Japanese bombing of Imphal
- Part 2 -

Lt Col(Retd) M Ranjit Singh *

Maharaja Bodhchandra was not present at Imphal on the bombing day as he was away to Thanga. Mr Sharpe, the President of Manipur State Darbar with Mr Duncan, Asst to Political agent was also away to Ukhrul to receive Lt Gen Joseph Warren Stilwell, Commanding General of the American China-Burma-India Theatre. Gen Stillwell was on retreat from Homalin on foot hotly chased by Japanese troops till he was received by Mr Sharpe's group at Chamu, Ukhrul on May 16th, 1942 at 12.45 pm.

Many Tangkhul Headmen came out at each village with a bottle of rice wine, to welcome General Stilwell. The General described Pushing village as "something which has touch of Alaska. The side walls of the houses have upright boards carved like totems. The trees at the top are all cut in notches, with the top branch cut off."

At Imphal within a few hours of bombing, almost every house in Imphal was abandoned by 1,10,947 residents generally leaving a male member of the family for guarding their properties and fled for safety to outlying villages. For people owning bullock carts and fleeing from Imphal, the loads changed from Phou Bora (sacks of grain) to the household goods and chattels of some family which had fled; and their carts were piled high with furniture, cooking utensils, with mattresses and huge Kangthons (bedsteads) fastened above.

The women and children walked gloomily in the dust, or sat aloft among their belongings, while father whacked the lazy bullocks and gazed placidly forward. In the villages the family had to 'double up' with friends and relatives. Two, three and even four families might live together and they took the inconvenience and upheaval in excellent part and there was minimum grumble.

As a result of the raid, the civil administration of the State ceased to function. For the rest, the State Departments, the Doctors, the clerical staffs and the menials all fled to a safe place. After the bombing most of the police force of 1 Inspector, 4 Sub Inspectors and 69 Constables deserted their posts and the SP was forced to issue an order on 11th May suspending the functions of the Police. In the centre of Imphal, almost the only civilians remaining were a few pilferers and looters.

At 4 o'clock in the evening, the idol of Lord Govindaji was shifted to the residence of Aribam Anou Pujari at Bamon Leikai. Lord Govindaji was shifted to Uchekon on May 12th again when Maharaj Bodhchandra returned from Thanga.

The aftermath of the Japanese Bombing

For several days there was no one to burn or bury the corpses of man and beast alike. And almost the only cheering fact was the Japanese radio claim that they had bombed Imphal Airfield-none existed at the time - and had destroyed between forty and eighty planes - there was not one aircraft within a hundred miles! The Germans went one better, declaring with resonant pride that their Japanese allies had bombed Imphal railway station, when the nearest railway station lay one hundred and thirty miles to the north.

The second bombing raid took place on May 16th, 1942 at around 10 am. The bombs fell at Residency, 4th Assam Rifles area, Khwairamband Bazar, Keishampat and Wahengbam Leikai area. The front of the residency was damaged by a near miss and a bomb landed on the main gate of the jail and demolished it. The main bazaar had been gutted after the second raid and Khwairamband bazaar remained closed.

Some dangerous criminals slipped away from the Jail and indulge in widespread dacoity until recaptured. In fact, a number of them returned on their own accord, as soon as Mr Sharpe announced that slit trenches had been dug in the Jail. Twenty five bomb craters were counted in the Residency garden. Lt Gen Slim was spending the night of May 15th at the Residency.

Whether the Japanese were trying to kill him or the bombing was carried out just to destroy the remnants of Burma Corps will never be known. At 4 Assam Rifles location, the only casualty was the Civilian Medical Officer who had to be evacuated to the Hospital in Kohima. The material damage was again light but, again, the building in which the Canteen stores had been shifted received the direct hit, destroying among other things whatever was left of the Rum - a coincidence that provided much humorous comment among the jawans of 4 Assam Rifles.

The total casualties in both the bombings were 71 killed and about 80 wounded. In addition at least 50 refugees were killed, some in the European refugee camp and some in Lorries on the road. Major NB Callan of 10th Baluch Regiment, 2nd Lt DR Lemerton of Royal Engineers and 2nd Lt RYS Stewart of Royal Signals died on the second bombing day and their plaques are there in Imphal War Cemetery. There were altogether 17 bombing raids in Imphal during the Japan war duration.

