• Simon 'Peters' Biggs

The Forgotten Army - One Million Men Under Arms in Burma

Burma Star Association

The Circumstances of the War in Burma

The war in the Far East started in December 1941, simultaneously with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The Japanese captured Hong Kong on Christmas Day and moved into the Malaysian Peninsula, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. Malaya was overrun and Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. The Japanese army advanced into Burma, involving the defending British and Indian troops in a long and demoralising fighting retreat through thick jungle terrain over a distance equivalent to that from Istanbul to London. Rangoon fell on 8 March 1942 and by mid-June the Japanese advance had reached the hills on the North East frontier of India.

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945

In December 1942, British and Indian troops mounted their first offensive in the malaria ridden coastal Arakan region. It was unsuccessful, although much was learned. During 1943, Chindit columns under Brigadier Orde Wingate, supported by the Royal Air Force, penetrated deep behind the Japanese lines in central Burma. In March 1943, a further determined attempt to invade India was repulsed after fierce fighting. In August 1943 the South East Asia Command was formed under Lord Louis Mountbatten and in October that year General William Slim was appointed as Commander of the Fourteenth Army.

Gurkhas advancing with Lee tanks to clear the Japanese from Imphal-Kohima road in North Eastern British India (Wikipedia)

In March 1944, the Japanese launched an offensive across the Chindwin River, cutting the Imphal-Kohima Road. There followed the ferocious battles of the ‘Admin Box’, Kohima (with its famous tennis court) and Imphal, at the end of which the defeated Japanese withdrew. Further Chindit columns operated deep behind enemy lines during 1944 and at the beginning of 1945 the Fourteenth Army launched a successful offensive down the Arakan Coast, followed by a major advance deep into central Burma. Mandalay was retaken on 20 March after a twelve day battle, and the Fourteenth Army continued on to Rangoon which was reoccupied in an amphibious operation on 3 May.

The Fourteenth Army, known to many as ‘The Forgotten Army’, numbered over one million men under arms, the largest Commonwealth army ever assembled. Air lines of communication were crucial: some 615,000 tons of supplies and 315,000 reinforcements were airlifted to and from the front line, frequently by parachuted air drops, and 210,000 casualties were evacuated. The Royal Air Force and the Indian Air Force, supported by carrier-borne Fleet Air Arm aircraft, provided constant offensive bombing sorties, together with fighter cover and essential photo-reconnaissance in support of the Army. Towards the end of the War, RAF Liberator aircraft carried out some of the longest operations ever flown to drop mines into the Pacific. At sea, the Royal Navy and the Royal Indian Navy provided the landing craft, the minesweeping operations and the combined operations necessary for the coastal offensive in the Arakan, as well as providing gunfire support from seaward.

44 Cdo RM, Returning from Alethangyaw, Burma, March 1944

(Commando Veterans Archive 2006 - 2016)

The Royal Marine Commando, as well as Royal Marines from the units of the Fleet, took part in the Arakan operations.

The Japanese surrendered on 15 August 1945, now known as VJ Day.

The Royal Marines a Geo History

Burma Star Association


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