The Burma Campaign

The New Burma Army, 1945-1949

Preparations for a New Army

During 1944 the Burma Government in exile at Simla in India began to consider the restoration of its administration over Burma in the wake of the eventual Japanese defeat.  Among the many issues to be addressed were the:

- Future role of existing Burma Army units currently administered by and operating under the control of General Headquarters India, G.H.Q.(I)

- Reorganisation and employment of men of the Burma Defence Force who were released to return to their homes following the defeat and withdrawal to India in 1942.[1]

On 24th November 1944, G.H.Q.(I) passed on to the Headquarters, Allied Land Forces South East Asia, ALFSEA, proposals made by the Burma Government for the evaluation of the men released in 1942, either returnees or deserters.  The Burma Government proposed to raise:[2]

- Administrative units to screen the men of the Burma Rifles, Burma Frontier Force, Burma Military Police and the Levies who remained in Burma in terms of their loyalty to the British colonial government and general suitability and health for continued employment

- Operational units, mainly infantry battalions, to absorb approved personnel up to a total of 26,000 for employment on internal security duties within Burma.

The proposed administrative units to conduct the screening were seven Holding and Enquiry Centres.  Of these one was currently being raised for deployment at Myitkyina, to work with mainly Kachin tribes people.  Within the General Headquarters, India, the department responsible for the administration of Burma Army units in India and Burma and known as Burma Section, also asked for the immediate raising of a second such unit for deployment to the Falam District of the Chin Hills.[3]  Also to be raised was an Advanced Depot (Burma) for which official sanction had already been given.[4]

The proposals also documented the requirement for four new infantry battalions, two Kachin and two Chin, raised from men of the Kachin and Chin Levies respectively.  It was noted that additional battalions would be raised later as the re-occupation of Burma progressed.  Other units to be retained or reorganised were the Burma Signals, the Burma Army Service Corps (B.A.S.C.) and the Burma Hospital Corps.  It was recognised that fulfilment of these plans would require the availability of the necessary number of officers, some of whom would have to be found from the Indian establishment.  It seems the proposals were accepted in full.[5]

By April 1945 the units of the Burma Army were:[6]

Formed Units:

- 1st Battalion, The Burma Regiment - an active infantry battalion operating with the 14th Army in Burma as part of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, 5th Indian Infantry Division

- 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under the Line of Communication Command on internal security duties the Shwebo-Mandalay area of Burma

- 4th Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under the Line of Communication Command on internal security duties in the Arakan

- 10th Battalion, The Burma Regiment - the holding battalion of the Burma Regiment, under the Central Command, G.H.Q. India, located at the Training Centre at Hoshiarpur, the main base of the Burma Army in India [Author’s note: This is an error in the original document for the 10th Battalion was reorganised into the Burma Regimental Centre with effect from 1st July 1943.  From this date the reinforcement battalion within the B.R.C. acted as the holding battalion for the Regiment.]

- 25th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under 202 Area, Line of Communication command undertaking internal security and garrison duties and shortly due to move into Burma

- 26th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under Eastern Command, G.H.Q. India, guarding Prisoner of war camps at Jhikargacha, East Bengal, and regarded as being of a good standard, fit only for garrison duties.

- 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles - under Central Command, G.H.Q. India and located at Hoshiarpur.  Having served with Special Force (the Chindits), was currently converting to an internal security role and was earmarked for service with ALFSEA in Burma

- The Chin Hills Battalion, The Burma Regiment - serving under the 14th Army attached to the 7th Indian Infantry Division in Burma[7]

- Burma Regimental Centre - at Hoshiarpur; acting as the Depot and Records Office for all Burma Army units other than the Burma Auxiliary Force, the B.H.C. Depot and H.Q. Burma Army; authorised to hold 20% reserves for all corps based on the Centre; the Reinforcement Battalion of the Centre acted as a Holding Battalion for 20% reserves of the Burma Regiment

- Advanced Depot (Burma).

Other Formed Units:

There were also a number of signal, medical, Burma Army Service Corps (B.A.S.C.) and other miscellaneous units, most of which came under the control of H.Q. ALFSEA.  A number of these units, including the medical units, were providing assistance to the Civil Affairs Service, Burma, known as C.A.S.(B), operating in the reconquered areas.  There were also sixteen platoons of the Burma Intelligence Corps operating with various formations of the 14th Army.

Units Being Formed:

- 1st Kachin Rifles - raised from the Northern (Kachin) Levies and formed on 2nd February 1945, was under Line of Communication Command at Myitkyina on internal security duty[8]

- 2nd Kachin Rifles - just begun forming under the Line of Communication Command at Bhamo

- 1st Chin Rifles - raised from the Western (Chin) Levies on 1st April 1945, under Line of Communication Command in the Chin Hills on internal security duty

- 2nd Chin Rifles – also began raising on 1st April 1945 from former Western (Chin) Levies, under Line of Communication Command in the Chin Hills on internal security duty.

Administrative Units:

- No.1 Holding and Enquiry Centre (Burma) - operating under the Line of Communication Command at Myitkyina

- No.2 Holding and Enquiry Centre (Burma) - operating under the Line of Communication Command at Tiddim, in the Chin Hills

- No.s 3 and 4 Holding and Enquiry Centres (Burma) – currently forming.

Planned Expansion:

- Two Karen and one Burman (Burma Rifles) battalions to be formed in the Toungoo-Bassein area

- No.s 5, 6 and 7 Holding and Enquiry Centres (Burma)

- Additional service units.

