The War in Burma
Before the separation of Burma from India in 1937, Burma had been for military purposes a part of India Command. After the separation, the G.O.C. Burma Army came directly under the War Office, and although a few Indian troops remained in the country, its defence was not an Indian responsibility. In November 1940, it became the responsibility of the newly created Far Eastern Command, which had its headquarters at Singapore and Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham as Commander-in-Chief. This was the position when Japan entered the war in December 1941, and launched almost simultaneous attacks on key points in South-East Asia and the Pacific.
On 7th December, 1941, the forces available for the defence of Burma were:
Two British battalions - the 2nd Bn. The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the 1st Bn. The Gloucestershire Regiment.
Six Indian Battalions - the 5th/1st Punjab Regt., 2nd/7th Rajput Regt. and 1st/18th Royal Garhwal Rifles in the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade; and the 1st/9th Jat Regt., 4th/12th Frontier Force Regt. and 1st/7th Gurkha Regt. forming the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade.
Eight regular battalions (four of them just formed) and four territorial battalions of the Burma Rifles.
Four battalions of the Burma Auxiliary Force.
Seven battalions (one of them a reserve battalion) and five mobile detachments of the Burma Frontier Force.
Five Garrison Companies.
Three Mountain Batteries, Royal Indian Artillery.
One Field Battery (18-pounders), Burma Auxiliary Force.
Against the country the Japanese employed their Fifteenth Army, which ultimately comprised four divisions, each of which was larger than an Indian division.
On the night of 7th/8th December, 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand by land and sea, and so gained possession of airfields and convenient assembly areas for the invasion of Burma.
The G.O.C. Burma had been instructed that his first duty was to protect the air route to Singapore by defending the landing-grounds in southern Burma, his second duty was to safeguard communications with China by the Burma Road. It was expected that a Japanese attack would come along the one good road from Thailand into Burma, across the southern Shan States to Thazi, not far south of Mandalay; and accordingly a good proportion of the defending forces was concentrated in and to the south-east of Mandalay, Burma's second city.
The First Attack
The first blow fell on 11th December, when an air attack was made on Tavoy in Tenasserim. On the 12th a Japanese detachment crossed the frontier in the extreme south, their objective apparently being Victoria Point, the site of one of the airfields on the Singapore route. Victoria Point and Mergui both suffered air raids on the 13th, and the former place was evacuated on that day, although the Japanese did not actually occupy it until the 15th. From there they moved slowly up the coast.
Rangoon suffered air raids on 23rd December (when civilian casualties were estimated at 2,400) and on the 25th. The first of these raids started a general exodus of Burmese and Indians from the city. On the last day of December, Indian Light and Heavy anti-aircraft batteries were landed at Rangoon. Fighters of the Royal Air Force and the American Volunteer Group had taken a heavy toll of the December raiders.
On 27th December Lieutenant-General T. J. Hutton took up his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in Burma, in place of Lieutenant-General D. K. Macleod. Burma had reverted to India Command on 15th December. At the beginning of January, however, it was included for operational purposes only in General Wavell's new South-West Pacific Command, while continuing to come administratively under India; five weeks later it again reverted to India for all purposes.
During the first two weeks of January 1942 there was considerable air activity, with raids on Rangoon, Martaban, Moulmein and Tavoy, while the Japanese were preparing their next blow. They had crossed the border from Thailand at a point due east of Tavoy on 8th January, and on 13th January the 17th Indian Division was ordered to concentrate all its available strength in Moulmein, Kawkareik and Tavoy; the tin and wolfram mines near Mergui were to be put out of action, and Mergui aerodrome demolished. In the night of 17th/18th January the advanced companies of the 3rd and 6th battalions Burma Rifles were in action against advancing Japanese forces at Kyaukmedaung, twenty-five miles east of Tavoy. The fall of Tavoy on the 19th gave the Japanese an important port and control of the entire coast from Malaya to Moulmein. The evacuation of Mergui, half-way between the Malayan border and Tavoy, became essential, and was successfully accomplished by sea between 20th and 23rd January, without any Japanese interference.
Moulmein was the next Japanese objective; here again the main threat came from the east, from Kawkareik, with other Japanese forces advancing up the coast from Tavoy and from the Three Pagodas Pass to the south-east. After a heavy air raid at Moulmein on 21st January the evacuation of European and Indian women and children began. The Japanese attack on Moulmein itself started on the morning of the 30th, and the town was evacuated the following day. The defending force in these two days incurred more than 600 casualties (many of them missing); heavy losses were inflicted on the Japanese attackers.
