Julian Thompson: A grim war in which surrender was unthinkable

From a lecture by the author of 'War in Burma 1942-1945', given at the Imperial War Museum
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The Independent Online

Burma, from December 1941 to August 1945, was the scene of the longest land war and biggest, in terms of numbers, fought by the British and Americans against the Japanese in the Second World War.

How prepared was the British Army? I should really refer to them as the British, Indian and African armies, for 340,000 Indian and Gurkha soldiers were involved, with some 100,000 British and 90,000 Africans. The British infantry came mostly from internal security duties in Burma and India. They had not had the chance to train for any kind of war, let alone how to fight in forested terrain.

The myth of the Japanese being superb jungle fighters has endured to this day. In fact they had never fought or trained in terrain like Burma. The key to Japanese success was the high standard of training and hardihood of all their soldiers. Long marches and gruelling exercises had turned them into superb light infantry, able to cover long distances over rough terrain, carrying heavy loads. Hardy, frugal, and ruthless, they were a formidable enemy. Surrender was unthinkable. Death at the hands of the enemy or by one's own was the only honourable exit from the fight. Prisoners were regarded with contempt, and treated accordingly.

The writer John Masters, who fought in Burma, remarked: "It is the fashion to dismiss their courage as fanaticism but this only begs the question. They believed in something and were willing to die for it, for any smallest detail that would help to achieve it. What else is bravery?"