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Sangshak: the first battle for Kohima
19-26 March 1944
North east of Imphal, east of the road leading into the hills towards Kohima, lies a tangled mass of jungle covered hills in which one of the crucial battles for India was fought in the early days of the Japanese offensive in 1944. It centred around the Naga village of Sangshak.
On 22 September my friend Harry Fecitt, who with me has visited and studied the battle, will be giving a presentation on Zoom for the Kohima Educational Trust. Please do register to attend if you can. Recently Keith Hathaway also gave a talk for Paul Woodage’s history show WW2TV; it great that this otherwise obscure – but critical – part of the battle for Imphal and Kohima is getting some of the attention it deserves.
This blog is designed to tell something of the battle to whet your interest. If you want more detail my 2011 book Japan’s Last Bid for Victory describes the battle and its context. You can buy a signed copy here. If you want to join me in a trip I’m leading to north eastern India in January 2023 with The Cultural Experience, including Sangshak, please join up here. I understand there are two spaces left.
The area north east of Imphal was not considered by Lieutenant General Geoffrey Scoones, Commander of IV Indian Corps responsible for the defence of Imphal, to be anywhere near where the action might be when the long-anticipated Japanese attack came. The area centring on the Naga village of Ukhrul had only the lightest of garrisons, and no real defences. Until 16 March it was home to 49 Brigade, but most of this (with the exception of 4/5th Mahrattas) had now been despatched elsewhere. 49 Brigade had considered itself to be in a rear area and, extraordinarily, no dug-in and wired defensive positions had been prepared. The failure to anticipate the full extent of Japanese ingenuity was one of the most serious planning failures of the campaign. The gap left by the brigade’s departure had been filled in part by the arrival of the first of the two battalions of the newly-raised and part-trained 50 Indian Parachute Brigade (comprising the Gurkha 152nd Battalion and the Indian 153rd Battalion) whose young and professional commander, 31-year old Brigadier M. R. J (‘Tim’) Hope-Thomson, had persuaded the powers-that-be in New Delhi to allow him to complete the training of his brigade in territory close to the enemy. At the start of March the brigade HQ and one battalion had arrived in Imphal, and began the leisurely process of shaking itself out in the safety of the hills north-east of the town. To the brigade was added 4/5th Mahrattas under Lieutenant Colonel Trim. Sent into the jungle almost to fend for themselves, it was not expected that they would have to fight, let alone be on the receiving end of an entire Japanese divisional attack. They had little equipment, no barbed wire, little or no experience or knowledge of the territory. No one considered it worthwhile to keep them briefed on the developing situation. To all intents and purposes, 50 Indian Parachute Brigade were irrelevant appendages, attached to Major General Ouvry Roberts’ 23rd Indian Division for administrative purposes but otherwise left to their own devices.
On the night of 16 March 1944 50 Parachute Brigade took over responsibility for the Ukhrul. Before long information begun to reach Imphal that Japanese troops were advancing in force on Ukhrul and Sangshak - precisely the area where Hope-Thompson’s three weak battalions had been sent to rest and train, using jungle tracks. Inexplicably, however, this information appeared not to ring any warning bells in HQ IV Corps, which was pre-occupied with the developing threat in the Tamu area, directly opposite the Chindwin, where the main Japanese thrust was confidently predicted. Perhaps they assumed that these forces were simply those heading north west, as expected, towards Kohima.
The news that that the Japanese were crossing the Chindwin river in strength opposite Homalin never reached Hope-Thomson, headquartered at Milestone 36 on the track between Litan and Ukhrul and blissfully ignorant of the onslaught that was about to engulf his tiny force. Warned only to be on their guard against long-range Japanese patrols, the idea that they might soon be the target for an entire Japanese division of 20,000 men was unthinkable.
