BURMA: JAPAN’S FORGOTTEN ARMY

The third Arakan campaign of 1944 was broadly a success in the end. By September the Japanese were retreating south as their command concluded that it was no longer possible to hold north Burma. Still, it was a costly campaign, bedevilled by military and political problems. The air war was a hit-and-miss affair. It consisted mainly of bombing already ruined towns into the ground. An intelligence officer recorded that Paletwa, the largest town in northern Arakan, was now no more than jungle. It had been completely bombed out by the RAF. ‘In all these bombings there was intelligence officer recorded that Paletwa, the largest town in northern Arakan, was now no more than jungle. It had been completely bombed out by the RAF. ‘In all these bombings there was not a single soul in the place and the only casualty was a Japanese officer who lost an eye.’ The town and environs had already been squeezed for labour and produce by the Japanese who worked through the corrupt local police. It was then occupied by a British West African force and things got even worse for the local people. Everyone commented favourably on the Africans’ fighting qualities, but they appear to have been used to living off the land. The people were terrified of them and they happily looted village after village, committing more than fifty rapes for good measure, or so it was reported. Their officers apparently turned a blind eye. The African generally seems to have a touch of kleptomania’, someone noted, after troops had made off with a cow and brought it into their camp without a single British officer stopping them.

This was an area where there had been fierce clashes even before the war between incoming Bengali Muslims and the local Arakanese Buddhists. The Thakins had found much support among the embattled Buddhists and had instigated or turned a blind eye to communal massacres in 1942. In 1943, during General Irwin’s abortive offensive, Muslim militias ‘bent on loot and revenge’ had moved into the region on the heels of British troops. The Muslims massacred Buddhists and when the British moved out again the vicious cycle was reversed with Buddhist massacres of Muslims. The scene was set for nearly ten years of conflict during which armed Muslim militants carried out a guerrilla war first against the incoming British and then against the government of independent Burma.

The coming of the Civil Administration (Burma) was not an unmixed success either. Initially, the administration’s main aim was to collect labour and supplies for the advance to the south. This proved difficult. The population was mobile. Timber workers were used to migrating between Chittagong in India and Arakan, depending on the price of rice in the two regions. During the famine they had dispersed into Arakan. Labour had to be coerced into service. The ‘old hands’ now working for the Civil Administration found it difficult not to revert to tried, pre-war ways. The former Burma civil servant, Frederick Pearce, onetime secretary to the governor of Burma who was now chief civil affairs officer, wanted to collect the land revenue in classic ICS form despite the fact that the population was malnourished and in rags. Conflicts soon broke out between civil and military officers. Such was the demand for coolies to work on the new military roads that the army began to pay piecework rates well above those of local day labourers. The only way the Civil Administration could get off the ground was to impress labour under the Defence of Burma Rules and starve agricultural operations of manpower. This caused deep dissatisfaction and was psychologically damaging. The returning British administrators expected to find themselves greeted as heroes. To many local people they seemed little better than the Japanese, if at all. There was a strong Thakin element in Arakan and the news spread fast to central and southern Burma. It was one reason why relations between the British and the nationalists deteriorated so quickly after the Japanese were beaten.

The Nagas and other hill peoples played a key role in the fighting. As the Japanese pushed towards Manipur, the hill people found themselves right in the front line. The Naga levies and the exiguous British forces sent to aid them – V Force – had set into something of a routine since 1942. They drilled, exercised and listened. But the fighting on this front was over two hundred miles distant in 1943 and the first months of 1944 as the Chindits of the second Wingate expedition and Shan and Kachin levies carried on hazardous operations behind enemy lines. The main enemies at this time were cholera and smallpox, which stubbornly revived during the 1943 monsoon. But at least V Force now had food, clothing and ammunition. A particular hit amongst the Nagas, who had a keen sense of colour, were red blankets. These were specially coloured for use in the region and were used as gifts and payment throughout the hills. Amongst the Nagas, a leader was only first among equals and his honour and respect depended on his courage and his generosity in distributing prized items such as these.

