23 December 1941 - 21 February 1942
When Australia changed Burmese history
On 21 Feburary 1942, Australia changed Burmese history. On 23 December 1941 the Japanese began aerial bombing of Rangoon, then crossed the border from Thailand, seizing Moulmein at the end of January. On 15 February, Singapore, Britain's "impregnable" fortress in the Far East, fell and 80,000 Allied troops were captured. On 19 February, the Australian town of Darwin was attacked by the Japanese. By late February, the Japanese 15th Army were fast approaching Rangoon, defeating the 17th Indian Division, and crossing the Sittang River in strength on 23 February. The Allies had a single division in the Shan states and Rangoon was virtually unprotected. At the same time, two Divisions of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) - the Australian 6th and 7th Divisions - were sailing east after successful operations against the Germans in North Africa and Syria. Winston Churchill, with the support of President Roosevelt, ordered the lead 7th Division (under General A.S. "Tubby" Allen) with 17,000 men to divert to Burma and urgently reinforce the defence of Rangoon. Over an exchange of angry cables from 19 to 22 February, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin refused, believing the troops might be needed to defend Australia itself. The British 7th Armoured Brigade (the "Desert Rats") did arrive in Rangoon later in February but it was too late. The Japanese took Pegu on 7 March, Rangoon was evacuated the same day. The refusal of the Churchill's order was a defining moment in Australian history. It was also a critical juncture in Burmese history. What would have happened if the 7th Division had landed in Rangoon (or both the 6th and 7th Divisions, as Churchill first proposed) and, moreover, what if the Japanese had been repelled? There would have been no Japanese occupation and the course of later Burmese history would have been entirely different. (The photo is of Burmese kids with Australian soldiers later in the war. Several hundred Australians served in the Burma campaign 1943-5).