So the Indian military and civil order, Kipling and Lord Curzon’s mighty machines for doing nothing, were finally creaking into action. The authorities in Delhi, Kandy and London had their eyes fixed on the winter of 1944 for the start of a major campaign in Assam. As so often in the past, the Japanese caught them on the back foot. What they thought was mere probing of the defences in Arakan and on the Manipur border developed into Japan’s last great offensive in Southeast Asia during March and April 1944. Why did Mutaguchi and the Japanese high command initiate this incredibly costly attack just at the time when they were also undertaking the Ichigo offensive against Chiang Kai Shek in South China? Why did they contemplate a major land push when they were under intolerable pressure from the US Pacific fleet?
The Japanese themselves saw this as the final throw in Southeast Asia. They hoped to knock out British India and had been told by Subhas Bose that once they penetrated the Bengal plains there would be a mass revolt on a larger scale than in 1942. They seem to have believed that Germany was about to counter-attack the Allies in Italy and frustrate a potential invasion over the Channel. If they knocked out Britain and China, they could hope for a negotiated peace with the Americans. If, instead, they waited until the autumn, their air power would have dwindled further, their food and raw material situation would have collapsed and the Allied build-up in India would have reached its peak. The Japanese plan, as in 1942, was for rapid deep penetration and they expected the British armies to fall back as they had always done previously.
There were now also strong political reasons for giving the commanders in Singapore and Rangoon the go-ahead. In Tokyo the position of Prime Minister Tojo, the super hawk, was in the balance. The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was running into trouble with shortages of essential commodities, soaring prices and labour problems. On the ground there were signs of restiveness on the part of the Burma Defence Army and the Indian National Army. In fact, the BDA was already plotting against the Japanese. Some of its leaders had approached the British as early as the end of 1943. The Japanese were already suspicious and a faction within the local military and intelligence services even took the view that Ba Maw was contemplating treachery, making a ham-fisted attempt to assassinate him and replace him with a more compliant character, a prince of the former Burmese royal house. Wiser counsels prevailed, however, for the last thing the Japanese high command needed during the assault on India was a political coup in the rear.
The INA remained steadfastly anti-British but officers and men bridled at being used as a kind of coolie corps by Japanese troops who had never really taken to them, finding Indian food customs and the long hair of the Sikh troops, for instance, completely incomprehensible. Subhas Bose himself knew that this was the critical moment and was putting great pressure on the Japanese high command. His men were ready. The INA had trained specialists in sabotage and infiltration in its academy in Penang. Some agents were already in place across the Indian border. It was now or never. From the moment Bose had arrived in Rangoon, a large proportion of the city’s remaining Indian residents had been glowing with pride. The previous November the anniversary of the death of the last Mughal emperor of India had been celebrated. He had died in exile in Rangoon where the British sent him in 1859. The chairman of the Burma branch of the Indian Independence League had vowed to present Netaji, the affectionate name for Bose, with earth from the emperor’s grave in a silver casket to accompany him on the march to India.29 Now Indians mobbed the trains packed with INA troops as they steamed out of the city’s stations to cries of ‘Chalo Delhi!’ and ‘Azad Hind Zindabad!’ ‘Long Live Free India!’ Preparations were made for a ‘Netaji week’ from 4 to 10 July to celebrate Subhas Bose’s assumption of leadership of the freedom movement in East Asia a year earlier.
The commanders of the three armies now facing each other in the Assam hills intensified the propaganda effort amongst their own troops. How to keep the civilian population on their side was the key issue. The Japanese commanders were particularly worried about priests, women and cows. A pamphlet was produced for Japanese soldiers entitled ‘Everyday Knowledge about India’. It cautioned them against acts of violence, especially against temples and priests. The British had been vilified for going into religious buildings with their boots on. The pamphlet also confidently reported that ‘there is probably no place in the world where women are more bother’. In other words, the procurement of ‘comfort women’ in the subcontinent was going to prove a problem. Above all, soldiers should leave cattle alone, even when hungry. British counter-propaganda had constantly harped on the way in which Japanese troops had casually slaughtered and eaten any cow they came across in their passage through Burma. The Japanese took the hint. A document captured later revealed that Japanese officers had been sent on a special course to learn about goat breeding preparatory to the advance. Huge numbers of the animals were rounded up. They were to be the staple food of the army as it advanced into Assam, ‘to avoid offending the scruples of Indian people’ by eating cattle. As it turned out, the Japanese infantrymen faced less complex issues of cuisine as they began their great assault. A captured diary reported of one feint, ‘We were ordered to withdraw – many dropped out of the ranks due to weakness from lack of food. We have to chew uncooked rice to satisfy our hunger. The enemy certainly eat well. I wish I could have a stomach full of such good food.’
Japanese morale was still high, but it was the morale of desperation. Captain Shosaku Kameyama of the Japanese 31st Division said that most of his comrades were aged between twenty and twenty-two. They came from the devoutly Buddhist Niigata prefecture. He bewailed the fact that most of these young men were unmarried. They could not become ancestors after death and were later forgotten by the younger generation. In 1944 they ‘fought for their country, to save their country. They believed that their country was in a serious situation. When they left their home town, many schoolchildren and local people cheered their departure, singing songs and waving flags. This had greatly impressed the soldiers, who had a strong obligation to their family and local folk.’ It was this unquestioning belief that, even in the distant jungles of Burma, they were literally defending their native soil that explains the almost fanatical bravery and self-sacrifice commented on by so many of their British and Indian adversaries. It was harder for the British or Indians to believe that they were doing the same thing. To the British, the enemy of their homeland was Hitler and even poorly educated Indian soldiers were now deeply ambivalent about the Raj. For the Allies, the offensive spirit was kept up by regimental loyalty and, by 1944, by a fierce and cold hatred of the merciless Japanese.
Alongside the Japanese now stood about 40,000 men of Subhas Bose’s INA. Its commanders launched a major propaganda offensive too. They told their men in numerous political talks about British atrocities in India. They spoke of the bloody suppression of the 1857 rebellion, the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 and the recent and still unrolling famine in which millions of their countrymen had starved to death as a result of British neglect. The British Indian battalions would, they were told, desert the moment they met a truly Indian army. The British, it was said, were so worried by the unreliability of their own troops that they had brought in nearly wild West Africans to keep an eye on them. The commanders knew they had their own vulnerabilities. Subhas Bose constantly invoked the Mahatma in his messages to the troops and radio broadcasts. The Congress leaders were national icons even for those who wanted to liberate India by force of arms. Yet Gandhi and Nehru had persistently rejected the tactics of the INA, even when they were immured in British jails. This was because the one opposed violence and the other opposed fascism. Even before the defeat at Imphal and Kohima, there were signs of fractiousness and worry amongst the INA commanders. A captured letter from the Officer Commanding, North India Guerrilla Regiment, to Subhas Bose in April 1944 said that the troops had set off in high hopes for the liberation of India. When they got to the front line, the Japanese assigned them to tasks such as road making, repairing bridges, driving bullocks or, worse, carrying rations for Japanese soldiers. Often they had to eat Japanese food. Malaria was tightening its grip in the absence of medicines. The Japanese commander said they would eventually fight, but he was often being asked ‘Sahib, when the Japs are advancing into the sacred soil of our motherland, what are we doing sitting in remote corners of Burma?’ In an ironic recapitulation of the relations between British and Indian troops, the Japanese refused to salute INA officers.
The British behind the lines began to be jumpy as February turned to March. There were sporadic acts of sabotage across India. In districts such as Midnapur in Bengal and the ‘badlands’ of southern Bihar revolutionary nationalists had gone underground in 1942 to escape arrest. From here they carried on a stubborn campaign of anti-British propaganda, attacks on communications and the occasional murder of Indian government officials. On both the east and west coasts parties of INA special forces had been landed from Japanese submarines. The Criminal Investigation Department lost sight of them for days at a time and they found many sympathizers among ordinary people in bazaars and villages.
