Mogaung is a small and sleepy town in the Kachin State of Myanmar, forgotten by most people today. It lies about 150km due east of the Indian border, and barely 60 km from the closest Chinese frontier. The bigger town of Myitkyina is about 20 km north east of it. Thick jungles and hilly terrain lie between Mogaung and the Indian border.
This is a story of great but forgotten heroism, and of human foibles. It is mined from my study of the Burma War 1941-45, which was fought by the Indian Army and Allies against the Imperial Japanese Army. The great men involved in this episode were all so deeply flawed that many deaths resulted from their egos and their actions. And yet it is possible for us to admire the actions of lesser known men who stood out for their selflessness. Not that they were devoid of weaknesses. But this package is what makes us human.
Our story is set in June 1944, and explainswhy June 23 is celebrated as Mogaung Day by the Gorkha Rifles. Read on.
The map below shows the town is located, and its closeness to both the Indian and Chinese borders.
The forces fighting the Japanese juggernaut in Burma were multinational and filled with complex personalities.
General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell
China was invaded by the Japanese in 1932. The then-nationalist Government of China, led by General Chiang Kai-Shek, was a great friend of the United States. As the Nationalist Government of Gen Chiang was also facing a communist insurgency led by Mao Ze Dong. This made the Nationalists allies of the United States, and the US began a program of providing active military assistance to the Chinese. Given that the Nationalists were being pushed into the south of the country by the Japanese, the more natural route for the Americans to supply the Chinese would be via India, via the Assam frontier to be specific.
This was being done through two routes – the hazardous flight over the ‘hump’ – from Gauhati to Kunming. The other was via a road route that was being built even as supplies were being sent by land via mule.
The third route was to land supplies at Rangoon harbour and transport them by rail to the Chinese border. But when the Japanese occupied Rangoon and most of Burma by March 1942, this supply route was closed off. Arming and feeding the Chinese became doubly important because they were also fighting the Japanese.
The man in charge of managing the American aid program to the Chinese was General Joe Stilwell. He was loud, racist, bad tempered and acerbic, with an inflated opinion of himself. He had contempt for General Chiang Kai-Shek – calling him “Peanut” in private. Worse, he hated the British, calling them limeys and cowards.
Stories of Stilwell’s many foibles are a book in themselves, so let us get back to our story.
Stilwell was effectively in command of some of the Chinese Armies. He had seen the British being chased out of Burma – he himself had walked all the way from Rangoon to Assam – and did not think the British had it in them to fight. He believed in his Chinese troops – indeed he had two battalions of them in Ramgarh in Bihar since 1942. He was very keen to throw his Chinese troops into battle to push the Japanese out of Burma.
The Allied Command Structure
In 1943, General William Slim was put in command of a new grouping called the 14th Army, consisting of all British Empire forces in SE Asia. He reported ultimately to Lord Mountbatten, who was designated the South East Asia Supreme Commander for all Allied Forces. Gen Joe Stilwell reported to Lord Mountbatten technically, but he did pretty much what he wanted and the British were under instructions from Churchill to ensure that Stilwell was not upset in any way. The Commander In Chief of India was General Sir Archibald Wavell.
Pushing The Japanese Back
By June 1944, the Japanese invasion of India had run out of steam. Out of the 55,000 who battered themselves at Kohima and Imphal, some 30,000 were dead. Most of the survivors were starving. The Japanese started to fall back, pushed very hard by the Indian Army eager to seek revenge for three years of defeats.
Bill Slim and Joe Stilwell were keen to capitalise on the momentum gained, and sweep the Japanese back towards Rangoon. The plan was to capture Myitkyina. It was on the Irrawaddy, had good road connections, and had an airfield that could be used to attack Japanese positions. It was also close to the Chinese border. Myitkyina was also a major Japanese garrison – eliminating it would open up the Irrawaddy plains for allied motorised troops to sweep down.
The Allied Plan had several moving parts, and for the story to be told, lets understand one of the most important of all.
The proper name for this outfit is the Long Range Penetration Group. The concept was pioneered by Brigadier Orde Wingate, a charismatic British Army officer. It consisted of creating a brigade of troops, lightly armed but extremely mobile, who would seek out the Japanese and hit them hard, and disappear. They were to avoid pitched battles since they would not have anything more than battalion level mortars. They would travel light and rely on supply from air.
The first Chindit assaults in 1943 were very successful though casualties were very heavy. The Chindits won the support of Churchill, largely because the Prime Minister was frustrated with the slow progress in Burma. Wavell was not on the Prime Minister’s good books because he considered him slow and plodding. Wavell was also not the most communicative of men but he knew India, the Indian Army and was an exceptionally good soldier himself. Churchill approved the concept of the LRPG – now known as the Chindits – and asked Wavell to ensure they lacked for nothing.
In May 1944, the Chindits, who had been operating behind Japanese lines but with very heavy casualties, were placed under the command of Stilwell. The specific Chindit unit involved in this affair was 77 Brigade, commanded by Lt Col Mike Calvert, an outspoken, charismatic man also called “Mad Mike” because of his great personal courage and his willingness to fight alongside his men on the front with a rifle.
The area between Myitkyina and the Indian border was the scene of Chindit operations since February 1944. This was before the Japanese attack on Kohima and Imphal began. Jungle airfields were cleared out to allow Dakotas and Gliders to land, with men, supplies and mules. The Chindits also established well-provided supply and medical stations in the jungle to ensure that they could operate in hit and run mode. In this they were very successful.
But in May 1944, Slim ordered the Chindits to abandon these supply dumps and revert to being an infantry formation. Further he handed over command of the Chindits to Stilwell. Historians speculate that Slim never really did agree with the idea of the Chindits, and he may have resented Wingate’s charisma and access to the Prime Minister, And after Wingate was killed in an aircrash in February 1944, the Chindits lost their champion.
The Assault on Mogaung
In May, once Stilwell had command of the Chindits, her ordered Mogaung to be attacked by the British. His Chinese and American forces were trying to take Myitkyina and making a fist of it. He wanted Mogaung taken so as to take some pressure off Myitkyina.
Stilwell had well-equipped Chinese troops in the area, with armour and heavy weaponry. But he refused to deploy them and instead asked the Limeys and Indians to fight it out on their own. It was suicidal for the Chindits to attack prepared Japanese positions without the normal complement of artillery that a traditional infantry regiment enjoys. But orders were orders, Stilwell had to be kept happy, and if Calvert had any objections he was certainly not going to be heard.
So Calvert and his men began the 160 mile trek across difficult jungle country from India. The Brigade consisted of 3rd Battalion/6th Gurkha Rifles, the Lancashire Fusiliers and the South Staffordshire Regiment. There were about 2,000 men.
The terrain around Mogaung was tricky. The obvious point of attack would have been from the West but that was dominated by a deep and fast flowing river which would have been difficult to ford. The only other way was to attack from the east. It was marshy but there was a point where the attack could be mounted – this was the Pin Hmi Bridge across one of the smaller rivers to the east.
The men of the 77th were lucky to be led by Calvert. Apart from being very brave himself, he was also extremely bright – he had become a fluent Chinese speaker when posted in Hong Kong, he had served as an observer during the Sino-Japanese fighting and hence knew how the Japanese operated and he had an engineering degree from Cambridge. Calvert worked out a plan of attack and on June 6 the assault began.
The Brigade was positioned south and east of Mogaung – east across a river that had a heavily defended bridge called the Pin Hmi Bridge. They were aware Japanese forces were rushing to fortify the town hence speed was of the essence. They could rely only on mortars and air strikes that took two hours to arrive.
The Japanese defence was skilful and tough, but Calvert pressed on despite losses. They crossed the Wettauk Chaung River that flowed to the east of Mogaung. The Gurkhas meanwhile attacked the bridge, which had high embankments, and were beaten back again and again. It took the them 4 days to capture the bridge. But that was time enough for the Japanese to garrison the town with fresh troops.
From June 10th the monsoons began, which created a fresh set of problems – trench foot, malaria and typhus were rife. The brigade was taking heavy losses and Calvert sent repeated messages to Stilwell for reinforcements. Stilwell then sent a Chinese Infantry Regiment to support the Chindits. The Chinese also brought 75mm Mountain Guns. With the Chinese troops – three battalions of them, Mogaung was now surrounded.
Despite the rain and conditions, and some skilful and courageous Japanese resistance, the 77 Brigade – now reduced to 600 men – fought the Japanese through the town. The Railway Station, the Court House, a big red building that was some kind of municipal office. The Gurkhas led the way in ferocity. Two of their men were awarded the Victoria Cross – Gurkha Captain Michael Almand (posthumously) and Rifleman Tun Bahadur Pun. Pun in particular engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting with his khukri.
Over fifteen days the assault continued. The Chinese 77mm guns were able to provide artillery support and the Chinese 1/114 Infantry Regiment kept the town surrounded to prevent escape.
On June 25 1944 the last Japanese soldier left the devastated town, and 77 Brigade declared victory. Of the original 2000 men, barely 150 were left standing.
It was the first town in Burma recaptured by the Allies as part of the offensive against the Japanese.
As soon as Stilwell heard that Mogaung had been captured, he told the BBC that the 1/114 Chinese Regiment had captured Mogaung, without even mentioning the British role. This enraged the British. Calvert, who was not a man to tolerate things, then telegraphed Stilwell that “While the Chinese have taken Mogaung, the British are taking umbrage”.
Stilwell’s son, Lt Col Joe Stilwell Jr, was his intelligence officer. He boasted to the American press that Umbrage is so small he could not find it on a map.
At this point Calvert was positively mutinous and sent several strong messages to Stilwell, asking that 77 Brigade be withdrawn to allow the men to rest and recuperate. Stilwell asked him to come in person to see him.
When they met, Stilwell was surrounded by his yes-men, anti British American officers. They fully expected a proper dressing down for the Limey officer.
Stilwell began by saying, “You send some very strong despatches, Calvert!”.
Calvert replied. “Sir, you should see the despatches my Brigade-Major (his staff officer) will not let me send”.
