General Sato’s 31st Division had not only failed to achieve the objectives of the operation, it had been all but destroyed as a viable fighting force. While they were meeting disaster at Kohima, the rest of the great U-Go offensive was unravelling with similar consequences for the rest of the Burma Area Army. At the beginning of the campaign, Gen. Scoones’ IV Corps had been poised for an offensive of its own, and was not, therefore, ideally deployed for defence. Fearing that the forward elements could become isolated and be defeated in detail, Gen. Slim authorised Gen. Scoones to withdraw to the Imphal plain, thus shortening the Allied lines of communication while the Japanese logistic effort came under increasing strain because of the distances involved, the harsh country and because of interdiction missions flown by the RAF and RIAF.
Concentrating his forces at Imphal allowed Slim and Scoones the opportunity to fight a major battle on their own terms. Commonwealth troops had found that they increasingly had the edge on the Japanese in battle in the jungle and now that they were fighting on the plain, their air combat support, their artillery and their armour were all much more effective than in previous encounters.
37 A view of the shell-scarred Kohima battlefield. (AB/AWH)
Once the battle was flowing in the Allies’ favour, and the enemy were in retreat, there was no place where Japanese forces could make a properly coordinated stand which would allow Mutaguchi an opportunity to regroup and reorganise his forces. The Allied advance was remorseless and every effort was made to destroy the enemy before he could get across the Chindwin to replenish and dig in. The heavy casualties incurred by the Japanese in battle were made worse by failures in supply, which meant that Japanese soldiers were dying of hunger-induced exhaustion. For the first time in the whole Burma conflict they started to surrender in sufficient numbers to give the Allies a decent intelligence picture based on more than observation and interpretation. The morale of the Burma Area Army units was battered, but by no means destroyed, and British, Indian and African troops still faced a lot of hard fighting. There was, however, clearly no realistic prospect of a Japanese recovery. Allied morale continued to improve as Japanese spirits sank and even if Gen. Mutaguchi had miraculously found a means of spiriting his troops out of harm’s way and into safe quarters with ample food and medical supplies, there was no means of rebuilding his army as a fighting force. Japanese factories could not produce the guns, armour and small arms to replace those lost in battle or abandoned in the retreat, and Japanese society could not provide the manpower. Even if these things had been possible, there was no time to rain replacements and no shipping to get them into the fight.
At the start of the campaign the Burma Area Army was no longer the confident and competent force it had been in 1942, but by the end of the campaign it was a mere shadow of its former self. If the troops expected the supply situation to improve as they withdrew to their starting positions, they were to be sadly disappointed; airstrikes and sabotage operations had crippled communications all the way to the Thai border. Increasing numbers of administrative and supply troops were now redundant and were being remustered as infantry, but they had little training and – in the main – no experience of any value; many of them had no rifles and those who did had precious little ammunition.
The U-Go offensive was the only major initiative of 1944. In the Pacific theatre, Japan was on the back foot as American forces advanced from one island to another, mounting air raids against the Japanese homeland with consequent damage to industry and civilian morale. Losses to commercial shipping had mounted steadily since mid-1942 and were impossible to replace, so it was, therefore, increasingly difficult to get the limited materials that industry could produce to where it needed to be – right across a vast perimeter stretching through the Pacific and South Asia to Burma.
Defeat made the survivors less confident of eventual victory and, with declining morale from late 1944 onward, it became easier for the Commonwealth forces to take prisoners, though most Japanese soldiers were still fighting with incredible determination. Although the intelligence and planning staffs of Fourteenth Army were keen to have POWs, several factors precluded this: the determination of so many Japanese soldiers to fight on to the bitter end; the practice of having to pound each enemy position to dust to make progress; and an unwillingness among Commonwealth troops to take prisoners given the general experience of the campaign. It was common knowledge that the Japanese generally would not take POWs in Burma and, when they did, they almost invariably treated them with great cruelty – wounded men left behind in action were often murdered for sport. The situation was not much better for INA troops. Indian soldiers who had not deserted to the enemy were not inclined to have much respect for those who had.
