The Burma Campaign

The Burma Army 1937-43

Until April 1937, Burma was administered as part of India, under the Viceroy.  After separation the country, achieved a degree of self-government but was effectively still controlled by the British through the office of the Governor.  The Government of Burma was responsible for the defence of the country, for financing the armed forces and for acquiring stores and equipment from the British War Office.

The strategic significance of Burma for the defence of the region was not lost on British senior commanders and from 1937 onwards it was argued that the armed forces in Burma should be controlled by the Commander-in Chief, India.  This change in command only decided at the last hour, on 11th December 1941, by Prime Minister Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff.

The Military Before Separation

Before separation, the defence of Burma was the responsibility of Headquarters Burma District, part of India Command.  Military units serving under District command were:

- an Indian Mountain Battery,
- a company of (Indian) Sappers and Miners (engineers),
- two battalions of regular British infantry,
- three, sometimes four, battalions of The 20th Burma Rifles (the junior regiment of the Indian Army),
- volunteer units of the Auxiliary Force (India),
- units of the Indian Territorial Force.

The units were grouped into areas:

- The Rangoon Brigade Area; covering Lower Burma and the Andaman islands
- The Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area; covering Upper Burma, under direct command of District HQ and with no separate brigade headquarters.

There were also nine battalions of the Burma Military Police, a paramilitary force under the command of the Inspector-General of Police, Burma.  Reinforcement in time of serious internal unrest was expected to come from India.


After separation from India in April 1937, responsibility for the defence of Burma lay with the Government of Burma.  The Burma Army (Burma Army Command, Burma Command or Army in Burma) became a small, independent military command formed by the transfer of units from the Indian Army.  This headquarters was very small for the size of the forces under command, being no larger than a second class district headquarters in India.  The first commander of Burma Army was  Major General D.K. McLeod.

The separation resulted in the transfer of the 20th Burma Rifles to Burma, the regiment ceasing to be part of the Indian establishment and dropping the number “20” from its title.  Also retained in Burma were the two British regular battalions for internal security.  The Indian Army units were also retained, although it was intended that these would ultimately be withdrawn.

The two Indian Army infantry battalions soon left but the mountain battery (the 2nd) and company of engineers (13th Field Company, Madras Sappers and Miners) remained.  On formation of the 1st Field Company, Burma Sappers and Miners, the Indian engineer company was also withdrawn in early 1940.

Six of the battalions of the Burma Military Police, those largely of Gurkha and Indian composition, became the Burma Frontier Force, administered by the Defence Department under the Inspector-General of the Burma Frontier Force but under the command of the General Officer Commanding, Burma Army.  The Auxiliary and Territorial units were embodied in the newly formed Burma Auxiliary Force and the Burma Territorial Force.

An embryonic Burma Army Signals Unit was authorised in early 1939 but was to take a long time to reach full operational size and efficiency.

Wartime Expansion 1939 - 1941

On the outbreak of war in September 1939, the formation of Garrison Companies began for carrying out specific guard duties.  The men were either ex-regular soldiers or recruits who had failed to pass the entrance standards for other units.  Later, the companies were formed into two administrative Garrison Battalions.

The Burma Rifles was expanded, the regiment’s strength being doubled.  The Burma Frontier Force was also authorised to double in size.  Recruiting for the Burma Auxiliary Force was made easier by the Governor's edict allowing all British subjects in Burma to join.  Steps were taken to enlarge the pool of officers.  The expansion in terms of numbers and by class can be seen in the Strength Return Tables for September 1939 and April 1941.

A light machine gun anti-aircraft battery of the Burma Auxiliary Force was disbanded when, in 1941, the 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, B.A.F., was raised.  However guns for this unit did not arrive until after the start of the war with Japan.

The Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area was split into the Maymyo Infantry Brigade and Upper Burma Area.  As the Japanese threat grew, the brigade moved to the Southern Shan States to defend the frontier and units were later regrouped under Southern Shan Area and the 1st Burma Brigade Group.

In the south, units moving in to defend Tenasserim were formed firstly into the Tenasserim Brigade Area, which was later supplanted by the 2nd Burma Brigade Group.

Arrival of Reinforcements from India - 1st Burma Division

In April 1941, the 13th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Burma and was stationed initially in Mandalay.  With the arrival of this brigade, there were now three brigade groups in the country and these were formed into the 1st Burma Division in July 1941.  Divisional Headquarters was at Toungoo, under the command of Major General J. Bruce Scott.

At the end of November, the 16th Indian Infantry Brigade began arriving from Calcutta and was placed under direct command of Burma Army HQ.  The brigade was the last reinforcement to arrive before the Japanese invasion.

