Episode 48 of the podcast is finally up! Originally I was planning to have it finished by July 16, but several factors came together to make it late, from a week-long trip out of town to a fierce storm that has knocked out power in my home city. Still, I did not rush the recording, because as they say, haste makes waste. I have learned that if I get it right the first time, I won’t have to redo it later.
Anyway, with this episode the podcast returns to Southeast Asia during World War II. This time we look at what happened in Burma, modern-day Myanmar, from the middle of 1942 until early 1944.
(Transcript, added 09/16/2020.)
This episode is dedicated to Brian G., who made a generous donation right after the previous episode was released. Brian, that will cover the cost of hosting this podcast for more than one month, so I can’t thank you enough. It also shows you appreciate the research that I put into each episode. In the email you sent with this donation, you said you were mainly interested in Vietnam, so I’ll let you know that it won’t be too many episodes after we get done with World War II before I start talking about the Vietnam War. In fact, the First Indochina War, which pitted the Viet Minh against the French, began in 1946, one year after World War II ended, and we have to understand that war in order to understand the one the Americans got involved in. All right, so we don’t delay getting to Vietnam, let’s resume the World War II narrative.
Episode 48: The Forgotten War in Burma, Part 1
or, the Rumble in the Jungle
Greetings, dear listeners! Before we begin, I want to apologize that this episode came out a little late. The reason is the same as before; I have been out of town recently. This is my fourth trip so far this year, but this time it was no family emergency, just my wife and I going on our summer vacation. When I wasn’t doing things with my grandchildren, I was working on this episode, doing the research and writing the script. Still, I had less time to work on it, as you can guess, and on the days when I was driving, I had no time for the podcast at all. Then last Friday, I lost another day because the power went out for my whole city, after a fierce thunderstorm, ruining the recording session I had planned for that evening.
Another factor slowing me down is one I should have seen coming – information overload! In the early days of this podcast, I would breeze through centuries of history and prehistory in each episode, and my challenge back then was finding enough material to fill out at least half an hour of recording time. All too often I would say “We don’t know much about this,” or some variation of it, because we had so little to go on, where early civilizations like Funan are concerned. But over the last five hundred years, the ability to record and store information has increased tremendously, and less knowledge has been lost or forgotten. This means I now have the opposite problem – too many sources to read and consider using in this show. As a result, several recent episodes have only covered a year of events, or less than that. Nowadays, when doing the research, instead of wondering if I have enough sources, I am more likely to wonder if I can avoid mentioning something, and not hinder the audience’s ability to understand what is going on. It is even happening with the current episode about World War II in Burma; remember when I said that Burma, also known as Myanmar, was the hardest Southeast Asian country for me to research?
And as I have told you before, I am now working a day job, so I no longer have all the time I want to work on the podcast. I’ll keep recording it, but it looks like henceforth two episodes a month will be the ideal situation, rather than the standard.
Finally, I have a new challenge. On the day I started recording this, I learned that Dan Carlin, the “Godfather of history podcasts,” released the latest episode of his “Hardcore History,” and now he has started a new series about the same subject I’ve been talking about since this year began — World War II in the Pacific! Go ahead and listen to him if you wish; I have been told that second opinions are good where historical discussions are concerned. But if this is a competition, I am definitely the underdog in it!
Okay, so what does the podcast have for today? The main point is that we are back to talking about Southeast Asia again. In the first World War II episodes we saw the Axis Powers, meaning Japan and the partners of the Japanese, conquer all of Southeast Asia, most of which had previously been ruled by their opponents, the Allies. Thus, for Episodes 43 through 47, we covered battles that were near Southeast Asia but not in it, what I called the “periphery.” Now some battles have taken place in Burma in late 1942 and 1943, so it is time to go back and see what is happening there.
We last looked at the Burma campaign in Episode 42, and saw how in early 1942, Japan was able to overrun all of that large territory, and chase out the Allied forces – British, Chinese, Indians, pro-British Burmese troops, and a handful of American officers. After that rout, however, a lot of people forgot that this part of Southeast Asia was a war zone, along with neighboring China and India. I wouldn’t be surprised if you forgot about it, too.
