THE BURMA CAMPAIGNS have been no sideshow. They have been an integral and a vital part of the over-all Allied strategy in the war against Japan.
The first objectives of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in this theater were (1) to crack the Jap's land bastion defending his "co-prosperity sphere" in South East Asia, (2) to reopen communications to China from India, and (3) to crush the Japanese armies in Burma.
Their long term objective was the tightening--- towards an ultimate throttling grip--- of the offensive ring around Japan and her ill-gotten Empire: a ring whose steel spikes were Nimitz, MacArthur and Mountbatten.
|1. THE COUNTRY|
THE FIRST THING to realize about Burma is its geography and its climate.
Burma is as large as Germany: from Ledo to Rangoon is 720 airline miles, from Akyab to Lashio, 360. The 14th Army's front during the campaigns of 1943-45 was 700 miles long----the longest front in World War II after the Russian.
The mountains (Burma is two-thirds mountain) run north and south. So do the great rivers. Such roads as there are follow the valleys. Each valley is isolated from the next one. The hill country is, covered with jungle. so thick that it looks from above like a bed of parsley. A reconnaissance plane can fly 500 feet above an army corps without seeing a single man. To hack your way through the bamboo, you have to relieve your machete squads every four minutes, and you are lucky sometimes if you make two miles a day.
|How the Burmese jungles look to an R.A.F. pilot dropping incendiary bombs on Japanese stores hidden beneath the trees.|
The monsoon, a wind of cyclonic character which blows for five months, will toss a big transport plane around like a leaf or rip it to pieces in the air. The monsoon also brings the rain from the Bay of Bengal, and the mountains precipitate it. In the Assam-Burma mountains and the ranges. of the western seaboard the rainfall runs between 150 and 250 inches a year (New York State has forty-one, inches: England thirty inches). Men were never dry, day or night, for months on end. Roads which yesterday carried tanks and guns will tomorrow be either thirty feet under water or simply washed off the side of the hill.. And if you leave a road alone for two weeks the jungle will have moved back and obliterated it.
The damp and the heat bring malaria, sprue, dengue, dysentery and jaundice. During the first six months of 1944 there were 237,000 hospitalized disease and fever cases in the 14th Army alone (eighty-five per cent of its combat strength). If you try to march in a mosquito net it is ripped to pieces by the undergrowth; if you cover yourself with anti-mosquito cream, you are ready to burst after 100 yards, for it clogs the sweat pores. So you eat anti-fever atabrin tablets, which turn you yellow, and salt tablets to put back what you lose from sweat, and you trust the medics to get you back to duty from the malaria in three to four weeks. (They do it, too, which is one of the war's miracles.)
Meanwhile, you are bitten by leeches---they go in an inch deep and the only thing that gets them out is to apply a lighted cigarette. You are bitten by bugs and ticks and ripped by thorns. You suffer from "naga sores," great poisonous holes which spread like wildfire all over you. And you march, with or without your mules, up gradients of forty-five degrees in temperatures ranging up to 105 degrees and a humidity of ninety-five per cent. At night in the jungle the darkness is so intense that you can't see the end of your rifle; and during the monsoon the driving clouds and mist make the day almost as obscure.
This is the country the British and their Allies have been fighting in, back and forth, for nearly four years. Thousands of British soldiers, because of the long distance from home and shipping stringency, had to stick it out in Burma for years without seeing their families. Their only respite--- a few days' furlough in India.
THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE
IN THE STRATEGY of Tokyo, Burma was three things at the same time: a shield, a wedge and a springboard.
1. Burma interposes itself between Malaya and Siam on the southeast, and India on the northwest; also between China and India. It is not a corridor but a barrier. Burma was the last of Japan's land conquests, and a necessary one. It provided (aside from its natural resources of rice, oil, timber, etc.) a shield to guard their easier, richer conquests in South East Asia--- Siam, Indo-China, Malaya, the Netherlands Indies.
2. The occupation of North Burma put the Jap across the Burma Road, gave him a wedge splitting the supply route to China, cutting off China by land from her Allies. This wedge isolated China, psychologically as well as physically, from all but air contact with outside support.
3. Finally, Burma was a springboard: the starting point for Japan's conquest of India. The Jap strategy in 1941-42 was to overrun India and to link up with the Germans in Persia. Rommel, it will be recalled, was to capture Alexandria and Suez, and von Paulus was to capture Stalingrad and the Caucasus: and both of them, it may be less easily recalled, came within an ace of doing just those very things. The Japs may later have despaired of the Axis link-up. But they did not despair of conquering India, and their 1944 offensive was stated to have that as its objective.
It is useful to think soberly of the results of that Japanese conquest of India which seemed such a very practical possibility in early 1942. It would have meant no great air-route over the Hump to China (i.e. China absolutely cut off from her Allies) ; no great friendly power-base for the land, air, sea campaigns against Japan from the west; no gas or spares for General Chennault; Jap control of the eighth greatest industrial country in the world; not only Jap submarines but Jap warships in the Persian Gulf, off Arabia, off Madagascar; the Indian Ocean a Japanese lake. The potential consequences must have been a nightmare to the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D. C.
Burma, therefore, was of quite crucial importance to the grand strategy of the Imperial High Command in Tokyo. The Japs manned it with their best troops and plenty of them. Their aspirations for attack from Burma and their determination in defending it have made that wet, ---re country the longest land battlefront to date in this or any other war against Japan.
THE 1944 AND 1945 CAMPAIGNS could not have developed as they did in Burma without the experience and training of 1942 and 1943. The Jap had overrun South East Asia by surprise, by superior numbers in the air and on the ground, by his jungle-wise infantry, by the tactics of infiltration, the road block and then capture or annihilation.
During the lean years, when the Allies were fully extended against the more dangerous enemy in Europe, those who had taken what General Stilwell bluntly called "a hell of a beating" were not content merely to defend India---the great powerbase for any future offensives---on the line stabilized by General Alexander at the end of his hard-fought and masterfully conducted retreat of 1942.
