Operation Burma Road

The 'Burma Road' was the Allied designation for a strategically important main line of overland communications linking Burma with the south-western part of China (1937/45).

The terminals for the 'Burma Road' were Kunming in the Yunnan province of China and Lashio in Burma. The road was constructed while Burma was a British colony and intended to allow the movement of supplies to China during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. The significance of preventing this flow of supplies was once of the factors which persuaded the Japanese to order the 'B' (iii) invasion and subsequent occupation of Burma in 1942. Use of the road was restored to the Allies in 1945 after the completion of the 'Ledo Road'.

The 'Burma Road' was 717 miles (1154 km) long and passes through mountain terrain of extreme terrain and climatic difficulties. The sections linking Kunming with the Chinese/Burmese frontier were built by some 200,000 Burmese and Chinese labourers during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and completed by 1938. The construction project was co-ordinated by Chih Ping-chen in his capacity as the Director of the South-West Transportation Administration in Singapore, and then the the Director of the China-Burma Transportation Administration based in Rangoon. The road had a role in the early part of World War II when the British used it for the movement of equipment and weapons to China before the British were themselves at war with the Japanese: equipment and supplies were landed at Rangoon and moved by rail to Lashio, where the Burmese end of the road started.

In July 1940 the British government made a three-month concession, under intense Japanese diplomatic pressure, that the road would be closed to supplies to China. After the Japanese had overrun Burma in 1942, the Allies were forced to supply Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese nationalist forces by air. US Army Air Forces cargo aircraft, mainly of the Curtiss C-46 Commando type, flew these supplies from airfields in the Assam north-eastern region of India, over 'The Hump' of the eastern Himalayan mountains, to south-western China. Under British command Indian, British, Chinese and US forces defeated a Japanese attempt to capture Assam and recaptured the northern part of Burma. In this area they built a new line of communications as the 'Ledo Road',which linked Ledo in Assam, via Myitkyina in northern Burma, to a connection with the 'Burma Road' at Wandingzhen in Yunnan. The first trucks reached the Chinese frontier by this route on 28 January 1945.

Between 1942 and 1945, 98% of all US Lend-Lease deliveries to China went directed to the support of US Army units in China rather than the Chinese armed forces.

The importance of the 'Burma Road', for psychological as much as military purposes, was so great that there was much fighting, much of it of a major nature, to gain and keep control of the road. One of these was the Battle of Northern Burma and Western Yunnan between October 1943 and March 1945. A campaign which included the 'Battle of Yupang' (October/December 1943), 'Battle of Lashio' (January 1944), 'Battle of Maingkwan' (February/5 March 1944), 'Battle of Mogaung' (March 1944), 'Siege of Myitkyina' (April/August 1944), 'Battle of Mount Song' (May/September 1944), 'Battle of Mongyu'(December 1944/January 1945), 'Battle of Lashio' (March 1945) and 'Battle of Hsipaw' (March 1945).

Fought on 18/19 March 1942, the 'Battle of Tachiao' was the first engagement in the 'Battle of Yunnan and the Burma Road'. The leading elements of Major General Dai An-lan’s 200th Division reached Toungoo on 8 March 1942 and took over defensive positions from British forces. Toungoo was to be the main defensive position of the Chinese forces, with an outpost slightly farther to the south Oktwin. The divisional commander sent his Motorised Cavalry Regiment and 1st Company of the 598th Infantry Regiment to the banks of the Kan river some 35 miles (55 km) to the south of Toungoo and 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south of Pyu. The cavalry regiment and one company of infantry pushed up to Kan river, with a platoon of cyclists taking up positions at the bridge over the river.

At first light on 18 March, about 200 Japanese reconnaissance troops from the 143rd Regiment of Major General Takeshi Koga’s 55th Division advanced right up to the bridge on motorcycles and, on reaching the Chinese outposts were ambushed by the troops hiding along the sides of the road. Chinese armoured cars joined the attack and after three hours of fighting the Japanese fell back, leaving some 30 dead as well as about 20 rifles, two light machine guns and 19 motorcycles. After the fall of night, the Japanese continued their attacks with small units, and the Chinese covering force fell back toward their line at Oktwin. Following up the next day, the Japanese took Pyu on 19 March.

Second of the battles within the 'Battle of Yunnan and the Burma Road', the 'Battle of Oktwin' took place on 20/23 March 1942. On 20 March, the Japanese 143rd Regiment and cavalry units of the 55th Division attacked the positions of the Chinese 5th Cavalry Regiment to the north of the Kan river, and drove back the Chinese with heavy losses. The bulk of the cavalry regiment was withdrawn to the north of Toungoo, leaving only single companies of infantry and cavalry to delay the advancing Japanese. Meanwhile, the field fortifications of 200th Division at Oktwin and around Toungoo had been completed. They were built of timber, which was in abundant local supply, and all the positions had been carefully sited and concealed. On 21 March, the Japanese forces brushed aside the delaying forces and reached the outposts of the 200th Division at Oktwin.

