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China's Role in the Recapture of Burma

by Major Chen Ju-Hwa, Chinese Army
Command and Staff College, 1947-47

Table of Contents

I   Introduction
II   Geographical Features
III   Military Operations
IV   Conclusion (Analysis and Criticism)
V   Lessons Learned from this Operation

China's Role in the Recapture of Burma


The purpose of this monograph is to cover the operation of the Chinese Army in Burma from its advance on Myitkyina and Tenchung until the recapture of Lashio, 8 March 1945.

In order to provide a common understanding and a sufficient orientation for this discussion, a short resume of events leading up to this operation follows:

  1. Early in 1942 the Japanese drove into Burma and captured Rangoon, closing that great port for the Burma road. They streamed up the valley towards Mandalay and Myitkyina. The Allied force retreated; most of the Chinese troops pulled back across the Salween River. The British troops made their difficult way back into India, From that time on, all roads to China were cut off by the enemy.

  2. From a strategical point of view, the occupation of Burma by the Japanese on the one side provided them with a springboard, a starting point for their planned conquest of India. On the other side, it provided them a protective shield to guard their easier and highly profitable conquest to the south; Siam, Indochina, Malaya and the Netherlands Indies.

  3. After the occupation of Burma by the Japanese, which cut off China by land from her Allies, our difficulty in continuing the war increased rapidly, day after day, in spite of the best efforts of the U.S.A. to support China logistically by air. Because China had been fighting alone since July, 1937 our country was nearly exhausted. In 1942 and 1943 the meagre American supply by air was, just as an ancient Chinese proverb puts it: "To fight a raging fire with only a cup of water is useless."

    Under these conditions the most urgent and important step, which the Allied Army had to adopt on the Asiatic continent in order to defeat the Japanese was to recapture Burma and re-open the supply routes to China.

    To this end the following plans and preparations were made:

    1. The establishment of the Southeast Asia Command in India to prepare a large scale offensive against the enemy in Burma.


    1. The Chinese troops in India under the command of General Stilwell, with three Infantry Divisions, were retrained and re-equipped.

    2. A Chinese "Y-Force" was established in the province of Yunnan, consisting of six Infantry Divisions.

    3. Using the above forces, the Allied Army planned to recapture Burma and re-open the supply roads to China before the rainy season of May 1944 in Burma.


The terrain in Burma is ideal for the operation of an inner line, and was very advantageous for the Japanese provided they were willing to adopt an offensive-defensive strategy, But the same difficulties faced the Japanese if they should try. to launch a large scale offensive from Burma towards either Yunnan or India.

The terrain in Burma consists of high mountains and dense jungle, with the exception of the south. The mountains are mostly covered with heavy forest, and there are only a very few mule oaths over these ranges, which are so high that even in summer there were often snow storms on the peaks while beneath in the valleys the heat was stifling, In addition to this, at the foot of these mountains are unfordable rivers with very swift current, which form difficult obstacles for the offensive.

All communications in Burma extend out from Rangoon, Railroad lines run from Rangoon to the north up through the center of Burma to Mandalay and Myitkyina with a side line off toward China, ending at Lashio. The main river communications also extend out from Rangoon, utilizing the Irrawaddy River up to Mandalay and Myitkyina. The highway road-net in Burma is not bad, however, all routes run from south to north. The main highway runs along the railway from Rangoon through Mandalay to Lashio. This road extends from Lashio on through Wanting and Luling to Kunming, but the Chinese section is not so well built as that from Rangoon to Lashio. There are two other important highways, one from Rangoon through Prome to Myitkyina, the other runs east of the railway, from Rangoon through Toungoo. Taunggyi, Lashio, Bhamo and on to Myitkyina. There are no east-west roads through the mountains.


A large plain extends along the coast and along the Irrawaddy River up to Mandalay and Myitkyina, and all agricultural and economic developments are located in this lowland.

The weather in Burma is also an important factor to be considered, From May to November is the rainy season or monsoon. These torrential rains disrupt all communication lines, making fair-weather roads impassable, and even interrupting all-weather roads for varying periods. During the monsoon it is impossible to operate in the mountainous area. So we see that weather is another limiting obstacle to offensive operations, either to invade Burma from outside or to invade the bordering countries of India or China from inside Burma.


The Chinese troops in India, under the command of General Stilwell began their offensive in early November 1943, from north of Singpiyang. The opposed enemy was the Japanese 18th division, the conquerors of Singapore. These troops were experts in jungle warfare and in mountain fighting. They utilized the forests and jungle and constructed strong defensive positions in all defiles, and blocked all roads. The fighting in the Hukwang valley, the area south of Singpiyang, was hard and cruel and our advance was very slow. Nevertheless, the Chinese troops completed their sweeping operation. in the Hukwang valley after nineteen weeks of hard fighting and finally crossed the pass from the Hukwang valley into the Moguang valley the end of March 1944.

At that time we were considering, in Chunking, to stop the advance of the Chinese troops out from India and to occupy a strong defensive position in the south Hukwang valley in order to prepare a large scale, coordinated offensive by all the Allies against the Japanese Army in Burma. General Stilwell, on the other hand, planned to continue the attack through long, narrow Moguang valley toward Myitkyina and demanded that the "Y-Force" in Yunnan detach a column to march through Pai Miao to Myitkyina, there to join with the Chinese force from India and defeat the Japanese at Myitkyina.

