How The Forgotten Battle Of Sangshak Turned The Tide During World War II

Forgotten for decades for complex, saddening reasons, its extraordinary contribution to warfighting on the Indo-Burmese Front was recognised through a poll organised by Britain’s National Army Museum

How The Forgotten Battle Of Sangshak Turned The Tide During World War II

Question Colonel Madhukar Bhat, the current commanding officer of 4 Maratha Li {Fighting Fourth}, about the Imphal-Kohima Battle and the hand-selected 65th CO of his Unit’s 222 years old command lineage, a paltan famous for matchless battle performance, breaks into droll Ganpat (Maratha) smile. “No way sir! For us, it’s our most significant Battle Honour and India’s pride,” says the officer known for his savoir faire.

“Forgotten for decades for complex, saddening reasons, its extraordinary contribution to warfighting on the Indo-Burmese Front was recognised through a poll organised by Britain’s National Army Museum,” he continues. “Asked to select Britain’s best ever battle, voters including top military professionals selected the climacteric Imphal-Kohima Battle over the Battle of Waterloo, Allied D-day Normandy Landings and Rorke’s Drift”.

Madhukar adds, “Very experienced in the battle area, 4th during the battle was the bedrock of the newly raised 50 Indian Parachute (Para) Brigade deployed at Sangshak with its troops still streaming in when 4th was placed under its command. The fierce, non-stop combat that followed for a week with elite take-no-prisoners Japanese 15 and 31 Divisions made their contacted troops almost hors d’ combat even as we too suffered severe losses.”

Sangshak was the starting conflict of the extended Battle of Imphal-Kohima of March 1944 fought in India’s remote north-eastern corner against the Japanese; a battle they totally lost. The irony, as Gardiner Harris writing in the New York Times points out in a June 2021 article on the Sangshak battle, is that ‘It was a largely Indian victory, almost forgotten in India’.

The CO muses: “Even though our Sangshak withdrawal was touted by Japanese radio propaganda as ‘A crushing Japanese victory over the elite 23 Infantry Division’ (50 Para Brigade being under its command)’; it was a hollow victory because the battle exhausted the formations whose primary task was to capture Imphal-Kohima: not just to deny it as an operational base for Allied Forces to recapture Burma (Myanmar) but also to provide a base for the Japanese 15th Army to ‘March to Delhi’ with the Indian National Army (INA) leading.

As things turned out, the week-long delay caused at Sangshak allowed our Allied hierarchy enough time to reinforce Imphal and Kohima and take on the Sangshak-exhausted/depleted Japanese troops. This led to their worst, most humiliating Japanese defeat ever. Sangshak was thus a tipping point and 4th the only participating unit to be awarded a Battle Honour for it”.

The focus here is primarily on bringing out the strategic value above the tactical conduct of the Sangshak Battle which has been well established by the Colonel of the Maratha LI, Maj. Gen. Eustace D’Souza PVSM. He wrote its war history in 1995-2000 for its 200th anniversary titled: Valour to the Fore.

He includes in it a brief yet comprehensive overview of Sangshak by CO 4/5 Maratha LI (as 4th was then known), Lt Col Jackie Trim, OBE, written for the Unit’s War Diary followed by his then Adjutant Maj WD McConnel’s crisp description about how the unit withdrew from the battered Sangshak Defensive Box overflowing with the overpowering stench of hundreds of rotting Indian and Japanese soldiers’ bodies and carcases of army mules after withdrawal orders were executed on night 26/27 March 1944. The 4th also has a blow-by-blow account of their Sangshak odyssey by just deceased Lt Col P.V. Ramnathkar, a dedicated Regimental officer and later Centre Museum Curator.

This article encapsulates the circumstances under which Sangshak fortuitously became a critical knife-edge start to a campaign which could have gone either way and how errors in conduct on both sides--inadvertent, reckless, even malicious, forced the bruising battle on a plateau overlooking Tangkhul Naga Sangshak village to lie incognito until it’s true contribution and value were realised 70 years later.

