Burma Campaign

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The Burma Campaign was a campaign in the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II.


Allied Command Structure

Initially command problems beset the Burma campaign. Burma was swapped from command to command during the pre-war period and the early months of the war:

  • 1937 Burma was politically separated from India and fully responsible for its own military forces.
  • 1939 with the outbreak of war Burma forces were placed under British Chiefs of Staff, but financed out of Burma taxes and locally administerd.
  • November 1940 operational control was transferred to the recently formed Far East Command in Singapore, while administrative responsibility was divided between the Burma Government and the War Office in London, which now contributed substantially to the defence budget of Burma.
  • December 12 1941, when a Japanese attack was seen to be imminent Burma was handed back to India Command under the command of Commander-in-Chief (CinC) in India General Sir Archibald Wavell .
  • From January 1 1941 Burma was operationally controlled by ABDACOM and administered from Delhi. The Supreme Commander of ABDACOM General Wavell (who had transferred from CinC, India), moved his command to Java on January 15 1942.
  • On February 25, 1942 Wavell resigned as supreme commander of ABDACOM, handing control of the ABDA Area to local commanders. He also recommended the establishment of two Allied commands to replace ABDACOM: a south west Pacific command, and one based in India. In anticipation of this, Wavell had handed control of Burma to the India Command. On resigning from ABDACOM Wavell reassumed his previous position, as Commander-in-Chief, India.

The British commander in Burma, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Hutton was removed from command shortly before Rangoon fell in March 1942. He was replaced by Sir Harold Alexander. Hutton became Alexander's chief of staff. The 1st Burma Division and Indian 17th Infantry Division at first had to be controlled directly by the Burma Army headquarters under Hutton and then Alexander, as there was no corps command.

Interactions with the Chinese remaind difficult because Chiang Kai-Shek,the leader of Nationalist China, was a poor strategist, and the Chinese Army also suffered from severe command problems, with orders having to come directly from Chiang himself if they were to be obeyed. The ability of many ot the other Chinese commanders was called into question. Finally, the Chinese Army was lacking in the ancillary services which allow a force to fight a modern war.

The problems with the Chinese were never satisfactorily resolved. However, after the dissolution of ABDA, India retained control of operations in Burma until the formation of South East Asia Command in late 1943. The immediate problems of a lack of corps headquarters were solved. A skeleton force of the two scratch divisions, the 1st Burma and the Indian 17th Infantry, were formed into Burma corps known as Burcorps was formed under Lieutenant General Sir William Slim, later to gain fame as the commander of the Fourteenth Army.

On June 20, 1943 Wavell became Viceroy of India and was succeeded as CinC India by General Sir Claude Auchinleck. In August 1943 the Allies formed a new South East Asian Command to take over strategic responsibilities for the theatre. The reorganisation of the theatre command took about two months. On October 4 1943 Winston Churchill appointed Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten supreme Allied commander of the South East Asia Command (SEAC). The American General Joseph Stilwell was the first deputy supreme Allied commander. On November 15 Auchinleck handed over responsibility for the conduct of operations against the Japanese in the theatre to Mountbatten.

With the creation of SEAC the Eastern Army of India was split into two. The Eastern Command took over responsibility for Bihar, Orissa and most of Bengal. The rest became the Forteenth Army under the command of General Slim.

Stilwell using his position as Deputy Supreme Commander South East Asia had refused to place the Northern Combat Area Command under General George Giffard's 11th Army Group (to which the Fourteenth Army reported), but at a meeting to sort out the chain of command for the three fronts in Burma, he astonished everyone by saying "I am prepared to come under General Slim's operational control until I get to Kamaing". It would have been better if the chain of command had gone as planned though the 11th Army Group, but this was a compromise which worked because Slim was able to handle Stilwell. The reason why it was essential that there was one operational commander for the three fronts, North, Central and Southern, was so that the intended attacks in late 1944 could be co-ordinated to prevent the Japanese concentrating large numbers of reserves for a counter attack on any one front.