The first reason for forgetting about this war zone, what the Americans called CBI, the “China-Burma-India Theater,” was because it was thousands of miles from the other places where World War II battles were being fought; before the war Burma was a remote colony of the British Empire, and it did not matter much to the other Allied nations. The second reason was that Burma was at the bottom of everyone’s priority list, except for the soldiers who fought there. We have noted before that the US and British governments saw Adolf Hitler as the main enemy, so in Washington and London, defeating Germany was more important than defeating Japan, and where the Pacific War was concerned, Allied commanders chose not to fight the Japanese in the Burmese jungle, when it was easier to approach Japan with a strategy of “island hopping,” taking one island at a time and bypassing those where the fighting was expected to be too tough.
In India, the British were still recruiting Indian soldiers for the war effort, but they expected those recruits would serve in North Africa or the Persian Gulf, so they continued to train them for desert warfare instead of jungle warfare. They only stopped this practice in December 1942; by then the Germans in North Africa were withdrawing to Tunisia, and it was obvious that the Allies could win in North Africa without sending any more troops. Meanwhile, the troops and civilians that had escaped from Burma were camped in the open at Imphal, the capital of India’s Manipur State, though the torrential monsoon rains were now falling, because nobody knew what to do with them. That goes a long way towards explaining why there was so little activity in and around Burma for a year and a half, from May 1942 to November 1943. Finally, the distances involved discouraged active involvement; because Burma was nearly on the opposite side of the world from the United States, it took at two months for the Americans to send supplies or troops there by sea.
The third reason was the same one that made outsiders forget about the New Guinea campaign in Episodes 45 through 47: the terrain involved. I gave you a quote about that the last time we looked at Burma in this podcast, and it is worth repeating here. General William Slim, the commander of the British army fighting for Burma, called that land, 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.” Unquote.
What Slim meant by the world’s worst climate was the rainy season. In most years it lasted from May to October, and sometimes the rains did not end until December. During that period it is almost impossible for armies to move and fight, so both sides spent their time regrouping their forces, and the Japanese consolidated their hold over Burma’s territory, especially along the western frontier, which took them about three months to occupy after the British got out of it. Indeed, when Tokyo asked Lieutenant-General Shojiro Iida, the army commander in Burma, if he thought a new offensive should be launched after the rains stopped, Iida checked with the officers under him and decided the answer was no; the army had all it could handle in the areas it had taken already. In addition, the Japanese could no longer count on their native helpers, the Burmese Independence Army; this force was so undisciplined that some of its members were ruffians who said they were in the army but had never formally joined it, and many members, including the commander Aung San, did not want to be under Japanese rule any more than they had wanted to be under British rule. The BIA was disbanded, and in its place the Japanese recruited a new body of 3,000 troops, directed by Japanese officers; this was called the Burma Defence Army. At its peak, this force would have 11,000 soldiers organized into seven battalions; one battalion had troops from Burma’s largest ethnic minority, the Karens, while the other six battalions contained troops from the Burmese majority. But don’t forget Aung San; we’re not done with his story, and he will be back in a future episode of the podcast.
Finally, the Allies were reluctant to fight in Burma because of the widespread belief that the Japanese were invincible in the jungle. Japanese troops lived off the land very effectively, and they were more willing than the Allies to leave the few roads running through the Burma countryside. More than once the Japanese crossed rivers and mountain ranges that the Allies thought were impassable.
We also saw previously that the Allies, especially the Americans, were in Burma to help China in its ongoing war against Japan. China’s last supply line on the ground was the Burma Road, and the Allies were able to hold it until late April 1942, when the Japanese captured the road’s western terminus at Lashio. Because three fourths of the Japanese Army was tied down by the fighting in China, the Allies could not let China collapse, or make peace with the Japanese. Thus, as soon as the Burma Road was cut, the Allies began airlifting supplies to China, in what would become the largest airlift campaign of the war. This was called “going over the Hump,” because supply planes flew from northeast India, crossed a spur of the eastern Himalayas nicknamed “the Hump,” and landed at Kunming, the capital of the nearest Chinese province.
Over the next three and a half years, American pilots got 650,000 tons of supplies to the Chinese. But it was a smaller amount than what had been carried on the Burma Road, and it came at a dreadful cost: 594 aircraft and 1,659 airmen were lost on this dangerous route. Some planes were shot down by Japanese fighters, but most of the hazards were not combat-related. One of the types of cargo planes used, the DC-3, could not fly higher than 15.000 feet when fully loaded, meaning it could only complete the journey by following mountain passes, instead of going over the peaks. Other risks were extreme turbulence, which could make a plane drop thousands of feet in a few seconds, treacherous weather, mechanical failures, inaccurate maps, and not enough oxygen for the flight crews, who tend to make mistakes when they did not have clear heads. In the book Hirohito’s War: The Pacific War, 1941–1945, the historian Francis Pike made this declaration about the airlift. Quote: “Every 340 tons delivered cost the life of a pilot.” End quote.
