Battle for Burma (1943-45)


Figure 1.--American and British objectives varied in Burma. The British wanted their colony back. The Ameicans wanted to reopen the Burma Road so that supplie could reach the Chinese Nationalists. Here is the first overland supply to reach Chunking over the Ledo/Burma Roads. This is a U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph. The caption read, "First convoy over the Ledo-Burm Road: The first convoy to China parades through the streets of Kunming, China, as thousands cheer them." The photograph was taken February 4, 1945.

Once reaching India, the British and American commanders began to assess just what had happened and to plan how to not only defend India, but to retake Burma. For the Allies, the China, Burma, India Theater (CBI) was the most remote and lowest priority. The focus from the beginning was on defeating NAZI Germany and even in the campaign against the Japapanese the CBI was of low priority. Even so, the far greater resorces of the Allies meant that more resources were available to the Allied forces than to the Japanese who were hard pressed to move men and equipment forward to the front. The disaster at Midway and subsequent losses in the South Pacific meant that the Japanese could not supply their forces in Burma by sea. This led to the counstruction of the Thi-Burma rail line. The major British interest was taking back their colony. The Americans who attached an importantce to the Chinese Nationalists with the British did not share were intent on reopning the Burma Road to Chunking China. The British planed a series of drives into Burma using mostly Indian units. They believed as a result of their experience in Burma that their own units needed training in jungle fighting. The 14th Indian Division attacked along the southern coast (January 1943), but failed to disloge heavily entrenced Japanese troops at Akyab. Stillwell's CAI was among the most effective in the Nationalist Army. While Chaing's poorly led and supplied Army in China itself declined to attack the Japanese, the CAI was both well led and well supplied. They proved themselves a competent force. It was composed of units left in Burma after the Japanese cut the Burma Road. Stillwell was an irascable, but effective commander. He spoke Chinese and earned the respect of his Chinese soldiers. Stilwell trained the CAI along American lines. Officers were expected to train as well as men and he emphasized discipline. He also made sure that commanders did not engage in corupt practices. Thus the men were well equipped and fed. The officers as well as the men were Chinese, unlike the British Indian Army. Given the effectiveness of the units, conflict developed betweem Chaing and Stillwell. Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell decided tht the British troops needed to learn to fight with the Japanese in the jungel. Ge gave an eccentric British officer, Orde Wingate, the opportunity to carry out a jungle warfare campaign behind Japanese lines in Burma, The force became known as the Chindits, these were the name of the stone tigers that guarded temples in Burma. The Chindits adopted classic guerrilla tactics. They attacked Japanese forces where they were unprepared and did not expect an attack. Along with the British were the Gurkhas, experts at hand to hand combat. The Chindits used deep-penetration tactics. They operated in small groups and were supplied by air. The Americans formed a comparable force. The Chindit operations seemed to have convinced the Japanese that remaining static in Burma made it vulnerable . They decided on an offensive which aimed to attack Imphal, a strategic position where the British were building up their supplies for the planned drive into Burma. The fighting around Imphal was some of the most vicious of the War, Although cut off, the British refused to surrender, In the end the attacking Japanese force was decimimated, in part because they attacked without supplies, planning to seize what they need from the British. This was followed by the Allied invasion of Burma. The American/Chinese Army in the north. This enabled the Americansto build the Ledo Road which reached the nothern part of the Burma Road and reopened an overland supply deliveries to China. The British Indian Army attacked in the south and after hard fighting reached Mandalay. Rangoon soon fell.

Retreat from Burma

The British defeats in Malaya, Singapore, and Buma were the greatest defeat in the history of the Brirish Empire, except perhaps the American Revolution. The British were defeated by a numerically inferior Japanese Army. The retreat into India was an epic undertaking. It was conucted through the jungle over what were more trails than roads with the Japanese in hot pursuit. Key to the Japanese success was that their poorly supplied troops seized British supplies as they advanced. This had worked in Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines and worked agin in Burma. Once reaching India after the long retreat from Burma, the British and American commanders began to assess just what had happened and to plan how to not only defend India, but to retake Burma.