In the first light of dawn on 20 March 1944 Hope-Thomson received anxious calls from the commanders of both his 152nd Battalion and 4/5th Mahrattas to say that they could see heavy columns of Japanese clearly marching on their undefended encampment at Sheldon’s Corner, a few short miles to the east. The most forward position, based on high ground overlooking the road that led to the east, was occupied by C Company, 152nd Battalion. Surrounded at 2 p.m. that day, its 170 men refused to be intimidated by the 900 soldiers of the Japanese 3/58th Regiment, who launched repeated, fierce attacks on the young Gurkhas and their seven British officers that afternoon and throughout the night that followed. By first light the next morning a radio report revealed that the British company commander and three other officers had been killed, along with forty men, that there were many wounded and ammunition was short. The account of the end of C Company on 20 March comes from the Japanese regimental history:
By mid-morning the enemy’s fire slackened considerably. Suddenly, from the top of the hill, a small group of about twenty men charged down towards us, firing and shouting in a counter-attack … At the very top of the position an officer appeared in sight, put a pistol to his head and shot himself in full view of everyone below. Our men fell silent, deeply impressed by such a brave act … the 3rd Battalion suffered 160 casualties in the action, with one company and two platoon commanders killed and another four officers wounded … The enemy had resisted with courage and skill.
There were, in fact, twenty British survivors, the lone remaining officer withdrawing his men back to Sheldon’s Corner. In the swirling confusion and terror of the next thirty-six hours Hope-Thomson and his staff kept their heads, attempting to concentrate what remained of the dispersed companies of 152nd Battalion and 4/5th Mahrattas back to a common position at the heart of the old perimeter, at a place called Badger’s Hill. On the 20th the second battalion of the brigade began to arrive at Litan after its journey over the hills from Dimapur, but in the confusion that gripped HQ IV Corps during these early days of Mutaguchi’s onslaught, only 390 men of 153rd Battalion had arrived at the seat of the battle, Sangshak, by the 22nd. Realizing that his dispersed positions could easily be bypassed and destroyed by the Japanese at their leisure, Hope-Thomson ordered his three weak battalions (152nd, 153rd and 4/5th Mahrattas, together with two poorly-trained companies of the Nepalese Kali Bahadur Regiment now, after battle casualties, reduced to no more than 1,850 men) to concentrate at Sangshak, which dominated the tracks south-west to Imphal. It was at this now deserted Naga village that Hope-Thomson, on 21 March, decided to group his brigade for its last stand, his staff desperately attempting to alert HQ IV Corps in Imphal to the enormity of what was happening to the north-east.
No one seemed to be listening. Urgent pleas for rations and, above all, for barbed wire fell on deaf ears as the Japanese columns infiltrated quickly around and through the British positions, heading in the direction of Litan. The 153rd arrived at Sangshak late on the 21st, and Colonel Trim’s Mahrattas by noon on 22 March, just as the Japanese began to launch one of their many assaults against the position. Fortunately, four Indian mountain guns also arrived and began work immediately. Just as happily, as the day drew on, and as the Japanese began to attack from the north and the west, 152nd Battalion and the remainder of the Mahrattas arrived from the east, and quickly settled into their allotted positions on the perimeter. However, as the troops dug in they discovered to their discomfort that they were atop an ancient volcano, and the rock was impervious to their picks. All they could dig were shallow trenches, which provided ineffective protection from Japanese artillery. Like all Naga villages that at Sangshak was perched on the hill, and had no water: anything the men required had to be brought up from the valley floor, through the rapidly-tightening Japanese encirclement.
While men of the Japanese 3/58th Regiment (Major Shimanoe), part of Sato’s 31st Division – troops whose objective was Kohima, and not Imphal – had first engaged the troops of C Company, 152nd Battalion at Sheldon’s Corner, Major General Miyazaki decided that he needed to eliminate these elements, probably because they posed a threat to his long lines of supply and communication to Kohima, despite the fact that he knew Sangshak to lie not in his, but in 15th Division’s area of responsibility. Accordingly he despatched both the Second Battalion (2/58th, commanded by Major Nogoya) as well as 3/58th to Sangshak where they arrived late on 22 March. Hoping to overwhelm the defenders, the Japanese attacked immediately, throwing infantry forward into the assault without undertaking a detailed reconnaissance, or waiting for the arrival of supporting artillery. It was a serious error. The 400 waiting Gurkhas of 153rd Battalion could not believe the sight before them as, facing north-west across the valley to West Hill in the failing light of early evening, a swarming mass of enemy rushed to overwhelm what they had imagined to be weak and puny defences. Wave after wave of enemy were cut down as they ran down the slopes of the hill, into the precision fire of 153rd’s Lee Enfields and the chattering Vickers firing above and behind them. In addition to the four mountain guns, Hope-Thomson’s brigade was also blessed with 3-inch mortars. The battalion’s medical officer, Captain Eric Neild, described the scene as something akin to ‘a gory Hollywood epic’. It was Neild’s first experience of battle:
We had the 15th Battery of the 9th Indian Mountain Regiment with us, commanded by Major Lock – a typical mountain gunner if ever there was one [he was killed several days later]. He was a large burly fellow, with the appearance of a rugger player, wearing the most ridiculous little fore-and-aft forage cap and puffing contentedly at a pipe. He was in no hurry and waited until the whole length of the road was full of Japs before he let them have it. We saw the little white puffs bursting all along that road. Lock beamed – his only regret was that the guns had no shrapnel. He said that it was the best day’s shoot of his life.
All night long the attacks came in and all night long the wounded passed through the regimental post where I was medical officer. There was little that we could do except stop any bleeding, give morphia and then evacuate them during lulls to the 80th Parachute Field Ambulance in a little dip about 200 yards away in the centre of the perimeter.
During the day we began to realize the seriousness of our position as the reports of the casualties came in. The machine-gun company had suffered very heavily – all shot through the head while sitting up firing from their exposed positions. We were only partially heartened by finding a large number of Japanese dead in front of our positions.
Lieutenant Shosaku Kameyama, adjutant of 2/58th Regiment, who wearily tramped west through the Angousham Hills after crossing the Chindwin on 15 March, recalled being thrown into battle that night. Japanese morale was high:
We climbed up and then went down the steep mountains, undisturbed by British troops or planes. After six days hard march we poured into Ukhrul, a small village on the road from Kohima to Sangshak. British troops seemed to have evacuated it only a few hours before and the village was burning. We then realized that the enemy had destroyed all their food and supplies, to our great disappointment, but a sergeant brought a bottle of whisky he found and wanted me to give it to Major General Miyazaki, commander of the Infantry Group accompanying us. He seemed pleased to receive the bottle. We were very tired because of the long march … but to my disappointment when I went to General Miyazaki, he ordered our battalion to pursue the retreating British and to occupy Sangshak.
On the evening of 21 March, we occupied the village of Sangshak and found that it was not the main position of the enemy, so we then attacked a hill north-west of the village and occupied the enemy’s south front position. The enemy mounted a heavy counter-attack on us after sunrise. This was the first time that we had fought with the British-Indian forces, which was very different from our experience of fighting the Chinese army which had inferior weapons to ours. Our battalion commander observed the enemy positions and ordered an attack during the coming night: 8th Company to lead the attack, followed by 5th and 6th Companies. From our experience in China we were confident of the success of the night attack. But when 8th Company broke through the enemy front line, 5th and 6th tried to advance, but very fierce enemy firing made their progress impossible. Under a strong counter-attack the commander and most soldiers of 8th Company were killed or wounded. Though we wanted to advance we could not even lift our heads because of the heavy fire which we had never before experienced.
In fact the Japanese 8th Company of 2/58th lost ninety men from 120, including Captain Ban, its company commander, in the space of fifteen minutes. They learned their lesson, however, and the defenders of Sangshak never again faced such ripe targets. Instead, as the days drew out they were subjected to increasingly frantic Japanese efforts to break into Hope-Thomson’s position. Gallant attempts to drop precious water to the beleaguered troops, as well as ammunition for the mortars and mountains guns, largely failed, about three-quarters of these valuable cargoes repeatedly floating down to the Japanese. Although the weight of Japanese attacks tended to be on the north and west of the perimeter facing 152nd and 153rd Battalions, as the days went by increasingly strong probes were made against the Mahrattas on the eastern edge.
