A Mountain Artillery Regiment during Battle of Imphal

Lt Col M Ranjit Singh (Retd) *

29 Mountain Artillery Regiment was raised at Peshawar in October 1942 from two batteries of 21 Indian Mountain Regiment. The two batteries were 9 (Murree) and 14 (Rajputana) Mountain Batteries. A year later 38 Mountain Battery from an Anti-tank Regiment joined the new Regiment and became a full- fledged Indian Light Mountain Regiment, and it consisted of two normal Indian Mountain Batteries and one Indian Mortar Battery.

The total strength of the Regiment including attached personnel were 26 officers, 13 VCOs ((now JCOs) and 787 other ranks with 48 Horses and 374 Mules. The Mountain Batteries were equipped with 3.7 inch Howitzers and the Mortar Battery with twelve 3-inch mortars.

The Regiment under command of Lieutenant Colonel G Horsfield formed part of the Divisional Artillery of 17 Indian (Light) Division consisting of two Indian Light Mountain Regiments (21 and 29) and one British Field Regiment, 129th( Lowland) Jungle Field Regiment. 17 Division earlier after withdrawal from Burma in 1942 was reorganised at Shillong as 17 Indian (Light) Division.

A “Light” Division was equipped with less transport than a normal one and contained only two infantry brigades of four battalions each. 29 Mountain Regiment was grouped throughout the Battle of Imphal with 63 Brigade of 17 Division. The other Brigade of 17 Division was 48 Brigade.

In February 1944, 17 Indian (Light) Division under command 4 Corps was deployed at general area Tidim with Major General D.T.Cowan, D.S.O., M.C. as GOC. The other two Divisions of 4 Corps were 20 Division at Tamu and 23 Division at Imphal. 29 Mountain Regiment was taking part in operations in the area of Kennedy peak overlooking Fort White when 17 Division withdrew from Tidim to Imphal on March 14, 1944.

The distance from Imphal to Tidim is 165 miles. The milestones which provided definite locations of great value were serially numbered from 1 to 165. 23 Division was split up, 1 Indian Brigade forming the corps reserve at Imphal and the other brigades, 37 and 49 (less one battalion) move down the road to Tidim to extricate 17 Division.

In spite of its organisation 29 Mountain Regiment had the good fortune to be able to operate as a regiment for the greater part of Imphal battle, though there were times when batteries had an independent roles. 17 Division after withdrawal met its first big obstacle in the shape of a strong road block along the ridge of Tuitam.

This road block was forced after a heavy artillery concentration fired on it from three sides on March 17th, and the withdrawal to Imphal proceeded on the following day. A mountain battery commando was formed during the withdrawal under Lieutenant Evans and did some good works in harassing the Japanese. Lieutenant Joscelyne of 9 (Murree) Battery was killed leading an attack with small arms only against a very active Japanese bunker. The part played by 29 Mountain Regiment in these battles was recognised by the award of two Military Crosses.

From Tuitam the withdrawal of 17 Division along the 134 miles was hotly contested by the Japanese. One battery of 29 Regiment supported the Advance Guard while the rest of the Regiment supported the Rear Guard, but the Regiment was again concentrated to take part with the rest of the Divisional Artillery in the smashing of the road block at Mile Stone 72.

When eventually Imphal was reached early in April, the Regiment was sent with 63 Brigade to hold a horseshoe of hills at Sekmai. At Sekmai the regiment was supposed to rest. This it succeeded to some extent, but with 63 Brigade it soon took the brunt of repeated attacks by the Japanese 15 Division attacking Imphal from the north. The position was a strong one, and the Japanese were killed in large numbers.

So steep were the slopes in front of the position that artillery and small arms fire had only limited effect. But the mortars came into their own. Of the 120 Japanese bodies found in front of the wire after one attack, the Mortar Battery was given the credit for over 80. In this action Havildar Sher Sngh of the battery was awarded a M.M.

