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The Burma Campaign of WW2 took place far from the homeland of the principal protagonists. Across Burma and India the homes and lives of people were uprooted by a war not of their making. And when the dust settled, a new world has emerged. Sepoys of the British Indian Army joined hands with the soldiers of Bose’s Indian National Army. In Rangoon, student nationalists took the reins of power. Chiang Kai-Shek’s soldiers were defeated by the Chinese Communists and retreated to the island of Taiwan. India was split once, and then once again. In Burma, civil wars broke out that continue today.
So much of what happens here in Myanmar and India today has its roots in what happened in the 1940s. And what happened here in the 1940s affected the rest of the world and the lives of people from a multitude of nations. And yet the Burma WW2 history is often neglected. That is despite the Burma theatre of WW2 gathering like a whirlpool, men from all ends of the earth. There were English, Irish, Welsh and Scots. Flying in the skies above were Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans. There were Chinese; West Africans and East Africans. There were men from every state of America and Indians of every caste.
And then of course the men of Burma and the North East of India itself. Chins, Kachins, Karens and Bamars; Mizos, Nagas, Khasis and Kukis. Doubly heroic, fighting on their own land, their homes and families vulnerable to reprisal.
John Masters, officer of the British Indian Army, was to write:
“No one who saw the Fourteenth Army in action, above all, no one who saw its dead on the field of battle, the black and the white and the brown lying together in their indistinguishable blood on the rich soil of Burma, can ever doubt that there is a brotherhood of man; or fail to cry, “What is Man, that he can give so much for war, so little for peace?””
Here then, is our Burma Campaign summary. A story of heroism and horror and, at times, humour. A story of war and the pursuit of freedom. A story that began decades before the Second World War. A story that continues today.
British rule in Burma was deeply resented. The civil service and commerce was dominated by Indians and the ethnic Burmese (Bamar) were sidelined from military service. By the time of the 1930s, nationalist fervor was rife. The world tumbled towards war. And Japan’s aim to extend its sphere of influence over Asia, dovetailed with the Burmese quest to kick-out the British.
In the 1800s Burmese kings had begun to clash with the British. Mandalay, the royal capital of Burma, looked to sustain its influence over Manipur and the Arakan from the east. The East India Company moved to expand over the same territory from the west. After sixty years of diplomacy, raids, treaties and battle, known collectively as the Anglo-Burmese Wars, Mandalay fell. Britain annexed the entirety of Burma on 1 January 1886.
This was a great rupture in Burmese history. Gone was the royal family; gone was the ruling class; gone was the pre-eminence of Buddhism in Burmese society. Burma was ruled as province of India. Indians began to move over the border and dominate not only the civil service but also commercial life. The ethnic Burmese were soon a minority in Rangoon.
After the First World War, Rangoon University became a centre of nationalist agitation. A nationalist student group began organizing protests, which came to be known as the Thakin Movement. The Burmese word thakin (‘master’) was the term that the Burmese were required to use when addressing the British.
H.G. Wells visited Rangoon in 1939. When meeting a group of Burmese writers he was confronted with the nationalist demand for an “all-Burman Burma”. He told them to look beyond imperialism and nationalism to “the free-thinking, free-speaking liberal world.”
He got the answer:
“But our government won’t let us. Our censorship won’t let us. Our schools prevent us. The past stands in our way. Our boys are learning more by striking, argument and reading forbidden literature, than by sitting in classrooms. They are learning to feel responsible for Burma.”
Japan had invaded Chinese Manchuria in 1931. In 1937, a full, if undeclared, war with China had broken out. This was part of Japan’s overarching strategy to advance its ‘New Order’ for East Asia. Policies were designed to promote Japan’s economic control over China and to push out Western imperialists from Southeast Asia.
On 7 December 1941, Japanese military aircraft attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Within weeks, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya, jewels in the British imperial crown, fell to the Japanese. Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the loss of Singapore as “… the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”
Burmese nationalists were watching closely. Japan had defeated Russia at the end of the 1800s. Since then, Burmese nationalists had seen Japan as a potential sauce of support to oust the British. This belief crystalized when the Japanese entered WW2. While the British were preoccupied with Nazi Germany, now was the time to strike. In turn, the Japanese turned towards the nationalists of Burma as potential collaborators as they moved to stop supplies from the USA reaching China along the “Burma Road” during WW2.