The Loss of Rangoon
During the month of February, as the Japanese advanced from the south and east and threatened to cut the British lines of communication and withdrawal, it became necessary to retreat from Martaban to the Bilin River and from there to the Sittang. If the bridge over the Sittang River at the village of the same name fell undamaged into the hands of the Japanese, the road to Rangoon would lie open before them. So, in the early morning of 23rd February, the bridge was destroyed, even though some British and Indian troops were thereby cut off on the farther side of the river. Many of them fortunately succeeded in crossing the river later, either swimming or on rafts.
The remnants of the 17th Division were now withdrawn to the vicinity of Pegu. They had lost much of their transport and artillery, and many other weapons, and ceased to exist as a fighting force for the time being. The Japanese proceeded up the east bank of the Sittang River, and on the 26th crossed the river at Shwegyin.
There was little hope of holding Rangoon much longer. By mid-February a very large proportion of the Indian population had fled from the city, either to Upper Burma and so by the Chindwin tracks to Assam, or across the waterless Arakan Yoma to the coast at Taungup and thence by country boat to Chittagong or by military transport vessels returning to India.
On 21st February, the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 1st Battalion The Cameronians arrived by sea at Rangoon. On 5th March, Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Alexander reached Rangoon and took over the command from Lieutenant-General Hutton, who remained as his Chief of Staff.
On 6th March it became necessary to withdraw from Pegu, as the Japanese had cut the road from there to Rangoon. The same evening, the evacuation of the capital was decided upon, and throughout the following day demolitions and withdrawal went on. The last train drew out of Rangoon in the evening of the 7th; before dawn the next morning, the first Japanese patrols entered the city.
The Retreat to India
The loss of Rangoon determined the course of the campaign. It meant the loss not only of the airfield and a great quantity of supplies, but also of the only practicable route of supply and reinforcement. The Japanese were now in a position to send and maintain by sea considerable forces, while the British could not. Akyab, certainly, was organised as a base and a refugee centre after the fall of Rangoon, but it was subjected to frequent air attacks, and was inaccessible from the rest of Burma. A series of heavy bombing raids was made by the Japanese on the centres of communication in the rear of the British forces - Meiktila, Mandalay, Maymyo, Lashio, Pyinmana, Thazi, Taunggyi.
The Chinese 200th Division lost Toungoo after a bitter struggle on 29th March; the withdrawal from Prome, with heavy loss of material, then became inevitable, as the Japanese began to close in on that town. On 15th April the British rendered inoperative the oil-fields at Yenangyaung, where three days later there was heavy fighting, with many casualties.
On 19th April it was decided that the recently formed Burma Corps, under Lieutenant General Slim, should hold a line Thazi-Meiktila-Kyaukpedaung-Chauk. The Japanese, however, were making such rapid progress in the Shan and Karen States that it would be impossible long to delay withdrawal across the River Irrawaddy. General Alexander's main object must be the defence of India, while attempting to maintain contact with the Chinese and to retain a position from which Burma could be re-entered.
Mandalay was cleared on 29th April, and the great Ava bridge across the Irrawaddy was destroyed just before midnight on the 30th. On the 29th, too, Lashio had fallen, as the Chinese 29th Division and part of the 28th had been obliged to withdraw to avoid being cut off. So the Burma Road to China was cut and the way lay open for the Japanese to advance on Bhamo and Myitkyina. The latter town was evacuated on 7th May. The withdrawal up the Chindwin and along the hill tracks to the Indian frontier went on. The first rains of the monsoon fell on 12th May, and the final stages of the retreat to the region of Imphal were made under heavy rain and in conditions which would have been trying even for fit troops. The ordeal of many of the civilians who followed the same route, without transport and without food supplies, was terrible, and many perished. In Assam, both the military and civilians spared neither themselves nor their limited resources in welcoming and organising the refugees and the retreating troops.
The Defence of India
The withdrawal of the Burma army into Assam was completed by 20th May. The troops then came under the command of the 4th Corps, which was responsible for the defence of Assam; this Corps contained also the 1st Indian Infantry Brigade and one battalion of the 49th Indian Infantry Brigade.
