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The Synthesizing Role of The I.N.A. Martyrs' Memorial: Moirang & The Indo-Japanese Peace Cenotaph: Lotpaching (Red Hill)

Manindra Singh Mairembam

3. 'OPERATION U' - The Imphal Campaign:

An encapsuled reference can herein be made to the Imphal campaign of the Indo-Japanese forces. As already cited, World War II broke out in Europe in Sept. 1939 and various nations themselves got involved one by one either in the Axis or in the Allies fold and the war was ultimately to come to an end in August 1945. From the beginning of 1941 it was felt that the war would somehow spread to the Far East. In Asia the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 brought USA into the war mode. Earlier, the Japanese rapidly rampaged the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indo-China (Vietnam), Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the Pacific Islands, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma.

Right from late 1941 the British army began simultaneous civil defence preparations by for instance asking civilians to keep air-raid shelters ready by way of covered trenches etc., although they were hesitant to start volunteer corps lest the recruited natives would give them away to their enemies. Ever since Japanese Air Force planes bombarded Imphal on 10 May 1942 further counter-defence preparations of Imphal had begun on a war footing. Imphal looked impregnable once all the remaining civilian population were herded out from the barricaded box area of the town and all the civilian area used for army deployment. Key players of the battles of Imphal and Kohima like Lord Mountbatten, the then Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific theatre, Air Marshal John Baldwin, Field Marshall W. Slim and top British war staff used to either visit or camp at Imphal to oversee the war preparations. Later Field Marshall Slim would himself hole up in the British Reserve for months together during the critical days of Battle of Imphal and his compound in the extreme north of Kangla is still named after him and is a place of tourists' delight. In particular many roads and bridges were then built in both valley and hills of the state for greater mobility of troops and tactical support.

As to the epochal commitment of Field Marshall Sir William Slim and his team then holed up in those historic and beautiful cottages strategically situated at the north-eastern portion of Manipur Fort (Kangla: 236.62 acres) Imphal, he later reminisced in his book: "Defeat into Victory", how he ensured that he and his soldiers in the safety of his headquarters went on half-ration whenever the soldiers in the forward posts were short of supplies. If monsoon, disease and fatigue from protracted war proved a handicap, nay, an intractable impediment for Japan, the Allied forces were no less fortunate. As the war progressed along, the task of defeating the Japanese crusaders proved till then difficult for any of the Asiatic nations, including a beleagured China and the US (vanquished in Pearl Harbour attack). If a moral bondage could be established by military analysts between the Japanese frontline soldiers from the various war annals, no less a bondage can be seen transcending between Field Marshall Slim and his frontline diehards. It was no mean a task to turn the tide of victories of the Nippons that too in the heartland of Asia (Imphal Battle). And once the war tide could be somehow reversed at Imphal, a string of events came forth for a complete rout of the Axis in the orient as much as in the European theatre.

To ensure quick reversal of war fortune, the Allies planned logistics and strategms which were themselves completed in quick double (war footing) time. Hundreds of airstrips were laid out at strategic locations in Manipur and its neighbourhood areas, for what was then perceived to be aerial supply chain to and across Manipur onto Burma and China. While the then existing Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur road was substantially improved, the rudimentary Silchar-Imphal road almost reconstructed. Perhaps it was not the original plan of the Japanese to fight the war on the Indian soil; at least they seemed to think that it was not feasible to do so particularly when they declared war formally on the Allied forces. But this was to be modified in course of the war later on, based on the intelligence input that since the British force in Manipur and Chittagong were unprepared, a possible capture of Imphal would rob the British of their best base for launching a counteroffensive against Burma, which had already been overrun. It was at this very juncture that Imphal was bombarded, as already cited on 10 May 1942 but since not followed up by Japan perhaps because of some apparent Japanese initial inhibitions.

The planned attack on Manipur was however revived in 1943 with the arrival of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at Singapore in July 1943 and the consequent formation of the Provisional Government of Free India on the 24th October 1943. Besides, the warlords of Tokyo themselves now felt the need to do so in view of the impending Allied offensive from the Imphal-based Lt. General Scoons, G. O. C. (IV Corps) and of the bigger Japanese game-plan to prevent a possible British re-occupation of Burma.

Netaji's fervent insistence for launching the Imphal campaign for liberation of India at the earliest, when the Allied forces were least expecting it, did prompt the Japanese military strategist to decide on an immediate assault on Imphal. What Netaji hoped was that such a capture of both Imphal and Chittagong was strategically necessary for starting an Indian revolution. He had therefore programmed that once Imphal would be liberated he could install on the Indian soil an effective Provisional Government of Free India, which should offer an opportunity for more and more Indians to organize anti-British revolt.

