Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Battle of Sangshak (March, 1944)

 The 1944 Japanese 'U Go' offensive was bold to say the least. Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi had successfully argued that the Allied war effort in Northern Burma and Nationalist China could be severely compromised by a large scale advance through the Brahmaputra Valley in British India, taking in Imphal and Kohima. Furthermore, it was felt by some in the Japanese High Command that if disaffected Indian combatants could be mobilised in sufficient numbers then the British grip on Bengal might be loosened - with massive political implications for the future of the sub-continent. The invasion involved three Japanese Divisions - the 15th, 31st and 33rd (approximately 85,000 men, supported by units of the Indian National Army). The epic battles at Kohima and Imphal are the stuff of legend, and the fight at Sangshak was critical to Allied success in that it delayed the Japanese advance by several days - buying valuable time for the defenders of Kohima in particular.

The Imphal Valley from the Ukhrul Road

The village of Sangshak is way up in the Naga Hills, accessible (just) via the Imphal to Kamjong Ukhrul Road. The journey is a long and arduous one, made more so by the occasional checkpoint and diversions caused by landslips and roadworks. Its an area that has been closed to visitors for many years. Indeed when we eventually reached the village, at over 5,000 ft elevation, we were told - through our local guide - that we were amongst fewer than 100 'white men' who had visited the area since the end of the Second World War!

Sangshak Village - Lower Reaches

Why the Japanese didn't follow their standard (and proven) tactical doctrine of bypass and infiltration is something of a mystery. However, elements of the Japanese 31st Division (en-route to Kohima) and the associated 15th Division (en-route to Imphal) converged on the village which at the time of the battle was held by the understrength 50th Indian Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hope-Thompson. Hope-Thompson also had a Battalion of the 5th Mahratta Light Infantry and two companies of the Nepalese Kalibahadur Regiment under his command. The fighting was brutal - 'see-sawing' across the heart of the village and often consisting of Japanese 'Banzai' charges against shallow trenches occupied by the exhausted defenders.

Allied line - looking towards Japanese positions

Our arrival in the village caused something of a stir. Local children seemed particularly intrigued - paying close attention to our expert guide, Robert Lyman, as he explained the heroic actions that took place on this spot. Our 'field' lunch was splendid - freshly cooked vegetables, pulses and meats all sourced from within a few hundred metres of the kitchen where the food was prepared. Anyone who has read the extraordinary memoirs of Slim's only female commander, Ursula Graham-Bower, will have an inkling of how special Nagaland is. Hill tribes who have more of affinity with the Burmese populations across the nearby border, than with their Indian compatriots. Each village has its own language and cultural proclivities. All share a common faith - Evangelical Christianity brought to them by American Baptist missionaries at a time when most of the Naga tribes were still head-hunting!

Our lunch hosts

Losses during the battle were an indication of the intensity of the fighting. By the time that Maxwell Hope-Thompson withdrew his force, the Indian Brigade had lost over 650 men. Japanese losses were of a similar magnitude. History has not been kind to Hope-Maxwell. Whilst he went on to serve with distinction in Europe, some historians have been critical of the manner of the 50th Parachute Brigade's withdrawal where there is some ambiguity in the sequencing of events and orders. The conclusion of our group? Such criticism was grossly unfair. The stand that the Brigade made at Sangshak was an incredible feat of arms which delayed the Japanese 31st Division's advance on Kohima for a critical few days.

Since the battle was fought, Sangshak has changed a little. True, everyone has a smart phone ... but the townswomen still fetch water from the wells at the bottom of the hill. The dwellings are much as they were, often patched up with 44 gallon fuel drums beaten in to flat panels for walls or roofs. The two hills which 'book-mark' the flat ground at the centre of the village, are surmounted by huge church buildings - a phenomenon that can be witnessed in every Naga settlement. Venture into the jungle on the hill sides around the village and one soon stumbles upon extensive trench lines and firing positions. We had the benefit of a local man and his son, who showed us the way and chopped away vegetation to clear a path.

Images from our trip to Imphal (including Sangshak) can be found here.

With thanks to Yai Kangjam (Battle of Imphal Tours), Robert Lyman (Author of 'A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma and Britain 1941-45') and Alan Rooney (The Cultural Experience).