This was the British strategic offensive in central Burma developed from ‘Capital’ (i) but enlarged to include the capture of Meiktila in addition to Mandalay with the object of severing the main escape route to the south of Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army and Lieutenant General Masaki Honda’s 33rd Army, both part of General Hyotaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army (19 November 1944/30 March 1945).
This offensive by Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army was a logical successor to the events after the Japanese failure to take Imphal and Kohima in 'U', in which the 15th Army, then under the command of Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, had been pressed back through the Kabaw river valley to the Chindwin river. Commanding the Burma Area Army, Kimura appreciated that the British, probably with support from the US-supported Chinese formations of Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell’s Northern Combat Area Command, would break into central Burma with Mandalay as their objective, and so used the summer and autumn of 1944 to rebuild his shattered forces with a view to drawing the 14th Army into the Mandalay area and then inflicting a crushing defeat on it, which would have been a possibility, albeit a remote possibility, had the British adopted ‘Capital’ (i) rather than ‘Extended Capital’.
‘Extended Capital’ comprised the concurrent Battles of Meiktila and Mandalay, otherwise known collectively as the Battle of Central Burma, which were strategically decisive undertakings presaging the final defeat of the Japanese in Burma campaign. Despite major logistical difficulties, the British were able to deploy substantial armoured and mechanised forces into central Burma, and also possessed a decided supremacy in the air. Most of the remaining cohesive Japanese formations left in Burma were destroyed during the battles, after which the British were well placed to surge to the south down the lines of the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers toward the recapture of Rangoon, the capital of Burma, Rangoon, and the reoccupation of most of south central and southern Burma in the face of opposition which was sometimes determined but always disorganised.
The situation in which the Burma Area Army found itself from the late summer of 1944 was the result of its several defeats in the mountainous northern frontier regions of Burma. In particular, in the Battles of Kohima and Imphal in the Indian eastern state of Manipur, Mutaguchi’s 15th Army had suffered disastrous losses, the majority of them to disease and starvation as a result of the formation’s attempt to secure a decisive victory in 'U' over the British (thereby paving the way for a Japanese invasion of India) at the end of impossibly long and tenuous lines of communication over which there were no supplies to be sent even if there had been transport to carry them.
Their catastrophic defeat prompted the Japanese to effect major changes among their commanders and senior staff officers in Burma. On 1 September 1944, Kimura was appointed commander of the Burma Area Army in succession to Lieutenant General Masakazu Kawabe, whose health had broken down. At this stage of the war, the Japanese were in retreat on most fronts and were concentrating their resources for the defence of the homeland. Kimura had formerly been vice-minister for war, and had held other posts with responsibility for mobilising Japanese industry for the war effort. It was hoped that he could use the rice fields, factories and oil wells of Burma to make the Japanese forces in that theatre self-sufficient in logistical terms.
Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka was appointed as Kimura’s chief-of-staff, with everyday responsibility for operations. This officer had previously commanded the 18th Division in northern Burma, and possessed the reputation of being inflexibly determined. (In an exchange of roles in the aftermath of the 'U' disaster, Lieutenant General Eitaro Naka, the Burma Area Army's former chief-of-staff, took command of the 18th Division.) Another major command change saw the replacement of Mutaguchi as commander of the 15th Army on 30 August by Katamura, with a new chief-of-staff from 22 September in the form of Major General Gonpachi Yoshida in succession to Lieutenant General Todai Kunomura.
In proportion to the number of men deployed, the Japanese losses in Burma and India in 1944 had been huge, and these losses had been made good by drafts of conscripts, many of whom were not of the best physical categories. Kimura’s staff decided that henceforward the divisions of the Burma Area Army should each have a strength of just 10,000 men rather than the paper establishment of almost 25,000 men, but most divisions mustered barely half of even this reduced strength. As well as being numerical shadows of their former selves, these divisions lacked effective anti-tank weapons and, in the face of the larger numbers of steadily improving tanks fielded by the British and Indian divisions, had perforce to deploy pieces of field artillery in the front line, which rendered them vulnerable to the direct fire of British artillery and also adversely affected their ability to provide concentrated fire support to the infantry. The Japanese also had recourse to expedients such as lunge mines (an explosive charge on the end of a long pole), or suicide attacks by men wearing explosive charges, but these were ineffective if the British tanks were closely supported by infantry, as generally they were.
