| 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.