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Burma

Relief map of Burma

Burma was a relatively recent addition to the British Empire in 1941, having come under British control as recently as 1886. The country has an ethnically diverse population, and different ethnic groups chose different sides when the Japanese invaded in January 1942. The ethnic Burmese leaned towards the Japanese, who promised independence, until the Japanese promises began to ring hollow late in the war. The Shan tribes of eastern Burma were strongly pro-Japanese, while the hill tribes to the north (such as the Kachins) were strongly pro-British, at least in part due to Japanese atrocities. The total population in 1941 was about 18 million, and of these, about a million were Indians who dominated the commercial and civil service sectors. These would suffer terribly as a result of the British retreat from Burma, which in turn would be a significant factor in the ending of the Raj (British rule over India) in the postwar years. The remainder of the population consisted of ten million Burmans, four million Karens, 2 million Shans, and about a million hill tribesmen.

Burma has an area of 261,610 square miles (677,570 square kilometers), making it larger than any single country in Europe, and it extends over twenty degrees of latitude. The geography is dominated by the Irrawady River valley, which is a low plain in the center of the country. Most of the population is located along the river. The other three major rivers (Chindwin, Sittang, and Salween) also ran roughly north to south. The area around Mandalay is surrounded by mountains whose rain shadow creates the Dry Belt, which receives just 40" (100 cm) of rainfall per year. The remainder of Burma is rugged, jungle-clad hills subject to extremes in climate due to the shifting monsoon. During the winter, the country is hot, dry, and dusty; in the summer (mid-May through mid-October) it becomes a sweltering sea of mud.

Burma also includes the Tenasserim, the strip of coastline along the west side of the Kra Isthmus. This region had a series of airfields that were part of the air bridge between India and Malaya. The Tenasserim also included useful ports at Tavoy and Moulmein.

Though much of the economy was based on rice and timber (with rice exports, mostly to India, totaling 3.5 million tons per year), the Irrawady valley contains significant oil fields such as those at Yenangyaung. There is also considerably mineral wealth in the form of tin and tungsten mines in the mountains running along the eastern boundaries of the country and down to the Kra Isthmus. Total tin production in Burma reached nearly 6000 tons per year by 1939. There were also significant manganese deposits at Tagaung Taung (96.143E 23.569N). Though the Japanese coveted these mineral resources, their primary objective in invading Burma was strategic. The country would form the westernmost anchor of their defense perimeter and serve as a possible staging area for an invasion of India. This was actually attempted in 1944, but turned into a catastrophic defeat for the Japanese, in part because of the exceedingly poor communications across the mountains that divide Burma from India.

Another motivation for the Japanese to invade Burma was to cut the Burma Road through which China received its Lend-Lease aid. The Allies expended considerable resources to restore the land route to China by taking northern Burma and running a new road from Ledo in India through the jungles to China. This road was completed in 1945, by which time it had become largely irrelevant to the outcome of the war.

The First Burma Campaign

Following Thailand's conversion to a Japanese puppet within days of Pearl Harbor, it became clear that Burma would soon be subject to Japanese invasion. The British in Burma were badly prepared to meet such an attack. Burma had been administratively a part of India until 1937, and the British Army in India was primarily concerned with the Northwest Frontier. The only forces in the country were the Burma Division, which was dispersed and "amateurish" (Lewin 1976), and the newly arrived 17 Indian Division, which was poorly trained and equipped.

On 16 December 1941 Chiang ordered a Chinese Expeditionary Army organized in Yennan, and assigned it 5, 6, and 66 Armies, a total of about 100,000 troops, from Szechwan and Kwangsi. These were the last fully trained units from China's strategic reserve. The British distrusted Chiang and viewed Chinese formations as "regimented locusts" whose manner of living off the country was most unwelcome. Wavell therefore asked the Chinese on 24 December 1941 to keep their forces outside British territory. The British did not reconsider until Burma was invaded in late January 1942.

Japanese aircraft began bombing Rangoon on 23 December 1941, but with heavy commitments elsewhere, Japanese troops did not enter Burma until 15 January 1942. On that date 55 Division crossed into Burma north of Mergui while 33 Division advanced into Burma along a series of trails further inland. Hutton ordered Smyth to hold Moulmein with 17 Indian Division in spite of its tenuous communications to Rangoon: There was only a single bridge across the Sittang and Bilin rivers and no bridge at all across the Salween, which left Moulmein reliant on ferries from Martaban. This was a hopeless task, and Moulmein fell on 31 January, though not before the garrison put up a stiff fight.

During this period, Hutton took the precaution of moving most of the military stores at Rangoon north to Mandalay. This would have enormous repercussions later in the campaign.

Japanese troops crossed the Salween on 10 February and advanced rapidly. Smyth had put together a realistic and intelligent plan to hold on the Sittang, a formidable military obstacle, long enough to be joined by 48 Indian Brigade and 7 Armored Brigade. The land west of the Sittang was flat and cultivated and would have been good tank country for 7 Armored Brigade to operate in. However, Wavell, who consistently underestimated the Japanese, ordered Smyth to hold east of the Bilin, which was little more than a shallow creek at this time of year. Smyth was outflanked by 214 Regiment and his forces were badly battered and forced back. The last bridge across the Sittang was demolished on 23 February 1942, leaving much of the 17 Indian Division on the wrong side and spawning a lasting controversity over whether the bridge was demolished prematurely. Most of the men escaped, but the heavy equipment was lost and the division was hors de combat, making a prolonged defense along the Sittang impossible.

On 5 March Hutton was relieved by Alexander and his orders to abandon Rangoon were countermanded by Wavell, who was clinging to hope that an Australian division would be diverted to the port. However, Alexander quickly appreciated that holding Rangoon was impossible, and he ordered a retreat to the north. Meanwhile, Iida ignored demands from his own superiors that he move directly into central Burma, and his two divisions raced towards Rangoon, the capture of which would end Iida's reliance on tenuous land communications and allow reinforcements to be brought in more easily.