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Topography & Climate

The Imphal-Kohima battle-space is what Gen. (later Field Marshal) WJ ‘Bill’ Slim, who converted ‘Defeat into Victory’ in Sangshak and who was voted in the same UK survey as ‘the best General UK ever had’ overshadowing Gen. Wellington of Assaye/ Waterloo fame called as ‘those hellish jungle mountains’. Strategic planners in London during World War II simply couldn’t comprehend how vital battles had to be fought on the Burma Front at ‘patrol, platoon and company levels’. As Harry Seaman writes in his book The Battle at Sangshak, ‘Such was the geography of Burma that it made nonsense of all the conventions of normal infantry warfare’.

(Map 1)

Seaman writes, that shaped like a hand with a long forefinger pointing south, Burma is split up into ranges and deeply divided by river valleys--principally the Chindwin, the Irrawaddy and the Salween, all running north-south to the Bay of Bengal. Communication depends on the river system as much as the railways with narrow roads often blocked by landslides.

The climate was horrendous, with monsoon for five months with mountainous areas astride the Indo-Burma borders choked with primary rain forests on up to 8,000 feet high hills, jagged cliffs, spurs, ravines and valleys with few tarred roads and vehicle tracks and occasional bridle paths and mule tracks. Diseases like malaria, dengue, scrub typhus, cholera, scabies, yaws, dysentery and leech bites made life difficult.

Perhaps nature’s meanest trick was capricious supply of water. Beyond the rains, though freely available in valleys, water became precious in hill villages. The meagre springs almost dried up by the following spring when the rains restarted. There was usually enough for the needs of the villagers, but supply was hopelessly inadequate for troops.

Allied Strategy

Apex Allied strategy in August 1943 split C-in-C India from responsibility for the Burma Front, creating a separate Anglo-American South East Asia Command (SEAC) to handle it with a British Supreme Commander--Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten--and an American deputy, Gen. Joe Stilwell. For the land war, three fronts were created: northern, central and eastern with Gen. Bill Slim nominated to head the newly-raised 14th Army against the Japanese in the Central Front.

Reality Checks: Apart from the shocking shortages in warfighting materials, road, rail, water, air and radio communication deficiencies, Slim faced major problems with soldiers’ diet and a logistics nightmare with its and warfighting items transhipment from broad gauge railway at Calcutta to water transport and then to a meter gauge railhead at Dimapur. Thereafter to a narrow, metalled road which from Kohima onward ran parallel to the Burma Front. There was also grave paucity of aircraft for supporting the 14th Army operating in the Central Front for troop movement and air drop of warfighting material and rations.

Order of Battle: Headquarters 4 Corps under Slim, whose 14th Army HQ was at Comilla, was commanded by Lt Gen. GAP Scoones. It had 17, 20 and 23 Infantry Divisions. 17 was centred on Tiddim, 20 on Tamu and 23 at Imphal Plains and NE. Imphal also had 254 Tank Brigade and HQ 4 Corps.

(Map 2)

The Japanese had their Imperial HQ in Tokyo, HQ Southern Expeditionary Army Group in Singapore, HQ Burma Area Army under Gen. Masakazu Kawabe with 33 Army (China Front), 28 Army (Arakan Front) and 15 Army controlling operations in central Burma. 15th Army was to control operations in north and central Burma under Lt Gen. Renya Mutaguchi, a dynamic, hot-headed general ordered to plan for the capture of Imphal with 15, 31 and 33 Divisions along with 1 Division of the INA.

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Allied Plans

A day before Operation Ha-go in Arakan opened, Gen. Scoones who had little field experience and was given to irascibility, was conventional. Expecting Mutaguchi to be likewise, he sent a fresh 4 Corps appreciation to Gen. Slim for his approval. Scoones felt that the Japanese would cut the Imphal-Dimapur road near Kohima as well as hit 20 Division at Tamu while containing 17 Division. Because of the lack of road communications, he felt the Japanese could not maintain more than a Regiment (Brigade) for Kohima, with the balance Japanese 15 Division for Tiddim from the north and a Regiment from 31 Division attacking it from the east.

The balance 31 Division would be reserve with 33 Division containing 17 Division in the south. Scoones suggested that a Brigade outside 4 Corps should block the Japanese 15 Division Regiment’s advance near Ukhrul and 23 Division remain as 4 Corps reserve for counterattack. Slim was generally agreeable. Both knew that Imphal with 51,000 officers/men and six airfields besides HQ 4 Corps and 23 Division simply had to be held.

