Sunday, January 31, 2016

The China-Burma-India Theater

The strategy for the defeat of Japan could not have been simpler: Allied air, land, and sea forces would advance on three broad axes to roll back the new Japanese empire to the Home Islands, which Allied forces would then invade and occupy, if necessary. British Commonwealth forces would advance from India through Burma to Malaya and Hong Kong; Australian- American forces would drive north and west from Australia into the Netherlands East Indies and the Philippines; and the United States, rich in naval air and surface units, would attack across the Central Pacific toward the Philippines and Formosa. Destruction of the Japanese armed forces (especially air and naval units) would proceed simultaneously with the ruination of Japan’s economy, dependent upon seaborne oil, minerals, coal, rubber, and foodstuffs. Any amateur who could read a map could design such a grand strategy. Making it happen proved quite a different matter.

The Allied military experience in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater demonstrated how difficult it would be to mount a cohesive offensive effort from nations with conflicting interests and asymmetrical capabilities. Not until 1943 did British commanders in India believe that their principal field force, the Fourteenth Army, could conduct even limited offensive operations. They tested their forces with a one-division advance along the Arakan coast and found the Japanese and terrain unconquerable. The Arakan offensive demonstrated what the Fourteenth Army commander, General William Slim, feared. Only wide-ranging amphibious operations could take his army past the rugged Chin Hills guarding Burma from the west and blocking access to the river valleys leading to Mandalay and Rangoon. A hardened field soldier who had learned his trade on the Western Front and in the Indian Army, Slim combined troop-leading and training skills with personal and moral courage as well as charm, a sound grasp of soldiering, and a solid appreciation of Asian warfare and the excellence of the Japanese Army. He had experienced the catastrophe of the 1942 retreat from Burma and the abortive attack in the Arakan. His honesty and character made him the obvious choice to reshape the Fourteenth Army, a force built on the Indian Army but including the ever-dependable Gurkha Rifles of Nepal, unproven infantry battalions from East and West Africa, and infantry battalions and supporting arms from the British Army.

In theory, the concept of amphibious envelopments reaching to Singapore made sense to everyone except the other Allies and much of the Royal Navy. With the demands of other theaters, the Allies could not find adequate amphibious shipping for even a modest operation aimed at Rangoon and scheduled for late 1943 or 1944. Slim now saw no alternative but an overland advance by his army, gradually reinforced from the Middle East and India proper, where the internal security mission required fewer British battalions by 1944. The Japanese Fifteenth Army, under Lieutenant General Mutaguchi Renya, also grew in the same months from four to eight divisions, thus raising the prospective cost to Slim of an overland battle through the mountains of western Burma. If Slim could find no reasonable alternative to a conventional offensive, others offered shining promises of easy victory. Churchill and Roosevelt, politicians and opportunists to the core, grasped these false options with enthusiasm.

Already tied to Nationalist China by sentiment and prior commitment, Roosevelt never abandoned his hope that Chiang Kai-shek’s armies would go on the offensive and that Chiang himself could actually play the role of regional leader. From mid-1942 until mid-1943 Roosevelt struggled to keep China in the war, aided in his quest by Marshall and Stilwell. In October 1942 Roosevelt answered Chiang’s Three Demands with limited promises of an air buildup in India and a serious effort to bring Lend-Lease supplies to Kunming by air. The Allies could complete the Ledo extension of the Burma Road only by driving at least one Japanese division from northern Burma with some sort of Sino-American army. Roosevelt did not promise to send ground combat forces, even though Stilwell favored this option. Encouraged by Hap Arnold’s staff and Chennault (now commanding the Tenth Air Force in China) to think more about offensive air operations from China, Roosevelt in May 1943 chose (much to Stilwell’s dismay and Chiang’s delight) Chennault’s concept of a major bomber offensive against China’s coastal cities and Japanese sea lanes. Chennault, the air defense expert, suddenly promised victory through bombing, probably influenced by his nominal theater air commander, Major General Clayton D. Bissell, and Bissell’s patron, Hap Arnold. The air plan, however, offered Stilwell some solace, since such a commitment required an open Ledo- Burma Road and a reformed Chinese Army to protect the bomber bases in China. At the Quebec conference of August 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff approved an offensive in north Burma.

