CONSIDERING the size and importance of the Burma campaign, it has had very little public attention. Events in Burma have been overshadowed by the climax of the war against Germany and the great advances in the Pacific; and because of this the Allied forces in Burma, more than a quarter of a million strong, have not received their fair share of credit. These men have been engaged in the largest and most important ground fighting yet undertaken against the Japanese. They have been operating on a front 700 miles long, second in length only to that in eastern Europe, among the most inhospitable surroundings -- malarial, disease-ridden swamps, impenetrable jungle and immense mountain ranges.

These operations are of great strategic importance. Burma is the back door to China, which Japan has tried to shut. Thanks to the courage of American and British pilots, flying from Assam over the most dangerous air route in the world, supplies have continued to reach China; and now, thanks to the Allied forces of the South East Asia Command, who have done their duty so well in Assam and Burma, a land route to China has been opened up.

The official announcement of the opening of the new road to China was made by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander in South East Asia, on January 24, 1945, in the following Order of the Day:

The advance southwards of the American, British and Chinese forces formerly under the leadership of General Stilwell and now commanded by Lieutenant-General Sultan with Lieutenant-General Slim's Fourteenth Army, fresh from its victories at Imphal and Kohima on the right flank, has inflicted a crushing defeat on the enemy and driven him from north Burma.

Lieutenant-General Sultan's forces and a Chinese expeditionary force have now joined hands west of Wanting. From Ledo through Myitkyina and Bhamo the new road now sweeps south to join the old Burma Road and land communication to China is open.

The first part of our mission therefore has been completed and it will not be long before Brigadier-General Pick's United States Engineers will have the road ready for traffic. This has been achieved through a truly inter-Allied, inter-service effort.

The air supply route to China is assured. With the rapid development of airfields at Myitkyina, this route is carrying an ever-increasing volume of traffic. In addition, the Allied air forces, by their magnificent support of the army, contributed to the advance to Mandalay.

The advance of the Fifteenth Corps under Lieutenant General Christison, assisted by the air and navy, on the Arakan coast materially contributed to the over-all difficulties of the Japanese positions in Burma.

The fine fighting qualities and high morale of all the forces engaged in this great effort made victory certain. In the task still before us -- the utter defeat of Japan -- I am confident the same qualities will be shown by all and that final success will be ours.

The victories of Lieutenant-General William Slim's Fourteenth Army at Imphal and Kohima, and the advance of the Fifteenth Army Corps under Lieutenant-General Philip Christison in Arakan, to which Admiral Mount-batten refers in his Order of the Day, though only a part of the campaign, were main factors in the liberation of northern Burma. Unless the Japanese Army had been fully engaged in other directions, the American, British and Chinese forces under the leadership of General Stilwell would not have been able to move into Burma from the north.

To appreciate how the battles that were fought by the Fourteenth Army and the Fifteenth Army Corps set the pattern for the campaign, the situation of the opposing forces in the winter of 1943-1944 and the peculiarities of the country should be considered. Topography influenced the planning and conduct of the campaign in Burma to a greater extent than in any other theater of war. The Japanese, in their central position, had good road, rail and river communications. The Allies had to rely on the Assam railway for their main operations, and on the railhead of the Eastern Bengal railway 18 miles south of Chittagong for the operations in Arakan. Supplies for General Stilwell's forces also had to be sent by the Assam railway, which runs parallel to the front and too close behind it for safety. This strategical weakness in the Allied position during the battle in Assam, though never exploited by the Japanese, necessitated leaving some fighting troops along the railway in a defensive rôle.

Local and seasonal variations of climate and rainfall affected the planning and timing of operations. High mountains covered with thick jungle separate Burma from Assam and the Arakan shores of the Bay of Bengal. For five months of the year -- May to September -- the southwest monsoon blows in from the Indian Ocean across the Bay of Bengal, and during this period the rainfall is very heavy. In Arakan the annual rainfall varies from 100 to 240 inches according to locality; in many places in the mountains on the Assam-Burma border it is more than 100 inches. Most of this rain falls during the monsoon season. The Allies had one great advantage over the Japanese in Burma. They had air superiority, and the greatest possible use was made of it. All Allied plans were based on supplying large forces from the air and on the rapid transfer of reserve formations by air over long distances, whereas the Japanese were denied the use of this method of moving supplies and men.

