The DAK Bunglow at kanglatongbi. During the battle of Kanglatongbi, this DAK Bunglow was use as the Head Quarter for the allieds at Kanglatongbi.
LION BOX KANGLATONGBI
70 years ago the Imphal Plain was one vast military camp where thousands of Allied troops awaited battle as the Japanese army began their encircling movement cutting off the British IV Corps from all ground routes for supplies and reinforcements. Supplies were now at a premium for the Allies and Japanese alike, for the latter depended on captured foodstuffs and equipment and the large Ordnance Depot at Kanglatongbi was in their sights…..
Photo Courtesy: Christopher Johnson
When the Japanese cut the main Imphal-Dimapur road at milestone 105 on 29th March all administrative units in the area were ordered to Lion Box, a secure defensive position, for their protection. This was centred on the large Administration and Ordnance Depot at milestone 118 Kanglatongbi and covered an area of scrub jungle on either side of the main road and was over two thousand yards in length and at its widest point was a mile across. It was divided into four sectors mostly bounded by dry nullah’s. The defenders were from the transport and labour companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps and Indian Pioneer Corps bringing in much needed supplies from Dimapur and the Sappers of the Royal Engineers and Indian Engineers who had built all the roads and airfields around the Plain and as far south as Tamu. By far the largest single unit was 20 Reinforcement Camp who held and trained all the reinforcements for 20 Indian Division. They controlled all of sector three and part of sector four as well supplying men for the Box reserve. This large and normally non-combatant force was commanded by the Box Commander Lieutenant Colonel Henry Wells-Cole, a decorated veteran of the First World War.
On 2nd April orders were given to 221 Advanced Ordnance Depot to move the entire depot about a mile further south as the Box perimeter was too long to be defended. Five thousand tons of stores, including two thousand tons of ammunition, had been successfully moved when the order came for the Depot to move again to a less vulnerable place nearer the Keep at Imphal fourteen miles to the south.
War memorial at Kanglatongbi.
By the 4th April the Japanese 3rd Battalion of the 60th Regiment were massing to the north of Lion Box and that evening began probing the defences with “jitter parties” to encourage the inexperienced troops to open fire giving away their positions. The tactics worked and for over half an hour indiscriminate fire wasted valuable ammunition before being brought under control.
The next day Japanese troops were reported seen in the evacuated Ordnance Depot area a hundred yards to the north of the Engineers sector and the daylight support from the tanks from the 3rd Carabiniers and two platoons from the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment were sent to investigate. The infantry patrolled the area and came under heavy mortar fire causing two casualties so the tanks opened fire on the Japanese positions killing several before withdrawing to their positions at Sengmai two miles south of Lion Box. Work continued throughout the day clearing and loading supplies while the defences were altered and strengthened and some units moved and replaced. Artillery support for the box was now in place as the heavy guns augmented the Box mortar teams.
As darkness fell the Japanese began their attacks again with a mortar barrage. The Box artillery responded and the firing ceased but at the same time a diversionary attack took place to the southern perimeter but again was silenced by the Box mortars. The nullah between sectors two and three was infiltrated by a patrol of Japanese who it was thought were trying to attack the Box HQ at the Dak Bungalow. They were successfully repulsed and Lt Col Wells-Cole called for Major Boyd of the Ordnance Corps to make ready his mobile patrol of seventy men for a possible attack outside the perimeter as the Japanese then turned their attention to the Engineers sector.
With all the activity in this area it was thought the Japanese were going to rush the roadblock and an artillery defensive fire plan was called down which dispersed the attackers causing several casualties. In reply Japanese mortars were fired killing three Sappers. At 01.00 hours the Japanese again began probing the defences all around the perimeter and machinegun fire from the old Admin offices caused problems for the Sappers manning the roadblock until another barrage was brought down. During this bombardment a 5.5 shell dropped short killing an Engineer officer. The constant heavy shelling and mortaring of sectors two and three throughout the night together with attempts at infiltration by the Japanese made it an uncomfortable one for the defenders. Lt Col Wells-Cole remarked “This is nothing…you should have been on the Somme in 1916!!”