Given the possibility that a larger number of Burman men of the Burma National Army, trained by and until recently allied with the Japanese, might become available for enlistment it was thought that additional Burma Rifles battalions would need to be raised to absorb them.[9]

By the beginning of May 1945 the raising of the new units had been scheduled as part of a phased programme:[10]

Infantry Battalions:  

Phase 1:

- 1st Kachin Rifles – formed at Tingpai (between Sumprabum and Myitkyina) on 1st February 1945[11] and moving to Myitkyina, expected readiness date: June 1945

- 1st Chin Rifles - formed at Falam on 1st April 1945,[12] expected readiness date: 15th June 1945

Phase 2:

- 2nd Kachin Rifles - to be raised at Bhamo (formed June 1945 [13]), ready by December 1945

- 2nd Chin Rifles - to be raised at Tiddim (formed April/May 1945 [14]), ready by December 1945

Phase 3:

- 1st Burma Rifles - to be raised at Meiktila beginning 1st June 1945, formed of Burmese personnel of the pre-war Army who had returned to their homes in 1942

- 1st Karen Rifles - to be raised at Toungoo beginning 1st June 1945

- 2nd Karen Rifles - to be raised at Bassein beginning 1st July 1945

- 3rd Burma Rifles - to begin forming after the completion of the 1st Burma Rifles[15]

Holding and Enquiry Centres:

Phase 1:

- No.1 Holding & Enquiry Centre - located at Myitkyina, in position

- No.2 Holding & Enquiry Centre - at Falam, in position

- No.3 Holding & Enquiry Centre – at Shwebo and en route to Meiktila

Phase 2:

- No.4 Holding & Enquiry Centre - being raised at Lashio

- No.5 Holding & Enquiry Centre - to be raised at Toungoo from 1st July 1945

- No.6 Holding & Enquiry Centre - to be raised at Bassein from 1st July 1945

- No.7 Holding & Enquiry Centre – to be raised at Moulmein from 1st July 1945

Existing Units:

- 1st Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under command of the 5th Indian Infantry Division, serving as the Divisional Headquarters Battalion

- 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under command of 505 District, Line of Communication Command on internal security duties in the Shwebo-Mandalay area

- 4th Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under command of 451 Sub-Area, Line of Communication Command on internal security duties in the Arakan

- 10th Battalion, The Burma Regiment - the holding battalion of the Burma Regiment, under the Central Command, G.H.Q. India, located at the Training Centre at Hoshiarpur, the main base of the Burma Army in India

- 25th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under command of Line of Communication Command on internal security duties

- 26th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment - under command of G.H.Q. India on PoW guard duties at Jhikargacha

- The Chin Hills Battalion, The Burma Regiment, then attached to the 7th Indian Division.

- 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles - located at Hoshiarpur. 

On 5th May 1945, Headquarters Burma Army wrote to the BURSEC to make a number of points regarding the raising of the new units.  The first item in the list pointed out that the Holding and Enquiry Centres had no authority or instructions for the processing of members of the P.B.F. (Patriotic Burma Forces) other than those who had once served with the Burma Defence Forces prior to the withdrawal in 1942.  It was proposed that these men be considered as civilians and that they should be processed instead by the Civil Affairs Service, Burma, known as C.A.S.(B), supported wherever possible by the Holding and Enquiry Centres.  This was perhaps a sign of lingering discomfort with the necessity to treat former enemies as allies and the plans to integrate them into the new Burma Army.  On the other hand it may have been a concern as to whether there was sufficient manpower to process these additional men.[16]

By June 1945 the seven Holding and Enquiry Centres and Advanced Depot had been formed.  Four infantry battalions, the two Kachin and two Chin battalions, were being raised and trained.  Three more had been formally sanctioned, two Karen battalions and one Burmese.[17]

Former Burma Rifles and Force 136 Officer, Neville Graham Hogan participated in the screening conducted by one of the Holding and Enquiry Centres.  He describes how former soldiers of the Burma Army who did not come out to India in 1942 were interviewed to ascertain their suitability for re-employment in the new Burma Army.  The outcome of the process was for the men to be classified as ‘White’, ‘Grey’ or ‘Black’.  Those classified as ‘White’ were allowed to rejoin while those determined to be ‘Grey’ were paid off and not re-enlisted, there being some doubt as to their loyalty or suitability.  Those found to be ‘Black’ were simply sent away with no money.  In 1945 Hogan went on to serve with the 2nd Karen Rifles and later participated in the Karen rebellion at Meiktila in 1949.[18]

Also in June the question of control of the new Burma Army arose.  The Governor of Burma pointed out that Burmese public opinion would be against having the Burma Army controlled from India and therefore recommended the transfer of control from G.H.Q.(I) to H.Q. ALFSEA and the relocation to Burma of Burma Army units then serving in India. For their part, G.H.Q.(I) believed it necessary to retain the command of Burma Army units located in India until they had been moved to Burma.  Sufficient transport to move the Burma Army into Burma would not be available until October 1945.  However given the agreement between the Supreme Allied Commander, Mountbatten, and the Governor of Burma to enlist suitable men of the "Local Burmese Forces" - the Patriotic Burmese Force - into the regular Burma Army, it was a matter of some urgency that Burmese speaking officers and other ranks be sent to Burma as early as possible to assist with the supervision, enrolment, training and administration of these men.  At the time, late June 1945, No.s 6 and 7 Holding and Enquiry Centres (Burma) and the Advanced Deport (Burma) were available for immediate transfer.  Also available were cadre personnel from the Burma Regimental Centre and the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles together with some 24 officers for new Burma Army battalions.  A group of eight officers and 30 other ranks were being flown to Mingaladon at that time.[19]

The eventual future of the remaining five battalions of the Burma Regiment had also to be decided.  In June 1945 the Burma Regiment comprised the:[20]

- 1st Battalion, consisting of Sikhs and Punjabi Mussalmen and located in Burma??

- 2nd Battalion, consisting of Gurkhas and Kumaonis and also located in Burma

- 4th Battalion consisting of Gurkhas and located in the Arakan

- 25th Garrison Battalion located in Burma

- 26th Garrison Battalion located at Jhikargacha

- Burma Regimental Centre at Hoshiarpur, holding reinforcements for the battalions and acting as Regimental Depot.

