Burma Campaign
Japanese-British war in Burma
December 1941 - August 1945
author Paul Boșcu, March 2019
The Burma Campaign was fought primarily between the British and Japanese empires for control of the British held colony. As the war progressed both sides received aid from other factions: Britain from the US and China and the Japanese from the Indian National Army. The campaign for Burma commenced in 1942 with a Japanese invasion of the territory. This initial phase lasted only a few months and resulted in the expulsion of the British from the region. Afterwards the British organized a few guerilla style incursions in the now occupied territory, but no major battles were fought until 1944 when a major Japanese offensive into India was stopped at the battles of Imphal and Kohima. Afterwards the tide of war shifted by a series of Allied forces advancements into Burma. The region was reoccupied by the Allies by mid 1945.

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 conquerors, emboldened by their Malayan triumph, seized the opportunity to occupy British Burma as well, partly to secure its oil and natural resources, and partly to close the ‘Burma Road’ to China.

Alexander commanded the British troops which were forced steadily northwards as the Japanese drove first to Lashio, where the railway ended and the Burma road into China began, and then to the great center of Mandalay to the south and the other important railhead, Myitkyina to the north. Chinese forces helped in the defense, but no firm front could be held anywhere.

In the spring of 1944 the Japanese Army launched its ‘U-Go’ offensive toward Imphal and Kohima with the intention of seizing these towns as a base for a subsequent attack to cut the Assam railway at Dimapur, a mere thirty miles northwest of Kohima. The British and Indian soldiers fought bravely and desperately, allowing themselves to be cut off and surrounded rather than simply retreating, and continued to fight instead of surrendering when surrounded. Additional troops were flown in and again supplied by air. In the end the Japanese had to retreat.

Without adequate reinforcements and under poor military leadership, the small forces defending Burma could not hold the advancing Japanese, who pushed forward across southern Burma and effectively cut off the remaining British units from their main supply route by sea, by seizing Rangoon. The few British reinforcements and belated Chinese units that could still get to Burma were quite incapable of halting the Japanese drive north. A new commander, General Sir Harold Alexander, was sent by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to take charge. He could add his calmness and good sense but little else.

The Japanese were successful in containing the efforts of the so-called Chindits, a special force organized by Orde Wingate to disrupt Japanese communications in the interior of Burma by the employment of columns of specially trained soldiers supplied by air. The remnants of Wingate's force were chased out, but at least he had shown that, contrary to the belief of many, British and Indian soldiers were not afflicted with some special hereditary incapacity for fighting effectively in Burma.

In the spring of 1945, Indian and British forces led by Major-General William Slim conducted a brilliantly successful campaign to recapture Burma. This was irrelevant to the outcome of the war – as both Slim and Churchill anticipated from the outset – because the United States Navy had already established a stranglehold on Japan in the Pacific. But it did something to restore the battered confidence and fallen prestige of the British Empire, and laid bare Japan’s vulnerability.

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.

Burma had been part of the British Empire since Winston Churchill’s father Lord Randolph annexed it when he was secretary for India in 1886. The country was rich in oil and minerals, and would be an important staging post for the Allies in any attempted counterattack against the Axis powers.

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 Japanese were supported by Burman nationalists under the command of Aung San, who sabotaged British lines of communication in the naive expectation that Burma would receive genuine independence from Tokyo.

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.

After one raid, to the horror of the Rego family, their youngest son Patrick vanished. As his brothers scoured the streets for him, they came upon a van laden with corpses and severed limbs. They glimpsed a woman who cried out from under the heap of bodies, ‘I’m not dead! Please take me out!’ Then more dead were thrown on top of her, and the van was driven away. Patrick reappeared unharmed, but the children never forgot the woman trapped among corpses.

When British soldier Robert Morris landed at Rangoon, he found chaos: ‘All we saw were blazing fires and oil dumps set alight. Mounds of equipment such as aircraft marked “Lease-Lend to China from USA” lay in crates awaiting assembly. The number of lorries lined up ready for shipment to China amazed us. The port had been deserted and ransacked.’

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.

From a modest background, Slim had fought at Gallipoli, had been wounded fighting with the Gurkhas, had won the Military Cross and had been wounded again in Mesopotamia, ending the Great War as an Indian Army major. He had none of the vanity and ego of commanders like Bernard Montgomery and George Patton, yet tactically and strategically he was certainly their equal.

The first crisis of the campaign came at a bridge across the Sittang eighty miles north of the town. As the Japanese approached in darkness, British engineers fired demolition charges. Two of Smyth’s brigades were cut off east of the river. All but a handful of men were obliged to surrender, dealing a crippling moral and strategic blow.

Lt. John Randle of the Baluch Regiment was holding a position west of the Salween river when he realised Japanese troops were behind him. ‘I sent my runner, the company bugler, with a message to my CO to tell him there were a lot of Japs about. They cut in behind us and we could hear the runner screaming as they killed him with swords and bayonets … The Japs butchered all our wounded.’ His battalion lost 289 men killed and 229 taken prisoner in its first engagement. Randle said: ‘We were arrogant about the Japs, we regarded them as coolies. We thought of them as third rate. My goodness me, we soon changed our tune. The Japs fought with great ferocity and courage. We had no idea about jungle fighting, no pamphlets, doctrine etc. Not only were we raw troops, we were trying to do something entirely new.’

Sir Harold Alexander arrived to take command. The impeccable ‘Alex’, Churchill’s favorite general, could only contribute his unfailing personal grace and serenity to what now became a rout. Initially he ordered a halt to the British retreat, then within twenty-four hours accepted that Rangoon could not be held and endorsed its evacuation.

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.

Colonial mastery crumbled as swiftly and ignominiously in Burma as in Malaya. A host of Indian fugitives took to the jungle or set out westwards, including the low-caste ‘sweepers’ who emptied their rulers’ ‘thunderboxes’ and cleaned the streets. Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, the governor, reflected ruefully on the revelation that such people were indispensable to sahibs’ lives: ‘Life begins with the sweeper. That lowest of all human beings, who holds in his hands the difference between health and disease, cleanliness and filth.’ The civilian administration rapidly collapsed, and so too did the defense.

By early March Rangoon was a ghost city, where the remaining policemen and a small British garrison skirmished with mobs of looters. Fighter pilots of Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, transferred to Burma from China, sustained the only significant resistance to Japanese air attacks. The defense was collapsing. British liaison officer W.E. Abraham reported from Rangoon: ‘The general atmosphere of gloom was almost impossible to describe. GHQ at Athens when getting out of Greece was almost light-hearted by comparison.’

Archibald Wavell was haunted by memories of the allegations of pessimism and defeatism thrown at him by Churchill before his 1941 sacking as Middle East Commander-in-Chief. In South-East Asia, he strove to show himself a man of steel, to put spine into his subordinates. ‘Our troops in Burma are not fighting with proper spirit,’ he signalled London. ‘I have not the least doubt that this is in great part due to lack of drive and inspiration from the top.’ In truth, so much was wrong with Britain’s Far East forces that the rot was unstoppable in the midst of a Japanese offensive. Wavell seemed to acknowledge this in another signal to London: ‘I am very disturbed at lack of real fighting spirit in our troops shown in Malaya and so far in Burma. Neither British, Australians or Indians have shown real toughness of mind or body … Causes go deep, softness of last twenty years, lack of vigour in peace training, effects of climate and atmosphere of East.’

The invaders missed a priceless opportunity to trap the entire British army in Burma when a local Japanese commander withdrew a strong roadblock closing the road north. Misinterpreting his orders, he supposed that all the attacking forces were intended to close on Rangoon for a big battle. This fumbled pass allowed Alexander’s force to retreat northwards – and the general himself to escape captivity.

The British government pleaded with Australia’s prime minister, John Curtin, to allow two Australian formations in transit between the Middle East and their threatened homeland to be diverted to Burma. Curtin refused, and was surely right: the Australians, fine and experienced soldiers though they were, could not have turned the tide in a doomed campaign.

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.

In desperation, Wavell accepted Chiang Kai-shek’s offer of two Chinese Nationalist divisions with their supporting elements. Chinese willingness to join the campaign was not altruistic. The Japanese advance in the north had closed the ‘Burma Road’, by which American supplies reached China. Reopening it was a vital Chinese interest.