The failure of the U-Go offensive had a political impact in Burma and India. The Japanese occupation in Burma was clearly not going to last very much longer and even elements that had been strongly opposed to colonial status before the war started to make overtures to the British with a view to being on the right side when the war came to an end. In India the British had kept close control of the media and the INA had not figured prominently, other than as renegades who had betrayed their word and who had been duped and used by the Japanese. The political subtext was that the defeat of the British would simply have meant a rather more oppressive rule from Japan, and that brave and loyal Indian soldiers had been in the forefront of a struggle to protect their country from a rapacious enemy.
The direct threat to India had been removed and the Japanese were being driven from Indian soil in Manipur. This was a major boost to pro-British sentiment. This was more important in much of India than is generally realised today; not all Indians were in favour of the Indian National Congress campaign for independence. At the time it was significant both in ‘British’ India and in the much larger area of the Princely States. Many people in the latter – and not just the princes themselves – were happy at the prospect of a massive Indian union imposing a single central authority on the many countries which were, at least notionally, independent of British rule.
Defeating Japan on India’s borders restored some credibility for Britain as a power capable of protecting India, but so many Fourteenth Army troops were Indian that the victory also gave credibility to the proposition that India could defend herself against invasion in the future, which rather undermined one of the justifications for the continuation of British rule once the war was over.
The routes through Burma, used to carry materials to support China’s drive against Japanese occupation, had been secured. As the flow of supplies increased, the Chinese forces improved in efficiency and the China front became an ever-greater strain on Japan’s over-stretched resources. Cutting the Burma air and land routes had been a significant objective of the U-Go plan, but it is not clear that any great progress would have resulted. It is possible that some Japanese planners thought that depriving the Chinese armies of supplies would have reduced their effectiveness to such a degree that it would be possible to reduce the quantity of material sent to the China front, or even that it might be possible to force an armistice with China, releasing men and material for service elsewhere. However, this was not even close to being a realistic possibility. The Japanese occupation in China had been hideously cruel and millions of people had died. Chiang Kai-shek could not possibly make peace with Japan on any terms without destroying his own political credibility at home and abroad. The stream of material and money from America and Britain that had supported him for years would be cut off at source and he would not be able to maintain a force against his other enemy – the communists.
38 Battle-damaged building at Kohima. (AB/AWH)
Although there had been a cessation of hostilities in order to focus on a common foe and free China from occupation, in practice the communists had done very little fighting against the invader and had instead concentrated on building up their strength and consolidating their power in regions which they had already seized from Chiang Kai-shek’s government. However hard the struggle, Chiang Kai-shek could never make peace with Japan for fear that he would then cede a moral authority to Mao’s communists who would then claim to be China’s bastion against foreign aggression.
Even if this unlikely prospect of a Chinese armistice had occurred, Japan would need large forces in China to protect gains made in the past or abandon them to the enemy, which would be bad for the prestige of the Government, the morale of the civilians at home and the armed services overseas. Even if it had proved possible to cut the Burma routes entirely, the reality was that Chiang Kai-shek would not make peace. China had fought Japan for more than a decade with precious little help from outside until 1941. The best that could be hoped for in that quarter was that the Chinese armies, deprived of ammunition, might have to reduce their activity to a point where the Japanese forces in China could reduce their demands on Japan’s economy, though there was little chance that that reduction would be sufficient to make any real difference to the situation in any other theatre.
The defeat of Operations U-Go did, however, give a certain impetus to Chinese forces, particularly those in northern Burma. A growing belief that victory could be gained sooner rather than later improved morale and the passage of supplies became easier, allowing more ambitious and effective operations in both China and Burma.
The defeat in Burma had consequences back in Japan. Thousands upon thousands of families received that their sons were missing in action and most must have realised that the overwhelming majority had been killed. The opening stages of the campaign had been widely broadcast, so failure – in the only major offensive for a year – was another indication that any hope of a final victory was fast slipping away. The losses in men and equipment could not possibly be made good and the assets of Burma – which had never been fully available to Japan even at the height of the occupation – would now fall to the enemy. Worse still, however much the Japanese occupation governments in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies tried to obscure the defeat, the British did their utmost to ensure that people under Japanese occupation were made aware of the victory.
