Burma:  The Last Battles, 1945


If the Japanese had not earned such an unenviable reputation for cruelty and barbarism in their days of triumph, the soldiers looking at them now might well have afforded mercy. With their ragged, threadbare uniforms, they looked more like scarecrows than troops, and to a man they were emaciated, filthy and stinking. How­ever they still sprang one surprise: among the gaunt, ferocious creatures who were slaughtered in their hundreds as they tried to cross the main road, were young wild-eyed Japanese women. They had advanced with the Japanese supermen as their nurses and their paramours (for the front-line soldiers moved with their travelling brothels, known as ‘Comfort Battalions’). Now with the Superman myth shattered and dispelled for ever they attempted to escape along with the broken but still vicious rabble. The Jap women had scant clothing left in this desperate hour. Some carried rifles which they fired at the British troops, while others grasped grenades and blew themselves to pieces when capture was imminent. Those who were captured were clothed and fed and set to nurse the wounded and starving Jap soldiers, now falling into British hands in increasing num­bers. They made the most devoted nurses to their own men.

Day after day the Japanese streamed east from the Yomas. Day after day they met the same fate. The machine guns got them, the Brens and rifles got them, the tanks got them, and the guns got them. They drowned by the hundreds in the Sittang, and their corpses floated in the fields and among the reeds. In July 1945 we of the 14th Army killed and captured 11,500 Japanese for the loss of 96 killed. The slaughter went on till August 4, and then no more Japanese came. There were none to come. The last battle in Burma was over. Of the 18,000 men who came out of the Pegu Yomas the Japanese later admit­ted that barely 6,000 reached the east bank of the Sittang, and of these many were too weak and ill to march on to Malaya. They also stated that 2,000 men who could not even start the journey had been left behind to die in the Yomas, and there many of their bodies were later found.

More than perhaps any campaign in the Second World War, save the Russians’ defence of Stalingrad, the Burma campaign has the elements of a great Homeric saga. It took place in a fantas­tic terrain, isolated by the great mountains and jungles from any other theatre. It went on un­broken for three years and eight months. It cover­ed vast areas. It sucked into its maelstrom nearly 2,000,000 men. It encompassed great disaster and ended in great triumphs. It produced prodig­ies of heroism, patience, resolution, and endur­ance. It brought about great suffering, but fascin­ated and enthralled those taking part in it, both victors and losers. It was like no war that had ever been in the history of conflict.

It evolved the 14th Army, one of the most remarkable armies the world has seen. It spawned General Slim, perhaps the greatest soldier the British have produced in the 20th Century, per­haps the greatest since the Duke of Wellington: few Englishmen have commanded a bigger army, few have enjoyed a greater victory. None has so freely admitted his mistakes nor been so generous to his men. None has commanded such affection and respect from all ranks. Slim will surely hold a unique place in the annals of the Second World War and of the British people.

At this distance in time it may be argued that the Allies’ triumphs in Burma from August 1944 onwards were a waste of resources, as Japan was doomed by that date and the atom bomb would have sealed its fate, whether the 15th, 28th, and 33rd Armies had been destroyed in the field or not. But such an argument ignores the fact that a soldier is not a prophet and must do his duty wherever he finds himself, the laughter of the gods is not his business.

The origins of this article are a little obscure. It was sent by Bill Johnson formerly of 158 Field Regt RA, 23 Indian Div, who said that he found it on the back page of an old magazine which ~v published soon after the end of the war, and that the author’s name was Arthur Swinson. I hope we are not in breach of copyright, but it is an interesting piece of prose, too good to go to waste.