The Government of Burma wished to no longer employ troops of Indian origin following the reorganisation of the Burma Army and it was planned that these men would mustered out of service.  However it was desired that two battalions of Gurkhas be retained.  This led to an approximate total of 3,300 troops of Indian ethnicity who would no longer be required by the Burma Army in the future.  It was hoped that many of the men might be re-enlisted in the Indian Army following their discharge from the Burma Regiment.  For the time being however all were to be retained until the Burma Army was of sufficient size and proficiency.  It was thought, therefore, that of the 140 officers and 7,600 men of the Burma Army in India around 140 officers and 5,600 men would need to be moved to Burma, the difference of 2,00 being the men of Indian ethnicity.[21]

The concern for the Burma Government, given the certainty of Burmese independence at some point in the not too distant future, was the class (or ethnic) make up of the new Burma Army.  As of 30th June 1945 the strength of the Burma Army was given as 18,998 officers and men, broken down as follows:

- 1,494 British

- 13,257 Indians

- 76 Burmans of whom 40 were attached to Force 136

- 4,171 Kachins, Chins and Karens.

The situation was further confused by the planned inclusion of former B.N.A. troops, the Patriotic Burma Forces loyal to the Burmese nationalist movement.  At this time there was no certainty that future independence would feature a single state encompassing the pre-1941-42 borders and all the peoples therein.  If independence were to result in the creation of two or more states - Burman and tribal - then it might have been desirable to create two forces.  However, given the eventual aim of creating a single state the preferred approach became to create a single Burma Army with units organised along class/ethnic lines.[22] 

The Patriotic Burma Forces

The re-established Burma Army would eventually come to be organised from two distinct armies.  In 1945 by far the larger part was the thirteen plus battalions of British background including the war time units that had fought with the Indian Army.  The smaller part was the Patriotic Burmese Forces of Aung San, almost entirely Burman but including a few Karens.  The P.B.F. was the former Burma National Army, previously the Burma Independence Army that had been raised and trained with the help of the Japanese.  This nationalist force had participated in the Japanese invasion of 1942 and the subsequent occupation of Burma.  Understandably it was regarded with some antipathy and suspicion.

On 1st August 1943, the Japanese granted Burma a kind of independence.  The Burma Independence Army was renamed the Burma National Army (B.N.A.).  Recognising that the Japanese had merely replaced the British rather than providing the independence Burmese nationalists sought, in March 1945 the Burma National Army turned on the Japanese as the British Fourteenth Army advanced on Rangoon.  With the return of the British and the establishment of their interim military administration, the nationalist Anti-Fascist Organisation (A.F.O.), formed in August 1944, was transformed into a united front, comprising the Burma National Army, the Communists and the Socialists, and renamed the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (A.F.P.F.L.).

The British were eager to neutralise the Burma National Army, being unwilling to provide the nationalists with any platform that might result in resistance to the returning British.  The Supreme Allied Commander, Lord Louis Mountbatten did not want any disruption in the British rear to impact plans for the continuation of the war against Japan, most notably the invasion of Malaya.  The diversion of troops to deal with civil unrest and protect the lines of communication in Burma was to be avoided.  For their part the Burma nationalists were keen to co-operate with the British and wished for the Burma National Army to play a supporting role in British military operations.  Discussion between the two sides took place throughout May and June 1945, during which the B.N.A. was renamed the Patriotic Burma Forces (P.B.F.).  It was agreed that detachments of the P.B.F. would be processed one at a time and individuals assessed on suitability, security and medical grounds for future enlistment in the Burma Army.  All those assessed would be granted three months leave with pay after which they should report for final enlistment.  Those not suitable would be discharged and paid a gratuity.  All arms were to be handed in at the same time.  By these means the British hoped to assuage Aung San and his colleagues whilst achieving their goal of disbanding and disarming the P.B.F.  Assessment, registration and disbandment began on 30th June.[23]

Within a week of commencement however difficulties arose and further discussions took place.  One of the chief points put forward by Aung San and accepted by Mountbatten was that new battalions raised for the Burma Army should not be 'mixed' battalions of Burmans and hill people but 'class' battalions consisting of either Burmans or hill people.  During the rest of July and August it became clear that the P.B.F. was not disbanding and that arms were being retained.  To resolve the growing differences Mountbatten called a conference with representatives of the P.B.F. and the A.F.P.F.L. at Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  The outcome agreed upon by both sides was for a continuation of recruitment of P.B.F. members into the Burma Army as individuals and not by unit.  Despite further rumblings of discontent in October it seems that by December 1945 real progress was made.  A large quantity of arms was handed in and the P.B.F was effectively disbanded.  The procedures put in place successfully processed 8,324 members of the P.B.F. of whom 4,763 had volunteered and been found fit for enlistment in the Burma Army, namely with the new battalions of the Burma Rifles.  As later events would testify this did not, however, mean the end for the aspirations of the Burmese nationalists as later political events would prove.[24]

Building the New Burma Army

While the planned expansion of the new Burma Army proceeded, the war against the remaining Japanese forces in Burma continued under the command of H.Q. 12th Army.  After the Japanese surrender in August, the 12th Army remained in command of the ever reducing imperial garrison of Burma until 1st January 1946 when it was redesignated Headquarters Burma Command, with Lt. General Stopford in command.  However Stopford was soon appointed the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Allied Land Forces Netherlands (ALFNEI) and was succeeded on 30th January by Lt. General H.R. Briggs who had commanded the 5th Indian Infantry Division.  While ongoing 'dacoity' in many parts of Burma often involved the deployment of troops, the run down of British, Indian and African troops continued under a programme known as 'Epilogue Burma'.[25]

Within Burma Command were two higher formation headquarters.  Located at Rangoon was the Headquarters, South Burma District which was now reduced to a Brigadier's command as South Burma Area.  This placed the headquarters on the same level as the Headquarters North Burma Area at Maymyo.  In January 1946 there remained several British-Indian and Colonial formations under Burma Command.  These included the 82nd (West African) Infantry Division (left Burma July-August 1946), the 22nd (East Africa) Infantry Brigade (shortly to leave Burma), the 17th and 19th Indian Infantry Divisions (shortly to be amalgamated and reduced to a single division), the 1st Indian Armoured Brigade (formerly known as the 255th Indian Tank Brigade) and the Lushai Brigade.  There were also units of the Burma Army.[26]

