In 1939, the British Indian Army officially joined Great Britain in fighting WWII. The volunteer army saw combat in Africa, Asia, and Europe. They served in several divisions, including the airborne force, infantry, engineers, and women’s auxiliary. Most notably, they played a pivotal role in holding and defeating the Japanese Army in Burma.
Defending, Losing, and Recapturing Burma
The year 1942 brought the Burma Campaign, which consisted of the Battle of Bilin River, Battle of Sittang Bridge, Battle of Pegu, and the Battle of Yenangyaung. While the Indian and British forces saw some victories, ultimately they lost the campaign to the Japanese. The Japanese offered 40,000 Indian soldiers, who they captured, a choice to join the Indian National Army or become a POW. More than half chose to join the Japanese. Those in the 17th who eluded capture would remain near and around Tiddim, and they continuously combatted the Japanese through 1943. The 17th’s attempts were unsuccessful.
At home, the Indian government formed new divisions to replace those who had defected, died, or been captured. With the perceived poor performance on campaigns, the government rethought the divisions. The 17th and 36th divisions became light divisions as a counter measure. By the end of 1942, India became a base for offensive operations to support 34 divisions from Great Britain, Africa, and India.
February brought the Battle of the Admin Box when the Japanese launched a major attack on the 7th’s headquarters. A combined effort of Indian, British, and African troops countered, held, and defeated the Japanese. The Battles of Imphal and Sangshak followed, marking victories for the allied forces and driving Japanese forces back to Burma. However, the true turning point came during the Battle of Kohima when the 5th and the 7th Indian Division and the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade joined with the 2nd British Division to defeat the Japanese and retake control of the Kohima-Imphal road.
The Japanese continued to battle through 1945, attempting to regain control or hold control of key cities. The Battle of Meiktila and Mandalay were victories for the British Indian Army and brought the capitol, Rangoon, back under Allied control. The six-week Battle of Ramree Island marked another victory too, and in January, the Allies retook Ramree and Cheduba.
Jungle warfare and close quarter fighting occurred throughout the Burma Campaign, often leading to large casualties and injured troops for the Indian armies. The Allied troops, including the British Indian Army, had greatly underestimated the Japanese forces from the start of the war. They found themselves ill equipped to handle the invasions and the brutality they faced from Japanese soldiers. It took the massive Allied defeat in Singapore to bring about fighting and tactic reforms. After that loss, many opinions had changed, but without the reformation and introduction of advanced fighting methods, the British Indian Army would have faced greater defeat and their battles would have been less successful.
The Burma Campaign, though it suffered great losses and defeats, was a success. Without the British Indian troops, and the strategic base in India, it is unlikely the Japanese would have been defeated. The Indian troops kept the Japanese forces at bay and continued to push them back. After the Japanese surrendered, the government sent troops to Japan and its occupied countries to disarm and liberate.
The campaign lasted four years. During that time, warfare drastically changed for the British Indian Army and Allied troops. They adapted, learned, and on a few occasions when the odds were against them, they persevered. The British Indian Army’s determination ultimately led to Japan’s defeat and surrender in 1945.