In 1942, Japanese forces invaded Burma, present-day Myanmar, expelling British and Indian troops from the country, forcing them into India. Japan regarded Burma as a stopping-off point for a potential invasion of India. The Japanese thought they would be aided by a rebellion by the Indians against British imperial rule.
But the Japanese invasion of India, launched in 1944, was held back by the British. The Japanese forces, weakened by the ceaseless monsoon rains and a lack of supplies, failed in their mission. Then, in late 1944, the British launched an offensive against the Japanese with the aim of retaking Burma.
By January 1945, the Allied forces were pushing the Japanese back in Burma and were steadily advancing south. There was still plenty of fighting to come, with no sign of an imminent Japanese surrender. One key objective in early 1945 was Ramree, an island off the west coast of Burma in the Bay of Bengal.
Allied troops were advancing south against the Japanese forces and were in danger of moving out of range of air bases that were providing essential supplies. Separated from the mainland by a channel less than 500 feet wide, Ramree Island was largely flat, thus making it an ideal site for a new air base. So military planners decided that the British Army and their Indian allies should take the island.
The Battle of Ramree began on January 21, 1945 with Operation Matador and a series of air and sea bombardments. The aim here was to soften up the enemy. This was followed by an amphibious landing on the northern tip of Ramree, which was met with only light opposition.
Having established themselves on the north-western end of the island, Indian troops now started to advance in a southerly direction, moving along the west coast of Ramree Island, with the support of the Royal Navy. But the soldiers were soon to meet determined Japanese resistance.
Fierce fighting broke out at a place the British military called the Mount Peter-Blackhill area. The Indian troops were a match for the Japanese and drove them off. The Japanese troops now retreated to the Yan Bak Chuang. A “chaung” is the Burmese word for an area of small waterways that drain from the jungle into the sea.
The British command now left some troops to keep the Japanese forces in Yan Bauk Chaung bottled up while other soldiers advanced south towards Ramree Town. The soldiers opposing the Japanese at Yan Bauk Chaung were able to dislodge the Japanese who now retreated, pursued by the Indian troops.
Ramree Town was taken on February 8 and now the Japanese troops that remained on the island were concentrated to the east of Ramree. The British moved to prevent the Japanese from escaping by sea by blocking likely exit routes with naval ships and troops. Most of the Japanese were now effectively trapped.
Army, navy and airforce action harassed the Japanese, forcing them off the island and into a mangrove swamp on the mainland. This was difficult to effectively blockade because as the tide rose and fell, different channels in the swamp became navigable by local craft. The Japanese also had the advantage of the cover of darkness as the moon wasn’t full.
But the difficulties faced by the British and Indian forces were nothing compared to the appalling conditions suffered by the Japanese trapped in the mangrove swamp. There was no opportunity for resupply, and food and water were soon in very short supply.
What’s more, the mangrove swamp was covered in thick jungle growing on a layer of oozing black mud. The thick tree cover made the swamp dark even in daytime. Although the Japanese were surrounded by water, it was brackish swamp water, not fit for drinking.
As well as these hardships, there were swarms of mosquitoes and other biting and stinging insects that made the mangroves their home, not to mention scorpions. On top of that, the Japanese were attacked by machine-gun fire from the Indian troops at every opportunity.
Surely the misery of these Japanese men, imprisoned in this hellish mangrove swamp could hardly get any worse? Unfortunately for them, it could, apparently. Because there was one more ghastly and terrifying peril lying in wait for the beleaguered troops.
The swamps were home to numerous saltwater crocodiles, many of them gargantuan in size. The crocodylus porosus native to these swamps can reach more than 20 feet in length and 2,600 pounds in weight, making them the largest reptiles to walk the Earth since the dinosaurs. Their favored method of hunting is to ambush their prey and then drown it. They then eat it whole.
Of the original 1,200 to 1,500 members of the Japanese garrison on Ramree Island, some 900 ended up trapped in the swamp. Of those, only a handful thought to be as few as 20, survived this grueling ordeal. Precise numbers of those eaten by crocodiles as opposed to those who succumbed to disease, enemy action, starvation and drowning, is impossible to accurately estimate. But it is thought that some certainly did die in the jaws of these fearsome crocodiles.
The evidence for the ravages of the crocodiles on the Japanese troops comes mostly from the recollections of one man, Bruce Stanley Wright. He was a naturalist as well as a British soldier and he gave a vivid description of the possible fate of some Japanese soldiers in a 1962 book, Wildlife Sketches Near and Far.
Stanley Wright remembered that, “The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on Earth.” It’s certainly a grim picture he paints.
As the next morning dawned, things were scarcely less gruesome. Stanley Wright continued, “At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left… Of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive.”
Some historians have cast doubt on the exact number of Japanese soldiers that were killed by crocodiles in the mangrove swamp. But we know that at least 900 men were hiding in the swamp. Whether they died from drowning, hunger or wounds inflicted by British and Indian soldiers, or were actually eaten by crocodiles, their deaths are a sharp reminder of the terrible brutality of war.