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Sangshak 1944 – Continued

  • Posted on 10 Jan 2024
  • 47 min read

THE INDIAN ARNHEM by Myles Sanderson

Foreword by the Editor

John Sanderson was one of the few officers of the 152nd (Parachute) Battalion to survive the Battle of Sangshak in India in March 1944. John Sanderson’s autobiography Secret Service in the Cold War is available through The Airborne Shop. His son Myles finished his late father’s autobiography and published it after his death, Myles and his publisher have kindly permitted us to publish some edited Sangshak-related extracts from the book.

As we remarked in the introduction to the first of Myles Sanderson’s articles about Sangshak, if the small groups of 50th (Indian) Para Bde survivors who made it back through the jungle to Imphal after the Battle of Sangshak felt defeated, they were wrong. They had in fact obtained a Phyrric victory because their heroism and that of of their dead and wounded comrades had rendered possible the British victories at Imphal and Kohima, thereby saving India from Japanese invasion and turning the tide of the war in Burma against Japan.

Major General Shigesaboro Miyazaki

The paratroopers of 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade, supported by a battalion-sized battle group of Indian and Nepalese infantrymen, held up the Japanese advance for six vital days, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy whilst suffering extremely heavy losses themselves. After the battle, Japanese General Shigesaburo Myazaki ordered that prisoners be well-treated and was seen to bow respectfully towards the British positions.

The historian Frank McLynn noted it was always a matter of regret for General Slim that he had not predicted a Japanese attack through Ukhrul, Litan and Sangshak. The Japanese 15th Division made an unopposed crossing of the Chindwin River at Thaungdut on the night of 15–16 March and advanced rapidly through the jungle-covered hills towards Sangshak and Litan.

The Battle

By the evening of 18 March they had advanced as far as Ukhrul, only fifty miles as the bird flies from Imphal. Eight columns of the Japanese 31st Division, meanwhile, had crossed the Chindwin near Homalin and then separated, one force hastening to support the 15th Division at Ukhrul, the other heading for Kohima. Lieutenant General G. Scoones of 33 Corps had little understanding of the predicament of his brigade. As the historian J. Thompson described it: “His brigade was cut off, out on a limb, with minimal support . . .”

John Sanderson in 1943

The conduct of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, penned into a perimeter 400 by 500 yards, was heroic and their eventual breakout equally so. On 14 March 1944 Captain John Sanderson had been appointed as an Acting Major with 152 Indian Bn of 50th Indian Parachute Brigade.

Days afterwards, they were out on a forward training exercise in the jungle, under-equipped and under-manned. The Brigade soldiers would soon be fighting for their lives, surrounded by elite spearhead troops of the Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions, in an epic battle –– as fiercely fought as the stand at Arnhem –– on an isolated, exposed hilltop village, with no hope of reinforcements. 

For the moment in mid-March 1944, the hilltop at 6,000ft presented a delightful aspect, with cool, clean air and magnificent views in all directions, with alpine flowers growing in profusion and orchids entwined in the trees. This was soon to change. The Japanese had finally launched a full-scale offensive against India itself, code-named Operation U-GO.

The enemy had unexpectedly crossed the River Chindwin as the first stage of their planned advance towards Delhi and the Indian plains. The Japanese 31st Div. moved forward on a wide front, heading for Kohima to cut the main supply road to Imphal. They divided into Right, Centre and Left assault groups. The Left force of the 58th Infantry Regt was under the command of Colonel Utata Fukunaga but accompanied by Major General Shigesaboro Miyazaki, the 31st Divison’s Infantry Commander.

The Forgotten War: Japanese Imperial Army infantry crossing a river

Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thomson had difficulty obtaining transport to take 152nd Indian Parachute Battalion from Kohima to Imphal, where they were not expected and were consequently given no food, information or ammunition. After a long wait, a few old lorries transported half the Battalion to Sangshak.

