Field Marshall William “Bill” Slim is revered as the man who, after a disastrous campaign in Burma during World War Two, transformed Allied hopes in South-East Asia. Following his appointment as Commander of the 14th Army, Slim quickly managed to restore morale, improve training and mastermind a defensive strategy that repelled an attempted Japanese invasion of north-east India.
This article is an edited transcript of Imphal and Kohima with James Holland, available on History Hit.
Bill Slim’s plan
Slim’s plan was a daring and audacious one. He wanted to lure the Japanese in before retreating to within a small distance of the centre of Imphal in Nagaland, making sure the Allies didn’t lose the airfields.
This fighting retreat would really grind down the attacking Japanese force. By the time the main battle commenced, they would already be exhausted.
The Japanese would also be running short of ammunition, a significant problem given the enormous length of their supply lines.
The next step, with the enemy depleted, would be to fly in more Allied supplies and then counter-attack.
This, in a nutshell, is what happened. But, because even the best plans tend to go awry in war, it didn’t go quite as smoothly as that.
Mutaguchi had ambitious plans of his own
The Japanese high command saw the operation in Imphal – known as Operation Ha Go – as simply a means of knocking back the British, so that, whatever happened, they couldn’t invade Burma.
But Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese Army, didn’t want to limit Japanese ambitions to Imphal, he also wanted to take Dimapur, which was 120 miles to the north via a single road that runs from Imphal to Dimapur, through the village of Kohima.
Mutaguchi recognised that if his troops could take Dimapur – the gateway to Bengal – then the notoriously left-wing and anti-British population of Bengal might rise up in rebellion against the British. It was even conceivable that the of the rest of India might then follow Bengal’s lead.
If everything had gone to plan then all of the American bases in Assam – which were providing air supplies to the Chinese over the Himalayas – would have been captured, stopping the supply lines to China. Mutaguchi’s strategy could have turned around the whole war.
So, although Japan’s Imperial Supreme War Command was singularly focused on capturing Imphal and essentially carrying out a holding operation, Mutaguchi was thinking he could be the hero and save Japan, which in 1944 was facing an uphill battle.
The Sangshak Stand
Holding up the Japanese forces on the way to Imphal and Kohima was a crucial part of Slim’s plan. But doing so was no mean feat. Especially when the Japanese advanced more swiftly than Slim had anticipated.
One of the decisive moments in the Battle of Imphal and Kohima happened at the village of Sangshak, where Anglo-Indian troops, led by Brigadier Hope-Thompson, held a significant Japanese force for four or five days in what proved to be a fierce and prolonged battle.
The delay was vitally important as it allowed British and Indian reinforcements to reach Kohima before the Japanese. Consequently, the exhausted Japanese troops were thwarted in their attempts to capture Kohima and forced to retreat.