Home » INA-Japanese Imphal and Kohima Campaign and Local Participation (1942-45) – I

INA-Japanese Imphal and Kohima Campaign and Local Participation (1942-45) – I

by Rinku Khumukcham
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By Prof. N. Lokendra Singh
Prof. & Head, Dept. of History, Manipur University

IA – Chin Hills

After overrunning the Allied forces in Southeast Asia, the Imperial Japanese Air Force carried out strategic bombing at many vital areas in Rangoon on 23 December 1941. The Burmese nationalists supported the Japanese in the initial phase of the war.As a result, the latter could easily establish military control of the region and Rangoon was captured on 7 March 1942.To counteract the Imperial Japanese military advances, the Allied forces too organized ‘local levies’ among many ethnic communities i.e. Shans, Kachins, Nagas and Chins. In May, Sir Reginald Dorman Smith, the Governor of Burma fled to Shimla and set up the Burmese government in exile there.  In August 1943, the Japanese granted Burma the status of independent nation although it continued to retain the ultimate sovereign authority over the country.

As the 17th Indian Division of the British IV Corps operating in Kabaw valley area planned for safe withdrawal to its headquarter at Tiddim,  the ‘Chin levy’ consisting of two classes of volunteers under the command of Norman Kelly, the Assistant Superintendent of the district  was trying to provide effective logistical support. The ‘A’ class men were supposed to take an offensive role outside their own tract/village where as the ‘B’ class was supposed to operate in their own locality. Each of the armed volunteers of the 1st group were paid Rs.20/- per month, whereas, those of the latter group were given Rs.10/- each per month.

The 17th Division marched towards Tiddim when the road construction works were completed. A combine force including the Chin Levy defeated a strong force of the 33rd Japanese Division at ‘Leisan Mual’ (Basha hills) on 25 May 1943 in which many Japanese soldiers were killed. Despite these reverses, the Japanese 33rd division continued to move towards Tiddim during May, June and July of the same year as a preparation for a counter attack. In between, Col. Stevenson recruited volunteers known as ‘Chinwags’ to work  at Falam whereas ‘Chin force’  under the command of Major W.P. Peeble was set up to work at the Lumbang-Mualbem area. Conversely, the Imperial Japanese forces also raised their own local levy force i.e.,‘Chin Defence Army’comprising local tribesmen. With that, the Japanese forces succeeded in capturing Falam, an important town on 7 November and Haka four days later. Since the British Army as well as the administrative personnel began to evacuate Chin Hills, many Burmese government employees began to support the new Japanese regime. Obviously, the local population had to follow the directives of the Japanese forces. The villagers of Haka, Falam, Tiddim, Tonzang, etc. had a tough time with the Japanese officers who extracted, labour, food and loyalty for the new regime.

Meanwhile, Subhash Chandra Bose, the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian National Army had established his Headquarter at Rangoon in 1943. Earlier, Bose had arrived at Tokyo on May 16, 1943 immediately after he reached Sebang by a Japanese submarine. He met Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo on June 10 and again on June 14 soliciting support for India’s independence. Two days later on June 16 Tojomade a declaration to help the cause of Indian independence. By the end of June, Bose left Tokyo for Singapore accompanied by Rashbehari Bose, the elderly leader of Indian Independence League. On July 4, representatives of the League gave him a rousing welcome at the Cathay Theater. The assembled crowd readily accepted Subhash as the new leader of the League. The Indian National Army (INA) under the leadership of Mohan Singh had also been waiting since 1942 for the baton to be taken over by Subhash Chandra Bose. Thereafter, the Japanese military authority agreed to provide training and equipment for no more than 30000 personnel organised in three divisions. The first division with about 10000 personnel and consisting of ‘Gandhi’, ‘Nehru’ and ‘Azad’ regiments or brigades was put under the command of Mohammed Zaman Kiani. Some of the more active soldiers of three regiments formed No.1 Guerrilla Regiment and was sent to the Malayan town of Taiping in September 1943 under the command of Shah Nawaz Khan for training in addition to 45 other handpicked young men who were trained in Tokyo’s elite Military Academy. In addition to the three divisions separate intelligence and field propaganda units i.e., ‘Bahadur’ groups had been organized for the three divisions. On October 21 1943, Subhash proclaimed the formation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind (Free India) in Singapore. By December 1943, four units of 250 men each had been attached for training to the Japanese divisions that would take part in the Kohima and Imphal campaign. Just after the midnight on October 23-24, 1943 the Provisional Government declared war on Britain and the United States of America.

In March 1944, after an in-depth discussion among the top military brass and political leaders, the Japanese forces launched an operation code named ‘U-Go’ aiming at a major invasion of North East India. Three Divisions of Japanese 15th Army commanded by General Renya Mutaguchi along with one INA Division advanced to North East India via Kabaw valley and the Chin Hills. The combined Japanese-INA forces advanced through three important routes –(1) 33rd Division under General Yanagida was to proceed through Chin Hills-Churachandpur route against the British Indian 17th Division till Imphal, (2)31st Division led by General Sato, stationed in and around Somra tract was to attack British garrison at Kohima and seized vital Railway & supply depot at Dimapur and then send forces to capture Imphal, and (3) 15th Division under General Yamouchi had to cross Chindwin River at Homalin and Thaungdut and proceed via Tamu-Pallel route. All the three divisions were to encircle Imphal which General W. Slim, commander of the British Indian 15thArmy used as the supply base for a future counter offensive.

On 7th March 1944, General Mutaguchi had issued instruction for the offensive actions.The 17th Division commanded by General Cowan at Tiddim withdrew on 15 March1944. The retreating British forces were continuously attacked by the units of Japanese 33rd division all along the way. Two battalions of INA’s ‘Guerilla’ brigade led by Shah Nawaz Khan reached Tiddim at the end of March to move along with Japanese forces. According to Ian Lyall Grant 7 important battles were fought between the Japanese and the17 Division led Allied forces along the Tiddim Road (3 in the Chin Hills and 4 at the Manipur valley). At the battles at Tonzang, Singge land Sakawng, the Japanese attempted to cut off the 17th Divisions line of retreat. The rugged mountain terrain coupled with the twists and turns plus the multiple winding up and down of the road provided ideal conditions for setting up military roadblocks.

On 16-17 March, between Tonzang and Tuitum (Chin Hills), the Japanese forces set up roadblocks. Although, the roadblocks were cleared on the 18th, the Japanese soldiers managed to cross the Manipur River and marched towards north through the hills to seize control of the road. By 5thApril, all the Allied forces were completely withdrawn to Imphal, leaving the Chin Hills a free hand to the Japanese forces.

(to be continued)

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