Wavell’s caution about accepting assistance from Chiang’s troops was prompted by knowledge that they lacked their own supply system and aspired to live off the land. There were also doubts about who gave their orders: US Gen. Joseph Stilwell claimed that he did, only to be contradicted by Chinese Gen. Tu Lu Ming, who told Burma’s governor, Dorman-Smith: ‘The American general only thinks he is commanding. In fact he is doing no such thing. You see, we Chinese think that the only way to keep the Americans in the war is to give them a few commands on paper. They will not do much harm as long as we do the work!’

Stilwell, an inveterate anglophobe, was underwhelmed by his first meeting with Alexander. He wrote in his diary with accustomed sourness: ‘Astonished to find me – mere me, a goddam American – in command of Chinese troops. “Extrawdinery!” Looked me over as if I had just crawled out from under a rock!’ Stilwell was given the assistance of a British-led Frontier Force mounted unit, for reconnaissance duties.

Rangoon by sea. The Japanese struck hard at the Chinese in the north. The British counterattacked to relieve pressure on their allies, but the enemy prevailed on both fronts. Slim’s Burcorps, struggling to avert complete collapse on the east bank of the Irrawaddy, called for Chinese assistance. Stilwell was predictably contemptuous, writing: ‘Riot among British soldiers at Yenangyaung. British destroying the oil fields. GOOD GOD. What are we fighting for?’

To the astonishment of Stilwell as well as the British, a Chinese division, led by one of Chiang’s ablest officers, Gen. Sun Li-Jen, pushed back the Japanese and achieved a notable little victory. Although an imperial formation was almost wiped out in the fighting around the Irrawaddy, Slim emerged from the battle full of respect for Gen. Sun’s men, whose intervention was decisive in enabling the British to avert the annihilation of Burcorps.

Stilwell, who bore substantial personal responsibility for mishandling the Nationalists under his command, abandoned them and set off westwards with a motley party of Americans, press correspondents and just two Chinese. He walked through the jungle for two weeks before reaching the safety of Imphal, in British-ruled Assam. Stilwell wrote: ‘We got a hell of a beating. It was as humiliating as hell. We ought to find out why it happened and go back!’

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.

‘They looked like scarecrows,’ Slim said of his troops. ‘But they looked like soldiers, too.’ He also recalled the heart-rending sight of a four-year-old child in Imphal trying to spoon-feed her dead mother from a tin of evaporated milk.

The attacks in Mandalay started fires which burned down much of the city. Bodies lay unburied for days, intensifying popular contempt for British incompetence. With a symbolism that did not go unnoticed, flowers in the colonists’ gardens began to die, because the servants who watered them had abandoned their posts. The British bosses of the Burma Corporation washed their hands of their local staff, shrugging that they could do nothing for them.

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.

Service in Burma, believed George MacDonald Fraser, who fought in the 17th (Black Cat) Indian Division was, with the sole exception of Bomber Command, ‘generally believed to be the worst ticket you could draw in the lottery of active service’. Nor was this just because of the nature of the enemy; there were also 15-inch poisonous centipedes, malaria, spiders the size of plates, typhus, jungle sores on wrists and ankles, dysentery and leeches with which to contend. And of course the weather. Fraser described a Burmese monsoon in his war memoirs Quartered Safe Out Here: ‘There are the first huge drops, growing heavier and heavier, and then God opens the sluices and the jets of a million high pressure hoses are being directed straight down, and the deluge comes with a great roar… after that the earth is under a skin of water which looks as though it’s being churned up by buckshot. Before you know it you are sodden and streaming, the fire’s out, the level in the brew tin is rising visibly, and the whole clearing is a welter of blaspheming men trying to snatch arms and equipment from the streams coursing underfoot.’

Just as the Russians had been saved by the weather outside Moscow in autumn 1941, so were the British saved by the weather on the Indian-Burmese border the following spring. ‘It’s a horrible World at present,’ Clementine Churchill wrote to her husband. ‘Europe overrun by the Nazi hogs, and the Far East by yellow Japanese lice.’ Once one has discounted the terminology that was typical of her generation, it was true that the Germans and Japanese seemed totally in the ascendant.

Throngs of Indians too poor to purchase tickets to salvation were obliged to take to the roads and tracks north and westwards, towards Assam. The monsoon broke in May; thereafter, rain and mud clogged the passage alike of the fortunate in cars and the impoverished afoot. They were robbed and sometimes raped; they paid exorbitantly for scraps of food; succumbed to dysentery, malaria and fever. At ferries and roadblocks, their last rupees were extracted by avaricious policemen and villagers. No one knows exactly how many Indians died in the spring and summer of 1942 on the road to Assam, but it was at least 50,000, and perhaps more.

Slim’s men were safely across the Irrawaddy. They then retreated westward preceded by a rabble of deserters and looters, who behaved with predictable savagery towards the civilian population. Burcorps began its withdrawal across the Chindwin river boundary between Burma and India under Japanese fire. The Burma Rifles platoon defending Slim’s headquarters melted away into the night. Even when the fugitives reached safety, they found no warm welcome. ‘The attitude of the army [in India] to those of us back from Burma was appalling,’ said Corporal William Norman. ‘They blamed us for the defeat.’

Few Burmans attempted to flee before the Japanese, because they believed they had nothing to fear from their victory, and much to hope for. But almost a million Indians also lived in the country. As the invasion tide swept forward, the British did nothing to assist the flight of some 600,000 of these, their dependants. British conduct highlighted the breakdown of the supposed imperial compact, whereby native peoples received protection as the price of accepting subjection. Rich fugitives bought airline tickets or cabins aboard ships bound for India. Indians bitterly dubbed the ferry up the Chindwin ‘the white route’, because access was almost the exclusive privilege of the British and Eurasians.

Alexander’s beaten army was rebuilt only sluggishly and unconvincingly: two long years would elapse before it was able to meet the Japanese with success. In August 1942, the general himself was transferred to command Britain’s forces in the Middle East.

The memory of that terrible Burma spring, and of its victims, remained imprinted upon the minds of all who witnessed it. Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru, from the Indian prison cell to which he had been consigned by the British, commented with disdain on the collapse of government in Burma and the flight of colonial officials, who abandoned hundreds of thousands of his compatriots to their fate: ‘It is the misfortune of India at this crisis in her history not only to have a foreign government, but a government which is incompetent and incapable of organising her defence properly or of providing for the safety and essential needs of her people.’ This was just. The loss of Britain’s empire in South-East Asia brought disgrace as well as defeat upon its rulers, as Winston Churchill readily recognized.

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.

Dorman-Smith was yet another poor specimen of proconsulship. He professed himself baffled as to why, after a century of British rule, there was no Burmese loyalty to the Empire such as appeared to exist ‘among other subject nations’. Civil servant John Clague provided an easy answer: ‘We Europeans lived in a world where very often the people hardly counted in our human or intimate thoughts. No Burman belonged to the Moulmein Gymkhana. No Burman came to dinner and breakfast.’ Now, orders were issued that no Burman or Indian should be accommodated on refugee transports.

Maj. Gen. Sir John Smyth, newly appointed commander of 17th Indian Division deployed in the south beyond Moulmein, wrote later that the Burmans provided the invaders with eager assistance: ‘[The Japanese] not only got information of our every movement, but they got guides, rafts, ponies, elephants and all the things which we could not get for love, and only with great difficulty for money.’

Mi Mi Khaing, a twenty-five-year-old Burman woman who had studied at Rangoon University, wrote bitterly about the fashion in which her people were thrust into the war with no pretence of popular consultation. Hers was, she said, ‘a country which had lost proud sovereignty fifty years before, which had not yet gained a modern replacement for it, and which felt itself to be only incidentally in the path of the war monster’s appetite.’

By chance, Burmese Prime Minister U Saw was passing through the United States at the moment of Pearl Harbor. Impressions of American disarray and hysteria enhanced his contempt for the white races. Back in Burma shortly afterwards, Ultra decrypts revealed U Saw making overtures to the Japanese, which caused him to be exiled to East Africa. In such circumstances, British claims to be upholding the cause of democratic freedom by fighting in Burma seemed less than wholly convincing.

The invaders were astonished by the warmth of the welcome they received, especially from Burman youths. One of their liaison officers wrote: ‘It came to us how strong was their passion for independence.’ Burman villagers crowded around Japanese soldiers, offering them water. Soldiers were bewildered to be questioned in English, the only foreign language local people spoke. The commonest question was: ‘Has Singapore fallen?’ Lt. Izumiya Tatsuro said: ‘I answered proudly, “Yes, Singapore has fallen.”’

