Military & Aerospace

75th Anniversary of World War II end – The Forgotten “Burma War”    
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 03 Dec , 2020

Taking cues from fragments of memories still with many families, whose elders fought in different theatres of war, were forced into long retreats or became prisoners of war – this article, is an attempt to touch on a few salient episodes, on the momentous occasion of 75th anniversary of World War II’s end. Their narratives are shored up with authentication and inputs needed from military history.

On 15 August 2020 Hirohito’s grandson, Japanese Emperor Naruhito expressed ‘deep remorse’ over the wartime past. “I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never again be repeated”, he said at a memorial service at Yasukuni, in Tokyo.  With Empress Masako his wife, they bowed together before an elegantly simple vertical stone memorial mounted alter, with a bank of flowers behind it.                                   

In the World War II’s closing phase 75 years ago, the Japanese forces remained “unbeaten” in Burma and Malay peninsula till August 1945 – as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill observed. The war in this region officially ended on 9 September 1945. Those traumatic battles at India’s threshold and beyond – are eclipsed in pre-occupation with the corona virus scourge and daily over dose of statistics.

The “Burma War” – as the extended struggle against Japanese Imperial ambitions across South East Asia is broadly termed – dragged on, as both Britain and America prioritized deployment of military resources on crippling Nazi Germany – and protecting oil resources in North Africa and the Middle East. To forestall German invasion, Britain was focused on the war effort in Europe, while confronting Japan and regaining Pacific Ocean territories became American responsibility.

There still are widely dispersed families in India with narratives of nearly two million elders and cousins who fought under British command in North Africa, Middle East, British colonial Malaysia and Burma – where Australian, Canadian and African troops too were deployed, to stall the inexorable Japanese Army’s advance to seize what they deemed the ‘Southern Resources Zone’ including the East Indies.

Thailand capitulated after six hours of heavy fighting on 1st December 1941. Thence, six Divisions of Japanese troops swarmed into southern Burma from 12 December. Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day, while beach landings in British colonial Malaya, forced surrender of 80,000 troops, most of them Indian. 

As the British retreated, they partially destroyed the causeway that linked the Malay Peninsula with Singapore. The world’s largest floating dry dock at the great seaport was destroyed, to deny this facility to the Japanese who captured isolated Singapore on 25 February 1942 – despite its supposed status as the impregnable fortress of the British Empire in the Far East. The fall of Singapore was one of the biggest humiliations in military history – as the British garrison surrendered to a much smaller Japanese force. The city was liberated by British troops on 6 September 1945.

The 17th Indian Division deployed along the long, wide expanse of Sittang River valley near Mandalay in east-central Burma, was decimated by the Japanese on 23 February 1942, forcing a British withdrawal. On March 8 Rangoon harbour and seaport was captured by the Japanese coming in from the sea. Long convoys of US trucks, guns, ammunition and military stores for assisting Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang China were set ablaze and abandoned.

Following this, the demoralized, poorly trained, and ill-equipped Burma Corps, led by British Lt General William (Bill) Slim, retreated 1,500 km (900 miles) across rivers and difficult jungle-clad hill ranges to the Indo-Burma frontier. Winston Churchill termed it ‘the longest retreat in military history’. Ancient Manipur kingdom’s 240 acre Kangla Fort precincts has ‘Slim’s cottage’, where William Slim as Field Marshal was subsequently stationed till the Burma War’s end.

Allied resistance to dramatic Japanese military advance in Burma was a tale of ‘military frustration’, marked by utter confusion, lack of co-ordination, conflict of command and faulty communications. Nationalist Chinese army divisions sent into north-east Burma to aid the Allied forces by countering Japanese advance, referred to Chiang Kai Shek in Nanjing for approval of orders by American and British commanders, causing long delays and failed initiatives.

Allied chief of staff in ‘Burma War’ from March 1942 to October 1944, American General Joseph Warren Stillwell did not know of the ‘Doolittle raid’ by American war planes that bombed the sprawling Tokyo harbour city in April 1942. All 18 planes returning from that sortie were lost at sea, as they could not connect with the U S aircraft carrier that launched them. Nor that Japanese occupied Manila and Port Blair had been bombed. He led a difficult 20 day retreat of American forces to India.

Three divisions of the Japanese army breached Kohima – Imphal road in two places, isolating Imphal valley and capturing Kohima, the gateway to Dimapur rail head in the plains below. British Colonel Hugh Richards – formerly an aide to the charismatic Major General Orde Wingate in raising and training  ‘Chindits’ – a guerilla force of British, Gurkha and Burmese troops in Kuomintang China – commanded  the 2,500 strong Kohima garrison.

From March to July 1944 they fought the Japanese to a standstill. Situation was so tense that even Indian Medical Corps field hospital doctors with male ‘nursing orderlies’ went into the trenches at Kohima, desperately keeping up a fusillade to hold off the invaders. Defenders from British Commonwealth nations who fought alongside them are honoured at a meticulously maintained War Cemetery at Kohima, with a poignant plaque – “When you go home tell them of us, who gave our today for their tomorrow”.

The battle for Kohima hill – Imphal valley road axis was a major turning point in the war. It ended in July 1944 with the first major defeat suffered by the Japanese forces in the Burma theatre – and thwarted their ambitious plans to invade India. ‘The victory at this sector was of a profound significance because it demonstrated categorically to the Japanese that they were not invincible’, says Second World War military historian Robert Lyman – an authority on the Burma campaign – at British national war museum, Imperial Institute in London’s South Kensington.

