Burma was the scene of some of the least publicised fighting in World War II, in part because neither side really wanted to fight there. Burma beginning in 1824 was gradually annexed into British India. It had in the years leading up to World War II achieved quasi-Dominion status. Burma began to play a role in the War when the Burma Road was used by the Americans to transport supplies to Chang Kai-Sheks Nationalist Chinese. The United States covertly set up the Flying Tigers in China and Burma. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese launched offensives west and south from Indo-China. Thailand agreed to allow the Japanese to transit unimpeeded. They quickly seized the Burma Road, making the Burma Road useless. This also cut the British forced in Burma off from any hope of resupply. The Japanese proceeded to drive the British out of Burma, cutting the Burma Road. It was the longest military retreat in British history. Burma was of only minor interest to the Japanese, but they did want to cut the Burma Road, having done this the Japanese became increasingly interested in India, concluding that a popular insurection would occur as they approached the Indian border. The fighting in Burma was primarily a British theater, but the United States supported the British and Chinese in what was called the China Burma India Theater (CBI). Although Burma was a generally unreported theater of the War, it was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war. It was also the scene of terrible attriocities. The Japanese worked thousands of British and Empire POWs and local laborers to death building a raiolroad to supply their troops. The Allies regrouped in India and drove back into Burma. A northern prong of the advance was to build a road from Ledo to link up with the old Burma Road and open a supply route to China. The British also drovde toward Mandalay. There was no significant nationalist resistance to British rule before the Japanese invasion. The quick defeat of the British gave nationalists the idea that independence was a viable goal. Burmese nationalist forces orgamized by Aung San sided with the victorious Japanese who used them for propaganda purposes. Aung San's Burmese National Army switched sides as the Japanese military situation deteriorated. The Burme assisted the British 14th Army in the lattercstages of the campaign. final stages of the campaign. The British finally retook to Rangoon. They hoped to restablish their colonial regime. Aung San's supporters set up what was in effect a Burmese government. Aung San negotiated in Britain for independence (1947). After returning to Burma he was assassinated in Rangoon with many of his cabinent members. Burmese politics has remained tumultous even to this day.
The rugged geography of Mynamar/Burma isolated it from its much larger and more owerful neighbots--India to the west and Chuina to the north. High, rugged mountains discouraged both trade and travel as well as military campaigns. This geographic isolation shaped Burma into a country distinctly different from its larger neigbots, especilly China to the north. Burma was, however, colonized by Britain after establishing the Raj in neighboring India. This occured as a result of the Burma Wars which began as a result of conflict between the Arakan Kingdome in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. Burmese forces defeated the Kingdom of Arakan (1784-85). The Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885) restored the kingdom, and continued the Taungoo reforms which centralized rule and oversaw a mass literacy campaign. Burmese forces invaded India (1823). This led to the Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-85). The British launched 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). At first, the British had attempted to govern Burma as a province of the Raj The British oversw social, economic, cultural and administrative changes that fudamentally transformed the once-agrarian society. Britain made Burma a province of India with the capital at Rangoon (1886). Ethnic, religious, and other cultural differences made this unworkable. Burma proved to be a valuable colony and the population prospered. As in India, local elites over time began to press for greater participation abd even independence. Britain responded by making Burma a separate colony with a largely autonomous local government and an elected assembly (1937). This still-dependent status dissatisfied many politically active Burmese an university students. strikes and disorders followed. A vocal political party advocating independence from Britain gained considerable popular support. The British used force to quel protests. It should be noted that despite Burma's cplonial status, there was more open political expression and less supression of basic rights under Britain than after independence. Some of the nationalist leaders visited Tokyo where Japanese officials expressed sympathy with their desire for independence. The Burmese like other nationalist groups in the region do not seem to have understood that the Japanese were eyeing Burma as a future colony and would be much more explotive and brutal colonial masters than the British.
China invaded China (1937). They soon esrtablished ciontrol over most of the coast and ports. Chang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Amry fought some set piece battles with the Japanes, but after expeiencing major defeats, withdrew into the interior. Here the Japanese found they could not defeat the Nationlists. The Japanese were roundly condemned by the League of Nations and the Western media. And what the Japanese military thought would be a short, decisive campaign dragged on several years with no conclusion in sight. The Japanese frustration increased as the war dragged on and the war begame a drag on the Japanese economy. America increased diplomatic pressure on Japan to end the war in China. And the U.S. Goverment began financing military supplies for China. Burma began to play a role in the War when the Burma Road was used by the Americans to transport supplies from Rangoon north to Chang Kai-Sheks Nationalist Chinese.
The Imperial Japanese Army swept across China, closing all of China's seaports. Thus cut the Chinese off from foreign supplies, except for a rail commection through French Indo-China. At the time there was no rail or improved road connection between Burma and China. Chaing Kai-Shek ordered some 0.2 million Chinese laborers to build a road connection with Burma. It came to be called the Burma Road (滇缅公路) and was an incredible engineering feat. They cut a 700-hundred-mile overland route. The work was done by hand with virtually no road-building equipment (1937-38). [Webster] The road came to be called the Burma Road as much of it lay within the British colony of Burma. It ran from the southwest Chinese city of Kunming in Yunnan which was beyond the reach of the Japanese, except by air attack. The road wound south over mountaneous terraine and jungle to Lashio where it conncted to the existing Burmese rail system leding to the seaport of Rangoon further south. This allowed supplies to reach the Nationlist forces resisting the Japanese. The British landed supplies at Rangoon (modern Yangon) and moved then by rail north to Lashio. There trucks transported the supplies north to China over the Burma Road. This made Burma a target of the Japanese militarists planning the Pacific war. After the Japanese seized French Indo-China (1940), the Burma Road was the only Chinese connection to the outside world. The British yielded to Japanese diplomatic pressure to close down the Burma Road to supplies for the Nationlists, but only for 3 months (1940). 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. Closing the Burma Road, which ran from Rangoon to the Chinese border and was thus a primary artery for supplying Natioanlist China in Chunking, soon became a strategic impertive. Thus the Japanese were inveigled into an unnecesary invasion of Burma simply because the hotleads in Tokyo could not leave China well alone." [McLynn] With the Japanese seizure of Burma, China's last link with the outside world was closed January-May 1942). After the British retreat from Burma. An air supply route was established over the Himilayas called The Hump, but the quantities that could be air lifted were limitd.
Britain like America realized that the Japanese were preparing for War, but did not know where and when they would strike. The British hard pressed by the Germans in the Middle East had only limited resources for the uocoming Pacific War. The top priority for the British was Singapore whuich was the linch-pin for the British defensive position in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Burma was the lowest priority for a theater that itself was at the bottom of the British priorities. British plans to defend Burma were incomplete. The Burmese themselves were not consulted and had little motivatiin to fight the Japanese who had shown apparent sympathy for an independent Burma. Neither Britain nor the United States was prepared to commit significant forces to defend Burma. It was, however, not just a matter of men and material. The British volonial administration did not take even the most basic steps to prepare for invasion like establishing military control of the rail lines. The British had only two divisions to defend Burma, the Indian 17th Division and the 1st Burma, another Indian Army unit.
There were also two under-strength and poorly equipped regular British battalions. Local Burmese forces were a problem. They included police, Burma Frontier Forces, and the Burma Rufels. The Burma Rifels had been formed by the British during Wiorld War I. They were originally composed of Burmese, Karens, Kachins and Chins with some Gurkhas. The British stopped recruiting Burmese (1927), despite objections from experienced officers. British officials claimed that the Burmese did not make good soldiers. Probably the major concern was polituical relaibility. The decesion to stop recruiting Burmese alienated the regiment from the Burmese population, which began to see the regiment as just another part of the British colonial regime. The British as the situatuiin deteriorated resumed recruiting Burmese, but the local perceptions were permanently affected. The British forces in Burma lacked any apreciable air or naval contingent. Nor did British commanders accurately perceive potential Japanese strength, capabilities, or possible attack routes. The British belatedly rushed forces to Burma and some had begun to arrive just as the Japanese had launched their offensive and were appraoched the all-important port of Rangoon.
