Copyright Michael D. Leigh All rights reserved. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Michael D. The full text of this chapter is available as a preview. Access to the full text of the entire book is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or read more about How to Order. Since pride must have a fall and break the neck of that proud man that did usurp his back? Fall followed pride with a vengeance in the dying days of British colonial rule in Burma.
Burma is the unsung hero in this story — it is also the victim. The Burmese people suffered terribly in the war. It was a war in which they had no interest, one that was not of their making and one that destroyed their country. The land of Burma was the backdrop against which all the action took place.
Rather, it is a history of one corner of the British Empire and of the people who ruled and organized the colony. The colonial rulers also brought in other peoples from elsewhere in the Empire — mainly Indians and Eurasians. They settled in the land, performed menial tasks and oiled the wheels of commerce.
Rangoon Docks in Credit: The British Library Board. Rangoon was devastated by successive bombardments. The docks were hit particularly hard. Japanese aircraft bombed the city from 23 December to February British forces demolished key installations on 7 March In April , British forces returned.
Lieutenant General Hyotaro Kimura evacuated the city on 23 April after which there was an orgy of looting and arson and much damage was done. Gurkha parachute troops and the 17th and 26th Indian Divisions recaptured the city on 6 May The narrative in this book commences at the beginning of May and ends precisely at 4. It describes the second phase of the civilian evacuation, examines Anglo-Burmese negotiations, the financial implications of the war, and it ends as Burma became an independent nation.
One event followed another with bewildering speed, and it is a sobering thought that Burma achieved full independence a mere six years after the last colonial evacuee had left the country. First, Japanese forces traumatized the civilian population and routed the British Army. Second, Burmese nationalist leaders grew in confidence during and after the Japanese invasion.
Third, the civilian evacuation was deeply disruptive and it undermined colonial morale. This book has two main aims — to join the dots and to place the civilian evacuation in a wider context. The impact of the Japanese invasion 3 will be discussed in this chapter, and questions relating to the evacuation will be examined in Chapters 2 , 3 , 4 and 5. This book does not pretend to be a military history. Nevertheless the crushing victories and heavy defeats that followed one another in cannot be ignored.
Indeed they exerted a powerful influence on everything that followed. Military defeats underpinned the decline of the British Empire and explained the breakneck speed with which colonial rule in Burma collapsed. Military issues will not be revisited later in the book, but their ongoing influence must not be underestimated.
In fact the impending military debacle in Burma should have come as no surprise. Britain had been in grave danger from external aggression throughout Indeed senior British military commanders in Europe were reluctant to risk sending arms or men to Southeast Asia because they were urgently needed closer home. During May—June the British Expeditionary Force was trapped in Dunkirk and , troops came within a whisker of being lost. A few weeks later the Battle of Britain raged over southern England. It was another close-run thing. The Royal Air Force RAF could claim to have won the battle in the air by October but British cities would be continuously blitzed for months to come.
By the beginning of , a staggering 3, British and Allied merchant ships had been sunk and Britain had lost 1million tons of imports. However, the sense of impending doom that gripped Britain in was strangely absent in colonial Southeast Asia. Everyday life in Burma continued more or less normally until the beginning of December , and until then Burmese towns were reported to be calmer than they had been for many a year.
There were warning signs. Japanese officials directed a stream of hostile rhetoric against the colonial rulers in Burma. Their main bone of contention was the Burma Road. The fragile peace was shattered in December Three cataclysmic events occurred in quick succession. Each episode increased the likelihood of war in 4 Burma and in the region, generally.
Eighteen naval vessels including nine front-line battleships were sunk or damaged in the space of 90 minutes and 4, US citizens were killed or wounded. The incident caused a political tidal wave. America entered the war with a vengeance, and Japan unleashed a ferocious offensive across Southeast Asia.
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It was a portent of things to come. Both vessels were sunk in a matter of minutes — Repulse at Admiral Tom Phillips and Captain John Leach, along with officers and men, lost their lives in the action. It dealt the Royal Navy a terrible blow. It was no longer the supreme maritime force in the Indian Ocean.
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The third incident was specifically aimed at Burma. At 10 am on 23 December , Japanese planes bombed central districts of Rangoon and the Mingaladon airfield to the north of the city. It was the first in a series of bombing raids that would continue for the next two months. The raids were as devastating as those carried out by the Luftwaffe on London, Coventry or Rotterdam. The Japanese planes returned to bomb Rangoon every day for the next two months. General Michio Sugawara masterminded the operation. He had at his disposal a fleet of Mitsubishi Ki bombers capable of flying at mph , Mitsubishi Ki light bombers and the superfast Nakajima Ki fighter planes — fighter aircraft in all.
The contest was hopelessly one-sided, although the handful of AVG and RAF pilots displayed conspicuous courage and punched above their weight. The first raids were launched from airfields in Thailand and 5 Indochina but, in due course, captured airfields in southeast Burma were used. The raids did what they were intended to do — they reduced the infrastructure around Rangoon to rubble and traumatized the civilian population — shock and awe: Sturm und Drang.
