Researching Ancestors in the Burma Army
Table of Contents
These research notes are intended to provide guidance to sources that hold details of people who served with units of the "Burma Army".
[This current draft is “under construction” and based only on findings to date. Acknowledgement is made to the Families in British India Society (FIBIS) and their excellent research guide “Researching Ancestors in the Indian Army, 1858-1947” by Peter A. Bailey.]
For the purposes of these research notes, "Burma Army" is loosely applied to include:
- The Burma Rifles
- Burma Auxiliary Force
- Burma Territorial Force
- The Burma Regiment (formed 1st October 1942)
- The Burma Intelligence Corps (formed 1942)
- Emergency Commissioned Officers (WWII)
- Army in Burma Reserve of Officers (instituted 1939).
Although officially para-military corps prior to the outbreak of war with Japan and administered by the civil government, the notes also include:
- Burma Military Police
- Burma Frontier Force.
Prior to the separation of Burma from India in 1937 all military units raised in Burma were part of the Indian Army. These notes also include the predecessors of the regiments and corps listed above including:
- The Burma Volunteers and Burma Units of the Auxiliary Force, India.
The information is organised by source category or type. For each source a brief summary describes the scope of information to be found in terms of regiment, corps or unit.
The Army Personnel Centre Historical Disclosures Section holds army service records for officers whose service ended after April 1922 and soldiers whose service ended after January 1921. Information from these records can be requested under the MOD Publication Scheme.
I have no direct experience of obtaining Service Records for NCOs and soldiers from the Disclosures Section however I believe that the scope of the records for men who entered British Service and at some point in their careers were seconded to the Burma Defence Force does include such service. A typical example of such men are those seconded as instructors.
Details of how to apply for Records from the Disclosures Section are given at: Requests for Service Records - UK Gov
You may also phone to check if the records for a person are held before submitting a request.
2.2. Indian Army Officers and Men
British Library - India Office Records
2.3. Indian Army Service Records
The British Library holds official summary records of Officers and several men who served in the Indian Army. These are held in a series of files called "Personnel Files of Officers and Men of the Indian Army" and the files run from around 1900 to 1947.
The records of service cover mainly European personnel. They include regular officers of the Indian Army, Second World War emergency commissioned officers, departmental warrant and honorary officers, as well as the medical services and nurses.
The files have been catalogued and the catalogue is searchable using the "Search Our Catalogues Archives and Manuscripts" facility at the British Library web site. See: British Library - Major Catalogues
2.4. Indian Unattached List (India & Burma Unattached List)
British Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) and soldiers serving in India and Burma were seconded or attached to Indian and Burma Army units. A number of senior NCOs were attached to the Burma Auxiliary Force as instructors. In these instances the men might often be transferred to the Indian Unattached List (IUL), especially upon completion of the British Service but where they continued to serve with the units to which they were seconded or attached.
The British Library holds the India & Burma Army Unattached Lists running from 1908-1939 in the series L/MIL/14/144-182.
2.5. The Army Personnel Centre Historical Disclosures Section
The Disclosures Section also holds Service Records for Officers and men who served with the Indian Army. See above.
2.6. Burma Auxiliary Force and Army in Burma Reserve of Officers
Service Records for men who served with or were commissioned into the B.A.F. or the A.B.R.O. are NOT held by the Army Personnel Centre Historical Disclosures Section or the British Library other than in rare cases.
The instances I have seen where a record is held apply to men who at some time were in British Service or with the Indian Army either before or after their commission into the A.B.R.O.
It is not known if Service Records for A.B.R.O. Officers were kept and if so where they may be found. I have seen one or two copies of tantalising documents however have not been able to identify the source.
Any information on obtaining A.B.R.O. Service Records will be gratefully received.
2.7. Special Operations Executive, Force 136
After the withdrawal to India many men joined or were appointed to intelligence gathering units and to the Special Operations Executive.
Personnel Records containing a brief summary of service with S.O.E. are held at the National Archives in the series HS 9.