Meanwhile the expansion of the new Burma Army continued.  By now four new Burma Rifles battalions had been raised or were in the process of forming, the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th Battalions.  In addition to the infantry battalions it was planned to form three artillery regiments as part of the Burma Artillery: the 1st Burma Field Regiment, the 1st Gurkha Field Regiment and the 1st Burma Anti-Tank Regiment (actually an anti-tank/mortar regiment).  Of these only two were formed; the 1st Burma Field Regiment and the anti-tank regiment, designated the 1st Chin Hills Anti-Tank Regiment and formed by conversion of the Chin Hills Battalion, The Burma Regiment on 1st November 1946.[27]

A suitable infrastructure to administer and deliver the training of the new battalions was required.  The Burma Regimental Centre moved from Hoshiarpur in India and by 1946 had been established at Maymyo for some time where it also acted as a depot and training centre, with its own Training Battalion at Myingyan.  Also at Maymyo was the 1st Reinforcement Battalion, The Burma Regiment and on 24th January 1946 the mainly Gurkha 2nd Reinforcement Battalion arrived at Meiktila from India.  On 1st January the Burma Army Officer's Training School (O.T.S.) opened at Maymyo.  The main focus of all these organisations was primarily the training of the new Burma Rifles battalions.[28]

The building of the new Burma Rifles battalions was set back by the lower than expected numbers of former P.B.F. men volunteering to join as other ranks.  By 23rd January 1946 only 1,100 former P.B.F. men had come forward, of whom 930 had been accepted.  By March this had risen to around 1,670 and eventually a total of 2,300 former P.B.F. other ranks recruits was reached, far less than had originally volunteered during assessment in late 1945 and less than the number agreed at Kandy in September 1945.  One reason for the shortfall was that Aung San had formed a new People's Volunteer Organisation, to provide a 'private army' with the potential to challenge the Burma Government.  By January 1946 the P.V.O. was around 3,500 strong.[29]

The situation regarding officers drawn from the former P.B.F. was much better and by March 1946 147 of the target of 200 had been commissioned, with the balance soon to be completed.  Most were recruited with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and underwent training at the Officer Training School, at a special establishment run by the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion at Kala and by subsequent attachment to experienced battalions of the Burma Regiment or to the 1st Chin Rifles.  For instance on 20th February 1946, 2nd Lieutenants San Shwe and Than Maung joined the 4th Battalion, The Burma Regiment on attachment.  At this time the Battalion remained involved in internal security duties in the Arakan.  The Burman Deputy Inspector General was Colonel Yet La, previously one of Aung San's principal aides.  For the time being the British insisted that the commanding officers of the four new Burma Rifles battalions should be British.  However in the 3rd and 4th Burma Rifles, two former P.B.F. officers, commissioned as Majors, were given the rank of Lt. Colonel and appointed as Commanding Officers designate in February 1946.[30]

Each Burma Rifles battalion underwent a 24 week basic training programme.  The programme was supplied by the Burma Regimental Centre together with a platoon of instructors.  A company of Gurkhas from the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion, The Burma Regiment was attached to each Burma Rifles battalion to perform regimental duties while the battalion completed training.  In the case of the 3rd Burma Rifles the attached company came instead from the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles which had arrived in Burma from Hoshiarpur on 14th January 1946.[31]

On 31st March the Headquarters Burma Command issued an order giving the future dispositions of the Army in Burma (Indian and Burma Armies).  The headquarters of Burma Command and the South Burma Area were to be at Rangoon and that of the North Burma Area to be at Mandalay.  The headquarters of the 17th Indian Division, in the process of merging with the 19th Indian Infantry Division, was at Meiktila with its four brigades centred on Maymyo, Kalaw, Pegu and the Rangoon-Mingaladon-Hmwabi area.  The then eleven battalions (presumably only those considered to be trained and ready) of the new Burma Army were to be stationed at ten cities and towns throughout Burma, with two in Rangoon and one in each of the others.  The Artillery Headquarters and a School of Artillery were to be at Meiktila and the Engineer centre at Maymyo, the location of the Burma Officer's Training School, the Burma Regimental Centre and the 1st Reinforcement Battalion.[32]

The Burma Rifles battalions were located as follows during 1946:

1st Burma Rifles - Meiktila

3rd Burma Rifles – came to be known as the “Bodyguard Battalion” and permanently stationed at Mingaladon[33]

4th Burma Rifles - Prome

5th Burma Rifles – Pyinmana.

The time came to put the new Burma Rifles battalions to the test.  In order that the 1st Burma Rifles might take up an internal security role, on 16th March 1946 two companies of Gurkhas were attached to the Battalion from the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion, The Burma Regiment.  Just over three months later the Battalion sent 'D' Company to Myingyan on internal security duties under a British Major.  The Company returned to the Battalion at Meiktila on 16th July.  Within the 4th Burma Rifles, 'A' and 'B' companies were the first to complete training at the end of August 1946.  During the last week of August they were sent on internal security duties to Thayetmyo under the command of the 4th Battalion, The Border Regiment.  They returned from internal security duties at Thayetmyo on 5th and 6th October 1946.[34]

While the new Burma Rifles battalions continued with their training took their first steps in an operational role, the existing regular Burma Army battalions were deployed as follows:[35]

- 1st Battalion, The Burma Regiment - after a short period at Singapore starting on 5th September 1945, on 22nd October the Battalion sailed for Palembang, Sumatra to help with the restoration of law and order as part of the Allied Land Forces Netherlands East Indies

- 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment - after undertaking internal security duties in the Shwebo-Mandalay area, in November 1945, the battalion moved to Lashio where in January it began an operation against Chinese 'dacoits' active in North Burma

- 4th Battalion, The Burma Regiment - continuing in the role of internal security in the Arakan, undertaking anti-'dacoit' activities

- 25th Garrison Battalion, The Burma Regiment - in the Rangoon area mainly on guard duties, where in June it provided the guard at Government House.  The Battalion disbanded at Rangoon on 15th July 1946

- 26th Battalion, The Burma Regiment - internal security duties, disbanded in August 1946

- The Chin Hills Battalion, The Burma Regiment - based in the Magwe area on internal security duties.  Moved to Thedaw in September 1946 to convert to the 1st Chin Hills Anti-Tank Regiment

- 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles - with many men on leave for the first months of 1946, the Battalion undertook internal security duties around Rangoon and provided a company to train the 3rd Burma Rifles.

