The Burma Campaign was initiated when the Japanese invaded the British colony of Burma, modern-day Myanmar. The campaign was fought between Britain and China, with support from the US, on one side and the invading armies of Japan, supported by Thailand and the Indian National Army, on the other. The campaign began in 1942 with the Japanese attack. Failed attempts by the Allies to eject the enemy from Burma led to the conflict being prolonged into 1943 and beyond.
The Japanese had been planning the invasion of Burma for four years, and it was forced through with the same speed and resolve as elsewhere. As a springboard for the possible invasion of India, a means of keeping long-range enemy aircraft away from Malaya and especially of closing off the Allies’ Burma Road land route to China, thereby finally breaking the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s land communications with the outside world, the conquest of Burma was a vital military objective for the Staff planners in Tokyo.
A two-division detachment of Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida’s Fifteenth Army landed in Burma in the very south, at Victoria Point, and advanced northwards. It was not until after their Malayan and Philippines victories that the Japanese sent two more divisions into Burma, overcoming Lieutenant-General Thomas Hutton’s Indian Division, some British units and the local Burma Defence Force.
The first bombs fell on Burma’s capital, Rangoon. In the days that followed, as air raids continued, food distribution broke down. Many Rangoon inhabitants became scavengers, breaking into abandoned homes in search of anything edible. The numbers of victims quickly rose.
By the end of January 1942, Iida had driven Hutton’s forces out of Tavoy and Moulmein, and in February had comprehensively defeated him at the battle of Sittang River, where Hutton lost all his heavy equipment. As in Malaya, the British tended to concentrate on defending roads and cleared areas, and as a result were repeatedly outflanked by the Japanese. During the battle of Sittang River, Hutton was replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander, one of whose corps commanders was Major-General William Slim.
Burmese terrain included mountains, plains, jungles, coastal waters and wide rivers; Slim showed the highest qualities of generalship over all of them. Together he and Alexander coordinated the long retreat northwards out of Burma. The difficult decision was taken to abandon Rangoon where 100,000 tons of stores were captured by the Japanese two days later.
The Fifth and Sixth Chinese Armies entered Burma to cover the British retreat and try to protect the Burma Road. Chiang Kai-shek’s Chief of Staff, the tough-minded but rebarbative American General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, fought the battle of Yenangyaung, but could not make significant headway. The Japanese considered that the Chinese formations fought more bravely and energetically than the Commonwealth forces, but within days they were falling back northwards, eventually crossing the border into China. The pursuing Japanese were content to halt at the border.
After Yenangyaung the Japanese broke into the Shan plateau and forced the Chinese to flee northwards. Of the 95,000 Chinese, only one division managed to escape intact. Mandalay fell at the same time as Lashio, the southern terminus of the Burma Road. Of the 42,000 British, Indian and Burmese troops involved in the campaign, no fewer than 29,000 were casualties. Nonetheless, Alexander and Slim had managed to get 13,000 unwounded men back to Imphal in Assam province in India, after a 600-mile retreat from Sittang, the longest in British history.
It had been a momentous series of rearguard actions and last-minute escapes, but four fifths of Burma had fallen to the Japanese, whose casualties numbered only 4,597. This had the effect of further isolating China, which could now be supplied only by the USAAF pilots undertaking most of the 550-mile flights over 16,000-foot Himalayan mountain ranges to Yunnan province, nicknamed the Hump. It was a gruelling mission also known as the Aluminium Trail because of all the planes that had crashed along the way. The 1941-2 Burma Campaign only ended with the monsoon breaking in May.
Far East Commander-in-Chief Sir Robert Brooke-Popham reported, accurately enough, that many local people openly favored a Japanese victory: ‘It is rather disheartening, after all the years we have been in Burma and the apparent progress that has taken place under our rule, to find that the majority of the population want to be rid of us … I can only suggest the three things that are, at any rate, worthy of investigation. First a tendency [sic] among Englishmen to regard themselves as naturally superior in every way to any coloured race, without taking steps to ensure that this is always a fact. Secondly, a failure to develop a sympathetic understanding with the Burmese … Thirdly, the fact that the majority of non-official Englishmen in Burma were more concerned with making money … than benefiting the native population.’ A Burman could not have expressed the matter better.