The British fliers of the Royal Air Force, and the Indian fliers of the Indian Air Force, pressed an unflagging bombing offensive against key points in the Japanese supply and communications system in Burma. They repeatedly attacked Rangoon and Mandalay; they destroyed some two-thirds of the river steamers in Japanese hands---a major means of transport in Burma; and they shot up nearly half the locomotives.
Meanwhile the ground forces were learning, by rigorous training and imaginative tactical experiment, not only to outfight the Jap at his own game but to outthink him in a game which he has never been able to learn. To what Wingate called "the obstinate but unimaginative courage of the Jap soldier," to the effective but limited Jap tactics, and to the appalling difficulties of the terrain, Wingate and his colleagues found a revolutionary answer; and they found it in the air.
The technique of substituting air supply for ground lines of communication was evolved in three stages. First, the mere supplying by plane of munitions, rations, medical supplies, etc. to raiding columns which marched on foot. Then, the maintenance in positions far beyond the enemy's lines of troops which had been flown in and could be maintained indefinitely. Finally, the combination of the two, when whole divisions were flown in (and could, if need be, be flown out), and were maintained by air not only when acting as obstructive units of limited mobility deep in enemy-held territory, but even during the course of full-dress fighting advances, when guns, tanks, mules, and other bulky equipment would be delivered to the marching columns with the precision of a quartermaster issuing stores across his counter.
The Wingate conception of air supply defeated two formidable enemies --- the Jap and the jungle.
|4. WINGATE'S RAIDERS|
THE YEAR 1943 saw the first experimental stage of the air supply technique put to trial. On the same principle that inspired the Commando raids on German-held Europe from 1940 to 1943---the principle of constantly harassing the enemy while building up strength for the decisive assault----Field Marshal Wavell set a comparatively unknown officer the task of organizing and training a force to act on Sherman's classic proposition:: "The enemy's rear is there to play hell with."
Wingate had made himself a name among professional soldiers for his brilliant guerrilla work in Abyssinia: but the daring "reconnaissance in force" carried out by Wingate's Raiders in Burma caught the imagination of the whole world. His "Chindits," named for a fabulous Burmese animal, were mainly troops from the British Isles, but they included Gurkhas---those magnificent soldiers from the independent State of Nepal---and men of the Burma Rifles. Their marauding columns kept 10,000 square miles of the enemy's rear areas in a constant. state of confusion, terror and disrupted communications for the best part of six months.
When they returned, after frightful privations and heavy casualties, Wingate's Raiders had done much more than inflict a serious military blow to the Jap strategy. They had proved that the ordinary Tommy from the back streets of London or Glasgow could beat the Jap at jungle tactics. They had raised the spirit of all the Allied troops in Burma. And they had served notice on the enemy that the period of defensive build-up was over.
Wingate's Raiders put the writing of doom on the wall for the Japs in Burma.
AT THE QUEBEC CONFERENCE in September, 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff dotted the i's and crossed the t's of the writing on the wall. The formation of a new Allied Command was announced, to include Burma, the Indian Ocean, Malaya and all the approaches to the Netherlands Indies. This new South East Asia Command was headed by two formidable characters: as Supreme Commander came Admiral Mountbatten, chief of the Commandos and expert in amphibious warfare, and as his Deputy, Lieut. General Joseph W. Stilwell, U. S. Army---"Vinegar Joe" to the newspapers but "Uncle Joe" to his men---one of the most experienced field commanders in the East.
S.E.A.C. had its own fleet, based on Ceylon, and its own air forces, strategic, tactical and transport. The former, under Admiral Somerville, R.N., and later under Admiral Power, R.N., included ships of the French, Dutch, Burma and Royal Indian Navies; but it was predominantly British. The latter, under a succession of commanders---Peirse, Baldwin, Park---has been throughout about half British and half American: the U.S.A.A.F. predominating in strategic bombing and transport, the R.A.F. in tactical units, but both working under that closely integrated Anglo-American combined command, right down the line, of which the classic pattern had been set by General Eisenhower in North Africa and western Europe.
S.E.A.C., in fact, looked all set for a series of amphibious operations down the Burma coast to Rangoon and onwards. But such operations depend on landing craft (hundreds and thousands of them) : and the landing craft which had been earmarked for Admiral Mountbatten at Quebec were all diverted by the exigencies of world strategy --- first to Anzio, then to Normandy and it was not till 1945 that these vital components began to be delivered to S.E.A.C. in any numbers.
The land campaign of 1944-45, therefore, was fought to a very different pattern from that envisaged at Quebec. It was a longer, more difficult and bloodier campaign. But if it demanded, it also got, from the commanders, a masterpiece of military strategy on the grand scale, a series of tactical maneuvers of great brilliance; from the men, fighting quality, endurance and initiative unsurpassed on any other battlefield.
|6. THE PLANS AND THE COUNTER PLANS|
THE ALLIED PLAN By the winter of 1943-44 the troops of the 11th Army Group (General Sir George Giffard, commanding) had been built up into a fine state of battle spirits and tactical readiness for major operations. General Giffard's directive to the 14th Army (Lieut. General Sir William J. Slim) comprised the following short-term objectives:
1. To secure all frontiers of Bengal and Assam. (A on map, above.)
2. To occupy North Burma down to the Mogaung-Myitkyina area. (B on map.)
3. To advance in Arakan to the Buthidaung-Maungdaw road. (C on map.)
The second objective was the task of General Stilwell's forces (four Chinese divisions, one U. S. brigade, one British detachment from Fort Hertz and, in the air, the Northern Air Combat Group). It was clear, however, that this force could not attain its objective, on which the completion and protection of the Ledo Road depended, unless (1) the main Jap striking force (including the crack 33rd Division) could be held elsewhere, (2) the lines of communication could be cut between the enemy's reserves in the plain and his 18th Division opposing General Stilwell.
