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Burma Campaign
Part of the Pacific War during World War II
Indian troops among pagodas on Mandalay.jpg
Troops of Indian 19th Division in Mandalay
Date November 1944 – July 1945
Location Burma
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
Commanders
Strength
Casualties and losses

22,262 (British Commonwealth)

31,119[1]

The Burma Campaign in the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II was fought primarily between British Commonwealth, Chinese and United States forces against the forces of the Empire of Japan, Thailand, the Burmese Independence Army and the Indian National Army. British Commonwealth land forces were drawn primarily from the United Kingdom, British India and Africa.

Partly because monsoon rains made effective campaigning possible only for about half of the year, the Burma campaign was almost the longest campaign of the war. During the campaigning season of 1942, the Japanese had captured Burma from the British. After scoring some defensive successes, they then attempted to forestall Allied offensives in 1944 by launching an invasion of India (Operation U-Go). This had failed with disastrous losses. During the next campaigning season beginning in December, 1944, the Allies launched offensives into Burma, capturing Rangoon from the weakened Japanese just before the monsoon struck, to ensure their hold on the country.

Contents

Allied 1944-1945 offensives

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Allied Plans

As the monsoon rains ended late in 1944, the Allies' South East Asia Command commanded by Admiral Louis Mountbatten was preparing to launch large-scale offensives into Japanese-occupied Burma. The Allied Land Forces South East Asia headquarters under General Oliver Leese had overall control of the ground forces on the various fronts.

There were four major routes by which offensives into Burma could be supplied. On three of these (in the Burmese coastal province of Arakan where communications ran mainly by sea, on the newly-constructed Ledo Road running from Ledo in north-eastern India and on the Burma Road in Yunnan province in China, the Allies were preparing to extend the gains they had made earlier in 1944. The major effort however would be made from Imphal in India's Manipur state, across the Chindwin River into Central Burma, where the terrain favoured armoured and motorised formations.

The Allies had established air supremacy over India and Burma. They possessed large numbers of transport aircraft which could make formations independent of normal lines of communication. They were also acquiring resources not previously available, for example they were able to use Landing craft to launch amphibious operations along the Burmese coast and supply troops over beaches.

Japanese Plans

In the aftermath of their defeats the previous year, the Japanese had made major changes in their command. The most important was the replacement of General Masakazu Kawabe at Burma Area Army by Lieutenant General Hyotaro Kimura. Kimura threw Allied plans into confusion by refusing to fight at the Chindwin River. Recognising that most of his formations were weak and short of equipment, he withdrew Fifteenth Army behind the Irrawaddy River, which they would defend against the British Fourteenth Army (Operation BAN). The Twenty-Eighth Army was to continue to defend the Arakan and lower Irrawaddy valley (Operation KAN), while Thirty-Third Army would attempt to prevent the completion of the new road link between India and China by defending the cities of Bhamo and Lashio, and mounting guerilla raids (Operation DAN).[2]

Burma

Another factor which was to become significant during the campaign was the changing attitude of the Burmese population. During the Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942, many Burmese had actively aided the Japanese Army. Although the Japanese had established a nominally independent Burmese government under Ba Maw and formed a Burma National Army under Aung San, they remained in effective control of the country. Their strict control, along with wartime privations, turned the Burmese against them.

Aung San had sought an alliance with Thakin Soe, who was leading a Communist insurgency, as early as 1943. They formed the Anti-Fascist Organisation and intended turning against the Japanese at some stage, but Thakin Soe dissuaded Aung San from openly rebelling until Allied forces had established permanent footholds in Burma. In early 1945, Aung San sought the aid of the Allied liaison organisation Force 136, which was already aiding resistance movements among the minority Karen population. Although there was some debate among the Allies, Mountbatten eventually decided that Aung San should be supported. Force 136 was now to abet the defection of the entire Burma National Army to the Allies.[3]

Another force nominally under Japanese control was the Indian National Army, a force mainly composed of former prisoners of war under Subhas Chandra Bose. Some INA units fought stoutly against the Allies, but others deserted or capitulated readily. The Japanese had alienated many of the INA by denying them equipment and supplies, or by using them as labourers and carriers rather than as fighting troops. Their morale was also affected in some units by the obvious turn of fortune against the Japanese.