Suddenly, the calm was broken. Ursula Graham Bower recalled two sergeants coming up to her on 28 March 1944 with chilling news. ‘Fifty Japs crossed the Imphal Road about a week ago and they ought to be here by now. We wondered if you had heard anything of them.’ The defensive belt had suddenly been rolled up and she and the local Naga chiefs were facing the advancing Japanese army with 150 native scouts, one service rifle, one single-barrelled shotgun and seventy muzzle loaders. There was a nagging fear that they would all be boxed in as the Japanese tide flowed round them on both sides. The code ‘one elephant’ was devised to signal that ten Japanese were approaching. A near panic set in when someone arrived in the locality with forty real elephants. On this occasion, the only ‘Jap’ sighted was an unfortunate squirrel which was shot out of a tree by an over-eager scout. But the danger was real enough. Several Naga scouts in the Imphal area went over to the Japanese and led the Japanese to British arms dumps. Bower noted that they were from communities that had taken part in a rebellion during the First World War. There was always the fear that the whole scout force would break and flee as the attack proceeded. After all, these men were scouts and not a fighting force. Meanwhile, refugees once more tramped through the hills. Among them were Bengali and Madrasi pioneers evacuated from Imphal. Then came newly recruited and ill-disciplined Indian support staff, artisans, drivers and mechanics, who all stumbled by with Naga porters and children, sometimes accompanied by escaped Japanese prisoners. Morale hung on a knife-edge until a platoon of Gurkhas came up to support Bower’s detachment. They maintained calm until Kohima was relieved.

The sense of chaos and panic among the defence units of the hill people hid a more important fact. This was the extent to which Naga, Chin and other personnel contributed to the defence of Imphal and Kohima and to the shattering victory that British and Indian forces subsequently won against the Japanese. Army intelligence wrote in the summer: ‘The quantity and quality of operational information received from the local inhabitants has been a major factor in our success to date. A high percentage of our successful air strikes have been the direct result of local information.’ The loyal Nagas gave the Japanese false information about British troop numbers. They guided British and Indian troops through the jungle and pointed out Japanese entrenchments and foxholes to them.

Finally, the great Japanese strength as jungle fighters was being turned against them. Ironically, the Japanese high command was in part betrayed by its own racial ideology, as the British had been two years earlier. The Japanese found it difficult to see the Nagas and allied tribes as anything more than illiterate primitives, more backward even than the aboriginal groups that they encountered in Hokkaido island or Taiwan. Nor could they believe that any Asiatic could reject the idea of ‘Asia for the Asians’ unless they had been bribed or bullied into doing so. No native people could possibly support the British of their own volition. Nagas and Chins were therefore allowed to wander around the Japanese camps even at the critical time when the Imperial Army was moving against Manipur.

Slim told Ursula Graham Bower a revealing story about Naga support. The Japanese commanders on the Manipur front employed a number of Naga orderlies as batmen in the early months of 1944. Naturally, they treated them as illiterate numbskulls. Two of these Nagas decided to steal an operational map which they saw lying around in a commander’s tent. Only too well aware of the estimate the Japanese put on their brainpower, they covered their tracks by pretending that this had been an ordinary theft, and made off with clothing and small pieces of equipment as well as the map. Within a few hours the map was on Slim’s table at British headquarters. As the attack developed, Slim was astonished to find that the Japanese commanders had not modified their plan one iota, so sure were they that no mere Naga orderly could have understood the significance of a battle plan. Slim told Bower that this intelligence was of very great importance in the defence of Imphal and Kohima. Indeed, the debt of the British to the tribal people of the hills was incalculable. Smith Dun, the four-foot tall Karen officer, remembered how dependent he had been on intelligence supplied by the local people during the fighting in the Chin Hills in 1943 and ’44. By chance one of the unit’s batmen was the son of a member of the local Chin levies. Dun’s force was able to move around behind Japanese lines using the information supplied by family members. But vendettas were also in the air. Smith Dun believed that the batman was eventually betrayed by a rival Chin family.

In Simla during June and July, Dorman-Smith among many other officials was aware of the critical situation in Manipur. Their optimism waxed and waned day by day as they read intelligence appraisals and spoke to soldiers returning briefly from the front. They listened to the English-language propaganda broadcasts from Japanese and INA sources with a mixture of amusement and anxiety, unable to evaluate what they heard. The governor still had a lot of minor political skirmishes to fight and this kept his mind off the war. There were the constant battles with Simla officials over accommodation for his government. Would this irritate Archie Wavell? ‘Who would be an exile!’ he wailed. Then again news came that ‘Uncle Joe Stilwell is by no means the popular figure that he was with his own Yank forces’ because of his cavalier attitude to the Chinese troops’ brutal way with the civilians of north Burma. Best of all, ‘Chancre Jack’ and his corrupt cronies were in trouble. ‘I expect you have heard that Chiang is engaged in an affair with some chit of a nurse who is about to produce an infant. Hence Madame’s disappearance. Just what repercussions all this may have, I do not know. But I do not like to think of a Madame scorned set loose upon the world.’

The mood across India remained apprehensive. Yet there was still no panic as there had been in response to every rumour during 1942. Censorship was tight and the Information Bureau of the government was by now so skilled in packaging news of the campaign that, as an intelligence official recorded, ‘even the civilians in Delhi failed to realise its importance’. He remembered looking out over a quiet and peaceful Janpath, Delhi’s triumphal thoroughfare, during these weeks and later recorded that it was impossible to conceive of the vast Arakan battle, still less the looming fact of the independence of India and Pakistan. British India seemed to have survived once again as it had survived every challenge since the Maratha invasions of the eighteenth century.

Once the monsoon had begun in earnest the Japanese reverse in Assam became a rout and the scenes of horror were even worse than the green hell of the Hukawng valley in 1942. The 14th Army had become a cold, efficient killing machine. Very few prisoners were taken on the Allied side. The British, Indian and African troops methodically and ruthlessly killed all Japanese, enraged by cases of atrocities against their own wounded. The enemy were rooted out of their foxholes and shelters, shot down or burnt to death with the new American-made flame-throwers. British, Indians, Gurkhas and Africans took tallies of the numbers of the dead. Those Japanese who stumbled into Kachin and Shan levies sometimes had their heads taken as grim tokens of the new barbarism. Of these operations, Slim wrote laconically: ‘quarter was neither asked, nor given’. Worse even than the condign Allied vengeance were the ravages of disease, monsoon and malnutrition. The Japanese army thrown against Imphal and Kohima was a kind of mass suicide squad. When it was defeated by the vastly increased firepower of the British and Indian armies and American air power, it was cast aside and abandoned by its commanders. There were no reserves, little transport for the withdrawal, no food and medicines. The Japanese air force was and American air power, it was cast aside and abandoned by its commanders. There were no reserves, little transport for the withdrawal, no food and medicines. The Japanese air force was almost entirely a fighter force and could not supply its troops by air. The Japanese had aimed to live off the land and ‘Mr Churchill’s rations’ – captured British supplies – as they had done in 1942. But there was little left on the land by this time and Mr Churchill proved very much less obliging. Even during the advance, the Japanese were on completely inadequate rations, except where they encountered the few remaining herds of cattle belonging to the hill peoples. Now, in July and August, they simply starved or drowned, sucked into seas of mud and filth. One Japanese soldier remembered:

In the rain, with no place to sit, we took short spells of sleep standing on our feet. The bodies of our comrades who had struggled along the track before us, lay all around, rain-sodden and giving off the stench of decomposition. Even with the support of our sticks we fell amongst the corpses again as we stumbled on rocks and tree roots made bare by the rain and attempted one more step, then one more step in our exhaustion.

Thousands and thousands of maggots crept out of the bodies lying in streams and were carried away by the fast flowing water. Many of the cadavers were no more than bleached bones. ‘I cannot forget the sight of one corpse lying in a pool of knee-high water. All its flesh and blood had been dissolved by the maggots and the water so that now it was no more than a bleached uniform.’

For many their only recourse was suicide. Groups of soldiers huddled together over a grenade by the side of the road, while one pulled out the pin to end their misery. A British officer of the King’s African Rifles remembered encountering thousands of the dead or dying enemy. There were ‘strewn over gaseous, bloated bodies family photographs, postcards of cherry blossom and snow capped Mount Fujiyama and delicate drawings of flowers had fallen from dying hands as life ebbed away in the roar of the unceasing rains’.63 Near Tamu, scene of mass refugee deaths two years before to the month, the King’s African Rifles warily entered a village recently occupied by the Japanese. ‘At the far end of the village a small shrine beneath a rusted corrugated-iron roof housed a statue of Buddha gazing across the paddy fields. Lying at the foot of the Buddha was a naked Japanese soldier, a barely living skeleton, with an empty water bottle by his side. Glaring at us, he croaked some words before his head fell back on the mud floor.’ Later, in the British camp, a Japanese-speaking intelligence officer wrote down the dying man’s delirious ravings: ‘Lieutenant Hazaki! Lieutenant Hazaki, where are you, you bastard? Shoot me with your pistol! Come and shoot me! You useless fool! For the sake of the Emperor we came to these filthy hills to be disgraced. Dragged on my behind by blackamoors! We came from Indo-China to be disgraced and clowned by blackamoors. Lieutenant Hazaki, you bastard, bring a machine gun and mow them down. Ah, the disgrace. A Japanese officer dragged in the mud.’