Alexander's reputation for luck was reaffirmed. Although Rangoon fell on 7 March 1942, the Japanese were so intent on turning Alexander's nonexistent west flank that they left open the route to the north. Although a Japanese battalion from 214 Regiment had blocked Alexander's line of retreat north of Taukkyan, and could not be dislodged, it was abruptly withdrawn by Sakuma and Sakurai, the regimental and division commanders, who were intent on reaching Rangoon and did not realize the importance of their roadblock. Alexander's armor was able to cover the breakout and and the Japanese found Rangoon a ghost town.

The Japanese continued to pursue the British up the Irrawady Valley. 55 Division was to advance up the Sittang Valley and crush the Allied forces against the 33 Division coming up the Irrawady Valley. Meanwhile the newly arrived 56 Division would move into the Shan States to cut the roads to China, while 18 Division would be in reserve behind 55 Division. The British in turn placed their own forces in the Irrawady Valley while the Chinese forces moving down from Yunnan were expected to cover the Sittang Valley. However, the British were without air support following a very damaging air raid on Magwe on 21 March.

The British attempted to hold northern Burma using motorized forces drawing on the fuel supplies at Yenangyaung, but found that supplying sufficient water to their troops in the Dry Belt was a serious challenge. The need to hold positions close to widely spaced water supplies proved a significant constraint on British strategy. In spite of support from Chinese forces in the Sittang Valley, the British were unable to hold a line south of Mandalay. 200 Chinese Division fought bravely at Toungoo, but the other divisions of 5 Army refused to come forward. 200 Division was forced to retreat after an 11-day action and failed to destroy the bridge across the Sittang. The retreat of 63 Indian Brigade from Prome (95.221E 18.821N) after slight resistance unhinged what was left of the line.

The Japanese now attacked across the front with all four of their divisions. 56 Division on the right would strike for Lashio. 18 and 55 Divisions would converge on Mandalay. 33 Division would advance up the Irrawady. 56 Division was heavily reinforced with 14 Tank Regiment and two battalions of artillery with ample motor transport, indicating the importance the Japanese attached to cutting the Burma Road.  The Japanese hoped to cut off the Chinese retreat and trap and destroy the Allied forces in Burma in the area around Mandalay. Stilwell's attempts to regroup the Chinese to meet this threat were hindered by the abysmal command situation and by Stilwell's own persistent underestimate of the size of the column headed to Lashio. 200 Division was all but annihilated in a counterattack that briefly retook Taunggyi (97.038E 20.782N). 49 Division was to have joined 200 Division at Taunggyi, but was ordered to withdraw by Kan instead. Its commander, Peng Pi-shen, briefly considered disobeying the order but reluctantly complied. The withdraw of this division, one of the best in the Chinese Army, at a critical moment, likely points to Chiang's concern with losing the best of his reserves in a futile struggle in Burma. Lashio fell on 29 April and Mandalay on 1 May 1942.

The failure to hold Yenangyaung, which was demolished on 15 April 1942, and the near-destruction of 1 Burma Division as it broke out of the town, meant that the British could no longer to hold the line in Burma. There were only two months' supplies left in northern Burma and the road from Imphal could not bring in more than 30 tons of supplies per day. The campaign came to an end as the British retreated into India via Imphal, with the first elements arriving on 15 May. Slim himself had a narrow escape across the Chindwin at Monywa and Shwegyin, whre he was forced to abandon most of his remaining heavy equipment. Most of the surviving Chinese forces retreated into Yunnan, but a few units (including most of New 22 and New 38 Divisions) were forced to retreat with the British into India, where they would eventually become the core of  the training program at Ramgarh. 96 Division moved north to Putao, then across the wild country of northern Burma into China, a remarkable trek marred by its mistreatment of civilian refugees along the way. With the Japanese at the end of their logistics in the face of the monsoon, and the British in no position to counterattack, the line stabilized along the hill country between Burma and India.

The defeat in Burma was a disaster for China. Of the 100,000 Chinese troops who marched into Burma in January, fewer than half survived. Chiang had committed his forces with reluctance, at the prodding of Stilwell, and at one point told him (Hsiung and Levine 1992):

In our Burma operations we must win victory and cannot afford a defeat. Why? Once the cream of Chinese troops as represented by the Fifth and Sixth armies is defeated, it would be impossible to counterattack not only in Burma but also in the whole of China. And there would be no efficient reserves in Yunnan or the Yangtze valley. The consequence would be very grave for China. A defeat in Burma would not only have serious repercussions upon the morale of the Chinese troops but upon the morale of the Chinese nation. Although two or three armies are involved, their success or defeat would have grave effect upon the Chinese people.

Chiang's worst fears were realized, and he blamed Stilwell for ignoring his instructions not to gamble with China's only crack reserves. The debacle in Burma permanently soured the relationship between the two leaders. The British failure to inform the Chinese that they were retreating, which exposed the Chinese units to heavy attack, destroyed any faith Chiang had in the British Army. The Chinese Expeditionary Army was the first significant Chinese force sent to fight outside Chinese territory in the 20th century, and the resulting crushing defeat and physical and diplomatic isolation would have lasting repercussions for China's future.

The defeat was also a disaster for the Indian community in Burma. Over 500,000 fled to India, and another 10-50,000 died along the way, in spite of food drops along the refugee trail. Those few Indians who remained in Burma got some protection from the Free India government of Subhas Chandra Bose, who persuaded the Japanese to block native Burmans from seizing land abandoned by Indians.

