|Battle of Sangshak|
|Part of the Battle of Imphal|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Maxwell Hope-Thompson||Shigesaburo Miyazaki|
|approx. 1 infantry brigade||approx. 1 infantry regiment|
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of Sangshak took place in Manipur in the forested and mountainous frontier area between India and Burma, from 20 March to 26 March 1944. The Japanese drove a parachute brigade (fighting as infantry) from the British Indian Army from its positions with heavy casualties, but suffered heavy casualties themselves, and the delay imposed by the battle allowed British and Indian reinforcements to reach the vital position at Kohima before the Japanese.
In March 1944, the Japanese launched Operation U-GO, a major invasion of India. While most of the Japanese Fifteenth Army attacked IV Indian Corps at Imphal, the Japanese 31st Division advanced on Kohima, to cut the main road on which the troops at Imphal depended for supply.
The Japanese division advanced over a wide front. It was divided into Left, Centre and Right Assault forces. The Left Assault Force consisted of two battalions of the Japanese 58 Regiment, with the regimental headquarters and detachments from the division's supporting arms. The regiment's commander was Colonel Utata Fukunaga, but the force was accompanied by the division's Infantry Group commander, Major General Shigesaburo Miyazaki, who was the senior officer. On 18 March, the force was approaching the village of Ukhrul, about 25 miles (40 km) north-east of Imphal and 8 miles (13 km) north of Sangshak.
Early in 1944, the 49th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Indian Infantry Division had been stationed at Sangshak to guard the road from Tonhe on the Chindwin River to Imphal. As the Japanese offensive began, the Japanese surrounded the 17th Indian Infantry Division at Tiddim, south of Imphal. Lieutenant General Geoffrey Scoones, the commander of IV Corps, was forced to send 23rd Division (including 49th Brigade) to help the 17th Division break out of encirclement.
At the time, the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade were conducting advanced jungle training in the Kohima area. The brigade consisted of 152 (Gurkha) and 153 (Indian) Parachute battalions, with a machine gun company, a mountain artillery battery and other supporting arms. Its commander was Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thompson. Even before the Japanese attack opened, they had received preliminary orders to move to Sangshak. Because of shortage of transport, they required four days (from 14 March to 18 March) to arrive. They took under command the 4th Battalion, 5th Mahratta Light Infantry, which had been part of 49th Brigade, and two companies of the Nepalese Kalibahadur Regiment.
The 50th Brigade initially deployed over a large area, with outposts 8 miles (13 km) east of Sangshak and the machine-gun company in Ukhrul. On 19 March, the Japanese overran an isolated company (C Company of the 152 Parachute Battalion) deployed on a hill known as Point 7378. The company was reduced to 20 men. Urged by his second-in-command (Colonel Abbott) that the brigade risked defeat in detail if it remained strung out as isolated posts, Hope Thomson ordered his forces to concentrate. Most of the force initially concentrated at Sheldon's Corner, 8 miles (13 km) east of Sangshak on 21 March, but that afternoon, Hope-Thomson pulled them back, first to "Kidney Camp" 4 miles (6.4 km) to the west, and then to Sangshak itself, where they took up a defensive position on a hill just east of the village, with an American missionary church at its north end. The position measured only 800 yards (730 m) by 400 yards (370 m), and had no fresh water. Hard rock was found only 3 feet (0.91 m) below the soil, and only shallow trenches could be dug.
The II Battalion of the Japanese 58 Infantry Regiment had meanwhile captured Ukhrul from 50th Brigade's machine-gun company. Major General Miyazaki was present with the battalion. He was aware that there was a British brigade at Sangshak. Although Sangshak was in the sector assigned to 31st Division's neighbouring formation, the Japanese 15th Division, Miyazaki knew that this formation was lagging behind his force. He therefore decided to clear the British from Sangshak to prevent them interfering with his advance.
Fighting at Sangshak
The Japanese battalion attacked Sangshak from the north on the night of 22 March. Miyazaki was prepared to wait for his regimental guns and some attached mountain guns to arrive to support the attack, but the battalion commander (Captain Nagaya) attacked hastily without artillery support. They suffered heavily from British artillery and mortar fire.
One of the Japanese officers killed in the Parachute brigade's positions was found to be carrying vital maps and documents, which contained all of 31st Division's plans. Brigadier Hope-Thompson sent two copies of the documents through the encircling Japanese to IV Corps HQ in Imphal. These were vital to IV Corps' and Fourteenth Army's response to the Japanese attack on Kohima.
The next day (23 March), Allied aircraft tried to drop supplies to the 50th Brigade, but the brigade's position was so small that many of the supplies went to the Japanese. The Gurkhas of 152 Parachute battalion attacked to recover them, supported by fighters which had escorted the transport aircraft. They were beaten back, but the Japanese also suffered heavy casualties.
On 24 March, the Japanese were reinforced by the III Battalion of the 58 Regiment, accompanied by the regimental commander and Miyazaki. They attacked immediately, but they too were repulsed.
The III Battalion of the Japanese 60 Regiment, belonging to the 15th Division, also began attacking the defended position from the east on 25 March. Although their commander (Major Fukushima) insisted that his officers properly reconnoitre the objective and plan their approach in contrast to 58 Regiment's hasty tactics, his infantry became lost trying to approach the position at night. During the following day, their two attached mountain guns destroyed many of the defenders' shallow trenches. On 26 March, Fukushima's infantry of the 60 Regiment again became lost trying to attack at night and were caught in the open at dawn.
The Japanese planned a last all-out assault on 27 March (although Miyazaki tried to insist that 58 Regiment alone should attack, so that they would have the sole honour of the victory). By that date however, the defenders were exhausted and desperately short of water. There were 300 wounded in the position, and the smell of decomposing bodies (including those of the mules belonging to the attached mountain artillery, and supply column) was unbearable. At 6:00 pm, Hope-Thompson received orders to withdraw. His brigade moved out under cover of darkness, although several men were captured by another battalion of the Japanese 60 regiment ("Uchibori battalion") which had cut the track from Sangshak to Litan.
Aftermath and results
The 50th Indian Parachute Brigade had suffered 652 casualties. The Japanese reported capturing 100 prisoners, most of whom were wounded. The Japanese also captured plenty of air-dropped supplies which had missed the defenders at Sangshak, and other equipment including heavy weapons, vehicles and wirelesses.
Japanese casualties were also heavy. The II Battalion, 58th Regiment was the hardest-hit unit, with more than 400 casualties. However, the prolonged battle had also delayed Miyazaki's advance on Kohima by a week. His Left Assault Force had the shortest and easiest route to Kohima. They arrived at the vital Kohima ridge only on April 3, by which time Allied reinforcements had also reached the area. In the ensuing Battle of Kohima, the Japanese failed to capture the entire ridge, and were eventually forced to retreat by British counter-attacks and shortage of food.
- Allen, p.652
- Allen, pp.212–213
- Allen, p.214
- Allen, p.215
- Allen, p.220
- Allen, p.216
- Allen, p.217
- Allen, p.218
- Allen, p.219
- Louis Allen, Burma: The Longest War 1941–45, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1984, ISBN 0-460-02474-4
- Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat into Victory, NY: Buccaneer Books ISBN 1-56849-077-1, Cooper Square Press ISBN 0-8154-1022-0; London: Cassell ISBN 0-304-29114-5, Pan ISBN 0-330-39066-X.
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