As the British and Japanese squared up, one young leader of the Thakin Movement, Aung San, slipped out of Burma. Along with 29 others, together to be known as the Thirty Comrades, he received military training from the Japanese Army. Recruiting from expatriated Burmese in Thailand, they formed the head of the Burmese Independence Army.
In Bangkok on 28 December 1941, the Thirty Comrades, performed an ancient ritual of Burmese soldiers. They collected blood from each of them into a glass and drank in turn. Now as blood brothers, alongside Japan’s Imperial Army they would march into Burma and expel the British.
The Japanese conquest of Burma was swift. The British retreat in Burma was at times chaotic – such as with the blowing of the Sittang Bridge. Yangon was evacuated in flames and bedlam. The retreat from Burma was the longest military retreat in Britain’s history. From Yangon to Imphal, soldiers and civilians struggled to reach Manipur before the monsoon began. A failed attempt at taking back the coastal strip of Arakan in 1942-43 further sapped the moral of the Allies.
The Japanese entered Burma in December 1941 and rapidly took the towns of Mergui, Tavoy and Moulmein. The British were unprepared. Inexperienced and dispersed colonial formations struggled to perform effectively against well-trained and determined Japanese troops. The Japanese also enjoyed the support of the civilian population. Private Sojiro Maeda of Japan’s Imperial Army, remembers:
“We were guided by young soldiers of the Burma Independence Army who rode Burmese ponies and waved the Peacock Flag. When we came to a big village about twenty Burmese ladies welcomed us with smiles, holding water bottles and bamboo baskets piled with tomatoes. This was repeated at every big village.”
The incoherence of the British retreat was encapsulated with the blowing of the Sittang Bridge on 22 February. Brigadier “Jackie” Smyth made the decision with two-thirds of his division left on the far bank. After this catastrophe, British command no longer believed that Rangoon could be defended. Its evacuation was ordered on 7 March.
As the Japanese advanced, huge numbers of Indians fled in the face of Burmese brutality. Captain James Lunt describes the result of an attack of Burmans on Indian refugees:
“She lay there, her long black hair streaming out into a pool of fast congealing blood, her throat cut from ear to ear. The bright red skirt had been pulled up above her waist in a final obscene gesture. The child, a little way apart, lay with its brains spilling out onto the tarmac.”
In Rangoon, lunatics were released from the asylum and convicts from the prisons. Snakes and orangutans escaped from the zoo. Kite tore at corpses in the streets. When they moved off, the dogs came in …
As Paul Frillman of the AVG was to write: “Each day the emptying streets slipped back a little further toward jungle.”
Most Allied soldiers managed to make it to the princely State of Manipur before the monsoon broke in May 1942. The soldiers shared the road with starving refugees, the sick and wounded clogging the primitive tracks leading to India.
Brigadier Ekin remembers watching one elderly man arriving in Manipur:
“He staggered along on spindly legs, and over his meagre shoulders was a long wooden pole with a small bucket-like receptacle at each end … In each bucket was a baby boy, one aged one year and the other two; these two mites eyed the outside world in silent and thumb-sucking bewilderment.”
General Slim was later to recount watching his rearguard complete their nine-hundred-mile retreat:
“All of them, British, Indian, and Gurkha, were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows. Yet, as they trudged behind their surviving officers in groups pitifully small, they still carried their arms and kept their ranks, they were still recognizable as fighting units. They might look like scarecrows, but they looked like soldiers too.”
US General Stilwell had also walked out of Burma on foot. He kicked back against the attempts of the British to gloss over a shameful defeat. He was characteristically blunt in his assessment of the situation:
“In the first place, no military commander in history ever made a voluntary withdrawal. And there’s no such thing as a glorious retreat. All retreats are ignominious as hell. I claim we got a hell of a licking. We got run out of Burma, and it’s humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake Burma.”
The first attempt to retake Burma did not go well. After the monsoon, towards the end of 1942, the Allies mounted a small offensive into the coastal Arakan (Rakhine) Province. The Indian Eastern Army intended to reoccupy the Mayu peninsula and Akyab Island (today Sitwe), which had an important airfield. A division advanced to Donbaik, only a few miles from the end of the peninsula. But then they were halted by a small but well entrenched Japanese force. The Allies lacked the means and tactical ability to overcome strongly constructed Japanese bunkers.
