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There are probably not more than six motorable roads in the whole of the 25000 square miles of the Central Front to which our story now progresses, and only two railways (with variable gauges). One comes up from Calcutta in the Bay of Bengal and ends at Ledo, while the other comes up from Mandalay and serves the former Jap bases of Mogaung and Myitkyina.
The first lay in Allied territory. The second was Japanese. The path of both roads and railways has been hacked through thorny scrub, bamboo and elephant grass. The flooded paddy fields are the only other breaks in an almost solid forest mass.
It seems incredible that modern mechanized war could be fought out in such surroundings. Yet it was over these same towering ranges and through these very swamps that General Alexander conducted his retreating army in May, 1942 and General Bill Slim fought the rearguard actions from Rangoon to India. Now, two years later, Lord Louis Mountbatten would begin the re-conquest of all that had been lost, and leading his Fourteenth Army back in triumph would go General Slim. KCB. honoured by the King for his famous victories.
But meantime the monsoons saturated the mountainous terrain with its quota of more than 100 inches and the Commands of both sides put the finishing touches to plans for securing the initiative over this forbidding battleground. The loss of equipment in favour of the European Fronts necessitated a reshuffle in Fourteenth Army plans. They were now thinned-down to that of engaging the Japanese Army in Burma so that these forces would be deflected from General Stilwell’s front.
Alternative plans had been drawn up in case the enemy attempted to bring off a surprise such as the offensive he tried in the Arakan. The duty of preparing the broad field for these land operations devolved, under the Supreme Commander upon General Sir George Giffard. GCE. DSO, ADC. C-in-C 11 Army Group, an officer distinguished for his leadership in the East African jungle war against Germany in 1914-18. Giffard’s energy and enterprise secured for the Fourteenth Army the weapons and the tools with which they did their magnificent job.
To Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, KCB. DSO. AFC, Air C-in-C in South East Asia. who directed all air operations, the RAF owed a debt equally profound.
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Fourteenth Army’s assessment of the enemy’s next move turned out to be accurate. The Japs had planned another surprise stroke but on much bigger and bolder lines, than in the Arakan. It was no less than invasion of India via Imphal and Dimapur.
The Jap purpose was threefold:
(i) To climb the wall of the mountains beyond the Chindwin and fall upon the main Allied advance base at Imphal, breaking our grip on the entire frontier.
(ii) Securing the line of the Imphal-Kohima supply road, to sweep on into the Assam Plain and get astride the Bengal-Assam railway. Thus they would cut the life-line of General Joe Stilwells advance towards Myitkyina along the Mogaung Valley and force him back on Ledo.
(iii) To overrun the Assam airfields and disrupt the airborne traffic from them over the Hump to China. -Thus the Japs would dry up the petrol flow which kept General Chennault’s 14th Air Force bombing over Occupied China and Japan and stop all munitions supply to Chiang Kai-shek’s armies. By these few bold strokes the Japs might sever all communication with China and force her out of the war. Glittering prizes indeed, and the Japs unsheathed sharp swords to gain them. Success in this matter would offset many recent failures in the Pacific.
Said General Mutaguchi’s Order of the Day to the Japanese invasion forces on the opening of the Campaign. “This operation will engage the attention of the whole world and is eagerly awaited by a hundred million of our countrymen. Its success will hare a profound effect on the course of the war, and may even lead to its conclusion. We must therefore expend every ounce of energy and talent to achieve our purpose.”
Accordingly, 100,000 crack Imperial troops were detailed for the task. They were well versed in jungle warfare and rehearsed in some other matters also. One of the things impressed upon them was that an enemy remained an enemy whether he lay wounded on the ground, or on a stretcher or even in a hospital bed. In all such events- the recommended method was the short thrust and’ twist of his bayonet: ammunition was to be conserved for battle.
It was on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1944 that the first Jap column forded the Chindwin by way of Homalin. A second column made the crossing at Thaungdut, 30 miles southward. They marched silently and swiftly, more lightly equipped than any soldiers who had previously set forth on such a mission. Speed was its essence; they must reach Imphal and Kohima before Allied reinforcements could arrive. Ahead of the main assault forces screens of patrols had been operating across the river for several days. For a time they deceived us as to their direction.
As the Jap columns moved through the mountains towards Imphal Plain their planes bombed the combat area. Sir John Baldwin’s Third Tactical Air Force struck back hard at the enemy bases all along the Chindwin.
Five days after passing the Chindwin the Jap army stood on the frontier of India. gazing down from the Somra Hills into Assam (22 March). They were engaged by British and Indian troops and had to fight their way forward. But the flag of the Rising Sun had been raised on Indian soil for the first time. For the second time since the New Year Tokyo was all lit-up with victory. In night-and-day shifts the Jap radio celebrated, boasted and threatened more wrath to come. Programmes were broken off while excited voices in ghastly English reeled out to Indian listeners the list of Jap successes all along the frontier. Yes, sir: The march on Delhi had this time really began. This ballyhoo was not without effect in India.
The Supreme Allied Commander and his generals in no wise shared the widespread alarm. Later events showed why. -The Japanese offensive was unfolding, not only as expected but substantially as desired. The enemy banked on a quick decision. In claiming that Imphal would fall by 27 March it is probable that Tokyo radio was not ahead of High Command schedule. A third Jap column got across the Chindwin and began moving up the Kabaw Valley. By now the heat was thoroughly turned on. Very soon 17 Indian Div, who manned the Allied outpost at Tiddim, 164 miles to the south were cut off. Jubilantly, the Japs claimed that they had got them “in the bag.”
It was 12 March when Cowan received his orders, and he proposed to move at dawn on the 14th. At 3 a.m. of the 13th, however, while lying in bed. Cowan decided to go that same day. He rooted out his brigadiers and told them to be ready to march at sunset. That evening the entire division moved off, leaving Tiddim in flames. They took with them 4,000 mules and 2,000 vehicles, and in the darkness many units covered 40 miles of the tricky mountain road which lay athwart the enemy’s line of advance from the Chindwin.
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The set task of the elite Jap 33 Division was to destroy Cowan’s division before it reached Imphal. They accomplished indeed, several times on the radio where “only the commander and 26 men escaped to tell the tale.’ The Japanese actually did make the most strenuous efforts to slice up 17 Div as it moved along the trail. The enemy pushed on through the jungle, emerging to erect road blocks wherever they could jump ahead of the retiring forces. These road blocks they covered with effective fire. Indeed 17 Div were under fire practically the whole of the way, their gunners blasting open the Jap road blocks ahead of them and forward echelons storming and clearing them literally as the wagons of toe division lumbered up the valley at their heels.
The delays caused to the withdrawal of 17 Div by enemy attacks enabled the Japs to penetrate deeply round the flanks of the division. To deal with this Corps Commander General Scoones ordered 23 Indian Div (Major General Ouvry Roberts. DSO) to assist in withdrawal of 17 Div along it’s 160-mile road. This placed a considerable strain on 2 Div. Which already had commitments in the Urkhal area, and it left no reserve in the Imphal Plain, but the task was carried out successfully and the risk entailed was justified. To discharge his new obligations it was necessary for Roberts to eject the Jap forces which had dug themselves in astride the Imphal road and who denied passage to the withdrawing British forces.
Supported by light tanks of 7 Cavalry, 23 Div attacked vigorously and after heavy fighting drove out the enemy, thus very materially assisting the continued march of 17 Div towards Imphal.
Now also converging on Imphal from Tamu came Major-General Douglas Gracey’s 20 Indian Div. They had been guarding the shortest route to India, the Tamu-Palel road which runs across the malaria-bed known as the Kabaw Valley. Gracey’s men had long been trained in jungle conditions and they, also, had measured the Jap. They were sure that they could hold him in whatever strength he sought to pass. But it was not part of the main plan to fight in the Kabaw Valley longer than it suited us. Therefore, Gracey also had been ordered to withdraw slowly. He took his men into his confidence, explaining to them the broader picture of the campaign. So 20 Div. like 17 Div. set off homeward cheerfully to fit itself into the planned framework, determined at any rate to beat the slats out of all Japs who got in their way. The Frontier Force Rifles covered the right flank of the division as it drew back towards Palel. The Japs followed closely.
One of the enemy s main objectives in this sector was Palel airfield. They fought hard for it, and when regular attacks failed they tried tricks. One extraordinary device, apparently designed to create panic by its nature, was to march steadily forward in columns of threes. When they came within the sights of 20 Div machine guns they were scythed down in rows of threes.
