The Burma Campaign

Preparations for War

A land attack on Burma was thought to be remote even as late as 1939, when potential Japanese designs on Siam (Thailand) were first considered.  Throughout 1940 and 1941, the appreciation was reviewed and revised as the potential Japanese threat grew.  In October 1941, the main areas likely to be attacked were thought to be the Southern Shan States and the Tenasserim towns of Moulmein, Tavoy, Mergui and Victoria Point, vital for the air route to Singapore.  However, it was believed that the difficult border terrain and lack of adequate roads would preclude any serious attack.

On the eve of war, in November 1941, Burma Command was instructed that the first priority was to defend the air route to Singapore by protecting the landing grounds in southern Burma.  Second, was the defence of the Burma Road, the vital overland route by which China was kept supplied with Lend-Lease materiel from the United States.  At this time, the loss of Singapore was not imagined and the Japanese had yet to invade Siam.  Recent experience had shown that modern armies depended on motor transport and the fear was that the Burma Road might be cut by an attack against it from French Indochina through the Shan States.  Views changed when the Japanese invaded Siam and Malaya on 8 December 1941.

Although it was accepted that an attack on Burma might now be carried out by significant Japanese forces, Far Eastern Command’s appreciation was that the likelihood of a major attack was low.  It was thought that the Japanese lacked the resources whilst committed in Malaya and the Philippines.  Thus, Burma continued to take a low priority for reinforcements and equipment.  The Burma defence plan continued to be largely based on air defence - surprising given that there were no bombers in Burma.

On land, Burma Command set about preparing its defences in the south, a task made difficult by previous planning assumptions and necessitating the shift south of what few troops were available.  The 1st Burma Infantry Brigade and the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade were moved into the Southern Shan States, along with the Burma Frontier Force columns, F.F.3 and F.F.4.  F.F.5 covered Karenni.  The 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade, with F.F.2, defended Tenasserim, with significant garrisons at Moulmein, Tavoy and Mergui.  However, it was decided that Tenasserim would be impossible to hold and the garrisons were to be withdrawn if attacked.  The main line of defence in the south was to be the Salween River, which was to be held at all costs.  The northern frontier was to be covered by a Chinese regiment, which could move into the Shan States on the outbreak of fighting there.

In the event of a Japanese attack, the loyalty of the local population could not be depended on and significant forces were diverted to internal security.  The equivalent of a brigade was stationed in Rangoon, including one of only two British regular battalions, the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment.  Throughout Central Burma were units of the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Rifles.  The 16th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived at the end of November and was placed in reserve around Mandalay.

Revised plans called for the building of fixed defences on the Burma-Siam frontier at any point where there was a viable crossing.  Small raiding forces (the Burma Frontier Force columns) would harry the Japanese in Siam and the air force would be built up.  Wavell replaced the General Officer Commanding, Burma, General McLeod, on 27th December with Lt. General T.J. Hutton and directed him to defend Rangoon and prepare for an offensive into Siam.  Reinforcements were also promised.  Plans were considered but failed to take into account the lack of troops available and severely underestimated Japanese plans, strength and tactics. 

Command over the military in Burma had been exercised through the British War Office.  In November 1940, Far Eastern Command, with its headquarters in Singapore, had been created and took over responsibility for operations, training and planning.  Successive commanders, however, had argued that the defence of Burma was integral to the defence of north eastern India and they believed that Burma should come under the command of General Headquarters India.  This was finally accepted on 12th December 1941.  This arrangement was short lived however, for at the end of December, Burma came under the new American-British-Dutch-Australian (A.B.D.A.) Command.  The Army in Burma continued to come under India for administration, reinforcements and supplies.  Meanwhile, the Japanese had attacked Burma for the first time; capturing Victoria Point and bombing Mergui and Tavoy between 11th and 13th December.

In the end, the last reinforcement to reach Burma before the war was the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade.  The only source for the vast majority of reinforcements was India where a rapid expansion of the army was underway.  First to arrive was 23 Garrison Company which went to Akyab in December 1941 (the company was relieved in January by 14th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment).  First to arrive in Rangoon was the 8th Indian Heavy Antiaircraft Battery and the 3rd Indian Light Antiaircraft Battery on 31st December 1941.  In early January, the headquarters of the 17th Indian Infantry Division arrived.  Only one of its brigades, the 46th Indian Infantry Brigade, came with it, the remaining two brigades were sent to Singapore.  The 17th Indian Infantry Division was however reinforced by the arrival of the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade, from the 19th Indian Infantry Division.  These formations were recently raised, still in training and under equipped.

Most welcome was the arrival from Egypt of the 7th Armoured Brigade, which unloaded themselves at Rangoon on 21st February 1942 and drove straight for the front.  The Brigade had originally been intended for Java.  Promises of the 14th Indian Infantry Division, two East African Brigades, the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, the 18th British Infantry Division and 7th Australian Infantry Division came to very little, for only the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade arrived.  The Brigade arrived at Rangoon on 3rd March, together with some artillery, engineers and other support units.  The 14th Indian Infantry Division was not due until April, by which time there was nowhere for it to land following the loss of Rangoon.  The 18th British Infantry Division was sent into captivity at Singapore and the Australians insisted that their 7th Division was needed for home defence.  For the time being, the East African brigades remained in East Africa.

Additional reinforcements did arrive in the form of the Chinese Expeditionary Force.  The 227th Regiment entered Burma in December 1941 and was later followed by the Chinese Fifth, Sixth and Sixty-Sixth Armies.  Chinese operations centered on the defence of the Shan States, Karenni and the Sittang Valley.

02 December 2017