The Indian Ocean



Today we have a diversion from the narrative the podcast has been following lately.  When Japan conquered Southeast Asia in early 1942, it gained access to the Indian Ocean, and the Japanese ventured into that ocean afterwards.  This episode will look at what followed:  the invasion of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the bombing of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), and a battle between the British, French and Japanese for Madagascar.  Although this area is not in Southeast Asia per se, I believe you will find the stories interesting, because they are really obscure to those people who don’t live around the Indian Ocean.  That includes the host; I did not hear any of this in school!  Now listen and enjoy.


(Transcript, added 08/25/2020.)


Episode 43: The Indian Ocean

Greetings, dear listeners! If this isn’t the first episode you have listened to, you know that recently the podcast has been covering World War II in Southeast Asia. We have looked at the Japanese invasions from December 1941 to May 1942, when the Japanese struck almost everywhere in the region, and won constantly. Now for today we are going to look at some events that happened outside of Southeast Asia, but were caused by Japan’s successes in Southeast Asia. When I was a kid reading stories about World War II, I never saw anything about the Indian Ocean, so for me at least, the battles we will be covering today are really obscure; unless you’re a military history buff, I don’t think you have heard about them either. I am going over them because they will help you understand the so-called “big picture.” Remember that by itself, the Pacific phase of World War II happened over an enormous part of the world.

Normally I recommend some older episodes for the listeners to check out, before they listen to the current one. I won’t be doing it this time, because there isn’t much in the older episodes that can be directly tied to what I plan to share today. In that sense, this is a separate branch of the narrative, a stand-alone episode or special episode; I thought about calling it a mini-episode before starting this recording. Of course since these are World War II stories, the other World War II episodes are handy to let you know what’s going on here; in other words, how Japan and the Allies got to this point. If you haven’t listened to them already, those are Episodes 36 through 39, plus 41 and 42. And now, without further ado, let’s get into the stories.


The Andaman & Nicobar Islands

I bet it has been a long time since you heard anything about these islands, if you have ever heard about them at all. I talked a little bit about them way back in the first days of this podcast, Episodes 0, 1, and 2, but I have not had a reason to mention them since then. For those not up on their geography, the Andamans and Nicobars are two groups of islands, 139 islands in all, located in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal; the part of the Indian Ocean between the islands and the Southeast Asian mainland is also called the Andaman Sea. The nearest lands to the islands are the Indonesian island of Sumatra, 93 miles to the southeast, and Cape Nargis in Myanmar, 120 miles to the northeast. Across the bay, the nearest part of India’s mainland is the city of Madras, 740 miles to the west.

Geographers consider the Andaman and Nicobar Islands part of Southeast Asia, but nothing happening here has ever affected the eleven nations I have been covering in the podcast narrative, so it was all right for me to ignore them. And when the British occupied the islands in the mid-1800s, they administered them as part of India. As a result, they are still part of India today, so after this episode I probably won’t mention these two groups of islands again.

Anyway, when the Japanese captured Malaya, Singapore, and Indonesia in early 1942, they now controlled the eastern gates to the Indian Ocean, and the Allies did not have the ships and warplanes to keep them out. The Japanese were not interested in conquering any territory in the Indian Ocean – with the conquest of Southeast Asia, they had everything they wanted in this direction. However, they now had to defend their conquests, and that would be a lot easier if they could keep the Allies off their feet, so to speak. In the case of the British, the colony they valued the most was India, and as long as the Japanese were acting aggressively, in and around India, the British would make the defense of India their top priority; if this was played right, it would keep the British from stopping or interfering with Japan’s activities anywhere else, so in the Indian Ocean, neutralizing Britain became the name of the game.

Besides action with ships, planes and soldiers, it would help the Japanese cause if they could stir up unrest in India itself, because India had a strong nationalist movement by now, and it was only a matter of time before the British would have to grant independence to the subcontinent. Here the Japanese had an ace up their sleeve. Or if you want to keep using playing card terminology, the Japanese had a joker – an Indian nationalist was on their side. This was Subhas Chandra Bose, the 45-year-old leader of a radical faction in the Indian National Congress, India’s chief nationalist movement.

I am going to assume you have heard of two other Indian nationalists who lived at this time, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru; they were two of the most important people of the twentieth century. Gandhi was the spiritual leader of Indian nationalism, totally committed to making sure that India would win independence through a non-violent revolution, while Nehru was both Gandhi’s most devoted follower and the leader of the Indian National Congress; after independence came he would also serve as India’s first prime minister. To get their cooperation during the war years, Britain promised independence after the war; it was critical that India’s huge population give Britain no trouble at this time. Here is how Gandhi saw the promise. Quote: “They are offering us a postdated check on a bank that is obviously crashing.” Unquote. The British didn’t think this was funny, and threw Gandhi in jail.

On the other hand, I don’t think you are familiar with Subhas Chandra Bose, unless you have studied Indian history. The son of a radical judge from Bengal, he differed from Gandhi and Nehru in that called for violent uprisings against the British; his favorite slogan was, quote: “Give me blood and I promise you freedom!” Unquote. Another difference was that Gandhi and Nehru wanted Indians to win their freedom by themselves, while Bose thought Indians should get help from the enemies of Britain, so he supported the Axis dictators. In January 1941, he escaped house arrest in Calcutta and made his way through Afghanistan and Russia to Germany, where he married a German, became father to a baby girl, and started broadcasting Nazi propaganda, on a radio station called Free India Radio. He recruited 3,000 Indian prisoners of war, that had been captured in North Africa, to form an army unit called the German Indian Legion. When the Japanese conquered Southeast Asia, he decided that Japan was more likely to invade India than Germany, and that he could do more if he went to Southeast Asia. Adolf Hitler agreed when he and Bose had their only meeting, and arranged to have a German submarine available for his trip. Leaving Europe in February 1943, he rode first on a German submarine, then on a Japanese submarine, and then on a Japanese airplane before reaching Tokyo in May 1943. As for what he did after he arrived, we’ll come back to that later.

In early 1942, the garrison defending the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was an Indian militia unit, 300 Sikh soldiers commanded by 23 British officers. They were concentrated at Port Blair, the only naval port in the islands. A small Gurkha unit was there, too, but then news arrived about the Japanese taking Rangoon in Burma, and on March 10 the Gurkhas were removed to Akyab, the capital of Arakan province. Then the Japanese arrived in the islands on March 23, 1942. The invasion force was one battalion from the 18th Division, which came on nine transports, and were backed up by the following ships: 7 cruisers, 1 light carrier, 11 destroyers, and 11 other ships (mostly minesweepers). The light carrier was the Ryujo, a ship that took part in the Indonesian campaign, one month earlier. The defenders surrendered without a fight, being both outnumbered and outgunned. The Sikhs were disarmed and locked up, though many of them would later join the Indian army Subhas Chandra Bose was setting up. The British officers were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, while Chief Commissioner Waterfall, Deputy Commissioner Major A. G. Bird, and other British civilian leaders were imprisoned locally. Japanese aircraft began arriving on March 26, and by the end of March there were 600 Japanese soldiers and an unknown number of policemen in the islands.

