Imagine this: You’re a soldier who’s part of a force that was outflanked by the enemy on a faraway tropical island. The plan was to meet up with another group of soldiers on the other side of the island to strengthen your forces. But to do this, you would have to brave your way to a thick, muddy swamp that was basically the dining room of crocodiles. If you choose to stay, then that would mean enemy troops would soon find and capture your small group. Which would you choose?

This exactly was the dilemma of the Japanese soldiers on Ramree Island during the near end of World War II, which resulted in the deadliest crocodile feast ever.

Operation Matador

From January 14 to February 22, 1945, an encounter known as the Battle of Ramree Island or Operation Matador ensued between the Japanese and British forces as part of the XV Indian Corps’ offensive in the Burma campaign. At that time, the British forces wanted to create an airbase on Ramree Island to launch more attacks against the Japanese forces, which in turn chose to hold the island. This caused a battle that lasted for six weeks.

Men of the 26th Indian Infantry Division preparing a meal beside a temple on Ramree Island, January 1945
Men of the 26th Indian Infantry Division preparing a meal beside a temple on Ramree Island, January 1945. (Wackett A (Sgt), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ramree Island in the Bay of Bengal is now known as Rakhine State. It was an area separated from the mainland Arakan coast by a strait about 150 meters wide. In early 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army captured the island during the invasion of Burma. In January 1945, the Fourteenth Army arrived on Ramree and its neighboring island Cheduba, ready to establish airfields that would be the supply area during the mainland campaign.

On January 21, the 26th Indian Division attacked Ramree while the Royal Marine detachment settled on Cheduba Island. The Japanese garrison Ramree, on the other hand, consisted of the 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment led by Colonel Kanichi Nagazawa, with artillery and engineer detachments assigned to build and protect the airfields.

British troops in a landing craft make their way ashore on Ramree Island, on 21 January 1945.
British troops in a landing craft made their way ashore on Ramree Island on 21 January 1945. (Official photographer Sergeant Wackett of No.9 Army Film and Photographic Unit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The British Royal Marines and the 36th Indian Infantry Brigade managed to outflank the Japanese position, and split the garrison into two groups, resulting in about 1,000 Japanese soldiers being isolated from the rest. The British sent a message to the smaller Japanese group inviting them to surrender, as they were trapped and cut off from the main body. To the Japanese, however, surrendering was not an option. Instead they attempted an eight-mile journey through a perilous mangrove swamp to try and rejoin the rest of their troops.

It was there that they encountered an enemy even more formidable than the British Royal Marines and India troops.

Waiting for them in that vast swamp were Saltwater Crocodiles.