Up in Simla, Dorman-Smith idled away his exile, taking his dachshunds for walks. He continued to argue with officers of South East Asia Command about the role of civilians in the reconstruction of Burma. He listened to INA propaganda broadcasts. In his letters to his wife, he ridiculed the ‘March on Delhi’: ‘Poor old Netaji [Bose], he still slaughters the 7th Indian Division nightly over the radio and is most pained that their imminent surrender never takes place.’ As S. A. Ayer, Bose’s minister of information, recorded afterwards, Netaji, who also had a stout sense of humour, listened to the British broadcasts out of Delhi with equal amusement. British morale was boosted by ‘Wingate’s stout show’. Dorman-Smith was referring to the Chindits’ second great campaign to strike behind the Japanese lines with gliders, a campaign which saw the death of Wingate himself in a plane crash on 24 March. Here and there, though, there was a note of concern; as Dorman-Smith wrote to his wife, ‘it may be that your old pal Bose’s propaganda is having a bit of an effect’. On 23 March as the Japanese push on Imphal developed, Dorman-Smith and the deskbound military became increasingly concerned. An ‘anxious time’ was coming.
The British stepped up the propaganda effort. ‘Old Burma hands’ recruited from Steel Brothers and other major firms toured the British regiments giving them pep talks. There was little need to stress the hatefulness of the Japanese enemy to these troops. But the attitude to be adopted to the Burmese when the breakthrough finally came was a more touchy question in view of the constant barrage of denunciation directed against them since 1942. In their briefings to the troops, the old hands gave little quarter. According to one, the Burmese were close to ‘primitive savagery’ and this had been demonstrated by their treatment of Indian coolies in 1942. Other morale-building talks urged that though there were very large numbers of ‘bad hats’ in the country, these were concentrated in a few particular places. Shwebo north of Mandalay was one black spot, for here the Burmese kings had sent their most troublesome subjects into exile. The Delta had always harboured ‘bad hats’ too. Here the British had encountered the fiercest opposition in 1886 and 1930 – 31, and they were likely to do so again. All the same, a pep talk opined, ‘the average Burman will be found to be a gentleman if treated as such’. Another improving talk warned British troops against constipation and consequent hypochondria. It added: ‘half our trouble with the natives is due to their remaining constipated for several days without asking for medicines’. Perhaps this was just a conceit, but the writer’s tendency to equate native political problems with bowel complaints was a bad augury for the future. Within a year these same old Burma hands were to be in action against the Japanese alongside the Burmese fighters they now denounced as ‘quislings’ and ‘fascists’. For some of them, the mental leap would be too great.
Among Indian troops, morale was rising. Indian officers were taking over the ‘josh groups’ or regimental chat sessions. This was a new breed, better educated and more independent than the old corps of native officers. They felt on a par with the British and began to convey a new confidence to the troops. The soldiers began to put memories of Arakan behind them. Increasingly, they were being taught to fight as thinking men rather than automata. Commanders of the Indian divisions, notably Frank Messervy, built on Auchinleck’s new training programmes for Indian soldiers at base camp. Units held regular post mortems on the fighting, discussing ways to counter Japanese jungle warfare tactics and teaching individual soldiers to think independently. General Slim, shrewd as ever, sensed the change and spent much more time talking to the Indian and Gurkha soldiers. He began his campaign ‘not so much like a general and more like a parliamentary candidate’ trying to get the ear of his electors, ‘except that I never made a promise’. Speaking to groups of soldiers and officers along the front and in base camps, Slim came to think that Indian troops responded even better than British troops to appeals on abstract grounds to religion and patriotism.
On 15 April 1944 Mountbatten moved his headquarters from the ‘marble palaces’ and intrigue of Delhi to the bashas (hutments) of Kandy in Ceylon, which he insisted were nearer the front. His aim was to counter the ‘forgotten army’ feeling that particularly affected British troops immobilized for months in the dust or rains of India or stuck in the mud and malaria of Assam. The army’s propaganda and entertainment wing had a good time targeting this. ‘Laugh with SEAC’ printed a little poem, ‘Sticking it out in Delhi’, which summed up the sense of boredom. It began:
Fighting the Nazis from Delhi,
Fighting the Japs from Kashmir,
Exiled from England, we feel you should know,
The way we are taking it here.
