The Retreat from Burma, 1941-42

Official History of the Indian Armed Forces
In the Second World War

General Editor
Bisheshwar Prasad, D. Litt.

Combined Inter-Services Historical Section
(India & Pakistan)




Secretary, Ministry of Defence, India
Dr. Tara Chand
Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri
Prof. Mohammad Hasbib
Dr. R.C. Mujumdar
General K.S. Thimayya
Lieut.-General Sir Dudley Russell
Lieut.-General S.P.P. Thorat
    Military Adviser to the High Commissioner
        for Pakistan in India
Dr. Bisheshwar Prasad


Each major war in the past has engaged the attention of historians who have brought under review the trend of operations and examined the forces and influences which prompted large masses of humanity to diverge from their normal pursuits of peaceful avocations. This tendency is a necessary corollary to the importance attached to political history, for have not wars in the past affected the whole course of political, economic and social life of humanity at large? An important object of military history, however, is to examine the developments in the science of strategy and tactics and trace their influence on the defence organisation of states. In the present century, two global wars following each other within the span of two generations, and working tremendous changes in the life patterns of the world, have been the subject of study from various angles--some of these sponsored by governments; and this has resulted in the preparation and production of numerous accounts depicting prominently the part played by participant nations.

Much before the conclusion of the Second World War, the Government of India had decided to set up an organisation attached to the Chief of the General Staff for collecting and collating records with a view to writing the history of the operations in which Indian forces had participated. The beginning was made with one officer, but by the time the war had come to a close, the cell had expanded into the War Department Historical Section. Subsequent to the partition of India, it was agreed upon by the Dominions of India and Pakistan that the project of recording the glorious achievements of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War should continue as a joint venture of the two states; that this combined organisation should function under a civilian historian and that it should be named the Combined Inter-Services Historical Section, India and Pakistan. This joint body was chartered to produce the official history of the party played by the pre-partition India and its armed forces in the World War of 1939-1945. The narratives were to deal with military operations and organisational activities, and were to provide a truthful, analysed record of the operations carried out by our armed forces, so as to be an authoritative reference work for the future leaders, a field of study and guidance for the military student, and a written monument to the achievements of the forces who served.

Keeping in view these fundamental purposes, a history in about twenty volumes was planned; it has been divided into three series, viz. the campaigns in the western theatre; the campaigns in the eastern theatre; and the activities pertaining to organisation and administration. The campaign volumes narrate the part played by the Indian armed forces in Africa, Italy, the Middle East, Burma and South-East Asia, but while doing so, the achievements of the forces of the Allied nations fighting alongside have also been sufficiently highlighted, for the operations have been studied as a whole in their geographical setting. The volumes relating to the campaigns in the western theatre cover the theatres of war


in North Africa and the Western Desert; East Africa; the Middle East, comprising Iraq, Syria and Iran; and Sicily, Italy and Greece. The other series gives the story of the war in the east, beginning with the conquest of Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo and Burma by the Japanese to the recovery of these countries by the Allied nations. Two volumes have been assigned to the reverses while three volumes cover the story of the reconquest of Arakan and Central Burma. The activities of the Occupation Forces in Japan and South-East Asia also find a place in this series. In addition to the narratives of campaigns, volumes in the third series discuss the policy and planning of the defence of India, expansion of India's armed forces and the general headquarters, the development of technical services and supply organisation, and the war economy, including industrial production and finance. All operations have been studied from the inter-service aspect, but the history of the two infant services, the Royal Indian Air Force and the Royal Indian Navy has been traced separately also.

India's role in the war was one of subordinate co-operation, for she was not the architect of policy either in determining the influences which heralded the war or in steering its course. Her line of actin was laid down by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, and, later, with the integration of Allied command, higher strategy was planned by the Combined Chiefs of Staffs who disposed the available supplies and war equipment among the various theatres of war. In these narratives, therefore, 'higher direction' or 'Grand Strategy' finds no place as this was the concern of Washington or London. The Government of India, under the direction of Whitehall, was however responsible for devising measures for its territorial defence, and such plans as were then formulated have been discussed in one volume. Yet, the narratives of campaigns have necessarily to be prefaced by an analysis of the general strategic plan as also the strategic appreciations and plans of the local authorities who regulated the course of the campaigns. But the treatment of strategic problems has seldom exceeded the level of the theatre or army commander, and it is form his point of view generally that this history has been written. For the spheres beyond, the reader will have inevitably to depend on the volumes on 'Grand Strategy' planned by the United Kingdom Cabinet Historical Section[*] or those in Washington[*].