I wish the story ended here, but this was only the beginning; for the next three and a half years the Japanese murdered, plundered and brutalized the native population. Others were rounded up to do forced labor, building an airstrip and other projects. We have few records of what happened in this obscure part of the world, but the records available indicate it was a horrifying time. One of the first victims was a boy named Zulfiqar Ali, who got on the bad side of the Japanese by firing an air gun at them. In response, the Japanese went on a rampage of killing, raping and burning until the villagers brought the boy to them the next day. Zulfiqar was then dragged, beaten, kicked and tortured until he died. Since this was one of the best documented atrocities, a memorial to the bravery and sacrifice of Zulfiqar stands in Port Blair today.

The longest quote I could find about the war in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came from a Geocities website that no longer exists, and it was reposted on a website called the Axis History Forum. Here is what it says about the Port Blair massacres. Quote:

(March 23, 1942) Japanese forces occupied the British controlled Andaman Islands. They met no resistance from the local population but within hours the ‘Sons of Heaven’ started an orgy of looting, raping and murder. Unbelievable orgies were perpetrated in the towns and villages with women and young girls forcibly raped and young boys sodomized. In Port, eight high-ranking Indian officials were tortured then buried up to their chests in pits they were forced to dig. Their chests, heads and eyes were then prodded with bayonets after which the pit was sprayed with bullets until the helpless victims were all dead. The Director of Health and President of the Indian Independence League, Diwan Singh, was arrested and nearly 2,000 of his Peace Committee associates incarcerated in the local jail and subjected to the water treatment, electric shocks and other unspeakable forms of torture for eighty two days. Those left alive were then taken out to the country and shot and buried. After the massacre the Japanese resorted to a reign of terror, women were abducted and taken to the officers club to be raped by the officer elite. A shipload of Korean girls was brought in to participate in this ‘sport’. During the three and a half years of Japanese occupation, out of the 40,000 population of Port Blair around 30,000 were brutally murdered. The small islands of the Andamans were left a scene of utter devastation. This was Japan’s way of helping India get her freedom from the British.

End quote.

After he arrived in Southeast Asia, Subhas Chandra Bose began recruiting another army of Indian soldiers for the Japanese. Because he was now closer to India, he found many more recruits than he did for Germany; this force was called the Indian National Army, and by early 1944 it would have 40,000 soldiers. In December 1943 the Japanese put him in charge of the Andamans and Nicobars, proclaiming the islands the first province of an independent Indian state. Bose visited the islands during the last three days of 1943, and while there, he renamed the Andamans Shahid Dweep, meaning Martyr Island, and the Nicobars Swaraj Dweep, meaning Self-Rule Island. But most of the time he just wined and dined with the Japanese, and doesn’t seem to have even noticed how much the local population was suffering. Either he ignored their calls for help, or the Japanese kept him isolated so he never heard those calls. Whichever was the case, Bose alienated the Andaman islanders by not helping them out. Although he may have fancied himself the future Indian head of state, the reality was that he never was anything but a puppet ruler, who may not have known how brutal the Japanese occupation force was. After the visit he went away to prepare for a Japanese invasion of the Indian mainland from Burma, and never came back again.

1945 was the worst year for the islanders, because food was in short supply and the Japanese now realized they were going to lose the war, so they destroyed whatever evidence they could find of their atrocities, so the evidence could not be used against them in future trials. That’s why we only have a handful of records from the Japanese occupation of the islands. Again I will read a quote from the Axis History Forum, describing the last, and one of the worst massacres here. Quote:

Situated midway between the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, lie the tranquil Andaman Islands. As the food shortage became acute during the last month of the war, the Japanese occupiers decided to exterminate all those who were no longer useful or employable. All were deprived of their personal possessions and household goods before being embarked on three boats. About two kilometres from the shore of the uninhabited Havelock Island they were forced to jump into the sea and swim to the beach. Most of them, around a hundred, drowned on the way and those who made it were abandoned to die of starvation. Of the original 300 who landed only eleven were alive six weeks later. The next day, 800 Indian civilians were rounded up and transported to another uninhabited island, Tarmugli. Transferred to the island in small boats, they wandered aimlessly on the beach waiting for further orders. Soon, a detachment of 19 Japanese troops arrived and what followed was one of the most heinous crimes in the annals of the Pacific war. It took the detachment just over an hour to slaughter all but two of the 800 victims by shooting and bayoneting. Next day, August 15, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender, a burial detail of troops arrived to remove all traces of the massacre. Within twenty-four hours all 798 bodies were collected and burned in funeral pyres until only fragmented bones and ashes remained. The ashes were then buried in deep pits dug on the beach. In a gross miscarriage of justice, the Japanese officer responsible was sentenced to only two years in prison by a British Military Court.

End quote.

The only British plan to take back the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was proposed in 1944 by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of the royal family and the last British viceroy or governor of India. He called it Operation Buccaneer, but the plan was never carried out. Thus, Allied troops did not return to the islands until October 7, 1945, more than a month after the war ended.


The Raid on Ceylon

When the Japanese navy entered the Indian Ocean, the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka became a crucial strategic point. The British expected it would become the next target for the Japanese navy, after the fall of Singapore. Before 1972 Sri Lanka was called Ceylon, and because we used the old name of Burma for Myanmar in the previous episode, we will stick to that convention and use the old name of Ceylon here. What scared the British the most was the idea that the Japanese and Germans were working together. They thought that if Nazi Germany won in North Africa or Russia, the Germans would drive through the Middle East, the Japanese would invade India from the east, and the two main Axis powers would meet somewhere in the middle, like Afghanistan. If that happened, Germany and Japan would form one enormous block of territory controlling the most important parts of Europe and Asia; stopping the dictators at that point would be nearly impossible.

Anyway, the British acted with great vigor to give Ceylon an air defense system; it had virtually no planes previously. In March 1942 an airstrip was built at the racecourse in Columbo, the capital, and the Ratmalana airport was taken over by the Royal Air Force, the RAF, and extended. Two squadrons of Hurricanes flew in from North Africa to the new Columbo airstrip, and a squadron of Blenheim medium bombers from the Middle East was based in Ratmalana. In addition, two squadrons of Fleet Air Arm Fulmars went to Ratmalana, and a squadron of Catalina flying boats was stationed in Koggala. For the navy, all available ships aeembled at Ceylon to form the Eastern Fleet. This consisted of 5 battleships, 3 aircraft carriers, 7 cruisers, and 14 destroyers, commanded by Admiral James Somerville. Only one of the battleships was up to date, but to defend the waves and their territories, the British would take whatever they could get. Here is what the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote about it. Quote:

“We were hanging by our eyelids! Australia and India were threatened by the Japanese, we had temporarily lost control of the Indian Ocean, the Germans were threatening Iran and our oil, Auchinleck was in precarious straits in the desert, and the submarine sinkings were heavy.”

