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Burma 1930 - 1947

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Burma is a large country in South East Asia. It was the subject of three wars with the United Kingdom that resulted in the British taking control of the country in 1886. It was seen as a province of British India until 1937, when it was granted an element of independence within the British Empire.

Burma (now known as Myanmar) is a large country, with an area of 261,610 square miles. Its population in 1939 was about seventeen million people. The Burmese people occupied the main lowland areas of the country, with various hill tribes on the borders of the country. The Karens lived in the hill country alongside the border with Thailand, with the Shans living north of them bordering on Thailand and China. The Kachins lived in the north of the country from Myitkyina northwards, with the Nagas, Chins and Shans living in the hill country on the border with India.

The majority of the population lived in and around Rangoon, with Mandalay as the second city. There was only 3,760 miles of metalled roads, and 6,770 miles of unmetalled roads. There was 6,770 miles of metre gauge railway, extending from Tenassarim in the south to Myitkyina. The main transport links were by boat up the three main rivers in Burma, the Salween to the south, and Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers that flowed from the north of the country to the south. The Irrawaddy was navigable as far as Bhamo, some 900 miles from the sea, and the Chindwin was navigable for some 300 miles from its confluence with the Irrawaddy near Pakokku.

Until 1937, the 20 Burma Rifles was a regiment within the Indian Army, but it became part of a separate Burma Army. The Burma Army was still in embryonic form at the outbreak of the Second World War, as the country was seen as a backwater and unlikely to become embroiled in the war. The entry of Japan into the war suddenly altered this, but there was too much to do in a short time, when resources were very limited.

When Japanese troops invaded Burma at the end of 1941, there were only two incomplete and inadequately trained formations in the country, the 1 Burma Infantry Brigade and 17 Indian Infantry Division. The Japanese quickly pushed the British forces out of Burma, the longest retreat in British military history. The front line effectively became the mountainous border between Burma and India.

Under political pressure, a limited campaign was launched in the Arakan in early 1943. Known as the First Arakan Campaign, it resulted in failure. However, it was the catalyst for major reforms in The Army in India that laid the foundation for the successful campaigns in 1944 and 1945.

1944 commenced with the British forces once again undertaking a limited offensive in the Arakan. This time, the Japanese counter attacked as part of a major offensive to invade India. The British forces did not retreat this time, but formed ‘boxes’ and fought tenaciously. This included the ‘Battle of the Admin Box’, where the 7 Indian Division successfully resisted the Japanese offensive, with XV Indian Corps defeating the advance.

However, this was only the pre-cursor of the main offensive directed at Imphal and Dimapur. Major battles were fought at Sangshak, Kohima and at Imphal; all intense, fierce and savage encounters. The Japanese were comprehensively defeated and retreated in chaos.

The 14 Army followed up the Japanese retreat, with then General SLIM launching his masterstroke with the crossing of the Irrawaddy River to threaten Mandalay, but then striking at Meiktila. The victory of the 14 Army at Meiktila, with the subsequent capture of Mandalay was in many ways the most decisive of any British military victory on the ground in the Second World War. The Japanese Burma Army was destroyed as a fighting force, allowing a two pronged thrust to capture Rangoon.

Meanwhile, XV Indian Corps had fought an amphibious war down through the Arakan. This included the capture of the island of Akyab, the landings at Myebon, Ramree Island and Ruywa, and the battles of Kangaw and the An Pass, as fierce and savage as any in the campaign. The Japanese 28 Army was forced to retreat through the Arakan Yomas and breakthrough 14 Army to escape, which not many did successfully.

When the atom bombs led to the Japanese ceasefire on the 15 August 1945, the Japanese were situated along the Sittang River, with most of Burma liberated.

Further information on each of the units and formations can be found in the sections as below:

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