Japanese order of battle, 15 January 1942:

Southern Expeditionary Army (Terauchi; at Saigon)     

 
15 Army (Iida; on the Thai border opposite Kawkareik)     


 
33 Division (Sakurai) From Sendai. Had seen service in central China. Less 213 Regiment which was not available until late in the campaign.



213 Regiment (at Bangkok)
Was held in reserve and arrived at Rangoon by sea after its fall.


 
214 Regiment




215 Regiment



55 Division (Takeuchi) From Zentsuji. Less much of its supporting arms and 55 Regiment, which was employed in the southwest Pacific.



112 Regiment
Less one battalion held back as Southern Army's general reserve.



143 Regiment
Less one battalion garrisoning the Tenasserim.







5 Air Division (Obata) This air division had supported operations in the Philippines before being hastily transferred to support 15 Army. The strengths given here are those at the start of the war and are only an approximation to the actual strength on 15 January. The heavier aircraft were likely based at Chiengmai, while fighters and light bombers were likely based at Tavoy after its fall on 19 January.


4 Air Brigade (Kawahara)



8 Light Air Regiment




27 Ki-48 Lily




9 Ki-15 Babs




2 Ki-46 Dinah



14 Heavy Air Regiment




18 Ki-21 Sally



16 Light Air Regiment




31 Ki-30 Ann



50 Air Regiment




36 Ki-27 Nate


10 Air Brigade (Hoshi)



52 Recon Squadron




13 Ki-51 Sonia



74 Recon Squadron




10 Ki-36 Ida


76 Recon Squadron



9 Ki-15 Babs



2 Ki-46 Dinah


11 Air Transport Squadron



9 Ki-57 Topsy


12 Air Transport Squadron



9 Ki-57 Topsy

Japanese Reinforcements

56 Division (Matsuyama)       1942-3-19 (Singapore)

 
113 Regiment


148 Regiment

2 brigades of 3 Air Regiment     
1942-3-31 (Singapore)     
Exact composition not known
18 Division (Mutaguchi)
1942-3-31 (Singapore)
1 Tank Regiment
1942-3-31 (Singapore)
14 Tank Regiment
1942-3-31 (Singapore)
146 Regiment/56 Division
1942-4-13 (Singapore)

British order of battle, 15 January 1941:

Far East Command (Brooke-Popham; at Fort Canning)      

Burma Command (Hutton; at Rangoon)


17 Indian Division (Smyth; at Moulmein)
Less 44 and 45 Indian Brigades detached to Singapore. Composed of Baluch and Dogra battalions.



16 Indian Brigade (Jones; at Tavoy)



46 Indian Brigade (Ekin)



1 Glosters Battalion


3 Burma Rifles Battalion


1 Burma Division (Scott; at Toungoo)



1 Burma Brigade Willmott places this brigade in the Shan States



2 Burma Brigade (Bourke; at Tavoy)       Scattered all over the Tenasserim airfields
      13 Indian Brigade (Curtis; at Mandalay) Army reserve

British reinforcements

48 Indian Brigade/19 Indian Division
1942-1-31 (Rangoon)    
Three battalions of Gurkhas
7 Armored Brigade (Anstice)
1942-2-21 (Rangoon)
63 Indian Brigade/14 Indian Division (Wickham)
1942-3-5 (Rangoon)
Infantry Battalion
1942-3-19 (Magwe)
Exact identity not know. Flown in to Magwe airfield. May have accompanied Slim who was appointed to command of the newly activated Burma Corps on this day.

Kuomintang order of battle, 15 January 1942:

Chinese Expeditionary Force in Burma (Stilwell)
Stilwell was Chiang Kai-shek's Chief of Staff and took personal command of the forces in Burma on 11 March 1942.

5 Army (Tu Yu-ming; in Lashio-Mandalay-Pyinmana area)     
This was the only one of the armies with field artillery, but these were never deployed.


New 22 Division (Liao Yao-shiang)
A German-trained triangular division of about 6000 men.


96 Division (Yu Shao)
About 6000 men.


200 Division (Tai An-lan; at Toungoo)
A triangular division, about 8500 men strong, and the only motorized division in the entire Chinese army in 1940.

6 Army (Kan Li-chu; in eastern Burma)     



49 Division (Peng Pi-shen)
About 5700 men.


55 Division (Chen Li-wu) About 5700 men. This division was completely annihilated in Burma because of its clumsy deployment by its commander.


93 Division (Kuo Ch'uan)
About 5700 men.

66 Army (Ch'en Ch'eng; at Wanting)

    28 Division (Liu Po-lung)      


29 Division (Ma Wei-chi)


New 38 Division (Sun Li-jen)       A German-trained triangular division

After occupying Burma, the Japanese briefly considered a plan to continue on in to India (Operation 21). Two divisions would advance through the Hukawng Valley and Pangsau Pass, two divisions would capture Imphal, and a fifth division would advance from the Arakan to capture Chittagong. However, Terauchi's staff were convinced that an advance into India would drive Gandhi and Nehru firmly into the Allied camp and that an Indian National Army should be equipped and trained first. Neither Iida nor his division commanders were enthusiastic about Operation 21 and the idea was dropped on 23 December 1942. However, the prospect of further offensive operations into India prompted the construction of the Burma-Siam Railroad, beginning in June 1942.

The British in turn were unenthusiastic about a return to Burma. Stilwell badgered both the British and the Chinese into agreeing to an offensive into northern Burma to capture Myitkyina, with its strategically placed airfield, and called for an amphibious invasion to recapture Rangoon and reopen the Burma Road. However, the British and Chinese placed conditions on their agreement that, in retrospect, could not possibly have been met, and Stilwell's Chinese force in Assam would be unable to open its offensive into the Hukawng Valley (96.559E 26.439N) until 1944.

