Battle of Imphal

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The World Visits

Japanese War Memorial, Red Hill Japanese War Memorial, Red Hill

"Imphal...the last place on earth one would choose as the venue of a vast military campaign. Yet it was here that Japanese, British, Indians, Gurkhas, arrived in 1944 to kill each other in their thousands. The Japanese were driven by the dream of invading India: the others by the need to stop them" - Louis Allen, Burma - The Longest War

The Battle of Imphal brought people from many foreign lands and different parts of India to Manipur for the first time. In a way it was also for the last time that the state saw such a diverse gathering of nationalities and people from around the world. After the end of the Battle, and of the War in 1945, Manipur went back to being a quiet corner of the world, with few outsiders and foreigners visiting Imphal and its environs.

This section then gives a glimpse of who was here during the Battle of Imphal – when the world last visited Manipur.
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Britain

Britain’s presence was primarily in the form of its thousands of soldiers, pilots and other personnel of the British Army and Royal Air Force that took part in the Battle of Imphal. Among others, this included men of the Devonshire Regiment, the Suffolk Regiment, the West Yorkshire Regiment, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Border Regiment, the Northamptonshire Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders. Then there were the British pilots who flew in the Royal Air Force squadrons that made up 221 Group which oversaw the Air Battle of Imphal.

Men of the 2nd British Division also passed through Imphal en route to Burma (Myanmar) after their victory in the Battle of Kohima and the opening of the vital Imphal-Kohima Road on June 22, 1944.

Japan

As mentioned elsewhere, some 70,000 soldiers of the Japanese 15th Army directly participated in the Battle of Imphal, while another 20,000 headed towards Kohima. The former belonged to the 15th and 33rd Divisions, and included men from 51 Regiment, 151 Regiment, 213 Regiment, 214 Regiment and 215 Regiment. Thousands of soldiers of 31st Division who survived the Battle of Kohima also retreated towards Burma via Ukhrul in Manipur.

In addition, pilots of the 5th Air Division of the Japanese Army Air Force also took part in the Air Battle of Imphal.

Rest of India

A major portion of the fighting forces on the British side and, of course, with the INA consisted of Indian soldiers. While Indian soldiers fought as part of the Allies in many theatres, notably in North Africa, Italy and Burma (Myanmar), it was at the Battles of Imphal and Kohima that they actually fought in their own country during the Second World War.

A visit to the Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery today gives an idea of the varied origins of the men who fought and died in and around Manipur during the Battle of Imphal and the War – both from the Army and the Air Force. Other indications come from the names of some of the Regiments of the men commemorated at the Cemetery’s Cremation Memorial. These include, among others – 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles, 6th Rajputana Rifles, 14th Punjab Regiment, 5th Mahratta Light Infantry, Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners, 9th Jat Regiment, as well as the Assam Rifles.

Nepal

Gurkhas played a major role in the Battle of Imphal. Of the 49 infantry battalions of the British IV Corps who fought, 16 were Gurkha.

Moreover, of the 5 Victoria Crosses won during the Battle, 3 were won by Gurkhas - Rifleman Ganju Lama, Naik Agansing Rai and Subedar Netrabahadur Thapa.

United States of America


American involvement in the Battle of Imphal was mainly through pilots of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). These men flew in and out of the 6 airfields scattered around the Imphal Valley – bringing in reinforcements, evacuating casualties, and providing close air support to troops on the ground.

A lesser known fact is that members of the American Field Service were active throughout the Battle of Imphal. Their ambulances were in operation on the frontlines and they evacuated casualties on, among others, the Silchar Track, the Palel-Tamu Road, the Tiddim Road and around Imphal.

Canada

Canada’s participation was in the form of dozens of pilots of the Royal Canadian Air Force who flew in the Royal Air Force squadrons based in and around the Imphal Valley. These men transported reinforcements into the Valley, flew reconnaissance missions into Burma, and supported troops on the ground both during the Battle of Imphal and that of Kohima. Canadian pilots were also actively involved in supporting the advance of the 14th Army from Imphal into Burma in the latter half of 1944.

Twelve Canadians are buried in the Imphal War Cemetery, including eleven members of the Royal Canadian Air Force and one soldier. 

Australia and New Zealand

Like their Canadian counterparts, dozens of Australians and New Zealanders of the Royal Australian Air Force and the Royal New Zealand Air Force respectively took part in the Battle of Imphal. Flying in the Royal Air Force squadrons, these men gave close support to the Army during the fighting on the ground, helped relieve the Siege of Imphal and that of Kohima, and bombed Japanese supply lines.

Five members of the Royal Australian Air Force, two of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and one of the New Zealand Infantry are buried in the Imphal War Cemetery.

Pakistan and Bangladesh

While Pakistan and Bangladesh did not exist as independent countries in 1944, there is nevertheless a connection between both countries and the Battle of Imphal. This is because many of the soldiers who fought in Manipur as members of the then-British Indian Army subsequently found themselves to be citizens of Pakistan (in 1947) and of Bangladesh (in 1971).

Interestingly, of the over 600 Muslim soldiers buried in the Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery, nearly 400 are from present-day Pakistan (the overwhelming majority) and from Bangladesh. 

East Africa

Men from then British-ruled Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Nyasaland (now Malawi) were also in Manipur during the War. They made up the 11th East African Division that came under 33rd Corps in Imphal at the end of July 1944.

While the 11th East African Division did not participate directly in the Battle of Imphal, it passed through Manipur and entered Burma (Myanmar) through Tamu en route to the Kabaw Valley. It fought in the Kabaw Valley from August to December 1944 and reached as far as the Irrawaddy River. The Division was finally withdrawn to India from Burma in April 1945.

Manipur is thus linked to perhaps one of the least known, yet interesting, aspects of the War – that of the participation of Africans as part of the Allied forces in the Burma Campaign. Today there are some 40 graves of East Africans in the Imphal War Cemetery.

Southeast Asia

The Indian communities settled in Southeast Asia formed the bedrock of support for Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA). Besides providing material support, many Indians from Southeast Asian countries volunteered to fight for the INA. Although exact numbers are hard to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that some of them took part in the Battle of Imphal as members of the INA’s 1st Division.