The Japanese air raids on Rangoon brought the phony war to an abrupt end. It heralded a period of intense military activity. Japanese land forces invaded Burma at the beginning of January They assumed that the Tenasserim frontier in southeast Burma was impenetrable and that it would not be possible to manoeuvre troops and heavy equipment across the trackless jungle-clad mountain ranges. They had to change their minds by the end of December, but even at that late stage General Shojiro Iida kept them guessing.
A seaborne invasion seemed most likely, but failing that, an incursion from Thailand into the northern Shan States was a distinct possibility. Here there were roads of sorts — so in the end, McLeod decided to concentrate British forces in the Shan States. He retained only a small, token force in southeast Burma.
Their Finest Hour
They had moved quickly and silently across the Kra Peninsula, hacking through virgin jungle and constructing bridges across deep ravines. Takeuchi seized Tavoy and its airfield before moving on to Moulmein, where his forces met remarkably little resistance. An infamous episode took place on 23 February It altered the course of the war, and was not the proudest moment in British military history. Sittang Bridge was a strategic barrier.
It was a barrier to the route to Rangoon and Lower Burma. Valuable equipment was captured and the most important strategic position in Burma was lost. Japanese forces were now able to advance across Burma at will. By 17 April, Japanese troops controlled the whole of central Burma from Akyab in the west to Taunggyi in the east. They were now also within easy striking distance of Lashio, Yenangyaung and Monywa. Four months after Japanese forces had first entered Tenasserim the whole of Burma was at their mercy. Only the very far north of Burma lay beyond Japanese control. Already Japanese commanders felt strong enough to launch raids on northeast India.
Ordinary Burmans watched agog as columns of well-disciplined Japanese soldiers and bright-eyed young Burmese fighters marched side by side through their towns and villages and as British troops retreated in disarray. Japanese forces had achieved spectacularly, in the space of four months, what Burmese nationalists had only dreamt of doing for the past six decades. Between January and May , the Japanese had put the British Army to flight and toppled the colonial government.
By the end of December , both the British Army and the colonial administration had been forced out of Burma. The genie was out of the bottle. Colonial rule had been exposed. It had been soundly beaten by an Asiatic power. What had gone wrong from the British point of view? One thing was that British Army officers consistently underestimated the fighting qualities of Japanese combat troops. Such arrogance was dangerous. Japanese infantrymen were tough fighters. Senior British commanders had similarly underestimated their Japanese counterparts, with fatal consequences.
Japanese commanders were often unorthodox, astute, intelligent tacticians, and they regularly outflanked their 7 British opponents. For their part, British officers were often flat-footed and predictable. Moreover, the Army was riven by disunity — it lacked esprit de corps. This stifled originality and initiative. Disloyalty tended to come from the top. Wavell became even more irascible after he broke two vertebrae on 10 February.
Hutton over him. The very next day he dismissed Smyth. Japanese commanders were as surprised as anyone at the speed of their own successes. However, they were totally unprepared for a long-term occupation of Burma. They had to press Burmese nationalists into service to control the civilian population, and gratuitous cruelty soon became the order of the day. When the Japanese authorities granted limited independence to their Burmese subjects, they received few plaudits. It is difficult to decide whether the Japanese occupation was a triumph or a disaster.
Although the Japanese granted limited independence to Burma in , it was hedged around by so many pettifogging regulations that it gained little support from local people. It was the root cause of all that followed afterwards. As has already been said, it traumatized the civilian population, wrong-footed the colonial hierarchy and shattered forever the myth of British military infallibility.
It was of little consequence that Japan was defeated in By then the damage had been done. The British Army, the British Governor, his officials and the entire colonial apparatus had been swept away by the end of What really mattered was that it had created a vacuum. Burmese nationalist leaders moved in to fill the gap.
They regarded the defeat of Japan as a bonus but, having got rid of one empire in , they had no wish to be stuck with another in It is important here to discuss the nature of nationalism in Burma, and to trace its long and very painful journey up to the outbreak of World War II. The wartime and post-war exploits of the resurgent Burmese nationalist movement the second of the five underlying factors cited earlier for the collapse of colonial Burma will be discussed more fully in Chapters 8 and 10 , but first some background information is necessary. Burma was formally annexed as a British colony in The pattern was that nationalist anger flared, died down, then flared again in a seemingly endless cycle.
Sometimes nationalist sentiment manifested itself in open rebellion and sometimes in low-level resistance. Whatever form it took, dissent was never far away. However, it had been clear from the very beginning that British coercive forces were able to keep dissent firmly in check.
Between and Burmese nationalist leaders were in the shadow of their more illustrious Indian counterparts. His campaign of non-violent civil disobedience, the Swaraj Movement, and his anti-salt tax Satyagraha march in became models of subversion.