To the south, the 15th Corps had the task of defending Bengal against possible invasion either from the sea or by a Japanese force advancing up the Arakan coast; it comprised the 14th and 26th Indian Divisions, both incomplete, and the garrison of Calcutta. At Ranchi, the 70th British Division had to counter any sea-borne landing on the Orissa coast, and was the only available reserve for Assam or Bengal.
The 5th and 2nd British Divisions had been ordered to India; the 5th arrived in Bombay during May, and the 2nd during June. The defence of the naval bases in Ceylon had been given priority, and the 16th Brigade of the 70th Division had been diverted there, as well as certain air reinforcements. Early in April, there had been a Japanese naval raid in the vicinity of Ceylon, when Colombo (on the 5th) and Trincomalee (on the 9th) were attacked by carrier-borne aircraft, and two cruisers, an aircraft-carrier and some smaller vessels were sunk near Ceylon by air attacks. The attempt on Ceylon was not renewed, fortunately. Bombs were also dropped at Vizagapatam in India, and merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal was attacked.
By the end of June anxiety for the safety of India was lessening somewhat; reinforcements had arrived, and the approach of the monsoon made a Japanese attack unlikely for some months. The 23rd Indian Division was being formed in Manipur, and the 1st Burma Division, now re-named the 39th Indian Division, was withdrawn to Shillong to refit and reorganise. The construction of new airfields was progressing, and the air force, which in March had only 10 squadrons, was being reinforced until by the end of 1942 it had 29 squadrons operational and a further 20 forming, besides two transport and one photographic reconnaissance squadrons.
Neither on land nor in the air was there much activity during the monsoon period, from June till October. There was some patrolling in the Chindwin Valley, and air attacks on targets there and along the Arakan coast were carried out. As early as June Field-Marshal Wavell was already considering what plans could be made for the recapture of Burma, and had cabled an outline plan to London.
In the middle of September, the object of operations during the winter of 1942-43 was defined as
- To develop communications (a serious problem) and to establish a favourable position for reconquering Burma and re-opening the Burma Road at the first opportunity.
- To bring the Japanese to battle with the purpose of using up their strength, particularly in the air.
It was at first hoped to organise a sea-borne expedition to recapture Akyab, but that proved impossible, and in November instructions for an advance on land in Arakan were issued. In North Burma, the 23rd Indian Division advanced two brigades into the Tamu area in the Kabaw Valley, and the 17th Indian Division moved forwards towards the Chin Hills along a new road which was being constructed towards Tiddim. Kachin Levies farther north, based on Sumprabum, harassed Japanese forces north of Myitkyina.
The objectives it had been hoped to attain during the winter months were the capture of Akyab, the strengthening of the British position in the Chin Hills, and the establishment of forces on the Chindwin River between Kalewa and Sittaung, where preparations could be made for a further advance into North Burma should opportunity offer. These operations were intended to combine with Chinese advances from Ledo and from Yunnan province, which were planned to lead to the occupation of north-east Burma as far as an approximate line Myitkyina-Bhamo-Lashio.
Operations in Arakan
Arakan is virtually cut off by land from Burma proper by steep hills with scanty and difficult transverse communications. The operations there had as their objective the recapture of Akyab with its airfields. A rapid advance was essential, before the Japanese could reinforce their small garrison there. They also held Maungdaw and Buthidaung. In the middle of December 1942 the 14th Indian Division was just about to attack the Japanese positions at these two latter points, when the Japanese withdrew, and Maungdaw and Buthidaung were occupied on December 16th and 17th. The 14th Division followed up with two brigades, but a delay of ten days owing to administrative difficulties gave the Japanese a chance to develop strong defences at Rathedaung and near Donbaik, towards the southern end of the Mayu Peninsula. Attacks on Donbaik by the 47th Indian Infantry Brigade on January 18th and 19th and by the 55th Indian Infantry Brigade on February 1st both failed, as did an attack on Rathedaung by the 123rd Brigade on 3rd February. Another attack on Donbaik on 17th February was also unsuccessful.
By then it was obvious that the Japanese on the Mayu Peninsula had been strongly reinforced and had developed their defences on Akyab Island. A Japanese counter-attack forced the withdrawal of Indian forces which had entered the Kaladan Valley. On 18th March the 6th British Infantry Brigade, which had been brought forward from Chittagong, made an attack on the Donbaik position, but that too failed. During March and the first half of April Japanese successes continued, and the British and Indian troops lost their positions at both Maungdaw and Buthidaung. By the start of the monsoon, they were back approximately in the positions from which five months earlier they had begun their advance in Arakan, and the Japanese were again on the Maungdaw-Buthidaung line. The Chinese in Upper Burma had made no advance, and consequently the Japanese had been able to bring reinforcements from Upper Burma to Arakan.
