Royal Marines in the Indian Ocean

Royal Marines in the Indian Ocean

Background to the Project

This web site presents histories of Royal Marines units that served on islands in the Indian Ocean, in Ceylon, India, Burma and South-East Asia during World War 2.  Few Royal Marines came face-to-face with the Japanese in combat but they played a vital role in constructing and defending bases important to the success of the campaign in Burma.

While researching another project, it became apparent that a better understanding was needed of the role played by Royal Marines gunners in the defence of India, Ceylon and various islands in the Indian Ocean.  The main interest was the anti-aircraft artillery which soon spread to include the coastal defence artillery.  There have been several published works which touch on this subject but none which provide the detail needed.  The result was many trips to The National Archives to consult unit war diaries and other files; a research project disrupted at times, especially by closures in response to Covid 19.  This sideways step from the main research resulted in a significant new project.

Advanced Bases – An Adaptable Organisation

Perhaps the most famous of Royal Marines units of World War 2 are the Commandos, who fought in Norway, the Middle East, Sicily, Italy, on D-Day and elsewhere in North West Europe as well as two Commando units that fought in the Arakan, Burma.  It is also well known, perhaps, that Royal Marines served on all major Royal Navy warships in all naval theatres of operations.  Royal Marines crewed many of the landing craft used on D-Day; carrying British, Canadian and, yes, American soldiers to the Normandy beaches.  These men went on to provide landing and close-support craft crews for the landing at Walcheren in November 1944.  Other Marines served in the infantry brigades of the Royal Marine Division before becoming Commandos and landing-craft crews. 

Less well known are the infantry, the anti-aircraft and coastal defence gunners and their comrades of the landing and construction units.  It is these units which make up the main subject of the histories presented here.  These Marines were organised into a ‘Royal Marines Group’ which formed part of a ‘Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation’, of which there came to be two, known as M.N.B.D.O. I and II.  The concept for these ‘Organisations’ was the development and initial defence of an advanced naval base.  Each M.N.B.D.O. included fully-formed and equipped anti-aircraft, searchlight, coastal defence and infantry units, together with landing and maintenance troops to transport, land and construct defences for these units.  The bases to be defended were to be established on territory already under British control.  The M.N.B.D.O was not intended to act as an assault formation that might seize an enemy-held base or anchorage.

The establishment of a naval base was to be preceded by a reconnaissance carried out by senior officers of the M.N.B.D.O headquarters.  Based on the outcome of the reconnaissance, a plan for the facilities and defences of the proposed base would be drawn up.  With naval support, the M.N.B.D.O. would then deploy to establish the base, its anchorage, shore facilities and defences.  It was not expected that the M.N.B.D.O. would have to face enemy action, other than air raids or possible attacks from naval raiders or saboteurs.  Having established the base, its ongoing development and defence would be handed over to other units and the M.N.B.D.O. withdrawn for deployment elsewhere.

Coast defence gun being installed at Addu Atoll by Royal Marines.

Coast defence gun being installed at Addu Atoll by Royal Marines.

(Imperial War Museum)

Anticipating a war with Japan, the British Admiralty planned to reinforce and operate within the Far East theatre with the help of a number of naval bases in the Indian Ocean.  Before the war, Singapore was the major British naval base in the Far East.  In addition to facilities in India, there were also significant naval bases in Ceylon; at Colombo and Trincomalee.  The Admiralty planned to supplement these with a chain of refuelling bases to be built on islands in the Indian Ocean.  The most important islands for this purpose were: the Seychelles; Diego Garcia in the Chagos Islands, Addu Atoll in the Maldives; and Nancowry in the Nicobar Islands.  As can be seen on a map, these islands provided well-placed stopping points on the main route from the Middle East to the Far East.

Construction and Defence

The Royal Marines of M.N.B.D.O. I arrived in Egypt from the United Kingdom at the end of April 1941.  Some of their number -  anti-aircraft and coastal defence gunners and searchlight crews - were sent to Crete in May, where they subsequently fought mainly as infantry until the withdrawal at the end of the month.  The first deployment in the Indian Ocean began later in 1941.  Following a reconnaissance mission in the middle of the month, on 20th September 1941 the 1st Coast Regiment and L&M Unit – organised as Forces ‘Piledriver’ and ‘Shortcut – sailed from Egypt for Addu Atoll in the Maldives.  While work continued at Addu Atoll, in November 1941 Force ‘Shortcut’ landed coast defence guns at Diego Garcia. 