Burmans had always been hostile to colonial rule. Many acquiesced willingly to occupation by fellow Asians, until they discovered that their new masters were far more brutal than their former ones. By 1944, they had learned to hate the Japanese. They craved independence and, ironically, now looked to the British to secure it for them.

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.

If the Asian empire was not to be restored to its former glory, why should British soldiers sacrifice their lives to regain it? Herein lay uncertainties which afflicted strategy throughout the second half of the war, once the initial Japanese tide began to recede. What was Britain’s Far East campaign for? And what would follow victory? No more convincingly than the French or Dutch — the other major colonial powers in Asia, though they contributed nothing significant to the war effort in the region — did the British answer these questions.

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.

The British field commander, Lt. Gen. Noel Irwin, held a reckless press conference at which he sought to explain Allied setbacks by asserting that ‘in Japan the infantryman is the corps d’élite’, while the British ‘put our worst men into the infantry’. It would take years, he said, to train Indian troops to the necessary standard to beat the Japanese. Allied censors smothered publication of his remarks, but they reflected the defeatism, incompetence and incoherence prevailing among British commanders in the East. Churchill minuted the Chiefs of Staff: ‘I am far from satisfied with the way the Indian campaign is being conducted. The fatal lassitude of the Orient steals over all these commanders.’

Churchill fumed about the large forces deployed in north-east India, achieving wretchedly little; he once described the Indian Army as ‘a gigantic system of outdoor relief’ because of the small number of fighting divisions it provided. Some 450,000 mainly Indian troops, along with some British units, confronted 300,000 Japanese holding Burma, but little useful was done to prepare this army for battle. Lt. Dominic Neill of the Gurkhas – Britain’s beloved Nepalese mercenaries – who arrived in India in 1943, said: ‘Neither I nor my Gurkha soldiers received any tactical training whatsoever until we came face to face with the Japanese.’

In the latter part of 1942 and throughout 1943, Britain’s operations against the Japanese were desultory, even pathetic. Led by feeble commanders against an unflaggingly effective enemy, and with scant support from the government at home, troops failed in a thrust into the Burmese coastal region of the Arakan, and were obliged merely to hold their ground in north-east India. Embarrassingly, in the winter of 1943 the operations of six and a half British and Indian divisions were frustrated by just one Japanese formation.

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.

Churchill called Wingate ‘this man of genius who might well have become a man of destiny’ and likened him to Wingate’s relation Lawrence of Arabia, who had been a friend of Churchill’s. The heavy losses that his men suffered, on occasion having to abandon their wounded, makes Wingate’s military legacy something that historians continue to debate.

When fighting the Italians in Ethiopia and Arabs in Palestine – Wingate was an ardent Zionist – or indeed the Japanese, Wingate often found himself also ranged against the British military High Command, who tended to deeply distrust his unconventional methods. He struck his own men in both the Sudan and Palestine, hardly adding to his popularity. Yet as the writer Wilfred Thesiger, who served under him, pointed out, the defeat of 40,000 Italian-led troops by two battalions of Ethiopians and Sudanese could have been achieved only with Wingate in command.

Wingate could be unscrupulous, especially in leapfrogging senior officers by using his access to his admirer Churchill, and he made a fair number of enemies in the Fourteenth Army in building up his command from a brigade to a division, but for all the bitter criticisms of him he was undoubtedly one of the true originals.

The Chindits’ training in India was comprehensive, with bayonet practice followed by unarmed combat, jungle-craft lectures, use of the compass, map reading, two hours of fatigues in the afternoon, latrine-building and jungle-clearing with machetes. On exercise the Chindits would concentrate on blowing up bridges, disabling airfields and especially staging ambushes. Brigadier Michael Calvert, one of Wingate’s key lieutenants, later stated of this regime: ‘Most Europeans do not know what their bodies can stand; it is the mind and willpower which so often give way first. Most soldiers never realized that they could do the things they did… One advantage of exceptionally heavy training is that it proves to a man what he can do and suffer. If you have marched thirty miles in a day, you can take twenty-five miles in your stride.’

Born in India when his father was fifty-one, Wingate was raised a strict Nonconformist, who was thus excused chapel at Charterhouse. He came sixty-third out of sixty-nine candidates entering the Royal Military Academy Woolwich in 1921, and hardly shone there either, graduating fifty-ninth out of seventy. It was actual experience of guerrilla warfare in Palestine and Ethiopia that convinced Wingate that a small force could wage a new type of long-range penetration warfare beyond the Chindwin river. ‘If you’re in the Army you have to do something extraordinary to be noticed,’ he once said. He certainly achieved that in his comparatively short life.

Before the Chindit columns left India, Wingate made it plain that no casualties could be carried, and thus badly wounded men must be put out of their misery. This policy might have been merciful, given their inevitable fate in Japanese hands, but it proved hard for Allied soldiers to fulfil. After one Chindit action, Gurkha Lt. Harold James found himself obliged to follow Wingate’s orders: ‘I had a wounded Gurkha, shot to bits in great pain, and dying. After agonizing for a bit, I gave him a lethal dose of morphia … The Gurkhas were amazing, they just accepted it … To my horror I found another very seriously wounded Gurkha. I said, “I’ve just had to do it.” George looked at me as if to say “You do it again.” I protested, “There’s no way I’m going to do it twice.” He gave the chap a lethal dose.’

A Middle Eastern expert with guerrilla successes in the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Palestine, Wingate argued for unconventional warfare in Burma. Slim doubted Wingate would find the Japanese as impressionable as his Middle Eastern foes, and he resented Wingate’s influence with Churchill, who allowed Wingate to strip Fourteenth Army of some of its best British, Gurkha, and African troops.

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.

When the expedition began, Wingate’s Order of the Day stated: ‘Today we are on the threshold of battle. The time of preparation is over and we are moving on the enemy to prove ourselves and our methods… The battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift. Victory in war cannot be counted on, but what can be counted on is that we shall go forward determined to do what we can to bring this war to an end… Knowing the vanity of Man’s effort and the confusion of his purpose, let us pray that God may accept our service and direct our endeavours, so that when we shall have done all we shall see the fruit of our labours and be satisfied.’

Two Chindit columns, under Calvert and Major Bernard Fergusson (later Lord Ballantrae), crossed the Irrawaddy river with plans to destroy the strategic Gokteik Gorge railway viaduct. The east bank of the Irrawaddy, however, with its lack of adequate cover, made it much more difficult to operate there than in the jungle on the west side of the river.

Although they were successfully supplied by air, food and sustenance were limited and constant forced marches burnt up energy. The fighting was fierce, too, and almost always against heavy odds. With three Japanese divisions advancing on them, the Chindits moved north towards India and eventual escape, crossing back over the Chindwin in the second half of April 1943. Before they returned, however, they set an ambush for the enemy in which a hundred Japanese were killed at the cost of one Chindit.

The fighting the Chindits had to undertake, and the appalling conditions they had to contend with in the jungle, placed their two expeditions among the great military feats of the Second World War. A passage from Fergusson’s war diary for his column underlines the harshness of the situation by the end of the first expedition: ‘Party now consists of 9 officers, 109 other ranks, of which 3 officers, 2 other ranks wounded. All weak and hungry in varying degrees. Addressed all ranks and told them: (a) only absolute discipline would get us out. I would shoot anybody who pilfered comrades or villages, or who grumbled (b) Anybody who lost his rifle or equipment I would expel from the party, unless I was satisfied with the excuse (c) Only chance was absolute trust and implicit obedience (d) No stragglers.’ Sentries who fell asleep could expect to wake up to a flogging.

For some of the wounded or simply exhausted men, the last 80-mile trek back to safety was simply too much. Sergeant Tony Aubrey of 8 Column recalled how one soldier, ‘whose feet were in a very bad state, made up his mind he could go no further. He lay down. His mates, worn out as they were, tried to carry him. But he wouldn’t allow them to. All he wanted was to be left alone with as many hand grenades as we could spare. So we gave him the hand grenades and left him. There wasn’t anything else to do.’ Stragglers got back as best they could. ‘At first we worried about him,’ Aubrey said of one such. ‘“How’s so-and-so making out?” we asked each other. But after a time we forgot him. He was just another piece of landscape. This may sound like man’s inhumanity to man, but it wasn’t you know. We were just too tired to care.’

Wingate himself, wearing the same corduroy trousers he had worn throughout the expedition, which were slashed to ribbons, his legs streaming with blood, swam back across the Chindwin. Once in camp he told the press that he was ‘quite satisfied with the results. The expedition was a complete success.’ Of the 3,000 officers and men who crossed the Chindwin, 2,182 were safely back in India by the first week in June. Nearly all the mules were dead, and most of the equipment had been lost or destroyed.

