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Burma 1930 - 1947:

Overview Burma Campaign

Burma Command was a pre-war formation that covered the country of Burma. Post the Great War, the Burma Independent District was a second-class district under India Command. It was a Major General’s appointment. In Burma, there were two British Army infantry battalions, together with some Indian Army units.

In April 1937, Burma was granted independence from India, becoming a semi-autonomous country reporting direct to the Colonel Office. Burma Command separated from the Indian Army at this time.

Japanese troops first entered Burmese territory on 12 December 1941, four days after they had invaded Malaya and entered the Second World War. The initial Japanese incursion was at the extreme south of the country at Victoria Point. The main threat to southern Burma was seen as coming from Thailand, nominally an independent and neutral country, but one supporting Japan.

British forces in Burma were weak to defend such a large country. The Japanese captured Moulmein on 31 January 1942, and then headed north. They crossed the Bilin River, forcing the 17 Indian Division to withdraw over the River Sittang. The railway bridge over the river, the only one in the vicinity, was blown up on 23 February 1942 by British forces. Unfortunately, two of the brigades of the division were still on the eastern bank of the river.

This left the 17 Indian Division very weak, but it still managed to fight itself out of encirclement. The arrival of the 7 Armoured Brigade at Rangoon was timely. The I Burma Corps was formed in March 1942 to assume command of the two British divisions and one armoured brigade. There was another major battle in central Burma, but Burma Corps was safely extracted from Burma.

British forces in Eastern India were still weak, in fact there was only one infantry brigade to hold the whole of the Assam front in May 1942. The General Officer Commanding Eastern Army ordered a limited offensive on 17 October 1942 in response to pressure from General WAVELL for an offensive in the Arakan. This offensive became bogged down, and ground to a halt as a result of Japanese resistance. More troops were committed to the Arakan, but they failed to break the stalemate.

After the failure of the First Arakan Campaign, a thorough review was undertaken on the reasons for the failure of that campaign and the retreat from Burma. Two divisions were redesignated as training divisions, and the whole programme of training revised. A new command structure was put in place, and medical issues addressed.

In January 1944, the 5 Indian Division (which had returned from the Middle East), and the 7 Indian Division (which had remained in India until now), both under command of XV Indian Corps, launched another limited offensive in the Arakan. At the same time, the Japanese 28 Army was beginning a major offensive itself, however, this was a subsidiary operation to the main thrust by 15 Army intended to capture the Imphal Plain and then advance into India.

The advance by the 28 Army surrounded the 7 Indian Division, but instead of retreating, this time the division stood and fought. This was made possible by the fact the British now enjoyed air superiority over Burma, so the division could be supplied by air. The Battle of the Admin Box in February 1944 can be seen as a turning point in British fortunes in South East Asia, and the Japanese failed in their offensive and were forced to call off their advance.

Soon afterwards, the major offensive in central Burma commenced. The 17 Indian Division was forced to withdraw along the Tiddim Road, with IV Corps being cut off on the Imphal Plain. Meanwhile, the courageous stand by the 50 Indian Parachute Brigade at Sangshak delayed the advance of the 15 Army. Delays imposed by the 1 Assam Regiment also allowed reinforcements to reach Kohima, where the famous seige took place in April 1944.

The road between Kohima and Imphal was cut on the 29 March, with the seige of Kohima lasting from 8 until 20 April 1944. It took several more weeks to clear the Kohima area, with the road to Imphal being reopened on 22 June. The Japanese were exhausted and starving, and withdrew in confusion.

The 14 Army followed up on the Japanese retreat, driving them back to the River Chindwin. The 14 Army crossed the Chindwin, and advanced towards the Irrawaddy River. Meanwhile, XV Indian Corps (under command of A.L.F.S.E.A.) captured Akyab. Formations from the 14 Army crossed the Irrawaddy River as if advancing towards Mandalay, whilst a strking force from IV Corps was quietly brought up the river further downstream.

This heralded the launch of Operation Extended Capital, with IV Corps striking for Meiktila. This thrust a dagger in the side of the Japanese Army in Burma. Meiktila was captured and held, and then Japanese resistance collapsed. Central Burma was regained, with IV Corps and XXXIII Indian Corps heading for Rangoon. They were beaten by XV Indian Corps, which fought a superb amphibious campaign to reach Rangoon.

Plans were being formulated for the final clearance of Japanese forces from Burma, and the invasion of Malaya, when the atomic bombs dropped on Japan led to the cessation of hostilities.

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