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SANGSHAK 80 COUNTDOWN — PART 1

  • Posted on 15 Mar 2024
  • 10 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 XIV Army from potential defeat. It is a tale of dogged determination in the face of overwhelming odds and a withdrawal like no other. This will be the first of several posts during March about the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and the Battle of Sangshak.

Countdown

The Battle of Imphal/Kohima was fought over a huge area by huge numbers of troops. The fighting was hard and bitter in all areas from mid-March to July 1944 and the rout of the Japanese. Our focus is on one small heroic action by one small group amongst many small heroic actions by many small groups in a huge theatre of war.

This is a very simple account of the campaign to give context for the role and actions of 50th Indian Parachute Brigade.

The Allies had been building up their forces in north-eastern India for their planned counter-offensive Burma when it became clear that the Japanese were planning an invasion of India. Intelligence expected that the Japanese invasion would start on 15th March, directed at Imphal in the south. The British plan was to withdraw from their southern outposts to the Imphal plain to make their stand in accordance with Slim’s plan.

Intelligence also suggested that there would be an attack in the north and an attempt to cut the Imphal-Kohima road. Due to the terrain, it was thought that this would be an action by a Japanese regiment at most.

The Japanese in the south started their invasion on the 8th  March, a week earlier than expected. By 12th March the Japanese had got behind the British 17th Division and cut the road to Imphal. The 17th began its withdrawal on 14th March and, for the next two weeks, had to fight its way out.

Simultaneously the Japanese had also launched an attack from the South east towards Imphal. The British rushed reinforcements south, which included the 49th Brigade from the area of Ukruhl and Sangshak.

The movement of these units left Imphal depleted of units and with much less protection in the north. This, of course, was the Japanese plan: that reserves would be drawn southwards. The movement of the 49th Brigade south resulted in the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade occupying the Ukruhl and Sangshak region.

From 15th March, heavy fighting took place is this southern area. The route was not reopened until 28th March and the 17th Division did not arrive back in Imphal until 4th April.

In the south-east, on 16th March, the British started their withdrawal to pre-prepared defensive boxes. However, the reserves had been committed to the southern sector and there were none available for the south-east, so they withdrew further and faster to their last defensive box in the Shenam Saddle.

Although the Japanese never got further than the Saddle, they had occupied one of its hills by 26th March 1944.

Meanwhile, The Japanese now launched their attacks in the north on 15th March – not just a regiment, but nearly two whole divisions – their objectives being to attack Imphal from the north, cut the Imphal-Kohima road and to attack Kohima before moving onto Dimapur and into India.

The Japanese 31st  Division ran into 50th Parachute Brigade at Hill 7378 on its way to Ukruhl and Kohima. The divisional commander decided that he could not bypass and leave this deadly force in his rear.

Instead of heading north to Kohima, the 31st  Division waited and headed south to Sangshak to deal with the Indian Army’s 50th Parachute Brigade, probably because of the fierce fight it had had at Hill 7378.

Shigesaboro Miyazaki: 31st Division infantry commander

This meant that part of the force heading to Imphal was also held up, the 15th Division waiting for the 31st to finish its job before moving onto Imphal.

From 19th to 26th March the battle in the Sangshak area raged. All the time Japanese units were heading north to Kohima and flowing around Sangshak to cut the Imphal-Kohima road and attack Imphal.

In almost the same period, from 18th to 27th March, the 5th Indian Division was flown into Imphal from the Arakan to shore up the vulnerable northern defences of the Imphal plain. Units were rushed into the line as soon as they got off the aircraft.

The 50th Parachute Brigade had delayed the Japanese attack from the North east long enough to allow the reserves to get into place.

The Japanese pressed their attacks around Imphal and the British withdrew to defensive positions. There was no rout of the British, who were resupplied by air. Whilst the fighting was ferocious, the Japanese never gained Imphal and the rest, as they say, is history.

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