Burma Army 1937-1943
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Burma had been administered from India until April, 1937. After separation the country had achieved a degree of self-government though was still effectively controlled by the British through the Governor. The Government of Burma was responsible for the defence of the country and for financing the armed forces and acquiring stores and equipment from the British War Office.

The strategic significance of Burma for the defence of the region was not lost on British senior commanders and from 1937 onwards it was argued that forces in Burma should be controlled by the Commander-in Chief in India. This was not finally decided on until 11th December, 1941 by Prime Minister Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff.

The Military Before Separation

Before separation, the defence of Burma had been the responsibility of Burma District, part of India Command.  Military units serving under District command were:

an Indian Mountain Battery
a company of (Indian) Sappers and Miners (engineers)
two battalions of regular British infantry
three, sometimes four, battalions of The 20th Burma Rifles (the junior regiment of the Indian Army)
units of the Auxiliary Force (India)
units of the Indian Territorial Force.

The units were grouped into areas:

The Rangoon Brigade Area - covering Lower Burma and the Andaman islands
The Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area - covering Upper Burma, under direct command of District HQ and with no separate brigade headquarters.

There were also nine battalions of the Burma Military Police, a para-military force under the command of the Inspector-General of Police, Burma.  Reinforcement in time of serious internal unrest was expected to come from India.


After separation from India in April 1937, responsibility for the defence of Burma lay with the Government of Burma.  The Burma Army (Burma Army Command, Burma Command or Army in Burma) became a small, independent military command formed by the transfer of units from the Indian Army.  The headquarters was very small for the size of the forces under command, being no larger than a second class district headquarters in India. The first commander of Burma Army was  Major General DK McLeod.

The separation resulted in the transfer of The Burma Rifles, the retention of the two British regular battalions (for internal security) and the temporary retention of Indian Army units.  It was intended that the Indian Army units would ultimately be withdrawn.

The two Indian Army infantry battalions soon left but the mountain battery (the 2nd) and company of engineers (13th Field Company, Madras Sappers and Miners) remained.  On formation of the 1st Field Company, Burma Sappers and Miners, the Indian company was also withdrawn in early 1940.

Six of the battalions of the Burma Military Police became the Burma Frontier Force, administered by the Defence Department and under the command of the GOC, Burma Army.

The Auxiliary and Territorial units were embodied in the newly formed Burma Auxiliary Force and the Burma Territorial Force.

An embryonic Burma Army Signals Unit was authorised in early 1939 but was to take a long time to reach full operational size and efficiency.

Wartime Expansion 1939 - 1941

On the outbreak of war in September 1939, the formation began of Garrison Companies for carrying out specific guard duties.  The men were either ex-regular soldiers or recruits who had failed to pass the entrance standards for other units.  Later, the companies were formed into two administrative Garrison Battalions.

The Burma Rifles were expanded, their strength being doubled, as was the Burma Frontier Force.   Recruiting for the Burma Auxiliary Force was made easier by the Governor's edict allowing all British subjects in Burma to join.  Steps were taken to enlarge the pool of officers.  The expansion in terms of numbers and by class can be seen in the Strength Return Tables for September 1939 and April 1941.

A light machine gun anti-aircraft battery of the Burma Auxiliary Force was disbanded when, in 1941, 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, BAF, was raised.  Guns for this unit did not arrive until after the start of the war with Japan.

The Maymyo Infantry Brigade Area was split into the Maymyo Infantry Brigade and Upper Burma Area.  As the Japanese threat grew, the brigade moved to the southern Shan States to defend the frontier and units were later regrouped under Southern Shan Area and 1 Burma Brigade Group.

In the south, units moving in to defend Tenasserim were formed firstly into Tenasserim Brigade Area, later supplanted by 2 Burma Brigade Group.

Arrival of Reinforcements from India - 1st Burma Division

In April 1941, 13th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Burma and were stationed initially in Mandalay.  The three brigade groups in the country were formed into 1st Burma Division in July 1941, with divisional HQ at Toungoo, under the command of Major General J Bruce Scott.

At the end of November, 16th Indian Infantry Brigade began arriving from Calcutta and was placed under direct command of Burma Army HQ.  The brigade was the last reinforcement to arrive before the Japanese invasion.

The 1942 Burma Campaign

The story of the Burma Army in the 1942 campaign is told elsewhere on this web site - to begin start with Preparations for War.