For months following the expulsion of British forces from Burma, these were merely deployed in northeast India to meet the threat of a Japanese invasion. As this peril receded, however, it was replaced by a dilemma about future strategy. Winston Churchill admitted to the British cabinet in April 1943: ‘It could not be said that the [re]conquest of Burma [is] an essential step in the defeat of Japan.’ Yet if this was acknowledged, what were British and Indian forces to do for the rest of the war? After the humiliations inflicted on them in 1941-42, the London government was stubbornly determined to restore by force of arms the prestige of the empire in general, and of themselves in particular.
In December 1942, after the usual seasonal paralysis imposed by the monsoon, Wavell made a first tentative attempt to strike back, committing an Indian division against the port of Akyab, in the Arakan region of Burma facing the Bay of Bengal. Two attempted assaults failed, as did another thrust towards Donbaik in March 1943.
Commonwealth attempts to attack in the Arakan and retake Akyab failed, so the British resorted to a new type of warfare for their forces in Burma in 1943: long-range penetration jungle fighting. This innovative strategy was the brainchild of one of the most glamorous, unconventional and controversial figures of the war: General Orde Wingate. The Chindits, Wingate’s British, Indian and Gurkha troops of the 77th Indian Brigade, fought deep behind Japanese lines in northern Burma. The force soon found great popularity with the British public, which appreciated the high courage shown in spending long periods of time operating far behind enemy lines.
In the first Chindit sally, Operation Longcloth, Wingate crossed the Chindwin into Japanese-occupied northern Burma during the night with 3,000 men. Using mules for transportation and air drops for supplies, he marched 500 miles in order to harass the Japanese and cut their rail links. They succeeded in cutting the railway link between Mandalay and Myitkyina for four weeks. Thousands of Japanese were being diverted from other operations, especially against China, to try to swat the small force. Then, they blew up three important railway bridges in the Bongyoung region. By the end of March they retreated back towards British lines.
The three-month expedition also proved that Allied troops could survive in the jungle just as well as could the Japanese, an important psychological factor. The first expedition therefore helped to dissolve the myth of the invincible Japanese superman, a necessary precursor to building up the morale needed for eventual victory. The raid had nonetheless been very costly, and several regular soldiers questioned the value of the Chindits’ incursions into the Japanese strongholds of Pinbon, Mongmit and Mianyang. It was therefore decided that the Chindits should be launched on a second expedition in 1944, only this time with treble the forces.
In August 1943, the Japanese achieved a useful propaganda coup by declaring Burma an independent state. Many Burmans were briefly seduced. But in Burma as elsewhere, the occupiers’ arrogance, cruelty and economic exploitation progressively alienated their subjects. However eager the Burman people were to throw off British rule, evicting the Japanese became a more pressing concern. The autumn monsoon put an end to each year’s campaigning season on the India-Burma frontier as effectively as did the spring thaw in Russia. Thus, after the failure of British and Indian forces to break through in the Arakan, 1943 passed without significant progress on the Burma front.
Three Chindit brigades launched Operation Thursday, entering Burma in three separate places, with some landing by glider deep behind Japanese lines. This was far more ambitious than Longcloth had been, and was intended to cut off the Japanese Army of Upper Burma, threatening its rear as it marched towards the Imphal Plain. It was also hoped to cut the communications of the Japanese forces fighting against the Chinese armies in Burma. Within ten days the Chindits succeeded in taking Mawlu, cutting Japanese road and rail links and getting their ‘strongholds’ supplied by air. However they were unable to capture the Japanese supply base at Indaw.
An air crash at Imphal killed the forty-one-year-old Wingate, who had possibly been warned by the RAF that sudden rain storms made flying too dangerous at that time. ‘He died as he had lived,’ concludes one account of his campaigns, ‘ignoring official advice.’ Other accounts vigorously deny this, claiming that the weather and flying conditions were not as treacherous as has been made out. Like much else about his life, his death is surrounded with mystery and controversy.