Repeated British and Indian attacks failed with heavy casualties. Japanese reinforcements arrived from Central Burma and crossed rivers and mountain ranges which the Allies had declared to be impassable. Here they hit the Allies’ exposed left flank and overruning several units. The exhausted British were unable to hold any defensive lines. They were forced to abandon much equipment and fall back almost to the Indian frontier.
It was another failed campaign and further sapped the moral and prestige of the soldiers. General Noel Irwin, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Eastern Army, was to report:
“ … the British soldier is a rotten and gutless fighter after he has spent a little while against the [Japanese] … They come, hating the powers that sent them, they come only hoping to return on the morrow …”
In press conferences, Irwin placed none of the blame for the failure in the Arakan on himself. This rankled. Unpopular and now seen as incompetent, in April 1943 Irwin was relieved of his appointment and returned to Britain.
The Allied soldiers’ morale was at its nadir and the Japanese soldiers was regarded as king of the jungle. Then Orde Wingate emerged on the scene. Wingate’s Chindits demonstrated that the Japanese could be beaten at those things they were thought to be best at. That is: physical endurance, secret and swift movement, and inventive use of jungle tactics. While the strategic impact of the Chindit operations can be debated, its propaganda effect cannot be denied.
Simultaneous to the second Chindit operation, the Allies returned to the Arakan and fought the Battle of the Admin Box. At the Admin Box, the Allies pioneered methods which would lead to further victories over the following year.
Orde Wingate was born into a small, deeply religious family. His childhood education was centred around scripture. He rarely socialized with children and grew into a pious, abrasive and combative adult.
Wingate was accepted into the Royal Military Academy in 1921. When assigned to Palestine in 1936 he set up a joint British-Jewish counter-insurgency unit. His brutal tactics against Arab guerillas were effective and he was awarded a DSO. He was later removed of his command due to his deepening political involvement with the Zionist cause. At the start of WW2 he led “Gideon Force” harassing Italians in the Sudan. With the end of the East African Campaign in June 1941, he was removed from command. His rank reduced to that of major. Upon leaving Cairo he was vocally critical of his commanders. He contracted malaria and tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the neck.
In February 1942 he was sent to the Far East. He quickly ruffled feathers. By this time he had taken up eccentric habits. He would wash himself with a toothbrush (no water nor soap) and eat raw onions. For meetings he thought potentially combative, Wingate would flummox his counterparts by appearing naked.
In Burma, Wingate proposed the idea of a long-range penetration behind Japanese lines. What he referred to as “a jab into their guts”. It was just the kind of unorthodox approach that Churchill cherished. To the chagrin of many of Wingate’s seniors, he received the prime minister’s full backing.
Wingate was made a major general. He was given an entire British Infantry Division. More followed. Equipment rained down. He was instructed to create a force of men tough, self-reliant and able to match the Japanese in the jungle man to man.
They were to be called the Chindits of Burma.
On 8 February 1943, Operation Longcloth commenced. Three thousand Chindits, a special force led by Wingate himself, began their march into Burma. The Chindits crossed the Chindwin River on 13 February and faced the first Japanese troops two days later. Columns led by Michael Calvert and Bernard Fergusson proceeded towards the main north-south railway in Burma. There they demolished parts of the railway in the first week of March.
Through thick jungle the Chindits marched. They often had to clear their own path with machetes, kukris, and on one occasion, a commandeered elephant. In late March, Wingate made the decision to withdraw the majority of the force. The columns were generally left to make their own way back. Gradually, all the columns broke up into small groups. Individual groups of men from the Chindits made their way back to India. Part of one column made it to China. Others were captured or died.
By the end of April, a third of the original 3,000 had been killed, taken prisoner or died of disease. Of the 2,182 men who returned, about 600 were too debilitated to return to active service.
What was the strategic value of the Chindits upon the Burma Campaign? Not much that was tangible, Fergusson would late write. “Nil”, the Indian Official Historian recorded.
Although the role of the Chindits in the Burma Campaign can be debated, the propaganda effect cannot be denied. Longcloth proved that British and Indian soldiers could live, move and fight as effectively as the Japanese in the jungle. This did much to restore morale among Allied troops.
As Louis Allen writes:
“Longcloth had panache, it had glamour, it had cheek, it has everything the successive Arakan failures lacked. It was the perfect psychological medicine for an army sadly devoid of confidence.”