The 1942 Burma Campaign

The story of the Burma Army in the 1942 campaign is told elsewhere on this web site - to begin start with Preparations for War.

The Longest Retreat - Arrival in India

Elements of the retreating Burma Army began arriving at Tamu, India during May 1942, and all major elements had arrived by 19th May.  The 17th Indian Division was retained at Imphal to reform with the 48th and 16th Indian Infantry Brigades.  The 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade was centred on Kohima, protecting the lines of communication and tracks from the Naga Hills.  Most units of the division spent the next three months resting and refitting from the rigours of the campaign and the retreat from Burma. The 1st Burma Division, "Burdiv", and its brigades were now dispersed and were later redesignated and organised as the 39th Indian Division.  The 1st Burma Brigade became the 106th Indian Infantry Brigade in June 1942 and together with the 113th (formerly the 13th) Indian Infantry Brigade came under command of the 39th Indian Division.  The 2nd Burma Brigade was disbanded but returned briefly to life in October 1942.

The Headquarters Army in Burma handed over control of all formations and units on 20th May 1942 and ceased to exist as a field formation from 27th May 1942.  The British and Indian elements of Burma Army immediately passed under control of the Indian Army.  The 17th Indian Division and the 1st Burma Division (redesignated the 39th Indian Light Infantry Division at Shillong on 20th June 1942) were retained under the command of IV Corps.  Practically all units and headquarters of the Burma Army were disbanded during May 1942.

After initial reception in India at Imphal, the majority of the personnel of the Burma Army were sent to Hoshiarpur, in the Punjab, North West India.  Burmese men who were not members of the ancillary units were given the option to return to their homes and many elected to do so.  They were given three months pay, a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and allowed to go.  A few were prevented from making their journeys by the rains and were re-employed in the frontier area.  Those who remained behind in India were moved to Hoshiarpur and in total around 10,000 Burma Army personnel were brought together here during June 1942.  All were given leave before returning to be reorganised.  A serious administrative headache was posed by the Gurkha evacuees of whom a large proportion were the families of Burma Frontier Force personnel.  Medical and associated units were retained for a time in Assam before moving to Hoshiarpur.

Reorganisation In India

Headquarters Army in Burma ceased to be in command of all Burma Army units on 20th May 1942.  However, the command was reconstituted only seven days later as Headquarters Burma Army and a post of Major-General approved to command it.  During June 1942, the headquarters moved to Simla.  The majority of units being formed or reformed remained at Hoshiarpur and the Burma Auxiliary Force were located at Mhow.  Units were then formed or reformed during the summer and autumn of 1942.  Major General H.H. Rich of the Indian Army took command of Headquarters Burma Army on 9th September 1942.

About 400 Burmese men of the Burma Rifles were available together with about 10,000 men from the Burma Frontier Force, Burma Military Police and Indian other ranks of the 7th and 8th Burma Rifles (who were originally drawn from the Civil Police, the B.M.P. and the B.F.F.).  It was estimated that after weeding, about 7,000 of these men would be available for further duty of which 5,000 were suitable for active service and the remainder for garrison battalion duties.  These were organised into battalions of The Burma Regiment, formed on 1st October 1942.  Men in other units such as medical, supply and signals were available in considerable numbers.

Although it was expected that elements of Burma Army were to be retained for active service, it was decided to disband the Headquarters Burma Corps, “Burcorps”, with effect from 15th June 1942.  This was confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief India to the War Office on 18th June 1942.

The regulars of the Burma Army, all in ancillary units including medical, supply, signal and ordnance personnel, were organised into units or dispersed under Indian command.  This initial transfer was largely complete by October 1942.

More than 350 surplus officers were transferred to the Indian Army and a further 250 or so were expected to be released to India at a later date.

Proposed reorganisation of Burma forces included the retention of the 2nd Burma Rifles and the creation of new infantry battalions.  Apart from the 7th and 8th Burma Rifles, only the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles ended the retreat in good order as a regular unit of about 350 men.  The Battalion was retained and reorganised as a reconnaissance battalion.  It was built up in strength by selection of the best Burmese men from the Burma Frontier Force units.  G.H.Q. India was anxious to include this unit in the special force brigade then being formed.  The 2nd Battalion Burma Rifles came under Indian command in June 1942 and was allotted to the 77th Indian Brigade, under Wingate’s command, and moved to join the brigade at Saugor in September 1942. 

