Japanese conquest of Burma: Wikis


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Burma Campaign
Part of the Pacific War during World War II
IJA 15th Army on border of Burma.jpg
Troops of Japanese Fifteenth Army on border of Burma
Date January 1942 – May 1942
Location Burma
Result Japanese victory
Casualties and losses

United Kingdom 13,463

Empire of Japan 2,143

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.


Pre-war situation

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 Bamar community was becoming increasingly restive. Among their concerns were 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.[1] When Burma came under attack, the Bamar 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. Burma had been regarded as a military "backwater", unlikely to be subjected to Japanese threat.[2]

Lieutenant General Thomas Hutton, the commander of Burma Army with its headquarters in Rangoon, had only the 17th Indian Infantry 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. In most cases, such training and equipment as the Indian units in Burma received was for operations in the Western Desert campaign or the North West Frontier of India, rather than jungles. The battalions of the Burma Rifles which formed most of the 1st Burma Division were originally raised as internal security troops only. They also had been rapidly expanded, and were short of equipment and consisted mainly of new recruits.


Japanese Plans

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 (which included some oil from fields around Yenangyaung, 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 occupying northern Thailand, which had signed a treaty of friendship with Japan on 21 December 1941, and attacking the southern Burmese province of Tenasserim. The army consisted initially of the highly regarded 33rd Division and the 55th Division, although both divisions were weakened for several weeks by detachments to other operations. Thai troops would aid in the invasions of Burma and Malaya.

Japanese capture of Rangoon

The first Japanese attack in mid-January 1942 against Victoria Point, almost the most southerly point of Burma, was expected and was 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 (from 55th Division) then launched overland attacks on the airfields at Tavoy and Mergui in Tenasserim. 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 18 January. 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, by small RAF detachments reinforced by a squadron of the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. The majority of the airfields were between Rangoon and the Axis advance and 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 22 January 1942, the main body of the Japanese 55th Division began the main attack westward from Rahaeng in Thailand across the Kawkareik Pass. The 16th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 17th Indian 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 Infantry Brigade. The position was almost impossible to defend, and had the River Salween, almost 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide, behind it. The 2nd Burma Brigade was squeezed into a progressively tighter perimeter, and eventually retreated over river by ferry on 31 January after abandoning a large amount of supplies and equipment. Part of the force was left behind in Moulmein and had to swim the river.[3]

The Sittang Bridge

The 17th Indian 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 AVG) and Japanese harassment.[4] The delays allowed Japanese parties to infiltrate to the bridge itself, and the poorly organised defence of the bridge was in danger of collapsing. Fearing that the bridge would fall intact to the Japanese who would use it to advance on Rangoon, the divisional commander, Major-General "Jackie" Smyth, VC, ordered it to be blown up on the morning of 23 February 1942, with most of the division stranded on the enemy-held side.[5]

Many of the men of the 17th Division who were trapped on the Japanese-held side of the river made their way across to the west bank by swimming or on improvised rafts, but had to abandon all their equipment, including most of their small arms. This later led some to question the decision to blow the bridge, arguing that the river itself did not offer much of an obstacle to the Japanese, and that more harm than good was achieved, as it resulted in the stranding of two brigades and delayed the Japanese capture of Rangoon by ten days at most.[4]

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 Archibald 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 28 February, he formally relieved Hutton (although Hutton had officially already been superseded in command by General Harold Alexander), and on the following day he sacked Smyth, who was in any case very ill.[6]

Although the Australian Division never arrived in Burma, some reinforcements including the British 7th Armoured Brigade landed in Rangoon. Alexander ordered counter-attacks but soon realised that there was no hope of defending the city. On 7 March, the Burma Army evacuated Rangoon after implementing a scorched earth plan to deny the Japanese the use of its facilities. 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 from the city, but broke through the Taukkyan Roadblock due to an error on the part of the local Japanese commander. Colonel Takanobu Sakuma, commanding the 214 Infantry Regiment, had been ordered to block the main road north from Rangoon while the main body of the 33rd Division circled round the city to attack from the west. The retreating British and Indian troops were thrown back attempting to break through Sakuma's road block. Alexander ordered another attack but found the Japanese had gone. Not realising that the British were evacuating the city, Sakuma had withdrawn the road block, as ordered, once the division had reached its intended positions.[7] Had he not done so, the Japanese might have captured General Alexander and much of the rest of Burma Army.

