Burma ’44: The bat­tle that turned Bri­tain’s war in the East

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

James Hol­land ( Ban­tam Press, £20)

The EAST­ERN Army, as the Bri­tish army in Burma was known at the time, com­plained that, be­tween 1942 and 1944, it was ef­fec­tively ‘the for­got­ten army’: all pub­lic­ity and at­ten­tion was fo­cused on mil­i­tary events in europe and north Africa.

The same could be said, un­til now, of the his­tor­i­cal ac­counts of the Sec­ond World War: al­most all at­ten­tion has been con­cen­trated on events from Dunkirk and D-day to Alamein and the Rhine; even James hol­land’s pre­vi­ous ex­cel­lent mil­i­tary his­to­ries have all been about the war in the west. not any more. This book analy­ses in depth, for the first time, one of the turn­ing points in the con­flict with Ja­pan: the cu­ri­ously named ‘De­fence of the Ad­min Box’.

Un­til 1944, it had been a sorry tale of mil­i­tary set­backs: the cap­ture of hong Kong, the rapid over-run of Malaya, the sur­ren­der of Sin­ga­pore, the loss of two lead­ing war­ships. The roll of dis­as­ters seemed un­stop­pable, un­til the stand was made at Arakan, a jun­gle re­gion on the north-west coast of Burma. It was only just in time. Un­til then, there were fears that In­dia—be­set by famine and rum­blings of in­de­pen­dence move­ments—might also suc­cumb to the Ja­panese.

The au­thor re­counts in de­tail how the re­verse was achieved. The role of in­di­vid­ual reg­i­ments is spelt out on a daily ba­sis and the im­por­tance of gain­ing mas­tery of the air is ex­plained. Sup­ply­ing the be­lea­guered Bri­tish forces with pro­vi­sions and am­mu­ni­tion was not the least of prob­lems and re­quired the in­ven­tion of ‘para­jutes’, made of jute rather than silk, among other in­ge­nious ideas.

he pays tribute to the courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion of the ‘mot­ley col­lec­tion of mule­teers, clerks, en­gi­neers and or­der­lies’ who faced up to the vet­eran as­sault troops of the Ja­panese army. In­evitably, his story is largely told through the eyes of the Bri­tish, as it is Bri­tish let­ters and diaries and re­ports that are avail­able to re­search schol­ars and the In­dian, Gurkha and Ja­panese sources are sel­dom ex­tant.

Per­haps the point that comes across most force­fully in Mr hol­land’s tale is the part played by the lead­er­ship in achiev­ing a vic­tory ‘not so much over the Ja­panese as over our fears’. Lord Mount­bat­ten, whose ‘van­ity and play­boy rep­u­ta­tion’ was more than out­weighed by his ‘youth, en­ergy and modern think­ing’, and Gen Bill Slim who—in con­trast — emerged from a work­ing­class back­ground to be­come an in­spi­ra­tional leader, be­tween them turned around the low morale of the east­ern Army.

This book not only re­veals pre­vi­ously un­known facts, it also makes one proud of the Bri­tish achieve­ment, both by the ‘clerks and or­der­lies’ and by se­nior com­man­ders. John Ure

Mule trains were key in bring­ing sup­plies to the front in Burma

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