SANGSAK 1944 – PART 1

THE INDIAN ARNHEM by Myles Sanderson

Foreword by the Editor

If the small groups of 50th (Indian) Para Bde survivors who made it back through the jungle to Imphal felt defeated, they were wrong. They had in fact obtained a Phyrric victory because their heroism and that of of their dead and wounded comrades had rendered possible the British victories at Imphal and Kohima, which saved India from Japanese invasion and turned the tide of the war in Burma against Japan. 

The paratroopers of 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade, supported by a battalion-sized battle group of Indian and Nepalese infantrymen, held up the Japanese advance for six vital days, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy whilst suffering extremely heavy losses themselves. After the battle, Japanese General Shigesaburo Myazaki ordered that prisoners be well-treated and was seen to bow respectfully towards the British positions. 

Lieutenant-Colonel John Sanderson, then a captain, was one of the few officers of the 152nd (Parachute) Battalion to survive the Battle of Sangshak in India in March 1944. John Sanderson’s autobiography Secret Service in the Cold War is available through The Airborne Shop. His son Myles, who finished his late father’s autobiography and published it after his death, tells Hermes how he met one of his father’s comrades, Major Maurice Bell, 152nd Para’s Regimental Signals Officer and a fellow survivor of Sangshak. Myles Sanderson and his publisher have kindly permitted us to publish some edited Sangshak-related extracts from the book.

A Letter to The Times

“I will never forget your smiling face”: John Sanderson in India in 1945

On the seventieth anniversary of VJ Day in August 2015, The Times published my letter to the Editor: “Sir, In March 1944, my late father John Sanderson, a captain in 152nd Battalion, 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, was one of the few survivors of the Battle of Sangshak. Ordered to withdraw, he made his way back for three weeks through the jungle. He was then tasked with parachuting into a Japanese camp to liberate British POWs.

“As the Administration Officer of 2nd Wessex in Reading thirty-five years later, he was interviewing an elderly man for a post in the barracks. The man looked at my father in astonishment. When asked why, he replied: ‘I was a prisoner in a POW camp when you dropped in to liberate us. I will never forget your smiling face!'”.

A week later, a handwritten letter dropped through my letterbox in Oxford. It was from Major Maurice Bell, a Burma Campaign veteran and signals officer, who wrote that he had fought alongside my father in the Sangshak battle. Maurice Bell had also been the Chairman of the 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade Association.

I drove down to Portsmouth to spend the day with Maurice. By chance, on a shelf, there was a framed photograph of Lieutenant Basil Seaton of 152nd Battalion, who was with my father during that long jungle trek home from Sangshak in 1944. My father had sometimes spoken of Basil Seaton and of Maurice Bell.

Maurice explained that 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade had been ordered to delay the Japanese advance on Kohima whatever the cost. After holding out against the Japanese for six days on that wooded, volcanic Indian hilltop, it was Maurice as the Regimental Signals Officer who had received and transcribed the following morse code message over a crackling radio: “Fight your way out. Go south then west. Air and transport on lookout. Good luck. Our thoughts are with you.”.

Maurice Bell photographed by Myles Sanderson in 2015

Maurice looked at me for a moment on that early autumn day in Hampshire over seventy-one years later before continuing: “A moment of bliss as there dawned the possibility, however slim, of a future life.”.

Maurice would enjoy a long life: he was a lucid 96 year-old when we met. Not long afterwards,sadly, he and his lovely wife Sylvia, a wartime nurse, passed away but some of Maurice’s story can be read in my father’s biography Secret Service in the Cold War, which was published in 2019 by Pen and Sword.

MEMORIES OF SANGSHAK

When I was growing up, my father occasionally spoke of Sangshak. He described a few details of this closely-fought battle: how the parachute supply drops floated down into Japanese hands; how a Japanese officer charging with his Samurai sword fell dead right in front of him. When my father died aged eighty in 2001, I discovered a full account of his early military life.

