THE NAVY´S MOST IMPORTANT SHIP
Transition from Burma (R.N.V.R) to the regular BURMA NAVY (1944 -1952)
Sithu Kyaw Thein (K.T.) Lwin
Royal Navy Insect Class River Gunboat
Sub-Lieutenant Burma (R.N.V.R.)
Which ship was the most important ship in our Navy and made the maximum contribution for our newly Independent Country to prevail during those critical years after our Independence when the political situation was highly unstable and perilously precarious, and the Union Government almost fell due to insurrection?
I expect the majority of people would answer, ¨U.B.S. ¨MAYU" which was a River class frigate named H.M.S.¨ FAL¨ built in 1942 and was taken over from the Royal Navy in May 1947 by Burma R.N.V.R. a few months prior to Independence. She became the flag ship of the new Navy of Union of Myanmar.
Respectfully, but candidly, my opinion would have to differ, based on my service in the Navy in a senior staff position during those years. My answer would not be the MAYU although she was also, no doubt, very important as the flagship of our Fleet, and our only major war vessel. She also made valuable operational contributions in support of the Tatmadaw for the Battle for Insein, and re-occupation of Bassein (Pathein) and other Army operations around Moulmein (Mawlamyaing) as well as in the Arakan (Rakkhine) coast.
My answer, which may surprise you would be, not one but four ships of the same class, UBS ¨INLAY¨, ¨INMA¨, ¨INYA¨, and ¨INDAW¨. These four ships, which were originally built as World War II Landing craft (Gun) were procured with much difficulty, re-armed and commissioned just in time to save the day during the Country’s critical times. The Union Government was then fighting for its survival and warding off various attempts being made by a motley number of insurgents while endeavouring to establish and maintain law and order, when most areas in the Delta and inland waterways were under the control of various multi-coloured and armed insurgent groups.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: (1944-1952)
Before World War II ended, and soon after the reoccupation of Yangon city in 1945, the Motor Launch (M.L.) flotilla of Burma R.N.V.R which consisted of six well armed Fairmile type 112ft. boats, were augmented by fourteen other Fairmiles and eight smaller 70ft. Harbour Defence M.Ls of the Royal Navy Coastal Forces after being decommissioned at the end of hostilities. Simultaneously overall responsibility for all naval operations in Myanmar waters was passed on from the British Far Eastern Fleet, Arakan Coastal Forces of the Royal Navy, to the Burma R.N.V.R., which was then only a small wartime volunteer force consisting of people from all over the Union. At that time the Royal Navy also handed over two Canadian built Motor Minesweepers, MMS "197 "and ¨201¨, so that the uncompleted task of clearing still active mines in Dawei and Mawlamyaing rivers could be completed, swept and made safe for navigation of commercial craft and general shipping.
The Fairmile MLs, with their superior armament, speed, and shallow draft were operationally ideal for riverine operations as already proved during actions against retreating Japanese forces as the war ended. However, their drawbacks were two fold. They were powered by high speed, high octane engines which were neither suitable nor economical except during wartime, and their leaking wooden hulls had become unfit and unseaworthy for further service. Therefore, all Fairmiles had to be decommissioned and scrapped and their armament was brought ashore to U.B.S "Ratanabon¨, the Navy Barracks and Shore Training Establishment, first located temporarily at St. Paul´s school building in downtown Yangon, and later moved to the current location at Monkey Point.
H.M.B.M.L 437 1945
Thus, during the early months of the year of Independence in 1948, our new Navy found itself completely lacking in river fighting craft except for the slow and aging 70 ft diesel powered and poorly armed H.D.M.Ls whose wooden hulls also needed to be scrapped. Three of the M.L.s had to be permanently stationed in the Arakan to support Army operations against armed Mujahids and Communist insurgents. The remaining five were based in Yangon. In turn they regularly patrolled in the Delta, where most of the area had come under control of Insurgents and the entire flotilla was very much overworked in support of the Army. The larger fighting ship, the MAYU and the two Motor Minesweepers were meant purely for seagoing and coastal operations due to their size and draft and could not operate in the delta and river areas.