End quote.

Against them, the Japanese deployed their most powerful naval force, the 1st Air Fleet. This fleet had 5 aircraft carriers, more than any other fleet, 4 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. The commander of the fleet was Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, and the commander of the aircraft squadrons was Captain Mitsuo Fuchida; these were the same two individuals who had led the raid on Pearl Harbor. Another admiral, Jisaburo Ozawa, played a supporting role by commanding a raiding force of 1 aircraft carrier, 7 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. Because the Japanese ships were newer and outnumbered those in the Eastern Fleet, Somerville had a tricky task; he needed to protect Ceylon while avoiding a fleet battle.

At first Somerville thought the Japanese fleets would head for Ceylon immediately, after they took the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On April 2, Somerville got tired of waiting for the enemy, and sent most of the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives Islands to refuel, thinking that the Japanese had postponed their attack. He only kept four ships around Ceylon, the heavy cruisers Dorsetshire and Cornwall at Columbo, and at Trimcomalee, on the east side of the island, he kept the light aircraft carrier Hermes and an Australian destroyer, the HMAS Vampire. However, the Japanese WERE on the way. On April 4, Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall, a Canadian pilot, was flying a Catalina on a reconnaissance mission, 250 miles southeast of Ceylon, and in the late afternoon, he spotted a speck on the southern horizon. This was the vanguard of Nagumo’s fleet. He managed to get off a radio message warning of the fleet before his Catalina was shot down by six Japanese Zeros, and the plane’s crew was captured. After the war, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was asked what he thought was the most dangerous moment of the entire war. Churchill said his greatest fear came when news arrived of the Japanese fleet approaching Ceylon, and in that sense, Birchall, the pilot who first saw the fleet, probably saved the day for the Allies.

The main Japanese attack came the next morning, Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942. At dawn 125 planes – 36 dive bombers and 53 torpedo bombers, escorted by 36 Zero fighters – struck Columbo. Though the British had been warned, they did not act on it; most of their planes were inexplicably on the ground when the Japanese arrived, leading to the same results as if it had been a surprise attack. The raid lasted about 20 minutes, and the civilian casualties amounted to 85 dead and 77 injured. The British claimed to have destroyed 18 Japanese planes, but the Japanese admitted losing only five. The Eastern Fleet was unable to do anything about the raid, because its ships were elsewhere; the Dorsetshire and Cornwall were caught at sea and sunk.

Next, the Japanese sent an air raid against Trincomalee and Batticaloa on April 9. They sank the Hermes, because she had no aircraft onboard at the time; the Vampire, a corvette, the HMS Hollyhock, and two tankers were sunk as well. The RAF lost at least eight Hurricanes and one Fulmar. Nine Blenheim bombers tried attacking the Japanese carriers, but scored no hits, and five of the bombers were lost to the Zeroes defending the fleet. The Japanese in turn lost five bombers and six fighters, one in a suicide attack on the Trincomalee fuel tanks. You can call the latter the first Kamikaze raid if you wish, but that would not become an important Japanese tactic until late in 1944.

Podcast footnote: Another ship destroyed in the April 9 raid was a civilian steamship, the SS Sagaing, which carried cargo and passengers, usually, but not always, between Burma and Britain. It was sunk in 1943 so its hull could be used as a pier. The shipwreck made news in late March 2018, just before I started working on this episode. After working on the wreck for five months, the Sri Lankan navy succeeded in raising it, moved it out of the harbor, and then resunk it for preservation purposes. Also, you might be interested in knowing that one of the British officers who survived the attack on Trincomalee was a twenty-year-old midshipman you have probably heard of. This was Prince Philip, the future Duke of Edinburgh and the future husband of Queen Elizabeth II. End footnote.

Technically the raids were a Japanese success, but because Admiral Nagumo never found most of the ships in the Eastern Fleet, this wasn’t as disastrous to the British as the Pearl Harbor raid had been to the Americans. What’s more, the Japanese did not follow up on the raids. Nagumo abruptly turned around and returned to Singapore. So did Admiral Ozawa’s raiding force, which had destroyed 23 British merchant ships, totaling 93,000 tons, while the other battles were going on. Altogether the Japanese victories had been pointless, because contrary to what the British feared, the Indian Ocean and the lands around it had never been important to Japan. The Japanese did not even bring troops to occupy the lands they attacked. Now Japan needed the ships in the Indian Ocean to assist with other campaigns in the Pacific. On the other side, the Eastern Fleet also withdrew, once the repairs on the ships in the Maldives were finished. The Eastern Fleet relocated to a new base, near Mombasa in Kenya.

The Battle of Madagascar

Madagascar was mentioned once before in this podcast; in Episode 2 we saw that a small group of Indonesians colonized it, at some point in the first millennium A.D. We haven’t said anything about Madagascar since then, because it is closer to Africa than to Asia, making it a more appropriate topic for African history. In the late nineteenth century, Madagascar became a French colony, but its remote location meant that nobody expected it to become a battleground, and that is probably why few people in today’s world know that a World War II battle was fought there. When Germany invaded Western Europe in the spring of 1940, 34,000 Malagasy troops were conscripted and sent to fight on the side of France; another 72,000 were in Madagascar and expecting to go to Europe when France surrendered. The Germans executed many of the Malagasy as soon as they captured them, or soon after they went to prisoner of war camps, because German propaganda claimed that black soldiers in the French army were savages who fought to the death and took no prisoners.

One of the worst features of European society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was anti-Semitism; it still existed, latent in the minds of Europeans when not practiced openly in events like the infamous Dreyfus case. Accordingly, a few folks proposed exiling all or part of Europe’s Jewish community to Madagascar. However, the island was a poor, backward place with hardly any infrastructure, so this never looked like a good idea; a study by the Polish government in the 1930s suggested that Madagascar could only accommodate 5,000 to 7,000 Jews, and one opinion put the number as low as 500. Nevertheless, Adolf Hitler heard about the idea, and he thought it deserved serious consideration, especially after Germany conquered France. Like French Indochina, Madagascar’s colonial government chose to support Vichy France, meaning it was now on the side of the Axis. Now the Nazis came up with the Madagascar Plan, which would have ordered Vichy France to hand over Madagascar to Germany; then the island’s French citizens would be removed to make room for more Jewish exiles. The Nazi in charge of fixing Germany’s quote-unquote “Jewish problem,” Adolf Eichmann, proposed sending a million Jews to Madagascar every year, though he knew a lot of them weren’t likely to survive in the island’s harsh conditions. But what really kept the plan from being tried was the fact that the British Navy controlled the ocean; Rule Britannia and all that. Deportations to a place like Madagascar were not feasible when the British could sink or capture the ships involved, and Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia vastly increased the number of Jews under German rule. Rather than try to relocate all of these unfortunates, the Nazis now went ahead with a more “Final Solution,” sending the Jews to their terrible network of death camps.