This does not include dog fights by both sides which formed an integral part of military operations. The next largest casualty during bombing in Imphal took place on Tuesday, the April 20th, 1943 at the temple of Chingangbam Gulab at Khurai where 90 persons died and 49 injured. Kshetrimayum Bidhu Singh had organised a Gopi chak khang-ba/grand feast (Utsav) at the above temple. The dead includes Samurailatpam Nityai (Iboton) Sharma, Bishnu-priya, Radhe, Amusana, Angangmacha, Lairenmayum Eka, Khuraijam Angou Singh, Mani's wife and many others.

Imphal remained comparatively quiet during rest of 1942 and the whole of 1943 except for occasional Japanese air raid. The offensive for capture of Imphal began by Japanese 15th Army of 3 Divisions on March 6th, 1944. By March 30th, 1944, Imphal was cut off by land. The complete 4 Corps of Allied Force consisting of 3 Divisions and one Tank Brigade later reinforced by one Division and a Para Brigade were concentrated around Imphal to fight back the Japanese. The entire troops of Allied Force numbering around 1,00,000 in Imphal were supplied by air for four months making the longest and largest air supply operation in the history of war.

The most fiercely contested battle of the Burma campaign, the battle of Imphal which, if for no other reason, will go down in history as the greatest military defeat ever suffered by the Japanese on land. Japanese 15th Army suffered around 30,000 casualties in Battle of Imphal.

This is out of their total strength of around 1,00,000 troops. The British and Indian casualties were around 13,000. Had the fortunes of war gone the other way, there is no knowing how serious would have been the repercussions. With the issue of instructions for withdrawal of Japanese 15th Army from general area Imphal to Tiddim and the line of Chindwin on July 20th, 1942, the Battle of Imphal came to an end.

The common people suffered the most during the war period. In 1942 and 1943, there was a bad harvest at a time when good harvest was most needed. The price of rice rose from about Rs 1.50 to Rs 7 and then to Rs10 per maund (approximately 38 kg) and was extremely scarce, atta, dal, flour and sugar being almost unobtainable.

Cigarettes were almost unavailable, though an occasional packet of "Ten Players" found its way to the market at Rs 5 or 6. One must remember that in those days money was scarce as there were very few Government jobs available and average pay of Government employees were less than Rs 30 per month.

Throughout the war period the main pre-occupation in Manipur was economic. The Army was employing large numbers of labourers and paying them handsomely. Unskilled labour in the valley and in the hills, which before the war time had earned 4 annas (25 paise) per day, was earning Rs 1.25 as a daily wage.

In the year October 1942 to September 1943, Army purchased locally 78,044 maunds of vegetables, 3,17,744 maunds of firewood, 31,77,126 pounds (7,94,282 kg) of milk, 6,22,313 pounds (1,30,578 kg) of fish, 26,963 maunds of potatoes, 1,34,940 eggs, 10,991 maunds of fruit, 11,435 maunds of charcoal and 82,322 ducks and chickens. Enterprising persons earned lots of money through various Contract and Supply business.

The legacy of this "contract" business is still carried on by many persons in Manipur. The brighter side effect of the war has been the conversion of Dimapur- Imphal-Moreh cart road to an all weather two way tarmac road. This road was constructed under the supervision of Brigadier Michael Gilpin and then of Brigadier Grand, the Chief Engineer of 4th Corps in a record time with thirty thousand coolies from the tea estates of Assam.

One can frightfully imagine the possible fate of this road in case there was no invasion by Japan in 1942. Tulihal airport was made four thousand yards long, owing to a mistake. The Americans always talked in feet, not yards, and one of them asked the British Engineer officer for an airstrip about four thousand long, so down it went as British yards! This error, however, proved of great value for us till date. White sugar introduced during War period has become an indispensable diet of all Manipuris.

I conclude my article with a line borrowed from Field Marshal Slim, "For any inaccuracies and, of course, for its opinions I only am responsible".

Concluded .....

Read Japanese bombing of Imphal Part 1 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 21, 2011.

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