The Japanese invasion of Burma saw them win yet another impressive victory during the triumphant first six months after Pearl Harbor, and saw them expel the British from Burma in a campaign that lasted five and a half months, with the British and their Indian and Burmese troops retreating for much of that time. Only the intervention of a large Chinese army allowed the defence to last as long as it did,
The look at the Allied commanders in Burma suggests that the problems didn’t lie at that level. Wavell, Alexander and Slim were all very capable men (although the commanders were changed far too often), and Alexander and Slim would play crucial roles in the defence of India and re-conquest of Burma. The real problem was that Burma was way down the list of priorities in the Far East, an area that was itself at the bottom of the list of British priorities (behind the defence of Britain, the Middle East and aid to the USSR). Only after the fall of Malaya and Singapore did an invasion of Burma become inevitable, and by that point it was probably too late to reinforce the garrison of Burma. Most of the units that were sent to Burma were newly formed, so lacked experience, prepared for warfare in the desert. Equipment was also limited, with little artillery or armour and most importantly very limited air support.
The Chinese also deployed a large army to Burma, made up of some of their best units. However the command structure was chaotic, and coordination between the Chinese and Commonwealth forces often poor. The best Chinese divisions were excellent, but others had poor commanders and were filled with conscripts.
When we look at the Japanese forces the picture is less different than one might expect. The conquest of Burma was seen as a key part of their strategy, with the area forming a buffer to protect the Dutch East Indies from bombing and its capture cutting the Burma Road bringing US supplies to China. The Fifteenth Army, which was given the task of capturing Burma, had stable leadership. Although only one of the two divisions allocated to the initial invasion performed well, they were able to move reinforcements to the area after the fall of Singapore. The attack was supported by the 5th Air Division with further aid from the 3rd Air Division, equipped with modern aircraft. However the Japanese lacked heavy artillery, began the campaign with four 37mm anti-tank guns, and a handful of tanks. Only after the fall of Rangoon were the Japanese able to move in heavier guns.
The real difference between the two sides becomes clear once the fighting began in January 1942. The Japanese were able to move through the jungle and easily outflank the road-bound British, repeatedly threatening to cut off British forces. This triggered a series of retreats, some of which turned into routs. British forces could sometimes hold up the Japanese in a straight fight, but would soon be outflanked once again and forced to retreat. The most important example of this was the battle for the Sittang Bridge, one month into the campaign. This saw terrible confusion on the British side, which ended with the bridge being blown while two Indian Brigades were still on the wrong side of the river. With these brigades lost, any chance of holding Rangoon went. Once Rangoon was gone, the British could no long ship reinforcements into Burma, but the Japanese could.
This was the point at which Chinese enter the picture, with the desperate need for reinforcements overcoming British reluctance to bring strong Chinese forces into Burma. The author makes it clear that without that Chinese reinforcement the attempt to defend central Burma wouldn’t have been possible. Even so the area wasn’t held for long, and we trace the final retreat of the British west to India and the Chinese north and north-east back into China.
This is an excellent account of this impressive Japanese victory, showing how they were able to defeat the British and Empire forces in the south of Burma, then the British and Chinese in central and northern Burma, completing the conquest of the British Empire east of India.
Origins of the Campaign
Allied Commanders and Forces
Japanese Commanders and Forces
The Battlefield Today
Author: Tim Moreman