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SANGSHAK 80 CHRONOLOGY – PART 2

  • Posted on 19 Mar 2024
  • 15 min read

By John Gerring

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Sangshak. Probably the least talked-about battle by a British parachute brigade: the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade. It is a tale of Arnhem, D-Day and North Africa rolled into one, fought by British, Indian and Nepalese soldiers, in a forgotten battle that turned the tide in the battles for Imphal and Kohima and saved Lt General William Slim’s 14th Army from potential defeat. It is a tale of dogged determination in the face of overwhelming odds and a withdrawal like no other. This is the second of several posts during March about the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and the Battle of Sangshak.

Part 2 – Raising the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade

When Winston Churchill ordered the formation of Britain’s first parachute units in June 1940, the order covered Empire and Commonwealth forces, including the Indian Army. Things did not start well.

Just like the raising of airborne forces in the UK, the raising of Indian airborne forces had a troubled birth; and doubly so as the war effort in Europe and North Africa sucked in all the resources available and the war with Japan played second-fiddle – it was not called the Forgotten War for nothing.

General Sir Robert Cassels GCB GCSI DSO, Commander-in-Chief, India authorised the raising of three parachute battalions in December 1940 only to receive a note from the War Office advising him to delay as the whole future of Airborne Forces was in question.

Students of British Airborne Forces history will be aware of the shenanigans that surrounded the raising of Airborne Forces. Fortunately, Cassels decided to ignore the War Office and carry on regardless.

The C-in-C India was supported by the  Viceroy who said: “I believe that India might do a really big thing by going ahead on her own, developing an airborne force that might turn the scale anywhere in these countries of open spaces, great distances and relatively weak forces at any one point.”.

Modern-day India is a huge country but at the time of WW2, in pre-Partition days, it comprised the land mass of India and the future states of Pakistan and Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. Travel across such a vast area by boat, train and road could be a very long and arduous.

Sikh warriors of 50th Para Bde ready for a training jump with their PJIs

The 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade was formed in Delhi and by October 1941 comprised the following units: Brigade Headquarters; 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade Signals Section; 151 Parachute Battalion; 152 (Indian) Parachute Battalion; 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion; 411 (Royal Bombay) Parachute Squadron, Royal Indian Engineers.

An Indian NCO is congratulated by Army and RAF PJIs on earning his Parachute Badge with Wings

As in the UK, a transfer to the new airborne forces promised the possibility of action rather than garrison or, in India, frontier duties. The 151 was made up of volunteers from twenty-three infantry battalions across India. The 152 was unusual in being the first battalion in India to have Hindus and Muslims mixed in the same unit.

15th October 1941 saw the first jumps at the Air Landing School in Karachi, about a thousand miles from Delhi in what is now Pakistan. Whilst nobody was killed, the Chief Instructor and Captains Abott and Hopkinson were injured. February 1942 saw the first drop of a ‘stick’ of paratroopers — from a Valentia! — on an exercise. Of the ten men dropped  one was killed and another seriously injured.

In October 1942 Campbellpore and Chaklala — some 500 miles north of Delhi near Rawalpindi in the Punjab, now part of Pakistan) — became the new homes, respectively, for 50th Parachute Brigade and the Air Landing School.

It was just before these moves that the 151 Parachute Battalion was redesignated as 156 Parachute Battalion, departing for the Middle East to become part of the 4th Parachute Brigade. The 151 was replaced in August 1943 by a Gurkha Rifles battalion, which became the 154 Gurkha Parachute Battalion. And finally, 215 Squadron RAF arrived with Dakotas to replace the Valencias, Hudsons and Lodestars currently in use.

Unfortunately, the parachute training accident rate amongst Indian airborne forces continued to be far higher than in the UK and the now famous Wing Commander Maurice Newnham was sent to India to study the problem. Improvements in training and parachute packing brought matters back under control.

As you may expect, the kind of men who volunteered for airborne forces, including the Gurkhas, made for some interesting characters and situations.

In one incident a Valentia full of Gurkhas crashed on the runway during take-off.  Nobody was hurt. The Gurkhas promptly disemplaned, marched down the runway and got into another aircraft to complete their first experience of flying in an aircraft.

The venerable Valentia: 50th Para Bde’s first training aircraft

On one exercise, Captain Dicky Richards — of whom we shall hear more in subsequent articles — took with him his hunting rifle and fishing equipment. As the men formed up for the exercise, Captain Richards disappeared in the opposite direction for some hunting and fishing.

Then there were the Gurkha volunteers who were concerned about the drop height and felt that they should drop from a lower altitude. Once it was explained to them that they would be wearing parachutes when they dropped, they were satisfied that the height was acceptable.

Last-minute harness check before emplaning in the Valentia

Just like their counterparts in England, the paratroopers and their officers were constantly disappointed by cancelled operations. They took part in exercises and were involved in some security operations and local actions involving small numbers of men from the Brigade.

However, there was no serious action like that in Sicily and Italy. Consequently, Brigadier Julian Hope-Thompson, commanding 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade, arranged for his men to be deployed to the Assam region for jungle warfare training and aggressive patrolling in the area of the Indian-Burmese border.

Earning their wings

The paratroopers felt that this afforded a good chance of seeing some action. The journey of 1,900 miles by road, rail and boat took two weeks. By the end of February 1944, the Brigade was settling into the area south-east of Kohima.

A Physical Training Instructor of 50th Para Bde

By now, 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade’s order of battle or ORBAT comprised the following units: Brigade Headquarters; 50th Indian Parachute Brigade Signals Section; 152 Indian Parachute Battalion; 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion; Medium Machine Gun Company; 411 (Royal Bombay) Parachute Squadron, Royal Indian Engineers; 80th Parachute Field Ambulance.

154 Gurkha Parachute Battalion was still completing its training and was left behind in Rawalpindi. Part 3 will look at the terrain the men found themselves and their early dispositions before the ‘balloon went up’.

I have relied heavily on Airborne Forces by Lt Colonel Otway DSO. Otway is most famous for his role in the storming of the Merville Battery on D-Day. In September 1945, Otway would be named GSO 1 for the 2nd (Indian) Airborne Division after overseeing the conversion of the Chindits of 1st Battalion, King’s Regiment into 15th (King’s) Parachute Battalion as part of 44th Indian Airborne Division.

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