Battle of Imphal

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The Air Battle

Remains of the Palel Airfield, one of three all-weather Airfields in the Imphal Valley. Remains of the Palel Airfield, one of three all-weather Airfields in the Imphal Valley. Photo by Ranjit Moirangthem

All British military accounts acknowledge that without support from the air, the Battle of Imphal would have been very hard to win, if at all. Thus it was as much an air battle as one fought on land.

Evans and Brett-James explain it best: ‘Undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable [features] was the part played by the Royal Air Force, the Indian Air Force and the United States Army Air Force, without whose contribution the outcome of the battle could well have been very different. Besides preventing the Japanese Air Force from taking any real part in the operations, so that few soldiers ever saw an enemy aircraft, for four months they kept Scoones’ large force supplied with all its needs in the worst possible conditions. They also provided the means of reinforcing 4th Corps in the nick of time, by flying in 5 Division. Nor did their activities end there. The indirect support they gave to the Army by wrecking the enemy lines of communication and the direct support they provided for the troops on the ground – the Battle of Nungshigum being a typical example – were, in great measure, instrumental in dashing any hopes the Japanese had of capturing Imphal.’

In 1944, there were six airstrips scattered around the Imphal Valley. The three all-weather strips were Imphal Main (or Koirengei Airfield), Palel and Tulihal (the current Imphal airport), of which Imphal Main was the most important. The fair-weather airstrips were Kangla, Wangjing and Sapam.

During the siege of Imphal, these airfields served as a lifeline. Lyman notes: ‘By 30th June [1944] the operation had flown in 19,000 reinforcements, 14,317,000 pounds of rations, 1,303 tons of grain for animals, 835,000 gallons of fuel and lubricants, 12,000 bags of mail and 43,475,760 cigarettes, an average of 250 tons of supplies being delivered each of the 76 days of the siege. At its height in the second half of April, the airlift employed 404 aircraft from fifteen squadrons'.