With his schemes for amphibious operations frustrated by shipping shortages, Churchill supported American plans for the China-Burma-India theater, even though he had little faith in Nationalist China. Moreover, Churchill fell under the spell of one of the war’s most eccentric and charismatic commanders, Brigadier Orde Wingate. A Middle Eastern expert with guerrilla successes in the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Palestine, Wingate argued for unconventional warfare in Burma. Slim doubted Wingate would find the Japanese as impressionable as his Middle Eastern foes, and he resented Wingate’s influence with Churchill, who allowed Wingate to strip Fourteenth Army of some of its best British, Gurkha, and African troops.

Bursting with energy, Wingate formed the 3,300-man 77th Brigade in 1943, the Long Range Penetration Group (LRPG) or “Chindits,” a nickname drawn from the ferocious winged lions of stone guarding Burma’s temples. Wings had much to do with the Chindits, since Wingate expected his force to land by glider or parachute behind Japanese lines and then be resupplied by air. Fighter-bombers would provide fire support instead of artillery. The first experiment in February–June 1943 was no great success, proving only that Chindits got tired and sick like everyone else and could not live by airdrops alone. The Chindits killed three times as many Japanese as they themselves lost (68 to 28), but almost the entire force ended the operation unfit for future duty. Slim certainly did not see the Chindit operations as a substitute for his campaign.

Wingate’s quixotic schemes then grew into a larger and more optimistic plan for a return to Burma in 1944 on the same model. Churchill liked the concept, while Stilwell saw Wingate’s force as a useful instrument in his own plan to lead a Sino-American ground force against Myitkyina, a crucial road junction on the way to Lashio, terminus of the Burma Road. With the approval of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, appointed the theater commander in September 1943, Wingate wrested control of troops in India that were outside Slim’s command and formed a six-brigade LRPG of 20,000 officers and men. Stilwell had no comparable ground force. He had two small Chinese divisions under his direct control, and Marshall had provided only a makeshift infantry regimental combat team drawn from “volunteers” from the U.S. Army. Designated the 5307th Composite Unit Provisional, the unit preferred the name Merrill’s Marauders, thus identifying themselves with Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill, one of Stilwell’s favorite staff officers but an inexperienced commander with a serious heart condition.

Stilwell, however, had some other assets to entice Wingate into the north Burma campaign. First, he had the full cooperation of the American air forces (if not Chennault), since an open Ledo-Burma Road would dramatically reduce the airlift requirements over “the Hump,” the dangerous southeastern extension of the Himalayas. Moreover, the prospect of Chinese bases attracted American bomber generals, who were not having great success yet over Germany and who had made huge investments in a new long-range bomber, the B-29 Superfortress. Arnold and Bissell organized their own special operations wing, the 5138th Air Force Unit or the 1st Air Commando Group, commanded by Colonel Philip “Flip” Cochran, who proved one of the most able officers in the China-Burma-India theater. Stilwell promised Wingate that Cochran’s 200-aircraft group, which included fighter-bombers and transports as well as gliders and reconnaissance aircraft, would provide the Chindits the aerial support the RAF could not, if Wingate coordinated his operations with the Myitkyina expedition.

Both Stilwell and Wingate assumed they would enjoy the services of the pro-Allied Burma hill tribes. The major mountain tribal groups—Nagas, Kachins, Karens, Shans, and Chins—numbered a minority of about 7 million of Burma’s 17 million people. The Nagas, Kachins, and Karens had served happily in the colonial security forces, had fought the Japanese in 1942, and now wanted weapons to fight Burmese collaborators and the Japanese. Many Karens had become Christians, and the Kachins rivaled the Gurkhas in their warriorlike qualities. In 1943 the hill tribes welcomed new guerrilla leaders from the United States and the Commonwealth, Detachment 101 of the OSS and Force 136 of the British Special Operations Directorate. Generously supplied with arms, money, supplies, and radios, these partisan teams rallied thousands of Kachin and Karen tribesmen. They, too, depended on the 1st Air Commando Group for support.

While Slim’s Indian divisions conducted cautious offensive operations in central and south Burma in 1943–44, the Chindits, Marauders, and Chinese marched or flew into north-central and northern Burma in February and March 1944.Wingate did not intend to support Stilwell, but he died in an air crash in March, and his successor then coordinated the movement of the six LRPG brigades with Stilwell’s force. Unfortunately, Stilwell underestimated the fighting skill and tenacity of the Japanese 18th Division, under Lieutenant General Tanaka Shinchi, and he used his forces (including air support) with such profligacy that the Chindits and 1st Air Commando were combat-ineffective before Myitkyina fell. The Marauders and three Chinese divisions fought their way to the headwaters of the Irrawaddy by April 1944 but exhausted themselves in the process. In the battles of Walawbum and Shadzup, only the timely arrival of the Chinese saved the Marauders from disaster. Merrill himself collapsed with another heart attack.

