Operation Cannibal

This was the British first offensive in the Arakan western coastal region of Japanese-occupied Burma undertaken by Major General W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 14th Division with the apparently realisable final objective of seizing Akyab island by amphibious assault (22 December 1942/11 May 1943).

The resulting 1st Arakan Campaign was the first British offensive into Burma after the country’s conquest by the Japanese 'B' (iii) earlier in 1942 but, as events were to prove, the British-led British and Indian forces were not yet ready for offensive action in the geographically and climatically difficult operational area they encountered, and their task was rendered still more difficult by the fact the governmental, industrial and communications infrastructure of eastern India was as yet inadequately organised to support military operations along the frontier with Burma.

Located in well-prepared positions, the Japanese defence was therefore able to drive back the British and Indian forces, who were then forced to retreat when the Japanese received reinforcements and began their own small but well-conceived and well-executed counter-offensive.

The situation along the border region between Burma and eastern India was in fact little altered from that which had emerged in May 1942, when the surviving Allied forces had retreated from Burma together with large numbers of refugees. Although the Japanese had brought their advance in the north-west of Burma to a halt along the line of the Chindwin river, primarily as a result of the onset of heavy monsoon rains, which had rendered impassable the few roads and many tracks through the mountainous frontier region between Burma and north-eastern India, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell’s British India Command feared that this was merely a seasonal pause and that the Japanese would resume their advance after the monsoon had ended and ground conditions improved, all the more so as the government of India and the state governments of the eastern provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa faced widespread disorder and a growing shortage of food which would eventually become the disastrous Bengal famine of 1943.

The British took advantage of the Japanese halt to undertake a reorganisation of their command structure in eastern India. Lieutenant General Sir Charles Broad’s Eastern Army, headquartered at Ranchi in Bihar, had been created as what was basically a peacetime administrative headquarters for depots and units stationed in eastern India, but now found itself in control of both a very large rear communications area and the troops along the frontier with Burma, both of these being tasks for which it had not been conceived. The Eastern Army’s first-line formations were Lieutenant General N. M. S. Irwin’s Indian IV Corps, headquartered at Imphal in Manipur, and the newly formed Indian XV Corps, commanded from 9 June 1942 by Lieutenant General W. J. Slim, with its headquarters at Barrackpore, near Calcutta. The Indian XV Corps in turn commanded Major General W. L. Lloyd’s Indian 14th (Light) Division, stationed around Chittagong and on its southern edge facing the Burmese coastal province of Arakan, and Major General T. G. G. Heywood’s Indian 26th Division in the Ganges river delta area.

The Indian 14th Division had been raised at Quetta in Baluchistan and was originally intended to form part of the Allied forces in Iraq and Persia and, while fully formed and equipped, lacked training, particularly in the unique skills demanded by jungle warfare. The Indian 26th Division was still forming, and was engaged in training and in internal security duties.

Wavell had started to develop plans for offensives into Burma even as Allied troops were still retreating into north-western India. An inescapable factor conditioning the majority of these plans and schemes was the absolute necessity, on most parts of the front, for roads and other lines of communications to be improved or, in a large number of cases, constructed from scratch before the launching of offensives could be considered in any realistic way. This was a task which would take at least a year. On the Arakan front, however, the distances were comparatively short and the necessary communications could theoretically be completed by the time the south-west monsoon ended in October. In the event, the time required to improve the poor roads in the region delayed the start of the offensive until mid-December 1942.

On 29 July Broad retired and Irwin became his successor as commander of Eastern Army, Irwin’s position at the head of the Indian IV Corps being taken by Lieutenant General G. A. P. Scoones. Irwin informed Slim that the headquarters of the Eastern Army and of the Indian XV Corps were to exchange places for the offensive: the headquarters of the Eastern Army would move to Barrackpur and take direct command of the Arakan offensive, while the headquarters of the Indian XV Corps would relocate to Ranchi to restore order in Bihar, and raise and train fresh divisions for later combat in Burma.

The limited goal of the British advance planned for implementation in Arakan during the dry season of 1942/43 was Akyab, an estuarial island at the confluence of the Kaladan, Mayu and Lay Mro rivers emptying into the Bay of Bengal. This island had a port and an all-weather airfield, both of which were prominent in Allied plans for the reconquest of Burma. Fighter and transport aircraft, operating over a radius of 250 miles (400 km) from Akyab, could cover most of central Burma, and medium bombers operating from Akyab could range out to 350 miles (565 km) or more and thus reach Rangoon, the capital of Burma.

