By March 1942, Japanese forces swept into British administered Burma from adjacent Siam (now Thailand) and headed onto Rangoon, the capital and large port. It was up to the two British divisions and the poorly trained and ill-equipped Chinese forces to hold open the Burma Road, to fight a protracted delaying action while they were being forced back a thousand miles through the Burmese jungles and the mountains of India. British forces managed to fight an ever-losing battle against the Japanese, but their efforts were compounded by over 400,000 Indian and Burmese evacuees - fleeing the tyranny of the Japanese. Japan was now at the gate of British India, with the hope that once they had established themselves close to Calcutta (now Kolkata), unrest against the British would be ignited to cause extra pressure on the British.
There followed months of a stalemate, where both sides tested each other's strengths and weaknesses and General (later Field Marshal) The Rt Hon. Sir Archibald Wavell, later 1st Earl Wavell (1883-1950), the Commander-in-Chief in India commanding the South-East Asian Theatre, ordered an advance into Arakan to try and re-establish British military influence and raise morale.
Things were only lightened by the propaganda value of the first Chindit expedition led by Brigadier Orde Wingate (1903-1944). In this the Allies enjoyed some success in using guerrilla tactics against the Japanese, despite incurring heavy losses, thus proving that British troops could take on the Japanese in the jungle.
General Sir Archibald Wavell
In August 1943 at the Allied Conference in Quebec, Canada, Mountbatten was offered the job of Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia. Mountbatten accepted the position of 'Supremo' only when he knew that he had full authority and support of all the Allied senior commanders including President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the President of the USA. Mountbatten was raised to the rank of an acting Admiral and knew that this new job was not going to be easy – but in typical spirit, he knew that success would come both personally and for the Allies. Despite the horrendous climate of the monsoon seasonal rain and the priority given to defeat Nazi Germany, Mountbatten set to recapture the British colony of Burma. In October 1943, the British 14th Army came under the command of General (later Field Marshal) Sir William Slim, later 1st Viscount Slim (1891-1970), which became known to many as ‘The Forgotten Army’ (because its operations were overlooked by the contemporary press) numbered over 1 million men, the largest Commonwealth army ever assembled.
Mountbatten arrived in Delhi in October 1943 - he was now in command of troops which were British, Gurkhas, Chinese, Americans, Africans, Australians, Burmese, French and Dutch. Within a week of arriving , he left for Chungking to call on his neighbouring 'Supremo' - Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975). On his return, he visited the Burma Front and met Slim and told his new staff how he assessed the situation in Burma. He set about improving morale and toured the whole of his command. He famously told his men - "I hear you call yourselves 'The Forgotten Army'. Well, let me tell you that this is not 'The Forgotten Front' and you are not 'The Forgotten Army'. In fact, no one has even heard of you. But they will hear of you because this is what we are going to do..." and he told them personally of his plans.
ABOVE: the insignia of the 14th Army
LEFT: Mountbatten with
General Sir William Slim (right)
Chiang Kai-Shek (left) with Mountbatten
ABOVE: Mountbatten in February 1944
on his visit to the Arakan Front
LEFT: Mountbatten's flag as
Supreme Allied Commander SE Asia
Due to Mountbatten's reorganisation of SEAC, the troops soon felt a sense of direction and morale improved. Mountbatten's strategy was to prepare to attack the Japanese in Burma from their flank from the sea and moved his HQ to Kandy in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His original ideas meant huge numbers of troops, ships and landing craft would be needed, but at the last minute they were recalled for the invasion of France. As a result, the only way left to attack the Japanese was by land from the North.
In March 1944, the Japanese launched an offensive across the Chindwin River, cutting the Imphal-Kohima Road and there followed the ferocious battles of the ‘Admin Box’ - Kohima and Imphal, at the end of which the defeated Japanese withdrew. Further Chindit columns operated deep behind enemy lines during 1944 and at the beginning of 1945, the 14th Army launched a successful offensive down the Arakan Coast, followed by a major advance deep into central Burma. Mandalay was retaken on 20th March 1945 after a twelve day battle, and the 14th Army continued on to Rangoon which was reoccupied in an amphibious operation on 3rd May 1945. Mountbatten gratified his ambition by staging an elaborate victory parade, at which he took the salute in Rangoon on 15th June 1945, which took place despite the fact that thousands of Japanese were still fighting hard as they tried desperately to escape across the Sittang river into Thailand, losing heavily as they went.
Slim, the architect of this great victory, was not present at Mountbatten's parade. Mountbatten had decided that the 14th Army's great commander was tired and needed a rest and replaced him at the very moment of his great triumph. Regrettably, his removal from the command of the 14th Army he had forged had a calamitous effect on the morale of his men. However, the Burma campaign had no decisive effect on World War II as a whole; but it did a great deal to restore respect for the British Army following the humiliations of Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore.
Mountbatten reading an address from King George VI at the victory parade in Rangoon, June 1945
One of Mountbatten's priorities was the treatment of Burmese collaborators and although some of his senior Civil Affairs staff wanted to introduce severe judgements such as flogging and the death penalty, Mountbatten would have none of it as he wanted the Burmese to see that the Allies had come in friendship to free them from their Japanese oppressors. This set the standard for the future treatment of liberated colonial territories. After Burma gained its independence, Mountbatten was awarded their highest (and rarest) honour - Aga Maha Thiri Thudhhamma.