Imphal 75 Years setting the Scene

It is 75 years since The Battle of Imphal . On this day 6 March 1944 the following important things had happened (or not happened)

The Japanese diversionary attack in Arkan,  to the south,  had failed. Not only had it not defeated in-place Allies but it had failed to draw major reserves from Imphal which had been its main goal. There was very little reaction to this failure on the Japanese side and certainly no pause. They also failed to note the very different behaviour of the Allies by staying put and fighting when surrounded. This was a major intelligence failure since it was clear to see and it probably should have impacted the optimistic Japanese Imphal planning assumptions. It did not.

In the middle of March Slim did perhaps his most brilliant act of foresight and generalship. He started the process, even before the Japanese had attacked, of lobbying to get 5th Division flown from the Arakan to the Imphal front. It was this act, in my view, which meant that Imphal was at risk for only the last few weeks of March 1944. Once 5th Division arrived the result was never in much doubt. Many will contest this and of course most of the fighting happened in April, May and June.  Japanese veterans community are bitter about much. That Imphal took place at all, (but I think the alternatives were impossible), that it was poorly planned ( certainly true) and that it went on long after the Generals knew it had failed. (True)

By the 6th March it was clear to Slim and Scoones on the Allied side that a major Japanese offensive on Imphal was imminent. Nevertheless, the order to the two Divisions in contact, 17th and 20th, remained to  re-invade Burma. The plans to withdraw and fight near Imphal were issued but were heavily caveated and only known to battalion commander and above. British Divisions were not yet in a defence posture, or mindset. This much was understandable but it led to a major and avoidable error on the part of Slim and Scoones but I will not elaborate here or at least not now.

Finally India. One the one hand it was a source of almost infinite resources when compared to the Japanese. The British had developed a decent defence production capacity around Calcutta. There were many Indians who might still be recruited to the Army. There were regiments and formations that were yet to be deployed to the Imphal front and training infrastructure to create more of them. There was plenty of food in India as a whole but of course tragically little in Bengal. There was a railway network in place.

On the other hand, the Japanese believed that India was in turmoil, Gandhi was in an out of jail, riots were common and it was clear the British were going to have to give up India. This was all true. So the Japanese believed, the Indian Army would not fight and victory at Imphal would be easy. This was emphatically not true and never was likely. The Indian Army came from Northern India, and now Pakistan and Nepal. Pushtoons, Punjabis, Sikhs and especially Gurkhas who were loyal to their regiments and via pensions and patronage, did well out of the Raj in general.  Fight they most certainly did.



Authors Note

I am in Delhi and about to once again visit the Battlefield of Imphal on what will be exactly the 75 year anniversary. This time I will travel there by train (38 hours) and go on into the Kabaw Valley in Northern Burma, mainly to find the Japanese river crossing points across the Chindwin.  I see this as an analysis history ie not a narrative as such. The latter has been well done by many others. I have spent many weeks in Japan met and interviewed veterans and their families, spent time in archives. Thus, I hope I  bring some new Japanese perspectives to the story but also make some new analysis connections.

After some 4 years of research there is now a framework to this analysis. Over the next 4 weeks, when the internet allows,  I will share snippets and thoughts. Please respond, argue, contest since I know there is lots of expertise out there. My book is half done and such comments can only help.


Visit to Japan Oct 2018

I spent the month of October 2018 in Japan doing research in archives but also meeting veterans of Imphal and the families of veterans.

I also visited the Museum of Special Operations at Chiran in the south near Nagasaki. Special Operations refers to what in the west is call the Kamakaze programme. Kamakaze is a word Japanese never use in relation to the programme. My main take away was that the programme was very costly in terms of pilots, obviously. In the early days when the pilots were new recruits it made more sense than towards the end when even flying instructors were going on missions. The greatest number of missions were during the Battle of Okinawa which was of course the Japanese homeland even if not the mainland. There was also an air assault special operation in which 18, as I recall, paratroopers landed on a  US airfield and destroyed aircraft units they were all killed.

