The Burma Campaign in the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II took place over four years from 1942 to 1945. During the first year of the campaign, the Japanese Army (with aid from Thai forces and Burmese insurgents) drove British Commonwealth and Chinese forces out of Burma, and occupied the country, forming a Burmese administration with little real authority.
Before the Second World War broke out, Burma was part of the British Empire, having been progressively occupied and annexed following three Anglo-Burmese Wars
in the nineteenth century. Initially governed as part of British India
, Burma was formed into a separate colony under the Government of India Act 1935
. Under British rule, there had been substantial economic development but the majority Burman community was becoming increasingly restive. Among their concerns was the importation of Indian workers to provide a labour force for many of the new industries, and the erosion of traditional society in the countryside as land was used for plantations of export crops or became mortgaged to Indian moneylenders. Pressure for independence was growing. When Burma came under attack, the Burmans were unwilling to contribute to the defence of the British establishment, and many readily joined movements which aided the Japanese.
British plans for the defence of British Far Eastern possessions involved the construction of airfields linking Singapore and Malaya with India. These plans had not taken into account the fact that Britain was also at war with Germany, and when Japan entered the war, the forces needed to defend these possessions were not available. Partly through wishful thinking, Burma had been regarded as a military "backwater", unlikely to be subjected to Japanese threat .
Lieutenant General Thomas Hutton, the commander of Burma Army with its headquarters in Rangoon had only the Indian 17th Division and 1st Burma Division to defend the country, although help was expected from the Chinese Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek. During the war, the British Indian Army expanded more than twelve-fold from its peacetime strength of 200,000 but in late 1941 this expansion meant that most units lacked training and equipment. The Burma Rifles units had also expanded rapidly, were short of equipment and consisted mainly of new recruits.
Japan entered the war primarily to obtain raw materials, especially oil, from European (particularly Dutch
) possessions in South East Asia which were weakly defended because of the war in Europe. Their plans involved an attack on Burma partly because of Burma's own natural resources (some oil, but also minerals and large surpluses of rice), but also to protect the flank of their main attack against Malaya and Singapore and provide a buffer zone to protect the territories they intended to occupy.
An additional factor was the Burma Road completed in 1938, which linked Lashio at the end of a railway from the port of Rangoon with the Chinese province of Yunnan. This newly-completed link was being used to move aid and munitions to the Chinese Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek which had been fighting the Japanese for several years. The Japanese naturally wished to cut this link.
The Japanese Fifteenth Army under Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida was assigned the mission of attacking the southern Burmese province of Tenasserim. It consisted initially of the highly regarded 33rd Division and the 55th Division. They would attack from northern Thailand, which had signed a treaty of friendship with Japan on December 21, 1941. Thai troops would aid in the invasions of Burma and Malaya.
Initial Japanese successes
Japanese capture of Rangoon
The first Japanese attack against Victoria Point
, almost the most southerly point of Burma in mid-January 1942, was expected and not contested. The second attack was a small probing raid directed at a police station in southern Tenasserim, which was repulsed. The Japanese 143 Infantry Regiment then launched overland attacks on the airfields at Tavoy
. The airfields were difficult to defend and reinforce but Burma Army HQ had been ordered to hold these outposts because of their importance to the defence of Malaya. The Japanese forced their way over the steep jungle
-covered Tenasserim Range, and attacked Tavoy on January 18
. The defenders, the 3rd and 6th battalions of the Burma Rifles, were overwhelmed and forced to evacuate the town in disorder. Mergui was evacuated before it was attacked.
Rangoon was initially defended relatively successfully against Japanease and Thai air raids, with the small RAF forces reinforced by a squadron of the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. But the majority of the airfields were between Rangoon and the Axis advance so, as the Japanese gained use of the airfields in Tenasserim, the amount of warning the Rangoon airfields could get of attack decreased, and they became more and more untenable.
On January 22, 1942 the Japanese 55th Division began the main attack westward from Rahaeng in Thailand across the Kawkareik Pass. The 16th Indian Infantry Brigade of the Indian 17th Division guarding this approach retreated hastily westward. The Japanese division advanced to Moulmein at the mouth of the Salween River which was garrisoned by the 2nd Burma Brigade. The position was almost impossible to defend, and had the River Salween, almost a mile and a half (2.5 km) wide, behind it. 2nd Burma Brigade was squeezed into a progressively tighter perimeter, and eventually retreated over river by ferry on January 31 after abandoning a large amount of supplies and equipment. Part of the force was left behind in Moulmein and had to swim the river.
The Sittang Bridge
The Indian 17th Division fell back northward. They attempted to hold the Bilin River and other fallback lines as they did so, but had too few troops to avoid being continually outflanked. The Division eventually retreated toward the bridge over the Sittang River
in general disorder. The retreat was delayed by incidents such as a vehicle breaking through the bridge deck, air attacks (including, allegedly, accidental attacks by the RAF) and Japanese and Thai harassment. Japanese parties infiltrated to the bridge itself. The defence of the bridge was poorly organised and, fearing that it would fall intact into Japanese and Thai hands, the division's commander ("Jackie" Smyth, VC
) ordered it to be blown up on February 22
with most of the division stranded on the enemy-held side. Many of the men made their way across the river by swimming or on improvised rafts, but had to abandon all their equipment.