The 122nd Regiment of the 55th Division attacked 200th Division’s positions at dawn on 22 March but made little headway. The Japanese forces attacking the Chinese positions comprised one battalion of infantry with several pieces of artillery, while the defence was found by the 1/600th Regiment. The Japanese sent cavalry forces around the left flank of the Chinese and the position was stabilised only when reserve forces of the 1/598th Regiment were committed in counterattacks.

The Japanese were now more cautious after the ambush to which they had been subjected, and used their artillery and machine guns to engage suspected Chinese positions before sending their infantry forward. Light machine sited among the trees inflicted many losses on the Chinese, who then set up their heavy machine guns to enfilade and eliminate this threat.

On 23 March, the Japanese attacked again on the left flank with strong artillery and air support. The battle continued until 16.00, but the attack gained no real success. The Japanese tried another flanking move with a company of infantry and scores of cavalry round the right-hand side of the Chinese positions. The Chinese held their ground until the fall of night, however, and then fell back to their main defensive line at Toungoo on 24 March.

Third of the battles of the 'Battle of Yunnan and the Burma Road', the 'Battle of Toungoo' was one of the key battles in the earlier stages of the Burma campaign. The Chinese failure to hold Toungoo opened the way for the Japanese to strike at Lashio around the Allied flank and into the Chinese rear.

On 8 March 1942, the day on which Rangoon fell to the Japanese, advanced elements of the 200th Division had reached Toungoo on the same day Rangoon fell. The Chinese assumed responsibility for the defence of the town, a key location, from a small British detachment. Toungoo controlled the road north toward Mandalay and the bridge over the Sittang river that carried the road eastward to the Karen states and north to Loikaw, the Shan states, Lashio and the Chinese province of Yunnan. Thus the Japanese seizure of the town would threaten the flank of the Allied defensive line in Burma and open the way to a Japanese advance into central Burma.

Dai An-lan decided that the town of Toungoo itself would be the main defensive position of the Chinese forces, with an outpost line to the south at Oktwin. He sent the Motorised Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Company of the 598th Regiment to the banks of the Kan river some 35 miles (60 km) to the south of Toungoo and 12.5 miles (20 km) to the south of Pyu. The cavalry regiment and one company of infantry pushed up to Kan river, with a platoon of cyclists taking up position near the bridge at the village of Nyaungchidauk: these were to delay the advance of the Japanese until the defences at Toungoo had been completed.

Meanwhile, the 200th Division began entrenching itself within the old city walls and at the forward trip line at Oktwin. Toungoo city itself was divided into the new town to the east of the railway and the old town to its west. The old town had a well-preserved ditch and fortified wall which provided the Chinese troops with a good defensive position. The Chinese then enhanced their defences with carefully concealed positions built using the abundant supply of local timber. To make things more difficult for the attackers, the land around Toungoo was flat and featureless with the exception of the Sittang river to the east.

It was on 18 March, 10 days later, that the first skirmish with the leading elements of the 55th Division began on the Kan river at Nyaungchidauk. Falling back over the following three days, the Chinese cavalry delayed the Japanese advance while the Chinese completed their defences at Oktwin and Toungoo. When the Japanese attacked Oktwin they were held for another two days by determined Chinese resistance.

On 24 March, the 112th Regiment delivered frontal attacks on the Oktwin positions. The 143rd Regiment. aided by friendly local Burmese, used the cover of the jungle and wooded area to the west of the town to advance 3.75 miles (6 km) to the north for an attack on Toungoo’s airfield and a nearby railway station. The area was held by only one engineer battalion, whose commander withdrew in a panic. This cut the 200th Division’s communications to the north, and left it encircled on three sides.

Dai An-lan ordered the abandonment of the outlying positions so that he could concentrate his defence near the walls of Toungoo. The 598th Regiment held the northern part of the Toungoo defence, the 599th Regiment held the south of the city, and the 600th Regiment defended the west. Divisional headquarters moved from the city to the eastern bank of the Sittang river to avoid Japanese air and artillery attacks, and also to safeguard the remaining supply route to the east. Part of a Replacement Regiment, which had arrived during the previous day, was positioned on the eastern bank of the Sittang river in order to extend the defences and cover the supply line as well as the divisional headquarters.

At 08.00 on March 25, the Japanese launched an all-out attack on all three sides of the town, with the 143rd Regiment on the left, the 112th Regiment on the right, and the 55th Cavalry Regiment and once company of infantry attacking along the Sittang river. The objective was to compress the Chinese forces against the Sittang river, where they were to be destroyed. Despite local penetrations in the north-western part of the defensive perimeter, heavy Chinese resistance prevented the Japanese making significant progress until 22.00, when Japanese troops infiltrated the Chinese positions in the north-western part of the Toungoo citadel, and these were soon followed by a full battalion.

