In January 1942, the Japanese Army invaded Burma (now called Myanmar). The Japanese faced weak opposition from the Allied forces defending the vast Burmese frontier.

Allied troops endured over three years of brutal fighting, often in extreme terrain and menaced by severe weather and the threat of disease. Allied troops, led by Britain's Indian Army, reoccupied Burma in 1945.

Listen to 8 people describe their experiences of the Burma Campaign during the Second World War.

See the transcript of the interviews.

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1. The Battle of Sittang Bridge

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1. The Battle of Sittang Bridge

Neville Hogan was serving with the Burma Auxiliary Force when the Japanese invaded the country in early 1942. The defending force consisted only of two under-strength regular British battalions, two Indian Army infantry brigades and local Burmese forces. Using already proven tactics of infiltration and mobility, the Japanese advanced rapidly, trapping two Indian brigades in a bridgehead on the east bank of the River Sittang after the bridge across the river had been prematurely blown. During the battle which followed, the Japanese won a decisive victory. Hogan recalls swimming the fast flowing River Sittang after the destruction of the bridge left him stranded on the south bank.

Neville Hogan interview
© IWM (IWM SR 12342)

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Aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Sittang Bridge in southern Burma, which was destroyed in the face of the advancing Japanese on 23 February 1942.
Aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Sittang Bridge in southern Burma, which was destroyed in the face of the advancing Japanese on 23 February 1942.

'But once you get there, underneath, oh it's frightening'

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2. Retreat and evacuation

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2. Retreat and evacuation

As the Japanese advance into Burma gained momentum, British reinforcements began to arrive. But they couldn't prevent the fall of Burma's capital city, Rangoon, or of Mandalay, Burma's second city. British and Empire forces under Generals Alexander and Slim began the long and tortuous withdrawal to India. In what became the longest fighting withdrawal in the history of the British Army, the retreating troops faced problems of sickness and disease, impenetrable jungle, poor roads and constant harassment from the Japanese Air Force. They shared the retreat with thousands of civilian refugees fleeing northwards to India to escape the threat of Japanese brutality. The last stragglers crossed the final mountain range into India at Imphal in May 1942. Prue Brewis was serving with the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) at the time of the invasion. She was one of the thousands who fled Burma for India, in a long and exhausting journey.

Prue Brewis interview
© IWM (IWM SR 22741)

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Civilians pulling a cart during the evacuation of Rangoon, 1942.
Civilians pulling a cart during the evacuation of Rangoon, 1942.

'We were absolutely packed like sardines'

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3. Operation 'Longcloth'

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3. Operation 'Longcloth'

In September 1942, the Indian 14th Division launched a failed campaign to recapture the Arakan coastal plain in western Burma. The Japanese put up a strong resistance and the campaign fizzled out after a series of setbacks and retreats early in 1943. With the failure of this offensive, British Brigadier Orde Wingate was given permission to mount a long-range raid behind Japanese lines. Wingate's raiding force became known as the 'Chindits'. The first Chindit Expedition, Operation 'Longcloth', was launched in February 1943. The Chindits suffered high casualties, and much of the damage they inflicted on Japanese rail communications was rapidly repaired. But the operation delivered a much-needed boost to demoralised Allied troops. In March, Wingate ordered the Chindits to withdraw. Dominic Neill was an animal transport officer with 8 Column during the expedition. He describes being ambushed during the retreat by Japanese troops on 14 April 1943.

Dominic Neill interview
© IWM (IWM SR 13299)

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A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.
A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.

'Hundreds of thoughts flash through the minds of those caught in this way and all in the briefest of seconds'

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4. Mules and supplies

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4. Mules and supplies

During the campaign, mules became the preferred method of transporting supplies over Burma's difficult terrain. Bordered by India, China and Thailand, the country is surrounded by jungle-covered mountain ranges and divided by several major rivers. Its monsoon season affects roads and communications, and the climate produces dangerous wildlife and the threat of disease. Wingate's Chindit force included 1,000 mules, essential for negotiating the country's jungles and water-logged ground while laden with provisions for the troops. Roland Nappin, a muleteer with 2nd Battalion, Welch Regiment, describes the problems he encountered when loading mules in 1943.