In the summer of 1942 the Allies were pleasantly surprised to discover that one British outpost in northeast Burma had not been taken by the Japanese. On July 3 a small reconnaissance team was parachuted in to investigate the area around Myitkyina, the capital of Burma’s northernmost province. From there the team marched 150 miles north to Fort Hertz; no one had heard from this fort in months. They found a group of Indian Army soldiers had been holding out there since May, because their way had been blocked by the Japanese when they tried to escape to India. This was verified by a reconnaissance flight over Fort Hertz on August 12, and support was parachuted in, including communications specialists and engineers. They raised and trained a militia from the local tribe to protect the fort, which they named the Kachin Levies, and they repaired the airstrip next to the fort so that by August 20 it could be used again. After that, the airstrip became a place where those aircraft flying the ”Hump”’to China could make emergency landings, and the radio navigation beacon set up there, made it easier for pilots to know where they were. Fort Hertz stayed in British hands for the entire war, though from 1942 to 1944 it was isolated by the Japanese and the only way to get supplies to the fort was by the airstrip.
The First Arakan Operation
In the middle of 1942, the British not only reorganized the forces they had left in India; they also thought about how they would go about recovering Burma. They agreed that the first operation would have to be a limited one, because the morale of the troops had been badly shaken by their retreat from Burma. Still, if the operation succeeded, it would help a lot in restoring that morale. The generals decided to go into Arakan Province, to capture the capital, Akyab, and the nearby Mayu peninsula.
Those of you who are longtime listeners will remember that Arakan is the territory along Burma’s northwest coast, running between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of Bangladesh. We mentioned it several times in the early episodes of the podcast, especially in Episode 18. For most of ancient, medieval and early modern times, Arakan was independent of the Burmese state. Then the Burmese conquered Arakan in 1784, and the British added Arakan to their growing empire in 1826. Nowadays Arakan is called Rakhine, and it is where modern Myanmar’s refugees, the Rohingyas, are fleeing to Bangladesh. In fact, that dispute began in 1942, when fighting broke out between the Arakanese, who were Buddhists and pro-Japanese, and the Moslem, pro-British Rohingyas. Estimates of the number killed during the war are 20,000 Arakanese, and at least 40,000 Rohingyas.
Today Akyab also has a new name; on modern maps it is Sittwe. The main asset of Akyab were its airstrips; Japanese planes taking off from here could threaten Chittagong, Dacca and even Calcutta. Conversely, if the Allies had the airstrips, they could provide air support for an army liberating the rest of Burma.
The original plan called for the British 29th Brigade to make an amphibious assault on Akyab, while the 14th Indian Division marched overland to the Mayu peninsula; this would all take place in September 1942. But the amphibious part had to be scrapped, because there weren’t enough boats available, and the 29th Brigade was busy taking part in the battle of Madagascar, which we covered in Episode 43. That battle did not end until November 1942, so on September 21 the 14th Indian Division began to play its part alone, advancing from Chittagong to a town on the India-Burma border called Cox’s Bazaar. There they waited nearly three months, for the rainy season to end. Meanwhile, the three Japanese battalions defending Arakan, two infantry and one artillery, were expecting the British to attack, and they spent their time digging trenches at their main defensive position, the Buthidaung-Maungdaw Road. Their advantage was that there was only one railway, and no roads, going down the Mayu peninsula, so once the British got moving, it would not be hard for the Japanese to figure out exactly where they were.
The 14th Division, led by Major-General Wilfred Lewis Lloyd, resumed its march southward on December 17. Realizing that this force was larger than their own, the Japanese ordered their units to fall back to Akyab and the tip of the Mayu peninsula, and the 55th Japanese Division, one of the units that had conquered Burma earlier in the year, was transferred from central Burma to Akyab. The British were thus able to occupy the area abandoned by the Japanese, but when the 14th Division approached the towns of Donbaik and Rathedaung in January 1943, its advance bogged down, and the Japanese threw back every attempt to take those towns. One company built a series of bunkers one mile north of Donbaik, close enough together that their fields of fire overlapped, allowing them to support each other’s defense. When General Lloyd’s superiors visited the front on January 10, he told them he would need tanks to take out the bunkers, since artillery wasn’t doing the job. The generals decided that at least 50 tanks were needed, but they were overruled and only eight tanks were sent. When the tanks went into action, most of them got stuck in ditches or were destroyed by enemy artillery; needless to say, that attack was a complete failure.
