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  • Posted on 21 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 will be the fourth of several posts during March about the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and the Battle of Sangshak.

Part 4 – Contact. Wait Out.

Major John Fuller, Officer Commanding C Company, 152 Parachute Battalion, complete with broken leg in plaster from a training accident, had been in position on Hill 7378 some miles to the east of Sangshak since 17th March.

They had taken over from the 49th Infantry Brigade, which had moved to Imphal. There were some defensive positions, which were improved by C Company, but this was by no means a defensive box. It was the top of a hill with some trenches. It was only ever supposed to be a base from which forward patrolling would take place.

And so it was on 19th March that Japanese infantry from the 3rd Battalion, 59th Regiment commenced their attacks on C Company. On the forward slope, C Coy’s advance trenches were quickly overwhelmed in the Japanese attack. Time and again the Japanese attacked, ground was lost and gained, until eventually during the night the Japanese withdrew to regroup.

The Forgotten War: Japanese Imperial Army infantry crossing a river

The men of C Company had their first taste here of the Indian National Army, formed by the anti-British Indian Nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose. This was an army of Indian Volunteers who chose to fight on the side of the Japanese, spurred on by the desire for Indian independence from the British. The INA soldiers called out to their compatriots on Hill 7378 exhorting them to change sides. We cannot print the replies for fear of complaints!

During the battle on the 19th, 152 Battalion HQ had established itself to the rear at Sheldon’s Corner, overlooking Hill 7378, while they worked out how to support C Company. It was here that the scale of the Japanese invasion from the east began to become apparent. To their horror, not much further to the east, some 800-900 Japanese soldiers were seen heading in their direction.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is pra-paul-hopkinson-1945.jpg
Brigadier Paul Hopkinson (left) commanding 77th Indian Para Bde in 1947

Whilst C Company repelled the waves of Japanese attacks over and over again, they saw their numbers whittled away as the toll of killed and wounded mounted. For the Japanese, the situation was tactically similar. In strategic terms, so began a series of events at Sangshak that would eventually spell disaster for the Japanese campaign.

Whilst C Company put up tremendous opposition, the Commanding Officer, Lt Colonel Paul Hopkinson,  devised a plan together with Lt Colonel Jack Trim of the 4/5 MLI to relieve C Company. Hopkinson dispatched A Company, 152 Para Bn to outflank the Japanese attack but the steep-sided jungle-clad terrain was too difficult for A Coy to get to C Company in time. Trim dispatched A Company 4/5MLI to attack along the road.

A Coy took their objective but were unable to press on due to Japanese resistance. This was another small but vicious action during which Lance Naik (Corporal) Desai won the Military Medal and Jemadar (Lieutenant) Desai the Military Cross.

The 50th Indian Parachute Brigade War diary records that at 08:00 on 20th March, Major Fuller was reported killed and that by 10:30 that the Japanese had finally overrun C Company. Of the 120 or so men of C Company, only around twenty survived. The Japanese estimated their losses at 160 killed.

Whilst all this was happening the 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion moved south from Kohima to Imphal.

The Brigade Deputy Commander, Colonel Bernard Abbott, had walked the nine miles from Brigade Rear HQ at Litan to Sheldon’s Corner with the Intelligence Officer Captain Dicky Richards. Abbott agreed a plan with Hope-Thompson to withdraw the 152nd to Kidney Camp.

There can perhaps be no better way to describe the shock of what had happened than to use the words of Captain Eric Nield, the 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion’s Medical Officer, on the morning of 21st March in Imphal: “We had barely finished breakfast when the incredible news arrived. The two leading companies of 152 had been overrun. Where had the Japs come from?

“ If ‘I’[Intelligence] was correct they should be some hundred miles the other side of the Chindwin. The situation was roughly comparable to a Londoner being told that the Germans had appeared in Tonbridge, and not by parachute either. We were flabbergasted.”.

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

Brigadier Hope-Thompson was desperately trying to impress upon Divisional HQ the parlous state of affairs. But Divisional HQ had its hands full with what was going on in the south as the Japanese pressed home their attacks towards Imphal

Nobody is really clear at what point the British truly understood the nature of the Japanese invasion and the size of the force now moving on Kohima and Imphal from the north. Even at this stage, it is unlikely that they knew the true size of the enemy forces.

This colorized image of soldiers of the ‘Forgotten Army’ gives an idea of how the Sangshak defenders looked

The 153rd  were now rushed back up from Imphal to Litan. Part of the battalion stayed at Litan while the rest were scheduled to move to reinforce the MMG Company at Ukhrul. As events rapidly unfolded, the 153 never made it to Ukhrul. The plans changed. The MMG Coy destroyed the supply dump at Ukhrul and both the MMG Coy and the 153rd went to Sangshak.

During this time, Japanese patrols were moving west to cut the Kohima-Imphal road. Right in the middle of this was the Litan Box. Here was Brigade Rear HQ,  one company of the 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion and most of the 411 Parachute Field Squadron Indian Engineers.

Jack Newland, 2ic 153rd, was appointed Litan Box commander. From 22nd March onwards this force was attacked nightly by the Japanese, with the 411 PFS bearing the brunt of the enemy assaults.

While the  Japanese 3rd Battalion, 59th Regiment was attacking C Company on Hill 7378 on its way towards Litan to cut the Imphal-Kohima Rd and attack Imphal from the north; the 59th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion should have headed through Ukhrul to Kohima.

However, and most likely due to the resistance mounted by 50th Brigade, the Japanese could not afford to leave such a strong force in its rear, the 2nd Battalion diverted from its mission and headed towards Sangshak.

50th Indian Parachute Brigade were unravelling the Japanese plans. They had caused heavy losses, expenditure of ammunition, battle fatigue and cost the enemy two days already and now they had caused another Japanese battalion to divert from its mission and take up the fight against them.

All the time gained here by 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was used by General Slim to rush reinforcements into Imphal while Kohima also strengthened its defences. The 50th were instructed to hold at all costs and destroy the enemy or cut the enemies lines of communication.

Brigadier Hope-Thompson, in consultation with 23rd Division, chose Sangshak as the base for its defensive ‘box’. And so began a race against time for the dispersed units to get to Sangshak before they were cut off by or engaged by the Japanese Infantry.

Even then, it is doubtful that anybody realised that Sangshak would become The Parachute Regiment’s Rorke’s Drift.

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