A sense of pride and respect comes in the heart and mind of an individual who visits any war cemetery to pay tribute to the Unknown Soldier who had given his life for a cause. To commemorate this kind of sacrifice, one such war Cemetery can be visited by taking a detour from Finch Corner while coming from Imphal to reach Shangshak wherein the Assam Rifles has instituted the Shangshak War Memorial. It was conceptualized and constructed in 2002 to remember the martyrs of the 4/5 Maratha, 152 Para Battalion and the brave people of Shangshak who took part in the battle. The battle of Shangshak took place in the forested and mountainous terrain of Manipur from 20th March to 26th March 1944. The Japanese who had planned surprise and deadly offensive operations aiming at taking over Imphal and Kohima came face to face with the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade involved in an exercise in the same area. The surrounded Brigade fought an epic six day battle akin to the stand off at Arnhem refusing to surrender.
BACKGROUND:- In March 1944, the Japanese launched operation U-Go aiming for a major invasion over India. While most of the Japanese 15th Army attacked Indian IV Corps at Imphal, the Japanese 31st Div advanced towards Kohima to cut off the only road link on which troops at Imphal depended for their supplies. This force was led by Major General Shigesaburo Miyazaki who was the overall Division`s Group Commander. On 18th March 1944 the force approached the village of Ukhrul, about 40 km North East of Imphal and 13 km north of Shangshak.
Early in 1944, the 49th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Indian Infantry Division had been stationed at Shangshak to guard the road from Tonhe on the Chindwin river to Imphal. The Japanese offensive surrounded the 17th Indian Infantry Division at Tiddim. Lieutenant General Geoffrey Scoones, the Commander of IV Corps, was forced to send 23rd Division (including 49th Brigade) to help the 17th Division in break out of encirclement. The 50th Brigade was initially deployed over a large area with outposts 13 km east of Shangshak and a machine-gun company in Ukhrul. On 19th march, the Japanese overran an isolated company of the 152 Parachute Battalion deployed on a hill known as point 7378 reducing the strength to 20. Hope-Thompson ordered his forces to get concentrated at Sheldon`s corner, 13 km east of Shangshak on 21 March, but that afternoon, Hope-Thomson pulled them back, first to “kidney camp” 6.4 km to the west, and then to Shangshak itself where they took up a defensive position on a hill just east of the village. The position measured only 730 mtrs by 370 mtrs wherein hard rock was found only 3 feet below the soil which allowed digging of shallow trenches only. In the meantime Japanese forces had captured Ukhrul from 50th Brigade`s machine gun company. Major General Miyazaki knew that the defensive formation was lagging behind his force. He therefore decided to clear the British from Shangshak to prevent them interfering with his advance. By late afternoon of 26th March 1944, a radio message for Japanese arrived from Imphal, which read “Fight your way out, go south and then west, air and transport on look out for you. Good luck, our thoughts are with you”.
AFTERMATH :- The 50th Indian Parachute Brigade had suffered 652 casualties along with 100 prisoners, most of whom were badly wounded. The Japanese were able to capture plenty of air-dropped supplies including heavy weapons, vehicles and wireless equipment which had missed the dropping zone of defenders at Shangshak. Japanese forces with more than 400 casualties and battle getting extended had delayed Miyazaki`s advance on Kohima by a week. His left assault force had the shortest and easiest route to Kohima. They arrived at the vital Kohima ridge on 3rd April 1944 by which allied reinforcements had also reached the area. In the ensuing battle of Kohima, the Japanese failed to capture the entire ridge and were eventually forced to retreat by British counter-attacks with shortage of ammunition and food.
WAR MEMORIAL AT SHANGSHAK :- Inscribed on the four sided cenotaph are the words “ to the eternal memory of the fallen martyrs of the 4 Maratha Light Infantry and the 50 Para Brigade”. On the other sides of the memorial is inscribed “martyrs of the royal British army” and “to the brave people of Shangshak”. The names of the soldiers and civilians are also etched here.
16 Assam Rifles under the aegis of HQ 10 Sector Assam Rifles of HQ IGAR (South) will be celebrating the “Shangshak Day” on 26th March 2013 at Shangshak to remember and salute the supreme sacrifices made by the unknown soldiers of allied forces and local villagers during World War II against the Japanese advance towards Imphal and Kohima in 1944. The day will observe the presence of not only senior officers from Assam Rifles and Army but also gathering of people from Shangshak and nearby villages to relive history once again by remembering the major events that gave shape for the fall of Japanese attacking forces. A wreath laying ceremony will also be organized to honor the brave who laid down their lives fighting for a noble cause.
(The write up is from the PRO HQ IGAR (S) on the occasion of the eve of the anniversary of the Battle of Shangshak)