Japanese bombing of Imphal
- Part 1 -

Lt Col(Retd) M Ranjit Singh *

It was foretold in the Manipuri Puran that the years 1939, 1940 and 1941 would be years of trouble in Manipur. The first part of this prophecy turned out to be very much truer than the second. The "Nupi Lan" had disturbed the peace of Imphal in 1939-40 but by February 1941 everything was quiet.

The second half of the year 1941 saw the abdication in September and the death in November of Maharaj Churachand after reigning for exactly fifty years. Then in December 1941 Japan entered Second World War. This last event was at first taken quietly in Manipur, no one realizing how soon Japan would reach the frontiers of Manipur.

Japan dropped the first bomb on Imphal on Sunday, the 10th May, 1942 and again on Friday, the 16th May, 1942 heralding the beginning of Second World War in Manipur. That was before I was born and exactly 69 years ago.

I am sure all the generations, born after Second World War or Japan lan as more popularly known in Manipur, would like to knowwhat actually happened during those bombing days and subsequent war days in Manipur.

But I must confess here that all the details on bombing days in Manipur have been collected from various Military History books I had studied for my Part D examination during my Army service and well supplemented by narratives heard from many Manipuri elders during the last fifty years or so. Burma Campaign was Military History subject for my Part D examination.

The aftermath of the Japanese Bombing

Maharaja Bodhchandra's accession to the throne almost coincided with the coming of the Second World War to Asia. The War had already commenced in the west in 1939. In 1940 and 1941 the war however had no direct impact on Manipur, which still remained one of the world's peaceful beauty spots. Senior British officers present in Manipur in those days were Mr. Christopher Gimson, the Political Agent in Manipur, Mr. TA Sharpe, the President of Manipur State Durbar, Mr. L T Wilson, SP of Manipur and Lt Col Hurrel, Commandant of 4 Assam Rifles.

These officers and others when they meet in the Club used to discuss strategy and schemes for defeating the Germans, and sometimes they wondered whether their pensions were safe, but otherwise the war seemed very remote. Not until, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941, did the possibility of war reaching India emerge, and even then it seemed improbable. But not for long. Within ten weeks all Malaya and even Singapore had fallen to Japanese onslaught.

By March 7th, 1942, their conquest of the Dutch East Indies was complete. By second week of May 1942, Lt Gen William Slim's(later Field Marshal Sir William Slim) Burma Corps defending Burma consisting of 17 Indian Division, 1st Burma Division and 7 Armoured Brigade duly supported by V& VI Chinese Army were rushing back to India and China to avoid their three enemies, Japanese, hunger, and monsoon. The monsoon was expected to reach Manipur by May 20th, 1942.

It must however be noted that Burma Corps' Divisions were two ill-found, hurriedly collected, and inexperienced Divisions, of which one had been trained for desert warfare and the other contained a large proportion of raw and unreliable Burmese troops tragically insufficient to meet superior Japanese forces in a country of the size and topography of Burma.

The retreat of Burma Corps to Manipur was for preservation of maximum force and to rest and recoup to fight Japanese again when the opportunity arises. Of the 150 artillery guns of all kinds that Burma Corps had possessed at one time, but of these only 28 had crossed into India. The total vehicles of Burma Corps on arrival at Imphal were 50 Lorries and 30 Jeeps. No tanks could be brought to India. The casualties suffered by the Corps had been some 13000 men killed, wounded and missing.

The retreat almost coincided with the bombing of Imphal by Japan. In January and February 1942, refugees began to reach Imphal in their hundreds from Burma and were housed on their way through camps at Tamu, Sita and Koirengei; all manned by troops from 4 Assam Rifles. Refugees by April 1942 increased to thousand per day. Altogether 1,90,000 approximate refugees passed through Manipur during these periods. It is widely believed, Helen, famous Bollywood actor of yesteryearescaped through Manipur as a refugee in one of the refugee coloumn.

The Allied Air Force available during March 1942 in Burma was of two mixed wings, one at Magwe and another at Akyab, both big towns in the central Burma. The British squadrons had Buffaloes and Hurricanes fighter planes, mostly worn out Mark I's and Bomber squadron had Blenheim. The American Volunteer Group Squadron had P 40 Tomahawk fighter planes. Generally all the Japanese fighters were inferior in performance to the Hurricanes and the P 40 with the exception of their Navy O (zero).

The Navy O of Japanese Air Force was however, more vulnerable as neither it nor their bombers had self sealing tanks nor armour for the Pilot. The Navy O has one distinctive advantage in range. It had a radius of two hundred and fifty miles or five hundred miles with jettisonable tanks compared with the one hundred and thirty five miles of the Hurricane II.

On 21st March, 1942, Magwe airfield was suddenly attacked by Japanese fighters and bombers in overwhelming strength. In all Japanese employed two hundred and fifty aircraft. The Japanese repeated their Magwe attack on Akyab, with the same results. With Akyab and Magwe abandoned, there were no other British airport/airstrip near Imphal which can protect its sky.

Thus the Japanese had complete air superiority in the sky of Burma and Manipur during that fateful month of May 1942. The nearest airport available to Allied Force in Burma and Manipur was at Dinjan near Dibrugarh. The six airports/airstrips in Manipur used in later campaigns came up after 1943.