The plans for the 1943-1944 Burma campaign approved at the Ottawa Conference, when Admiral Mountbatten's appointment to the South East Asia Command was announced, included amphibious operations. These, however, had to be cancelled, for the vessels and material intended for southeast Asia were wanted in Europe and were actually used at Anzio and in Normandy. New plans had to be framed on a less ambitious scale, and to conform with these the following tasks were laid down for the Fourteenth Army by General Sir George Giffard, who was then commanding the Eleventh Army Group, which comprised all Allied land forces of the South East Asia Command: (1) Hold the frontiers of Bengal and Assam. (2) Advance in north Burma to the line Mogaung-Myitkyina. (3) Advance in Arakan to the Buthidaung-Maungdaw road.

For these tasks General Slim had available the Fifteenth Army Corps in Arakan, the Fourth Corps in Assam, and General Stilwell's Chinese-American forces in the Ledo area. These Chinese-American troops had been placed under the operational command of the Fourteenth Army and were to remain so until they had occupied Kamaing, when it was planned that they would combine with the Chinese forces operating on the Salween River. General Stilwell's forces (five Chinese divisions, one American brigade and the British Fort Hertz detachment) would carry out the advance to the line Mogaung-Myitkyina. To enable these forces to achieve their objective the Japanese Army had to be occupied elsewhere, and some direct assistance in the way of cutting the lines of communication to the Japanese 18th Division at Myitkyina was necessary. For this purpose three operations were set on foot:

(1) The Fourth Army Corps, composed of three divisions, the 17th, 20th and 23rd Indian Divisions, was ordered to operate offensively from Assam to draw off and occupy the main Japanese forces. If necessary to achieve its object, the Fourth Corps offensive was to be carried on up to and beyond the Chindwin River and the Chin Hills.

(2) In Arakan, the Fifteenth Army Corps, composed of two divisions, the 5th and 7th Indian Divisions and two brigades of the 81st West African Division, was ordered to advance with the 5th and 7th Divisions direct on Maungdaw-Buthidaung, while the 81st Division protected the left flank of the Corps against a possible Japanese counterattack up the Kaladan River.

(3) The 3rd Indian Division, Wingate's Force, was to move into the Indaw area and operate from there to cut the main road and rail communications behind the 18th Japanese Division in the Myitkyina area.

The Japanese had increased the size of their army in Burma during the summer of 1943, and in November enemy forces were distributed approximately as follows: in Arakan, two divisions with corps troops and other formations; in the Mogaung-Myitkyina area in the north, one division; on the Salween near the Chinese frontier, one division; in the Chindwin area, three divisions with corps and army troops, and two to three divisions in reserve.

II

In December 1943, the Fifteenth Corps advanced in Arakan against the 55th Japanese Division, near the coast, and in the Kaladan valley against elements of the 54th and 55th Divisions. The 5th Indian Division fought its way down the Mayu Range, running north and south parallel with the coast, through which the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road is tunnelled. It also fought its way down the Naaf River Valley, which empties into the Bay of Bengal at Maungdaw, and secured the Nechadauk Pass, five miles north of the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road. The 7th Indian Division moved through the Pass into the Kalapanzin valley, east of the range. The 5th Division remained on the west of the range, between it and the sea. Maungdaw was captured January 8, 1944, and by that time there were indications that the Japanese would counterattack before the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road could be reached.

Preparations were made for meeting the Japanese counterattack by arranging to have air supplies ready to be flown to any portion of the force that might be cut off. Orders were issued that formations or units that might be isolated would hold their ground. In addition, marine operations were started against the coast line behind the enemy to pin down his reserves. The 26th Indian Division from army reserve was warned to be ready to move up from Chittagong to support the Fifteenth Corps.

On February 3, the Japanese made their attack with about 8,000 men from the 55th Division, under the command of Colonel Tanahashi, an officer who had distinguished himself in the previous Arakan campaign. The first object of the attack was to reoccupy the Nechadauk Pass and so separate the 5th and 7th Divisions. Another detached force went further north to block the Bawli-Maungdaw road behind the 5th Division. Tanahashi accomplished both these objectives, and at the same time the main Japanese forces launched a frontal assault against the 7th Division to force it back on the Nechadauk Pass. Had this succeeded, the division would have been annihilated in the Pass, and the enemy would then have gone on to deal with the 5th Division in much the same way by forcing it back onto the road-block, south of Bawli. The Japanese then intended to march on Chittagong; and when British reserves had been drawn to that area, their main attack from the Chindwin against Assam was to start. However, the 7th Division stood firm and even took the offensive, and the 5th Division, holding its front with minimum forces, reopened communications with the 7th. During this action both divisions were supplied from the air.

