A highly opinionated history of the bloody, half-forgotten World War II jungle campaign.
After Pearl Harbor, British leaders were shocked by Japan’s easy capture of Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. They did not expect an invasion of Burma and were equally shocked when it occurred in January 1942, writes veteran British historian McLynn (Captain Cook: Master of the Seas, 2011, etc.). Although outnumbered, aggressive Japanese forces repeatedly defeated poorly led British, Indian and Chinese troops in a four-month campaign that ended with their long, brutal retreat. There followed two years of rebuilding, minor engagements and political fireworks between the allies before a reorganized British and Colonial army led by the widely admired General William Joseph Slim routed the Japanese. McLynn divides the narrative between military events and accounts of half-a-dozen colorful but sadly mismatched Allied leaders. Only Slim emerges unscathed. The commander of American forces, General Joseph (“Vinegar Joe”) Stillwell, did not conceal his detestation of the British (Slim excepted) and of Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, whose troops were purportedly under Stillwell’s control. McLynn describes supreme commanders General Archibald Wavell and, after 1943, Louis Mountbatten as “overpromoted” men who lived up to their mediocre talents. British commander Orde Wingate, a media darling after leading a costly 1943 large-scale raid into Japanese-occupied Burma, seems psychotically eccentric. None of the author’s unflattering portraits will surprise educated readers, although recent historians have been more understanding.
Clumsily managed, the Burma campaign was also a sideshow that contributed little to Japan’s defeat, but McLynn’s fiercely partisan judgments and lucid accounts of both military and political bloodletting provide a thoroughly satisfying experience.