President Roosevelt after hearing from Claire Chennault, who Madame Chiang Kai-Shek had hired him to train Chinese pilots, decided to help China build a modern air force. He 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). This is significant because it was was the first direct American military action to impede Axis aggression. It was taken in the atmospshere of the fall of France and the president deciding to run for a third term. Subsequent Japanese actions beginning with the occupation of northern French Indo-China obly confirmed the President's decision to aid China. And the Magic intelligence from the cracking of the Japanese Diplomatic (Purple code) made it clear that the Japanese public protestratuins of a desire fir peace were a diplomate charade (September 1940). President Roosevelt approved the transfer of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters to China. They would be included in the Lend Lease Program (1941). The planes were originally slated for the British RAF which was just beginning to brace for the Battle of Britain. America woud eventually produce a phenomenal number of aircraft. At this time, howevr, production was still limited and the U.S. Army Air Corps struggling to obtain needed new aircraft. The President also secretly approved the formation of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) to fly the P-40s. These were the first modern fighters ever deployed in China. The AVG's main task was to protect the Burma Road so that supplied could continue to reach China. The all-volunteer AVG became known as Chennault's Flying Tigers. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (December 1941) before the AVG could go into action. It thus no longer had to be a covert operation. Although very small, provide the Chinese a creditable air capability for the first time. Initially part of the AVG was deployed on both ends of the Burma Road. The Japanese invasion of Burma forced the Burma contingent to redeploy to China. It also cut off supplies over the Burma Road. The AVG continued to operate with supplies flown in from India over the Himilayas. The P-40s flown by the AVG were on paper no match for the fast, manueravble Japanese Zeros, but they were more robust and had armor protecting the pilots. Chennault developed battle tactics that enabled the Tigers to deal with the Zeros, but their major goal was to intercept the Japanese bombers hammering Chunking. ThecArmy Air Corps and U.S. Navy did not take the AVG seriously and did not adapt Chenault's tactics until losses in the Pacific forced them to adjust tactics. Eventually the AVG was formed into the U.S. 14th Air Force. Some of the Tigersjoined up, Others left China. Many of the new crews honored the AVG by also painting the shark's mouth image and referring to them selves as the Flying Tigers.
After Pearl Harbor the Japanese launched offensives west and south from Indo-China. The primary Japanese war aim was to obtain raw materials for the resource poor Japanese industrial economy. Burma was part of the Southern Resource Zone that Japan desired to add to its Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere. And of immediate interest was the desire to cut off Nationalist Chinna from American aid by closing the Burma Road and hopefully finally complete the conquest of China. Thailand which joined the Axis agreed to allow the Japanese forces in Indochina to transit unimpeeded. They quickly seized the port of Rangoon. This not only cut the Burma Road at source, but meant that British units in Burma could not be supplied or reinforced. 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 (Burcorps). Their principal goal quickly became to avoid capture by the Jaoanese by retreating west to India.
There were few Americans in Burma, but Nationalist Chinese divisions commanded by Vinegar Joe Stillwell, retreated with the British. The Japanese proceeded to drive the British out of Burma. The British retreat proved to be the longest military retreat in British history.
There was at first no unified Allied command in Southeast Asia. The British India Command was at first under General Sir Archibald Wavell who brought the British units outvof Burma. When the joint allied command was finally agreed on, it was decided that the senior commander would be British. The British military because the British dominated Allied operations in Southeast by weight of numbers, at least compared to the Amnericans. A large part of the British force was Indian units. The American name for the theater was the China Burma India Theater (CBI). The actual American combat commitment was limited. The main units were the Flying Tigers (absorbed into the 14th Air Force), engineers who built Ledo Road, and Merrill's Marauders. The American forces were commanded by General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. The senior Allied commander was, however, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Stiwell theoretically reported to Chiang as several Chinese divisions had retreated out of Burma to India where they were supplied andctrained by the United States. Chisng coveted the divisuiins because under Stilwell they became some of the most effective units in theNationalist Army. Stilwell has celebrated disagreements with Chiang and often broke the chain of command and worked directly with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on an operational basis. This continued even after the formation of the South East Asia Command (SEAC) and the appointment of Admiral Lord Mountbatten as the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia (October 1943).
Burma was of only minor interest to the Japanese, but they did want to cut the Burma Road, having done this the Japanese became increasingly interested in India, concluding that a popular insurection against the British would occur as they invaded India. They targeted Assam, within reach of Calcutta. They thus allowed a dissident Bengali politician, Chandra Bose, who had escaped to Germany, recruit Indian troops captured in Singapore for an Indian National Army to liberate India from the British.