Stilwell then ordered the remnants of his expeditionary force on a 65- mile trek to Myitkyina, which it besieged in June and finally captured in August with the help of more Chinese and the Burmese partisans. The campaign destroyed the Marauders and crippled the Chinese X Force. The campaign did not end, however, since Chiang had finally ordered Y Force into Burma from the east, while Marshall sent two more U.S. infantry regiments (Mars Force) to the CBI to replace the Marauders, who mustered barely 200 effectives from an original 3,000-man force. Chiang’s price of cooperation was Stilwell’s relief, since he viewed “Vinegar Joe” as pro- Communist. Stilwell did know which Chinese regime would seize the Mandate of Heaven. The Kuomintang, he noted, was characterized by “corruption, neglect, chaos, economy [bad], taxes . . . hoarding, black market, trading with the enemy.” The Communists “reduce taxes, rents, interest . . . raise production, and standard of living, participate in government. Practice what they preach.” Vinegar Joe, sick and bitter, left the CBI before the north Burma force finally met Y Force at the Chinese border south of Lashio and allowed U.S. Army engineers to link the Ledo Road with the highway to Kunming.

By the time the land route to China had been reopened, the Chennault air plan had already come a cropper. Even Roosevelt finally accepted the conclusion his military chiefs had reached long before: the Chinese Nationalists would do little to defeat Japan. Within China, signs of shirking were only too clear. Inflation and corruption, fueled by American supplies and money, became rampant. Chinese military casualties fell below 300,000 for the first time since 1937. The American military mission in Chungking, now directed by Major General Albert C. Wedemeyer, believed that only the Communist Eighth Route Army and the OSS-supported Chinese-Mongolian partisans were real fighters.

The decline of the Nationalist Army did not reflect any lack of effort by Tenth Air Force’s air transports in flying “the Hump.” By August 1943, C-46s were delivering 5,000 tons of supplies a month to China, an unthinkable figure when Chiang had demanded that support a year earlier. By January 1944, Tenth Air Force effort reached 15,000 tons a month. The commitment took a heavy toll. The transport force lost at least one aircraft for every one of the 500 air miles between India and China; more than 1,000 aircrewmen perished along the route. At its peak strength, Tenth Air Force had 650 aircraft in the air every day, around the clock. This effort made it possible for Chennault to mount Operation Matterhorn, the strategic bombardment of Chinese and Formosan targets with B-24s and B-29s based in China.

The opportunity cost to the Chinese Nationalists was high, too, since 90 percent of the cargo tonnage in 1943–44 was aviation gasoline and ordnance, not Lend-Lease arms for the Chinese Army. This imbalance exacted its toll all too soon. As the airlift over “the Hump” provided more logistical support, Arnold sent more operational wings to China and created a new command for Chennault, the Fourteenth Air Force, which included one B-29 bombardment wing. When Churchill and Roosevelt met Chiang Kaishek on their way to Teheran in November 1943, they promised Chiang, awash in self-importance, a great air war from China against Japan. Their meeting coincided with the first American bombardment of Formosa. They also promised to push operations in Burma to open the Ledo-Burma Road and increase Lend-Lease aid. In return for recognition of his role as Allied Generalissimo in Asia, Chiang promised to use his army to the best of its limited ability to support the American and British offensive.

The Japanese did not look kindly on the growing U.S. Army Air Forces presence in China, however, and ordered the China expeditionary army to begin ICHI-GO (Operation One) in January 1944. For the next ten months the Japanese Army pushed the Nationalists back and overran base after base, forcing the forward-based Fourteenth Air Force fighters and bombers deeper into China, more than half of which remained unconquered. The Chinese Army’s resistance was erratic and ultimately futile, but Japanese casualties and the lengthening logistical tail of the Japanese divisions brought operations to a halt in January 1945. The Japanese generals in China cautioned Tokyo that they could not advance far enough to capture the bases of the new B-29s, which had a range of 4,000 miles.

The strategic bombing champions, however, had already concluded that an enlarged Matterhorn was too tall a challenge. With the decline of Fourteenth Air Force and military support of Chiang Kai-shek, operations in the China-Burma-India theater, divided into the Southeast Asia and Chinese theaters in 1944, reverted to a British Commonwealth effort to restore the British Empire, a goal the United States failed to support with any enthusiasm. The war with Japan would be won elsewhere.

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