May I have a light?” I looked up to see a Japanese gentleman, about my age, standing next to me with an unlit cigarette in his hand. I reached for my lighter. We were on a train, travelling from Berne to Geneva in the autumn of 1980.
“Are you Indian?” he asked.
“Yes” I replied.
We began talking. He was an official at the United Nations, returning home and to his headquarters. I was scheduled to lecture at the university. He gave me some useful tips on what to see and where to eat in the city. Having exhausted our store of small talk, we fell silent. I retrieved my book, Defeat into Victory, an account of the second World War in Burma, by Field Marshal William Slim. He opened up a newspaper.
After a while, he asked, “Are you a professor of military history?”
“No,” I replied. “Just interested. My father was in Burma during the War”. “Mine too,” he said.
In December 1941, Japan invaded Burma and opened the longest land campaign of the entire war for Britain. There were two reasons for the Japanese advance: First, cutting off the overland supply route to China via the Burma Road would deprive Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese armies of military equipment and pave the way for the conquest of China.
Second, possession of Burma would position them at the doorway to India, where they believed a general insurrection would be triggered against the British once their troops established themselves within reach of Calcutta. Entering Burma from Thailand, the Japanese quickly captured Rangoon in 1942, severing the Burma Road at its source and denying the Chinese of their only convenient supply base and port of entry.
Winning battle after battle, they forced the Allied forces to retreat into India. The situation was bleak. The British were heavily committed to the war in Europe and lacked the resources and organization to recapture Burma. However, they soon got their act together. The High Command was overhauled: Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell was replaced by Lord Louis Mountbatten and operational control was given to General William Slim, a brilliant officer who forged the famous 14th Army—an efficient combat force made up of British, Indians and Africans. The Japanese, aware that the defenders were gathering strength, resolved to end the campaign with a bold thrust into India and a simultaneous attack in Burma’s Arakan peninsula.
It was in the ebb and flow of these larger events that my father, a soldier, played a part—first in Kohima, clearing the Japanese from the Naga Hills, then in Imphal and, finally, here, in the forested mountains of Kangaw.
In 1945, amidst the blinding monsoon rains, Supreme Allied Commander Mountbatten’s plane landed at Maungdaw where the All India Brigade, of which his regiment was a part, was headquartered. My father and two other commanders—K. S. Thimayya and L. P. Sen—were introduced to Mountbatten, who made casual but searching enquiries regarding their war experience.
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