Locally, only the Government Dockyard at Dawbon had previous experience in building navy M.Ls before the War. It would take a few years to construct suitably designed new naval craft. As an alternative the British Government was first approached to spare some armed river-worthy craft but the Royal Navy itself had decommissioned their coastal forces vessels when the war ended and had no suitable craft available. Just before the Mayu was taken over, an old Yangtze China River Gunboat which had seen service in the two World Wars, H.M.S. ¨Scarab¨ was loaned to Burma R.N.V.R for a year (1946) and was employed as a Mother Ship for the new landing craft (personnel) Flotilla patrolling along the Irrawaddy, but she also had limitations in size for navigating through smaller rivers and chaungs in the Delta. Nevertheless it gave our Navy Engineers who were mostly only experienced in internal combustion high speed engines, their first real experience in steam propulsion, in time to man the frigate MAYU later.
The true situation was that it would only be possible to procure suitable naval craft by specially designing and ordering to suit our operational specifications from overseas shipyards. But this would not only take a few years to complete but also put a heavy strain on the Country’s limited foreign exchange reserves already adversely affected due to the grave insurgency and internal security problems reducing our precious export earnings. Perhaps, the British Government, at that juncture, was also reluctant to increase their cooperation as Myanmar had chosen to leave the Commonwealth after gaining her Independence.
MOST URGENTLY NEEDED - ARMED INLAND RIVER CRAFT
In the year 1947, during preparation for Independence, the War Office was established to jointly locate the Ministry of Defence and the three offices of the Chiefs of Staff of the three Defence Forces. The main objective was to achieve better coordination. The Navy General Staff then consisted of Chief of Naval Staff (C.N.S.) and Deputy Chief as Maintenance Commander, assisted by Staff Officer Operations & Intelligence, (S.O.O. + S.O.I.) and Staff Officer Communications (S.C.O.) and a Captain´s Secretary. Commander Kin Maung Bo was chosen as first Commanding Officer of Burma Navy, after relinquishing command of the MAYU and his position as Senior Officer Afloat. (S.O.A.) He was nominated first as Chief of Naval Staff and later re-designated as Vice-Chief of Defence Services (Navy). Commander Bo, under whom I served on the MAYU when the ship was taken over from the Royal Navy, chose me to succeed him as S.O.O. & I. at the new War Office. This was to be my first shore assignment for which I had no previous experience or inclination after four years of continuous and happy service afloat in all types of naval craft. But in the Navy one has to learn to accept orders.
The main responsibility to build up our Navy to a proper maritime fighting force and to secure inland waterways rested solely upon the newly appointed Chief of Naval Staff. Fortunately the Government had chosen rightly as C.N.S., Commander Kin Maung Bo had proven himself a most competent and experienced professional having commanded Fairmiles in action during WW II and later as our first Commanding Officer of the MAYU. Although untried in this important top command position he was a talented deep thinker and a capable strategist. He fully realised that the problem of acquiring more naval craft demanded top priority.
While the Navy´s primary role was to
coordinate and support Army operations, we also found that there was another
equally important function for the new Navy; to bear a greater responsibility
to the Government. It was in accordance with the universal general naval
doctrine ¨to keep the sea lanes open and prevent blockade in times of crisis.”
The Country´s financial lifeline, in the case of our one year old Union
depended entirely on the uninterrupted flow of rice and timber exports and
crude oil shipments in barges from up-country. Most of this was routed along
the Irrawaddy and the delta region and finally channelled through the Twantay
Canal route, a strategic choke point, to the Capital, to be shipped out
overseas from the main seaport of Yangon. Unlike the present day there were
no highways and bridges linking
During the second half of 1948, Government forces had lost control of internal security of the Delta, and in the Twantay area in particular, owing to the lack of reliable Government troops and an increase in anti-Government insurgent activities. It was decided therefore to accept an offer from the Karen National Defence Organisation (K.N.D.O.) forces (before the organisation was outlawed in January 1949) to occupy the area in order to keep the communists and other insurgents out of the approaches to Yangon. However, this situation abruptly changed as soon as K.N.D.O took up arms against the Union in an uprising at Insein. Twantay Canal which was fully controlled by them became totally unsafe for navigation by barges loaded with rice and oil barges from Chauk and teak timber rafts for export proceeding to Yangon without naval escort. These slow steaming commercial convoys under inadequate naval escort came under frequent attacks by K.N.D.O. forces from both sides of the canal resulting in many heavy naval and civilian casualties. The twenty one mile passage through the canal became known as “hellfire passage”. In consequence, the Country´s vulnerable export shipment programme was drastically reduced and our foreign exchange balances became critically low. The Navy very much needed well armed and armoured inland fighting craft in order to withstand the onslaught by the insurgents who possessed heavier calibre guns and had occupied strategic areas. The Navy needed to take the offensive to alleviate this situation.