50th Indian Para Brigade were volunteers drawn from every regiment of the British and Indian armies: 4/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, 152nd (Indian) and part of 153rd (Gurkha) Paratroop Btns, as well as Medical, Engineer and Signals units, all keen to get to grips with the enemy.

Hope-Thomson’s Brigade were on a ‘jungle warfare training exercise in a threatened area’ to the east of Kohima and Imphal, on the border of India and Burma. Raj Singh described the harsh terrain they faced; their orders were to patrol on foot with mules, as far as the Chindwin River, and to intercept any Japanese patrols within a vast area of mountainous jungle measuring fifty by eighty miles.

Naga headhunters: last known to have collected heads in 1990

With forested ridges rising to 4,000 feet. It was considered highly unlikely that a large Japanese force could cross this area of thick, mountainous jungle with its narrow tracks and footpaths, near-vertical in places and edged with steep 1,000 foot drops. It was thought that the main Japanese attack would come from the south. The enemy forces, however, were closing fast.

On 18 March, the Japanese 58th Regt was approaching Ukhrul, twenty-five miles north east of Imphal and eight miles north of Sangshak. Local Naga headhunters had reported small Japanese patrols moving steathily forward. 

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Hopkinson, commander of 152nd (Indian) Bn, sent B and C Coys to positions dominating the only two east–west Jeep tracks over the hills. B Coy were at Points 7000 and 7386. Near the Chindwin River, three miles from Point 7378, C Company’s dawn patrol spotted 200 Japanese approaching, the lead elements of a whole battalion.

By 0930 hrs, the 152nd’s isolated C Coy found themselves on the hill at Point 7378, under ferocious attack from two battalions of the Japanese 58th Regt under the command of Major Shimano. The fighting continued relentlessly for a long day and night. The enemy was vastly superior in numbers and had fresh troops for each assault. Just before dawn, the OC, Major John Fuller, put in a counter-attack and called over the wireless for help. His men were exhausted.

By 0600 hrs, Fuller and his second-in-command, Captain Roseby, had been wounded. Within an hour they died of their wounds. Lieutenant H Easton was now in command. At 1000 hrs, he reported that the company was being overwhelmed, with most of his men killed or wounded. Twenty British and Indian paratroopers had made a desperate charge downhill, firing and shouting as they came. Their way was blocked by a wide ravine into which some fell, whilst others escaped; twelve were captured.

Brigadier Paul Hopkinson (left) commanding 77th Indian Para Bde in 1947

Colonel Utata Fukunaga, commanding the Japanese 58th Infantry Regt, later recorded in his diary: “At the very top of the position, an officer appeared, put a pistol to his head and shot himself in full view of everyone below. Our men fell silent, deeply impressed by such a brave act.”. Only Lt Easton and a small party of fellow wounded escaped through the jungle. The Japanese suffered 450 killed, including seven officers. 

On 19 March, Lieutenant Colonel Hopkinson was informed that a strong Japanese force was now only two miles away and closing rapidly. His war diaries recorded that he thought everyone had been deluded into thinking that the country was far too challenging for the Japanese to be able to move large forces across the mountain ranges and through the very dense jungles. After initially concentrating his forces at Sheldon’s Corner, he pulled them back, first to ‘Kidney Camp’, four miles to the west, and then to Sangshak. 

The three 152nd companies, including John Sanderson, withdrew under fire along the ten miles of mountainous tracks back to the high ground of Sangshak, a small Naga village on the Jeep track between Imphal and Ukhrul. Here, the 2,000 men of 50th Brigade were preparing, as best they could, to block the Japanese advance on IV Corps at Imphal. 

50th Para Bde were only lightly equipped, with very little barbed wire or sandbags, and only a few picks or shovels to dig weapon slits for protection in the rocky ground. The outcome of the battle would have been very different if rolls of barbed wire had been available. The ‘strong box’ defensive position, 600 yards wide and 200–300 yards deep, was well- sited tactically but defended by only one battery of 3.7 inch howitzers, 2 and 3 inch mortars and its Indian troop of field artillery. Only the Parachute Brigade stood between the Japanese and the almost undefended town of Imphal, with its headquarters and surrounding airfields and storage dumps. 

The Brigade arrived in the area around the same time as the Japanese. When the force from Sheldon’s Corner arrived at the Sangshak position late on the afternoon of 22 March, the Japanese were already at Finch’s Corner. Their patrols were in range of the perimeter and the 15th Battery of the 9th Mountain Regiment TA, which had joined the Brigade, was in action and shelling enemy columns coming down the track from Ukhrul. The company from the Mahrattas (Light Infantry), which had not been with the remainder of the battalion at Sheldon’s Corner, was in action covering the concentration of the Brigade from a ridge about 500 yards west of the perimeter.

50th Brigade was ordered to hold off the Japanese onslaught at all costs and fight to the last man with their remaining grenades and bullets. Optimism was raised by Corps HQ’s assurances that reinforcements would eventually reach their isolated garrison and that the holding of Sangshak was crucial for the overall battle plan. The 153rd (Gurkha) Para Bn and the Brigade Medium Machine Gun Coy were digging in as fast as possible. Part of 153rd Bn and two Nepalese companies arrived in haste from Kohima late on 21 March.

Fearsome and fearless jungle fighters: the Japanese Imperial Army in Burma

On the night of 22 March Captain Nagara’s infantry, without artillery support, charged in courageous but suicidal waves up the three slopes, the fourth side being close jungle. Within fifteen minutes, ninety infantry soldiers of 2nd Bn, Japanese 58th Regt were dead, including their commander; twenty Japanese dead were found around the football field. 

As soon as it was really dark, the Japanese started to attack. They continued to attack throughout the night, regardless of casualties. They made no attempt at surprise, using lights to aid direction and shouting to each other whilst they set fire to the Naga village, the flames from the burning buildings lighting up the battlefield. As daylight came, the Japanese withdrew into the jungle and firing ceased temporarily.

On 23 March, Dakota transport aircraft attempted to drop supplies but most floated down to the Japanese positions. The Gurkhas attacked in an attempt to recover the parachuted supplies, supported by the British fighter planes escorting the transport planes. Although they were driven back empty-handed, they inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese.

A Dakota drops supplies in Burma in 1944. At Sangshak, this was the closest the defenders got to their supplies

On 23 March, there were a few enemy attacks during daylight, although any movement in the open attracted fire from British snipers, who were mainly concealed in trees in the surrounding jungle, and from medium and light machine guns, sited to sweep the plateau with fire. 

The defenders lost a number of officers, VCOs (Viceroy Commissioned Officer) and NCOs (Non Commissioned Officers) to this deadly fire in blue-on-blue incidents whilst visiting the platoon and section posts. This lack of cover within the perimeter also made the distribution of ammunition and rations very difficult in daylight. 

The 152nd and 153rd Battalions were in the most exposed part of the perimeter, the volcanic rock near the surface making it impossible to dig down for adequate cover. The Medium Machine Gun Coy suffered especially heavily through this inability to make the gun pits deep enough. The Number Ones firing the machine guns were very exposed and many were killed. Major Ball, the company commander, and Captain Caydon, were both shot through the head and killed whilst keeping guns firing after their Number Ones had been killed.

During the morning patrols reported large Japanese columns with motor transport and elephants moving up towards Sangshak from the east. At about midday the Japanese started shelling the position, having brought up artillery. They attacked in considerable strength. Fierce hand- to-hand fighting took place before they were repulsed. A call was made for air support and a number of Spitfires came over and attacked the enemy. The jungle target, however, was very difficult to locate and some of the British positions were shot up as well. 

Japanese Mountain Artillerymen with a 70mm Light Howitzer (Reconstitution)

The shortage of water began to be felt. Fortunately, there was heavy rain in the evening and the defenders managed to collect some in mess tins. There was insufficient water for the mules. Once the mules had gone the Mountain and the Mortar batteries were immobile. They now found it very difficult to bury the dead, owing to the hard ground and the heavy shelling that was disinterring those already buried. There were piles of Japanese dead lying in front of weapon pits and slit trenches.