The records can be found using the Discovery search tool at the National Archives web site. Some records are still closed depending on age criteria defined by the Freedom of Information Act. However closed records may be opened on submission of evidence of the death of the subject such as a death certificate.
Copies of the Indian Army List are available on the open shelves at the National Archives (interrupted run from 1891 to January 1939) and in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room at the British Library.
3.1. Prior to 1937
Burma Rifles and their Predecessors
Before 1937 Indian Army officers serving with the Burma Rifles and their predecessors are listed under the regiments or battalions of regiments to which they were serving at the time of a given issue of the List.
Before the reorganisation of the Indian Army in 1923, the "Burma" regiments of the Indian Army were:
- 70th Burma Rifles
- 85th Burma Rifles
- 93rd Burma Infantry.
From 1923 the 70th and 85th Regiments (from 1921 had been the 3rd/70th (Kachin) Rifles) became the 20th Burma Rifles Indian Army. The 93rd Burma Infantry became the 5th Battalion, 8th Punjab Regiment (Burma).
Burma Rifles Officers transferred to the Army In India Reserve of Officers are listed under “20th Burma Rifles” under their respective battalions 1st to 3rd.
Burma Volunteers and Auxiliary Force, India
1891-1917(?): The monthly and quarterly Indian Army Lists have a section within the "Indian Volunteers" headed "Volunteer Corps (Burma)". Officers and staff are listed under the units with which they were enrolled or attached at the time.
1918-1920?: In 1917 all the units of the Indian Volunteers became units of the Indian Defence Force. The word "Volunteer" was removed from the unit titles and the units were given numbers as part of their titles. The units are listed in a section headed "Indian Defence Force (Infantry Corps)" in order of the number assigned. Officers and staff are listed under the units with which they were enrolled or attached at the time. The units were:
- 14th Tenasserim Battalion
- 18th Rangoon Battalion
- 21st Burma Railways Battalion
- 34th Upper Burma Battalion.
The predecessor of the Rangoon Field Brigade, the 3rd (Rangoon Port Defence) Group, Garrison Artillery is found in the section headed "Indian Defence Force Garrison Artillery".
1921-1937?: In 1920 the Indian Defence Force was superseded by the Auxiliary Force, India. Units discarded the numbers from their titles. Units are listed under the section headed "Auxiliary Force India". The Rangoon Port Defence, Royal Garrison Artillery. later totled the III (Rangoon) Field Brigade, is found in the section headed "Royal Garrison Artillery (Auxiliary Force, India)" and later “Royal Artillery (Auxiliary Force, India). The Burma units are listed up until October 1936 (inclusive, viewed) or possibly January 1937 (not viewed), from which point they were transferred to the Burma Defence Force.
Indian Territorial Force
1921-1937?: The 11th Battalion, 20th Burma Rifles was a Territorial Force battalion, having been raised on 3rd August 1921 as the 1st (Territorial) Battalion, 70th Burma Rifles before becoming the 11th Battalion in 1922. The 6th (Burma) Battalion, University Training Corps was constituted on 5th August 1921. Officers, Honorary Officers and Staff are listed under the battalions with which they served or were attached to. The Burma units are listed up until October 1936 (inclusive, viewed) or possibly January 1937 (not viewed), from which point they were in April 1937 transferred to the Burma Defence Force as part of the newly created Burma Territorial Force.
Burma Military Police
?-1937: The Burma Military Police were not administered by the Army but came under civil administration. Officers seconded to the Burma Military Police are listed in a section headed "Officers in Civil Employment" under "Burma". From January 1931 this section is further subdivided into "Burma Commission" and "Burma Police".
The Burma Rifles
With the transfer of the 20th Burma Rifles (now just The Burma Rifles, the regiment number being dropped) to the Government of Burma, this regiment ceased to be listed in the Indian Army List. However officers were found by secondment from the Indian Army and the British Army. Those assigned from both Armies to the Burma Rifles are listed in a discrete section of the List, "Burma" under the heading of "Military Employ".