This set back was to be important in preparing the entire Japanese nation to accept defeat. In 2013 the Museum voted this military engagement as Britain’s greatest battle ahead of the more celebrated engagements of D-Day and Waterloo.

Part of Manipur’s World War II legacy, the ‘Battle of Imphal’ was one of the most bitter in the military confrontations that raged for three months from March to July 1944. Koirengei airfield is one of six airstrips constructed in Imphal valley during that war.      

Nungshigum in Churachandpur hill district is the closest the Japanese Army got to Imphal city. Red Hill was the site of a fierce battle in end May 1944. South of Imphal city and also known as Maibam Lokpaching, there is a neatly designed Japanese War Memorial. Besides, graves of Commonwealth soldiers, including Britons, Australians, Canadians, Indians, Burmese, East and West Africans, at the Imphal War Cemetery close by.

Lifting the siege of a major British military supplies base in Imphal valley and relieving encircled 4th Indian division – to wrest Burma from the Japanese Army – were     achieved by incessant Royal Indian Air Force bombings. That finally forced Japanese retreat eastwards across the Chindwin River in Burma.  South of Chittagong harbour – named after Ahkyaib-daw Pagoda by the invading British in 1825 – the strategic Akyab estuarial island airfield and deep water sea port off  Arakan shoreline, captured in 1942 by the Japanese forces, was retaken in mid 1945 as base for British recovery of Burma.                 

Yet, the Japanese soldiers were full of guts and fought on with grit in Burma and Malaysia, till American atomic bombs dropped on 6 August 1945 on Hiroshima port and Nagasaki ship building yards on 9 August. The Japanese fought on with determination as they are culturally ingrained with ‘Commitment to the Purpose’ which they call Ikigai, that is worthy of emulation in an organizational and personal context.

Emperor Hirohito on 14 August 1945 in a radio broadcast – the first time he had spoken to his people – urged acceptance of the 17 July Potsdam Declaration for unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allies. Hirohito signed on 2 September 1945 the ‘instrument of surrender’ on board an American warship, in the presence of the commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, American General Douglas Mc Arthur.

Japan was irked by American Military Mission led by Major General Joseph Warren Stilwell and Brigadier John Magruder in Kuomintang China – and Dakota airlift of generous American military assistance since 1937 – from Assam to Kunming in Yunnan and up the Irrawaddy River from Rangoon sea port, to the mercurial Chinese Kuomintang General Chiang Kai Shek’s army – to blunt the Japanese invasion from Manchuria plains –Dongbei Pingyuan – to isolate and conquer Nationalist China. American strategy was to enable Nationalist China to fight off the Japanese advance – so that the attacker is tied down in the north-east China front, instead of adding to their massive deployment in Malaya or Burma.

The Japanese economy was stressed due to American embargo on export of aviation fuel, ship loads of industrial scrap steel and purchase of strategic rare metals. Japan’s Premier General Tojo Hideki set 29 November 1941 as a secret deadline to destroy American naval assets, to establish Japanese Imperial domination on resource rich Pacific-rim countries. The ‘Southern Resources Zone’ including the East Indies.

America entered the war as an active participant after Japanese submarines and swarms of aircraft carrier based war planes sank or badly damaged eight American battleships and 10 other naval vessels of the American Pacific Ocean fleet on Sunday 7 December 1941. Nearly 200 US military aircraft parked in airbases around Pearl Harbour in Hawaii were destroyed.

Harvard University educated and later Japanese naval attaché in Washington DC, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku’s carrier-borne planes, missed three US aircraft carriers cruising off base that day. These capital ships saw action in the battle for US air and naval bases on the two square mile Midway Island pair in mid-Pacific, under legendary Admiral Chester William Nimitz’ command, from 4 to 6 June 1942. 

Four Japanese aircraft carriers, two cruisers, and three destroyers were sunk. The battered American aircraft carrier ‘Yorktown’ and one destroyer went down. The two fleets neither saw each other nor exchanged devastating naval gunfire.  All contact was made by Japanese aircraft carrier-based planes and nearby American Midway Island and US carrier launched aircraft.  Trounced – Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku ordered retreat. This was an important turning point in the Pacific War.

The Russian Federation commemorated ‘victory in Europe’ solemnly with a 90 minute military parade in Moscow’s Red Square on 24 June 2020.  A tri-service Indian contingent of 75 personnel participated. Russian telecast recalled that with over 20 million military and civilian personnel killed in ‘The Great Patriotic War’, just 14,000 troops could be mustered 75 years ago for the paradeat this iconic venue marking the end of this whole generation that fought that brutal war. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Samir Pal

is Freelance Journalist, former Hindustan Times reporter on war fronts during 1962 India-China Sela-Bomdilla Sector, 1965 on Indo-Pak Sialkot-Chawinda Sector, 1971 on Jaisalmer-Barmer Sector.

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One thought on “75th Anniversary of World War II end – The Forgotten “Burma War”    

  1. While there are detailed works like IMPHAL- A FLOWER ON LOFTY HEIGHTS and KOHIMA (Arthur Swinson) and recent synoptic overviews of the Burma campaign, none excel Slim’s DEFEAT INTO VICTORY for the British view of the war. For the Japanese view, the 99 minute documentary THE BATTLE OF IMPHAL (NHK 2016) available on You tube is superb.

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