The 26th Division moved up to Bawli ready to counterattack, if needed, and the 36th British Division from India replaced the 26th in army reserve. As a result of these movements, the attacking force was caught between the 5th and 7th Divisions in the south and the 26th and 36th Divisions in the north. After bitter fighting, much of which was with bomb and bayonet in the hills, the enemy force was completely defeated, broken up and dispersed into small parties trying to escape through the jungle. More than 5,000 dead were counted on the ground. The Fifteenth Corps at once passed to the offensive and took the tunnel area of the Mayu Range which was defended by the enemy to the last. The capture of Buthidaung followed and the task allotted to General Christison's Corps was completed.

Everyone took part in the fighting which went on for many days during the Japanese counterattack, in and around the area occupied by the 5th and 7th Divisions. Transport and supply personnel defended the rear organization with the same tenacity that British and Indian infantry held the "box" defenses in front. (Each Indian Infantry Division consists of three British and six Indian or Gurkha battalions. The personnel of the divisional artillery is largely British.) During this period, there were examples of deliberate, cold-blooded slaughter of wounded and non-combatants by the Japanese. A 7th Division field dressing station, containing more than 80 wounded, was overrun at night and occupied by the Japanese. Forty-eight hours later, a senior Japanese officer arrived and ordered the massacre of the doctors, medical orderlies and wounded. Six doctors were lined up and dispatched with a bullet through the ear, the orderlies were butchered, and Japanese soldiers went from stretcher to stretcher bayoneting the wounded.

III

In the north, General Stilwell's forces covering the construction of the Ledo road had crossed the mountains and reached the Hukawng valley early in January 1944. The American-trained 22nd and 38th Chinese Divisions led the advance, their flanks covered by Brigadier-General Frank Merrill's Marauders. In their first action the Chinese divisions inflicted very heavy losses on the 18th Japanese Division, which fell back to a strong position astride the Hukawng valley near Kamaing. The Fort Hertz detachment which advanced on a parallel route further to the east was also opposed by elements of the 18th Division.

Early in March, the 3rd Indian Division (Wingate's Force) was moved into the Indaw area, 100 miles south of Kamaing, behind the 18th Japanese Division. One of Wingate's brigades had started its march to Indaw from Ledo and the rest of the division was flown in. Indaw was selected as the most suitable locality for a force to land and cut Japanese communications. Three landing places for gliders had been chosen: Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowringhee. Their suitability had been noted by General Wingate in 1943, during his first expedition behind the Japanese lines, and in March 1944 it was uncertain what state they were in. If Allied planes had visited the area enemy suspicions would have been aroused; one plane was sent to reconnoitre, however, just before the division was to be flown in, and found Piccadilly obstructed by large logs.

The whole of the advance glider force of Wingate's Division, towed by Dakotas, was then directed to Broadway. Fortunately that site was neither blocked nor guarded by the Japanese, though the ground surface, which looked level in reconnaissance photographs, was found to be intersected with large trenches overgrown with elephant grass. Many gliders crashed and almost all were damaged or destroyed, but sufficient men and material were landed to guard and prepare a good landing place, and during the following days the rest of the division -- less Brigadier-General Mike Calvert's brigade which was marching through enemy-held country from Ledo, 250 miles to the north -- was landed in the Indaw area.

Wingate started operations at once; the railway and road to Mogaung and the road from Bhamo to Myitkyina were cut and kept cut for some time. The Japanese at first did not perceive how strong a force had been landed behind them and it was some time before they brought a portion of the 53rd Division to reinforce the lines-of-communication troops who had lost very heavily in their attempts to interfere with the 3rd Division.

In Assam the Fourth Army Corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General Geoffrey Scoones, acting on General Slim's instructions, advanced in the Tiddim area and the Kabaw valley to occupy the main Japanese forces. But when it became obvious that the Japanese themselves, in spite of their defeat in Arakan and the presence of the 3rd Indian Division in the Indaw area, were preparing for a large-scale offensive against Assam, General Slim decided to withdraw the Fourth Corps toward Imphal and fight the decisive battle in that area. By retiring to Imphal he shortened his own communications and forced the Japanese to lengthen theirs, an important consideration with the approach of the monsoon. Plans were made for the 20th and 23rd Indian Divisions to cover Imphal on the east and south, and for the 17th Indian Division to withdraw from Tiddim to Imphal. The Kohima garrison was strengthened and the evacuation of non-combatants from Imphal commenced. The 5th Indian Division was moved back from Arakan into army reserve at Chittagong, and arrangements were made for the air transport and supply service, which later played such an important part in the defense of Imphal.

On March 16, the three leading divisions of General Mutaguchi's Fifteenth Army crossed the Chindwin River and sent columns forward on a broad front. They were very lightly equipped and marched silently and swiftly, hidden by the jungle. Their intention was to reach Imphal and Kohima before Allied reinforcements could arrive, and then to break into the Brahmaputra valley, cut the communications to General Stilwell's forces and overrun the airfields from which supplies were being flown to China. Success depended on the rapid occupation of Imphal, which Mutaguchi expected to capture before March 27. On the right of the attack the 31st Japanese Division reached the Kohima area. It was not expected that the enemy would be able to move so large a force through such country and the strength of the attack at Kohima was a surprise. The outnumbered garrison was forced back gradually toward the town and the situation was serious. In the center the 15th Japanese Division suffered very heavy casualties at Ukhrul, where the garrison held out until greatly reduced in numbers before drawing back toward Imphal. The Japanese intention in the center was to break through by Palel with guns and armor for the attack on Imphal, but the 20th Indian Division prevented any such movement by a series of counterattacks in the Tamu-Palel area, though the enemy did succeed in cutting the road between Imphal and Kohima, with columns moving through the jungle. Imphal thus was isolated except by air.

On the left of the attack, the 33rd Japanese Division, which had moved very fast, reached the Tiddim-Imphal road before the 17th Indian Division had been withdrawn to Imphal. The Japanese object was to annihilate the 17th Division while on the mountain road. The 23rd Indian Division had to be sent from its position in reserve at Imphal to meet the 17th and help it in its withdrawal. The 17th fought its way up to Imphal with great skill and courage and brought all its guns, transport and wounded with it, but the fighting on this side of Imphal had occupied nearly the whole strength of two divisions and there was no reserve left on the Imphal Plain.

The 5th Indian Division was flown up from Chittagong and two brigades were landed at Imphal, where they provided the needed reserve. One brigade reached Dimapur and, after fighting its way up the mountains, was able to get reinforcements through to the hard-pressed garrison at Kohima. Headquarters of the Thirty-Third Army Corps from India was moved to Dimapur to take over control of operations in the Dimapur-Kohima area under the direction of General Slim. Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford, commanding the Thirty-Third Corps, had with him the 2nd British Division from India.

From the start of the campaign, General Slim's strategical objective had been to draw off the Japanese while General Stilwell advanced; but he was also responsible for holding the frontier of Bengal and Assam, and when the Japanese attacked his first thoughts were for the line of communications by the Assam railway to General Stilwell's forces. The two generals met, and Stilwell offered one of his two best Chinese divisions to protect the railway, pointing out, however, that the withdrawal of this division from the Ledo road extension would compel him to abandon or postpone his operations in the Hukawng valley. This offer was refused by Slim who was reluctant to give up operations in the north at the moment when the whole of the Japanese Army was committed to battle. Slim took the responsibility of directing Stilwell to continue his advance to Myitkyina with all possible vigor. He guaranteed that the lines of communication would not be interrupted for more than ten days. Stilwell willingly accepted this and continued his advance with characteristic energy.

General Slim also decided that the 3rd Indian Division should continue to operate against the rear of the 18th Japanese Division in the north, and that it should come directly under General Stilwell's command as soon as it had advanced north of Hopin. Slim made this decision during the crisis of the battle in Assam, when the 3rd Division was in a good position to strike at the rear of the Fifteenth Japanese Army.