Burmese and Indian nationalist movements began to dance to the same tune during the s and s. British police officers on both sides of the frontier collaborated in order to contain their activities. Rural cultivators, students, Buddhist monks, students, factory workers, politicians and soldiers each took a turn in leading the Burmese nationalist movement. Armed uprisings, protests, political machinations, boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, dacoity and legal challenges were frequently deployed during the s and s.
European residents were edgy because of the almost constant low-level disruption. They felt threatened even in the safety of their smart enclaves of Rangoon and in the protected civil lines of provincial towns. The nationalist movement in Burma, however, was not just a pale reflection of the Indian movement. It developed a distinctive style of its own, and it was led in turn by Buddhist activists, intellectuals, politicians, students, industrial workers and poor farmers.
Its objectives were shaped by religious, political, economic and cultural ideals. A few nationalists demanded immediate independence, but all regarded the colonial government as the principal enemy. They had been the victims of foreclosure during the great Depression. Their rising was directed against colonial rule and it was often very violent. The Hsaya San Rebellion spread across large swathes of rural Burma, but the colonial police force was ready to meet violence with violence.
The Dobama Asiayon manifested nationalism in a very different way. It was instinctively secular and it swept the board in the s. From its ranks rose 10 a cadre of urbane, overtly political young intellectuals who called themselves Thakins. They gathered public support on the way. They encouraged Buddhist pongyis , workers, students and rural cultivators to join in a national strike.
Although the police service was stretched, government forces remained firmly in control and Indian Army regiments were drafted in to help. It exposed the truth that after decades of protest and growing popular support, the nationalist movement in Burma was no closer to gaining independence than it had been at the beginning. Colonial coercion was simply too determined. Police and army units were too numerous, too generously resourced, too heavily armed and too well-served by paid informers to be seriously challenged.
Subversion was routinely nipped in the bud and time and again Burmese nationalists had to resign themselves to many more years of colonial rule. It was generally assumed that the British grip on Burma was too strong to be broken. The nationalist moment seemed to have gone. All became ominously quiet in Burma. The civilian evacuation of was the third of five factors that ultimately led to the collapse of colonial rule in Burma. Of course it was the direct consequence of the Japanese invasion but more importantly it marked the de facto end of colonial rule in Burma. Little more need be said for the moment about the events in Lower Burma between 23 December and 6 May Suffice it to say that European and Indian families had begun to trickle out of Burma before December and afterwards they continued to leave unobtrusively.
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They earned the opprobrium of those who stayed on until the bitter end and were sometimes labelled defeatists and cowards. Thousands of poor Indian workers were particularly vulnerable and they were among the first to flock out of the city. The exodus from Rangoon continued unabated for the next two months. Many more thousands of them trudged up to Prome and over the Arakan Yoma via Taungup to Akyab where they escaped in unseaworthy vessels.
At the same time, armadas of riverboats, trains, lorries, buses, cars and bullock carts transported refugees up to Mandalay and Maymyo. It was mistakenly believed that these towns would be safe havens. A relatively small number of mainly European women and children were flown from Shwebo to Chittagong. Meanwhile, extended Indian family groups straggled northwards for mile after mile. It was the height of the dry season so the roads were dusty and the springs, ponds and streams had dried up.
Many of the evacuees succumbed to dehydration, heat exhaustion, malaria, cholera and smallpox. The escape routes out of Lower Burma were closed one by one as Japanese troops advanced northwards at breakneck speed. By the beginning of May, nowhere in Burma was safe. Mandalay was bulging at the seams. Evacuees slumped on the streets, squatted in empty houses, slept in schools, collapsed in fetid hospitals and gathered in vast refugee camps. Food was scarce, drinking water ran low, sewers overflowed and cholera epidemics broke out.
At Maymyo was bombed five days later, forcing the evacuees to set off northwards yet again. The airstrip at Shwebo 50 miles north of Mandalay was bombed on 28 April and Monywa was bombarded on 30 April. Tens of thousands of evacuees made for Myitkyina miles northeast of Mandalay. It was now the only place in Burma from which planes could fly to Assam. Conditions in Myitkyina were awful. Food supplies and clean water had run dangerously low and the handful of hard-pressed British administrators and troops in the town struggled to maintain law and order.
Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 will provide more specific detail about those evacuees who struggled through Northern Burma to Assam or died by the roadside after 6 May However, by way of preamble it is necessary to make several observations. Currency and addition of Tax VAT depend on your shipping address. Author: Nanny Kim. Add to Cart. Have an Access Token? Enter your access token to activate and access content online.
Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token. Have Institutional Access? Forgot your password? PDF Preview. Southwest China in a Regional and Global Perspective c.
Table of Contents. Related Content. Editors: Ulrich Theobald and Jin Cao. It combines the methods of various disciplines to bring more light into the neglected history of a region that witnessed a faster population growth than any other region in China during that age.