The Salt Water Crocodile and World War II
I visited the Al Ain zoo about 150 km from Abu Dhabi. This article is not about the zoo, but about a particular species of crocodile called the saltwater crocodile( Crocodylus porosus). This is a saltwater species, something of which I was not aware. This species of reptile is native to the East Indies and the area of Central America. In India , the reptile is the alligator and it infests the fresh water rivers and lakes from the Ganga to the Cauvery. However there is a sprinkling of saltwater crocodiles along the east coast of India. The Al Ain zoo has a saltwater reptile and he looks a ferocious beast. Just looking at him sends shivers down the spine. One can imagine that an encounter with a human being can only have a one sided result.
The saltwater crocodile is the most ferocious of the reptiles and also grows to gigantic size. It is also a meat eater and one particular episode during World War II, brings out the ferociousness of the beast. The saltwater crocodile has its habitat in swamps and mangroves close to the sea in the entire East Indies, Burma and the Philippines. There is one tale of an encounter with the Imperial army on the island of Ramree, which is hair raising and incredible.
The saltwater crocodile as I have already mentioned is a voracious meat eater. In addition it is very strong and big and it is not uncommon to have a reptile growing to a size of 15-30 feet and weigh over 2000 lbs. It is the largest reptilian predator in the world. The books on natural history tell us that the saltwater crocodile infested in greatest numbers on the island of Ramree. For readers who may not be aware, the island is close to the coast of Burma close to Akyab on the Bay of Bengal. In 1942 the Imperial army struck and not only captured the islands of the Andamans, but also the island of Ramree. The battles in Burma are well documented and the British Indian army went into retreat as the Imperial army struck all across Burma. Thousands of soldiers of the 8th army were captured. There was not much resistence on the island of Ramree, but its strategic importance was great, as it overlooked the Bay of Bengal.
The island of Ramree was occupied by the Japanese who set up a garrison there. The island remained under Japanese occupation for 3 years. By December 1944, the British Indian army had broken the siege of Kohima and Imphal and moved into Burma. The advance into Burma was spearheaded by the26th Indian infantry division, consisting of mostly Sikhs and jats. The general staff led by the Cin C Field Marshal William Slim was keen that the island of Ramree be captured and an airfield be built there for supply lines to the troops operating in Burma.
In early January 1945, the Indian 26th division under Major General HM Chambers captured the city of Akyab. Many of the Imperial army retreated to the island of Ramree and thought it a fit place for defence. They holed up inside caves on the island, which overlooked the landing beaches. A decision was taken for a frontal attack and landing with a gun barrage from ships of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy drafted the Battleship Queen Elizabeth and many other warships for an incessant bombardment of the island and the caves, where the Imperial army soldiers were holed up.
On 14 January the plan was put into operation and the the Royal Navy began a heavy bombardment of known Japanese positions. Under cover of this heavy barrage the 71st Indian Infantry brigade of Sikhs under command of Brigadier RC Cotterell assaulted the island. It was a victory for Indian arms as the Japanese gave up the beach defences and retreated inwards. The Japanese however put up a determined defence and retreated towards the swamps. Perhaps they thought they would be safe from the advancing Sikh troops of the British Indian army.
A history of the battle reveals that the naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright was along with the Indian army and made meticulous notes. He records that the night of 19th January was particularly harrowing as the Japanese troops retreated towards the swamps. This was a terrible disaster for the Imperial army as the swamps were infested with the salt water crocodiles. Students of natural history tell us that the biggest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world is in the swamps and mangroves of Ramree.
The Retreating Japanese, to escape the incessant attacks of the British Indian regiment entered the swamps. It was a terrible time. The notes of that period reveal that there was intermittent firing all night long with cries of Japanese soldiers as they were attacked and eaten by the crocodiles. No exact figures are available, but the Guinness book records it as the single biggest crocodile attack on humans. It is estimated that anything from 500-1000 Imperial army soldiers were eaten up by the crocodiles. Bruce Stanley Wright has recorded that only about 20 Japanese army soldiers survived and were rescued and as per him upward of 1000 Japanese soldiers were attacked and eaten by the crocodiles.
Many historians debunk the tale of the massacre, but some facts do point to some veracity of the incident. However the only authentic source of this information of an crocodile attack are the notes of Wright. Most soldiers who took part in the assault were illiterate and have died long back. All the same this tale makes interesting reading. I do feel that there is some truth in this incident and though the figure of one thousand soldiers being eaten, may be an exaggeration, perhaps the figure could be close to 80-100.
The crocodile certainly inspires awe and I for one can visualize the plight of the Japanese soldiers who were literally between the devil and the deep sea as they faced the Indian troops and naval bombardment on one side and the crocodiles on the other side. This is what makes war history so interesting
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