In order to achieve the latter, the 3rd Indian Division (Wingate) was to be flown in to Indaw, and from there would cut the Jap communications by road, river and rail to the north. To effect the former, two distinct operations would be staged.
First, the 15th Corps (British and Indian Divisions and the 81st West African Division), under General Sir Philip Christison, were to attack on the lines of General Giffard's Objective 3, occupying as many Jap troops as possible in Arakan. (When it took place the enemy staff got the idea that, by holding this attack, they would force General Slim's 14th Army either to withdraw or, more probably, to reinforce Christison, thus draining the strength of the main 14th Army concentrations in the north).
Second, such dispositions would be made of the 14th Army in the Imphal-Kohima area and in its forward positions around Tiddim as to occupy the main Jap forces, which had been reinforced to about 80,000 combat troops---more than double their 1943 strength; and to deal with the enemy offensive which these reinforcements, and other evidence, had convinced General Slim was in preparation.
General Slim intended a major offensive. He knew that the Japanese intended one also. He therefore had to decide, in as far as his own dispositions could control it, where the great battle should be fought. He decided that, for the first time, he would fight the Japs with the long, precarious line of communications behind them, and not behind his own troops. He had planned that the Japanese divisions in the southwest (Arakan) sector should be fully occupied by the offensive of General Christison; and that the main bulk of the enemy, disposed in the north center and aiming northwest, should be drawn forward in the direction of their own planned offensive by a calculated withdrawal of the 14th Army from the Tiddim area into the Imphal plain. There the Japs would have to fight at the maximum extension from their base (it must be remembered that they had no air supply) and on the wrong side of the tremendous range of mountains which runs from Tiddim northeast to Ledo.
So General Slim set the stage. And the curtain went up on the first large-scale land clash of Allied ground forces against the Japanese.
The ultimate objectives of the campaign were three, and they were crucial to the whole Allied strategy in the Far East:
1. To break the outer shield of Japanese land power in South East Asia.
2. To reopen land communication with China, to substitute the "Little Hump" for the "Great Hump" air route and to secure the chain of bomber airfields in the north.
3. To destroy the Japanese armies wherever they were concentrated in force.
THE JAP PLAN The Japanese plan of campaign for 1944 was bold, simple and well thought out. Its primary objectives were:
1. To hold Stilwell's Chinese-American forces in the northeast with the Japanese divisions they already had there.
2. To stage an offensive, with two divisions and supporting troops, in Arakan; and to capture Chittagong, India's fifth biggest port and a vital air supply base.
3. To isolate and destroy the British 17th Division at Tiddim and wipe out the forward components of the 14th Army.
4. To push across the mountains in strength, take Imphal, the 14th's main base, and disperse or annihilate the Army.
5. To capture Kohima, and cut the Bengal-Assam railway running along the valley north of it, which formed General Stilwell's principal line of communications; thus isolating from their source of supplies not only the Allied troops already operating in North East Burma but also the Chinese divisions in Yunnan
The Jap's ultimate objective was nothing less than the invasion of India: an objective announced unequivocally, not only in captured orders but also over the radio. He had a large enough army in Burma to be able to commit veteran combat troops to the number of 30,000 to the Arakan operation, and 80,000 more to the main Tiddim-Imphal-Kohima operations, while still maintaining an adequate strategic reserve. It was, therefore, an objective not at all beyond the range of possible achievement; and there were times during the spring of 1944 when the outside world, reading accounts of besieged Imphal and Kohima and unacquainted with General Slim's plan of campaign, thought that Calcutta might soon be another Singapore.
|7. THE AIR|
ONE FACTOR was vital in the battles which followed from the clash of these two strategies---the Allied air superiority. Wingate's theory of air supply, developed in conjunction with Colonel Cochran's U. S. Air Commandos, was only made possible by the prior establishment of that superiority, which had been built up, slowly and strenuously, from the days when a handful of R.A.F. and A.V.G. fighters held swarms of Jap bombers precariously at bay. The Allied air forces, which operated at the end of supply lines 13,000 miles long, had been set four tasks: to sweep, to support, to supply and to strangle:
1. They had to sweep the sky clear of Jap fighters, so that the big transports would not any longer send that last despairing signal "Zero on my tail. Warn all aircraft"---and then silence; so that no reconnaissance planes should report our movements or the location of our airstrips; so that our heavy bombers should not be too much troubled by interception.
Between November, 1943, and August, 1944, the Jap air force had been swept out of the Burma sky, with 800 of their planes destroyed in combat or on the ground.
2. They had to support our ground troops, bombing and strafing Jap positions, blasting military and economic targets with salvos of rockets, and providing some of the most accurate close air support seen in any theater.
3. They had to supply our forward troops (whether on the march or operating in force from permanent bases) two or three hundred miles away from the nearest railhead, with every single thing they needed from guns and ammunition to cigarettes, atabrin and newspapers. And where they would fly in with medical supplies they would fly out with the wounded. To the Imphal pocket, for example, 700 tons of ammunition and supplies were flown in daily during the siege.
4. They had to strangle the Japanese lines: bombing his sea communications and his docks at Rangoon, shooting up his river craft, smashing his bridges and roads, and cutting and recutting the crucial Bangkok-Rangoon railroad---that railroad, built with the sweat and blood of 60,000 British prisoners of war, which carried the main bulk of the enemy's supplies into Burma.
All these four tasks were effectively carried out by the British and American airmen. This was the support "on which," said General Slim, "all my plans were based and without which success would have been impossible."
|8. THE ARAKAN CAMPAIGN|
THE ARAKAN AREA is dominated by the Mayu Range (15,000 to 18,000 feet) which runs north and south and has only two practicable crossings. Christison's 5th and 7th Indian Divisions drove down each side of it, their objective being to secure the main lateral road from Maungdaw to Buthidaung, including the tunnels of the southernmost of the two crossings. The 81st West African Division covered their inland flank in the Kaladan valley. Supported by the newly integrated Eastern Air Command, they captured Maungdaw after bitter fighting on January 8, 1944, and, on being checked south of it, switched their full force on Buthidaung.
