Battle of Imphal

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The Tiddim Road

Red Hill or Pt. 2926 at Maibam Lokpaching on the Tiddim Road. This was the site of an iconic battle from May 20-29, 1944, and was the closest the Japanese got to Imphal from the south. Red Hill or Pt. 2926 at Maibam Lokpaching on the Tiddim Road. This was the site of an iconic battle from May 20-29, 1944, and was the closest the Japanese got to Imphal from the south. Photo by Ranjit Moirangthem

“The battles…on the Tiddim Road were some of the fiercest of the whole Burma war and were to have a profound influence on its outcome” – Ian Lyall Grant, Burma – The Turning Point

The Tiddim Road stretches northwards from Tiddim village in the Chin Hills of Myanmar right up to Imphal. Once the Japanese invasion began, it was the route through which the Tiddim-based 17th Indian Division made a fighting withdrawal. Most of the battles during the withdrawal – at Tonzang, Singgel, Sakawng – were fought on the Burma side of the Road and are not covered here. Instead, the focus is on the period from April to July 1944 when the Japanese clashed with the British Army on the Manipur part of the Tiddim Road in their drive towards Imphal.

For the majority of this period, the British forces here consisted of the 17th Indian Division, commanded by Major General DT ‘Punch’ Cowan, together with 32 Brigade of the 20th Indian Division. According to Slim, it was on the Tiddim Road and on the Silchar-Bishenpur Track that some of the heaviest fighting in the entire Battle of Imphal-Kohima took place. For, facing the British on the Tiddim Road was the Japanese 33rd Division, which Slim recognised as ‘living up to its reputation of being the toughest Division in Burma’. This Division was commanded by Lieutenant General Yanagida until May, after which Lieutenant General Tanaka Nobuo took over.

Indeed, following yet another infiltration attempt by the Japanese near Bishenpur towards the end of the Battle of Imphal, Slim commented in Defeat into Victory: ‘There can have been few examples in history of a force as reduced, battered, and exhausted as the Japanese 33rd Division delivering such furious assaults, not with the objective of extricating itself, but to achieve its original offensive intention’. He went on: ‘Whatever one may think of the military wisdom of thus pursuing a hopeless object, there can be no question of the supreme courage and hardihood of the Japanese soldiers who made the attempts. I know of no army that could have equalled them.’

As in the other sectors, the fighting on the Tiddim Road involved repeated and determined attempts by the Japanese to break through to Imphal, this time from the south. The British were equally determined to prevent this from happening. And the result again was ferocious to-and-fro fighting between the two sides for several months, until the British finally prevailed. Almost every village between Churachandpur and Bishenpur witnessed clashes of varying intensity, with Potsangbam, Ningthoukhong, Ninghthoukhong Kha Khunou, Thinunggei, Phubala, and Moirang possibly being the most affected.

Some of the iconic battles on the Tiddim Road were those of Potsangbam and Ningthoukhong, the Torbung roadblock and Red Hill (Maibam Lokpaching), where the Japanese have built the India Peace Memorial.

It is also interesting to note that in his book Burma: The Turning Point, Ian Lyall Grant writes: ‘Churachandpur, it later transpired, was a Japanese staging post rather like a mini-Kohima. Here the supplies coming up the road from Tiddim were delivered to the rear echelon transport of the forward formations. They were carried as far forward as possible in trucks and then switched to mules for the units in the hills’.