Special Service of a Hazardous Nature
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After the failed campaign in Malaya, the threat to Burma was becoming increasingly grave. At the British base in Colombo, Royal Marine volunteers were required for Special Service of a Hazardous Nature?
The voluntry response was immediate; a party of four officers and 102 other ranks was selected, and commanded by Major D. Johnston RM, with Captain H. Alexander RM as second-in-command and Surgeon-Lieutenant A.J. Innes, R.N.V.R., accompanying the
Force as medical officer. It was known as Force Viper and left Colombo in H.M.S. Enterprise on 8th February 1942, for an unknown port.
Once at sea the Force learnt that its destination was Rangoon, where it disembarked on the 11th. The City had a derelict appearance. There were hardly any people in the streets and piles of garbage were everywhere. The British had lost Moulmeim and their troops were falling back towards the sittang river.
It was thus no longer possible for "Force Viper" to perform the role for which they had been formed-to patrol the east coast of the Gulf of Martaban in small craft in order to prevent the Japanese from getting behind the British troops. Major Johnston
was ordered to form a flotilla for other duties.
Acquisitioning of suitable boats
He acquired a 35-foot diesel motor-boat, the Alguada, and began boat-training on the Rangoon river. Lieutenant W.G.S. Henman, of the Burma R.N.V.R., was attached to the Force. He was an experienced yachtsman and a qualified engineer, spoke Hindustani
and Burmese, and his knowledge of local conditions was to stand the Force in good stead.
When Major Johnston explained the difficulty of obtaining boats for training purposes, Henman, disappeared for a few days and returned with four Government touring launches-the Doris, Rita, Stella and the Delta-and the diesel motor-boats Ngazin and Ngagyi, of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.
The launches were prepared for action
Each launch was fitted with a Vickers machine-gun, an Aldis signalling lamp and a wireless telegraphy set. Bren guns and mortars were added as they were acquired. These launches formed the nucleus of the flotilla throughout the campaign.
Lieutenant Henman then took over the training of the boats' crews, when he could be spared from other duties, which included close defence of the oil refineries at Syriam, three miles from Rangoon, and since all of the police forces in the area had been
withdrawn, the Marines were given the task of maintaining law and order in the town.
"In the racing tides of the Rangoon river this boat training was a tiring and, at times, a hair-raising job," wrote Major Johnston in his official report, "but the Marines were intelligent and keen to learn, so that within a fortnight we were able to start river patrol work with reasonable efficiency and an unimpaired fleet."
It was no longer if, but when, Rangoon would be evacuated. A party was left behind to assist the demolition of the oil refineries. The Force was divided into three platoons, each taking one launch, with a motor-boat attached. The Delta was used as a store-ship and carried the demolition party.
The motor-boats were manned entirely by Marines; the launches still had their Chittagonian crews, who remained loyal throughout the campaign. Force Viper had been given special permission to sail under the White Ensign.
The military evacuation of Rangoon began, the demolition of the refineries and the docks took place. Soon the sky was filled with immense pillars of black smoke. In one refinery more than 20,000,000 gallons of aviation fuel were destroyed. The
flotilla covered the embarkation of the demolition parties, then made its way through the Twanti Canal and the China Bakir into the Irrawaddy.
Commondeered any boat they required
The Marines destroyed, or took in tow, all the power-boats they passed, and set on fire a large dredger and any other boat that was surplus to requirements. "we steamed by day only," wrote Major Johnston. "Our routine was semi-naval. Reveille at 06:00.
Scrub decks till 06:45, by which time it was light enough to see the buoys, then we got underway."
"Then breakfast, and quarters to clean guns. Lookouts were on watch at all times. We went ashore at the towns to buy local produce and get what information we could. We had been lucky enough to procure 50 crates of beer before leaving Rangoon. Grog was issued after anchoring each night."
The flotilla reached Prome, after a peaceful passage and was attached to the Seventeenth Division, which was in combat with the enemy in the north of Tharrawaddy. Major Johnston's orders were to protect the Division's right flank by preventing the
Japanese from coming up the river behind them and crossing from west to east.
The store-ship was now replaced by the Cynthia, a 110-foot steam launch, the Ngazin and the Nagagyi by another diesel boat, the Snipe, and two armoured kerosene motor-boats, the Xylia and the Delta Guard 9.
The first task of the flotilla Was to assist Burma Commando II in carrying out demolition at Henzada, some miles below Prome. The Royal Marine demolition party was attached to the Commando, with the Rita as an escort to the hastngs, an Irrawaddy Flotilla double-decker. At Henzada, the hastings secured to the bank and the Rita lay off close to her. A small party from the Commando and Force Viper went ashore to reconnoitre.
