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Burma Campaign
Part of the Pacific War during World War II
Japanese troops in Burma.jpg
Japanese troops in Burma
Date June 1942 – September 1943
Location Burma
Result Japanese victory
Casualties and losses

United Kingdom ca. 6,250

Empire of Japan ca. 1,300

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 Imperial Japanese Army (with aid from Thai forces and Burmese insurgents) had driven British forces and Chinese forces out of Burma, and occupied the country. From May to December, 1942, active campaigning ceased, as the monsoon rains made tactical movement almost impossible in the forested and mountainous border between India and Burma, and both the Allies and Japanese faced severe logistical constraints.

When the rains ceased, the Allies launched two offensives. One, an attack in the coastal Arakan province, failed, with severe effects on Allied morale. This was restored partly by improvements to administration and training, and partly by the much-publicised results of a raid by troops under Brigadier Orde Wingate. This raid may also have goaded Japanese commanders into launching major offensives the following year, which failed disastrously.


India and Burma, May - December 1942

Allied and Japanese operations were constrained by terrain and logistics. The frontier region between Burma and India was for the most part almost impassable country, with very few practicable routes through the jungle-clad hills. The Japanese could make use of rail and river transport only as far as the port of Kalewa on the Chindwin River; the Allies depended on inadequate rail and river links to Dimapur in the Brahmaputra River valley, from where a single road led to the base at Imphal.



The Far Eastern theatre was accorded the lowest priority by the Chiefs of Staff in Britain. British military efforts were instead concentrated on the Middle Eastern theatre, partly in accordance with the declared "Germany First" policy of the United States government under Franklin Roosevelt. Few resources were allocated to India; and indeed newly raised formations of the British Indian Army were being trained in desert warfare rather than for jungle warfare, until December 1942, when it was clear that the North African Campaign was finished to all intents and purposes.[1]

Allied efforts in India were also hampered by the disordered state of Eastern India at the time. In the aftermath of the Allied military disasters in the early months of 1942, there were violent Quit India movement protests in Bengal and Bihar[2] which required large numbers of British troops to suppress. There was also a disastrous famine in Bengal which may ultimately have led to 3 million deaths through starvation, disease and exposure. Although the immediate cause was a typhoon which devastated large areas in mid-1942, the loss of rice normally imported from Burma and Allied demands for exported rice in other theatres reduced the reserves of food available for relief, while the dislocation caused by sporadic Japanese bombing, and corruption and inefficiency in the government of Bengal prevented any proper distribution of aid, or other drastic measures being taken.


The Japanese were consolidating their position in Burma. Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida, commander of the Japanese Fifteenth Army, was asked by higher headquarters for his opinion as to whether to resume the offensive after the rains stopped. He in turn consulted the commanders of his forward divisions, who all felt that the terrain was too difficult and the logistical problems could not be overcome. Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, commanding the Japanese 18th Division, was particularly scathing. Plans for an attack were accordingly dropped.

Within Burma, the Japanese disbanded the Burma Independence Army, which had grown rapidly during the Japanese invasion of Burma, but was only loosely organised and in some cases was opposed to Japanese control, replacing it with the Burma Defence Army, trained by Japanese officers. They also prepared to form a Burmese government, which was eventually established in May, 1943, under Ba Maw. This government had little real power, and the Japanese remained in control of most aspects of Burma's administration. The Burmese economy, already damaged by the earlier fighting, declined further through damage to the transport infrastructure and lack of commercial markets for exported rice and other products.

Lieutenant General Iida made efforts to promote Burma's interests, but he was repeatedly overruled by directives from Tokyo, and was relieved in 1943, partly because he objected to Tokyo's economic policies in Burma.[3]


First Arakan campaign

In spite of their difficulties, the Allies mounted two operations during the 1942-1943 dry season. The first was a small scale offensive into the coastal Arakan region of Burma. The Indian "Eastern Army" under British General Noel Irwin intended to reoccupy the Mayu peninsula and Akyab Island, which had an important airfield. Beginning on 21 December 1942, the 14th Indian Infantry Division advanced to Donbaik, only a few miles from the end of the peninsula. Here they were halted by a small Japanese force (initially of only two battalions but with heavy artillery support) which occupied nearly impregnable bunkers. Indian and British troops made repeated frontal assaults without armoured support, and were thrown back with heavy casualties.

Japanese reinforcements, amounting to an understrength division, arrived from Central Burma. Crossing rivers and mountain ranges which the Allies had assumed to be impassable, they hit 14th Division's exposed left flank on 3 April 1943 and overran several units. The division's headquarters was replaced by that of 26th Indian Infantry Division, which attempted to hold a defensive line south of the town of Buthidaung, and even to surround the Japanese as they pressed their advantage. The exhausted units which the division had inherited were unable to hold this line and were forced to abandon much equipment and fall back almost to the Indian frontier.

Irwin was dismissed, partly as a result of this disaster. He made several disparaging remarks regarding the state of equipment, training and morale of Eastern Army. Although not wholly inaccurate, they were widely resented.[4] Irwin's successor, General George Giffard, concentrated on restoring the army's administration and morale.

First Chindit expedition

The second action was much more controversial. Under the command of Brigadier Orde Wingate, the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, better known as the Chindits, infiltrated through the Japanese front lines and marched deep into Burma with the initial aim of cutting the main north-south railway in Burma. The operation (codenamed Operation "Longcloth") had originally been conceived as part of a much larger coordinated offensive, which had to be aborted due to lack of supplies and shipping. Rather than let the Chindits' training be wasted, Wingate nevertheless carried out the operation, even though its original purpose was invalid.

