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VJ Day 70: The Second World War in Burma

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day), Dr Peter Johnston, the Collections Content Manager at the National Army Museum, explores the Burma campaign that helped to deliver victory for Britain and her allies in the Second World War.

‘If mankind is lucky, it may be that the end of the Burma campaign was the last great battle in the last great war; and even if it wasn’t, it may still be worth remembering from an ordinary foot-soldier’s point of view.’ - George MacDonald Fraser, author and veteran of Burma

Burma was a part of the British Empire during the Second World War, so when Japan invaded Burma in January 1942, the British and Commonwealth troops who had been driven out of the area began the struggle to reclaim it.

The fighting lasted until July 1945, and British Forces - made up mostly by the British Indian Army, Gurkhas and divisions raised in Africa - experienced incredible hardship, stirring leadership, tactical innovation and inspiring bravery.

Retreat

The Japanese captured Rangoon, the capital of Burma, in March 1942 and began to drive the British out of the country. To avoid being surrounded by enemy Forces, the British began to retreat up the Irrawaddy and Sittang valleys in appalling conditions – including crossing difficult terrain, and in the worst dry and hot weather of the year - and determined enemy forces.

On 15 May 1942, just after the monsoon broke, defeated British Forces finally retreated all the way across the Indian border. It was the longest retreat in British history, covering a distance of 1,000 miles – like walking from Birmingham to Rome.

Stalemate

After their retreat, British Forces in India immediately started forming plans to recapture Burma, though the next year saw very little progress.

In the early months of 1943, the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Orde Wingate began Operation Longcloth, driving far behind Japanese lines into the heart of Burma.

RAF signalers attached to the Chindit operations behind Japanese lines in Burma, 1943
RAF signalers attached to the Chindit operations behind Japanese lines in Burma, 1943

The 3,000 man brigade, nicknamed ‘the Chindits’, included British Army and Gurkha regiments and eight RAF sections and signalers. They sabotaged railway lines to limit the movement of the Japanese, and encouraged Burmese resistance groups. However, they suffered heavy casualties. 818 men were killed, wounded or missing – 27 per cent of the original force.

Despite their limited results, the Chindits had shown the Japanese were not invincible in the jungle. The British public was inspired by their mission and their operation raised morale among other British troops.

Advance to victory

‘I have been kicked by this enemy in the place where it hurts, and all the way from Rangoon to India where I had to dust off my pants. Now, gentlemen, we are kicking our Japanese neighbours back to Rangoon.’ - Lieutenant General William Slim to the 11th East African Division, Palel Plain, 1944

Lieutenant General William Slim
Lieutenant General William Slim

In late 1943, the British created the 14th Army to take over offensive operations against the Japanese under the command of Lieutenant General William Slim.

In March 1944, the Japanese launched an attack on British bases behind the Indian Border in Imphal and Kohima. These battles saw some of the worst fighting of the Second World War.

At the same time, a second Chindit expedition began, the second-largest airborne invasion of the Second World War with 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers and air support provided by the 1st Air Commando, United States Army Air Force.

At the Indian base of Kohima, 2,500 British-Indian troops defended Garrison Hill against 15,000 Japanese. In one area, only the width of the District Commissioner Charles Pawsey’s tennis court separated the two sides. When relief forces arrived, the British defensive lines were reduced to a shell-shattered area of only 350 square metres.

Indian and Gurkha soldiers inspect captured Japanese ordnance during the Imphal-Kohima battle, 1944 (Copyright NAM)
Indian and Gurkha soldiers inspect captured Japanese ordnance during the Imphal-Kohima battle, 1944 (Copyright NAM)

The resolute defence by British and Indian forces, and the monsoon, defeated the Japanese. They had now been broken by multiple battles, and after fierce fighting, central Burmese cities Meiktila and Mandalay were captured in March 1945. This was the decisive battle that effectively ended Japanese hopes of holding Burma.

The route south to coastal city Rangoon was now open, and it was a race between the 14th Army and the start of the monsoon. Lieutenant General Slim requested support from the Royal Navy, who redeployed from nearby areas, resulting in a combined air and seaborne victory on 4 May.

Burma was a phenomenal victory in the most difficult of circumstances, and was as much a victory over climate and geography as the enemy. It was a victory won through the courage and endurance of troops drawn from across the British Commonwealth, and the superb generalship of Slim. While history has often referred to the Burma campaign as the “forgotten war”, it is clear there is an enormous amount worthy of remembrance.

National Army Museum

The National Army Museum is currently closed for a major redevelopment project, called Building for the Future. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this £23million project will transform the Museums offer creating five new galleries and offering state of the art facilities. During this closure period, the Museum continues to offer a range of events and activities to get involved in. Find out more at www.nam.ac.uk.