The Chinese Army in Burma, 1942–5

Nationalist survivors of the 1942 fighting in Burma take part in an assault course as part of their training in India. The helmets worn by the troops are M35s brought back from Burma by them, while their P-17 rifles have been donated by the Allies. With good training, regular meals and better uniforms, equipment and weaponry these soldiers soon became the elite of the Nationalist army.

US army instructor looks on as the crew of a PACK 75mm howitzer supplied by the USA fires its gun in the hills around the Ramgarh training centre in September 1943. US instructors were sent to set up a training scheme for the Nationalist artillery which involved new trainees then going on to instruct their comrades. The week-long training course was in most cases found to be adequate to get the Chinese up to a reasonable standard.

Soldiers of Y Force, the Allied trained and supplied army based in Yunnan province, cross a river in June 1943. Y Force was made up of eleven infantry divisions which were intended to enter Burma sometime in 1943–4. Their arms, equipment and training were not up to the standard of their sister organization, X Force, in India but were superior to other Nationalist formations. They were to be pitted against the 56th Division of the Japanese Imperial army fighting in some the most difficult terrain encountered during the Second World War.

When the Japanese Imperial navy’s aircraft attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 China’s war changed. Overnight the Chinese had Allies against Japan who Chiang Kai-shek hoped would aid him in his four-year war. However, the reality was different with the Japanese blitzkrieg tearing through British, US and Dutch territories by early 1942. In the short term the Allies had enough to cope with without sending armaments or any other aid to Nationalist China. French Indo-China had already been taken over by the Japanese in 1940, cutting off supplies to the Nationalists from that direction. When the Japanese Imperial army invaded British Burma from Thailand on 15 December the last land supply line along the Burma Road was threatened. As with Malaya, the Philippines and other Allied territories, the Japanese advanced through Burma. They moved northwards with the British forces retreating in front of them towards the Burma Road in the north-east of the territory.

Disturbed by the Japanese punitive campaign in north China that followed the Doolittle raid, Chiang Kai-shek feared that the loss of the Burma Road and the demands of other theaters would cut Lend-Lease programs for China. His short-term concern was the expansion of the Japanese occupation into western China; his strategic goal was to strengthen the Kuomintang and Nationalist Army against the Communists. Chiang’s special problem was the senior American officer organizationally at his side but physically in India, Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell. As early as 1942 Stilwell found himself at odds with Chiang over the reform and employment of the Chinese Army. Stilwell had 2 divisions with him at Ramgarh, India (X Force), and he believed he controlled 12 more divisions in Yunnan province, China (Y Force). After the Burma campaign, none of these divisions had more than half their manpower, and they lacked weapons and training. Chiang did not view either force as adequate for his needs.

Instead, he presented an ambitious plan to Roosevelt in June 1942. The Three Demands, drafted by Brigadier General Claire L. Chennault, argued that China held the key to defeating Japan with land-based air power. Chiang could not wait for Stilwell to reopen the Burma Road with a new extension from Ledo in northern India. Instead, the United States should send three divisions to undertake this mission while Chennault built an American air force of over 500 aircraft in China. This force would employ heavy bombers that would attack Japanese supply lines and bases along China’s coast. Until the Burma Road reopened, air transports from India would supply the air force in China. Chiang demanded an airlift capacity of 5,000 tons a month, an incredible figure, since the designated transport, the twin-engine C-46, had only a four-ton load capacity. At the time of the Three Demands, Chennault’s 130 aircraft required 2,000 tons of supplies per month, which meant a 500-aircraft force would probably need 10,000 tons a month, not 5,000. Moreover, who would guard the air bases? The Chiang-Chennault plan said that an elite, American-armed Nationalist Army (Z Force) would perform this mission, which sent the logistical requirements even higher.

Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew they could not meet the Three Demands, but they could not ignore the fact that the Nationalists might tie down much of the Japanese Army. A military renaissance in China, built around 30 elite Nationalist divisions, would protect the air force Chennault wanted. Despite British skepticism about China, Roosevelt promised to do something about getting money and Lend-Lease supplies to Chungking. He did so for several reasons: a sincere conviction that China might become a regional power; his optimistic expediency in military affairs; and his sensitivity to the China lobby, which included influential members of his own cabinet as well as Republican senators and media moguls.

