TODAY -

Shifting of China's capital to Chungking brought the 38th Division of the Chinese Army to Imphal from Burma

Puyam Rakesh Singh *

Japanese soldiers begging for food at Manipur during World War II
Japanese soldiers begging for food.
Warning: These images CANNOT be reproduced in any form or size without written permission from the RKCS Gallery



The princely State of Manipur under the British paramountcy was hit by the WWII in the early 1940s. The Japanese invasion of Burma to close the Burma-Yunnan Road was pushed westward to cut the supply lines in Assam. The wartime airfields like the Chabua, Jorhat and Mohanbari and the Ledo Road (Stilwell Road) were the targets of the invading Japanese Army. The Indian National Army (INA) led by Subash Chandra Bose was also an important factor.

Cutting through Manipur, the Japanese forces attacked Kohima and surrounding areas in the Naga Hills of Assam and closed the Dimapur-Kohima-Imphal road for some time. Defending India after the defeat in the first Burma Campaign was the main objective of the British General Archibald Wavell while General Stilwell of the US was thinking of an offensive against the Japanese in Burma to avenge his defeat.

In the meantime, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) wanted to open the Burma Road to get supplies through Burma. After successful Japanese campaigns on the eastern coast and Indo-China region, loss of the vital supply lines forced China to turn toward British India and the US Government for support. For China, opening the supply line through Burma was the main focus of their operations in Burma.

In fact, China was not very lucky as far as opening the Burma Road was concerned. The Japanese forces were aware of the vital road to the sea and they stepped up the campaigns in Southeast Asia advancing toward Burma. Opening of the Burma Theatre and the defeat of the Allied forces in the first campaign led to large number of refugees and troops flowing into Manipur.

Some others passed through Kachin Hills of Burma and reached Tinsukia via Ledo. This route was taken by General Stilwell along with some Allied troops including few Chinese soldiers. Some Chinese troops crossed into Yunnan from Kachin Hills after suffering many casualties on the way. It was preceded by series of defeats in the hands of the Japanese. A rescue mission launched by the Nationalist KMT Army brought Manipur closer to China's history of Anti-Japanese Resistance.

Retreat of the Defeated Troops

In April 1942, the British General Harold Alexander requested the American General Joseph Stilwell for reinforcements to Yenangyaung. Under Chiang Kai-shek's supervision, some of the Chinese forces in Burma were put directly under the command of General Stilwell. As a result, the 38th Division under Sun Liren's command arrived there to rescue the British troops. Yenangyaung in Magway Division of Burma is famous for the battle that took place between the Chinese Army under the command of General Sun Liren (Sun Li-jen) and the Japanese forces.

A meeting was a held on 25 April 1942 at Kyaukse to decide the pull out plan. It was attended by Alexander, Slim and Stilwell. The withdrawal of British troops west of the Chindwin River toward Manipur took place in May 1942. General Sun Liren's Army also crossed the border from Burma on 25 May and they reached the Imphal Valley in late May 1942. His service in Yenangyaung and competence gained him the respect of William Slim, the Commander of the British 14th Army. Sun Li-ren was conferred many awards including the Order of the British Empire by George VI.

Interestingly, Sun Liren's army played a major role in breaking the Japanese encirclement of the British troops and their safe withdrawal to India through Manipur. The Yenangyaung Rescue Mission impressed William Slim of the British Army and he became close to General Sun Liren. It marked the start of the Allied troop withdrawal from Burma and the beginning of the preparation for a counter-attack. Consequently, Imphal and the surrounding areas were flooded with refugees coming from Burma starting from January 1942.

Lieutenant General Noel Mackintosh Stuart Irwin commanded the IV Corps. It was transferred to India from Iraq after the Japanese conquest of Burma. He became General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Army in India in July 1942. The Eastern Army was responsible for defending the frontier of India against the Japanese.

William Slim had many differences and disputes with Lt-General Noel Irwin. On reaching Manipur, the retreating British Army were treated with scorn and derision and even William Slim was not given a proper reception by General Noel Irwin. When Slim complained about his rudeness, Irwin replied, "I can't be rude. I'm senior".

