Battle of Imphal

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The Ukhrul Road

View over Ukhrul town today. View over Ukhrul town today. Photo by Hemant Singh Katoch

The Ukhrul Road and its environs saw continuous action from the second half of March to July 1944. While the Japanese 15th Division was again active here, the area was also affected by the 31st Division that was en route to Kohima – especially in the Battle of Sangshak (present-day Shangshak) and in Jessami. Facing the Japanese were British formations that were rotated on several occasions. In March 1944, the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade and one Battalion of the 23rd Indian Division were deployed in this sector. By the end of the month, the 5th Indian Division arrived here almost straight from the Arakan in Burma. In mid-April, the 23rd Indian Division took over the Ukhrul Road; they in turn were finally replaced by the 20th Indian Division in mid-May.

The Battle of Shangshak, from March 22-26, 1944, was the iconic battle of this sector. It pitted the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, which had only recently arrived in Manipur, against the much larger bulk of the 58th Regiment of the Japanese 31st Division, as well as elements of the 15th Division. The vastly outnumbered British forces held out for several days in the mountain village of Shangshak against wave upon wave of Japanese attacks, thereby delaying the latter’s march towards Kohima and Imphal. This gave just enough time for 4th Corps in Imphal to reorganise themselves; kept the Imphal-Kohima Road open for a few more vital days; and allowed the 5th Indian Division to be flown into Imphal from the Arakan and straight to this sector. As Geoffrey Evans and Antony Brett-James write in their book Imphal: A Flower on Lofty Heights: ‘The defenders of Sangshak had made a fine contribution towards the successful outcome of the battle [of Imphal-Kohima]’.

Another major battle in this sector took place from July 1-8, 1944 at Ukhrul, where the remnants of the Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions (returning from Kohima) had gathered to make their last stand in Manipur. According to Slim: ‘By 1 July, Ukhrul was encircled. The  7th [Indian] Division attacked from the west and north, the 20th [Indian] Division closed in from the south and south-east, and 23 LRP Brigade [the Chindits] repeated its old role of cutting the escape routes to the east.’ All of Ukhrul was in British hands – under the 33rd Corps coming from Kohima – by 8 July, while the remainder of the Japanese forces were in full retreat towards the Chindwin River.

Besides Ukhrul and Sangshak, places such as Kameng, Yaingangpokpi, Litan, Kasom and Shongphel, among others, were also witness to clashes between the British and Japanese forces during the Battle of Imphal.