The Chindits’ second foray in the Burma jungle war of WW2, Operation Thursday, was bolder. While one brigade marched into Burma in February 1944, the majority of the force were flow in in early March. Deep inside enemy lines they were to set up “strongholds”. Calvert’s brigade established White City at Mawlu. Here ferocious jungle fighting, with British and Japanese troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat, kurkis against katanas.
Flying back from Imphal on 24 March, Wingate’s plane crashed and all aboard died. This was a great blow to the Chindits, a great many of whom held a fanatical loyalty to Wingate. Brigadier Lentaigne took over command. Inn April he ordered the main body of 111 Brigade, now commanded by John Masters, to move north. There Masters built a new stronghold, codenamed Blackpool. Blackpool was almost immediately engaged in fierce fighting and had to be abandoned. Nineteen injured soldiers who couldn’t be moved were shot by the medical orderlies and hidden in heavy stands of bamboo.
From 6-27 June, Calvert’s 77th Brigade took Mogaung and suffered 800 casualties – 50 per cent of the brigade’s men. The Chindits had officially been absorbed into Stilwell’s Northern Command the previous month. Calvert, fearing that his exhausted men would be ordered to join Stilwell’s siege of Myitkyina, shut down his radios. Mogaung was the last major action in the Burma Campaign for the Chindits. They were formerly disbanded in February 1945.
At the same time that Wingate’s Chindits entered Burma, Allied soldiers returned to the Arakan. In 1942-43, the first of the two Arakan campaigns had failed largely due to the inexperienced, exhausted and ill-equipped troops. In 1944, unlike the Arakan Campaign 1942-43, the offensive was under the British Fourteenth Army: re-organized and re-energized.
Three divisions advanced down the Mayu Penisula in January. The Indian XV Corps captured the small port of Maungdaw on 9 January. The intention was to then capture two railways tunnels. In preparation, a large administration area, the “Admin Box”, was established near the eastern end of the pass.
Before the Allies advanced, a strong force from the Japanese 55th Division infiltrated Allied lines, overrunning the divisional HQ. The situation was serious. However, the Fourteenth Army had spent much time considering counters to the standard Japanese tactics of encirclement. The forward divisions were ordered to dig in.
The Admin Box, 1.1 kilometers in diameter, was the focus of the Japanese attacks. The fighting was severe. On the night of 7 February, Japanese troops captured the divisional Main Dressing Station. Thirty-five medical staff and patients were bayonetted.
Allied Dakota transport aircraft dropped rations for the defenders. The Japanese had not foreseen this development. While they ran short of supplies, the Indian formations could fight on. By 22 February, the Japanese had been starving for several days and four days later the operations was called off. For the first time in the Burma Campaign of the Second World War, the Japanese tactics had been turned against them.
Major Nobby Clarke recounted:
“All the terror of the myth of the Jap Superman had suddenly been blown away and no-one was frightened any more. Now, we felt, we had become the hunters and they the hunted in the jungle.”
US General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell had many hats. He was Chief of Staff to Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. He was also in command of the Chinese Fifth and Sixth armies in Burma. He was the most senior American in what they referred to as the China-Burma-India Campaign or the “CBI”. Stilwell grew to despise Chiang Kai-shek, and hated the British who he believed to be battle-shy. Stilwell oversaw the construction of the Ledo Road as an alternative to flying US supplies to China over “the Hump”. Stilwell succeeded in taking the town of Myitkyina in the north of Burma, before being recalled in Autumn 1944.
In 1942, after the collapse of the Allied defenses in Burma, General Stilwell declined an airlift. Instead he led his staff of 117 towards the Indian border on foot. Before setting out, he reminded everyone that only personal discipline would ensure their survival. He offered that anyone believing that he couldn’t follow orders should speak up. They would be issued a week’s rations to find safety on his own. No one lifted a hand.
“By the time we get out of here,” Stilwell concluded, “many of you will hate my guts. But I’ll tell you one thing: You’ll get out.” And he was right.
At the outbreak of WW2, Stilwell, fluent in Chinese, was appointed as chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek. He was also placed in command of the Chinese Fifth and Sixth armies in Burma. Stilwell’s role required deft navigation between the divergent – and at time competing – aims of the British and Chinese. It was, as Donovan Webster writes, an “impossible command in the wettest, muddiest, most-unknown, most-disorganized, lowest-priority corner of WW2.”
