29 January 1942. Victoria Point, Burma.
14th/20th King's Hussars were in the third phase of mechanisation of the Cavalry Regiments, meaning they had had their final exercise as a mounted unit in Secunderabad in 1938. Like all the other Cavalry Regiments the transition was a mixed experience. As one of the few British Cavalry Regiments in India the process was slower than for most.
The first three Light Tanks had arrived in 1939 just after the start of the war, and it was only when the 17/21 Lancers were recalled back to Britain that the Hussars got their eclectic mix of Mark II and VI Light tanks, Carden-Loyd Carriers and a selection of various wheeled vehicles.
Once they had been mobilised in May 1941 they had been at the forefront of enabling the Indian Cavalry Regiments from 3rd Calvary Brigade (4th Duke of Cambridge's Own Hodson's Horse and 13th Duke of Connaught's Own Lancers) to catch up with them in mechanised warfare knowledge and training in the new 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade. Eventually the three Regiments went to Iraq and Iran where they took on more cast off tanks from other British units. The 14th/20th Hussars had come off best as they had received the M3 Stuart tanks previously owned by the Household Cavalry Regiment.
Having no sooner disembarked at Rangoon the Regiment had been chosen to support the offensive to retake the Tavoy and Victoria Point airfields on the southern tip of Burma. Two of the Landing Craft Tank(1) that had carried the tanks from Basra all the way to Rangoon would now be part of a mini-invasion force. In addition to the three LCTs each carrying 6 Stuart tanks, HMS Glengyle and Queen Emma also carried 3 Landing Craft Mechanised each which carried one Stuart tank. After a series of exercises to see if the Hussars could master the art of driving off a Landing Craft onto to a beach to support the infantry, which they did after a fashion, they had set sail.
The six crews on board the two Landing Ship Infantry had much easier ride than the twelve on the LCTs. HMS Queen Emma with LCT 106 would land in the vicinity of Tavoy, while HMS Glengyle carried on to Victoria Point in the company of LCT 107. HMS Prince of Wales, two cruisers and four destroyers also split between the two destinations to provide naval gunfire support and protection from enemy action. Aerial cover was provided at Tavoy by Tomahawks and the more distant Point Victoria by Beaufighters.
The operation to recapture Tavoy also included an overland movement from Moulmein, in which the rest of the Hussars, along with elements of 28th East African Brigade had set off a few days previously. Guided by Tulip Force their arrival was set to coincide that of the seaborne element, to approach the objective from two directions, hopefully surprising and overwhelming what seemed from reconnaissance to be a small garrison of Japanese and Thai troops.
Victoria Point, being almost 300 miles further south, was a different kettle of fish. A small band from Tulip Force had infiltrated the area and reported that the airfield was both abandoned and undefended. The commanding officer of the 1/4th Bombay Grenadiers Battalion sailing on HMS Glengyle was less than trusting of this information and had prepared his men, with the two troops of the Hussars’ tanks, to expect a fight when they arrived at their destination.
The Grenadiers, like the Hussars, had taken part in the dress rehearsal exercises, their first taste of amphibious warfare. The last exercise had gone well enough that it got the green light to proceed. A small cadre of Commandoes thought that, unless they faced a dug-in and determined enemy on the beach, they would do fine. The importance of preparing the beach for the landings would fall on the Royal Navy ships, the 14-inch guns of the battleship had impressed the Grenadiers no end when they had watched as the guns had been exercised on the way.
The Hussars and Grenadiers had gotten used to working together in Iraq, and while the officers were happy to converse in English, some of more junior tank commanders worried about communications between themselves and the junior officers and NCOs of the men from Bombay. Many of the Other Ranks in the Hussars hailed from Lancashire and while they’d been in India since before the war, they reckoned there was enough joint training to get by.
Just before dawn two seaplanes from the Cruiser and Battleship and taken off to provide gunfire corrections. As soon as there was enough light to correct shot, the ten 14-inch guns spoke together after an initial ranging round had been fired. The Grenadiers and Hussars didn’t have the leisure to watch. They were too busy climbing down into the LCMs and LCAs and getting themselves ready for a beach assault. The 6-inch gun and 4-inch guns of the cruiser and destroyers joined in the bombardment, along with the 5.5-inch guns of the battleship’s secondary armament.
Under the cover this shore bombardment, the LCAs and LCMs lined up on the beach chosen for this assault. There were unexpected problems with the surf as they closed with the beach and one of the LCAs was capsized causing the only casualties of the day. Once the initial wave of two Companies and the three tanks managed to clear the beach, they began heading for the airfield as planned. HMS Glengyle carried 24 LCAs, each capable of carrying a platoon of troops. The problem was the crew of HMS Glengyle had to swing out on luffing davits the deck stored LCAs after those carried on the gravity davits had launched. The Commanding officer had wanted his Battalion to attack in a single wave, but had been advised that it would be best to have the first wave clear the beach if possible, as the LCMs would need to return to the ship to load up the motor transport, especially the carriers, that would need to carry forward ammunition and supplies.
By mid-afternoon all the tanks and men were ashore and finding that Tulip Force’s intelligence had been mostly correct. There was a platoon of Thai soldiers in the vicinity of the airfield who surrendered immediately on sighting the lead tank and the Indian troops following. The violence of the Naval gunnery had been more than enough to convince the Thais that there was nothing hereabouts worth dying for.
Two the Bombay Grenadiers Companies, with a troop of three tanks moved forward from the airfield to secure the town and wharves that would be needed to bring in supplies. Once more a small detachment of Thai soldiers were quick to surrender, but there were questions over the allegiance of the Burmese Police, who were taken into custody until that question could be answered satisfactorily. The final contingent off HMS Glengyle was a team of Engineers and RAF men who were tasked with examining the airfield and set about the task of getting it operational as quickly as possible.
In the late afternoon the first Japanese presence was noted when an aircraft was sighted. It had long enough to report what it had seen, by this time HMS Prince of Wales, the cruiser and one of the destroyers had withdrawn well over the horizon. HMS Glengyle and the other destroyer would have been the only ships noted. The expectation was that if the Japanese would try to bomb the ships it would mostly likely happen the next morning. Whether the RAF’s Beaufighters would be there to cover them was unclear, so the senior naval officer ordered the ships to set out to sea, with the problem of sailing with much of the Grenadiers stores and equipment still waiting to be unloaded.
The Indian troops had carried the usual basic pack with them and so would probably be fine for about 24 hours, unless they got into a serious fight. The Navy promised that they would be back the next day. There were plenty of Indian and Chinese people who were more than happy to welcome their liberators, though among some of the Burmans there was less of a feeling of being liberated. The Thai troops, on being treated well as POWs, were more than happy to provide the intelligence officers with details of the surrounding area. On asking about Thailand itself, they were less inclined to provide information.
The airfield had been put out of action before it was abandoned. The runway was cratered, all the buildings and stores had been burnt. For the RAF men who examined it, they believed that with enough men and equipment, it would be safe for landing in about a week, but they would need a ship with stores to arrive to get it back in operation, even just as a brief stopover for aircraft ferrying from Rangoon to Singapore.