Stilwell regarded the seizure of Rangoon as the key to reopening the supply route to China. The construction of the Ledo Road was almost an afterthought prompted by the decision of Wavell to assign Stilwell's Chinese troops to the Ledo area (where, one suspects, Wavell calculated they could do little harm.)

The First Arakan Campaign

The first British counteroffensive in Burma was an attempt to recapture the island of Akyab in late 1942. The airfield there would be useful both for protecting Calcutta and for projecting air power towards Rangoon, but the campaign was undertaken mostly as a demonstration that Britain was serious about fighting Japan. Accordingly, on 21 September 1942, 14 Indian Division under W.L. Lloyd began moving south from Chittagong. Resistance was initially light, the terrain proving a more formidable obstacle than the enemy. It took a month for the division to get within ten miles of Akyab, where it encountered heavy resistance in the form of log and earth bunkers manned by troops of 55 Division. The Indian troops were held up and then, in April, driven back by counterattacks across ridges the British had assumed were impassible. By May, 14 Division was back in Chittagong.

Following this debacle, the Indian Army began a program of comprehensive training in jungle warfare. This included the activation of two training divisions and the distribution of a pamphlet on jungle warfare that wags promptly dubbed The Jungle Book. At the same time, Slim and other commanders worked to improve their logistics by extending the rail and road network and to improve readiness by implementing effective malaria control measures. A new operational headquarters, Southeast Asia Command, was established under Mountbatten while GHQ India, now under Auchinleck, provided logistics and training. 

Meanwhile, in parallel with the Arakan campaign, Wingate carried out the first Chindit campaign in central Burma, LOINCLOTH. This was too distant from the Arakan campaign to have much effect on it, nor did it achieve any other significant strategic effect. However, it tremendously boosted morale among the Allies in southeast Asia at a time when morale had suffered greatly from the Arakan debacle. It also pointed the way to jungle campaigns supported by air transport.

The Myitkyina Campaign and Second Arakan Campaign


British and Indian troops advance along the Kohima Road

Library of Congress. Via Wikipedia Commons.

A more serious effort was made in 1944. The first objective was to retake the town of Myitkyina. The motivations were twofold: First, with the airfield in Allied hands, it would be possible for transport aircraft flying over "The Hump" to take a safer, more southerly route between India and China. Second, with north Burma cleared of the enemy, it would be possible to build a road between Ledo in India and Lashio in China, thereby reopening the Burma Road for supplies to China.

This offensive was conducted largely by three American-trained Chinese divisions operating out of Assam under the command of Stilwell. However, the offensive was spearheaded by a small American force, "Merrill's Marauders" (GALAHAD), which was modeled after the Chindits. The Chindits themselves were deployed deep in Burma (Operation THURSDAY) to sever the lines of communication of the defending 18 and 56 Divisions. Chiang was initially reluctant to participate in the campaign, but Stilwell played on Chiang's distrust of the British by suggesting that Lend-Lease supplies earmarked for China would be taken by the British if the Chinese did not participate in the campaign.

The offensive got underway in January 1944, with Stilwell advancing across the Pangsau Pass into the inhospitable Hukawng Valley. The advance was led by 38 Division (Sun), which was quickly surrounded by 56 Regiment. However, the well-trained Chinese formed a box defense and beat off repeated Japanese attacks, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing the Japanese to withdraw. Stilwell expected the Chinese to then resume the advance, but this was glacial, as Sun was under orders from Chiang to conserve his force. By 29 January the advance had come to a halt. At this point Stilwell committed GALAHAD, which drove the Japanese out of the Hukawng Valley by 5 March 1944.

Meanwhile Slim, now in command of the newly activated 14 Army,  made a second attempt to seize Akyab. In January 1944 the XV Indian_Corps under A.F.P. Christison began advancing south through the Arakan. 5 Indian Division advanced on the west side of the Mayu Range while 7 Indian Division advanced on the east side of the range, and 81 West African Division operated further east to cover the flank of the advance. 5 and 7 Indian Divisions were expected to improve the road network as they advanced while 81 West Africa Division was to be supplied by air. In the event of a Japanese counterattack against their communications, 5 and 7 Indian Divisions were to form a perimeter defense (a "box") to repel the counterattack. Such a counterattack was expected, based on intelligence indicating that a new army headquarters, 28 Army, had deployed to the Arakan front.

Kawabe Masakazu waited until he judged the British lines of communication were badly stretched before ordering 28 Army to launch its counterattack (Ha-Go). This came on 3 February 1944 when 55 Division (Hanaya) began a series of flanking attacks. In spite of intelligence warnings, the Japanese achieved a measure of surprise. One of their four columns (Sakurai Force) found a gap between 7 Indian and 81 West Africa Division and punched through to the 7 Indian Division's main supply dump and division headquarters. The resulting Battle of the Admin Box saw the headquarters of 7 Indian Division almost destroyed and the division cut off from 5 Indian Division, but 7 Indian Division did not fall apart, and it was able to establish its defensive boxes. Warned in advance by the code breakers of the Japanese move, Slim prepared to resupply 7 Indian Division by air while 5 Indian Division and 26 Indian Division from the 14 Army reserve closed in to form the hammer that smashed the Japanese against the 7 Indian Division anvil. This strategy was successful, and 7 Indian Division was relieved on 24 February. By early March the British had returned to the offensive, and by June Hanaya was in retreat. The victory demonstrated that Indian troops could defeat the Japanese. Morale in the Indian Army soared. However, Akyab itself was not seized until 12 January 1945.

For the Japanese, Ha-Go was merely a preliminary operation aimed at pinning down Slim's reserves in the Arakan. The main Japanese attack would come further north.