Southern Front

Royal Marines land on Ramree Island

The first objective for the Allies in Arakan was Akyab Island, at the end of the Mayu Peninsula. The island held a port and an important airfield which the Allies needed to deliver supplies by air to the troops in Central Burma. Two previous attempts to capture the island had been defeated, or were abandoned because of monsoon rains and lack of resources.

As the monsoon ended, the XV Corps under Lieutenant General Philip Christison resumed the advance on Akyab for the third year in succession. The Indian 25th Infantry Division advanced on Foul Point and Rathedaung at the end of the Mayu Peninsula, being supplied by landing craft over beaches to avoid the risk of Japanese attacks against their lines of communication, while the 81st (West Africa) Division and 82nd (West Africa) Division converged on Myohaung near the mouth of the Kaladan River, cutting the supply lines of the Japanese troops in the Mayu Peninsula. The Japanese evacuated Akyab Island on 31 December 1944. It was occupied by XV Corps without resistance two days later.

The 82nd Division attacked south along the coastal plain, while Indian 25th Division, with 3 Commando Brigade under command, made amphibious landings further south to capture the Japanese in a pincer movement. First ashore was No.42 (Royal Marine) Commando on the south-eastern face of the Myebon Peninsula on 12 January 1945. Over the next few days the commandos and a brigade of 25th Division cleared the peninsula and denied the Japanese the use of the many waterways along the Arakan coast.

On 22 January, 3 Commando Brigade landed on the beaches at Daingbon Chaung led this time by No. 1 Commando. Having secured the beaches they moved inland and became involved in very heavy fighting with the Japanese. The following night a brigade of the 25th Division was landed in support. The fighting around the beachhead involved hand-to-hand fighting as the Japanese realised the danger of encirclement and threw all their available troops into the fight. The commandos and Indian troops managed to turn the tide of the battle and take the village of Kangaw only on 29 January. Meanwhile the forces on the Myebon Peninsula linked up with the 82nd Division fighting its way overland towards Kangaw. Caught between the 82nd Division and the forces already in Kangaw, the Japanese were forced to scatter, leaving behind thousands of dead and most of their heavy equipment.

With the coastal area secured, the Allies were free to build sea-supplied airbases on the two offshore islands, Ramree Island and Cheduba. Cheduba, the smaller of the two islands, had no Japanese garrison, but the Battle of Ramree Island lasted for six weeks after the initial landings on 21 January before the small but tenacious Japanese garrison was cleared.[4][5]

Following these actions, XV Corps' operations were curtailed to release transport aircraft to support Fourteenth Army. The 81st Division and the 50th Indian Tank Brigade were withdrawn to India. Outflanking moves through the hills around An and Taungup were abandoned or cancelled, and the Corps' divisions were withdrawn to the coast. The Japanese successfully defended the port of Tanugup and the An and Taungup passes across the Arakan hills until very late in the campaign.

Northern Front

Northern Combat Area Command's operations

The operations of the American-led Northern Combat Area Command under Lieutenant General Daniel Isom Sultan were limited from late 1944 onwards by the need for Chinese troops on the main front in China. In Operation "Grubworm", the Chinese 14th and 22nd Divisions were flown to China via Myitkyina airfield. Nevertheless, the command resumed its advance against the Japanese Thirty-Third Army.

On the right flank of the command, the British 36th Infantry Division, which had been assigned to the command in July 1944 to replace the Chindits, made contact with the Indian 19th Infantry Division near Indaw on 10 December 1944, and Fourteenth Army and NCAC now had a continuous front. On Sultan's left, the Chinese New First Army (Chinese 30th Division and Chinese 38th Division) advanced from Myitkyina to Bhamo. The Japanese resisted for several weeks, but Bhamo fell on 15 December. The Chinese New Sixth Army (Chinese 50th Division) infiltrated through the difficult terrain between these two wings to threaten the Japanese lines of communication. An American force known as the "Mars Brigade" (which had replaced Merrill's Marauders) acted independently, though mainly in support of the New First Army.

Sultan's forces made contact with Chiang's Yunnan armies near Hsipaw on 21 January 1945, and the Ledo road could finally be completed. The first truck convoy from India arrived in Kunming on 4 February[6] but by this point in the war the value of the Ledo road was uncertain, as it would not now affect the overall military situation in China.