The Japanese were also handicapped by other losses. handicapped the Japanese. Lieutenant General Noburo Teizo’s (from 26 December 1944 Lieutenant General Takeshi Hattori’s) 5th Air Division, for example, had been reduced to just a few dozen largely obsolescent aircraft with which to oppose 1,200 more capable Allied aircraft, and the 14th Tank Regiment possessed only 20 wholly inferior tanks.
Kimura accepted that his forces stood little chance against the numerically and materially superior Allies in open terrain. He therefore intended that Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army would continued to defend the Arakan coastal region of western Burma, which the British needed for the airfields (especially on Ramree island) to support any amphibious assault on Rangoon, relying on the difficulty of the coastal terrain to slow the British advance; Lieutenant General Masaki Honda’s 33rd Army would continue to fight rearguard actions against the US and Chinese forces attempting to open a land route from India to China through northern Burma; and the 15th Army would withdraw to the area to the south-east of the great Irrawaddy river to oppose the inevitable British and Indian assault from the line of the Chindwin river toward Mandalay and Meiktila, and thence down the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers toward Rangoon.It was Kimura’s hope that the the 14th Army would be overstretched in trying to overcome the obstacle of the Irrawaddy river, perhaps to the extent at which the Japanese might even be able to attempt a counteroffensive.
Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command had begun to draft plans for the reconquest of Burma as early as June 1944, even as the Battle of Imphal was still being fought, although its outcome was clear. There were three main options. The first was to reoccupy only northern Burma as this would allow the Ledo Road to be completed, thus providing a renewed overland link between India and China: this option was rejected, as it could use only a fraction of the available forces and fulfilled only a strategic objective which was not obsolete. The second was the capture of Rangoon, the capital and main sea port, by means of an amphibious or even 'triphibious' invasion: this too was seen as impractical as it would require landing craft and other resources which would not be available until the end of the war in Europe. By default, the plan adopted was therefore the third option, namely an offensive into central Burma by the 14th Army with the object of retaking central and southern Burma from the north.
The operation associated with this third option, originally conceived as 'Capital' (i) for the capture of Mandalay in central Burma, was thereupon revised into 'Extended Capital' to add the subsequent pursuit to Rangoon.
In support of 'Extended Capital' by the 14th Army, Lieutenant General Sir Philip Christison’s Indian XV Corps would advance in the Arakan coastal province with the primary object of seizing or constructing airfields on the coast and the region’s offshore islands (especially Akyab, Ramree and Cheduba), which could be supplied by sea and could then be used as bases from which aircraft would supply and support Slim’s formations as they advanced to the south.
The US-led Northern Combat Area Command, consisting mainly of Chinese troops, would continue its advance to link with the Chinese armies attacking from Yunnan province in south-western China and thus facilitate the completion and operation of the Ledo Road linking China and India.
It was hoped that the operations of the Indian XV Corps and the NCAC would cause the Japanese to redeploy significant forces to these essentially peripheral areas, to the detriment of their strength on the decisive front in central Burma.
The problems facing the 14th Army were largely those of logistics. As they advanced, the British and Indian formations of the 14th Army would have to be supplied over crude roads stretching for distances far greater than were ever encountered in Europe. Although expedients such as locally constructed river transport and temporary all-weather coverings for roads (made from coarse hessian sacking impregnated with bitumen and Diesel oil) were to be used, transport aircraft were also vital for the supply of forward units. Operational disaster threatened as early as 16 December 1944, when 75 US transport aircraft were transferred without warning to the Chinese theatre, in which the Japanese 'Ichi' was threatening US airfields. Although other aircraft were transferred as quickly as possible from the Mediterranean theatre to offset the 14th Army’s air transport shortfall, continuing threats to deprive the 14th Army of US air transport capacity were constantly to worry Slim during the forthcoming battles.
