Burma - Geography
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The Current Situation In Burma

To help understand the background to the conflicts within present day Burma, you may find these sources of interest - please click here - Modern Burma Since 1946.

Burma - Geography

Burma covers an area of more than 240,000 square miles, equivalent to an area roughly the size of France and Belgium combined. In 1941 the population was around 17 million people. The popular perception is of a land covered in dense jungle but the terrain fought over between 1942 and 1945 was more varied. Communications were generally poor, there being few roads or railways, and tended to be dominated by the main waterways. Almost all routes ran north-south, following the natural grain of the country.

Burma - borders, mountains and hillsBorders

Burma’s eastern border lies along mountain ranges, extending from the Chinese border in the north, south and south east to the River Mekong and the Indo-Chinese border (Laos) and then south and south west along the Indo-Chinese and then the Siamese (Thai) borders. The mountains are high in the north and gradually decline in height until they peter out at the southern end of Tenasserim.

The western border, that with India, also runs along a mountain range - from the Himalayas near Fort Herz in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. The range includes the Naga Hills in the north, the Chin Hills in the centre and the Arakan Yomas in the south. The Naga Hills rise to around 12,000 feet, the Chin Hills have peaks between 8,000 and 10,000 feet, while the Arakan Yomas are much lower. The mountains are covered in dense jungle up to a height of 6,000 feet.

Inland - Waterways, Plains and Hills

Central Burma consists of the valleys of three of the country’s four main rivers (the Irrawaddy, the Chindwin, the Sittang) and the Irrawaddy delta. The fourth river, the Salween, flows through the eastern tableland of the Shan States.

The Irrawaddy rises in the north near Fort Herz and flows down the centre of the country, being joined by its tributary, the Chindwin, near Pakkoku south of Mandalay, and on to the delta at Rangoon. Its central course is across a wide plain which receives little rainfall during the May-October monsoon and is baked dry in the dry season.

The Chindwin also rises in the far north, near the Assam border, and flows south west on the eastern side of the Naga and Chin Hills. For much of its length, the river flows through rugged country, covered in jungle.

The Sittang also flows north-south, from just south of Meiktila to the Gulf of Martaban and although inferior has similar characteristics to the Irrawaddy.

The Salween rises in China and flows through the Shan States, the Karen Hills and Tenasserim into the Gulf of Martaban at Moulmein. The river and its tributaries cross the 3,000 foot tableland which makes up eastern Burma, mostly through deep, impassable gorges.

Burma - major riversCommunications

In 1941, communications within Burma were poorly developed and overland routes with bordering countries were almost non-existent.

Almost all communications ran north-south, including the Rangoon-Mandalay railway. Other lines ran from Mandalay to Lashio, from Rangoon to Prome and from Pegu across the Sittang to Martaban, connecting to Moulmein and the line through Tenasserim to Ye by rail ferry.

The road system in 1941 was primitive, with some parts of the country connected by little more than tracks. There were all weather roads - from Rangoon to Mandalay, from Meiktila through the Shan State, through the Karen Hills connecting Toungoo with Loilem, from Rangoon to Prome and on to Mandalay (though not always passable in heavy rains).

Due to the reliance on cheap sea communications with India across the Bay of Bengal there had been little interest in developing overland communications between India and Burma. There were no roads through the mountainous border area and overland communications with India were restricted to a few dangerous tracks.

The frontier with China was crossed by the Burma Road near Wantung, north east of Mandalay. Communications with Siam depended on tracks, the major routes being across the Dawna Range from Moulmein and from Moulmein through Three Pagodas Pass to Bangkok.

The most important internal communication route was the river traffic on the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin. Services were provided by the large fleet of river craft operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.

Burma was an important link in the Imperial route from Britain to Australia. There was an airport near Rangoon, at Mingaladon, and landing grounds Akyab and Lashio. There were emergency landing grounds running down Tenasserim on the way to Singapore, at Moulmein, Tavoy and Mergui. There was an air service between Rangoon and Chungking and flying boats landed at Rangoon and Akyab. Defence of this leg of the Imperial air route was strategic for Britain.

The Burma Road

Beginning in Mandalay, this ran through Lashio to Wantung on the Chinese border. It then crossed the only bridge over the Salween and on to Chungking. Lend-Lease supplies for China were landed at Rangoon and then railed or motored Mandalay. The significance of the road for keeping China in being in her war with Japan made Burma of strategic value.

Burma - hill tribesRangoon

Rangoon (Yangon), located on the Irrawaddy delta, is the capital and the main port. In 1941 there were well established shipping routes with Calcutta and Madras. Nearly all communication with India was by sea via these routes. The bulk of Burma’s imports and exports moved through Rangoon, including Lend-Lease supplies for China.


The population in 1941 of some 17 million people, was dominated by around 10 million Burmese who occupied the plains. There were around four million Karens and two million Shans in the eastern areas, and one million Kachins, Chins and Nagas. There was little love lost between the Burmese (then sometimes also called Burmans) and the remaining population. In 1941 there were around one million Indians living and working in Burma, mostly as traders, professionals, public servants and industrial workers, and these tended to congregate around the urban centres and predominantly around Rangoon. There was a growing population of Chinese who had numbered around 300,000 in 1931.











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