Early in 1942, Field-Marshal Wavell requested the services of Lieutenant-Colonel 0. C. Wingate (who had served in the Abyssinian campaign), to organise guerrilla activity in Burma. A scheme was produced by Wingate for a long-range penetration group which should function behind the Japanese lines, being supplied by air. He was given command of a brigade formed of the 13th Bn. The King's Regiment, the 3rd/2nd Gurkha Rifles, the 142nd Commando Coy., and the 2nd Bn. The Burma Rifles. After training, it was decided to use this 77th Indian Infantry Brigade in Upper Burma to cut Japanese lines of communication between Mandalay and Myitkyina, and if possible to cross the Irrawaddy and cut the railway line from Maymyo to Lashio.
The brigade was organised in seven columns, and began its move on 8th February, 1943. The main body crossed the Chindwin without opposition by 18th February, and went on to the Myitkyina railway, where it successfully cut the track in no fewer than seventy places. Brigadier Wingate decided to go on over the Irrawaddy, and that river was crossed by the various widely separated columns (of which two, however, had fallen out at an early stage) between 9th and 18th March.
Across the Irrawaddy, the brigade ran into difficulties. There were more Japanese in the district than had been expected, so that the dropping of supplies was difficult to arrange. The health of men and animals deteriorated. Finally, it was decided to abandon hope of cutting the railway to Lashio, and to return to India. A first attempt to re-cross the Irrawaddy at Inywa, south of Katha, was discovered by the Japanese; the columns were obliged to break up into smaller dispersal groups, which crossed the river independently over a wide front and made their way back to India by very varied routes - one group reaching Paoshan in China and being flown back to India. The majority of the force had regained India by the first week of June.
Although about one-third of the total number that entered Burma was lost, valuable experience was gained of Japanese methods, of jungle warfare, and of the possibilities of air supply, and the Japanese were undoubtedly puzzled and harassed by the activities of the Chindits - a name derived from the "chinthe," the guardian lion of Burmese temples, which the force adopted as a badge.
The Formation of S.E.A.C.
From the beginning of the 1943 monsoon until October, there was little but patrol contact with the Japanese. In October of that year, at the first Quebec Conference, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten was entrusted with the formation of a South-East Asia Command, which was to include within its area Burma, Malaya, Sumatra, Ceylon, Thailand and French Indo-China, and was to be responsible for operational control of all Allied forces in South-East Asia. On 2nd October, 1943, he left England for New Delhi, where his headquarters was at first set up - it was moved to Kandy in Ceylon on 15th April, 1944. This headquarters, which became operational on 16th November, 1943, controlled the Eastern Fleet, the 11th Army Group, and the Air Command South-East Asia. In mid-October what had hitherto been Eastern Army was split into Eastern Command, India, under Lieutenant-General A. G. O. M. Mayne, and Fourteenth Army (which became a part of 11th Army Group), under Lieutenant-General Slim. The Commander of 11th Army Group was General Sir George Giffard.
Early in October, 1943, the Japanese started infiltrating into the Chin Hills; in mid-November they advanced on Tiddim, cutting the road to Fort White and forcing the evacuation of that outpost. At that time the 4th Corps, defending Assam, had the 17th Indian Light Division on the road from Tiddim to Imphal, the 20th Indian Division in the Kabaw Valley, and the 23rd Indian Division in reserve in the Imphal area. The object of the 4th Corps was to sever and keep severed the Japanese lines of communication northwards leading to the Kamaing-Myitkyina region, and plans were made which included a possible advance across the Chindwin and as far as Shwebo. Plans were also suggested for an airborne operation against the Katha-Indaw region, and for amphibious operations against Akyab. But plans for all fronts had to be modified for lack of essential resources, and because large reinforcements were known by January to have reached the Japanese.
In Arakan between October and December 1943 the 26th Indian Division had been relieved by the 5th and 7th Indian Divisions, the former taking over the western sector, and the latter crossing the Mayu range. The 81st (West African) Division was in the Kaladan Valley. The main offensive against the Japanese in Arakan started on 19th January, 1944, and in its preliminary stages was very successful despite strong opposition. At dawn on 4th February the Japanese started a counter-attack, which cut all the land communications of the 7th Indian Division. That division stood firm and was within a week put on air supply. It cut the communications of the Japanese force (some 6,000 strong) in its rear, while the 26th Division moved from Corps reserve to destroy those Japanese troops. This was accomplished by 23rd February. A brigade of the 5th Division at the same time cleared the Ngakyedauk Pass. The battle of Ngakyedauk was the first major defeat inflicted on the Japanese in Burma, and was perhaps the turning-point of the campaign. On 5th March the 15th Corps resumed its offensive.