This pressure caused Lieut. General Haraya to accelerate his carefully planned timetable---the timetable of the Jap invasion of India. During the first week of February flying columns under Colonel Tanahashi swept up the Kalapanjin Valley to Taung Bazar, cut westward to the mountains at Goppe Pass and surrounded the whole 7th Division's base at Sinzweya. Major General Messervy, a grenade in one hand and his maps in the other, reformed his H.Q., disposed his signalers, engineers, cooks, and other administration troops for defense, and after a week's furious fighting, stabilized the position. Tanahashi had certainly scored. And Tokyo went to town on the news. "The march on Delhi has begun," blared the Tokyo Radio; "British 14th Army destroyed." But the Jap High Command had overlooked General Slim's preparations to meet this possibility: ten days' rations for 40,000 men ready crated on the airfields, and Major General Lomax's 26th Indian Division (the "Tiger Heads") in readiness at Chittagong. They had also failed to realize that there was another means than the road for getting those troops and supplies to the battlefield. They had forgotten the air. "The vulnerable artery," Wingate had said, "is the line of communications winding through the jungle. Have no lines of communication on the jungle floor. Bring in the goods like Father Christmas, down the chimney." The South East Asia Command had embraced this new concept of jungle logistics and General Slim was now to put its second stage into action on a major scale. Instead of ordering the 15th Corps to retire, or draining the main body of the 14th Army by sending reinforcements overland from the far north, he told the encircled divisions to stand fast and trust the air forces to maintain them. They stood fast, giving better than they got. And the air forces lived up to the most confident expectations.
The 3rd Tactical Air Force under Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin slaughtered the Zeros which had been summoned for the kill and cleared the sky for the transports. These, under the direct command of Brigadier General William D. Old, U. S. Army, the intrepid pioneer of the "Hump" route, flew 500 sorties a week; their crews (British, Americans, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Indians) getting five hours' sleep in twenty-four; delivering everything down to beer and mail to the hard-pressed defenders of the "box" and the other units surrounded up the valley.
After a grim period of holding fast the counter-stroke was ready. General Haraya had allowed Colonel Tanahashi ten days to destroy the 15th Corps and had issued only ten days' rations for his troops. At the end of that time, however, the 15th Corps was fighting back strongly (having even reoccupied Taung Bazar) and fresh troops were approaching from the northwest. The Japs had been severely mauled and were tiring. The moment had come for General Christison to spring his trap.
General Lomax's 26th Division, with General Festing's 36th in support, was the hammer: the intact 15th Corps' positions in the Kalapanzin Valley were the anvil. And Colonel Tanahashi's force was gradually reduced to pulp by the resolute advance of Lincolnshires and Wiltshires, Gurkhas, Punjabis, and Garhwalis from the north, while General Messervy's 7th Division exacted full toll in blocking their retreat.
The pursuit and destruction of the beaten enemy and the clearing of Arakan were completed before the monsoon; but long before then the 14th Army stood triumphant on its first great battlefield. They had thrown back the first wave of the Japanese invasion of India; they had killed 7,000 of his best troops; they had shown that British and Indian infantry could outfight the Japanese in the field, and they had proved the efficacy of the land-air technique of combat and supply.
The Arakan campaign was, in short, a signal success. But it was only the prelude to greater battles.
|9. "OPERATION THURSDAY"|
ON THE NIGHT OF MARCH 5, 1944, fifty-four gliders full of heavily armed desperadoes in green battle dress took off for a 150-mile flight over 7,000-foot mountains to a destination far inside the enemy lines, designated simple as "Broadway."
The fly-in was the work of a special U. S. Air Command (Colonel Philip Cochran, commanding). The ground troops were the vanguard of Wingate's famous Chindits of the 3rd Indian Division. "Broadway" was merely a clearing in the forest. The landings were made without lights, and there were some desperate moments. But within thirteen hours the engineers had built a landing strip and the troop transports were coming down in a steady procession. Within five days 12,000 men and 1,200 mules had been flown in to this and a second landing strip, and the first columns, under Lentaigne, "Mad Mike" Calvert, and other veteran jungle leaders, had already disappeared into the hinterland to start work on the communication lines of an enemy who did not yet even know they were there. It was Wingate's finest exploit, and his last, for he was killed on March 24 flying back from a tour of his forward positions. Brigadier Lentaigne succeeded his old chief.
This daring and highly organized operation (known by its code name of "Operation Thursday") was no mere harassing raid like those of 1943. It was an essential part of Admiral Mountbatten's over-all plan, being designed to support General Stilwell's operations in the Mogaung-Myitkyina-Ledo area by cutting off the enemy divisions opposing him from their bases in the plain.
The Japanese, under steady pressure from General Stilwell in the north, reacted furiously to these fatal incisions in their supply lines, and a series of bloody engagements followed. Their sites are marked on no maps, but their military labels, "Aberdeen," "White City," "Blackpool," and a dozen more, will live in the annals of Gurkha and Kachin and West African regiments, of the South Staffordshires and the Lancashire Fusiliers, of the Cameronians and the King's Own Royal Regiment. The air forces ranged overhead and, in addition to maintaining supplies, contributed not a little to the systematic throttling of the Jap communications.
Before their task was completed and the "Long Range Penetration Groups" made their way back to join the Allied forces to the north, Calvert's men had stormed Mogaung, the enemy's main base in North Burma; and another of Lentaigne's columns joined (from the southwest) in the long siege of Myitkyina. These long-range forces were not intended or equipped for prolonged engagements. But for nearly three months they sustained engagements both prolonged and bitter, with a fanatical enemy who often brought up 75 mm. and 105 mm. artillery against them. For all their dash the Chindits confirmed General Slim's belief that "the British soldier may not be better than any other, but he generally manages to go on five minutes longer."
|10. STILWELL'S ROAD|
WHILE THESE OPERATIONS were in progress in Arakan and in the trackless country below Indaw, the great design was unfolding in Northeast Burma. General Stilwell was fighting his way from Ledo, dragging his road after him.