The Longest Retreat - Arrival in India

Elements of the retreating Burma Army began arriving at Tamu, India during May 1942.  All major elements had arrived by 19th May.  The 17th Indian Division was retained at Imphal to reform with the 48th and 16th Brigades while the 63rd Brigade was centred on Kohima protecting the lines of communications and tracks from the Naga Hills. Most units of the division spent the next three months resting and refitting from the rigours of the campaign and the retreat from Burma. The 1st Burma Division, "Burdiv", and its brigades were now dispersed, later to be redesignated and organised as the 39th Indian Division.  The 1st Burma Brigade became the 106th Indian Infantry Brigade in June 1942 and with 113th (formerly the 13th) Indian Infantry Brigade came under command of the 39th Division.  The 2nd Burma Brigade was disbanded though returned briefly to life in October 1942.

The Headquarters Army in Burma handed over control of all formations and units on 20th May 1942 and ceased to exist as a field formation from 27th May 1942.  The British and Indian elements of Burma Army immediately passed to control of the Indian Army.  The 17th Indian Division and the 1st Burma Division (redesignated the 39th Indian Light Infantry Division at Shillong on 20th June 1942) were retained under the command of IV Corps.  Practically all units and headquarters of the Burma Army were disbanded during May 1942.

After initial reception in India at Imphal, the majority of the personnel of the Burma Army were sent to Hoshiarpur.  Burmese men not members of the ancillary units were given the option to return to their homes and many elected to do so.  They were given three months pay, a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition and allowed to go.  A few were prevented from making their journeys by the rains and were re-employed in the frontier area.  Those who remained behind in India were moved to Hoshiarpur, in the Punjab, North West India.  In total around 10,000 Burma Army personnel were brought together at Hoshiarpur during June 1942 and all given leave before reorganisation.  A serious administrative headache was posed by the Gurkha evacuees or whom a large proportion were the families of Burma Frontier Force personnel.  Medical and associated units were retained for a time in Assam before moving to Hoshiarpur.

Reorganisation In India

HQ Army in Burma ceased to be in command of all Burma Army units on 20th May 1942.  However the command was reconstituted seven days later as Headquarters Burma Army and a post of Major General approved as commander.  Major General HH Rich of the Indian Army took command of HQ Burma Army on 9th September 1942. During June 1942, HQ Burma Army moved to Simla, the majority of units being formed or reformed were establishing themselves at Hoshiarpur with the Burma Auxiliary Force at Mhow.  Units were then formed or reformed during the summer and autumn of 1942.

About 400 Burmese men of the Burma Rifles were available together with about 10,000 men from the Burma Frontier Force, Burma Military Police and Indian other ranks of the 7th and 8th Burma Rifles. It was estimated that after weeding, about 7,000 of these men would be available for further duty of which 5,000 were suitable for active service and the remainder for garrison battalion duties. Men in other units such as medical, supply and signals were available in considerable numbers.

Although it was expected that elements of Burma Army were to be retained for active service, it was decided to disband HQ Burma Corps, with effect from 15th June 1942, confirmed by CinC India to the War Office on 18th June 1942.

The regulars of the Burma Army, all in ancilliary units including medical, supply, signal and ordnance personnel, were organised into units or dispersed under Indian command.  This initial transfer was largely complete by October 1942.

More than 350 surplus officers were transferred to the Indian Army and a further 250 or so were expected to be released to India at a later date.

Proposed reorganisation of Burma forces included the retention of the 2nd Burma Rifles and the creation of new infantry battalions. Excluding the 7th and 8th Burma Rifles, only the 2nd Battalion Burma Rifles ended the retreat in good order as a regular unit of about 350 men. The battalion was retained and built up in strength by selection of the best Burmese men from the Burma Frontier Force units. GHQ India was anxious to include this unit in the special force brigade then being formed.  The 2nd Battalion Burma Rifles came under Indian command in June 1942 and was allotted to the 77th Indian Brigade, under Wingate’s command, and moved to join the brigade at Saugor in September 1942. 