Each morning, as Representative of C.N.S office, I attended the Joint Services Coordination meeting presided over by the Army G.S.O (I) in my position as Navy’s S.O.O. The discussions were mainly regarding security operations in the whole country which had become an urgent and serious issue requiring immediate and coordinated action by all three armed services. The main role for the Navy was to provide armed escort craft to Army river transports and provide security in riverside towns to support the Army garrisons. Each day the situation became more critical as, in addition to Communist and People’s Volunteer Organisation groups (P.V.O.), well armed K.N.D.O insurgents who were better organised had become very active in the Delta region. Government forces, much depleted in strength due to desertions and mutinies, lacked high calibre fire power and their light weapons were inadequate against better armed and experienced insurgents. It became very obvious that the Navy lacked adequate fighting craft and needed armed fighting craft to effectively play its role as an important arm of our Defence services. Immediate and urgent action was called for.
After serious consideration by C.N.S. I was deputised to investigate and requisition more suitable inland commercial craft from the Scottish owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. This had just been nationalised as the Government managed Inland Water Transport Board (I.W.T.B.) They were to fitted out with armament previously removed from the decommissioned Fairmiles for conversion to armed River Gunboats (R.G.B) as soon as possible. Out of the available I.W.T craft, we chose three steel hull S type double-deckers as the most suitable type for our purpose due to their light draft and capacity to accommodate troops. These craft were fitted with four 20mm twin Oerlikon cannons on the lower deck, two pairs on each side. Living spaces on the upper deck were allocated to our new formed ”Naval Landing Party” which was unofficially created as our ¨Marines". The three R.G.B.s were named ¨SHWEPAZUN¨ ¨SABAN¨ and ¨SABAY¨ each commanded by a Senior Lieutenant. They later proved to be the mainstay of our inland fleet and were able to carry out successful operations in the Delta and on the Irrawaddy against K.N.D.O and other insurgents but only as a temporary stop gap until a better long term solution could be found. It was also found that they could act independently when needed to attack, land and occupy insurgent occupied areas, villages or small towns with their own trained Naval Landing Party marines before the assigned Army units could arrive to take over, and in addition boost the morale of the public.
However these ex W.T double-decker R.G.Bs had a design weakness for providing longer range covering fire due to their low deck height. The positioning of the twin 20 mm cannon main armament meant they could not be elevated high enough on the lower deck. Therefore, it was also planned to acquire two shallow-draft B type river tugboats, and mount a 40 mm BOFORS gun on the aft deck space and a 20 mm single Oerlikon on the foredeck. These would be converted into supporting gunships, a well armed and formidable naval support craft next only to the frigate MAYU in fire power. Unfortunately, in September 1949, after successful completion of gun trials, a group of communist minded and misguided naval mutineers together with their communist associates, hijacked these two boats, the B2 and B4 from Theinbyu Base jetty and proceeded up the Pegu river to join the insurgents. As these armed tugboats were too dangerous and a possible menace to the MAYU in the hands of the insurgents, the Air Force had to sink these two craft by strafing and bombing off Kayan creek under express orders from the War Office.
Thus, during the early months of our independence, we had only temporarily solved the urgent and pressing need for more fighting craft by converting and arming three requisitioned inland commercial vessels. The Navy still needed to plan and acquire proper naval craft suitable for inland and coastal regions and also replace the aging H.D.M.Ls on a permanent long term basis.