On 24 March the surrounded Brigade was fighting off a force four times its own number: six battalions each with two Japanese infantry battalions and their reinforcements. General Miyazaki was directing fire from four field guns from Lungshang, about a mile north east of Sangshak. 

A lucky discovery was the complete enemy plan of attack for the Imphal offensive on the body of a dead Japanese captain, pulled in using a rope and an improvised hook. However, despite the Brigade Intelligence Officer risking his life by carrying the maps back to HQ and then returning to the battlefield, due to confusion at HQ, the valuable information about the 15th and 31st Japanese Divisions was not used. The maps showed that the Japanese had to take Sangshak for their plan to proceed: this knowledge made the defenders even more determined to resist.

The British officers were dressed in green jungle trousers and shirts without their usual Dennison smocks, parachute wings or regimental insignia and were each equipped with a water bottle, compass, binoculars and holster. Gripping their .455 revolvers tightly in their grasp, they ordered their men to open fire.

This colorised image of British 14th Army soldiers shows how the Sangshak defenders looked

John Sanderson recalled the resolve of the defenders, faced with repeated ferocious onslaughts: “I told my soldiers we had to ‘die like men’. The enemy kept attacking in waves, time after time, and were shot down. At one stage in the fighting, a very brave Japanese officer charged straight towards me with his samurai sword raised above his head, only to be shot dead and fall directly in front of me.”.

On the night of 24 March, there were almost continuous attacks, each of which was driven off. Everyone was now beginning to feel the effects of lack of sleep. Ammunition and water were running low. Casualties were mounting, and the field ambulance was crowded with wounded and dying. The doctors and the surgical team were having to work without sleep or a break to cope with the numbers.

The next morning, the defenders were heartened by the sound of transport aircraft and a supply drop took place. Everything now depended on successful air supplies of ammunition, water, rations, and medical supplies but the supply drops proved a failure. John Sanderson described to the author his feelings when the airlifted supplies, which they desperately needed to survive, missed their target.

“Supply drops were called for and Dakotas flew over with parachuted supplies of ammunition, water, food and equipment. We were frustrated to see almost all these containers floating down into the Japanese-held positions. The mountainous region and low clouds made the pilots’ task difficult but only one pilot regularly flew low enough, on a steady course at great personal risk, to ensure supplies landed in our position.

“The aircraft came in high to avoid the enemy’s fire from the ground and slung their loads out in one run over the position. The defenders watched their urgently needed supplies drift away over the jungle to be collected by the Japanese. 

Airdropping supplies in Burma in 1944

“One aircraft, however, came over very low and made a number of runs over the hilltop, dropping only two parachute loads each run so that they were able to collect the entire aircraft load. The brave pilot made every flypast so low that the beseiged soldiers could see him waving. They could clearly make out the dispatchers in the doorway, as they watched and shouted encouragement. 

“The Japanese directed intense small arms fire from the jungle as the single Dakota flew over their heads. All subsequent supply drops followed the same pattern. Of every flight on subsequent days they could only rely on being able to collect this one precious load. The pilot and crew of this aircraft had taken part in the Brigade air training. 

“On hearing that 50th Brigade was cut off, and having to rely entirely on supply from the air, they were determined that whatever happened, and regardless of the risk to themselves, the Brigade should at least get their entire aircraft load.”.

This failure to keep Sangshak adequately supplied by air meant that the stock of essential supplies dwindled very fast and the defenders ran very short of ammunition, including shells for the guns and mortar bombs. In 152 Bn, the supply of hand grenades was now completely exhausted, a dispiriting situation as throwing grenades amongst the attackers was the most effective way of disrupting night attacks at close quarters. 