The Burma Frontier Force were to be organised on regular army lines, adopting the war establishment of Indian infantry battalions, it being estimated that there were sufficient men for 8 infantry battalions and 2 garrison battalions with sufficient reserves to provide replacements. It was recognised that the failings of the Burma Frontier Force units during the recent campaign arose from both weaknesses in the internal organisation of the battalions and the loose knit organisation of battalions not under proper control and inspection. This organisation was felt to be unsuitable for the envisaged future role of the battalions as regular infantry. It was proposed the reorganise the Force into two brigades and that an Inspector General be appointed. Men of the Burma Military Police would be placed in the same pool as those of the Burma Frontier Force although it was expected that most of them would be suitable for garrison battalion duties only.  Personnel of both the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Military Police were almost entirely manned Gurkhas or Indians.

The new Burma Regiment began forming on 1st October 1942, with six infantry battalions, two garrison battalions, a mounted infantry battalion, a training battalion, a provost unit and reserves to provide replacements.

The 7th and 8th Battalions Burma Rifles had been formed from Gurkha and Indian members of the Burma Frontier Force and Military Police in 1940 to speed the expansion of the Burma Rifles given the growing threat of war with Japan (check). On arrival in India after the retreat the 7th Battalion had about 300 men, mostly Gurkhas and Kumaonis formerly of the Burma Military Police and the 8th Battalion about 400 men, Punjabi Mussalmen and Sikhs formerly of the Burma Frontier Force.  GHQ India proposed amalgamating the two battalions and the new unit was expected to then serve as a regular infantry battalion in an Indian division.  The Government of Burma were uncomfortable with this and preferred to see the men returned to the Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police pool.  Despite an initial intention to retain the identities of these battalions, in the end the men were formed into the 1st Battalion, Burma Regiment.

Of the six new infantry battalions of the Burma Regiment being formed, it was expected that only one would be ready for active service by 1st December 1942, and then only if sufficient equipment were made available. The readiness of the remaining battalions was dependent on further equipment, training and stores.  The class composition of each of the battalions was intended to be consistent, based on: one company of Gurkhas; one of Punjabi Mussalmen; one of Sikhs; one mixed; and a mixed HQ company.  The 7th Mounted Infantry and the 10th Training Battalions Burma Regiment were forming and the initial organisation was expected to be complete by 1st October 1942.

Two brigade headquarters were formed on 1st October 1942 also, each to command three infantry battalions of the Burma Regiment and one garrison battalion.  The 2nd and 5th Burma Brigades were commanded by Lt. Colonel J.F. Bowerman and Lt. Colonel C.H.D. O'Callaghan respectively.

Of the Burma Auxiliary Force, the 5th Field Battery came under command of the Indian Eastern Army, the 1st Coast Defence Battery went to Diamond Harbour, Calcutta, the 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery went to Risalpur to be equipped and the BAF Depot and Record Office went to Mhow, together with the balance of BAF personnel.

When the Army in Burma was withdrawn to Upper Burma following the evacuation of Lower Burma, the strengths of the Burma Auxiliary Force units were reduced to such an extent that they were amalgamated into one Burma Auxiliary Force infantry battalion, designated the Burma Battalion, Burma Auxiliary Force.  On arrival in India, all Burma Auxiliary Force personnel were concentrated at Mhow and initially reorganised into the 5th Field Battery, RA, BAF, the 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery, RA, BAF and the 1st Coast Defence Battery, RA, BAF, together with a BAF depot and record office.  The batteries were placed at the disposal of GHQ India and the 1st Coast Defence Battery moved to Diamond Harbour, Calcutta.  The other two remained at Mhow, in the process of formation (throughout August and September 1942).

The Burma Intelligence Corps began forming, to provide liaison personnel, interpreters and guides with Eastern Army.   In September 1942 it was envisaged that the Burma Intelligence Corps would consist of a HQ and four platoons and was being raised by Lt Col Phipps (ex Burma Police). Each platoon was to have a CO and eight Liaison Officers with a British section (mostly Anglo-Burman) and an Indian section (Indian who spoke a Burmese language) and an indigenous section of Burmans, Karens and others. The large number of officers was allowed for so that they were available for detachment to formations and units throughout Eastern Army.