The 38th Division under the command of General Sun Liren was asked to disarm on reaching Manipur by the British Army. Intervention of William Slim and others who knew the supreme service of General Sun Liren in Yenangyaung resolved the matter. General Du Yuming led thousands of Chinese troops across the Wild Man Mountain (Yeh Jen or Yeren shan) in their attempt to cross into Yunnan from the Kachin Hills. About 50,000 soldiers died on their way because of disease, starvation, torrential rain, poisonous snakes and wild beasts. They also suffered in the hands of the Japanese forces.

General Sun Liren

One of the most interesting pieces of the WW II history would be the retreat of the 38th Division under the command of General Sun Liren through Manipur. Unlike Stilwell and William Slim's groups, the 38th Division withdrew through Manipur as a fighting group. They proceeded further to Assam and reached Ramgarh Training Centre in Bihar (now in Jharkhand) for military training on June 28.

The Chinese general, who was known as the "Rommel of the East" after the famous German field Marshal Erwin J. E. Rommel, died on November 19, 1990 in Taichung, Taiwan. Who was Sun Liren? Sun Liren was born in Lujiang County, Anhui Province of China. He took two years' military training in Duyun, Guizhou Province before coming to Burma from Yunnan under the command of General Du Yuming.

Unfortunately, he was arrested and court-martialled in August 1955 allegedly for plotting a coup d'etat with the support of the CIA against Chiang Kai-shek. After putting under house arrest for 33 years, he was released on March 20, 1988 shortly after the death of Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek. In January 2011, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou formally apologised to his family.

The tragic story of Sun Liren after evacuating from mainland China to Taiwan in November 1949 tells the dirty side of politics and power struggle. The Memorial Hall of General Sun Li-ren in Taichung, Taiwan is the place where one can think of finding any trace of his connection with Manipur. The defeat of the Nationalist KMT by the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong forced the general to leave for Taiwan.

He was born in Anhui Province of the People's Republic of China (PRC) but died in Taiwan, which is also known as the Republic of China (ROC). It is said that blood is thicker than water. However, millions souls were put to death in the name of political ideology. The yearning for peace and unity and contestation between ideologies remain important factors in the cross-strait relations.

Manipur as the Hotspot

At the time of the outbreak of the WWII, Burma was part of the British India. When the Japanese forces crossed the Thailand-Burma border, the security of the Burma Road became a key concern for Chiang Kai-shek. Therefore, he sent an expeditionary force under the command of General Lo Cho-ying (Luo Zhuoying). The 5th Army led by Tu Yu-ming (Du Yuming), the 6th Army led by Kan Li-ch'u and the 66th Army led by Chang Chen crossed into Burma to face the Japanese onslaught.

The Chinese forces were sent to Burma to secure the Southwestern border and to open the Yunnan-Burma Road for getting supplies. Securing the Southwest China from the invaders and proper maintaining of the communication lines between British India and China were the most important things Chiang Kai-shek had to do after shifting the capital to Chongqing (Chungking).

The defeat of the Allied forces in Myitkyina marked the end of the first Burma Campaign. The Chinese and other Allied forces under the command of Du Yuming, General Stilwell, William Slim and Sun Liren were withdrawn. The Japanese victory in Myitkyina on 8 May 1942 was followed by occupation of Wanting (Wanding), Lungling and Tengchung that lie on the west of the Nu River. Crossing the Nu (Salween) River to move towards Baoshan (Paoshan) and Kunming was not easy for the Japanese and the two forces stalemated at the Nu River.

As the Japanese forces advanced towards Manipur after crossing the Chindwin (Ningthi) River, Imphal became one of the most important places on earth during the WWII. The Japanese planes bombed the small capital city of Imphal in May 1942. After succeeding his father Churachand in November 1941, King Bodhachandra strengthened the Manipur State War Fund Committee that was constituted on 3rd July 1940 by the Manipur State Durbar under the guidance of King Churachand.

