Battle for Central Burma
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The 1942 Campaign

The Battle for Central Burma

See: Actions - 1942 for a summary of the significant actions and engagements of the Japanese invasion and the British retreat.

With the loss of Rangoon, the Army in Burma was now isolated from its main base in India and dependent for supplies on the stocks so carefully built up by General Hutton in the Mandalay area.  The Allies knew the duration of their control of central and upper Burma would be determined only by the size of the force committed against them.  For the first time, the Japanese were able to exploit sea communications and between the end of March and April they would receive significant reinforcements of troops and artillery.  On 18th March, planes released from Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies reinforced the Japanese air force, which could now deploy some 420 aircraft.  The last British reinforcements to reach Burma, 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, flew in to Magwe from India on 9th March.

The Rangoon Garrison, 17th Indian Division and 7th Armoured Brigade completed a successful withdrawal northwards to the Tharawaddy area.  Here, the British took advantage of the pause in Japanese operations to rest and reorganise.  In the Sittang valley, 1st Burma Division was covering the arrival of the Chinese in this sector. The Chinese were unwilling to move further south than Toungoo, obliging Alexander to order the withdrawal of British forces in the Irrawaddy valley to the Prome area so as to better align the defence.  1st Burma Division was to move to the Prome area as soon as the Chinese were in position at Toungoo.

The planned withdrawals were ordered on 12th March and 17th Indian Division began its move the next day.  On 11th March, 1st Burma Division had attacked southwards from Nyaunglebein on Pyuntaza and Shwegyin with 1st and 2nd Burma Brigades.  The division began its rearward move through the Chinese on 15th March, fighting off a series of attacks mounted by the advance guard of the Japanese 55th Division.  By the 21st, both 1st and 2nd Burma Brigades were entraining for transfer to the Prome area.  13th Indian Infantry Brigade moved from the Mawchi area to Meiktila.  By 27th March, 17th Indian Division was concentrated in the Prome area and 1st Burma Division was in position to the north, in the area of Thayetmyo-Allanmyo-Kyaukpadaung.

Central Burma: Prome - Toungoo, March - April 1942 During this time, Alexander requested and received a corps headquarters to relieve him, as C-in-C Burma, from the additional role of field commander of British forces.  On 16th March, Lieut-Gen WJ Slim flew in from India to Magwe to improvise 1st Burma Corps to consist of: 1st Burma Division; 17th Division; and 7th Armoured Brigade.  He took command of ‘Burcorps’ at Allanmyo three days later. 

Alexander's plan was for an aggressive defence based on the brigade groups, each holding a designated area.  If bypassed, the defenders were to hold their ground whilst the Japanese were dealt with by mobile forces.  At the same time, it was his intention, at Wavell's urging, to attack whenever the opportunity arose.  A plan was made for a 'Striking Force' to occupy Paungde and drive the Japanese back as far as Okpo.

This period also saw the defeat of the RAF and the AVG in Burma.  In the wake of successful British air operations on 20th March, the Japanese launched repeated attacks on 'Burwing' (the RAF in Burma) and AVG at Magwe.  The RAF pulled out to Akyab but further heavy losses between 23rd and 27th March resulted in the total withdrawal of Allied air forces in Burma to Chittagong in India.  By the end of the month, exploiting their new freedom to the full, the Japanese carried out bombing raids on important communication centres in Central and Upper Burma.

'Striking Force' 29-30th March 1942

for the first phase, the occupation of Paungde:


414th Battery, Royal Horse Artillery         

7th Queen's Own Hussars 

1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment      

2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment    

1st Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) 

1st Battalion, The West Yorkshire Regiment, one company

24th Field Company, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners


On the ground, now unhindered by the RAF, the Japanese 33rd Division advanced in daylight to close with the British at Prome and an initial clash occurred near Paungde on 28th March.  The British 'Striking Force' advanced on Paungde on 29th March but was deflected by the need to engage the Japanese to the north east, in the area of Padigon.  Padigon was never cleared but the attack on Paungde made some progress before being held up.  Under orders not to be cut off, the attacking troops from 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment and 7th Hussars, withdrew.  However disaster loomed again, for during the night, the 25th Regiment had crossed from the west bank of the Irrawaddy and dug in behind the British 'Striking Force' at Shwedaung.  Despite supporting attacks from the north by 17th Indian Division, the Japanese held firm in Shwedaung throughout 29-30th March.  It cost the 'Striking Force' considerable casualties and the loss of much transport to fight its way through the town to rejoin 17th Indian Division.

The British now considered giving up Prome, given the action at Shwedaung and the Chinese withdrawal from Toungoo, in the Sittang valley.  Here, the Chinese 200th Division and additional units from the Chinese Vth Army had been under attack since 24th March.  Some reinforcements began arriving and there was limited air support from six Tomahawk fighters of the AVG.  However, Japanese pressure mounted, resulting in a near encirclement of the defenders of Toungoo, and the Chinese broke out of the town on 29th March.  The Chinese re-established their line in the Sittang valley at Yedashe.  In the Salween valley, there was a Chinese detachment at Mawchi but the only troops in between were the Karen Levies, reinforced by Karens of the 1st Battalion, Burma Rifles.

The Japanese brought Prome under fire on the night of 30-31st March and the British held on for a further two days, inflicting significant casualties on the Japanese in a series of well executed ambushes.  The order to withdraw to Allanmyo was given on 2nd April and once again the battered 17th Indian Division was able to slip away.

'Burcorps' issued its operational plans on April 3rd, the intention now being to protect the main oilfields at Yenangyaung and Chauk, to cover Upper Burma and to maintain contact with the Chinese Vth Army to the east.  The corps was to withdraw to the line Minhla-Taungdwingyi via a series of delaying positions.  Defence of the Irrawaddy River sector was assigned to 1st Burma Division, with 2nd Burma Brigade covering the west bank.  Harassed only by Japanese aircraft, the Minhla-Taungdwingyi line was reached by 8th April.  



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