11th Army Group remained a in existence until November 12 1944. It was redesignated Allied Land Forces South East Asia (ALFSEA), still under SEAC. Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese succeeded Giffard in command. 11th Army Group was redesignated because it was felt that an inter-Allied command was better than the purely British headquarters that 11th Army Group was. The change was made just after Stilwell was recalled to the U.S.. Lieutenant General Daniel Sultan became commander of the U.S. Forces, India-Burma Theater (USFIBT) and commander of NCAC and this change placed his command under ALFSEA.

Initial Japanese successes

See the South-East Asian Theatre and the Pacific War for a details on the initial Japanese successes including the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Japanese advance through Burma to the Indian frontier

In Burma, the Japanese attacked shortly after the outbreak of war. However, they did not begin to make real progress until Malaya and Singapore had fallen. After that, they could transfer large numbers of aircraft to the Burma front to overwhelm the Allied forces.

The first Japanese attacks were aimed at taking Rangoon. Rangoon was the major port in Burma, and with it, the Allies had many advantages of supply. It had at first been defended relatively successfully, with the weak RAF forces reinforced by a squadron of the famous American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers. However, as the Japanese attack developed, the amount of warning the Rangoon airfields could get of attack decreased, and thus they became more and more untenable.

By the start of March, Japanese forces had cut the British forces in two. Rangoon was evacuated and the port demolished. Its garrison then broke through the Japanese lines thanks to an error on the part of the Japanese commander.

With the fall of Rangoon, a British evacuation of Burma became inevitable. Supplies could not be moved to maintain fighting forces in Burma on a large scale, since the ground communications were dreadful, sea communications risky in the extreme (along with the fact that there was only one other port of any size in Burma besides Rangoon) and air communications out of the question due to lack of transport aircraft.

Besides the Japanese superiority in training and experience, initially command problems beset the Burma campaign (see above). With the formation of Burcorps, the foundations of the Allied command which would eventually prevail were in place. But initially Burcorps retreated almost constantly, and suffered several disastrous losses, but it eventually managed to reach India in May 1942, just before the monsoon broke. Had it still been in Burma after the monsoon broke, it would have been cut off, and likely destroyed by the Japanese. The divisions making up Burcorps were withdrawn from the line for long refit periods.


Operations in Burma over the remainder of 1942 and in 1943 were a study of military frustration. The UK could only maintain three active campaigns, and immediate offensives in both the Middle East and Far East proved impossible because of a lack of resources. The Middle East won out, being closer to home and a campaign against the far more dangerous Germans.

During the 1942-1943 dry season, two operations were mounted. The first was a small scale offensive into the Arakan region of Burma. The Arakan is a coastal strip along the Bay of Bengal, crossed by numerous rivers. The First Arakan offensive largely failed due to difficulties of logistics, communications and command. The Japanese troops were also still assigned almost superhuman powers by their opponents. The second attack was much more controversial; that of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, better known as the Chindits.

Under the command of Major General Orde Wingate, the Chindits penetrated deep behind enemy lines in an attempt to gain intelligence, break communications and cause confusion. The operation had originally been conceived as part of a much larger offensive, which had to be aborted due to lack of supplies and shipping. Almost all of the original reasons for mounting the Chindit operation were then invalid. Nevertheless, it was mounted anyway.

Some 3,000 men entered Burma in many columns. They did cause damage to the communications of the Japanese 33rd Army, and they did gather intelligence. However, they suffered dreadful casualties, with only two thirds of the men who set out on the expedition returning. Those that did return were wracked with disease and quite often in dreadful physical condition. The most important contributions of the Chindits to the war were unexpected. They had had to be supplied by air. At first it had been thought impossible to drop supplies over the jungle. Emergency situations that arose during the operation necessitated supply drops in the jungle, proving it was possible. It is also alleged by some that the Japanese in Burma decided to take the offensive, rather than adopt a purely defensive stance, as a direct result of the Chindit operation. Whatever the reason for this later change to the offensive, it was to prove fatal for the Japanese in Burma.

The turning point

In August 1943 the allies decided to create a new combined command responsible for the South-East Asian Theatre. With the decision to create the South East Asia Command (SEAC) came a new sense of purpose and in November, when SEAC took over responsibility for Burma, the British Fourteenth Army was ready to take the offensive having withstood the Japanese attacks earlier in the year. The Allied supply lines were improving; by October 1944 capacity on the North-east Indian Railways had been raised to 4,400 tons a day from the 600 tons a day at the start of the war. By 1944 the RAF had gained Air superiority and that allowed the Allies to employ new tactics.

