Burma was to be the theatre of the longest continuous British campaign, from 1941 to 1945 – fought in varying terrain of jungle, mountains, plains and wide rivers. By May 1942, the Japanese occupied almost the entirety of this British colony, and granted it nominal independence in August 1943. The British, having been forced back into Assam, had to build up resources from scratch, and the process was very slow, with priority given to other theatres. Unrest in India after the failure of the Cripps mission in 1942 to agree a timetable for independence and the arrest of many Indian Congress Party leaders, including Gandhi, also impeded the building up of forces, and gave the Japanese scope to create an Indian National Army out of troops captured in Malaya and commanded by Subhas Chandra Bose.
The British finally took the offensive in Arakan in December 1942, attempting to take Akyab and Donbaik, but failed, and guerrilla operations under Brigadier Wingate (the ‘Chindits’) achieved only limited success, though boosting British morale in India. The British retained the ambition to recapture Burma, largely by the coastal route, but through 1943 did not have the means to do so. The American view was that any campaign in Burma should be directed towards improving the situation for China, and not part of a strategy to put the British back into their colonies in South-East Asia. South-East Asia Command (SEAC) was formed in November 1943 to resolve some of these issues, and did provide some central direction. More importantly, the British and Indian forces were commanded by General Slim, one of the best British generals of the war, who was slowly able to rebuild morale and forge an offensive fighting force, the 14th Army. Most of his soldiers were Indians, though there were Kerens, Ghurkas, West Africans and other ethnicities, as well as British.
The Japanese reorganised their forces in Burma, and planned their own offensive to interdict the new supply routes to China and ultimately to disrupt British rule in India. The Japanese offensive began on 3 February 1944 with Operation Ha-Go, designed to hold British reserves in Arakan. Improved tactics and supply enabled the British and Indian forces to resist the Japanese assault in the Battle of the Admin Box. US General Stilwell sent his irregular ‘Merrill’s Marauders’ behind Japanese lines around Myitkyina, matched by operations by the Chindits on the central front. However, the main Japanese assault commanded by Mitaguchi opened on 7 March, Operation U-Go; the start of the invasion of India. They achieved some surprise, but 14th Army’s new tactics and improved morale meant that they held their positions on the crucial roads that led into India. Surrounded at Imphal and Kohima, Indian and British forces fought an epic struggle with the Japanese and Bose’s Indians through the monsoon season. The troops were at very close quarters: at Kohima, there was fighting for months across the district commissioner’s tennis court. The Allies were supplied from the air in a massive operation; the Japanese forces were not, and 14th Army was finally able to force Mitaguchi’s 15th Army into retreat on 4 July. It was the largest defeat ever suffered by the Japanese Army: of 85,000 soldiers, 53,000 were casualties (30,000 killed).
Further north, the Allied offensive was able to continue unaffected by U-Go, but the Japanese held out against Stilwell at Myitkyina for two months until 1 August, though the Chinese captured the airfield in May allowing despatch of supplies to and from China. Chinese forces also drove southwards from Yunnan to open the Burma Road, but the Ichi-Go offensive in China (Map 42) caused Jiang to remove his support from Stilwell’s plans for further operations into Burma.
The British pressed forward their advance: by October, 14th Army had crossed the Chindwin river and was approaching Mandalay and Meiktila. The Chinese captured Wanting in January 1945, re-opening the Ledo Road. Tough fighting in the swamps and river country of the coastal region in January and February (the ‘Chaung War’), led to the capture by the British and Indians of Meiktila on 4 March. An amphibious landing directed at Rangoon had long been planned; this finally took place as Operation Dracula on 3 May, and Rangoon was entered by 4th Corps on 6 May, 1945, effectively bringing an end to the campaign, though the Japanese forces remaining in Burma did not surrender until 28 August. It had always been something of a side-show for the Americans and Chinese, but for the British it was a vital campaign if they were to regain control of their empire and some of their prestige as an imperial power. For some Indians it was a war of national defence against the Japanese, who had shown themselves to be unsympathetic liberators, while for others in Bose’s army, it was the opportunity to free India from British rule – the latter were decimated as a fighting force at Kohima and Imphal. The British planned further amphibious operations to regain Malaya and to attack Sumatra, but they had not come anywhere near fruition when the Japanese surrendered, and it was that event that enabled the British to re-enter their other South-East Asian colonies. Ironically, disarmed Japanese troops were to be used in the months following to maintain internal order as the British struggled to re-assert their authority against people that no longer held them in any kind of awe.