There was stunned silence, and then Stilwell roared with laughter. The ice was broken, and Stilwell listened carefully to what Calvert had to say. At the end, he personally awarded Calvert the American Silver Star.
These actions won Calvert the Distinguished Service Order and Bar. He and his troops were repatriated back to India.
The 5th Battalion, 5th Gorkha Rifles celebrates Mogaung Day on June 23 every year to celebrate the first major Burmese town to be captured by the Indian Army.
Why the 5th/5th and not the 3rd Batt/6th Gorkha Rifles? This is because in 1947 the 6th Gorkha Rifles transferred to the British Army but the 3rd Battalion alone remained, and was transferred to the 5th Gorkha Rifles.
Where to this day, they are known as the “Chindits”.
Mad Mike Calvert
The story is not complete without recounting what happened to Mike Calvert. He was not only an extremely bright man but also very brave, and fought with great distinction in the War.
Calvert was invalided home in September 1944. He served a stint in the Special Air Services. After the War he was selected to lead the Malay Scouts with the rank of Brigadier, during the communist insurgency. By now Calvert was drinking heavily. However, his penchant to neglect staff work but lead operations from the front meant that training and discipline were neglected. He was removed from his command and sent home.
In 1951 he was assigned to a minor administrative post in British Occupied Germany. There he was accused of homosexuality with four German youths, court-martialled and dismissed.
Much doubt exists about whether or not his conduct was “lewd” by the standards of the Army because none of the youths were reliable and all of them recanted their testimony. He lost his appeal and he was out of the Army he had served so well. Calvert was adamant that he was innocent to his dying day. The dismissal broke him.
He spent the next 35 years as a near destitute, a very large part of that in Australia where he did menial jobs and manual labour, most of his employers being totally unaware that this was a Chindit hero. He sold all his medals and memorabilia, dying as an alcoholic in 1999.
Honour the Brave and the Dead
On Mogaung Day let us honour the brave men of 77 Brigade, particularly 3rd Battalion 6th Gorkha Rifles – and their legendary commander late Lt Col Mike Calvert DSO and Bar.
“Prisoners of Hope” By Lt Col Michael Calvert, Leo Cooper Ltd 1971
“Burma Victory” By David Rooney, Phoenix 2000
8 thoughts on “Mogaung Day”
Another wonderfully researched and written piece on the war in Burma. What strikes me is that no “sainted leader” Stilwell, Slim, Calvert comes through as an undiluted hero. Every man has his foibles, and no man is prefect, alas. Most of these has more warts than their redeeming qualities it seems.
I really wish there was somebody to tell the japanese side of the story. No doubt there were many heroes there too. And does this all not show the utter futility of war.
Of course, I have to mention the Stilwell road – the road that was built by Stilwel’s forces and an enormous number of Indians from Ledo to Kunming. I enjoyed the drive on this road on the Indian side 5 years ago. Unfortunately the road is in utter disrepair in Mtyanmar, especially around Moguang. But it is technically possible today to drive the entire length of the Stilwell road. When the lockdown is over, how about getting a 4*4 and driving all the way to Kunming, my friend ?
Thanks Ramesh! Generous response as usual!
You are absolutely right that none of the great names in this affair come away looking good, The exception I would make is Calvert. But because Calvert was so wedded to his men and liked to fight side by side with them, his career and promotions in the army stalled. It is almost as though the Army wanted to know how much of a stomach a commander has to send men to their death.
I would love to do that drive to Kunming. I remember you writing about the Ledo road.
Thanks for educating us on Moguang Day, Ravi. An interesting info tucked in is that Stilwell had stationed two battalions of Chinese troops in Bihar – in the context of current happenings in our border.
Ramesh, thanks for informing us about the road which Stilwell built and your plan to drive all the way to Kunming – I am game for it
Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment Srikanth.
The two battalions of Chinese troops in Ramgarh caused no end of worries to the British. In fact Ranchi was the base of the West African Regiments consisting of Nigerians. The area was teeming with military men of different nationalities.
India and China have always been closely intertwined. It is sad that we are now enemies. As Ramesh will also attest, they are some of the nicest people and most generous as hosts.
Enjoyed the rich detailing in this account. The sad trajectory of Calvert’s later life makes one reflect on the inherent unpredictably of things
Thanks Anand. I enjoyed telling the story – its a simple one if you look at it. None of the foibles are new and life is unpredictable. Glad you liked it.
So well written and researched. I believe all great men gave their evil sides ( wonder if the reverse is true). Just like sometimes the context makes them evil at other times the passage of time makes them good. Gorkha Rifles today in India are they aware and celebrate this?
Thanks Sudip! I think evil men have a good side to them. Duryodhana is routinely considered an evil man but he was a good friend – and this is why Karna fought for him. As I research history I am amazed to find how many good things so called bad men did. Hitler was the man who created the German Autobahn system, for example, which the Americans faithfully copied after WWII.
The Fifth Battalion Fifth Gorkha Rifles celebrate Mogaung day to this day at their Regimental Centre in Shillong.