The Burma road. Allied troops retreating under the pressure of the prevailing Japanese forces.



With the occupation of Malaya and Dutch East Indies rich in oil, rubber and other raw materials, the Japanese had achieved their primary strategic goal. Yet, in order to guard the perimeter of their conquests, they had to establish a system of advanced positions from the Indies to the Gilbert Islands. That is why they laid an eye on Burma - the country located ideally for safeguarding their conquests in the west. High, longitudinally stretched ranges of Arakan, Assam and Manipur could constitute a natural defence line, blocking the only three local roads, impassable during the rainy season.

Burma, a country of 676,578 sq.km of area and population of 17 million, possesses rich deposits of oil, and produces huge quantities of rice (world's fourth exporter). In result of a series of Anglo-Burmese wars (1824-1886), Burma became a colony of Great Britain. Yet British defeats in Hongkong and Malaya animated Burmese liberation movement. Its leaders recruited chiefly from enlightened social classes, Buddhist monks, students and activists of the nationalist party Thakin. They sought in Japan support for their anti-colonial struggle and liberation of their country. While implementing their plans of conquest of Asia, the Japanese were gladly using national-liberation slogans, claiming that the imperial army was fighting with white colonists for liberation of the Asian countries from the European and American yoke. They also emphasized the fact of sharing the same religion, and selected cultural elements. Hundreds of Burmese students studied in Japanese universities, where together with scientific knowledge they acquired military training and ideological indoctrination as well. Upon return to Burma they constituted the core of the partisan detachments readied to co-operate with the invading Japanese troops in seizing cities, bridges and mountain passes. When the invasion actually began, they were organizing local administration and recruiting collaborationists, thus creating an appearance of autonomy and self-government.

The British did little for the defence of Burma. In their mind Burma was located so far from Japan that they did not even consider a direct attack. It was not until the Japanese landed in Malaya and entered Siam (Thailand) that the commander of the Burma Army, Lieutenant-General Donald Kenneth MacLeod, started deploying his forces on the eastern frontier: the 1st Burma Division (Maj.-Gen. James Bruce Scott) supported by the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brig. John "Jonah" Jones). Those forces were assigned the task to defend mountain passes and jungle roads along the Salween River in a 560-km sector from the Chinese border to Paan (80km north to Moulmein), and prevent the Japanese from getting into the central Burma.

On 27 December 1941 General MacLeod was shifted to another post. The new commander of the Burma Army became Lt.-Gen. Thomas Hutton. The army was supported by 37 planes under the command of Air Vice-Marshal Donald Stevenson. Naval forces - 5 armed boats and few auxiliary vessels - were under the command of Commander Kenneth Lyle.

On 9 January 1942 the Indian 17th Infantry Division (Maj.-Gen. Sir John "Jackie" Smyth) arrived in Burma and assumed duties on the south-eastern Burmese frontier, along a 640km-long stretch from the town Paan (Hpa An) to the port Mergui (Myeik). For defence of that sector, closing the shortest way from Siam to Rangoon, Indian troops received the No.67 Fighter Squadron (RAF) and the 1st American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers under the command of Colonel Claire Chennault).

For the conquest of Burma there was formed the 15th Army under the command of the Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida. Originally it comprised the 33rd Infantry Division (Lt.-Gen. Chozo Sakurai) and the 55th Infantry Division (Lt.Gen. Hiroshi Takeuchi). Both divisions numbered more than 35,000 troops. The near objective of the Japanese forces was to seize British air and naval bases in southern Burma, and secure the rears of the Japanese army fighting in Malaya. The next objective was to take Rangoon and beat the Anglo-Chinese forces in central Burma.

On 11 December 1941 the Japanese took the town of Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) with the British airfield Victoria Point in southern Burma. On 4 January a battalion of the Japanese 55th Inf.Div. crossed the border and took the airfield and port of Tavoy (Dawei) held by a battalion from the 17th Inf.Div. Another Indian battalion was deployed some 180km to the south at Mergui, where it had to defend another important port and airfield, but once cut off from the roads to the north, it withdrew by sea. On 24 January the Japanese controlled three Burmese airfields, where they promptly deployed 300 planes from the 5th Air Group (Lt.-Gen. Hideyoshi Obata).

On 20 January 1942 the 55th Division stroke from Siam across the Kawkareik Pass (72km from Moulmein) held by the Indian 16th Inf.Brig. The Japanese, who had used the tactics of infiltrating the jungle and attacking from all the sides simultaneously, dislodged the 16th Brigade from the pass. Then the 33rd Division was introduced in fights; it surrounded Indian units one by one and forced them into retreat or surrender.

On 30 January the 55th Division attacked Moulmein from the east and the south. the Burmese 2nd Inf.Brig. fought gallantly in the southern part of the city, but in the east it was dislodged into the port. Before the dawn 31 January the garrison of Moulmein withdrew to the western bank of the Salween River to reinforce the defence of the port Martaban (Mottama). The 17th Division took over a 160km defence sector along the Salween between Mortaban and the Siamese frontier. It was supposed to hold the Japanese till the arrival of the 7th Armoured Brigade, which was expected to arrive in Rangoon on 21 February, and take part in the fights within three days after.

