The Situation on 20th March 1944.

This day 75 years ago marks the high-water mark of danger to Imphal. The Japanese had the initiative and momentum and despite a late start, progress since they crossed the Chindwin was as good as expected. Mutaguchi was characteristically bullish and the Japanese troops were only a few days into the 3 weeks of supplies they carried Their logistic limitations were not yet evident.

In the south on the Tiddim Road the Japanese had the upper hand. They had trapped 17 Infantry Division forcing Corps Commander Scoones to send his most of his reserve south from Imphal to rescue them.

In the Kabaw Valley the Yamamoto force had forced the withdrawal of 2 Border after a series of costly attacks at Witok. They had not quite managed to trap 2 Border but were harrying them back up the Kabaw Valley. The 2 Border withdraw was chaotic and it must have looked like very much like business as usual for the attacking Japanese with an Allied unit withdrawing when threatened from behind. Maj Gen Yamamoto had sent the Itou force around to try and cut off 20th Division which remained obligingly in Moreh because Gracey did not want to move. Yamamoto held back from pressing on Tamu and then Moreh wanting Itou to achieve the cut off before he did so.

31st Dvision were making good progress toward Kohima and the battle at Sangshak had just started.

At this point Slim had few reserves where he needed them. Dimapur was wide open. He did not at this point know a full Japanese division was going to Kohima because the map, captured at Sangshak which told him that, had not yet reached him.

The good news for Slim was pretty far from Imphal. The Chindits had been successfully inserted. Better still Chinese 18th Division had finally after months, indeed years, of cajoling started an offensive in northern Burma. If Lt Gen Kawabe had any unease about this he hoped it would be quickly relived by a rapid success at Imphal so he could switch the troops to counter this new threat.

The Chindwin and River Crossings

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The Chindwin River separated the Japanese and Allies for most of 1943. It was crossed by the Chindits in early 1943 as they headed east to the Japanese rear areas. Then in March 1944 it was crossed west as the Japanese attacked Imphal. In late 1944 it was crossed again eastwards as Slim’s 14th Army reinvaded Burma. Each crossing involved more engineering effort than the last.

In March the river varies from 50 meters wide where it flows fast, to 500 meters across where it is more or less a lake with no flow. There are lots of points where you could wade across most of the river; but crucially never all of it. There are no reliable fords from one side to other because the sands shift too often. You often surprised by people standing in the middle of the river and often see bigger boats feeling their way forward in 4 feet of water.

The Japanese made a mess of the crossings with the 31st Division crossings in being the most problematic. Many drowned and much equipment was lost which is odd since the Japanese were used to crossing rivers. They had much respect for Allied engineering capability which they lacked.   However, river crossings have an unforgiving reality to them which no amount of determination, panache or bravery can overcome. Heavy stuff sinks; bushido does not help. Also, on water people tend to all get into trouble at the same time as waves or currents affect all those present and panic spreads. The line between order and chaos is thin.

Is the Chindwin a major obstacle or not? Mutaguchi thought it was not but it all depends of the size of the force. A group of 900 odd Chindits would, and did, find places to cross with some ease providing it was in March. Later as the river rises it would be much harder. It was the Chindit crossings and his own observations which led Mutaguchi to think the Chindwin was not an obstacle worthy of a defensive line and could presumably be recrossed easily enough.

But as soon as you need to get anything other than a few mules and some hardy infantry across, you need a bridge. The width of the river means that a hasty assault bridge needs to float which means pontoons. The Chindwin offers a classic choice; shorter bridge with lots of current-flow or longer bridge with less. Of course, road access, from each bank might in effect determine the crossing point as there is no point having a bridge no one can get to. 300 meter wide pontoons are hard to control in even light currents and the rate of crossing such bridges is slow.  The good news is the Chindwin banks are easy to access, being most sandy and sloping, so getting in and out is not too hard. It is notable that when Slim crossed back again in late 1944, the crossing was a big event with lots of engineering support.