Burma Auxiliary Force
Burma units of the Auxiliary Force, India were transferred to the newly formed Burma Auxiliary Force and ceased to be listed in the Indian Army List. See: Burma Army List and Burma Defence Services List
Burma Territorial Force
Burma units of the Indian Territorial Force were transferred to the newly formed Burma Territorial Force and ceased to be listed in the Indian Army List. See: Burma Army List and Burma Defence Services List
Burma Military Police
Officers seconded to the Burma Military Police are listed in a section headed "Officers in Imperial or Colonial Employment" under "Burma" in the section headed "Burma Military Police".
Burma Frontier Force
Formed in 1937 from battalions of the Burma Military Police, the Burma Frontier Force was also under civil administration. Officers seconded to the Burma Military Police are listed in a section headed "Officers in Imperial or Colonial Employment" under "Burma" in the section headed "Burma Frontier Force".
Army in Burma Reserve of Officers (instituted 1939)
Interestingly the April, July and October 1940 editions of the Indian Army List include three A.B.R.O. officers serving with the Burma Frontier Force (January 1940 edition not seen).
The Burma Rifles, Burma Military Police and Burma Frontier Force were disbanded in the summer of 1942, with the exception of the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles. In October 1942 The Burma Regiment was formed. Although serving and supplied with the Indian Army, the 2nd Burma Rifles and the battalions of the Burma Regiment were administratively owned by the Burma Government in exile. The Indian Army List does not list officers serving with these battalions.
Officers of the Indian Army continued to be seconded to the Burma Government and are listed in a section headed "Officers in Imperial or Colonial Employment" under "Burma", sections headed "Personal Staff" and "Military Employ". However no details of their attachments are given.
The Indian Army List does not include new units of the new Burma Army, the Burma Rifles and the Burma Regiment raised at the war's end and immediately afterwards.
The Quarterly British Army List has officers commissioned to the General List for the Indian Army. For World War Two it also lists officers granted Emergency Commissions. The List does not give any details of secondment or attachment to regiments or other corps. It is however a useful resource to track the promotions of given individuals and, using the supplements, the careers of selected officers.
Copies of the British Army List are available on the open shelves at the National Archives.
Some copies are available to view online or download free from the National Library of Scotland – see: NLS - Military Lists Online
Indian Volunteer Corps (British Burmah Volunteers)
1881-1918: Surprisingly the Quarterly British Army Lists does list officers serving with the Indian Volunteer Corps (British Burmah Volunteers) from 1881(?)-1918. The run is not continuous and in some editions the data is absent, presumably not ready in time for inclusion.
From January 1919 the List directs readers to consult the Indian Army List to view what has become the Indian Defence Force. See Burma Volunteers and Auxiliary Force, India
The Burma Army List is quarterly and runs from January 1938 to October 1940 and a single edition for 1943 (April and July 1940 have not been found). The Quarterly Defence Services List for Burma runs from January to July 1941, based on editions seen or found in catalogues. The Defence Services List includes Burma Naval and Air Force personnel in addition to the Army.
Individual incomplete runs are held by the National Army Museum, the National Archives and the British Library. See the respective online catalogues.
The Burma Rifles
The list of [British Service and Indian Army] Officers seconded to the Burma Defence Force and the Burma Military Police gives details of attachments and secondment to the Burma Rifles.
The battalions of the Burma Rifles are listed separately. All Officers serving with or attached or seconded to the battalion are listed under the appropriate battalion. The lists include all officers from all services: British; Indian Army; Emergency Commissioned Officers; A.B.R.O.
The Burma Auxiliary Force
The Rangoon Field Brigade and the battalions of the Burma Auxiliary Force are listed separately. All Officers and staff serving with or attached or seconded to the battalion are listed under the appropriate battalion.
The Burma Territorial Force
The 11th Battalion and 12th Battlions (raised 1st October 1939), The Burma Rifles and the Rangoon University Training Corps (formerly 6th (Burma) Battalion, University Training Corps) are listed separately in the section “Burma Territorial Force”. Officers, Governor’s Commissioned Officers (Subedars and Jemadars) and staff serving with or attached or seconded to the units are listed under the appropriate unit.