Hope-Thomson’s men found themselves alone and faced by heavy odds. Fortunately, however, and at long last, Imphal had now awoken to the enormity of the threat on its north-eastern perimeter, Ouvry Roberts signalling to Hope-Thomson on the 24th, five days after the first appearance of the Japanese, ‘Well done indeed. You are meeting the main Jap northern thrust. Of greatest importance you hold your position. Will give you maximum air support.’ Unfortunately, with no barbed wire, no water and rapidly diminishing reserves of ammunition, the long-term prognosis for the hugely outnumbered 50 Indian Parachute Brigade was never in doubt if Miyazaki decided to delay his advance to Kohima in order to crush the defenders.
During the early hours of the 25th the Japanese launched a ferocious attack on the north-west perimeter of the Sangshak position, but were again repelled with heavy loss. Japanese shelling and sniping, however, had turned the entire position into a bullet-swept and shell-torn hell, the defenders crouching in their shallow shell-scrapes awaiting the next attack. Major Harry Butchard, of 153rd Battalion, recalled the plateau to be extremely dangerous:
By day, conditions on the plateau soon became pretty grim – bodies lying about, human and animal, decomposing rapidly. Snipers were a constant nightmare – one morning I was speaking to two officers of 152 Battalion, and when I returned that way a few minutes later, I found them both lying dead, in exactly the same place — shot through the head.
Exhaustion was now a serious problem, as many men – especially 4/5th Mahrattas and 152nd Battalion – had had little sleep for seven days. Captain ‘Dicky’ Richards:
We continued to fight by day and night. The position became utterly gruesome and macabre. The perimeter was littered with corpses which could not be buried and there were mule carcasses everywhere. Some went into the cooking pot, but others very quickly rotted in that climate – and there were Japanese bodies, our own bodies, and excreta everywhere. It was impossible to construct properly dug-down trenches, dysentery became rife and the situation was almost intolerable. We were getting weaker by the hour – our men were getting killed off one after the other, we were running out of ammunition and food and some men were almost delirious after many days without sleep. Some of us would drop off for a few minutes in mid-conversation. The situation was desperate, and by 25 March, none of us expected to get out alive. But somehow that didn’t seem to mean anything, either – we just went on, relentlessly. I never heard a single man complain.
The final day came on Saturday 26 March. With the sun beating down mercilessly on the parched defenders, the Japanese closed in from all sides, with bullet, bayonet and grenade, desperate to break the hold that the defenders had placed on 31st Division’s advance. In a day of fierce attack and counter-attack across the Sangshak plateau the brigade lost more men than in the fighting so far. In the hand-to-hand struggle to regain possession of the Baptist Church, which sat at the height of the position, the counter-attacking troops of 152nd battalion lost heavily. The centre platoon lost thirty-two of the thirty-six who had begun the assault, but the Japanese also lost heavily: all but eight of the 120 men who had begun the assault that morning were killed. It was a difficult, bloody and hard fought day. ‘Dicky’ Richards:
Shortly before dawn on the 26th, the Japanese actually penetrated our position in the Church area, and set up machine guns in the trenches which had been occupied by the brave men of 152 and 153 Battalions. Things got incredibly intense – they were now only 100 yards from Brigade Headquarters and we’d run out of grenades. But our men became even more ferocious and daring. Every man was fighting for his life and there seemed no limit to their endurance – everyone, everywhere, was pleading for more ammunition and grenades. By 0730 hours the situation was desperate, but the brigadier was determined to regain complete control of the Church area. He sent a party from the Brigade Defence Platoon on a frontal counter-attack. This was led by young Lieutenant Robin de la Haye … Robin and his men made a spirited attack but were cut to pieces by enemy fire from West Hill. Again and again we counter-attacked, now led by Lieutenant Colonel Hopkinson, later by Colonel Abbott – but each time we were beaten back. At last, at 0930 hours, Major Jimmy Roberts with his A Company of 153 Battalion was successful and restored the situation, accompanied by deafening blasts from our own howitzers firing over open sights.
That night HQ IV Corps recognized the inevitable and ordered the survivors to break out and make their way as best they could – over the hills crawling with Japanese – to Imphal. The immovable wounded, some 150 men, had to be left behind, and the remaining 300 wounded had to walk out with the rest. Fortunately, the Japanese were equally exhausted. Captain ‘Dicky’ Richards:
As the 2230 hours start-time approached, tension mounted. That evening Japanese fire had been limited to sporadic shots and a few bursts, but we wondered whether they would strike. If they did, our chances for survival would have been slim – but they didn’t. Colonel Abbott ordered me to channel the few remaining exhausted men of 152 Indian Para Battalion through the 4/5th Mahratta Light Infantry position, which was the safest of the lot. The former had taken a terrible hammering with over 350 killed. Few had properly eaten or rested for well over a week and they were now practically without ammunition or grenades, or senior ranks to guide them, with a tortuous journey facing them through the Jap-infested jungle to Imphal.
As the break-out got under way, I felt surprised at the quietness and
orderliness as parties with makeshift bamboo stretchers and walking wounded vanished from sight into the jungle below. It was a painful and heart-rending experience, particularly for the medical men, whom I saw patching up and attending to anyone showing any signs of life.
It was a heartrending decision to leave their wounded comrades behind, particularly in the light of the knowledge of what often happened to them at the hands of the vengeful victors. In this case, following the successful extraction of Hope-Thomson’s force that night, a remarkable feat only achieved through the sheer exhaustion of their Japanese enemy, the wounded were well treated. After occupying the vacated British positions the following day, Kameyama discovered the shallow grave the British had dug for Lieutenant Ban:
I was very much impressed to see that the corpse and sword of Lieutenant Ban had been buried and neatly packed in a blanket. Our men were all moved by this. As the enemy had treated our company commander respectfully, our regimental commander ordered that enemy wounded should be treated and prisoners of war should not be killed.
While 50 Parachute Brigade was virtually destroyed in the four days of the Sangshak battle (152nd Gurkha Battalion lost 350 men – 80 per cent of its strength – and 153rd Indian Battalion lost 35 per cent), considerable benefit fell to IV Corps by their sacrifice. The battle cost Miyazaki probably 1,000 casualties and his advance was held up for a week, causing serious delay to Sato’s plans. From both 2/58th and 3/58th Miyazaki had lost six of his eight company commanders, as well as most of the platoon commanders. Kameyama recalled, ‘Eight hundred and fifty men of our battalion crossed the River Chindwin [on 15 March], but now after twelve days, active men were reduced to half, 425 men.’ Even Major Shimanoe, Commanding Officer of 3/58th, was badly wounded. Miyazaki’s speculative attack on Sangshak drew him into an unnecessary battle of attrition that delayed the journey of his column to Kohima and proved in time to be a serious setback to Mutaguchi’s hopes of capturing all of his objectives within three weeks. It was the first sign on this front that Mutaguchi’s plan was turning awry: the British at first seemed intent on flight, but here was stubborn – even fanatical – resistance, and it took the Japanese by surprise. The battle also gave Slim and Scoones valuable breathing space to reorganize and reinforce the Imphal positions, although it seems clear that a significant intelligence coup at Sangshak was not exploited by the British. A map taken from the dead body of a Japanese captain describing Sato’s entire strategy in the north and his plans to surround Kohima and to make for Dimapur, was copied and smuggled out of encirclement to HQ IV Corps in Imphal. The officer concerned – Captain Lester Allen – then made the journey back to his comrades at Sangshak. The map found its way to HQ 23 Indian Division.
‘Dicky’ Richards reached Imphal a week after the escape of the brigade from Sangshak:
We had survived walking into an armed Japanese supply column heading for Sangshak by throwing ourselves or rolling into the thick elephant grass and lying ‘doggo’, whilst they passed within feet of some of us – we had no grenades and hardly a round between us. Days later whilst intelligence officers were debriefing us, I had a quiet cup of tea with Ouvry Roberts, whom I knew well. He left me in no doubt about the value of the stand which we had made. He said that the brigade, with its attached units, fighting under the most appalling conditions, had undoubtedly saved both Kohima and Imphal from the danger of being immediately overrun by the Japanese spearhead troops.
I quite agree with Roberts’ assessment. By holding up the advance on Kohima, the gallant defenders of Sangshak had caused irreplaceable Japanese casualties and added several days to the advance on Kohima. Those lost
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days were to prove a significant factor in the eventual Japanese defeat. Sangshak was the first battle for Kohima which is, of course, another story.