Japanese occupation of Burma in 1942 had cut off the last land route by which the Allies could deliver aid to the Chinese Government of Chiang Kai-shek. The only supply route available was the costly and dangerous “Hump” route for transport planes over the Himalayas.
In the spring of 1944 the Allies were finally able to attempt the reconquest of Burma. A force under General Stilwell fought down the Hukawang Valley and reached the vicinity north of Myitkyina, a key communications center and Japanese stronghold, in May 1943. Meanwhile, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a reinforced U.S. Army regiment better known as “Merrill’s Marauders,” had circled and was attacking Myitkyina from the south. Japanese resistance and the onset of the monsoon season in June delayed completion of the operation until August.
As another phase of the spring offensive, a British force (the so-called “Chindits”) under Maj. Gen. Orde C. Wingate had made a successful airdrop near Kotha in March and proceeded to disrupt Japanese communications in central Burma. At the same time, farther to the south, a British Commonwealth force inflicted a considerable defeat on Japanese forces defending against a drive on Akyab, a port of the Bay of Bengal.
Meanwhile, in western Burma, the Japanese had launched a powerful, and very nearly successful, counterattack toward Imphal and Kohima in eastern India. The British made a last-ditch stand in the vicinity of Kohima and, when reserves arrived, won a decisive victory at the end of June 1944.
As the monsoon broke, the decimated Japanese force was in disorderly retreat back into the Jungles of Burma. By late summer of 1944 the Allies had cleared northern Burma, permitting construction of the Ledo (or Stilwell) Road and a fuel oil pipeline from India to China.
Operations in Burma during the last year of the war were largely a British show. Actually, the British were more interested in recovering Singapore than in taking Burma or helping China, but American control of lead-lease, combined with an American policy that continued to back Chiang Kai-shek more or less dictated the reconquest of Burma.
The British would have preferred to accomplish the reconquest of Burma from the south, beginning with a seaborne assault on Rangoon, but demands on shipping for European and Pacific operations precluded such a plan. Consequently, the British attacked from India across the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay and then south to Rangoon. They experienced tremendous difficulties because of the terrain and the resistance of crack Japanese troops. Supply by air was essential to the success of operations.
Mandalay was captured after a prolonged fight in mid-March 1945. From then on progress to the south was relatively fast, and the reconquest of Burma was completed for practical purposes with the capture of Rangoon on 3 May 1945. Except for five Chinese divisions and a mixed American and Chinese brigade known as the Mars Task Force (replacing “Merrill’s Marauders”), Allied forces in Burma consisted of British and British Commonwealth forces.
[The primary source for this text is the U.S. Army Center for Military History. For a more general overview of the war see the Brief History of WWII e-text.”]
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