U-Go

As the Allies advanced on Myitkyina and Akyab, the Japanese began their long-planned U-Go offensive. U-Go was the brain child of Mutaguchi Renya, who was deeply impressed by the first Chindit expedition and concluded that, if the despised British could conduct an operation across the jungle and mountains of northwest Burma, then certainly the Japanese could do it. A reconnaissance of the upper Chindwin in early June 1943 identified points where the river could be forded with rafts, located forage sufficient for five or six battalion of troops, and concluded that the local Shan were friendly to the Japanese. The idea soon became an obsession.

Burma Area Army was willing to consider a limited operation in northwest Burma. By seizing the Imphal Plain just before the monsoon, then digging in during the respite provided by the weather, the Japanese would be able to establish a very strong position from which to resist any future Allied offensive from India into Burma. The successful establishment of a puppet Indian government on Indian soil might create civil unrest in the rest of India, tying down Allied troops for security duty.  However, there was strong opposition to Mutaguchi's plan for an immediate advance into Assam, which he dropped like a bombshell on the war games held on 24-27 June 1943 at Burma Area Army headquarters.  Mutaguchi fired his own chief of staff for suggesting the plan could not succeed, then won over his superiors with an emotional plea for the operation. Eventually Tojo, who was intially skeptical, was won over by the prospect of a much-needed victory and the establishment of a puppet Indian government on Indian soil.

U-Go thus had the objective of seizing Imphal, Kohima, and Dimapur, isolating the Allied forces in northeast Assam and opening the road to India. Mutaguchi committed all of 15 Army, consisting of 15, 31, and 33 Divisions, to the attack. The main strength of 33 Division was to strike first, hooking around 17 Indian Division, destroying it, and then advancing on Imphal from the south. Other elements of 33 Division were to engage 20 Indian Division and destroy it as well. 31 Division was to attack a week later, seizing Kohima and advancing on Dimapur, while 15 Division was to cut the Kohima-Imphal road and then advance on Imphal from the north.

Slim was aware that the attack was coming, but underestimated its size based on his evaluation of the logistical difficulties of supplying a large attacking force. The Japanese, however, had adopted a "conquer or starve" strategy in which their troops were expected to resupply themselves from captured British depots. Hoyt (1993) has offered a biting commentary on the unreality of the Japanese plan:

Officers and men should carry maximum provisions.

(It was well known that men laden down with supplies could not fight properly.)

Elephants and oxen should be used for hauling stores and equipment.

(A great idea in the time of Genghis Khan, but not in the twentieth century.)

The oxen should be eaten when the provisions run out.

(So then who hauled the equipment?)

Personnel should be prepared to eat grass.

(They did.)

The advance along the road to Imphal from Kohima should be made in two weeks after the commencement of operations.

(Even a fully mechanized army could move only half that fast.)

The road should be repaired after its capture, in order to convey supplies at once by motor vehicle.

(Allied air attacks made the road worse and worse as each day went by.)

The Japanese logistics on the Chindwin was so poor that members of the 15 Division headquarters staff were already digging for wild yams to feed themselves in January 1943. The 15 Army staff were only able to locate about 1000 oxen during one provisioning expedition in which they had hoped to purchase 20,000. However, the Japanese ultimately managed to gather 12,000 horses and mules, 30,000 oxen, and 1030 elephants to support their offensive. Of these, only a few mules and most of the elephants survived the offensive.

Slim planned to defend Imphal with the 17, 20, and 23 Indian Divisions. 23 Division was exhausted from months of operating in the Chindwin Valley and was short 5000 men from its normal strength of 17,000, and had been pulled back to Imphal. 17 Indian Division was strung out along the road south from Imphal to Tiddim, with its headquarters at Milestone 102 (near93.69E 23.61N), while 20 Indian Division was concentrated in the Tamu area southeast of Imphal (94.31N 24.22N).  Both of these divisions would be ordered to pull back and dig in around the Imphal Plain once it was clear the Japanese offensive had begun. The three divisions would then live off the same depots that were the target of the Japanese attack, supplemented by air transport. Slim expected the strongest Japanese thrust to come from the south,since the approaches here were more favorable to movement of tanks and artillery, while the attacks from the southeast and northeast would have to cross much more difficult country. Slim planned to parry any stroke from the northeast with 49 Indian Brigade, which was positioned at Sangshak (near 94.34E 25.05N).  Kohima was covered only by 50 Indian Parachute Brigade and line of communications units, but Slim incorrectly assumed that the Japanese could not throw more than a regiment against the town.

The British expected the Japanese offensive to begin on 15 March 1944, but what their signals intelligence had intercepted was the date for 15 and 31 Divisions to cross the Chindwin. 33 Division began its advance out of Fort White (93.78E 23.23N) on 8 March 1944, with its division headquarters leading a column up the Tiddim Road while the infantry group headquarters led a second column up the Kabaw Valley towards Tamu.Caught off guard and too far forward, 17 Indian Division had a difficult time extricating itself. Meanwhile 20 Indian Division began a skillful fighting withdrawal that inflicted serious losses on 33 Division, halting the Japanese advance towards Palel at the Shenam Saddle (94.10E 24.40N) and covering 17 Indian Division's withdrawal to the Imphal plain. Meanwhile 50 Indian Parachute Brigade was fighting desperately to hold the northeastern approaches to Imphal. 

With 50 Indian Parachute Brigade committed to the fighting northeast of Imphal, Kokoda was defended only by a few units of rear area troops. By now the magnitude of the Japanese offensive was becoming clear, and on 13 March Slim appealed to the highest command levels for the use of additional transport aircraft to fly in reinforcements. This was granted, and 5 Indian Division, fresh from repelling the Japanese counterattack in the Arakan, began to be flown in, with 161 Brigade arriving at Dimapur by 20 March. The Japanese bid to pin down Slim's reserves with Ha-Go had failed.

As the Japanese offensive developed, the Chindits became active to the rear of the Japanese forces facing Stilwell's combined Chinese and American forces. This would prove only a modest distraction to the Japanese, though much was claimed for it at the time.