Roland Nappin interview
© IWM (IWM SR 20593)

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A mule convoy carrying supplies into Burma.
A mule convoy carrying supplies into Burma.

'They were looked after well and truly'

5. Field rations

Indian troops provided the majority of 14th Army's fighting strength during the Burma Campaign. John Randle, an Indian Army officer with the 7th Battalion, 10th Baluch Regiment, discusses the field rations that sustained him and his men during the campaign.

John Randle interview © IWM (IWM SR 20457)

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An Indian infantry section of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment about to go on patrol on the Arakan front, Burma.
An Indian infantry section of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment, about to go on patrol on the Arakan front in Burma, 1944.

'My endurance and capability to go on fighting through the monsoons and in great heat and stuff was completely sustained by this'

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6. Ngakyedauk Pass

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6. Ngakyedauk Pass

In March 1944, the Japanese Army launched an attack on India called Operation 'U-Go'. The Japanese aimed to seize British supplies in Assam, inspire a rising by the Indian populace against British rule, and take pressure away from the US advances in the Western Pacific. It was supported by Operation 'Ha-Go', which was intended to draw British attention away from the Imphal area where the brunt of the 'U-Go' attacks took place.

As the Japanese 55th Division attacked northwards in the Arakan, British forces employed new defensive techniques to counter Japanese infiltration tactics. They held out against determined Japanese assaults until the Japanese, short of supplies, were forced to withdraw. Fighting was particularly fierce around the Ngakyedauk Pass, where British troops fought off a series of attacks. Norman Bowdler was a trooper with the 25th Dragoons, a British tank regiment. He explains the problems of driving his Grant tank over the Ngakyedauk Pass in 1944.

Norman Bowdler interview
© IWM (IWM SR 22342)

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A General Lee tank travelling on the top of the Ngakyedauk Pass to engage camouflaged Japanese positions.
A General Lee tank travelling on the top of the Ngakyedauk Pass to engage camouflaged Japanese positions.

'Yes it was a bit dodgy, getting a thirty ton tank around these S-bends'

7. Siege of Kohima

The British defensive tactics were again employed on a larger scale when Imphal and Kohima were surrounded during Operation 'U-Go'. In April 1944, one British battalion and some additional garrison troops at Kohima held out for ten days against the Japanese 31st Division until they were relieved by the British 2nd Division. In the fighting they held off over 25 full-scale infantry attacks, suffering very heavy casualties with over 200 men killed. At Imphal a larger perimeter was established, with British and Indian troops defending the surrounding heights. The battles continued at Kohima and Imphal until the Japanese withdrew, having both exhausted their supplies and suffered heavy casualties. Bert Harwood served as Sergeant Major with C Company, 4th Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment during the siege of Kohima. He describes the conditions for the wounded during the battle.

Bert Harwood interview
© IWM (IWM SR 20769)

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The Battle of Imphal-Kohima March - July 1944: View of Kohima Ridge after the battle.
View of Kohima Ridge after the battle.

'The shelling killed people that were in the trenches, waiting'

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8. Japanese surrender

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8. Japanese surrender

By the end of 1944, the Allies were ready to advance onto the central plains of Burma. Employing new tactics, using a combination of tanks and infantry, long columns advanced southwards, destroying Japanese resistance. Amphibious landings allowed forces to advance along the Arakan coast. Mandalay was captured on 20 March 1945 by 19th Indian Division. Two months later Rangoon fell and Japanese troops retreated to the River Sittang. In August, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon after, Japan surrendered. The war in the Far East was over. Enid Grant was a British nurse who served with the Burma Hospital Nursing Corps between 1942 and 1945. She describes how VJ Day was celebrated in Rangoon in August 1945.

Enid Grant interview 
© IWM (IWM SR 22688)

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The Surrender Ceremony at Rangoon 28 August 1945. Lieutenant General F A M Browning, Chief of Staff to South East Asia Command signs the surrender agreement at Rangoon.
The Surrender Ceremony at Rangoon 28 August 1945. Lieutenant General F A M Browning, Chief of Staff to South East Asia Command signs the surrender agreement at Rangoon.

'There was money; I picked up a lot of Japanese money which was thrown'

This article was edited by Kate Clements. Other IWM staff members contributed to writing an older version of this piece.

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