Akyab lies off the southern end of the Mayu peninsula, which is characterised by the Mayu range of narrow but precipitous and jungle-covered hills, which separate the narrow coastal plain from the fertile rice-growing valley of the Kalapanzin river, which becomes the Mayu river below the town of Buthidaung. The only permanently established route across the range was a disused railway track, converted into a road, which linked Buthidaung with the port of Maungdaw on the west coast of the peninsula.

Wavell’s plan for the capture of Akyab was ‘Cannibal’. It was originally planned in September 1942 that Akyab would be taken by an amphibious assault launched by Brigadier F. W. Festing’s British 29th Brigade as the Indian 14th Division made a subsidiary advance down the Mayu peninsula, but the amphibious part of the plan had then to be dropped because the 29th Brigade and the necessary landing craft could not be made available in time. Instead, it was now planned that once the Indian 14th Division had reached Foul Point at the extreme southern end of the Mayu peninsula, it would improvise an attack by Brigadier H. E. F. Smyth’s British 6th Brigade across the narrow channel which separated Akyab island from the peninsula. By a time late in December, five motor launches, 72 landing craft and three paddle steamers were available for this task.

In the heavily jungled border region dividing Burma and India, the monsoon had effectively separated the antagonists, and afforded the British-led forces a measure of respite after their long retreat through Burma. On 17 September 1942 Wavell ordered Irwin to achieve two objectives during the dry season between October 1942 and May 1943, namely the development of communications for the purpose of reconquering Burma and opening the Burma Road for renewed overland delivery of war supplies to China, and bringing the Japanese to battle in order to wear down their strength, most especially in the air. To attain these objectives Wavell laid down four initial objectives: first, the capture of Akyab island and the reoccupation of upper Arakan; second, the strengthening of the British positions in the Chin hills; third, the occupation of Kalewa and Sittaung on the Chindwin river and the use of these strengthened positions to to launch raids on the Japanese lines of communication (Wavell had already ordered Brigadier O. C. Wingate to raise and train a ‘Chindit’ long-range penetration brigade for this purpose); and fourth, the development and implementation of all the administrative arrangements required to support a rapid advance into upper or lower Burma should the opportunity present itself.

It was the first element of Irwin’s second task that was to be achieved by ‘Cannibal’, which was thus the first attempt by the British-led forces to capture Akyab, in this instance during the dry season of October 1942 to March 1943.

The Japanese forces in Arakan were centred on experienced units whose soldiers were characterised by high morale as a result of their record of success, operating under battle-tested commanders, and forming homogeneous units which had fought in China and taken a major part in the successful conquest of Burma. The British and Indian units, on the other hand, had not previously been in action, included many new recruits, and had originally been trained and equipped for a different type of warfare.

Colonel Kosuke Miyawaki’s 213th Regiment, comprising the 2/213th Regiment and 3/213th Regiment in Arakan, had moved south-west into Akyab during the summer of 1942 after pursuing the British and Indian forces from Yenangyaung, Myingan, Monywa, Shwegyin and finally Kalewa, which it had captured on 11 May. Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 33rd Division, of which the 213th Regiment formed a part, had advanced from Thailand for the initial invasion of Burma, but the 213th Regiment had been left in Thailand and not rejoined the rest of the division until after the fall of Rangoon. Thus the regiment was the freshest of the division’s elements, had suffered the least number of casualties during the conquest of Burma, and was therefore still full of fight.

As the Indian 14th Division started its progress to the south from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar and beyond, Miyawaki in mid-October sent his 2/213th Regiment up the Mayu river by launch to occupy the east/west line linking Buthidaung and Maungdaw via the ‘Tunnels’ Road (the only all-weather road in this region of Burma during 1942/43), where it first made contact with the 1/15th Punjab Regiment on 23 October. On 21 September Irwin had ordered the Indian 14th Division to move toward Akyab to forestall the Japanese arrival on the Buthidaung/Maungdaw line.

It is worth noting that earlier in the year the Indian 14th Division had been earmarked for operations in Burma, but the fall of Rangoon had prevented its arrival. Then, after the British defeat in Burma, a special committee had reported that one of the reasons for this defeat was the over-modernisation of Indian divisions, and a number of divisions were accordingly reorganised as ‘light divisions’ with their transport mainly on a Jeep and animal basis. The Indian 14th Division, which recently had been responsible for the defence of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, was not one of the formations reorganised on these lines. The division consisted of Brigadier E. H. Blacker’s Indian 47th Brigade, Brigadier J. M. Hunt’s Indian 55th Brigade, Brigadier L. C. Thomas’s Indian 88th Brigade and Brigadier A. V. Hammond’s Indian 123rd Brigade, whose Indian battalions came mainly from the dry areas of the Punjab, Baluchistan and Rajputana, and were wholly unaccustomed to the humid air and malarial swamps of Arakan. Later another brigade joined the division.

For its task in 'Cannibal', the Indian 14th Division was supported by a special reconnaissance force (‘V’ Force) hidden, with its wireless sets, in the hills, and No. 2000 Flotilla, a scratch collection of steamboats, launches and sampans, to help the units across and down the rivers and to supply them.

Located on Burma’s north-west coast, Arakan is a region of steep and densely forested hill ranges up to a height of 2,000 ft (610 m), running parallel with each on a basically north/south axis and separated by narrow cultivated valleys occupied by with rice paddies, mangroves and tidal creeks. The coastal strip from Maungdaw to Foul Point at the tip of the Mayu peninsula, opposite Akyab island, is 45 miles (72.5 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) wide in the north, but tapers to little more than a wide spit at Foul Point. To the east is the winding Mayu river, which is called the Kalapanzin river in its upper reaches, flanked by swamps of elephant grass and bamboo, and divided by steep limestone ridges 150 ft (45 m) high. East of the Mayu valley rises the maze-like mass of the Arakan Tracts, reaching eastward as far as the valley of the Kaladan river, and 2,500 ft (760 m) high. Farther to the east again are the Arakan Yomas. In the dry season, fair-weather tracks for wheeled vehicles can be made over the dry paddies and along the coastal strip at low tide. From mid-May to October the rain, within the context of a 200-in (5.1-m) annual total, is almost constant, and a host of tropical diseases is hyper-endemic. In the dry season from November to March the weather is delightful.

As the Indian 14th Division advanced, its line of communication from the nearest railhead, well to the north at Chittagong in southern-eastern India, was by sea from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar, thence by motor transport to Tumbru at the head of the Naf river estuary, sampans on the Naf to Bawli Bazar, and pack transport thereon. Despite the fact that he was also allocated several motor launches and landing craft as well as three paddle-steamers, by 17 November Lloyd could still not guarantee the maintenance of anything more than four battalions to attack the Japanese.

Being able to apply superior strength was always a problem for the British forces in Arakan. Though outnumbered, the Japanese had the benefit of more effective training in watermanship and were thus able to take advantage of all types of river transport, especially as Akyab island was at the hub of the network of rivers extending to the north and north-east. The availability of water communication therefore allowed the Japanese to switch units and equipment from one valley to another without difficulty, whereas the Indian 14th Division’s lines of approach from the north were divided laterally from each other by virtually inaccessible ridges.

By December 1942, the Japanese air situation in the South-West Pacific Area had become so grave, as a result of the losses consequent on the 'Watchtower' campaign on Guadalcanal, that two brigades of the Japanese army air force were despatched from Burma, leaving Lieutenant General Hideyosho Obata’s (from 1 May Lieutenant General Noburo Tazoe’s) 5th Air Division with only about 50 fighters and 90 medium bombers for the whole of the Burma front to meet a growing Allied air strength. The RAF’s No. 224 Group, led by Air Commodore G. E. Wilson (from 2 January 1943 Air Commodore A. Gray) and comprising six squadrons of Hawker Hurricane fighters, two squadrons of Bristol Blenheim and Bristol Bisley light bombers, and one squadron of Bristol Beaufighter multi-role fighters (totalling about 120 aircraft), was ordered to support the Indian 14th Division’s advance. At this time the squadrons had not been trained in close air support, the Hurricanes were not fitted with bomb racks, and there were no ground controllers moving with the brigades, so the group’s efforts were initially of little value to the infantry. Thus the aircraft were operated primarily for interdiction along the sparse Japanese supply routes, including the sea lanes to Akyab.

In fact, during the first year of campaigning in Arakan, the RAF had very little effect on the ground campaign apart from the moral support that might be provided by the sound of their aircraft’s engines. Except at high altitude the Hurricane was no match for the Japanese fighters, and the RAF had no long-range fighters available to sustain an offensive against the Japanese air bases. However, the RAF did slowly begin to win air superiority, which made efficient close air support, as well as vital air supply, possible later.

All these administrative and training shortcomings afflicting the British forces help to explain how Miyawaki, with a maximum of only two battalions on the mainland, could check 12 battalions of infantry supported by six batteries of artillery for a period of 13 weeks from initial contact on 23 October 1942 to 22 January 1943, when the first detachments of Lieutenant General Takeshi Koga’s 55th Division started to arrive in the Akyab area.

The primary tactical difficulty faced by Lloyd was how to apply his strength. Irwin’s original plan had been for an amphibious assault on Akyab accompanied by a land advance to the south along the Mayu peninsula to Foul Point. But by the end of October Wavell had come to the conclusion that a direct attack by sea, in which transport vessels and warships would be exposed to heavy air attack for a minimum of three days, was no longer practicable. Irwin therefore decided to use Smyth’s British 6th Brigade of Major General J. M. L. Grover’s British 2nd Division to land on Akyab island with the help of five motor launches, 72 landing craft and three paddle-steamers which Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Eastern Fleet had placed at his disposal, as soon as Lloyd had advanced to Foul Point. The speed of the overland advance was therefore vital. However, Irwin postponed Lloyd’s advance in order to give him time to improve his communications, so that he could bring an extra brigade to bear.

This delayed Lloyd by three weeks so that just when he was about to attack, Miyawaki withdrew his 2/213th Regiment facing Lloyd to a general line linking Gwedauk and Kondon, so drawing Lloyd farther away from his base. The Indian 14th Division finally made contact again on 22 December, when it attacked on each side of the Mayu range and also detached one battalion to reach and then advance down the Kaladan river. The Japanese repulsed all the attacks, but the width of the front forced Miyawaki to commit his only other unit, the 3/213th Regiment, on 29 December, and further British attacks were repulsed. Having got the measure of their foe, the Japanese now started to harass Lloyd’s two forward brigades with small night patrol attacks and sudden mortar bombardments, which startled the Indian 14th Division’s inexperienced troops and led them to believe that there were many more Japanese opposing them than just two battalions. During this period, however, Miyawaki took the risk of leaving the defence of Akyab island to his anti-aircraft gunners, supported by administrative personnel.

During a visit with Wavell to the front at Donbaik on 10 December, Irwin criticised Lloyd for dispersing his force so widely that he had insufficient strength on the coast, and instructed Lloyd to concentrate for a breakthrough at Donbaik. However, two more attacks by the Indian 14th Division on its two objectives, Rathedaung on the eastern side of the Mayu estuary and Donbaik on the south-eastern end of the Mayu peninsula, during the course of the first two weeks of January, once again failed. Repeated attacks by fresh troops on 18/19 January also came to nought and suffered fairly heavy losses.

Early in January, Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida, commanding the 15th Army, realising the importance of Akyab and the growing threat to it, ordered Koga to move his 55th Division from the area of Prome on the Irrawaddy river to hold Akyab. The 55th Division was a battle-hardened veteran of the China campaign and had moved forward from Thailand to Burma in 1942. During the previous year, it had fought through from Moulmein in the south via Pegu, Toungoo, and Mandalay to Bhamo and the Chinese frontier. Koga now ordered a rapid overland advance via Pakokku to the Kaladan river valley, and at the same time opened an administrative sea route from Toungup to Akyab. He ordered the 213th Regiment to hold the line between Rathedaung, Laungchaung and Donbaik at all costs.

On 22 January aircraft of Gray’s No. 224 Group attacked the Japanese columns on the Pakokku trail. Irwin reinforced Lloyd with the British 6th Brigade (commanded since 6 January by Brigadier R. V. C. Cavendish) and Brigadier G. G. C. Bull’s Indian 71st Brigade of Lomax’s Indian 26th Division, artillery, and eight Valentine infantry tanks. On 1 February, after a heavy but badly co-ordinated RAF bombardment and with the support of the Valentine tanks, these fresh troops attacked the Japanese dug-in position at Donbaik, but after repeated assaults and heavy casualties over a period of two days, were thrown back. Two days later similar frontal attacks on Rathedaung also failed.

