When ‘Killer’ Mehdi went to war

Maj Gen Syed Ali Hamid on the fearsome exploits in the jungle warfare of the Burma Campaign that won a Muslim officer the British Military Cross

When ‘Killer’ Mehdi went to war
he summer of 1943 was a bad time for the British India Army in Burma. Having surrendered the whole of the country to the Japanese the previous year, a limited counteroffensive (the First Arakan Campaign) launched by the 14th Indian Infantry Division to retake the port of Akyab had stalled. With their skill in jungle warfare, a much smaller Japanese force of two regiments was pushing 14 Division (reinforced by brigades of the 26th Indian Infantry Division) back towards its base at Cox’s Bazaar. The Indian brigades, many of whom had been engaged for long and continuous periods, were tired. Battle casualties had not been very severe but malaria and fever had exacted a very heavy toll. Reinforcements were also arriving untrained and completely unfit to play their part in the operation. Morale was very low and the Japanese psychologically dominated. The division was attempting to stem the advance by the 55 Division of the Imperial  Japanese Army (IJA) astride the Mayu Range by defending the flood plain of the River Naf to its east and the Mayu River Valley to its west. Further north the river is called Kalapanzin. It was fighting at the end of a long and precarious line of control, while the Japanese were comparatively close to their base at Akyab.

1/15 Punjab was part of 123rd Indian Infantry Brigade. It was one of the oldest battalions of the British Indian Army that had been originally raised as the 25  Punjabis in 1857 and taken part in the Second Afghan War. 123 Brigade had spearheaded the advance by 14 Division on the east of the Mayu River but in early February 1943 had failed to capture the key position of Rathedaung opposite Donbaik. The inexperience of the brigade and its units (including 1/15 Punjab) was demonstrated by the fact that the attack was launched against well prepared positions in daylight with insufficient artillery and no smoke to cover the assault. Across the river an attack on Donbaik (opposite Rathendaung) also failed and as 14 Division started falling back against relentless Japanese pressure, 1/15 Punjab went under command the 55 Indian Infantry Brigade and ultimately was deployed in the area of Buthidaung.

Badge of the 25 Punjabis and their successors the 1/15 Punjab Battalion

In early April 1943, a regiment of the 55 Division routed a British brigade by crossing the precipitous and jungle covered Mayu Range (at a point where British officers had regarded the range as impassable) and cut the track along the River Naf. It now advanced northwards towards Maungdaw while a second regiment advanced up the valley of the River Mayu. A Japanese force also advanced along an elephant trail on the spine of the Mayu Range and broke through 7/15 Punjab that was sent to oppose it. At this belated stage the headquarters of the Indian XV Corps under Lieutenant General Slim took charge of the Arakan Front. Slim rightly anticipated that the Japanese were heading for the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road to cut the LoC of the brigades in the Kalapanzin river valley and if his brigades in the river valley held their positions, there was an opportunity to trap and destroy the Japanese force advancing along the Mayu Range.  The defense formed a horseshoe with a British battalion and two companies of 1/15 Punjab deployed at its apex in the area of the tunnels on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road, and two battalions were tasked to encircle the Japanese as they neared the road and slam the trapdoor shut.

Lt Syed Ghaffar Mehdi was serving as a company officer with the remainder of the battalion deployed in the area of Buthidaung. He belonged to an illustrious family which traced its lineage to Imam Hussain(RA) - the grandson of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) - who was martyred at Karbala.

Maj S. G. Mehdi, as a company commander at the PMA, 1948 - Image Courtesy - Haider Raza Mehdi

He had been commissioned only six months earlier and probably joined the battalion during its failed attack on Rathendaung. Like the rest of the division, he had no training in jungle warfare but the action for which he was awarded a Military Cross shows that he had quickly grasped the essentials. And what he didn’t know, he made up for with sheer guts and determination. By the end of April, the Japanese, advancing in small and well dispersed groups to escape detection, had contacted the defenses along the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road. On the night of the 2nd of April, S. G. Mehdi led a small reconnaissance patrol to determine if the Japanese were present in a nullah. Finding strong evidence of their presence, he probed further and clashed with a Japanese patrol.

