The Second World War's 'Bravest' Battle - won by Norfolk and Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 17:51 31 January 2020 | UPDATED: 17:51 31 January 2020
Seventy-five years ago, a small band of commandos sprinkled with East Anglians fought and won one of the bravest battles of the Second World War. Steve Snelling recounts a triumph against the odds which was crowned by the last-ever Victoria Cross awarded to a member of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
They are, by any reckoning, unusual keepsakes. A few tufts of green cloth and a potentially lethal army dagger. Tucked away in a drawer in Sue Doherty's front room, they represent something special, something deeply personal as precious and proud mementoes of her father's charmed and courageous career as a commando.
The scraps of yarn are all that remain of Arthur Chapman's coveted green beret, tangible reminders of the former Suffolk farm worker's valiant service in one of the British army's elite and most exclusive of all wartime units.
"It was a very important part of his life," says Sue at her home in Beccles. "It meant a lot to him. It helped shape him."
Still in his teens when war broke out, Arthur, a pre-war territorial in the Suffolk Regiment, had answered Winston Churchill's call for volunteers for a new force prepared to wage 'irregular' warfare in the form of audaciously mounted raids designed to deliver short, sharp shocks to a German army that had conquered most of Western Europe.
He was an ideal candidate. Blessed with the fitness and the physique of a heavyweight boxer, Arthur knew all about hard graft from his days labouring on the land at Henstead near Kessingland.
"He was very tough," recalls Sue. "Tough all his life and, like all of them, he had to be to survive the commando training regime. It involved mountaineering, hand-to-hand combat and exercises in which live bullets were used. There was none of this pretend stuff."
Two years of gruelling preparation was followed by the real thing, first in North Africa against Germans and Italians and then in Burma against the Japanese.
In operations as arduous as they were hazardous, he enjoyed remarkable good fortune - once seeing a bullet ricochet off a metal-backed mirror carried in his breast pocket and another time coming within an ace of destruction as a bomb targeting his troopship was deflected narrowly wide - while displaying a fighter's resource and resolution.
But never was his luck or determination tested more than 75 years ago during the defence of a Burmese hilltop which would be remembered as one of the commandos' finest hours and which was climaxed by an act of almost suicidal valour recognised by the last-ever award of a Victoria Cross to a member of the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
Their triumph hinged on the desperate defiance displayed by a small band of men who battled odds of almost 10 to one to beat off a succession of frenzied attacks.
In the forefront of the epic struggle waged at Kangaw on the last day of January 1945 were fewer than 50 men belonging to two sections of 4 Troop, No 1 Commando.
Prominent among their longest-serving ranks were a coterie of East Anglians. They included Sergeants Arthur 'Happy' Jackson, from the Norfolk Fens, and Jack Salter, from Attleborough, 'Ginger' Boyce from Ely and a close-knit group of volunteers from the Suffolk Regiment - 'Mac' Thompson, Frank Hyde, Billy Ling and Arthur Chapman, who by then was a corporal.
Commanding one of the sections was Lieutenant George Knowland, who, by a happy coincidence, was a former recruit from the Royal Norfolk Regiment.
Knowland was newly commissioned, newly married and new to No 1 Commando. Transferred to the unit in mid-January as a replacement for an officer wounded during the preliminary fighting in the swamp-infested Myebon peninsula, he was still something of an unknown quantity to his men by the time they clambered aboard landing craft for the amphibious advance on Kangaw.
Their objective was to secure a bridgehead deep inside enemy territory and establish a 'road block' across the Japanese army's line of retreat south through the Arakan.
It was an audacious plan that was bound to provoke a violent reaction on ground that was miserable even by the squalid standards of the Burma campaign.
Aubrey Buxton, the distinguished naturalist and creator of the Anglia TV Survival series who was then an artillery officer in support of the commandos, thought it devoid of a single commendable feature.
"From the water," he wrote, "you flounder through a stinking belt of mangrove. From there you must squelch your way without any chance of concealment across a brackish swamp a mile wide before you reach Hill 170..."
Code-named 'Brighton', this 700-yard long sausage-shaped eminence, one of a straggling line of hills that rose up from the mushy paddy fields, was the area's key strategic feature. Whoever held it controlled the bridgehead and the road south.