It is estimated that more than 80,000 Japanese died in this campaign as a whole, making it the worst defeat in Japan’s military history and in terms of personnel killed a greater one than any suffered during the main battles of the Pacific naval war. After their failure at Imphal, the Japanese were beaten back at Manipur and the Manipur road was reopened. The 17th Indian Division moved forward on Tiddim, taking Tamu on 4 August. This finally obliterated the memory of the division’s mauling at the Sittang bridge in 1942. The rolling-up of the Japanese position in the northeast was accompanied by a new push by Stilwell and the Chinese from the north. This assault was led by the US Army’s 5307th Composite Unit, the famous Merrill’s Marauders, built up to strength with Kachin and Chinese soldiers. This long-range penetration unit, urged on by Stilwell, took nearly 80 per cent casualties from enemy action and disease as it pushed down from the north through rain-soaked jungle. By 3 August, however, Myitkyina and its airfield were once again in Allied hands, recaptured as the Japanese garrison withdrew.

Finally, the Allies on the Burma front had something to celebrate. Leo Amery, the secretary of state, visited the war front. He spoke to Gurkha troops in Urdu, revealing that it was ‘a language I learned with my Ayah’s [nurse’s] milk nearly seventy years ago’, a perfect example of how the whole British ruling class of those days was shot through with memories of India. Wavell later flew to Manipur and knighted Slim and Auchinleck on the field. He then held a durbar, or official audience, with the Naga chiefs, as the Japanese were finally cleared south into Burma, chased by deep penetration forces.

In the distant Punjab, the province from which such a large proportion of the troops came, there was quiet rejoicing. The National War Front published advertisements in newspapers and distributed posters proclaiming ‘Salute the Soldier!’ The Maharaja of Patiala met returning troops and moved amongst them, chatting. Recruiting posters harped on the modernity of the armed forces: ‘Pilot today. Airline executive tomorrow!’ But that quiet rejoicing was tempered by anxiety. The Railway Board published a notice depicting emaciated villagers staring at a railway carriage: ‘Travel less’. It urged people to refrain from leisure journeys when food distribution remained a priority. Rationing remained severe. The black market burgeoned. The poisonous fires of Hindu–Muslim hatred were stoked across the Punjab as Jinnah denounced Gandhi’s most recent political plans as ‘a death warrant to all Muslims’. It was as if the callousness of wartime killing was seeping into Indian political debate and polluting it.

As the Japanese perished in their thousands, the Punjab and Delhi were suffering a particularly punishing ‘hot weather’. Despite its appearance of blithe normality and the distance from the crisis in Assam, things were gradually deteriorating in the capital. The last few years of the Raj were far from the ‘cushy billet’ that expatriates had come to expect. Wartime restrictions on imports meant that people were forced to make do with poor-quality Indian goods: electric light bulbs that exploded with monotonous regularity, Indian beer which had to be upended in pails of water to let the toxins drift off. The cost of living had risen 200 – 300 per cent in a few months. Private servants were in very short supply because of the demand for labour from swollen government offices and the military. Several officials suffered nervous breakdowns because of the pressures of extra work. Race relations deteriorated further. Indians were resentful of the new influx of British and Americans and their own declining standards of living. The imprisonment of Gandhi and the other Congress leaders was regarded as a national insult and the prospect of Gandhi’s death from a hunger strike had threatened public order. The British, for their part, were tense. They knew that the eastern war was still in the balance, but were poorly informed about what was actually happening. They tended to take it out on Indians, who were regarded as secretly seditious. Water shortages became worse. Pumping stations could not cope with the greatly increased wartime population. Cholera made its appearance as people drank bad water and started to spread as the rains began. Police cordoned off the coolie camp near the city and 3,000 people were inoculated in the course of a few weeks.

Then, quite suddenly, with the coming of the rains, the mood lightened. People sensed that the crisis had passed. Noël Coward arrived in Delhi and began to entertain the troops. He appeared at a cocktail party at the viceroy’s house, while lower ranks were entertained all over town with sausages, fruit juice and cigarettes. Around the middle of July All-India Radio began to broadcast news of the Japanese retreat from Imphal. British India was saved for its final three years of existence. Not everyone rejoiced. The victory at Imphal and the Normandy landings in Europe triggered a slump on Indian stock markets. This was because ‘India was one vast black market’ and the fun would end with the war. One Indian merchant wired his agent: ‘Situation Changing. Don’t buy anything… the future is not at all promising. It seems the war is drifting towards its end.’

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