Monday, November 15, 2021

Robert Lyman's "A War of Empires"

Robert Lyman is regarded as one of Britain’s most talented military historians, with 15 best-selling works of history published and numerous television appearances including on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and on two episodes of the Great Escapes documentary series, on Tobruk (1941) and Kohima (1944). He spent 20 years in the British Army and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. A frequent traveller to the US, Asia and Australasia, he lives in England.

Lyman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain: 1941-45, and reported the following:
Flipping the book to page 99 (from a total of 560) finds the reader examining the options the British had for keeping the Japanese at bay in Burma in 1942. As such it’s a good representation of the rest of the book. At its heart, this is a military history of the campaign, but which asks more questions about the participants than might be normal in such a history.

On page 99 Rangoon had fallen, hundreds of thousands of refugees clogged the roads heading north. The Allied defences were a cobbled-together assortment of British, Indian, Chinese and Burmese units. An entire Indian Division had been destroyed at the Sittang Bridge when the divisional commander had prematurely blown the critical bridge over the river, leaving most of his men on the other side. The Japanese offensive seemed set for success. It was. By May 1942 (the first land attacks had begun in late January) the Japanese had unexpectedly found themselves in possession of the whole of Burma, the weak British, Indian and Burmese forces withdrawing into India, tails between their legs.

One might have thought that that would be the end of the story. Of course we know that it isn’t, but I was intrigued to find out how, after such devastating failure in 1942, the Allies were able to turn the tables on the Japanese in 1944 and 1945, and retake Burma with what I knew to be devastating ease. The reason was not just one of Japanese military failure. It was that, of course, but it was more. It was partly the determined effort by the United States to continue supplying war materiel to China come what may, despite the loss of the Burma Road now that the Japanese held Rangoon. From this determination came the remarkable effort of the Hump airlift from India to China, one of the most remarkable logistical achievements in human history.

It was also partly because of the inspired leadership of men like General Bill Slim, who commanded the 14th Army, established in 1943 to take the war to the Japanese.

But it was also significantly – perhaps even overwhelmingly – because of the reconstruction of the Indian Army, and its transformation from a 200,000 strong para military force in 1939 into a 2 million-strong modern professional all-volunteer army by 1945. Indeed, it was the largest volunteer army ever raised. It also entailed the incredible building up of India as a base for operations, involving huge numbers of new railways, airfields and factories. In 1945, of the 1.3m men in Lord Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, 300,000 were American, 100,000 British, 90,000 African and the remainder, Indian. The story of the war in the Far East is a remarkable one of Indian success, a story it and the rest of the world has largely forgotten.

I think it’s time, now, for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – and us in a Euro-centric West, to remember it too.
Visit Robert Lyman's website.

The Page 99 Test: Under a Darkening Sky.

--Marshal Zeringue