1940s - March 1945
Battles of Meiktila and Mandalay
The battles of Meiktila and Mandalay were extremely significant battles in the war between the Allies and the Empire of Japan (after Imphal and Kohima battles). They changed as well the course of Burmese history. In Cairo in November 1943 the leaders of the new “United Nations”, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek, agreed on an overland invasion of Burma, to restore links between India and China. In June 1944, Allied forces decisively defeated the Japanese at the battles of Kohima and Imphal (the “Stalingrad” of Asia). The British 14th army then descended into the Chindwin valley. This was the largest Commonwealth fighting force in the world, with Indian, British, African, Gurkha and other units, totally over 1 million men by late 1944. The Allies then prepared to cross the Irrawaddy. It would be the longest opposed river crossing in all of WW2.
On 14 February 1945, motorized British Indian battalions including over 100 tanks crossed the Irrawaddy river at Pakkoku-Nyaung-U and then pushed straight to Meiktila. This was a dramatic move that caught the Japanese entirely by surprise. The “Japanese Burma Area Army” under General Kimura Hyotaro had lost 55,000 men at Imphal and Kohima were expected the main Allied thrust would be further north near Mandalay. In a historic failure of military communications, a Japanese officer on Mount Popa had signaled a desperate warning that 2,000 Allied vehicles were driving towards Meiktila. But the Japanese Burma Area Army HQ assumed this was a mistake and he must have meant 200 vehicles! On 5 March Meiktila fell to the 17th Indian Division and the 255th Indian Tank Brigade (part of General Frank Messervy’s 4th Corps of the 14th Army). The “Battle of Meiktila” was the only biggest tank battle ever in Burmese history.
The Japanese launched a fierce counterattack but by late March retreated south. By this time the Allies had seized Mandalay as well (more on the battle of Mandalay next week). The Japanese had attempted a fierce defense of the old royal city but lost to the overwhelming land and air forces of the Allies, including B-25 Mitchell bombers. 30,000 men were killed or wounded (on both sides) in these two battles. The war in Burma was then essentially won. The 14th Army moved quickly to Rangoon, captured the capital just as the Monsoon rains were beginning.
Elsewhere, the Axis powers were in full retreat. Manila had just been liberated, Tokyo firebombed, and the Americans victorious at the battle of Iwo Jima. Allied forces had just crossed the Rhine and Soviet tank armies were within striking distance of Berlin. Within a month Germany would surrender, Japan three months later. If the Allies had not captured Meiktila and Mandalay in early 1945, Burma’s post-war history would have been entirely different. Rangoon would have been under Japanese occupation at the time of surrender in August 1945. The British 14th Army would not have accepted any moves by the Burma National Army to switch sides. The leadership of the Burma National Army would almost certainly have been imprisoned, likely hanged for treason. The British may then have tried to impose their post-war plans on Burma (as outlined in the “White Paper” of May 1945 without General Aung San and his colleagues). Exactly what would have happened next is anyone’s guess.
The image below is of Lee Tanks south of Mandalay 20 March 1945.