We have been allowed full access to the official records of the Government of India, and the Historical Section has almost a complete set of War Diaries and despatches and reports of the commanders in the field. But, unfortunately, a large mass of high level records was destroyed at the time of transfer of power to the two Dominions, which has handicapped us in finding many important documents relating to policy and decisions. We were unable to make good this deficiency by drawing upon the resources of Whitehall, as the agreement with the War Office precluded reference to any papers beyond the army level. Within these limitations, however, we were able to derive considerable information from the War Office, the Admiralty and the Air Ministry, where our Liaison Officers worked for some years, as well as from the Cabinet Historical Section. Their co-operation, on a reciprocal basis, has been of considerable benefit in enriching our sources of knowledge. We have also received documents from the archives of Canada, Australia and New


Zealand under arrangements for mutual information on subjects of common interest. The exchange of drafts of narratives between the Commonwealth countries has been of great advantage in reducing points of controversy and eliminating wide divergences as to fact. Yet, on the whole, this history is based on the records in our possession of which free and full use has been made.

History, at best, is a narrative; to present an accurate narrative of events has been our endeavour. Yet, it is not a mere chronicle of events, for we have analysed the factors and influences which have produced them and thereby interpreted facts in their correct perspective. Our view-point has been one of objectivity, but in the sifting of material subjectivity cannot altogether be eliminated; in relating the exploits of our own troops we may have been at times led to emphasise their glorious achievements. Yet a panegyric is not our object and we have not hesitated to record reverses or recount inconvenient situations in which the troops were placed., However, as a civilian organisation, we have refrained from speculating on what a commander in a particular position should have done or passed judgement on his appreciation of the situation. We have marshalled facts to reconstruct the situations as we view them, and lessons as emerging from them have been deduced.

The present volume is one of the series of Campaigns in the Eastern Theatre, and narrates the circumstances in which Burma was lost to the Japanese in 1942, so soon after the start of the putsch in South-East Asia. Yet, it is not merely a story of continuous reverses but of successful retreat as well. The mettle of an army, the morale of its troops and the character of its commanders are best revealed in retreat, when the first concern is to extricate the force to enable it to fight later in better circumstances. That the army in Burma managed to save itself from the Japanese pincers and succeeded in getting behind the hills screening Assam from the land of pagodas was no mean achievement; it offsets the initial inability to stop the Japanese from over-running the Valley of the Irrawaddy. Why did the disaster come? The answer to this question is to be found in the lack of effective military preparations, inadequacy of the apprehension of danger and the faulty conceptions of defence. These have been analysed in the earlier chapters, while in subsequent pages the details of operations have been given in the background of strategical and tactical plans.

In this campaign the Indian, British, Burmese and Chinese units fought side by side or in different but contiguous sectors. Hence it has been necessary to plan the story as a whole, for the strategical picture would not be made clear without bringing into full review the fighting in the different zones. The operations of the Burcorps and the Chinese Armies, therefore, find due mention in this volume. So also has an assessment been made of the work of the Royal Air Force which was somewhat conspicuous in the early stages. In the main, however, it is an account of the fighting of the Indian divisions who struggled to stem the tide of Japanese advance and who, against all odds, saved themselves from the prospect of extermination which faced them. In our analysis of the ugly situations and estimate of the facts responsible for them, some commanders may not appear in the best of lights, but it is far from our intention to deprecate their zealous endeavours to stop the Japanese on the


borders of Burma. The failure is no reflection on their generalship, but was, no doubt, the result of lamentable deficiency of military resources in the east, both in men and equipment. The first reverses, however, paved the way for later preparations to fight the Axis Powers successfully.

