Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kohima: Boulders Lush with Moss

The mighty son of Brahama is not to be tamed.

The Brahamaputra does not get the respect it deserves. Like Rhine, Adige and Danube (more accurately, the Iller), the great rivers of India rise close to each other, at the fault between the Himalayan fold and the Tibetan plateau. the Indus at first flows north by northwest, the Ganges plunges through a water gap, and the Brahmaputra cuts what might be the deepest and longest canyons on Earth on its way long and circuitous path to the sea, ultimately cutting its way through the Himalayas and entering Arunachal Pradesh state on its way to Assam, Bengal, and a humiliating juncture with the Ganges that makes it, in a technical sense, a tributary of the Mother of India.  

I had supposed that the proximity of the sources of the three great rivers had been made some kind of metaphysical point by romantic Indian nationalists, but thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that the upper course of the Brahamputra had long been a mystery, due to its cutting the impenetrable Yarlang Tsanpo Canyon.

This lack of respect for a mighty river leads to lack of respect for the soldiers of Japan, of India and of Britain, who were dying, seventy years ago today, above the valley of the river in the heights of Manipur, around the town of Imphal and north of it at Kohima. It also obscures the overarching failure of the Roosevelt Administration's attempt to support the Nationalist Chinese regime, and the sheer magnitude of the failure of this episode in the persistent fantasy of "foreign policy as mission." 

First, a matter of housekeeping. I prefer not to do campaign histories at this blog. I won't make this an ideological point. Wikipedia does quite well enough on the operational side, and various "postblogging World War II" sites have dug up an amazing amount of more persional reminiscence about these terrible battles. I have already linked to the relevant Wikipedia articles, but here they are again:


The circumstances may still seem a bit obscure, so here is a hand-drawn map from, all places, Dr. Norman Frank's old history of the air battle of Imphal.

The advantage of a hand-drawn map is that you can pull out the relevant details. This is not quite perfect, but perfect map perspectives of the Burma campaign are hard to find. I found one old campaign history in the library stacks yesterday with a double-page map that had Karachi and Bangkok on either margin and Imphal swallowed in the fold!  

Frank's map, on the other hand, gives us a sense of why Imphal is so important to campaigns on the "Chindwin" and the "Burma Road" and the "Ledo Road," and all of the other geographical names thrown around in histories of this campaign with the slightly bewildering sense that the reader is missing some vital information because the writer doesn't know it, either. To take the Classical itinerary approach, Dimapur is the railhead down in the Valley of Assam. A road leads up into the hills, passing over a saddleback at Kohima and then proceeding through the princely state of Manipur, made up mostly of a  basin 40 miles by 20, approximately 200 square miles of paddy land at 2500 feet altitude above the plain. From Imphal, a pack trail (Ian Lyall Grant calls it a "bridle path" used to run to Tiddim in the Chin Hills of Burma, and from there via the passes of the Letha range to Tamu on the Burmese plains. There being no proper, metalled road between India and Burma, for reasons I intend to get into on another day, the British Indians decided, in the wake of their expulsion from Burma, to build a one-and-half lane gravel road through the mountains as far as Tiddim to support a projected 1942/3 campaign back into Burma. Grant, who has an remarkable collection of period photographs, characterises this as a "fantasy."

It was certainly not the only fantastic road-building schedule in the region. Stilwell's baby, the Ledo Road, was similarly deemed impractical on the timeframe required. Nor, as I keep implying, is it by a long stretch the most fantastic road to be built in the area during World War II.
It is slightly unfair to pick out a defile and suggest that the would-be roadbuilders aren't being realistic. Most roads have a defile or two in them, at least until the modern chemical industry has had its way. On the other hand, roads through wet, forested, mountainous regions tend to be full of defiles and difficult to build for a reason. 

This is the kind of thing that road-builders are going to have to deal with. Having dealt with them, in the context of an ongoing war, they are then going to have to deal with the enemy response. If you have followed the links, you know that the Japanese response was to send several divisions across the hills from the upper Chindwin in an attempt to capture the Manipur Basin, with the ultimate objective of taking Dimapur. They failed, but it was a near-run thing, and as late as 5 June 1944, when he admittedly had other and even more distressing matters on his mind, Lord Alanbrooke confessed in his diary to be expecting news of a catastrophe in India. (Again, per Lyall.) 

A catastrophe seems a bit strong, though. In the wake of the failure of the U-Go Offensive, it is more normal to criticise the megalomania of Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, who clearly asked too much  of his soldiers and has a horrible butcher's bill on his conscience. 

As I say, the Brahamputra does not get the respect it deserves. As I have also indicated many times before, the Civil Engineer in War is a historian's treasure trove, so long as he is willing to read civil engineers instead of other historians. Here, Lieutenant Colonel (Temporary) Frank Joseph Prior, R.E., O. B.E., A.M.I.C.E, tries to put it all in perspective with a schematic map of the Line of Communications Zone of the China-Burma-India Theatre

He has chosen not to label Dimapur, but here is a blow up of the detail in the centre of the map that makes up "Dimapur."