The 17th Battalion, the King’s Liverpool Regiment, lost more than one-third of its complement. Fergusson’s own estimation was that they had achieved: ‘not much that was tangible. What there was became distorted in the glare of publicity soon after our return. We blew up bits of railway, which did not take long to repair; we gathered some useful Intelligence; we distracted the Japanese from some minor operations, and possibly from some bigger ones; we killed a few hundreds of an enemy which numbers eighty millions; we proved that it was feasible to maintain a force by supply dropping alone.’

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.

Wingate was taken by Churchill as a prize exhibit to the Quebec Conference in August 1943, where he persuaded both Churchill and Roosevelt that light infantry brigades properly supplied from the air could fight hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, cutting lines of communication, creating mayhem, drawing off troops from the front line and generally, in his words, ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’.

Another survivor of the 1943 Chindit foray, Dominic Neill, was among those who realized how little the columns accomplished, beyond creating a legend of suffering and sacrifice. ‘The newspapers back in India had banner headlines about Wingate’s expedition. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We had achieved absolutely nothing, we had been kicked out by the Japs again. The publicity was the work of the authorities in GHQ Delhi grasping at any straws after the defeat in 1942, closely followed by the disastrous Arakan campaign of 1942/43.’ But Churchill thrilled to the exploits of the Chindits, which seemed to provide an honorable contrast to the inertia that suffused the main army in India.

The Chindits killed three times as many Japanese as they themselves lost, but almost the entire force ended the operation unfit for future duty. Slim certainly did not see the Chindit operations as a substitute for his campaign.

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.

In the first half of the Asian war, only hill-dwellers assisted British arms. By 1944, the Japanese faced the hatred of Burma’s townspeople as well as guerrilla activity by the tribes.

Churchill was obliged to content himself with using Indian formations to assist the Allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy. Critics of the Indian Army argued then, and have maintained since, that its romantic reputation was significantly higher than its performance justified. Some units, Gurkhas notable among them, displayed skill, courage and tenacity. Others did not. British imperial endeavor against the Japanese persistently lagged behind that of the United States.

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.

Wingate’s Order for the Day for 13 March 1944 read: ‘Our first task is fulfilled. We have inflicted a complete surprise on the enemy. All our columns are inside the enemy’s guts. The time has come to reap the fruit of the advantage we have gained. The enemy will react with violence. We will oppose him with the resolve to conquer our territory of Northern Burma. Let us thank God for the great success He has vouchsafed us and we must press forward with our sword in the enemy’s ribs to expel him from our territory. This is not the moment, when such an advantage has been gained, to count the cost. This is a moment to live in history. It is an enterprise in which every man who takes part may feel proud one day to say “I was there.”’

Both Stilwell and Wingate assumed they would enjoy the services of the pro-Allied Burma hill tribes. The major mountain tribal groups — Nagas, Kachins, Karens, Chans, and Shins — numbered a minority of about 7 million of Burma’s 17 million people. The Nagas, Kachins, and Karens had served happily in the colonial security forces, had fought the Japanese in 1942, and now wanted weapons to fight Burmese collaborators and the Japanese.

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.

At one rash moment, Churchill considered making the unbalanced Wingate Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s entire eastern army. Deflected from this notion, instead he promoted the Chindit leader to Major-General and authorized resources for him to mount large-scale operations behind the Japanese front in northern Burma. Wingate was killed in a crash during the March 1944 fly-in. The Chindits’ subsequent operations, like those of so many World War II special forces, cost much blood and produced notable feats of heroism, but achieved little.

Wingate’s death came as a relief to many senior officers, not least Slim, commander of the British Fourteenth Army, who regarded the Chindits as a distraction.

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.

George MacDonald Fraser, who was not a Chindit but who did serve in Burma, explained what it was like when two men of his section died in a jungle skirmish: ‘There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phoney philosophy… It was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said. It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.’ Much the same would have gone for the Germans, Russians, Americans or Japanese. War is war, and its personal, human element has changed remarkably little over the centuries.

The human cost of the Chindit operations was very high, but after the war Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese Fifteenth Army in northern Burma in 1943, stated that: ‘The Chindit invasions did not stop our plans to attack [India], but they did have a decisive effect on these operations and they drew off the whole of 53rd Division and parts of 15th Division, one regiment of which would have turned the tables at [the coming battle of] Kohima.’ Disgracefully, the Official History, written by Major-General S. W. Kirby, who shared the High Command’s distaste for Wingate, published only the part of that sentence up to the first comma.

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 fighting for Mogaung for an entire month, Calvert’s force, once 800 strong, was down to 520 men. They nonetheless took the key railway bridge, and thus cut off the Japanese 18th Division fighting against Stilwell.

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.

Slim’s plans to capture Akyab in December 1942 had failed, as had an attack on Donbaik in March 1943, and for all its splendid effect on morale, Operation Longcloth could not affect the course of the struggle in Burma.

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.

Of the 316,700 Japanese troops in Burma in March 1944, three divisions were earmarked for the task, along with the (anti-British) Indian National Army, numbering more than 100,000 troops in all. Owing to a lack of supplies and a relative weakness in air power, Mutaguchi depended on surprise and an early capture of the gigantic arms, food and ammunition depot at Imphal, the capital of the Manipur province. From there he hoped to march via the village of Kohima to capture Dimapur, which boasted a vast supply dump on the Ledo-to-Calcutta railway, and which was therefore the key to British India. Certainly, Slim would not be able to recapture Burma without the stores at Dimapur.

The Japanese High Command’s approach to the Imphal assault was recklessly insouciant. Mutaguchi, whose concept it was, sacked his Chief of Staff for suggesting that the operation was impossible, mainly because of the difficulties of moving men and supplies in Assam, the wettest place on earth, with an annual rainfall that sometimes reached eight hundred inches.

With extraordinary boldness, Tokyo’s commanders embarked on an operation to seize the positions of Imphal and Kohima in north-east India. Even the Japanese at their most optimistic did not at this juncture suppose that they could conquer the country. Rather, they sought to frustrate the British advance into Burma. More fancifully, they hoped to precipitate a popular revolt against the Raj by showcasing during their advance units of the so-called Indian National Army, recruited from prisoners of war.

Mutaguchi, fifty-six years old, was a scion of an old but now somewhat diminished southern family. Like many Japanese generals self-consciously virile, he never wearied of proclaiming his enthusiasm for women and combat. He was an ambitious political soldier, prominent among those who had precipitated war in China. Belligerence, together with connections in high places, won him promotion to army command. Mutaguchi found himself largely dependent on bullocks to move stores and munitions across some of the worst terrain in the world. The Japanese army’s supply line into Assam would be extraordinarily tenuous.

A staff colonel was dispatched to Tokyo to secure endorsement for the operation from Prime Minister Tojo. A preposterous discussion took place while Tojo splashed in his bath. ‘Imphal… yes,’ said the prime minister, who had never displayed much interest in Mutaguchi’s front. Japanese generals had a droll saying: ‘I’ve upset Tojo—it’s probably Burma for me.’ They called the place jigoku — hell. Now, the prime minister demanded: ‘How about communications? Have they been properly thought out? Eh? Eh? It’s difficult country towards India, you know. What about air cover? We can’t help him much. Does he realize that? Are you sure it will make things better rather than worse? What’ll happen if the Allies land on the Arakan coast? Has anyone thought of that? Eh? Eh?’ Mutaguchi’s staff colonel outlined the plan while Tojo stood naked before him. At last, the prime minister said: ‘Tell Kawabe’ — commander of the Burma Area Army and Mutaguchi’s superior — ‘not to be too ambitious.’ Then he signed the Imphal operation order.

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.

Against the implacable opposition of his Chiefs of Staff, Churchill pressed for an amphibious assault on the great Dutch island of Sumatra. As late as March 1944 he revived the Sumatran scheme, causing the exasperated Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to write: ‘I began to wonder whether I was in Alice in Wonderland.’ If a Sumatran operation was not feasible, the prime minister urged landing troops from the sea below Rangoon. Churchill’s lobbying for a grand South-East Asian amphibious adventure was futile, because Americans owned all the relevant shipping. They would commit their assets only to objectives favored in Washington, which emphatically did not include Sumatra or Rangoon.