The Burma Frontier Force were to be organised on regular army lines, adopting the war establishment of Indian infantry battalions, it being estimated that there were sufficient men for eight infantry battalions and two garrison battalions, with sufficient reserves to provide replacements.  It was recognised that the failings of the Burma Frontier Force units during the recent campaign arose from both weaknesses in the internal organisation of the battalions and the loose knit organisation of battalions not under proper control and inspection.  This organisation was felt to be unsuitable for the envisaged future role of the battalions as regular infantry.  It was proposed the reorganise the Force into two brigades and that an Inspector-General be appointed.  Men of the Burma Military Police would be placed in the same pool as those of the Burma Frontier Force, although it was expected that most of them would be suitable for garrison battalion duties only.  Personnel of both the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Military Police were almost entirely Gurkhas or Indians.  The new Burma Regiment began forming on 1st October 1942, with six infantry battalions, two garrison battalions, a mounted infantry battalion, a training battalion, a provost unit and reserves to provide replacements.

The 7th and 8th Battalions Burma Rifles had been formed from Gurkha and Indian members of the Burma Frontier Force and Military Police in 1940 to speed the expansion of the Burma Rifles.  On arrival in India after the retreat, the 7th Battalion had about 300 men, mostly Gurkhas and Kumaonis formerly of the Burma Military Police and the 8th Battalion about 400 men, Punjabi Mussalmen and Sikhs formerly of the Burma Frontier Force.  G.H.Q. India proposed amalgamating the two battalions and the new unit was expected to then serve as a regular infantry battalion in an Indian division.  The Government of Burma was uncomfortable with this and preferred to see the men returned to the Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police pool.  Despite an initial intention to retain the identities of these battalions, the men were eventually formed into the 1st Battalion, Burma Regiment.

Of the six new infantry battalions of the Burma Regiment being formed, it was expected that only one would be ready for active service by 1st December 1942, and then only if sufficient equipment were made available. The readiness of the remaining battalions was dependent on further equipment, training and stores.  The class composition of each of the battalions was intended to be consistent, based on: one company of Gurkhas; one of Punjabi Mussalmen; one of Sikhs; one mixed; and a mixed HQ company.  The 7th Mounted Infantry and the 10th Training Battalions Burma Regiment were forming and the initial organisation was expected to be complete by 1st October 1942.

Two brigade headquarters were formed on 1st October 1942, each to command three infantry battalions of The Burma Regiment and one garrison battalion.  The 2nd and 5th Burma Brigades were commanded by Lt. Colonel J.F. Bowerman and Lt. Colonel C.H.D. O'Callaghan respectively.

When the Army in Burma was withdrawn to Upper Burma following the evacuation of Lower Burma, the strengths of the Burma Auxiliary Force units were reduced to such an extent that they were amalgamated into one Burma Auxiliary Force infantry battalion, designated the Burma Battalion, Burma Auxiliary Force.  On arrival in India, all Burma Auxiliary Force personnel were concentrated at Mhow and initially reorganised into the 5th Field Battery, R.A., B.A.F., the 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery, R.A., B.A..F and the 1st Coast Defence Battery, R.A., B.A.F., together with a B.A.F. depot and records office.  The batteries were placed at the disposal of GHQ India and the 1st Coast Defence Battery moved to Diamond Harbour, Calcutta, under command of the Indian Eastern Army.  The other two batteries remained at Mhow, in the process of formation (throughout August and September 1942).  Later, the 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery went to Risalpur to be equipped.

The Burma Intelligence Corps was formed to provide liaison personnel, interpreters and guides for the formations and units of Eastern Army.   In September 1942, it was envisaged that the Burma Intelligence Corps would consist of a Headquarters and four platoons.  It was raised by Lt. Colonel Phipps (ex Burma Police).  Each platoon was to have a Commanding Officer and eight Liaison Officers and with one British section (mostly Anglo-Burman), an Indian section (Indians who spoke a Burmese language) and an indigenous section of Burmans, Karens and others.  The large number of officers was allowed for so that they were available for detachment to formations and units throughout Eastern Army.