The Chindits were reinforced by hundreds of extra troops flown in by glider in a daring operation. The conditions they faced were horrendous: monsoon rain that could turn a foxhole into a mud pit; constant attacks of diarrhea, malaria and any number of other tropical diseases; ingenious booby-traps and the ever present fear of them; highly accurate enemy mortar and sniper-fire; inaccurate maps; leeches; bad communications; reliance on village rumors for intelligence; sick and obstinate mules; low-nutrition food and bad water; mile upon mile of thick jungle in which it could take an hour to cut through 100 yards; the abandonment of the wounded and stragglers.
One problem that the Chindits had, besides the enemy and the terrible conditions, was the fact that General Stilwell considered them to be merely ‘shadow-boxing’ and a waste of time and effort. Yet Mike Calvert, by then a brigadier, took Mogaung with his Chindit 77th Special Force Brigade supported by two Chinese battalions.
After the last Chindits left Burma, half were admitted to hospital on their return, but after rest and special diets the formation – once reinforced – began training for its third operation before it was officially disbanded in February 1945. The Chindits left an example of human endurance extraordinary even for a conflict such as the Second World War.
In January 1944 the Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo authorized Operation U-Go, a Japanese invasion of India under the command of Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi. The operation’s goals were to forestall General Slim’s own advance into Burma, to close the Burma Road to China and, through the use of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, possibly to spark off a revolt against British rule in India.
The intention for 1944 was for Lieutenant-General Philip Christison to take Akyab, Stilwell’s Northern Combat Command to take Myitkyina, and Lieutenant-General Geoffrey Scoones’ Central Front to take Tiddim. Before any of that could happen, however, the U-Go offensive had to be repulsed.
In September 1943 South-East Asia Command (SEAC) had been founded with Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as its Supreme Commander, and the following month Slim’s Fourteenth Army was also set up. Mountbatten’s many critics, who included Britain’s service chiefs, regarded him as a poseur with a streak of vulgarity, promoted far beyond his talents on the strength of fluency, film-star good looks, and his relationship to the royal family. He was King George VI’s cousin, and never allowed anyone to be unaware of it for long. His grand title as Supreme Commander meant little, for he was denied executive direction of either armies or fleets.
Since 1941 the British and Indian armies had learned a lot about jungle fighting. First, dense cover and chronically limited views made conventional European tactics redundant. Light artillery was useful for keeping the enemy’s heads down, but unlikely to kill. Short-range weapons such as Tommy guns and grenades were most valued. Whereas in Europe artillery and automatic fire dominated the battlefield, in Burma marksmanship mattered. An unaimed bullet was likely to damage only vegetation. Communication was problematic, because portable radios seldom worked. Intensive training was essential, to make men respond instinctively to emergencies.
The Japanese unleashed Operation U-Go: one of their divisions struck in the south, a week later another crossed the Chindwin river in the center and another, under Lieutenant-General Sato Kotuku, in the north. Slim ordered two divisions to hold the Imphal perimeter, while another two fought on the Imphal Plain. With weak air support and inadequate supplies, the entire Japanese offensive stalled, and their army was starting to disintegrate. Their whole plan had gambled on being able to supply his forces from captured supplies, and when Slim’s forces broke the Japanese stranglehold, this was denied him. Although the Japanese retreated in formation, not one tank or heavy artillery piece could be saved.
Because of the mountainous Naga Hill region in the north, with jungle paths and narrow ridges 8,000 feet high, Slim assumed that Sato would have to try to capture Kohima with only a regiment; in fact the entire 31st Division arrived there. Kohima was considered the key to Imphal 80 miles to the south, Imphal to Dimapur and Dimapur the key to British India itself, which is why it was soon to see, in the writer Compton Mackenzie’s view, ‘fighting as desperate as any in recorded history’. The British were soon surrounded. However they managed to resist until relieved and the Japanese had to retreat.
