia and Indian troops. He knew little of the Japanese and despised them as being third-rate. He failed to take the Japanese threat seriously, although, to be fair, the intelligence assessments were abysmal. With the short-lived ABDA coalition, Wavell’s spread of responsibility was so vast that it was almost impossible for him to keep properly in touch with the myriad problems that arose. The consequence was the inevitable issuing of orders that arrived too late or instructions that bore little relation to what was happening on the ground at the sharp end. His complete failure to realise the speed, power and aggression of the Japanese military machine and his condescending attitude to their race was his undoing.

Lieutenant General Thomas Hutton took over command of the army in Burma on 27 December 1941. In the First World War, he had distinguished himself as a Royal Artillery battery commander, winning two Military Crosses. Since then he had become a consummate staff officer but had little contact with soldiers, with the exception of the time he commanded a military district at Quetta. Latterly he had served both Auchinleck and Wavell as their chief of staff in India. On the face of it, it seemed an odd appointment for Wavell to make. Good chiefs of staff do not necessarily make good commanders in the field, although that is not always so. Wavell was so appalled by the state of preparation for war in Burma that, as he thought he had time for the administration, organisation and training to take place, it seemed that a man of Hutton’s background and experience was best suited to that task. On 18 January 1942, Wavell wrote to Hutton, ‘I fancy the Japanese have got their hands too full at the moment to attempt an attack on Burma, but it may come later dependent on what happens at Singapore and in the Philippines.’ Much later, when everything had gone wrong, Wavell replaced Hutton with General Harold Alexander, a commander of a completely different ilk.

Hutton was a quiet, decent, unimpressive, non-extrovert character—unkindly described by James Lunt as looking ‘more like a head gardener than a general’. The days had gone when generals commanded from the fastnesses of their rear areas and soldiers needed to see their chiefs, particularly when things were going wrong, to exude confidence and show they cared. Hutton simply did not have time, or the ability to make time, to get among his troops in the way that Slim did. Through no fault of his own, he did not know his commanders, such as Smyth, well enough for them to establish a mutual trust and bond. Consequently, interaction was subject to personalities and where they were very different, the inevitable clash occurred. In relation to Wavell, it would have taken an enormous amount of moral courage to resist the (often out-of-touch and irascible) orders coming from Java. Hutton was resolutely loyal to his boss and, no doubt, in considerable awe of such a renowned figure. Leo Amery, then Secretary of State for India and Burma, did send a telegram, on 18 February 1942, to Wavell saying, ‘Have heard doubts cast on Hutton’s quality as a fighting leader. Have you any misgivings as to his being the right man? Your telegrams so far have been entirely appreciative.’

Hutton himself did appreciate the vital importance of Rangoon once Singapore had ceased to become the key naval base, even before it surrendered. However, he was forced into the forward defence of Burma by Wavell and, of course, by those such as Churchill and the Viceroy of India who were even more out of touch with the realities.

Major General John (always known as ‘Jackie’) Smyth assumed command of the 17th Indian Division on 4 December 1941. James Lunt described him as ‘a bright, perky and friendly little man, with a wonderful ability to put young officers like me at ease. There was no side to him; he was neither grimly taciturn like Wavell, nor curiously unimpressive, like Hutton. He was alert, relaxed and willing to listen, even to a 25-year-old junior staff captain like me . . . we thought he was tremendous.’ However, not everyone would agree. A long time after the war, when Hutton had become very sensitive to Smyth’s defence over his actions on the Sittang, a friend wrote to Hutton:

I would not worry about J. Smyth. It is quite clear by now that he has a bee about that affair and is determined to bring it into every book he writes, regardless of the subject . . . The truth is that almost up to the 2nd W W he was the blue-eyed boy of the Indian Army. Only to the few was it known that he had become a flaneur, useless professionally, and he’s made a lot of influential enemies who were just waiting for him to trip. His reputation as the I.A. [Indian Army] teacher at Camberley was NIL. Since he firmly believed he was marvellous he never got over the shock of being sacked and it has remained with him like a stomach ulcer ever since. . . . J.S. has long become a bore and only he doesn’t know it.

Smyth had a Victoria Cross and a Military Cross. There are few people, particularly soldiers, who are not, to a greater or lesser extent, in awe of a holder of the VC. The Military Secretary’s department, responsible for honours and awards in the army, has a rough grading of gallantry awards based on the chance of the recipient losing his life in the action. For example, the winner of the Military Medal, sadly no longer awarded, would stand a 60 per cent possibility of death. For a VC, it was 100 per cent—it is not surprising that so many are posthumous.

On 13 April 1941, as a substantive full colonel, Smyth left for India. On arrival, he was given command of a brigade in Quetta. Then the blow struck. He was diagnosed with an anal fissure with the added problem of a bout of malaria. This required hospital treatment, which was not entirely successful, leaving him with a half-healed, recurring problem. On 18 October, he was appointed to command the 18th Indian Division in the rank of acting major general. He realised that in his state of health he could not possibly command in the field, but as the 18th Division had yet to be formed and would then need to be trained for at least six months, he felt confident that by the time it was ready for active service he would be fit himself. He persuaded the senior medical officer of this who, consequently, raised no adverse medical report.

On 4 December, Smyth was ordered to assume command of the 17th Indian Division, which was warned for immediate overseas posting. Glossing over his continuing medical problems, he accepted the appointment with alacrity. It is difficult to imagine him turning it down, citing a pain in his bottom. The division had been speedily trained in mechanised warfare for operations in the Middle East but needed considerably more experience before the soldiers would be fit to take on a first-class enemy. Two of his brigades were promptly sent to Singapore. He was sent to Burma, with his one remaining brigade—the 46th Indian Brigade—to follow.

Smyth, rightly, saw himself as a fighting soldier with experience bar none. Sadly, though, the real problem was his health. No matter how physically strong and mentally robust, a commander, at whatever level, must not have some gnawing pain which, however much he tries to ignore it or play it down, will inevitably affect his judgement. His pain was such that, at times, he had to be given strychnine injections to relieve it. This was not the condition in which to tackle the problems and hardship he was about to face.

Hutton’s directive from Wavell, which he merely handed on to Smyth, was ‘gain time and kill Japs’. In this he was egged on by the governor, Dorman-Smith, who was anxious that any yielding of territory would have a catastrophic effect on Burmese morale. The delay imposed on the Japanese was to allow time to reinforce and prepare Rangoon for the inevitable attack. Rangoon was the key to the Burma Road resupply system and the only effective port into Burma. The Japanese, therefore, were simply to be kept as far away from it as possible. Thus the idea of a forward defence was embedded in Hutton’s mind by Wavell with little real consideration as to how this was to be done apart from unrealistic thoughts of strong defensive positions from which bold counter-strikes could be mounted. In an appreciation on 10 January 1942, Hutton, however, wrote, ‘Even with the foreseeable reinforcements, that is up to the period mid–end March, our operational resources are so limited as to preclude anything except a defensive attitude possibly combined with very local offensives.’

Even without any worthwhile intelligence on the strengths of the Japanese forces facing them (two divisions in fact), the balance of forces to accomplish this weighed heavily against the pathetically half-trained, under-equipped and under-strength British.

Wavell’s grasp of the situation, or rather lack of it, is illustrated by this entry in his official dispatch:

I suddenly received in Java a series of telegrams describing Rangoon in immediate danger and the situation as critical. I did not understand how the threat could be urgent since I knew that General Hutton had been prepared for the possible loss of Mergui and Tavoy [well east of the Salween River], and it did not seem likely that a Japanese force large enough to imperil Rangoon could have appeared without any warning. Telegrams from Burma were arriving with great delay so that I was usually behind a situation that changed rapidly. . . . I did not consider the situation immediately serious, provided that reinforcement of Burma with land and air forces proceeded without delay, and that some naval force was provided to prevent a landing near Rangoon from the Tenasserim coast.

Nevertheless, Smyth’s 17th Division was ordered to hold Moulmein in January 1942; without it, Japanese bombers had the run of airfields to the east, well within reach of Rangoon. In the absence of a full, well-trained division, supported by a regiment of artillery, Smyth knew Moulmein was indefensible. It was in a bad tactical position, on the far side of the river, with no question of any mutual support from Martaban on the other (western) side of the wide estuary. Additionally, his divisional frontage, extending north up the Salween River to Pa-an and Papun, was thinly defended and susceptible to being taken out in small isolated groups and penetrated from the flanks—tactics at which the Japanese were to show themselves uncomfortably adept. Battalions were sometimes as much as 40 miles apart. Due to the abysmal lack of intelligence, the British had simply no idea of which way the Japanese were likely to come, thus had to spread their meagre forces to cover every conceivable approach.

Smyth’s division was a muddle of units. Two of its three brigades had been sent to Malaya, leaving the weak 46th Brigade (commanded by Roger Ekin), which had been categorised as ‘unfit for any form of operations without further training’. It had been earmarked for Iraq, where further training was to take place, and had, of course, no experience of the jungle. Smyth was reinforced by the 2nd Burma Brigade (commanded by Bourke, then Ekin), the 16th Indian Brigade (‘Jonah’ Jones) and the 48th Gurkha Brigade (Noel Hugh-Jones), the latter two having to wait in Rangoon for their transport before they could be sent forward.

There was a serious lack of signals assets and engineers, in addition to the scarcity of gunners. The division even lacked anti-malarial drugs. Mechanised, the units were inevitably tied to the roads and lacked the mules, and expertise, to use the jungle tracks and paths. The division never had time to train as a cohesive force and the commanders did not know each other. There was no reason why the troops should have any mutual trust. The locally raised Burma Rifles battalions were simply not up to determined Japanese assaults. Smyth and his commanders realised this and suggested they be used in a guerrilla role, operating well forward and on the flanks to give early warning of enemy thrust lines. This was vetoed out of hand by Hutton who thought it might betray a lack of confidence in the Burmese.

From the very start Smyth insisted that the only possible defence of Rangoon was from a position on the west bank of the Sittang River. He anticipated he not only would have time to prepare a substantial defensive position on ground of his own choosing but also, by the time of the expected Japanese assault, hoped to have been reinforced by the tanks of the 7th Armoured Brigade, which was expected in Rangoon on 21 February having been diverted en route to Java by Wavell on 6 February. The ground west of the Sittang consisted of dried paddy fields and was therefore much more open than the jungle and, despite the small banks (bunds) between fields, was to the tank commanders liking, giving them decent arcs of fire and room to manoeuvre.

The Japanese Army, on the other hand, consisted of the 33rd and 55th Divisions, the former of 16,000 and the latter of 14,000 men. While they had not fought in the jungle before, they were a battle-hardened and experienced force, having fought together in China and French Indo-China (Vietnam). Sadly for the British, they were probably the most ruthless and efficient forces in the world at the time.

On 23 January 1942, Hutton overruled Smyth’s plan and told him to hold Moulmein at all costs. On the night of 30 January, 8,000 Japanese attacked and overwhelmed the 2nd Burma Brigade, defending Moulmein on the eastern bank of the Salween. The Japanese made light work of these troops and the brigade commander, Ekin, signalled that he could not hold his positions in daylight. He was given permission to withdraw at will, and the scramble for the ferries to get back over the Salween to Martaban ensued. The brigade lost over 600 men and morale, particularly of the Burma Rifles, was severely dented. The collapse had begun.

In a subsequent report, Hutton accepted that the defence of Moulmein required two brigades, and reinforcements, even if available, would find it impossible to get into the perimeter holding the town. Although the initial assault was carried out by a Japanese regiment, its parent division was moving swiftly up behind. ‘In view of these considerations,’ Hutton said, ‘it is quite clear that a decision to hold Moulmein any longer would almost certainly have involved the loss of the garrison and possibly have hastened the fall of Rangoon.’

Wavell was infuriated and, on a visit to the 2nd Burma Brigade on 6 February, told the commanders to take back all they had lost. Hutton, reacting to this exhortation, insisted that Martaban and the line of the Salween River should now be held, despite Smyth’s anxiety to get back to the Bilin River line. No ground was to be given up, ‘however the Division was to be dispersed in depth so as to be able to deal with enemy infiltration’. Wavell reinforced this by demanding that 17th Division defend with mobile and offensive action and vigorously counter-attack enemy incursions.

On 8 February, Smyth warned Hutton of a significant problem: ‘In September I had rather a bad operation for anal fissure and piles which wasn’t too well done. I went back to work too soon and had a go of acute nervous dyspepsia (most unpleasant thing) for which the doctors advised at least a month’s leave. . . . The wound only stopped bleeding 10 days ago and is still discharging.’ On 11 February, the ADMS (senior medical officer) Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie examined him and while agreeing that he was quite fit to carry on, recommended that he should be given two months leave as early as he could be spared. Neither Hutton nor, of course, Wavell, saw these results as Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie was made a prisoner of war by the Japanese just before the Sittang Bridge was blown.