Some 3,000 men entered Burma in many columns. They did cause damage to the communications of the Japanese in northern Burma, cutting the railway for possibly two weeks. However, they suffered heavy casualties: 818 killed, wounded or missing, 27% of the original force. Those who did return were wracked with disease and quite often in dreadful physical condition. Though the operational results were questioned, both at the time and subsequently, the raid was used to great propaganda effect to prove to British and Indian soldiers that they could live, move and fight as effectively as the Japanese in the jungle, countering the impression created after the battles of early 1942 that the Japanese could not be beaten in such terrain.

It was also said by the Japanese commanders after the war that the Japanese in Burma decided later to take the offensive, rather than adopt a purely defensive stance, as a direct result of the Chindit operation.

Central Front

There was continual patrol activity and low-key fighting on the frontier south of Imphal, but neither army possessed the resources to mount decisive operations. 17th (Light) Indian Division held positions around the town of Tiddim at the end of a precarious supply line 100 miles (160 km) south of Imphal, and skirmished with units of the Japanese 33rd Division. The Japanese had a shorter and easier supply line from the port of Kalewa on the Chindwin River and had the upper hand for most of 1942 and 1943.[5]

V Force, an irregular force raised by GHQ India in the frontier areas of Burma and India, also patrolled and scouted in the large areas controlled by neither army, but could have no decisive effect on Japanese operations.

Burma Road and the "Hump"

One of the overriding Allied strategic aims was the maintenance of supplies to the Nationalist Chinese government under Chiang Kai-Shek. When the Japanese had occupied Burma, the supply route via Rangoon had been cut. The American liaison headquarters under General Joseph Stilwell organised an airlift of supplies over the Himalaya mountain range. The route, and the airlift itself, acquired the nickname of The Hump. There were heavy losses from the natural hazards of the route, and at this stage of the war, the Allied transport aircraft were vulnerable to Japanese fighter aircraft operating from Myitkyina airfield in northern Burma.[6]

At Stilwell's insistence, the Allies also began construct the Ledo Road to link India with China, which was to prove an enormous engineering task. As part of the preparations to drive this road through Japanese-occupied northern and eastern Burma, two divisions of Chinese troops who had retreated into India in 1942 were re-equipped and trained by the Americans. Following Wingate's raid and the expansion of his force for the campaigning season of 1943-1944, the Americans also formed the long-range penetration unit which later became known as Merrill's Marauders and deployed them to Ledo.

The Americans also supplied logistical units (especially construction units and railway operating personnel) which improved and maintained the Allied railway lines and river transport in North Eastern India, in preparation for Allied offensives in 1944.


Allied command changes

The Allies regarded the command structure in India as inefficient. GHQ India (commanded by General Archibald Wavell) was responsible for operations in Persia and Iraq (where there had been fears of a breakthrough by German forces in Africa and the Caucasus until late 1942) and against the Japanese in Burma, and also for internal security in wide areas of India and the administration of the rapidly expanding Indian Army. In August 1943, the new Allied South East Asia Command was created, to take over control and planning of operations against the Japanese in Burma and the Indian Ocean. In November, Admiral Louis Mountbatten was appointed as Commander in Chief of the new command. Because the theatre was linked to the American administrative China Burma India Theater or CBI, and because increasing numbers of American air force units and logistical resources were being dispatched to India, General Stilwell was appointed Deputy Supreme Commander.

Wavell meanwhile became Viceroy of India, and immediately addressed the famine in Bengal, although the crisis was eased only when the Government in Britain was persuaded to ship relief supplies of food to Bengal. He was replaced as Commander in Chief of the Indian Army by General Claude Auchinleck, who reinvigorated its rear-area and training establishments.

Eastern Army was also split, into the Fourteenth Army, part of South East Asia Command and responsible for the conduct of operations in Manipur and the Arakan, and Eastern Command, which reported to GHQ India and was responsible for rear-area security and the lines of communication.

Japanese command changes and plans

In March 1943, the Japanese created a new army-level headquarters, Burma Area Army to control operations in Burma. Lieutenant General Masakazu Kawabe was the new Commander. The army took the Fifteenth Army under command in the north and east of the country, and for the moment, directly controlled units in the south and west of the country. (Twenty-Eighth Army assumed this responsibility on 6 January 1944.)

In August, Lieutenant General Iida was replaced as commander of Fifteenth Army by Lieutenant General Mutaguchi, former commander of the 18th Division. From the moment he took charge, Mutaguchi forcefully advocated a bold offensive into India for the following year, in contrast to his earlier dismissal of the chances of such an attack succeeding. The offensive plan, codenamed U-Go, was endorsed by Imperial General Headquarters and was launched the following year.


  1. ^ John Masters, The Road past Mandalay
  2. ^ Bayly and Harper, pp.247-251
  3. ^ Allen: "Burma; The longest war", pp. 559-563
  4. ^ Bayly and Harper, "Forgotten Armies", pp. 274-75
  5. ^ William Slim, Defeat into Victory, p. 284
  6. ^ Allen: "Burma; The longest war", p. 390


  • Allen, Louis Burma: The Longest War
  • Bayly, Christopher; Harper, Tim (2004). Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire & the War with Japan. London: Penguin History. ISBN 0-140-29331-0.  
  • Calvert, Mike. Fighting Mad
  • Drea, Edward J. (1998). "An Allied Interpretation of the Pacific War". In the Service of the Emperor: Essays on the Imperial Japanese Army. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-1708-0.  
  • Fergusson, Bernard, Beyond the Chindwin
  • Latimer, Jon. Burma: The Forgotten War
  • Ochi, Harumi. Struggle in Burma
  • Slim, William, Defeat into Victory

External links


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