The only brigade available to Slim was newly raised 50 Indian Para Brigade placed in mid-February 1944 by Slim at Kohima as 4 Corps reserve. It had two battalions and functioned as a normal brigade. 49 Infantry Brigade of 23 Division at Ukhrul would revert to 23 Division, being replaced by 50 Para Brigade from Kohima. For Kohima, three unattached battalions would take responsibility.

50 Para Brigade: Brig. MRJ Hope Thomson MC, the army’s youngest brigadier at 31, was frequently away on duty rendering paratroop related advice. He spoke no Urdu/ Hindi, had no experience of Indian/ Gurkha troops but was a quality soldier. Lt Col Paul Hopkinson commanded 152nd (Indian) Para Battalion and Lt Col Dick Willis was CO 153rd (Gurkha) Para Battalion. Their third unit, 154, was being raised. The units had additional mortars and had their MG’s brigaded. At Thomson’s request, the brigade was located in Kohima in February 1944 less 154.

Approval: Slim approved Scoones’ plan but made it clear that Scoones must trigger off the withdrawal of 17 and 20 Division for Imphal at the right time when he was sure of the Japanese intent. Slim knew that the best made plans don’t last the first bullet, that: ‘A plan put into operation too early or too late is at best a lame thing and at worst, may be a disaster.’

Mutaguchi’s Appreciation

Post capture of Burma, Mutaguchi had wanted to launch his 15th Army in Operation ‘Ichi-Go’ that would take it across Indo-Burmese borders into the Indian plains. It was approved end 1943; to be preceded by a two-pronged offensive: Op Ha-Go, to lure 14th Army’s reserves to Arakan, while Op U-Go was to be launched across River Chindwin further north to hit Imphal-Kohima for the ‘March to Delhi’.

His 15th Army plan was to use the sole two-way tar-macadam Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur Road descending from 9,000 feet near Kohima to 2,600 feet at Imphal to cut Indian supplies to Imphal Plain which measured 40x20 miles and had six airfields, logistics and HQ elements; interfere from Dimapur with China-related British operations and, not the least, deny India Imphal-Kohima as a base for recapturing Burma.

One 15 CWT/ jeep road was to have particular significance. Running roughly parallel to the main Imphal-Kohima road, it ran from Kohima in the north, through Ukhrul all the way south to Humine, 10 miles from Chindwin River. Its potential for trouble was enormous as it duplicated Kohima-Kohima connectivity. On 4 March 1944, just arrived Gen. Roberts, GOC 23 Div ‘opened’ the jeep road and 12 days later a delighted enemy 31 Division would use it too. Prime reason for Mutaguchi to commit a full Division here.

The Gathering Storm

By January 1944, V Force and Z Force, the efficient British officered Allied Intelligence Naga/Kuki tribesmen network using high-powered radio transmitters besides air reconnaissance and patrolling started feeding 4 Corps and HQ 14th Army about imminent Japanese attacks. The Kuki-British falling out pre Japanese launch would conceal from them the true strength and intent of Japanese 31 Division (Sato) headed for Kohima/ Dimapur. However, it was a Z Force team that put crucial intelligence into 4 Corps hands on 15 March 1944 which was never played out.

In HQ 4 Corps, Brig. Geoffery Evans succeeded Roberts in July 1943 who was promoted as GOC 23 Div. In February 1944, he was posted out on promotion at the time a Japanese attack was imminent, leaving the formation commanders and Corps staff in disarray.

Mutaguchi’s Op U-Go: The Japanese Arakan offensive Op Ha-Go was destroyed by 15 Corps of Slim’s 14th Army but succeeded in drawing substantial reserves. Mutaguchi, against 4 Corps expectations that the Japanese would use 33 and 15 Japanese Divisions against 17 and 20 Divisions ingeniously used only two 33 Div Regiments against 17 Div, using the third Regiment against 20 Div along available tanks and guns.

In addition, he sent a single 15 Div Bn to cross the Chindwin on March 14 and move north across the British front to finally link with the 33 Div Regiment attacking 20 Division.

Now 15th Div using the Kohima-Ukhrul-Imphal parallel road so thoughtfully provided by 4 Corps as its axis of advance, would move one Regiment straight to NW Imphal Plain to seize Kanglatombi Base, while the rest of the Division less one battalion would move down the other road via Sangshak to Litan, and thence into the plain from the NE. A single spare company, with two mountain guns, was to precede them to cut the main Imphal-Kohima Road.

