Burma Rifles were formed in April 1937,
following the separation of Burma from India. The original four regular battalions were
formed from the battalions of the 20th Burma Rifles, the then junior line infantry
regiment of the Indian Army, itself having been formed from the 70th Burma Rifles and 85th
Burman Rifles in 1922 when the Indian Army was reorganised. Both regiments had been formed
during World War I as part of the Indian Army and battalions had seen service in
Mesopotamia, Aden and Egypt. A territorial battalion, the 11th Battalion, 20th Burma
Rifles, was also formed in 1922, becoming 11th Battalion, The Burma Rifles in 1937.
Originally composed of Burmans, Karens, Kachins and Chins with some Gurkhas, recruitment of Burmans was stopped in 1927, despite the protests of experienced officers. The rationale was that the Burmese did not make good soldiers but the failure to recruit them alienated the regiment from the Burmese population, which saw the regiment as just another part of the occupying British forces.
Before the separation of Burma from India on 1st April 1937, the infantry units which came to be included in the Burma Army, the Burma Rifles and the Burma Military Police, were officered exclusively by British regular offices of the Indian Army. From 1st April 1937, officers for the Burma Rifles, the Burma Frontier Force and the BMP were found by the secondment of British Service officers as well as Indian Army officers for a tour of four years, extensible to five. All officers were placed at the disposal of the GOC Burma who decided the officer postings between the three forces (Burma Rifles, BFF and BMP). Apart from British Regular officers, Governor's Commissioned Officers (GCOs), the equivalent in Burma of Viceroy's Commissioned Officers in India, served with the battalions of the Burma Rifles and the BFF. The GCOs retained Indian ranks such as subedar-major, subedar and jemadar.
Following the outbreak of war, many officers serving with British infantry battalions in Burma and those serving with the Burma Forces were posted away, to help with the expansion of the British and Indian Armies. Replacements for these officers as well as additional officers to support the expansion of the Burma Army were found by the appointment of officers from the Army in Burma Reserve of Officers (ABRO).
The battalions were organised into four rifle companies and between 1923 and 1937 two companies were composed of Karens with one each of Chins and Kachins. The working language was Urdu, as in the Indian Army, though many British officers learned Burmese and the tribal dialects.
The outbreak of war in Europe stimulated a steady expansion of the regiment from 1939. First came an additional territorial battalion, the 12th (Lower Burma) Battalion on 1 October 1939. The reluctance to recruit Burmans was overcome and both 5th and 6th Battalions were formed from cadres of the existing regular battalions and given Burman companies. 7th (Burma Police) Battalion was raised in November 1940 from a nucleus of men from the Burma Police and the Burma Military Police, around half the men being Burmese and Karen with the rest being Indians who had settled in Burma. The 8th Battalion, formed in October 1940, was composed of Sikhs and Punjabi Mussalmans serving with the Burma Frontier Force. The two territorial battalions, 11th and 12th, were embodied as regulars and the 9th (Reserve) and 10th (Training) Battalions were formed in July 1941. The 13th and 14th (Shan States) Battalions were formed in December 1939 and on 15th May 1941 respectively. There were few experienced men to draw on to fuel this expansion and the despite the increase in numbers, overall effectiveness was reduced.
The Burma Rifles
Formed from the battalions of the 70th Burma Rifles and the 85th Burman Rifles as 20th Burma Rifles in 1922-23. In 1937 became The Burma Rifles.
All but one battalion, the 2nd, disintegrated during the Japanese invasion. By early April 1942, for instance, all the Burmans and many Karens had deserted from the 7th Battalion, the remaining 250 or so men being mostly Indians and Gurkhas. The 2nd Battalion suffered some desertions but those remaining were steadfast. Summaries of the eventual fate of the battalions of the regiment are listed below:
In May1942, after the long retreat, the 2nd was the only battalion to have reached India at reasonable strength and became the only battalion not to be disbanded. The men of the Burma Rifles who reached India were given the option of returning home, with three months pay, a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. Many did so but 500 Karens, Chins and Kachins stayed on, many serving with the 2nd Battalion in reconnaissance platoons and sections attached to the Chindit columns. Others, including Indians and Gurkhas, went on to form The Burma Regiment or acted elsewhere as scouts and guides.
The 2nd Battalion was prominent in the reconquest of Burma. The 1st Battalion was reconstituted from former Burman soldiers in July 1945. 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Battalions, The Burma Rifles were re-raised between December 1945 and August 1947 as part of the new Burma Army and were composed entirely of Burmans, mainly volunteers from the former Patriotic Burma Forces (PBF) which had offered resistance to the Japanese during the closing stages of the war.26 January 2014