The Invasion of India
The Japanese counter-attack in Arakan in February was the prelude to an offensive across the Chindwin. From the end of January onwards signs of the Japanese intention to move against the Imphal area became clear; at the end of February the object of the 4th Corps was given as "To hold the Imphal plain and to destroy any enemy attacking forces." If once the Imphal plain fell into the hands of the Japanese, they would be in a position to interrupt the lines of communication in Assam on which supplies both to the forces in Assam itself and to the Chinese forces in Northern Burma depended.
On 8th March the Japanese attack started: the Japanese 33rd Division advanced towards Tiddim, the 15th towards Imphal, and the 31st towards Kohima. By the beginning of April the 4th Corps was isolated by land in the area around Imphal, and the small garrison at Kohima was heavily outnumbered by the attackers.
At Kohima, the situation appeared dangerous; on 7th April the Japanese captured the main water supply, and on the 8th they began an all-out attack, which gradually drove the garrison into a smaller and smaller area. The defenders held out, however, being successfully supplied with food, water and ammunition from the air. Meanwhile the 33rd Corps had arrived in Assam, and the 2nd British Division advanced from the base at Dimapur to destroy the road-blocks the Japanese had established behind Kohima. The 161st Brigade of the 5th Division broke into Kohima on April 18th, and two days later a brigade of the 2nd Division took over the Kohima defences.
The heroic defence of Kohima, by preventing the Japanese from gaining control of the roads and tracks through the hills converging on that place, ensured the safety of the vital Assam lines of communication. Eventually the Japanese 31st Division was driven back and almost disintegrated, and by 22nd June the road to Imphal was open. These successes made possible the decisive victory of Imphal, from which the Japanese Fifteenth Army was never allowed to recover.
The Second Chindit Expedition
The Japanese by then had other anxieties. It had been decided that a long-range penetration force under Wingate (now a Major-General) should be flown into enemy-held territory in March. Between 5th and 11th March, the 77th and 111th Brigades of Wingate's force were landed in troop-carrying gliders - at selected points in the vicinity of Rail Indaw, east of the Katha - Myitkyina railway, between the railway and the Irrawaddy. In the first two weeks of April, the 14th Brigade and the 3rd West African Brigade followed. Losses during the fly-in were extremely small, and complete surprise was achieved by the initial landings in March, no ground opposition being encountered until 12th March. Yet another long-range penetration brigade, the 16th, operated in the Indaw area, but it did not go there by air; it marched in during February, reaching its zone of operations early in the following month after a few minor engagements in the course of its long march.
It is not possible in a short space to chronicle the detailed activities of Wingate's Special Force (Wingate himself was killed in an air crash on 24th March); but it inflicted severe losses both of men and of material upon the Japanese, laying ambushes, breaking lines of communication, and destroying supply dumps, and considerable Japanese forces were kept occupied in countering the activities of the Chindits. The 16th Brigade was brought out by air early in May; in the middle of that month the remaining brigades of the Special Force came under the command of the American Lieutenant-General Stilwell and operated as normal infantry in the Kamaing-Mogaung-Myitkyina sector of the northern front, being gradually withdrawn in the summer months.
The Japanese defeat on the Imphal Plain and the re-opening of the Kohima-Imphal road meant that before the end of June 1944 the Japanese invasion of India had finally failed; no further full-scale offensive was attempted by the Japanese in Burma. Japanese losses between mid-March and mid-June have been estimated at 30,000; Allied losses in the same period totalled about 2,670 killed and fewer than 10,000 wounded and missing. Most of those who died lie in the Imphal War Cemetery and Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery, and in Kohima War Cemetery; those who have no known grave are commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial.
The Japanese Retreat
The retreating Japanese were given no respite. With their communications to the Chindwin dissolving in mud as the monsoon strengthened, they were set upon by both the 4th and the 33rd Corps under Slim's Fourteenth Army and were driven from the Imphal Plain with appalling losses. In August, the 4th Corps was withdrawn and the 33rd Corps took up the pursuit down the Tiddim and Tamu roads. In Arakan, major operations being impossible owing to flooding during the monsoon, the 15th Corps held its positions, harassed the enemy with fighting patrols and prepared to resume the offensive when the floods receded.
