World War II: Japanese Conquest of Burma (January-May 1942)


Figure 1.--

Burma was an scene of vicious fighting between Japan and the Allies. At the time of World War II, it was a British colony. The British hard-pressed in North Africa could not afford either the men or equipment to properly garison eiher Burma or Singapore. Japan after the fall of France (June 1940) demanded that French officials in Indochina permit them to occupy the colony. The French delayed the Japanese, but in the end were forced to acede to Japanese demands. The Japanese occupation took place in two stages, first north and then south Indochina. The Japanese had a number of goals in Indochina. The first was close the port of Haiphong which had been a major conduit of supplies to the Chinese Nationalists. Indochina also provided staging areas for planned invasions of of the Southern Resource Area (Burma, Malaya, Singaporte, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines). For this reason this brought the Japanese into increasing conflict with the United States whose Pacific Fleet was the only force capable of effectively resisting Japan. From Indochina, Japan pressured Thialand to grant them free passage for an invasion of Burma. This was accomplished through both threats and offering a slice of Indochina. The Japanese invaded Burma through Thailand. The Japanese Atmy rapidly advanced against the poorly prepared British. The American Flying Tigers arrived just before the War, but was too small a force to blunt the Japanese offensive. The British surrender at Singapore (February 1942) and the American surrender in the Philippines (April 1942) allowed the Japanese to strengthen their drive through Burma. The major problem for the Japanese as they moved west was keeping their army supplied. The Japanese defeated both the British Army which included Indian units and the Chinese Army in India (CAI) commanded by an American general, Vinegar Joe Stilwell. The British position was also undermined by the organization of Burmese nationalist forces. The Allied forces had to make a forced retreat into India under terrible conditions. The Japanese not only succeeded in occupying Burma, but in doing so cut the Burma Road, the last remaining route to supplying the Chinese Nationalists. The Japanese then begn to plan an invasion of India. For this they needed a way of transporting supplied through Thailand and Burma. The American carrier victory at Midway mean that supplying troops in Burma could not be done by sea. The result was a decession to build a railway through Thailand and Burma using local labor and Allied POWs.

British Colony

The British after establishing the Raj In neighboring India, colonized Burma piecemeal (19th century). This occured as a result of the Burma Wars. This began as a result of conflict between the Arakan Kingdome in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. Burmese fiorces defeated the Kingdom of Arakan (1784-85). Burmese forces invaded India (1823). The British responded with a seaborne expedition of mostly Indian troops that took Rangoon with little resisance (1824). The Treaty of Yandabo formally ended the First Anglo-Burmese War (1826). Burma was an scene of vicious fighting between Japan and the Allies. At the time of World War II, it was a British colony. The British hard-pressed in North Africa could not afford either the men or equipment to properly garison either Burma or Singapore.

Indochina (1940-41)

Indochina was a French cloony comprised of modern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Japan after the fall of France (June 1940) demanded that French officials in Indochina permit them to occupy the colony. The French delayed the Japanese, but in the end were forced to acede to Japanese demands. The Japanese occupation took place in two stages, first north and then south Indochina. The Japanese had a number of goals in Indochina. The first was close the port of Haiphong which had been a major conduit of supplies to the Chinese Nationalists. Indochina also provided staging areas for planned invasions of of the Southern Resource Area (Burma, Malaya, Singaporte, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines). For this reason this brought the Japanese into increasing conflict with the United States whose Pacific Fleet was the only force capable of effectively resisting Japan.

Siam-Japanese Alliance

From Indochina, Japan pressured Siam (Thialand) to grant them free passage for an invasion of Burma. An invasion of Burma was not possible without permissiin to cross Simese territory. This was accomplished through both threats and offering a slice of both Indochina and Burma. Siam signed a Treaty of Friendship with Japan (December 21, 1941).