Sticking it out at the Cecil,
Doing our bit for the War,
Going through hell at Maiden’s Hotel,
Where they stop serving lunch at four.
The previous autumn, Mountbatten had recruited Frank Owen of the London Evening Standard to run South East Asia Command’s propaganda newspaper, the Phoenix. Its editor, ‘Supremo’ said, would hold ‘by far the most important job that a lieutenant has ever held in the army’. Mountbatten tried to instil into the troops, by way of Owen’s editorials, a sense that Kandy represented a new beginning. Later in 1944, the two arch-propagandists began to work on the Americans. Owen tried to cajole Frank Capra, the Hollywood film director, to put a better gloss on British and Indian troops in one of his films of jungle warfare. By the end of the year plans were afoot to produce a joint Anglo-American forces magazine for SEAC.
In a sense, the more difficult propaganda war for the British was inside India itself. Starvation continued in some parts of Bengal. Perversely, a return to relative agricultural prosperity in the Punjab discouraged enlistment there. A huge and apparently accidental explosion ripped apart the Bombay dockyards at the beginning of April. Indian labour fled into the hinterland, anticipating Japanese bombing. The enemy advance into Arakan raised memories of 1942 and their propaganda was believed even when Kohima’s capture was announced more than once in their broadcasts. To cap it all, there was a serious shortage of coal in eastern India, labour was scarce and the Indian merchant classes were rattled. Yet somehow the Allied victories in Europe meant that morale never plummeted as low as it had done two years before. Officials noted that bank deposits outweighed withdrawals by two to one. The opposite had been the case in 1942. The political situation remained deadlocked with the Congress leadership still languishing in jail. But the Muslim League was now becoming more and more positive on the issue of recruitment, hoping to cut the ground out from under the ruling Unionist Party ministry in the Punjab. The communists were also very active in promoting recruitment and countering Congress propaganda against the war. In the long run, they told would-be recruits, the real battle would soon be against imperialism and capitalism.
Where the two armies encountered each other, the propaganda war between the Indian army and the INA was as sharp as the fighting. INA commissars lectured Indian army POWs with stories of British atrocities and won some of them over. A young Gurkha of the INA Bahadur Group infiltrated British lines. On capture he wept copiously in front of the commanding officer and said he was a refugee and had lost both of his parents at the hands of the Burmese. The officer believed him, gave him a certificate of good conduct and set him free. He continued spying for the INA. Other INA men made contact with former supporters of Bose’s Forward Bloc as they moved into Assam and began to hatch plans for a general rising in the event of a Japanese breakthrough.
But these local political successes were offset by the grave situation of Axis forces even before the advance on Imphal ground to a halt. The Japanese had finally tested their logistical capabilities to destruction. Less and less food was coming up from the Burmese plains. Soldiers in both the armies were living on tiny parcels of rice supplemented with roots. INA troops were fed with Japanese food to which many were allergic. Disease was now rampant among Indian and Japanese soldiers as the supply of medicines dwindled to nothing. This was at the very time when the Allied armies were beginning to get the benefit of wartime advances in tropical medicines made in Canada and the United States. In 1942 disease rates in the British and Indian armies had been over 20 per cent during the flight from Burma. By June 1944, they had fallen to 6 per cent. Still, morale among the INA seems to have held up well. Bose remained invincible in his optimism, announcing that the march on Delhi was making slow but steady progress even as the Japanese began to withdraw from the Assam front. British intelligence itself reported that the INA was still overwhelmingly anti-British. It was also reported, though, that relations between the INA and the Japanese had begun to sour further. The Japanese commanders were dubious of the INA’s tenacity as a fighting force. This was probably unreasonable as the INA were never properly supplied and remained dependent on captured British arms and ammunition which were now harder to come by.
