The 1942 CampaignThe Japanese Invasion of Burma
See: Actions - 1942 for a summary of the significant actions and engagements of the Japanese invasion and the British retreat.First Actions and the Loss of Rangoon
The first Japanese ground action against Burma was in December 1941, when a battalion of 143rd Regiment of 55th Division crossed the Burma-Siam border and seized Victoria Point on 16 December, the most southerly extremity of Tenasserim. The first air raids on Rangoon occurred on 23 and 25 December, opposed by only two fighter squadrons - 16 P40s of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) and 16 Buffaloes of the RAF.
On the ground, this was followed by a lull as the Japanese organised themselves for the invasion proper from across the border with Siam. On 23 December 1941, General Wavell flew to Chungking to discuss the war situation and to ask for specific help from the Chinese Government. Keen to defend their supply line, the Burma Road, the Chinese offered their V and VI Armies for the defence of Burma. These Chinese forces were to be under the command of GOC Burma Army but with their own line of communications.
In early January 1942, General Hutton, GOC Burma Army Command since 27 December, prepared an assessment of the situation in Burma, in which he recognised the vulnerability of the strategic port of Rangoon. He ordered the stocking of a series of depots in upper Burma in the area Mandalay-Meiktila as a backstop. The defence of northern Tenasserim would centre around Moulmein and was the responsibility of 17th Indian Infantry Division, which eventually had four infantry brigades under command. The Shan States and Karenni, to the north, would be defended by 1st Burma Division and the Chinese 227th Regiment.
Meanwhile, the Japanese 15th Army had completed its preparations for invasion. 55th Division finished its concentration at Raheng, Siam, at the beginning of January. It was joined by 33rd Division by 10 January and work began to improve communications to the frontier. IIIrd Battalion, 112th Regiment crossed the frontier on 15 January and captured the town of Tavoy with its airfield on the 19th, forcing the evacuation of the Mergui garrison to Rangoon the next day. The Japanese now had the three airfields, at Victoria Point, Tavoy and Mergui, from which to fly fighter escorts for the bombers attacking Rangoon.
On 21 January, a larger scale attack by 55th Division forced the withdrawal of 16th Indian Infantry Brigade from the Kawkareik position. The subsequent defence of Moulmein was stubborn if short and a further withdrawal on 31 January, across the Salween estuary by river steamer to Martaban, was brilliantly handled (click here for the Order of Battle Burma Army on 1st February 1942) It was then hoped that the Japanese could be held on the Salween but a Japanese crossing established a roadblock north of Martaban and forced the withdrawal of the garrison on 9 February. At Kuzeik, the 7/10th Baluch were all but destroyed on 11 February. Further Japanese pressure produced another withdrawal to the Bilin River, where again it was hoped to make a stand.
In the first major action of the campaign, the 17th Indian Division was practically destroyed. The Bilin River position was attacked by both Japanese 33rd and 55th Divisions and the Indian Division, after four days defence, began a withdrawal to the Sittang on the night of 19/20 February. The Japanese hoped to outflank the withdrawal and reach the only crossing over the Sittang River, the railway bridge, first. Disaster struck the retreating Indian Division - on the morning of 23 February, the bridge was blown prematurely, leaving most of the division on the wrong side of the river. Some 3,300 men successfully crossed the river by any means available, leaving all their equipment behind. The survivors were pulled back to Pegu to reorganise.
Defence of the southern sector of the Sittang valley now devolved to the newly arrived British 7th Armoured Brigade, which deployed literally straight off the ship from Egypt. The northern area was defended by two weak brigades of 1st Burma Division, 13th Indian Infantry Brigade being left in the Karen Hills covering crossing points over the Salween. This division had been relieved of its responsibilities for defence of the Shan States by VI Chinese Army. By the end of February, the Chinese had taken over responsibility for the southern Shan States, were taking over in Karenni and had agreed to defend the Sittang valley around Toungoo. Chinese deployment had been slow, partly because of British tardiness in taking up the Chinese offer, on the assumption of further British and Commonwealth reinforcements, and partly because of the difficulties in concentrating and moving the Chinese armies.
Hopes of reinforcement by the Australian 7th Division, returning from Egypt to defend Australia, were dashed when the Australian government decided against allowing the division to be diverted to Burma. The only available reinforcements in prospect were the partially trained 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade, an Indian field regiment and three British battalions. The convoy carrying 63rd Brigade and the artillery was diverted to Calcutta by General Hutton, who wished to evacuate Rangoon early. He was overruled by Wavell, who ordered that Rangoon be held at least until the arrival of the reinforcements. Hutton was replaced by General Alexander, who arrived in Rangoon by air on 3rd March. The reinforcements arrived the same day.
The Japanese advance had been delayed by the need to bring up heavy equipment to provide an adequate crossing over the Sittang. Despite heavy fighting around Pegu on 6 and 7 March, the Japanese succeeded in moving through the gap between the defenders of Pegu and 1st Burma Division. The Japanese saw an opportunity to capture Rangoon quickly, from where the British were now hastily evacuating all remaining personnel. 17th Indian Division, with 7th Armoured Brigade under command, was to hold the Hlegu area until the withdrawing Rangoon garrison had left Taukyan. However the Japanese established a roadblock near Taukyan and there was fierce fighting to clear this on 7 and 8 March. The Rangoon garrison got away however, having carried out thorough demolitions, when the Japanese withdrew their roadblock to concentrate for the capture of Rangoon, thinking that the garrison remained in the city. Around midday on 8 March, 215th Regiment of the Japanese 33rd Division entered Rangoon and was surprised to find the city deserted.