Because one Japanese company had held off more than half of the 14th Division, the Japanese now knew that they had the better troops. Still, the British badly wanted some kind of victory to show that the offensive had been worth everything they put into it, so during the rest of January, February and March they launched more attacks on the Japanese positions, but they fared no better in these attempts. On March 29 the British and Indians began to withdraw, to escape before a Japanese attack through the jungle hit them on their left flank. General Lloyd was fired by his commanding officer, General Noel Irwin, and General Slim in turn dismissed Irwin, officially putting him on sick leave, but in reality he got rid of Irwin because of his poor judgment, and because his abrasive personality kept him from getting along with the troops under him. Slim personally led the troops after this, and on May 4 he was preparing to have two Indian battalions surround the Japanese, but instead a British battalion failed to defend a hill called Point 551, and the Japanese cut the Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road. Since there were no other roads going out of the valley, the British units in it had to destroy their vehicles before escaping the valley, to keep their transportation from falling into the wrong hands. Once out of central Arakan, the British forces returned to Cox’s Bazaar. The Japanese did not follow, because the monsoon rains were about to begin and because the open terrain along the frontier would have made them easy targets for British artillery. The farthest this foray had gotten into Burma was 75 miles. Slim also admitted in his report that they had been defeated by an inferior force. Quote: “17 bns. [battalions] have been chased about by possibly 6, a sad but realistic commentary on the present fighting.” End quote.
Meet Orde Wingate
It was at this point that World War II’s most controversial officer entered the story. Colonel Orde Charles Wingate was definitely a nonconformist, in an institution where eccentric behavior was frowned upon. To start with, he often wore an alarm clock around his wrist, which might go off when other people were around, and he habitually carried whatever book he was reading at the time, usually a work of classical literature. He also wore raw onions and garlic on a string around his neck, and sometimes he would eat one of the bulbs as a snack, because he thought they kept mosquitoes away. Like most Englishmen he liked tea, and would use his socks as tea bags.
<Ewww sound file>
Yeah, tell me about it! Other times Wingate went completely naked; in Palestine before the war, he would come out of the shower to give orders to recruits, wearing nothing but a shower cap, and on later assignments he would greet visitors to his tent while wearing nothing at all. In Burma he also grew a non-regulation beard and wore a pith helmet, looking like he was on an African safari.
Wingate’s first assignments after becoming an officer in the British Army were first in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, where his father had been governor-general, then in the Palestine mandated territory, during the second half of the 1930s. Here in the land that would one day become the state of Israel, most British officials sympathized with the Palestinian Arabs, but Wingate befriended the Jewish settlers and became a Zionist. Eventually he would give guerrilla training to the first modern Jewish military force, the Haganah, and today’s Israelis regard him as a hero for that. After World War II began, Wingate created, organized and led an irregular force against the Italians occupying Ethiopia, and this unit, called the Gideon Force, played a major part in the liberation of that country in 1941. Near the end of that campaign; when the Gideon Force numbered only 1,700 men, it took the surrender of about 20,000 Italian soldiers. But when the unit was no longer needed, British authorities who disliked Wingate disbanded it; he was demoted to the rank of major, and they obstructed his efforts to obtain back pay and decorations for himself and his troops.
Fortunately that wasn’t the end of Wingate’s story. One of his commanders had been Sir Archibald Wavell, who was now the commander in chief of British forces in India and Burma, and in March 1942, after Wingate came to India to make the case for a guerrilla unit operating behind enemy lines in the Far East, Wavell had him reinstated as a colonel, and listened to what this military maverick had to say. He spent the rest of 1942 training a brigade for this project. Officially it was called the 77th Indian Infantry, but today its members are remembered as the Chindits, after the Burmese word for lion, chinthe.
Podcast footnote: Wingate was inspired to call his men “lions” because statues of lions are a common sight outside of Burmese temples. They are like the famous lion statues at the entrance to the New York Public Library. Chinese temples have lion statues, too, but in both cases the lions look more like dogs. Evidently most sculptors in the Far East have not seen a lion up close. End footnote.
