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