With the Japanese now so close to Manipur, the threat of air raids had become an ever increasing danger. Certain precautions had already been taken by Manipur Government and a black out imposed on Imphal and the nearby villages. Manipur State's Air Raid Precautions Service was formed in early 1942 to dovetail with the Military Passive Air Defence Scheme.

Imphal was divided into sectors each containing a Military Passive Air Defence aid post and a civil ARP aid post. Each such post contained a leader, three helpers and a chowkidar under the control of the Civil Surgeon, Dr S Kundu, MB, and AMS, who gave instruction in first aid. In addition each sector had one Warden, a Darbar Member or other leading State Servant, and a number of Assistant Wardens, all unpaid volunteers. These volunteers generally briefed people regarding precaution to be taken in case of bombing like closing of ear with cotton swabs, dashing to the nearest fire trench, sticking of glass window panes with sheets of paper etc.

At 4th Assam Rifles base at Kangla, there was hectic activity in implementing plans for Passive Air Defence against Japanese air attacks, which were daily expected after the evacuation of Rangoon in March 1942. Every available man was put to digging trenches and building shelters for his own protection as well as for other inhabitants of the Battalion area. The Manipuri householders had also been told to dig their own trenches. The public slit trenches were dug around Khwairamband bazaar and along the main roads. The public however really did not take it seriously.

At Nambol, a section of 4 Assam Rifles was stationed to wait and watch the Japanese aircraft. They were to heliograph a message to Headquarters 4 Assam Rifles at Kangla on seeing any aircraft, where upon the siren warning would be sounded. Since April 1942, the Japanese reconnaissance plane began to fly near the Manipur sky almost every day. For the Manipuris who had never seen aeroplane in their life, it was a nice entertainment to watch the flying planes.

The only complaint of Manipuris was that the planes were flying rather high and they were deprived of seeing the aeroplane in detail. The frequency of siren sounding increased, but never a bomb dropped. After a series of false alarms the warnings became little more than tiresome interruptions to the day's leisurely routine, and soon they were regarded with scant respect.

Sunday, the 10th May, 1942 was like any other Sunday in Imphal. Few hours ago, the devoted elderly persons had already come back to home from Govindaji temple after participating "Dhoop Aarti" ceremony there. School going children had finished their morning study. Many women were carrying out their weekly chores of washing household clothes in the nearby river banks and ponds.

The professional idlers have already commenced their "Duri" (a popular card game of Manipuris) playing session after early lunch. Those groups who can afford played with "Great Moghul," the most popular playing card of those days which was imported from USA. Others played with Indian made playing cards.

Few people had made programme to go to one of the cinema hall existing on that day ie Manipur Talkies, Diana Talkies, and Ram Kumar Talkies. Those Women from Imphal who had fanned out across the outlying villages for purchasing vegetables for resale in the evening at Khwairamband bazaar have however not returned to their homes. Generally everybody was in a holiday mood on that Sunday morning.

Mr Gimson, the Political Agent recalls that when the siren from 4 Assam Rifles sounded around 9.30 am on May 10th, he said to his assistant: 'I must remember to tell Hurell (CO 4 AR) to stop these silly signals.' An hour later the Siren wailed again. 'Damn!' exclaimed Gimson on his verandah. 'I forgot to tell Hurell.' These were almost famous last words. At the same moment two flights of 18 Japanese Bombers bombed and strafed Imphal.

Bombs fell at Residency (present Raj Bhavan), Khoyathong, 4th Assam Rifles location at Kangla, present PWD area, Majorkhul, Thangmeiband, and Mantri Khongnang. Since the Japanese had complete Air supremacy and there being no presence of anti aircraft gun at Imphal the Japanese as usual used pattern bombing, coming over in faultless formation, giving themselves a leisurely dummy run, and then letting all their bombs go in one shattering crump.

The bombing at 4th Assam Rifles location was accurate but the air-raid precautions taken by the Battalion stood the test. Casualties were light but unfortunately the incident claimed two key personnel. Subedar Major Sukraj Limbu received grievous wounds during the bombing and they eventually caused his death; the Battalion Panditji was the other person to be wounded. The only direct hit recorded was on the Unit Canteen building with all its stock of Rum. One bomb fell near the Battalion School. The Assam Rifles School was closed being Sunday.

Otherwise the casualty figure would have gone very high. A Military lorry with 11 occupants was blown up in front of the present PWD office. One person was killed while crossing on a fallen tree over Naga River. Lamabam Iboton (Kalki), a clerk in the Foreigner's office also died in the bombing.

Many houses were burnt, many vehicles destroyed and many cattle died in this bombing. War cemetery in Imphal has one plaque of Private E Owen of The King's Regiment and the date of his death is given as May 12th, 1942. In the same cemetery there are also five plaques of British Privates where dates of their death are given as May 13th, 1942. All these British soldiers may have died due to Japanese bombing on May 10th, 1942.

To be continued .....

Read Japanese bombing of Imphal Part 2 here.

Note: In British Army, One Army consists of two to three Corps; a Corps is made of two to three Divisions; a Division consists of three Infantry Brigades and one Artillery brigade; and an Infantry Brigade has three Infantry Battalions. However, a Japanese Army has only three Divisions and is like a Corps in British Army.

* Lt Col(Retd) M Ranjit Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express.
This article was webcasted on May 18, 2011.

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