Half of the recruits were British, and the other half were Indians and Gurkhas; many of them were survivors of the retreat from Burma. The training was so rigorous that nearly a third of the British and Gurkha soldiers did not make it to the end. When the Chindits were finished training, Wingate showed in one more way how he was a different officer. In his opening speech to them he said, quote: “You will be making history, it will be a tale that will be told, but remember, most of you may not be at the telling of it.” End quote. Likewise, as he saw the men parade off, Wavell said to them, quote: “This is a great adventure. It is not going to be an easy one. I wish you all the very best of luck.” End quote.
Podcast footnote: Orde Wingate is my favorite World War II hero. I am a nonconformist as well, and in more than one way I can relate to him. If I believed in reincarnation, I would want to be Wingate in a former life. End footnote.
Wavell planned to launch a major ground offensive in Burma in early 1943, which he called Operation Longcloth. The operation was cancelled before it got started, but Wingate persuaded his boss to let him go into Burma with just his own brigade, so Operation Longcloth became the name of the Chindit mission. Thus, Wingate led 3,000 Chindits across the Chindwin River on February 14 and 15, 1943, to disrupt the Japanese and destroy their communications. 1,000 horses and mules went with them, as they were the only reliable transportation for heavy equipment in the jungle. They went forth in eight columns, but one column was disbanded and its troops divided between the others, so there were really seven full-strength columns. A single squadron – six aircraft – from the Royal Air Force, provided all the air support. And that support was needed, for the men brought only enough food and water to last five days – when that ran out, planes would drop more to them.
Wingate’s plan began with a trick. Two columns, led by a white soldier dressed as a British general, headed south after crossing the Chindwin and were re-supplied by air in broad daylight; the idea here was to fool the Japanese into thinking this was the main attack, while the other five columns marched straight into the heart of Burma. Sure enough, the Japanese went for one of the diversionary columns, ambushing it and driving it back to India. As for the other southern column, it succeeded in blowing up some bridges and ambushing a large Japanese unit, killing its commander. Meanwhile Wingate and the five-column force kept going, and between March 4 and 6 they laid demolitions which put 70 miles of railroad tracks between Mandalay and Myitkyina out of action.
Not wanting to quit while they were ahead, the Chindits crossed the mile-wide Irrawaddy River next. But now they were a hundred and fifty miles from India, meaning it was getting harder for the planes to keep them supplied. Moreover, the jungle was getting drier, and larger Japanese units were in the area, now that they realized this was more than just a minor raid. The Chindits soon found themselves confined to a triangle-shaped area where the Schweli and Irrawaddy Rivers meet. Casualties mounted from disease as well as firefights. On March 24 Wingate was ordered to end the mission, and he broke up the columns into smaller units, to reduce the chance of the Japanese ambushing the whole force as it retreated to India. They also had to leave behind most of the heavy equipment and turn their pack animals loose. Because of the ongoing firefights and the scattering of troops across the jungle, Wingate reached India a few months before the last stragglers did, while a few troops, finding the Japanese troops too tough to get past, withdrew to China or to northern Burma, where the friendly Kachin tribe gave them assistance. By the end of April 1943, there were 2,182 Chindits back in India, although about 600 of these were unfit for active duty owing to wounds or disease.
Wingate felt he had proved his point; waging a war behind enemy lines was feasible, if aircraft were used extensively to transport and supply the troops. But among the other British officers, there was a general feeling that Wingate’s expedition cost too much. For a huge investment in men and equipment, the Chindits had done damage which the Japanese could repair in three months. Still, the officers knew that the British Army badly needed a victory to restore its morale, so they declared Operation Longcloth a great victory. In part this was true; the Japanese had been provoked enough to prepare for an offensive of their own, which we will cover in the next episode, and Wingate had destroyed the myth that the Japanese could not be beaten in the jungle. Now there would be another battle in Burma; you could bet your last dollar on that.
However, this didn’t mean that General Slim and the other commanders were willing to let Wingate lead another Chindit mission. Wingate got another chance, though, because at this time he gained a very powerful new friend – Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill was impressed by Wingate, considered him the only leader in the China-Burma-India theater with daring and vision, and promoted him to the rank of brigadier general. He called Wingate to London in July to talk about future plans for the war, and then brought him to the conference held at Quebec, Canada in August 1943, so the other Allied leaders could hear his stories. Those other leaders, like US President Franklin Roosevelt, were impressed, too, so much so that after the conference, Wingate was promoted to major general, and the Americans created a guerrilla unit of their own for the China-Burma-India theater. This was known officially as the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), and unofficially as Merrill’s Marauders, after the commander, General Frank Merrill.
