Crocs in Wartime

This article is not about the zoo, but about a particular species of crocodile known as the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). This is a saltwater species, something of which I wasn’t aware. In India, the reptile is the alligator and it infests the fresh water rivers and lakes in the Ganga to the Cauvery. However there is a sprinkling of saltwater crocodiles along the east coast of India. The Al Ain zoo includes a saltwater reptile and he looks a ferocious monster. Just looking at him sends shivers down the spine.

The saltwater crocodile is the most ferocious of the reptiles and also grows to gigantic size. It is also a meat-eater. 1 particular episode during World War II, brings out the fierce character of the monster. The saltwater crocodile has its habitat in swamps and mangroves near the sea in the entire East Indies, Burma and the Philippines. There’s 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’s very strong and large and it is not uncommon to have a reptile growing to a size of 15-30 feet and weighs over 2000 pounds. It’s 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. The island is close to the coast of Burma 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 recorded and the British Indian army went to retreat as the Imperial army struck all across Burma. Thousands of soldiers of the 8th army were captured. There wasn’t much resistance 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 overall staff led by the C Field Marshal William Slim was keen that the island of Ramree be seized and an airfield be constructed there for distribution lines to the troops operating in Burma.

In early January 1945, the Indian 26th division under Major General HM Chambers captured the town of Akyab. They holed up inside caves on the island, which overlooked the landing beaches. A decision was taken to get 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 hiding.

On 14 January the plan was set into operation and the Royal Navy started 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 success for Indian arms since the Japanese gave up the shore defences and retreated inwards. Maybe 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 and 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. Pupils of natural history tell us that the biggest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world is from 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 show that there was occasional shooting 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’s estimated that anything from 500-1000 Imperial army soldiers were devoured by the crocodiles. Bruce Stanley Wright has recorded that just about 20 Japanese army soldiers survived and were rescued and according to him up 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 a veracity of the episode. However the only authentic source of the information of a crocodile attack would be the notes of Wright. Most soldiers who took part in the assault were illiterate and have expired long ago. All the same this narrative makes interesting reading. I do feel that there’s some truth in this episode 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 can visualize the plight of those Japanese soldiers that were literally between the devil and the deep-sea as they confronted the Indian troops and naval bombardment on one side and the crocodiles on the other side. This is what makes war history so interesting.