There are two varying accounts of the subsequent action – one contained in his citation and the other in a beautiful obituary written by Syed Haider Raza Mehdi on the death of his father in 2015. His citation states that when the scouts gave warning of the approach of the Japanese, the officer set up an ambush and having allowed two enemy scouts to pass only 12 yards away, opened fire on the main body. The citation credits Mehdi with personally killing five of the seven Japanese and “[...] his blood soaked shoes amply testified to a daring act which was not only an inspiration to the men, but an example to his fellow officers”. The differing account recorded by his son is obviously based on what he was told by his father.
When the firing subsided, Mehdi found he was all alone. Ignoring a call to surrender, he surprised the Japanese from an unexpected direction and killed all ten of them

According to S. G. Mehdi, there was no planned ambush but a clash with a Japanese patrol in which both sides were equally surprised and opened fire as they hit the ground. When the firing subsided, Mehdi found he was all alone. Ignoring a call to surrender, he surprised the Japanese from an unexpected direction and killed all ten of them. He then searched for the bodies of his own patrol and when he found none, “[...]he collected the Samurai sword of the Japanese officer and other evidence of his encounter with the Japanese too gruesome to describe”. With his boots covered in blood up to his ankles he returned to the battalion headquarters. His patrol had bolted and informed the battalion that the ‘Captain Sahib’ had been gunned down while valiantly fighting and in spite of their best efforts they could not retrieve his body!

One can only guess why the battalion ‘spun a yarn’ in the citation that  differs so much from the actual account. But it was probably done to cover up the timidity of the other troops involved in that action.

In any case, the Japanese sword and the other ‘gruesome evidence’ that Mehdi brought back was proof enough of his deed and valour. It earned him an MC. It also earned him the nickname of ‘Killer’ Mehdi, that stuck with him throughout his career. The citation was endorsed by General Auchinleck, C-in-C India on the 15th of July 1943, only a few weeks after he resumed command of the British India Army and appeared in a Gazette Notification on the 19th of August the same year.

Gallantry award winners from 1/15 Punjabis - S. G. Mehdi is first from the right, in the back (standing) row

“The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards in recognition of the gallant and distinguished service in Burma – The Military Cross – Second-Lieutenant Syed Ghaffar Mehdi, 15th Punjab Regiment, Indian Army.”

Apparently the officer had such short service that he had not yet been allotted an Indian Army Number and it neither appears on the citation nor in the gazette notification!

However, coming back to the events of May 1943, Slim’s plan to trap the Japanese unfortunately failed. A British battalion was defending Point 551, a key hill feature for protecting the approach to the tunnels on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road. The Japanese had a very low opinion of the fighting capabilities of the British soldiers. A captured Japanese diary had the following entry for 2 April 1943: “The troops opposing us are British and have no will to fight and are just knocked down in the stride of our attack.” On 4 May as Slim prepared to order two Indian battalions to surround the Japanese, the British battalion at Point 551 gave way, allowing the Japanese to cut the Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road. Counter-attacks failed and the British and Indian troops in Buthidaung and the Kalapanzin Valley were cut off. As there was no other route for motor vehicles across the Mayu Range, they were forced to destroy their transport before retreating north up the valley. Two divisions of the British Indian Army had been outfought and defeated by two regiments of the 55 Japanese Infantry Division. Things may have gone differently if the entire 1/15 Punjab had been made responsible for the defence of Point 551 and the tunnels.

Official account of 'Killer' Mehdi's actions

Apparently the officer had such short service that he had not yet been allotted an Army Number!

There is no record of where ‘Killer’ Mehdi served during the rest of the war but it is most likely he remained with the battalion in Burma. 1/15 Punjab had fought well in the Arakan (earning four MCs in the course of the campaign) and was converted into the division reconnaissance battalion for the 19th Indian Infantry Division. Known as the ‘Dagger’ Division and commanded by a famous commander, Maj. Gen. ‘Pete’ Rees, it played a very important role in the counteroffensive by the Fourteenth Army particularly in the capture of Mandalay. As a recce battalion, 1/15 Punjab was always at the spearhead and when the Union Jack and the insignia of the Dagger Division was raised on Fort Duffrin, alongside it flew the flag of 1/15 Punjab.

Geography of the Mayu Range and the valleys of the River Naf and Kalapanzin, with the Maungdaw-Buthindaung Road and the tunnels in the foreground

After the war S.G. Medhi had the honour to serve as an instructor at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun where in December 1946, Auchinlek aka the Auk (who had recently been promoted to Field Marshal) formally awarded him the Military Cross, whose citation he had signed three years earlier.

Author’s Note: Information on the campaign and the role of 1/15 Punjab have been extracted from ‘Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War 1939-45. Campaigns in the Eastern Theatre. The Arakan Operations 1942-45’. Information on S. G. Mehdi has been obtained from ‘Col. S. G. Mehdi MC. The passing away of a Great Warrior’ by Syed Haider Raza Mehdi.