The Chinese-American force in the north, aided by the Chindit Special Force, had been investing Myitkyina during June and July, and finally on 3rd August the town fell, thus providing a valuable airfield and a forward base for land operations southwards. The 36th British Division relieved the Special Force troops, the last of which were withdrawn from operations in August. Their casualties (as with the first Chindit expedition) had been relatively heavy, and on withdrawal, about half their number were found to be unfit for active service owing to sickness.
To the Chindwin and across it
The re-conquest of Burma still appeared likely to be a long affair; plans were considered for advances southwards from Myitkyina, south-eastwards across the Chindwin from the region of Imphal towards Shwebo and Mandalay, and possibly an amphibious assault on Rangoon. In September and October the 11th East African Division progressed down the Kabaw Valley from Tamu to Kalemyo (which was occupied on 15th November), and also on 4th September took Sittaung on the Chindwin. The 5th Indian Division made a parallel advance along the Tiddim road, taking Tiddim itself on 18th October, and thereafter reducing the formidable Japanese strongholds in the mountains south of the town. By mid-November, patrols of the 5th Indian Division and the 11th East African Division had linked up near Kalemyo. On the northern front, the 36th British Division had advanced by the end of November almost to Rail Indaw.
By December, the time was ripe for crossing the Chindwin; by the middle of the month the Fourteenth Army had crossed the river in considerable strength at Sittaung, Kalewa and Mawlaik, and was preparing to destroy the main Japanese formations in Central Burma. At this time the Army comprised the 2nd British and the 5th, 7th, 17th, 19th and 20th Indian Divisions, with two tank and two additional infantry brigades.
Throughout December the leading formations of the Fourteenth Army advanced eastwards from their bridgeheads across the Chindwin, and obtained a firm footing on the Shwebo plain. By the 16th they established contact with the 36th British Division, thus forming a more or less continuous front from India to the Chinese border. It presently appeared that the Japanese were preparing to withdraw behind the Irrawaddy and fight the major battle between Mandalay and Meiktila. This meant that before reaching the final battleground the Fourteenth Army would have to face the crossing of the Irrawaddy, which was held throughout its length by the Japanese in considerable strength. The plan conceived by Lieutenant-General Slim was to make a sufficiently strong crossing north of Mandalay (from the Shwebo-Monywa region) to draw the bulk of the enemy forces, while in fact the main British effort was then to be made south of the enemy concentrations guarding the river below Mandalay. With this aim in view, the 4th Corps was to be switched to the right of the front, to make the main assault in the vicinity of Pakokku south-eastwards towards Meiktila. The significance of the move of this Corps down the Gangaw Valley towards Pakokku was to be concealed as far as possible from the Japanese, leaving them to believe that the chief threat against them came from the 33rd Corps farther north.
In Northern Burma, despite the withdrawal of two Chinese divisions to meet the worsening situation in China itself, the Chinese First Army by the middle of November had entirely surrounded Bhamo, which was strongly held. On 15th December, the Chinese 38th Division occupied the town, while the Chinese 30th Division, by-passing Bhamo, advanced towards Namhkam. The 36th British Division crossed the Irrawaddy at Katha about the end of December, almost unopposed.
The Clearance of Arakan
In mid-November orders had been given for the clearance of Arakan by the 15th Corps (now no longer a part of the Fourteenth Army, but directly under Allied Land Forces, South-East Asia). Plans were completed by the end of November, and the offensive started on 12th December. The land forces available were the 25th and 26th Indian Divisions, the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions, and the 50th Indian Tank Brigade, the 22nd East African Brigade and the 3rd Commando Brigade.
In the middle of December the 15th Corps began its advance. The 25th Division followed the coastal plain southwards against unexpectedly light opposition and made rapid progress. The 82nd West African Division re-occupied Buthidaung and then proceeded down the Mayu Valley, while the 81st West African Division moved along the Kaladan on Myohaung. The Japanese garrison of Akyab was deployed to help to stop this three-pronged advance, and as a result Akyab was occupied on 3rd January by elements of the 26th Division, without opposition. The division went on to take possession of the Myebon Peninsula, where the Japanese fought tenaciously for a week.