Japanese Air Power

One of the surprises to both the Americans and British at the onset of the Pcific War was the strength of the Japanese airforces. Not only were Japanese air crews well trained, but they had modern aircraft. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a shock to Allied commanders. Japanese air power played an important role in Malaya, Singapore, and Burma. Both American and British commanders believes that the Japanese did not make very good pilots and that their aircraft were not up to European standards. The Japanese quickly proved them wrong. The British and Americans would very rapidly introduce more modern aircraft types, but for the first year of the War it was Japanese planes that dominated the skies over the Pacific and Southeast Asia and in large numbers. Mingaladon Airfield near Rangoon was the center of the RAF air defenses in Burma, prorecting the key port of Rangoon. The American Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group--AVG) also established half their force there. One author described the reaction of an American mechanic working with the Flying Tigers, "After the scramble we gathered around our barracks and stood looking upinto the sky, just like a bunch of tourists .... We heardengines, and high in the sky we saw small silver specks flying in a V-formation. Someone started countingand when he reached twenty-seven, he yelled, 'They're not ours. We don't have that many.' I jumped into the narest slit trench about the same time I hears the woosh, woosh of the bombs coming down."[Warren]

Rangoon (January-March 1942)

The Japanese invaded Burma through Thailand. The Japanese Atmy rapidly advanced against the poorly prepared British. The initial objective was Rangoon, the capital and an important Indian Ocean seaport. This has two important advantages. Possession of Rangoon would close the Burmaoad, last supply line to China. It would also cut the British army in Burma off from resupply and reinforcement. This would also provide an eastern bulwark to the new possessions that they werre in the process of seizing (Malaya and the Dutch East Indies as well as the indespenable naval bastion at Singapore). The initial invasion force was the Japanese 15th Army commanded by Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida. He began the assault with only two infantry divisions from Siam. He attacked over rugged jungle-covered mountain ranges into the southern Burmese province of Tenasserim (January 1942). The Japanese attacked through the Kawkareik Pass. This was the most defensable position in Burma. Loss of the Pass made the subsequent conquest of Burma possible. The Japanese as a result were able to advance toward the port of Moulmein at the mouth of the Salween River. The British put up a stiff fight. This was the beginning of the rail line the British built in Burma. The Japanese managed to do this carrying their supplies with them over the mountains, an impressive accomplishment. The Japanese then attacked northwards along the coast. They managed to outflanking British attempts to establish defensive positions. Here the Japanese ability to move through the jungle as in Malaya proved decisive. The retreating 17th Indian Division tried to escape the advancing Japanese by crossing the Sittang River. Japanese advance parties managed to seize the bridge before the 17th Division reached it. The British decided to blow the bridge rather than fight for it (February 22). Blowing tghe bridge compromised the defense of Rangoon. It meant losing two brigades of 17th Indian Division. Without these troops, the British could not hold Rangoon. General Archibald Wavell who had earlier fought in the Werstern Desert commanded the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command. He ordered an attempt at holding Rangoon. He was under the impression that substantial relief forces were being dispatched from the Middle East. Some trrops did arrive, but British counterattacks failed to dislodge the Japanese. A new commander of Burma Army, General Harold Alexander, ordered an evacuation and the destruction of the port and oil refinery. The Japanese entered Rangoon (March 6). The remnants of Burma Army managed to break to the north toward Mandalay, narrowly avoiding a Jpanese encirclement.

American Flying Tigers

The United States launched a secret effort to provided China a modern air defense--the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers). Its main task was to protect the Burma Road. President Roosevelt signed an executive order 1940 which permitted U.S. military personnel to resign so that they could participate in a covert operation to support China (May 1940). The All Volunteer Group formed became known as Chennault's Flying Tigers. This covert operation provide the Chinese a creditable air capability for the first time. The Flying Tigers did not, however, go into action until after Pearl Harbor. The Flying Tigers arrived just before the War (November 1941). Thus they were in position when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and launched the Pacific War (December 1941). They are primarily associate with the conflict in China, but fought many of their early engagements in Burma. They were too small a force to blunt the Japanese offensive, but bloodied the Japanese air force..

Singapore (February 1942)

The British defensive position in Asia was based on Singapore which they heavily fortified. The defensives were basef on resisting a naval assult, not a land attack down the Malay Peninsula. They were also based on protection from a naval force. The British garisoned Singapore, but provided minimal naval and air forces to support the garrison. The relatively easy Japanese victory came as a great shock. The British surrender at Singapore (February 1942) occured while the fight for Rangoon was stillin progress. The victory at Singapore allowed the Japanese to transfer two divisions north to strengthen their Burma campaign. The same occurred after the American surrender in the Philippines (April 1942).

Japanese Indian Ocean Raids (March 1942)

One of these least noted naval campaign was the Indian Ocean engaements during early 1942. Admiral Nagumo with the First Air Fleet entered the Indian Ocean with a force of five carriers and four fast battleships as well as cruisers and destroyers (March 26, 1942). The purpose appears to have been to support Army operations in Burma and escort a convoy to Rangoon and then strike the Btitish naval base in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where the Royal Navy had been building a substantial naval force. Incredibly this was a larger carrier force than deployed two months later against Midway. The force succeeded in sinking the British light carrier HNS Hermes, two cruisers, and smaller ships. The Royal Navy was asonished with the power of the Japanese carrier force. At this stage of the War, the Japanese carrier aircraft were far superiir to the British carrier aircraft. After the engagement the Royal Navy retired from the eastern Indian Ocean. It is unclear what the value of this campaign was. At the time the only creditable threat to Japan was the badly mauled American Pacific fleet and its four priceless carriers. Any assessment of the military situation would suggest that Japan should have focused on bringing the Pavific fleet to battle to get at those carriers. It is unclear what the purpose of this powerful firce was. They could have seized Ceylon or even attacked British facilities in India. While Nagumo had considerable success against the Royal Navy force, the Royal Air Force from bases in Ceylon had down or damaged a substantial number of Japanese planes. Nagumo had dispersed the British threat, but the American Pacific fleet carriers were still a threat and the British had impaired the combat effectiveness of the First Air Fleet

Mandalay (March-May 1942)

The British after Rangoon fell retreated to north attempted to make a stand in Mandalay and Upper Burma. General Sir Archibald Wavell, in supreme command of the Far Eastern theatre, formed two scratch divisions--the British 1st Burma and 17th Indian into Burma Corps. To assist the British, the Nationalist Chinese sent a Chinese expeditionary force generally called the Chinese Army in India (CAI) south along the Burma Road into Burma. The Japanese were also reifiorced, however, by two divisions freed up by their victory in Singapore. The Japanese managed to defeat both the newly organised British Burma Corps and the CAI. The Allied defense was weakened by increasing numbers of Burmese nationalist insurgents. The colonial civil administration as a result desintegrated. This and the loss of Rangoon essentially meant that supplies were rapidly being exausted. As a result, the Allied commanders decided to evacuate Mandalay and the rest of Burma. Burcorps principal goal quickly became to avoid capture by the advancing Jaanese. Thus meant a retreat through the jungle west to India. The Japanese entered Mandalay (May 1).

Retreat (May 1942)

The Allied forces had to make a forced retreat into India under terrible conditions. It would prove to be the longest retrat in British military history. The retreat was extridinarily difficult. Virtually everything tht could go wrong did so. Unlike the retreat from Rangoon, there were no rail line or roads that could be used. Nor could adequate supplies be taken to support the retreating firces. The Briitish had to contend with starving refugees, disorganised units, stragglers, and the sick and wounded. The British columns clogged the primitive roads and jungle tracks leading west to India. Burma Corps or the remanents, managed to make it Imphal on the frontier in Manipurjust before the monsoon season broke (May 1942). Thatwould have made what roads that existed impassable. The Monsoon also made it impossible for the Japanese to pursue them immrdiately. Burma Corps lost most of its equipment and transport. There were no facikities fir them when they arrived in Imphal. They were left without any housing in the middle of the tropical monsoon. The men were already weakened after the long trek from Mandalay. And the British Army in India as well as civilian authorities because of poor communicatiins did not rush supplies and reinforcennts to them. As part of the general break down of communicatins, Burma Corps did not inform CAI of their retreat. Once they learned of the British retreat, the CAI also began to fall back. The Chinese retreat was also disorganized. Some of the Chinese troops also headed west toward India. These men were put under the command of an American General, 'Vinegar' Joe Stilwell. Initially they were separated from Burma Corps and had to fight their way through Japanese northern Burma to reach India. Once in India they were re-equipped and retrained by American instructors under Stillwells supervision and became some of the best formstions in the Nationalist Army. Other units of the CAI attempted to retreat back to Yunnan in China. As the Japanese had seized the Burma Road, they retreated north through remote mountainous forests. About half oftese men perished on the arduous route attemopted with inadequate supplies.

Japanese Offensive Suspended (May 1942)

Japanese Army offensive operations were initially stalled by the monsoon season. Despite the Allied disorganization, the Japanese did not renew their offensive when the the monsoon ended. The small size of their Burma army and the difficulty of supply forces along the Indian frotier were presumably factors in theur decesion.

Siamese Invasion (May 1942)

With the British and Japanese retreating, Siam invaded Burma as well. Three Thai infantry and one cavalry division, led by an armored reconnaissance groups and supported by the Siam Air Force (May 10). The attacked the retreating Chinese 93rd Division. They took Kengtung (May 27). Further offensives driove the Chinese back north to Yunnan (June and Novenber 1942).

Burmese Nationalists

There was no significant nationalist resistance to British rule before the Japanese invasion. The British position was, however, undermined by the organization of Burmese nationalist forces. They Japanese after seizing Burma set up a nominally independent Burmese government under Ba Maw. This was part of their propaganda effort to cloke their conquests as liberating Asians from Europeans. As was their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. They attempted to reform the Burma Independence Army into an allied force as the Burma National Army under Aung San. Both the government and army were strictly controlled by the Japanese occupation authorities. And Burmese resources were exploited to support the Japanese war effort.

Burma Road

The Japanese not only succeeded in occupying Burma, but in doing so cut the Burma Road, the last remaining route to supplying the Chinese Nationalists. One historian writes, "Not only was Burma not a primry target in the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it might have been left univaded but for the war in China. Closding the Burma Riad, which ean from Rangoon to the Chinese border and was thus a primary artery fior supplying Ching in Chunking, soon bcame a strategic impertive. Thus the Japanese were inveigled into an unnecesary invasion of Burma simpolky because the hotleads in Tokyo could not leave China well alone." [McLynn]

India

Omce in possession of Burma, the Japanese began to lookwest to India. The Japanese then begn to plan an invasion of India. For this they needed a way of transporting supplied through Thailand and Burma. The major problem for the Japanese as they moved west was keeping their army supplied.

Midway (June 1942)

The Japanese plan was to supply its Army in Burma by sea through Rangoon. The Imperial Navy controlled the western Pacific and planners assumed they could also dominate the Indian Ocean. The stunning American carrier victory at Midway dramtically changed the strategic picture. The Japanese after Midway had to concentrate their naval forces for a show down with the Americans in the South Pacific. This meant that the British even though they had relatively weak naval forces in the Indian Ocean could prevent supply cargos from reaching Rangoon, especially after the ensuing Japanese naval losses in the South Pacific naval battles around Guadalcanal further reduced the Imperial flet. This meant that supplying troops in Burma and any effort to invade India could not be done by sea. Japan began the War with an inadequate maru (merchant) fleet. American sunmariners after aisapoointing start finally began to put together a commerce campain against the marus (1943), further limiting maritime deliveries.

Siam-Burma Railway

After the conquest of Burma (May 1942), the Japanese set out to conquer India. Supplying the existing forces in Burma, let alone an invasion force proved to be a challenge. After Midway (June 1942), the Japanese had to concentrate their naval and air assetts in the South Pacific to confront the U.S. buoldup. This made it difficult to supply forces along the Indian border by sea. Their sollution was the Siam-Burma railroad. Logistics was the principal Japanese problem concerning the invasion of India. The sollution was a railway across Siam (modern Thailand) and Burma linking up with the existing rail system the Bitish had already built in Burma. The link was made at Moulmein. Allied naval power after the Midway disaster meant that supply deliveries through the Indian Ocean port of Rangoon would be difficult. The Japanese, however, still controlled the South China Sea and supplied could be landed in Thai ports near Bangkok and then transported by rail to Japanese forces in Burma. POWs were set to work on the railroad. Most of the construction took place in Siam. It becamne knoen as the Death Railway. The men worked under terrible conditions and were provide only starvation rations. The resulting death toll was horific. The Japanese also conscripted civilians for forced labor.

Sources

McLynn, Frank. The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-45 (2011).

Warren, Alan. Burma 1942 (2012).






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Created: 2:50 AM 10/26/2011
Last updated: 12:46 AM 3/5/2013