Battle of Imphal

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The Tamu-Palel Road

The Palel-Tamu Road between Shenam and Tengnoupal. The fighting on this stretch was likened to the Somme in World War I. The Palel-Tamu Road between Shenam and Tengnoupal. The fighting on this stretch was likened to the Somme in World War I. Photo by Ranjit Moirangthem

Perhaps the most stirring introduction to the fighting in this sector is by Evans and Brett-James. They write: ‘‘Nippon Hill’ – ‘Sita’ – ‘Crete East and West’ – ‘Scraggy’ – ‘Gibraltar and Malta’. These were the names which went to make up the Shenam Saddle position. They are hills unknown to the outside world, but they will remain always in the memories of those who fought there. They were the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting of the whole war, and hundreds and hundreds of British, Indian, Gurkha and Japanese soldiers lost their lives on these hills which changed hands time and again as counter-attack followed attack. At the outset clothed with jungle, they became completely bare except for shattered tree trunks’.

On the British side, the 20th Indian Division (minus one Brigade sent as Reserve to Imphal) was active in this sector from mid-March to mid-May 1944. It was commanded by Major General Douglas Gracey. It was subsequently replaced by the 23rd Indian Division commanded by Major General Ouvry Roberts. They faced the ‘Yamamoto Force’, so named after Major General Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese 33rd Division’s infantry. He also had under him most of the Division’s medium artillery, tanks and mechanised transport, and 2 Battalions of the Japanese 15th Division. On his left and right flanks were the Gandhi and Azad Brigades of the INA respectively (see Imphal and INA section).

The fighting on this sector involved repeated attempts by Yamamoto Force to get past British defensive positions around the Shenam Pass/Saddle en route to Imphal. The British defences held, but only after months of fighting in conditions likened to the Somme in World War I. As on other sectors, one of the hardest parts was to dislodge the tenacious Japanese from their bunkers once the British went on the offensive to clear out the area (which was completed by end-July). Lyman writes: ‘…jungle-topped hills became bare from the shell fire and the monsoon turned positions, often only yards apart, into a muddy morass of indescribable horror and ugliness. Once dug in, the Japanese had to be grenaded out, bunker by bunker. Otherwise they were immovable’. 

Besides the peaks mentioned above, others such as what the British called Ben Nevis was witness to severe fighting, as well as places such as Tengnoupal (in particular), the Lokchao Bridge and Moreh. Interestingly, Lyman notes that the Japanese had also given their own names to some of the peaks. What the British called Scraggy was Ito; Crete East was Ikkenya; Crete West was Kawamichi; and Nippon Hill was Maejima.