The former Levy battalions were also active during late 1945 and throughout 1946:[36]

- 1st Chin Rifles - relieved the 6th Hyderabad Regiment on the Rangoon-Prome Road near Mingaladon in November 1945

- 2nd Chin Rifles - training

- 1st Kachin Rifles - internal security duties in North Burma

- 2nd Kachin Rifles - internal security duties in North Burma

- 1st Karen Rifles - training

- 2nd Karen Rifles - training.

Tensions rose during the latter half of 1946 with Aung San putting pressure on the British to accelerate the move to independence.  On 20th December 1946 the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, announced in Parliament that Burma would proceed to independence 'by the quickest and most immediate path possible', within or outside of the Commonwealth.  Although there was a constant background threat of anti-British civil disorder a further source of trouble was the split between The A.F.P.F.L. led by Aung San and the White Flag Communists who were eventually dismissed from the A.F.P.F.L.  Focused in Central Burma, this conflict grew, and led to a deterioration in internal security.  Between October and December there were several armed attacks by 'dacoits' against British patrols, inspired by the White Flag Communists.  The level of aggression shown by the 'dacoits' was of an unheard of nature.[37]

The Final British Draw Down and Independence

By the New Year of 1947 the strength of Burma Command was down to about 79,500 of which some 22,000 were Burma Army troops in various stages of effectiveness and training.  With the continuing draw down of British and Indian troops the handover of responsibility for internal security to the Burma Army was planned for 15th June 1947.  A first step was the formation within the Burma Army of the 1st Burma Brigade at Prome in January.[38]

Although an accord reached between the British and the majority of Burmese leaders agreed on 28th January 1947 reduced tensions in Rangoon, trouble still occurred in Central Burma, stirred up by the Communists aiming to disrupt the elections for Ministerial Burma scheduled for April.  In some areas the 'dacoits' were actually in control and in February Aung San asked for help and the Burma Government requested a military operation.  This was Operation “Flush” and 'Flush Force' was assembled to undertake it.  In addition to British and Indian units, the force also included the 5th Burma Rifles and three companies of the 4th Burma Rifles under the Burman Lt. Colonel Ne Win.  The operation began on 2nd March 1947 and was deemed over on 2nd May.  The men of the 4th and 5th Burma Rifles performed well.  In May, other security operations took place in the delta area where the 3rd Burma Rifles also gave a good account of itself.[39]

The planned hand over of responsibility to the Burma Army took place on schedule in June 1947.  That month Aung San's recently elected government approved the proposed order of battle but with two changes.  Firstly, while it had been planned to disband the remaining battalions of the Burma Regiment, at the last minute Aung San decided to retain the 2nd and 4th Battalions.  The disbandment of the 1st Battalion, however, went ahead.  Secondly, in August, the Burma Artillery was disbanded.  The 1st Chin Hills Anti-Tank Regiment reverted to infantry as the Chin Hills Battalion in November (but retained an anti-tank/mortar battery) and the 1st Field Regiment went into suspended animation, the men probably going on to join a further infantry battalion being formed, the 6th Burma Rifles.[40]

On 19th July 1947, Aung San and members of the Executive Council were murdered.  All parties moved quickly to ensure stability in the face of this act by extremists.  Progression to independence continued as did the British military withdrawal.  On that same date a second brigade headquarters was formed within Burma Army, the 2nd Infantry Brigade located at Toungoo.  As part of the transition of headquarters control to the new Burma Army, the Headquarters 64th Brigade Area at Maymyo, which had inherited the functions of H.Q. North Burma District on 1st August, merged with the H.Q. North Burma Area at Maymyo.  It was later renamed the North Burma Sub-District.  The 1st Infantry Brigade was attached to the North Burma Sub-District but remained directly under the command of Headquarters Burma Army.  In December 1947, the Headquarters South Burma Area and the 2nd Infantry Brigade were merged to become the South Burma Brigade Area at Mingaladon.  This headquarters was later renamed the South Burma Sub-District.[41]

Beginning in November 1947 the British commanding officers of the Burma Regiment and Burma Rifles battalions were replaced by the Burmese commanding officers designate.  Lt. Colonel Ne Win, former Commanding Officer of the 4th Burma Rifles, was promoted to Brigadier General and appointed commander of the North Burma Sub-District.  Lt. Colonel Saw Kyar Doe was similarly promoted to command the South Burma Sub-District.[42]  Similar changes in command occurred in the Chin, Kachin and Karen battalions.  On 22nd December 1947 Lt. Colonel Lian Chin Zam took over command of the Chin Hills Battalion from the British Lt. Colonel R.H.L. Webb.[43]

British rule ended at 04:20 on 4th January 1948 and the Headquarters Burma Command closed down.  A British Military Mission had been established on 14th December 1947 and this remained to advise and support what was now the Union of Burma Army.[44]

The composition and ethnic make up of the Burma Army at independence in 1948 was:[45]

- 1st Burma Rifles - Burman, former colonial Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police

- 2nd Burma Rifles - Karens and other non-Burmans, mainly colonial Burma Army  

- 3rd Burma Rifles - Burman, former P.B.F.

- 4th Burma Rifles - Burman, former P.B.F.