I spent lots of time in the archive supported by excellent translators and not a few historians who helped. I also met and interviewed Takao-san a veteran of Imphal. He was a battalion commanders runner in 214 Regiment ie on the southern Tiddim Road axis. His unit got as close to Imphal as any Japanese Unit. Again no spoilers but he spoke about condensed milk in the container dropped for Allied troops.

He also said they liked fighting the British who were complete gentlemen and best of all mostly slept at night. Whereas, he said Japanese officers had them running around fruitlessly at night. From what I know this rings true. He said much more that was fascinating.

I was also able to fill  in a good deal of detail on the Japanese axis on Shenam Ridge which for a period was their main effort. The Commander there, Major Gen Yamamoto  was much keener on the whole Imphal plan than the other Divisional commanders and of course he had road along which supplies could be brought to him. His force, was put under the direct commander of 15th Army and then apparently BAA although I still want to verify this.

The veterans families were angry with “Mutaguchi and anyone who listened to him” which of course meant the chain of command right up to Prime Minister Tojo. There are two source of anger. One that such a poorly planned operation was allowed in the first place given its low chance of success. On this point I am sympathetic to Mutaguchi and Kawabe in BAA. They had few good choices and Japanese doctrine of the time was clear that when you were threatened with attack, you did not defend; you attacked. The second point of anger for veterans is the Battle went on long after it was clear it had failed. Since most of the Japanese casualties occurred in the second half ie after 1 April 1944. This is harder to defend not least since by May and June it was Tokyo and Singapore who were asking for one last effort. BAA badly needed the troops in northern Burma were the front was in danger of collapsing as a result of Chinese attacks.

Other highlights include

  • Slim/Scoones made a significant planning mistake and was lucky that 20 Division was not trapped at the same time as 17th.
  • Half of the ammunition intended for Kohima was lost to allies air and Chindits. Also, a Japanese regiment was left behind to counter Chindits so all told I am not sure the Chindits get the credit they were due.
  • Spare a thought for the Japanese soldier sent back to Army Headquarters to get the gift of tobacco from the Emperor for the attacking troops. He also given a bottle of Sake but this was for the officers and of course breakable. In the carnage and confusion of the Chindwin crossings, somewhere in there was this soldier nursing the Sake trying to get back to his unit with it in tact.

So much more to say. Must keep writing. Do follow this blog.

General Slim making prototype parachutes from jute sacks

One of  General Slim’s most unusual achievements as a leader was that he won the confidence of troops under his command whilst they were being defeated. This happened first in Burma Corps in 1942 then XV Corps in the Arakan in 1943.  Units from both went to be part of 14th Army when it was formed and he took command of it.  He then changed the way the Army operated in particular by saying that if the Japanese got behind an Anglo Indian unit,  as they often did, then the Anglo Indian unit should stay put. He promised, the surrounded unit would be supplied by parachute. However, India in 1943 had very little silk so his idea was to use jute instead. One day a staff officer came to his bungalow and found him cutting up sacks to prove the viability of this idea by making a parachute himself, much a dress maker might make a dress. This painting depicting this event, which took place in Comilla in 1943, was commissioned by Bandoola Productions.

Notes from a research visit to Japan

The Japanese perspective on The Battle of Imphal interests me greatly. Few English language histories cover it in much detail. Arthur Swinson (Four Samurai) and Louis Allen stand out as having done so. Other histories are not incomplete but have simply dwelt on other aspects. I spent a productive two weeks touring Japan, visiting the sites of the memorials to the veterans of 33 Infantry Division, meeting academics and giving a lecture to Japanese analysts about the battle and the surrounding decisions.

Continue reading “Notes from a research visit to Japan”

From behind our lines to behind theirs: a tale of Engineer Reconnaissance in Burma 1944

As I research Bandoola Production’s  Soldiers of Empires book/documentary about the Battle of Imphal, I keep coming across amazing stories. Some are not relevant to our narrative but deserve to be more widely told. I found this one in A Flower from Lofty Heights; Geoffrey Evans and Antony Brett James.

Continue reading “From behind our lines to behind theirs: a tale of Engineer Reconnaissance in Burma 1944”