By March 1942 Chiang had realized that as the fighting continued in northern Burma unless he offered forces to help the British they would soon be defeated. A Chinese expeditionary force, under the command of US General Stilwell, was deployed to north-eastern Burma. The Chinese sent some of their best troops into Burma, consisting of three armies, each with three divisions (Fifth Army: 22nd, 96th and 200th divisions; Sixty-sixth Army: 28th, 29th and 38th divisions; and Sixth Army: 49th, 55th and 93rd divisions). The 200th Division included eighty Soviet-supplied T-26 light tanks. Although this force appeared formidable on paper, each army was only the strength of a British or US division. Over the next two months the expeditionary corps fought well in several battles with the Japanese, especially their superior divisions such as the 22nd and 38th. By late May the British and their Chinese allies were defeated and began a long retreat into India in the north-west and into Yunnan province in China.

Once the British army defeated in Burma had reorganized itself in the relative safety of India, it was decided that the Allies would train and equip a Chinese army. This force would be created from the Nationalist troops who had escaped Burma with the elite 22nd and 38th divisions forming a hardcore. It was agreed that the Allies would provide training, equipment and weaponry for a large number of troops, to be designated ‘X’, or X-Ray, Force. A large training facility made up of various training schools was opened in 1942, with facilities to instruct trainees in military skills such as radio operation, veterinary care for draught animals and artillery operation. With good-quality food, new uniforms, equipment and weapons and proper medical care the Allies were confident they could produce a useful military force. In November 1942 Chiang Kai-shek promised twenty divisions’ worth of troops, which would be flown by Allied transport planes across the Himalayas. Training went well and by 1943 a 50,000-strong X Force with modern small arms, artillery and a tank force was ready to be sent into Burma.

From 1943 onwards, two other forces were trained in China by US advisors, with the first, known as ‘Y’, or Yoke, Force, set up in Yunnan province. The training for Y Force was not as intensive as that given to X Force in India but the troops and officers trained in Yunnan were still superior to most other Nationalist formations. By the early summer of 1943 a force of 100,000 Nationalist troops was available to be sent into Burma. Y Force was designated to advance westwards into Burma along the Salween River to link up with X Force advancing eastwards from India in 1944. A third smaller force, known as ‘Z’, or Zebra, Force was trained in Kwangsi province from late 1943. The intention was to create a thirty-division-strong force which would be given several roles in any 1944 campaign. With over 2,000 US instructors but with less facilities and few arms to hand to their trainees, Z Force would not reach the standard of either X or Y Forces. Z Force’s first role was to advance southwards to link up with any future Allied amphibious landing in southern China. Its other role was to provide a defence force for the US airbases being set up in Nationalist territory from where bombing missions would be launched against Japan.

By December 1943 X Force was ready to begin its advance but the planned linkup with Y Force was to be frustrated by Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang wanted to keep the newly trained troops in Yunnan to counter the threat of rebellious generals, particularly the province’s governor, General Lung Yun. Eventually, after threats by the Allies to withdraw their support, Y Force was sent across the Salween River into Burma in May 1944. Both forces had to fight not only against the Japanese Imperial army but in some of the most challenging terrain in the world. It took X Force until March 1944 to reach their first objective, the town of Maingkwan. When it fell Chinese labourers immediately moved in to start repairs on the vital Burma Road. Meanwhile, X Force continued its slow advance, taking Myitkyina in May and Bhamo in November. By January 1945 X Force was in a position to finally link up with Y Force, which it duly did on the 21st. It had taken Y Force until September 1944 to capture their first major town, Tengchung, after an epic battle. After the reopening of the Burma Road, Y Force had served its purpose and most of its units were sent back into China to defend several provinces under attack by the Japanese. X Force, the best of all the Allied trained Nationalist armies, was to be airlifted into northern China and its divisions were to be destroyed in the civil war in Manchuria in 1948.

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