Although Slim was expecting an attack, he did not think it would come with such speed and force and as early as it did. The Japanese Burma Area Army attacked in the Arakan in February 1944, but was defeated by the 5th and 7th Divisions, which were airlifted to Imphal.

Churchill fumed, on 5 May 1944: ‘The American method of trying to force particular policies, of the withholding or giving of certain weapons, such as carrying airplanes or LSTs [Landing Ships, Tank], in theatres where the command belongs by right of overwhelming numbers to us, must be… strongly protested against.’ By this stage of the war, however, Washington’s control of Western Allied strategy had become almost absolute. ‘The hard fact is that the Americans have got us by the short hairs,’ wrote a senior British officer. ‘We can’t do anything in this theatre, amphibious or otherwise, without material assistance from them… So if they don’t approve, they don’t provide.’

Washington dismissed a British request for two US divisions to join operations in Burma. The Canberra government likewise rejected a proposal that two Australian divisions in New Guinea should be transferred to British command in South-East Asia. If the British wanted to recapture Burma, they must do so with their own resources. ‘If our operations formed merely a part of the great American advance,’ cabinet minister Oliver Lyttelton warned the British Chiefs of Staff in March 1944, ‘we should be swamped. It [is] essential that we should be able to say to our own possessions in the Far East that we had liberated them by our own efforts.’ Thus, the British government knew that a campaign to retake Burma would be difficult, and would not bring the defeat of Japan a day closer. But an army must march so that Churchill’s people were seen to pay their share of the price for victory in the Far East.

Burma would be attacked overland from the north, because only the north interested Washington. Through its jungles and mountains ran a long, tenuous thread, the only land route by which American supplies could be shipped to China from India. Japanese troops occupied a vital section of this ‘Burma Road’. If they could be dispossessed, and northern Burma liberated, then the US could pursue its fantastically ambitious plans to provide Chiang Kai-shek’s armies with the means to become major participants in the war.

From Churchill downwards, the British rejected the notion that China could ever play a part in the war remotely commensurate with the resources which the US lavished upon her. When Roosevelt urged that a nation of 425 million people could not be ignored, the prime minister snorted famously and contemptuously: ‘Four hundred and twenty-five million pigtails!’ Slim had some respect for Stilwell but never shared the American’s belief that the Chinese could decisively influence the war against Japan. ‘I did not hold two articles of his faith,’ the British general wrote later. ‘I doubted the overwhelming war-winning value of this road and… I believed the American amphibious strategy in the Pacific… would bring much quicker results than an overland advance across Asia with a Chinese army yet to be formed.’

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.

Allied operations in South East Asia were nominally subordinate to the Supreme Commander of South East Asia Command (SEAC), Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. ‘The interests in this theatre are overwhelmingly British,’ growled Churchill to the combined Chiefs of Staff when he imposed his protégé’s appointment in September 1943. Mountbatten’s meteoric elevation reflected the prime minister’s enthusiasm for officers who looked the part of heroes. ‘A remarkable and complex character,’ Gen. Henry Pownall, Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, wrote of his boss. ‘There are so many paradoxes… his charm of manner… is one of his greatest assets; many is the time that I have gone in to him to have a really good showdown… he would apologise, promise to mend his ways — and then soon afterwards go and do the same thing again! [He] has great drive and initiative… He is however apt to leap before he looks… His meetings are overlong because he likes talking… And he likes a good big audience to hear what he has to say.’

Mountbatten was prone to follies. There was a 1943 episode in Quebec, where he fired a revolver at a Chiefs of Staffs’ meeting to demonstrate the strength of ‘pycrete’ as a material for a fanciful plan to build artificial iceberg aircraft carriers. The bullet ricocheted, narrowly missing the top brass of the Grand Alliance. Brooke fumed when Mountbatten solicited each of the commanders present for a souvenir tunic button: ‘I only quote this story, as an example of the trivial matters… that were apt to occupy Dicky’s thoughts at times when the heart of the problem facing him should have absorbed him entirely.’

Mountbatten was not a great man, but like many prominent actors in the dramas of the Second World War, he strove manfully to do his part in great events. He possessed two virtues which justified his appointment. First, he was a considerable diplomat. He liked Americans, as so many British officers did not, and had a sincere respect for Asians and their aspirations. And the glamour of his presence, in a theater where so many British soldiers felt neglected by their own nation, did wonders for morale. Almost every man who saw Mountbatten descend from a plane to visit them, in dazzling naval whites or jungle greens, was cheered by the experience.

As Supreme Commander, Mountbatten floundered when he sought to exercise authority, but distinguished himself as an ambassador and figurehead. Both he and his wife, Edwina, had a gift for regal informality. Peter d’Cunha of the Royal Indian Navy was once at his post in the wireless office of a patrol boat anchored in a creek off the Arakan, immersed in music from Radio Ceylon. Suddenly a pair of hands removed his headset. He turned in astonishment to perceive Mountbatten, who held it to his own ears for a moment. He then asked the operator’s name, and said: ‘You seem to be very fond of English music.’ The Supreme Commander replaced the phones on d’Cunha’s head and departed, saying: ‘Enjoy yourself; but just be a little bit alert. You never know who’s coming!’ The young man loved it, of course.

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.

‘All experience… has demonstrated the utter futility of a formal infantry attack supported by artillery concentrations and barrages against Jap organised jungle positions,’ wrote Frank Messervy, commanding 7th Indian Division. ‘The dominating assets are good junior leaders and skilful infantry. The right answers… are infiltration and encirclement.’ In early encounters with the Japanese, the British repeatedly allowed themselves to be outflanked, and assumed a battle was lost if the enemy reached their rear. By 1944, men understood that in jungle war there were no such comfortable places as ‘rear areas’, nor such privileged people as noncombatants.

Douglas Gracey, commanding 20th Indian Division, summarized differences between operations in Burma and Europe: lack of good road and rail communications, endless water, jungles and swamps which limited movement, ‘but NOT to such an extent as inexperienced commanders and troops think.’ Visibility was drastically reduced, and vehicles wore out fast. ‘Every Japanese in a defensive position must be dealt with. He will fight to the death even when severely wounded.’ Gracey concluded, however, with a fierce homily against allowing these considerations to induce defeatism: ‘Explode the Jap bogey and the jungle bogey. We are all round better than the Jap.’ By the winter of 1944 this was true, chiefly because Slim’s men had more of everything.

Even when Fourteenth Army was winning battles, it never entirely conquered its other great enemy, disease. Many men disliked the marble-sized mepacrine tablets of which a daily dosage prevented malaria, at the cost of turning their skin yellow. In 1942-43, tablets were often discarded — not least by men who preferred malaria to combat — and perhaps also by a few who believed Japanese propaganda that they rendered a man impotent. By 1944, most units held parades to ensure that mepacrine was ingested as well as issued. In the conditions of the Burmese jungle, sickness caused more losses than gunfire.

Insects laid their curse upon man and mule. Fires were lit in bivouacs whenever security allowed, to keep mosquitoes at bay. Chronic skin and foot infections, hepatitis, water rendered distasteful by purifying tablets, clothing never dry or clean were the lot of every infantryman. Nor were tank crews more comfortable.

Like every battlefield, Burma demanded instant decisions about life and death. One day Col. Derek Horsford of 4/1st Gurkhas found his medical officer bent over a casualty with half his intestines trailing out of his abdomen. In his agony, the man was clawing mud from the ground and stuffing it into the wound. ‘Has he got a chance?’ Horsford demanded. The medical officer shook his head. ‘Give him an overdose of morphine.’ A year later, the man amazed them all by writing from Nepal not only to report his survival, but to thank his officers for saving him.

In attacks, junior leaders learned to be ruthless about leaving wounded where they lay, to await designated stretcher-bearers: otherwise there were far too many volunteers eager to escape carnage by carrying casualties to the rear. Discipline was summarily enforced. When John Hill’s company of the Berkshires was approached by Japanese who got alarmingly close before being challenged, it emerged that two sentries had been asleep. Hill had one man court-martialled and sentenced to two years’ detention, because it seemed essential to drive home the message that such lapses cost lives.