Stilwell's Chinese divisions pushed steadily on from the railhead of the Assam-Burma railroad, with Merrill's Marauders, an American force of 2,500 to 3,000 men, cutting up the Japanese on either flank. The road had to traverse the 5,000-foot ranges of Patkai Bum, cross the broad bowl of the upper Chindwin Valley, and surmount the Hukawng watershed, before debouching into the Mogaung Valley. A mule path had to be converted into a thirty-foot, double-tracked highway, metalled, trenched, banked, bridged, and inclined, over some of the worst country in the world, under the worst weather conditions (bar none) in the world; so close to the heels of a fighting advance that the forward engineers were constantly attacked by infiltrating Japs and each man kept his rifle as handy as his pick and shovel. The bulldozers were under the command of Virginia-born Brigadier General Pick, architect of the Missouri Dam; and it was one of his officers, Colonel Hirschfield of the U. S. Army Engineers, who summed up the assignment in one characteristic sentence: "You don't have to be crazy to do this job," he said, "but it helps." From Ledo to Kunming is 1,044 miles. From Ledo to Yunnan there is on an average one bridge to every three miles. That is the Stilwell Road.
In March this slogging progress was nearly interrupted. The Jap, as part of his major plan for invading India through Imphal, threw powerful columns across the Chindwin towards the vital railroad. General Slim, under whose operational command Stilwell then was, pondered the risk, and decided not to detach any of the Chinese troops to guard the lines of communication, nor to divert the Chindits from their harassing operations further south. He promised General Stilwell that his lines would not be cut for more than a week, relying on the 14th Army's ability to check the main attack.
The lines were never cut, and General Stilwell's men, who had fought off the enemy attack like tigers, passed to the offensive. By a forced march of twenty days across a 7,000-foot pass, Merrill's Marauders and a Chinese force lunged clear down to Myitkyina. They surprised the enemy, captured the vital airfields and were within an ace of occupying the town itself. The Japanese, however, managed to reform and dig in inside the town: the attacking forces were at the end of their tether and weakened by fever; and it was only after a gruelling siege of seventy-eight days that Myitkyina itself was eventually reduced.
The air forces had performed prodigies of skill and endurance in supplying the besiegers, often landing on the strip under heavy artillery fire. And as soon as the town fell, the pursuit to the southwest was taken up by a fresh division, flown in entire with all its equipment---Major General Festing's British 36th Division. In a series of dashing actions the 36th kept the retreating garrisons of Myitkyina and Mogaung on the run, captured Hopin and Pinbaw, and fanned out down the valley in a drive concerted both with the 14th Army from the northwest, and the Chinese "Salween Force" moving in from Tengchung in the east. The Allies were on the road to Mandalay.
|11. "IMPHAL'S BLOODY PLAIN"|
WHILE THESE THREE SEPARATE ACTIONS had been in progress---the Arakan, the Indaw, and the Ledo Road operations---the great battle, to which they were all related, had been developing in the north. For his objective---the destruction of the 14th Army and the invasion of India---we have seen that the Jap had relied to only a minor extent on his expectations from the preliminary Arakan operation: and although this was going awry, he pushed on with his main assault.
General Slim's Intelligence confirmed his estimate of the Jap strategy: to pin the forward troops of the 14th Army at Tiddim, to cross the mountain range and descend on Imphal, the main Allied base in North Burma, to cut the Bengal-Assam railroad, and to neutralize the Allied airfields in the north. He therefore arranged to withdraw from Tiddim and to put Imphal in a state of immediate defense. This latter meant flying out 30,000 and withdrawing by road 23,000 non-combatants (administrative troops and civilians) and flying in sufficient tonnage of supplies and ammunition to withstand a siege.
These dispositions were carried out according to plan. But there were two unexpected developments. First, the 17th Division (perhaps disliking withdrawals, however well planned) did not get back from Tiddim quick enough, so that the Japanese cut them off and they had to fight their way north. Second, the enemy were able to get no mere regimental group but an entire division into the attack on Kohima, thus heavily outnumbering its garrison and posing a fearful threat to the railroad only thirty miles to the northwest. If he could take Imphal, he would break the 14th Army. 1f he could take Kohima and the railroad he would cut off General Stilwell, strangle the Ledo Road and starve the airfields along the valley; and his troops would then swing westward along the Brahmaputra River to join the main advance into Bengal.
It was a climactic moment for General Slim, for the Allied Supreme Command at S.E.A.C. and for G.H.Q., India. But Slim could rely on several important advantages. His troops---British, Indian, American, Chinese, African, and Burmese were fighting fit and in magnificent fettle. His rear dispositions, under the guiding hand of General Giffard, commanding 11th Army Group, were solid yet elastic. He had air supremacy. And he was confident that, no matter what tactical reverses might ensue, his over-all strategy was sound. The Jap was fighting at the end of a string; and if he could be no more than held at bay till the monsoon, his invasion would wither for lack of supplies and munitions.
It was a heroic decision. But the enemy had committed over 80,000 of his finest troops to the battle, and if they could be soundly defeated, his power in Burma would be broken once and for all.
