A photo caption, “Every man had to dig himself a hole in the ground” almost sums up the nature of the Battle of the Admin Box, as told in James Holland’s astonishing account of a crucial but forgotten battle fought by a “ragtag collection of clerks, drivers, doctors and muleteers….” that saved Britain’s 14th Army – the forgotten army of the war against Japan.
After many disasters and an almost total loss of faith, the British in 1944 were planning the retaking of Burma, the hard way, across the Indian Border and through the jungle. They were under new command with General Slim supported by the newly arrived Commander and Chief of the all forces in the East, Earl Mountbatten. Everything was going according to plan with a careful build-up of well-trained men, veterans from many other fronts such as Alamein. Food, ammunition and most importantly top quality fighter aircraft, Spitfires, were all available and ready to go.
But the Japanese had other ideas. They wanted to invade and conquer India. And they moved first, catching the British, who were preparing to go on the offensive, by surprise. Their path lay through Arakan, in North West Burma, an area of dense tropical forest with heavy rain and sweltering heat, making conditions very difficult. The area was defended by units of the 5th and 7th Divisions of the Indian Army, a collection of many nationalities and faiths.
The real focus of this book is what became known as the Battle of Admin Box. But is not until Part Two on Page 161, that the amazing story of this battle begins to be told in detail.
Prior to that, James Holland skillfully develops the context of the battle that took place over those few fateful days in February 1944.
Part one is really a tale of how the Britain’s Indian Army of the Raj, an army basically of occupation, was turned by defeat, retreat and humiliation into one that was well led, trained and resourced with modern equipment; that had learned how to fight, had discovered that Japanese soldiers were not superhuman and by withstanding and winning a most brutal and murderous assault, eventually triumphed.
There were later, bigger battles, at Imphal and Kohima which have had considerably more attention by historians. But perhaps for the War on the Indian sub-continent it can be said that the Battle at Shazeya was, as someone said of another battle, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. And it was not even fought by a majority of trained soldiers but a “ragtag…”
Readers, taking up this book, would be well advised to observe carefully its construction. Get a clear understanding of the maps before starting and also of “The Cast,” noting that there are no footnotes but lots of quotations from officers and soldiers. References to these are found at the back, along with an order of battle, timeline, glossary and comprehensive index.
The story is actually told by “The Cast” from their own diaries, letters and oral histories, skillfully woven into a comprehensive account of events.
This book is good, modern military history: very readable.
Reviewed by Lincoln Gould
Burma ‘44: The Battle that Turned Britain’s War in the East
by James Holland
Published by Bantam Press