THE BIRTH OF LANDING CRAFT (GUNS) U.B.S. ¨ INLAY¨, ¨INYA¨, ¨INMA¨ & ¨INDAW¨
One day in February 1949 while the battle for Insein was still in progress, Commander Bo called me to his Office for a conference. His deputy, Commander Than Pe was also present. The C.N.S. explained the current situation and our imperative need to obtain suitable fighting craft from overseas but we were not able to get any assistance from the British Government as their coastal forces had been disbanded and scrapped. There was also no possibility of acquiring craft from neighbouring countries either. He further explained that the only possibility might be to search UK scrap shipyards for some suitable decommissioned landing craft which had become surplus after World War II, procure the hulls and engines and arm them locally. He then gave me a copy of the recent Jane’s Fighting Ships, an unofficial publication of all the World Navies’ warships, which he had borrowed from the British Naval Adviser and asked me to study it carefully, make a proper research and recommend the type of landing craft which would be most suitable as gunships. We would then seek the availability overseas of surplus and decommissioned craft through our diplomatic channels.
It was an interesting and a challenging assignment for me to find a good solution. Basically, I was only familiar with wartime built landing craft which were generally in three categories. Smaller Landing Craft Personnel (LCPs) and Landing Craft Mechanised (LCMs) which are too small, Landing Craft Tank ( LCTs) which are of medium size but with flat bow ramps and too slow, and finally Landing Ship Tank ( LSTs) size and draft too large for inland waterways. Our basic requirements were craft around 150 - 160 ft in length and a draft of not more than seven feet and of moderate speed, preferably well armoured with a proper seaworthy ship’s bow and so suitable for coastal voyages as well. At first I could not find any landing craft type with specifications which came near ours and was almost about to give up. The U.S. Navy landing craft were also of similar designs. Then, by a stroke of luck I stumbled upon the British Navy’s two specially designed types of armed landing craft primarily intended as close inshore support ships for WWII Normandy D - Day landings. (to neutralise German shore batteries close inshore) One was called Landing Craft Flak (LCF) to be mounted with 300 rockets, but not quite suitable for us. The other type was called Landing Craft (Guns) (LCG) M for medium and L for large. I found that the LCG (M) type was closest to our needs. Its general specifications were:
Displacement: 380 tons
Dimensions: 154.5 ft x 22.3 ft x 6 ft. 11 in.
Machinery: 2-shaft Paxman diesel 1000 HP - 11.75 knots. Fuel 9780 gals
Bridge & engine room: Two inch armour plating
Designed Armament: 2 x 25 pdr Mk II field gun in 4 inch armoured naval turrets
2 x 20 mm Oerlikon
When I made my report to C.N.S, he fully agreed with my choice and immediately contacted our first Military Attaché in the UK, Major General Tun Hla Oung to enquire about the availability of any surplus or scrapped LCG Ms. After about a week we received the unexpected good news that there were in fact four LCG M Mark II version hulls complete with engines, generators and auxiliaries but with armament removed, which were available through a scrap dealer on an “as is“ basis at a very reasonable cost and lying at John Brown Shipyard in Scotland. They were numbered 513, 514, 516 and 517. We considered it was too good to be true and not a chance to be missed. After receiving a favourable pre-purchase survey condition report arranged by the Military Attaché that the four hulls were little used previously and in very good condition, we obtained approval for the purchase and delivery under tow to Yangon from our Ministry of Defence and these four craft were purchased initially without armament. It did not matter. We had a lot of ex-Fairmile surplus six pounders, Bofors and Oerlikons lying at the barracks. We just needed to bring these craft to our waters.
In April 1949 I was sent with the second batch of Lieutenants to the UK, to undergo a series of technical courses at various Royal Navy Establishments. (I had missed out on being with the first batch as I was temporarily in captivity by the insurgents,) Commander Bo had informed our Military Attaché in London (who did not have an Assistant Naval Attaché then) that he could make use of my services unofficially whenever needed for this project. The Navy also sent Lieutenant (E) Kyaw Maung for familiarisation with the machinery and coordination with the towing company and taking passage back.