This narrative is based largely on the War Diaries, reports and despatches of the commanders and the records of the Government of India which have been, where necessary, mentioned in the footnotes. The nature of basic material has been indicated in the bibliographic note at the end. Some of the important documents have also been given in the appendices, where also will be found location statements of the forces and the orders of battle on several dates. Maps and sketches have been interspersed in the text to illustrate the strategy of the campaign, or the tactics in a particular engagement. The spelling of place-names conforms generally to the system approved at the informal conference of British and American experts in October 1947, a report of which was communicated to us. In the maps conventional symbols have been used to represent the Allied and Axis troops, though coloured maps have been kept to a minimum as a measure of economy. In the text, the Japanese units have been mentioned in italics to distinguish them from the Indian, British or Chinese forces. We have also eschewed the use of the word 'enemy' to indicate the Japanese. Military abbreviations have, as far as practicable, been avoided. Nonetheless, some of these have been used and a glossary has been included.

Initially, the material for this narrative of the first campaign in Burma was collated by Colonel E.C.V. Foucar, M.C., who was placed on special duty to collect the documentary material and seek information from the various military officers pertaining to this campaign. His draft was revised and enlarged by Dr. K. Gopalachari, M.A., PhD., who served as Narrator in the Historical Section in 1948-49, before the final editing when additional material was incorporated. To these officers I must express my indebtedness. I am also thankful to Lieut.-Colonel N.N. Madan and Lieut.-Colonel P.C. Bharucha of the Historical Section for the assistance in editing and for the valuable suggestions for the improvement of the narrative. I am grateful to Mr. P.N. Khera, Narrator, for revising the proofs and Mr. T.D. Sharma, the Cartographer, for preparing the maps. Mention may be made of the assistance rendered by other members of the staff of the Historical Section, particularly by Mr. K.N. Pradhan who made a search in the records to ensure the maximum accuracy of facts and figures.

The narrative has been shown to the commanding officers who were responsible for the campaign in Burma, as a whole or in part, for their opinion. I am particularly grateful to Major-General W.D.A. Lentiaigne, CB, CBE, DSO, Major-General R.G. Elkin, CIE, Major-General J. Bruce Scott, CB, DSO, MC, and Brigadier R.T. Cameron, DSO, for their comments which have been extremely helpful in clearing many obscure points and resolving doubts. I must express my gratitude to Brigadier H.B. Latham of the Cabinet Historical Section, London, for reading the script and making suggestions for improvement. The typescript was also see by Lieut.-General Sir Dudley Russell, KBE, CB, DSO, MC, Chief Adviser, Army Headquarters, India, to whom I am obliged for his valuable suggestions for its improvement.


The Government of India has set up an Advisory Committee consisting of some leading historians and senior Service officers, under the chairmanship of the Defence Secretary, for professional guidance and to scrutinise the narratives and authorise their publication. There is a representative of the Pakistan Government on it, which Government has also appointed a committee of its own to examine the narratives before they are authorised for publication. The members of the Advisory Committee have given me the benefit of their experience and judgement in planning the history and reading the draft of the volume. To them I am indebted for their advice which has greatly compensated for the handicaps of a civilian editor responsible for the production of military history. But, for statement of facts and expression of views, I accept full responsibility.

In conclusion, I must acknowledge the encouragement and support which I have received from the Ministries of Defence of India and Pakistan, without whose constant guidance and co-operation this project would not have been possible. I am specially grateful to Mr. H.M. Patel, Secretary, and Mr. B.B. Ghosh, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Defence, India, for their interest in the work and constant support which they have given to the Historical Section.