The Chinese reinforced the 600th Regiment with the 2/598th Regiment and counterattacked. There followed severe house-to-house combat in which the lines between the two sides were so close that Japanese air and artillery support found it difficult to avoid hitting their own men. The Chinese counterattack failed to recover the lost positions when the Japanese made good use of the buildings and the stone walls around a local cemetery. The 600th Regiment was then shifted back between the other two regiments to defend Toungoo itself. Elsewhere the bridge over the Sittang river became the target for Japanese firepower and was so severely damaged that vehicles could not cross it.

The Japanese attacks continued on 26 March. The 112th Regiment attacked and took the south-western corner of Toungoo but was able to make no further progress. On the left, a flanking move to attack the north-western part of Toungoo was also unsuccessful. The 55th Cavalry Regiment's attack was also driven back. The Chinese launched counterattacks against the 112th Regiment and the 55th Cavalry Regiment with about 300 men in each sector. These counterattacks were repulsed, and the Chinese losses were so great that the offensive strength dropped markedly.

By the evening, the Japanese had taken the western part of Toungoo to the west of the railway, while the Chinese troops still held the main part of the town to the east of the railway. The two sides confronted each other across the railway at a distance of less than 90 yards (100 m), making it difficult for Japanese air and artillery support. Eventually the Japanese withdrew some 185 yards (200 m) to allow their aircraft and artillery to operate effectively. During the bombardment the Chinese hid in their camouflaged positions then held their fire until the Japanese advanced and were within 35 to 45 yards (40 to 50 m) and then opened fire with machine guns and grenades. This pattern was repeated several times, and by the end of the day the 200th Division had sustained very heavy losses, but the Japanese had also suffered heavily and were finding it hard to continue the frontal attacks. The arrival of Major General Liao Yao-xiang’s New 22nd Division into the area to the north of Yedashe forced the Japanese to send the 2/143rd Regiment to Nangyuen as a blocking force to prevent the new Chinese formation from reaching Toungoo, but this significantly reduced the Japanese attacking strength. The 144th Regiment, which was the 55th Division's third regiment, as well as one battalion of artillery and one company of cavalry, were not with the division in the Battle of Toungoo, so the division lacked adequate manpower and the attack therefore came to a halt.

Thus there was a pause in the morning on 27 March, but Japanese warplanes returned to the fray during the afternoon with systematic bombing and strafing of the Chinese positions. The Japanese continued to press their attacks with this air support, and in the afternoon fired large numbers of tear gas shells. Despite all this, the Chinese held their ground. It was then decided to wait for the arrival of the 3rd Heavy Field Artillery Regiment with its 5.91-in (155-mm) howitzers before attacking the Chinese positions one more on 28 March, and the renewed attack was again well supported by air attacks.

On 28 March, the 3rd Heavy Field Artillery Regiment arrived, and with strong support from bombers and more gas attacks inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese. Supported by artillery, the right wing of the attack managed to destroy many Chinese strongpoints. but the light bombers did not arrive until 15.00 as a result of heavy fog at their airfields, and in fighting which lasted into the evening the Japanese were not able to overcome the stubborn resistance of the Chinese, who were exploiting the opportunities offered by their defence in depth.

Meanwhile, the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment of Lieutenant General Masao Watanabe’s 56th Division, comprising two motorised infantry companies and one machine gun company, one field artillery company of 2.95-in (75-mm) mountain guns and one platoon of engineers, was moving rapidly to the north from Rangoon in a column of 45 trucks, with a company of six armoured cars and a total of some 404 men. It made rapid progress along the main road to Toungoo and reached the headquarters of the 55th Division by 12.00 on 28 March. Hanaya decided to move this force to the east of the Sittang river for an attack on the rear of the Chinese positions. Crossing at 20.00 on the same day, the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment forded the Sittang river at Wagyi, just to he south of Toungoo at a point where the water was only chest high, leaving its vehicles behind.

If the Japanese attack to the east of the Sittang river was successful, the entire 200th Division would be encircled. Dai personally organised the defence, and two companies of the 3/598th Regiment were ordered to attack the exposed left flank of the Japanese. A vicious fight continued within Toungoo itself. Around the divisional headquarters on the river’s eastern bank, fighting inflicted heavy casualties on the 3/599th Regiment as well as the divisional support company, but even so the Chinese were able to hold their ground.

