A War of Empires

Japan, India, Burma & Britain

Published Nov 2021 by Osprey

ISBN: 1472847148


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.


In a time when military historians lament the dearth of new operationally focused writing, A War of Empires stands out as a careful examination of the military details of the campaign on both sides.
Review by Michigan War Studies

A cover blurb by historian James Holland declares Robert Lyman’s “A War of Empires,” focusing on World War II in Burma, to be a “superb book.” I respectfully disagree; “superb” does not do it enough justice.
Review at HistoryNet

This book is a triumph of scholarship, and better still an engagingly written one. It will, deservedly, become a classic text.
Review by British Journal for Military History

“In previous books, Robert Lyman has done a great deal to illuminate different aspects of the story of ‘Bill’ Slim and the Fourteenth Army. In this new, welcome, and comprehensive overview, the geo-strategic and political is skilfully woven into the operational. It is a masterful account not only of the longest British (and imperial) campaign of the Second World War but also, in a very real sense, of India’s victory.”

Professor Ian Beckett, University of Kent

“Robert Lyman has produced a fine, comprehensive and much-needed reappraisal of the pivotal Burma campaign in World War II. Exhaustively researched and engagingly written, it tells this dramatic story from the perspective of all the major combatants.”

Professor Saul David, University of Buckingham

“Robert Lyman’s A War of Empires is a comprehensive account of the Second World War campaign in India and Burma. He covers all the fighting armies but most importantly demonstrates the crucial role of the Indian Army who made up the majority of the Fourteenth Army which ultimately defeated the Imperial Japanese Army in 1945.”

Dr Alan Jeffreys, Senior Curator, Imperial War Museum and author of Approach to Battle: Training the Indian Army during the Second World War

“A fluently written and highly accessible account of the war in Burma, a heroic war in which the Imperial Japanese Army was destroyed; still, shamefully, a forgotten victory. Lyman deploys gripping narrative and cameos to shed important new light on overlooked aspects of the war. He explores the nature of the Indian Army and the tensions between its military and political cultures. He increases our understanding of the disastrous failed appreciation of the strength of the Japanese Armies and the possibility that war could be waged most effectively in jungle terrain.

The war in the Far East is notoriously confusing at a tactical level, but Lyman’s account is crisp and confident. He sets out well the complicated situation after the fall of Rangoon and provides a clear analysis of a war which is often misremembered when it is remembered at all.

Perhaps most importantly, Lyman demonstrates that this great victory was an Indian one. The vast majority of those who fought the Japanese were Indian. The Indian Army had more than two million men by the end of the war, the largest volunteer army in the world. Despite the rise of nationalism in India after 1942 and the opposition of the political class, there was a huge number of Indians from all over the sub-continent who volunteered to join the colours. And yet, monstrously, their achievement was played down. Churchill despised the Indian Army and in his war memoirs played down almost to invisibility what it did to save the sub-continent from the ravages of Japanese invasion. This excellent book puts the record straight.

Dr Walter Reid, author of Keeping the Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India

"Fields of History reach a point where a good synthesis is needed. World War II in Burma has reached that stage. Once largely neglected, except for Bill Slim's epic memoir, it is now much traversed. Robert Lyman, already an accomplished historian of that tangled campaign, has now given us just such a synthesis. Written with deep knowledge, clarity and empathy for the tangled cast of remarkable characters involved, he has given us the best single volume on the campaign that opened the door to the immense post-war transformation of India and South Asia"

Professor Raymond Callahan

"The concept of Empire has become toxic for many in recent times. Robert Lyman has crafted a masterful analysis of the clash between two proud empires. This is a compelling read."

General The Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC DL

"This is a superb book. Every so often new work emerges that dramatically changes how we view key aspects of the war, and ‘A War of Empires’ does just that. Written with meticulous scholarship and from a deep and profound knowledge of the subject matter, it is full of wisdom, sound judgement and with a convincing and refreshing central thesis. Robert Lyman has unquestionably become the foremost scholar of the war in the Far East."

James Holland FRHistS