In early 1944, the Japanese thought they could cross the Chindwin like Chindits whereas they were actually much a bigger force. The Japanese force included 20,000 to 30,000 cattle herded by fighting soldiers who did not know how to control the beasts.  In any case cattle hate walking and are not that biddable. Burmese cattle to like to wallow in water but rarely swim. Most cattle in Burma take the afternoon off so even those that do work are not worked after midday. The few that can work a whole day trade at a higher price. (The intelligence value of markets?) I wonder if Mutaguchi knew this. This whole aspect of Mutaguchi’s plan was, surely, the height of hubris.

The Japanese also lacked air cover and consequently had to cross the Chindwin at night and broke their pontoon bridges to hide them from the RAF during the day. It was probably their exaggerated belief in the capabilities of the Japanese soldier led to short cuts and attempts to wade across which is nearly possible; but not quite. This in turn led to scenes of biblical destruction on some of the crossings which I will describe in the book. At Homalin the Allies, using patrols and air, managed to destroy 50% of the ammunition heading to Kohima. So you have to feel for the Japanese divisional staff trying to control the crossings. They clearly under estimated the task.

The Japanese in 1943.

My route north took me through Mutaguchi’s area of responsibility in 1943 on the east of the Chindwin.  The area is probably now more open but it seems perfect for guerrilla and Chindits operations. There are large open cultivated areas bounded with jungle to hide in. Maj Gen Yamamoto wrote a scathing account of life there in 1943; no food, not much to do, hard to get around. etc. And of course they had to chase elusive Chindits who seemed to go wherever they pleased. I quite see how unattractive it was  for the Japanese to simply wait there for the inevitable Allied attack. It was not the idea to attack Imphal that was flawed, it was how it was done.

Logistics and Engineering.

My Route: Moreh, Tamu, Witok. Kalewa. So I am now in the middle of the large no mans land which before the battle of Imphal, had separated the Japanese from the Allies. Some obvious things struck me.

I am sheepish that it took a journey to realise this obvious point. There was a big area of no mans land, broadly the Kabaw Valley between the two Armies at the start of 1944.  The side that defends, here the Allies, already owns the roads it needs for the battle. So the Allies did all kinds of work on the various roads to where they intend to fight the Japanese eg Tiddim, Palel, Shenam etc. Whereas the attacker, here the Japanese cannot get at the roads it will need till after the attack. Eg Kabaw Valley until after the attack. Super obvious point. So it was not so much supply through mountainous terrain that was the problem Slim did not want. Rather it was supply across areas without roads which he could not get at in advance.

Kalewa where I was today is where the bulk of 33 Div crossed the Chindwin. Kalewa to Tamu took me 4 hours on a much improved road compared to 1944. There are about 53 small mostly Bailey bridges across chaungs which flood. About 5 of these had been washed away in the last year.

All to say I can understand the Japanese problem. Even on these two southern routes where they had the best pre existing roads there was nothing remotely suitable as a main supply route. As noted elsewhere the Japanese intelligence people had done a good job of knowing the ground but there is zero evidence this knowledge led to the engineering effort that would clearly be needed. In fairness Mutaguchi did ask for road building companies but was not given any.

I then went to a village which had been a Japanese supply hub and met and interviewed a 90 year old who had been there. They seemed to have got along just fine with the Japanese occupiers who mostly left them alone and were self sufficient in food.

Finally, Kalewa and the Japanese crossing site. I think the Chindwin was lower today than in March 1944. Nevertheless, it is not a tricky site. Wide lazy river. Decent approaches on drivable sandy beaches. The problem would have been monsoon in say May: river maybe twice as wide, flowing very fast so drag on pontoons needing some serious bank anchors. Centre of the pontoon bridge hard to control. AND most days the RAF come so it has to be taken apart and hidden. So you probably resort to ferries. Nightmare. You can quite see why supply at the front line was so poor.