Burma offered no châteaux or champagne to senior officers. Slim’s chief of staff, John Lethbridge, described to his wife rats running over his bed at night; his sense of loneliness and remoteness; gnawing uncertainty about how long the campaign might continue. He begged for news of his garden in western England. ‘This place is vile in October. The sun is sucking up all the vile humours out of the stinking ground, and one sweats and sweats. I have ten GSO1s under me, and five are in hospital with malaria or dysentery, some with both!’ If such things were so for red-tabbed staff officers, conditions were infinitely harsher for men living, eating and sleeping within shot of the enemy. ‘Perhaps the reason why the old soldier is reputed to dramatise his story,’ wrote Raymond Cooper, ‘is because he cannot create for those who do not know “the tiny stuffless voices of the dark,” nor can he fully explain the change in the vital values of the ordinary things of life. The contrast is too great.’

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.

The RAF’s Third Tactical Air Force kept the besieged town of Imphal resupplied by air once Mutaguchi had cut the road to Kohima. During the eighty-eight-day siege it moved 1 million gallons of petrol, 12,000 reinforcements and 14 million pounds of rations into the town, and flew 13,000 casualties out. Once again, Allied air superiority was the key.

Mutaguchi was furious that Sato had committed so many troops to Kohima, rather than diverting at least one regiment to attacking Imphal, and when Sato arrived at Mutaguchi’s headquarters he was solemnly handed a revolver and a white cloth, which he indignantly refused. He explained that he had saved his men from ‘a meaningless annihilation’ but was nonetheless accused of ‘premeditated treason’.

The operation was recklessly ambitious, now that Indian and British troops were deployed in such strength. Lacking air superiority, with few tanks and guns, it was folly for the Japanese to dispatch infantry hundreds of miles across terrible country against Slim’s positions. The Japanese offensive provided the British with an opportunity such as they had never previously enjoyed: to fight on their own ground, with powerful artillery, armored and air support.

Climatic conditions in Assam and Burma were as wretched as those of the Pacific, with the added hazard of mountain terrain; even before men began to fight, mere movement on precipitous hill faces strained their powers to the limit. ‘The physical hammering one takes is difficult to understand,’ said Lt. Sam Hornor, Signals Officer of 1st Norfolks. ‘The heat, the humidity, the altitude and the slope of almost every foot of ground, combine to knock hell out of the stoutest constitution. You gasp for air which doesn’t seem to come, you drag your legs upwards till they seem reduced to the strength of matchsticks, you wipe the salt sweat out of your eyes. Then you feel your heart pounding so violently that you think it must burst its cage … Eventually, long after everything tells you you should have died of heart failure, you reach what you imagine is the top of the hill only to find it is a false crest … You forget the Japs, you forget time, you forget hunger and thirst. All you can think of is the next halt.’

The first time that the Japanese abandoned a position without a fight came at the Mao Songsan Ridge, and after that the Imphal–Dimapur Road reopened. Some units, such as Lieutenant-General Masafumi Yamauchi’s 15th Division, had been so stripped of manpower by illness, battle-losses and dispersal that they were down to the strength of one and a half battalions. ‘The road dissolved into mud,’ recorded Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, the officer who had trained the Indian National Army, ‘the rivers flooded, and it was hard to move on foot, never mind in a vehicle… Almost every officer and man was suffering from malaria, while amoebic dysentery and beri-beri were commonplace.’

Mutaguchi’s hapless soldiers fought on at Imphal, being driven back yard by yard with crippling losses. Their commander’s behavior became increasingly eccentric. Having ordered a clearing made beside his headquarters in the jungle, he stuck decorated bamboos in the ground at the four points of the compass, and each morning approached these, calling on the eight hundred myriad gods of Japan for aid. His supplications were in vain. The general bowed to the inevitable, and ordered a retreat.

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.

Colonel Hugh Richards of the 1st Assam Regiment, some of whose rear details were stationed at Kohima, was informed by a Naga tribesman that the Japanese were approaching along the road from Imphal, and there was no time to waste if he wanted to defend the town. Sure enough, Major-General Shibasaburo Miyazaki of the 58th Infantry Regiment was approaching, his pet monkey Chibi on his shoulder, having cut the Dimapur-Imphal road that morning: the Kohima-Imphal road was to be cut soon afterwards. Richards had been trying to fortify the place for a month, stymied by a quartermaster in Dimapur who would not release barbed wire to him as there was an administrative regulation forbidding its use in the Naga Hills.

Defending the village perched on a ridge and soon completely surrounded by over 6,000 Japanese under Sato were 1,500 men. The 1,500 non-combatant civilians proved a problem: although the tiny area the British Commonwealth forces were defending was well supplied with food and ammunition, the Japanese cut off its water supply early on in the siege, so that water had to be severely rationed.

Despite his formidable advantage in numbers at Kohima, Sato had little faith in the success of U-Go in general. On the eve of his attack, he drank a glass of champagne with his divisional officers, telling them: ‘I’ll take this opportunity, gentlemen, of making something quite clear to you. Miracles apart, every one of you is likely to lose his life in this operation. It isn’t simply a question of the enemy’s bullets. You must be prepared for death by starvation in these mountain fastnesses.’

The Japanese, having taken positions above Kohima, bombarded the force inside the perimeter at dusk every day, before attempting to overrun it night after night. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting took place, with the Japanese capturing more and more of the village as the dreadful fortnight wore on. Every building in the village became a scene of death and destruction, as some held out and others were captured by countless determined Japanese assaults. Water had to be dropped in by parachute, and the defenders felt desperate when supplies fell on Japanese positions instead, so small was the perimeter target area.

With front lines sometimes only 15 yards from each other, as close as anything seen in the Great War, at one point fierce fighting took place across District Commissioner Charles Pawsey’s tennis court which lay between the rubble of the Kohima Club and his destroyed bungalow. ‘Where tennis balls had been idly lobbed by the few Europeans in more placid times,’ wrote Louis Allen, who served in intelligence in South-East Asia during the war, ‘grenades whizzed back and forth across the width of the court.’ Sato had cut the road link at Zubza, which was only 36 miles from Dimapur, so reinforcement was impossible.

The most dangerous moment of them all came when the Japanese stormed the Kuki Piquet, thereby getting between Garrison Hill and the FSD, threatening at any moment to cut the perimeter in half, thus splitting the garrison. The Japanese, as exhausted and as hungry as the defenders, failed to press home the attack. It was at this key moment that a brigade which was part of Lieutenant-General Sir Montagu Stopford’s Indian Corps from Dimapur, managed to infiltrate a Punjabi battalion and tank detachment into Kohima, which relieved the General Hospital and the West Kents’ position facing Kuki Piquet and Pawsey’s bungalow. ‘Most of its buildings were in ruins,’ recorded Allen of the battered village of Kohima, ‘walls still standing were pockmarked with shell bursts or bullet holes, the trees were stripped of leaves and parachutes hung limply from the few branches that remained.’

As the Punjabis took up position, ready to start the process of trying to prise the Japanese out of their immensely well-dug-in positions, they saw among the British and Indian survivors ‘little groups of grinning and bearded riflemen standing at the mouths of their bunkers and staring with blood-shot and sleep-starved eyes as the relieving troops came in. They had not had a wash for a week.’ Over the next two months, the Japanese were dislodged from their positions, terrace by terrace, ridge by hard-fought ridge.

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.

Bugler Bert May said of Kohima: ‘It was a stinking hell of a hole. All the vegetation on the ground was dead … Leeches, they used to get through on to any part of your body that was open. You used to get a lighted cigarette, stick it on his tail and “bonk”, he’d pop off.’

There was panic at Dimapur, the big supply dump beyond Kohima. Lt. Trevor Highett of the Dorsets said later, ‘There are few things more unpleasant than a base in a flap. It was full of people who never expected to fight, and who couldn’t wait to get out. “Take what you like,” they said. “Just give us a signature if you’ve got time.”’

The battlefield was soon reduced to a barren, blackened wilderness, stripped of vegetation by blast, pockmarked with craters and foxholes, festooned with the colored parachutes on which supplies were dropped to the garrison. The stench of death and putrid flesh hung over everything. ‘We were attacked every single night,’ said Major Frankie Boshell, a company commander in the Berkshires, who relieved the West Kents. ‘On the second night they started at 19.00 and the last attack came at 04.00 next morning. They came in waves, like a pigeon shoot. Most nights they overran part of the battalion position, so we had to mount counterattacks.’ His company lost half of its 120 men at Kohima, and other units suffered in like proportion.

Sgt. Ben McCrae wrote: ‘Your nerves got to you. You could have sat down and cried your eyes out. Which a lot of blokes did – they got so low-spirited with it all. You were hungry, cold and wet, you thought, “When am I going to get out of here?” You didn’t, you couldn’t.’ Sgt. Bert Fitt took out three bunkers with grenades, then found his Bren gun empty when he met a Japanese. ‘When you get to hand-to-hand fighting like that, you realise that you or he’s going to get killed … You close in and hope for the best … I crashed the light machine-gun into his face … Before he hit the ground I had my hand on his windpipe … I managed to get his bayonet from his rifle and I finished him with that.’