As the 1943-44 dry period dawned, both sides were preparing to take the offensive. The NCAC under General Joseph Stilwell and Fourteenth Army under General Slim, struck first, but only marginally before the Japanese.

The Northern Front

Stilwell planned an attack on the North front to drive the Japanese out of the area, so that he could build the Ledo Road and get supplies overland to the National Chinese Army of Chiang Kai-Shek. In October 1943 the 38th Chinese Division under Stilwell's command began the attack with an advance from Ledo towards Shinbwiyang. The intention being to carry the offensive on through to Myitkyina and Mogaung. As the forces under NCAC advanced so the Ledo road advanced behind them. In March 1944, to disrupt the Japanese 18th Division's lines of supplies the Chindits, now of divisional strength were airlifted to the south of Mogaung into a series of jungle clearings which became air-bases. Whenever Chinese Divisions ran into Japanese strong points, Merrill's Marauders were used to outflank Japanese positions by going through the jungle. A technique which had served he Japanese so well earlier in the war before the Allies had learnt the arts of jungle warfare was now being used against them. At Walawbum for example if the Chinese 38th Division had been a little swifter and linked up with the Marauders it could have encircled the Japanese 18th Division.

The Chinese forces on the Yunnan front mounted an attack starting in the second half of April, with nearly 40,000 troops crossing the Salween river on a 200 mile font. Within a few days some twelve Chinese Divisions of 72,000 men under the command of General Wei Li Huang, were attacking the Japanese 56th Division. The Japanese forces in the North were now fighting on two fronts: the Allies from North West and the Nationalist Chinese from the North East.

While the Japanese offensive against the Indian 4th Corps on the central front was being waged, Stilwell's forces continued to make gains. On May 17 1944 Merrill's forces captured the airfield at Myitkyina. If that afternoon the Ledo Chinese troops who had been flown in had attacked the town then they could have overwhelmed the small garrison. But they did not and the opportunity was lost as the Japanese rapidly re-enforced the town. Myitkyina did not fall until August 3 this very long delay cost the allies a lot of men particularly amongst the Chindits who were forced to remain in the field to disrupt Japanese relief attempts far longer than had been planned. Howeve because of the deteriorating situation on the other fronts the Japanese never looked like regaining the initiative on the Northern Fronts.

The capture of Myitkyina marked the end of the initial phase of Stilwell's campaign. It was the largest seizure of enemy-held territory to date in the Burma campaign and was primarily due to the Ledo Chinese divisions lead by Stilwell.

The Southern Front

In Arakan, a British advance began on the XV Corps front. However, a Japanese 55th Division counterattack halted the advance at Sinzewa and threatened to destroy the Indian 7th Infantry Division. Unlike during previous operations, the British forces stood firm, and were supplied from the air in the Battle of the Admin Box from February 5 to the February 23 1944. The siege was lifted when the Japanese were taken from the rear by the Indian 5th Infantry Division advancing over the Ngakyedauk Pass. The resulting Battle of Ngakyedauk Pass saw a heavy defeat handed to the Japanese. With the possibility of aerial supply, their infiltration tactics, relying on units carrying their own supplies and hoping to capture enemy victuals were fatally compromised.

The Central Front

On the central front, IV Corps advanced into Burma, before indications that a major Japanese offensive was building caused it to retreat on Kohima and Imphal. Forward elements of the corps were nearly cut off by Japanese forces, but eventually made it back to India. As they waited for the storm to break, the British forces were not to know that the successful defence of the two cities would be the turning point of the entire campaign in south east Asia. HQ XXXIII Corps was rushed forward to help control matters at the front and the two corps settled down for a long siege.

The Japanese threw themselves repeatedly against the defences of the two strong points, in the battles of Imphal and Kohima, but could not break through. At times the supply situation was perilous, but never totally critical. It came down to a battle of attrition, and the British forces could simply afford to fight that kind of battle for longer. The turning point of the battle at Kohima was the Battle of the Tennis Court. It was the Japanese high water mark on their advance into India and in the end, the Japanese ran out of supplies, and suffered large casualties. They broke and fled back into Burma, pursued by elements of Fourteenth Army.