13 March 1944- The Order to withdraw

Main Events

Heavy engagement with 20 Div in the Kabaw Valley.

17 Division south of Imphal are engaged from the front but also in depth and thus in danger of being cut off.

Lt Gen Scoones, Commander of 4 Corps in Imphal, gives the order to withdraw. (Imphal was really his battle)

Discussion

Scoones decision to withdraw in accordance with Slim’s previously published concept of operations, is widely debated. Some said he gave the order too late. Well after the war, when Slim and Scoones debated this, they both agreed they had left it a bit late. Scoones however took the responsibility from Slim who rather strangely had claimed it was his error. I think post war Scoones felt a bit patronised by Slim.

The more controversial delay was at Divisional level. Cowan in 17 Div took 18 hours to pass on the order to withdraw although in his book, Slim defended Cowan. I have not time -racked all the original documents but such a major reorientation of a division from advance to withdraw could well have taken that amount of time, especially as they were not well prepared.

However, Gracey in 20 Div flatly refused to come back to Imphal. I found documents in Japan showing just how close 20 Div came to being cut off as well. The 17 Div delay I can understand. 20 Div was an avoidable muddle. Slim probably should have banged heads together.

The Kukis are the local tribe in the southern area of Imphal. Kohima is mostly Naga. I went the very remote Kuki village of Mombi to assess the only route that connected each of the 33 Japanese Div axis, the so called Mombi track. Not many history folk make it there probably because there was no fighting there.

Long story follows but the question is ‘Did the labour taken from India in WW1 get paid properly and if they were killed did they get pensions?’ I suspect not.

So the Kuki were hostile to the British following a war between about 1917 and 1921. The cause was too many Kuki were taken to France as labour in WW1 and nearly all did not come back. The Kuki felt enslaved (their word). Slaves are by definition forced and not paid. Not sure about the ‘forced’ element but they may very well have not been paid. The established Indian Army regiments had very efficient systems for paying pensions for those killed. It seems less likely such system existed for casually recruited, temporary workers from very remote areas, with no regimental structure. (There is a history PhD there for someone). Thus, the Kuki’s attitude to the Japanese arrival in the south was probably different to the Naga around Kohima. The latter were on the whole helpful to the British. Hemant Katoche covers this in his book.

9 March – 1944 written from Dimapur

Those with modern military service will recall the tedium of being moved by military movers: absurdly long waits, no information, incomprehensible routes and your own chain of command helpless. It was the same in 1944. An OIC train could perhaps decide meal times but if parked in a siding for twelve hours in the hot sun, he was helpless. My own recent civilian journey to Dimapur by train was a luxurious 38 hours albeit in a rather confined top bunk. The troops would surely have been irritable on arrival. A great many would have arrive at Dimapur as reinforcements so without mates. I thought about this as I gave myself a lite day after my ‘long’ journey. Their journey took two weeks in many cases and by the time I felt ready stroll over to Burma Camp after my train journey, they were already fighting.

Dimapur, is still the end point of the Indian rail network. In 1944 it was also a vast depot area which required thousands on thousands of local civilian workers. Their presence was a major dilemma wherever they were. In the forward depots like Moreh they were needed to run the depot so frontline troops could be supplied. But they also had to be fed and in case of attack they were a defenceless, responsibility. At Imphal they were likewise needed but also represented mouths to feed. So their evacuation was logical but the timing difficult and particularly at Moreh they filled up the road back at a critical moment.

On the 9 March 1944 Japanese 33 Division in the south and had crossed the Chindwin and were moving at speed to try and cut off first 17 Indian Division but also 20th Division in the Kabaw Valley. Some Japanese battalions were making 15 km per day but of course partly because they were so lightly equipped, which in the end was fatal. Others were taking apart whole trucks back to their chassis to man handle them up slopes. One unit had 200 men with mules to operate just 4 small mountain guns. It was all a lot of effort for a limited effect at the far end.

The Allies, specifically Lt Gen Scoones, were not yet fully aware of the attack. Both 17 and 20 Division had been aggressively patrolling, as had the Japanese, so the early sightings of movements needed to be of large numbers and in lots of places to break the previous pattern. V force had made a report of Iapanese movement but at this point a Japanese offensive had yet to be confirmed.

It is easy to forget that nearly everyone in both lead Allied Divisions thought they were about to re invade Burma. Ie to move forward not back. Some of the commanders who did know about the plan to withdraw to Imphal were stung by accusations they had left Burma in a bit too much of a hurry in 1942. Sittang Bridge which was prematurely blown was a particular source of unease. (Indeed when in Japan in 2018 I met a veteran who had befriended an Indian soldier who had been left in the far bank. He was so underwhelmed he had joined the Japanese as an orderly and remained with them for months.)

So at this point Lt Gen Scoones was under orders to only pull back to Imphal once he was sure this was a major attack. Reputations were at stake.

Pretending to everyone including your own units that you are about to attack whilst actually planning to pull back, must have been a particular problem in the depots. Attacking troops have different needs from defending troops; attacker need fuel, and defenders wire and mines. Some reporting suggests the staff were indeed confused and moving items forward pending the attack, while others were moving the same items back in case the depot was abandoned.

It was about now that 2 Bn Border Regiment meet the Japanese. The Border regiment were the forward battalion of 20 Division in the Kabaw Valley. (The Divisional commander Maj Gen Gracey very much did not want to withdraw).

The Border Regiment had a standing patrol well forward which engaged the Japanese. It then emerged the Japanese had tanks, so over the next few days there was something of a hiatus. The Borders had no anti tank weapons and only the commanding officer had ever seen one. The record shows they did get some but when the time came the Japanese tanks were killed by Allied tanks.

The Famine in Bengal

I have not spent time in the archives studying the famine. Most of my references are books by Indian economists. I am curious what effect the famine, a really large event, had on the Battle of Imphal which happened very soon afterwards and pretty close by.

Some generaliities. Famines are generally ascribed to a year when in fact they span a few. The famine is described at 1943 but in fact it started well before and was not fully relieved in 1944. Casualty estimates vary from 1 to 3 million. So a lot of people and it pretty amazing it was not seen as a global disaster at the time, but it really was not.

Modern economists maintain that famines are never about a shortage of food which is often plentiful in the region. Rather, they argue the food has not been got to the point of need often because of a war or smoother social disruption. That seems to be true on Bengal in 1943. There was plenty of surplus food in other regions of India but such was the uncertainty of war, the regions were unwilling to give it up to feed Bengal.

There was some other causes, all very disputed. They include that there was a policy of removing surplus food to ensure if the Japanese invaded there would be none for them. Surplus food in Bengal is a tenuous concept given how common hunger was generally.

There was a newly industrialised Calcutta to feed. Workers in factories were making ammunition and this meant food was being diverted for that purpose.

There was a war, so food was controlled indeed there was rationing in UK. But Indian economists have pointed out that most measurements of public health in UK went up, even during rationing, whereas in Bengal there was a famine. Rationing and food control done properly should not lead to a famine.

It is a subjective judgement but there was an attitude in the British Raj that famines were a feature of Bengal, too many people with too little land, often flooded. This attitude prevailed not just in 1943 but well before.

So what did this mean for the Battle of Imphal. Not certain yet but here are some thoughts.

Chandra Bose, the INA leader with the Japanese in 1944 was spreading a narrative of India on the verge of insurrections. He was Bengali himself and the famine certainly fed the narrative he put forward. It turned out to be false but he was believed at the time. Thus, the Bengal Famine played a part in the Japanese making the wrong intelligence assessment of the situation in India.

As noted before, few troops at Imphal were from Bengal. Most were from other parts of India. So there was not much direct impact on units.

 

Imphal; The Japanese Ardennes.

In WW2 there was a Japanese soldiers’ saying: Java was Heaven; Burma was Hell, but from Guinea you never came back. 

Burma was a relatively small operation and about 10 times more Japanese soldiers died in Guinea. (Guinea was the route to Australia which Japan had originally wanted to invade) In March 1944 the bulk of the Japanese Army was in China. But Burma was the north east flank of  a defined strategic Circle of Defence.  This was defined in 1943 when things started to go badly for the Japanese. So it was not that India had to be invaded, but Burma had to be held.

However, Japanese doctrine learned from the Germans, did not really allow for defence. As soon a commander saw he was about to be attacked, the response was to attack somewhere pre-emptively, So, as soon as it was clear the British were planning to re take Burma, Japanese doctrine called for an offensive to pre-empt it. Doctrine aside, Burma was a vast area to defend and the number of Japanese troops too few to hold it. An attack was an obvious course of action.

U Go which was the Japanese name for their offensive operation suffered from being 2 plans in one operation. Commanders most certainly did not Select and Maintain the Aim. The commanding General Renya Mutaguchi, wanted to invade the whole of India, Almost everyone else on the Japanese staff knew this was impossible and so agreed to the operation on the basis that if it petered out even a few kilometres over the Chindwin, then their defensive position would be improved. Of course, getting Imphal itself was the stated aim since the road went through the town which was therefore key to movement in either direction.  I will save for the book but there is a key bit of evidence that showed Mutaguchi wanted to invade India, everyone knew it, but no one stopped him. The blame for U Go goes far wider than Mutaguchi.

1943 had been a miserable year for the Japanese Burma Area Army. They had built roads, occupied but not controlled huge swathes of Burma, food and supplies were rare. There was not much to do besides chasing elusive Chindits who went, it seemed, wherever they pleased. Japanese morale was rock bottom.

Mutaguchi had plenty of bad luck. His divisional commanders were all bright top drawer squeaky-trousered staff officers – less Sato who went to Kohima who had combat experience. Lt Gen Yanagida (33 Div) who came up the Tiddim Road was repelled by the sight of the wounded and dead. Lt Gen Masafumi Yamauchi who came through Ukhrul bought his own western lavatory and was himself fatally ill on arrival. He was a graduate of US staff College at Fort Leavenworth Kansas. (I do want to pull his record from the Archive) The Infantry Commander of 33 Dvision was Maj Gen Tsunoru Yamamoto who lead the Tamu – Moreh, Pallel Axis. He was determined experienced and his performance showed it. The others were all against the U Go plan in the first place and said so. Lt Gen Sato, rather than give a rousing speech to troops on the eve of battle warned his division of high commands incompetence.  Command dysfunction was a feature of the Japanese command group. Sato, Mutaguchi and Kawabe Commander Burma Area Army, all had a fascinating prior relationship.

15th Dvision which was to advance in the the centre was held back in Siam building roads, incredibly, partly to sabotage the plan. They arrived late and poorly equipped. Again, the blame for the failure of U go goes wider than Mutaguchi.

The other important context was China which was central to both Allied and Japan strategy.   In March 1994 the Japanese were already thinking about Operation Ichi -Go, although it did not start until later on. This was a largely successful drive down the East Coast of China to capture bases and ensure that US bombers could not reach the Japanese mainland. The Japanese had seen what strategic bombing had done to Germany and in 1944 this was their chief fear. Of course, a success in Burma would allow a hook up with Ichi -go forces heading south. Ichi go was much larger operation than U go.

Finally, it is right to note that by 7 March 1944 the Japanese were losing the War and losing it badly. Shipping loses were high. It was difficult to get spares, efforts to create ammunition production around Rangoon had not been successful. Everyone had less than they needed.  But it was argued, none of this mattered too much since the Japanese soldier had unique fighting abilities and could prevail if given the chance.