So far as tactical air support was concerned, the 14th Army was supported by Air Vice Marshal S. F. Vincent’s (from 15 June Air Vice Marshal C. A. Bouchier’s) Imphal-based No. 221 Group of the RAF, which operated North American B-25 Mitchell attack and medium bombers, Hawker Hurricane and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers, and Bristol Beaufighter long-range fighter-bombers, as well as Supermarine Spitfire fighters and de Havilland Mosquito light bombers. The group could also call upon the Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of Air Commodore F. J. W. Mellersh’s Allied Strategic Air Force. The most important aspect of air support was probably Brigadier General F. W. Evans’s Combat Cargo Task Force, whose three groups included eight US and four British squadrons equipped with Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft. The 14th Army required 7,000 transport aircraft sorties per day during the maximum intensity of the fighting.
Most of the 14th Army’s divisions were on a mixed animal and mechanical transport establishment, which allowed them to operate in difficult terrain but restricted their tactical speed of movement to that of marching men or mules. In anticipation of fighting in the open country of central Burma, Slim reorganised two of his formations, Major General D. F. W. Warren’s (from 22 February 1845 Major General E. C. R. Mansergh’s) Indian 5th Division and Major General D. T. Cowan’s Indian 17th Division, as partly motorised and partly air-portable formations.
At this late stage of World War II, British infantry reinforcements and replacements had become notably scarce. Despite expedients such as the drafting of now largely redundant anti-aircraft gunners into infantry units, the strength of the 14th Army’s British formations and of the British units in its Indian formations was dropping, and Indian and Gurkha units were therefore to bear an increasingly larger burden in the fighting which followed.
Both the Allies and the Japanese suffered from a significant lack of intelligence about their opponents, and therefore made incorrect assumptions about their opponent’s intentions.
The Allies had undisputed air superiority, and made large-scale and effective use of air reconnaissance. Moreover, they received reports from behind the Japanese lines from the 'V' Force and 'Z' Force reconnaissance units, and the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136 resistance liaison organisation. This still left a void in the Allied commanders' detailed information that was filled in the European theatre by 'Ultra' decrypts of intercepted radio transmissions: this was the result, in part, of the high-quality of Japanese radio security until a time near the end of the battle, when their signal and staff arrangements largely collapsed, and in part from the lack of adequate numbers of Japanese linguists at all headquarters levels.
While the Allied commanders faced limitations, the Japanese commanders were almost totally blind. They had very few aircraft with which to fly air reconnaissance missions, and received very little information from the Burmese population, which had become increasingly disillusioned and restive under Japanese military control. Some formations set up their own intelligence organisations: the 28th Army, for example, created a branch of the Hikari Kikan (the Japanese liaison office responsible for Japanese relations with the Azad Hind anti-British Indian government), known as Hayate Tai with agents who lived deep under cover in the frontier regions of Burma and in some of the remoter regions of southern Burma. However, these operatives were unable to glean or report information rapidly enough for it to be tactically useful in a fast-moving mechanised battle.
As the monsoon season ended, late in 1944, the 14th Army had moved forward from Imphal into and across the Kabaw valley to establish establish three bridgeheads across the Chindwin river at Sittaung in the north, Mawlaik in the centre and Kalewa in the south.
On the basis of Japanese tactics in the recent past, Slim assumed that the Burma Area Army’s two formations in this region would fight in the Shwebo plain, to the west of Shwebo and to the north of the Chindwin river before its junction with the Irrawaddy river just to the south of Myingyan, and therefore far forward as possible between the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers.
On 29 November, Major General T. W. Rees’s Indian 19th Division launched the offensive of Lieutenant General Sir Geoffrey Scoones’s (from 8 December Lieutenant General F. W. Messervy’s) Indian IV Corps from the northern bridgehead at Sittaung, primarily as a feint to draw the Japanese forces to the north, and on 4 December Major General D. D. Gracey’s Indian 20th Division similarly launched the offensive of Lieutenant General Sir Montagu Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps as it attacked out of the two more southerly bridgeheads at Mawlaik (one brigade) and Kalewa (two brigades). Both divisions met little resistance and made rapid progress. The Indian 19th Division, in particular, made so much headway that within five days it was approaching the vital rail centre of Indaw, 80 miles (130 km) to the east of Sittaung, via Pinlebu and Banmauk.
