Burma played a significant part in World War Two for the British Army. It was in Burma, that Orde Wingate and the Chindits found fame and it was in Burma where the Japanese Army suffered serious military setbacks that led to them retreating back east.
The Japanese had advanced to Burma as her army had steamrollered all before it between 1942 and 1943. The British had surrendered at Singapore and the Americans, lead by Douglas MacArthur, had left the Philippines. As the Japanese advanced west, they came to Burma. Here their supply lines were stretched to the limit and only a minority of the Japanese Army was stationed there – the majority were in the Pacific region.
The main threat to the Japanese came from ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell’s Chinese Army in India (CAI). The Indian Army, under the British, had lost their best men to the campaign in North Africa. The British military hierarchy was also only prepared to take on the Japanese when it felt that British troops were sufficiently trained in jungle warfare.
In January 1943, Indian troops were given the task of advancing along the Burmese coast to the port of Akyab. This was done by the 14th Indian Division. They found only light Japanese resistance and many Japanese posts were manned by just a few soldiers. The real problem for the Allies was the environment. Burma was criss-crossed with jungle, mountains, rivers and mangrove swamps. Moving equipment was a nightmare across such hazardous terrain and worse was the constant threat of disease. Malaria was a very real problem.
Where the Japanese were stationed, they had dug themselves in. This made attacking them difficult as their bunkers had been well constructed and well camouflaged. Most could only be destroyed by heavy artillery and moving such equipment about in Burma was extremely difficult. Combined to the well-placed and well-built bunkers, was the fighting spirit of the Japanese who fought until death.
The 14th Indian Division launched a series of attacks against the Japanese at Akyab but after six weeks they had to pull back as a result of a Japanese counter-attack. The 14th Division returned to India – apparently highly demoralised as a result of their experience.
Stilwell attacked the Japanese in the north of Burma. The Chinese Army in India (CAI) was made up of men who Stilwell had brought out of China in 1942. At this time, China was ’governed’ by Chiang Kai-shek though his country was in disarray with the occupation by the Japanese and the rebellion by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Stilwell was to prove a remarkable leader of these men.
Stilwell was probably the only man who could have commanded such a force as the CAI. He was a foreigner and that usually meant that he was held in deep suspicion by the Chinese. However, Stilwell spoke fluent Chinese and was highly knowledgeable about their culture and customs. As such, he was well respected by those in the CAI. Stilwell trained the force as if it was an American unit. Officers were expected to train as well as men and discipline played a very large part in their training. The officers in the CAI were Chinese, so it could not be labelled a colonial army. Stilwell maintained control of the CAI by having his own liaison officers in the unit. His biggest problem was Chiang Kai-shek who felt that he had a right to get involved in the unit as it was made up by men from China. Stilwell was a man who liked to get things done – Chiang Kai-shek wanted a more cautious approach.
The first task of the CAI was to move south as it was effectively trapped in the north of Burma and could only be supplied by air. This was expensive and left the planes open to attack. By moving south, the CAI would have to engage the Japanese in combat. By 1943, the Japanese had become defensive in nature, primarily because of the position it found itself in. However, though the Japanese army had become defensive in mentality, this did not mean that it was passive.
The Japanese had built a series of forts throughout Burma and managed to inflict some reverses on both the British/Indian army stationed there and also on the CAI. Led by Lieutenant-General Tanaka, the Japanese remained a formidable enemy but Tanaka was unable to exploit these successes. Why?
Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell had given a seemingly eccentric British officer the task of organising a military force that could operate behind the lines of the Japanese. The officer was Orde Wingate and the force was the legendary Chindits – named after the stone tigers that guarded temples in Burma. The Chindits used classic guerrilla tactics against the Japanese, attacking Japanese forces where they least expected an attack. Ably supported by the Gurkhas, the Chindits used deep-penetration tactics and worked in small groups – thus making their detection very difficult. They used the jungle for cover and kept in contact using field radios.
The first Chindit operation lasted for three months. Of the 3,000 men who had gone out, only 2,200 returned and only 600 of these men were considered to be fit for further operations. However, the first assault by the Chindits was portrayed as a success by those in charge of Allied forces in the Far East. For the first time, the Japanese army had been seriously weakened where the Chindits had taken them on. Japanese communication lines had been cut as had the railway serving the north of Burma. Despite the losses to the Chindits, the boost to the morale of Allied forces, especially in India, was huge. It also showed the British army the way ahead – the use of unconventional forces could do untold damage to the previously undefeated and seemingly invincible Japanese army.
However, the Japanese also learned that remaining static in Burma made it vulnerable – hence its decision to attack Imphal, the place where the British were building up their supplies in readiness for the liberation of Burma.