The Fall of Rangoon
Though the Sittang River was in theory a strong defensive position, the disaster at the bridge left the Allied forces too weak to hold it. General Wavell
, the commander-in-chief of the ABDA Command
, nevertheless ordered Rangoon to be held. He was expecting substantial reinforcements from the Middle East, including an Australian infantry division. On February 28
, he formally relieved Hutton (although Hutton had officially already been superseded in command by General Harold Alexander
), and on the following day he effectively sacked Smyth, who was in any case very ill. Meanwhile, many Burmese colonial soldiers were deserting.
Although the Australian Division never arrived in Burma, some reinforcements including the British 7th Armoured Brigade had landed in Rangoon. Alexander ordered counter-attacks but soon realised that there was no hope of defending the city. On March 7, the military evacuated Rangoon after implementing what they described as a "scorched earth" plan for denial. The port was destroyed and the oil terminal was blown up. As the Allies departed, the city was on fire. The remnants of Burma Army faced encirclement as they retreated north, but broke through a Japanese roadblock due to an error on the part of the Japanese commander. (Otherwise, the Japanese might have captured General Alexander and much of the rest of Burma Army.)
Japanese advance to the Indian frontier
After the fall of Rangoon, the Allies decided to make a stand in the north of the country (Upper Burma). It was hoped that the Chinese Expeditionary Force in Burma
, consisting of the Fifth, Sixth and Sixty-sixth Armies, each with approximately the strength of a British division but with comparatively little equipment, could hold a front running through central Burma. Supplies were not immediately a problem, as much war material (including material originally meant for shipment to China) had been evacuated from Rangoon, rice was plentiful and the oilfields in central Burma were still intact, but only the recapture of Rangoon would allow the Allies to hold Burma indefinitely.
The Allies hoped that the Japanese advance would slow down; instead, it gained speed. The Japanese reinforced their two divisions in Burma with two more transferred from Malaya after the fall of Singapore. They also brought in large numbers of captured British trucks and other vehicles, which allowed them to move supplies rapidly, and also use Motorized infantry columns, particularly against the Chinese forces. The Allies were also harassed by the rapidly expanding Burma Independence Army and were hampered by large numbers of refugees (mostly Indian civilians) and the progressive breakdown of the civil government in the areas they held.
On the western part of the front, the British-led Burma Corps was gradually pushed northward towards Mandalay. 1st Burma Division was encircled and trapped in the blazing oilfields at Yenangyaung, and although it was rescued by Chinese infantry and British tanks in the Battle of Yenangyaung, it lost almost all its equipment and its cohesion. Meanwhile in the Battle of Yunnan-Burma Road, the Chinese 200th Division held up the Japanese for a time around Toungoo, but after its fall the road was open for motorized troops of the Japanese 56th Division to shatter the Chinese Sixth Army to the east in the Karenni States and advance to the north through the Shan States to capture Lashio, outflanking the Allied defensive lines and cutting off the Chinese armies from Yunnan. With the effective collapse of the entire defensive line, there was little choice left other than an overland retreat to India or to Yunnan.
The Allied retreat
The retreat was conducted in horrible circumstances. Starving refugees, disorganised stragglers, and the sick and wounded clogged the primitive roads and tracks leading to India. Most of Burma Corps's remaining equipment was lost at Kalewa
, although the troops escaped a Japanese attempt to trap them east of the Chindwin River
. The Corps managed to make it most of the way to Imphal
, in Manipur
in India just before the monsoon
broke in May 1942
. There, they found themselves living out in the open under the torrential monsoon rains in extremely unhealthy circumstances. The army and civil authorities in India were very slow to respond to the needs of the troops and civilian refugees.
Some of the Chinese troops committed by Chiang Kai-shek, designated as "X Force", made their way in a completely disorganised manner to India where they were put under the command of the American General Joseph Stilwell. After recuperating they were re-equipped and retrained by American instructors. Many of the rest of the Chinese troops tried to return to Yunnan through remote mountainous forests and many died.
Thai army enters Burma
In accordance with the Thai military alliance with Japan that was signed on December 21
, 1941, the leading elements of the Thai Phayap Army
crossed the border into the Shan States
on May 10
, 1942. At one time in the past the area had been part of the Ayutthaya kingdom
. The boundary between the Japanese and Thai operations was generally the Salween. However, that area south of the Shan States known as Karenni States
, the homeland of the Karens, was specifically retained under Japanese control.
Three Thai infantry and one cavalry division, spearheaded by armoured reconnaissance groups and supported by the air force, started their advance on May 10, and engaged the retreating Chinese 93rd Division. Kengtung, the main objective, was captured on May 27. Renewed offensives in June and November drove the Chinese back into Yunnan.
At the end of the war, the Shan States were abandoned and reoccupied by the Chinese.
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