|Second World War - Burma & India|
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The British colonial possession of Burma was a rich prize for the Japanese - partly for its oil, rice and rubber, partly as a stepping stone westward into India, partly as a buffer against the Chinese in the north. Within a week of their initial attacks across southeast Asia on 8 December 1941 the Japanese had reached Burma, and after air raids on the Burmese capital, Rangoon, they began invading from Siam early in 1942. British and Indian forces in Burma included elements of the 17th Indian Infantry Division – Jats, Rajputs and Gurkhas were involved, among many others from the Indian subcontinent. The Indian, British and Burmese troops were forced to commence a long withdrawal. At one point, thanks to the premature demolition of a bridge across the Sittang River, half the 17th Indian Division found itself marooned on the wrong side of the river. Most of the men managed to reach safety, but all their equipment was lost. By 9 March the Japanese had captured Rangoon. In April they crushed the Chinese, in May they pushed the Allied British and Indian forces back into India. By the end of 1942 the Japanese had consolidated their position in Burma - one of the most difficult places on earth to fight in with its thick jungles, razorback mountains, steep wild valleys and plethora of debilitating and deadly tropical diseases. Recapturing the country would take the Allies' 14th Army – known with bitterly realistic humour as the ‘Forgotten Army’ - three years of desperate fighting.
The 14th Army, under its Commander General Sir William Slim, was the Second World War’s largest Army of Commonwealth troops. It had nearly a million men in its service by late 1944. At different periods of the war four corps (IV, XV, XXXIII and XXXIV) were under its control, and at various times a total of thirteen divisions – the 5th, 7th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 25th and 26th Indian Divisions, the 11th East African Division, the 81st and 82nd West African Divisions, and the 2nd and 36th British Divisions.
Late in 1942 a preliminary Allied offensive was launched from India into the Arakan peninsula in north-west Burma. The 14th Indian Division was among the forces that advanced into the Arakan and down the Mayu range of hills between the Kalapanzin River and the Arakan coast. But in spite of attacks against the Japanese early in 1943, the offensive ended in failure. This was the occasion on which the Chindits, desperadoes bent on sabotage, infiltrated deep behind enemy lines for the first time. They lost one in three of their number. (See Tilbahadur Thapa (Nepal))
At the start of the dry season in early 1944 the 14th Army launched a second offensive into Arakan. The Indian Air Force supported this offensive, with No 6 Squadron among those in the thick of the action in February against Japanese ‘Oscar’ fighters. The Indian contingent of ground troops included the 5th and 25th Indian Divisions. In the Mayu hills the 5th tried and failed to capture Hill 551, a vital strongpoint which commanded a section of the Maungdaw-Buthidaung road between two tunnels. It was the 25th Indian Division that accomplished the task in February, during a final attack in which a Gurkha battalion assaulted and captured strong Japanese fortifications. The Indians and Gurkhas were not the only non-British Allied troops to distinguish themselves. The 81st West African Division – later reinforced by the 82nd West African Division - comprised men from the Gold Coast (See Aziz Brimah (Gold Coast)), Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia. The 11th East African Division incorporated battalions of the King’s African Rifles and other forces from Kenya, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Somaliland (Somalia) and Tanganyika (Tanzania). These Africans – considered by some of their own British officers to have been undervalued and underused as front-line troops by the British commanders – proved extremely hardy and tenacious in several battles, both as combatant soldiers and as medical staff, carriers and other auxiliary participants.
|Askaris (East African soldiers) being trained for the war in Burma|
© Imperial War Museum
Almost simultaneously with the start of the second Allied offensive into Arakan, the Japanese launched an offensive of their own. A diversionary thrust in Arakan, codenamed Ha-Go, drew attention away from the main U-Go offensive westward by 80,000 Japanese troops into the north-eastern Indian province of Assam. The hill settlements of Imphal and Kohima lay in their path, and were to prove their stumbling blocks.
By February 1944 the 2,000 defenders of Kohima were besieged; those at Imphal surrounded. But General Sir William Slim's 14th Army resisted countless Japanese attacks, often in the grimmest of hand-to-hand fighting. Kohima was besieged for 64 days of intense fighting, with the Japanese occupying all the heights but one around the town. The famous Battle of the Tennis Court saw Allied and Japanese soldiers exchanging grenade and small-arms fire from positions separated only by the width of the District Commissioner’s tennis court. Most of the medical staff were Indians, working in appalling conditions – at one point they had to launch a raid on the Japanese stores to secure medical supplies. The siege was initially relieved on 19 April. In May the 7th Indian Division arrived as reinforcements, and it was Indians and Gurkhas who succeeded in taking the strategically essential high point of Church Knoll from the Japanese.
The town of Imphal possessed important airfields, and for three months the Japanese held the Imphal-Kohima road while they tried to over-run Imphal. On 30 March the siege began, a few days before the 17th Indian Division reached the plain surrounding Imphal after a fighting withdrawal that had lasted three weeks. The 17th were soon in action, fighting the Japanese south-west of Imphal. The 5th Indian Division met the first Japanese attacks, and it was the 23rd Indian Division that experienced some of the worst fighting in May. However, counter-attacks began to turn into solid advances. On 22 June the 5th Indian Division met the British 2nd Division on the Kohima-Imphal road, which was reopened to end the siege.
|A unit of the 7th Indian Division, part of the 14th Army, on the Arakan Front, Burma|
© Imperial War Museum
It was air supply that had kept both sets of defenders in the game. By June the Japanese U-Go offensive had come to a halt. Around 12,000 Indian casualties had been sustained, out of a total of almost 18,000 Allied killed, wounded and missing. Of nearly 100,000 Japanese soldiers who took part in the U-Go offensive, only about 20,000 recrossed the River Chindwin unscathed. Some 30,000 had been killed in battle, and another 23,000 were wounded or fell victim to disease.
The rest of the year was spent chasing the Japanese back through the jungles of Burma. The 82nd West African Division played a vital part here in front-line combat and as carriers. The Askaris or soldiers of 11 East African Division, which included the Kenyans and the Ugandans of the King's African Rifles, proved notable jungle fighters, especially in the notoriously disease-ridden Kabaw Valley (‘Death Valley’) near the Indian border towards the end of 1944. The Gurkhas of Nepal fought extremely bravely in the Burmese jungle - some as attack infantry, others as expert forward patrollers and snipers.
In December 1944 the 14th Army launched its third and decisive Arakan offensive. The 11th East African Division advance to the River Chindwin, capturing the town of Kalewa. The key port of Akyab was secured by the Indian 25th Division in January 1945. On the 14th of that month the 19th Indian Division crossed the Irrawaddy north of Mandalay, and a month later the 20th Indian Division got across south of the city. Kangaw was taken by 51 Brigade of the 25th Indian Division. Mandalay itself fell on 19 March to the 19th Indian Division. On 1 May Indian paratroops landed to the south of Rangoon; the following day saw unopposed amphibious attacks into the city. By 3 May the Burmese capital – along with most of the country - was back in Allied hands.
Though Burma saw the majority of the fighting, India herself became a vast supply and training base during the war, as well as a launching point for air, sea and land offensives against the Japanese. India’s southerly island neighbour, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), also became a base for Allied operations, particularly for naval forces based on the two great harbours of Trincomalee and Colombo. On 5 April 1942, Colombo was attacked by over 300 aircraft from Japanese carriers. Although they failed to find the British ships – which had been moved to Adalu Atoll, 600 miles south of Ceylon – they did enormous damage. Later, Japanese dive-bombers attacked and sank the aircraft carrier Hermes, as well as the cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire.