BURMA INVASION

By Leonard Engel

Within the next few weeks, perhaps even before this article appears, Allied forces in India, including the U.S. Tenth Air Force, will take the offensive in Burma.

It has been widely assumed that the Burma campaign — for which we have waited so long and which will prove one of the most difficult operations the United Nations have undertaken — will take the form of a thrust from northeastern India into Upper Burma, fanning out eastward and southward to drive the Japs out, and that its dominating purpose is the reopening of the Burma Road, so that we may better munition our Chinese allies engaged against the main strength of the Japanese army. However, by reason of Burma's terrain, we are likely to see an altogether different sort of campaign, which also has the virtue of permitting still another objective, the early recapture of Singapore.

The first step of our Burma offensive may well be a gigantic "triphibious" operation against Burma's great south coast port, Rangoon, from the sea direction. (It is no accident that the newly-appointed Allied commander-in-chief for Southeast Asia is an admiral, Lord Louis Mountbatten.) Seizure of Rangoon, at the mouth of the Burma Mississippi, the Irrawaddy, would be followed by a drive up the Irrawaddy, the route the Japs followed a year and a half ago. Rangoon is well located as well for cutting the narrow Malay peninsula and thus isolating Singapore, except by sea.

Last year, small British forces drove into Burma as far as the Bay of Bengal port of Akyab. They were compelled to retire by the impossibility of operating over the Arakan Yoma, an almost uninhabited chain of 10,000-foot peaks along the Indian-Burmese frontier and down along the Burma coast as far as Cape Negrais. There are few passes and fewer roads through the steaming Arakan Yoma and, while air transport is enormously valuable, it cannot yet assume the entire burden of supplying an army in the field. The only practical way to overcome the Arakan Yoma is to go around it, which means going to the mouths of the Irrawaddy which takes up almost the entire Burma coast from Cape Negrais to the point where the shore swings south again.

The easily navigable Irrawaddy and its great parallel tributary to the west, the Chindwin, and another great parallel Burmese river, to the east, the Sittang, penetrate Burma nearly all the way to the northern border. The three rivers provide broad highways between the Arakan Yoma and the high plateau of eastern Burma (where the Burma Road begins). Moreover, the Irrawaddy valley, for most of its length, and the lower half of the Sittang valley, are host to a pair of convenient railways which we will be able to put to use a short time after capture, notwithstanding "Japanese earth-scorchers." (As shown on the Russian front, where Germans and Russians both have made earth-scorching a remarkable art, railroad lines cannot be put out of action for more than a few weeks.) And finally, these valleys also contain Burma's most valuable physical resource, the oilfields. An additional river, the Salween, still farther east, also parallels the Irrawaddy and, with the important port of Moulmein at its mouth, offers another south-to-north invasion route. The Salween bisects the high eastern plateau. But since there is no railway up the Salween and only a smallish part of it is navigable, the Salween route is of less significance.

Rangoon lies on the easternmost mouth of the Irrawaddy, 360 miles from the nearest point in India and 600 from Calcutta. Thus the forces approaching by sea can have strategical bombardment support (which will also precede the attack) from our prepared bases in Assam and Bengal. As the campaign progresses and our forces make headway up the Irrawaddy, our prepared bases will lie closer to the battle line still, a most unusual circumstance which will simplify the campaign in one small respect at least, Admiral Lord Mountbatten's air-sea-land force will, however, have to carry its own tactical bombardment and fighter protection with it. But this should not prove impractical, for the US and Britain can now afford to risk a considerable numbeirof carriers. Besides the scores of auxiliary carriers in commission in the two navies and so far used primarily for escort duties, but also used in such operations as the landings at Casablanca and Attu, the US, according to Navy Undersecretary Forrestal, has 14 fleet carriers in service and the British at least eight. Moreover, two or more British carriers formerly tied down in the Mediterranean are now free for other duties as a result of the surrender of the Italian fleet.

Before operations are undertaken against Rangoon itself, it may be necessary for us to neutralize some of the Andaman, Nicobar and other islands that string out for 600 miles below Cape Negrais. Fortunately, however, the most northerly, Preparis, Great Coco and Little Coco, are too small to base more than the smallest of outpost forces. The closest ones to Rangoon able to base considerable forces, North Andaman, Middle Andaman and South Andaman (50, 50 and 40 miles in length respectively) are more than 300 miles distant. In other words, Jap bombers from these islands (South Andaman contains the well developed harbor of Port Blair) attacking the rear of our forces operating at Rangoon would have to carry out their missions without effective fighter escort. So it may be possible for us to disregard the Andamans; at any rate, the most neutralization they are likely to require is a fairly frequent visit from US, AAF and RAF heavy bombers.

In contrast to our operations in the Pacific, where literally everything must be brought a minimum of 3000 miles (even supplies from Australia, for Australian industry is overwhelmingly concentrated in the southeast corner, around Melbourne and Sydney), much of the munitions and supplies needed for war in Burma are obtained near at hand, in Assam and Bengal. At Jamshedpur near Calcutta, for example, is the single largest steel mill in the British empire, the Tata Iron Works. Northeastern Indian industry can supply virtually everything necessary except planes, engines, heavy engineering equipment and medium and heavy guns. Shells, bullets, machine guns, etc, are right at hand.

On the other hand, the campaign in Burma suffers two serious handicaps, both largely political in origin, beside the handicap of the fact that the Japs are infinitely better prepared than Burma's defender of 1942. The first is the fact that the bulk of Burma's 15,000,000 inhabitants are bitterly anti-British and the Japanese have played their hand quite cleverly, giving Burma a phony independence which has been well dressed up to date. (Don't forget the thousands of Burmese fifth columnists who aided the Japanese advance.) The second is that a little known, but serious famine has raged through eastern India for the past five months and this takes its origin largely in the failure of the government of India to check hoarding food.

American participation in the Burma campaign will be largely in the air, in the form of Maj Gen Clayton Bissell's Tenth Air Force. The bulk of the ground troops will be from the Indian Army, which has several thousand fully trained and equipped men. (Some 2,000,000 have been recruited, but by no means all are ready soldiers.) American technical ground units, however, may also participate, and so may Chinese troops. The latter will certainly take part to the extent of exerting simultaneous pressure from the east. In that sense, American and Allied forces everywhere in the Pacific will participate, exerting pressure on the Japanese in their areas to prevent reinforcement of the enemy in Burma.

The task before these forces is formidable indeed. The prize they seek, however, is great. Not only will reconquest of Burma change the complexion of the war in China and bring Singapore within reach, but it will also bring southeast Asia within flying radius.

This article was originally published in the November, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 5, no 5, pp 20-21, 56.
The PDF of this article includes a full-page map indicating the intended route of the campaign and a column of small photos of seven aircraft types: B-17, B-24, B-25, B-26, P-40, Blenheim, and Wellington.
The original was printed on 10½ by 13½ paper. Images in the PDF have been reduced to print on letter-size paper.
Map credited to Nicholas Strychalski; photos credited to New York Times, Boeing Aircraft, Glenn L Martin, Consolidated Vultee, Harold Kulick, Rudy Arnold Photos, AAF.