The Burma Military Police and the Burma Frontier Force
The list of [British Service and Indian Army] Officers seconded to the Burma Defence Force and the Burma Military Police gives details of attachments and secondment to the Burma Military Police and the Burma Frontier Force and in most cases identifies the specific battalion with which the Officer was currently serving.
The lists for Emergency Commissioned Officers and A.B.R.O. indicate where an Officer is appointed to either the B.M.P. or the B.F.F. but do not identify the battalion.
Emergency Commissioned Officers
Officers are grouped by rank and listed in order of date of first commission.
Details given are: name; date of birth; date of first commission or seniority; date of current rank; regiment, corps or service appointed to.
Army in Burma Reserve of Officers
From January 1940 the list of Army in Burma Reserve of Officers is included, replacing the list of Army in India Reserve of Officers serving in Burma. Officers are grouped by rank and listed in order of date of first commission.
Details given are: name; date of birth; date of first commission or seniority; date of current rank; corps or service appointed to.
The A.B.R.O. service number is not given.
Other Corps and Lists
Additional lists include Officers serving with or attached to other Corps, including the Burma Sappers and Miners and Medical. There is a list of Army in India Reserve of Officers serving in Burma. Officers and Warrant Officers appointed to The Indian Unattached List and serving in Burma are also included among other lists.
The 1943 Edition
The 1943 edition of the Burma Army List was a one off, special edition. The contents are listed below; note that units served with, attached or seconded to are not given:
- British Service and Indian Army Officers serving with the Burma Army or who were under secondment at the time of the withdrawal
- Emergency Commissioned Officers
- Army in Burma Reserve of Officers, (including A.B.R.O. service numbers)
- Burma Auxiliary Force Officers commissioned before 3rd September 1939
- Burma Auxiliary Force Officers commissioned after 3rd September 1939
- Burma Territorial Force
- Burma Attached List.
The British Library has a catalogue entry: IOR/M/3/83: 17 Apr 1937-20 Sep 1945 "Army List, Burma: security editions of Army List; entries for officers of Burma Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in Navy List" however this document has not yet been viewed.
India Office and Civil Lists are available to view on the open shelves at the National Archives and in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room at the British Library. Several have had the Burma sections transcribed by the Anglo-Burmese Library and are available in the Members’ Area.
The India Office and Civil Lists
These annual lists have a section for the Government of Burma.
Burma Military Police and Burma Frontier Force
Given that the Burma Military Police and the Burma Frontier Force came under the civil administration, Officers seconded to these services are included. No details of battalion assignments are given.
Lists details of Officers commissions, promotions, appointments and relinquishments (retirement).
Also lists details of gallantry and other awards made to Officers and Soldiers.
The online search facility is comprehensive although it sometimes takes several different approaches to find all available records for an individual. For example you will need to search by both full name (first, middle, last) and initials and last name when searching for an individual.
The text search also allows searching by, for instance, regiment, service or corps, for example: "Burma Rifles"; "Burma Regiment"; "Burma Intelligence Corps".
Allow a lot of time when searching the London Gazette so that you can try all the different search parameters and combinations. You will also need time to examine the results which will involve the manual inspection of individual pages from the Gazette.
It can sometimes be easier to search the London Gazette using Google. Enter the text terms you wish to search for followed by "site:thegazette.co.uk", for example "Burma Rifles site:thegazette.co.uk". The search results are returned in the usual format and the individual pages that they are linked to can be opened in your browser and searched using the "Control F" feature.
Vivian Rodrigues has used the London gazette to produce comprehensive lists of members of the Army in Burma Reserve of Officers (separate lists for: appointments; relinquishments; awards and so on). These are available at the Anglo-Burmese Library in the Non-Member's Area in the "Military Records" section.
Copies of the Burma Gazette are held at the British Library - these have not yet been viewed.
The British Library summary of the Burma Gazette is: "In 1886 the title of this series was changed from the British Burma Gazette to the Burma Gazette. During the Japanese occupation of Burma the British administration withdrew to India and a Government of Burma in exile was set up at Simla. Irregular issues of the Gazette were published there between 1942 and 1945. As the reoccupation of Burma proceeded, a British military administration was established under the authority of the Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia, which published eight issues. Normal publication was resumed with the return of the Government of Burma on 16 October 1945."
