Operation Lightning: The Liberation of Akyab

On the 31st of December 1944, details of an assault on Akyab Island, codenamed ‘Operation Lightning’, were announced. The target date for the Operation had originally been set for mid February but intelligence had been received to suggest that the enemy were withdrawing, leaving Akyab only lightly defended. It was therefore decided to strike as soon as possible.

On New Year’s Day 1945, Brigadier Campbell Hardy and No. 5 Commando’s Commanding Officer, Charles Pollitt, briefed all ranks on the forthcoming operation. It was believed that a battalion of the Japanese 111th Regiment was still on the island, their troops numbering around 700. Recent air reconnaissance flights suggested that most of the enemy’s defences were in a dilapidated state but the beaches were believed to be mined and there were wire fences close to where the commandos would be landing as well as five machine gun bunkers connected by trenches.

Half an hour before sunrise on the following day, the commandos moved out of their camp and in the sheltered waters of the Naf River at Teknaf, they embarked on two destroyers. They anchored off St. Martin’s Island for a few hours and then at six o’clock in the evening they set sail again.

While they were at sea, an artillery air observation officer carrying out a further recce of Akyab was unable to see any sign of the enemy. He landed in a paddy field and was greeted by the locals who presented him with garlands of flowers and told him that the Japanese had evacuated the island. As this meant the commandos would be landing unopposed, it was decided to cancel the preliminary bombardment that had been planned. Despite forecasts of stormy conditions on the way, the Commanders still wanted the landing to go ahead though.

At half past ten on the morning of the 3rd of January, the commandos transferred into assault landing craft (LCA). They crouched down low inside and the line of LCAs moved away from the destroyers, unfurling like a long ribbon and then fanning out as they approached the shore. The sound of bagpipes from one of the craft bobbed across the waves.

Landing craft on the beach at Akyab Island. © IWM (CI 885)

As the first LCAs touched down, the commandos ran up the soft sandy beach, wriggled through the wire fence and headed towards the line of bushes and trees just beyond. They pointed loaded rifles into the slits of bunkers that had been sunk into the sand dunes and checked the crumbling trenches that snaked between them but all were empty.

Five minutes later, the next wave of LCAs landed, together with a film cameraman who shot footage of the commandos smiling into the lens as they waded ashore. Three of the men drove a branch into the sand and tied a white ensign to it before joining their comrades who were now assembling on the beach and getting ready to box in for the night

Over the next two days, No. 5 cautiously made their way towards Akyab Town. They marched across open, dusty ground and through corridors of long grass that waved either side of them in the breeze.

By the time they arrived in the town and succeeded in ‘liberating’ it on the 5th of January 1945, they had passed scenes of devastation and neglect. There wasn’t a single building that hadn’t been ravaged by the Japanese. The jungle had started to reclaim some of the land and was in the process of swallowing up roads and sticking leafy tongues through broken windows. Peeling painted notices and signs hanging precariously from collapsing buildings pointed to the past: ‘Akyab Hotel’; ‘Exit – Saloon Passengers’; ‘Mackinnon, Mackenzie and Co’. Stone lions roared at creepers winding their way around pagodas and felled Buddhas lay on beds of brick and rubble. The town clock had stopped at five minutes past three.

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Men of No. 3 Commando Brigade rest at Akyab while waiting to embark for the Myebon Peninsula © IWM (SE 2300)