Captured and consolidated by No 1 Commando early on, it soon became clear that the northern tip, pointing straight towards two Japanese-occupied heights, was the most vulnerable and dangerous sector on the hill.
Separated by a narrow 'saddle' from the main commando position, it was exposed to machine-gun and sniper fire as well as being a target for the worst of the shelling that was a feature of daily life in the beachhead. And it was to this unhealthy spot that the men of 4 Troop were assigned on the morning of January 23 with Knowland's section occupying the most advanced position above the forward slopes.
Over the course of the next eight days, his 24 men hunkered down amid a tangle of bushes and tree roots. A series of two and three-man slit trenches formed a 'box' defence around the edge of the northern plateau and, in the face of the enemy's ritualistic early morning and sun-down bombardments, the commandos quickly learned "to dig deep, to dig fast, and to stay down".
"The shelling was nasty and scary," recalled 'Mac' Thompson. "They knew where we were and they had the position pinpointed. The deeper you dug the better off you were, but there wasn't much you could do about it apart from hope a shell didn't land on your hole."
Some men took the added precaution of covering their trenches with logs while the slopes were laced with an intricate web of trip wires and signal ropes. Looking back some 50 years later, Arthur Chapman remembered: "There was hardly any verbal communication at all, especially during any shelling. Orders came via the rope, two tugs for 'stand-to' and one tug for 'stand down'."
Given the prolonged nature of the shelling, casualties were remarkably light - No 1 Commando suffered only five men killed or wounded in a week of bombardments. Thankfully for the men of 4 Troop, a number of the shells proved to be 'duds' and, of the others, many passed over their heads to hit the main part of the hill, but even so the daily 'stonks' still took a toll of men's nerves.
"It wasn't only the shelling that was bad," said Private Frank Hyde. "They also had a medium machine-gun position which they fired across at us and then, at night, they'd try and rattle us with noise and shouts. It was all done to frighten you into shooting back and giving away your position. Day after day of that was enough to make you a bundle of nerves."
In the midst of it all, Knowland tried to better acquaint himself with the men under his command. Despite the enemy fire, he paid regular visits to his outlying posts, ensuring everyone was on the alert and weapons were primed and ready for action.
'Happy' Jackson, who was in a slit trench just in front of his section officer's post, recalled: "We never really had long enough to get to know him, nor him us, but in the short time we had with him he made a good impression."
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All being well, it seemed he would soon have a chance to get to know them a good deal better. Word was that they were to be relieved and withdrawn to a safer spot on February 1. Tragically for Knowland and all too many of his men, it would prove a day too late.
Just hours before the switch was to have taken place, the calm that followed the usual early morning bombardment on January 31 was shattered by a loud explosion from the west at the foot of 4 Troop's position.
In a furious attack that signalled the beginning of an all-out assault, a Japanese suicide squad had crept unseen into a vehicle park, destroying two trucks and a tank and setting fire to another.
As smoke and flames rose above the hill, long lines of enemy troops were spotted advancing across the paddy fields. They were making straight for the wooded lower slopes occupied by Knowland's section.
It wasn't long before they were near enough for the commandos to hear them. "They made no attempt to creep up on us," recalled 'Happy' Jackson. "You could hear them muttering away almost from the other side of the river."
The commandos held their fire until the first wave burst from cover. Yelling like banshees, they scrambled up to be blown away by a hail of fire from a range of barely 10 yards. "They came in droves," said Jackson. "You couldn't see them until they were almost on you and they kept on coming, all the time making a heck of a noise."
There was nothing subtle about the Japanese tactics. No attempts were made at diversionary or probing attacks to confuse or test the opposition. They relied simply on fanatical courage and sheer weight of numbers to swamp the defence. As quickly as one bull-headed charge was beaten back another was launched. The commandos lost count of the number of attacks. "It was mad," said Frank Hyde. "No matter how many you killed, they just wouldn't stop."
Assailed by a storm of fire and showers of grenades, Knowland's section soon began to take casualties. One man was sniped, another temporarily paralysed and then a burst of fire peppered the slit trench manned by an artillery observation officer, fatally wounding him and injuring his assistant.
Others enjoyed incredible escapes. Peering out from one of the most advanced posts, Frank Hyde had a bullet go straight through his beret without touching him, while further back Arthur Chapman was left counting his lucky stars.
As a call went out for reinforcements to replace the growing number of casualties, he started forward only to have his place taken by a young Scot. "He pleaded with me to let him go instead as one of his mates was down there with Knowland," recalled Arthur. "He went and I stayed and the next thing I knew was that he'd been bayoneted and killed."
By then, the northern tip of the hill had become a bedlam of noise. "There were bullets flying everywhere," he said. "The Japs were screaming and shouting and, above it all, you could hear people bawling out for ammunition."
It was hardly surprising. As 'Happy' Jackson observed: "We were firing non-stop. Some of the barrels were red hot. That's how we beat them back. We had Bren-guns and fast-firing American Garand rifles which were like semi-automatics. It meant while they were re-loading we were able to shoot them, but there were just too many. There seemed to be thousands of them…"
The intensity of the fighting was such that in one slit trench 10 men in a row were killed or wounded trying to keep their machine-gun in action.
That the commandos continued to hold their ground for as long as they did in the face of such relentless pressure was in large measure down to the courageous leadership of one man: George Knowland.
From their posts on the side of the hill, Arthur Chapman and his pal 'Mac' Thompson were awed by the sight of him dashing across the bullet-swept ground, firing all manner of weapons and hurling grenades as he ran to meet every threat. It was, thought Thompson, "terrific" and "unbelievable" all at once.
'Happy' Jackson was close enough to hear him shouting encouragement. "Keep at it, boys," he called. "Keep your heads down."
At one point, he saw him standing in the open, bullets kicking up the ground around his feet, firing a rifle until his ammunition was exhausted. Another time, he ran forward to a slit trench where the men were all casualties and snatched up a Bren-gun, firing it from the hip into the Japanese who were fewer than 10 yards away while a medic dressed the men's wounds.
Not long after, Jackson was astonished to see him standing up in full view of the enemy lying in dead ground below them, wielding a two-inch mortar which he also proceeded to fire "from the hip".
It all beggared belief. "He was pointing the mortar straight at them, horizontally. It was incredible. It stopped them in their tracks until he ran out of bombs."
His courage seemed as inexhaustible as he appeared indestructible. But it could not last. Inch by inch the Japanese clawed their way up the slopes that were carpeted with their dead.
Almost every man in 1 Section had been wounded at least once, yet still Knowland refused to give up. As the Japanese tide lapped within feet of his post, he met them head-on. According to witnesses, in the last moments, he picked up a sub-machine-gun and was still on his feet, still firing when he was shot and killed.
His sacrifice was not in vain. Against impossible odds and at great cost, his stand on Hill 170 had taken the sting out of the Japanese attack and bought vital time for reinforcements to be rushed forward.
Five counter-attacks later the Japanese were utterly defeated and the posts that Knowland and so many of his men had died defending to the last were recovered amid scenes of what Aubrey Buxton called "the most savage and intense strife".
A tumultuous struggle forever remembered by Arthur Chapman as "a bloodbath" had resulted in nearly 150 commando casualties and more than twice that number of Japanese killed, the overwhelming majority of them in and around the posts held by 4 Troop.
Described as "the decisive battle of the whole Arakan campaign", the hard-earned victory at Kangaw hastened the end of the war in Burma and was duly recognised by a shower of awards that were headed by a posthumous Victoria Cross to Royal Norfolk turned commando George Knowland.
Seventy-five years on, a street and a memorial cottage named after him in Norwich bear mute testimony to his sublime heroism on a faraway hill in an all but forgotten battlefield.
Most of those who fought and won at Kangaw received no reward beyond survival which some, such as Arthur Chapman, would regard to the end of their days as a miracle in itself.
Arthur made the most of his good fortune, raising a family, training youngsters, including his daughter, in the art of self defence and overcoming adversity late in life following the loss of both his legs.
Displaying the kind of fortitude that typified his unit's most celebrated action, he battled on to become an inspiration to his fellow amputees.
Looking back, his daughter Sue mused: "These men were a special breed, very special, the likes of which we will never see again."