Fire for Effect: Road to Nowhere in Burma

By Robert M. Citino
December 2018 • World War II Magazine

“THERE IS ONLY ONE THING WORSE than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” As is true of many great quotations from World War II, the author is the inimitable Winston Churchill—and if anyone knew the truth of it, he did.

During the war, tensions roiled the Anglo-American alliance. The Americans mocked their British ally’s deliberate nature and their alleged tendency to stop fighting in the late afternoon for tea. The British paid back the insults, shaking their heads at the naiveté of American commanders and the amateurishness of American operations. Those were surface tensions, however. The Western alliance suffered from a deeper, more fundamental problem.

Go back to the campaign in Burma. It’s an apparent textbook case of American–British cooperation, with the Japanese overrunning the place in 1942 and the British and Americans working to push them out. In fact, it’s anything but. The United States and Great Britain are so disconnected here, they might well be fighting different wars.

The British are in Burma for their empire’s sake. Their commander, General William Slim, aims first to protect the frontier with India, then to reconquer Burma itself, and eventually to drive into Malaya and retake Singapore. At stake is nothing less than British power and prestige in southeast Asia.

To the Americans, none of those concerns matter. They aren’t fighting for Burma, per se, but for something they call the “CBI”—the “China-Burma-India” theater. At stake here is not the country of Burma itself, but the ability to ship badly needed supplies and materiel to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese armies, then locked in a desperate struggle against the Japanese. Prior to Japan’s invasion of Burma, those supplies have come by sea, landing at the Burmese capital of Rangoon. The Americans then try to open a land route across northern Burma—from Ledo in eastern India to Kunming in China—a massive engineering project that requires all their resources. Burma is a means to an end, in other words; the United States hasn’t gone to war to restore the British Empire.

It’s painful to watch the two allies struggle forward. The British are fighting on a shoestring, constantly having to beg for transport aircraft from their American friends to supply their troops in the absence of infrastructure on the ground. The Americans have their own problems: much of their fighting strength consists of poorly trained Nationalist Chinese divisions, which are under the fiery leadership of a U.S. commander, General Joseph Stilwell. But even Vinegar Joe’s constant shouting can’t achieve much in this sector. Flying the “Hump” over the Himalayas remains the key to resupplying Chiang throughout the war. It’s a nightmare flight for even the most veteran crews, with looming mountains, stomach-churning updrafts and downdrafts, and bitter cold. In the end, Burma is a harder fight than expected for both allies. They manage to win the campaign only because they have a decisive advantage in logistics—an area of war-making in which the Japanese forces are absolutely hopeless.

But let’s go one step further. The British Empire exhausts itself winning World War II, losing India just two years after the war, and Burma itself in 1948. The very next year, Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in China is brought down by Mao Zedong’s communists, despite the billions of dollars Chiang had received in U.S. aid. In the end, the Burma Road is a road to nowhere.

Despite the incredible constancy and valor of the men who fought there, maybe none of the great powers—the U.S., the U.K., or Japan—had a clear understanding of what they were doing in Burma. ✯

This column was originally published in the December 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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