On 27 March Slim was reinforced with XXXIII Corps headquarters at Dimapur. XXXIII Corps was assigned 2 Division, which was joined by 7 Indian Division from the Arakan. At the same time, the remaining two brigades of 5 Indian Division were flown in to Imphal. On 2 April 15 Division cut the road between Kohima and Imphal, and Slim's plan to resupply Imphal by air was no longer optional. The  Japanese lay siege to Kohima, beginning on 5 April, and the garrison was not relieved until 18 April by 161 Indian Brigade.

The crisis of the battle around Imphal came on 6 April, when the Japanese seized Nungshigum Ridge overlooking the main airstip on the Imphal plain. However, a counterattack on 13 April with heavy air and tank support drove the Japanese off the high ground.

The siege of Imphal dragged on until 22 June, when 2 and 5 Indian Divisions finally linked up along the Kohima road. The Japanese forces were now in very serious trouble, having failed to take the British depots and having little or no logistical support of their own. On 9 July Mutaguchi finally acknowledge the offensive had failed and ordered a retreat. By then the Japanese formations were already losing cohesion. Slim kept the pressure up with 5 Indian and 11 East African Divisions, and the Japanese retreat turned into a rout in which thousands of Japanese soldiers perished from hunger and disease.

1944 was disastrous for the Japanese Army in Burma. The Japanese suffered 53,000 casualties out of a force of 85,000 men, of whom at least 30,000 died, along with 17,000 pack animals. Five divisions were destroyed and two more badly mauled. Allied casualties were 17,000 men. Kawabe and Mutaguchi were both relieved of their respective commands in August 1944.

Myitkyina Recaptured

The weather in 1944 suggested that the monsoon season would arrive early, shutting down military operations with its heavy rains. Stilwell therefore pressed his offensive against Myitkyina, sending the Marauders through mountainous jungle terrain to outflank the Japanese. On 16 May 1944 the Marauders seized the airfield against light resistance and transports began to roll in almost at once with fresh supplies. At the same time, the Chinese forces in Yunnan began moving into Burma to link up with the Assam force. Unfortunately the first transports into Myitkyina carried antiaircraft guns rather than troops, and by the time more infantry arrived, the Japanese had rushed their own troops into the town. The town was not cleared by Stilwell's Chinese troops until 3 August 1944, and the Yunnan and Assam forces did not clear the Ledo Road until 27 January 1945.

This victory came at a steep price to China. Casualties were 65,000 in Yunnan Force alone, and the forces involved, some of the best-trained and best-equipped left to the Chinese, were unavailable to repel the Ichi-go offensive.

The Japanese attempted a counteroffensive to stop the Chinese advance out of Yunnan, Dan-go, but their logistics were in a shambles and the counteroffensive collapsed under its own weight. The lack of any mention of this operation in postwar Western histories suggests that the Allies were not even fully aware that a counteroffensive had been attempted.

Kuomintang order of battle, January 1944:

Chinese Expeditionary Force in Burma (Stilwell)     

 
New 1 Army (Sun Li-jen; in Assam)

 
New 22 Division



New 38 Division    



One other division


20 Army Group (Liao Yao-shiang; in Yunnan) "Y" Force


16 divisions


11 Army Group


5307 Provisional Regiment (Merrill)
Merrill's Marauders

British order of battle, January 1944:

Southeast Asia Command (Mountbatten)     


14 Army (Slim)



IV Indian Corps (Scoones; at Imphal)



17 Indian Division (Cowan)




20 Indian Division (Gracey)




23 Indian Division (Roberts; at Imphal)




254 Indian Tank Brigade




50 Indian Parachute Brigade

 

XV Indian Corps (Christison; at Chittagong)     



5 Indian Division (Briggs)




7 Indian Division (Messervy)



81 West Africa Division (Loftus-Tottenham)     



XXXIII Corps (Stopford; at Dimapur)
Activated 1944-3



2 Division (Grover)



26 Indian Division (Lomax)



36 Division (Festing)


Chindits (Wingate)

Japanese order of battle, January 1944:

Southern Expeditionary Army (Terauchi; at Saigon)     

Burma Area Army (Kawabe; at Rangoon)


 
15 Army (Mutaguchi; in northwest Burma)




15 Division (Yamauchi)




31 Division (Sato)




33 Division (Yanagida)



28 Army (Sakurai; in southwest Burma)




54 Division (Katamura)




55 Division (Hanaya)



1 other division in reserve



33 Army (Hondo; in northeast Burma)




18 Division (Tanaka)




56 Division (Matsuyama; at Longling)    




53 Division (Kono)
Area army reserve


5 Air Division (Tazoe)

Following the collapse of U-Go and the capture of Myitkyina, both sides paused and regrouped. The Japanese replaced almost their entire command structure in Burma and sent in an additional division, the 49th, along with about 2000 replacement troops for each division and a few more tanks for 14 Tank Regiment. The Allied command structure was rationalized with the recall of Stilwell, whose many titles were assumed by three different officers (Wedemeyer as Chiang's chief of staff, Sultan as commander of Chinese forces in northern Burma, and Wheeler as Mountbatten's deputy.) The Allies were almost as short on reinforcements as the Japanese, even reassigning most of their antiaircraft gunners to infantry duty (possible because of the decline of Japanese air power.) Mountbatten acquired a land forces commander, Leese, which allowed Stilwell to focus on his upcoming battle in central Burma.

EXTENDED CAPITAL: The Final Japanese Collapse

With Stilwell's Chinese divisions in firm control of northern Burma and the British in the Arakan, the collapse of the U-Go offensive sealed the fate of the Japanese Army in Burma. Slim had established two bridgeheads across the Chindwin by November 1944 and was determined to destroy Burma Area Army and recapture Rangoon before the moonsoon struck. He also knew that the supply line into Burma from Imphal would be overtaxed even with recent improvements to the roads, so that air resupply would be necessary. With 1200 Allied aircraft in the theater, versus just 64 Japanese aircraft, the Allies had the air supremacy required to make this possible.

Anticipating that Kimura would stand and fight on the Shwebo Plain between the Chindwin and Irrawady, Slim planned to cross the Chindwin in early December (Operation CAPITAL) and pursued the Japanese to the Irrawady with 19 and 20 Indian Divisions in the lead. However, Mountbatten had proposed two different plans to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 23 July 1944. In addition to CAPITAL, Mountbatten proposed DRACULA, a major amphibious assault on southern Burma. If DRACULA had been adopted, Slim would have been tasked with simply pinning down the Japanese on the Chindwin. The Americans strongly favored this plan, but the decision was made at the OCTAGON conference to allow Slim to carry out CAPITAL.

Slim's objective was to destroy the Japanese Army in Burma, not just to seize ground. His staff concluded that it would be possible to supply four divisions plus three brigades.These would face perhaps five badly battered Japanese divisions. Slim planned to employ mobile tactics supported by armor and mobile artillery once he broke into the flat ground beyond the Chindwin, and he immediately began retraining his troops for mobile warfare. Slim anticipated that the greatest challenge would be breaking through the few gaps in the rugged Zibyu Taungdan mountains just west of the Chindwin.

On 29 November 1944, 19 Indian Division crossed the Chindwin at Sittaung (94.583E 24.167N) and advanced towards the railroad at Indaw (96.142 24.218). Five days later, 11 East African Division forced the Chindwin at Kalewa (94.298E 23.198N) and the bulk of 20 Indian Division passsed through the bridgehead. Another brigade from 20 Indian Division crossed 30 miles (50 km) further north. On 16 December 19 Indian Division made contact with 36 Division advancing down the rail corridor from northern Burma. On 19 December, 2 Division passed through the Chindwin bridgeheads and raced for Shwebo (95.698E 22.570N).

However, contrary to Slim's expectations, Kimura did not make a stand between the rivers, but left only a few rearguard units while pulling most of his forces across the Irrawady. Slim was forced to reconsider his plans. The new strategy (EXTENDED CAPITAL) was a masterstroke of misdirection. Slim had XXXIII Corps, the main force on the plains, advance to the Irrawady and threaten Manadalay with crossings to the north and south. Meanwhile, IV Corps, operating under radio silence, passed through the rugged Myttha Valley behind a screen of East African troops (28 East African Brigade) chosen because the Japanese already knew that 11 East African Division was operating in the area. This brought IV Corps to the Irrawady much further south, at Nyaungu (94.910E 21.198N). Once the Japanese reacted to the Mandalay crossings and committed their reserves, IV Corps would launch a surprise attack across the Irrawady against Meiktila, threatening Kimura's communications and forcing him to attack IV Corps. This would give Slim the opportunity to catch the Japanese between the hammer of XXXIII Corps and the anvil of IV Corps.

Ironically, this strategy may have been inspired by the now-deceased Wingate, who had suggested in March 1944 that his reserve brigade raid across the Irrawady to Meiktila. The idea so intrigued Mountbatten that he radioed Wedemeyer, then in Washington for consultation, to suggest that all Burma could be taken with sufficient air support. "Hap" Arnold was so sold on the concept that he authorized the transfer of 400 transport aircraft to Burma. It was these aircraft that had made CAPITAL and EXTENDED CAPITAL possible. However, just as EXTENDED CAPITAL was launched, the Japanese launched their own massive offensive in China, Ichi-go. Slim lost the use of 75 of his transport aircraft, which were redeployed to China to meet the new threat. This reduced his logistical margin to a bare minimum.

19 Indian Division crossed the Irrawady north of Mandalay on 7-11 January 1945 and successfully beat off a series of counterattacks. As Kimura redeployed against this threat, on 14 February 1945, 20 Indian Division crossed the Irrawady just south of Mandalay, at Myinmu (95.583E 21.933N). 7 Indian Division began crossing the Irrawady at Nyaungu the same day, in what Slim later described as "the longest opposed river crossing in any theatre of the Second World War" (Slim 1956).The crossing took place on the boundary between 15 and 28 Armies, which was thus the weakest point in the Japanese line. The only defenders in the area were from Indian National Army and promptly surrendered. On 21 February, without waiting to fully consolidate its bridgehead, 17 Indian Division launched its drive against Meiktila, and on 24 February 2 Division crossed the Irrawady at Ngazun (95.687E 21.898N).

Kimura had ignored intelligence warning of British activity to the south and now paid a heavy price for his neglect. Mandalay fell on 20 March 1945 after a hard fight at Fort Dufferin and Mandalay Hill. Meiktila had already fallen, on 3 March, and although 17 Indian Division and 255 Indian Tank Brigade were cut off and surrounded, they were resupplied from air and held their positions. Slim's hammer and anvil tactics then went into effect as the Japanese desperately attacked the isolated units in an attempt to clear their communications. Faced with a critical situation, Kimura was forced to commit forces piecemeal as soon as they arrived, which all but guaranteed defeat in detail. Myingyan (95.389E 21.459N), at the confluence of the Chindwin and Irrawady, fell on 23 March, opening Slim's river supply line. Between 22-24 March contact was reestablished with the isolated Allied forces at Meiktila, and Burma Area Army, caught between the hammer and the anvil, was rapidly being destroyed.

Japanese command and control broke down as signals intelligence was used to identify Japanese command posts and direct air strikes against them. In desperation, the Japanese began turning to suicide tactics, including the use of "human mines" (a soldier in a deep hole with an aircraft bomb and a hammer to set the bomb off when a tank approached.)

33 Army now attempted to cover the retreat of the remnants of 15 Army, but 20 Indian Division swept out of its bridgehead and inflicted terrible slaughter on the retreating 31 and 33 Divisions. 28 Army dispatched 112 Regiment to Mount Popa, an isolated 500' (150m) peak overlooking the Irrawady Valley south of Meiktila, but the collapse of 2 INA Division to the east of the mountain neutralized this threat. Large numbers of INA soldiers, most of whom had joined the Indian National Army to escape terrible conditions in Japanese prisoner of war camps, surrendered to 2 Division at the first opportunity.

With the Japanese in disarray and Slim's logistics seriously strained, he actually reduced his fighting force by flying out 2 and 36 Divisions by 26 April 1945.

Slim found himself in a race to reach Rangoon and end the Burma campaign before the monsoon arrived. His subordinates sardonically referred to this as the "Sea or Bust" (SOB) campaign, since 14 Army could have been in serious trouble if it failed to capture a port before the monsoon made a shamble of its lines of communication. As insurance, Slim pressed Mountbatten on 16 February 1945 to stage a modified DRACULA, which was duly scheduled to be carried out on 2 May by XV Corps. Meanwhile Slim's forces were required to race past any strong pockets of resistance and rely on resupply by air. Fortunately, the capture of Akyab on 3 January 1945 meant that supplies could be staged in through the airfield there. 

Slim's was a risky strategy, but it worked.  IV Corps (5 and 17 Indian Divisions) leapfrogged down the Meiktila-Rangoon road while XXXIII Corps (7 and 20 Indian Divisions) drove down the Irrawady valley to cut off 28 Army. The Japanese attempted a stand at Pyawbwe, but the British turned the position with a pincers movement on 8 April 1945 by 63 Indian Brigade and very  nearly captured Honda's headquarters on 11 April. Thereafter Honda's 33 Armywas broken and scattered, though his troops fought some bitter delaying actions. 18 Division was down to 3100 men and four guns; 49 divison to 1600 men and one gun; 53 Division was down to 1600 men; and 4 Regiment had 800 men with one gun.

Although the monsoon hit when the British troops were still 50 miles north of Rangoon, at Pegu, the DRACULA amphibious force landed on 2 May to find that the Japanese had evacuated the city. The Burma campaign was effectively over. Some measure of the meaning of the campaign can be found in one of the last Japanese shipments out of Rangoon before it was abandoned to the British: 40,000 boxes of ashes of Japanese soldiers destined for the Yasakuni Shrine.

There was a final postscript to the campaign. The remnants of 28 Army had been trapped in the Pegu Yomas hills, and the Japanese attemped to break the survivors out across the Sittang and escape into Thailand. By now the Burmese National Army under Aung San had switched sides and was hunting down Japanese patrols and foraging parties. 33 Army attempted to assist the breakout, but its attack on the Sittang Bend (96.871E 17.461N) on 3 July 1945 was mistimed, taking place too soon before 28 Army made its advance to the river. The British were also helped by superb intelligence from captured documents that pinpointed the exact points where the Japanese would attempt to break out, allowing them to concentrate their firepower and virtually annihilate 28 Army.

Allen (1984) quotes Professor Raymond Callahan on what Slim's victory in Burma meant:

Slim's great victory — and this is the most that can be claimed for it — helped the British, unlike the French, Dutch, or, later, the Americans, to leve Asia with some dignity. That, perhaps is no small thing.

British order of battle, November 1944:

Southeast Asia Command (Mountbatten)     

Allied Land Forces, Southeast Asia (Leese)



14 Army (Slim)




IV Indian Corps (Messervy)




7 Indian Division (Evans)




17 Indian Division (Cowan)
Badly depleted from battle of Imphal and in reserve




19 Indian Division (Rees)





23 Indian Division (Roberts; at Imphal)
Badly depleted from battle of Imphal and in reserve




255 Indian Tank Brigade




XXXIII Corps (Stopford; at Dimapur)
Activated 1944-3




2 Division (Nicholson)





20 Indian Division (Gracey)




254 Indian Tank Brigade




268 Indian Brigade




11 East African Division
Due to be withdrawn to India for rest



26 Indian Division (Lomax)




36 Division (Festing)




28 East African Brigade




Lushai Brigade



XV Indian Corps (Christison; at Chittagong)     



5 Indian Division (Briggs)



81 West Africa Division (Loftus-Tottenham)     

Japanese order of battle, November 1944:

Southern Expeditionary Army (Terauchi; at Saigon)     

Burma Area Army (Kimura; at Rangoon)


 
15 Army (Mutaguchi; in northwest Burma)




15 Division (Shibata)
Down to about 4500 men



31 Division (Kawada)




33 Division (Tanaka)




53 Division (Takeda)
Down to about 4000 men


28 Army (Sakurai; in southwest Burma)




54 Division (Katamura)




55 Division (Hanaya)



2 INA Division (Ahmed)




72 Independent Mixed Brigade (Ohara)



33 Army (Hondo; in northeast Burma)




18 Division (Naka)




56 Division (Matsuyama)    



2 Division (Okazaki; between Mandalay and Rangoon)     
Area army reserve


49 Division (Takehara; between Mandalay and Rangoon)     
Area army reserve


14 Tank Regiment
Down to about 20 light and medium tanks

References

Allen (1984)

Brown (2008; accessed 2011-8-13)

Costello (1981)

Drea (2009)

Dunlop (1979)

Generals.dk (accessed 2009-12-8)

Hastings (2007)

Hsiung and Levine (1992)

Larrabee (1987)

Lewin (1976)

Marston (2005)

Peattie et al. (2011)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953)

Slim (1956)

Tamayama and Nunneley (2000)

Willmott (1982)



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