We at Chungking did not agree with General Stilwell because we had received information from various sources about large Japanese reinforcements


pouring into Burma. In early February 1944 we estimated the Japanese troop strength in Burma at about 200,000 men, consisting of eight infantry divisions and one armored brigade. This force was disposed for defense, three infantry divisions in north Burma to oppose the Chinese troops in India and the "Y-Force" in Yunnan; three infantry divisions in south-west Burma against the British-India troops, and another two infantry divisions and their armored brigade located in the Rangoon-Mandalay area, In addition, the Japanese had committed a large reinforcement, estimated to be a minimum of two infantry divisions, one coming from Thailand through Chitung and Lashio, the other coming north from Rangoon. Therefore, we were convinced that the Japanese in Burma had the capability of launching a counter-offensive with 3-5 infantry divisions and one armored brigade in any direction at any time after March, In addition, we had.to consider the weather. The rainy season usually begins in early May in Burma so that until then we had only one month more to. fight, Obviously it would be impossible to reach our operations objective, with only two Chinese columns, one from Yunnan, one from India, marching over high mountains and through jungle to attack the strong enemy in north Burma within so short a period before the arrival of the monsoon. On the other hand, the Japanese had the advantage of a good interior communication net to make a concentration and launch a large scale counter-attack against our two columns one after the other and destroy them piecemeal, Chungking and General Stilwell finally reached a compromise, and we gave him two additional infantry divisions to accomplish his plan, but the "Y-Force" in Yunnan was kept intact.

However, General Stilwell did achieve his objective and reached Myitkyina just before the rains broke, General Stilwell had detailed one of his two fresh divisions, reinforced, for a long range outflanking attack on Myitkyina, Those units scaled the Naun Hykit Pass, over 7000 feet, and by a forced march of twenty days along secret paths, supplied by air, appeared suddenly on the Myitkyina airstrip and captured it by a surprise assault, while the main force pushed on through the Moguang Valley, near Kamaing and Mogaung.

This was the Japanese' best chance to launch a counterattack, but they no longer had that capability. They were exhausted, Instead they had decided to retain a large force as a strategical, mobile reserve, in order to utilize


their advantage of operating along inner lines to destroy the invading Allied forces separately, then launch a large scale counteroffensive through Imphal into India. They had detailed 100,000 troops, three reinforced infantry divisions, for this task. This was the bulk of their strategical reserve in Burma. They crossed the Chindwin river on 17 March 1944 by the way of Homalin and Thaungout, and advanced toward India through the mountains. The British-India force made a withdrawal by means of delaying actions. As the enemy advanced deeper and deeper, the difficulties of communication and supply increased seriously. Their leading elements did reach the vicinity south of Dimapur, but there all the advantages of terrain and communications belonged to the British-India side, and the British-India force counter-attacked promptly. At this time the Japanese faced a critical situation being unable either to advance or withdraw rapidly, Simultaneously, the "Y-Force" in Yunnan attacked in the direction of Lashio, supported by the American air force and air drop supply, despite the monsoon rains and the difficult terrain. Thus all the Japanese troops in Burma were either committed or contained, and no troops were available for any counter offensive.

When the Japanese abandoned their offensive-defensive in Burma and advanced toward India, they lost the freedom of maneuver and never regained it. Thereafter the Chinese troops in India under the command of General Stilwell and the "Y-Force" in Yunnan advanced on Lashio from two directions, and the British-India force advanced toward Mandalay. The Japanese could do nothing but fight delaying actions under these conditions. We reached Lashio on 8 March 1945 and the situation in Burma was thus decided in our favor.


In making a study of this operation, it will be noted that apparently the recapture of Burma was very difficult, if not impossible, if the main effort was not made from the sea, an amphibious attack through Rangoon, based on a careful study of the terrain, weather, and communication lines in Burma. At any rate the tactics which General Stilwell used in this campaign, were something new for the people of the Asiatic continent, and were probably unexpected by the Japanese just as they were considered rash at Chungking. This undoubtedly contributed to the Japanese confusion and defeat, But I


am still doubtful whether General Stilwell's operation would have succeeded if the Japanese had not abandoned their offensive-defense strategy.

The points which may be subject to criticism are:

  1. The estimate of the Japanese capability in Burma by the Allied Force was not accurate. The Allied force planned to recapture Burma with the troops available on the border between Burma and. India, and Burma and China in early January 1944 (the Chinese troops in India, the Chinese "Y-Force" in Yunnan and the British-India 14th Army), and this force obviously was not enough. If the Japanese had reached Dimapur before we could gain any decisive victory in north Burma, if the British-India Army had not committed large reinforcements, utilizing their well-developed land and air communication lines into this area at that critical time, it was very probable that the Japanese would have achieved another victory and that the Allies would have failed. In such an, event how could the Allies have recaptured Burma with the same troop strength?

  2. The Allied nations failed to utilize their air and sea superiority in order to launch an amphibious attack through Rangoon thus cutting the Japanese communication lines, but on the contrary they attacked over-land through high mountains and jungle, In my opinion this was very uneconomical both in manpower and materiel.


a. Air superiority is vitally important for offensive operation, especially if the offensive is launched against difficult terrain as in Burma.

b. Due to the development of military science, natural obstacles which in the past have proved impossible to overcome, for instance the Himalayan mountains, the Mongolian desert, the Arctic circle, can no longer be considered as reliable obstacles for defense.

c. The Air Force will be even more important in future wars.

d. Estimates of the capabilities of the enemy must in the future be higher rather than lower. The success of any military operation in the future must be based on one's own sure strength and sound plans and, thorough preparations, not relying at all on possible good fortune.


Sketch map of Burma

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation