War in China, Burma, India

War in China, Burma, India

War in the China/Burma/India Theater, 1942-43


One of the major theaters in the Second World War was the China-Burma-India Theater, a designation given to the areas of fighting in Burma and India between Japanese and Allied forces. The fighting in this theater was related to the fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces in China and Japanese and Allied forces in the Pacific. Two of the key factors in the defeat of the Axis Powers as a whole and Japan in particular were the greater resources of and cooperation among the Allies, on display in the China Burma India Theater. The British dispatched a field army and the U.S. other forces to assist Burmese and Indian forces in their efforts against the Japanese, and to augment Chinese efforts against the Japanese in the CBI Theater. The Germans and the Italians, on the other hand, could not provide aid to the Japanese. The course of the war in this theater also illustrated a number of the complexities in the Second World War, particularly resentment felt by people in Burma and India toward the Allies, feelings that the Japanese tried to exploit, as illustrated by the creation of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Allied victory in the China-Burma-India Theater finally represented the existential nature of World War II, with the ultimate disintegration of the Japanese war effort.


Learning Objectives

  • Identify key features of Japanese politics and territorial expansion prior to the outbreak of World War II, including the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
  • Outline the course of World War II from 1941 through 1945 in the China-Burma-India Theater.
  • Assess the historic significance and impact of World War II in the China-Burma-India Theater.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

China-Burma-India Theater: name for the Asian theater in World War, with most of the fighting in these three countries


In March and April 1942, a powerful IJN carrier force launched a raid against British bases in the Indian Ocean. IJN carrier aircraft struck British Royal Navy bases in Ceylon and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, along with other Allied ships. The attack forced the Royal Navy to withdraw to the western part of the Indian Ocean, and this paved the way for a Japanese assault on Burma and India.

In Burma, the British, under intense pressure, made a fighting retreat from Rangoon to the Indo-Burmese border. This cut the Burma Road, which was the western Allies' supply line to the Chinese Nationalists. In March 1942, the Chinese Expeditionary Force started to attack Japanese forces in northern Burma. On 16 April, 7,000 British soldiers were encircled by the Japanese 33rd Division during the Battle of Yenangyaung and rescued by the Chinese 38th Division, led by Sun Li-jen.  

As the Chinese war effort progress against Japan through the alliance of Chinese Nationalists and Communists, cooperation between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists, waned, particularly from its zenith in the June-October 1938 Battle of Wuhan, and the relationship between the two had gone sour as both attempted to expand their areas of operation in occupied territories. The Japanese exploited this lack of unity to press ahead in their offensives. 

On 2 November 1943, Isamu Yokoyama, commander of the Imperial Japanese 11th Army, deployed the 39th, 58th, 13th, 3rd, 116th and 68th Divisions, a total of around 100,000 troops, to attack Changde. During the seven-week Battle of Changde, the Chinese forced Japan to fight a costly campaign of attrition. Although the Imperial Japanese Army initially successfully captured the city, the Chinese 57th Division was able to pin them down long enough for reinforcements to arrive and encircle the Japanese. The Chinese then cut Japanese supply lines, provoking a retreat and Chinese pursuit. During the battle, Japan used chemical weapons. 

Although Japan, Germany, and Italy were nominally allies, there was little cooperation between the three, particularly between Japan and either Germany or Italy because of the distance of the Asian theaters from the European and North African theaters. In practice, there was little coordination between Japan and Germany until 1944, by which time the Allies had the Axis Powers on the defensive.. 


Cairo Conference


On 22 November 1943 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and ROC Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, met in Cairo, Egypt to discuss a strategy to defeat Japan. The meeting was known as the Cairo Conference and concluded with the Cairo Declaration. This conference was one of a succession of wartime conferences among the Allied leaders toward the end of adjusting their strategies and cooperation as their war efforts progress against the Axis Powers. 


Black and white photo
The Allied leaders of the Asian and Pacific Theaters: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill meeting at the Cairo Conference in 1943 



Burma 1942–1943

Black and white photo
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek
and General Joseph Stilwell,
Allied Commander-in-Chief
in the China theatre
from 1942 to 1945 


In the aftermath of the Japanese conquest of Burma, there was widespread disorder and pro-Independence agitation in eastern India, as well as a disastrous famine in Bengal that ultimately caused up to 3 million deaths. In spite of these uprisings and issues, as well as inadequate lines of communication, British and Indian forces attempted limited counter-attacks in Burma in early 1943. An offensive in Arakan failed, shamefully in the view of some senior officers, while a long-distance raid mounted by the Chindits under Brigadier Orde Wingate suffered heavy losses. This was publicized to bolster Allied morale, and it provoked the Japanese to mount major offensives themselves the following year.

In August 1943 the Allies formed a new South East Asia Command (SEAC) to take over strategic responsibilities for Burma and India from the British India Command, under Wavell. In October 1943 Winston Churchill appointed Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as the Supreme Commander of the SEAC, and the British and Indian Fourteenth Army was formed to face the Japanese in Burma. Under Lieutenant General William Slim, its training, morale, and health greatly improved. The American General Joseph Stilwell, who also was deputy commander to Mountbatten and commanded US forces in the China Burma India Theater, directed aid to China and prepared to construct the Ledo Road to link India and China by land. In 1943, the Thai Phayap Army invasion headed to Xishuangbanna at China, but they were driven back by the Chinese Expeditionary Force.

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