In March 1942, Japan seized control of the lower region of Burma by taking the city of Rangoon. Rangoon, now known as Yangon, was Burma’s administrative and commercial capital. The city was a crucial communication and industrial center in Burma and had the only port capable of handling troopships.
(continued) Perhaps most importantly, strategically, the Burma Road began in Rangoon and allowed for a steady stream of military aid to be transported from Burma to Nationalist China. This supply route was essential for both Chiang Kai Shek’s armies as well as allied forces in the region. As a result, the fall of Rangoon to the Japanese had significant consequences.
The Burma Road reopened in October 1940 and by late 1941 the U.S. was shipping munitions and other materials to supply the Chinese Army, whose continuing strength, in turn, forced the Japanese to keep considerable numbers of ground forces stationed in China. In fact, nearly half of the Imperial Army was stuck fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. As a result, the Japanese decided it was necessary to close the Burma Road and cut off Chiang Kai Shek’s lifeline. If successful, the Chinese would be able to free their forces for use elsewhere in the Pacific and perhaps gain complete control of China. Additionally, Burma was considered the gateway to gaining control of India. Overall, all parties involved in the Pacific War viewed the loss of Rangoon as the loss of Burma.
The Japanese, led by General Shojiro Iida, had a straightforward plan to first seize Rangoon, Mandalay, and then the oilfields at Yenangyaung. In mid-January 1942, two divisions of Japan’s 15th Army had crossed from Thailand into Burma hoping to capture Rangoon before the British could land reinforcements. The Japanese began their campaign against Rangoon with a series of ‘softening-up’ air raids. Initially, these air raids proved to be incredibly deadly with nearly 1,250 killed in the first raid. This was primarily because there were no civil defense or air-raid precautions. But, by the third raid, the casualties were down to 60 killed and 40 wounded. Opposing the Japanese invasion was the recently arrived 17th Indian Division commanded by Major General Sir John G. “Jackie” Smyth. The British opted for a defensive strategy against the Japanese invasion because they were confident that they would be able to stop the Japanese as they approached Rangoon by utilizing the three rivers that barred the way to the capital. However, the Japanese pushed on past the Salween, Bilin, and lastly the Sittang. Over two days, February 22-23, the British-Indian brigades in Burma were crushed in the Battle of the Sittang Bridge. This defeat was described by Wavell as having “ really sealed the fate of Rangoon and lower Burma.”
The defeat at the Battle of the Sittang Bridge led to the subsequent evacuation of Rangoon. By February 24th, Rangoon was described as a ghost town. Burmese citizens vanished in mass and the Indian police abandoned their posts. There are also reports that criminals were released from their cells and roamed the streets looting and raping. As the Japanese continued to advance towards the city, General Harold Alexander was put in charge as the new corps commander in charge of operations for the British. Alex, as he was known, approached Rangoon with 40 of his men in early March. They engaged in a frantic activity to move as much material as possible north to the Burma Road. However, it was still necessary to destroy more than 900 trucks in various stages of assembly, 5,000 tires, 1,000 blankets and sheets, and more than a ton of miscellaneous items to avoid them being seized and utilized by the Japanese forces. Additionally, Alex and his men blew up nearly $14 million worth of installations belonging to the Burma Oil Company. On March 8th, Alex and his men came under Japanese counterattacks and were close to being surrounded. His entire command was nearly wiped out but was able to escape just before the rest of the Japanese troops arrived in the city.
On March 9th, 1942, the Japanese entered Rangoon and found it completely deserted. They were able to successfully cut off the Burma Road which deprived the Chinese Nationalist forces of their much-needed supplies. Additionally, despite Alex’s attempts to destroy the remaining war materials in Rangoon, over 19,000 tons of lend-lease material remained in Rangoon when it fell to the Japanese. The fall of Rangoon meant the fall of Burma and had significant consequences for Chiang Kai Shek’s armies as well as allied forces.