  Preface x

Chapter   Page
I. Burma--The Land and its People 1
II. Burma--History and Politics 12
III. Japanese Aggression in the Far East 21
IV. Danger of the Invasion of Burma 31
V. Armed Forces in Burma 42
VI. First Attack 61
VII. Loss of Mergui and Tavoy 80
VIII. Action in Kawkareik Sector 92
IX. Defence of Moulmein 106
X. Salween Line--Martaban and Pa-an 118
XI. Bilin Line 139
XII. Battle of the Sittang River 157
XIII. Operations in the Pegu Area 184
XIV. Fall of Rangoon 202
XV. Operations in the Shan States and Karenni 223
XVI. Regrouping of Force after the Fall of Rangoon 233
XVII. Entry of the Chinese Expeditionary Force 252
XVIII. Withdrawal from Prome 260
XIX. Race for the Oilfields--Minhla-Taungdwingyi Line 272
XX. Race for the Oilfields 287
XXI. The Beginning of the End--Retreat North of Mandalay 303
XXII. Pursuit--Action at Monywa 323
XXIII. End--Race for Kalewa 336
XXIV. The Chinese Front--2nd Phase 348
XXV. Capture of Akyab 358
XXVI. Campaign in the Air 365
XXVII. Civil and Military Administration 381
Appendices 396
Bibliography 490
Index 495
Location Statements and Orbats etc.
1. Location Statement, Army in Burma as on 1 December, 1941 396
2. Burma--Order of Battle at Commencement of Hostilities, December, 1941 404
3. State of Infantry 17th Division on the evening of 24 February, 1942 406
4. Chinese Expeditionary Force, Burma, Order of Battle, 31 March, 1942 407
5. Order of Battle, Army in Burma, 1 April, 1942 410
Appreciations etc.
6. Extracts from the Covering Memorandum to Far East Appreciation by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, August, 1941 417
7. Singapore Defence Conference, 1940. (Review of Defence Requirements of India and Burma in the light of possible Japanese threat from Thailand) 418
8. Singapore Defence Conference, 1940. (Note on India's position in regard to the Japanese threat in general and against Burma in particular) 425
9. Telegram from G.O.CX., Burma to G.H.Q., Far East. 25 February, 1941 427
10. Telegram from G.O.C., Burma to G.H.Q., Far East 429
11. F.E.C.B's. appreciation on Joint Planning. 17 April 1941 430
12. Discussion of joint Sino-British action to be taken in the event of war between the British Empire and Japan. July-August 1941 433
13. Telegram from Governor of Burma to Viceroy. (Appreciation from G.O.C., Burma). 12 December, 1941 437
14. Appreciation of the situation in Burma by General Staff, India. 15 December, 1941 438
15. Appreciation by General Hutton, G.O.C., Burma Army, made at Rangoon on 10 January, 1942 444
16. Telegram from Rangoon, Burma to Secretary of State, Burma. 22 December, 1941 454
17. Cable from War Office to C-in-C., India. 26 December, 1941 455
18. Extract from Cable from War Office to G.H.Q., Far East. 8 January, 1942 456
19. Telegram from Burmarmy to ABDACOM. 18 February, 1942 457
20. Telegram from Burmarmy to ABDACOM, and India. 20 January, 1942 457
21. Telegram from Burmarmy to ABDACOM Batavia. 20 January, 1942 458
22. Telegram from General Wavell in Batavia to C.O.S. and to Washington for Combined C.O.S. 26 January, 1942 460
23. Telegram from ABDACOM to Burmarmy (Personal for Hutton rom Wavell). 21 February, 1942. 461
24. Telegram from War Office to ABDACOM. 21 February, 1942 461
25. Telegram from Wavell to War Office, G.H.Q., India and Burma. 22 February, 1942. 462
26. Telegram from ABDACOM Batavia to Armindia (For Hartley from Wavell). 23 February, 1942 462
27. Telegram from General Wavell to C.O.S. 7 March, 1942 463
28. Telegram from War Office to G.H.Q., India. 13 March, 1942 464
29. Telegram from ARMINDIA to Chiefs of Staff. 15 March, 1942 464
30. Telegram from General Wavell to C.O.S. 25 March, 1942 466