The Brahamputra being impassible, and a classic "wandering" river, had then no railway bridge, and not much in the way of river ports. The main line of communication of the CBI therefore led along the right bank of the river to the ferry point at Dubhrighat.

Just to understand what we are talking about, by the way, 

here is, as anyone familiar with the good old font will know, a Green Book photograph of what that ferry actually looked like. We are talking about a geographical location, and not the boat you catch for a weekend at the cabin.

At this point, we can understand the relevance of the railhead at Dimapur. It is not just the railhead for Imphal and the Tiddim Road. It is also the point through which the rail connection supporting construction of the Ledo Road and the six inch POL pipeline supplying the "Hump" air lift across the Himalayas passes.   Even as the President presses the commanders of the CBI to hit the 10,000t initial target for airlift* across the Himalayas to Chongqing, Mutaguchi's offensive is threatening to cut off the branch at the root. 

He did not succeed, of course. At the same time, he succeeded well enough that a surprisingly large portion of what went over the Hump, because it could not be an adequate amount of actual supplies, was bundles of Chinese Nationalist paper money instead. One does not have to be an economics-talking guy to see the problems that that entails. In supporting Chiang, the Administration is overthrowing him. 

So much for foreign policy:If you're looking for enlightenment on the question of who lost China, you're going to have to go elsewhere to get any further. What I want to turn to is the collision of technocracy with identity in a final and all-too-brief note. Before either the Indian government press or the University of British Columbia Library lost interest, at least one of a proposed twenty volume official history of the Indian Army in World War II was printed and collected here. It is not, unfortunately, a history of the Railway and Follower Corps, which would probably provide some non-American triumphalist grace notes to the story of the development of the Assam railway system
The 748th is officially credited for running modern locomotives at high speeds through difficult sections, and not supervising labour with shouldered long arms, but the photographer evidently did not find that interesting. I find it interesting that the 748th and another battaltion were diverted from the ETO for this work. I truly was a global war, with events on one side of the world impacting on the other.
What it is is a history of the Indian Electrical and Mechanical Engineer Corps, formed soon after the initial REME and for the same purpose of taking on the increasingly huge task of keeping ever-expanding motor pools in operation.  P. Khera tells us that when the formation of the IEME was first mooted, I think give the timing, as the IOAC(E), the authorities were able to identify a little over 150 "gentlemen" suitable for the officer corps of the new branch, once niceties of education, and the requirement that the young men be members of the Indian Institute of Mechanical Engineers were considered. Once the pool was identified, "other factors" whittled them down from 150 to 56. I am not sure what to make of author P. Khera's attempt to blame the failure of the right kind of Indian to volunteer him (of course) self. Perhaps it is even true that the best and brightest young men then receiving technical educations in India did not want to be Indian Army officers, even in the technical branches. 

On the other hand, we are all too familiar with feedback mechanisms that somehow keep undesireable people out of certain occupations, notwithstanding those occupations' ostensible collective willingness to look with favour upon applications from those groups. 

So here is where I turn it around to the climax of the Kohima fighting, when Dimapur is all but undefended, and the army is aiming to achieve a 35,000 vehicle/month overhaul target. There are not enough Americans in theatre for this, not by a long shot, and in a few short years, the IEME has expanded into a force of 2000 officers, 4000 British and 120,000 Indian OR. Oh, to be sure, the majority of officers were British, but majority here means 1145, and even most of the British officers came out to India without technical training. Meanwhile, in the rear, 8000 men are receiving tradesman's training at any given time.

So much for eating your curry with a knife and fork!  On the Tennis Court at Kohima, brave men are dying badly. In the rear, because they are dying, the needs of technocracy have punched through the ideological veils that conceal class with language of race to, well, offer a technical education for anyone who can bear it.  

Technical Note: the Yarlang Tsanpo canyon is not technically impenetrable. Some whitewater kayakers have made it down. i just use the word as a challenge, although I only encourage people to take it as such if they are obnoxious tweakers and have better jobs than mine. 

*Robert W. Coakley and Richard M. Leighton, USAWWII 4, The War Department 4, 2, Global Logistics and Strategy, 1943—45 (Washington: GPO, [1967]. 500ff covers the TRIDENT directive to develop a supply line to China from the Assam valley via air or the Ledo Road, a directive that soon clashed with the limits of communications, making up a deficit of supply northwards from Calcutta of 600t daily. But uldtimate requirement was for 96,000t POL monthly, 72,000 via pipelines, 9000 locally from the Digboi refineries, the balance by barge of a total of 220,000t monthly supply via the Assam LCOC to give 65,000t monthly to China via the Ledo Road, 20,000t by the Hump. By the winter of 1944, this all seemed optimistic. The initial commitment of even 10,000t via the Hump was far from filled, and the President pushed for the fulfillment of his commitment to Soong. General Somervell thought that the Assam LCOC could be developed to the point of supporting both Stilwell’s diverting “Yoke Force” operations and the Hump; the British, of course, were to blame. (510)

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