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WW II Battlefields in the NE of India

by Romesh Bhattacharji

Contributed by 
Romesh Bhattacharji
People in story: 
Major Lowry, Charles Pawsey, Lord Mountbatten
Location of story: 
North East of India
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 February 2005

Part II

Beyond Kohima the advantages of the ground were with the Japanese. The 140 km road to Imphal is gouged out of steep cliffs, that keep slipping. Even today it is still unstable. The mountains are immense and steep, and in those days were heavily wooded. A brigade could be hidden on any one spur. The road could be commanded from a hundred positions easily. While the Allies threw their entire war effort into the battle, the Japanese had a manmade disadvantage. Their supplies were not reaching them. Their extended lines of communication were being eroded. Yet the determined Japanese gave ground obstinately. All along a difficult road, bloody battles had to be fought- Viswema, Phesama, Zakhama, Mao, Maram, Tadubi, Karong and Kanglatombi Bridges had been blown up, and in the midst of heavy monsoon this spelt waiting, and waiting meant more men lost. This beautiful land had to go through more devastation.

Several sections of the Indian National Army (INA) had also entered Manipur along with the Japanese. Their attack on the airfield at Pallel was courageous and had impressed the Japanese. Even the British had to concede grudging admiration for the 'jiffs', as they were contemptuously called. It is sad that while in the Indian Army bases of the North East there are several memorials to those British soldiers killed in action, there is not one for the INA or any of its soldiers. Apparently, the Indian Army has still not decided how to class them- as patriots or as deserters. Meanwhile the totems to the British are spruced up regularly, as Col. Brown's Gate at the Assam Regiment Centre, Shillong testifies.

Purple patches

Researchers studying the diaries of Japanese and Allied soldiers in north-eastern India found gems of wry, terse replies, humour and poetic descriptions. Considering that these were recorded during battle, they testify to the remarkable composure and courage of the witnesses.

When Gen.Sato, whose famished troops were not getting the promised supplies received a signal from Gen. Mutagushi congratulating him on capturing Kohima, he shot back: "It is not your congratulations we want, but food and ammunition."

A Staff Captain from the Royal Norfolk noted in his diary: "April died in a pall of black cloud. May came in with a burst of bright sunshine and blue skies... Flowers, pink, blue, mauve and yellow, came racing across the mountains in a never-ending pageant.... for wild, dark, lush beauty, there's nothing to touch Assam."

And for understatement, Maj.Lowry of the Queen's wrote: "We had a 50 per cent stand to all night but we were virtually all awake. It poured with rain throughout, and it was one of the noisiest nights imaginable.... fire from machine guns was punctuated by grenade and mortar fire. Three of the enemy bunkers were only ten yards away. It was all a trifle unpleasant."

Then there was the doughty Maj. R.A.J.Fowler of 1st Punjab, who read Shakespeare avidly in search of suitable passages that he could translate to exhort his troops. Whether these had any effect on an already courageous lot, one cannot tell, but his translations are worth repeating: "Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue..." from "King John" became in Urdu: Dunya ke char konon se larne dena, aur ham log unke kafi mardenge. Kuch bhi nahin hamko afsosi denge. *

On April 4, the Imphal plain was also attacked by the Japanese, who had occupied some of the heights around Imphal. North of Imphal, the Nungshigum fort overlooking the Koreingei airfield was captured. To the southwest the Japanese and Netaj Subhash Chander Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) advanced, up the Tiddim road through Churachandpur till as far as Moirang, where on April 4, 1944 the Indian Tricolour was first unfurled on the mainland. There is a memorial to the INA there, and till recently the Springing Tiger’s statue used to dominate the entrance. No more. It was blown up by insurgents. After a slow progress the Japanese were 10 km from Imphal, fighting for the strategically important Red Hill of Maibamlokpa Ching on May 27. Air attacks and heavy shelling could not repulse the Japanese till Lt.Weir in a tank managed to clear the way for the Gorkhas to storm in. There is a recently built Japanese memorial to the more than 3000 of them killed. The Allies lost 2000. Today, a radio beacon sits atop the small hill, which is close to the Imphal airport, guiding civil airplanes.

To the southeast, the Japanese and the INA reached as far as the outskirts of Pallel, above which they clung grimly till the Shenam Pass(1321m) for three months. They harassed the Pallel airfield, which is para military camp and paddy field now, and cut all the other routes to the Kabaw and Yu valleys in the plains of Burma. Interestingly, at Khongjom near Pallel another fierce battle had been fought by the Manipuris against the British, who had invaded this beautiful valley from Burma in 1881. Today, thanks to the War, these areas are without their traditional forest cover, but the fields that emerged produce much needed rice Manipur.

The only way that the surrounded troops around Imphal could be supplied was by air. Five airfields had been made in this attractive valley (height 892m). The planes, after their run to the Imphal plain, would return to Hailakandi near Silchar to the west every evening. From Hailakandi too Wingate's Special Force was flown into Burma's northern areas of Mogaung, Hukawng, Myitkina and Indawgyi Lake to meet Stilwell's troops. This force was ferried in specially-built gliders that could carry 60. Once released there was no turning back. Many crashed into the jungles barely having enough life left in them to radio back: 'Soya Link' - their code for disaster. Soya was one ration that was disliked by all soldiers of all nationalities. These areas in Burma are now notorious for opium cultivation and heroin production.

