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Burma: The Essential Sources

While the China-Burma-India theater remains little-remembered in the United States except for "the Hump," Merrill's Marauders, and the Flying Tigers, the long struggle in Burma endures in British memory as the front, second only to the Western Desert, where despite all adversity the enemy was overcome and, like their brothers in the 8th Army in Africa, the soldiers of the 14th Army eventually emerged victorious from their long travails.

The campaign began with the Japanese invasion, supported by a few Thai units, in 1942 and soon swept away the UK, Indian, and Burmese defenders as quickly and expertly as they had been eliminated in Malaya and Singapore. There followed the indecisive operations in the Arakan and eventually the Japanese offensive to "liberate" India, an offensive which faltered and failed at Kohima and Imphal. On the heels of this failure the Allies launched their victorious campaign to recover Burma and utterly destroy the Japanese ground forces there in the process. Between 1942 and 1945 the campaign offered enough unusual personalties, formations, and incidents to incite a torrent of post-war memoirs, unit histories, and operational accounts.

This stream of English-language literature devoted to the war in Burma will never remotely challenge the mountain of works published on the Western Desert, but there are already hundreds if not thousands of such tomes of varying quality and varying reliability. As with any topic covered by a literature of this magnitude, it can be tough for a new student to know where to make a beginning. Moreover, since it would be impossible to study every title about Burma, it's tough to know what to leave in and what to leave out.

This brief survey, however, plunges into the jungle of books devoted to the war in Burma and attempts to identify the most important sources for readers attempting to acquaint themselves most fully with the campaign without losing themselves forever in the undergrowth. It's always easy to argue about books included that should have been left out and books left out that should have been included, but -- outside the regrettable lack of English translations of Japanese material -- this group of volumes should go a long way toward carving a useful path through Burma.

Readers seeking a longer list of titles and more information about specialized topics within Burma and the CBI theater should check our bibliography pages.

Kirby, S. Woodburn et al. History of the Second World War: War Against Japan, volume 2: India's Most Dangerous Hour. London: HMSO, 1958

Kirby, S. Woodburn et al. History of the Second World War: War Against Japan, volume 3: The Decisive Battles. London: HMSO, 1961

Kirby, S. Woodburn et al. History of the Second World War: War Against Japan, volume 4: The Reconquest of Burma. London: HMSO, 1965

Kirby, S. Woodburn et al. History of the Second World War: War Against Japan, volume 5: The Surrender of Japan. London: HMSO, 1969

   It's amazing how this happens with so many topics, but it seems like the British official history volumes, for all their shortcomings, are once again a great starting point for the study of the war in Burma. Of the five titles in the British War against Japan series, four focus on Burma. (The first volume covers the loss of Malaya, Singapore, and the Netherlands East Indies.) As always, much remains unsaid as the nature of these volumes squeezes out flavor, personality, and opinion. One of the few strong subjective evaluations expressed here dismisses Orde Wingate and minimizes the value of his Chindit operations; interestingly, Bidwell in The Chindits points out that the principal author of this series, Kirby, served during the war as Director of Staff Duties in India where Wingate publicly insulted him. In any event, every list of the major works on Burma must contain these volumes.

Romanus, Charles and R. Sunderland. United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell's Mission to China. Washington DC: GPO, 1953

Romanus, Charles and R. Sunderland. United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell's Command Problems. Washington DC: GPO, 1956

Romanus, Charles and R. Sunderland. United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater: Time Runs Out in CBI. Washington DC: GPO, 1959

   The American Army's official history series, the "Green Books," includes three titles on the CBI ("Confusion Beyond Imagination") theater. Nowhere else in the U.S. Army series is so much text devoted to so little action. Indeed, in that sense the books tend to mirror the reality of the American presence in the theater. Colorful though "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell and Merrill's Marauders might have been, their operations (along with the other American and "American-controlled" Chinese forces) and the value of those operations could have been condensed into a single brief book. Still, these endure as the numbingly complete record not only of what actually happened, but what was supposed to happen in that part of Burma where the Yanks dominated.

Prasad, Bisheshwar. Official History of Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War: Retreat from Burma, 1941-1942. Delhi (?): Combined Inter-Services Hist, 1954

Madan, N. N. Official History of Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War: Arakan Operations, 1942-45. Delhi (?): Combined Inter-Service Hist, 1954

Prasad, S. N. et al. Official History of Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War: Reconquest of Burma, volume 1: June 1942-June 1944. Delhi (?): Combined Inter-Services Hist, 1958

Khera, P. N. and S. N. Prasad. Official History of Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War: Reconquest of Burma, volume 2: June 1944-August 1945. Delhi (?): Combined Inter-Services Hist, 1959

   Compared to the American and British official histories, the Indian official history series rates as little-known and somewhat uneven. The four volumes on Burma (plus the first of the Eastern series, which, like the Brits, the Indians use to cover Malaya, Singapore, and the NEI) are long out of print and quite difficult to locate on the secondhand market. As always, officially sanctioned military history such as this can only be a starting point, but, given the major role played by Indian forces in the campaign, for those researching Burma it's worth the effort to look into this set (try inter-library loan) and take advantage of another perspective, additional OBs, and other valuable information not found elsewhere.

Allen, Louis. Burma: The Longest War, 1941-45. New York: St Martin's Press, 1984

   If the entire war in Burma has ever been distilled into a single satisfying volume, it's this one by Louis Allen. The author covers the entire campaign from beginning to end and follows the plans and operations of Japanese, British, American, and Chinese forces (plus the Thais, the Indian National Army, the Burma Independence Army, etc). Given the lack of Japanese materials on Burma available in English, this is especially valuable for the careful treatment of the Axis side of the war effort. Excellent assessments of Japanese commanders, such as the redoubtable Masanobu Tsuji, not found elsewhere. Not perfect, but if your budget and free time enable you to own and read only one book about the campaign, this should be it.

Slim, William J. Defeat into Victory. London: Cassell, 1956

   We've reviewed Slim's book elsewhere and pointed out that not only was he one of the best commanders of the war, he also produced one of the best memoirs of any commander. While his book is written strictly from the viewpoint of the Allies, it's a splendid achievement, well-written and enlightening. Good coverage at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Shrewd, self-deprecating assessments of his superiors and subordinates. Despite the lack of Japanese material, this is second only to Allen's book as a one-volume treatment of the subject.

Bidwell, Shelford. The Chindit War. New York: Macmillan, 1979

   As the author gamely points out early on, this book is about a small part of a unimportant front where there was no chance the war could be decided. That breezy, matter-of-fact attitude makes this a welcome gulp of fresh oxygen in a genre sometimes overburdened by airless seriousness. Bidwell's thumbnail analyses of the important officers -- Slim, Wingate, Stilwell, and all the rest -- are sharp and exact, sometimes sharp enough to draw blood. Far more narrow in its focus than the other titles on this list, but simply outstanding in its treatment of one of the most interesting and controversial aspects of the campaign.

Probert, Air Commodore Henry. The Forgotten Air Force: History of the RAF in the War Against Japan. London: Brassey's, 1995

   Probert's book is broad in scope, beginning as it does with inter-war developments leading to the RAF's sad state in the Far East at the end of 1941, then following the course of the air war from December of that year through the end of the war throughout the fronts in Asia. Mostly, though, this is a work about the RAF in Burma and as such it very nicely complements the other titles which despite fairly integrated approaches nevertheless emphasize the ground war. There are other books about the air war which deal in considerably more detail with specific operations in Burma, but none of them provide this kind of wide-angle lens for studying the air aspects of the campaign as a whole.


   Such a short list necessarily excludes many fine books about Burma -- notably those by John Masters and Bernard Fergusson and Chistopher Shores -- but all those can wait until these key sources have been read and studied and digested.

Reviewed 29 October 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone


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