The first test came once again in Arakan. Japanese forces began to probe and push against the positions to which the British had been forced back during the dismal fighting of the previous spring. Their aim was to direct attention away from Mutaguchi’s forces which were now building up for their push on Imphal. The assault began on 6 February 1944, about three weeks before the great U-Go offensive to the north. Japanese forces moved north and began to encircle the British HQ of Lieutenant-General Messervy at Launggyuang. As the battle developed, something unusual happened. Rather than retreat, the British held their ground. Their Spitfires knocked the Japanese fighters out of the sky. Ammunition, medical supplies, food and even Frank Owen’s newspaper SEAC were parachuted to the British strongpoint at Sinzweya. Tanks and heavy artillery, in which the British were now overwhelmingly superior, turned the course of the battle in their favour. By 26 February the Japanese offensive had been broken. For the first time a British and Indian force had met and decisively defeated a major Japanese offensive, leaving 5,000 of the enemy dead on the field. The army, gloomy and apprehensive as it had been a mere nine months earlier during Irwin’s watch, had now massively improved morale.
There was something else. On 7 February a Japanese assault had entered one of the field hospitals. They massacred the Indian and British medical team and bayoneted the wounded in their beds. News of this and other similar atrocities spread along the whole eastern front. British, Indian and African troops began to loathe the Japanese with a hatred almost unparalleled in modern warfare. Thereafter, Allied soldiers often casually killed any Japanese they encountered without the slightest compunction. Hatred of the enemy appears to have become one of the great causes of the Allied army, a more potent force by far than loyalty to the king-emperor. Indian troops extended this hatred even to their former comrades of the INA. When they encountered them in battle, Indian troops shot INA men in large numbers, to the relief of British intelligence officers.
The next major event to unroll on the Burma front was Orde Wingate’s second Chindit expedition, Operation Thursday. Its purpose was not so much to help the British push into central Burma but to cut off the Japanese forces in the north of the country and relieve pressure on the Chinese under Stilwell to the north. Popular with Churchill and Mountbatten, Wingate had dramatically built up his forces since the previous year, even though some senior officers worried about the diversion of men from the main battle front. Thursday drew on more than 10,000 combat troops, supported by US commandos and equipment. This large force was deployed by means of glider drops far into north Burma, around Indaw. The campaign proceeded at a slower pace after Wingate himself died in an air accident early in the operation. Mountbatten paid tribute to ‘one of the most forceful and dynamic personalities this war has produced’. The results of the operation remain a matter of controversy in the military-history literature. Yet there seems no question that the sudden appearance of such a large Allied force at his rear disrupted Mutaguchi’s plans and unnerved his commanders, even though he initially dismissed the attack as a sideshow. The disruption of Japanese communications and battle plans in the north also significantly aided Stilwell’s advance on Myitkyina later in the year, though he, too, was highly sceptical of Thursday. Most important, perhaps, was the psychological effect of the expedition on British and Japanese morale. Once again, Wingate had created a morale-boosting legend precisely at the time when the British were under maximum pressure. The Japanese never entirely regained the advantage of surprise and flexibility which had served them so well early in the war. Over the next two years, they were constantly looking over their shoulders, fearing attacks by the Chindits and other Allied special forces.
The Arakan attack was the curtain raiser to the far more massive battle that unfolded a few weeks later to the north. Imphal and Kohima were, for the British, the defining land battles of the war in the East. Mutaguchi planned a typical two-pronged attack. One thrust was to the south on Imphal. The northern advance was intended to drive through Kohima and ultimately encircle the massive base being built up at Dimapur, where David Atkins and his transport corps had met its Waterloo the previous year. The Japanese attack on Kohima almost succeeded. On 17 April the garrison of 2,000 men nearly fell. This would have been another terrible blow to British morale and prestige, but the garrison was initially relieved on 19 April. According to Ba Maw, Bose had an Indian governor and even a new Free India currency ready for the captured strong-points. Ba Maw added that a joint INA-Japanese advance was delayed by wrangling between the two sides over who should take the credit. Bose wanted to raise the Indian flag while the Japanese wanted the first towns to fall in British India as a gift for the Emperor Hirohito on his forty-third sides over who should take the credit. Bose wanted to raise the Indian flag while the Japanese wanted the first towns to fall in British India as a gift for the Emperor Hirohito on his forty-third birthday.
