China-Burma-India - 1944

Part I

CBIVA Sound-off
Spring 1994 Issue

In observance of the Fiftieth Anniversary of WW II in CBI, SOUND-OFF would like to retell the story of 1944 in chronological terms rather than episodic. The relatively few histories of "Our War" recount these events separately and there is a tendency to forget that while Merrill's Marauders and the Chinese 38th and 22nd Divisions were moving south from Ledo on the road to Myitkyina, the Chindits were fighting behind Japanese lines in Central Burma and the British forces were fighting for their survival in the Battle of Kohima and Imphal while the Japanese were sweeping back the Chinese armies and retaking the 14th AF airfields in China.

The reason historians have not written this story in this fashion is because each of the operations deserves to have its history written in detail. Also, professionals may have learned that the story can't be told this way. All that may be achieved will be a giant headache.

With the caveat that "Fools rush in . ..." and that, in no way can this synopsis be represented as authorative, we will proceed. Our hope is that your interest in these events as a whole or piecemeal will provoke you to read the works of professional historians.

At the end of two years of war with the Japanese and with one another, it is remarkable that the Allies have not suffered greater losses. The Chinese are happy to have the Americans fight for them and are reluctant to commit men and resources against the Japanese which can later be used against the Communists. The latter also give the Japanese few major problems. Only the 14th Air Force represents a threat to the Japanese and that force is dependent on air supply over the Hump for every drop of gasoline, every bullet fired and every bomb dropped.

Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell's orders are that the prime mission of U.S. forces in CBI is to keep China in the war and to keep the million plus Japanese in China so occupied that they cannot be used against the U.S. forces which are moving island to island in the Pacific, ever closer to the Japanese homeland. It is Stilwell's contention that this can be done by the creation of U.S. armed and trained Chinese troops to be used against the Japanese in China. ("X" Force).

To do this requires a portion of the tonnage flown over the Hump and this portion becomes a great source of friction between Chiang Kai-shek and Gen. Claire Chennault, head of the 14th AF, on the one hand and Stilwell on the other.

In addition to this inter-Allied friction, there exist variations in objectives between the British and American leadership. The American objective is strictly China-oriented while the British objective is to restore the British Empire in the Far East. The British have been deeply wounded in both national pride and fear of future loss of Empire by the Japanese capture of Singapore, Malaysia and Burma. At the same time there is an active Indian National Army marching with the Japanese and much political unrest in India.

Brig. Orde Wingate (Courtesy of Command magazine)

In the first two years of war the British and Americans, and as a result, the Chinese, have all shared a common problem - low priority in supplies and manpower. The prime target of the Allied High Command is to defeat the Germans first and then cope with the Japanese. Shortages of men and materiel plagued the Southeast Asia Command, headed by Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten.

As 1944 begins, the British don't feel they can mount a major invasion of Burma until the post-monsoon dry season of 1944-1945 but have agreed to assist the Northern Combat Area Command (two Chinese divisions and Merrill's Marauders) in its efforts to take Myitkyina before the start of the 1944 monsoons. This would take the form of the 2nd Chindit Expedition, a long-range penetration raid which would cut supplies to the Japanese in North Burma. Also, it was decided to mount an effort in the Arakan Peninsula in the hope that the vital base of Akyab could be captured.

The Japanese on the other hand had very aggressive plans for both India and China. In Burma, Lt. Gen Renya Mutaguchi's Fifteenth Army, consisting of three divisions which totaled 100,000 veteran combat troops when accompanied by the normal attached units, was to seize Kohima and Imphal and the surrounding Manipur plain. This would take away the staging area for any allied invasion of Burma and would also cut the supply line connecting Calcutta and the airfields of Assam from which all supplies to China were flown. (The Japanese identified this as Operation "U-Go.")

In China, the Japanese "Operations Ichi-Go" was planned to push the Chinese out of their remaining positions north of the Yangtze River and clearing the segments of the Beijing-Wuhan Railroad in Hunan Province which was controlled by the Nationalist Chinese. This securing of their right flank was identified as "Ka-Go."

The second portion of "Ichi-Go" was Operation "To-Go" which had as its primary objective the capture of the 14th AF airfields south and west of the Japanese area of control in China. This would remove a potential launching pad for attacks on the Homeland and coastal shipping. In addition, the Japanese had found that the presence of the U.S. air forces stiffened the resistance of the Chinese ground forces.

With the success of U-Go and Ichi-Go, China would be forced out of the war and many hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops would be available for use elsewhere and vast supplies of food in both India and China would be available for the starving Japanese armies. It was expected that once the Japanese were firmly implanted on the Manipur plain the discontented Indian people would rise to their cause and drive out the Allies.

The Second Arakan Campaign

In the first quarter of 1944, three divisions of the British XV Corps moved into the Arakan in an effort to take Akyab. They were soon halted by the Japanese 55th Division which had fortified a mountain spur extending westward to the sea near Maungdaw, blocking the only possible overland route to Akyab. For nearly two months the British vainly hammered at this defensive position. The C-I-C of Burma Area Army, Lt. Gen. Shozo Kawabe, then sent the 54th Division into Arakan as reinforcement for the 55th.

From their successes against the Commonwealth forces in the Arakan in 1943, the Japanese felt they would be able to invade India from this direction as well and they identified this as Operation Ha-go. Using the same tactics that had worked a year earlier, the Japanese 55th Division counterattacked on February 4, while elements of the 54th circled through the jungles to the east, crossing the mountains behind the British flank and cut the lines of communications of both divisions, isolating them from one another and from many of their smaller units. General Slim, refusing to permit any withdrawal, rushed reinforcements and initiated emergency air drops to the surrounded forces.

In the period of February 13-25, the British counterattacked and the encircling Japanese now found themselves surrounded by determined British and Indian units. The two front-line British divisions re-established contact on February 24 and increased pressure on the trapped Japanese, most of whom were wiped out.

Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill (far left) watches troops cross into Burma on the Ledo Road (DA photograph)

North Burma Campaign

While the British were engaged in the Arakan, the Chinese 38th and 22nd Divisions had advanced along the Ledo Road trace, across the Patkai Mountains and into northern Burma. When they met Japanese Major Gen. Shinichi Tanaka and his 22nd Division in the Hukawng Valley in January 1944 the movement became stalemated. Stilwell returned from New Delhi and was able to get things moving again.

The 5307 Composite Unit (Prov.), tagged by newspaper men at Shingbwiyang with the sobriquet "Merrill's Marauders" after their commander, Brigadier Gen. Frank D. Merrill, now was called into action. With the two Chinese divisions pressing down the Hukawng Valley, the Marauders engaged in an enveloping maneuver which culminated in the March 3-7 Battle of Maingkwan and Walabum.

This battle resulted in a severe defeat and heavy losses for Tanaka and the 18th Division but not destruction. Able to escape encirclement, Tanaka established a line along a jungle ridge separating the Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys.

In the period from March 28 to April 1, one battalion of Merrill's Marauders and a Chinese regimental task force circled deep behind the Japanese lines to take a blocking position behind the 18th Division at Shaduzup. Two of Tanaka's regiments were trapped but fought their way out through obscure trails after suffering severe losses and abandoning much equipment and ammunition. Tanaka, nevertheless, counterattacked and briefly isolated another of Merrill's battalions in the mountains southwest of Shaduzup (Battle of Walabum, March 29-April 8).

Second Chindit Expedition

While Commonwealth Forces were engaged in the Arakan and the two Chinese divisions were advancing from Ledo to the Hukawng Valley, preparations were being made from January to early March for the Chindits to return to Burma. Under British Brigadier Orde Win-gate, five infantry brigades were organized as the 3rd Indian Division (so-named as a deception because no Indians were involved), also known as "Special Forces" but commonly called "Chindit." Two columns were to be flown via gliders to fields which would be constructed behind Japanese lines and a third column, numbering approximately 3,000 men were to march from Ledo, across mountains along a track parallel to that occupied by the Chinese and Marauders, to the railroad which connected Mandalay and Myit-kyina. There they would support Stilwell by cutting supplies to the Japanese in north Burma.

These two columns were to be flown to airfields designated "Broadway" and "Chowringhee" and then supplied by air by USAF Col. Philip Cochran's 1st Air Commandos. The operation got under way March 5-11, as engineers and troops were first landed by gliders and then by transports to the fields prepared by the glider-borne troops. While a few columns spread out behind the Japanese lines to sever lines of communication and generally wreak havoc, the main body moved to Mawlu. By March 16 a strong road block was established, blocking the railroad and the supply line to Tanaka's forces opposing Stilwell. This defensive position was called White City after an amusement park in London and because of the many white parachutes employed by Cochran's Americans to supply the Chindits.

A terrible blow was suffered by the Chindits as their leader, Brig. Wingate, was killed in an air crash March 25. He was succeeded in command by Major Gen. W.D.A. Lentaigne.

Japanese Invasion of India

Gen. Mutaguchi refused to take seriously the news that a British force of undetermined size and unknown objective was being flown into areas behind his lines in north Burma. On March 6, his 15th Army crossed the Chindwin on a broad front. One division headed for Kohima, two for Imphal.

Although the British had been expecting the offensive, they had under-estimated the size of the Fourteenth Army; they were amazed by the speed and power of its advance. British outposts holding the Chin Hills around Tiddim and Fort White were cut off by the Japanese 33rd Division, but succeeded in breaking their way through Japanese roadblocks to reach Imphal, just before the arrival outside that city of the Japanese 15th Division, which unexpectedly was approaching over rugged mountain trails from the east (April 5).