Rations were reduced to a bare minimum. What little water there remained had to go to the field ambulance for the wounded. Every man had only one small mug of tea each day. The defenders now realised that the failure of the air supply, and the large number of wounded, meant the only course open to them was to fight it out where they stood, inflicting the maximum casualties possible on the enemy. The longer they resisted, the longer the Japanese planned offensive would be delayed. This would be of very great advantage to their comrades busily preparing their defences at Imphal, Kohima and Dimapur. 

The forward positions had to be kept fully manned because, without any barbed wire, and with the jungle coming up to the edge of the perimeter, they were very vulnerable to sudden attack. The area of the high ground by the church was under almost continuous attack. 

The fiercest fighting of the battle took place where John Sanderson and Maurice Bell were positioned. It was the key to the whole position and the Japanese seemed to be only too aware of this. From here they would have be able to sweep the whole plateau with fire and quickly destroy the mortar and mountain artillery batteries’ positions. Several times the enemy got up to the church but were each time forced out.

The shelling and frontal attacks continued for five days, as the Japanese repeatedly attempted to break through, despite their many casualties scattered on the slopes around the besieged box. Lieutenant Kameyama Shosaku recalled: “We attacked every night from the 22nd to the 25th and every night many soldiers were killed. Despite that, we went forward.”.

The Indian gunners were firing their guns at point-blank range into the attackers. Soon the bodies of defenders and mules lay everywhere. The field ambulance area, exposed to small-arms fire, was full of dead, wounded and dying men. Snipers in trees were picking off individual soldiers: two of the 152nd’s officers were killed within minutes.

After five days of continuous fighting by day and night, conditions were appalling. Sangshak was isolated. The Japanese had cut off the only supply road from Kohima. The airdrop on 23 March was a failure. 

Ammunition, water and food were running out: even mule meat went into the cooking pots. Men were weakened, some delirious from dysentery and lack of sleep. They were pleading for more ammunition and grenades. On the evening of March 24, there was very heavy Japanese shelling and mortar fire, followed by a very savage attack on the 152 Bn’s sector of the perimeter near the church. 

A rare photograph of Japanese infantry mounting a section attack during Operation U-GO

The enemy managed to gain a footing in some of the forward positions but was eventually driven out with heavy casualties. By 25 March, everyone was physically exhausted by the continuous fighting on this sector and no-one expected to survive. None complained. 

At 0400 hrs on March 25, the Japanese made a further large-scale attack against the church position, preceded by very heavy artillery, mortar and small arms fire. They broke into the position but were driven out several times during the next few hours. Lieutenant Nakamura was killed. Still they came on. 

Fighting took place inside the church itself and after the garrison had all been killed or wounded, the defenders were unable to retake it. The enemy attacked in overwhelming numbers and used fresh troops for each attack. They were now well into this corner of the perimeter and into the gun and mortar battery positions, setting up their machine guns in the 152nd and 153rd trenches, despite the courageous resistance put up by the Gunners.

In 152 Para Bn, all the company commanders had been killed or badly wounded. The remaining men were withdrawn to new positions behind the church. John Sanderson described this desperate close-quarter fighting: 

“My men and I were fighting for our lives, hand to hand, when a grenade exploded and knocked me out. A fellow soldier’s body fell on top of me. The Japanese came through bayoneting our men but they must have thought I was dead. A counter-attack finally drove the Japanese back again. When I regained consciousness, I found I was the only one left alive.

“Most of the junior officers and many of the VCOs and NCOs were casualties. In Battalion HQ both the Signal and Intelligence Officers had been killed. The weapon pits were a shambles of dead and dying, both our own and Japanese. t was impossible to be certain who was still alive.

Major Smith and Major Lock commanding the Mortar and Gun batteries were both killed fighting gallantly in counter-attacks to save their battery positions. The Bde Commander tried to restore the situation by using his own reserve, the Bde HQ Defence Platoon. This platoon had been originally from the Mahrattas of 153 Bn and was commanded by Lieutenant de la Haye.”.