That would have been the last word on Madagascar if the Japanese hadn’t entered the Indian Ocean. We saw how the British feared a Japanese invasion of Ceylon; they also feared that the Japanese would send an occupation force to Madagascar, like the one they had in French Indochina. A strong Axis presence on Madagascar could cut off Allied shipping around the Cape of Good Hope.

To prevent this, the British decided they needed to go to Madagascar first. On the northern tip of Madagascar is a natural deep-water port, Diego Suarez, and the French had built a coaling station here. The British figured that if the Japanese established a base on Madagascar, it would be at Diego Suarez, so they drew up a plan to take the port, called Operation Ironclad. For this expedition, 50 ships were sent, led by two aircraft carriers and the battleship HMS Ramillies. 13,000 British troops came with the ships; their units were the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group, the No. 5 (Army) Commando, and the 13th and 17th Infantry Brigades. The first ships and soldiers committed to the operation left Scotland in late March of 1942, and on the way they stopped in Sierra Leone and South Africa to pick up more ships and men. To keep the plan secret, no forces from the Free French, the French faction still fighting on the side of the Allies, were allowed to participate, and the Free French commander, Charles de Gaulle, was not informed of Operation Ironclad until after the landing on Madagascar took place. To defend against this, the Vichy French had 35 aircraft, four warships, six tanks and 8,000 troops, of which 6,000 were Malagasy and the rest were a mixture of French and Senegalese.

With the South African air force providing air cover, the British made their landings around Diego Suarez on May 5. Although the beach landings were achieved with almost no resistance from the French, the French naval base itself was well protected by trenches, pillboxes and swamps. Here was the heaviest fighting of the whole campaign, but after two days the larger British force prevailed; the French surrendered Diego Suarez and withdrew to the south.

At this point, the only part of Madagascar the British wanted was Diego Suarez, but the campaign didn’t end after they got it. The Vichy French governor, Armand Annet, was a classic career bureaucrat. One of my sources described him as a man with almost no personal initiative; he could not make even a small decision without first checking with his bosses in France, to make sure they approved. Thus, while the British were hoping that Annet would surrender the rest of Madagascar without a fight, Annet said nothing, because he had no instructions on what to do. Then three weeks later, on the night of May 30, three Japanese submarines showed up on the scene. They launched two mini-subs, and one of them managed to enter the harbor; the torpedoes from that mini-sub sank a tanker and seriously damaged the battleship Ramillies. The Ramillies had to be towed away for repairs, first in Durban, South Africa, and later at Plymouth, England. The two crewmen of the mini-sub beached their vessel and tried to march inland, but the British knew they were in the area and three days later, both of the Japanese and one British marine were killed in a firefight. The other mini-sub was lost at sea and the body of one of its crewmen washed ashore a day later. Meanwhile, more Allied ships were torpedoed in June and July, 25 in all before the Japanese submarines withdrew; the Allies tried unsuccessfully to avoid attacks by sailing around Madagascar’s east side, rather than through the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and the African mainland.

Madagascar is one of the world’s largest islands, and the British realized that the Japanese could still have a base on Madagascar as long as the Vichy French held any part of the island, so in order to finish their job, the British would have to conquer the whole thing. Because the seasons are reversed south of the equator, this was winter time in Madagascar, and over the winter months the British force at Diego Suarez received reinforcements: the 22nd Brigade from East Africa, the 7th South African Motorized Brigade, and the 27th Infantry Brigade from North Rhodesia, modern Zambia.

The second British plan for the Madagascar campaign was called Operation Stream Line Jane. The name had three words in it because there were three sub-operations under the main one, code-named Stream, Line and Jane. They began moving on September 10 with the 22nd and 29th Brigades landing at Majunga, on Madagascar’s west coast; this was sub-operation Stream. At the same time the 7th South African Brigade drove south from Diego Suarez, entering Madagascar’s central highlands. Next, for sub-operation Line, the 22nd Brigade advanced on the road from Majunga to Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. Finally, for sub-operation Jane, the 29th Brigade was transported to the east side of the island; on September 18 it landed and took Tamatave, the main port on the east coast, and then it also drove on Antananarivo.

Governor Annet wanted to negotiate an honorable peace, but now he finally heard from his superiors. The Vichy premier, Pierre Laval, sent Annet a telegram stating he must defend Madagascar, quote, “as long as possible, by all possible means, and with no other considerations.” End quote. Therefore Annet chose to stall for time, delaying the British to see if the situation would change. Instead of fighting the British wholeheartedly, French resistance at this stage of the campaign mainly consisted of creating roadblocks to slow down the British advance, by felling trees on the roads. As for the Malagasy natives, only those in the French army tried to fight; the rest refused to get involved on either side. Antananarivo fell to the British on September 23. To begin the conquest of the south, a South African battalion landed on the southwest coast at Tuléar, on September 29.

The last major action was at Andramanalina, a valley in the south where the French tried to ambush the British forces coming after them. Instead, on October 19, the British King’s African Rifles Regiment marched around the French, ambushed them in the rear, and captured 800 Vichy French troops without suffering a single casualty of their own. Annet tried to escape and hide, but soon found he couldn’t do that anymore, so on November 5 he asked for terms of surrender. The two sides met, and Annet deliberately strung out the negotiations until one minute after midnight on November 6, before he signed the terms. The reason why he did this was because he still insisted on playing by the rules; November 5 marked exactly six months since the campaign started, and French troops who fought for more than six months would automatically receive a medal and extra pay in their pensions!

Considering how long the Madagascar campaign lasted, casualties were light and remarkably even-handed; both sides each suffered a little more than a hundred killed, with around five hundred wounded. Although the British were the winners, they considered it a hollow victory; the Japanese and Vichy French had tied down half a hundred ships and thousands of men that could have been more useful somewhere else, like North Africa. The British turned over Madagascar to the Free French in 1943, and it stayed in Allied hands for the rest of the war.


And that is it for today! For the next episode we will return to Southeast Asia, but with Japan triumphant throughout the whole region, it will be a while before the Allies can regroup, resupply themselves and return. In the middle of 1942, the nearest British force was in India, the nearest Chinese force was in China, and the nearest American and Australian forces were on New Guinea. As a result, the only battles fought here in late 1942 and 1943 were in Burma. We’ll get to those battles eventually, but first I will use the lull in the fighting to give an overview of what life was like in the areas Japan ruled. And with that out of the way, we will be ready to learn how the tide of war turned against Japan.

I hope you enjoyed this episode’s diversion. If you did, and would like to support the podcast, one way is by making a secure donation through Paypal. Just click on the Paypal button, at the bottom of this episode’s page; donations start at one US dollar. Another way you can help is by writing a review and rating the show on iTunes. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, or if you’re not into Facebook, just tell your family, friends, and anyone else who might be interested in the podcast. Like I’ve been saying, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


The Retreat Through Burma



This year three holidays fall on April 1:  April Fool’s Day, Easter and Passover.  Now you have another reason to celebrate; Episode 42 is available!  This episode begins coverage of the Burma campaign, a nasty jungle war that would go on between Japan and the Allies for the rest of World War II in the Pacific.  Today we will see the Japanese conquest of Burma (modern Myanmar), from December 1941 to May 1942.  The conquest did not take five months because of Allied resistance, as was the case in the Philippines, but because of the rugged terrain and the size of the territory that was to be occupied.


