The Burma Campaign 1941 - 1945

By Michael Hickey

Photograph of a carrier donkey with Chindits in Burma

Chindits in Burma, 1944 

Neither side wanted this fight at the start, but there were many remarkable feats of arms as the war progressed. Michael Hickey describes the highs and lows of the campaign, the personalities involved, and the effect it had on East-West politics once World War Two was over.

Background

The campaign in which Allied forces defeated the Japanese in Burma was unique in that neither side particularly wished to wage war there. When Japan entered the war on the side of the Axis powers in December 1941, her main aims were to acquire raw materials, particularly oil, rubber and tin and, through expansion of the so-called Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere, to create space for the population of the over-crowded home islands.

'The raid at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was a devastating blow to the Americans.'

These needs fired the strategic thinking of belligerent politicians and service chiefs in Tokyo. They worked on the assumption that a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet's base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, would enable the Imperial Japanese army, air force and navy to attain the warlords' territorial aims before the western Allies could react.

The raid at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was a devastating blow to the Americans. It failed, however, in its main aim, that of sinking the American fleet's aircraft carriers. This was because, providentially, they were out at sea on that day - sometimes known as the Day of Infamy. On hearing this intelligence, Admiral Yamamoto, the gifted master planner of the enterprise, knew that the war was already as good as lost.

Despite this, Japanese plans elsewhere worked beyond expectation. Hong Kong and Indo-China fell to them without difficulty, but the greatest triumphs occurred on the Malay peninsula and in Singapore, where British, Australian and Indian troops were forced into humiliating surrender.

The Japanese completed their triumphs by overrunning the Dutch East Indies, spreading out into the western Pacific by capturing numerous island bases, and threatening the security of Australia.

 

Start of the campaign

Photograph showing British and Indian troops in action

British and Indian troops in action, 80 miles south of Mandalay, in March 1945 

There were two reasons for the Japanese invasion of Burma. Firstly the Japanese knew it would serve them well if they cut overland access to China from Burma via the famed Burma Road. Along this road a steady stream of military aid was being transported from Rangoon, over the mountains of the 'Hump' and into Nationalist China, but if this supply route was closed, the Japanese could deprive Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) armies of their life-blood, permitting the Japanese to conquer all China.

'The troops were raw, lacked combat experience, and were inadequately trained ...'

Furthermore, possession of Burma would place the Japanese at the gate of India, where they believed general insurrection against the British Raj would be ignited once their troops had established themselves in Assam, within reach of Calcutta. To this end they cultivated the services of the dissident Bengali politician Chandra Bose, who recruited thousands of Indian troops captured in Singapore into his Indian National Army - to fight the British.

Entering Burma from Thailand, the Japanese quickly captured Rangoon, cutting off the Burma Road at source, and depriving the Chinese of their only convenient supply base and port of entry. In response, General Sir Archibald Wavell, in supreme command of the Far Eastern theatre, formed two scratch divisions, the 1st Burma and 17th Indian, into Burma corps (Burcorps).

He ordered his commanders, against their better judgement, to defend well forward. They, however, were aware, as he was not, of the deficiencies of their commands. The troops were raw, lacked combat experience, and were inadequately trained and equipped to take on the aggressive and bold invaders.

Apart from two experienced light tank regiments and an infantry battalion brought in from the Middle East, whose presence in the long retreat up-country undoubtedly saved Burma Corps from total destruction, no other reinforcements reached Burma Command. (The British 18th Division, destined for Burma, was redirected to Singapore on Churchill's orders, reaching it just in time to march into Japanese prison camps.)

Operating a scorched-earth policy as it went, Burcorps, now under command of Lieutenant General William Slim, fell back up the Irrawaddy river, accompanied by tens of thousands of wretched Indian refugees, harassed and murdered by the Burmese population as they struggled to gain Indian soil. In May 1942 the retreat finally ended, and the shattered remnants of Burcorps began to prepare for return to Burma.

 

Stalemate

There followed many months of stalemate, as both sides tried to probe each other's strengths and weaknesses. Wavell, anxious to re-assert British military influence and raise depressed morale, ordered an advance into the Arakan, the coastal region of Burma, at the end of 1942. It stalled and was bloodily repulsed - and morale sank even further.

'Although now outnumbered, the Japanese fought with ferocious courage ...'

Things were only lightened by the propaganda value of Brigadier Orde Wingate's first Chindit expedition. In this the Allies enjoyed some success in using guerrilla tactics against the Japanese, despite incurring heavy losses, thus proving that British troops could take on the Japanese in the jungle.

In 1943 the Allied High Command was overhauled, and Wavell was replaced by the charismatic Lord Louis Mountbatten. His influence obtained much needed air support for what now became the 14th Army, particularly in the field of transport aircraft, and re-supply by air became the norm for the forward troops.