The rapid advance of the Japanese forced the Admiralty to abandon the plan for a base at Nancowry in the Nicobar Islands and for the time being the Marines were retained in Ceylon.  In February 1942, Force ‘Viper’ was formed there and sent to Burma where it operated river steamers in support of the Army.  February 1942 also saw the arrival in Ceylon of the 1st R.M. Anti-Aircraft Brigade from Egypt.  In addition to bolstering the anti-aircraft defences of the island, the Brigade Headquarters also assumed command of all anti-aircraft defences in Ceylon.  There was further construction work at Diego Garcia, the Seychelles and Addu Atoll.  Royal Marines infantry, anti-aircraft and coastal defence gunners and searchlight crews played an important role in the defence of Ceylon through to the end of 1943.  In 1943, these Marines were re-organised once again; this time with the aim of supporting amphibious landings then being planned as part of the re-conquest of Burma.  In 1943, the 1st R.M. A.A. Brigade left Ceylon for India to train in this role with the Army.  When these operations were cancelled or postponed, the Marines were withdrawn to the United Kingdom in early 1944 where they were urgently needed for D-Day.  The majority of the returned units were disbanded, the men being posted as Commandos, landing craft crews and anti-aircraft gunners.

No Tropical Holiday

In constructing and defending the island bases, the Marines suffered great hardship.  The islands were not the tropical paradises we might imagine.  There were few if any facilities and everything the Marines needed they had to bring with them or construct for themselves.  For long periods of time, the men lived on board ship, modified for this purpose and anchored just off shore, until tented camps could be set up on land.  Disease was also prevalent.  Such was the scale of sickness encountered at Addu Atoll in October and November 1941, that there were serious concerns for the men and the success of their mission.  A hospital ship was quickly despatched to tend to the sick.  The detachment known as Force ‘Shortcut’, after spells at Addu Atoll and Diego Garcia, was sent to Ceylon In December 1941 to recuperate at the Royal Navy Rest Camp at Diyatalawa.  While building defences on the Seychelles in July 1942, there was an outbreak of diphtheria which required the men to work on but in quarantine.  Work at Addu Atoll was ongoing throughout 1942 and 1943 and sickness remained a continuous problem.  By 1st March 1943, only 41% of the No.1 Landing Company was completely fit.  The sick were once again accommodated on a hospital ship and at the end of March 1943 a convalescent party was sent to Ceylon to recuperate.

Royal Marines training at Ceylon, September 1943.

Royal Marines training, Ceylon - September 1943. A 6-inch coast defence gun is being dismounted and transferred to a trailer for transportation.

(Imperial War Museum)

Marines also experienced the dangers of combat.  Of the 106 men who as Force ‘Viper left Ceylon for Burma in February 1942, only 58 survived to reach India.  Others became casualties later in the war while serving with the raiding and intelligence gathering unit, Royal Marine Detachment 385.  In early April 1942, the Japanese launched two aircraft carrier raids on Ceylon, at Colombo and Trincomalee.  ‘A’ Troop, 22nd L.A.A. Battery, R.M. claimed three hits on enemy aircraft during the raid on Colombo.  Following the raid on Trincomalee on 9th April, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Batteries, R.M. each claimed two enemy planes destroyed whilst the 22nd L.A.A. Battery, R.M. claimed four.  Although the Japanese were never to return, the threat remained for some time after and the island remained heavily defended.  In addition to their primary role as gunners or searchlight crews, at times all units were prepared and trained as infantry to defend vital installations against any Japanese raid.

By the time the Marines left for the United Kingdom in early 1944, included amongst their ranks were officers and men who had seen service in Norway, Iceland, Crete, Egypt, the Indian Ocean Islands, Ceylon, Burma and India.  Their war was not over and they were to see action once again in North West Europe as landing craft crews, Commandos and anti-aircraft gunners – the latter in action at times against the German V1 flying bombs.  For the Royal Marines of M.N.B.D.O. I, it was a well-travelled and at times dangerous war.

The Royal Marines

The units of the Royal Marines within the scope of this project are:

Royal Marines Group, M.N.B.D.O. I:-
            - 1st R.M. A.A. Brigade,
                        - 1st A.A./H.A.A. Regiment, R.M.,
                        - 2nd A.A. Regiment, R.M.,
            - 1 Mobile Naval Base Brigade,
            - 3 Mobile Naval Base Brigade,
- No.11 Searchlight Regiment, R.M.,
            - 11th Battalion, R.M.,
            - 24th Battalion, R.M.,
            - 1st Coast Regiment, R.M.,
            - 3rd Coast Regiment, R.M.,
            - Landing and Maintenance Unit, R.M.,
            - Force ‘Viper’,
            - 'P' and ‘Q’ Companies, Royal Marine Engineers.

[Please see the menu options in the side bar (to the top left of your screen) for links to the unit histories.]

Other units of the Royal Marines known to have served in the Far East theatre include:

3rd Commando Brigade:-
            - 42 Commando,
            - 44 Commando.

Royal Marine Detachment 385.

34th Amphibious Support Regiment.

20 November 2023