- 5th Burma Rifles - Burman, former P.B.F.

- 6th Burma Rifles - Burman, former P.B.F. at Pegu

- 1st Karen Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Karen Levies

- 2nd Karen Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Karen Levies

- 3rd Karen Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Karen Levies

- 1st Kachin Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Kachin Levies

- 2nd Kachin Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Kachin Levies

- 1st Chin Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Chin Levies

- 2nd Chin Rifles - former colonial Burma Army and ex-Chin Levies

- The Chin Hills Battalion - former colonial Burma Army, Burma Frontier Force/Burma Regiment (later in 1949 the Battalion became the 3rd Chin Rifles)

- 2nd Burma Regiment - former colonial Burma Army Gurkhas

- 4th Burma Regiment - former colonial Burma Army Gurkhas

The ethnic makeup and political leanings of the battalions are important for what followed after independence.

The Civil Wars of 1948-1950

In the first years of independence the government of the Union of Burma faced armed opposition from a wide range of dissident groups: [46]

- The Communists, of whom the major grouping was the Communist Party of Burma (C.P.B.) sometimes referred to as the “White Flags”, and the minority breakaway group, the “Red Flag” Trotskyites

- The People’s Volunteer Organisation (P.V.O.), a private army of former Burma National Army men raised by Aung San who made common cause with the Communists and mutineers from the Army

- Ethnic minorities seeking autonomy or independence, such as the Mons, the Karens and the Muslim Mujahideen in Northern Arakan.

Conflict with these groups came very close to toppling the new government of the Union of Burma at birth and resulted in the loss of more than half of the Burma Army.

The Burma Army itself was a hotbed of political tension.  The almost exclusively Burman officers of the Patriotic Burma Forces (P.B.F.) regarded colleagues from the former British Burma Army, mostly Karen, Kachin and Chin as well as Anglo-Indian and Sino-Burman, as "Pro-Western", "Pro-British" or "Rightist".  The immediate goal of ex-P.B.F. officers became the purging from the Army of "Rightists" in general and Karen officers in particular.  It was felt that Karen officers dominated the Burma Army and the ex-PBF officers were unhappy with the "scorched earth" and "slash and burn" tactics used by the Karen troops in anti-Communist counter-insurgency operations.  At the same time the ex-PBF officers were also threatened by Communist and pro-communist mutinies amongst the new Burma Rifles battalions.[47]

Government repression began to force the Communists into civil disobedience, strikes and mass protests.  On 27th March 1948 the government ordered the arrest of the Party’s leaders but most escaped and organised cadres in rural areas.  Armed fighting broke out on 2nd April 1948 and at first was mainly concentrated in the Pegu district whilst spreading throughout Central and Upper Burma.  Although they lost many of their initial gains, in May the Communists set up a temporary headquarters at Pyinmana.  Despite the launch of a leftist policy to counter the Communists’ appeal, the government suffered a severe reversal in June when elements of the 1st, 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles mutinied, with some members defecting to the rebels.  Agitators had undermined the reliability of the 2nd Burma Rifles and the only battalion the government could depend upon with confidence was the 4th Burma Rifles, once commanded by General Ne Win, now commander of the North Burma Area.[48]

A large area around Waw, Daik-U and Thantabin in Central Burma was quickly taken under Communist control.  However government forces recaptured much of this area within a couple of weeks.  In March, April and May 1948, elements of the Chin Hills Battalion and the 2nd Karen Rifles overcame insurgents operating in the Kyaukpadaung-Magwe-Myingyan area.  On 8th August the 1st Burma Rifles at Thayetmyo mutinied and the next day took over Prome and began to march on Rangoon.  They were caught in the open by fighter aircraft flown by pilots loyal to the government and suffered heavy casualties.  On 10th August 350 officers and soldiers of the 3rd Burma Rifles, led by Bo Ye Htut, and the No. 3 General Transport Company at Mingaladon airport also joined the mutineers and they too set off for Rangoon before also being halted by air strikes near Wanetchaung.  They retreated to Prome and linked up with the Communists.  The 2nd Karen Rifles at Meiktila was ordered to retake Prome, supported by the 1st Kachin Rifles which was flown down from Myitkyina to take part in the action.  Prome was retaken after stiff resistance and some Burmese politicians complained that the 2nd Karen Rifles had acted harshly against the local Burmese population.  Despite the complaints the 2nd Karen Rifles was left to garrison Prome and the surrounding area.  The surviving officers and men of the 1st and 3rd Burma Rifles and the Transport Company now went underground and formed the Revolutionary Burma Army (R.B.A.).  The 3rd Chin Rifles (formerly known as the Chin Hills Battalion) cleared a large area around Mount Popa of insurgents during July and August and then handed over to the 3rd Karen Rifles before returning to Meiktila on 3rd September.  In the middle of September the 3rd Chin Rifles mounted a very successful operation, code-named “Mahawk”, to clear the Kyaukpadaung area.  They killed over 100 insurgents for no loss.[49]

Meanwhile the Karens were becoming increasingly restless.  Many Karens had fought the Japanese in a guerrilla war and later many had been recruited by Force 136 to conduct further attacks against the Japanese.  Nationalist Burmans were encouraged by the Japanese to attack Karen villages in retaliation.  The reprisals were so vicious that the British leader of the Karens, Hugh Seagrim, surrendered to the Japanese in the hope of sparing the loyal Karens further harm.  During the run up to independence, these events, together with a historical mutual distrust between Burmans and Karens, led to formation of the Karen National Union (K.N.U.) in February 1947.  Many Karens favoured the formation of a separate Karen state at independence.  In July 1947, the K.N.U. formed its own armed militia, the Karen National Defence Organisation (K.N.D.O.).  The headquarters of the K.N.U. and the K.N.D.O. were on the Ahlone Road in Sanchaung, a suburb of Rangoon.  They paraded and performed daily drills quite openly.  In March 1948 the Mons, an ethnic minority living mainly in the coastal area around Moulmein who also favoured creating their own state, set up the Mon National Defence Organisation (M.N.D.O.).[50]

The K.N.D.O. and M.N.D.O. edged ever closer to open revolt and during August 1948 launched minor attacks on government posts, mainly in an attempt to acquire arms.  When the government tried to disarm the M.N.D.O. at Moulmein, the town was immediately seized by the K.N.D.O. and M.N.D.O.  Three days later, on 4th September, the town was returned to government forces after Prime Minister U Nu gave assurances that Karen autonomy would be considered seriously.  Hostilities between the government and the Karens ceased for the time being.