Stilwell Returns to Burma
After the Quebec conference, the Allies also reorganized the structure of their forces in Southeast Asia again. Previously, British forces in Burma, India, and even Iran and Iraq had been under one commander, most recently Sir Archibald Wavell. This command was now broken up, and Burma became part of the Southeast Asia Command, or SEAC. Instead of leading any of them, Wavell became the new viceroy, or governor general of India; now his main challenge would be dealing with a terrible famine in the Bengal region, which would claim 3 million lives before it was over. In his place, the new commander in chief for Southeast Asia was a member of the royal family; Admiral Louis Mountbatten. The leading American on the spot, General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, became Mountbatten’s deputy commander, because he already led the Chinese troops in the area, while William Slim continued to lead the 14th Army.
In addition, the infrastructure behind the Allied war effort was improving. By 1944 the railways of northern India were delivering four times as many supplies as they had at the start of the war, and together the Allied air forces had gained control of the skies. The involvement of American planes in this theater was especially welcomed by the Chindits, who found that American pilots were more willing to give them what they wanted. The Royal Air Force had been so uncooperative that one of the brigade majors in the Chindits wrote this about them in his memoirs. Quote: “Whatever we asked them to do they declared to be difficult, impossible or against Air Force policy. Whatever they offered to do, we didn’t need.” End quote. By contrast, the Americans were willing to do things for the Chindits that seemed impossible. For example, during one training exercise, a Chindit was injured in a field barely 400 yards wide. According to the RAF, 600 yards was the minimum safe length for a landing zone, but the American Air Commandos managed to land a small plane and pick up the soldier. The Americans also brought with them K-Ration Packs, which were less nutritious than British rations, but British soldiers enjoyed having them because they tasted much better.
Podcast footnote: Hmm, I remember back during the 2003 war in Iraq, British soldiers complained about how the Americans fighting alongside them had better food than they did. Is this a case of history repeating itself? End footnote.
On the other side, the Japanese created the Burma Area Army, which was led by Lieutenant General Masakazu Kawabe and consisted of the 15th Army and the newly formed 28th Army.
Now what would the Allies do with their new advantages? Because of his naval background, Mountbatten wanted to see an amphibious assault on Akyab in Arakan, and another amphibious landing to take back the Andaman Islands. This never happened because again there weren’t enough landing craft available – they had been sent to Europe to carry troops on D-Day. Instead they acted on Stilwell’s idea – use the dry season of late 1943 and early 1944 to conduct a limited offensive in northern Burma. Stilwell’s goals were to capture the cities of Myitkyina and Mogaung, and build a new road behind his advancing men, to replace the Burma Road. This road would run directly from northeast India through Burma to connect with the Burma Road somewhere in China, and because it began at the Indian town of Ledo, it would be called the Ledo Road. For this expedition, Stilwell had two Chinese divisions with American equipment, and a Chinese light tank battalion; he also brought along Merrill’s Marauders. They moved out of Ledo in October 1943, crossing into Burma by way of a mountain pass that would soon be called “Hell Pass.” We will come back to them in the next episode, since they did not achieve their goals until after the dry season ended.
General Wingate wanted the Chindits to go on Stilwell’s expedition. His plan was to send them into central Burma again, where they would disrupt Japanese communications and supply lines to northern Burma. The other senior officers viewed Wingate with skepticism and distrust, but both Roosevelt and Churchill approved the plan, so eventually preparations got underway for the second Chindit mission, code-named Operation Thursday. It had been delayed partly because of the opposition from Wingate’s rivals, partly because Wingate was ill with typhoid fever for several months, and partly because of the need to retrain the troops, to incorporate what had been learned from the first mission. Recruitment boosted the size of the Chindit force to 10,000, and it was ready to go in early 1944. Wingate vowed that when the mission was done, all of Burma north of Latitude 24̊ would be liberated. If you look at a map of modern Myanmar, that is all of Kachin State and half of Sagaing State.