In the end, though, it was military factors which saved the day for the British. The British had tanks in the sector and the Japanese did not. This can be attributed to the huge improvement in both land and sea communications that had occurred on the Allied side since the previous spring. An animal-based Japanese army was quite suddenly facing a mechanized British Indian one. Another key factor was the formidable fighting power of the revitalized Indian element of the army. It was Punjabis and Gurkhas, in particular, the men of the 5th, 17th and 23rd Indian divisions, who came to the rescue of the embattled garrisons. These troops were better fed, better led by the hardened elite of Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers and better directed as a result of effective unit-based propaganda work. Once the Kohima garrison had been rescued the British battled to retake the Kohima area throughout April and May. Eventually, in June, the Japanese offensive began to crumble and their troops, out of food and ammunition, began to fall back southward towards Imphal. There were, of course, many episodes of British heroism and grit, notably the battle on the Kohima tennis court in May where, for instance, Sergeant J. Waterhouse of B Squadron, 149 Tank Regiment, kept dozens of attackers at bay. After the battles of April 1944, however, the British army began to use Indian troops to stiffen the morale of the British in particular circumstances, reversing a generations-old practice of the Indian army at war. Here, on India’s jungle-clad eastern frontier as much as in Whitehall or the Congress Working Committee, the Raj really came to an end.
Imphal showed the Allies using another of their decisive advantages: air power. In the first two weeks of April the Japanese attack on the southerly strong-point was as fierce as it was anywhere during the whole war. The Japanese wanted to neutralize the local airfields and push on towards the Indian plains where they hoped to spark off a popular revolt. With Mutaguchi in personal command, massive and well-trained forces were available. Again, the garrison held its ground. This time the air drop was on an equally massive scale. Against resistance from some American officers, Mountbatten diverted US transport planes from supplying Chiang Kai Shek over the Hump to China. With the garrison consolidated by parachute drops in brigade strength, tanks again switched the battle in the Allies’ favour. Lacking food and ammunition and decimated by cholera and malaria, the Japanese attacks began to slacken by the third week of April. In late June the siege of Imphal was raised.
The Japanese had no transport aircraft and few mechanical vehicles by this time. Instead, they mobilized the animal power of north Burma and the hills on a scale unprecedented since the time of the old Burmese kings. They also brought their own horses. In Operation Imphal 12,000 horses and mules, 30,000 oxen and more than 1,000 elephants crossed the Chindwin. The scale of animal fatality was colossal. During the campaign Japanese horses survived only fifty-five days on average and mules seventy-three days. All the horses and mules had died by August and the cattle had also perished or been eaten. Only the elephants survived.
While Imphal and Kohima suddenly awakened the world to the titanic scale of the military conflict in mainland Asia, the other front in Arakan burst further into life. Here the British had even more ground to make up in terms of morale and self-esteem. SEAC, keeping up pressure on the Japanese command in Akyab, sent in a mixed division of men from Hyderabad in the south and from the North West Frontier during early 1944. It was supported by the motor launches of the Royal Indian Navy, moving up and down the Naf river with supplies. The air force, too, was much more in evidence than it had been the previous year. This allowed British troops to hold out and fight back when surrounded by the Japanese because they could be supplied from the air. The aim in this third Arakan campaign was straightforwardly to kill as many Japanese as possible.
Gaining territory in Arakan was very difficult because of the intricate nature of the waterlogged plain and its paddy fields and the low hills of the interior. The planners had already decided that the push into Burma by land had to go over the northern mountains. By contrast, the Arakan fighting was a war of attrition during the monsoon season. The British river craft and artillery were not much better than they had been in the previous year. Conditions remained appalling. One officer recorded his memories: ‘leeches in the jungle, chaungs [paddy field streams] in spate that he had to cross with ropes; socks that shrank because they were never dry; the whiskers that grew overnight on his boots and the fungus that grew on his binoculars’. Eastward in the drier, higher land a fierce battle raged along tunnelled railway lines that were the only route down into Burma. The Japanese were dug into individual foxholes and kept up a random mortar fire on the bashas or temporary hutments built by the Allied troops. These were constructed out of dripping tarpaulins and rusting sheets of corrugated iron. In this climate and terrain, wounds turned septic within hours and as many as eight men were needed to carry a single casualty over many miles.