Slim, now in command of 14th Army, imbued his command with a new spirit. Units were encouraged to sit tight, relying on air-dropped supplies, and hold their ground when attacked, instead of dispersing as formerly.

The Japanese, aware that the defenders had gained strength, resolved to end the campaign at a blow with an assault into Assam, aimed at capturing the key towns of Imphal, capital of the hill state of Manipur, and Kohima. Another Japanese attack was made simultaneously in the Arakan. For the first time the defenders stood firm, confident in their air support.

Between March and July 1944 fierce battles raged on both fronts. Although now outnumbered, the Japanese fought with ferocious courage; all ranks of 14th Army knew that their ticket home depended on total destruction of their enemy and this is exactly how it transpired. Fighting every inch, the Japanese recoiled from the hills and back across the River Chindwin, harassed by Wingate's second Chindit expedition.

Wingate unfortunately did not live to see this outcome. He perished in a plane crash as the expedition began, and as American troops were advancing from the north with (somewhat unreliable) Chinese Nationalist forces. Bereft of his dynamic leadership the expedition became semi-static, although there were some remarkable feats of arms as the numerous Chindit columns fought deep in the Japanese rear areas, in their endeavours to realise Wingate's concept of 'a hand in the enemy's bowels'.

Victory in sight

Photograph of Field Marshal Sir William Slim

Field Marshal Sir William Slim 

Early in 1945, 14th Army continued to advance, no longer in the jungle but in the open plains of upper Burma. Mandalay fell in March, and Slim conducted a brilliant crossing of the mighty Irrawaddy before heading south. In the Arakan, the Japanese had to be winkled out of strong positions before Rangoon was taken on 3 May.

Mountbatten gratified his ambition by staging an elaborate victory parade, at which he took the salute in Rangoon on 15 June. This took place despite the fact that thousands of Japanese were still fighting hard, many of them still in strength, behind British lines - as they tried desperately to escape across the Sittang river into Thailand, losing heavily as they went.

Slim, the architect of this great victory, was not present at Mountbatten's parade. Mountbatten had decided that 14th Army's great commander was tired and needed a rest, and therefore replaced him at the moment of his great triumph.

'... Slim ... having been knocked out of the ring at the beginning, got back in and beat his opponent flat.'

This was unfortunate, as Slim was the only British general in World War Two who had fought against an enemy 'First Eleven' throughout, and who, having been knocked out of the ring at the beginning, got back in and beat his opponent flat. His removal from command of the army he had forged had a calamitous effect on the morale of his men.

Churchill had initially opposed his appointment to command 14th Army, considering him a 'sepoy general' (Slim had made his military home in the 6th Gurkhas). But his personal account of the campaign, Defeat into Victory, will long endure as a military classic. It is modestly written, but reveals the humanity of this truly great soldier, as well as his professional ability - both qualities that explain why his men loved him as much as they did.

Post-war situation

The Burma campaign had no decisive effect on the war as a whole; but it did a great deal to restore respect for British arms following the humiliations of Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. The re-opening of the Burma Road permitted the resumption of supplies to Nationalist China, but there was to be no long-term benefit here, and American dreams of establishing an All-China trade zone after the war evaporated when Mao Tse Tung's Communist forces thrashed the corrupt regime of America's client, Chiang Kai Shek, within four years of the Japanese surrender in 1945.

'... Aung San ... was assassinated in Rangoon, along with most of his Cabinet ...'

Despite the outstanding performance of the 14th Army, comprising as it did Indian, African and British formations, much British face had been lost in the Far East as a result of the defeats at the hands of the Japanese, and stirrings of Indian independence had assumed thunderous proportions. In Burma too, the nationalists, headed by the personable Aung San, had sided with the Japanese until it was clear that they were losing.

Then Aung San's Burmese National Army changed sides and gave valuable service to the 14th Army in the final stages of the campaign. The British returned to Rangoon in triumph, but were not destined to stay; Burmese nationalism was on a flood tide, and having seized the administrative reins in the wake of the British advance, Aung San's men were well placed to take over after the war.

Although London attempted to resume its former rule, it had to face reality and Aung San came to the UK in 1947 to negotiate terms for independence. He was assassinated in Rangoon, along with most of his Cabinet, within months, however.

The political scene in the country has remained unstable ever since, due to the impositions of ruthless military governments. The incompetence of these, in matters of national economy, is matched only by the strength of their repression of all opposition.

Aung San's daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to oppose the regime, offering some hope for the people of this ancient country. India, whose troops had formed the backbone of the 14th Army, was granted independence in 1947 but only after the British government and its Viceroy - Mountbatten - had persuaded themselves that partition on religious lines, to create the states of India and Pakistan, would solve a problem growing far beyond the capacity of a weakened Britain to solve. The great Indian Army was rent asunder, and before long, regiments that had won fame under the Raj were fighting each other as the two new states confronted each other.