Japanese advance to the Indian frontier

Electrical equipment and oil installations at Yenanguang being destroyed as part of the "scorched earth" policy, in the face of the Japanese advance

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 one transferred from Malaya and another transferred from the Dutch East Indies after the fall of Singapore and Java. They also brought in large numbers of captured British trucks and other vehicles, which allowed them to move supplies rapidly using southern Burma's road network, and also use Motorised 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. Many Bamar soldiers of the Burma Rifles were deserting. The Royal Air Force wing operating from Magwe were crippled by the withdrawal of the radar and radio-intercept units to India[8] and the Japanese soon gained supremacy in the air.

The British had created Burma Corps[9] to relieve Burma Army of the responsibility of conducting day-to-day operations. Its commander, Lieutenant General William Slim, tried to mount a counter-offensive on the western part of the front, but the troops were repeatedly outflanked and forced to fight their way out of encirclement. The Corps was gradually pushed northward towards Mandalay. The 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.

On the eastern part of the front, 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 motorised 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

Japanese advance and 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. Burma Corps retreated to Manipur in India. Most of the Corps's remaining equipment could not be ferried across the Chindwin River and was lost at Kalewa, although the troops escaped a Japanese attempt to trap them at Shwegyin east of the river. The Corps reached Imphal in Manipur 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. The ad hoc Burma Corps HQ was disbanded, and IV Corps HQ which had recently arrived in India took over the front.

The British Civil Government of Burma fell back to Myitkyina in Northern Burma, accompanied by many British, Anglo-Indian and Indian civilians. The Governor (Reginald Dorman-Smith) and the most influential civilians were flown out from Myitkyina Airfield, together with some of the sick and injured.[10] The majority of the refugees were forced to make their way from Myitkyina to India via the unhealthy Hukawng Valley and the precipitous forested Patkai Range. Many died on the way, and when they reached India, there were several instances of the civil authorities allowing white and Eurasian civilians to continue while preventing Indians from proceeding, effectively condemning many to death.[11] By contrast, many private individuals did their best to provide aid.

The Japanese advance had cut off many of the Chinese troops from China. Many of them also retreated via the Hukawng Valley route and subsisted largely by looting, further increasing the misery of the refugees. The Chinese 38th Division however, fought its way westward across the Chindwin, arriving in India substantially intact although with heavy casualties.[12] The remaining Chinese troops tried to return to Yunnan through remote mountainous forests and many died on the way.

The Chinese soldiers who had retreated into India were put under the command of the American General Joseph Stilwell, who had also made his way to India on foot. After recuperating they were re-equipped and retrained by American instructors.

Thai army enters Burma

In accordance with the Thai military alliance with Japan that was signed on 21 December 1941, the leading elements of the Thai Phayap Army crossed the border into the Shan States on 10 May 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 was specifically retained under Japanese control.

Three Thai infantry and one cavalry division, spearheaded by armoured reconnaissance groups and supported by the air force, engaged the retreating Chinese 93rd Division. Kengtung, the main objective, was captured on 27 May. Renewed offensives in June and November drove the Chinese back into Yunnan.


  1. ^ Bayly and Harper, pp.81-96
  2. ^ Jackson, pp.387-388
  3. ^ Allen, pp.24-35
  4. ^ a b Allen, pp.648-650
  5. ^ Allen, p. 3
  6. ^ Allen, pp.48-49
  7. ^ Allen, pp.54-56
  8. ^ Bayly and Harper, p.174
  9. ^ Burcorps consisted of 1st Burma Division, 17th Indian Division and 7th Armoured Brigade, see Allen p. 59
  10. ^ Bayly and Harper, pp.177-178
  11. ^ Bayly and Harper, pp.187-188
  12. ^ Slim, p.115


  • Allen, Louis (1984). Burma: The Longest War. Dent. ISBN 0-460-02474-4.  
  • Bayly, Christopher; Tim Harper (2005). Forgotten Armies. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-140-29331-0.  
  • Jackson, Ashley (2006). The British Empire and the Second World War. London: Hambledon Continuum. ISBN 978-1-85285-517-8.  
  • Slim, William (1956). Defeat Into Victory. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-29114-5.  

Further reading

  • Carew, Tim. The Longest Retreat
  • Calvert, Mike. Fighting Mad
  • Dillon, Terence. Rangoon to Kohima
  • 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.  
  • Fujino, Hideo. Singapore and Burma
  • Grant, Ian Lyall & Tamayama, Kazuo Burma 1942: The Japanese Invasion
  • Ida, Shojiro From the Battlefields
  • Ikuhiko Hata Road to the Pacific War
  • Hodsun, J.L. War in the Sun
  • 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
  • Reynolds, E. Bruce. Thailand and Japan's Southern Advance
  • Sadayoshi Shigematsu Fighting Around Burma
  • Smyth John Before the Dawn
  • Sugita, Saiichi. Burma Operations
  • Young, Edward M. Aerial Nationalism: A History of Aviation in Thailand

External links


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