Saturday 11 March 2023

The Battle of Imphal (March - July 1944)

 The road down from the Kohima in the Himalayan foothills down on to the plain below played a vital part during the Battle of Imphal. The Japanese 33rd Army had successfully cut in behind the 17th Indian Division further south on the Tiddim Road and when the only metalled road into Imphal from the north was also severed then the Allied ability to hold Imphal was, for a number of weeks in, jeopardy. When the relief of Imphal did come, the Allied attack was launched from the north. Earlier, on the same road, the Japanese had attacked - unsuccessfully - a large scale Allied defensive 'box' at Tangla Tongbi. Our journey was interrupted by informal checkpoints set up to protect various villages en-route. Money changed hands and we were allowed to pass. The one official checkpoint is on the Nagaland / Manipur border is a triumph of Indian bureaucracy!

The Advance to Imphal started her - 7 June 1944

If one is so inclined, it is possible to get a tourist-eye view of Nagaland at the Kisama Heritage Village which is a useful stopping off point on the way down the valley. It is here that the famous Hornbill Festival is held every year and there is an arena dedicated to this culturally important event. Opposite the festival grounds is the recently built '2nd World War Museum' which offers a collection of artefacts dating back to 1944, various audio-visual presentations and some informative and well-balanced interpretive panels.

Kisama - Second World War Museum
Japanese Artefacts, Kisama Second World War Museum

Heading through Imphal, taking the Tiddim Road towards the Myanmar border, one can easily find Maibam Lokpaching (Red Hill) which was the closest that the Japanese got to Imphal during the four month long battle. The Japanese losses in and around this small settlement were extremely high and this may account for the fact that the only Japanese memorial to the battle, is located at the foot of the hill. The so-called 'Peace Shrine' was built by veterans of the Japanese Army's 33rd Division (the White Tigers) and has since become a place of pilgrimage - more so now that an 'Indian Peace Memorial' has been constructed nearby, along with another museum which places a degree of emphasis on the Indian National Army (INA) which fought in the area, on the side of the Japanese. 
Japanese Peace Shrine - Maibam Lokpaching
Maibam Lokpaching Indian Peace Museum

Beyond Red Hill, the Tiddim Road circumvents Loktak Lake - a huge expanse of water and a haven for wildlife (now the Keibul Lamjao National Park). To go further is impossible as the Myanmar border a few miles beyond, is closed to visitors. We tracked back to Moirang where one can find the INA Memorial Complex which is essentially a showcase for the nationalist ideas propagated by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the INA leadership. If you have the stomach for it, you can peruse the gallery of pictures showing Chandra Bose hob-nobbing with Adolf Hitler, and others who shared a similar world view.

Fishermen on Loktak Lake

As the Japanese advanced along the Tamu / Palel axis to the east of the lake, as a result of orders received, Acting Major-General Douglas withdrew his 20th Indian Division to a series of hills called the Shenam Saddle - more easily defended. Yamamoto (no, not that one!) force, consisting of elements from the Japanese 33rd and 15th Divisions - supported by tanks and artillery attacked the Saddle and heavy fighting amongst the five peaks took place from 8 - 22 April 1944. We chose to explore this battlefield and were rewarded with spectacular views, trenches, dugouts and clear evidence of the intensity of the fighting.

Walking the Shenam Saddle
Major Lindsay Adams and I - Recce Hill towards 'Gibralter'

Imphal was never taken by the Japanese but nevertheless it is an interesting place to explore. Manipur is very different to Nagaland but shares a similar history - 'hill people' with distinct cultures and a history of turbulent regional politics. We didn't have time to visit the Khongjom War Memorial (Anglo-Manipur War 1891) but there was ample opportunity to learn more about this conflict in the Kangi Palace (Fort) grounds where there is evidence of the destruction visited on these historic buildings by vengeful British troops following a local 'uprising'. Also of interest is Slim's bungalow in the grounds, sadly in disrepair but occasionally used socially by Officers of the Assam Rifles.

Replica Statues - Kangla Fort
Slim's Cottage
The sign outside Slim's cottage reads: This cottage was constructed in 1901 and initially was the residence of the Co. 4 of the Assam Rifles. During the Second World War this was the residence of Field Marshall W.J.Slim, KG. GCB. BC. MG. GCVO. DSO. MC commander of the Allied Forces. Later it was the residence of IGAR (North) and thereafter it housed GOC Mike Sector. Presently it houses the Officers Club of HQ Manipur Range (9 Sector).  Then, back to Kolkata ... and home.

For my portfolio of Imphal photographs, click here