Written by Lt Col A T M Hasan Ahmed (Retd)
1. To the outside world Burma Campaign used to be known as the forgotten war due to its less attention compared to other theatres of war during World War II (WWII). Fought by a combination of nationalities on the allied side, it provided a common rallying point against the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Due to the sporadic weather and harsh terrain, it was one the longest campaign in World War II and began with the invasion of Burma by the 15th Japanese Army in 1942 and ended with its defeat in 1945. Japanese entered on this side of theatre with a aim to acquire raw materials and to expand the Japanese imperialism. With humiliating surrender of British, Australian and Indian troops in the Malay peninsula and in Singapore Japanese could have stopped and consolidated there. But they proceeded with accomplishment and entered Burma... ...
There were two reasons for the Japanese invasion of Burma. Firstly the Japanese knew if they can cut land access from Burma to China via the famed Burma Road over the mountains of the 'Hump' could deprive Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) armies of their life line, allowing the Japanese to conquer China. Moreover, possession of Burma would place the Japanese at the gate of India in Assam within easy reach of Calcutta, where general insurrection against the British Raj would be ignited.
Continue in the task till all your ammunition is expended. If your hands are broken, fight with your feet. If your hands and feet are broken, fight with your teeth. If there is no breath left in your body, fight with your spirit. Lack of weapons is no excuse for defeat.
2. Entering Burma from Thailand, the 15th Japanese Army quickly captured Rangoon, cutting off the Burma Road at starting place, and depriving the Chinese of their only convenient supply base and port of entry. In response, General Sir Archibald Wavell, in supreme command of the Far Eastern theatre, formed two inadequate divisions, the 1st Burma and 17th Indian, into Burma corps (Burcorps). It was his intention to establish defensive position well forward and accordingly ordered his commanders to do so against their will. They, however, were aware, as General Wavell was not, of the deficiencies of their commands. The troops were raw, lacked combat experience, and were inadequately trained and equipped to take on the aggressive, well motivated and bold invaders. Apart from two experienced light tank regiments and an infantry battalion brought in from the Middle East, no other reinforcements reached Burma Command. Operating a scorched-earth policy as it went, Burcorps, now under command of Lieutenant General William Slim, fell back up the Irrawaddy river, accompanied by tens of thousands of miserable Indian refugees, harassed and murdered by the Burmese population as they struggled to gain Indian soil. In May 1942 the retreat finally ended, and the shattered remnants of Burma corps began to prepare for return to Burma.
3. There followed many months of stalemate, as both sides tried to probe each other's strengths and weaknesses. Wavell, anxious to re-assert British military influence and raise depressed morale, ordered an advance into the Arakan, the coastal region of Burma, at the end of 1942. It stalled and was bloodily repulsed - and morale sank even further. Things were only lightened by the propaganda value of Brigadier Orde Wingate's first Chindit expedition. In this the Allies enjoyed some success in using guerrilla tactics against the Japanese, despite incurring heavy losses, thus proving that British troops could take on the Japanese in the jungle. In 1943 the Allied High Command was overhauled, and Wavell was replaced by the charismatic Lord Louis Mountbatten. His influence obtained much needed air support for what now became the 14th Army, particularly in the field of transport aircraft, and re-supply by air became the norm for the forward troops. Slim, now in command of 14th Army, imbued his command with a new spirit. Units were encouraged to sit tight, relying on air-dropped supplies, and hold their ground when attacked, instead of dispersing as was done before. The Japanese, aware that the defenders had gained strength, resolved to end the campaign at a blow with an assault into Assam, aimed at capturing the key towns of Imphal, capital of the hill state of Manipur, and Kohima. Another Japanese attack was made simultaneously in the Arakan. For the first time the defenders stood firm, confident in their air support. Between March and July 1944 fierce battles raged on both fronts. Although now outnumbered, the Japanese fought with ferocious courage; all ranks of 14th Army knew that their ticket home depended on total destruction of their enemy and this is exactly how it transpired. Fighting every inch, the Japanese recoiled from the hills and back across the River Chindwin, harassed by Wingate's second Chindit expedition. There were some remarkable accomplishment as the numerous Chindit columns fought deep in the Japanese rear areas, in their endeavours to comprehend Wingate's concept of 'a hand in the enemy's bowels'. Wingate unfortunately did not live to see this outcome. He died in a plane crash as the expedition began. At the same time American troops were also advancing from the north with Chinese Nationalist forces.
4. Early in 1945, 14th Army continued to advance, no longer in the jungle but in the open plains of upper Burma. Mandalay fell in March, and Slim conducted a brilliant crossing of the mighty Irrawaddy before heading south. In the Arakan, the Japanese had to be winkled out of strong positions before Rangoon was taken on 3 May. Mountbatten gratified his ambition by staging an elaborate victory parade, at which he took the salute in Rangoon on 15 June. This took place despite the fact that thousands of Japanese were still fighting hard, many of them still in strength, behind British lines - as they tried desperately to escape across the Sittang river into Thailand, losing heavily as they went. Slim, the architect of this great victory, was not present at Mountbatten's parade. Mountbatten had decided that 14th Army's great commander was tired and needed a rest, and therefore replaced him at the moment of his great triumph. This was unfortunate, as Slim was the only British general in World War Two who had fought against an enemy 'First Eleven' throughout, and who, having been knocked out of the ring at the beginning, got back in and beat his opponent flat. His removal from command of the army he had forged had a calamitous effect on the morale of his men. Churchill had initially opposed his appointment to command 14th Army, considering him a 'sepoy general' (Slim had made his military home in the 6th Gurkhas). But his personal account of the campaign, 'Defeat into Victory', will long endure as a military classic. It is modestly written, but reveals the humanity of this truly great soldier, as well as his professional ability - both qualities that explain why his men loved him as much as they did.
5. Lesson Learnt. Following lessons can be drawn from Burma Campaign:
a. Leadership is the Key to Success: Taking over command of 14 Army, Slim emphasised the need for jungle warfare training and the use of more aggressive tactics, including the formation of defensive 'boxes' by surrounded units that were supplied by air. But perhaps his greatest contribution was that of talking to soldiers and restoring their morale. He was a fine manager of men and able to get them to do his orders. In return, Slim's men saw him as one of them. He was above all a soldiers’ soldier. Slim had transformed a demoralised army into a winning one, he pitched his limited strength against his enemy’s weakness and he sought to outmanoeuvre the Japanese at every opportunity. Moreover, he had a personal style that was both understated and endearing. His quiet authority won the hearts of his soldiers. Slim may not have had the manpower and equipment that he would have liked; but he had the leadership, the intellect and the mature understanding of operational art to win in Burma. On the contrary, General Mutaguchi conjured up a "master plan" of attacking Imphal, the main strong point of the British forces in India defended by 150000 soldiers, by marching 3 divisions through a 600m wide river and 2000m high mountains and dense jungle. After the failure of the Imphal offensive in May 1944, Mutaguchi refused to allow his divisional commanders to retreat, and instead dismissed all three of them. He eventually called off the attack on 3 July. Some 55,000 of Mutaguchi's 85,000-man force ended up either as dead or casualties , many men died from starvation or disease.
b. Sound Logistics Support: For every rifleman on a remote combat outpost, there are probably a dozen logisticians, administrators, and cooks. The rifleman wouldn’t last long without food, fuel, batteries, and medical care. Slim knew that there are scores of unsung heroes in any large organization — the ones you never think about until they eventually fail in their jobs. As Slim spoke to his soldiers, he compared the army to a clock, with each gear representing a soldier. Indeed, throughout the war, Slim expressed nothing but admiration for the men who toiled behind the scenes to keep the British war machine functioning. On the other hand, General Mutaguchi made what he called "Genghis Khan plan", a plan of taking 30000 cows as pack animals with the army and eating them when they need food, ignoring 30000 cows would be very easy to spot from air and taking slow cows in a operation where speed is the key doesn't make sense, not mentioning the need to feed 30000 cows . All of his staff opposed this reckless and dumbfounded offensive, but he simply fired one of them to shut them up, and made the comment "The British are cowards: they are supposed to surrender after we fire a shot to the air" and "Japanese soldiers are strong: there shouldn't be any problem." Of course, 3 division taking 30000 pack animals was easy to spot, so the whole army came under heavy air attack immediately and constantly. All of the pack animals died or fled due to the air attack and during river/mountain crossing. Because the army had to pass through the jungle, they couldn't carry any heavy weapons and the pack animals carried the ammunition and food, so the army were on serious shortage of food and supplies EVEN BEFORE THE BATTLE STARTED.,
c. Reorganisation and Training: The defeat and subsequent retreat to Assam after the First Burma Campaign led to reorganisation of formations and refocus on basic training, with emphasis on specialist training in jungle warfare. The harsh terrain of Burma with its formidable rainforests and lack of roads required troops to have high levels of physical fitness and also be acclimatised to ward off the threat of diseases. The major reorganisation was the restructuring of the highest controlling headquarter with the creation of the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC), with the 14th Army as the land component. A mixed transport structure along the mechanical and animal transport lines was adopted at the division level to improve mobility and tactical effectiveness. Major emphasis was laid on retraining of the formations. Instructions were issued on tactics and jungle warfare in the form of the Army in India Training Memoranda (AITM) and Military Training Pamphlets (MTP). It convinced the military leadership to establish centrally controlled training schools in jungle warfare as well as lay down a clear distinction between basic training and specialist training. 14 and 39 Indian Divisions were organised as jungle warfare training divisions. A jungle warfare school was established at Comilla, and later relocated to Darjeeling in 1943. The school conducted 15-day short courses in patrolling, field craft, minor tactics, establishment of roadblocks and living off the land. Collective training was practised from company to division level to assimilate the new training philosophy and gain on the job expertise.
d. Air Support is Vital for Success: Quite simply, the Allied ground campaign in Burma from mid-1943 to its conclusion in 1945 was underwritten by air support. Due to adequate air mobility, the Wingate launched Chindit expeditions in the form of long range penetration petrol and continually harassed the Burmese line of communications. Without sound air mobility the second Arakan operation would have resulted in disaster similar to the first and Imphal would have fallen to the Japanese. Indeed, each of Slim’s successes was made possible through the employment of air mobility power. The Japanese established air superiority over Burma during 1942 campaign, but they never extended that beyond Chin Hills. But by mid 1943 the Allied air power was making itself felt all over Burma. By early 1944 Allied air control was established in Burma and though tried Japanese air force failed to reverse that.
1. National Army Museum Publication on Field Marshal William Slim,
2. Wikipedia, William Slim, 1st Viscount Slim.
3. Wikipedia, Burma Campaign.
4. Defeat into victory by Field Marshal Slim.
5. Military Lessons of Burma Campaign: World War II by Ashwani Gupta.
6. The Pivotal Role of Air Mobility in the Burma Campaign by Lieutenant Colonel Derek M Salmi, USAF.