So the ordered march of the outpost divisions continued towards Imphal. They carried out a fighting retreat which, tho’ on a smaller scale, resembles in its masterly and resolute conduct that of Kutusov before Napoleon in 1812. That is they fought the whole of the way and left nothing behind them but their dead. They killed at least twice the number of their own losses. Said Cowan as they entered Imphal after three weeks battle fore, aft and flanking:
“We are the better troops, and every man in this division knows it. The moment we have the Jap on the move. we’ve got him.”
West of Tamu a swift enemy thrust, supported by armour, was sharply checked when tanks of the 3 Carabiniers lay in ambush and hammered the enemy in the first armoured clash on the Burma Frontier. Meantime, other Jap units had reached the fringe of lmphal Plain and were less than eight miles south of the town. The Siege of Imphal had begun.
The offensive was now fully unfolding along the entire frontier. Another Jap punch, further north towards Kohima was being driven home with extraordinary violence. Here, if one is seeking points for criticism, occurred the only under-appreciation by Fourteenth Army HQ in a campaign waged in tile most opaque “fog of war” on any front. We reckoned on the Japs coming to Kohima, but not in such force or as soon.
An Assam Regiment who held the covering position to the east, were pressed back fighting stubbornly against this superior weight. The Japanese paid stilt gate-money for their entrance into India with 2,000 dead. But their propaganda exploited the advance to the limit as evidence that the Allies were in general retreat in India.
Neither Scoones, nor Slim, nor Giffard nor Mountbatten himself, who was constantly on the front in these critical days, harboured any doubt as to the outcome, as was shown by certain far-reaching decisions taken at this moment. But the flap in areas far from the fighting line was considerable. Every town in India had its” bazaar-telegraph” from front, and with no censor operating on this line, rumour blasted through without cease and ran about the streets like a mad dog.
The situation there was tense. To an anxious Assembly in Delhi, General Auchinleck, C-in-C India, gave reassurances of his complete confidence in the Commanders and troops defending the frontiers, Reporting on the position ‘as made known to me by Lord Louis Mountbatten who is responsible for operations on this front.’ General Auchinleck said “Imphal is still in our hands and is strongly held. Penetrations by small parties of the enemy are always possible, but are not likely to be of major importance. Our commanders do not intend to let Imphal fall into enemy hands.” Some were sensible enough to believe him. Others preferred to listen to the undercurrent of criticism in US and UK of the handling of this latest menace. Americans were naturally concerned over the safety of Stilwell and his forces in the Mogaung Valley. They were also wondering about Chennault, in China.
“Confusion and alarm,” which the enemy Intelligence reported as raging in the Allied camp, was not apparent to observers in the various HQ’s. Indeed, subsequent comment was that the Jap attack had been taken too lightly. Nothing could be further from the truth—but at that time it was not possible to tell all the truth.
So far we have described the Japanese initiative, and the Allied counteraction. It would be cardinally wrong, however, to suppose that in the general course of the campaign the Fourteenth Army Commander conformed to the invader’s idea. On the contrary, he had his own. He had decided to fight the Jap, not at the end of a long British L of C but at the end of a long Jap L of C. He did not invite the enemy assault, but he made all preparation to receive, and break it.
At Imphal, the 4 Corps of Lieut-General Scoones, already reinforced, awaited the exultant oncoming Japs. Instead of further withdrawals therefore (which the Japs confidently expected) a solid wall of resistance now rose in their pith. The Army Commander had already cropped the garrison’s “tail” by marching (or flying) out 50,000 non-combatants and civilians. For the remainder, as tension rose with the Japs closing every land exit, 4 Corps Commander Scoones imposed a dusk-to-dawn Curfew.
Fourteenth’s “Grocer” (Maj-General Alf Snelling, MGA,) had received his orders too, and they were large. He was required to stock up Imphal Plain with food, ammunition, guns and armour. The place of the departed non-combatants was filled with fighting men —some of the finest in South East Asia. The Japs had cut the land routes for the second time in two months. And, for the second time in two months Slim outwitted them by flying in his requirements and replacements over their heads. On this occasion it was a very greatly expanded business, for two entire divisions (5 Indian Div and 7 Indian Div) were brought up from Arakan where they had been in action a week before, men, mules, guns and transport—a bold, secret, and superbly executed movement. By the time the invaders approached Imphal it was not so much a fortified base in a “state of defence” as a powerful offensive springboard. So it proved to be.
The Japs came quite near enough. They reached positions both in the hills above the Imphal airfield and north east of the city. But prompt action by the newly arrived 5 Div, reinforced by tanks, dislodged them and prevented their guns from doing any material damage.
The fall of Imphal had been officially claimed by Tokyo on March 30, that of Kohima early in April. The Jap troops certainly did their utmost to realise these anticipations. They threw into the battle, as General Mutaguchi had urged. “every ounce of energy and talent” they possessed.
Not less energy or talent had been expended by the Imphal garrison to frustrate this purpose Infantry, artillery, armour and air forces had been assembled in adequate strength to meet any possible threat. The Jap assaults crashed like waves in a heavy sea against the fortress-walls of Imphal; but it was the waves that broke.
As the invaders swept into the plain they were met by the cannonade of hundreds of artillery, tanks, machine guns, and the rifles and grenades of the inflexible infantry. As in Arakan the tanks inflicted very heavy damage, climbing right up to the top Jap hillside bunkers to blast them at pointblank range. The salvoes of the artillery rolled like thunder through the valleys.
The war in the air was no less devastating. In the Battle of Imphal the Japs brought up fighter formations for the first time for many weeks. They lasted a rather shorter span than they had in Arakan. Third Tactical Air Force swept them out of the Burma skies, then turned completely to close and remote target support for Fourteenth Army. They shot up and bombed enemy concentrations, dumps, transport, bridges, river craft and locomotives. The monsoon in no way diminished their activity. On the contrary, third TAF fighters and medium bombers stepped up their sorties to 24000 sorties in its worst four months, nearly six times the figure of the previous year’s record. Only those who have flown into a black monsoon know what that means. The man who survives it has looked into hell.
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All over enemy-held Burma ranged the medium bombers of Eastern Air Command. The “heavies’ went as far as Bangkok. In three days USAAF sweeps over the Jap air bases notched 63 enemy planes on the ground. Already, by the time of Arakan they had closed Rangoon for ocean going supply. Now our planes swept the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin to deny the enemy his vital river traffic. The railway, they never permitted to remain in full working order. The diaries of Jap prisoners are eloquent testimony to the horrors of rail travel in Burma. This systematic destruction of the enemy’s L of C had decisive effects upon his campaign. Once he failed in his gigantic gamble to break into India in ten days his fate was really sealed, for his own supply could nowhere keep pace with his requirements. The final results of this collapse of his logistics are shown today as the triumphant Allied pursuit uncovers the appalling state of the retreating Japanese army.
But while Stratemeyer’s combat Planes harried the enemy, his transport aircraft poured in supplies to our own troops in Imphal Plain. Day after ‘day the hungry Japs on the surrounding hills saw the stream of troop carriers bearing in food, fuel, ordnance, ammunition (Wellingtons ferried in a million lbs of bombs for the fighter-bombers), stores, men and even water. They brought out the wounded over the very gun sights of the enemy. Behind them supply units, transport men, and L of C troops sweated and slogged to keep the dixies and the magazines filled for the men in the line. Unbelievable reports f1amed round the world of impending grief. The men of 4 Corps. on duty at Imphal, serenely stuck it out.
Kohima was in graver state. Appearing suddenly out of the Somra hills the Japs ‘surged over Kohima Ridge, cut all the roads and completely isolated the town, for there was no air strip.
The small garrison they laid under a murderous barrage from the overlooking hills, which blasted every bungalow: basha and tree in the neighbourhood.
And who were the Garrison of Kohima? Men of the Royal West Kents. Mahratta Light Infantry, Rajputs, Burma Regiment, the Assam Regiment, Assam Rifles, and the Nepalese Regiment, together with a few hundreds of convalescent soldiers and civilians. This gallant mixed force of totally 3500 men stood up to the full fury of the Japanese 31 Division.
For fourteen days and nights the defenders of Kohima held the bridgehead to India. They knew help was coming, for brigades from both 5 Div and 7 Div. Arakan veterans, also the British 2 Div had been flown up to Assam, and were advancing on Kohima. The Royal West Kents, having touched-down at Dimapur, were able to force their way in before the last entrance was barred by the investing Japs. But tho’ they realised the role they were expected to fulfil, many of this devoted band did not survive to know the glory they were to receive.
Smashing their way into the town itself the Japs thought that at last they had overcome the garrison only to experience, once again, the stubborn, unquenchable spirit of British and Indian troops who contested every inch of ground. Fighting was especially murderous in the residential area situated along the steep Kohima Ridge. But none escaped the Japanese fury. The entire garrison lay always under the dominating drum-fire of the batteries on the ridges above the town. Day and night the fighting continued with intense and mounting ferocity. So costly did the defenders make daylight assault that the Japs abandoned all the suns hours to the guns and only put in their infantry under the cloak of night.
But the defence of Kohima was the prelude to a still bloodier struggle—its relief, Lieut-General Sir Montague Stopford. KBE.. CB.. DSO.. MC.. was rushing his 33 Indian Corps from the far side of India towards the battle - Railway Movements Staff did a man-sized job in those days. “Monty” Stopford s orders were
(i) raise the siege of Kohima.
(ii) drive southward down the Imphal road to link with 4 Corps. By that time it was reckoned Scoones would have cleared Imphal Plain and started up the. road.
Enter a division new to the Burma front. but one which was to learn, and master all the tricks in record time, Maj-General Grover’s British 2 Div. With the arrival of the remainder of 7 Div. and the brigades already engaged, Stopfords 33 Corps were now complete. They immediately set about breaking the siege.
No fiercer battles have been fought on any front than those which followed. The village of Kungpi nearby changed hands five times, the hand-to-hand bayonet clashes taking place by moonlight as well as by day. Kohima’s ordeal had entered its third week before the first reinforcements could reach it, crawling in by the only nullah which gave ‘access to the garrison. Later, the relieving forces drove a wedge through the enemy wide enough to evacuate the most seriously wounded.
Though the Red Crosses showed up clearly, and left no doubt as to the mission of the ambulances, the enemy kept up a steady stream of fire against them as the drivers picked their way along the broken road.
A strange scene greeted the liberators as they entered the town. Parachutes festooned every other tree, showing how thoroughly the air supply crews had done their supply job. Indeed, they had even carried in water in a monsoon! The besiegers had cut the garrison’s pipeline, and there was no means of conserving the water which poured from the skies. Yet this same rain, blinding the pilots either in storm or as it hung in clouds blanketing the hills, increased the difficulties of the supply-drop. Air transport showered down waterproof sheets to serve as catchment ponds.
Not a building was left undamaged, most were mere rubble or ashes. The dead lay unburied. Little squads of ‘grimy and bearded riflemen stared blankly at the relieving troops: many were too dazed to realise that they were saved, and too tired to believe their sleep-starved eyes.
The battle was far from finished. The Japs were still in strength enough to launch a last furious all-out effort to capture the town. A final ‘avalanche of shells and mortar bombs rained upon the ruins and behind it came the Jap infantry, resolutely seeking death and not being denied it.
The bungalow, of District Commissioner Charles Pawsey (he was one of the heroes of the siege) was only one of the most famous battlefields. The lines of his tennis court separated the fighting groups. These lines could still be, traced after any days of slaughter.
A Lee tank was winched up a gradient of one in three to blast a chain of deeply-dug Jap bunkers. It did the job, but its burnt-out bulk lies at the foot of the far slope as a sign of the price its crew paid.
Jail Hill, the central position of the Jap front, was linked with covering fire to both GPT Ridge and DIS Ridge on either side. Four days after the first attempt to take this principal enemy strong point failed it was stormed again by a battalion of the Queens Royal Regiment who, tho’ under fire frontally, rearward and in flank, dug-in, held on and again attacked. ‘Jap artillery checked them, ranged on them all night. A battalion of 1 Gurkhas came up in support and again our troops went into the attack. The Japs still stayed, and a third day and night of bloody fighting followed before the bunker positions were captured.
On GPT Ridge, in eternal garrison, lie the dead of the Royal Norfolks. They seized the place, 5 000-ft high, with bayonet and grenade assault. In the battle for Hospital Hill one platoon of the Royal West Kents was reduced to four men, all wounded. We cannot here name the individual heroes . . . but these places where they fought and fell, Jail Hill, Hospital Hill, Garrison Hill, Naga Village. Treasury Ridge, Gun Spur, Aradura Spur, will be remembered whenever men speak of valour.