An unusual event occurred in sector 4 just as dawn was breaking. A Gurkha Jiff (Japanese Indian Force) was taken prisoner after surrendering to a British officer. He had been captured at Singapore and used as a coolie by the Japanese until he made good his escape.
The Japanese broke off their attacks after being thwarted by the defenders but up on Piquet Hill to the east of the Box a small piquet of twenty men from 20 Reinforcement Camp had been pushed off by increased enemy pressure. From this vantage point the whole of Lion Box was overlooked and the Japanese could watch as the evacuation of the Ordnance Depot began again in earnest as daylight broke on the 6th April.
The West York’s and Carabinier’s arrived at the Box for their usual daily tasks and were soon in action shelling Piquet Hill as a prelude to retaking this important feature. It soon became apparent that there were not enough troops available for this so their attention was drawn to clearing the enemy from the old Ordnance Depot again and basha’s were set on fire to deny any cover for the Japanese machineguns and mortars. Though the Box was still being shelled intermittently the pioneers and ordnance personnel carried on their work throughout the day and by nightfall nearly a thousand tons of stores had been back-loaded to Imphal. Further changes to the defences were made and some units were evacuated while other reinforcements arrived including a platoon of Assam Rifles and a company of the 9th Jat Machinegun Battalion to stiffen the defences. The Box HQ was now moved into sector 4 because of the amount of traffic moving stores near the Dak bungalow. As the tanks and infantry withdrew their support for the night many defenders hearts sank with the thought of the long night to come with the Japanese on the hills surrounding them.
At sunset the Japanese 11th Company of the 3rd battalion under the command of Major Fukishima began their advance ready for the attack on Lion Box but in the darkness became lost in the jungle and only half their attacking forces were in position. At 23.00 hours the Japanese artillery and mortars began their barrage and patrols again tried to find weak points around the perimeter. Again the British artillery and mortar batteries broke up these attacks but at 03.00 hours on Good Friday morning in pouring rain the Japanese increased their attacks all around the perimeter but more heavily concentrated on the Engineers sector at the north east of the Box. A nullah was used to cover their approach but well sited pill-boxes caused many casualties frustrating the Japanese efforts to infiltrate the Box. At about 05.00 hours a small group succeeded in penetrating the defences between two Engineer units when they replied in English to a sentries challenge. This initial party of about twenty made their way to the sector HQ killing twenty six Sepoys and seriously wounding the CO of 302 General PurposeTransport Company. Casualties were also being taken by the Engineers but were still holding at bay the main Japanese thrust. A bayonet charge was led by a party of Engineers which succeeded in breaking this penetration and running skirmishes in the nullahs and scrub caused further casualties on both sides. Major Boyd’s mobile patrol was now called into action and a party of Seaforth Highlanders who were attached to the Ordnance stopped further infiltration with a charge, firing Bren guns from the hip. Sergeant Campbell was shot and killed after leading this party when he killed four of the enemy. The confused fighting continued and another wave of Japanese advancing through a gap were stopped by Havildar Basant Singh of the Ordnance Corps as he coolly stood up on the top of his bunker firing his Bren gun. The Engineers holding the north perimeter were now in the unenviable position of having the enemy to their front and rear, so a platoon of the Assam Rifles from the Box reserve were sent to hold the flanks of these positions while other reinforcements cleared the enemy. The situation was becoming very serious as the Japanese were in danger of breaking right through the sector to the main road. Major Boyd detailed off his mobile patrol to various points to restore the situation and went for further reinforcements and to gather up the other scattered members of the patrol.
Just after 06.00 hours two tanks and a platoon of West Yorkshire’s arrived at the box HQ where Lt Col Wells –Cole told them in no uncertain terms to get up on the north perimeter quickly and do something. They should have arrived at first light. This support helped restore the situation as the Engineers were getting tired after three hours of continuous action. The whole of the Box reserves were now committed to sector one as this was now the main thrust of the Japanese attack. Casualties were now mounting up on both sides and it was with great relief that at 08.30 hours half a squadron of tanks of the Carabiniers and B Company of the West Yorkshire’s arrived. Major Boyd now helped to direct the tanks to where they would be of most use and it wasn’t long before the tanks were in the thick of the action. Such was the ferocity of the Japanese it was difficult to keep them at bay and the supporting infantry were hard pressed to keep them from climbing on the tanks, and at times the tank commanders had to use their revolvers. The tank driven by Trooper Connolly had a lucky escape from a glancing blow from a 75mm shell on the right hand sponson. The track was damaged but held out until they made their way back to the road for repair. With the situation on the perimeter stabilised the tanks and infantry then proceeded to mop up in the Box and winkled out the enemy from their hiding places in trenches and basha’s. Bayonets, grenades and tank tracks were used. Conductor Parker of the Ordnance Corps informed Major Boyd of a wounded man he was attempting to rescue from a basha that was being covered by an enemy machinegun. A tank was used to cover his rescue and killed a further three enemy.
Away from the Japanese breakthrough the other sectors had been under artillery and mortar bombardment and had successfully repulsed further attempts to enter the Box despite the collapse of the defences to their north. At the Ordnance Depot the evacuation of the stores continued though at a somewhat quicker pace and at midday a conference was called by the Box Commander when a timed plan for the withdrawal of the entire Box was drawn up.
By 11.30 hours all Ordnance personnel on the perimeter had been relieved of their posts and began packing up their camp and by 14.30 hours were on their way south to Imphal after clearing twelve hundred tons of stores.
Gradually all the other Engineer and Transport units began their move from the perimeter which was then held by the tanks and infantry. The Japanese then began to shell and mortar the road south at about 15.00 hours and when the petrol supply dump was hit it caused panic and the large body of men moving south scattered causing further confusion to the drivers of transport removing stores. It was then that the highest ranking casualty of the whole action was taken when Lt Col Norman MacLaurin, the AQ of 5 Division, was hit by shell fire while trying to clear traffic on the main road.
Several men were captured by the Japanese as they tried to escape into the jungle. They were later killed as a reprisal when the Japanese realised that it was just usually non-combatants that had thwarted their plans.
Back at the Box all of the infantry sections of 20 Rft Camp remained as the rear guard covering the Admin troops withdrawal while the tanks and infantry searched the area for survivors and destroying anything of use to the enemy. A small bombing party from 20 Rft Camp was organised and cleared any remaining Japanese from their hiding places. A certain amount of confusion came about at this time and the rear guard were not informed that the completion for the withdrawal had been pulled forward an hour to 16.30 hours. Although the Japanese didn’t follow up the withdrawal they still continued to harass the rear guard with artillery and snipers and at 17.00 hours the Royal Air Force came over strafing and dropping 250 pound bombs on the Box. The retiring troops were mistaken for Japanese and were gunned down despite frantic efforts to show they were British and many casualties were taken including the runner of Company Sergeant Major Johnson. He had then left his trench with a message when he was hit by 20mm canon-fire and upon seeing this CSM Johnson ran to his aid but he was so badly injured that CSM Johnson shot him to end his suffering.
By 18.30 hours the last of the Box evacuees arrived at Sengmai to be met by guides to take them to their new locations around the Imphal Plain while at Kanglatongbi the Japanese now surveyed their prize. The scene at Lion Box was one of death and destruction as the dead from both sides laid strewn about amongst the blackened and burnt out vehicles, tents and bashas. The Japanese had learnt a hard lesson that the capture of Imphal would not be an easy task.
Casualties :- British killed: 27, wounded: 33+. Indian killed 47 wounded 45+. Japanese killed 70+ wounded unknown.