Slim now appreciated that his earlier assumption that the Japanese would fight in the area forward of the Irrawaddy river was wrong. As only one of the Indian IV Corps’ divisions had so far been committed, Slim had the flexibility to effect major changes to his original plan. The Indian 19th Division was transferred to the Indian XXXIII Corps, which was to continue to attack in the direction of Mandalay. The remainder of the Indian IV Corps, strengthened by the 14th Army’s reserve divisions, was to advance to the south up the Gangaw river valley well to the west of the Chindwin river, and thus reach and cross the Irrawaddy river in the region between Pakokku and Myitche on the western bank, take a bridgehead over the river at Nyaungu on the eastern bank, and seize the vital logistic and communications centre of Meiktila by a rapid armoured thrust.
To make it possible for their bulk of their divisions to retreat across the Irrawaddy river, the Japanese had left rearguards in several towns of the Shwebo plain. The Indian 19th Division and Major General C. G. G. Nicholson’s British 2nd Division cleared Shwebo, while farther to the south the Indian 20th Division had a hard fight to take the railhead town of Monywa on the Chindwin river. The Japanese rearguards were largely destroyed.
Meanwhile the Indian IV Corps had started its progress up the Gangaw river valley to reach the southern end of the Pondaung hill range. Its major formations, Evans’s Indian 7th Division followed by Cowan’s Indian 17th Division, were screened by Brigadier W. A. Dimoline’s 28th (East African) Brigade and Brigadier P. C. Marandin’s Lushai Brigade provided by the 14th Army. Where these lightly equipped units met Japanese resistance at Pauk, the town was heavily bombed by Allied aircraft to soften up the defenders.
The route had to be upgraded in several places to allow heavy equipment to pass: so extended were the Indian IV Corps’ line of communications that at one time the trail of vehicles stretched from Pauk to Kohima, 350 miles (565 km) to the north by road.
In order to persuade the Japanese that the Indian IV Corps was still moving on Mandalay, a dummy corps headquarters was established near Sittaung, and all radio traffic to the Indian 19th Division was relayed through this installation. The Indian 19th Division started to pass units across a narrow stretch of the Irrawaddy at Thabeikkyin and Singu, some 40 miles (65 km) to the north of Mandalay, as early as 11 January. The crossings farther downstream would require more preparation. The 14th Army had only small numbers of assault boats, ferries and other equipment for riverine crossing tasks, and much of this technical support was worn out, having seen service in other theatres.
Slim planned that the Indian 20th Division of the Indian XXXIII Corps and the Indian 7th Division of the Indian IV Corps would make their crossing simultaneously, for these two widely separated undertakings would serve to raise further doubts in the minds of Japanese commanders as to the 14th Army’s intentions.
The Indian 20th Division crossed 20 miles (32 km) to the west of Mandalay on 13 February and established small bridgeheads, but these were counterattacked nightly for almost two weeks. Great destruction was visited daily on the Japanese armour and artillery by orbiting patrols of fighter-bombers, and eventually the Indian 20th Division expanded its initial footholds into a single strong bridgehead at Ngazun.
The Indian 7th Division’s crossing was made on a wider front a a location farther to the south. Both the main attack at Nyaungu and a secondary crossing at Pagan were initially disastrous. Eventually, with the aid of massed artillery fire and the more direct support of tanks firing across the river, the men of the Indian division forced back the defenders of Nyaungu. At Pagan the garrison proved to be a unit of the Indian National Army, which soon surrendered and in fact helped the attacking unit, the 1/11th Sikh Regiment, to cross. By chance, Pagan was the boundary between the 15th and 28th Armies, which delayed Japanese reaction to the crossing.
Starting on 19 February, Brigadier C. E. Pert’s Indian 255th Tank Brigade and the motorised infantry of the Indian 17th Division started to cross into the Indian 7th Division’s bridgehead.
The farther to distract the attention of the Japanese from this area, the British 2nd Division started to cross the Irrawaddy river only 10 miles (16 km) to the west of Mandalay at Ngazun on 23 February. This crossing also proved a very risky business as a result of the poor condition of the boats, which leaked and had faulty engines, but one brigade crossed successfully and the other two brigades soon arrived in the initial bridgehead.
At this point, the Japanese were reinforcing their central front as rapidly as they could with units from the northern front, where the NCAC had largely terminated its activities, and with reserve units from southern Burma.
Under the direct control of Kimura’s Burma Area Army were Lieutenant General Seisaburo Okazaki’s 2nd Division being withdrawn from Burma to Thailand, Lieutenant General Saburo Takehara’s 49th Division moving to the central front, the 14th Tank Regiment and the 4th Artillery Regiment. Katamura’s 15th Army comprised Lieutenant General Ryuichi Shibata’s 15th Division to the north of Mandalay, Lieutenant General Tsuchitaro Kawada’s 31st Division to the west of Mandalay, Lieutenant General Nobuo Tanaka’s 33rd Division in Myingyan, and Lieutenant General Kaoru Takeda’s 53rd Division in local reserve to the south of Mandalay. Sakurai’s 28th Army comprised Lieutenant General Shigesaburo Miyaza’s 54th Division in Arakan, Lieutenant General Tadashi Hanaya’s 55th Division in Arakan and southern Burma, and Major General Tsunoru Yamamoto’s 72nd Independent Mixed Brigade in the lower reaches of the Irrawaddy river valley. Honda’s 33rd Army comprised Lieutenant General Eitaro Naka’s 18th Division moving to the central front, Lieutenant General Yuzo Matsuyama’s 56th Division in the Shan States, and Major General Yoshihide Hayashi’s 24th Independent Mixed Brigade withdrawing to Moulmein. There was also Colonel Abdul Aziz Tajik’s 2nd Division of the INA in the area of Mt Popa.
Facing the Japanese, Slim’s 14th Army comprised the Indian 5th Division, a motorised and air-mobile formation in reserve but currently joining the Indian IV Corps, Messervy’s Indian IV Corps and Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps 1.
The Indian 7th and 17th Divisions and the Indian 255th Tank Brigade moved out of their Nyaungu bridgehead on 20 February with Brigadier R. G. Collingwood’s Indian 33rd Brigade on the left heading along the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy toward Myingan, Brigadier R. C. O. Hedley’s Indian 48th Brigade and Brigadier G. W. S. Burton’s Indian 63rd Brigade in the centre heading toward Pyinbin and thence left to Taungtha and right to Seiktein, and Brigadier H. W. Dinwiddie’s Indian 114th Brigade on the right moving toward Kyaukpadang. By 24 February the Indian 48th Brigade had reached Taungtha, halfway to Meiktila.
On the same day the Japanese were holding a high-level staff meeting in Meiktila to discuss the possibility of a counterattack to the north of the Irrawaddy river. The Japanese command was undoubtedly surprised by the attack launched by the British and commonwealth forces. An officer on Mt Popa, between the axes of the Indian 63rd and 114th Brigades, signalled that he could see 2,000 or so vehicles moving in the direction of Meiktila. Staff officers, either at Burma Area Army or 15th Army headquarters, could not credit the fact and simply reduced the figure to 200 on the assumption that it was merely a raid which was being launched. The headquarters of the Burma Area Army had also ignored an earlier air reconnaissance report of a vast column of vehicles moving down the Gangaw river valley.
Thus it was only on 26 February that the Japanese first became fully aware of the threat’s reality and started to prepare for the defence of Meiktila, using the 168th Regiment of the 49th Division augmented by anti-aircraft and line of communication troops, totalling about 4,000 men. While the Japanese attempted to dig in, the Indian 17th Division captured the airstrip 20 miles (32 km) to the north-west of Meiktila at Thabutkon. This allowed Brigadier G. L. Tarver’s Indian 99th Brigade of the Indian 17th Division to be flown in, and petrol was also dropped for the vehicles of the Indian 255th Tank Brigade. Three days later, on 1 March, the division attacked Meiktila from all sides. Despite fears that the Japanese might be able to hold out for some weeks, the Indian brigades took the town, in the face of desperate resistance, in less than four days. Lack of anti-tank weapons gravely handicapped the defenders: in an attempt to improvise anti-tank defences, some Japanese soldiers crouched in trenches with a 551-lb (250-kg) aircraft bomb, waiting until a tank loomed over the trench and then striking the bomb’s detonator.