In Malaya, the events of March–July 1944 did a great deal to enhance the standing of the Malayan people’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and foster confidence that the British would return and drive the Japanese from the peninsula. The MPAJA had grown out of disparate groups opposed to the occupation and a liberal dusting of bandits looking for opportunities. It was largely centred on the Chinese community to begin with, but the oppressive nature of the occupation had brought recruits from the indigenous Malay population and from the Indian community. Despite the largely communist nature of the MPAJA, it had received arms, money and training from British sources and, by mid-1944, was starting to become a real problem for the Japanese administration. The support was offered as a means of carrying the fight to the enemy, but also as a declaration of intent – that the British had every intention of regaining control over the colony she had lost in 1942.
The majority of MPAJA members, however, had a rather different objective – to gain independence from British rule once the Japanese had been defeated. Before the war, independence had not really been a major issue for a number of reasons, but now there was a considerable overlap between nationalist and communist sentiment. Before the war, many of the nationalist activists and the overwhelming majority of the communists were Chinese, and most of the remainder were Indians. The native Malayan community had initially taken little part in either group in the 1920s and 1930s, but had become more inclined toward independence during the war years, partly in reaction to the failure of the British to provide an adequate defence against aggression and partly as a result of the nature of the Japanese occupation. Although the occupation had – as a rule – been much more aggressive to the Chinese community and had, to some extent, left the Malays in peace, the decline in trade and industry and the requisition of agricultural produce for the Japanese military had led to widespread poverty and hunger. As a result nationalist sympathy had increased markedly.
Malaya was really a blanket term for a collection of colonies and states. Under British control there had been three separate categories of administration – the Federated Malay States, the Unfederated Malay States and Straits Settlements. Increasingly, the prospect of uniting all of these into a single country that could furnish its own defence was gaining popularity, even if the general view was that it would take a British invasion to get the Japanese out first. By the time the invasion force – Operation Zipper – landed, the war had come to an end. The atomic bombs had forced the Japanese Government to surrender, though there was no guarantee that the Japanese forces in Malaya would not fight on regardless of the Emperor’s instructions. When it became clear that they would not – and that may only have been because their commander, Field Marshal Terauchi, had a heart attack and could not pursue the campaign of resistance that he had intended – the MPAJA either laid down their arms or hid them away for a time when they might be used against the British. The ‘emergency’ that broke out in Malaya in 1948 and continued until after independence was not a simple consequence of the defeat of the Japanese in Burma, but the growth of the MPAJA in 1944–45 was, in part at least, a product of increasing confidence that Malaya, like Burma, would be liberated from the Japanese.
Numerous individuals saw their reputations suffer as a result of the failure of Operation U-Go. Prime Minster Hideki Tojo was not forced to resign until the fall of Saipan in July 1944, but defeat in the India-Burma theatre meant that his days were already numbered. Although he had authorised the operation, Gen. Kawabe was not officially held personally responsible and his replacement in August 1944 by Gen. Kimura was on the grounds of ill-health, not incompetence. General Mutaguchi had lost all credibility – as well as 50,000 Japanese soldiers –and was forced into retirement at the end of the year. It was put to Gen. Sato that he should commit suicide for his failure to take Kohima and Dimapur, but instead he demanded a formal court martial so that he could defend his honour and his professional reputation. This might not have been a wise move since he had essentially failed to pursue the main objective – the supply depots and railhead at Dimapur – but had allowed himself to become fixated on what was really a subsidiary operation – the capture of Kohima. Anxious to avoid a difficult trial, Gen. Kawabe arranged for Sato to be declared unfit to stand trial.
39 Chinese and American drivers on the Burma Road. (AB/AWH)
Although the word is modern, the meaning was well understood by General Slim, who was determined to assure Indian, African, Nepalese and Chinese soldiers that they were just as valued as their British comrades. Building an effective army out of the wide array of racial, linguistic and cultural components of Fourteenth Army was an incredible, and often overlooked, achievement.
