The Burma Campaign

The Burma Campaign

Welcome to the Burma Campaign website.

The campaign was the longest fought by the British in the Second World War.  In December 1941, it began, for the British, with disaster, retreat and irreversible loss of face in front of the subject population.  It ended, in August 1945, in triumph with the total defeat of the occupying Japanese army.

In the end Japan suffered her greatest defeat on land in her history and the chief instrument of that defeat was the Indian Army.  Largely officered by Britons but manned by representatives of every race from pre-partition India, the Indian Army had a unique character and in 1945 achieved its finest hour, setting many proud traditions for the current Indian and Pakistani armies.  Fighting alongside the Britons, Indians and Gurkhas, there were also East and West Africans, Burmese, Karens and Kachins, Americans and Canadians, and Chinese.

But this would come later.  In 1942, a collection of British, Indian and Burmese units was fielded against the Japanese invaders.  The Burmese units forming the Burma Army were largely ill-prepared to meet this invasion and suffered badly.  Those who survived trekked to India where in the Autumn of 1942 they were re-organised and re-equipped before returning to action.  The 2nd Burma Rifles served with distinction as a reconnaissance unit with the “Chindits” behind Japanese lines.  The Burma Regiment was formed and took part in the final stages of the campaign.  The Regiment’s 1st Battalion went to Sumatra following the Japanese surrender.  The Burma Intelligence Corps provided interpreters for British, Indian and African units.  Levies were raised to harry the Japanese inside occupied Burma and some, organised by the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), in 1945 inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating Japanese.

Until now, the story of these Burma Army units has not been told in any great depth.  Nearly all official documents describing the experiences of these units were lost in the retreat to India in 1942.  However, it has been possible to piece together the histories of the Burma Rifles, the Burma Frontier Force, the Burma Military Police and others, using surviving war diaries, documents and personal accounts.  These histories are presented here.

The story of the Burma campaign is multi-facetted.  The fighting took place not only in jungle but in mountains and across the arid Burmese plain, baked as dry as a desert in the summer sun.  Men often fought face-to-face and hand-to-hand but the campaign became very much a modern war seeing the airlifting of entire divisions, aerial re-supply, landings by glider, casualty evacuation from small jungle airstrips and the deployment of landing craft in support of sea borne invasions and river patrols.

The country and its climate were the enemy of both sides.  Disease and infection could and did decimate armies - tick-borne scrub typhus, malaria, leeches and "jungle ulcers" representing just a few of the medical hazards faced by the combatants.  Nor must one forget the monsoon - a period of months when the rain falls in steady sheets day after day, creating conditions where a soldier’s clothing would literally rot off his back.

Why was the campaign fought? Allied aims were to keep open an overland supply route to the Chinese, thus pinning down a large Japanese army, and to re-conquer a part of the British Empire.  However by the time the Burma Road had been reopened and extended, the war was nearly over and aircraft had taken over from trucks, carrying more supplies over the "Hump" than could be carried by land.  Furthermore, once re-conquered, Burma soon became independent and within three years had left the British Commonwealth, being the first country to do so.

And yet the campaign was not a failure.  It had to be fought to ensure that the Japanese had no opportunity of securing any kind of peace with the United States and her Allies by virtue of possessing a large mainland empire.  A Japanese invasion of India was essential to achieving such a position and the defence of Burma was essential to the defence of India.  There can be few who would accept that the displacement of the British Empire by that of the Japanese was in the long term interests of the local populations, especially given that the British had already committed themselves to a process that would, in time, grant independence.

In 1948, the newly independent country was bequeathed a new Burma Army, trained by the British and formed from veterans of the Japanese war.  Many of the officers and men had served with the British against the Japanese and others had, for a time, fought as allies of the Japanese.  The first task of the new Army was to restore and maintain internal security.  During the civil strife that followed within a year of independence, the Burma Army split along ethnic and political lines – several of the new units defected to those opposed to the Government whilst others distinguished themselves in support of the Government.

This website is dedicated to all who served and especially to those who did not return home.

15 November 2017