The first Chindit brigade marched from Ledo, the same place from which Stillwell’s Chinese troops had started, on February 5, 1944. Their job was reconnaissance, and they went through terrain impassable to ordinary troops in the same way as the Japanese had done to surprise the British. The brigade commander, Brigadier General Bernard Fergusson, described the land they entered as a “nightmare country.“ Later he wrote, quote: ”From the moment we started up the Road until we came into the Chindwin Valley, not a day passed without rain: steady, solid, cold and merciless.” End quote. This was supposed to be the dry season, remember? Well, we have to make an exception for India’s Assam district. Assam is one of the wettest places on earth, with some spots getting as much as 400 inches of rain per year.
The plan was to bring in the second wave of troops by gliders to three landing zones, and they would secure these zones until an airstrip could be built, allowing the rest of the troops, mules and equipment to be flown in. Thus, this would be one of the biggest airborne operations of the war. The fields picked for landing zones were named Piccadilly, Broadway, and Chowringhee. They were just about to take off with the gliders when a reconnaissance patrol discovered that Picadilly field was covered with teak logs, left there to dry in the sun before they were cut up into useable lumber. There was a fear that the Japanese had discovered the Chindit plan, and put the logs there to keep aircraft from landing on Picadilly, but it soon turned out to be the work of Burmese lumberjacks, who had no idea the war was coming to their neighborhood, so the plan was changed to land the gliders at just the other two landing zones. They left on March 5, landed without meeting any opposition, promptly began building the airstrip at Broadway, and sent out patrols across hundreds of square miles of surrounding territory. In the process they turned each landing zone into a fortified base – what Wingate called strongholds – and established additional bases named Aberdeen and White City, near the town of Indaw. With most of the Japanese forces in Burma now committed to an invasion of India, which we will cover in the next episode, they had no plans for dealing with a counter-invasion from the air.
The first clashes between the Chindits and the Japanese came in the second half of March, when Fergusson’s brigade tried unsuccessfully to take Indaw. But the real tragedy did not strike in any battle. On March 24, Wingate flew to Imphal in India to meet with other Allied officers. From there he flew in an American B-25 to Lalaghat, one of the bases the gliders came from, but the pilot flew into a thunderstorm, lost control, and crashed the plane, killing everyone aboard. The bodies of the crew and passengers could not be identified; the authorities only knew that Wingate was among them because they found his pith helmet and some letters of his in the wreckage. At first the bodies were buried in India, but after the war they were exhumed and reburied in the United States, at Arlington National Cemetery. I will finish Wingate’s story by reading Winston Churchill’s tribute to him, in front of the House of Commons in August 1944. Quote:
“We placed our hopes at Quebec in the new Supreme Commander Admiral Mountbatten and in his brilliant lieutenant Major-General Wingate who, alas, has paid a soldiers debt. There was a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny. He has gone, but his spirit lives on in the long range penetration groups, and has underlain all these intricate and daring air operations and military operations based on air transport and on air supply.”
The general who replaced Wingate as leader of the Chindits didn’t have his imagination, and most of their air support was taken away, to help the garrisons defending Imphal and Kohima against the Japanese. The Chindits were also placed, like Merrill’s Marauders, under the command of Stilwell; he ordered them to abandon their work around Indaw and do nothing but assist his own operations, in effect making them conventional soldiers. Therefore you won’t hear of them making any more achievements, so let’s go back to Arakan and see what is happening on that front.
The Second Arakan Operation
While Stilwell was moving into northern Burma, Slim ordered a second attack on the Arakan coast. There were two goals for this operation: to succeed where the first Arakan offensive had failed, and to draw away enough Japanese from northern Burma to make sure that Stilwell’s offensive succeeded. This time the attack was carried out by the XV corps, under the command of Lieutenant-General Philip Christison. There were three divisions involved, the 5th Indian, the 7th Indian, and the 81st West African Divisions, and because they could only advance along the coast and in narrow valleys, each division moved separately. A fourth division, the 26th Indian, was held in reserve.
The XV Corps started moving in December 1943 and captured the first objective, the port of Maungdaw, on January 9, 1944. The Japanese force south of here was too strong for them to dislodge, so next they tried to advance east, capturing two unused railway tunnels and the road to Buthidaung. Instead, the Japanese 55th Division, also called the Sakurai Force, after its commander, Shozo Sakurai, struck first. On February 4 the 55th Division outflanked the 7th Indian Division, rushed behind it, and reached the 7th Division’s forward headquarters, which also put them in striking range of the 5th Division. For eighteen days the two sides fought on this spot the battle of the Admin Box; much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and the headquarters was virtually destroyed. The signalmen and clerks who worked in the headquarters got out after destroying everything of use to the enemy; the division’s radio operators heard someone say, quote, “put a pick through that radio,” unquote, and then there was silence. Japanese troops in the tunnel area also came out and attacked, while Japanese aircraft were launched from Akyab.