31. Telegram from General Wavell to C.O.S. 467
32. Telegram from General Wavell to General Alexander. 14 April, 1942 467
33. Letter from General Alexander to General Wavell, C-in-C, India. 29 April, 1942 467
Operation Instructions and Directives
34. 17 Div Operation Instruction No. 5. 1 February 1942 469
35. Divisional Commander's Instruction H.Q. 17 Ind Div. 6 February 1942 471
36. 17 Div Operation Instruction No. 12. 14 February, 1942 472
37. 17 Div Operation Order No. 3. 10 March, 1942 473
38. 17 Div Operation Instruction No. 19. 14 March, 1942 476
39. Directive based on Burma Army Appreciation. 26 March, 1942 477
40. 1 Burcorps Directive No. 2. 27 April, 1942 479
Personal Accounts
41. A brief account of the Defence of Martaban and subsequent withdrawal 482
42. Some notes on the withdrawal from Prome. April, 1942 487
1. Rainfall in Burma. Mid-May to mid-October 5
2. Dispositions of troops for defence of Central Burma and Tenasserim area. December, 1941 38
3. Action at Tavoy. 13-19 January, 1942 87
4. Brigade area of responsibility. 1 February, 1942 119
5. Dispositions of forces. 5-9 February, 1942 123
6. Dispositions of forces defending Bilin river line. 15-16 February, 1942 141
7. Retreat from Rangoon. 7-10 March, 1942 219
8. Operations in the Shan States and withdrawal of 1 Burma Division. 23 February-24 March, 1942 230
9. 1 Burcorps defence zone. 10-14 March, 1942 235
10. Dispositions 1 Burcorps. 28 March, 1942 239
11. I Burcorps counter offensive plan (Phase I). 29 March, 1942 244
12. Minhla-Taungdwingyi area. Dispositions of I Burcorps. 9 April, 1942. 273
13. Japanese thrust to the oilfields. 8-10 April, 1942 275
14. Yin Chaung dispositions. 14-16 April, 1942 284
15. Situation on 26 April, 1942 following Japanese break-through in Shan States 312
16. Battle of Monywa. 30 April-2 May, 1942 330
17. Kalemyo, Kalewa & Tamu area. Route of withdrawal of Allied Forces. 5-11 May, 1942 340
18. Action at Shwegyin. 9-11 May, 1942 344
19. The Japanese Advance from Mawchi to myitkyina. April-May, 1942 352
20. Dispositions on Chinese Front. 5 April, 1942 356
21. Japanese advance and withdrawal of Indian forces from Akyab. 1-4 May, 1942 362
22. Sketch of Martaban 483
23. South-West Pacific & South-East Asia. Showing extent of Japanese occupation Facing page 31
24. Tenasserim-Siam Area. Showing routes of Japanese attack. 27 November to 28 December, 1941 67
25. Map of Mayawadi-Kawkareik area. Operations of 16 Ind Inf Bde. 20-25 January, 1942 97
26. Defense of Moulmein. 26-29 January, 1942 111
27. Moulmein Town and Environs. Operations of 2 Burma Brigade. 30-31 January, 1942 113
28. Operations Kuzeik-Duyinzeik-Thaton. 11-13 February, 1942 135
29. Withdrawal from Duyinzeik-Thaton. 14-15 February, 1942 137
30. Operations in Danyington. 16-17 February, 1942 139
31. Withdrawal from Bilin line. 20 February, 1942 155
32. Pegu dispositions on 5 March, 1942. Operations by 17 Div & 7 Armoured Bde in Waw area 191
33. Defence of Pegu by 48 Ind If Bde. 5 March, 1942 193
34. Action at Shwedaung. 29-30 March, 1942 249
35. Prome dispositions. 29 March-2 April, 1942 263
36. Kokkogwa-Thadodan. Operations of 48 Bde and 7 Armoured Bde. 11-14 April, 1942 281
37. Action by 1 Burma Div. 9-13 April, 1942 283
38. Operations in the Yenangyaung area. 16-17 April, 1942 289
39. Yeangyaung and Environs. Operations of 1 Burma Div., 7 Armoured Bde and Chinese 38 Div. 18-19 April, 1942 295
40. Battle of Kyaukse 321
41. Burma. Showing geographical details of mountains, rivers, communications, ports, airfields, mines and oil wells etc. 502

Transcribed and formatted by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation