A War of Empires is an exciting new military history of the war between Japan and the British Empire in Burma and India between 1942 and 1945.
In December 1941 the Japanese empire smashed into the British, American and European empires in the Pacific and Far East, as it attempted to build from scratch their much-vaunted South East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. This was designed to be a self-serving, internal market in which the resource rich Asia and Pacific regions would support Japan with oil, tin, rubber and rice and thus sustain its long war in China. Japan had long desired an empire across the region to rival that of the United States and European powers. By the late 1930s it was desperate for resources, especially oil, to sustain its expansionist ambitions in China and Manchuria.
The Japanese offensive swept into Malaya and Burma as it simultaneously attempted to prevent America deploying its Pacific Fleet from Pearl Harbor. By February Singapore had fallen, and by May 1942 – to their surprise, because it wasn’t part of their plan – the Japanese had pushed the weak British forces out of Burma into India. The Japanese reigned supreme in their newly conquered territories. Their offensive demonstrated much of the characteristics of the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg in Europe, which the Japanese had assiduously studied as guests of the Third Reich.
Why were the Japanese so successful in 1942, and why did the British imperial possessions crumple so spectacularly? Equally, what was the cause of the rebirth of British fortunes in 1944 and 1945? Robert Lyman’s A War of Empires re-examines what became known as the Burma Campaign, for it was in Burma that the war in the Far East coalesced, and traces a story of defeat to victory. If 1942 was a year of failure the following year saw ineffectual attempts to counter Japanese hegemony in Burma, with an ill-fated offensive into Arakan. But it was also a time of significant change in Allied – British, American and Chinese – planning for the defeat of the Japanese. New commanders were appointed (including Mountbatten and Slim on the British side), significant training and restructuring took place; new equipment arrived; new tactics were developed and approaches to fighting firmed up. In particular, the Indian Army was rebuilt, and a million new recruits – all volunteers – were added to its ranks. The rebuilding of the Indian Army has been described as akin to a phoenix rising from the ashes. 1944 saw the turn of the tide in battle, as Allied defeat in 1942 turned to extraordinary victory and the Japanese empire began to be rolled back. It began with the massive Japanese invasion of India in March (their ‘March on Delhi’) when General Mutaguchi suffered heavy defeats at Kohima and Imphal. These failures led to the complete destruction of the Japanese at Mandalay in April-May 1945, the fall of Rangoon and the defeat of the Japanese Armies in Burma before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August.