In action, there was a fine line between courage which heartened others and bluster which incurred their contempt. 1st Norfolks were uncertain on which side to place their bombastic colonel, Robert Scott. Amid the carnage, Scott said ebulliently to his riflemen, ‘Come on you chaps, there’s no need to be afraid, you are better than those little yellow bastards.’ When struck on the scalp by a glancing shrapnel splinter, he shook his fist at the Japanese lines and said, ‘The biggest bloke on the damn position and you couldn’t get him! If you were in my bloody battalion I’d take your proficiency pay away!’

A despairing Japanese soldier wrote: ‘In the rain, with no place to sit, we took short spells of sleep standing on our feet. The bodies of our comrades who had struggled along the track before us lay all around, rain-sodden and giving off a stench of decomposition. Even with the support of our sticks we fell among the corpses again and again as we stumbled on rocks and tree roots laid bare by the rain and attempted one more step, then one more step, in our exhaustion.’

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.

Adolf Hitler had written in Mein Kampf: ‘If anyone imagines that England would let India go without staking her last drop of blood, it is only a sorry sign of absolute failure to learn from the World War, and of total misapprehension and ignorance on the score of Anglo-Saxon determination.’ About this he was right, and yet only three years later the British did indeed withdraw from India without fighting for it. But there was a world of difference between granting independence to a dominion’s own people in peacetime and having it wrested away by a foreign power in time of war.

After almost three years of defeat in the east, the victors’ morale soared. Although a difficult campaign lay ahead in 1945, to reoccupy Burma at the end of a long, long supply line, Slim knew he had cracked the spine of the Japanese army in South-East Asia, staking his claim to be recognized as the ablest, as well as best-loved, British field commander of the war.

Mutaguchi had never anticipated that he could conquer India, but cherished hopes that the spectacle of the Indian National Army attacking the British might stimulate a general revolt against the Raj. Instead, the INA’s performance discredited it as a fighting force. Victory in Assam and Slim’s subsequent advance into Burma temporarily reasserted British authority in India. While Indian popular enthusiasm for independence remained undiminished, strikes and street violence receded.

The Kohima-Imphal offensive did not take Slim by surprise, though he had little choice but to meet it with the forces on hand or surrender his own plans to take the general offensive in Burma in 1944. In theory, the Japanese preemptive offensive gave Slim an unparalleled opportunity to weaken the Burma Area Army before he ordered an advance toward Mandalay and Rangoon without any amphibious operations.

Exploiting the Japanese Fifteenth Army’s defeat at Imphal-Kohima and withdrawal, Slim saw that he could now take the initiative. The mobility and logistical capability of the Japanese, even after they fell back on established lines of supply, were no match for his own. Evidence of his opponent’s desperation was everywhere on the battlefield. Slim saw Japanese soldiers executed by their comrades because they were too badly wounded to evacuate, and Japanese corpses showed signs of disease and malnutrition; he saw troops abandon half their artillery because ammunition had run out.

Fourteenth Army suffered 17,000 casualties, but its spirits soared. ‘We knew we had won a great victory,’ said Derek Horsford, commanding a Gurkha battalion at the age of twenty-seven. ‘We were chasing Japanese up and down thousand-foot hills, finding everywhere their dead and abandoned weapons and equipment.’ John Lethbridge, Slim’s chief of staff, wrote home: ‘The Jap retreat must have been worse than Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The whole jungle stinks of corruption. I counted twenty-five dead Japs on the side of the road, between two successive milestones. There must have been hundreds more who had crawled away into the jungle to die. In some places there are Jap lorries, with skeletons sitting in the drivers’ seats, and a staff car with four skeletons in it. All these Japs had simply died of exhaustion, starvation and disease. I have never seen troops in such good heart as our people… I’m so delighted that the British Army has at last come into its own again, and shown the world how we can wage war. I really don’t see how the old Hun can last much longer. Once we’ve finished him, we’ll simply knock the hide off these little yellow swine.’

On the Japanese line of retreat, correspondent Masanori Ito approached Renya Mutaguchi, architect of his army’s disaster. ‘He seemed tired out,’ wrote Ito, who noticed that the general was sipping rice gruel, even as starving survivors of his army stumbled past. ‘You want a statement?’ Mutaguchi growled. ‘I have killed thousands of my men. I should not go back across the Chindwin alive.’ Mutaguchi did not kill himself, however, and lived to be sacked a few months later. Of all the Imperial Army’s commanders, he had become the most detested and scorned by his own officers and men.

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.

Mountbatten’s chief of staff, Gen. Henry Pownall, perceived an urgency about this task. Like others of his time, place and nation, he saw Britain engaged in a race between the recapture of her Asian colonies and American victory in the Pacific. If the British lost the contest, if they failed to secure physical possession before the Japanese flag came down, the Union flag might never again fly over this region: ‘There’s not much time to lose. The Yanks are going to have Japan beat by Xmas 1945. We have got a lot of cleaning-up to do by then. The Yanks are not going to wait for us (no reason why they should) but we really don’t want our Far Eastern Empire… handed back to us entirely by American single-handed victory.’

The twin battles of Imphal and Kohima had been essential to halt the Japanese advance westwards. British victory had crippled the fighting power of the enemy on the Burmese front, where Japan no longer possessed resources to frustrate any significant Allied purpose. Slim’s chief foes were now terrain, disease, weather and logistics. Mountbatten supported an important decision: to keep fighting through the monsoon, when in the past all significant operations were halted.

Slim was called upon to move a modern Western army across hundreds of miles of the most inhospitable country in the world, devoid of road communications, to redeem the humiliations Britain had suffered in 1941-42, and to keep alive a dream of empire which thoughtful men knew to be doomed.

By the autumn of 1944, courage, ruthlessness and fieldcraft were the principal assets remaining to the forces of Nippon. The Allies were overwhelmingly superior by every other measure of strength. Yet a War Office report based on prisoner interrogation noted that ‘the Japanese still considers himself a better soldier than his opposite number on the British side… because [we] avoid close combat, never attack by night and are “afraid to die.”’ The author of this document recorded with some dismay that the Japanese thought less of British soldiers than of Indians or Gurkhas, and considered Fourteenth Army ponderous and slow-moving. They respected British tank, artillery and air support, but criticized their camouflage, fieldcraft and noisiness.

The new Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Hoyotaro Kimura, set about painstakingly rebuilding his forces in readiness to meet the British Fourteenth Army, advancing south-eastwards. He offered no challenge to Slim’s crossings of the Chindwin in November and December. In northern Burma, shortly before Christmas, men of 19th Indian Division joined hands with advanced elements of Stilwell’s Chinese divisions at Banmaux.

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.

Churchill had sought to avoid a thousand-mile overland advance through some of the worst terrain in the world, preferring an amphibious assault on Rangoon from the south. But the Americans insisted on an attack through north Burma, to fulfil the only strategic purpose they valued in the region – reopening the overland route to China.

Slim’s army, dominated by Indian troops and including three divisions recruited from Britain’s African colonies, was much stronger than that of the Japanese and supported by powerful armored and air forces. Its chief problem was to supply an advance across mountainous and densely vegetated country almost bereft of roads. Air dropping, made possible by a large commitment of US planes, became a critical factor in the campaign.

The prospects for the Burma campaign had been immeasurably improved not only by the attitudinal change but by the success, at last, of the third British attempt to seize the port of Akyab on the Arakan coast. An amphibious operation had seized the port in January 1945, and provided a basis from which an assault toward Rangoon could be launched once the offensive from the north had eliminated the main Japanese force in central Burma.

By the end of January, the Burma Road into China was at last open all the way to Kunming, and the first truck convoys of supplies began to move north. To British dismay, Chiang Kai-shek, having gained what he wanted from the campaign, ordered his divisions back to their homeland, leaving Slim’s forces to pursue unaided the advance towards Rangoon.

It seemed to the Japanese inevitable that the invaders would now drive south towards Mandalay. Kimura’s plan was to allow the British deep into Burma, where their lines of communications would become extended, while his own remained short. He then intended to smash Slim’s forces as they sought to cross the Irrawaddy north of Mandalay. Unfortunately for Kimura, however, Slim anticipated his foe’s intention. He was able to support his advance with supplies air-dropped on an unprecedented scale, a facility which went far to counter the difficulties of terrain.