The Anglo-Burmese Library has published a wide range of material covering the Second World War in Burma. Much of this is available in the Non-Members' Area under "Military Records". See: http://www.angloburmeselibrary.com/non-members-area.html
Available in the Members' Area is a listing maintained by Steve Rothwell of over 4,000 entries of mainly officers taken from the sources mentioned here. See: Officers and Men of the Burma Army - Project for the Anglo-Burmese Library for further details.
Also available to Members is a "Site Search" facility that will list all matches from all material published on the web site.
Thacker's Indian Directory
An annual publication. Officers serving with the Burma Military Police, the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Police are listed however the details appear to be around 6 months out of date, presumably due to the time lag between data collection and publication.
Copies are available to view on the open shelves at the National Archives and in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room at the British Library. Editions for selected years have been transcribed by the Anglo-Burmese Library and are available in the Members' Area to those who have subscribed.
World War 1 Medal Rolls Index Cards
The Medal Rolls Index or Medal Index Cards record the entitlement to medals for soldiers who fought with the British and Indian Army in World War 1. The Cards are held at the National Archives where they can be viewed for free. Use the National Archives Discovery search tool.
Ancestry.co.uk also provide a free search of the index to the Cards and subscribers may view images of the Cards online. Search for an individual or by Regiment or Corps:
- Burma Rifles
- Burma Infantry
- Burma Military Police
- Burma Mounted Rifles
- Rangoon Port [Defence]
- Rangoon [Battalion]
- Upper Burma [Battalion].
Burma Gallantry Medal
The Burma Gallantry Medal (BGM) was a military decoration (Wikipedia) awarded to non-commissioned Officers and other ranks (Wikipedia) of the British Burma military, Burma Military Police and Burma Frontier Force for acts of personal bravery in war or peace. Established by royal warrant in 1940, it was first awarded 26 March 1942 and last awarded 28 November 1947. Recommendations for award of the medal can be found at the National Archives and searched for using the discovery search tool. The awards are gazetted in the London Gazette.
British Army, Indian Volunteer Forces Long Service & Good Conduct Medal, 1915-1939
Two military awards are featured in British Army, Indian Volunteer Force medal awards 1915-1939, the Volunteer Forces Long Service Medal & Good Conduct Medal and the Efficiency Medal. The records show over 15,000 individuals from the Indian Defence Force (IDF) or the Auxiliary Force India (AFI) who were awarded the medals between 1915 and 1939. The IDF and AFI were India’s equivalent to the UK’s Territorial Army, which was comprised of part-time regiments of European soldiers who could be fully mobilised in wartime. Prior to 1920, the IDF and AFI were known as the Indian Volunteer Force (1857-1917). During the First World War, most of the Indian Volunteer units were stationed in India on internal security assignments. They became a part of the umbrella organisation Indian Defence Force (IDF) in 1917. The IDF was disbanded after the war but voluntary service continued through the Auxiliary Force from 1920 onward. Until separation from Indian in 1937, the Burma volunteer and auxiliary force units formed part of the Indian organisation, thereafter they formed the Burma Axuiliary Force.
The awards provide a valuable source of other ranks who served with the volunteer/auxiliary units (and officers who served in the ranks). They have been transcribed and published by FindMyPast.
War diaries for units (battalions) and formations (brigades, divisions, corps) can be found at the National Archives.
They sometimes contain names of officers (and some men) but do not provide full listings of all who served with the unit. As most of the diaries were reconstructed from memory following the withdrawal where names are present they are often misspelled or the initials are missing or incorrect. Reference to other sources is often needed to confirm an individual's identity.
The Burma Rifles - 1940-1942
War diaries for the Burma Rifles are to be found in the WO 172 series:
- 1st-5th Battalions - WO 172/974-978
- 6th Battalion - no war diary/file
- 7th-14th Battalions - WO 172/979-986.