(Transcript, added 08/16/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to Dennis B., who recently made a donation to the podcast. It has been three months since the last donation, so thank you very much, Dennis; your contribution made my day. May this year be pleasant for you, and not full of “interesting times”; let’s limit the interesting times to the events covered in the podcast. And I hope you will enjoy this episode and those to come. Now let’s go to the show!

Episode 42: The Retreat Through Burma

Greetings, dear listeners! This will be the sixth episode about World War II in this podcast, and the first about the Burma Campaign, a long struggle between the Axis and Allies that lasted across the entire Pacific War, from December 1941 to August 1945. As you might expect from the name, the action took place in and around Burma, the country we now call Myanmar. Because the conflict lasted such a long time, you can divide it into these four phases:

Part 1. The initial Japanese invasion, at the end of 1941 and in early 1942.
Part 2. Unsuccessful Allied attempts to regain lost ground, from late 1942 to early 1944.
Part 3. The Japanese invasion of India from Burma, in early 1944, and
Part 4. The Allied counter-offensive, in late 1944 and 1945.

We are only going to cover the first phase in this episode; the rest will have to wait for another time.

But first, I need to undo an error from last time. In the previous episode, I said that the small Australian town where General MacArthur made his famous “I shall return” speech was TERR-owie. Well, an Australian listener pointed out that the accent should be on the second syllable, making Ter-OWE-wie the correct pronunciation. Sorry about the mistake, and thanks for the correction. I’ll admit I had to make a guess, because I could not find a guide online for how to pronounce Terowie’s name, and in this case I got it wrong.

Now where were we? Oh my, today we are going to a country where it is dreadfully easy for an American like me to mess up on pronouncing the names! To any Burmese listeners hearing this, please accept my apologies in advance.


Anyway, the Burma campaign was not only longer than the other campaigns we have covered so far; it was also more complicated. Because of the monsoon rains, effective fighting was only possible for a little over half of the year; disease also limited campaigning, and so did the extremely difficult terrain, a combination of jungles and mountains with few roads. As a British general, William Slim, described it, Burma is, quote: “some of the world’s worst country, breeding the world’s worst diseases, and having for half the year at least the world’s worst climate.” End quote. Here the Japanese had an advantage, because they had learned in Malaya how to survive in the jungle, and unlike their opponents, they were willing to cut through the jungle to get past a roadblock the Allies might set up. Finally, the British, Chinese and Americans all had different priorities, and that made it difficult for them to work together.

For all these reasons, neither the Japanese nor the Allies wanted to fight in Burma. Normally this would compel everyone to go fight somewhere else, and both sides did send most of their forces to other war zones. Still, both the Japanese and the Allies came to believe they needed Burma in order to win the war, so until the war ended they refused to give up on this territory.

One more thing I should mention before we resume the narrative is the special challenge Burmese geography gives us. If you listened to the previous episodes about Burma, you know what it is; most place names in the country were changed in 1989, starting with Burma being renamed Myanmar. Because of that, I’m reluctant to share maps showing the places I will be mentioning today, because so many names will be different on a map of the present-day country. For example, the former capital of Burma, Rangoon, is Yangon on modern maps, and one place I will mention early on, the Tenasserim coast, is now called Tanintharyi. Wherever possible, when I mention a place for the first time, I will try to give you both the old name and the current one, so hopefully you won’t be too confused as you follow along.

I also hope you have listened to the previous episodes of the podcast, or at least the prewar Burma episodes and the World War II ones. Of the former I recommend Episode 24 to learn how and why the British took over Burma in the first place, and Episode 32 to learn about the Burmese nationalist movements that developed in the early twentieth century. We will be mentioning one of those nationalists, Aung San, in this episode, so remember that name! As for the World War II narrative, we covered the beginning of the Pacific War in Episode 36, the campaign in Thailand, Malaya and Singapore in Episode 37, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in Episodes 38 and 41, and the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in Episode 39. There, did I give you enough listening assignments?

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Burma is rich in resources. It has lots of rice and teakwood, some tin, rubber and cobalt, and for those fond of gemstones, the world’s best rubies. There is even an oilfield, at a town named Yenangyaung. But in this case, the Japanese wanted Burma for strategic reasons; it was next to both China and India. They expected to fight the British in India eventually, and in the meantime Burma would act as a buffer state, protecting the Japanese Empire’s western border against an attack from that direction. The Allies thought along the same lines, and after the Pacific War began, the Americans would view all three countries as one war zone, calling it the China-Burma-India Theater, or simply CBI.

Capturing Burma would also help the Japanese with their ongoing war in China. Though large amounts of Chinese territory had been conquered since 1937, the Japanese still controlled less than half of the country, and three fourths of the Japanese army was bogged down here, fighting the Chinese forces remaining. If China could be finished off, those army divisions could be sent elsewhere, and they would probably be enough to bring about the ultimate Japanese victory. Likewise, the Allies wanted to keep China in the war because they didn’t want to face those Japanese divisions some day.

Before they declared war on Japan, both Britain and the United States gave aid to the Chinese. American pilots volunteered to fly combat missions in China for Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, as the famous Flying Tigers. When possible they flew from Chinese airfields, but starting in early 1941 they also used Burmese airfields. The Allies also sent arms, ammunition and supplies. After Japan conquered the coast of China, that aid was sent to the Vietnamese port of Haiphong, and from there the aid shipments went up the Red River into south China. Therefore, when the Japanese occupied northern Vietnam in 1940, one of the reasons why they did it was to stop aid coming into China from that direction.

Fortunately for the Chinese, by then an alternate route was available – the Burma Road. In the fifty years since they had annexed Upper Burma, the British had built railroads in the country, and the point closest to China that the railroads reached was Lashio, a town in the eastern Shan state. Now in 1937, Burmese and Chinese workers were employed to build the Burma Road, a road from Lashio to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, the nearest Chinese province. This was not an Interstate highway or Autobahn, but a gravel road that ran a crooked path over the eastern foothills of the Himalaya mountains, for 717 miles. In that sense it was like the Alaska Highway, the road built in the 1940s to connect Alaska with the road system of northern Canada. Traveling on the Burma Road was a long and difficult trip, not recommended for inexperienced drivers. And after the eastern terminus of the road was reached at Kunming, drivers had to traverse another long mountain road to reach Chungking, the current Nationalist capital.

Construction on the Burma Road was completed one year later, in 1938. Japan responded by putting diplomatic pressure on the British government to close the Burma Road. Britain complied in July 1940, because the supplies intended for China were needed for the war at home, but then three months later, when the Battle of Britain was over, the road was reopened. Britain could not let the road stay closed, because it had become China’s lifeline to the outside world. After the road’s reopening, most of the aid shipments came from the United States, as part of the American “Lend-Lease” program. Now the Japanese saw two military objectives in Burma that would be worth capturing, the Burma Road and the Flying Tigers airfields.

