Britain’s longest campaign of World War II – Burma
Japan invaded Burma in 1942, then part of the British Empire, beginning what was to become the longest continuous campaign fought by the British during the war. It was fought in some of the most challenging terrain in the world, in a tropical climate that claimed many men before they had a chance to fight. It was fought by a unique combination of American, Chinese and British Commonwealth troops. It involved some bitter fighting that prevented further Japanese advances into China and prevented a Japanese invasion of India – of huge strategic importance. Yet their struggle was little known, even at the time.
I understand you believe you’re the forgotten army. That’s not true … The truth is nobody’s ever bloody well heard of you!
Lord Louis Mountbatten, Far East Commander, addressing men in Burma in 1943.
This page highlights just some of the resources where you can discover more:
THE KING’S OWN YORKSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY – TRAGEDY IN BURMA
Taunggyi lies among rolling hills about 6000 feet high and the battalion started training for the type of war likely to be fought for possession of a single road in hilly open country. It was unfortunate that this training was not to prove of much value for the greater part of the K.O.Y.L.I.’s fighting took place at sea level and in dense jungle. Throughout September and October the rain fell constantly and in their thin khaki drill the men often felt the cold. Fortunately there was little malaria.
On December 1 the battalion moved to Loilem nearer the frontier and on arrival news came that relations with Japan were critical; out in their company camps the officers and men were keyed to that state of tense excitement that always possesses soldiers when war appears imminent and inevitable.
It was a lovely morning with a nip in the air when, on December 9, 1941, Lieut. Colonel C. J. Keegan, who had taken over command, walked up from his tent to breakfast. He was met by Major G. T. Chadwick, the second in command, with the news of Pearl Harbour. The war with Japan had begun. Next day orders came for the K.O.Y.L.I. to move to Takaw on the Salween.
The Salween is one of the very great rivers of the world and it has the unenviable distinction of being probably the most useless of them. For all except the last hundred miles to its mouth, it cuts its way through high mountains. Because of its speed and many rapids it is useless for navigation; there is no level ground on either side so it cannot be used for irrigation. Few people live along its course, no great trade routes follow it or cross it, and this huge mass of water pours relentlessly down to the sea without being of any use to man.
At Takaw the Salween is only 800 feet above sea level, but two miles away on either side are mountain peaks 7000 feet high. It is like looking down into a great slit in the earth’s surface, a great dark chasm at the bottom of which can occasionally be seen the glint of the water. The river at that point is only 400 yards wide, running with a smooth mighty rush almost frightening in its enormous power.
This was a place where a couple of battalions could easily hold a division, and the K.O.Y.L.I. set to work to dig positions on the precipitous western side for two battalions. A gang of 500 coolies assisted with the work. “C” Company (Capt. H. M. Green) was, however, given a special task. Across the river was an amazing gorge; it cut through the mountains at right angles due east for – fourteen miles and it was up this gorge that the road ran. The sides rose practically vertical for 2000 feet or more. Although within the tropics, the direct rays of the sun only reached the bottom for a short period at midday each day.
Down in this gloomy canyon “C” Company constructed a series of rearguard positions over a distance of eight miles. The road was mined and prepared for demolition by a detachment of Bengal sappers and miners. Plans were made to block the small river by blowing down huge masses of overhanging rock. All the stores, men, and vehicles for this work had to be carried across the Salween on the ferry, which consisted of two fiat bottomed boats lashed together and capable of carrying one 3-ton lorry at a time. It was attached by a cable to a wire rope, suspended high across the river from bank to bank. So great was the force of the current that as the ferry moved crab-like across the river, bow waves broke on either side as with a destroyer moving at full speed.
Christmas 1941 was spent amid this overpowering scenery, but the C.O. now had serious worries. There had been no sign of the Japanese, but all the same men were being lost at an alarming rate. The valley was a death trap of malaria and Colonel Keegan had been warned that the battalion would probably be decimated. It was a risk that had to be accepted, but although only one man died, a considerable number were evacuated to hospital. Captain Clarke, the Medical Officer, opened a temporary hospital in the battalion area and himself treated large numbers of men to avoid having to evacuate them. An even more serious aspect was that a great proportion of the battalion was infected, and went down with malaria several weeks later as resistance to the illness became reduced by the strain of fighting and marching.
While all remained quiet atTakaw it soon became clear that the Japanese were preparing to advance into Burma by the southern route. The enemy came flooding across the Kawkareik Pass, brushing aside the meagre garrison of Indian troops. Air-raids, in which anti-personnel bombs had been used with terrible effect on the unsuspecting population, had utterly disorganised Rangoon. More than half a million Indians had started their fight to India, a march that was to end in death for many tens of thousands. It was against this background that on January 23, the K.O.Y.L.I. received orders to leave Takaw and move south.
The journey began at once and continued for eight days, partly in lorries and partly by train. The C.0. had been told that the battalion was to go straight through to Martaban where it would be ferried across the Salween to Moulmein, which was under fierce attack by the Japanese. On January 31, however, the train was stopped at Hninpale, a small station on the east side of the Gulf of Martaban and Colonel Keegan was ordered to de-train, for Moulmein had already fallen.
The following thirty-six hours must have been highly depressing for a battalion about to go into action for the first time. Train after train passed through the station filled with wounded and men who had lost their units.
It should be realised that the 2nd K.O.Y.L.I. were in a different situation from other British units who later came to Burma and the Far East. Burma had been the home of many of the men for several years. Wives and children had been left behind in Maymyo ever since August, looked after by a small detachment of sick men under the command of Lieutenant C. A. Fox. Although the majority of men had not got wives with them in Burma, many of the unmarried men had Anglo-Indian and Burmese girl friends.
As the battalion moved into the war area they saw all too plainly the collapse of the civil administration and the helplessness of the refugees. The only way out of Burma was by ship from Rangoon and that route was rapidly being closed. It was only natural that officers and men should be intensely anxious about their women and children How the married families of the battalion were got out of Burma could almost be a story by itself.
A few went by ship before Rangoon fell Some were flown out from Myitkyina in the far north under circumstances of the gravest danger. Most were carried in lorries along the dusty roads and tracks from Mandalay to the Chindwin and thence trekked on foot into India. This was a journey of the utmost horror, along tracks infested with malaria and cholera, and lined by the rotting bodies of many thousands of Indian refugees. As soon as the road in India was reached they were hurried first by lorry and then by train to hill stations but not all of them lived to reach safety and comfort. It should therefore be realised that many officers and men went through this campaign in a state of terrible anxiety for their womenfolk, possibly greater than any other British unit had to suffer in the war.
Read the whole of the fascinating account at Burma Star.org.uk. Many thanks to James Gilpin (see below) for alerting me to this.
The Cambridge University story of Charles Mackerell, the ‘Elephant Man’ which provides a good picture of the desperate retreat through Burma in 1942:
The Burma Story has a growing collection of material about the war in Burma.
Most recently ‘For Your Tomorrow’ has been released, a compelling video account of memories from Burma veterans:
Later fighting in 1944 were African troops – see comment from Mark below.