It was a job required tact and diplomacy – neither of which Stilwell had. He had little regard for Chiang Kai-shek who he publicly referred to as “peanut”. A for the “yellow Limey” British, Stilwell harboured a pathological hate. He had no time for soft words or ceremony. His trademarks were a battered army campaign hat, GI shoes and a plain service uniform with no insignia of rank. General Slim thought he looked like a duck hunter.
Stilwell dubbed SEAC (South East Asia Command) as “Save England’s Asiatic Colonies”. He is credited with penning the ditty sung by his staff:
‘The Limeys make policy, Yank fights the Jap, / And one gets its Empire and one takes the rap.’
The fear of the Chinese capitulating and freeing up thousands of Japanese troops to fight the Allies ensured that US President Roosevelt continued to support the Chinese Nationalist forces. This led to the most significant role in Burma in WW2 of the US Army. The Hump was the name given by Allied pilots to the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains over which they flew military transport aircraft from India to China. Flying over the Himalayas was extremely dangerous and made more difficult by a lack of reliable charts, an absence of radio navigation aids and a dearth of information about the weather. US pilots came to refer to the route as the “Aluminum Trail” due to the number downed aircraft.
“Flying the Hump” began in April 1942, after the Japanese blocked the Burma Road, and continued daily until August 1945. It procured most of its officers from the USAAF, augmented by British, British-Indian Army and Commonwealth forces.
Due to the precariousness of flight, the US began constructing the Ledo Road from India to China in WW2 in December 1942. The highway was to link the railheads of Ledo (Assam, now in Arunachal Pradesh, India) and Mogaung (Burma). Chinese troops later aided in the project.
The highway crossed into Burma through the difficult Pangsau Pass of the Patkai Range. It later connected to the Burma Road via Myitkyina and Bhamo at Muse. By this point, it had become known as the “Man-a-mile” road – referencing the labourers who died in its construction. Construction ceased in October 1945. The road took too long to build and was never used during the war. The world has moved on too fast. The Stilwell Road became obsolete before it was opened.
The siege of Myitkyina was led by Stilwell to open the land route for the Ledo Road. As well as his Chinese regiments, Stilwell commanded Galahad Force, made up of convicts and other ne’er do wells.
On 17 May 1944, Stilwell captured the airfield at Myitkyina. But then his advance fell into a gruelling siege that lasted until August. Before it was over the Marauders were suffering from jungle sores, foot-rot and other ailments. One platoon, exhausted, cut away the trouser-seats of their uniforms so that dysentery would not delay them in battle.
Stilwell’s implacable demands resulted in his men becoming disenchanted with him. One soldier would later recall:
“I had him in my rifle sights. I coulda squeezed one off and no one would known it wasn’t a Jap that got the son of a bitch.”
The Japanese were led by Major-General Mizukami. In July he had been instructed to personally “defend Myitkyina to the death”. By August, he saw no chance of victory. Not willing to needlessly sacrifice his men, Mizukami evacuated the wounded by raft down the Irrawaddy. On the morning of 3 August, on an island in midstream, General Mizukami sat down facing Tokyo. He then shot himself, thus obeying his order to die in Myitkyina.
Stilwell’s poor relations with Chaing Kai-Shek soon came to a head and in October 1944 he was recalled. A figure that polarizes opinion, the CBI newspaper wrote of Stilwell at the time:
“Someday when the war is only a filthy memory, the whole story of Stilwell in Asia will be told, the epic of an unpretentious man who went forth sword in hand and slew the dragons of adversity in their dens.”
From December 1943 to November 1944 the balance of the Second World War in Burma & India shifted towards the Allies. With new leadership came improved training and logistics, together with greater firepower and growing Allied air superiority. They now had a sense of confidence they had been lacking before. And this was just in time. Because now they were edging towards the two the most important Burma WW2 battles. The Battles of Imphal and Kohima.
In August 1943, the Allies created South East Asia Command, a new combined command responsible for the South-East Asian Theatre. SEAC’s Supremo was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Cousin to the King, Masters described him as “popular, capable, and shrewd” albeit with a “somewhat overdone folksiness.”
General Bill Slim, former highschool teacher from the rough end of Birmingham, was promoted to command the new Fourteenth Army. More than any other soldier in theatre, Slim was to imprint his will on the course of the Burma Campaign.
The training, equipment and health of Allied troops was improved under Slim. So was the morale. To Slim, this was key. George Macdonald Fraser was to write of Slim:
“… he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier. The sheer certainty that was built into every line of him, that gave Fourteenth Army its overwhelming confidence; what he promised that he would surely do. The thought of him was like home and safety.”
He stressed that neither strategy nor tactics were the fundamentals of successful soldiering. Instead, it was the resolution and spirit of each fighting man, and the belief that they were fighting for a noble cause.
But, he argued, it was not “enough to have a worthy cause. It must be positive, aggressive, not a mere passive, defensive, anti-something feeling. So our object became not to defend India, to stop the Japanese advance, or even to occupy Burma, but to destroy the Japanese Army, to smash it as an evil thing.”
Slim’s conviction – contrary to others such as Churchill and Mountbatten – was to take back Burma by land. But to do that, he first wanted to inflict a sucker punch upon the Japanese Army. Slim’s ploy was to draw the Japanese to him in India, where the Japanese lines of communication would be intolerably extended. This would mean the Allies sacrificing some land. But during the Burma Campaign of 1944, Slim’s objective was not land. His objective was the Japanese Army.
And Imphal was to be the killing-ground.
The new commander of the Japanese Fifteenth Army, Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, was keen to mount a Japanese invasion of India. This goal, some say based principally upon self-aggrandizement, brought the Burma war into India. Imphal, capital of Manipur, was the initial target. A siege would be mounted upon Imphal, exploited by capturing the strategically placed town of Dimapur, north of Kohima beyond the Naga Hills.
The Japanese crossed the Chindwin River on 8 March 1944. The Japanese 33 Division quickly clashed with the 17th Indian Infantry Division on the Tiddim Road. These two divisions had clashed before in 1942 during the British retreat from Burma. Then the hastily assembled 17 Division, inexperienced and only half trained, had been the losers. Now this tough division had a new organization, had trained hard for two years and had no doubt that it could avenge its earlier defeat. Fighting along the Tiddim Road involved repeated attempts by the Japanese to break through while the British This continued for several months before the British finally managed to repel the Japanese once and for all.
While the 17 Division fought on the Tiddim Road, the 20th Indian Infantry Division under Major-General Douglas Gracey battled along the Shenham Saddle. To the north was the 23rd Indian Infantry Division under Major-General Ouvry Roberts. At Sangshak was the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, led by Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thomson. The 50th may eventually have been defeated, but their plucky defense at Sangshak delayed the Japanese advance on Kohima by six days. In doing so, they bought time for Slim to rush reinforcements up to the looming battle in the Naga Hills …
After finally breaking through at Sangshak, the Japanese continued north towards Dimapur. On the road between Imphal and Dimapur, the British had established a small hill station at the Naga village Kohima. Instead of simply isolating Kohima, Lieutenant-General Sato decided he would capture the hill station before advancing on Dimapur.
The Allied garrison at Kohima was made up of 1,500 men. They were to face a force of 15,000. Amongst the men of the West Kents and Assam Regiment at Kohima, was Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills Charles Pawsey, who refused to abandon “my Nagas”. By the account of one soldier, Pawsey:
“…moved around the hill lifting our spirits as he moved between our trenches and Battalion HQ. He stopped and talked to us saying that relief would get through and told us not to worry too much …”
The battle was one of the fiercest of the entire campaign. It opened with the “siege of Kohima” as the Japanese attempt to take Kohima ridge from 3-16 April. The Allies held strong until they were relieved, and from 18 April to 13 May (the “battle of Kohima”) they pushed the Japanese back with hand-to-hand fighting ensuing across Pawsey’s tennis court. The British and British Indian troops pursued the retreating Japanese and reopened the road to Kohima-Imphal road at Milestone 109 – ending the siege of Imphal on 22 June. By this point, the quaint hill station of Kohima had been turned into what looked like a battlefield from WW1.
The Japanese retreat back to Burma has been described as a “road of bones.” Dr Kuwaki of the 124th Regiment recounts:
“I saw the dead soldiers lying in groups under trees. It was a human thing. They didn’t want to die alone. One would be dying and others would crawl towards him. I was sick as well but looking at the dead I had the will to live.”
For the Nagas upon whose land this battle had raged, it was a sober victory. In his book Road of Bones, Fergal Keane writes that, returning to the ruins of their villages, Naga warriors were confronted with the disaster that war had inflicted on the most vulnerable: babies trying to nurse at the bodies of their dead mothers, children made mute by the terror of explosions and everywhere the stench of rotting bodies. Life for the Nagas, and for the other indigenous people of what is today North East India, had changed forever. Charles Pawsey observed at the time that Naga honesty was the last casualty of the war. Charles Chasie, Naga journalist and historian from Kohima writes:
“After the war, individual activities changed and varied so much they became unpredictable. No one was sure any longer who might be doing what on any given day. The first erosion in the life of the community-based society had taken place.”
Things looked brighter for the British. As if to signify the turn in British fortunes, on 6 June news swept the division of the landings in Normandy. The sun broke through the clouds and bathed the weary soldiers at Kohima in the warmth of its embrace. Harry Swinson was to write:
“The sun was shining as we rode forward … The whole Army was surging forward with the knowledge that the Japs were beaten and soon, soon, there would be rest. Nights spent in comfort unbroken by sentry-go; time to dry clothes; time to bath; time to write letters home; time to become human again; and, most of all, time to sleep. You could hear the troops singing on the crowded trucks.
Also at the Battles of Imphal and Kohima was the India National Army (INA).
The army had been founded by Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist from Bengal and one-time Congress Party member. Bose had been ousted from the party in 1939. He took a more a martial approach to nationalism than his colleagues Gandhi and Nehru, and believed that the time to strike was while Britain was preoccupied with war in Europe. Escaping house-arrest in Kolkata, Bose arrived in Berlin in 1941, hoping to find in Nazi Germany a sympathetic ally to Indian independence. However, Hitler was unresponsive. Therefore, Bose travelled on to Tokyo. With Japanese support Bose revamped the INA which had been founded after the fall of Singapore, made up of British Indian Army POWs.
At Bose’s instigation, in 1944 a substantial contingent of the INA joined Japan’s “March on Delhi”. Their most notable action was an attack on the British airfield at Palel, not far from Imphal.
Dr Robert Lyman writes:
“For months the INA had been awash with the self-delusional propaganda that when confronted by their kith and kin the Indian troops of the British Army would refuse to fire, and joyfully join in the revolution. […] the Gurkhas watched the Indians approaching in an extraordinarily lackadaisical manner in the bright moonlight, talking amongst themselves and smoking. The sustained and disciplined firepower of the waiting Gurkhas, unmoved by the thought that they might be firing on their erstwhile colleagues, scattered the startled Indians and slaughtered those who had the courageous temerity to attempt, in the confusion and noise of the moment, to assault the Gurkha position.”
Of the 3,000 INA men who marched into the hills at the end of March only 1,000 remained by 15 June, and then only 750 two weeks later. The remaining INA was driven down the Malay Peninsula and surrendered with the recapture of Singapore.
Bose died from third-degree burns received when his overloaded plane crashed in Japanese Taiwan on 18 August 1945. Some Indians did not believe that the crash had occurred expecting Bose to return to bolster India’s independence. The death of Bose, referred to India today as “Netaji” or “great leader”, remains shrouded in mystery and a sense of conspiracy.
In 1945, General Slim’s Fourteenth Army pursued the Japanese into Burma. They were supported greatly by the Karen and then later, and to a lesser extent, by the Burmese National Army of General Aung San. Decisive Burma Campaign battles were fought at Mandalay, Meiktila and then finally Pyawbwe. By the time that the Allies reached Rangoon, the Japanese has already retreated.
When the Japanese invaded Burma, Hugh Seagrim, an expert in Burmese languages who had been seconded to the 20th Burma Rifles with the temporary rank of major, was given the task of staying behind to raise irregular guerrilla forces amongst the Karen ethnic group.
With the British in India, Seagrim remained underground, leading Karens in a campaign of sabotage against Japanese occupation. His force enjoyed much support from Karen civilians despite a series of brutal Japanese reprisal killings. Seagrim himself was loved by the Karen, seen by them as some sort of messiah, and was tenderly given the name “Grandfather Longlegs.”
The Japanese soon became aware that there was a Brit in their midst, and Seagrim’s force was gradually wiped out by a concentrated Japanese manhunt. To prevent further bloodshed Seagrim surrendered himself to the Japanese on 15 March 1944.
Kept with other prisoners in squalid conditions in the New Law Courts of Rangoon, Seagrim made an impression on his fellow inmates. Singing, whistling, joking, ever-polite in the face of torment and brutality from his captors. However there was to be no question of his eventual sentence. Seagrim had been taken, not in British uniform, but in Karen costume, and, inevitably, was bound to be shot as a spy. He and eight of his Karen companions were executed by the Japanese on 22 September 1944. For gallantry under captivity, he was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1946.
Seagrim had kept alive among the Karen, single-handedly, the flame of resistance and the assurance the British would return. Eventually, this was to happen in 1945. Led by the Special Operations Executive Force 136, British officers led a Karen uprising of guerillas around Taungoo.
Relations between the Japanese and the Burmese had soured greatly since the euphoric arrival of the Imperial Army in 1942. Burma had not received the independence it sought. Aung San would complain to his fellow officers that while the British had worked the Burmese like oxen, under the Japanese they were treated like dogs.
As the tide of war turned against Japan, Aung San was increasingly skeptical of Japan’s ability to win. He made plans to organize an anti-Japanese uprising. In late March 1945 Aung San led the BNA in a parade in front of The Secretariat in Rangoon, after which they were sent by the Japanese to the front. A few days later, on 27 March, the BNA switched sides and attacked the Japanese instead.
Aung San first met with Slim on 16 May, appearing unexpectedly in Slim’s camp in the uniform of a Japanese major general. At the meeting Aung San stated his intentions to ally with the British until the Japanese had been driven out of Burma. He agreed to incorporate his forces into Slim’s British-led army.
“Come on Aung San”, Slim reportedly said. “You are joining us now that you know we will win.”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly join you if knew you were to lose, would I?”
This was the right tone to take with Slim, who began to warm to the young Burmese commander. But he made no flowery promises. He told him he did not need his help to defeat the Japanese, and that in his view there was only one legitimate Burmese government and that was the British Government. Slim judged Aung San to be ambitious, but a genuine patriot, and a well-balanced realist:
“The greatest impression he made on me was one of honesty … I like his honesty. In fact, I was beginning to like Aung San.”
During January and February 1945, Slim’s Fourteenth Army crossed over the Irrawaddy River and commenced the race for Rangoon In March there were major battles at both at Mandalay and Meiktila. The former city fell to the British 19th Indian Division on 20 March, though the Japanese held the royal palace for another week. Much of the historically and culturally significant portions of Mandalay were burned to the ground. However, it is reported that Major-General Rees had decided not to bomb the sacred places. Rees had served in Mandalay as a young officer, and likely new its importance as a religious centre.
Nonetheless, when the battle was finally over, the wreckage was great. George Rodger was to later write:
“Mandalay, that proud city, once the capital of the Kingdom of Ava, steeped in tradition, now lay a heap of smouldering ruins. A fire-blackened Pagoda still raised its spire as though in defiance from the smoking cinders, and trees, white with ash, lifted their smouldering limbs in supplication to the sky … Every temple had gone, the bazars and the shops had gone, and the homes of 150, 000 people; Mandalay itself had gone.”
At Meiktila, the disorganized Japanese were pushed out of the town where they retreated to Pyawbwe. Keen to reach Rangoon before the monsoon rains began in May, the allied forces pushed onto Pyawbwe. The attackers were initially halted by a strong defensive position behind a dry waterway, but a flanking move by tanks and mechanised infantry struck the Japanese from the rear and shattered them. It was Pyawbwe, Slim was to write, “settled the fate of Rangoon.” It was the last great battle of the Campaign. The Allied capture of Burma was complete in all but name.
The Allies entered Rangoon on 1 May. The Japanese had already evacuated. Three months later, the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. George MacDonald Fraser, exhausted in the aftermath of Pyawbwe, was to later reflect on the Campaign:
“We were the Fourteenth Army, the final echo of Kipling’s world, the very last British soldiers in the old imperial tradition. I don’t say we were happy to be in Burma, because we weren’t, but we knew that Slim was right when he said: “Some day, you’ll be proud to say, ‘I was there’.”
Lieutenant Bruce Hayllar who had fought at Kohima reflected:
“… some people are a bit lazy about the war … They should just see what a battle involves. It is a terrific and most disgusting thing. Far worse than any slum or brothel and far bigger. As long as fighting is going on people should be conscious of this. And do all they can to help, so that it can be finished quickly”’
Rob Lyman explores the events and ramifications of WW2 in Kolkata, Kohima and Shillong.
Tracing Bill Slim’s reconquest of Burma, Rob Lyman explores how WW2 led to where Myanmar is today.
In conversation with Grammar Productions, hearing the stories of forgotten allies of WW2.