If you listened to Episode 37, you will remember that when Japanese forces entered Thailand in December 1941, the units that did not go on to Malaya went across the country, and assembled near the border of Burma. These were the 33rd and 55th Divisions of the Japanese XV Army, and most of them were concentrated around the western town of Raheng. One regiment of the 55th division, the 143rd Infantry, was in the Kra Isthmus, the long, thin strip of land that makes up southern Thailand; it faced the southernmost part of Burma, the area called the Tenasserim coast. These units did not invade Burma right away, but waited to see if the units in Malaya would need reinforcements. The commander of the XV Army was General Shojiro Iida, a veteran of both the Russian Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Japanese force at this stage numbered 35,000 men, not quite as many as the British force they would be opposing, so General Iida was given some non-Japanese helpers. To start with, 40,000 Thai soldiers would come in behind the Japanese, to provide an occupation force for the part of eastern Burma that Japan had already conquered. And since British rule over Burma had never been popular, there was no shortage of Burmese willing to join the effort to throw the British out. Back in Episode 32, we noted that thirty Burmese student activists, the so-called Thirty Thakins, fled to Japan in 1940 because the British were throwing Burmese nationalists in jail. Now a Japanese intelligence officer, Colonel Suzuki Keiji, would make them the core of a pro-Japanese Burmese army. The thirty former students received their basic training on Hainan Island, the big island just off the coast of southern China. After the war began they were sent to Bangkok to look for recruits among the Burmese refugees living there. On December 28, at a ceremony in Bangkok, the Burmese Independence Army, also called the Burma National Army, was formally created. At this stage, the BIA had 227 Burmese and 74 Japanese soldiers. Some of the Burmese were second-generation residents in Thailand, and did not even speak Burmese. Colonel Suzuki became the commander in chief; to make the Burmese accept him as one of them, he gave himself the Burmese name of Bo Mogyo, meaning “Thunderbolt Commander,”and Burmese members of the army spread a rumor that claimed he was related to Mindon Min, the second to last Burmese king. Suzuki’s chief of staff was the leader of the former students, Aung San; he now became a major general. The British would call this army the BTA, meaning “Burmese Traitor Army,” to distinguish it from the Burmese soldiers in the British army.

On the other side, the British had neglected the defenses of Burma just as much as they had neglected those of Malaya and Singapore, for they thought an invasion of Burma was unlikely. In August1940, when war with Japan was beginning to look like a real possibility, the Chiefs-of-Staff reviewed the situation in Burma and concluded that an invasion, quote, “was a comparatively remote threat.” End quote. As long as Thailand was friendly, or at least neutral, there wouldn’t be a land invasion, and an invasion by sea wouldn’t happen as long as Singapore was in British hands. Well, those of you who listened to Episode 37 know how that turned out. After Thailand went over to the Japanese, and the Japanese took Singapore, Burma was no longer safe from invasion either way. Consequently the British would suffer another disaster in Burma, for the same reasons as the disaster they suffered with Singapore.

Two British divisions guarded Burma, the 1st Burma and 17th Indian Divisions. When the war began, the 1st Burma Division was in northern Burma, while the 17th Indian Division was stationed south and east of Rangoon. Both units were under-strength, undertrained and poorly equipped, like the ones the British had in Malaya. But nowadays we consider diversity in the workplace a good thing, and to give credit where it is due, the Allies had a more diverse force in Burma than had been seen anywhere else in the war up to this point; these divisions contained British, Burmese and Indian soldiers. And that’s not all. Before long the Chinese and Americans would get involved on Britain’s side, and after 1942 the British would bring in black African soldiers as reinforcements.


All right, let’s get into the story.

For the rest of December and early January, while the Japanese sat near Thailand’s western frontier, they sent a few raids across the border to test Burma’s defenses. On the Tenasserim coast the British had built four airfields before the war, to allow refueling stops for airplanes flying between India and Malaya. These airfields were at Victoria Point, modern Kawthaung; Mergui, today’s Myeik; Tavoy, modern Dawei; and Moulmein, present-day Mawlamyine. If they were captured, the airfields would be useful for air raids in the rest of Burma, and communication by air between two vital British colonies would be cut. Therefore on December 16, a detachment of the 143rd Infantry Regiment seized the Victoria Point airfield, at the southernmost tip of Burma. Next came a small probing raid, directed at a police station in southern Tenasserim; this was repulsed. On December 23, 54 Japanese warplanes staged their first bombing of Rangoon. When it came to Allied warplanes, the British only had sixteen obsolete fighters in Burma, so the Americans made sure that one of the three Flying Tigers squadrons stayed in Burma, to help with the defense.

Meanwhile in Rangoon, an incident strained relations between the Allies. The Americans decided that at least part of the Lend-Lease aid committed to China should be given to the British instead, to help with Burma’s defense. In December 1941, the latest aid shipment was a cargo of ammunition on the Tulsa, an American transport docked in Rangoon, so we call this the Tulsa Incident. Brigadier General John Magruder, the head of the American Military Mission to China, asked Chiang Kai-shek for his permission to let the British have the ammunition. However, before the generalissimo gave his answer, the highest ranking American in Rangoon, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Twitty, told the authorities in Rangoon to impound the ship; that way the United States would not be seen as an accomplice in this switcheroo. As a result, Chiang protested fiercely, calling the impoundment an “illegal confiscation.” He also accused the British of stealing Chinese property with American assistance, showing that the effort to cover up American involvement in the affair had failed. In defense, Twitty said the Tulsa had been impounded to protect its cargo. Then a few days later, Chiang announced that he would allow Lend-Lease supplies to go to the British in Burma, but all Chinese troops in Burma would be pulled back into China, and British-Chinese cooperation would come to an end. To keep Nationalist China from dropping out of the war, Magruder spent more days negotiating with Chiang, and in the end got Chiang’s agreement to share Lend-Lease aid with the British, on condition that Colonel Twitty be removed from his position.

Chiang Kai-shek was willing to make a deal because he understood that Burma needed to be defended; if the Japanese took the Burma Road, no more supplies would come to him. At the end of 1941, the British commander in India, General Sir Archibald Wavell, visited Chiang in Chungking, and Chiang offered him the Chinese 5th and 6th Armies, to assist the British in Burma. These forces were in even worse shape than the British forces in Burma, so they may have been called armies, but in practice each was as strong as one British division. Even so, they would have helped a lot if they had been used to defend the Burma Road. But Wavell thought the Japanese were overextended already, was confident that the troops he had could do the job by themselves, and he did not want anyone to give China the credit for saving Burma. Brigadier General Sir John Smyth, the commander of the 17th Indian Division, said that Wavell made this decision because of his, quote: “long-established contempt for the Japanese soldier which was a ‘thing’ with him from which he never deviated.” End quote. This doesn’t surprise me, because in Episode 39, when it was Wavell’s job to defend Indonesia, he couldn’t do the right thing either. To be polite, he accepted one Chinese army, but not both of them. Again, Chiang was offended. Eventually the British would have to accept both armies, but it would have been much easier to get Chiang’s cooperation if they had accepted the first offer.


