Saturday, 16 November 2013

World of Tanks History Section: Battles for Burma Road

On December 8th, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Thailand. On December 25th, the government of Taiwan made peace with Japan, and agreed to a military alliance. The next target for the Japanese was Burma. There were two reasons for this. One was that Burma was a supplier of food (mainly rice) and oil for the British Empire. The other was that China was receiving Lend-Lease aid through a 717 mile long passage known as the Burma Road.

Lieutenant-General Hatton was in charge of Burma's defense. He predicted that the Japanese will come through the Tenasserin district, in the south part of Burma. However, he could not establish a solid defense, and not because he was a poor commander. His forces were of questionable quality. Most of the soldiers were either Burmese or Indian, who hated each other. A lesser part of the army consisted of British soldiers, who could be described as "military pensioners". The English weren't particularly beloved by the Burmese either.

The Chinese knew the importance of Burma, and offered Great Britain their help. Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang party leader, offered 11 divisions to the British during the conference in Chongqing on December 19th, 1941. The British, afraid that the Chinese that enter Burma would never leave, refused. Post-war historians concluded that the presence of a large Chinese force in the region could have greatly altered the situation in favour of the British Empire.

And so, the Japanese attacked Tenasserin. General Hatton's foresight helped little. By January 20th, 1942, the Japanese controlled a significant chunk of Burma, and air raids on Rangoon started on December 23rd, 1941.

In March of 1942, American Brigadier-General Joseph-Stilwell arrived in Burma. This man played a large part in the destruction of Japanese forces in Burma. Chiang Kai-shek gave Stilwell the command of two armies, the 5th and 6th, that were closer to a division in size. These armies entered Burma on March 1st, 1942. Stilwell proposed that a Chinese soldier, if fed, trained, and competently commanded, would fight just as good as a European or American one. His assertion was about to be tested.

On March 3rd, Japanese forces began their attack on Rangoon. By March 7th, the British understood that the loss of the city is inevitible. General Alexander, who replaced Hatton, ordered an evacuation. On March 8th, 1942, Japanese forces entered the city.

After capturing Rangun, General Yida was ordered to take his 15th army north, and defeat the Chinese forces. The Japanese expected the poorly trained and armed Chinese to not last very long against them. The 200th mechanized division, armed, in part, with Soviet T-26 tanks, turned out to be a nasty surprise. It fought in an encirclement for 2 weeks, broke out, and rejoined the rest of the Chinese forces.

By the end of May of 1942, Burma was entirely in the hands of the Japanese. The Burma Road, China's lifeline, was cut. The defeat hit Allied morale hard, to the point where General Stilwell was the only one itching for revenge. In an interview in Deli, he admitted that the Japanese dealt them an embarassing defeat, and it was necessary to find out how. After that, Stilwell reasoned, it is necessary to gather forces and return to Burma.

In June of 1942, Joseph Stilwell left for Chongqing to talk to Chiang Kai-shek. There, the general offered to establish training camps in India for Chinese soldiers, supplying them with instructors and equipment, and America footing the bill. Chiang Kai-shek promised any amount of men. There was one administrative problem: the British refused to let large amounts of Chinese into India. This was the fault of the government, rather than the military. While these debates went on, Stilwell offered another solution: build another road. This falls outside the scope of this article, but let's just say the road was built. Today it is known as the Ledo Road, or Stilwell Road.

Stilwell received the permission to train Chinese soldiers in Ramgar, India, in the end of 1942. The general expected to begin liberation of Burma in 1943. 13 000 Chinese recruits flew to India. They were taught to use modern weapons, and mastered tactical techniques of Western armies. Stilwell planned to train 30 divisions in total.

In 1943, the Temporary Tank Group was formed. At first, it was a mix of American and Chinese crews, but eventually the group was composed on only Chinese tankers. The group was armed with M4A4 Sherman and M3 Stuart tanks, taken from Indian reserves. The group started active combat in Burma in 1944.

In their advance on Mainkwan in March, the Chinese tankers were to strike at the Japanese 18th division. The task was difficult, as the Chinese did not have much combat experience, and the Japanese fought fiercely and skillfully. In order to mitigate losses, Stilwell tried to flank the Japanese whenever possible. So the Japanese do not retreat and regroup, he would engage them with one or two infantry battalions, similar to the Japanese tactics against the British in 1942.

The tank group was to flank the 18th division. The path was blocked by jungle. The first 10 miles were cleared by bulldozer. After that, the tanks followed foot paths. After crossing the river, the assault was sudden. The HQ of the 18th division was captures, and Tanaka, the division commander, barely escaped.

The Japanese fought with infantry, artillery, and a small number of Ha-Go tanks, as well as several T-26 tanks captured from the Chinese.

The tank group fought the 18th division once more in April. The battle was much more fierce. The assault was much slower, impeded by Japanese mountain guns and grenades. The jungles burned from phosphorous incendiary shells. Regardless, the Japanese tanks could not offer much resistance against Chinese Shermans, and were mostly used to support infantry from static positions. The Japanese insist that they destroyed 40 Shermans in that battle. Since the group possessed 33 Shermans, that assertion is amusing. Stilwell himself reported that he lost only 3 tanks.

The last stage of Burma's liberation was the capture of the Japanese base and airport in Myitkyina. 4500 Japanese soldiers were garrisoned at that base. Led by General Mizukami Genzu, they repelled combined Chinese, British, and American assaults by land and air. On August 3rd, when only 184 soldiers remained, Genzu ordered an evacuation and committed suicide.

After the loss of Myitkyina, the Japanese were no longer able to threaten the Burma Road.

Original article available here.

1 comment:

  1. No mention of the 14th Army, who did most of the fighting in Burma, and had substantial armour?