Contents - Hirohito's War
9 Burma Corps: Humiliation Then a Fighting Retreat
[January 1941–May 1942]
[Maps: 9.1, 9.2, 9.3, 9.4, 9.5]
Why Burma? (p 261) General Shojiro Iida (p 263) Iida’s Advance from Malaya and Thailand (p 263) The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the ‘Flying Tigers’ (American Volunteer Group: AVG) (p 265) Blowing the Sittang Bridge (p 269) ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell and the Chinese Army in Burma (p 272) Escape from Rangoon (p 274) The Battle of Magwe (p 274) Allied Deployment in Central Burma (p 276) Aung San and the Burmans (p 277) The Battle of Toungoo (p 279) The Battle of Yenangyaung (p 281) Headlong Retreat by the Allied Armies in Burma (p 283) Effect of Defeat on India (p 287) Stilwell’s Long Walk and Chiang’s Lost Armies (p 287) General Alexander Loses an Army (p 289) General Iida’s Burma Triumph (p 290)
Why Burma? In the opening gambits of Japan’s war against the West, the three primary targets were Pearl Harbor, Malaya (including Singapore) and the Philippines. The destruction of Anglo-American military and naval resources in these three locations would allow Japan to occupy the oil rich areas of the Dutch East Indies. Tin, rare metals (such as tungsten), and rubber were secondary economic allures that came with the conquest of Malaya. However, oil, denied to Japan by Roosevelt’s embargo, was the Holy Grail of Japan’s ‘strike south’ strategy. So why was Burma an important secondary target of Japanese expansion?
Although the invasion of Burma was never central to Japan’s East Asian strategy, and it could be argued that throughout the war, the India-Burma theatre was a sideshow to the main events elsewhere, it nevertheless served a number of subsidiary purposes. First the occupation of Burma would protect the Singapore-Malay flank of its Asian Empire. Secondly as the idea of the Japanese Empire became the dominant credo of Japan’s southeastern military expansion, the idea of ‘liberating’ another Asian colony became a motivation, and a justification in its own right.
It was assumed, in part correctly, that the Burmese, who were agitating for independence, would be particularly receptive to helping them overthrow their colonial masters. Although Burma’s prime minister, U Pu, expressed the opinion of a large swathe of Burmans that they should stand by the British, ultra-nationalists such as U Maw and Bogyoke Aung San (father of current Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi) saw the war with Japan as the opportunity for immediate independence. It was a movement that mixed nationalism with socialism. H. G. Wells on a world lecture tour noted “the Burmese mix-up of resentful nationalism, a sort of crude communism. . . .”1 As in India the presumption of the British regarding the loyalties of their colonial subjects was not well received by nationalists. Without consultation with his subjects, the Governor General of India informed them that “I Victor Alexander John, Marquis of Linlithgow . . . do hereby proclaim that war has broken out between His Majesty and Germany.”2 In India Nehru was appalled, “One man and he a foreigner, plunged four hundred million of human beings into war without the slightest reference to them.”3 The Burmese nationalists were equally dismayed. The pro-Japanese Burmese leader Ba Maw resigned from the House of Representatives and attacked U Pu’s policy of supporting the war.