A Brief History of 44 Royal Marine Commando at The Battle of Hill 170
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Kindly written for RoyalMarinesHistory.com by Lucy Betteridge-Dyson
Following the Battles of Kohima and Imphal in mid 1944, the tide was turning against the Imperial Japanese Army and by Dec 1944 the Allies prepared to launch an offensive to push South through the Arakan region of Burma. The objective was to outflank the retreating Japanese 28th Army, blocking its route through the Arakan Peninsula as it sought to escape via the many small rivers out to the sea. Lt Gen Christison proposed to use 3 Commando Brigade in a series of amphibious landings to spearhead an invasion of the Arakan by sea.
The Commandos would establish a beachhead and advance to Myebon and Kangaw, securing the area for the main force’s arrival. Their first objective, codenamed ‘Operation Talon’ was to secure small island of Akyab which the Japanese had been using as an airbase.
At 0400 hours on the 3rd January 1945, Captain Edwin (Ted) Syms was with the other men of 44 Commando sailing down the Arakan coast to carry out a major assault on what intelligence had led them to believe would be the heavily defended coast of Akyab. When the motor launch alongside them announced that the Japanese had actually already left Akyab, the news was met with an almost ‘suburban lack of emotion’. Dropping anchor at 0945, the troops embarked into LCAs and landed on the beach at the Northern end of the island before marching to the small village of Doneyin. Ted and the other men of 44 Cdo spent some time patrolling the local area and exploring the abandoned Japanese defences at Fakir Point. There, they received orders to prepare for the journey out to the Baronas, three small jungle covered islands to the South East of Akyab. Not knowing what they would face, the patrols were cautiously welcomed by the local villagers who had nothing to report about the Japanese but were deeply fearful of retribution. Returning to Akyab, 44 awaited the order to move out to their second objective: Myebon, and the beginning of ‘Operation Passport’ which would be a stark contrast to their experience on Akyab.
30 miles South East of Akyab lays the narrow and extremely hilly Myebon Peninsula. Sandwiched between the Kyatsin and Myebon rivers the peninsula is densely covered with jungle and bamboo, but capturing it was essential to Lt Gen Christison's plan. The Allies needed to gain control of the main waterways, including the Daignbon Chaung, to deny the Japanese their escape route out to the sea. In addition, Myebon would provide a foothold on the Arakan in order to launch an attack on the key village of Kangaw. 3 Cde Bde were again to spearhead an amphibious assault at the tip of the peninsula to secure Myebon village and its jetty. D-Day was set for 12th January and would follow a naval and air bombardment, with squadrons from 224 Group RAF strafing the landing areas as 44 Cdo finished their breakfasts on board minesweepers just outside of Hunters Bay.
Timing was essential as the beaches where the Cdos were due to land were covered in thick mud and black sand, which would make landing almost impossible at low tide. In addition, the shoreline was covered with bamboo stakes, strong enough to withstand the bow door of LCMs. Charges had been laid the previous evening by No.1 COPP and were detonated with perfect timing to destroy at least some of these defences just ahead of H-Hour
when the first wave of men from 42 Cdo went ashore. The Japanese had been taken by surprise (one soldier was found to have committed ritual suicide harikari in a forward trench). Though the beach was mined and several men from 42 were wounded, they managed to secure a beachhead for the 5 Cdo to land. Unfortunately for Ted and the other men of 44 and 1 Cdo, the landing of the 2nd wave would not go as smoothly.
After a 3 hour wait, a signalling mistake amid the chaos of battle meant that rather than landing on adjacent beach, they followed the same course as the first wave, with the LCMs hitting the exposed and muddy beach at low tide, some 400 yards out. Ted stepped into the thick, glutinous Myebon mud and as another Marine was later heard to remark "lf Pharaoh could have seen us he would sure think his Red Sea landing was mighty cushy." The waist high mud was a deep and sticky quicksand, making it impossible to keep kit dry and near impossible to move forward in, even depriving men of their boots and socks. Some men struggled to stand, all struggled to move, some resorted to forming scrums to fight their way through the slimy morass. Mortars and brens went under, again and again, and by the time the men finally reached dry land, there was nothing that had not been consumed by the mud. The last man ashore was a subaltern who was plastered in mud and completely naked. The perseverance and fitness of the Commandos had prevented an awful landing from becoming a fatal one, as exhausted, they set about cleaning up and securing the beach.
During the night of the 12th Jan, 44 Cdo listened as 1 Cdo fought to capture the feature known as TIGER and 5 Cdo prepared to take ROSE. 44 had discovered a number of Japanese stores, but were soon told to avoid touching anything, particularly anything labelled 'Strawberry Jam' which was likely to be booby trapped. At 1000 hours on the 13th, 44 moved out towards Myebon village with a company of mules (carrying an additional section of 3-inch mortars) to support 42 Cdo as they attacked a hill codenamed CABBAGE. Meanwhile, the tanks of A Squadron, 19th Indian Lancers were now ashore and had joined 5 Cdo to attack ROSE following an air and naval bombardment. The area was taken with no prisoners, the Japanese instead preferring to fight to the death. With the area clear, and Myebon village secured the marines boxed in and spent a cold and unpleasant night near the Myebon River. Those of 44 who had managed to sleep were awoken by fire from a Japanese 75mm from the other side of the river alerted to 44's position by the noise of their braying mules. Fortunately, the rounds fell short and no one was wounded and 44 moved off to join 1 Cdo on the hill codenamed ONION. Rations were low and so foraging for food became a priority as 44 moved forward to prepare for the objectives for the following day. The Commandos had severed the water way escape routes, now it was time to push further north where Japanese resistance would dramatically increase.
From the 14th-18th January, the Commandos continued to push north up the Myebon Peninsula. The advance took them through thick jungle tracks and mangrove swamps, with the ever-present threat of Japanese snipers. They were known to hide among the trees, tying themselves to the branches and trunks so if killed, their bodies would remain hidden ensuring any attacker would be left uncertain of their aim. Paddy fields were set ablaze & 1 Cdo pushed up towards the objective, Kantha - successfully clearing Hill 200 amid heavy resistance. 44 passed through to clear Hill 163, by which point the Japanese had begun to retreat to their strong-holds further north. But this was a war fought on 3 fronts - the Marines faced not only the Japanese but the torturous landscape and climate in addition to disease. Malaria and Dengue fever were particularly prevalent, Ted suffering from both on multiple occasions. 5 and 42 Cdo passed through 44’s line to the outskirts of Kantha village, and with the assistance of 3 Troop RM Engineer Cdo & 93rd Field Company R.E, the Kantha Chaung was bridged under heavy shelling. In the days that followed the Cdos discovered abandoned bunkers and stores providing intelligence that would later prove vital. By the 20th January, 3 Cdo Bde had secured the Myebon Peninsula and prepared to spearhead the next assault. Ted and the men of 44 were told this would be another amphibious assault, but not from the sea… instead they would sail up the murky Daingbon Chaung from where they would launch their attack to capture Kangaw.
The 5,000 strong Japanese force in the Arakan had been retreating to the South in the face of advancing Allied pressure from the North. With the capture of the Myebon Peninsula, their escape route to the sea had been severed. This left them with only one option - to take the Myohaung-Tamandu road through the village of Kangaw. It was here that Lt Gen Christison planned to cut their last remaining escape route, but the Japanese were not willing to let this happen without a fight. Defences around the road at Kangaw were fierce. Artillery in the hills to the North and East meant that any attempt to attack the area from the main Allied force would be extremely difficult. It was left to 25 Indian Division & 3 Cdo Bde to launch a surprise assault, and quickly, before Japanese reinforcements arrived. 3 Cdo Bde would spearhead the attack, travelling up the Daingbon Chuang, landing among the muddy, twisted mangrove swamps with the objective of clearing 3 heavily defended hills codenamed: Pinner, Milford and Brighton - the infamous Hill 170. The posthumous Victoria Cross, two Military Crosses, two DCM's and several MC's and MM's that 3 Cdo Bde would earn would be testament to the fact that the Battle of Hill 170 would be the bloodiest and fiercest fought in the Arakan.
On the 22nd January a 50 vessel convoy headed up the Daingbon Chaung, towards a spot on the East bank codenamed 'Thames'. The Daingbon was one chaung among many that criss-crossed the swampy landscape, it was not an easy place to land but at 1245 hours 1 Cdo led the assault under enemy shelling, wading through the tangle of submerged mangrove roots. The landscape afforded them nowhere to 'dig in' so an immediate and aggressive
attack on Hill 170 was the only option. Ted advanced with 44 at 1500 consolidating on the southern side of 170 that had been cleared by 1 Cdo at the cost of 3 dead and 9 wounded. That night 3 Troops of 44 moved off, crossing 400 yards of paddy to capture Milford, unopposed. But at 170, the Japanese launched a fierce probing attack on the Brigade, quietly advancing to the trenches before an officer drew his sword to signal a charge and the enemy party ran at the Commandos' position full pace, howling as they did so. Twice this happened and twice 3 Cdo Bde repulsed the attack, with 2 further fatalities. The night was long, the Commandos 'boxed in', in an attempt to avoid encirclement tactics used by the Japanese.
Shortly after day-break on 23rd January, C Tp advanced to the next objective, a steep jungle covered hill known as 'Pinner', close to the Kangaw Road. They reported no enemy present, so the remainder of 44 Cdo followed shortly after. Unbeknownst to them, the afternoon of the 23rd would be the calm before the storm. The objective was within sight, and the Commandos believed their speed had knocked the Japanese for six, especially when they discovered 2 carefully concealed artillery positions dug into the steep banking which had seemingly been hastily abandoned. From their positions, the Marines looked across to Kangaw and for the first time could see the heights at which the Japanese defences guarded the road. The scene was lifeless but for the jungle surrounding them. Then, at 2000 hours beneath the bright moonlight, enemy artillery ranged in on Pinner, and mortar opened up on 44's northern flank. The Japanese had been carefully following 3 Cdo Bde's movements and far from surprised were well aware of their positions. 3 men from 44 were wounded then the silence returned, but in the paddy fields below the Commandos could hear the braying of mules as the Japanese advanced from the Kangaw Road. Ted and the others could see nothing, the thick foliage obscuring their view but soon could hear commands given in Japanese. A red verey light shot up suddenly and then all hell broke loose, as the Japanese launched a vicious counter-attack. Machine gun fire swept the forward trenches and artillery from the paddy field blasted the Marines at point blank range. The noise was deafening and soon the area was thick with smoke. The first infantry attack hit quickly, the Japanese frantically advancing through their own shelling. As trees splintered, Marines guarding the forward slope were killed by an enemy who knew the terrain well, even in the darkness. Amid the chaos, the Japanese were also quietly advancing on 3 Cdo Bde's flanks. But this was no surprise, and, silently the Commandos waited at the ready, until the cries went out and the Japanese attacked. The Commandos opened fire and there was fierce hand to hand fighting before the attack was repelled, only to be repeated relentlessly throughout the night. In between attacks the Japanese would call out in English 'Johnny, I'm wounded, help' as they had done before, only to pull a pin on a grenade. But 3 Cdo Bde were wise to this, and their discipline apparent the Japanese changed tactics and attempted instead to infiltrate the Marine's position with small parties. In spite of 80 casualties and more hand to hand fighting they failed to do so. The only intruder was a porcupine who staggered into a trench alongside the RSM, promptly expelling all his quills before leaving. After one last attack, a voice called out 'We'll be back in the morning' at 0300 on the 24th, silence returned.
After a service to bury the 20 members of the Commando killed the previous night, 44 returned to Hill 170 and with the rest of 3 Cdo Bde planned the defence of the area for the counter attack that was sure to come. The Japanese had Hill 170 under a constant bombardment, increasing day by day until at 0600 on 31st January it reached ferocious intensity and they threw themselves at 1 and 42 Cdo. The sheer numbers of men involved in the assault caused chaos, during which Lt George Arthur Knowland was awarded a
posthumous Victoria Cross, his citation reads: 'He moved about for trench to trench distributing ammunition and firing his rifle and throwing grenades at the enemy often from completely exposed positions.. snatching up the Tommy gun of a casualty, he sprayed the enemy and was mortally wounded stemming this assault, thought not before he had killed and wounded many of the enemy'. Knowland's actions inspired the men to cling to their positions on the hill. By mid-morning ammunition was running low but 3 Cdo Bde stood firm in the face of relentless waves of enemy troops. Under the devastating fire of the Cdos supported by mortar fire from the 51st Indians, the Japanese continued to attack and their dead continued to mount. As the moon rose they finally withdrew, the extent of their losses
would only become apparent in the day light when the Commandos would discover the bodies of some 350 Japanese soldiers. 45 men of 3 Cdo Bde had been killed, many from 1 Cdo. In the 12-day battle for Kangaw 27 men of 44 Cdo were killed and a further 60 wounded, Ted among them, deafened as a shell landed next to him, killing his CO. His loss of hearing would see him medically discharged from the Royal Marines in 1948, much to his disappointment.
On the 1st February, the RSM and 2 Marines placed crosses on the graves of those who were lost at Pinner and Hill 170. Lord Mountbatten cited the operation to capture Kangaw as an outstanding example of inter-service co-operation, heaping praise of 3 Cdo Bde’s defence of 170. The Japanese had lost 2000 men compared to Allied casualties of 600 and though the battle has not received the same level of attention as Imphal or Kohima, it was one of the fiercest and most successful fought in Burma.