The Japanese had won the race to Akyab, for by the end of February Koga had assembled his 55th Division, less one battalion, in that area. Iida expected Koga to consolidate, but the latter saw that the six British and Indian brigades under Lloyd’s command were split up by rivers and ranges into three quite separate groupings, with his own forces holding a central position at the confluence of the Arakan rivers.

Koga realised that he had been presented with an excellent opportunity to counterattack Lloyd’s scattered brigades and destroy them piecemeal, and therefore created a three-phase plan. First, the British and Indian forces in the Kaladan valley were to be overwhelmed by Colonrel K. Miyawaki’s ‘Miyawaki’ Force (one infantry battalion and one mountain artillery battalion). Then the brigade to the east of the Mayu river was to be encircled by Colomrel S. Tanahashi’s ‘Tanahashi’ Force (two infantry battalions and one mountain artillery regiment) operating from Rathedaung and supported by a flank advance by Miyawaki from the Kaladan. Finally, the combined forces of this right hook, resupplied by launches moving up the Mayu river, would cross the river and the Mayu range to seize Indin. This would cut off the British and Indian brigades threatening the line between Donbaik and Laungchaung. Koga left one battalion to hold Akyab and three battalions (Colonel M. Uno’s ‘Uno’ Force) to hold the Mayu peninsula.

Meanwhile, Lloyd was reorganising his formation for another attack on Donbaik, but Irwin was aware of supply difficulties and danger from the eastern flank and ordered Lloyd to pull back his formation, intending to replace the Indian 14th Division with the Indian 26th Division. Under pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Wavell felt that it was essential for the morale of the whole Indian Army to score some sort of victory, rather than ignominiously retreat after suffering what were, by European standards, quite minor casualties. So on 26 February Wavell directed Irwin to order Lloyd to attack Donbaik again with two brigades and to destroy ‘the numerically insignificant opposition’. Irwin delayed the attack but also the withdrawal.

By 21 February the first phase of Koga’s plan had started. By 7 March the ‘Miyawaki’ Force had cleared the Kaladan river valley as far as Kyauktaw, and the ‘Tanahashi’ Force had captured Rathedaung. The British 6th Brigade, with six British and Indian battalions, complied with Wavell’s orders and on 18 March carried out a set-piece attack on the ‘Uno’ Force dug in at Donbaik, but fell back after receiving only 300 casualties out of its 6,000 men.

With the ‘Miyawaki’ Force and ‘Tanahashi’ Force now poised on the eastern bank of the Mayu river, and the ‘Uno’ Force as the anvil after withstanding the attack at Donbaik, Koga launched the third phase of his attack, starting on the night of 24/25 March. The 5th Air Division gave Koga’s ground forces all the support it could. Tanahashi sent one of his battalions to the north-west in order to sever the coastal road at Gyindaw while he, with the remaining two battalions of his force, advanced on Indin. In spite of a strenuous counterattack and exhortations from their commanders, the Indian 14th Division’s brigades on the coastal plain were unable to stop Tanahashi’s advance, which occupied Indin on 6 April, thus cutting off 11 British and Indian battalions and attached troops to the south of that point. After an attack by a third brigade from the north had failed to remove this block, the British 6th Brigade managed to escape with its transport along the beach at low tide, but the Indian 47th Brigade had to leave all its transport and guns and retreat in small dispersal groups through the jungle.

Koga had completed his three-phase encirclement of the British and Indian brigades in a single month, exactly according to plan, and had inflicted severe casualties on a much larger force. With seven battalions and one pack regiment of artillery he had temporarily destroyed the Indian 47th Brigade and defeated the Indian 4th, British 6th and Indian 71st Brigades with their three regiments of artillery, a total of seven British and 10 Indian battalions.

With the arrival of his fresh 2/214th Regiment to bring his division up to full strength, Koga saw his opponents decidedly on the back foot and requested Iida’s permission to continue to attack until the monsoon. Iida, who trusted Koga, gave him carte blanche.