Netaji also discussed the basis of cooperation between the Japanese and the INA forces. In his negotiation with General Kawabe, Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Area Army, he insisted that both would enjoy equal status in all respects. They also agreed that the territories liberated on the Indian soil must be handed over to Major-General A. C. Chatterjee, Governor-designate of the liberated areas. However, the Japanese strategists at Tokyo took too long a time to take a final decision. This delay, in particular, gave sufficient opportunity to the Allied forces to intensify their war preparations for their defence of Manipur. For instance, the official Japanese decision taken on 12th August 1943, was revealed to Netaji only on 26th August. And, the concerned executive order to assault on Imphal was issued on 10th January 1944 from Tokyo. Though the Japanese High Command appreciated the desirability of launching the proposed assault on Imphal well ahead of the monsoon, there was another delay in the arrival of the 15th Division from Siam (Thailand). Such delay proved costly, because they had to postpone the offensive till March. Ultimately by 10th February General Kawabe issued the final assault orders to the 15th Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Mutaguchi Renya with a rider that the campaign be completed within a month, because thereafter monsoon was to commence.

Thus the operation 'U' started moving with great optimism and undaunted spirit as expected from the Japanese army which had hitherto been undefeated by any power in the land battles in their military history so far. Their apparent plan was to capture Imphal within a month when the garrison of IV Corps of Gen. Scoon would fall into their hands. On this score, some military historians assert that the invading army were in high spirits and prepared for the thrilling adventure of entering the Indian territory across the mountainous Indo-Burmese border, without the slightest doubt about their success.Theirunprecedented victories in the first few months of the war against the mighty combination of Anglo-American forces might have greatly inspired and further strengthened the then current myth of their invincibility and perhaps of the divine mission of their nation. With such strong conviction a three-pronged attack was launched on Imphal by the first week of March by using three principal formations:

a) 15th Division (RETSU), commanded by Lt. General Yamauchi; consisting of five regiments (15th Infantry; 60th Infantry; 67th Infantry; 21st Field Artillery; & 15th Engineer);

b) 31st Division (MATSURI), commanded by Lt. General Sato Kotuku; consisting of five regiments (58th Infantry; 124th Infantry; 138th Infantry; 31st Divisional Mountain Artillery; Divisional Engineer;

c) 33rd Division (YUMI), commanded by Lt. General Yanagida: five regiments: (213th Infantry; 2 14th Infantry; 215th Infantry; 33rd Divisional Mountain Artillery; 33rd Divisional Engineer.13

Notwithstanding certain initial reservations by the Japanese Generals about the battle-worthiness of the regular INA divisions, they finally agreed that some INA units and the Burma National Army were to accompany the abovecited Japanese Divisions. Netaji exerted his own pressure pleading that the battles of Imphal and Kohima would represent basically the crucial battles for the liberation of India and therefore that, not only the INA should spearhead the attack, but the first drop of blood shed should be that of an INA soldier. Hence two of the best INA Divisions were earmarked along with some special combat forces:

1) 1st INA Division (Gandhi Brigade) commanded by Maj. General Md. Zaman Kiyani;

2) 2nd INA Division (Subhas Brigade) commanded by Maj. General Shah Nawaz Khan;

3) Special Task Force (Intelligence Group) commanded by Colonel S. A. Malik joined the first offensive in the first week of March; and

4) The Azad Brigade commanded by Colonel Gulzara Singh, later on joined and also fought together with Yamamoto's Force at Tamu-Pallel sector;

"Altogether some 8,800 INA combatants participated in the campaign. 14

Unlike the IV Corps of the Allied force then defending Imphal, the Japanese had no permanent allotment of air support and had to depend on a few Japanese air squadrons temporarily attached to the armies or divisions for particular operations. And this, despite the Imphal valley which was of immense strategic importance and whose failure would be disastrous. The IV Corps was becoming more and more determined to defend Imphal at any cost. And the defence-preparedness of the IV Corps to ward off the mounting threat on Imphal was multiplied manifold by the following reinforcements:

a) 17th Indian Division under the command of Major General D. T. Cowan, comprising 48th and 63rd Indian Infantry Brigades;

b) 20th Indian Division under the command of Major General Gracey, comprising 32nd, 80th and 100th Indian Infantry Brigades;

c) 23rd Indian Division under the command of Major General O. L. Roberts comprising 1st, 37th and 49th Indian Infantry Brigades;

d) 5th Indian Division under the command of Major General H. R. Briggs, comprising 9th and 123rd Infantry Brigades (flown by air from Arakan Front from 18th - 29th March);

e) 7th Indian Division under the command of Major General Frank Messary, comprising 89th Indian Brigade (flown to Imphal on 18th April);

f) 50th Para Brigade; and

g) 254th Tank Brigade & Corps, Troops etc. 15

Altogether around 1,55,000 active combatants were involved in the defence of Imphal. 15 Besides the above formations, the IV Corps was also supported by some 13 Groups/Wings and Squadrons of Air Force units operating in different parts of Imphal, Dimapur, Kumbhigram, Patharkandi, Pallel, Sapam &c. In the month of March 1944 three Japanese Army Divisions along with the Subhas Brigade entered the mainland Indian territory after crossing big rivers, different hill ranges and thick forests for their attempted thrust and assault deep inside the Indian territories towards Delhi.

The 15th Japanese Division of Lt. General Yamauchi marched towards Tamu and Ukhrul in two columns and captured Ukhrul before they advanced towards the Imphal-Dimapur road for their onward assault on Imphal from the northwest, while the 1st INA Division under the command of Major-General M. Z. Kiyani also joined the Imphal campaign and fought with the Yammoto force at Pallel sector. Simultaneously, the 31st Japanese Division (MATSURI) commanded by Lt. General Sato advanced to Kohima (now capital city of Nagaland) through Homalin (North Burma) and Ukhrul. Meanwhile, Major General Shah Nawaz Khan's 2nd INA Division could reach Ukhrul to help Sato. By 7 March the daredevil (jungle warfare) Japanese crack force of Lt. General Yanagida's 33rd Division (YUMI) spearheaded the thrust from the south via Tiddim Road.

The Indo-Japanese columns advanced very fast with heavy guns and tanks, which the 17th British Division could not resist. As such the Allied forces retreated leaving completely behind the entire range of southern hills (now Churachandpur District) of Manipur upto Potshangbam into the hands of the advancing Japanese & INA columns. Jubilation ran high among the local people of Moirang at the progress of the war and some leaders including M. Koireng Singh spent a sleepless night on the 13 April hiding themselves under the Moirang Lamkhai Bridge and watching out eagerly the British 17th Division retreating from Tronglaobi. The INA forces kept on occupying the vacated areas.

Finally, Colonel S. A. Malik's Bahadur Group (Special Task Force-Intelligence) of the INA was fighting with the 214th Japanese Regiment of the 33rd Division menacing in the Bishnupur sector by establishing its Headquarters at Moirang (14 April 1944). This was the supreme moment of ecstasy for the INA and its Supreme Commander Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, because the National tricolour flag of INA was hoisted for the first time at the historic Kangla of Moirang, near where incidentally the INA Memorial complex is now lodged in lasting memory of the historic moment.

While the 33rd Japanese Division was fighting some of its fiercest battles in and around Bishnupur-Moirang sector and the Silchar track (old Cachar road) against their old enemy, the 17th Indian Division of the Allied forces was under the command of Major General Cowan from March till their retreat in July 1944. The Imphal-Dimapur road remained closed on account of the heavy fighting the Kohima war front along the road. All the essential commodities for the Allied Forces had to be brought in by air. That proved a critical moment for Major-General Cowan, since Imphal was then encircled by the Indo-Japanese combatants from all the three accessible approach roads and directions and an imminent fall of Imphal was expected by Tokyo any time. It is not generally known that around this time Netaji who had coined the immortal phrases of Jai Hind and Dilli Chalo appended to Indian freedom-fighters' lexicon another immutable description of Gandhiji as 'Father of the Nation'. In a broadcast over the Azad Hind Radio on 6 July 1944, Netaji addressed: "Father of our Nation! In this holy war of India's liberation, we ask for your blessings and good wishes."

Rather belatedly on 23 Jany 1948, just a week before his assassination, Gandhiji also reciprocated his innermost feelings for the Netaji and commented: "Netaji gambled away his own life for the sake of his country. What a huge army he raised, making no distinction of caste and creed! His army was also free from provincial and colour prejudices. Subhas Chandra Bose was tolerant of all religions and consequently he won the hearts of all men and women of his country. He accomplished what he had set his heart on. We should call to mind his virtues and practise them in our lives."

But by mid-May the entire balance tilted against the INA and Japanese soldiers. With the approach of early monsoon, lack of supply items of ammunitions, rations and other essential supply, coupled with the stiff opposition by increased and fresh Allied troops, the offensive of the Japanese forces was checked on all fronts. Soldiers - themselves already exhausted from the prolonged war - were required to fight heavy odds against monsoon, malnutrition due to inadequate ration. The Japanese soldiers were suffering also from malaria - another inherent evil of jungle warfare.

The war situation in all the sectors was thus turning from bad to worse, as the Allied forces were fighting with augmented reinforcements and regular war supplies from the rear. Above all, the Indo-Japanese soldiers became exposed to greater and still greater air-attacks combined with powerful tank and heavy artillery support on all fronts. And the Japanese air-raids of enemy targets and bombing operations at Imphal became much less frequent. On the top of it all, the strategists in the war room in Tokyo had various other growing concerns. In the Kohima-Ukhrul war-front, Sato's 31st Division which fought stubbornly and so very boldly as to earn respect even from the enemies could no longer hold onto Kohima by the last week of May, as the Division was fighting all through in isolation without any fresh supply of ammunition or any ration and as no air support was provided for their protection. Hence Sato's men started retreating by the night of May 30 without any cohesion, against the Army order. Shah Nawaz Khan's No. 2 INA Division which hurriedly rushed over to Ukhrul theatre from the Arakans could not be of much help to Sato.

And Khan met Sato in the neighbourhood of Sangsak and was briefed of the latest war developments, but was advised to fall back to his own Division. Even while retreating they had to face stiff opposition. And Sangsak thereupon saw one of the bloodiest battle ever in this sector. 16 In the Pallel front too, the Yamamoto detachment which had by this time lost most of its fighting power in its confrontation with the enemy in Tengnoupal area could not take full advantage of the surprise attack upon Pallel Airfield by Major General M. Z. Kiyani's No 1, INA Division. The detachment thus failed to proceed beyond Pallel.


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