To prevent future misunderstandings, US President Franklin Roosevelt recommended that Chiang be declared supreme commander of Allied forces in China, automatically outranking any American or British officer in the country. The generalissimo accepted the offer and in turn requested an American officer to act as his second in command. After some discussion, the War Department picked Major General Joseph W. Stilwell for this job. Stilwell’s qualifications were that he had done three tours of duty in China before the war, and could both speak and write in Chinese. However, he was expecting to command the Allied invasion of North Africa, the campaign that would go down in history as Operation Torch. On January 23, 1942, US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall informed him that he was getting a new assignment. Stilwell was disappointed, but all he said about it was, quote, “I’ll go where I’m sent.” End quote. The North African desert is nasty, but it is still a better place to fight a war than Burma; all you have to worry about from nature is heat and thirst. The North Africa command would eventually go to an American general you have probably heard of, George S. Patton. Later on, in 1945, General Marshall admitted that he had given Stilwell “one of the most difficult” assignments of any theater commander. Stilwell began his trip from the United States to the China-Burma-India Theater on February 13, and when he arrived, twelve days later, his first duty was to lead the Chinese forces in Burma.

Podcast footnote: Stilwell has gone down in history with the nickname “Vinegar Joe” because of his reputation for tough, caustic language, but he was always fair to the troops under him. For me he is almost a local hero. Although I record this podcast from the state of Kentucky, I spent two thirds of my life in Orlando, Florida. General Stilwell was born in Palatka, Florida, a small town about 100 miles north of my former home. End footnote.

By the middle of January 1942 it was clear that the Japanese units in Malaya would not need assistance; they were three-quarters of the way to Singapore, and casualties had been light, so the forces earmarked for Burma could begin their invasion. The 143rd Infantry Regiment began moving up the coast on January 15, and facing little resistance, it took Tavoy on the 19th, forcing the evacuation of the British garrison in Mergui one day later. Also on January 20th, the main Japanese force entered Burma, by way of the Kawkareik Mountain Pass, and headed for Moulmein.

At first the 17th Indian Division tried to hold onto Moulmein, but soon the local commander realized this was hopeless, and abandoned the city on January 30, evacuating the troops on river steamers across the mouth of the Salween River. This marked the beginning of a very long withdrawal, the longest retreat in British military history; the distance from southern Burma to the Indian border is more than a thousand miles.

There are three rivers between Rangoon and Moulmein, each running from north to south. From west to east these are the Sittang, Bilin and Salween Rivers. On February 10 the Japanese began to cross the Salween, in pursuit of the retreating 17th Indian Division. General Smyth thought a defensible line could be set up at the Sittang River, while his superior in Rangoon, General Thomas Hutton, thought it was better to fight for every inch of land, and urged Smyth to make a stand at the Bilin River instead. From his command post on distant Java, Wavell agreed that the troops should not give up ground, and sent this telegram to Hutton. Quote:

“I have every confidence in judgement and fighting spirit of you and Smyth, but bear in mind that continual withdrawal, as experience in Malaya showed, is most damaging to morale of troops, especially Indian troops. Time can often be gained as effectively and less expensively, by bold counter-offensive. This especially so against Japanese.”

End quote.

Smyth tried to hold the Bilin for four days, but Japanese attacks outflanked and largely demolished the 17th Indian Division, so on February 19 Hutton changed his mind and gave Smyth permission to withdraw to the west bank of the Sittang. What happened next is still controversial today. The Japanese attacked again while the British were trying to cross the Sittang, using the river’s only bridge. One of the brigade commanders, Brigadier General Noel Hugh-Jones, informed Smyth that he could only hold the bridge for another hour, so on Smyth’s command, the bridge was blown up at 5:30 AM on February 23. Unfortunately only one of the three brigades in the British force had gotten across the river by this time. When the Japanese learned that the bridge had been destroyed, they called off their attack and began looking for another place to cross the river. This gave the other two brigades a chance to escape, largely by swimming and using rafts, but they had to leave all their heavy equipment behind, and even most of their small arms were lost – another disaster for the Allies. The survivors of the battle of Sittang Bridge reorganized at Pegu, modern Bago, just forty miles from Rangoon. Long-time listeners will remember that Pegu or Bago used to be the capital of the Mon kingdom in southern Burma, and for part of the sixteenth century it was the Burmese capital, too.

At the end of February, Britain tried two things to turn the situation around: it sent reinforcements, and it replaced the generals. The new units were the British 7th Armoured Brigade, and the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, and they were sent to Pegu as soon as they arrived in Rangoon. In addition, the 1st Burma Division had come south to join the other units at Pegu, and the Chinese 5th and 6th Armies were on their way from China. London also tried to send the Australian 7th Infantry Division, which had just been called home from North Africa, but the Australian government refused; now that Japanese ships and planes were close enough to attack Australia itself, every available Australian unit would be needed to defend the homeland. One more unit, the British 18th Division, was supposed to go to Burma, but it was redirected to Singapore on Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s orders, and it arrived just in time to be captured by the Japanese when that city surrendered.

Regarding the generals, Wavell formally relieved Hutton, and fired Smyth, who now was ill and went to India to recuperate. Smyth was replaced by Brigadier General David Cowan, a staff officer from Rangoon. Hutton’s dismissal was unnecessary, though, because London had already chosen his replacement. This was Harold Alexander, the third son of the fourth Earl of Caledon, and probably the most talented general in the British Army. Nearly two years earlier, he had become a hero for overseeing the British evacuation at Dunkirk. Now he arrived in Rangoon on March 5, and like the reinforcements, he immediately went to the front.

But the reinforcements were too little, too late; there was a two-day battle at Pegu on March 6 and 7, the Japanese broke through a gap between the defenders, and they charged to Rangoon. Now Alexander found himself overseeing another evacuation, and returned to Rangoon just as the Japanese began surrounding the city. The British first tried to leave on the road heading northward out of Rangoon, but Colonel Takanobu Sakuma, the commander of the Japanese 214th Infantry Regiment, had blocked that road while the main body of the 33rd Division circled around the city to attack it from the west. Alexander ordered another attack, and this time he got lucky; not realizing that the British were breaking out, Sakuma and his regiment had removed the roadblock, to go join the 33rd Division. Thus, Alexander and the British force made a narrow escape, shortly before the Japanese entered Rangoon on March 8. That last thing the British did before leaving was destroy the port facilities, oil terminal, and whatever Lend-Lease supplies they could not take with them.

