Meiktila, the center of Japanese logistical infrastructure in the area, was also a gateway to the cities of Rangoon and Mandalay and an equally important center of communication for the entire Burma Theater. Meiktila's airfields were key: capture of these would allow aerial resupply of Allied ground operations throughout the entire theater of operations.
In an effort to trap and destroy Japanese Lieutenant General Katamura Shihachi's Fifteenth Army at Meiktila, Slim resorted to an elaborate deception plan. Code-named cloak, it involved sending radio signals from a nonexistent headquarters at Shwebo on his left flank to convince Katamura that Slim's IV Corps was about to drive on Mandalay from that direction. At the same time, Slim secretly moved IV Corps, made up of the 17th Indian Division and 225th Tank Brigade, south down the Mykittha Valley and then across the Irrawaddy River near Pakokku, 100 miles south of Mandalay. On 13 February, IV Corps made a surprisingly easy crossing of the Irrawaddy. The tanks then dashed to cut off Meiktila, easily sweeping aside Japanese-puppet Indian National Army forces.
The Battle of Meiktila opened on 28 February. Major General D. T. Cowan, commander of the 17th Division, had charge of the attack. Meiktila was basically a logistics and medical center, and the Japanese had few fighting units there, other than battalions for airfield defense. In all, there were only 4,000 men. Organized Japanese resistance soon collapsed, but the defenders then broke into small bands, forcing the British to clear the town street by street and house by house. This bloody task was carried out by ruthlessly efficient Gurkha troops.
Meiktila was secured on 3 March, with more than 2,000 Japanese dead and 48 taken prisoner, along with 48 guns. Slim called the capture of Meiktila in only four days "a magnificent feat of arms" and immediately rushed in supplies by air from India in order to prepare for the inevitable Japanese counterattack.
The Japanese response was not long in coming. Burma area commander Lieutenant General Kimura Heitaro had already ordered Lieutenant General Takehara Saburo's 49th Division to Meiktila. Other Japanese units also were committed, including regiments from the 2nd, 18th, and 33rd Divisions. The battle was renewed on 6 March. Although the Japanese managed to cut off the Indian 17th Division at Meiktila and for a time threatened the airfields, Slim was able to bring in a brigade by air. On 16 March, Thirty-Third Army commander Lieutenant General Honda Masaki took command of the 18th and 49th Divisions, with orders to retake Meiktila. But with XXXIII Corps and the remainder of IV Corps coming up, Honda halted the Japanese counterattack, and on 28 March, he ordered Japanese forces to withdraw.
Slim's plan had succeeded brilliantly. The capture of Meiktila opened the way for the British to take Rangoon. Mandalay fell in March and Rangoon in May, but Meiktila was the key to the campaign. John Noonan and Spencer C. Tucker
Allen, Lewis. Burma: The Longest War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.; Fischer, Edward. The Chancy War: Winning in China, Burma, and India in World War Two. New York: Orion Books, 1991.; Slim, William. Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942–1945. New York: Berkley Square Press, 1956.
John Noonan and Spencer C. Tucker