The Burma Area Army had suffered massive casualties, lost much of its equipment and was fatally injured as a fighting force, but had nothing to show for the sacrifices made. The defeat of 1944 overshadows the exceptional achievements of the Japanese forces in 1942–43: the fragile and tenuous supply lines, inadequate and insufficient equipment, the determination of the soldiers, and the skills and audacity of Japanese commanders are all forgotten in the wake of defeat. It is all too easy to forget that even U-Go – an immensely risky undertaking – came quite close to bringing a major victory over the Commonwealth forces.
It is not certain that British rule in India could have withstood a Japanese victory in April 1944. General Mutaguchi’s view that a successful offensive would bring about a general uprising against the British throughout India was, at best, highly speculative and optimistic, but equally it was not impossible. Even a relatively minor increase in resistance to colonial rule would have been further challenge to the British Government and the Government of India at a time when there were already enormous demands on their resources. Additionally, a major outbreak of unrest in India might, conceivably, have stimulated anti-British feeling throughout the Empire and in countries which, although not strictly speaking part of the British establishment themselves, were under British occupation, such as Persia (Iran) and Egypt.
Wherever there are losers, there are generally winners too. There had been widespread doubt about the appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the Supreme Commander of SEAC, particularly in senior British Army circles. He had been seen as a dilettante promoted on the basis of his connections, but the critics were – largely – now silenced. The 1944 campaign gave him credibility and he became popular with his troops, despite his class and background. He understood that the men needed more than food, fuel and ammunition and was generally seen as doing his best by the men under his command. His commitment to decent treatment for the Indian forces also helped to give him credibility when he was appointed viceroy.
The campaign confirmed Gen. Slim as one of the great commanders of the Second World War. His efforts to ensure the general well-being of the troops, as well as bringing victory, made him one of the most popular British commanders of all time. He had turned around the fortunes of the army after nearly two years of defeat and frustration – partly by ensuring that the troops got everything that he could procure and partly by making the army healthier. In 1943 illness had been nearly one hundred times more damaging than battlefield casualties, with malaria the major scourge. Many soldiers avoided taking their mepacrine (anti-malarial) tablets so that they could contract malaria and be sent to hospitals in India, far away from the front. Slim ensured that malaria cases were retained in Forward Treatment Units (FTU) so that they could be returned to their units as soon as possible – the malaria rate decreased rapidly. It also did no harm that soldiers soon became aware that Slim would cheerfully sack senior officers who failed to come up to the mark. He believed strongly in the equality of every soldier in the army, regardless of race or culture, at a time when such views were not popular.
South East Asia Command as a whole – and the ‘forgotten’ Fourteenth Army in particular – gained in confidence and self-esteem. The war in the Far East was still overshadowed by events in Europe, and all the more so after the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the breakout battles and the race across France and into Belgium. The battles raging in Europe, therefore, kept the war in the Far East off the front pages at the time. In the decades that have passed, historians have been guilty of allowing the Burma war – indeed the Asian war in general – to remain something of a backwater. The trials and tribulations of the British, Indian and African men and women of SEAC and the horrendous suffering of Asian communities under Japanese occupation have been largely ignored. Few people are aware that three entire African divisions and various African ancillary units served with distinction in this distant and arduous conflict.
Among the ‘winners’ of the war in the Far East, we might include the many senior figures whose poor analysis, lack of interest and – in some cases – a more-or-less wilful failure to give serious thought to the potential risk of Japanese invasions in Burma and Malaya brought about so much unnecessary suffering. Defeat in Burma in 1942 is sometimes blamed on local commanders, despite them having totally inadequate resources to deal with the threat, while the senior figures who had failed to make adequate preparations managed to avoid responsibility completely.