Slim's closely calculated balance of risks proved correct. The British 17th Division, fighting their way north from Tiddim with magnificent tenacity, inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. Imphal was encircled, almost surrounded for two and one-half months. But two entire divisions were flown in to reinforce the defense (one being transported straight from the Arakan front) ; and with steady air supply (at first insufficient, later, under Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, stepped up to a classic regularity and profusion) its defenders held the Japs expensively at bay. Kohima was completely surrounded for eighteen days, and none of those who fought in the "box"---the Royal West Kents, some base troops, the sick and wounded from the hospital---would thank the historian who minimized the critical character of their predicament. But the garrison, fighting day and night under terrific pressure, had this great satisfaction: they realized that if the Jap had simply bypassed the embattled town he could have done in forty-eight hours what its capture was a mere preliminary to---he could have cut the railroad. But the methodical plan in Tokyo said, "First take Kohima, then cut the railroad," so the methodical Japanese Army ignored the final objective until it could check off the preparatory one.
The Japs never took Kohima, although they set 20,000 men to the job. They never got into Imphal. And as the weeks of bitter fighting passed their losses mounted, their supplies dwindled and the monsoon approached. It was at this point that the Commander of the Japanese 15th Army ordered his crack 33rd Division, recently reinforced, to carry out a last desperate assaulton Imphal. "The fate of the Empire," he said in an Order of the Day, "depends on the result of this battle. Imphal will be taken at all costs." The Division's Commander added his own footnote to this: "You will take Imphal," he said, "but the Division will be annihilated." With its accustomed fanaticism, the 33rd delivered a series of attacks which, after bloody fighting, were repulsed. It was, for all practical purposes, annihilated. But it did not take Imphal.
The tide had turned, and General Slim passed over to the attack. He threw the Lushai Brigade (Burmese hillmen) and other formations across the Jap lines of retreat, supplying them by air. The 14th Army swept the now exhausted enemy southwards. And in the area Palel-Tamu-Uhkrul there was consummated such a killing of Japanese as had not been known in history. Of the 80,000 picked troops who had started out so bravely, and on so skillful a plan, to invade India, over 50,000 were counted corpses. The remainder, riddled with disease and wounds, emaciated with hunger, attempted to escape southwards in disorganized parties; abandoning their heavy equipment, a prey to revengeful Burmese hillmen and with small chance of ever fighting again.
These victories had been costly, as are all victories against the Japanese. The 14th Army alone had suffered 40,000 battle casualties. But when General Slim reached Kalewa, he had beaten the Japanese 15th Army. It was here, in the dark days of the 1942 retreat, that he had burned his last tanks and buried his last guns. It was here in 1944 that he dug up those same guns and put them to chasing the Jap back down the road he came up-the road to Mandalay, to Rangoon, to Tokyo.
|A battlefield near Kohima. This spot changed hands several times and was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting.|
IN THE FACE of these reverses and convinced at last that their Imphal-Kohima offensive had failed, the Japanese High Command concentrated on holding actions. In Arakan they continued their regular strategy of trying to tie down as many British troops as possible with as few of their own, in Central Burma, aiming to extricate their beaten forces, they fought a series of stubborn delaying actions through country abounding in natural defensive positions. In the northeast their intention was to impose the maximum degree of delay upon Allied attempts to reopen the Burma Road.
But they lost Kalewa on December 2, 1944, Indaw on December 10, Bhamo on December 17, Rathidaung on December 31. Successful amphibious operations were undertaken down the coast by Commandos, Royal Marines and units of the British 15th Corps: Akyab Island was taken on January 3, 1945, then Myebon on the mainland, then Ramree and Cheduba Islands. Late in January the Ledo Road was opened and named by the grateful Chinese for its maker, General Stilwell; and on the 28th the first convoy crossed the Chinese frontier.
The Allied prongs were gradually converging towards Mandalay and the shape of Admiral Mountbatten's strategy was becoming clear. The Allied Land Forces, (11th Army Group and Stilwell's old command) were now commanded by General Sir Oliver Leese (of 8th Army fame), and comprised the following elements:
1. In the northeast, the Northern Combat Area Command (General Daniel I. Sultan, U. S. Army) whose ground troops included four Stilwell-trained Chinese divisions, Festing's British 36th Division, and the American MARS Force of two brigades (about two-thirds of one division).
2. In the center, Slim's 14th Army, now ten to twelve divisions strong, all British and Indian troops, and by far the largest component.
3. In the southwest, Christison's 15th Corps, now independent of the 14th Army, with three divisions (Indian and African troops).
Under the inexorable pressure of these converging forces, and despite continual rearguard actions and determined resistance, the Japanese were steadily driven back into the plain, with the constant threat to their rear flank from operations developing eastwards from Arakan. And so at the end of February, 1945, the stage was set for the battle of Mandalay.
|13. MEIKTILA AND MANDALAY|
IT WAS CLEAR that the Japanese intended to defend Mandalay with the determination proportionate to its importance. It was their main base and communications center in Central Burma. It was also the ancient capital of the country, its name was familiar all over the world, and its prestige value was---to both sides---immense.
But while the Jap was looking to his front, where a feint attack was carefully staged to keep him looking at it, Slim leapt on his rear. A powerful task force under General Messervy---tanks, armored cars, artillery and truck-borne infantry---after a series of forced marches through the roadless Chin Hills, suddenly emerged on the Irrawaddy, far to the southwest. They crossed the river on anything that would float, plunged through the Jap lines, and struck for Meiktila, H.Q. of the Japanese 15th Army, eighty miles behind Mandalay. Inside eleven days this force, paced by fighter-bombers, had captured first the eight airfields and then the town itself; whereupon the armor drove on to take Thazi, an almost more important road and rail junction fourteen miles east. With these two strokes, Slim had clamped a gigantic double "stopper" onto the whole network of supply lines in General Katamura's rear, putting an estimated 30,000 troops in jeopardy. With their escape routes to the south cut and the main body of the 14th Army, a quarter of a million or more strong, bearing down on them from the north, all that the Jap could see at the end of a hard fight for Mandalay was a scattered and precarious exit eastwards across the Shan Hills into Siam.