Meanwhile, Lloyd had been replaced by Lomax and his 26th Division headquarters. Slim, commanding the Indian XV Corps and whose duties during the past seven months had been to suppress the insurgency campaign in Bengal led by the Indian Congress Party, was placed in overall command of the Arakan front on 5 April. Slim had been in active command of the British and Indian forces in their 1,000-mile (1600-km) retreat from Burma in the previous year and, as was his wont, had learned much from the energy and skill of his opponents, who were trained to expect and to fight against all odds. On taking practical command, Slim found a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. Most of the units now under command of the Indian 26th Division had had their morale lowered by abortive attacks on Rathedaung and Donbaik, and then had been levered out of their own defensive positions by the Japanese capacity for manoeuvre, flank attack and ability to bring all their men and weapons, despite their numerical inferioriority, to bear at a decisive point.

All the units on the Arakan front, especially the Indian battalions, were frustrated, bewildered and at a low ebb of morale. Slim ordered Lomax to hold the Maungdaw/Buthidaung line via the ‘Tunnels’ road. He reinforced Lomax’s four brigades (Brigadier A. W. Lowther’s Indian 4th Brigade and Brigadier P. H. Gates’s Indian 55th Brigade in addition to the British 6th and Indian 71st Brigades) with Brigadier L. C. Thomas’s Indian 36th Brigade, bringing the force to a total of seven British, 11 Indian and one Gurkha battalions.

Meanwhile, Koga had eight battalions available for attack. He left one battalion to contain the British forces on the coastal strip, and one battalion with a mountain artillery regiment (‘Miyawaki’ Force) to hold the British and Indian forces east of the Mayu river. He divided his remaining six battalions, each supported by pack artillery, into the ‘Uno’ and ‘Tanahashi’ Forces, and gave them the task of seizing Buthidaung and the ‘Tunnels’ Road line and then wheeling left to capture Maungdaw. At this juncture the ‘Miyawaki’ Force, east of the Mayu, would advance directly to the north and capture Taung Bazar.

The Japanese started their advance on 23 April. The ‘Uno’ Force met stubborn resistance at Kanthe, so the ‘Tanahashi’ Force bypassed Kanthe by advancing along the sharp Mayu range and seized Point 551 overlooking the ‘Tunnels’ area of the Maungdaw/Buthidaung road. Lomax cleverly formed an open box to trap the advancing Japanese between his Indian 4th and British 6th Brigades to the west and his Indian 55th Brigade to the east, with his Indian 71st Brigade in the north forming the lid.

The Japanese launched their northward drive in earnest on 2 May and, by the following day the sides of the box had crumbled and the lid had opened ‘without adequate reason’. Lomax’s plan had been basically sound, but the inadequate training and poor morale of the British and Indian troops led to an inevitable failure. As Buthidaung and the ‘Tunnels’ area fell to the Japanese, Slim realised how badly his superior forces had once again been defeated in the jungle and wanted to retreat 60 miles (100 km) right back to Cox’s Bazar, into open country where he felt his troops could oppose the Japanese on ground more suitable to their training and armament. Irwin refused to countenance this idea of a major withdrawal, however, and ordered Slim to hold the line between Bawli Bazar, Goppe Bazar and Taung Bazar, only 20 miles (32 km) to the north of the line between Maungdaw and Buthidaung, and gave Lomax a sixth brigade, with orders to prepare a counterattack for the surprise recapture of Maungdaw.

But Slim played for time until the arrival of the monsoon stopped any further fighting. By 11 May Koga had again won a striking victory over superior forces. The partial failure of the British plan of demolitions, and the disappearance in panic of all the civilian labour on which the British and Indian forces had placed great reliance, resulted in very large quantities of supplies falling into Japanese hands. In view of the depth of the British retreat and the arrival of the monsoon, Koga now decided to take up a defensive position on the general line Buthidaung/Maungdaw with five battalions and a regiment of artillery, and to pull back the remainder of his division to Akyab for rest and recuperation. In 16 weeks he had caused the British and Indian forces more than 5,000 battle casualties (916 killed and 4,141 wounded or missing), while his own losses had been fewer than 1,800 (611 dead and about 1,165 wounded).

The news of the British and Indian failure in Arakan, resulting in the loss of Buthidaung and Maungdaw, reached Washington just when the ‘Trident’ conference, which had been called to decide on future Allied policy in South-East Asia, was taking place. Wavell, commanding the Indian Army, and the commanders in Arakan were all severely criticised. Churchill ordered that new commanders must be found and battalions whose morale had broken should be severely disciplined.