On the night of February 7, the Japanese committed yet another atrocity when they captured the 7th Division’s field hospital and promptly killed 35 unarmed doctors, nurses and patients. The massacre worked against the Japanese, in that it increased the determination of the defenders to beat them here. As the author Bryan Perrett wrote, quote: “British and Indian troops retained few illusions about their opponents, but they had respected them as soldiers. Now they saw them as merely dangerous animals, to be exterminated with every means at their disposal.” End quote.
What kept the second Arakan offensive from being a depressing repeat of the first one was that the troops were better trained and more confident, and that Slim kept them supplied by dropping food and ammunition from the air. All three divisions dug in and held on, while the 26th Indian Division was sent in to help them. In addition, the RAF managed to shoot down 65 Japanese planes, and some Japanese supplies were captured from the mules and Arakanese porters used to deliver them. The result was that soon the Japanese were starving, not the Allies.
By the night of February 21, the Japanese had been out of food for several days, making them so desperate that some of them launched suicide attacks. The next day, Colonel Tanahashi, the officer in charge of the main body of Sakurai Force, radioed to his superiors that he only had 400 men of his original 2,200 left, and that he would not make any more attacks. Two days later, without authorization from his commanders, he retreated, bringing an end to the Japanese counterattack. Now that the heat was off the 5th Indian Division, it sent a brigade broke through the Ngakyedauk Pass, which the Allies renamed the Okeydoke Pass, linked up with the 7th, and drove off any remaining Japanese in the area. Because the enemy had been forced to leave behind all their wounded, the British counted five thousand Japanese troops dead or wounded on the battlefield, out of a force that numbered 8,000 before the battle. The British and Indians in turn lost just over 3,500. For the first time in the war, British troops had won a battle against the Japanese, and it happened in the jungle, of all places. After the war, Slim wrote this about the battle in his memoirs, Defeat into Victory. Quote: “This Arakan battle, judged by the size of the forces engaged, was not of great magnitude, but it was, nevertheless, one of the historic successes of British arms…. It was a victory, a victory about which there could be no argument, and its effect not only on the troops engaged but on the whole Fourteenth Army, was immense.” End quote.
March saw the XV Corps take the railway tunnels, several hills the Japanese had held previously, and the town of Buthidaung. They expected to resume their advance on Akyab next, but then they had to halt and even withdraw from some malaria-infested spots, because something more important was happening to the north of Arakan. The Japanese XV Army had invaded India, and some of the Allied troops in Arakan were pulled out to defend Imphal, one of the cities the Japanese attacked. Therefore the second Arakan offensive ended with about one quarter of Arakan province in Allied hands.
Cut! That’s a wrap, and what a wrap it is! You’re probably thinking there will be a second part to this narrative about the war in Burma, and you’re right, because we don’t have a winner yet. In fact, the next episode will see the climax of the Burma campaign. As we break off in early 1944, we have General Stilwell in northern Burma with his Chinese troops and Merrill’s Marauders, while General Slim holds the line in the south, in Arakan to be exact, and the Japanese in the middle are beginning an invasion of India. Tune in next time to hear how all this will turn out!
Before we go, I want to remind everyone that I would like to do a question and answer show in the near future. I don’t want this podcast to get in a rut, where all I do is give a narration of historical events every time. Some of you have suggested I do interviews, for instance, and I have gotten one or two requests for shows about topics related to history, like an episode about the hill tribes in Vietnam. Furthermore, you may remember the show featured in Episode 40, where I was the one interviewed. Therefore in the name of variety, I want to take some time out to answer your questions, like some other history podcasters have done. So far I have not received enough questions, so it’s time for you to ask them. I know there’s more than a few of you out there, so even if only 1 percent of you ask, I’ll be overwhelmed. Ask about anything having to do with Southeast Asian history, whether it’s a topic I covered in the past, or something I haven’t covered yet, meaning it might tie in with current events. You can post your questions on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, or email them to me. Once again, my email address is email@example.com. That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, an “at” sign, and gmail.com.
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