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.

Hundreds of them.

Massacred by Crocs

With lengths that could reach more than 23 feet and a weight of over 2,200 pounds, the saltwater crocodile is the largest reptile in the whole world. With its size, it is well capable of eating any animal that would get too close to its natural habitat, which is the swamps. The same thing applies to humans. With their ability to survive in totally saline water, humans are no match when it comes to size, speed, and agility in the water. according to paleontologists, the crocodile may be the best adapted creature on Earth as they are nearly identical(while being smaller) to their ancestors who are millions of years old.

The mangrove swamp of Ramree Island was one of their habitats, something that the Japanese forces were well aware of and willing to brave rather than being captured by the British forces. But it was not just the crocodiles that apparently wanted to feast on them when they entered the slimy swamp. Insects like spiders and mosquitoes, as well as poisonous snakes and scorpions, accompanied their journey. Add the other diseases, dehydration, and starvation these soldiers all suffered from.

As they got deeper into the swap, the nocturnal saltwater crocodiles began appearing and preying on them. As naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright who was part of the Battle of Ramree Island, detailed,

That night [of February 19, 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The crocodiles, alerted by the din of warfare and smell of blood, gathered among the mangroves, lying with their eyes above the water, watchfully alert for their next meal. With the ebb of the tide, the crocodiles moved in on the dead, wounded, and uninjured men who had become mired in the mud…

The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of the wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the splashing sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on Earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left.

Urban Myth?

According to the report, only 480 out of the 1000 troops who entered the swamp made it out alive. However, the exact number of how many died from the crocs’ attack was still uncertain as some died from diseases, dehydration, and starvation.

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Japanese troops firing a heavy machine gun. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, there were also doubts about whether the massacre really happened or not. As British author, biographer, historian, and journalist Frank McLynn wrote,

Most of all, there is a single zoological problem. If ‘thousands of crocodiles’ were involved in the massacre, as in the urban (jungle) myth, how had these ravening monsters survived before and how were they to survive later? The ecosystem of a mangrove swamp, with an exiguous mammal life, simply would not have permitted the existence of so many saurians before the coming of the Japanese (animals are not exempt from the laws of overpopulation and starvation).

While this is certainly true, it is also true that Crocodiles can go as long as a year without eating. Ramree island is also open to the Indian Ocean and saltwater crocodiles are just that, adapted to survive in saltwater and swim far out to sea if need be to feed, they would not be limited to just the ecosystem of the swamp itself.