By St. Valentine’s Day 1945, IV Corps had secured an Irrawaddy bridgehead against negligible opposition, and was poised to launch the decisive coup of the campaign, the seizure of Meiktila. A soldier of 17th Indian Division, George MacDonald Fraser, wrote wryly of Operation Cloak, Slim’s deception to confuse the Japanese: ‘He confused 9 Section, too; we dug in at no fewer than three different positions in as many hours, Grandarse lost his upper dentures on a sandbank, little Nixon disturbed a nest of black scorpions in the dark… the general feeling was that the blame for the whole operation lay at the door of first, Winston Churchill, secondly, the royal family, and thirdly (for some unimaginable reason) Vera Lynn… We did not know that “Cloak” had worked brilliantly; we were footsore, hungry, forbidden to light fires, and on hundred percent stand-to — even although, as Grandarse… pointed out, there wasn’t a Jap within miles.’ Deception on this scale was only possible when the Japanese had lost the capability to conduct air reconnaissance, indeed possessed negligible intelligence-gathering capability.

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.

As the British poured reinforcements into the town by road and air, one of the most desperate battles of the Burma campaign began, while further north Slim’s forces closed on Mandalay. Each side deployed some six divisions. The Japanese, however, were obliged to do most of the attacking. Wherever they moved, they exposed themselves to British aircraft and artillery. While the units of Fourteenth Army were well-fed, heavily armed and equipped, those of their opponents were in sorry condition.

The 1/3rd Gurkhas, who were flown into Meiktila, fought their first action in defense of its airstrip. The battle proved ‘fairly traumatic’, in the words of its adjutant, Captain Ronnie McAllister. ‘The tanks took a pasting because we advanced across open ground, unreconnoitred. It was a general shambles. The Japanese did not open fire until our chaps were twenty-five yards away.’

For the men of Slim’s army advancing, winning was a wonderfully rewarding experience after the past years of pain and defeat. ‘I’m afraid I enjoyed the campaign,’ said Captain Ronnie McAllister afterwards. ‘It was great fun. We never thought of Burma as a sideshow, but as splendid theatre. We were tremendously proud of the regiment and the division.’

The visible rewards of the Burma campaign seemed pathetically drab. Slim wrote: ‘It was always a disappointment… to enter a town that had been a name on the map and a goal for which men fought and died. There was for the victors none of the thrill of marching through streets which, even if battered, were those of a great, perhaps historic, city — a Paris or a Rome. There were no liberated crowds to greet the troops. Instead, my soldiers walked warily, alert for booby traps and snipers, through a tangle of burnt beams, twisted corrugated iron, with here and there, rising among the squalid ruins, the massive chipped and stained pagodas of a Buddhist temple. A few frightened Burmans, clad in rags, might peer at them and even wave a shy welcome, but at best it was not a very inspiriting welcome, and more than one conquering warrior, regarding the prize of weeks of effort, spat contemptuously.’

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.

In the endless debate about who was the best battlefield commander of the Western Allies, in which the names of Patton, Bradley, Montgomery and MacArthur continually arise, that of the unassuming but immensely talented William Slim ought to feature much more than it does.

The British crossed the river and flanked the Japanese, who decided to fight only a rearguard action, not a decisive battle. Nevertheless, Slim’s troops had to dig the Japanese out from a maze of pagodas and colonial fortifications before the city fell. Although the total casualties were almost equal, the Japanese lost more than four times as many dead as Slim’s army.

Slim's pincer movement against Mandalay succeeded as the troops which had crossed the Irrawaddy south of the city pushed toward those which had crossed the great river north of the capital a month earlier. With British and Indian units already pursuing the Japanese further south, Mandalay itself was retaken. Substantial portions of the Japanese still remained, but the British were determined to push on before the monsoon rains began. They had over 300 miles to go, but vastly increased air support offered at least a hope of success for the attempt.

The Japanese retreat from Burma was marked by systematic atrocities against Burmans and Indian civilians, who were tortured and casually killed until the very end. The vanquished vented their bitterness on any victims to hand. Through the months that followed, Fourteenth Army fought on against broken Japanese units striving to retreat eastwards into Siam.

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.

Many Burmans welcomed the opportunity for revenge on a people they had welcomed as liberators in 1942, but who had since become their oppressors. One of them, Maung Maung, wrote: ‘Partisans, young men from villages, left their homes to march with us. We ate the food that the villagers offered us, wooed their daughters, brought danger to their doors and took their sons with us.’ This was a romanticized view of a tardy switch of allegiance, but it helped to create a legend which Burma’s nationalists would later find serviceable.

From the wreckage of British rule, a charismatic Burman nationalist, Ba Maw, formed a government and won nominal independence in August 1943. One of his Thakin (Master) party peers, the even more charismatic Aung San, formed a Burma Nationalist Army to preserve order and keep the hill minorities in line. Aung San, however, disliked the Japanese and his Burman rivals almost as much as the British, and he formed another group, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, under cover of the BNA in 1944. This shadow army defected to the British.

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.

In one of the more spectacular demonstrations of what a daring and driving army could do when provided with a full complement of air transport, the British divisions were, in effect, leap-frogged south from Mandalay toward Rangoon in the face of crumbling Japanese resistance. An amphibious force supported from Akyab landed near Rangoon at the beginning of May. The monsoon had started but could not halt the determined British. Rangoon was freed.

British commanders emphasized the need to minimize losses in this last phase of the campaign, when the outcome was decided: ‘Men are the most precious thing we’ve got,’ warned 20th Indian Division’s commander, Douglas Gracey. ‘Use them with the greatest care.’ The dash for Rangoon, in the first days of the monsoon, which came a fortnight early, represented the high peak of Britain’s war in the Far East. The Japanese were broken, even if some soldiers still possessed their familiar, terrifying will to fight.

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.

The Allied military experience in the Burma-India theater demonstrated how difficult it would be to mount a cohesive offensive effort from nations with conflicting interests and asymmetrical capabilities. Not until 1943 did British commanders in India believe that their principal field force, the Fourteenth Army, could conduct even limited offensive operations.

Part of Slim’s success in 1945 stemmed from the assistance he received from the Chinese divisions engaging Japanese forces in north-central Burma between the Irrawaddy and Chinese-Thai border.

The Allies and Japanese fought each other on the Burmese front for forty-six months. Burma thus became the longest single campaign of the Second World War. It cost the Japanese only 2,000 lives to seize this British possession in 1942, but a further 104,000 dead to stay there until 1945.

The 1944-45 battle for Burma was the last great adventure of Britain’s imperial army. It brought together under Slim’s command British soldiers and Gurkhas, East and West Africans, above all Indians: Sikhs and Baluchis, Madrassis, Dogras and Rajputs, pride of the Raj. Only a fraction of those who fought for the Allied cause in Burma were British — two divisions — and just one in thirteen of all ground troops under Mountbatten’s command in South-East Asia.

The remnants of Japan’s broken armies trickled south-eastwards into Siam across the Sittang and Salween rivers through the early summer of 1945. Col. John Masters, senior staff officer of 19th Indian Division, described how he and his commander deployed their men along the Sittang in blocking positions to receive Kimura’s broken forces: ‘Pete and I drove up and down [the line], making dispositions as though for a rabbit shoot. We were ready to give mercy, but no one felt pity. This was the pay-off of three bitter years… Machine guns covered each path, infantry and barbed-wire protected the machine guns. Behind, field guns stood ready to rain high explosive shells on every approach… Tanks stood at road junctions. Fighters and bombers waited on the few all-weather airfields… The Japanese came on… The machine guns got them, the Brens and rifles got them, the tanks got them, the guns got them. They drowned by hundreds in the Sittang, and their corpses floated in the fields and among the reeds.’

A British ranker, Brian Aldiss, wrote afterwards of the Burma campaign: ‘Exactly what purposes it served, except for the political one of convincing the Americans that their enemies were our enemies, is hard to say.’ He himself, a signaller who had seen only corpses, never watched a man die, ended the campaign with an odd regret: ‘I realised that I had longed to kill a Jap, just one Jap, riddle him with bullets and see him fall.’ Few of those who did the killing would suggest that Aldiss missed a rewarding experience.

Without great enthusiasm, British forces in Burma and India prepared for their next operation, a huge amphibious landing to restore to Malaya, also, the tarnished glories of imperial rule.