Japanese machine-gunners laying down fire

Lieutenant Robert de la Haye of the 152nd, nicknamed ‘The Red Shadow’, was seen checking his equipment and calmly combing his hair. Ordered by Thomson to retake the church area, he was heard to say: “Oh, I do believe it’s another counter attack.”, before leading his men forward. As they tried to fight their way up to the church, they were shot down in minutes by withering fire from Japanese LMGs and mortars from the edge of the surrounding jungle. Repeated counter-attacks with bayonet and kukri were repelled by the Japanese.

Lt Col Hopkinson decided to attempt once more to retake the church. Having gathered every man he could find from amongst the personnel, runners, signalers and orderlies, he led a counter-attack in a vain attempt to regain the church positions. It was very much a forlorn hope. They made it into some of their positions, but because of a lack of grenades could not hold against a counter-attack. Hopkinson was badly wounded by a grenade, with shrapnel from the exploding device injuring his leg and foot. They men next to him were killed or seriously wounded.

The church position was still firmly in Japanese hands. The remaining guns, mortars and the field ambulance were now exposed to fire from the church position and had to be moved back towards the centre of the perimeter where there was little cover. After this there was a lull in the fighting, whilst the enemy reorganised and prepared for fresh attacks.

Major (Ret’d) Maurice Bell photographed by the author in 2015

Manning the radio as second in command of the Brigade Signals Section was Major Maurice Bell, who told the author: “Because the Japs had effectively surrounded us, our only link with 23 Div. was by wireless and this was, to say the least, tenuous. The set itself was not powerful enough for the distance involved – about thirty miles ‘as the crow flies’ – and we were using ‘sky wave’, bouncing our transmission signals off an ionized layer which reflected them back to earth, hopefully around Imphal. 

“The altitude of the Heaviside layer varied through the twenty-four hours and this required us, and 23 Div, to change frequency from time to time. This was a tricky operation. One lost contact and one just hoped fervently that the theory would work and contact would be restored on the new frequency. Because of the low power of the set, we were also using a directional aerial which had to be tied to a tree in the right position. Periodically, the tree or aerial were broken by mortar fire or shells and the aerial had to be repaired and retied. 

“At about five pm on the twenty-sixth of March we lost contact and it was not until about five-thirty that we managed to restore service on the new frequency.

“Conditions were not good enough for speech but our two experienced British operators were able to read the morse signals pretty well, in spite of the ‘static’ interference so common in mountainous areas.

“I stayed on to make sure that all was OK and to give a hand on the manually operated ‘coffee grinder’ that generated electricity for the set. This machine was effective and reliable but tiring on the arms.

Maurice Bell as RSO of 50th Indian Para Bde in 1944

At seventeen-forty-five on the evening of twenty-sixth March, the signaler noted down a message received over the crackling radio from Major General Roberts: “Fight your way out. Go south then west. Air and transport on lookout. Good Luck. Our thoughts are with you.”

I could barely believe my ears or the accuracy of my morse reading! But the operator was writing what I thought I was hearing. A moment of bliss as there dawned the possibility – however slim – of a future life. Then came the doubts. Firstly, was this a genuine message or something sent by the enemy? 

“Secondly, had the Japs intercepted the message? We had destroyed our code books early in the battle to prevent them falling into Japanese hands and had been communicating ‘in clear’ ever since. On the first issue, we asked for information on personnel in Brigade Signals. This was personal stuff unlikely to be known by Japanese intelligence and included such details as the nicknames of various signalers, including that of the CO. All the questions were answered promptly and correctly and we were reassured that the message was genuine. 

“On the second issue we could do nothing. I told the two operators to keep the news to themselves and took the message to Brigade H.Q., wondering on the way how we would cope with the many wounded in the field hospital.

There were no helicopters to evacuate the wounded and even those severely wounded could be given only limited treatment. I explained to Colonel Abbott, the Brigade second in command, the possibility that the message may have been intercepted by the enemy. What an opportunity for a major ambush!“.

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