While this costly stand-up battle was raging round Kohima equally energetic action was going forward on the flanks. To guard against an enveloping movement from the Naga Hills and to threaten the Japs’ L of C, the British 23 Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Perowne had been sent out to comb the surrounding land, which has since been described as the wildest and most trackless in the Himalayas, which means in the entire world. Perowne’s brigade had been organized in Long Range Penetration columns for just such work, and now they performed it to some purpose. Our favourite news-broadcaster, Tokyo Rose, was turned on to explain to hungry Jap infantrymen at Kohima that a full British “mountain division” was operating across their Ukhrul-Imphal L of C.
The brigade were themselves supplied by the unfailing Air. They collected their rations in jungle clearings, sometimes fighting it out with the enemy for possession. They climbed cliffs, cut corridor ledges along precipices, bridged chasms by single logs, hauled their pack-animals belly deep through mud, dived into flooded rivers to retrieve precious stores swept from the mules’ packs. With ambush, night march. and the Chindit version of the Indian rope-trick they foxed the Japs, and took from them a ten-to-one toll in casualties. One column, with 80 lb. packs on their backs, scaled an 8.000-ft peak. Perownes brigade repeated at close quarters, behind the Jap front, the equally solid destruction wrought by Lentaigne’s troops further along the enemy’s main L of C.
All the enemy’s efforts to regain Kohima had now been smashed, tho’ the roads leading southwards from it remained under his fire for several more days. With the exception of the enemy strongpoints still holding out in Naga Village to the left of the road and on Aradura Hill to the right the last Jap was forked out of the elaborate network of bunkers on Kohima Ridge, on 14 May, thus bringing to an end a 40-day-and-night non-stop slogging match which cost the enemy 4,000 dead. It took another six weeks’ of heavy fighting by Punjabi and Gurkha troops to clear the enemy completely. Our own losses were not light, and included a high proportion of officers. An officer who fought in the slaughter of Hill 60 in Flanders. 1914-18. said the Battle of Kohima was more terrible.
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Down in Imphal Plain, 4 Corps had also completed their task. The flood of fire which they had showered on the invaders once they left the cover of the foothills had been so shattering that they quickly pulled back and entrenched themselves in hillside bunkers. Dive bombers, with Allied artillery and tanks beat a ceaseless triple tattoo on these positions until the’ infantry closed in for the kill. The word is true, for by the end of May not one Japanese soldier remained above ground in all the 700 square miles of the Plain. The crisis of the Battle of the Central Front was past —for us. For the enemy it was beginning.
The breakout from Kohima was impressive. Armour and infantry advanced under the smoke and fire screen of guns and mortars, dive-bombers and fighters. One Jap target near Kohima received one thousand ‘rounds at close range. Infantry rushed the position, to find the Jap defenders either dead, fled, or dazed with the hellish battering. From the high ground camouflaged medium artillery piled on their weight to the flail of fire which beat out the path’ down which 33 Corps were marching to keep their date with 4 Corps. As Stopford swept down from Kohima Scoones finally bust wide open the Jap “encirclement” at Imphal and started northward up the road.
The enemy was now everywhere on the defensive. His greatly reduced army were strewn along the Imphal Road, tho’ their grip at either end of it was being broken. What would happen next? A less resolute commander than Slim might have hastened to appease the public criticism (that the Japanese still occupied Indian soil) by chasing them away as fast as possible. Slim had a more thorough purpose. It was to destroy these crack Japanese divisions so that they, at any rate, would never again menace India.
The annihilating operation has based upon a plan agreed between the two Corps Commanders. Neither had overlooked the importance of Ukhru, the Japs great mountain base on the west side of the Chindwin. Already indeed, Perowne’s columns were moving upon Ukhrul’s L of C in a wide hook. But before the second great bite at the enemy could be taken, the first had to be completed. At noon, 22 June, the jaws of the Fourteenth Army snapped together on the lmphal-Kohima road when leading echelons of both Corps met at Milestone 109, a few miles north of Imphal.
From here the two Corps commanders set the second operation in motion. Brigades of 7 Div drove eastwards to Ukhrul while 20 Div units (which came under the command of General Stopford for this movement) pressed on north-eastward along the ImphalUkhrul axis. Perowne’s columns had already closed in from north, east and south. Ukhrul’s fate was sealed. The success of the annihilation plan may be gauged by the sombre record which Ukhrul holds today as the biggest burial ground for Japs in the length and breadth of Manipur.
The forces which carried out these tasks, besides Perowne’s columns, were regular brigades. As usual the infantry rose to the occasion. So did the gunners.