This bold thrust was supplied and maintained by air, after the now classic Wingate-Slim pattern. The advancing columns captured numerous enemy supply dumps on the way. They killed over 2,000 Japanese at Meiktila itself. They then consolidated their position and threw out aggressive perimeter defenses for the airfields on which the supplies for the whole force depended. None too soon. For the Jap, recovering quickly and reacting violently to this menace to his rear, mounted a series of counter-attacks on the Meiktila-Thazi area so heavy that for a week or more it was touch and go whether the positions could be held. Held they were, however, and the underpinning of Slim's gathering attack on Mandalay was kept secure.
While Sultan's Chinese were moving towards Lashio and Festing's 36th Division fell on Mogok, General Wynford Rees's 19th Indian Division led the 14th Army's final drive for Mandalay. On March 8, Sikh detachments fought their way into the northeastern outskirts, and the siege of Fort Dufferin, the mile-square moated citadel, began. The 2nd Division (General Nicholson) came in from the west; and after twelve days of heavy fighting the Japanese quit Mandalay, setting fire to the lacquered palace of the ancient Burmese kings as they left, with Rees's Gurkhas, Punjabis, and Sikhs at their heels.
Even in a campaign notable throughout for its brilliant generalship, the Meiktila operation is outstanding. It tied the Japanese command in knots and made the fall of Mandalay a foregone conclusion---militarily indeed, almost an anticlimax.
But psychologically the redemption of the ancient capital of Burma from Japanese tyranny was a stroke which resounded throughout the whole Orient. It resounded also in ears which the men on the spot, fighting for places with outlandish names, over mountains and jungles with no names at all, had sometimes felt to be very distant and uncomprehending: in London and Paris, in Washington and New York. In the House of Commons Mr. Churchill proudly announced, "The British 14th Army has captured the city of Mandalay" ---adding, it is said, under his breath, "and thank God they've got to a place which we can all of us pronounce." The New York Herald Tribune summed up the 1944 campaigns editorially:
"To those in them," it wrote on March 22, "the Burma campaigns have often seemed the most forgotten of all the 'forgotten wars.' And yet, these campaigns may well stand as among the most remarkable and, in many ways, the most significant in the history of the great struggle. The combination of vast areas, impassable terrain, terrifying dangers of disease, slim resources and populations of at least uncertain attitude constituted a military problem of an almost unparalleled kind.
"It was not only the strategic values of Burma which hung upon the result, it was the prestige of the United Nations in the Far East; it was the question of whether Western Civilization, for all its wealth and technical progress, could find a military and a moral answer to Japanese aggression under conditions of its own choosing. It has done so with a brilliant success.
"Many hands combined, of course, in the work---American airmen and engineers, the Chinese divisions now under General Sultan, the Burmese levies and many more. But the British, together with the Indian Army, carried the greatest burden. It was the British Brigadier Orde Wingate who first worked out the technique of wholly air-supplied jungle operations; it was British and Indian troops who formed the main forces that made the long marches by river and jungle, who battled the worst disease conditions, who solved innumerable of the problems involved in this strange campaigning and who have now re-entered Mandalay."
With justifiable pride S.E.A.C. Headquarters issued a full length communique, (April 7, 1945), describing the results of "one of the greatest victories in Mountbatten's South East Asia Command." Stating that "the Japanese 15th Army has been decisively defeated and is no longer an effective force," S.E.A.C. noted some of the figures of casualties inflicted on the enemy between December 1, 1944, and March 31, 1945: Stopford's 33rd Indian Corps---7,843 counted dead, 225 prisoners, 151 guns; Messervy's 4th Corps---over 9,000 dead, 91 prisoners, 148 guns: a total of 17,000 Japanese bodies counted, exclusive of wounded and sick, dead carried away and all casualties from air strikes. S.E.A.C. also pointed out that Stopford's 33rd Corps alone had during the previous year killed 19,574 Japs, advanced 645 miles and liberated 11,000 towns and villages; while the 4th Corps' totals for the same period were 20,000 dead Japanese and over 400 miles of fighting advance. Finally, after noting the "brilliant part" played in these campaigns by Major General Stratemeyer's Eastern Air Command, the communique concluded with a reminder of the "most important part in the over-all strategic picture" contributed by Christison's 15th Corps in Arakan and Sultan's Northern Combat Area Command troops, whose separate drives not only cleared large areas of Burma but tied up large Japanese formations which would otherwise have been able to join in the main battle against the 14th Army.
Many square miles of Burma remained to be cleared, much hard fighting was left. But General Slim, remembering the heavy miles of retreat in 1942, could take grim satisfaction as he looked south from Mandalay, in the knowledge that he had already inflicted on the Japanese the most crushing land defeat of their entire history. The "forgotten men" of the 14th Army had come into their own with a vengeance.
|14. MANDALAY TO RANGOON|
MANDALAY FELL ON MARCH 20. Rangoon fell on May 3. The distance involved in the fighting advance of General Slim's armies was 330 miles: the Japanese troops contesting this advance were numerous, well dug in and desperate. Yet the British and Indian columns beating their way down the converging valleys of the Irrawaddy. and the Sittang rivers were hourly conscious not only of the miles and the Japanese in front of them, but also of the enemy at their back---the monsoon. Could they or could they not make Rangoon before May 15, when the annual cyclone descends on Burma and blunts, though it no longer can stop, the power of an attacking force---washing away their roads, drowning them out of their foxholes, bogging down their artillery and armor, above all grounding or blinding their air support. And in Burma air support, as we have seen, means not only tactical bombing and strafing: it is the supply line, the life line, of the plunging columns on the ground.
Slim was fighting against time, and he made a typically aggressive decision: to push on and ignore his flanks. South of Meiktila, in a single day (April 10) 1,110 Japanese were counted killed, and in the open country of Central and Southern Burma the tanks and armored cars began to come into their own. The Japanese defenses were disposed in greatest strength in three areas: in the west, round the oil fields, at Chauk and Yenangyaung, below which lie the communications centers of Magwe and Prome; on the east, the Taungoo-Pegu area, hilly defensible country which would afford the enemy his only avenue of retreat into Siam; and behind, at the southern apex of the triangle, Rangoon itself, the main Japanese base in South Burma and terminus of their supply routes from the southeast.