To the annoyance of the British and Americans, Chiang ordered Sultan to halt his advance at Lashio, which was captured on 7 March. The British and Americans generally refused to understand that Chiang had to balance the needs of China as a whole against fighting the Japanese in a British colony. The Japanese had already withdrawn most of their divisions from the northern front, to face Fourteenth Army in central Burma. On 12 March, Thirty-Third Army HQ was also dispatched there, leaving only one division to hold the northern front.[7] This division was also withdrawn in late March and early April.

From 1 April, NCAC's operations stopped, and its units returned to China. The British 36th Division moved to Mandalay, which had been captured in March, and was subsequently withdrawn to India. A US-led guerrilla force, OSS Detachment 101, took over the military responsibilities of NCAC,[6] while British civil affairs and other units such as the Civil Affairs Service (Burma) stepped in to take over its other responsibilities. Northern Burma was partitioned into Line-of-Communication areas by the military authorities.

Central Front

Two British soldiers patrol the ruins of Bahe, in Central Burma

The British Fourteenth Army under Lieutenant General William Slim made the main thrust into central Burma. It consisted of IV Corps under Lieutenant General Frank Messervy and XXXIII Corps under Lieutenant General Montagu Stopford, together controlling six infantry divisions, two armoured brigades and three independent infantry brigades. The main constraint on the number of forces it could deploy was logistical. A carefully designed system involving large amounts of supply by air was introduced, and major construction projects were undertaken to improve the land route from India into Burma and make use of river transport.

When it was realised that the Japanese had fallen back behind the Irrawaddy River, the plan was hastily changed. Initially both corps had been attacking into the Shwebo Plain between the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers. Now, only XXXIII Corps was to continue this attack, while IV Corps changed its axis of advance to the Gangaw Valley west of the Chindwin, aiming to cross the Irrawaddy close to Pakokku and then capture the main Japanese line of communication centre of Meiktila. Diversionary measures (such as dummy radio traffic) were made to persuade the Japanese that both corps were still aimed at Mandalay.

The new plan was completely successful. Allied air superiority and the thin Japanese presence on the ground meant that the Japanese were unaware of the strength of the force moving on Pakokku. During January and February, XXXIII Corps seized crossings over the Irrawaddy River near Mandalay. There was heavy fighting, which attracted Japanese reserves and fixed their attention. Late in February, 7th Indian Infantry Division, leading IV Corps, seized crossings at Nyaungu, near Pakokku. Indian 17th Division and 255th Indian Armoured brigade followed them across and struck for Meiktila.

Central Burma in the dry season is an open plain with sandy soil. The mechanized Indian 17th Division and the armoured brigade could move rapidly and unhindered in this open terrain, apparently taking the staffs at the various Japanese headquarters by surprise with this blitzkrieg manoeuvre. They struck Meiktila on 1 March and captured it in four days, despite resistance to the last man. In an often-recounted incident, some Japanese soldiers crouched in trenches with aircraft bombs, with orders to detonate them when an enemy tank loomed over the trench.

The Japanese tried first to relieve the garrison at Meiktila, and then to recapture the town and destroy Indian 17th Division. Although a total of eight Japanese regiments were eventually involved, they were mostly weak in numbers and drawn from five separate divisions, so their efforts were not coordinated. The Japanese Thirty-Third Army HQ (re-titled "The Army of the Decisive Battle"[7]) was assigned to take command in this vital sector, but was unable to establish proper control. The Indian 17th Division had been reinforced by two infantry brigades landed by air. British tanks and infantry continually sallied out of Meiktila to break up Japanese concentrations. By the end of the month the Japanese had suffered heavy casualties and lost most of their artillery, their chief anti-tank weapon. They broke off the attack and retreated to Pyawbwe.

While the Japanese were distracted by events at Meiktila, XXXIII Corps had renewed its attack on Mandalay. It fell to Indian 19th Division on 20 March, though the Japanese held the former citadel which the British called Fort Dufferin for another week. Many of the historically and culturally significant areas of Mandalay, including the old royal palace, were burned to the ground. A great deal was lost by the Japanese choice to make a last stand in the city itself. The other divisions of XXXIII Corps simultaneously attacked from their bridgeheads across the Irrawaddy. The Japanese Fifteenth Army was reduced to small detachments and parties of stragglers making their way south, or east into the Shan States.

With the fall of Mandalay (and of Maymyo to its east), the Japanese communications to the front in the north of Burma were cut, and the road link between India and China could finally be completed though far too late to matter much. The fall of Mandalay also precipitated the change of sides by the Burma National Army, and open rebellion against the Japanese by other underground movements belonging to the Anti-Fascist Organisation.

