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Sangshak 80 Countdown — Part 6

  • Posted on 28 Mar 2024
  • 15 min read

By John Gerring

Eighty years ago today, survivors of The Battle of Sangshak were making their way back to British lines across the heavily wooded mountain terrain after the order to break out. 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 sixth and last of several articles during March about the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and the Battle of Sangshak.

The Breakout

Unlike Arnhem where the withdrawal across the river Rhine was marked out for the men of the 1st Airborne Division — and once over the river they were in friendly territory — the paratroopers of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade were facing a thirty-mile trek back to British lines through Japanese-infested jungle.

This painting is held in the Airborne Assault Museum archives. It was painted by Herbert Harry Sheldon a famous Indian Army War artist, who studied under LS Lowry at Salford Technical School. Courtesy ParaData

Harry Seaman noted: “In all, they had to climb three ranges, of which the first two were brutes, each extending 4 or 5,000 ft above the valley floors”.  Seaman continued: “The varied adventures of the men who managed to reach Imphal, in parties large or small, fit or wounded, all of them exhausted even before they set off on the long haul to safety are worthy of a book to themselves.”.

Former Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo on trial for war crimes after the war:Japanese atrocities were general policy under the Tojo regime

The Japanese reputation for brutality to the wounded, to medical staff and to prisoners of war in general were by now well known. Every effort was made to bring out any man who could be moved and stood a chance of survival, from the walking wounded to stretcher cases. Wounded men were searched for and extracted from waterlogged, muddy foxholes and other hides on the battlefield.

Lt Col Bobby Davis IAMC: DSO for Sangshak

Lieutenant Colonel Bobby Davis, commanding 80th Parachute Field Ambulance, requested to stay with the wounded but his request was refused by Brigadier Hope-Thompson. Around a hundred men had to be left behind. [Editor’s note: Lt Col Robert Brocklesby Davis of the Indian Army Medical Corps was awarded the DSO for Sangshak. His citation stated that “DAVIS has to be ordered not to stay behind and look after the men seriously wounded.”.]

For many, the trek to safety took six days. Groups merged and split as they made their way through the jungle. The Brigade diary records that Lt Col Willis, CO of the 153 Bn, reached Imphal on 30th March and Brigadier Hope-Thompson on the 31st. Well into April, there are entries in the Brigade diary along the lines of “more stragglers arrived.”.

Captain Dicky Richards recalled that many of the newcomers who joined their group were wounded. At one point Richards came across Major Richard Gillet, Officer Commanding A Coy, 152 Parachute Battalion, seriously wounded in the action, and lying on a stretcher by a stream. He asked for a cigarette and a revolver. Gillet ‘passed away’ soon after finishing the cigarette.

Dicky Richards — Courtesy ParaData/Airborne Assault Museum

The impact of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade on the whole Japanese campaign was out of all proportion to its small size. The Japanese lost six days fighting at Sangshak. They expended much ammunition and used up rations as well as losing somewhere between 500 and 1000 irreplaceable soldiers.

By the time those Japanese units marching on Imphal and Kohima reached their objectives, British reinforcements had been flown in from the Arakan and the defences strengthened.

The 50th Indian Parachute Brigade did not ‘win’ the battles of Imphal and Kohima but the Brigade’s impact was significant. The Japanese campaign was far from over and we must not forget the many units that fought the invaders at other famous locations like the Shenam Saddle, Bishenpur, and Ningthoukhong.

And then there was Tiddim, where Rifleman Ganju Lama of the 1/7 Gurkhas won the Victoria Cross. And Jessami, where the 1st Bn The Assam Regiment fought the Japanese, then marched the seventy-seven miles in just thirty-nine hours to Kohima, where they fought alongside the Royal West Kents in the Battle of the Tennis Court.

However, in August 1944, Lieutenant General Slim issued a Special Order of the Day to the Fourteenth Army, which singled out the 50th Indian Parachute brigade:

“There is not a division or brigade in the Fourteenth Army which has not proved its superiority over the enemy and knows it. Your Parachute Brigade bore the first brunt of the enemy’s powerful flanking attack, and by their staunchness gave the garrison of Imphal the vital time required to adjust their defences.

“To the Officers and men of the 50th Parachute Brigade I send my congratulations.”.

Battle Honour?

In the files held by the Airborne Assault Museum at Duxford is correspondence from 1990 between Brigadier Dicky Richards — who fought at Sangshak as a captain — the Ministry of Defence and the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army.

These exchanges arose from a suggestion that the modern Indian Airborne Forces could be awarded the battle honour for Sangshak, which is absent from The (British) Parachute Regiment’s standard. Prior to this, the only unit to apply for and hold the Sangshak battle honour was the 4/5 Mahratta Light Infantry.

Battle honours are restricted to descendant units that can show a direct lineage to the units that fought in the battle in question. Whilst it might be the case that an Indian parachute unit could claim and hold the Sangshak battle honour at some point in the future, the official position is that it will never appear amongst the battle honours of The Parachute Regiment, which is a great shame.

If you’ve enjoyed these articles then there are some good books to read on Sangshak. The Battle at Sangshak by Harry Seaman. It is a book that is easy to read.

Harry served with 153 Gurkha Parachute Battalion at the battle. The book brings to life the battle and also much of the discontent felt by the forgotten Brigade in the forgotten battle of the forgotten war fought by Slim’s Forgotten Army.

Fight Your Way Out by David Allison was only published in November 2023. Allison takes a much more rounded view of the battle. Just like Harry Seaman’s book it is a book that is easy to read.

Future 152 Para Bn Intelligence Officer Robin Sanderson at N° 3 Parachute Training School in Chaklala, which is now in Pakistan

Secret Service in the Cold War by Myles Sanderson. This book is the biography of Myles’ father, Robin Sanderson, who fought with 152 Indian parachute Battalion at Sangshak. Another book that is easy to read, good maps of the battle and a fascinating story of a long and distinguished military career.

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