The fighting at Kohima was some of the heaviest in the Burma campaign. Combatants fought in terrible conditions, even hand to hand in an ever shrinking perimeter. For weeks after the Japanese attack began, the issue seemed to hang in the balance. The infantrymen trudged forward to join the battle. Each day witnessed fierce small-arms and grenade battles at close quarters, as the Japanese charged again and again.
As a result of U-Go Mutaguchi was dismissed, along with the entire Fifteenth Army Staff, barring one officer. Burma was now open for Allied reconquest, and the British Army recrossed the Chindwin in November. ‘The consequences of Imphal and Kohima’, recorded their historian, ‘far transcended any British achievement in the Far East since December 1941.’ Of the over 150,000 Japanese soldiers engaged in the campaign, only a tiny number of sick and exhausted men staggered back to Burma. It had been Japan's costliest defeat on land in the whole war up to that point.
In the autumn of 1944, as Fourteenth Army began its own advance towards the Chindwin River and Burma, at first the Japanese could deploy only four very weak divisions against Slim’s six. In the north, Chinese divisions under Stilwell were making sluggish progress towards the clearance of the Burma Road between India and China. The scene was set for Fourteenth Army to commence its recapture of Burma.
While great land and sea battles were taking place further east on other fronts, General Slim’s British-Indian army was steadily making progress in expelling the Japanese from Burma. A landing on Akyab Island in the Arakan was scarcely opposed, and inland XXXIII Corps was marching towards the Irrawaddy river, while IV Corps was west of the Chindwin. The British crossed the Irrawaddy – a river three times the width of the Rhine in places – as Slim feinted towards Mandalay, when all the time his ultimate prize was Rangoon much further south.
The Burma Road to China was cleared. Meiktila was not to fall to the Allies until early March, but, when it did, Japanese forces further north were effectively cut off. The Allies were themselves almost cut off in Meiktila by Japanese counterattacks, but were resupplied by air. The scale of defeat of the Japanese can be gauged from the fact that whereas the 100 miles from the Irrawaddy to Pyawbwe had taken the Fourteenth Army two months to cover, the next 260 miles down the Rangoon road took only twelve days.
By the end of March, Slim had gained control of Burma’s road and rail network. Slim’s purpose was now to drive hard and fast for Rangoon. Mandalay fell to the Allies, after Slim’s brilliant strategy wrong-footed the Japanese on several occasions. Slim’s 600-mile retreat out of Burma in 1942, the victory over Operation U-Go at Imphal from April to June 1944 and subsequently the advance down Burma continually outmaneuvering the Japanese were each well executed.
Nationalist leader Aung San’s Japanese-sponsored Burma Defence Army prepared to change sides. Some British officers resisted the notion of providing arms to his nine battalions, fearing these would soon be used against themselves. However, Mountbatten, Allied Supreme Commander, overruled them and ordered SOE officers to work with the BDA, saying, ‘We shall be doing no more than has been done in Italy, Romania, Hungary and Finland.’ Aung San met Slim. They agreed to fight together, and when Slim’s army was within a hundred miles of Rangoon, BDA units suddenly attacked Japanese positions.
The British were at Pegu, fifty miles from Rangoon, amid torrential rain, a harbinger of the coming monsoon. On the south coast, an Indian division staged the amphibious assault Churchill had always wanted, and pushed forward to the capital against slight resistance. The Japanese army was shattered, and had lost almost all its guns and vehicles. It maintained isolated pockets of resistance to the end of the war, but faced slaughter as shattered units sought to break through Slim’s army, which was finally deployed along the Sittang river to cut off their escape into Siam. In the last months, the British suffered only a few hundred casualties.
The dramatic last stages of the war in Europe largely overshadowed the Allied victory in Burma, but this did not make it any less complete. The flag which had once flown over the city had been taken as a souvenir by the Japanese unit which seized it, and carried by them to the Aleutian campaign where it was recaptured by the Americans. At the Quebec Conference of 1943 Marshall had given it to Brooke; now it was run up in Rangoon once more. Plans for new operations toward Singapore were already being made at Mountbatten's Southeast Asia Command.