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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Battles of Mandalay and Meiktila

February to March 1945

Theatre: South East Asia
Area: Central Burma (the country is now also known as Myanmar).
Players: Allies: British 14th Army under General William Slim, comprising 33rd Corps under Lieutenant General Montagu Stopford (4 divisions) and 4th Corps under Lieutenant General Frank Messervy (3 divisions). Japan: 15th Army under Lieutenant General S Iida and elements of the Japanese 33rd Army under General Honda.
Outcome: British victory - aided by superior numbers, armour and air cover - over fierce Japanese defence, leading to the retreat of Japanese armies and a clear road to Rangoon and the recapture of Burma.

'They made determined attempts to get us out of Meiktila, they shelled us day after day, they bombed us and they attacked us with infantry at night, they sent small suicide gun busting teams to crawl through the wire and try to get at our guns.' - George LR Stevens, RHQ/129 Field Reg RA, in a letter home

By November 1944 the British forces in Burma had superior numbers and weaponry, as well as air superiority. The recapture of Burma in 1945 was essential in order to reopen the Burma Road that supplied the Nationalist Chinese Armies fighting the Japanese occupation of mainland China and so force Japan on the defensive.

As part of the British offensive, the 33rd Corps under Stopford had established a bridgehead over the River Chindwin, on the Burmese side of the border with India.

The 4th Corps continued east into the Shwebo-Mandalay plain, some 160km (100 miles) south east of the Chindwin. They encountered minimal opposition, as the Japanese were withdrawing south east from the plain towards positions some 80km (50 miles) away on the River Irrawaddy, near Mandalay. This was a blow to Slim who had hoped to encircle the Japanese and inflict a heavy defeat in open countryside, using his vastly superior armour, artillery and air force.

The 33rd Corps moved towards Mandalay from the north to get crossings over the Irrawaddy, a river that flows north to south, bisecting Burma into east and west. The 4th Corps aimed to move south with stealth to try cross the Lower Irrawaddy near Pakokku, south west of the Japanese positions. This would have the effect of encircling the Japanese at Mandalay by creating a barrier to their rear, near Meiktila, blocking their retreat south and preventing any supplies reaching them from Rangoon.

In early 1945, the 33rd Corps began its move south towards Mandalay. Shwebo was occupied by 10 January and they moved on to create a triple line of advance north of Mandalay. Meanwhile, the 4th Corps captured Kahnla near Pakokku on 10 February and the plan was ready to be put into operation.

0n 14 February a division of the 4th Corps gained a bridgehead south of Pakokku and the motorised 17th Division (under General Cowan) plus a brigade of tanks pressed forward to reach the outskirts of Meiktila on 28 February, capturing the city on 3 March. Cowan then worked to confuse the Japanese with a series of aggressive raids in various directions.

The Japanese were in a bad position. They were being pressed around Mandalay, their rear communications and supplies were being strangled, they were outnumbered and had little air cover. Yet they fought back strongly against repeated Allied attacks on Fort Dufferin, their stronghold in Mandalay.

They also launched a counter-attack on Meiktila in an effort to clear their lines of communication to the south. Two divisions of Honda's 33rd Army moved up from the south and another came down from Mandalay. The battle around Meiktila raged for most of March, but the counter-offensive was repelled and eventually abandoned. Fort Dufferin was captured and the rest of Mandalay followed on 20 March.

The battles of Mandalay and Meiktila had cost the Japanese around a third of their already weakened numbers, against some 10,000 British casualties. The Japanese 15th Army was retreating to the south and central Burma was now in British hands. The Japanese retreat opened the road to Rangoon and, with it, the reconquest of Burma.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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