But the Japanese forced the Salween on 9 February in the north of Mortaban. The garrison of Mortaban counter-attacked, but after three days of fights Japanese units set their foot on the western bank of the Salween and were ready to assault Thaton. Therefore, the 17th Div. continued its retreat beyond the Bilin River. Under the cover of the 16th Brigade holding the line of the river, 46th and 48th Brigades were deployed farther westwards. The 48th Brigade was designated to hold the only railway bridge on the Sittang River. British forces were supported by 70 aircraft. On 16 February the units of the Japanese 33rd Inf.Div. crossed Bilin north to the positions of the 16th Brigade. Two battalions were sent across the jungle to attack and take the Sittang bridge, and open the way for the bulk of the forces of the 33rd Division.

On 20 February in the evening the 17th Division was concentrated around the town of Kyaikto. From there it was 24km to the place of crossing. The division was formed in one column for faster crossing of the bridge. It marched out on 21 February. The clouds of dust raised by the troops and vehicles revealed their manoeuvre. On that day the troops of the 17th Division were bombed and straffed many times by the Japanese planes, as well as the British aircraft, whose crews had orders to attack all the columns moving westwards.

On 21 February at 8:30, when the staff of the 17th Division and the 48th Inf.Bde. had already crossed the River Sittang, there came a Japanese unit led by the Burmese, and tried to take the bridge. The 48th Brigade, which was at hand, was send to defence. Farther in the east the enemy wedged in between the 16th and 46th brigades. They fought fiercely hand to hand. Early in the morning the commander of the division ordered to blow up the bridge. The explosion was so powerful that both sides ceased fights for a while. The Indian soldiers then started to flee in panic towards the river. The Japanese did not chase after them. Out of 8,500 soldiers of the 17th Division only 3,485 made it to the western bank. They lost all the vehicles, artillery, medical and communication equipment.

After that debacle the British government made changes in the military command in Burma. On 5 March there came Gen. Harold Alexander to replace Hutton, who became his chief of staff.

Between the Japanese forces and Rangoon there was still the River Pegu. The forces of the 17th Division, deployed along the river, were reinforced with three infantry battalions and the 7th Armoured Brigade. The forces of the Japanese 55th Inf.Div. reached the river on 3 March. While crossing the river, the Japanese infantry suffered heavy casualties from the counter-attacks of the British armoured units, but the Japanese still possessed decisive superiority in the air, at sea and on the land, and by 6 March they controlled all the islands around Rangoon.

In those circumstances Alexander agreed with the governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith that Rangoon should be evacuated. Before the British troops left the city, they set the oil refineries afire and blew up ammunition dumps. On 8 March at noon the 215th Infantry Regiment of the Japanese 33rd Inf.Div. entered the city. The loss of Rangoon meant the loss of Burma. The rest of the campaign turned into a race with the advancing Japanese and the rain season. Occupation of Rangoon made possible supplying the Japanese forces by sea, and bringing more Japanese troops to augment their push into the Burmese hinterland.

In March and April 1942 the 18th and 56th Inf.Div. and two tank regiments reinforced the 15th Army. Two additional air brigades expanded the forces of the 5th Air Group to 400 planes. On the Allied side, according to earlier Anglo-Chinese agreements, two Chinese armies arrived via the Burma Road. Together they numbered about 30,000 soldiers. The 5th Army, composed of three divisions, on 19 March took over the defence of the valley of the River Sittang near Toungoo. The 6th Army, with three weaker divisions, assumed defences in the valley of Salween. Chinese forces lacked proper training, equipment and modern arms, and their commander was Lt.-Gen. Joseph Stilwell - the only American officer speaking Chinese.

At the same time the Burmese 1st and Indian 17th Divisions were sent to organize the defence of the city of Prome (Pyay) and the oil-fields of Yenangyaung. On 19 March those divisions were united in the Burma Corps (Gen. William Slim). The Chinese 22nd Division from the 5th Army, after two-week fights at Toungoo, gradually retreated northwards, while waging heavy fights, all the way to Mandalay, the main city of the central Burma. After taking Toungoo, the Japanese introduced in fights th 56th Inf.Div. reinforced with a tank regiment. It outflanked the Chinese troops from the east and rushed to the north-east where on 29 April it took the town of Lashio.

At that point further defence of Burma became pointless, as the Burmese troops were deserting and defecting to the Japanese en masse. The 6th Army was retreating to China. The 5th Army, with some units of the 17th Division, was fighting its way to the north-west, to the Indies. The remains of the Burmese 1st and Indian 17th Divisions were retreating to Kalewa. The retreat was made under the cover of the air forces based in the Indies; they supplied the retreating troops with ammunition, food and medicines, and evacuated 8,610 soldiers, including 2,600 ill and wounded.

On 12 May 1942 began the rainy season, which added troubles to the exhausted troops along the last sector of the 1,448km of their retreat, which took three and a half of month of time. But torrential rains also stalled the enemy pursuit. On 19 May the troops crossed the borders of the Indies. Only 12,000 troops, or 30% of the initial manpower, escaped the Burmese trap. Local fights in the mountains of northern Burma lasted till 6 June 1942. Altogether, British, Burmese and Indian forces engaged in the fights in Burma lost 13,463 men, in this 4,033 killed and wounded, and 9,430 missing. They lost 116 planes as well. Out of 400,000 refugees, 300,000 made it to the Indies. Others died on the way from hunger, diseases, fatigue and bombardments. Japanese losses are estimated for 4,597 men and 117 planes.

Thus Great Britain lost another colony rich in natural resources, while China was cut off the Burmese ports and Burmese supply routes; whereas the Japanese gained easy access to the Indian Ocean.