Thus the Japanese troops summoned to bolster the defence instead found themselves faced with the prospect of having to retake the town. The Japanese forces engaged in the Battle of Meiktila were the 10th Regiment, remnants of the 168th Regiment and the 49th Artillery Regiment of the 49th Division; the 55th Regiment, 56th Regiment, 18th Mountain Artillery Regiment, 214th Regiment (attached from the 33rd Division), 119th Regiment (attached from the 53rd Division), and the 'Naganuma' Artillery Group (attached from the 18th Division); the 4th Regiment of the 2nd Division; and the 'Mori' Special Force (a battalion-sized long-range raiding force).
Many of these units, especially those under the 18th Division, were already weak after extensive combat in the preceding weeks. They totalled perhaps 12,000 men with 70 pieces of artillery. The two divisions had no contact with each other, and lacked information about their opponent and even proper maps.
In Meiktila, the Indian 17th Division totalled some 15,000 men, about 100 tanks and 70 pieces of artillery, and was further reinforced during the battle.
Even as the Japanese forces arrived, columns of motorised Indian infantry and tanks drove out of Meiktila to attack the Japanese concentration areas and the Japanese troops, and also to try to clear the land route back to Nyaungu, on which the village of Taungtha had been retaken by the Japanese on 5 March. There was hard fighting for several villages and other strongpoints. The attempt to clear the roads failed, and the Indian 17th Division withdrew into Meiktila.
The 18th Division’s first attacks from the north and west failed, and also cost the Japanese heavy losses. Naka, the divisional commander, now ordered attacks on the airfields to the east of the town, on which the Indian division relied for its supplies, from 12 March onward. The Japanese could not immediately retake the airfields, and from 15 March Brigadier J. A. Salomons’s Indian 9th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division arrived by air to boost Cowan’s strength. The landings were made under fire, but only two aircraft were destroyed, with 22 casualties.
The Japanese fought their way steadily closer to the airfields, and from 18 March Cowan suspended air landings, although casualties could still be evacuated in light aircraft, and supplies were paradropped to his formation.
On 12 March, meanwhile, Kimura had instructed Honda, commander of the 33rd Army, to take overall command of the Japanese counteroffensive. As his army continued to the south to Kalaw, which it reached on 14 March, Honda and his headquarters arrived, but without their signals units they could not co-ordinate the divisions properly, and as a result the attacks were still disjointed. The Japanese were using their artillery in the front line with their infantry, which accounted for several British tanks, but also resulted in the loss of many guns.
As the Japanese siege of Meiktila continued, the Indian IV Corps’ other formation, the Indian 7th Division, was engaged in several battles to maintain its own bridgehead, capture the important river port of Myingyan on the eastern side of the Irrawaddy river just upstream of its confluence with the Chindwin river, and assist the 28th (East African) Brigade against counterattacks on the western bank of the Irrawaddy.
As Major General Tsunoru Yamamoto’s 72nd Independent Mixed Brigade (reinforced by units of the 54th Division from Arakan), tried to retake the British foothold at Nyaungu, the 2nd Regiment of the INA under Colonel Prem Sahgal, reinforced by the remaining troops of the 4th Guerrilla Regiment which had opposed the initial crossings of the Irrawaddy river, was now tasked with protecting the exposed flank of Kimura’s forces, as well as pinning down the British forces around Nyaungyu and Popa. Lacking heavy arms or artillery support, Sahgal’s units used guerrilla tactics, working in conjunction with small units from the Kanjo Butai (a regiment detached from the 55th Division), and were successful for some time.
The Indian 7th Division now faced the additional task of reopening the lines of communication to the besieged Indian 17th Division through the two roads that ran through the region, and was forced to terminate its attack on Myingyan. Around the middle of March, the leading motorised brigade of Indian 5th Division reinforced the Indian 7th Division and began to clear the Japanese and INA troops from their strongholds in and around Mt Popa and thereby clear the overland route to Meiktila.
Once it had established contact with the defenders of Meiktila, the Indian 7th Division resumed the attack on Myingyan, which was captured on 22 March after five days of fighting. As soon as the town had been taken, its river port and the railway line linking Myingyan and Meiktila were repaired and brought back into service for supply vessels to use the Chindwin river.
