The British army’s retreat from Burma to India in 1941 was its longest in geographical terms. Many thought that the geography of Burma made a land assault all but impossible but the Japanese disproved this theory and in the face of this onslaught the only alternate open to General Alexander was to retreat and reorganise his forces in India.
The first attacks against the Burma Army started in December 1941. Commanded by General Hutton, the army lost the battle for Rangoon and lost control of the Burma Road to China. By February 1942, it became clear that the British forces in Burma were not going to stop the Japanese and between March and May 1942 a retreat took place of these forces, which included remnants of the Chinese Army, under the command of General Alexander. Delaying the Japanese advance towards India until May was vital as that was the month in which the monsoon was expected and few believed that the Japanese could continue their advance in the monsoon.
Burma was vital to the Allies war effort. It contained the only viable route through which the US could supply the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese. Churchill and Roosevelt both believed that it was vital to supply the Chinese. If the Chinese could maintain their fight against the Japanese, then the might of the Japanese army was split. If the fight in China faltered, then the Japanese had the opportunity to transfer a lot more men to the various campaigns in both Asia and the Pacific.
When Burma was invaded, her defences were small and dispersed. This was the result of the belief held by many senior military figures that an attack on Burma’s eastern border was all but impossible. In August1940, the Chiefs-of-Staff reviewed the situation and concluded that such an invasion “was a comparatively remote threat”. As a result only 2 battalions of British troops were stationed there along with 4 battalions of the Burma Rifles. Nine battalions of the Burmese Military Police guarded the border but they were also used for internal security, so their presence was dispersed throughout the country.
When Japan attacked, the two British battalions stationed in Burma were the 1st Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment and the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. However, men from both battalions had been sent to India and to the UK for a variety of reasons and neither battalion was capable of fielding its full compliment of men.
The RAF was also very weak in Burma. Only the 67 (Fighter) Squadron existed with 16 Buffalo aircraft. The four principal airfields were at Victoria Point, Tavoy, Moulmein and Mergui. These were vital as refuelling points for aircraft flying on to Singapore. The RAF was supported by one squadron of AVG (American Volunteer Group) who flew Tomahawk P-40’s.
Communication between the air bases was poor. There was only one radio-direction finding set that could be used and the Burma Observation Corps had no wireless and had to rely on an inefficient telephone and telegraph system. Therefore, the aircraft that did exist in Burma were very exposed to an attack.
The Chinese Nationalists offered two whole armies for the defence of Burma but Wavell only accepted one division from the 6th Army. This offended the Chinese led by Chiang Kai-Shek but there was little they could do about it. However, Wavell’s decision not to accept help almost certainly stemmed from his “long-established contempt for the Japanese soldier which was a ‘thing’ with him from which he never deviated” (Brigadier Sir John Smyth).
Rangoon was first bombed on December 23rd 1941. The docks were badly damaged and the authorities had great difficulty in getting the port to function.
The Japanese Southern Army attacked Burma on January 15th 1942. By January 30th, it had reached Moulmein. Vital air bases swiftly fell to the Japanese.
Overall command for the Burma front was with General Wavell as commander of Allied troops in Southeast Asia. However, he was based 2,000 miles away in Java. His lack of understanding as to what was going on is best shown by a telegraph sent to General Hutton in Rangoon:
“I have every confidence in judgement and fighting spirit of you and Smyth, but bear in mind that continual withdrawal, as experience in Malaya showed, is most damaging to morale of troops, especially Indian troops. Time can often be gained as effectively and less expensively, by bold counter-offensive. This especially so against Japanese.”
The telegram was sent in reply to a request to withdraw troops to a position that Hutton felt was easier to defend. Hutton, after a short delay, ignored this and ordered a withdrawal across the River Sittang on February 19th. This withdrawal barely altered the final outcome and Rangoon fell to the Japanese on March 8th – though the British had already left the city.
Those who remained could not go south or east as the Japanese held these areas and the terrain would have made movement very difficult. West of Rangoon was the Bay of Bengal and the shipping did not exist in the region that could cope with so men. Therefore, they could only move north towards the Indian border. Thus began the longest retreat in the history of the British Army.
The Japanese had effective control of the air thus making any form of aerial supply very difficult and dangerous. Much movement on the ground was done at night for the same reason.
The Japanese started a major attack against the British on April 1st near Prome, some 200 miles north of Rangoon. On April 2nd, the Japanese commander, General Iida, established his headquarters at Toungoo deep in the heart of Burma. Here they found that the bridge over the River Sittang had not been destroyed so that gave the Japanese an advantage with regards to moving their men and equipment.
As the Japanese pressed on, General Alexander, who had replaced Hutton, decided that the British, Burmese and Chinese armies had to make a stand, which they did near Mandalay. Fierce fighting held up the Japanese but it could not alter the final outcome. General Alexander made the decision on April 26th to withdraw all men to India.
Staging points were made along the route to ensure that fuel and water was available. Burcorps started their withdrawal immediately despite the obvious logistical problems such a withdrawal posed. On April 29thAlexander held a meeting with his commanders at Shwebo. Here on April 30th he received the news that the Japanese had rushed forward their advance and had taken the town of Monywa, less than 50 miles to the west of Shwebo – effectively a day away. What Alexander hoped would be a controlled retreat based on a strict timetable became anything but this.
On May 15th, it started to rain hard. For the British and their allies this was a mixed blessing. It brought further discomfort to the troops but it also greatly hindered the advance of the Japanese who relied on transport to advance their men at speed – something they could not do if the roads/tracks were churned up.
“On the last day of the retreat I watched the rear-guard march into India. All of them, British, Indian and Ghurkha were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows. Yet, as they trudged behind their surviving officers in groups pitifully small, they still carried their arms and kept their ranks. They might look like scarecrows but they looked like soldiers too. They did not expect to be treated like heroes, but they did expect to be met as soldiers, who, even if defeated, were by no means disgraced.”
The five-and-a-half month campaign in Burma led to a 1000-mile retreat. The British suffered 10,036 casualties of which 3,670 were killed. The Burmese Army lost a further 3,400 men killed and wounded.
The RAF had lost 116 aircraft, 65 being lost in combat.