The fighting in Burma was primarily a British theater, but the United States supported the British and Chinese in what was called the China Burma India Theater (CBI). Although Burma was a generally unreported theater of the War, it was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war. It was also the scene of terrible attriocities. The Japanese worked thousands of British and Empire POWs and local laborers to death building a railroad to supply their troops along the Indian border.
There was no significant nationalist resistance to British rule before the Japanese invasion. The British position in Burma, however, was undermined by the organization of Burmese nationalist forces. The quick defeat of the British gave nationalists the idea that indepence was a viable goal. Burmese nationalist forces organized by Aung San sided with the victorious Japanese who used them for propaganda purposes. They Japanese 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 European colonial rule. Burma became part of their Greater east Asia Coprosperity Sphere, esentially the organized looting of Japan's expanded empire. The Japanse attempted to reform the Burma Independence Army (BIA) into an allied force as the Burma National Army (BNA) under Aung San. Both the Burmese government and BNA were strictly controlled by the Japanese occupation authorities. And Burmese resources were exploited to support the Japanese war effort. Aung San's BNA switched sides as the Japanese military situation deteriorated. The Burmese assisted the British 14th Army in the latter stages of the campaign to retake Burma.
After the British and Chinese retreated fom Burma, the Japanese found their colony relatively easy to control. Many of the Burmese welcomed the Japanese as liberators. As the British, Chinese, and Americans braced for a Japanese offensive into India, only northern Burma ws a problem for the Japanese. Hill tribes in the north resisted Japanese rule, The Kachins in the north were the most anti-Japanese group, but Karens, the Chins, the Kukis and the Nagas also resisted. They begn a guerrilla war against the Japanese. The Burmese and some tribes were more supportive of the Japanese, especially the Shans. They cooperted with the Japanese Army and the Japanese secret police--the Kempei in efforts to subdue the minority hill tribes. The Allies in turn supported the guerrillas from Fort Hertz, the only remaining Allied base in Burma that had an airfield. This was the only way of brining in supplies to these remote areas. The British helped organize three regiments of guerrillas -- the Karen Rifles, the Kachin Rifles, and the Kachin Levies. They had jungle fighting skills the British lacked, but they needed both tactical training and the modern weapons to confront the well-armed Japanese.
The Kachin or Jingpho people inhabit the Kachin Hills in northern Burma and neighbouring areas of China and India. They are called the Singpho in India where they are found in Arunachal Pradesh. As is the case for many Burmese ethnic groups, the Kachin are a composit grouping of several related tribal groups. They were known for their fierce independence, disciplined fighting skills, and complex clan inter-relations. Many Kachin's embraced Christianity. These attributes and jungle skills made them invaluable adjuncts for the Allies attempting to drive the Japanese out of Burma. The Kachin inhabited northern Burma. Considerable missionary work took place during the British colonial period. The Kachin were ardently anti-Japanese. This reflected their generally pro-British attitudes and conversion to Christianity. It also reflected Japanese brutality. They were better placed than the Karen who were also anti-Japanese. The Kachin were located in an area where the Allies could get weapons to and provide miklitary trainung. The Kachin were in the north on the Chinese and Indian borders. Thus the Allies were able to supply weapons and orgnized and trained the Kachin Rifles and Kachin Levees to harass the Japanese. The United States was especially interested in northern Burma with the goal of reopening the Burma Road. What was to become the Office of Strategic Services activated Detachment 101 (April 14, 1942). They were given the assignment of organizing action behind enemy lines in Burma. This was the first American unit of its kind. The objectives were to gather intelligence, harass the Japanese, identifying targets for air attack, and rescuing downed Allied airmen. The American OSS personnel was never larger than a few hundred men. Insted they relied on support from anti-Japanese tribal groups, especially the Kachin. Eventually the support of the Kachin played a key role in retaking northern Burma so the Ledo Road which originated in India could be built across northern Burma to join up with the Burma Road. This restablished a land route to supply the Chinese.