A Manipur State National War Front was also established subsequently to deal with the situation. The beginning of Japanese bombing in 1942 marked the start of large-scale road and bridge construction projects Manipur. The most important road was the Imphal-Pallel-Tamu Road. Later on, the invading Japanese forces cut off Imphal Valley between 29th March and 23rd June 1944. Defending India from the Japanese army and safeguarding the communication lines from Assam to China were in the priority list.

As a matter of fact, the Battle of Imphal was significant for the British defence line and the reluctance of Chiang Kai-shek to send his forces across the Nu (Salween) River was a concern. The Chabua Air Force Base in Dibrugarh was the major supply point for ferrying supplies in and around Kunming. Most importantly, flying from the Assam Valley to Kunming was a dangerous task and it became the sole supply line for the Chinese forces after losing the Burma Road. The completion of the Ledo Road and expansion of Assam supply line supported the Chinese during this crucial period.

Post-Ramgarh Burma Campaign

On July 7 and 18 of 1942, Stilwell submitted recommendations to Chiang for the recovery of Burma after his retreat to India. According to the July 18 plan, Chinese troops in India were to enter Burma from Imphal and rendezvous at Mandalay with the Chinese forces coming from Yunnan before capturing Rangoon (Yangon).

Training of the Chinese troops at Ramgarh Training Centre and transporting the recruits from Yunnan to India by the 'Flying Tigers' on their return trips from China were successfully conducted. The centre was activated on 26 August 1943. Earlier, General Stilwell met with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek at Tehanli residence in October 1942 and reported about the measures taken to train the Chinese forces and plan for the Burma attack.

After returning to India, he discussed Burma counter-attack plan with General Archibald Wavell from 16 to 18 October. Unexpectedly, after the Stilwell-Wavell meeting of October 27, the revived plan made drastic changes to the route to be followed by the Chinese forces living in India and the objective of the attack.

The new route for the Chinese forces was Ledo-Hukawng-Mogaung instead of the Imphal route. The route from Imphal was comparatively better as the terrain was not as rugged as the route along the Hukawng Valley and other difficulties were less in comparison to the Hukawng route. General Wavell wanted to reserve the Imphal route for British troops advancing into Burma.

The differences were mainly because of the British Government's objective to regain control of Northern Burma while not committing itself to a naval operation to counter the Japanese forces in Rangoon. China badly needed capturing Rangoon to open the road to Kunming. Though they did not listen to China's voices, the British and American authorities demanded China to send troops to push the Japanese out from Northern Burma.

On 3 November, Stilwell met with the Generalissimo at Huangshan residence in Chungking and reported the plan of action agreed upon by General Wavell. He discussed the plan of attack on Burma from Ledo, Imphal and Yunnan. The Chinese forces from India were to enter Burma from Ledo in Assam. It also included the strategy of advancing troops through Manipur (Imphal) toward Monywa, Shwebo, Katha via Kalewa along the Chindwin River.

As part of the second Burma Campaign, the Chinese forces from the Ramgarh Training Centre under the command of General Stilwell advanced toward the Hukawng Valley and Mogaung Valley by the Ledo Road. They were known as X-Force. Moreover, the construction of the Ledo Road to supply troops and munitions to China through Northern Myanmar (Kachin State) was also in full swing.

Though the Allied parties agreed to start the Northern Myanmar Campaign from March 1944, Stilwell pressed the Ramgarh-trained Chinese forces led by General Sun Liren towards Myitkyina by Ledo Road in November 1943. It was soon followed by the 22nd Division in January 1944. The 38th Division under the command of Sun Liren defeated the Japanese in many battles along the Ledo-Hukawng-Mogaung sector.

The United States in coordination with the British Command tried to force Chiang Kai-shek to send Chinese forces across the Salween River five times between December 23, 1943 and April 7, 1944. They included three messages of December 29, 1943, January 14, 1944 and April 4, 1944 threatening China to cut supply of materials and training.

