Central Burma March 4, 1945

The British Fourteenth Army was a multinational force that took part in the Burma Campaign (January 1942 to July 1945). Units were drawn from the British Army and the Indian Army, with signi­fi­cant con­tri­bu­tions from Ghurkha and West and East African regi­ments. The Four­teenth Army has often been referred to as the “For­gotten Army” because its theater of oper­a­tions had long been written off as a “side­show,” since fighting there did not contribute to the defeat of Japan.

For most of the Army’s exis­tence, the Fourteenth was commanded by Lt. Gen. William Slim, one of the most extraor­di­nary gen­erals of his ge­ner­a­tion. After the March 7, 1942, fall to the enemy of Ran­goon (or Yang­on), capi­tal and port city of the British colony of Burma (also known today as Myan­mar), the Allies attempted to make a stand in the north of the coun­try. Oper­a­tions in Upper Burma over the remainder of 1942 and 1943 were a study in mili­tary frus­tration due to low morale, ram­pant dis­ease, lack of sup­plies, and the “Germany First” approach adopted by policymakers in London and Washington.

In 1944 the Japanese Army in Burma attempted to invade British India—the Imphal and Kohima cam­paigns named after two small towns in North­east India that were home to British front­line garri­sons pro­tecting the move­ment of sup­plies between India and China. The Imphal and Kohima oper­a­tion, when finally broken off early in July 1944, was the greatest mili­tary defeat on land to that date in Japa­nese history, a defeat brought on partly by star­va­tion and to a lesser extent by dis­ease (cholera, typhoid, and mala­ria) that ravaged Japa­nese ranks and partly by superior British and local ethnic (Naga) intel­li­gence. Of the original 15,000 or more Japa­nese sol­diers who besieged the two towns, over 7,000 were casualties. (In 2013 the Battle of Imphal and Kohima was voted as Britain’s greatest battle at the National Army Museum in London, a sur­prise winner over the likes of D-Day and Waterloo.)

On this date, March 4, 1945, after a four-day ferocious battle, Gen. Slim’s Four­teenth Army took the Central Bur­mese town of Meiktila, an im­por­tant supply depot and line-of-commu­ni­cation center for the Japa­nese. Its loss jeop­ar­dized the Japa­nese hold on Burma. Ninety miles to the south, Man­da­lay, the old royal capi­tal of Burma, was the Four­teenth Army’s next objec­tive, and it fell on March 20, 1945, though the Japa­nese held the former cita­del, called Fort Dufferin, sur­rounded by a wide moat and impres­sive brick walls 30 ft wide at their base, for a week before they escaped through drains, thus making an all-out attack unneces­sary. Much of the his­torically and cul­turally signi­fi­cant portions of Man­da­lay were burned to the ground in scenes remi­nis­cent of the destruc­tion the Japa­nese inflicted on the Philip­pine capital of Manila in the same month. Between the two Bur­mese battles—Meik­tila and Man­da­lay—most of the Japa­nese forces in the British colony were destroyed, enemy divi­sions depleted to less than half strength, most of their guns and trucks lost. This sorry situ­a­tion allowed the Allies in a com­bined air­borne and amphib­ious oper­a­tion to later recap­ture Ran­goon, which the Japa­nese had started to evac­uate on April 22, and reoccupy most of the country with little organized opposition.

1942 Japanese Conquest of Burma and the British Fourteenth Army’s Retaking of Meiktila in March 1945

Japanese inroads in Burma, April–May 1942

Above: Map showing Japanese inroads in Burma (heavy red lines) and British routes of withdrawal (thin blue lines), April–May 1942. Burma’s loss meant that China’s only land access to her allies was lost, too, the Japa­nese owning China’s sea­coast. The Allies’ only resupply mech­a­nism was air trans­port over the Himalayan moun­tains, Hump-flying C‑47s mostly, a danger­ous and expen­sive prop­o­si­tion as it turned out. The Allies’ reconquest of Burma was plainly necessary.

Burma Campaign: Tanks and trucks, Meiktila, Burma, March 1945Burma Campaign: British Indian Army, Meiktila, March 1945

Left: M4 Sherman tanks and trucks of Gen. Sir William Slim’s Four­teenth Army advance on the key Japa­nese supply depot at Meik­tila, Burma, March 1945. (Meik­tila, south of Man­da­lay, is to the imme­di­ate left of the middle red arrow in the map above.) The fighting at Meik­tila and the surrounding air­fields and villages see-sawed back and forth as the Japa­nese fre­quently infil­trated back into the posi­tions from which they had been driven out the day before.

Right: Men of the British Indian Army (6th Bat­talion of the 7th Rajpu­tana Rifles) advance behind Sher­man tanks during the assault on Meik­tila. Over­coming immense logis­tical problems, Slim’s armored dash behind enemy lines seized Meik­tila, cutting Japa­nese supply lines and killing approx­i­mately 2,000 enemy soldiers as thou­sands more slipped away. At the end of March 1945, the spent Japa­nese 15th Army with­drew south, leaving Ran­goon to the British on May 2–3, 1945, while making their way east to Thai­land. On Septem­ber 12, 1945, the British accepted the sur­ren­der of 680,000 Japanese soldiers still left in Southeast Asia.

Scenes from the Allies’ Two-Prong Burma Campaign, 1944–1945