The Karen people are Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups which live in southern and southeastern Burma and ajacent border regions of Thailand. They represent over 5 percent of the Burmese population. The British during the colonial era were supportive of the Karen. Minority western-educated Christian Karens founded the Karen National Associations (KNA) to promote Karen interests in the British colonial administration (1881). KNA representatives at the Montagu-Chelmsford hearings in India testified that that Burma was not "yet in a fit state for self-government" (1917). They were concerned about Burmese majority rule. They criticized the Craddock Reforms (1920). The Karens won 5 and later 12 seats in the Burmese Legislative Council. The British colonial added Karen New Year to the public holidays (1938). The majority Buddhist Karens were much slower to organize. The Buddhist KNA was founded (1939). The British managed to prevent any major outbreak of violence between the Karens and majority Burmese. This changed with the Japanese occupation (1942). The Japanese abnd their Burma Independence Army (BIA) behaved brutally toward the Karen who were seen as pro-British. Viloent incidnts occurred, however the Karen were no armed to any extent. Mostly the BIA armed by the Japanese destroted villages and massacres wwe carried out. A pre-war Cabinet minister, Saw Pe Tha, and his family were among the victims. Colonel Suzuki Keiji assigned to gain control over the BIA, intervened to prevehnt further escalation of the violence. He met with a Karen delegation led by Saw Tha Din. As a result of pre-War attitudes, the Japanese/BIA attrocities, seizure of crops, and press-ganging Karen labor, the Allies found support among the Karen as they launched offensives against the Japanese in Burma.
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 begonninwas 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 major British interest was taking bavk 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. . Stilwell'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 resprct 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 ma\de sure that commanders did not engage in corupt practices. Thus the men were well equipped and fed. The offucers 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.
Chaing had dispatched Nationalist forces to help the British defend Burma. They were commanded by newly arrived American General 'Viniger' Joe Stilwell. Some of these forces joined the desperte British retreat to India. It became mission of Stillwell and his largely Chinese force to re-open the Burma Road and until that was acomplished to supply the Nationlists as much as possible through an air-lift from India over the towering Himalayas -- The Hump. It was a daunting task for the aircraft available at the time (C-46s and C-47s). The American effort to renter Burma began with jungle operations of Merrill's Marauders after British General Orde Wingate had organized Chindit Brigades. The men involved in the CBI Theater fought in some of the most difficult terraine and environmental conutions of the War. And they were for the most part the lowest priority of the Allied war effort. Stillwell was able to train and supply his Chinese division, tuning thm into some of the most effective units in the Nationalist Army. Despite the terrible conditions, the Bitish who were less convinced of the importanbce of China, were determined to take back Burma. The Americans were primarily determined to reopen the Burma Road to keep China in the War. China was also seen as providing bases for the planned air assault on the Japanese Home Islands. The British and Americans faced monsoon rains, mud, leeches, and heat as well as tropical conditions. [Webster] The British with Anerican support defeated a Japanese attempt to capture Assam. This allowed the American-Chinese force to recapture northern Burma. This allowed construction of a new road to link up with the old Burma Road--the Ledo Road. While Rangoodn was still in Japanese hads, the Ledo Road provided a link between the Burma Road and the Indian rail network. The Ledo Rod This was one of the most challenging construction projects of the War. The Ledo Road eventually ran from Ledo Assam, through Myitkyina and connected to the Burma Road at Wandingzhen, Yunnan, China. The first trucks reached the Chinese frontier over this road (January 28, 1945). Although supplies began flowing into China, the quantities were still limited, largely because of the distances from the ports in India to the Nationalists in Yunnan. It required a enormous quantity of fuel to move supplies such distances by truck. Only a seaport could provide the means to adequantly supply the Nationalists. This was not achieved, however, until after the Japanese surrender (August 1945).
They hoped to restablish their colonial regime. Aung San's supporters set up what was in effect a Burmese government. Aung San negotiated in Britain for independence (1947). After returning to Burma he was assassinated in Rangoon with many of his cabinent members. Burmese politics has remained tumultous even to this day. Burma was one of the great hopes of Decolonization. Burma was a relatively rich colony and seemed to have all the makings for a sucessful independent country. Intead it proved to be one of the most dismal failures of Decolonization.
McLynn, Frank. The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-45 (2011).
Tuchmn, Barbara. Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1970).
Webster, Donovan. The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II.
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