With Rangoon gone the Allies could not go south or east because that was where the Japanese were. Nor could they go west, because there was no port in that direction where they could be evacuated, only the Irrawaddy delta and the Arakan Yoma mountains. All they could do was withdraw to the north. The civilian government of Burma moved from Rangoon all the way to Myitkyina, the capital of the northernmost province; as long as the Japanese were stopped somewhere, the government would be safe here. To stop the Japanese, Alexander set up a defensive line that ran from Prome, modern Pyay, to Toungoo, modern Taungoo; this was about 200 miles north of Rangoon, and one third of the way from Rangoon to Mandalay. The British units were reorganized into one army, called the Burcorps, and Alexander put General William Slim in charge of it. The two Chinese armies, commanded by Joseph Stilwell, were also available, and now the British accepted help from both of them. Alexander organized the defensive line so that the British troops guarded Prome, the Chinese 6th Army guarded Toungoo, and the Chinese 5th Army sat between them. There was a combined total of 140,000 men on the line, 95,000 Chinese and about 45,000 British; again the British manpower included Indians and Burmese fighting on the side of the Allies.

Now it was the Japanese turn to receive reinforcements. Joining the 33rd and 55th Divisions were the 18th Division from Malaya, and the newly raised 56th Division from the Japanese home islands. This brought the Japanese strength up to 85,000 men, a force much smaller than the Allied one, but the Japanese were better supplied. Despite the best efforts of the British, the Japanese had managed to capture a chunk of the Lend-Lease aid, mainly trucks for moving their own equipment, while any aid going to the Allies had to come on the long jungle roads from India. Also, by capturing the radar station in Rangoon, and by driving away the American and British warplanes, Japan gained control of the air in March, and we have seen elsewhere that controlling the air was critical in World War II battles. Finally, Japanese efforts to get the natives on their side were paying off. After Rangoon fell, the Burmese Independence Army grew to 12,000 men; by May it would have 18,000. Instead of fighting the Allies directly, the BIA usually helped the Japanese by gathering intelligence and performing acts of sabotage. Many Burmese were not formally recruited; they simply said they were now in the BIA, grabbed anything that could be used as a weapon, and left home to make trouble.

General Iida arranged the Japanese forces so that the 33rd Division faced the British, and the 18th and 55th Divisions faced the Chinese, while the 56th division advanced on the east side, to outflank the Allied line and go for the Burma Road. You can see this strategy on the map I posted on this podcast’s Facebook page and on the page hosting this episode.The first clash occurred on March 18, and the Allies were able to hold the line for several days, but casualties were heavy, and at the end of the month both the Chinese and British had to retreat again, to avoid being surrounded completely by the Japanese. In that way the Japanese took Toungoo on March 30, and Prome on April 2.


The next major stop on the way north from Prome was Yenangyaung. The battle between the Japanese 33rd Division and the Burcorps for Yenangyaung lasted from April 11 to 19, as Slim fought desperately to protect the oilfields without success; in the end he barely escaped encirclement when the 113th Regiment from the Chinese 38th Division came to the rescue, and he destroyed the wells and other equipment to keep the Japanese from getting any oil from the site. In eastern Burma, another Chinese army arrived on the front, the 66th Army, and the Japanese drove it from Taunggyi on April 20.

As the armies of both sides moved northward, they increased their speed. Fortunately the Allied commanders were able to keep the retreat of their armies from turning into a full-blown rout. At the same time the Allies found themselves in a traffic jam, as the roads they tried to use were full of wretched refugees, mostly Indians. Around 500,000 civilians reached India, but quite a few, estimated at between 10,000 and 50,000, died on the way. And most of those who made it picked up jungle diseases like dysentery, smallpox, malaria or cholera, either on the march or soon afterwards.

On April 25, Generals Alexander, Slim and Stilwell met at Kyaukse, 25 miles from Mandalay. They decided that all Allied troops must evacuate Burma completely, and they needed to get out before the rainy season began, for the rains would turn the roads to mud and make conditions even more miserable than they already were. Most of the British, Burmese and Indian troops at this point were concentrated around Mandalay; they crossed the Irrawaddy River to escape into India. And not a moment too soon; in the east, the Japanese 56th Division took Lashio on April 29, thereby cutting the Burma Road. Scattered units of the Chinese armies began withdrawing to China; those who found their way blocked by the Japanese joined the Allies retreating to India. The latter included Stilwell, who personally led a group of 114 to India without losing a single person. Behind them the Japanese took Mandalay on May 1. They also took Monywa, the nearest town west of Mandalay, on the same day; this was the beginning of an attempt to catch the Allies before they crossed the Chindwin River, the last natural barrier between them and India. By now the far north had also been abandoned, and the Japanese 56th division moved in, capturing Bhamo on May 4, and Myitkyina on May 8.

Slim made a last stand at Kalewa on May 14, and then withdrew across the Chindwin and over the border into India. As when the troops crossed the Sittang River and abandoned Rangoon, they escaped the trap, but much of their equipment was lost. Stragglers came later, with the last Allied soldiers reaching India on May 26. The British Army was badly weakened by its long retreat, but it was still an army. Here is what General Slim said about their appearance at the end of the march. Quote:

“On the last day of the retreat I watched the rear-guard march into India. All of them, British, Indian and Ghurkha were gaunt and ragged as scarecrows. Yet, as they trudged behind their surviving officers in groups pitifully small, they still carried their arms and kept their ranks. They might look like scarecrows but they looked like soldiers too. They did not expect to be treated like heroes, but they did expect to be met as soldiers, who, even if defeated, were by no means disgraced.” End quote.

Slim went on to described his men as, quote, “utterly exhausted, riddled with malaria and dysentery.” Unquote. He was angry that his men did not receive a hero’s welcome in India, like the one the British soldiers in France had received after Dunkirk.

When Stilwell described his experience, he did not try to make it sound like a success, the way General MacArthur did with the battles in the Philippines. His words were brief and to the point. Quote: “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out why it happened and go back and retake it.” End quote.

What really saved the Allies were the monsoon rains, which started falling on May 12. The Japanese halted where they were, because if they followed in this weather, they ran the risk of getting stuck in the mud. Likewise, they let the Burma Independence Army go into Arakan province and occupy Akyab, modern Sittwe, before they moved in themselves.

For those keeping track of the body count, the British, Burmese and Indians lost 13,463 men in this campaign. The Chinese lost more, but we don’t have an exact figure, so we will go with 40,000 killed, wounded and missing for them. As in most of the other campaigns we have covered so far, Japanese losses were much lower; this time they were 4,597 dead and wounded. The battle in the air was a little more equal, with both sides losing just over a hundred aircraft. And that is how Japan conquered all of Burma. All? All!


That’s all I have to say about the first phase of World War II in Burma. Japan is now master of all of Southeast Asia, ruling through non-Japanese puppets in the case of Thailand and French Indochina, and directly ruling everywhere else. The next episode will be a bit of a diversion, call it a mini-episode if you wish. I plan to discuss Japanese naval activity in the Indian Ocean and the Coral Sea, that happened at the same times as the events covered today. While these bodies of water are not considered part of Southeast Asia, the Japanese went there as a result of their Southeast Asian successes, and those battles are important when it comes to understanding the “big picture” in the Pacific War. I don’t think you have heard most of those stories before, so I look forward to you coming back for that!

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