Battle Of Red Hill (21 -29 May 1944) From Allied's Perspective

Rajeshwor Yumnam *

Sketch map showing the Battle at Red Hill
Sketch map showing the Battle at Red Hill

One of the bloodiest during the Battle of Imphal. The object of the advancing 33rd Japanese Division (from south) had been to capture the strongly fortified British camp at Bishnupur. On failing to capture this particular British camp, the advancing columns bypassed the British at Bishenpur and followed the western hill ranges of Manipur so as to put up a blockade to British supplies at Lotpaching (Red Hill) just adjacent to MS 10 in Imphal Tiddim highway.

On 20th May 1944, some Japanese troops of 2/215 Regiment, who were entrusted to storm Bishnupur, had meanwhile joined 1/214 Regiment at the Red Hill, after streaking through the villages located on the fringes of Loktak lake just for avoiding any possible confrontation with the Allied troops on the main route.

Upon reaching the Red Hill they managed to make some hurried preparations too. In order to defend themselves, the Japanese had to construct 'Pimples', 'Foxholes' and 'Gunner Boxes' in the entire region of the Red Hill. And they could put up a blockade to British supplies at Lotpaching for about 48 hours at the cost of heavy casualties on both sides.

But across the japanese line the Allied forces were making an all-out bid to check further advances of the Japanese combatants. And just for tactical break through the stiff resistance offered by the Indo-Japanese forces, a Composite Force was formed on the 24 May out of the units attached to Cowan's Hqs( 17th Div) viz. 'Woodforce', after its Commander.

The force was to comprise: i) 4/12 Frontier Force; ii) 48 & 63 Brigades; iii) 7/10 Baluch; iv) two companies of 6/5 Maratha Light Infantry; and v) Cavalry of 50 Para Brigades representing infantry, tanks, sappers and artillery. The real confrontation took place on the 25th May and continued right upto 29th May.

The Battalion HQ and the D company ( Joe Hudson) of the 7th/ 10th Baluch were send forward from near the Red Hill to bolster up the local defence of 17th Division Headquater located near the Nambol Bazar. One platoon of D company, under Subedar Ghulam Yasin was deployed on point 2926, the highest part of Red Hill. On the night of 20/21 May 1944, with the monsoon intensifying, the Japanese made their most ambitious and daring thrust. 2nd Battalion, 214 th regiment group, move several miles along the hills, cross the road and endeavour to seize the whole Red Hill feature.

The group consisting of 500 infantry, 100 gunners with three light caliber guns and 40 sappers, who on the way demolished the bridge at Oinam and laid mines on the road to the west of the village Oinam. The only platoon under Subedar Ghulam Yasin fought all night and held out and at dawn the Japanese had to dig in on the southern part of the feature and in part of the small village of Maibam to the south.

On 21st May, Divisional Headquater, initially underestimating the Japanese strength at Red Hill and thinking it was only a fighting patrol, ordered the Divisional Defence Platoon to counter attack and drive the Japanese off. The Defence Platoon suffered heavy casualty. On that day four tanks sent back from Bishenpur were knocked out at Oinam. On 22nd May 1944, a battalion group of 9th /12th Frontier Force Regiment from Corps Reserve put in several costly and unsuccessful attempts from the north west of Red Hill.

On 25th May 1944, Maurice Wright was ordered to put in a full battalion attack to recaptured the Red Hill feature.

" On the 27th the 3/1st Gurkhas arrived as reinforcements from 20 Division as well as the 1/4th Gurkhas who had been recalled from 32 Brigade. The former were in good form having just fought a notably successful battle on a hill called 'Scraggy' in the Shenam Pass. 'Woodforce' now was set about clearing Marbam. The 7/10th Baluch, who had succeeded in capturing most of the central part of the hill were relieved by 1/4th Gurkhas. On the night of the 27/28th the Tehri Garwhal Sappers cut a tank track up the steep northern end of the hill and at first light Lieutenant Weir managed to get his medium tank up onto the ridge.

Once there he daringly edged forward onto the steep southern slope to a position from which he was able to knock out the bunkers which had held up the 7/10th Baluch. However, his tank was soon hit by a Japanese mountain gun firing point blank, and he then found that the hill was to steep either for the brakes to hold or for the tank to negotiate in reverse. Telling his crew to bail out while he held the brake, he decided to try and drive down the precipitous slope. Fortunately after a few yards the tank bellied on the rock and he was able to bail out himself. The tank took no further part in the battle but it help had already been invaluable.

With this support the 3/1st Gurkhas, attacking down the hill to the south overran the first Japanese position on 'first Pimple' and captured most of the next one, called 'Second Pimple'. The Japanese counter-attacked violently, however, and regained 'First Pimple'. There was some desperate fighting at short range and casualties began to mount. In gallant attempts to recapture these key positions, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wingfield, two company commanders and the adjutant were killed. Lieutenant Colonel Oldham, from 1/4th Gurkhas who were forming the firm base for the attack, took command and the reserve company was committed but it soon became clear that further progress could not be made and the attack was called off. Casualties in the 3/1st Gurkhas were 19 killed and 55 wounded.

