The largest all-volunteer fighting formation of the British Empire in World War Two was the British Indian Army which was recruited in British India then comprised of modern day Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. More than 2.5 million men served in the British Indian Army and they fought all over the world.
Defensive measures for Burma were never put into place by the British because they did not believe Burma was under much threat. By the time they did, it was too late. After a series of small engagements with invading Japanese, British Army, British Indian Army and Commonwealth troops under General Sir Harold Alexander (later Field Marshal, Earl Alexander of Tunis) made a fighting retreat to British India where the Japanese were halted. The climate made fighting even more miserable than fighting could be.
Among the pagodas on Mandalay Hill, historic heart of Burma’s second city, Indian troops of 19th Division open fire on a Japanese strong-point. (Photo courtesy of IWM)
A patrol of the British 36th Division in the village of Bahe, during the drive down to Mandalay.
Some of the bloodiest and intense fighting in World War Two occurred in Burma from January 1945 onward during the British led offensive to re-conquer the colony from the Japanese. Beginning in late January 1942, Japanese troops had attacked Burma, then a British Crown Colony.
Soldiers of the 14th Army on Mandalay Hill, during the battle for Fort Dufferin. (photo courtesy British Information Services)
A Burmese family living in a dug-out share tea with a British soldier in Meiktila, 10 March 1945. (photo courtesy of IWM)
Long forgotten in the West, the long campaign to defeat the Japanese required armed forces drawn from military units throughout the vast British Empire including British, British Indian Army troops with British Commonwealth troops and locally raised units loyal to the British. American troops and aircraft along with units from the Nationalist Chinese Army fought in the campaign as well.
Tanks and truck-borne infantry of the British 14th Army, on the dash to Meiktila. (courtesy of Imperial War Museum)
Men of the 6/7th Rajputana Rifles of the British Indian Army advance behind Sherman tanks during the assault on Meiktila, 23 February 1945. The all volunteer British Indian Army recruited from throughout British India eventually numbered more than 2.5 million troops, one of the largest volunteer armies in history. (photo courtesy of IWM).
70% of the British Indian Army were Muslims. The British High Command paid the greatest attention to the religious and dietary laws of Islam when dealing with these troops as they did for all the different ethic groups which fought for them. When the time came to partition India, Jinnah, head of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan, was well aware that without Muslim soldiers the British Indian Army would never have been very successful. The British were well aware of this which gave them a certain incentive to agree to the partition of British India.
Mandalay and Meiktila were two key cities in central/upper Burma. Between January and March 1945, the British led attack destroyed the Japanese Army divisions around the two cities. Tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers were killed and the military organization of the Japanese forces collapsed. (1)
After a series of small wars, Burma had been taken by the British in 1886. While separate, the colony had been attached for administration to British India which then included all of present day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Burma was made a separate colony in 1937.
Burma remained an underdeveloped colony of the British Empire. Its primary economic value to the Empire was its large rice crop. Much of this was exported to other colonies in the Empire including Ceylon, Egypt and British India and its fall to the Japanese caused major food supply problems in the British Empire.
In a brutal assault the Japanese drove the lightly armed British and British Indian Army troops out of Burma and established a reign of terror over the various peoples of the area. While many of the native Burmans were happy to see British rule end, that sentiment did not continue with great fervor after people experienced the everyday terror of Japanese martial law.
As was often the case in British colonies, many of the smaller ethnic groups, such as the Karen people, had been brutally dealt with by the majority ethnic group, the Burmans (from whom the country takes its name). The persecution of the Karens by the Burmese continues in a brutal fashion to this day.
Indian troops coax mules into the water for the 500 yard swim across the Irrawaddy River, January 1945. (Photo courtesy of the IWM)
Hence, the Karens welcomed British rule and remained loyal to the British, supplying men to locally raised units supporting the British Imperial forces. So did other small ethnic groups. After the war, the British granted independence to Burma but would not divide the colony between the Burmans and the smaller ethnic groups despite the pleas of the Karens and other groups. These were the people who had been most loyal to the British and they were paid back in a shabby and inglorious way.
The campaign to re-take Mandalay and Meiktila by the British led 14th Army occurred between January and March 1945 because the best fighting weather lasted only from January through early June. In the other months, the monsoon rains descended. Just moving forward in the rainy season required immense efforts. (photo courtesy of the British Information Service)
According to a July 1945 publication on the campaign in Burma by the British Information Service:
During the monsoon season “In the Assam-Burma mountains… the rainfall runs between 150 and 250 inches a year (New York State has forty-one, inches: England thirty inches). Men were never dry, day or night, for months on end. Roads which yesterday carried tanks and guns will tomorrow be either thirty feet under water or simply washed off the side of the hill..
As you might imagine, the inhospitable climate caused significant health problems among the troops.
The damp and the heat bring malaria, sprue, (a disease which attacks the GI tract) dengue, dysentery and jaundice. During the first six months of 1944 there were 237,000 hospitalized disease and fever cases in the 14th Army alone (eighty-five per cent of its combat strength).
Soldiers were constantly felled by malaria.
“If you try to march in a mosquito net it is ripped to pieces by the undergrowth; if you cover yourself with anti-mosquito cream, you are ready to burst after 100 yards, for it clogs the sweat pores. So you eat anti-fever atabrin tablets, which turn you yellow, and salt tablets to put back what you lose from sweat, and you trust the medics to get you back to duty from the malaria in three to four weeks. (They do it, too, which is one of the war’s miracles.”
The 2nd Battalion of The Royal Berkshire Regiment (Princess Charlotte of Wales’s) was in India at the start of the war and spent 1939 to 1943 on internal security duties there. In January 1943 it was attached to 98th Indian Brigade. After undergoing jungle training it was sent to Asssam, arriving in the Autumn of 1944. It fought at Imphal-Kohima and then joined the advance into Burma, crossing the Chindwin in December and then winning battle honours for Kyaukmyaung Bridgehead, Mandalay, Fort Dufferin and Toungoo.
One of 11 photographs collected by CSM G R C Willis, 2nd Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment, Burma, 1945.
(photo and caption courtesy of the British National Army Museum)
The British commander and Indian crew of a Sherman tank of the 9th Royal Deccan Horse, 255th Indian Tank Brigade, encounter a newly liberated elephant on the road to Meiktila, 29 March 1945. (photo courtesy of the IWM)
An Indian infantry section of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment about to go on patrol on the Arakan front, Burma, 1944. (photo courtesy of the IWM)
Sources: author’s research, Imperial War Museum, British Information Service.
(1) The British Empire and the Second World War by Ashley Jackson.
Additionally I recommend the following for further reading: The Road Past Mandalay by John Masters. This is the second volume of his memoirs of serving as an officer in the Gurkhas, elite feared combat troops of the British Army still recruited in Nepal to this day. The first volume is Bugles and a Tiger which I think is slightly better and gives a fascinating look into the work-a-day tasks of the British Indian Army between the wars.