CBI Theater

For the Allies, the China, Burma, India Theater (CBI) was the most remote theater of the War and the one assigned the lowest priority. The Allied focus from the beginning was on defeating NAZI Germany and even in the campaign against the Japapanese the CBI was of low priority. Even so, the far greater resorces of the Allies meant that more resources were available to the Allied forces than to the Japanese who were hard pressed to move men and equipment forward to the front on the Indian border. The major British interest was defending India and taking back their Burmese colony. The Americans who attached an importantce to the Chinese Nationalists with the British did not share were intent on reopning the Burma Road to Chunking China.

Key Figures

The Burma campaign involved some of the most cilorful figures of the War. General William Slim commanded the British 14th Army, like the 8th Army a composite Empire force. Slim woulkd be the only Allied commanbder to defeat, ctually destroy, a Japanese field army. Orde Wingate was perhaps the most enigmastic ficture of the war. He wouldcreate the Chindits, an irregular firce oprtating behind Japanese lines. Louis Mountbstten who Churchill supported was appointedSupreme Commander, Southeast Asia. American Viniger Joe Stillwill who tangled with Chiang and didn't care for the British helped create some of the best divisions in the Chinese Army. Claire Chenaulte commsnded the Flying Tigers.

Pacific Naval War

The directioin of the CBI Theater was largely determined by the Pacific naval war. At the high point of their supremecy, the Japanese sent a carrier task force into the Indian Ocean. They did considerable damage, although the British withdrew their largely obsolete naval forces nd avoided battle. Japanese comtrol of the Indian Oceran would have made the retaking of Burma impossible and would have made the conquest of India a real possibility. But what the Japanese did not do while campagning in the Indian Ocean was engage the American carriers, giving Nimitz and Halsey time to train and prepare their men for the inevitable show down with the Japanese. That came in the Coral Sea (Msy 1942) and Midway (June 1942). The loss of four front-line carriers meant that the Japanese would be hard-pressed in the Pacific. Subsequent losses in the South Pacific further weakened the Imperial Fleet. This made furher forays into the Indian Ocean impossible. This meant that the British could be fully supplied and the Japanese would find supplying their troops a serious and growing problem. This led to the construction of the Thai-Burma rail line.

Akyab (1943)

The first British effort to retake Burma waslaunched in the south. The British planed a series of drives into Burma using mostly Indian units. They believed as a result of their experience in Burma that their own units needed training in jungle fighting. The 14th Indian Division attacked along the southern coast (January 1943). The Indian 14th Division was assigned the task of advancing along the Burmese coast to the port of Akyab as the first step toward Rangoon. They at first encounteted very light Japanese resistance. Many Japanese positions were held by only a handfull of soldiers. The environment and climate were more of a problem than the Japanese. Burma was one of the most hostile combat environments of the War. Unlike the flat planes of northern France or the Ukraine, Burma is a complex web of jungle, mountains, and rivers with mangrove swamps along the coast. There were few roads of any importance. Moving men, equipment, and supplies was a nightmare. This was complicated by a steamy tropical climate and seasonal monsoon rains. And if all of this was not bas enough, tropical diseases, especilly malari, preoved debilitating to lsrge numbers of troops. While the Japanese had not committed major resources to the area, where they did commit combst troops, they were well dug with well camouflaged bunkers. As a result, they could only be deslodged with havy rtillery, but moving such heavy equipmnt forwards was very difficult. The 14th Indian Division launched a series of attacks, but made kittle headway. The Japanese resisted fiercly. After six weeks they had to pull back when the Japanese counter attcked. The 14th Division retreated back to India, demoralised as a result of their losses and lack of success.