The Japanese 31st Division had begun to invest Kohima the previous day. The British IV Corps, three divisions, was now almost completely isolated with the bulk of the corps in and around Imphal and a small garrison holding Kohima.

In the period April 15-April 20, Imphal and Kohima were under siege. Hastily assembled transport planes (borrowed from the Hump operation) began an airlift to maintain some 50,000 men in the IV Corps and the 40,000 civilian inhabitants of the two communities. At the same time, Gen. Slim assembled his XXXIII Corps at the railroad at Dimapur and pushing back Japanese patrols began a drive to relieve the dangerously pressed garrison of Kohima.

Bitter fighting flared continuously around both perimeters and several times Kohima was close to collapse. The margin was the air support from American and British fighter planes and medium bombers, which harassed the Japanese mercilessly.

In addition to moving to relieve Kohima, Slim also began flying in reinforcements from the Arakan as reinforcements for the IV Corps at Imphal. Once Kohima was relieved, the XXXIII Corps was able to turn its attention to Imphal. Progress in that direction was painfully slow as the Japanese dug in and held with typical tenacity. The garrison at Imphal had been doubled by the troops being flown in, now totaled more than 100,000 men and the Commonwealth forces now outnumbered the besieging Japanese.

Amazingly, the Japanese held back violent assaults against their lines by both British corps. Basic to the Japanese strategy had been the seizure of supplies when they defeated the garrisons of Kohima and Imphal. With the accomplishment a failure, they were starving. Because of hunger, disease, and loss of troops, their fighting strength began to crumble. The IV and XXXIII Corps were able to hack their way through the remaining roadblocks and the siege of 88 days was broken on June 22.


Both the Japanese and Allies made plans and preparations for campaigns for 1944. The Japanese operations in China, under the title of "Ichi-Go" was timed for after "U-Go" was under way in India. The Japanese planners believed that the American Hump flights with supplies would be severely limited while their bases in Assam were being threatened. This assumption proved correct as we have just seen these planes being used to fly supplies to besieged Imphal and Kohima.

With no activity on the front controlled by the Chinese Communists, a condition tacit or negotiated not known, the Japanese felt that this was the time to recompense for the punishment they had been receiving from Chennault's Fourteenth Air Force.

An all-out effort would be mounted to capture the American airfields by ground offensive. During the early months of 1944 Gen. Yasuji Okamura's Chinese Expeditionary Army, 820,000 strong, undertook Operation Ka-Go, clearing the Chinese armies from their remaining positions north of Yangtze River and from the segments they controlled of the Beijing-Wuhan Railroad.

Operation Ka-Go was launched in mid-April with spectacular results. The Chinese blocking the railroad were easily cleaned out. The Japanese strongly pursued the retreating Chinese to the edge of Communist Territory. But, there was little more they could do since they had no supplies stockpiled to go further in this direction.

Operation To-Go had to wait until May until it could get started. The Japanese Eleventh Army, 250,000 strong, initiated a southwestward drive from Hankow on Changsha on May 7. The Twenty-third Army, 50,000 strong, that same day thrust west from the Canton area (Guangzhou). Chinese resistance was spotty and on June 19, Changsha fell.

This picture was made up of four different black and white pictures; then tinted and painted in detail by Jim Fletcher. It was then photographed by "Joe Sulkowsky. The timing was fine for the SOUND-OFF three-parter on the 1944 War in CBI. You can identify all three, can't you?

Allied Plans

While the Japanese planned Operation Ichi-Go for eastern China, the Allies did offensive planning themselves for Yunnan Province. Having witnessed the successes of Stilwell's Chinese-American forces in northwest Burma, Chiang Kai-shek reconsidered his earlier veto on an advance against northeast Burma from Yunnan.

He approved an offensive down the Burma Road by a small army of 72,000 men, the "Y-Force," commanded by marshal Wei Li-huang. The American Chinese Combat Command supported this army with liaison officers with the artillery and infantry forces as well as signal, medical and other support personnel.

These troops were not as well-trained, equipped or staffed as the Ramgarh-trained forces now in Burma and were not necessarily superior in force to the 15,000 men of the Japanese 56th Division opposing them. This force is defending a line marked by the Salween River which ran from north to south between the Chinese troops and the border of Burma.

This first segment has hit the high spots of the action on six fronts in Burma and China in the pre-monsoon period of 1944 in CBI. What has not ben touched upon in this period are the strategic and tactical air operations. This and "CBI-1944" will be continued in the next issue.

The 492nd Bomb Squadron bombs Rangoon Dumps area.
U.S.A.F. Photo, property of Charles Serra

Part II  >>>

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