The Tides of War Changes in the Battle of Imphal

Updated on August 8, 2017
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Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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In 1944, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was becoming a thorn in the Japanese army’s side. Flying out of bases in India (in particular, Imphal, the capital of the state of Manipur), the RAF was wreaking havoc on Japanese-held Burma as well as keeping a vital aerial supply route to China alive.

Not to be deterred, the Japanese were determined to win back the sky as well as the Burma theater of World War II. As a result, the Japanese launched a major and ambitious invasion of northeastern India, which would have lasting repercussions throughout the remainder of the war.

The Battle of Imphal-Kohima was large in scope, and possibly ill conceived. While the Japanese had early success in the battle, they were eventually repulsed with heavy casualties. Also, the objectives of knocking out the RAF and “The Hump” air route to China remained stronger than ever after the battle. In the aftermath, Japan’s hold on Burma, as well as the rest of Asia, loosened.

from wikipedia.com
from wikipedia.com

The Battle Plan

Planning for the invasion began in the summer of 1943. Lieutenant General Renya Mataguchi of the Japanese 15th Army wanted to launch an offensive into northeastern India to eliminate the aerial threats (Chen, 2011).

Another reason for the attack was to cut off Allied lines of communication to the front in Northern Burma, where the American-led Northern Combat Area Command was in the process of constructing Ledo Road to link India and China by land (Wikipedia, 2011).

He also knew such an invasion would create a buffer zone between India and Burma. There was another objective: the offensive was dubbed the “March to Delhi.” In his plans, Mataguchi included members of the Indian National Army (Azad Hind) – an Indian force seeking independence from British rule.

The goals were to destroy the forward-deployed Indian troops near Imphal and attack the town of Kohima at the same time

First rejected by his superiors, the plan would eventually be approved by Southern Expeditionary Army and the Imperial General Head Quarters in Tokyo. The offensive would become known as Operation U.

The plan was complex and Mutaguchi didn’t receive full support from his field generals. The goals were to destroy the forward-deployed Indian troops near Imphal and attack the town of Kohima at the same time - a major administrative center for the state of Nagaland, the site of a major airfield, and up the road from Imphal.

The imperial army’s 33rd Division, headed by Lt. General Motoso Yanagida would lead the attack. They would be reinforced by Lt. General Masafumi Yamauchi’s 15th Division to take Imphal while Lt. General Kotoku Sato’s 31st Division would attack Kohima at the same time (Chen, 2011). Sato, however, had misgivings about the expedition and feared supply routes would be exposed or stretched thin

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The Battle

Theinvasion began on March 8, 1944. Mataguchi’s troop crossed the Chindwin River from Burma and soon attacked the Indian IV Corp under the command of Lt. General Geoffrey Scoones. At first, the Japanese had some success: they captured the Indian 17th Division’s supply dumps and surrounded the troops. Also, Scoone’s delay to pull back troops played into the Japanese attack which led to near disasters for the British-Indian troops.

However, the pullback of troops – which was an original plan by Scoone and his superior, Lt. General William Slim – had its benefits. It forced the Japanese to fight with a longer supply line.

While the fighting was fierce and the Japanese proved late in the war to be capable of going onto the offensive, British and Indian troops managed to push back. Numerous times, they held their ground and broke sieges. In fact, in a simultaneous attack on Kohima Ridge, Indian troops from the poorly supplied 161st Brigade, the Assam Regiment, and members of the paramilitary Assam Rifles managed to keep the Japanese 31st Division at bay. Eventually, this part of the battle turned into a stalemate.

The battle lasted throughout the spring of 1944. Throughout the attacks and counter attacks, the Japanese supply lines were being stretched thin or disrupted by British and Indian troops trapped behind the lines.

While the Japanese managed to surround two important Indian cities, they had to withdraw in defeat.

On top of that, the British were able to get supplies and additional fire power from RAF and American aircrafts. As a result, Japanese morale began to plummet and several field generals, including General Sato, threatened to disobey direct orders and withdraw if supply lines were not flowing.

By July 8, 1944, the offensive was called off due to high casualties and insurrections within Japanese ranks. While the Japanese managed to surround two important Indian cities, they had to withdraw in defeat.

In the end, the Japanese suffered over 55,000 casualties with 13,500 killed while the British-Indian forces had 17,500 casualties (Chen, 2011). Many of the Japanese casualties were the result of starvations and diseases.

British Hurricane attack Japanese positions on a Burma Bridge
British Hurricane attack Japanese positions on a Burma Bridge | Source

The Aftermath

Aside from the high casualties, the Japanese war effort in Asia was in peril. The RAF continued their operations over Burma, and “the Hump” into China continued nearly unabated.

General Sato took much of the blame for the failure and was removed from command (however, much of the blame, according to Japanese sources, blamed Mataguchi). Eventually, Mataguchi would be removed from the theater of battle and reassigned to an administrative position

However, Mataguchi and Sato’s dismissal were the least of Japan’s problem. The battle proved to be a turning point in the Burma campaign. It was Japan’s final offensive of the war, and from that moment, they were on the defense.

The Battle of Imphal-Kohima was a major battle and a real turning point in the war. Lord Mountbatten’s description of the victory was fitting: “probably one of the greatest battles in history…in effect the Battle of Burma… [It was] the British-Indian Thermopylae.”

Lord Mountbatten awards a distinguished metal to a hero of the battle, Arjan Singh ( who'd later become the India's Air Chief Marshall in the 1960s).
Lord Mountbatten awards a distinguished metal to a hero of the battle, Arjan Singh ( who'd later become the India's Air Chief Marshall in the 1960s). | Source

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