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Donovan Webster: The Burma Road

In late 1941, following the success of their Axis allies and rising tension with the USA, the Japanese erupted across south-east Asia in a bid to secure their economic and military base, paradoxically in the hope that this would allow them to finish off their already major conflict with China. The initial success of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942 expelled the British and their US and Chinese allies from nearly all of Burma and cut the supply line to China along which the Western powers had been sending aid. Anxious to keep China in the war and viewing that nation as an essential ally against the Japanese, Britain and the US decided that supplies must be kept flowing at any cost. In the short term, everything would have to be airlifted over the Himalayas (known to the aircrews as "the Hump"): in the long run, a military road was to be built capable of supporting Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalists.

The Burma Road looks at the history of the construction of the road and the struggle to push the Japanese out of its path. It starts however in the twenty-first century, with the author stuck in an Indian frontier post in an unsettled part of the subcontinent, being told by a friendly Indian officer that he will be shot if he tries to cross the border. Having been told by old CBI (China-Burma-India) veterans that the road no longer exists, Webster is anxious to follow it. The reader is then taken back sixty years, to "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell leading his small party of men out of Burma. Stilwell, an acerbic but capable officer who had served in China for some years and spoke Chinese, was at one time considered for the post later occupied by Eisenhower, although one has to say that the latter's diplomatic ability was better suited for the job of Allied Supreme Commander in Europe. Whatever his faults, however, Stilwell emerges as the central character in the book, a tough and resourceful commander who proved capable of getting the best from the raw Chinese armies under his command. Among several jobs in the CBI theatre he was given the task of pushing the road from Ledo through to China in order to relieve Chiang Kai-Shek's difficulties.

Although the book covers much territory dealt with by other histories of the Burma Campaign and Pacific War, it does so with a unique slant towards Stilwell and the Chinese that is not usually dealt with in such depth, at least in Western histories. Unfortunately the Nationalist Chinese do not come across particularly well in the book. Chiang himself, by no means in sure control of the country, actually withheld military supplies and equipment from his more competent generals for fear that they would turn against him, while at different levels graft and corruption apparently flourished. Thus we hear of one supply consignment for the Chinese that included a grand piano for Madame Chiang (the piano was "lost" by the aircrew over the Himalayas), and more seriously of the release of twelve thousand tons of guns and ammunition to the threatened city of Hengyang in China that arrived in Chinese hands but was never delivered to the intended recipients, leaving two underequipped regiments of Chinese to face the burgeoning Ichi-Go Japanese offensive in 1944. Stillwell's patience with the wily Generalissimo declined sharply as it became clear that Chiang was playing a waiting game to see if the Western Allies could win the war without his help, but in the end it was Chiang who struck first in October 1944 by having Stilwell recalled from the CBI and replaced by Wedemeyer, who was to have similar difficulties. At the ordinary level too, US citizens noted the poverty and corruption. With such double-dealing and political shenanigans, it seems hardly surprising that so many Chinese believed the promises that Mao Tse-Tung was holding out. On the positive side, once the underequipped, undernourished and sickly Chinese soldiers were treated and armed by the US they proved to be capable fighters and were led by a couple of capable generals, Sun Li-jen Liao and Yao-shiang (the good defensive record of the Nationalist General Hsueh Yeuh is also noted).

Other participants in the campaign are not overlooked. The hardships and tough fighting of the US "Merrill's Marauders" and the British Chindits are focused on in some depth, with William Slim and Orde Wingate also being key players in the history. A more controversial figure is Claire Lee Chennault, portrayed as a brave and able combat flier but also one of the exponents of victory solely through airpower, who proved however unable to defend his own airfields against the Japanese 1944 offensive (ironically the US fliers had to destroy many of them themselves to prevent them falling into Japanese hands). The Japanese are also given the chance to tell their story, mostly from the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier. Although many of the Japanese decisions and tactics were reckless or bull-headed, General Tanaka of the Eighteenth Division around Myitkina is recognised as an able commander, and the story of General Sato who withdrew his men from the Imphal-Kohima battle when it was clear that only pointless death awaited his men is poignant (his defence had him declared mentally unfit to stand court-martial). One thing that emerges time and again from the book is the draining and often frightening face of the CBI theatre and the hostility of nature itself, from the ever-present leeches and dysentery to fearsome megafauna such as tigers and rogue elephants. Death not only from enemy actions but from disease, hunger or predatory attack was common, and the Japanese towards the end of the campaign suffered particularly awfully. This does not excuse their behaviour towards their prisoners, who are mentioned in a chapter on the Thailand-Burma railway (the film Bridge Over the River Kwai is also dealt with, including its inaccuracies).

With the Japanese pushed back in northern Burma by Stilwell and the US-Chinese forces, and in central and southern Burma by Slim and the Commonwealth, the road was finally completed and supplies began to roll along it. Ironically, however, it was now already obsolete, as the US Pacific campaign had brought B-29 bombers within range of most of Japan, and the war was to end without an invasion of Japan or expulsion of her armies from the Chinese mainland, although the Russians were to seize Manchuria in a short campaign. Mao's Communist armies, themselves partly armed by the Allies, would shortly turn on the Nationalists and take control of China by the end of the decade. The British left Burma, which after the assassination of its charismatic leader was to be plunged into instability and poverty, a situation that endures to the present day.

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