Stilwell's assignment in the China-Burma-India Theater was a geographical administrative command on the same level as the commands of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. However, unlike other combat theaters, for example the European Theater of Operations, the CBI was never a "theater of operations" and did not have an overall American operational command structure. The China theater came under the operational command of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, commander of Nationalist Chinese forces, while the Burma India theater came under the operational command of the British (first India Command and later Allied South East Asia Command whose supreme commander was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten). The British and the Chinese were ill-equipped and more often than not on the receiving end of Japanese offensives. Chiang Kai-Shek was interested in conserving his troops and Allied Lend-Lease supplies for use against any sudden Japanese offensive, as well as against Chinese Communist forces in a later civil war. The Generalissimo's wariness increased after observing the disastrous Allied performance against the Japanese in Burma. After fighting and resisting the Japanese for five years, many in the Nationalist government felt that it was time for the Allies to assume a greater burden in fighting the war.
However, the first step to fighting the war for Stilwell was the reformation of the Chinese Army. These reforms clashed with the delicate balance of political and military alliances in China, which kept the Generalissimo in power. Reforming the army meant removing men who maintained Chiang's position as commander-in-chief. While he gave Stilwell technical overall command of some Chinese troops, Chiang worried that the new American-led forces would become yet another independent force outside of his control. Since 1942, members of the Generalissimo's staff had continually objected to Chinese troops being used in Burma for the purpose, as they viewed it, of returning that country to British colonial control. Chiang therefore sided with General Claire Chennault's proposals that the war against the Japanese be continued largely using existing Chinese forces supported by air forces, something Chennault assured the Generalissimo was feasible. The dilemma forced Chennault and Stilwell into competition for the valuable Lend-Lease supplies arriving over the Himalayas from British-controlled India — an obstacle referred to as "The Hump". George Marshall, in his biennial report covering the period of July 1, 1943 to June 30, 1945, acknowledged he had given Stilwell "one of the most difficult" assignments of any theater commander.
Arriving in Burma just in time to experience the collapse of the Allied defense of that country, which cut China off from all land and sea supply routes, Stilwell personally led his staff of 117 men and women out of Burma into Assam, India on foot, marching at what his men called the 'Stilwell stride' - 105 paces per minute. Two of the men accompanying him, his aide Frank Dorn and the war correspondent, Jack Belden, wrote books about the walkout: Walkout with Stilwell in Burma (1971) and Retreat with Stilwell (1943), respectively. The Assam route was also used by other retreating Allied and Chinese forces.
In India, Stilwell soon became well known for his no-nonsense demeanor and disregard for military pomp and ceremony. His trademarks were a battered Army campaign hat, GI shoes, and a plain service uniform with no insignia of rank; he frequently carried a .30 Springfield rifle in preference to a sidearm. His hazardous march out of Burma and his bluntly honest assessment of the disaster captured the imagination of the American public: "I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.". However, Stilwell's derogatory remarks castigating the ineffectiveness of what he termed Limey forces, a viewpoint often repeated by Stilwell's staff, did not sit well with British and Commonwealth commanders. However, it was well known among the troops that Stilwell's disdain for the British was aimed toward those high command officers that he saw as overly stuffy and pompous.
After the Japanese occupied Burma, China was completely cut off from Allied aid and materiel except through the hazardous route of flying cargo aircraft over the Hump. Early on, the Roosevelt administration and the War Department had given priority to other theaters for U.S. combat forces, equipment, and logistical support. With the closure of the Burma Road and the fall of Burma, it was realized that even replacing Chinese war losses would be extremely difficult. Consequently, the Allies' initial strategy was to keep Chinese resistance to the Japanese going by providing a lifeline of logistical and air support.
Convinced that the Chinese soldier was the equal of any given proper care and leadership, Stilwell established a training center (in Ramgarh, India, 200 miles west of Calcutta) for two divisions of Chinese troops from forces that had retreated to Assam from Burma. His effort in this regard met passive, sometimes active, resistance from the British, who feared that armed, disciplined Chinese would set an example for Indian insurgents, and from Chiang Kai-shek who did not welcome a strong military unit outside of his control. From the outset, Stilwell's primary goals were the opening of a land route to China from northern Burma and India by means of a ground offensive in northern Burma, so that more supplies could be transported to China, and to organize, equip, and train a reorganized, reequipped, modernized, and competent Chinese army that would fight the Japanese in the China-Burma-India theater (CBI). Stilwell argued that the CBI was the only area at that time where the possibility existed for the Allies of engaging large numbers of troops against their common enemy, Japan. Unfortunately, the huge airborne logistical train of support from the USA to British India was still being organized, while supplies being flown over the Hump were barely sufficient to maintain Chennault's air operations and replace some Chinese war losses, let alone equip and supply an entire army. Additionally, critical supplies intended for the CBI were being diverted due to various crises in other combat theaters. Of the supplies that made it over the Hump a certain percentage were diverted by Chinese (and American) personnel into the black market for their personal enrichment. As a result, most Allied commanders in India, with the exception of General Orde Wingate and his Chindit operations, were focused on defensive measures.
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“If the Third World War is fought with nuclear weapons, the fourth will be fought with bows and arrows.”
—Louis, 1st Earl Mountbatten Of Burma Mountbatten (19001979)