The next day it was turn of the 1/4th Gurkhas. When they attacked on the 29th there was no opposition and they captured three prisoners and a lot of abandoned equipment. This include two 75 mm mountain artillery guns and one 70 mm battalion gun thrown into a pond. The battle was over and the few survivors had withdrawn into the hills" (Burma - Turning Point by Ian Lyall Grant MC).

The war Diary of 1/4th Gurkha Rifles recorded the following information.

"28th May 1944. 'C' Coy moved from the MARBAM pan and took up posns as follows:-
"C" Coy less two Pls- hill feathure RK 230475. Two Pls 'C' Coy--- East end of Oinam village where they established themselves after slight enemy opposition. During the afternoon the 3/1 G.R attacked the enemy position on the southern edge of the 2926 feature. The attack was not fully successful and the 3/1 G.R were withdrawn at dusk. Killed in action - 1 G.O.R. Evacuated wounded in action 10 G.O Rs. Evacuated sick to hosp 2 G.O.Rs. Rejoined from hospital- 2G.O.Rs.

29 May 1944. Strong fighting patrols from 'D' and 'B' Coys cleared up enemy resistance in the area after heavy harassing fire by Arty, throughout the night.

1830 hrs. The Bn concentrated in the area just North of Pt 2926. Rejoined from hospital- 34 G.O.Rs. Rejoined from War leave- 6 G.O.Rs. Rejoined from War leave- Sub. Gangabir Thapa. Draft from R.C. 4 G.R. Bakloh- 3 G.O.Rs. Rejoined from Sig Course Poona- 1 G.O.R. Rejoined from C.W. Course Saugor- 1 G.O.R."

Louis Allen in his book 'Burma- The Longest War' has describe the action at Red Hill as follows:-
"On 20 May they (Japanese) came out of the hill west of Buri Bazar (now Nambol Bazar) at MS 10 from Imphal, and took a hill which dominate the road (Point 2926 or Red Hill). Or, at least, they took most of it. A pimple defended by twenty sepoys from 7/10 Baluch resisted the onslaught;and the Japanese did not occupy the part of the hill which overlooked HQ 17 Indian Division. They were simply cutting the road from Imphal and did not know Cowan was there.

Cowan, rather naturally, objected to conducting his battle in the very shadow of the Japanese offensive, and after a scratch force from Divisional HQ and a number of infantry companies had failed to dislodge the Japanese, 50 parachute Brigade ( Woods) was brought in. With the assistance of 3/1 Gurkha Rifles ( under Wingfield) from 20 Division and two troops of tanks( 3 Carabiniers), the Japanese were forced off Red Hill by the end of May. Sakuma watch the battle from regimental HQ at Nunggang. When it was over, Sueda's 2nd battalion , 500 strong when he set out was down to forty men".

On May 30th 7/10 Baluchs found that the enemy had moved off Red Hill and the two pimples; a hundred bodies were counted and seven unarmed, shell- shocked prisoners, one of whom admitted that his entire company had been wiped out. Next day about eighty Japanese with a few guns were driven out of a nearby village. (Imphal, 1962)

The book Imphal further mentioned, " Life for the Japanese soldiers in the front line was pitiful. Posted singly in slit trenches, up to the waist in water, without food, with no one to talk to, suffering from dysentery and malaria, under incessant rain and nervous tension, they struck it grimly, living almost instinctively. Wasted by disease and hunger , their clothing in tatters, their bodies encrusted with dirt, they no longer hoped, knowing well that the next day might be their last. What infuriated them perhaps more than anything else was to see British,Indian and Gurkha troops walking about in comparative safety, smoking cigarettes; the Japanese very often dared not give away their positions by firing a shot, nor had they the ammunition to spare".

Had the Japanese forces succeeded in capturing the British camp at Bishnupur its onward march to Imphal would have proved possible and the course of Indian history might have been different hitherto. The INA-freedom-fighters and the Japanese troops with no hope of reinforcements and further supply line, except their morale had to retreat to save themselves from a possible total annihilation. On the Japanese side the battle proceeded very badly. One company of 214 Regiment had reportedly been totally wiped out to the last man.

In this battle one British Corporal Monk of Corps of Signals was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his coolness and informing the Brigade Hqs for every few minutes even after the British officers had been killed. And one Military Cross (MC) was bestowed on Lt. A. Weir of 3-Carbiniers who managed to get up on the Red Hill so as to give direct aid to Allied soldiers on foot. Thus the Blitzkrieg of the 33rd Japanese Division was checkmated by the infantry of the 17th Indian Division at the foot of the Red Hill, while they were heavily bombarded and continuously gunned down by the Royal Air Force fighters and bombers.

* Rajeshwor Yumnam wrote this article for
The wrtier is the Co-Founder of 2nd WW Imphal Campaign Foundation and can be contacted at yrs001(at)gmail(dot)com
This article was posted on May 29, 2015.

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