Preparations for War
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The 1942 Campaign

Preparations for War

A land attack on Burma was thought to be remote even as late as 1939, when potential Japanese designs on Siam (Thailand) were first considered. Throughout 1940-41 the appreciation was reviewed and revised as the potential Japanese threat grew. In October 1941, the main areas likely to be attacked were thought to be the Southern Shan States and the Tenasserim towns of Moulmein, Tavoy, Mergui and Victoria Point, vital for the air route to Singapore. However it was believed that the difficult border terrain and lack of adequate roads would preclude any serious attack.

On the eve of war, November 1941, Burma Command was instructed that the first priority was to defend the air route to Singapore by protecting the landing grounds in southern Burma. Second was the defence of the Burma Road. At the time the loss of Singapore was not imagined and the Japanese had not invaded Siam. Recent experience had shown that modern armies depended on motor transport and the fear was that the Burma Road might be cut by an attack along the road through the Shan States from French Indochina. Views changed when the Japanese invaded Siam and Malaya on 8 December 1941 (see Siam goes to War by Bill Stone).

Although it was accepted that an attack on Burma might now be carried out by significant Japanese forces, Far Eastern Command’s appreciation was that the likelihood of a major attack was low. It was thought that the Japanese lacked the resources whilst committed in Malaya and the Philippines. Burma continued to take a low priority for reinforcements and equipment. The Burma defence plan continued to be largely based on air defence - surprising given that there were no bombers in Burma.

On land, Burma Command set about preparing its defences in the south, a task made difficult by previous planning assumptions and necessitating the shift south of what few troops were available. 1st Burma Brigade and 13th Indian Infantry Brigade were moved into the Southern Shan States, along with FF3 and FF4. FF5 covered Karenni. 2nd Burma Brigade, with FF2, defended Tenasserim, with significant garrisons at Moulmein, Tavoy and Mergui. It was decided that Tenasserim would be impossible to hold and the garrisons were to be withdrawn if attacked. The main line of defence in the south was to be the Salween River, which was to be held at all costs.

The northern frontier was to be covered by a Chinese regiment, which could move into the Shan States on the outbreak of fighting there.

In the event of a Japanese attack, the loyalty of the local population could not be depended on and significant forces were diverted to internal security. The equivalent of a brigade was stationed in Rangoon, including one of only two British regular battalions, the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment. Throughout Central Burma were some units of the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Rifles. 16th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived early in December and was placed in reserve around Mandalay.

Revised plans called for the building of fixed defences on the Burma-Siam frontier at any point where there was a viable crossing. Small raiding forces (the Frontier Force columns) would harry the Japanese in Siam and the air force would be built up. Wavell replaced the GOC Burma, McLeod, on 27 December with Lt Gen TJ Hutton and directed him to defend Rangoon and prepare for an offensive into Siam. Reinforcements were promised. Plans were considered but failed to take into account the lack of troops available and severely underestimated Japanese plans, strength and tactics.

Command over Burma had been exercised through the British War Office. In November 1940, Far Eastern Command, with its HQ in Singapore, had been created and took over responsibility for operations, training and planning. Successive commanders, however, had argued that the defence of Burma was integral to the defence of north eastern India and they believed that Burma should come under GHQ India. This was finally accepted on 12 December 1941. This arrangement was short lived however, for at the end of December, Burma came under the new ABDA Command. The Army in Burma continued to come under India for administration, reinforcements and supplies. Meanwhile, the Japanese had attacked Burma for the first time - capturing Victoria Point and bombing Mergui and Tavoy between 11th and 13th December..

The last reinforcement to reach Burma before the war was 16th Indian Infantry Brigade. The only source for the vast majority of reinforcements was India where a rapid expansion of the army was underway. First to arrive was 23 Garrison Company which went to Akyab in December 1941 (the company was relieved in January by 14th/7th Rajputs). First to arrive in Rangoon were 8th Indian Heavy Antiaircraft Battery and 3rd Indian Light Antiaircraft Battery on 31st December 1941. In early January, 17th Indian Infantry Division HQ arrived. Only one of its brigades, 46th, came with it, the other two being sent to Singapore. Next came 48th Indian Brigade, from 19th Indian Infantry Division. All these were recently raised, still in training and under equipped.

Most welcome was the arrival from Egypt of 7th Armoured Brigade, which unloaded themselves at Rangoon on 21st February 1942 and drove straight for the front. The brigade had originally been intended for Java. Promises of 14th Indian Division, two East African Brigades, 63 Indian Brigade, 18th British Infantry Division and 7th Australian Division came to very little, for only 63rd Indian Brigade arrived. The brigade arrived at Rangoon on 3rd March, together with some artillery, engineers and other support units. 14th Indian Division was not due until April (by which time there was nowhere for it to land after Rangoon had fallen). 18th Infantry Division was sent into captivity at Singapore and the Australians insisted that their 7th Division was needed for home defence. The East African brigades remained in East Africa.

Additional reinforcements came from the Chinese. The 227th Regiment entered Burma in December 1941 and was later followed by the Chinese V, VI and LXVI Armies. Chinese operations centered on the defence of the Shan States, Karenni and the Sittang Valley.


06 February, 2012


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