The artillery units which took part were ordinary Indian Mountain regiments. Like the tanks the mountain guns proved a very great success. Their mule train of 460 animals carried the 3.7-in, guns and ammunition over six mountain ranges averagely 7,000 feet high, and forded at least three sizeable rivers. The Japs were astonished to receive 20-pounder shells from that height.
Here were further famous marches. Often the gradients were so steep that steps had to be cut for the mules, loaded with two hundredweight apiece. The going was the harder because in the morning the train would be climbing thousands of feet into the clouds and in the afternoon dropping down to river level. Eight miles a day in such country was a hard march.
By mid-July the Ukhrul area was cleared. The Allied forces continued the pursuit southwards, adding considerably to the mounting Jap casualties and also collecting a rich hau1 of booty.
As British forces pressed eastwards beyond Ukhrul to the Chindwin, main activity shifted to the Palel front. Here 20 Div. later relieved by 23 Div. were holding mountain positions, fighting most of their time in monsoon weather which blanketed the firing line like a Scotch Thistle. But towards the end of the month 23 Div. supported by units of 2 Div. developed a major offensive which steadily drove the enemy beyond Tamu, and down towards the River Chindwin which the invaders had crossed with such bounding hopes four months before.
The third phase of the counter-offensive was meanwhile being fought out at Bishenpur. The Japanese High Command regarded this sector as one of the most vital on the entire front and directed there some of their most experienced formations to the task of breaking through at all costs. For many days and nights bloody battles raged with no quarter on either side. For here 17 Div were fighting once more their ancient enemies, the Japanese 33 Div. In this fighting, British and Gurkha troops of 17 Division gained three VCs.
But now the British had assembled a park of artillery more massive than any other so far seen in the entire campaign. Main target was the village of Ningthoutong Kha Khunog where the Japs were strongly established. The barrage stripped every limb from the trees, chopped and scarred the timber until the wooded heights resembled the classic pictures of the grey Flanders Plain in 1918 - with their mournful and mutilated stumps.
Still the unrelenting blows fell upon the enemy. The Tiddim Road was a corridor of death. Vengeances and Mitchells strewed the length of it with blasted and burnt-out Jap convoys. But even this perilous pathway home was now to be denied them. Marching across 100 miles of trackless mountains in torrential rain the Lushai Brigade had reached the Tiddim Road well in the rear of the Jap 33 Div. This brigade now played havoc with the retreating Jap forces, depriving them of their only serviceable road and compelling them to forsake their transport arid heavy weapons.
Forced into the pitiless hills, hundreds died from exhaustion and starvation.
The condition of the enemy everywhere deteriorated. Our aircraft and LRP raiding columns had so disrupted his L of C that for whole regiments, supply simply ceased. The Jap - that legendary soldier who was supposed to live on a handful of rice, from a little ration bag hung round his neck, began in fact to have no other ration. The effect was appalling, for even Japs cannot live by rice alone. Fourteenth Army doctors reported that many who fell alive into our hands— desertion and surrender multiplied their number tenfold—were suffering from acute beri beri. Their body cells had lost all power to absorb water. Their skins, stretched taut as drums across the bone framework, were covered with dermatitis sores. They crawled, dying, to the feet of the giant marble and gold leafed idols in the Buddhist temples to end life. And, ironically, many died of starvation with full ration bags of rice around their emaciated necks—rice which they could not eat.
The last of the invaders staggered out of India on 25 August. Fourteenth Army advanced columns reached the Chindwin River on a broad front a few days later; Sittaung and Thaungdat were occupied on 4 Sept, Less than seven months after 17 Div withdrew from Tiddim troops of 5 Div. supported by 3 Carabineers overcame strong enemy resistance at Chocolate Staircase and swept on to the approaches to Tiddim itself.
In the entire Burma Campaign, 1944, the Fourteenth Army and Eastern Air Command had annihilated five Japanese divisions and inflicted fearful losses on others, besides taking more prisoners than in any previous campaign. Every task set to the Supreme Commander had been fulfilled, and ahead of schedule. India was safe, the enemy power in Burma shattered. From the air he had been banished absolutely, and at sea the Eastern Fleet rode the Indian Ocean unchallenged.
In the House of Commons the Prime Minister paid generous public tribute to the fighting troops, the King honoured them in the awards conferred upon their leaders in the field, and the Supreme Allied Council raised new and greater targets before the Command.
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