During my first visit to inspect the four
craft at Gourock in Scotland, I discovered from the shipyard that these craft
had each been fitted out and mounted with two 25 pdr. Army guns enclosed in 4”
armoured naval turrets while under construction but that these were later
removed after the Normandy landings and the Guns were still lying at the
Shipyard. When I asked if the guns could be purchased, the Yard told me that
we would need permission from the British Ministry of Defence. I reported
this to our C.N.S and the Military Attaché, Major General Tun Hla Oung
who was an ex-Royal Military Academy Sandhurst graduate. Due to his strong
personality and excellent relationship with his Sandhurst colleagues which
Marshal Sir William Slim, the necessary approval was obtained. We were
able to hastily install the 25 pdr. guns just before the four craft sailed
under tow by two tugs on their two month long voyage to
Immediately after these long awaited ships arrived, our Base Engineering (B.E.O.) Staff at the Pazundaung Naval Dockyard gave them top priority and worked around the clock to completely refit the four “new” Gunships and installed two 20mm Oerlikons in each ship to supplement the two forward mounted 25 pdrs. They were already designated to be the Navy’s Lake Class major war vessels in addition to the MAYU and were named INLAY, INYA, INMA and INDAW. The first ship was under the command of veteran C.O. Lieut.- Commander Maung Yaw who had led the S class R.G.B flotilla, and was also to be Senior Officer of the LCG Flotilla. On its first patrol through Twantay Canal cool headed Bo Hmu Yaw intentionally anchored overnight, midstream, in the canal, inviting the insurgents to ambush him as they had previously attacked passing craft at will. But they found that they could do no damage to the ship due to its thick armour plated gun turrets, and well protected bridge and engine room. The shots they fired at the guns just bounced off the turrets. The ship carefully noted the insurgent positions, after they had spotted them. Next morning the ship opened up her powerful artillery and completely silenced them. For the first time, the Navy was calling the shots and taking the offensive. A few salvoes towards insurgent positions with the ship’s 25 pounders must have completely surprised and demoralised them. There was no more return fire from the enemy or sneaky ambushes. The new LCG.s had become a terror to them and were lords of the waterways. It was not long before the Navy could regularly organise convoys of rice and teak laden barges as well as oil barges escorted by an HDML or an RGB leading, and an LCG following in the rear. The commercial convoys were no longer molested by insurgents and much needed regular unrestricted commercial shipping traffic through the Twantay Canal continued in unhindered safe passage. Our Country was again able to resume its most essential export and trading commitments and to supplement its dwindling foreign exchange reserves which depended upon regular export earnings.
News travelled fast in the insurgent’s network whether it were the Communists, the underground anti-Government People’s Volunteer Organisation (P.V.O.) or K.N.D.O. At last, the Navy now had four powerful inland fighting craft armed with heavy calibre 25 pdr. artillery guns and the ships themselves were well protected by thick armour plating. The insurgents realised it would be safer for them if they did not hang around when these ships were patrolling in the vicinity and to give them a wide berth to keep out of harm’s way.
By the end of 1949, these ships became a strong deterrent to anti-Government armed groups and effectively contributed towards the success of our Government forces’ operational efforts to regain control of internal security and proper administration in the Delta river areas, Rakkhine and Taninthayi coastal regions. The Union of Myanmar was at last out of immediate danger of complete collapse. Our Government Armed Forces were in a position to consolidate, reorganise and take the full initiative in counter-insurgency campaigns which followed gradually and successfully, and the tide had turned in our favour.
The important role played by these four ships and Navy personnel of all ranks who manned them and those who helped to refit them was not fully recorded and has thus escaped the notice of most of us. However, the British owned Bombay Burmah Trading Company Ltd. (B.B.T.C.L.) which had monopolised our rice and teak exports for years before it was nationalised, did not forget the Navy’s role in keeping the Twantay Canal “Hellfire Passage” open for their much needed commercial traffic. In recognition and gratitude, they presented to the Navy Wardroom Mess a rare twenty foot long dining table which was made from a single teak tree, all one piece, and appropriately inscribed it with a plaque containing a brief citation. The writer is not sure where this historic mess table is located now but if the reader should find himself dining on this table which may now be in one of our Navy’s establishments, please look for the inscription and remember the good work done by your older Navy brothers over sixty years ago to keep the Ensign flying and to establish the highest traditions of our Tatmadaw Navy. It is also important to remember that the Navy’s role is not only to safeguard our seas and waterways, and maintain internal security as a team member of the Defence Services, but also to support the Nation’s economy in times of need by keeping the trading routes open.
Lieut.B.N. (Rtd.) Kyaw Thein Lwin