Reviewed by Keith Mitchell
Burma ’44 by James Holland is a non-fiction book, superbly written, chronicling the part the 14th Army, the “Forgotten Army”, played in this part of the Second World War. The book has its basis in recollections from allied soldiers who took part in that particular sphere of war, a point the author makes when stating this. Numerous black and white photographs of the main participants and conditions around the area are contained in the book, along with maps of the areas, dispositions and battle plans at the front of the book.
During the early 1940’s the Japanese Army surged through the Far East with almost impunity, giving rise to the thought they were invincible. Having smashed through Burma they were heading towards India. They were adept at moving through the jungle at speed, something the Allies could not do. Allied troops had been beaten time and again, suffering all manner of illness, disease and if captured, brutality. The Japanese thought capture was the ultimate disgrace. Ill equipped and forever on the defensive the Allies fell back time and again. The best equipment being supplied to the efforts in Europe. Counter attacks had tried and failed. Numerous commanders had been sacked or moved, all to no avail. Louis Mountbatten was appointed in overall command and he set about combining the command structures. Slim was appointed to a position for which he became famous. Finally, on the gateway to India came the Battle of The Admin Box, fought in desperation over early 1944. A hotch potch of units, clerks, HQ admin staff, mule trains, a few tanks, fighter pilots, doctors, and under strength army units from various nations, determined to stop the enemy at all costs, all became front line soldiers. The Japanese split their forces into several columns intending to strike at various points, splitting the Allied forces and destroying them. The tank men showed that there was a place for armour in jungle warfare and how a small number could have major impacts during defensive fights.
This book explores the troop dispositions and skirmishes around the perimeters of the defensive positions. The slaughter at a field hospital by invading Japanese troops and the determination of the troops to fight to the last man standing are notable throughout. The story moves along at a fast pace describing numerous raids and defending without getting bogged down in the minutiae. Brave supply drops over mountains by US air force and RAF keeping the troops going while the Japanese had less and less scavenged from the villages and land, their supply lines stretched and harassed from the air. Due to the determination and bravery of the troops on the ground, and in no small part to the arrival of a small number of the more modern Spitfires, replacing the ageing Hurricanes in the air, the battle rages but the lines hold. Gradually the tide turns and the Japanese are pushed back. In many ways, this spirit and effort turned the tide of the war against Japan as much as some of the great naval battles. At last the Allies had shown they could adapt and fight in inhospitable terrain and conditions and succeed against the “invincible“ Japanese land forces.
I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with an interest in that period of time, the particular part of the conflict, or military history in general. It explains, without sensationalising, the awful conditions the soldiers endured, the desperate struggle to resist against all odds. Well written by someone who has a grasp of military matters, human emotions and strengths. It is an easy read and well worth the effort.
RRP: £20 (Hardback) / £9.99 (Paperback) / £9.99 (Kindle)
Available to buy from Amazon here.