In the Arakan (Rakhine State), the Muslim ethnic minority, the Rohingya, had sought to establish greater autonomy or even independence from Burma.  The newly independent government of the Union of Burma refused to grant this and local fighters, Mujahideen, subsequently began to attack police stations and soldiers in the area.  By June 1948 government control of the Arakan was reduced to the city of Akyab and most of the northern portion of the state was in the hands of the Muslim insurgents.  In September 1948 part of the 5th Burma Rifles was surrounded by the Mujahid rebels north of Sittwe and reinforcements were rushed from Rangoon to their aid.  After several weeks of fighting the 3rd and 5th Burma Rifles and the 1st Chin Rifles were successful in driving the Mujahideen back into the jungles to the north of the state.[51] [52]

In November 1948 the government scored some successes over the P.V.O. and in December launched an offensive against the C.P.B.  However a series of massacres of Karens in late December triggered a full scale revolt by the K.N.D.O. which took over control of Twante near Rangoon on 1st January 1949.[53] 

The 2nd Kachin Rifles were sent from Nyaunglebin to Moulmein in late December 1948 to restore the Amherst and Thaton Districts of Tenasserim to government control.  Members of the K.N.D.O. and the M.N.D.O. had taken to carrying arms openly throughout the area.  In the second week of January 1949 the 2nd Chin Rifles were sent from Prome by sea to Moulmein to support the 2nd Kachin Rifles.  Having retaken the Amherst District, the 2nd Kachin Rifles were left to maintain security there while the 2nd Chin Rifles went on to re-occupy the Thaton District during February 1949.[54]

Two companies of the Chin Hills Battalion were sent to Loikaw in Karenni State to restore law and order by peaceful means.  They were later joined by two companies of the 6th Burma Rifles.  On 25th January one of the companies of the Chin Hills Battalion was ambushed near Haplaing and suffered almost total loss, with 29 officers and men killed, 49 captured and most of the remainder wounded.[55] 

The 1st Karen Rifles joined the K.N.D.O. rebellion at Toungoo between 24th and 29th January 1949.  K.N.D.O. militiamen took over the northern Rangoon suburb of Insein towards the end of January.  The K.N.D.O. was outlawed by the government on 30th January.  On 31st January fighting began in Insein.  On 1st February the government ordered all Karens to be purged from the Burma Army and officers and men either defected or were interned.  The 3rd Karen Rifles stationed in Mandalay and Maymyo were disarmed and interned. General Smith Dun was replaced by General Ne Win as commander of the Army.  By 2nd February Insein was occupied by around 2,000 K.N.D.O. troops.   The 2nd Karen Rifles at Prome mutinied on 5th February and attempted an unsuccessful advance on Rangoon, being defeated at Wetkaw, near Nattalin, by the 3rd Burma Rifles under Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing.  The 1st Kachin Rifles went over to the Karen rebels on 16th February 1949.  In February the 5th Burma Rifles were brought back from the Arakan to join the 3rd and 4th Burma Rifles and the 1st Chin Rifles battling with the K.N.D.O. at Insein.  During the second week of March the 2nd Chin Rifles were flown from Moulmein to Mingaladon and joined the 1st Chin Rifles in attacking Insein from the north.[56]

A joint force of the C.P.B. and the K.N.D.O., including members of the 1st Karen and the 1st Kachin Rifles, captured Meiktila on 20th February before going on to take Mandalay, Myitnge and Kume on 12th and 13th March.  Elements of the Chin Hills Battalion (at sometime in early 1949 redesignated as the 3rd Chin Rifles), two companies of the 6th Burma Rifles and a company of Gurkhas from the 4th Battalion, The Burma Regiment, withstood a 30 day siege at Thazi, to the east of Meiktila.  The siege was lifted on 8th April and Meiktila retaken the same day.  On the Pegu front, a Karen column of 2,000 men set off from Toungoo for Rangoon.  The column was delayed at Nyaunglebin for three days by the fierce resistance of the 2nd Burma Rifles.  Nyaunglebin fell on 20th April and the Karens resumed their march on Rangoon, taking Daik-U.  They were halted at Pegu on 1st May 1949 by companies of the 3rd, 5th and 6th Burma Rifles and the rebels were forced to retreat to Toungoo.  Toungoo became the new headquarters of the K.N.D.O.[57]

By now the crisis facing the government had been averted.  The fighting at Insein continued through into April, with the K.N.D.O. being bombarded by mortars, shelled by the naval vessel “May-yu” and bombed by the Burma air force.  The 1st and 2nd Chin Rifles advanced slowly southwards from Mingaladon towards Insein.  Finally the surviving Karens were forced out and crossed the Hlaing River on 22nd May and escaped out into the delta, allowing government troops to regain control of Insein after a siege lasting 112 days.  Throughout the remainder of 1949 and into the early part of 1950 steady progress was made in retaking towns lost to the insurgents.  The 3rd Chin Rifles and two companies of the 6th Burma Rifles were sent to the Pegu front and advanced from Kadok Pagyi to Daik-U between May and July 1949.  The 3rd Chin Rifles later fought in the Heho-Taunggyi battle, retaking Taunggyi for the government on 23rd November 1949.[58]  New Army battalions were built, drawing on the irregular forces, the Sitwundon, created to help fight the Karens.  A large scale operation to retake Toungoo, called Operation “Thunder” was launched in March 1950.  Led by Brigadier-General Kyaw Zaw, the operation involved the 1st and 3rd Chin Rifles, the 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles and the recently raised 5th Infantry Battalion, together with supporting arms.  Following two days of fighting, Toungoo was recaptured by government troops on 19th March 1950.  By the end of 1950 the government had captured all the towns lost in 1948 and 1949.[59]