The call to surrender was ignored
When they had advanced 200 yards towards the village a Burmese called upon them to surrender, saying they were covered by Japanese machine-guns. They stopped, alert and ready for action, the Japanese started appearing in large numbers. The party all
opened fire simultaneously, taking the Japanese by surprise at the way they suddenly burst into action.
On hearing the fire the "Rita" Who was in mid-stream opened up on the Japanese, she immediately drew most of the enemy's fire, which she returned vigorously with her Vickers and five Brens, the gunners getting right in amongst the enemy. The party
did a tactical retreat firing as they moved.
Mortar bombs began to fall around the ships, the Hastings pulled out from the bank, but went in twice to pick up the shore party. Mr Rea, the Master of the Hastings, handled his ship from exposed position for'ard with great coolness, and throughout
the action the Chittagonian Serangs remained at the wheel unperturbed.
Once the shore party was re-embarked both vessels made off up stream without being hit by the mortars. The Rita was hit repeatedly by rifle-fire, however, the Japanese bullets had poor penetrating power. however, one Marine and two men from the Commando had been lost, and two men on the Rita were slightly wounded. Later information disclosed that the enemy lost over 100 killed and they had a larger number wounded.
The Marines were learning the river. At first the motor-boats had been like a pack of unruly hounds, dashing off to chase anything on the river. Now great caution was needed, for the river was falling into enemy hands, the situation was becoming
A desperate battle ensued at Padaung
Lieutenant-Colonel Musgrove now took over both the Commando and Force Viper. On 27th March, when the Division was heavily engaged at Shwedaung on the east bank, the Commando received orders to hold Padaung on the west bank and to prevent the enemy
from crossing the river. Two platoons and a Vickers section from Force Viper were landed. The flotilla remained inshore with skeleton crews. All was quiet on the Padaung side, although the sound of battle could be heard on the east bank.
The villagers appeared friendly, selling the party ashore bread and fowls to augment their supper. but the Burmians had concealed the Japanese in their houses, and shortly after midnight the enemy emerged. And another desperate battle ensued Major Johnston described it thus.
"At 00:30 there was a burst of Tommy gun fire in the compound below us. The Colonel, Fayle and I dashed down to see what was happening. There was bright moonlight and the compound was quiet enough except for a subdued scuffling going on outside. I went out onto the road and saw some figures quietly crossing the road to the compound further down."
"Ten yards from me a figure was kneeling on the road, and another lying on the edge of it. I had a good look at him and decided that he was a Jap. I fired a revolver shot at him, but missed. I quickly jumped behind the latrine. Meanwhile, the far
corner of the compound nearest the river was filling with Japanese troops."
The Reserves were gathered
Colonel and I got all the reserve Platoon that we could see and sprinted 50 yards down the road to where it crossed a dry gully. As we went, there was a yell from the Japs, Tommy guns, automatic weapons and rifles opened fire. I had lost Fayle.
We took up positions along the gully and fired back into the compound, which was seething with troops."
"After a little while we were fired on from behind as well as in front, the air was thick with bullets. Our Ammunition begun to run out. One Bren gun had none left, another only had one magazine. There was no hope of contacting Cave's platoon in
the melee and the Colonel decided that we should beat it."
"We made our way back delicately, expecting to meet parties of Japs, but there was no further excitement, we reached the ships by 04:30. By 08:30 the whole of No. 2 platoon had returned-they had not had a single casualty."
Lieutenant D.R. Fayle, who was in Command of this platoon, was the last to return. During the attack he had found himself with a corporal and one Marine. They opened fire on the Japanese at short range. The Japanese tried to rush them, but without
success. Then a Japanese officer called upon them to lay down their arms. He was immediately shot.
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The Japanese were restlessly eager for control
Again the Japanese tried to overwhelm the little party, who continued to fire as targets presented themselves until they ran short of ammunition. Then they escaped unnoticed to the river bank, embarked in a canoe, and began to paddle upstream. The
canoe sank under them. They regained the bank and made their way back to the flotilla on foot.
The Force lost 35 of its number that night, including Lieutenant P. Cave and the Vickers section. With the exception of the Delta Guard 9, however, the flotilla kept intact by means of reduced complements.
On 4th April, at Allanmyo, the Force was attached to Burdiv, which had taken over from the Seventeenth Division. It consisted of the 1st and 13th Brigades on the east side of the river and the 2nd Brigade on the west. The flotilla continued its work,
patrolling the river while Burdiv withdrew to the north, destroying boats and cutting teak rafts adrift, fighting small but exciting actions with the enemy on the banks, blowing up petrol barges, making contact with lost troops and, later, picking up refugees, and staff and patients from a casualty clearing station.
Sometimes the vessels were fired upon from the shore other times they were machine-gunned from the air. The Japanese broadcast a threat that if any of the Marines were captured they would be roasted alive and cut into small pieces.
That was the measure of Force Vipers success.
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Special Service Brigades
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