On 29 March. the 55th Division employed its last strength to attack, supported by all available guns. By 12.00, the troops on the left were able to advance into the north-western part of Toungoo, and the Chinese escape route was thereby threatened. Covered by the fight to the west, the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment moved to the north and attacked the Chinese flank guard to the east of the river, and by 12.00 on 29 March had overrun it, so threatening the 200th Division’s headquarters and the Sittang river bridge.

During the afternoon of 29 March, the 200th Division was ordered to withdraw in its entirety that evening, initially to the east and then to the north along the eastern bank of the Sittang river. Fighting in Toungoo continued into the dark as the town burned. The Chinese continued their stubborn resistance, and the Japanese made no progress. By 22.00 the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment had closed on the Sittang river bridge and noted signs of wavering in the Chinese forces as night fell.

What the reconnaissance regiment had spotted was the Chinese withdrawal. Dai ordered each of his battalions to leave a rearguard which launched night attacks to cover the withdrawal of the main force. The retreat was led by the 599th Regiment, which crossed the battered and threatened bridge, followed by the 600th Regiment and then the 598th Regiment which forded the river. By 04.00 the entire 200th Division had moved out of Toungoo in good condition, taking all its wounded with it. The Chinese claimed that their rearguards left before dawn.

On the morning of 30 March, the 55th Division attacked all along the front, claiming to have met heavy resistance, despite the withdrawal of most (if not all) of the Chinese. After engineers managed to demolish Chinese positions and strongpoints at 08.50, the 55th Division's troops finally broke through and linked with the troops of the 56th Division who had seized the vital bridge over the Sittang river at 07.00 and then attacked Toungoo from the east. This ended the battle, leaving the Japanese in possession of the town and Sittang river bridge. The road to the east was open for the Japanese to exploit as they attempted to outflank the Allied line in Burma.

Despatched to the south to support the 200th Division, the New 22nd Division had meanwhile advanced as far as Nangyun railway station, and partially dislodged the 2/143rd Regiment from their position there. The division also sent patrols farther to the south toward Toungoo, so threatening the Japanese flank and rear. The retreating 200th Division joined the New 22nd Division at Yedashe after withdrawing to the north on the eastern bank of the Sittang river. crossing the river to the east of Nangyun. The Chinese then pulled back to a new defensive position at Yedashe in order to continue their efforts to block the Japanese advance up the Sittang river valley.

Later battles of the 'Battle of Yunnan and the Burma Road' included the Battle of Yedashe, the Battle of Mawchi and Bato, and the Battle of Yenangyaung.

Starting fully in October 1943, the 'Battle of Northern Burma and Western Yunnan' was one of the largest-scale battles of the 'War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression' (2nd Sino-Japanese War), and was fought in the border region between Yunnan and northern Burma. The Chinese spur for the battle was the opening the China-India Highway. At the end of March 1945, the Chinese Expeditionary Force, the British army, and 'Merrill’s Marauders' joined forces in Muse in Burma), while the Japanese lost their 'North Burma Stronghold'.

The Allied forces were an amalgam of Chinese, US and British elements. Among them, the Chinese component included the Chinese Army in India and the Chinese Expeditionary Force. The commander-in-chief of the campaign was General Wei Li-huang of the Chinese nationalist army, and the deputy commander was Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell of the US Army. The Japanese forces were elements of the Burma Area Army led by Lieutenant General Masakazu Kawabe, then Lieutenant General Heitaro Kimura and finally Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka. Total strengths were in the order of 400,000 or more men for the Allies and 150,000 men for Japan.

The 'Battle of Yunnan and the Burma Road' and the 'Battle of Northern Burma and Western Yunnan' lasted 18 months. At the cost of 31,443 men killed and 35,948 wounded, the Allies killed more than 25,000 Japanese soldiers, finally reopened the 'Burma Road' into the south-western region of China, and recovered all the land lost to the Japanese on the western bank of the Salween river in western Yunnan.

As the spring of 1942 turned into summer, the Japanese 'B' (iii) operation captured Burma, and the Japanese immediately prepared to attack the western part of Yunnan in an undertaking expected to advance along the 'Burma Road', conquer Yunnan and threaten Chungking. On 4 May 1942 the Japanese attacked Longling County, and at the same time sent 54 aircraft to bomb Baoshan in Yunnan. On 10 May the Japanese attacked the border city of Tengchung. At this point, a large area west of the Salween river fell into Japanese hands. The Chinese 71st Army established defences on the eastern bank of the Salween river, on several occasions beat off the Japanese attempts to move eastward, and thus stabilised the local situation in which the two sides confronted each other for the next two years.

In order to regain control of the 'Burma Road', the six divisions of the Chinese Expeditionary Forces in India and the British and Indian forces jointly launched a counterattack against the Japanese army in northern Burma late in October 1943, and achieved good initial results. On 17 April 1944 the Chinese Expeditionary Force counterattacked across the river.