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  • Posted on 20 Mar 2024
  • 12 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 third of several posts during March about the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and the Battle of Sangshak.

Part 3 Prelude to Battle

Anyone taught to read Ordnance Survey maps — probably a fair proportion of this readership – will only to have to look at the contour lines on the maps in this article to realise that this is serious hill country! Of course it is: we are in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The terrain around Sangshak consists of steep-sided valleys running north to south and clad in thick jungle. Traversing east to west entails scaling 3000 ft to 5000 ft peaks and ridges, dropping into valleys, climbing back up again, over and over again ad nauseam. Very difficult terrain to cover at every level from section up to division.

In his book The Battle at Sangshak, Harry Seaman paints a picture: “ …it is difficult to convey the totality of conditions here….the climate is horrendous…along with the monsoon came the malaria season as well as a variety of diseases….scrub typhus, cholera, scabies… Naga sores caused by pulling off leeches and leaving their heads buried in your flesh…..[outside the monsoon] water became a precious commodity in the hill villages…”.

From The Battle at Sangshak by Harry Seaman

The few good roads that existed in 1944 clung to the side of the hills. Eric Nield, Medical Officer with 153rd Parachute Battalion, recalled how they felt sick in the back of the truck as they swung around a ceaseless series of hairpin bends. The closer the Brigade got to its area of operations, the less the roads were suitable for anything other than jeeps and mules.

It was, of course, this terrain and the British underestimation of the ability of the seasoned jungle fighters of the two Imperial Japanese Army divisions spearheading the planned invasion of India that nearly resulted in the disaster that this battle could so easily have become.

Japanese Mountain Artillery (Reconstitution)

In Field Marshal Viscount Slim’s own words from his book Defeat into Victory: “I had been confident that the most the enemy could bring and maintain through such country would be one regimental group, the equivalent of a British brigade group. In that, I had badly underestimated the Japanese….”.

This is somewhat reminiscent of Field Marshall Montgomery’s underestimation of the ability of the Germans to regroup at Arnhem.

William Slim — a commander without vanity

So, it was into this harsh environment that 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was inserted early in March 1944, its units shaking themselves out and establishing operational bases in the area containing Jessami, Ukhrul, Sangshak, and Sheldon’s Corner.

The Brigade was under the overall command of 23rd Indian Infantry Division. According to the Brigade’s War Diary, it was tasked with: “…prevention of JAP infiltration by way of SOMRA tracks.”, These were the tracks that came from eastern Burma across the river Chindwin into India and thence towards Jessami, Ukruhl, Sangshak and Sheldon’s Corner.

The War Diary also notes a few transport issues around this time, like the fitting of mule saddlery, an indication of how movement in this terrain was accomplished. There is a reference to no movement possible owing to the state of roads because of rain. The Diary also notes the loss of several vehicles en route. This entry was on 17th March, some two weeks after the leading divisional elements had reached the area.

Elsewhere, however, events were moving very quickly. The Japanese had now launched their attacks in the south; by 17th March they had cut off the 17th Indian Division from Imphal and in the south-east, the British withdrawal to prepared defence positions had begun.

This resulted in reinforcements being sent from the Ukrhul area and set the scene for 50th Indian Parachute Brigade to step into the breach. It should be remembered that the British High Command was not expecting a two-division Japanese attack in this direction and that even now, some ten days after the Japanese commenced their attacks, the British were still unaware that two enemy divisions had crossed the Chindwin on 15th March.

The War Diary records the situation on 18th/19th March. The troops now under the command of 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and their dispositions were as follows: 4/5 Mahratta Light Infantry at Kidney Camp with the 582 Jungle Mortar Battery; 152 Parachute Battalion at Sheldon’s Corner; the Kalibahadur Rifles at Sangshak; the MMG Company at Ukruhl; 153 Parachute Battalion at Imphal.

A British jungle mortar battery laying down fire in 1944

With masterful understatement, the 50th’s War Diary records on 18th March: “A coln of Japs advancing via Pushing, having attacked V force, was likely to bump 152 Bn at SHELDON’S CORNER within the next 2 days.”.

In fact, it was only eleven hours later that 152 Para Bn were ‘bumped’ and thirty-six hours later that the Battalion’s C Company had been annihilated but we will return to that in Part 4.

Nobody — the British High Command in South East Asia, the commanders on the ground and, more importantly, Brigadier Julian Hope-Thompson commanding of 50th Indian Parachute Brigade — had any idea of the tsunami of Japanese infantry now rolling towards them.

And all that stood in the way of the Japanese invaders in these vital few hours and days was 50th Indian Parachute Brigade.

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