Burma Retaken

I have been kicked by this enemy in the place where it hurts, and all the way from Rangoon to India where I had to dust off my pants. Now, gentlemen, we are kicking our Japanese neighbours back to Rangoon. - General William Slim to the 11th East African Division, Palel Plain, 1944

The recapture of Burma took place during late 1944 and the first half of 1945. Command of the British formations on the front was rearranged in November 1944. 11th Army Group was replaced with Allied Land Forces South East Asia and XV Corps was placed directly under ALFSEA.

Some of the first operations to recapture Burma took place in Arakan. To gain bases for the aircraft necessary to supply Fourteenth Army in its attack through the heart of the country, two offshore islands, Akyab and Ramree, had to be captured. Akyab was virtually undefended when British forces came ashore, so it effectively provided a rehearsal of amphibious assault doctrine for the forces in theatre. However, Ramree was defended by several thousand Japanese. The clearing of the island took several days, and associated forces on the mainland longer to clear out. Following these actions, XV Corps was greatly reduced in numbers to free up transport aircraft to support Fourteenth Army.

Fourteenth Army made the main thrust to destroy Japanese forces in Burma. The Army had IV and XXXIII Corps under its command. The conception of the plan was that XXXIII Corps would reduce Mandalay, and act as a diversion for the main striking force of IV Corps which would take Meiktila and thus cut the Japanese communications. The plan succeeded extremely well, and Japanese forces in Upper Burma were effectively reduced to scattered and unorganised pockets. Slim's men then advanced south towards the Burmese capital.

The original conception of the plan to retake Burma had seen XV Corps making an amphibious assault on Rangoon well before Fourteenth Army forces reached the capital in order to ease supply problems. However, lack of resources meant that this operation did not take place in its original form. The assault did go in, but by the time it happened, British forces were only a few miles north of the city boundary, rendering it somewhat pointless.

Following the taking of Rangoon in May 1945, there were still Japanese forces to take care of in Burma, but it was effectively a large mopping up operation. A new army headquarters, that of Twelfth Army was created from XXXIII Corps to take control of the formations to remain in Burma. It was assigned IV Corps. XV Corps and Fourteenth Army returned to India to plan the next stage of the campaign to retake south east Asia. A new corps, XXXIV Corps was raised and assigned to Fourteenth Army for further operations.

This was to be an amphibious assault on the western side of Malaya codenamed Operation Zipper. However, the dropping of the atomic bombs forestalled Zipper, and it was undertaken postwar as the quickest way of getting occupation troops into Malaya.

The American contribution

The RAF were aided by a number of USAAF units notably the No. 490 Bomb Squadron USAAF the "Burma Bridge Busters" part of the 341 Bomb Group USAAF which also included the 11th, 22nd, and 491st Bomb Squadrons.

The strategic need to keep open the supply lines to China influenced the conduct of the Burma campaign. After the loss of the Burma Road, The British wanted to supply China via the Hump until they could recapture it. The American General Joseph Stilwell thought it better to build a new road through north Burma to link up with the Burma Road close to the Chinese border. His ideas prevailed and this influenced the conduct of the campaign in Burma. So that the Ledo Road could be built he, attacked the Japanese northern front with Merrill's Marauders, the Chindits and Chinese troops along the planned route of the new road. They cleared north Burma after heavy jungle fighting and a the prolonged siege of Myitkyina. For more details see the articles on Northern Combat Area Command and the China Burma India Theater.


Battle Honour: BURMA 1944-1945

Qualification: For operations during the 14th Army's advance from Imphal to Rangoon, the coastal amphibious assaults, and the Battle of Pegu Yomas, August 1944 to August 1945.


The Allies were forced to increase the tonnage carried by the Northeast Indian Railways to three times their peace time levels. This was only made possible with the use of specialised American railroad units using American and Canadian locomotives.

See also


  • Defeat Into Victory by Field Marshal William Slim is the definitive account of the Burma campaign.
  • Make for the hills autobiography by Sir Robert Thompson chapters on his time with the Chindits.

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