The Chin Hills Battalion continued to operate in the Chin Hills, under the command of IV Corps, and it was proposed the battalion should be reorganised along the lines of the Assam Rifles. It was proposed to form a Chin Hills Area to administer this battalion and the Chin Hills Levies. When Burma Army reached India, a number of Chin soldiers, from both the Burma Rifles and the Burma Frontier Force, were given three months pay in Manipur and allowed to go home on leave. Others had been told to go home at various stages during the withdrawal but without any pay. Others deserted. There were concerns that these men, still armed, were presenting a problem in the Chin Hills. There was also dissatisfaction from the widows of Chin soldiers killed in the fighting and from the families of Chins still serving who had not received their pensions or family allotments. To remedy this situation, in August 1942, Major Mackay of the Burma Rifles was sent into hills with three Chin officers and plenty of funds with orders to settle all accounts with the Chins and a few Lushais. Instructions were sent to the Hills that it was Government policy that all men were to be treated as on leave unless there was clear evidence of desertion, that they were to be recruited to fill vacancies in the Chin Hills Battalion or the Chin Levies or to be given work as pioneers on local road construction. Major Mackay was also proposed as the new CO for the Chin Hills Battalion, in place of Lt Col Moore who had been forced to leave the Hills due to sickness

A detachment of The Kokine Battalion had been evacuated from Rangoon to India in Feb/March 1942, together with the 7th Mobile Detachment, Burma Frontier Force (BFF 7?).  These detachments were amalgamated into the Kokine Battalion, BFF and sent to Assam to perform garrison battalion duties.  The battalion was earmarked to form the 2nd Garrison Battalion, Burma Regiment.

The Burma Levies were also operating in the Chin Hills area and during September 1942 proposals were developed for their revised organisation and establishment.

Final Transfer to India

During February 1943 serious proposals were prepared and discussed for the transfer of all Burma Army formations and units to both operational and administrative control of the Indian Army. A review of formations and units still under Burma Army command concluded:

HQ Burma Army might provide the nucleus for a Line of Communication Area Headquarters

The two infantry brigade headquarters might serve as Line of Communication Area Headquarters also.

The six infantry battalions of the Burma Regiment, though not at full readiness, could be made ready by April 1943 if full equipment, stores and transport could be provided. The battalions would by then be fully trained for mobile operations in any country except thick jungle.

The 7th Mounted Infantry Battalion had no animals and one third of personnel still required training in riding. It was assessed that the battalion would be ready to serve as mounted infantry at about 5 months from the point that mounts were received. Alternatively the battalion might be broken up to provide several remount units for the Indian Army for which there was an urgent requirement. The latter role was the most favoured.

The training battalion of the Burma Regiment was considered to be ready to train around 720 recruits and expansion was considered so as to provide reinforcements sufficient to maintain infantry battalions in a more or less static role.

Of the two garrison battalions, one (the 1st) was ready to move to Assam to relieve the ad hoc garrison battalion now there (the 2nd formerly the Kokine Battalion). The second battalion would then undergo reorganisation and re-equipment at Hoshiarpur and would be ready in around two months.

By March 1943 it was becoming clear that the eventual role of Burma Army would most likely be to achieve and maintain internal order and security following the re-conquest of Burma and the restoration of the Government of Burma. Regardless of the future, it was clear that the units should be available to support the Burma Campaign from the Indian side of the border, initially, and later into Burma itself.

Discussions also focused on the actual deployment of the units - whether this should be "in Burma", for "the Burma campaign" or for eventual deployment elsewhere in South East Asia. These discussions also considered at what point the units might be handed back to the Government of Burma and whether this might be appropriate following a partial liberation of Burma or following complete re-conquest.

By January 1943 the value of the Burma Intelligence Corps had been recognised by the GHQ Eastern Army and a request received to form and additional two platoons, with the possibility of two further platoons being required shortly thereafter.  Given the requirement that all personnel must be capable of speaking at least one other language (either English or Hindustani) in addition to their own Burmese tongue, the only source for personnel were the 5th Field Battery and the 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Battery of the Burma Auxiliary Force, then based at Mhow.

The Burma Regiment was reorganised into four infantry battalions with effect from 1st July 1943. Companies of the regiment which had moved into the FS Area were held by 10th Battalion Burma Regiment, which with effect from 1st July 1943 was converted into the Burma Regimental Centre

In June 1943, agreement reached that any units of Burma Army not already under the operational control of the CinC India would be transferred to that command, coming under the administrative control of GHQ India. The transfer was conditional in that the Burma identity was to be preserved, personnel would continue under their existing terms of service and that the units were to be returned to the Government of Burma when the civil administration of Burma was restored. The HQ Burma Army was to be disbanded together with one of the Burma Brigades, the 2nd Brigade (disbanded November 1943).  A small Burma Section was to be formed in GHQ India.  This final reorganisation of the Burma Army was completed by 1st November 1943.


18 March, 2016


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