Immediately to the north again, the 58th Regiment, the southernmost group of Sato’s 31st Division, intended to move west in three columns to invest Ukhrul from the north, NE and south.

And so, on March 8, Mutaguchi gave orders for the first part of Op U-Go to commence with 33 Division. He also planned to launch 15 and 31 Division as scheduled on midnight March 15; Imphal for 15 Division (Yamauchi) and Kohima/Dimapur for 31 Division (Sato).

With two regiments of 31 Division hidden in deep jungle, the third Regiment, 58 with a mountain battery, field gun troop, engineers was 4,000 strong under Gen. Miyazaki. He had with him an intelligence officer who had reconnoitered the tracks in Somra Hills in which Ukhrul was based.

The rapid thrust to Dimapur via Kohima by the larger portion of the 31st Division, under Sato, and straight to Dimapur by Miyazaki’s group, depended for its success on two crucial factors: secrecy and surprise. This had been managed brilliantly by the Japanese. However, a 4th war diary entry clearly lists a V Force Intelligence warning of 58 Regiment concentrations seen at Chindwin River on March 15 and its handing over to 49 Brigade, then involved in a handing-over frenzy with 50 Para Brigade at Sangshak. It was never passed. Similarly, a Z Force sighting of 58 Regiment was sent to Slim’s HQ, which was immediately passed on to HQ 4 Corps at Imphal.

Mutaguchi had begun his Op U-Go on schedule with all three Divisions on track. The boundary between 15 and 31 Divisions was Sangshak, a small Naga village where events would seal the fate of the whole Japanese campaign.

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Allied Reactions

Slim reacted to the Z Force message as a threat to the very existence of 4 Corps and shifted his focus to saving Railhead Dimapur. A tired, fatigued man after years of service, Gen. Scoones apparently got into a ‘sinister trance’ as Harris Seaman puts it. This is because after 49 Brigade moved out, nothing moved for 50 Brigade. Most damagingly, no intelligence was shared with 50. A scheduled training conference was called by 50 Brigade on February 19 when the Japanese were two miles away.

The Brigade thought they were 40 miles away. The Corps war diaries reflect inaction/ confusion for March 17-20. 23 Division staff too had no idea. Till March 22, when the Japanese fully encircled Sangshak, Division staff apparently disbelieved Brigade reports. Brigade Commander Thomson with his HQ on Road Litan-Ukhrul had 152 at Sangshak scattered and 153 at Kohima, 80 miles away. 4th was around Sangshak deployed and, damningly, the Z Force message Slim and 4 Corps had was never shared with Thomson.

(Map 3)

The Sangshak Battle

Commanding officer 152 Col Hopkinson and CO 4/5th Col Trim reported enemy contact on the morning of March 19 at Point 7378. 3/58 battalion had to capture it as it blocked Gen. Miyazaki’s advance. Maj. John Fuller C Coy/152, who had his mortars/guns out of range, was shocked to find enemy opposite him. Told to ‘hold on till relieved’ he fought for 36 hours. When the end came, his men charged downhill screaming their battle cry as recorded in the 3/58 Japanese War Diary. On the hill-top, a C company officer in full Japanese view shot himself, moving the onlookers. 3/58 suffered 160 dead with three officers killed and four wounded. C Coy/152 was almost wiped out. The 4th too got involved in a successful skirmish. (Sketch ‘P’)

No help, food or defence stores came for 50 Brigade until on March 20 night, 153 were brought down gracelessly in 20 one tonners in shifts. The unit was off-loaded at Litan, Imphal, 40 miles from Sangshak; Col Willis and men finally arriving at Sangshak on March 22 morning; just 390 of them due Corps HQ incompetence. The Brigade’s urgent requests for barbed wire and other defence stores/ digging implements went unheeded from beginning to end both by road/ air, with most air drops anyway being collected by the enemy.

On March 21, Thomson chose a small plateau above village Sangshak as his defensive box. An old volcano, it had very little water and volcanic glass-like hard rock at two feet making digging for trenches extremely difficult. A natural somewhat circular feature four to five feet high and 200 yards in diameter on the plateau centre allowed some deep digging and observation. The 600 yards east-west and 300 yards wide in the east tapering to 200 yards in the west plateau offered 50 Brigade its only option for a concerted fight. It was obvious that enemy attack would come from the West (West Hill side). There was thick rhododendron till the plateau edges with some clearing on the eastern side.