The enemy fought every inch of the way. To defend Pyauhwe, which fell on April 11, he rushed reinforcements at night in trucks, with headlamps blazing in their desperate haste: sixty were ambushed and destroyed. The capture of Yenaungyaung was not announced for five days, since the enemy H.Q. did not know it had fallen. Air Marshal Coryton's tactical air forces, which paced the drive to the south, kept Jap reconnaissance at arm's length, and the 14th Army operated under a security blackout which normally left the news at least a week behind its inexorable advance. Around Toungoo, with its three important airfields, the Japanese had built some of the strongest defenses yet encountered in Burma. But the speed of Slim's onset was so impetuous that light tanks in the lead actually ran down Jap policemen directing traffic at a crossroads.
As Japanese resistance became gradually disorganized under these body-blows, sniping parties, fleeing eastward into the hills, forcibly changed clothes with Burmese peasantry. But as the isolated pockets of resistance stiffened on the escape routes to the Shan border, the Burmese National Army, together with guerrilla bands under British command began to take their toll of the Japanese on General Slim's eastern flank.
By the end of April the 14th Army was readying for the kill. Pegu was finally reduced on May 1, and as the converging columns drove on Rangoon from the northeast and northwest Admiral Mountbatten sprang his final trap. On May 2, following a parachute drop to clear the beachheads, and a massive sweep of the Gulf of Martaban by the East Indies Fleet, powerful amphibious landings were made on both banks of the Rangoon estuary, twenty miles south of the town. As the landing parties advanced northward, the 14th Army, in the last lap of its 1,000-mile drive from the Indian frontier, found that the Japanese had had enough and had pulled out of Rangoon in flight to the northeast.
As if infected with the galloping paralysis which was gripping its partner Germany, the Jap's last hold on Burma suddenly collapsed. With the fall of Rangoon on May 3, Slim had beaten the enemy and the monsoon. And except for the mopping up of fanatically resisting Japanese, the Burma Campaign was won.
|15. THE BALANCE SHEET|
THE OBJECTIVES stated on the first page of this booklet had been triumphantly achieved. Let us see how, and by whom, this was done.
"Your victories," said Admiral Mountbatten in an Order of the Day to his land, sea and air commanders, "have been a magnificent example of inter-service, inter-allied co-operation." Let one example of each suffice.
Inter-service: the amphibious operation against Rangoon on May 2 was the seventh "combined operation" on the Burma coasts undertaken since the beginning of 1945 by Christison's 15th Indian Corps. In this series of actions they were constantly integrated with the Royal Navy (and the several other Navies represented in the East Indies Fleet), the Royal Marine Commandos, the Fleet Air Arm, the R.A.F.'s aircraft of the Combat Cargo Task Force, and the Anglo-American fliers of the Eastern Air Command.
Inter-allied: the air forces in the Burma theater were made up of the following components, working as one co-ordinated team: (1) The Combat Corps Task Force, approximately fifty-five per cent R.A.F. and R.C.A.F., the rest U.S.A.A.F.; (2) The Strategic Air Force, approximately fifty-five per cent R.A.F., the rest U.S.A.A.F.; (3) The 10th U.S.A.A.F., one hundred per cent American; (4) The 3rd Tactical Air Force, comprising 221 and 224 Groups, R.A.F.; (5) The Air Commando, two U.S.A.A.F. units; (6) The Coastal Reconnaissance and Air Sea Rescue units of the R.A.F.
An area as large as Germany has been liberated. To take a single example of ground covered, the 4th Corps (which held in May, 1942, a front of 500 miles---probably the largest front ever manned by a single corps in any theater) covered in seven months of steady fighting, through the worst country in the world, a distance equal to that between Leningrad and Berlin, or between Boston and Kansas City.
Between February 1, 1944, and April 30, 1945, the Japanese 15th, 28th and 33rd Armies were wiped out. Admiral Mountbatten's tally of enemy casualties, announced from H.Q., S.E.A.C. on May 5, 1945, was 347,000, with 97,000 of these counted corpses. "You have given the enemy such a beating," he said, "and harried them so hard that the vaunted Japanese Army, about whose toughness and fanaticism we have heard so much, has in some cases pulled out rather than face your final assault."
The forces deployed by General Leese in the operations leading to the fall of Mandalay and Rangoon were as follows: The 2nd and 36th British Divisions; nine Indian divisions (one-third of each being British troops)---the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 25th, and 26th; three African divisions (officers and N.C.O's British)---the 81st and 82nd West African, the 11th East African. Besides these there were British Commandos, British armored formations, and British and Indian paratroops; also specialist and communication troops (gunners, engineers, signalers, medical, etc.). Meanwhile there were operating in the north three Chinese divisions and one American brigade.
Precise figures for this great Army Group are not available. But assuming, as is well known, that a British division numbers approximately 15,000 men and that at least three communications, reserve, artillery and specialist soldiers are required for every man actually in the front line, it is apparent that the total strength of Admiral Mountbatten's ground forces involved in the Burma campaigns of spring, 1945, must have amounted to about one million men from Britain and the British Empire.
"The liberation of Burma," said Admiral Mountbatten in his Order of the Day on the fall of Rangoon, "marks not only the successful accomplishment of the first stage of your advance. It will also be the springboard for further and greater victories."
Japan's springboard for her advance on India and the Middle East has been converted into an Allied springboard for further operations against Japan and her empire. Many of the troops to whom their Supreme Commander spoke had been fighting a fanatical enemy under frightful conditions for three or four years without a break. Most of them had been down with fever, often several times. They were 10,000 miles from the homes they would not see for months or years to come. But like every one of their countrymen, they had a score to settle with the Jap. And that score could not be settled this side of Tokyo.