John joined the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, a Territorial unit, in 1937 aged just sixteen. In 1940, he was posted to Dover, where he was issued with a motorbike and tasked with picking up shot-down pilots. Commissioned in 1941, 2nd Lieutenant Sanderson was posted to the 7th Battalion, The Loyal Regiment, which was stationed in the Yorkshire coastal town of Ravenscar. One entry in his account reads:

“Here my platoon distinguished themselves by breaking all the windows in a seafront hotel with machine-gun bullets. I was then given command of a platoon and sent to a lovely little village called Staithes, where we had to build seafront concrete defences on Runswick Bay. It was one of the loveliest little places I had ever seen: we lived in holiday huts.”.

John’s account does not explain why his platoon fired on the seafront hotel nor what, if any, were the consequences of this incident. My wife, two sons and I found one of the bunkers he and his men built. It had slipped down onto the beach. The ex-Royal Engineer who runs the local cafe explained that the council had wanted to remove it twenty years before but the locals had resisted; it was part of their heritage.

My father sailed away to India in March 1942 to join the Sikhs and, later, the Indian Paras. His former Loyal Regiment comrades fought in Normandy and across France and the Low Countries into Germany. My father and his new comrades fought in the Arakan Hills in Burma and at Sangshak and other largely forgotten battles but, as we all know, Burma was ‘the Forgotten War’.

As Acting Lieutenant General William Slim, who commanded the 14th Army in India and Burma, is reported to have told his men: “When you go home don’t worry about what to tell your loved ones and friends about service in Asia. No one will know where you were, or where it is if you do. You are, and will remain ‘The Forgotten Army’.”.

No 3 Parachute Training School, Chakala 1943: Lt Sanderson third from left, back row

In March 1944, 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade was understrength, with 154th Gurkha Parachute Battalion still undergoing parachute training at No. 3 Parachute Training School, near the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi. The Brigade consisted of 152nd (Indian) Parachute Battalion, 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion and its attached arms, including a machine gun company and a mountain artillery battery. To bolster his forces, Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thompson took under his command 4th Bn, 5th Mahratta Light Infantry and two companies, already stationed in Sangshak, from the Nepalese Kali Bahadur Regiment.

On 14 March 1944 my father had been promoted Acting Major and Intelligence Officer of 152nd Para. A few days later, the Battalion was on a training exercise with 50th (Indian) Parachute Brigade in the thickly forested Naga Hills to the east of Kohima and Imphal, some thirty kilometres to the west of the Indian-Burmese border. As IO, A/Major Sanderson spent much of his time with Bde HQ along with Maurice Bell, to whom Brigadier Hope-Thompson referred as Brigade Signals Officer.

A drawing of the mountains: Sangshak at upper right. (Source: Paradata.org.uk)

Officially, 50th (Indian) Para Bde was on “a jungle warfare training exercise in a threatened area” but they were carrying live ammunition as their orders were to patrol on foot with mules, as far as the Chindwin River in Burma, and to intercept any Japanese patrols within a vast area of mountainous jungle measuring fifty by eighty miles. In reality, therefore, the Brigade was on a fighting patrol but 14th Army HQ did not consider the enemy threat to be particularly high. However, local Naga hunters were reporting Japanese scouting parties and patrols moving westwards.

Shigesaboro Miyazaki

On the  night of March 15th/16th 1944, the Japanese Imperial Army’s 15th Division made an unopposed crossing of the Chindwin River at Thaungdut and crossed the border into India, heading for Ukhrul. Meanwhile, the Japanese 31st Division had crossed the Chindwin near Homalin and separated into two forces. Codenamed Operation U-GO, the Japanese invasion of India had begun, spearheaded by some of their best units.

The 31st Division moved forward on a wide front, divided into Right, Centre and Left assault groups, heading for Kohima to cut the main supply road to Imphal. The Left force of the 58th Infantry Regt was under the command of Colonel Utata Fukunaga but accompanied by Major General Shigesaboro Miyazaki, the 31st Divison’s Infantry Commander.

The Japanese had launched a final full-scale offensive on India. John Sanderson recalled: “For the moment, in mid-March 1944. the 6,000 foot hilltops presented a delightful aspect, with cool, clean air and magnificent views in all directions, with alpine flowers growing in profession and orchids entwined in the trees. This was soon to change…”. My father was not wrong.

To be continued…