Answers from India were that the Indian Army had been grossly over-expanded since Pearl Harbor and the best Indian units were serving in the Middle East, leaving a ‘second-class army’ to oppose the Japanese. Above all, jungle fighting required good infantry, but the infantry had also been milked of its best and most intelligent men to form technical corps like the expanded Indian artillery, previously manned wholly by the British. The loyalty of many of the Indian troops had moreover been undermined by subversion from the newly formed Indian Independence League, whose Indian National Army was fighting alongside the Japanese. British officers drafted into the Indian army had not had time to learn the language and get to know their men. Reinforcements to replace battle and malarial casualties had arrived piecemeal and many of them half-trained. Some units had been left in the front line for many months without relief. Congress-sponsored riots in August and September 1942, accompanied by poor distribution of food as a result of their depredations and destruction of communications, resulted in widespread famine in which 4 million had died, and this led to a disaffection among reinforcements moving through these areas to the battle line, so that they spread subversion among the forward troops.

Wavell was only too well aware that the failure in Arakan, following as it did the disasters of the Malayan and Burmese campaigns, had dealt the army in India a severe shock. Yet he knew that the Japanese were not invincible and had shown grave weaknesses of which advantage could be taken by a better trained army reinforced with self-confidence and self-respect. One undoubted advantage gained by the British was that during the year the RAF had begun to attain air superiority above the whole front. This in itself could be made into a battle-winning factor. The success of ‘Longcloth’, the first ‘Chindit’ operation, with its total reliance on air supply, offset the failures in Arakan and pointed the way to victory in the future.

Wavell appointed a special committee to report on the readiness for war of British and Indian infantry battalions in India, and to make recommendations for improvement. A new command set-up was created. Wavell was promoted to Viceroy of India to look after the civil side and to see that the population would support its armed forces. General Sir Claude Auchinleck was summoned from the Middle East to be commander-in-chief in India and to make the Indian sub-continent into an efficient administrative and training base from which the fighting forces could draw their strength. Eventually Auchinleck created a self-confident new model Indian Army which became one of the best fighting machines in the world by 1945. Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had previously been head of Combined Operations in the UK, was put in command of all the fighting forces in South-East Asia with his headquarters in Ceylon.

Brigades were now to be formed of one British, one Indian and one Gurkha battalion. Considerably greater reliance was to be placed on the Gurkhas, who had been represented by only one battalion in the Arakan debacle.

After ‘Longcloth’ had proved the reliability of air supply, this form of support would be developed and taught to all units so that they need never retreat or disintegrate if the Japanese got behind them. The RAF was persuaded to co-operate more fully in developing more reliable and accurate close air support for the army involving more intimate mutual signal arrangements and co-operation so that aircraft could take the place of artillery where necessary in the deep jungle.

All ranks were given more jungle, river, and night training so that they could feel that these features were on their side and not against them. Rations and methods of cooking in the forward areas were improved so that detachments could fend for themselves for many weeks, and special rations were issued during training to strengthen men before the start of operations so that they were capable of enduring long periods of hardship. Malaria, which was causing a hundred times more casualties than bullets or shells, was tackled by mepacrine, strict anti-malarial measures, and forward malarial treatment centres so that men needing treatment were not evacuated to base areas but remained in the line as a reserve to protect communications. This reform was one of the most effective means of ensuring that battalions in the line maintained their strength.

The results of the British command reorganisation were that General Sir George Giffard was appointed commander of a new 11th Army Group, with Slim, now commanding the 14th Army, as one of his subordinates. Lieutenant General A. F. P. Christison’s Indian XV Corps, operating in Arakan, came under Slim’s command.

On the other side of the front line, in March 1943 the Japanese created a new army-level formation, Lieutnant General Masakazu Kawabre’s Burma Area Army, to control operations in Burma. This new headquarters controlled the 15th Army in the north and east of Burma, and at first directly controlled formations and units in the south and west of the country. The 28th Army was created on 6 January 1944, under the command of Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai, to assume command of the latter.

On 18 March 1943 Iida had been replaced as commander of the 15th Army by Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, latterly the commander of the 18th Division. From the moment he took command, Mutaguchi forcefully (almost brutally) advocated a bold Japanese offensive into India during the campaigning season of 1944, although he had earlier dismissed the chances of such an attack succeeding. This 'U' was later endorsed by Imperial General Headquarters, and was launched in the following year to end in decisive Japanese defeat on the Battle of Kohima and the Battle of Imphal.