The Burma Campaign

Stories of the Second World War

Indian forces were the key Commonwealth fighting presence in the Burma Campaign from the initial invasion at the end of 1941 to the end in 1945, when the westward advance of Imperial Japan was finally halted. This was at a cost of more than 25,000 lives.

In the Second World War, Burma was still a British colony and was a crucial asset which Japan coveted for many reasons,

  • For its resources - oil, rice and rubber
  • As a stepping-stone westwards to India
  • As a barrier between Malaysia and China

The Allies lose Burma

Within a week of bombing Pearl Harbour, on December 8th, 1941, the Japanese had reached Burma from Singapore and began invading from Siam (Thailand) in the east in early 1942.

Jats, Rajputs and Gurkhas of the 17th Indian Infantry Division fought alongside British troops but the Allied forces were too few in number, wrongly equipped and inadequately trained in jungle warfare to hold their own against the powerful Japanese military machine and were forced to retreat.

It was a costly and dangerous withdrawal in treacherous terrain - dense jungle, razor-back mountains and impassable valleys, not to mention contending with the deadly tropical diseases which struck down countless men, and the climate which confined effective fighting to the dry season only, just over half of the year.

One of the many low points of this period was the Battle of Sittang Bridge. Air attacks, vehicle breakdowns, shortage of water and alleged poor organization from the British command delayed the 16th and 46th Indian Infantry Brigades who, along with the rest of the division were aiming to retreat across the River Sittang.

Sittang Bridge

The bridge was defended heroically by British and Indian troops, particularly Gurkhas, but it became clear that they might lose the bridge very soon. Brigadier Smyth had to make a grim choice - to destroy the bridge, stranding more than half of his own troops on the wrong side, or to let it stand and allow the Japanese a clear route to Rangoon. He decided the bridge must be destroyed, and at 05:30 on 22nd February,1942 this was done.

In fact, many of the stranded 17th Indian Infantry men made it to safety. The Japanese were more concerned with reaching Rangoon than finishing off stray troops at Sittang. Nonetheless it was a devastating defeat and most of the division's equipment was lost - and most of the men's boots as they swam across the river.

Those men that lost their lives here are commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial.

Click on the Rangoon Memorial link to see the dreadful cost to just one of these units - the 1st/4th (Prince of Wales Own) Gurkha Rifles.

By March 9th the Japanese had taken Rangoon. The Japanese consolidated their position throughout the year.

Recapturing Burma would take the Allies, including the 5th, 7th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 25th and 26th Indian Divisions at various times, three years of desperate fighting.

The loss of Burma - major rice-growing area - to Japanese forces, combined with disastrous floods and crop disease all contributed to a shortage of rice in Calcutta - the world's second biggest city.

The devastating famine in Bengal resulted in the death of 3 million men, women and children.

"In such conditions of chaos, it was difficult to improve the inadequate lines of communication to the front line in Assam or make use of local industries for the war effort. Efforts to improve the training of Allied troops took time and in forward areas poor morale and endemic disease combined to reduce the strength and effectiveness of the fighting units."

Early attempts to regain control of Burma such as the Arakan Campaign of 1942-1943 were unsuccessful, for many reasons, not least the British decision to concentrate on battles nearer home, leaving the Allied divisions in N E India on the Burmese border still under-resourced, poorly trained and with consequent low morale.

Akyab Island, now called Sittwe, at the southern end of the peninsula, had an important airport from which the Japanese Army Air Force had launched attacks on Calcutta and other Indian cities. This was the objective of the first unsuccessful Allied attack involving the Indian IV Corps based at Imphal in Manipur, and the newly-formed XV Corps, with headquarters at Barrackpore, near Calcutta.

A glimmer of hope came a little later, from the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, known as the Chindits.

World War 2 Burma Chindits

The brigade, led by General Orde Wingate was made up of:

  • 13th Bn The King's (Liverpool) Regiment
  • 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles
  • 142 Commando Company
  • 2nd Burma Rifles
  • Eight RAF sections
  • Brigade Signal Section from The Royal Corp of Signals
  • A mule transport company.

They exemplified the spirit of cooperation between Undivided India and Britain. The Chindits specialised in conducting guerrilla style raids deep into Japanese-occupied territory, supported by air drops. Though their gains were not great and loss of life was considerable - one in three - their exploits boosted public morale.

Tul Bahadur Pun of the 3/6th Gurkha Rifles which was part of the Second Chindit Expedition, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery.

Going in to 1944, the strategic balance of the Burma campaign began to shift. At the start of the dry season,the 14th Army launched a second offensive into Arakan.

See here to examine role of the Indian Air Force

See here to read about the battles of Imphal and Kohima - judged to be the turning point in the Burma Campaign, when, for the first time, the Japanese lost the initiative to the Allies.

In the Burma Campaign, no less than 18 soldiers from Undivided India were awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding acts of bravery. Seven of those soldiers died in the action. Read about them in the Military Honours page

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