Airplanes were the most dependable means for ferrying the war effort. The allies had straddled the North East with airfields. Some are still in use. Like the ones in Upper AssamDum Duma, Dinjan, Chabua, Mohanbari. Some in Lower Assam like in Goalpara and Bongaigaon are not. At the Sainik School, Mornoi, Goalpara lies a Harvard D Mark — IIB two seater that is being gradually stripped of its skin and dignity. Similar skeletons lie all over. Flights over the treacherous Burma Hump to Kunming, China used to take off from these runways.

The battle for the Manipur valley of the Imphal plain and the roads to Burma that radiate from it, like spokes from a hub, was long and bitter. It sucked into its vortex the hills around. The Imphal plain, which was a lake aeons ago, is 30 km x 60 km in area. It is circled by steep hills rising up to 2,000 m to 2,500 m. The soil is fertile, the vegetation lush, the climate salubrious, and the people good-looking, lissome and graceful. They played polo (kanglei) many centuries before the British made it popular, and they had a state ballet centuries before the Russians or the French had even thought of having one. To this peaceful valley headed the hounds of war. Behiang, Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Pallel, Yangpokpi and many other picturesque hamlets felt the miseries of a pitiless War. With difficulty the tentacles of death and destruction were loosened.

The last act of the War was played out in the Land of the Mellowed Sun, another name for Ukhrul (2,000m). It lies 80 km to the northeast of Imphal, and is quite close to the Burma border. This was the location of the headquarters of the Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions. Inhabited by the gentle, hitherto peaceful and educated Tangkhul Nagas, it had become the rallying point for the retreating Japanese soldiers.

The terrain here was so forbidding and so thick with jungle and impenetrable growth that it had very few foot tracks. Most were single file ones. "There were among the giant trees, shrubs with glaucous leaves so thick on the ground that it was hard for a man to move about. Parts.... were never touched by the sun, and there the vegetation was dark, fungus-encrusted and stinking. Some of the fungii were luminous and glowed eerily at night, giving the jungle an air of phantasmagoria." There are few jungles with such undergrowth in the entire North East today.

It was nightmarish ground to fight in. Yet fight they had to. Litan, Sangshak, Changnga, Kharasom, in fact the entire Somra hills, bore the savage thrust of the tanks, aerial bombing and a determined infantry. To the sanctuary of Ukhrul's steep ridge headed the Japanese, sick, starving and emaciated, but with their spirits intact, hoping to find some relief from the snowballing troubles.

To Ukhrul were also headed columns of the 7th and 20th Indian Divisions and the hardy Chindits from Kohima and Imphal, passing as they marched, the abandoned guns and vehicles of their adversary. Lying on the long, monsoon-washed, muddy trail were corpses, frail and gaunt. By mid July 1944, pushing through blinding rain, crossing the steaming valleys, clambering up mountain tops wreathed in cold mists, the Allied columns had singed Ukhrul's lofty ridge and captured it. With forests blazing, Ukhrul had had its baptism of fire. And till today peace has not returned there. There is an another war on in this beautiful land. Indian fights Indian.

In the season when orchids are in full bloom and the hills are alive with magnolias and primulas, the road to Moreh and Tiddim was secured at the cost of immense suffering. The distance between Moreh in India and Tamu in Burma is only 5 km. Between them flows the river Lokchak to meet the Yu and then the Chindwin. Trying to take the bridge over the Lokchak, more than 2,000 soldiers perished. The road had dead bodies at very step, and derelict vehicles to block every step. Moreh is now a bustling commercial town, peopled almost entirely by refugees from Burma, mainly Tamils. It is now a sanctuary for Burmese students fleeing the wrath of an undemocratic Government in Burma.

After Ukhrul, Moreh and Tiddim were retaken, Gen. Slim called a halt to rest his tired troops, and to prepare for the last battle in Burma that would end the threat to India. As if by consent, Mutaguchi also called back his troops across the Chindwin to Mandalay and Meiktila. It was the height of the monsoon, and to continue the fighting in the Kabaw valley of Burma would have been suicidal. The Kabaw valley, also known as Death Valley, where Tamu and Tahan nestle, accounted for 10 percent of all casualties because of malaria and dysentery. These two places and Sittang now deal death of a different kind- they are flourishing centres for heroin.

The anniversary of the Battles of Kohima and Imphal used to be observed with some regularity in England as well as Japan. In June 1965, about 700 survivors of the 58th Regiment gathered at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo for a memorial service.They had tried to contact British soldiers, whose bravery had impressed them, to invite them to this ceremony. None came. Capt. Susumi Nishide wrote: "We still have a strong nostalgic feeling for Kohima... something beyond hate.

Brig.Arthur Swinson, who served at Kohima, has observed in his book "Kohima" that as far as the Japanese soldiers are concerned all bitterness towards their former adversaries seems to have disappeared. He quotes from a letter from a Japanese veteran: "Our greatest wish is that our children will never go to war as we did".

Recently, I met an Englishman and mentioned this Japanese invitation to the British for a common memorial service and they not responding. He, who had been too young during the War to have any reason for rancour, said very bitterly, "Can you blame us for not joining? Look at what they did to us." Forgetting conveniently what they had done to India, at Jallianwala for instance.

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