Race for Rangoon

A Stuart light tank of an Indian cavalry regiment during the advance on Rangoon

Though the Allied force had advanced successfully into central Burma, it was vital to capture of the port of Rangoon before the monsoon rains began. The temporarily upgraded overland routes from India would disintegrate under heavy rain, which would also curtail flying and reduce the amount of supplies which could be delivered by air. Furthermore, South East Asia Command had been notified that many of the American transport aircraft allocated to the theatre would be withdrawn in June at the latest. The use of Rangoon would be necessary to meet the needs of the large army force and (as importantly) the food needs of the civilian population in the areas liberated.

The British 2nd Division and British 36th Division were withdrawn to India to reduce the demand for supplies. The Indian XXXIII Corps, consisting of the Indian 7th Division and Indian 20th Division, mounted Fourteenth Army's secondary drive down the Irrawaddy River valley, against stiff resistance from the Japanese Twenty-Eighth Army. Indian IV Corps made the main attack, down the "Railway Valley", which was also followed by the Sittang River.

The Indian 17th Division and 255th Armoured Brigade began IV Corps' advance on 6 April by striking from all sides at the delaying position held by the remnants of Japanese Thirty-Third Army under Lieutenant General Honda at Pyawbwe, while a flanking column (nicknamed "Claudcol") of tanks and mechanized infantry cut the main road behind them and attacked their rear.[8] This column was initially delayed by the remnants of the Japanese 49th Division defending a village, but bypassed them to defeat the remnants of the Japanese 53rd Division and destroy the last tanks remaining to the Japanese 14th Tank regiment. As they then turned north against the town of Pyawbwe itself, they attacked Honda's headquarters but were not aware of the presence of an army headquarters and broke off the attack, to capture the town instead.[9]

From this point, the advance down the main road to Rangoon faced little organised opposition. At Pyinmana, the town and the bridge were seized on 19 April before the Japanese could organise their defence. The Japanese Thirty-third Army headquarters was present in Pyinmana. From reports by agents, the Allies were aware this time of Honda's presence, and his headquarters was attacked by tanks and aircraft. Lieutenant-General Honda and his staff escaped at night on foot, but they now had little means of controlling the remnants of their formations.[10]

British troops firing a mortar on the Mawchi road.

Some units of the Japanese Fifteenth Army had reorganised in the Shan States and were reinforced by the Japanese 56th Division, which had been transferred from the northern front. They were ordered to move to Toungoo to block the road to Rangoon, but a general uprising by Karen forces who had been organised and equipped by Force 136 delayed them long enough for the Indian 5th Infantry Division, now leading IV Corps, to reach the town first on 23 April. The Japanese briefly recaptured Toungoo once 5th Division had passed through, but the Indian 19th Division, which was following up the leading units of IV Corps, recaptured the town and slowly drove the Japanese back towards Mawchi to the east.

The Indian 17th Division resumed the lead of the advance, and met Japanese rearguards north of Pegu, 40 miles (64 km) north of Rangoon, on 25 April. Kimura had formed the various line of communication troops, naval personnel and even Japanese civilians in Rangoon into the Japanese 105 Independent Mixed Brigade. This scratch formation used buried aircraft bombs, anti-aircraft guns and suicide attacks with pole charges to delay the British advance until 30 April, when the Japanese withdrew into the hills west of Pegu.

Operation Dracula

In the original conception of the plan to re-take Burma, it had been intended that Indian XV Corps would make an amphibious assault codenamed Operation Dracula on Rangoon long before Fourteenth Army reached the capital, in order to ease supply problems. Lack of resources meant that Dracula was postponed, and the operation was subsequently dropped in favour of an assault on Phuket Island off the Kra Isthmus.

Slim feared that the Japanese would defend Rangoon to the last man through the monsoon, which would put Fourteenth Army in a disastrous supply situation. His lines of communication by land were impossibly long, and the troops relied on supplies ferried by aircraft to airfields close behind the leading troops, which would be unusable in heavy rain. He therefore asked for Dracula to be reinstated at short notice. However, Kimura had ordered Rangoon to be evacuated, starting on 22 April. Many troops were evacuated by sea, although British destroyers claimed several ships. Kimura's own HQ and the establishments of Ba Maw and Subhas Bose left by land, covered by the action of 105 Mixed Brigade at Pegu, and proceeded to Moulmein.