Stillwell and the CAI

American General Joseph Stilwell in the north commanded the Chinese Army in India (CAI). He conveted these divisions into the most effective in the Nationalist Army. This was because of his leadership an because he looked after the welfare of his men. He saw to their training and compsred to otger Nstiinalist units they were well supplied and armed. Chaing refused to commit his army to battle against the Japanese, in part because of the disatrous experiences when he did. The CAI proved to be a competent force. was both well led and well supplied. They proved themselves a competent force. The CAI was composed of units that Ching had committed to the defense of the Burma, but were cut off by the Japnese. Stillwell was not an easy man to get along with, but proved to be an effective commander. He spoke Chinese and developed a rapport with the Chinese soldiers he commnded. Stilwell trained the CAI as ifthey were American units. Cut off from China, Ching could not interfere. He insisted that not only the men, but aldo the officers trained. He put a great emohasis on discipline. And he ensured that the men got their pay and supplies. They were well fed cand cared for. The coruption rampsnt in the Nationalust rmy was rooted out of the CAI. Unlike the British units, the officers were Chinese and not Americans. Ironically, the effectiveness of the CAI only added to the conflict between Stillwell and Chiang--called Peanut by Stillwell. Stillwell besides Ching had a poroblem. He need to move south. When the British retreated into India, Stillwell had been forced into a corner of northern Burma. He needed to get tge CAI south into India where it coulkd be better supplied. It was at first supplied by air, but this limited the CAI's weaponry. To move south, the CAI would have to engage the Japanese.

The Japanese

The Japanese after taking Burma had become more defensive in character. This was in part because of the supply situation, exacerbated by the dusaster t Mudway (June 1942). The CBI was not only a low poriority for the Allies, but also for the Japanese. And even if supplies were availble, getting them to the front was a serious problem. This was the genesis of the Thai-Burma railway. But even when built, it had a limited capacity and was vulnerable to air attack. The Japanese built strongpoints in Burma and proved to be an itractable foe to both the British Indian Army and the American CAI. The Japanese commander was Lieutenant-General Tanaka.

Failed Allied Offensives (late-1942-early 1944)

The Allies failed in their initial attempts to attack into Burma.

The Chindits

The Chindits were some of the few units in Southeast Asia to get much press attention in the British and American newpapers. A rare exception to a largely forgotten theater. Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell concluded for good reason that the British and Empire troops needed to learn to fight the Japanese in the jungle. He gave an eccentric British officer, Orde Wingate, the assignment to conduct guerilla warfare in the jungle behind Japanese lines. Wingate first appeared in World War II histories in of all places East Africa (1941). He named his unit the Chindits after the stone tigers that guarded temples in Burma. The Chindits conducted two major operationjs into Burma. They used classic guerrilla tactics, attacking the widely spread Japanese where they were the weakest and unprepared. The Chindirs included both British and Gurka volunteers. The Gurkhas were expert in hand-to-hand combat. Wingate used deep-penetration tactics, operated in small groups, and receiving supplies by air. The Americans formed a comparable force--Merrils Marauders. These men accomplished some of the most remarakable feats of World War II. Military historians still debate the value of these efforts. The actual losses inlicted on the Japanese were minor, but psycologically it appears to have unerved the Japanese commanders. It may have been a major factor in causing the Japanese to launch an invasion of India.

Merrill's Marauders

The Chindits while their accomplishments were limited impressed the Americans. Frank Merril was a ordinary as Ord Wingate was extrordinary. Merril began to form a similar special forces unit to operate behind Japanese lines in Burma. Three thousand Americans volunteered (August 1943). Given the Chindit experience, the estuimated casualty rate was set at about 85 percent. Merrill's orders were to operate in Japanese-held territory and take the fornmer British at Myitkyina. Stillwell promiosed Merrill his men would be pulled out after 6 months. The men fought through 700-miles of Japanese-occupied terririory and snake infested jubngle to reach Myitkyina. The unit received supplies by air as it moved into Burma. Despite heavy casualties and debilitated cindituion, Stillwell refused to pull Merrill and his Maurauders out, insisting that they stand and fight. The unit paid a terrible price, but helped not not only to divert Japanese resources, but seize a key airfield and transdportation hub, playing a key role in the Allied reconquest of Burma. [Mortimer]

Japanese Invasion (1944)

