Battle for the Island of Ramree in Burma and Decimation of Hundreds of Imperial Army Troops by the Salt Water Crocodiles
One of the unique battles during the second world war in the eastern theatre is the little known battle of Ramree. This is an island off the coast of Rakhine state in Burma. It's a fairly big island with an area of 1350 km² and has a small town by the same name. The island was the scene of a ferocious battle between the retreating Imperial Army and the British Indian Army.
The island is also famous as the habitat of the saltwater crocodile. This crocodile grows to a gigantic size and is a voracious meat-eater. One peculiarity of the island is the swamps and mangroves close to the sea. These mangroves are the home of the saltwater crocodile. This species is peculiar to the entire East Indies Burma and the Philippines.
The island had been captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in early 1942. This was a few weeks after the fall of Singapore. After capturing Ramree, the imperial army pressed on further and reached the gates of India in Assam.
The tide of battle turned and the British Indian Army made its last-ditch stand at Kohima and Imphal. They succeeded in pushing the imperial army back. It was then slowly pushed out of areas occupied in 1942.
Towards the end of 1944, the Allies decided to capture the island of Ramree. The code name given, for the assault on the island was 'Operation Matador'.The battle for Ramree was fought during January- February 19 45. The Japanese army was on its last legs at that time but it still had the tremendous motivation to continue the fight.
The Japanese had set up a garrison at Ramree.In the Allied plan, it was important to capture Ramree. Field Marshal Slim the commander of the British Indian Army felt that an airstrip on the island would be a great help to transport troops and supplies for throwing the Japanese completely out of Burma. The overall aim is to capture Rangoon and Singapore.
The island of Ramree remained in Japanese hands for 3 years. By December 1944, the British Indian army moved across Burma after lifting the siege of Kohima and Imphal. The advance was led by the26th Indian infantry division, consisting of mostly Sikhs and Jats.
In early January 1945, the Indian 26th division under Major General HM Chambers captured the city of Akyab. It trained its guns on Ramree and commenced the assault on the island on 14 January 1945. Many of the Imperial armies retreated to the island of Ramree and thought it a fit place for defence. It is estimated the Japanese had about 1000 soldiers on the island under command of General Kanichi Nagasawa.
The Japanese holed up inside the many caves on the island. These overlooked the landing beaches. A decision was taken for a frontal attack and landing with a gun barrage from ships of the Royal Navy. The Battleship Queen Elizabeth led the assault with other ships and began an incessant bombardment of the island and the caves.
The Imperial Navy caught in a web of its own making was not visible and the Royal Navy had hardly any opposing fire. The heavy barrage covered the landing of the 71st Indian Infantry Brigade of Sikhs under command of Brigadier RC Cotterell. They landed on the beaches and commenced the assault under a heavy covering gun barrage from the battleship Queen Mary and other warships.
Without any heavy artillery, the Imperial army troops retreated inwards. ˜Despite the overwhelming odds against them they fought tenaciously and refused to surrender. They retreated towards the swamps, unaware that it was infested with the saltwater crocodiles. Even now visitors to the Island are warned to be careful of these reptiles who are among the more ferocious of their species.
The Crocodile Attacks and Notes of Bruce Stanley Wright
Perhaps the gory details of the battle would have remained obscured. We are thankful that the naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright who was along with the Indian army and took meticulous notes. Stanley Wright has noted in his diary that the night of 19 January was terrible for the Japanese troops. They retreated towards the swamps but they hadn't bargained for what was to happen to them.
The Imperial Army troops retreated inwards towards the swamps, thinking they would be safe there. Unfortunately for them, they had not taken into account that the swamps were infested with meat-eating saltwater crocodiles. This was a recipe for a terrible disaster.
I wish the Japanese army had studied the animal life of the island. In case they had they would have learned that the biggest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world reside in the swamps and mangroves of Ramree. The British Indian army had done its homework and was aware of the dangers of the crocodile, so they did not pursue the imperial Army troops into the swamps.
For the retreating Japanese, It was a terrible time. The notes made by Stanley are revealing. He writes that there was intermittent firing all night long and cries of Japanese soldiers were heard throughout the night, as they were attacked by the crocodiles.
We cannot estimate exactly how many Japanese soldiers were eaten by the crocodiles. One can only make a surmise but the Guinness book records it as the single biggest crocodile attack on humans.
There is a possibility that about 500-1000 Imperial army soldiers were eaten up by the crocodiles. Bruce Stanley Wright has a further bit of information. He records that only 20Japanese army soldiers survived and were taken POW. Considering that there were nearly 1000 Imperial army troops, there is a chance that many of them would have become meat for the crocodiles. Bruce by his estimate believes that nearly 1000 Japanese soldiers were eaten by the crocodiles.
These figures may be an exaggeration as Bruce may have sensationalized the entire incident. Also in the heat of battle, one's judgment is likely to go awry. Many historians do not agree with the version given by Bruce.
Despite exaggeration, some facts do point to some veracity of the incident. However, the only authentic source of this information of a crocodile attack is the notes of Wright. There are no soldiers alive who took part in the attack. In any case, 90% of them were illiterate and have died long back. In my assessment, the number of Japanese attacked and eaten maybe about 80-100.
The battle of Ramree will, however, remain a very significant battle in the Burma campaign. If anybody wishes to go as a tourist to the island, he or she would be well-advised, not to enter the swarms or the sea beach as it is infested with crocodiles. The Burmese government has put up notices to this effect all over.
Just for information the saltwater crocodiles can grow up to a length of 20 feet and weighs 2,000 pounds. They could easily kill a full-grown man and are known to devour animals as big as Indian water buffalo.