On 1 May, a Gurkha parachute battalion was dropped on Elephant Point, and cleared Japanese rearguards (or perhaps merely parties left behind and forgotten) from the mouth of the Rangoon River. The Indian 26th Infantry Division landed the next day as the monsoon began, and took over Rangoon, which had seen an orgy of looting and lawlessness similar to the last days of the British in the city in 1942.

The leading troops of the Indian 17th and 26th divisions met at Hlegu, 28 miles (45 km) north of Rangoon, on 6 May.

Final operations

Following the capture of Rangoon, a new Twelfth Army headquarters was created from XXXIII Corps HQ to take control of the formations which were to remain in Burma, including IV Corps.

The remnants of the Japanese armies remained in control of Tenasserim province. The Japanese Twenty-Eighth Army under Lieutenant General Shōzō Sakurai, which had withdrawn from Arakan and unsuccessfully resisted XXXIII Corps in the Irrawaddy valley, and the 105 Independent Brigade, were cut off in the Pegu Yomas, a range of low jungle-covered hills between the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers. They planned to break out and rejoin Burma Area Army. To cover this breakout, Kimura ordered Honda's Thirty-Third Army to mount a diversionary offensive across the Sittang, although the entire army could muster the strength of barely a regiment. On 3 July, Honda's troops attacked British positions in the "Sittang Bend". On 10 July, after a battle for country which was almost entirely under chest-high water, both the Japanese and the Indian 89 Brigade withdrew.

Honda had attacked too early. Sakurai's Twenty-Eighth Army was not ready to start the breakout until 17 July. The breakout was a disaster. The British had captured the Japanese plans from an officer killed making a final reconnaissance, and had placed ambushes or artillery concentrations on the routes they were to use. Hundreds of men drowned trying to cross the swollen Sittang on improvised bamboo floats and rafts. Burmese guerillas and bandits killed stragglers east of the river. The breakout cost the Japanese nearly 10,000 men, half the strength of Twenty-Eighth Army. British and Indian casualties were minimal.

Fourteenth Army (now under Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey) and XV Corps had returned to India to plan the next stage of the campaign to re-take south east Asia. A new corps, the Indian XXXIV Corps under Lieutenant-General Ouvry Lindfield Roberts, was raised and assigned to Fourteenth Army for further operations.

The next intended operation was to be an amphibious assault on the western coast of Malaya, codenamed Operation Zipper. The dropping of the atomic bombs forestalled Zipper, but the operation was undertaken post-war as the quickest way of getting occupation troops into Malaya.

Notes

  1. ^ not counting casualties fighting Americans and Chinese
  2. ^ Allen, p.392
  3. ^ Bayly and Harper (2005), pp.429-432
  4. ^ Slim, Defeat into Victory, pp.461-462
  5. ^ combined operation: No 5 commando
  6. ^ a b Allen, p.455
  7. ^ a b Allen, p.450
  8. ^ Allen, p.461
  9. ^ Allen, p.465-466
  10. ^ Allen, p.468-471

References

  • Allen, Louis Burma: The Longest War
  • Bayly, Christopher; Harper, Tim (2005). Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire and the War with Japan. Penguin. ISBN 0-140-29331-0.  
  • Hickey, Michael. The Unforgettable Army
  • Hodsun, J.L. War in the Sun
  • Jackson, Ashley (2006). The British Empire and the Second World War. London: Hambledon Continuum. pp. 387–388. ISBN 978-1-85285-517-8.  
  • Keegan (ed), John; Duncan Anderson (1991). Churchill's Generals. London: Cassell Military. pp. 243–255. ISBN 0-304-36712-5.  
  • Latimer, Jon. Burma: The Forgotten War
  • Moser, Don and editors of Time-Life Books World War II: China-Burma-India',1978, Library of Congress no 77-93742
  • Ochi, Harumi. Struggle in Burma
  • Sadayoshi Shigematsu Fighting Around Burma
  • Slim, William (1956) Defeat Into Victory. Citations from the Cassell 1956 edition, but also available from NY: Buccaneer Books ISBN 1-56849-077-1, Cooper Square Press ISBN 0-8154-1022-0; London: Cassell ISBN 0-304-29114-5, Pan ISBN 0-330-39066-X.
  • Webster, Donovan. The Burma Road : The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II

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