World War II in Burma

   (Military Operations)
   Burma was the site of some of the largest battles of World War II. Following the outbreak of war between Japan and Britain on December 8, 1941, the Japanese air force carried out bombing raids against Rangoon (Yangon) and other targets, causing considerable demoralization. Elements of the Japanese Fifteenth Army, based in Thailand, had captured Kawthaung (Victoria Point, Burma's southernmost point), Tavoy (Dawei), Mergui (Myeik), and the key town of Moulmein (Mawlamyine) by the end of January 1942, and crossed the Sittang (Sittoung) River in late February (British orders to demolish the Sittang Bridge on February 23, while some of their forces were still east of the river, remain highly controversial). Rangoon was evacuated by the British and occupied by the Japanese on March 9. Between March and May 1942, the Fifteenth Army succeeded in driving north along the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River and the Pegu (Bago)Mandalay road, thwarting British plans to maintain control of Upper Burma with the assistance of Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) troops concentrated at Toungoo (Taungoo). Mandalay fell on May 1. Lashio was captured on May 8, and the Burma Road was cut. Allied forces staged a retreat overland to northeastern India, their troops ravaged by disease and starvation. But they remained largely intact, to fight another day.
   Japanese victory in the first Battle of Burma can be attributed to superior numbers, superior mobility and maneuverability (British forces were repeatedly outflanked and encircled), control of the air (reflecting the technical superiority and greater numbers of the Japanese Zero fighter compared to its Allied counterparts), and the support provided by the Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA's contribution was as much psychological as military because its fighting alongside Japanese troops gave rise to Burmese hopes, ultimately disappointed, that a victorious Japan would grant their country immediate independence.
   The year 1943 witnessed an unsuccessful British attempt to dislodge the Japanese from their positions in what is now Arakan (Rakhine) State, and the more successful incursion of the Chindits deep into Japanese-held territory in northern Burma, an operation that did much to raise Allied morale. The South-East Asia Command under Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten was established in August, with responsibility for joint Allied operations in the Indian Ocean and adjacent areas.
   The ill-advised Imphal Campaign of March-June 1944 cost the Japanese as many as 80,000 casualties, undermining the Fifteenth Army's ability to defend Upper Burma. An American force, nicknamed Merrill's Marauders, moved along the Ledo Road and captured the airfield near Myitkyina (now the capital of Kachin State) in May 1944. British XIVth Army commander General William Slim, one of the Allies' ablest field commanders, began an offensive from India into northern Burma in late 1944. By February 1945, British forces had crossed the Irrawaddy; in early March, they captured the strategically important town of Meiktila, south of Mandalay. Mandalay itself was secured on March 19, although Mandalay Palace was incinerated in Allied air attacks. The push into southern Burma was slowed only by the start of the monsoon, and Japanese forces began a desperate retreat from central Burma toward the Sittang River and the Thai-Burma border, where Karen (Kayin) guerrillas killed many of them. Rangoon, evacuated by the Japanese, was recaptured without a fight on May 2-3.
   Allied military successes in 1944-1945 were attributable to their growing material superiority over the Japanese, both in weapons and troop support. The stubborn insistence of Japanese commanders that their men could achieve victory through will power alone, with little or no logistical support, needlessly wasted many lives. Japanese infantrymen often lacked both food and bullets. Moreover, Allied commanders had learned from the bitter experiences of 1942 to exercise greater flexibility and mobility in operations. The effective use of armor on the plains of central Burma and airdrops to supply troops on the ground (e.g., the Chindit incursions and the battle of the "Admin Box" in Arakan in 1944) were also decisive factors. The uprising of the Burma National Army against the Japanese on March 27, 1945, provided the Allies with important sources of intelligence, though a greater contribution was probably made by Karen and other guerrillas organized by Force 136.
   Burma was devastated twice by large-scale fighting, in 1942 and 1944-1945. Japanese forces in the country totaled 303,501, but only 118,352 were repatriated to Japan after the war. British and Commonwealth casualties amounted to 73,909, of whom more than half were from the British Indian Army. Nationalist Chinese casualties during 1942 appear to have been tremendous, though uncounted. There are no reliable statistics on the number of Burmese soldiers and civilians who died during the war, but after December 1941 it was men with guns, rather than politicians or civil servants, who determined the country's future.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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