In May, 17 Division moved to the neighbourhood of Bishenpur. 48 Brigade swept around Loktak to establish a road block at Torbung, 29 Regiment with 63 Brigade drove straight down the main road. The first Japanese position encountered was at Potsangbam. Here the Japanese was well dug in and concealed in thick bamboo clumps, and a canal with steep banks, running through the centre of the village, presented a formidable obstacle to British tanks.

The attack to Potsangbam was launched from the village of Kwa Siphai, half a mile to the north, in which 29 Regiment came into action. The village was cleared after five days of hard fighting. The mortar battery had taken part in the battle, and not unnaturally had attracted a lot of Japanese mortar and artillery fire on its own position.

63 Brigade was later ordered to establish a firm base at Kha Aimol in the hills and deny to the Japanese the use of the tracks which formed his line of control in his positions north of the Bishenpur-Silchar track. For this operation 29 Regiment now under command of Lieutenant Colonel JM Hopper came into action in the south-west corner of Bishenpur, providing its own protection, but close to the perimeter of another brigade.

The Japanese 33 division troops came down from the hills and established themselves in Bishenpur, Oinam and Buri Bazaar, close to the HQ of 17 Division, and in the lower foothills in such places as Laimram and Wailen. The routes which the Japanese took to Bishenpur happened to be along the bed of a stream which formed the rear boundary of the 29 Regiment’s position. A brisk action took place in the darkness, but it was difficult to say whether the Japanese deliberately attacked the position, or bumped it unexpectedly.

Kha Aimol was on a narrow platform in the hills with valleys on three sides, and here the 29 Regiment had its first experience of gun-busting parties. Two of the gun pits were rather exposed and close to the perimeter wire and they were evidently marked down by the Japanese as a suitable target for raid. The raid by the Japanese took place on the night of May 25th/26th, which was very dark and wet.

The raid was almost certainly carried out by a picked party consisting of a Warrant Officer and about 25 selected soldiers, and they were armed with grenades, rifles and bayonets. The attack opened with the firing of a Verey light pistol by a Japanese who had penetrated the wire at a point some distance from the guns. The perimeter wire was then charged by the raiding party, and although some were killed on the wire, a number were able to get through.

A very fierce fight than took place round the guns, bayonets being freely used and rifles being used as clubs. Dawn showed the Battery’s casualties to be six killed and thirteen wounded, of who two subsequently died, but the bodies of the Japanese Warrant Officer and thirteen of his party were found round the guns and on the wire, and on the tracks leading away from the position. The guns remained undamaged. It was a magnificently fought little action, and resulted in the award of a very well deserved M.M. and two gallantry certificates for the Regiment.

On 6th June Japanese overran two important features overlooking the 63 Brigade position. The Brigade was forced to withdraw to Bishenpur. The scene of operation now shifted to the Bishenpur-Silchar tract, and to the hill country immediately north of it. One of the 3.7 inch batteries was deployed a little further north to the village of Khoirok in support of 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment.

The command post was dug into the floor of a convenient basha, which also housed the battery signalling and specialist equipments. A fairly large reserve of ammunition was held in the position. But luck was against the battery. A shell from a Japanese 75 mm mountain gun struck the basha, and in spite of the rain set fire to it. The equipment inside it was destroyed, and a quantity of the ammunition started to explode.

The Battery suffered serious casualties. But a detachment was ordered to conduct a very quick and effective shoot on to the Japanese from an open position and succeeded in silencing the Japanese gun. The Battery Commander and No.1 were respectively awarded the M.C. and M.M. for this action.

The Japanese were finally cleared from the Silchar track and from the country north of it during the last week of June. The 29 Regiment returned to Imphal with 17 Division and so ended a hard fought battle and a proud page in the Regiment’s history.

* Lt Col M Ranjit Singh (Retd) wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is president of Manipur Equestrian Association
This article was webcasted on April 16, 2019.

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