Reviewed by: Ashley Jackson
Author: Alan Warren
Price (RRP): £25
The Australian historian Alan Warren’s latest offering is a succinct and even-handed account of what is still widely known as the ‘Burma campaign’ of the Second World War – despite the fact that it can’t be understood in isolation from its regional context, and that its decisive battles took place in India.
Burma 1942 is a medium-length book recounting events in Burma from the eve of the Japanese invasion until the fall of Mandalay and the straggling retreat of the remnants of the Burma Army to India. Warren, who wrote a similar study of the Malayan campaign in 2001, switches deftly between tactical detail and the operational level, occasionally adding strategic context from the perspective of London and Tokyo.
The story is a familiar one – how a colonial appendage of India became the major battleground in Britain’s war in the east because of the astonishing and unforeseen Japanese conquest of Malaya and Singapore.
Everywhere it was panic and too little too late reinforcement in the face of an enemy that was too wily and too determined for British, Burmese and Indian units to grapple with. It is a litany of panicky evacuations, the erosion of air power, river crossings, scorched earth and bridge demolitions, and brave delaying actions in the face of General Lida’s XV Army.
The military campaign was accompanied by a mass civilian evacuation, between 10,000 and 50,000 people perishing as they tried to reach India. Of Burma Army, about 30,000 made it back to India, leaving behind 1,500 dead, 10,000 missing, and carrying with them 2,500 wounded.
It was a rout, General Wavell admitting afterwards that he hadn’t expected the Japanese to move so strongly and so quickly. It resulted in the ruination of the Burmese economy, and the stimulation of political forces that would not welcome the return of British rule once the Japanese had been ousted.
Focusing on the six-month period of Burma’s conquest, Warren covers all of the main aspects of the campaign. He considers the role air power, including the American ‘Flying Tigers’, naval operations in the Bay of Bengal, the significance of the Burma Road in offering Allied support to China, and the role of Chinese armies in resisting the Japanese.
Warren’s book is a welcome addition to what might, without malice, be dubbed ‘old school’ narrative military history.
Derived from secondary sources, it would have been useful to know why Warren wrote this book (as there are so many on the subject) and to discover his thoughts on the campaign’s historiography. Some important recent contributions, including Fergal Keane’s Road of Bones, aren’t mentioned in the bibliography.
But that’s not to detract from a very well written and comprehensive account of the ‘first half’ of the Burma campaign, the extent of which is more accurately captured by the American appellation ‘China-Burma-India’ theatre.
This is because the campaign needs to be understood in its trans-national context, rather than as the marooned ‘Burma/Fourteenth Army’ story that dominates the British perspective.
Ashley Jackson is the author of Churchill (Quercus, 2011)