Burma and the Second World War

In December 1885, Burma was established as a province of the the British Indian Empire. Anti-British riots in the 1930s led to the passing of the Government of India Act and in April 1937 Burma became a British crown colony with a certain amount of self-government.

Burma was invaded by the Japanese 15th Army on 11th December 1941. The island was defended by only a few units of the British Army and a locally recruited 1st Burma Division and the 35,000 Japanese soldiers had little difficulty in making early gains.

In March 1942, General William Slim was given command of all Allied troops in Burma. Soon afterwards he was joined by General Joseph Stilwell and two Chinese armies. On 2nd May 1942, General Harold Alexander, Allied commander in Burma, ordered a general retreat to India.

During the summer of 1943 Slim attempted to recapture Akyab but the offensive ended in failure. After Lord Mountbatten arrived to become head of the Southeast Asia Command Slim became commander of the 14th Army. In March 1944 he successfully defended Assam against the Japanese Army.

In February 1943, Orde Wingate and 3,000 Chindits were sent to Burma. Their task was to disrupt Japanese communications, attack outposts and destroy bridges. The operation was very costly and of the 2,000 who returned, 600 never recovered to be able to fight again.

Orde Wingate met Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1943 and explained his theory of Long Range Penetration. Churchill was impressed and agreed to expand the size of the Chindits and Wingate was promoted to major general and given six brigades (3rd Indian Division). Roosevelt also decided to create a similar group led by the the American officer, Frank Merrill.

Wingate returned to India in September 1943 and began to plan Operation Thursday. The plan was aimed at destroying Japanese communications from southern Burma to those fighting General Joseph Stilwell in the north and William Slim in Imphal and Kohima.

On 24th February 1944, Major General Frank Merrill and his troops, known as the Merrill's Marauders, attacked the 18th Japanese Division in Burma. This action enabled General Joseph Stilwell to gain control of the Hakawing Valley.

Operation Thursday was launched by Orde Wingate in Burma on 5th March, 1944. The Chindits established Broadway, a jungle clearing 200 miles behind Japanese lines. This included an airstrip that enabled supplies and reinforcements to be flown in and the wounded flown out. Over the next few months the Chindits destroyed Japanese roads, railways, bridges and convoys. Once again the Chindits suffered heavy losses. Wingate was himself killed when his plane crashed into a hillside near Imphal during a storm on 14th March 1944.

By May 1944 Major General Frank Merrill had lost 700 men and had to be reinforced with Chinese troops. On the way to Myitkyina the Marauders marched for 750 miles and fought in 5 major engagements and 32 skirmishes with the Japanese Army. Casualties were high and only 1,300 Marauders reached their objective and of these, 679 had to be hospitalized. This included Merrill who had suffered a second-heart attack before going down with malaria. The rest of the Marauders had to wait for reinforcements before Myitkyina was taken on 3rd August 1944.

In October 1944, General Joseph Stilwell was recalled to the United States and was replaced by General Albert Wedemeyer. He made steady progress and with the help of the Chinese 11th Army were able to reopen the Ledo-Burma Road after the capture of Wanting in January 1945.

General William Slim and his troops captured Meiktila on 4th March. Lashio followed three days later. On 3rd May 1945, Operation Dracula, an attempt to capture Rangoon began. The operation included amphibious landings and troops parachuting in behind Japanese lines. The war in Burma was brought to an end when Rangoon was taken by General Frank Messervy and his 4th Corps on 6th May 1945.

Primary Sources

(1) General Harold Alexander was sent to Burma in January, 1942.

It was clear that the retention of Rangoon was impossible with the forces at my disposal, dispersed as they were and with half of them already encircled. The day after my arrival I therefore ordered the evacuation to begin at daylight the following morning, and the demolition of the port and its installations to be carried out thereafter as quickly as possible. I could not save Rangoon but I could save the Army, with luck. The loss of our base would be a most serious matter, as we should have to depend on the scattered stores and dumps spread about in central and northern Burma. When these were used up, the Army would be crippled unless supplies could be sent in over the mountains from India; but, apart from a few mule tracks, communication with India was non-existent. It seemed that we must do the best with what we had. With Chinese assistance-however doubtful-we should be able at least to make the Japanese advance into Burma slow and costly. Such were the thoughts in my mind when I ordered the destruction and evacuation of Rangoon.