British infantry soldiers on the road to Kalewa, Burma

South East Asia Command

Over 900,000 men and women from Commonwealth and Empire forces served alongside British troops in SEAC.

Under the overall command of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in April 1945, the number of Allied service personnel in SEAC totalled an incredible 1,304,126.

Of this number 954,985 men and women were from Commonwealth and Empire forces. There were also non-British and Commonwealth forces who operated within SEAC including, Nepalese, and some US and Chinese Nationalist forces under General Joe Stilwell.

Indian tank crew astride their Sherman tank

The Fourteenth Army

The Fourteenth Army were the main fighting force within SEAC. Commanded by General William Slim, it made up 606,149 of the 1,304,126 men and women of the entire SEAC.

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Approximately 87% of the troops were from pre-partition India (modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and 3% from what were Britain’s African colonies. Only 10% were British.



of the Fourteenth Army’s fighting forces were pre-partition Indian and African.
Field Marshal Slim with a member of the Fourteenth Army 81st West African Inf Div  supply column on jungle track Indian tank crew astride their Sherman tank  A Sikh and a West African soldier at a Command Post, Burma

Pre-partition Indian soldiers were key to securing victory for SEAC in Burma (now Myanmar) and elsewhere.

The size of pre-partition Indian armed forces grew massively as the war progressed from 194,373 in October 1939 to a total recruited during the war of 2,499,909 million in 1945.

Not all were in SEAC and many served in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Indian Air Force also grew hugely, from 285 officers and men at the start of the war to nine squadrons of aircraft and 29,201 officers and men by 1945.

SEAC couldn’t have achieved victory without the forces from pre-partition India, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that pre-partition Indian soldiers won 22 of the 34 Victoria and George Crosses awarded during SEAC’s campaign to drive Imperial Japanese forces out of Burma.

No words of mine could adequately express the unfaltering loyalty and courage of these men. Vice-Admiral The Earl Mountbatten of Burma

On the contribution of Indian troops

4th (Uganda) Battalion, The King's African Rifles
4th (Uganda) Battalion, The King's African Rifles

African forces

The African forces came from across East, West and Southern Africa including; The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Somalia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
4th (Uganda) Battalion, The King's African Rifles

The Imperial Japanese Army regarded these African forces as undoubtedly Britain’s ‘best jungle fighters.’

The remaining forces within SEAC command included over 115,000 men in the naval forces in the region, including 30,000 who formed the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which operated across the Pacific between January and April 1945.

The naval forces included sailors and units from:

  • The Royal Navy
  • The Royal Indian Navy
  • The Royal Australian Navy
  • South African Naval Forces

In addition, within SEAC thousands of ground crew, aircrew and pilots from the RAF, together with the Indian Air Force, played a vital role in supporting the Fourteenth Army’s operations.

Much like the Army and Navy, the personnel who served came from far and wide, from Britain, from across pre-partition India and from Canada and New Zealand to name a few nations.

Chindits crossing river

Karens, Chins and Kachins

Despite being occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army, over 19,000 men and women from what was then Burma fought alongside British and other Commonwealth forces in SEAC. Many of them were Karens, Chins and Kachins, from the Burmese hill regions.

In the Naga Hills which straddle parts of North East India and Burma the people of the hills supported the war effort in many practical ways, from serving as porters to carrying out casualties, as well as direct fighting.

Many Nagas joined the Assam Rifles, which fought bravely at Kohima in the great battle that stopped the Imperial Japanese invasion of pre-partition India in 1944.

Men of the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles training in the Malayan jungle
Men of the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles training in the Malayan jungle

While thousands of Gurkhas served in the Fourteenth Army within British and pre-partition Indian divisions, Nepal itself, though not in the Commonwealth or Empire contributed over 8,000 men.

In 1940 after the fall of France, when Britain was at its lowest ebb, British officials in Nepal asked for permission to recruit an extra twenty battalions of Gurkhas and that they be allowed to serve anywhere in the world. In response the Prime Minister of Nepal said “Does a friend desert a friend in time of need? If you win, we win with you. If you lose, we lose with you” and placed Nepal’s armed forces at the disposal of the British Crown.

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