International operations: Indo-Burma [WW II]


by Mohan Bhuyan

Actually I do know a little of the war time history of the MG lines in Assam & Burma...

When the Japanese invaded Burma in end 1941 and routed the British & Indian forces there, there was a mass exodus of refugees (British & Indian - mostly) northwards followed by the retreating troops. Then (and even now) the border areas of Burma & India are covered by dense jungle without any roads. Adding to the difficulties of a tropical jungle, were the Patkai Bum and Naga Hills. Thus the refugee exodus was a tragedy on a massive scale as such events usually are, unfortunately sparsely documented, largely unknown and little remembered. ( Amitav Ghosh's Glass Palace is a recent part acknowledgement of this otherwise unknown saga).

As the Japanese advanced rapidly into Burma, about the only escape routes to India for the retreating armies and the refugees were

  1. Across the Arakans into present day Bangladesh - Chittagong, Comilla
  2. The Tamu & Imphal area in Manipur
  3. Lekhapani & Ledo in Assam

Most refugees were forced into option 3 which was the toughest, thousands died of disease, exhaustion & starvation as they had to walk for hundreds of miles across totally inhospitable terrain, plus the monsoon caught up with them as well. Lekhapani then & now was the railhead for nearby collieries ( end of the line from Ledo, the main railhead). It was only at Lekhapani that each survivor could finally feel safe. the Indian Tea Association and the local govt. put up a massive & superb relief effort that resulted in many lives being saved. Most surviving refugees were taken to Ledo in goods wagons from where they departed for other parts of India on regular passenger trains . By the way, all this was during the Summer of '42.

Now coming to the Last Line of Defence...

The Japanese were halted ( & turned around) at the epic battles of Kohima & Imphal in 1943-44 by a mixed British & Indian army ( The 14th Army). Both battles were tremendously significant, but again little known beyond the combatants. I believe only Winston Churchill gives these battles their proper due in his memoirs. The 14th Army called itself the Forgotten Army, because it fought in perhaps the most obscure theatre of the entire WWII. Incidentally, the 14th army was perhaps the most international of allied armies in WW II. It included British, Indian, American, Chinese, Gurkha, West African & East African troops. Opposing them were the Japanese and Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army drawn from the Indian PoW's of Malaya & Singapore as well as the Indian diaspora of SE Asia.

The railway line in Assam (Present day Guwahati - Dimapur- Tinsukia-Ledo) was crucial to the 14th army for its supplies. Particularly the sprawling railyard of Dimapur, railhead for the road to Kohima & Imphal (present day NH 39). During the siege of Kohima, the Japanese reached as far as the the Nichugarh pass between Kohima & Dimapur before being held. If kohima ( & Nichugarh) had fallen It would have been curtains for Dimapur & with it, the tea gardens, collieries & oil fields of upper ( Eastern) assam.

thus the railway line was not literally the last line of defence But I can tell you that the commander of the 14th Army General Slim ( again one of the ablest yet relatively unsung commanders of WW II) spent many sleepless nights worrying about the fate of Dimapur.

Regarding the extension of the railway into Burma - afraid it never happened. Instead a new road called the Stilwell Road ( named after the celebrated American general commanding Chinese forces in the region) was built from Ledo to connect with the famous Burma Road from Lashio? to Kunming in China. The construction of this road is a story in itself...I'll just say that it became a lifeline for supplies to the China front.

The Stilwell Road still exists, the Indian part terminates somewhere in Arunachal Pradesh. I have a photograph lying somewhere taken years ago - standing next to a signboard near Ledo which gives the distances to places like Kunming & Mandalay. If the FAQ says that there are " considerable difficulties" in building a railway line to Burma, I can only call it a masterly understatement. Impossible would be apt! Both the Stilwell & Burma Roads were extremely rigorous & accidents were commonplace.

I have heard that the Burmese section is in a state of disrepair.

Some of you must be knowing about the beautiful war cemetary in Kohima that has the famous inscription on its memorial which goes something like this - When they ask of us, tell them that for their tomorrow, we gave our today. A fitting epitaph to the fallen of both sides, I have always felt.

I know this has been rather long & rambling...I beg your indulgence, two passions coincided (IR & WWII) so I couldn't help myself!

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