Note that the diaries are for the most part reconstructions made from memory by Officers after the withdrawal to India. The original diaries were destroyed to prevent capture by the Japanese.
Transcripts of these files are available at the Burma Campaign web site. These include brief biographical details of the men named in the diaries. See: The Burma Rifles
Burma Military Police and Burma Frontier Force - 1940-1942
No war diaries for the battalions and other units of the Burma Frontier Force have survived. However several accounts were prepared following the withdrawal and these cover the Rangoon Battalions of the Burma Military Police, the general history of the Burma Frontier Force and some of the F.F. mobile detachments. These are found in the WO 203 series at the National Archives.
WO 203/5692 Burma Frontier Force: report by Brigadier J.F. Bowerman. Copied from microfilm
WO 203/5693 Burma Military Police: report by Major H. Chappell
WO 203/5694 Burma Frontier Force 1939-1942: report by Lt.-Colonel H.M. Day
WO 203/5695 Burma Frontier Force: comments by General Officer Commanding Burma Army, Major-General H. Rich
WO 203/5696 Burma Frontier Force: demi-official correspondence
WO 203/5697 Burma Frontier Force: reports
WO 203/5698 Burma Frontier Force: report by Captain K. Hales 5 Battalion, Burma Regiment
WO 203/5699 Burma Campaign: report by Lt. Colonel W.R.N. Russell on the part played by the Frontier Force Infantry
WO 203/5700 Burma Frontier Force: demi-official letter to Colonel E.V. Farrar from Major D. Mostert
WO 203/5701 Burma Frontier Force: short history by Captain E.W. Booker
WO 203/5702 Burma Frontier Force: short history by Major J.H. Turner
Burma Auxiliary Force
Higher Formations - 1941-1942
WO 172/403 - 1st Burma Corps
WO 172/475 - 17th Indian Infantry Division
WO 172/447 - 1st Burma Division
WO 172/563 - 13th Indian Infantry Brigade
WO 172/570 - 16th Indian Infantry Brigade
WO 172/589 - 48th Indian Infantry Brigade
WO 172/601 - 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade
WO 172/547 - 1st Burma Infantry Brigade
WO 172/548 - 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade
The Burma Regiment
WO 172/5036 - 1st Burma Regiment
WO 172/2656 and 5037 - 4th Burma Regiment
WO 172/5040 and 5041 - The Chin Hills Battalion
WO 203/5712 - Burma Levies 1942
WO 172 203/118 and 4653 and WO 172/5042 - Northern Kachin Levies
WO 172/2151 and 5043 - Western Chin Levies.
7th (Burma Police) Battalion, The Burma Rifles
National Army Museum collection - NAM Accession No: 11253: "History of the 7th (Burma Police) Bn: The Burma Rifles, 1940-42"
The Chin Hills Battalion, Burma Military Police, Burma Frontier Force and Burma Regiment
British Library file - Mss Eur E250 : 1894-1953; History of the Chin Hills Battalion
“Indian Armed Forces in World War II, The Retreat from Burma 1941-42”, Prasad, B, Orient Longmans (1954)
“Burma 1942, The Japanese Invasion”, I.L. Grant, K. Tamayama, Zampi (1999)
"Burma, The Turning Point", I.L. Grant, Zampi (1993).
"Distinctly I Remember", H. Braund, Wren (1972)
"Tales of Burma", A. McCrae, James Paton (1981)
"Scots in Burma", McCrae, A, Kiscadale (1990)
"Desperate Journey", A.L.B. Thompson writing as Francis Clifford, Hodder & Stoughton (1979)
"Kelly's Burma Campaign", Kelly D., Tiddim Press (2003)
"Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel", Smith Dun, Cornell (1980)
"The Jungle in Arms", Oatts B., William Kimber (1962)
"The V Force Jonnies", Evans G., (1964)
Imperial War Museum
The IWM holds a number of taped interviews with veterans of the Burma Campaign as well as the private papers of several others. They can be found by searching the collection with relevant key words at the IWM web site.
21 November 2017