The Burma Campaign

The Battle for Central Burma

See: Actions - 1942 for a summary of the significant actions and engagements of the Japanese invasion and the British retreat.

With the loss of Rangoon, the Army in Burma was now isolated from its main base in India and dependent for supplies on the stocks so carefully built up by General Hutton in the Mandalay area.  The Allies knew the duration of their control of Central and Upper Burma would be determined only by the size of the force committed against them.   For the first time, the Japanese were able to exploit sea communications and between the end of March and April they would receive significant reinforcements of troops and artillery.   On 18th March, planes released from Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies reinforced the Japanese air force operating in Burma, which could now deploy some 420 aircraft.  The last British reinforcements to reach Burma, the 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, flew in to Magwe from India on 9th March.

The Rangoon Garrison, the 17th Indian Infantry Division and the 7th Armoured Brigade completed a successful withdrawal northwards to the Tharrawaddy area.  Here, the British took advantage of the pause in Japanese operations to rest and reorganise.  In the Sittang Valley, the 1st Burma Infantry Division was covering the arrival of the Chinese in this sector.  The Chinese were unwilling to move further south than Toungoo, obliging Alexander to order the withdrawal of British forces in the Irrawaddy Valley to the Prome area where it was thought the defence might be better aligned.  The 1st Burma Infantry Division was to move to the Prome area as soon as the Chinese were in position at Toungoo.  The planned withdrawals were ordered on 12th March and the 17th Indian Infantry Division began its move the next day. 

Earlier, on 11th March, the 1st Burma Infantry Division had attacked southwards from Nyaunglebin on Pyuntaza and Shwegyin with the 1st and 2nd Burma Infantry Brigades.  Now, the Division was ordered north and began its rearward move through the Chinese on 15th March, fighting off a series of attacks mounted by the advance guard of the Japanese 55th Division.  By 21st March, both the 1st and 2nd Burma Infantry Brigades were entraining at Toungoo for transfer to the Prome area.  The 13th Indian Infantry Brigade moved from the Mawchi area to Meiktila.  By 27th March, the 17th Indian Infantry Division was concentrated in the Prome area and the 1st Burma Infantry Division was in position to the north, in the area of Thayetmyo-Allanmyo-Kyaukpadaung.

During this time, Alexander requested and received a corps headquarters to relieve him, as Commander-in-Chief Burma, from the additional role of field commander of British forces.  On 16th March, Lieutenant-General W.J. Slim flew in from India to Magwe to improvise the 1st Burma Corps to consist of:

- 1st Burma Infantry Division
- 17th Indian Infantry Division
- 7th Armoured Brigade. 

Slim took command of ‘Burcorps’ at Allanmyo three days later.

Alexander's plan was for an aggressive defence based on the brigade groups, each holding a designated area.  If bypassed, the defenders were to hold their ground whilst the Japanese were dealt with by mobile forces.  At the same time, it was his intention, at Wavell's urging, to attack whenever the opportunity arose.  A plan was made for a 'Striking Force' to occupy Paungde and drive the Japanese back as far as Okpo.

This period also saw the defeat of the Royal Air Force and the American Volunteer Group – the ‘Flying Tigers’ - in Burma.  In the wake of successful British air operations on 20th March, the Japanese launched repeated attacks on 'Burwing' (the R.A.F. in Burma) and A.V.G. at Magwe.  The R.A.F. pulled out to Akyab but further heavy losses between 23rd and 27th March resulted in the total withdrawal of Allied air forces in Burma to Chittagong in India.  By the end of the month, exploiting their new freedom to the full, the Japanese carried out bombing raids on important communication centres in Central and Upper Burma.

'Striking Force' 29-30th March 1942

  Composition for the first phase, the occupation of Paungde:    

     7th Queen's Own Hussars

     1st Battalion, The Gloucestershire Regiment     

     2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment   

     1st Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

     1st Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, one company

     414th Battery, Royal Horse Artillery        

     24th Field Company, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners

On the ground, now unhindered by the R.A.F., the Japanese 33rd Division advanced in daylight to close with the British at Prome and an initial clash occurred near Paungde on 28th March.  The British 'Striking Force' advanced on Paungde on 29th March but was deflected by the need to engage the Japanese to the north east, in the area of Padigon.  Padigon was never cleared but the attack on Paungde made some progress before being held up.  Under orders not to be cut off, the attacking troops from the 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment and the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars, withdrew.  However disaster loomed yet again, for during the night, the Japanese 125th Infantry Regiment had crossed from the west bank of the Irrawaddy and dug in behind the British 'Striking Force' at Shwedaung.  Despite supporting attacks from the north by the 17th Indian Infantry Division, the Japanese held firm in Shwedaung throughout 29th-30th March.  It cost the 'Striking Force' considerable casualties and the loss of much transport to fight its way through the town to rejoin the 17th Indian Infantry Division.

Central Burma 1942The British now considered giving up Prome, given the action at Shwedaung and the Chinese withdrawal from Toungoo in the Sittang Valley.  There, the Chinese 200th Division and additional units from the Chinese Fifth Army had been under attack since 24th March.  Some reinforcements began arriving and there was limited air support from six Tomahawk fighters of the A.V.G.  However, Japanese pressure mounted, resulting in a near encirclement of the defenders of Toungoo, and the Chinese broke out of the town on 29th March.  The Chinese re-established their line in the Sittang Valley at Yedashe.  In the Salween Valley, there was a Chinese detachment at Mawchi but the only troops in between were the Karen Levies, reinforced by Karens of the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles.

The Japanese brought Prome under fire on the night of 30th/31st March and the British held on for a further two days, inflicting significant casualties on the Japanese in a series of well executed ambushes.  The order to withdraw to Allanmyo was given on 2nd April and the battered 17th Indian Infantry Division was able to slip away once again.

'Burcorps' issued its operational plans on April 3rd, the intention now being to protect the main oilfields at Yenangyaung and Chauk, to cover Upper Burma and to maintain contact with the Chinese Fifth Army to the east.  The corps was to withdraw to the line Minhla-Taungdwingyi via a series of delaying positions.  The defence of the Irrawaddy River sector was assigned to the 1st Burma Infantry Division, with the 2nd Burma Infantry Brigade covering the west bank.  Harassed only by Japanese aircraft, the Minhla-Taungdwingyi line was reached by 8th April. 

03 December 2017