The Japanese mounted a major invasion of India. The British Chindit operations appeared to have unsettled Japanese commanders. They apparently concluded that a defensive, static poition in Burma simoly invited British attacks. The plsnned an offensive into India aimed at Imphal and Kohima, a strategic position in eastern India where the British were building up men and material fir aniother drive into Burma. Their 1942 victories in Burma, convinced the Japanese commasbders that the British could be beaten. The resulting fighting tht raged around Imphal was some of the most savage of the War. The British at Imphal were cut off by the Japanese, but refused to surrender. They had some supplies. The Japanese on the otherhand were poorly supplied. The attacking Japanese force refused to relent and were ultimtelky virtually destroyed. The pporly supplied survivors in many cases were too weak to retreat back to Japanese held Burma. This has been called the Stalingrad of the East. [McLynn] Perhaps a misnomer, but it was certainly the turning point of the fight for Burma. Supply was a a major limiting factor. The Japanese failed in part because they attacked without adequate supplies, planning to seize what they need from the British. The British stand at Imphal and Kohima (March-July 1944) denied them the supplied they neded. The offensive severly wekened the Japanese Army in Burma and was the tuning point in perhaps the most gruling campaign of the War.

Allied Air Operations

The Japanese immediately after Pearl Harbor opened the CBI theater with first the invasion of Malaya and the seizure of Singapore and then launched the campaign in Burma. All this was accomplished in only a few months and against numerically superior Allied forces, mostly British and Chinese. A major factor in their success was air power. British air units were negligible and the newly arrived American AVG (Flying Tigers) were only a small force. The Japanese were well trained, had much larger air assets, and better aircraft. The Japanese accomplished important goals, seizing resource rich areas and cutting the Burma Road, Nationalist China's life line. About the same time the Japanese complete the conquest of Burma, the U.S. Navy victory at Midway (June 1942), significantly changed the naval balance in the Pacific. This meant the Japanese could not rely on maritime transport to supply their army in Burma, specially as the American submarine campaign began to sink substantial numbers of Japanese marus (transports). And with the American offensive in the Solomons (August 1942), the Japanese did not have the capacity to build substantial air units in Burma. At the same time, American aircraft began to reach India in quantity, even though the CBI was usually the lowest priority theater of the war. The American aircraft included modern types that outclassed the Japanese aircraft, basically the same aircraft with which they began the War. The balance of power in the air changed quickly. The Allies formed Air Command South-East Asia (November 1943) to control all Allied air forces in the theater, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse as Commander-in-Chief. Peirse's and his deputy, USAAF Major General George E. Stratemeyer, formed Eastern Air Command (EAC) to control Allied air operations in eastern India and Burma, with headquartered in Calcutta (1943). Japa nese efforts to invade India, the U Go offensive, floundered because of lack of logistical capability and air support. The Japanese victories in Malaya and Burma were largely due to success in seizing British supplies. In India, the Allies supplied surrounded garrisons by air (Kohima and Imphal). The Japanese attacking force literally starved in the Jungle (1944). Allied air forces supplied British Chindits and American Rangers behind Japanese lands and played an important role in driving the Japanese out of Burma (1944-45).

British 14th Army: Invasion of Burm

The failed Imphal offensive severly wekened the Japanese Army. This was followed by British 14th rmy' invasion of Burma. The 14th army was British in name only. It was an Empire force, primarily made up of Indiam units as well as African and British units. It was led by William Slim. He proved to be the leading figure in the CBI theater. He managed to weave his disparate forces (Indian, African, British, Americam, Chinese, Burmese irregulars, and others into an effective fighting force. The British Indian Army attacked in the south. Slim led the successful Allied offensive which reoccupied Burma (mid-1944 to mid-1945). The Japanese had lost only 5,000 men inconquering Burma (1942). Their defense of Burma would result in ten times that number. The British after hard fighting reached Mandalay. Rangoon also soon fell.

The Ledo Road

The Ameican/Chinese Army in the north, This enabled the Americans to build the Ledo Road which crossed northern Burma reached the Burma Road. This made a connection with the Indian rail network, finally reopening an overland supply route to China.

Sources

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

Mortimer, Gavin. Merrill's Marauders: The Untold Story of Unit Galahad and the Tioughhest Special Forces Missiion of World War II (2013), 240p.






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Created: 5:28 AM 11/26/2008
Last updated: 3:28 AM 7/6/2016