17 November 2017

[1] WO 203/4030

[2] WO 203/4030

[3] A.G. (BURSEC) or the Adjutant General (Burma Section) was an integral part of G.H.Q.(I) (General Headquarters, India) and was the executive authority for the general administration of Burma Army units in India and Burma.  It was proposed move BURSEC to Burma when control of the Burma Army was transferred to H.Q. ALFSEA (Allied Land Forces South East Asia).  However it was decided that it would be advisable if the Section were to be established with the Headquarters, 12th Army prior to the actual date of transfer.  The H.Q. 12th Army was formed on 28th May 1945 in Rangoon to take over responsibility for the final campaign in Burma and freeing the 14th Army to prepare for the invasion of Malaya.

[4] WO 203/4030

[5] WO 203/4030

[6] WO 203/503

[7] “The Chin Hills Battalion”, MSS Eur 250

[8] A Line of Communications Command was established in late 1944 under the control of Headquarters ALFSEA.  It operated in in the eastern frontier area of India and later in the reconquered areas of Burma and was responsible for the local administrative work needed behind the front.  This relieved Headquarters 14th Army of the burden of managing the rear areas.  The Line of Communication command comprised of 202 Line of Communication Area Headquarters at Gauhati, with five sub-areas covering most of Assam, Manipur State and Fort Hertz, and 404 Line of Communication Area Headquarters at Chittagong, with five sub-areas covering eastern Bengal and Assam South of Shillong.  At the time the Command was established the boundary between it and the 14th Army in Central Burma and the XV Corps in the Arakan was approximately the political boundary between India and Burma.  Later this boundary advanced further into Burma as the Japanese were pushed back  (“The War Against Japan” Vol V, Woodburn Kirby S., HMSO (1969).

[9] WO 203/503

[10] WO 203/503

[11] War diary of the 1st Kachin Rifles, WO 172/7816

[12] War diary of the 1st Chin Rifles, WO 172/7808

[13] War diary of the 1st Kachin Rifles, WO 172/7816

[14] War diary of the 1st Chin Rifles, WO 172/7808

[15] The original document lists this battalion as "2 Burma Rif" however the existing 2nd Burma Rifles that had served with distinction with the Chindits was retained.  It was reorganised, with all non-Burmese personnel being posted away, and sent from Hoshiarpur to Burma, arriving at Rangoon on 14th January 1946.  It is assumed that the battalion referred to in the original document (WO 203/503) was that eventually raised as the 3rd Burma Rifles.

[16] WO 203/503

[17] WO 203/4030

[18] Hogan, Neville Graham (Imperial War Museum interview)

[19] WO 203/4030

[20] WO 203/4030

[21] WO 203/4030

[22] WO 203/4030

[23] “The War Against Japan” Vol V, Woodburn Kirby S., HMSO (1969); “British Military Administration in the Far East, 1943-46”, Donnison F.S.V., HMSO (1956)

[24] Donnison

[25] “Epilogue in Burma, 1945-48”, McEnery J.M., Spellmount (1990)

[26] Donnison; Woodburn Kirby

[27] Epilogue in Burma; War diary of the 4th Burma Regiment, WO 172/10321; War diary of the Chin Hills Battalion, WO 172/10328; “The Chin Hills Battalion”, MSS Eur 250.

[28] Epilogue in Burma

[29] Epilogue in Burma

[30] Epilogue in Burma; WO 172/10321

[31] Epilogue in Burma; Historical summary of the 4th Burma Rifles, WO 268/161.

[32] Woodburn Kirby

[33]The Union of Burma”, 4th edn., Tinker H., OUP (1962)

[34] War diary of the 4th Burma Rifles, WO 172/10326; WO 268/161; War diary of the 1st Burma Rifles.  WO 172/10324.

[35] Epilogue in Burma

[36] Epilogue in Burma

[37] Epilogue in Burma

[38] Epilogue in Burma

[39] Epilogue in Burma

[40] Epilogue in Burma

[41] Epilogue in Burma; “Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces Since 1948”, Maung Aung Myoe, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2009).

[42] Building the Tatmadaw

[43] MSS Eur 250

[44] Epilogue in Burma

[45] Building the Tatmadaw

[46] “What Happened Where”, Cook C., Routledge, (2014)

[47] “Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces Since 1948”, Maung Aung Myoe, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2009)

[48] “A Guide to Intra-state Wars: An Examination of Civil, Regional, and Intercommunal Wars, 1816-2014”, Dixon J.S., Sarkees M.R., CQ Press, (2015).

[49] "Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948”, Lintner B., Silkworm Books (1999).

[50] Burma in Revolt

[52] The autobiography of Bo Kyaw Zaw, from which extracts have been published on the C.P.B. website and made available in a series of posts at Hla Oo’s Blog under the title “Burma in Limbo”, records that the Burma Army battalions which defeated the Mujahideen were the 3rd and 5th Burma Rifles and the 1st Chin Rifles (Hla Oo's Blog).

[53] Tinker

[54] “The Outbreak of the K.N.D.O. and M.N.D.O.”, Yangon Siyin Baptist Church Silver Jubilee Magazine

[55] “The Chin Hills Battalion”, MSS Eur 250

[56] Guide to Intra-state Wars; Burma in Revolt; Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography; Outbreak of the K.N.D.O. and M.N.D.O.

[57] Guide to Intra-state Wars; Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography; Tinker

[58] MSS Eur 250

[59] UCA - Karens 1948-Present; Guide to Intra-state Wars; “General New Win: A Political Biography”, Taylor R., Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2015); Myat Htan’s autobiography, extracts published in “Burma in Limbo” (Hla Oo's Blog); Tinker.