The Terrific Third

3rd Indian LAA Battery

During World War II, India had the second largest concentration of Anti-Aircraft (AA) Artillery at one stage; second only to the Great Britain. With 35 AA Regiments, Indian AA Artillery was a formidable force that served with honour in theaters as varied as Singapore to Italy. Of all the Regiments and Batteries that served during the War, 3 Indian Light AA Battery has one of the most distinguished histories and is worth recounting. Its 

Raised in January 1941 at Malir Cantonment near Karachi, as part of U Indian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the Battery comprised of British and Punjabi gunners; as was the wont with all new Indian AA Regiments. The Battery  spent the first few months carrying out  training on the Bofors AA guns at the AA Training Centre that was in the  Napier Barracks in Malir as most of it’s gunners were drawn from the Indian Mountain Artillery. With Japan launching its offensive in December 1941, the situation was rapidly evolving and there was a need to rush reinforcements to the Far East to beef up the Allied defences.

The first Indian AA Regiment to be sent overseas was the 1st Heavy AA Regiment, despatched to Singapore and it was followed by 3 Light AA Battery that set sail for Rangoon in December 1941,  along with 8 Indian Heavy AA Battery, as part of the reinforcements sent to Burma. The Battery disembarked at Rangoon on December 31. The docks were all deserted as the Japanese had bombed Rangoon just six days earlier, leading to a rushed exodus of all the workers. 

The Battery first moved to an assembly area outside Rangoon and thereafter the Battery less a Troop were deployed to defend the airfield at Mingaladon while the third Troop moved by rail and boat over the river Salween to Moulmein.

No sooner had the Battery completed its deployment and coordination with the Royal Air Force, came the first air raids. With only a rudimentary warning and control system in place and with no radars of its own, the Battery was ‘blind’ so to say and could at best hope to keep the  Japanese aircraft at bay and prevent any damage to the airfield.  With meagre resources and the need to ensure safety of own aircraft, Royal Air Force followed a policy of ‘Gun night’ and ‘Fighter night’ as a result of which 

The Battery warded off repeated Japanese air attacks on both Mingaladon and Moulmein air bases and the barrage of fire put up by the Bofors not only broke up the attacking Jap aircraft formations but made them abandon the low level attacks; and resorting to high level attacks only, with a marked degradation of bombing accuracy.

The real threat however was from the Japanese Army that invaded Burma in January 1942 and soon rolled up the British defences, reaching the outskirts of Moulmein on January 30. Vastly outnumbered, the British and Burmese troops holding the defence withdrew.  Taking advantage of the chaos, Japanese soldiers dressed up as Burmese and mingled with the retreating Burmese troops, catching the Indian gunners by surprise, bayoneting many of the LAA gunners. The gunners fought valiantly in a hand to hand combat to save their guns but failed to do so. They manged to disable only two of the four guns when they were forced to abandon their post. 

2/Lt Mehar Dass, the sole Indian officer with the Troop was however not willing to let go and as he came to know that the Japanese had left the Bofors unguarded, led a team of gunners to try and retrieve his gun. But try as he may, he could not get the gun across the river and was pulled on to the last streamer by the withdrawing johnnies. As a number of his gunners were left behind, Mehar Dass dived off the streamer and swam ashore under heavy fire to make one last attempt to save his men. 

Moulmein was however only the beginning as more action awaited the Battery as it withdrew north.  The Battery was ordered to move to Shwegyin on the east bank of the River Chindwin. From the jetty here river boats ran to Kalewa on the west bank and from there a track led to Assam and India. Though not known at that time, Battle of Shwegyin was the last battle fought as the it was to become the ‘Dunkirk of Burma’; the start of the longest retreat ever undertaken by the British Army. 

While moving North, the Battery was repeatedly asked to defend the withdrawing coloumns from Japanese Air Force and  in the process destroyed a number of aircraft. By the time the Battery reached Shwegyin, it had knocked down a total of 22 Jap aircraft; undoubtedly a creditable performance for a Light AA Battery under very adverse and demanding conditions.

Major Charles MacFetridge, the Battery Commander, was fortunate to do a route recce and based on his report, Burcorps tried to carry out improvement of the road but even then, the  last stretch of road, along the edge of a Chaung, was so bad that the Battery managed to get only four guns through. Breaking all rules for deploying AA guns, the Battery deployed them on a track leading to the jetty, close together, like field guns. This move turned out to. game changer when the Japanese attacked. 

The Bofors, firing over open sights in direct firing role, first knocked off a couple of Japanese tanks and later a mountain gun that the Japs had brought up to shell the ferry site. The fire support given by the Bofors was critical in allowing the British and Burmese troops to withdraw with minimal losses.

As the Battery withdrew from Shwegyin, all that the Battery Commander told his gunners was “Walk march to India”!

The Battery had destroyed 22 Japanese aircraft in the course of five months, and damaged a number more besides knocking off a couple of tanks and a mountain gun. It had lost five officers and 30 gunners besides all sixteen guns. All transport was lost. And yet, it could proudly say that it won two Military Crosses, one Distinguished Conduct Medal, one Indian Order of Merit, three Indian Distinguished service Medals and four Mention in Despatches, making it the most highly decorated Indian AA unit during the World War II.

After Burma, it served in Assam at Chabua and Mohanbari airfields till the end of the war.

Unfortunately, the Battery, being part of 1 Indian LAA Regiment (Renumbered as 25 LAA Regiment) went over to Pakistan and in the process, India lost one of its most battle hardened and decorated AA Batteries.