The Chin Hills Battalion, formerly a battalion of the Burma Frontier Force and now part of The Burma Regiment, continued to operate in the Chin Hills under the command of IV Corps.  It was proposed the battalion should be reorganised along the lines of the Assam Rifles.  A Chin Hills Area was also formed to administer this battalion and the Chin Hills Levies.  When Burma Army reached India, a number of Chin soldiers from both the Burma Rifles and the Burma Frontier Force were given three months pay in Manipur and allowed to go home on leave.  Others had been told to go home at various stages during the withdrawal but without any pay.  Others deserted.  There were concerns that these men, still armed, were presenting a problem in the Chin Hills.  There was also dissatisfaction from the widows of Chin soldiers killed in the fighting and from the families of Chins still serving who had not received their pensions or family allotments.  To remedy this situation, in August 1942, Major J.N. Mackay of the Burma Rifles was sent into hills with three Chin officers and plenty of funds with orders to settle all accounts with the Chins and a few Lushais.  Instructions were sent to the Hills that it was Government policy that all men were to be treated as on leave unless there was clear evidence of desertion.  They were to be recruited to fill vacancies in the Chin Hills Battalion or the Chin Levies or to be given work as pioneers on local road construction.  Major Mackay was also proposed as the new Commanding Officer of the Chin Hills Battalion, in place of Lt Colonel Moore who had been forced to leave the Hills due to sickness, however Mackay did not take up the post.

A detachment of The Kokine Battalion had been evacuated from Rangoon to India in Feb/March 1942, together with the 7th Mobile Detachment, Burma Frontier Force (F.F.7).  These detachments were amalgamated into the Kokine Battalion, BFF and sent to Assam to perform garrison battalion duties.  The battalion was earmarked to form the 2nd Garrison Battalion, Burma Regiment.

The Burma Levies were also operating in the Chin Hills area and during September 1942 proposals were developed for their revised organisation and establishment.

Final Transfer to India

During February 1943 serious proposals were prepared and discussed for the transfer of all Burma Army formations and units to both operational and administrative control of the Indian Army.  A review of formations and units still under Burma Army command concluded:

- HQ Burma Army might provide the nucleus for a Lines of Communication Area Headquarters,
- The two infantry brigade headquarters might also serve as Lines of Communication Area Headquarters,
- The six infantry battalions of the Burma Regiment, though not at full readiness, could be made ready by April 1943 if full equipment, stores and transport could be provided.  The battalions would by then be fully trained for mobile operations in any country except thick jungle,
- The 7th Mounted Infantry Battalion had no animals and one third of personnel still required training in riding.  It was assessed that the battalion would be ready to serve as mounted infantry at a time about five months from the point that mounts were received.  Alternatively the battalion might be broken up to provide several remount units for the Indian Army for which there was an urgent requirement.  The latter role was the most favoured,
- The training battalion of the Burma Regiment was considered to be ready to train around 720 recruits and expansion was considered so as to provide reinforcements sufficient to maintain infantry battalions in a more or less static role,
- Of the two garrison battalions, one (the 1st) was ready to move to Assam to relieve the ad hoc garrison battalion now there (the 2nd, formerly the Kokine Battalion).  The second battalion would then undergo reorganisation and re-equipment at Hoshiarpur and would be ready in around two months.

 By March 1943, it was becoming clear that the eventual role of Burma Army would most likely be to restore and maintain internal order and security following the re-conquest of Burma and the restoration of the Government of Burma.  Regardless of the future, it was clear that the units should be available to support operations against the Japanese from the Indian side of the border and subsequently into Burma itself.

Discussions also focused on the actual deployment of the units - whether this should be "in Burma", for "the Burma campaign" or for eventual deployment elsewhere in South East Asia.  These discussions also considered at what point the units might be handed back to the Government of Burma and whether this might be appropriate when a partial liberation of Burma had been achieved or following complete re-conquest.

By January 1943, the value of the Burma Intelligence Corps had been recognised by the G.H.Q. Eastern Army and a request was received to form an additional two platoons, with the possibility of two further platoons being required shortly thereafter.  Given the requirement that all personnel must be capable of speaking at least one other language (either English or Hindustani) in addition to their own Burmese tongue, the only source for personnel were the 5th Field Battery and the 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery of the Burma Auxiliary Force, then based at Mhow.

Given the difficulties in retaining sufficient manpower for six battalions, The Burma Regiment was reorganised into four infantry battalions with effect from 1st July 1943.  Companies of the regiment which had moved into the operational area were now to be held by 10th Battalion Burma Regiment, thus allowing the four remaining battalions to be restored to full strength.  The 10th Battalion became Burma Regimental Centre, within which was held training and holding battalions.

In June 1943, agreement was reached that any units of Burma Army not already under the operational control of the Commander-in-Chief India would be transferred to that command.  These units would come under the administrative control of GHQ India.  The transfer was conditional upon the Burma identity of the units being preserved, that personnel would continue under their existing terms of service and that the units were to be returned to the Government of Burma when the civil administration of Burma was restored.  The Headquarters Burma Army was to be disbanded together with one of the Burma Brigades, the 2nd Brigade.  A small Burma Section was to be formed in GHQ India.  This final reorganisation of the Burma Army was completed by 1st November 1943.

5 November 2017