On 21st January, a brigade of the 26th Indian Division landed on Ramree Island, and took the town of Kyaukpyu, which had a good deep-water anchorage; mopping-up operations on Ramree Island lasted most of February. At the end of January, too, Cheduba Island was captured by a force of Royal Marines.
On the mainland, an attack was made on 22nd January on Kangaw, with the aim of cutting off the escape of the Japanese forces retreating down the Kaladan Valley. The assault was made from Myebon, but by an unexpected route which achieved surprise. After more than a week of very severe fighting, the Japanese by the end of the month were compelled to escape in small parties over the hills, being caught between the assault from the south and the 82nd West African Division advancing from the north.
Across the Irrawaddy
On the central front, patrols from the 19th Indian Division entered Shwebo on 7th January, and the 2nd British Division the following day from another direction. Shwebo was cleared of Japanese troops by the 10th. Two brigades of the 19th Indian Division continued to the Irrawaddy, and in the middle of January obtained a secure foothold across that river at two points. A little farther south, the 20th Indian Division took Monywa on 22nd January, and established themselves along the line of the Irrawaddy; the 2nd British Division also reached the river by the end of January.
On the 4th Corps front, there was fighting at Gangaw early in January in which the 28th East African Brigade and the Lushai Brigade were engaged. By 12th January Japanese resistance was broken and the way was open for the 7th Indian Division also to advance to the Irrawaddy.
By the end of January, then, the British and Indian forces held positions along the Irrawaddy over a frontage of 160 miles, and had crossed the river at two points. In the north by the same time British and Chinese troops had opened the Ledo Road - the road from Ledo near Digboi in Assam through northern Burma to Myitkyina, Namhkam and on to China by the old Burma Road.
Early in February the Japanese made repeated heavy attacks on the 19th Indian Division's bridgeheads north of Mandalay, but in vain; this concentration of Japanese strength northwards gave the 4th Corps the opportunity to gather its forces for the final battles. The Irrawaddy varied in width from 500 yards to some 2.5 miles on different sectors of the central front, and equipment for the crossings was far from adequate. On the 33rd Corps front the crossings were begun on the night of 12th February by the 20th Indian Division, near Myinmu, against only slight opposition. The Japanese quickly conceived this to be the main threat, and brought up the full weight of their reserves, and for ten days the 20th Indian Division was engaged in some of the fiercest fighting on this front. Japanese units were committed to the attack piecemeal as they arrived, and suffered very heavy losses.
On the 4th Corps front, meanwhile, the 7th Indian Division had started to cross the river on the night of 13th February, and established a bridgehead near the ancient Burmese capital, Pagan. Although they offered strong opposition, it was apparent that the Japanese regarded this attack as a diversion. By the third week in February, two divisions of the 4th Corps and two of the 33rd Corps had crossed the Irrawaddy.
Japanese reinforcements were brought to the Mandalay area from all parts of Burma, the northern and Arakan fronts being left with little more than rearguards to prevent the British and Chinese forces from following up. About nine Japanese and Indian National Army Divisions were gathered together to oppose Lieutenant-General Slim's six divisions and two armoured brigades in the forward areas on both banks of the Irrawaddy.
Preparations for the attack on Meiktila, a road and rail key-point and supply centre for all Japanese forces in central and northern Burma, were completed by the end of the third week in February. The 17th Indian Division came through the bridgehead formed by the 7th Indian Division, and moved swiftly down the main road to Meiktila The 2nd British Division meanwhile were crossing the river farther north, thus again attracting Japanese attention to the 33rd Corps front west of Mandalay. The attack on Meiktila began at dawn on 28th February, and by nightfall the town was surrounded The Japanese fought desperately, but by 4th March the greater part of the town was in British hands, and only a few suicide parties remained. The main Meiktila airfield was immediately prepared as a landing-place for supplies and reinforcements.
The Capture of Mandalay
On 26th February, the 19th Indian Division, which had broken out of its bridgehead north of Mandalay, started its advance southwards. On 9th March, Mandalay city was entered; but it was not until the 21st that it was declared clear of the enemy, who had held out in the strong-point of Fort Dufferin.
During those early weeks of March, the 20th Indian Division and the 2nd British Division had broken out of their bridgeheads and were making progress south and south-west of Mandalay, cutting Japanese lines of supply and of retreat. By the end of March, the battle on the Mandalay Plain was almost finished, and the 33rd Corps had driven the remnants of three Japanese divisions eastwards into the hills.
Farther south, on the 4th Corps front, the battle around Meiktila was long and fierce, as the Japanese desperately attempted to recapture the town. On the night of 28th March they finally gave up the struggle, and a week later Meiktila became 4th Corps headquarters. At the end of March a general withdrawal was ordered by the Japanese commander-in-chief.
The Final Moves
Early in April the 4th and 33rd Corps began to re-group for the final thrust towards Rangoon. The 7th Indian Division was transferred from the 4th Corps to the 33rd, which was to follow the line of the Irrawaddy, while the 4th Corps followed the Mandalay-Rangoon railway. Throughout April these two parallel advances proceeded steadily, although almost every village was keenly defended by Japanese detachments. Particularly important was the capture of Toungoo, for its value as an air base and communications centre; it and the country around were cleared on 22nd-23rd April, and the following day one of its three airfields was already in operation, providing a base for fighters flying as far as Rangoon. Within 21 days from its break-out from Meiktila, the 4th Corps had advanced 170 miles.
Pegu was now the final stage before Rangoon. It controlled the only overland route of escape for the Japanese to the Tenasserim coastal strip by which they had entered Burma rather more than three years earlier, and they now mobilised all available reserves to try to hold it. The monsoon broke at this critical moment, rendering all forward airstrips inoperable, on the day that Pegu was entered. But the town was cleared within two days, and the 17th Indian Division continued its advance towards Rangoon on 2nd May.
On the previous day, an aircraft flying over the city had observed a message painted on the roof of the gaol saying that the Japanese had left. No attention was paid to it, but on the 2nd, a Mosquito pilot of 221 Group and his navigator decided to land at Mingaladon airfield; the aircraft crashed on landing, as the field was in bad condition, so the pilot walked into the city, visited the gaol, and confirmed that the Japanese were indeed gone. Commandeering a sampan, he sailed down the river and met the vanguard of the amphibious force which, having come from Akyab and Kyaukpyu, was just preparing an assault. The 26th Indian Division, the first of the assault troops, were put ashore as planned, and in the evening of 3rd May entered the city. The forward troops of the Fourteenth Army were still 32 miles away, on the Pegu road; but it was their rapid advance that had forced the evacuation of Rangoon, and had thus prevented fierce resistance to the sea-borne landings.
The Fourteenth Army and the sea-borne forces linked up on 6th May, so that the Japanese forces in western Burma were cut off. The port of Rangoon, which had been badly damaged, was restored to use as rapidly as possible. There were still groups of Japanese forces in Burma, mostly disorganised, which if they could link up and restore some sort of order could be dangerous. The Japanese Fifteenth and Thirty-third Armies had retreated in disorder across the Sittang and were prepared to defend the line of that river to help the remnants of the Japanese Twenty-eighth Army, which, with various garrison and lines of communication troops, were trapped in the Pegu Yomas, to make their escape across the Sittang.
At the end of May the 33rd Corps was disbanded; the headquarters of Fourteenth Army were withdrawn to India to prepare for further operations in South-East Asia; and a new Twelth Army was set up, which was to control all land operations in or from Burma. It comprised the 4th Corps (the 5th, 17th and 19th Indian Divisions and the 255th Indian Tank Brigade); the 7th, 20th and 26th Indian Divisions and 268th Indian Infantry Brigade; the 6th Infantry Brigade and 254th Indian Tank Brigade; it had under command the 82nd West African Division. The tasks of this force were to destroy those Japanese forces which had been cut off or by-passed by the advance from Mandalay to Rangoon, and to regain Tenasserim.
"Mopping up" and patrolling continued throughout June, and towards the end of the month it became clear that the Japanese forces west of the Sittang, totalling nearly 20,000, were preparing to attempt a break-through, cut off as they were from all supplies and suffering increasingly from hunger, illness and exhaustion. Their attempt began on 20th July, when all along the 4th Corps front comparatively small groups tried to cross the Rangoon-Mandalay road. They found their limited number of escape routes well guarded in depth, and few managed to get through. More than 6,000 had been killed by 5th August, when the break-out battle was over, and an unusually high proportion taken prisoner.
This was the last throw of the Japanese in Burma; their armies were disintegrated, and by early August the campaign was virtually at an end. On 6th and 9th August, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and on the 14th Japan surrendered unconditionally. Local clashes occurred here and there in Burma until the end of the month, where some of the forward units had not received cease-fire instructions, but by the end of August fighting had ceased.