The focus on European and British affairs has also had an impact on perceptions of the Pacific war. The desperate struggles of Australasian and American forces on land and sea is not widely appreciated, despite their crucial significance in the war against Japan and, therefore, to the war effort generally. Much the same applies to the efforts of China. Chiang Kai-shek’s forces fought against Japanese conquest and occupation for more than a decade, but they also had to contend with Mao and the communists who used war to further their domestic position. Chinese troops have often been denigrated or simply ignored, but they were a vital part of the Burma campaign and, therefore, of the war in the Far East as a whole. Without the sacrifice of the Chinese troops, there would have been many more Japanese to fight against Commonwealth forces and the outcome might well have been radically different; an outright Japanese victory in 1943 would have altered the whole course of the war in the East and might have brought about the very anti-British uprising throughout India that Gen. Mutaguchi hoped to achieve in 1944.
40 Battlefield defoliation. (AB/AWH)
The majority of the Kohima garrison consisted of Indian, Nepalese Army and Ghurkha troops, but their gallant and conscientious contribution has been rather forgotten due to the perception – encouraged, perhaps, by Arthur Campbell’s novel The Siege: A Story from Kohima – that the RWK fought almost alone.
The Battle of Kohima was not fought in isolation. While the garrison there were fighting valiantly, the other units of 161st Brigade – 1/1st Punjab and 4/7th Rajputs – were surrounded 2 miles (3.2km) away at Jotsoma. Their battle has attracted much less attention, perhaps because it was less obviously dramatic. It is also too easy to forget that the end of the siege was not the end of the battle. The Japanese went on to the defensive, but still had to be driven out of Kohima and away from the surrounding hills and mountain if the Dimapur–Imphal road was to return to full capacity. The brigades of Gen. Grover’s 2nd Division had a long and hard fight to finish the job.
Kohima very nearly fell to the Japanese, and surely would have done had it not been for the exemplary conduct of several units in the week or more before the commencement of the siege. The Assam Regiment, despite the fact that most of the men were still new to army life, let alone combat, fought with exceptional skill and tenacity, as did 50th Indian Parachute Brigade at Sangshak. The steadfast service of all of these units has received little attention and even less recognition, but without it the Kohima story and, therefore, that of the great battle at Imphal, might have had a very different ending.
Among the beneficiaries was the political establishment of British India. Preventing any further Japanese penetration into India was certainly good for British prestige and helped to promote a case that the British were both willing and able to protect India from foreign aggression, and driving them out of India and then through Burma showed that the British were still a powerful military force. General Slim’s victory – and it was very much Slim’s abilities that had made victory a reality rather than a possibility – helped the civil administration to weather the storms of Mahatma Ghandi’s ‘quit India’ campaign and general civil unrest, especially in Bengal where there had been a serious famine in 1943 leading to millions of deaths. The famine had arisen from a poor rice crop in 1942, followed by tidal waves, cyclones and a fungus that may have destroyed more rice than the waves and the cyclones put together. It was also, in part, a consequence of the Japanese invasion of Burma since a large proportion of the Burmese rice crop was normally exported to Calcutta.
41 Japanese prisoners of war. Very few Japanese soldiers surrendered until the later stages of the campaign in 1945. (AB/AWH)
Another beneficiary was the cause of Burmese nationalism. The welcome that the Japanese had received in some quarters at the start of the war waned as it became increasingly clear that Japan was not an ally against British colonialism, but the source of an oppressive occupation. This became more evident in the latter stages of the occupation, since there was no longer any thought at all as to the long-term political consequences of exploitation; by late 1943 the occupation was simply a matter of undisguised asset-stripping to support the Japanese war effort. Disenchantment with the Japanese led to dialogue with the British and, eventually, the Burmese puppet government declared war on Japan to ensure a role in any post-war negotiations on independence. In practice, Burmese independence was not really in doubt, though the hurried nature of dismantling the colonial relationship was a major factor in bringing about a long and cruel Burmese civil war after independence.
The Naga people were, arguably, the greatest losers in the long term. Many were killed and much collateral damage incurred simply by the war passing through their country, and many were pressed into transporting supplies for the Japanese Army. Their crops and livestock were stolen, there was widespread abuse, rape and murder, and the destruction of entire villages for being uncooperative. The Nagas were, at best, suspicious of future government under the Burmese majority of the plains and cities, and they feared marginalisation, loss of territory and the loss of traditional rights and practices which were long protected by the British.