Following the successful Japanese offensives launched in December 1941 against Europe’s colonial possessions in South East Asia, the Japanese advanced into Burma, forcing Commonwealth forces to retreat into India. Commonwealth victories at Kohima and Imphal in 1944 paved the way for the reconquest of Burma in 1945.

Background

From December 1941, Japanese forces took control of South East Asia including Malaya and Singapore. Japan’s next objective was the British colony of Burma. Gaining access to oil and rice, Japanese forces could also cut the American supply line to China and lay the foundation for the capture of India.

Invasion

Military operations in Burma were dictated by the seasonal monsoons which effectively restricted activity to just more than six months every year. A Japanese invasion in 1942 led to the expulsion of British, Indian and Chinese forces from the country and the capture of the capital city and main port, Rangoon. The Commonwealth retreat from Burma also affected hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, many of whom perished before reaching India.

From late 1942 to early 1944 there were a series of minor Allied attacks, including the famous Chindit operations behind enemy lines under the charismatic Brigadier Orde Wingate. In 1944, Japanese forces invaded India, but were defeated at the battles of Imphal and Kohima. This had disastrous consequences for the Japanese and was followed by the successful Allied offensive which reoccupied Burma from late-1944 to mid-1945. Japanese resistance in Burma finally came to an end with the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. An unconditional surrender was signed on 10 August, bringing the war to a close.

Aftermath

The terrain, topography and climate combined to make this theatre one of the most difficult areas in which to wage war. Despite the huge stakes involved, the campaign was largely regarded as a ‘sideshow’ of the Pacific war. The Commonwealth forces that turned defeat into victory under the leadership of Field Marshal William Slim are often known as the ‘forgotten army.’

Official Commonwealth casualty figures for land forces in Burma from December 1941 to August 1945 came to more than 14,000 killed, 44,731 wounded and 14,552 missing. Most of the missing were lost in the 1942 retreat or who became prisoners of war and did not survive.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Rangoon Memorial commemorates almost 27,000 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War who died during the campaigns in Burma and have no known grave. It stands in the Taukkyan War Cemetery which contains the graves and memorials of nearly 6,390 servicemen of the Second World War, of whom more than 860 remain unidentified and more than 50 First World War servicemen. Also within the cemetery is the Taukkyan Cremation Memorial which commemorates more than 1,000 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith.

Rangoon War Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 1,380 servicemen and women of the Second World War, of whom more than 80 remain unidentified. Also commemorated in the cemetery are more than 30 First World War servicemen.

Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of nearly 6,390 servicemen of the Second World War, of whom more than 860 remain unidentified. Alongside them are buired more than 620 Dutch servicemen. The majority of those commemorated in this cemetery died while prisoners of war in Japanese captivity.