It was now the Japanese turn to commit a blunder that cost them the campaign.

While 3/58 battalion was engaged in the fierce fight at Point 7378, 2/58 battalion was heading north to Ukhrul. It was here that Miyazaki made his curious decision: instead of carrying on through Ukhrul towards Kohima and Dimapur, he diverted his 2/58 battalion towards Sangshak. (Sketch ‘Q’ and Sketch ‘R’)

The first assault on Sangshak happened by fading light March 22 on C Coy/153. The damage inflicted by the Gurkhas had been so crippling that in 15 minutes the Japanese 8th Coy/2/58 Regiment, had lost 90 men­ including its commander, Captain Ban. At the eastern end, 4th destroyed the roadblock company/ guns headed to cut the main Kohima/ Imphal Road when they stopped under the 4th defences.

The first night of siege was over and the pattern repeated itself day after bloody day with the Sangshak defenders excelling despite facing as many as almost 30 Japanese attacks, endless shelling at odd times mistaken strafing by own fighters and uncounted small suicide missions into the plateau each night. Just one in five airdrops or 20 per cent of all drops was collected by the defenders with the rest delightfully collected by the Japanese.

Water shortages were insane; barbed wire never provided. Hundreds of dead bodies of own and enemy kept piling up in all units as enemy fire including sniper fire never lifted. The wounded kept crying for water, it being rationed at a mug a day. With everything short including food those daring and insanely hungry among the defenders fed off cooked decomposing mule meat slurry with curry powder and apple puree added to disguise its rotting stink. The Japanese meanwhile lived off air dropped Allied food and liquor.

On the afternoon of March 26, Division orders were received for 50 Brigade to withdraw. That night, after firing of all artillery and heavy weapon ammunition, the units melted away leaving 150 fully incapacitated prisoners at Sangshak, carrying 300 walking wounded and memories of the war’s fiercest battle fought 1,000 feet above in which almost 1,000 out of 4,000 58/31 Regiment soldiers were casualties including 50-60 from 60 Regiment/15 Div in their sole last day attack. 50 Brigade had 900 odd casualties from 2,000 including 86 officers killed/ wounded. Of them, 152 Battalion had 350 killed/ wounded, 4th had 260 and 153 the least being under strength. The other casualties were from artillery/ sappers/ medical and Brigade HQ personnel with its defence platoon written off. Such figures of loss are unprecedented.

In Retrospect

While it became evident that savagery in war wasn’t restricted to nationalities alone, it did prove that unlike a well-established British fixation, polyglot armies like the Indian Army had all the qualities the world’s best armies had and displayed them. One example received Gen Miyazaki’s salute. When he went post our withdrawal to recover the body of Capt. Ban who carried out the first attack, apparently CO 4th who Cdr 50 kept with him everywhere had advised our men to honour Ban’s dead body. He was buried in a trench, neatly wrapped in a blanket, his sword by his side. It is believed the Japanese General was so impressed that he passed orders that no 50 Brigade prisoners were tortured or mistreated.

Speaking of 4th, this battalion and its CO were the 50 Brigade Commander’s trouble shooters at Sangshak as they were earlier for 23 Div/4 Corps, having been in Imphal area since 1942, providing reserves, grenades whenever and wherever needed across unit boundaries—and kills.

Lastly, while the worth of 4th was rewarded, the inappropriate treatment given to Brig. Thomson’s Brigade was unsavory. Shoddy, callous staff work caused avoidable loss of life.

Sangshak by all metrics is truly a battle that started the unhinging of Japanese invincibility resulting in its greatest, most humiliating loss ever. One salutes all its brave-hearts about whom the readers should ensure: ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, for our tomorrow they gave our today’.

About The Author

(Maj Gen. Raj Mehta is a renowned defence and strategic affairs columnist with ‘FORCE’ and ‘Geopolitics’ magazine. The officer post retirement runs a War Museum Consultancy in Mohali and has been involved in creating the Punjab State War Heroes Museum, Amritsar and MRC Museum, Wellington, TN)

(This article was first published in FORCE Magazine and has been reproduced with due permission and credits to the first publisher and the author. Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial views of Mission Victory India)

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