In fact, Louise Mountbatten launched his PIGSTICK Plan to face the Japanese advance from Burma in coordination with General Stilwell. With the Japanese invasion of Manipur and Assam (Naga Hills areas), crossing the Nu (Salween) River by the Yunnan Expeditionary Forces to divert the Japanese was highly felt. Besides, the Allied forces were facing strong Japanese resistance in Hukawng Valley and relieving Imphal of much pressure was a necessity in the whole strategy.

In April 1944, the Yunnan Expeditionary Force (Y-Force) launched offensive across the Nu River. As a consequence, Japan lost control of Tengchung, Lungling, Mangshi and Wanting. The Allied forces managed to establish control in Northern Burma after defeating the Japanese 18th Division under Lt-General Shinichi Tanaka, who captured Singapore from the British in 1941.

Where is Imphal?

Imphal (Manipur) was at the heart of the WW II game plan for both the Allied forces and the Japanese Imperial Army. Many WWII veterans and historians of the Great War know Imphal. Many Japanese citizens know Imphal if not Manipur State. Many great leaders of the World and their military strategists took keen interests in the developments in Manipur.

An agreement was reached among Stilwell, Lo Cho-ying and Alexander on 30 April that if the plan to hold the Kalewa-Katha-Bhamo-Hsenwi line failed, the 5th Army and the 38th Division would march from Katha (Burma) to Imphal, capital of Manipur under the British paramountcy. Later on, General Archibald Wavell ordered total retreat three days before May 5, the day on which Lo Cho-ying and Stilwell parted at Banmauk.

The Casablanca Conference was held in January 1943. The US and the British leaders did not invite China to the conference. However, the conference discussed strategies against Japan including attacking Burma. The most important of them were naval blockade against Japan in Rangoon (Yangon), attacking Lashio by the Yunnan Expeditionary Forces, pushing the Chinese forces trained at Ramgarh toward Myitkyina through Ledo and British forces moving toward Mandalay from Imphal.

In May 1943, the Trident Conference was held in Washington, D.C. to discuss matters related to Italian Campaign and attack on Burma. The Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) based on the proposals of the US Joint Chiefs, formulated 'A Plan for the Defeat of Japan' on May 20 which included plans for Chinese ground attacks on Burma from Ledo, Imphal and Yunnan to open the Burma Road. Another revised plan was presented on May 24 that urged for a coordinated land and air offensives from Assam via Ledo and Imphal besides attack from Yunnan to capture Northern Burma.

After the Quebec Conference (August 19-24, 1943), the US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill sent Chiang Kai-shek a joint telegram on 25 August that included a line of action stretching from Assam to Ledo and Imphal in coordination with assaults from Yunnan. However, China was not invited to the conference despite such a demand from T.V. Soong (Song Ziwen).

Again, at the Cairo Conference (November 22-26, 1943), Mountbatten's proposal called CHAMPION to counter-attack Burma through Arakan, Imphal and Ledo was discussed. It was attended by Generalissimo Chiang, Roosevelt, Churchill and Madam Chiang besides many other staff members of the three nations. Mountbatten explained the proposal at the conference.

For the first time, China was invited as a party to the conference but the call for an amphibious attack on North and South Burma never materialised. Instead, the US and British Commands gave pressure to Chiang Kai-shek to send Chinese forces from Yunnan with the threat of stopping the lend-lease shipments to China. Some of these messages are alleged to be the handiworks of Joseph W. Stilwell and General George C. Marshall. They, however, used the name of President Roosevelt to pressure China to act accordingly.

Nanjing (Nanking), the then capital of the Republic of China, fell into the hands of the Japanese in 1937. The failure to defend the eastern coastal regions from the Japanese aggression led to the shifting of China's capital to Chungking. Not only the foreign embassies but also university and factories were shifted to the Southwest part of China. The shifting of wartime provisional capital to Chungking was followed by the birth of the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre during the WWII. It also led to the 38th Division's retreat to India through Manipur in May 1942.


* Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at khuman_mei(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on March 11, 2015.


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