The battle round Imphal was fought out between the three divisions of the Fourth Corps reinforced by the two brigades of the 5th Division and the 15th and 33rd Japanese Divisions, reinforced by elements of two more Japanese and one Indian National Army Division. Kohima was relieved after bitter fighting during which the British 2nd Division and two brigades of the 7th Indian Division stormed the Kohima Hills and defeated and destroyed the 31st Japanese Division. This division attacked bravely but showed very little enterprise. It had made no attempt to send a detachment to cut the Assam railway when it was in a position to do so.

During the final stages of the Japanese attack on Imphal, General Mutaguchi ordered the reinforced 33rd Division to carry out the last desperate assault. "The fate of the Empire depends on the results of this battle," he said. "Imphal will be taken at all costs." The commander of the 33rd Division passed this on to his troops, adding: "You will take Imphal, but the division will be annihilated." With its accustomed fierceness this division delivered a series of fanatical attacks, all of which, after bloody fighting, were held and smashed by the 17th Division, reinforced by a brigade of the 20th Division.

There was no pause after the defeat of the Japanese at Kohima and Imphal; the pursuit was kept up through the worst of the monsoon rains. The 33rd Division was driven south, first by the 17th Division and then by the 5th Division, while the Lushai Brigade, supplied from the air, operated against the enemy's flanks and rear and inflicted heavy casualties. The remnants of the 31st and 15th Divisions were driven back across the Chindwin by the Thirty-Third Corps.

IV

In north Burma, meanwhile, General Stilwell had planned a bold flank move to slip past the 18th Japanese Division with three columns, each composed of one American and two Chinese battalions, to seize the Myitkyina airfield. The operation was pushed with determination, the force marching by secret paths and appearing on the field suddenly, on May 17. Chinese reinforcements were flown in to occupy the town, and though they just failed to do so, the airfield was firmly held.

By June 1944, the Fourteenth Army had carried out the tasks assigned to it. In seven months -- December 1943 to June 1944 -- four Japanese divisions (the 15th, 31st, 33rd and 55th) and other troops amounting to more than a division in strength, were destroyed as effective fighting formations. Two more Japanese divisions had suffered considerably. A fifth Japanese division, the 18th, was destroyed by the combined operations of Stilwell's force and the Fourteenth Army. On the Fourteenth Army front 50,000 Japanese dead had been counted, not including enemy casualties on General Stilwell's front. Most of the guns, tanks and vehicles that the enemy brought into Assam were lost and 600 Japanese prisoners were taken. Battle casualties in the Fourteenth Army (not counting American and Chinese casualties) amounted to 40,000.

The success of the campaign was due to foresight and to good leadership in the field, particularly to the bold and confident leadership of Generals Slim and Stilwell. A great contributing factor was the magnificent support which the Commander-in-Chief in India gave to the Fourteenth Army, through the provision of men and material and in the control of movements in India. The Eastern Air Command destroyed the Japanese air forces and provided the transport and supply on which all the army's plans were based and without which success would have been impossible. The efficiency of the administrative, supply and health services made it possible for the troops to live and fight in one of the worst malarial countries of the world. Above all, the success of the Fourteenth Army was due to the courage and endurance of the troops engaged -- British, American, Indian, Gurkha, Burman, African and Chinese.

The Japanese Army has been given no time to recover from its defeat. The pursuit of the broken divisions into the Chindwin valley and down the Irrawaddy has been followed by an Allied offensive along the whole front. On the right, amphibious forces working down the shores of the Bay of Bengal have by-passed and isolated enemy units in the Arakan mountains. In the center, the junction of the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy has been reached and Mandalay is threatened. On the left, General Sultan's forces, working in coöperation with the First Chinese Army, are heading toward the Mandalay-Lashio road.

The enemy continues to resist with his customary ferocity and there is no sign of a general withdrawal. As long as there is a Japanese Army in Burma its destruction must be the first consideration of Admiral Mountbatten's forces. Allied occupation of Rangoon is also desirable to make possible increasing aid to China by the use of the old Burma Road. It would, however, be pure speculation to consider how and when Burma will be liberated. Decisions on these matters must already have been made by the Allied leaders through their planning staffs, and by now the direction to be taken in the next move by Admiral Mountbatten's forces has probably been settled. It is certain that Admiral Mountbatten's veteran ground and air forces and his powerful East Indies Fleet will participate in the utter defeat of Japan.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • BRIGADIER-GENERAL HORACE S. SEWELL, D.S.O., British Army, retired; Military Adviser to the British Information Services
  • More By Horace S. Sewell