By a time late in January, the Indian 19th Division had cleared the western bank of the Irrawaddy river against the indifferent defence of the 15th Division, which was at a low strength and spread thinly on the ground. Rees launched an attack to the south from the Indian 19th Division’s bridgeheads in mid-February, and by 7 March the Indian division’s leading units could see Mandalay Hill, crowned by its many pagodas and temples.
Lieutenant General Kiyoe Yamamoto, commanding the 15th Division since 20 February, felt that the defence of the city would be a waste of invaluable Japanese resources, but received categorical orders to defend Mandalay to the death. At Burma Area Army headquarters. Kimura was concerned about the loss of Japanese military prestige should the city be abandoned. Moreover, there were still large supply dumps in the area to the south of the city, and these could not be moved.
The 4/4th Gurkhas stormed Mandalay Hill on the night of 8 March. Many Japanese nonetheless held out in tunnels and bunkers underneath the pagodas, and were slowly eliminated in severe fighting over the next few days, although most of the buildings survived substantially intact.
As it fought its way farther into the city, the Indian 19th Division was stopped by the thick walls of the ancient fortress known to the British as Fort Dufferin, surrounded by a substantial moat. Medium artillery and bombers failed to make much impression on the walls, and an assault via a railway tunnel was driven back. The Indian 19th Division then planned another attack by means of the sewers on 21 March, but before this undertaking to be launched the Japanese abandoned the fort, also via the sewers.
Elsewhere on the Indian XXXIII Corps’ front, the Indian 20th Division launched an attack to the south from its bridgehead at Ngazun. The 31st Division and 33rd Division, weakened by casualties and the drain of reinforcements for the Battle of Meiktila, were thrown into disorder. A tank regiment and a motorised reconnaissance regiment of the Indian 20th Division, grouped as 'Claudcol' under Pert’s command, moved almost as far to the south as the fighting for Meiktila, moving across country to reach Wundwin on the road linking Meiktila and Mandalay, before turning back to the north along the line of this road against the rear of the Japanese facing the Irrawaddy bridgehead.
The British 2nd Division attacked Mandalay from the west, and by the end of March, the 15th Army had been shattered into a number of unco-ordinated remnants trying to move to the east to regroup in the Shan States.
On 28 March Tanaka, Kimura’s chief-of-staff, met Honda at the headquarters of the 33rd Army. Honda’s staff told him that the army had suffered 5,000 casualties, and now had only 20 pieces of artillery. Tanaka ordered Honda to abandon the siege of Meiktila, but it was already too late. The Japanese armies on the central front in Burma had lost most of their equipment, and also what was left of their cohesion. From this time onward, they would find it impossible to prevent the 14th Army from exploiting its advantage with parallel advances to points almost within striking distance of Rangoon.
Another problem with which the Japanese now had to contend following the loss of Mandalay, was that the Burmese population turned more strongly against them: uprisings by guerrilla forces and a revolt by the Japanese-sponsored Burma National Army would now contribute signally to the eventual Japanese defeat.
The exploitation phase of the 14th Army’s ‘Extended Capital’ undertaking saw the move to the south of the Indian XXXIII Corps in the west down the Irrawaddy river against the 28th Army, and of the Indian IV Corps in the east down the Sittang river against the 33rd Army. The Indian XXXIII Corps advanced via Magwe and Thayetmyo to reach Prome by 3 May. The Indian IV Corps advanced farther and more quickly via Pyinmana (19 April) and Toungoo (22 April) to reach Pegu on 2 May. It now appeared that the only thing which could prevent the British and Indian recapture of Rangoon was the start of the monsoon, which would turn roads into mud slicks and the flanking country into marshes.
‘Extended Capital’ had been a huge British and Indian victory, although this fact was not reflected in the casualty lists, which for the Battles of Meiktila and Mandalay amounted to 2,307 British and commonwealth troops killed and another 15,888 either wounded or missing, and 6,513 Japanese troops killed and another 6,299 either wounded or missing.
Rangoon was now ripe for the picking, but the overland advance of the 14th Army was pipped at the post by the Japanese abandonment of the Burmese capital, which was then taken in the ‘Dracula’ (ii) amphibious undertaking.