The Battle of Imphal-Kohima was the turning point of the Burma Campaign for the British Indian Army. In early March 1944, the Japanese launched Operation U-Go in a desperate attempt to forestall a counteroffensive by the now well-trained and reequipped Fourteenth Army commanded by General Bill Slim. Broadly, the Japanese plan was to isolate Imphal by capturing Kohima on the Imphal-Dimapur road, and then seize the logistic base and railhead of Dimapur. It was a very hard-fought battle with heavy casualties on both sides but by the beginning of May, all Japanese attacks had been blunted.
The IV Indian Corps defending Imphal now went onto the counter-offensive, initially against the Japanese 15th Division. This division was the weakest of the Japanese formations and the task of clearing it was given to 23 Indian Division opposite it. This division was raised in 1942 and was now a battle-hardened formation that had held Imphal in those trying times when the Burma Corps was in full retreat. The emblem selected for the division was a rooster – a fighting gamecock – and the formation lived up to its reputation.
It launched a two-brigade operation to clear the entrance to the road linking the Imphal Plain to Ukhrul and beyond into India. The headquarters of the Japanese 15 Division was known to be on the Ukrul road running into the Naga Hills and 23 Division hoped to capture its GOC, Lieutenant General Yamuchi, who was called the “The Rat.”
The first raid at Lammu was unsuccessful and a second on the elusive headquarters of the Rat was conducted by 1/16th Punjab in which Captain Ajaib Khan was awarded a Military Cross for “Leading his company with great dash and courage […] [that] animated his whole company.”
I became aware of this officer when I met his son Abdul Qayyum Khan, a retired a military officer and civil servant. This account is based upon what Captain Ajaib shared with his son, the history of 1/16th (Solah) Punjab, and the details in the Citation.
Ajaib Khan was born in Dulmial, a village located in the Salt Range of Punjab and recognized in military circles for the large number of offices, VCOs and soldiers it contributed to the British India Army and the Pakistan Army. Military enthusiasts have named it the “Village with the Gun” because after the First World War, the British presented it with a 12 Pounder Cannon cast in 1816 in Scotland. Next to the school is a memorial tablet erected after the Great War that records that 460 were enrolled from this village which was far in excess to many other villages in the Salt Range. Equally significant was the fact that 26 of them attained the rank of VCO. One of them was Ajaib Khan’s father who joined 33rd Punjabis in 1900 and during the First World War, the battalion served in France, Egypt, German East Africa and Aden.
23 Division hoped to capture Lieutenant General Yamuchi, who was called the “The Rat”
In 1929 Ajaib enrolled as a sepoy in 3/14th Punjab, and served with the battalion during the hard fought Waziristan Campaign of 1936-39 and subsequently as a VCO platoon commander in the East African Campaign during the early years of the Second World War. Here he was injured for the first time in the leg by four machinegun bullets. While convalescing in India, he was recommended for a commission and passed out from Officers Training School, Bangalore in 1943.
In 1944, he was serving as a company commander in 1/16th Punjab, which was renumbered as 13th Punjab Battalion after Independence. It was under command the 1st (Abbottabad) Infantry Brigade during the Battle of Imphal which lasted from March until July 1944. The brigade was part of 23 Indian Division which was covering the approaches from the northeast. In the spirit of the directive given by General Slim, the division was to maintain an offensive posture. It therefore launched a two brigade operation to clear the entrance to the road linking the Imphal Plain to Ukhrul and beyond into India and ultimately open the lines of communication. The headquarters of the 15 Japanese Division was known to be on the Ukrul road running into the Naga Hills and the division hoped to capture “The Rat.”
While the 37th Brigade advanced astride the road, killing many Japanese, the 1st Brigade outflanked the enemy positions by stealthily moving along jungle tracks. The Rat Hunt was on. The emblem of the division was a rooster and the map accompanying this article which was extracted from the history of 1/16th Punjab, shows the rooster chasing a rat. After an advance of two nights, they secured a ridgeline astride the road in the vicinity of Kasom. The 1st Seaforth Highlanders, a sister battalion of 1/16th Punjab moved along a mountain track then smashed into the administrative area of the headquarters of the Japanese division but unfortunately missed the “The Rat.”
Over the next ten days, the brigade mopped up and with one battalion secured the road ahead till Lammu while 1/16th Punjab headed back down the road to link up with 37th Brigade. In the meantime, fresh information was received of the new location of the Japanese headquarters at Shongpel, 16 kilometers west of Kasom and 1/16th Punjab was now tasked to raid it. The Rat Hunt was on again.
The battalion was moved up to the jump-off point at Lammu but the raid was delayed by 24 hours because some of the 86 mules accompanying the column panicked during a firefight with a Japanese patrol. This delay was a blessing because it enabled the battalion to be better prepared for the march through the jungle at night. Like the rest of the battalion, Ajaib Khan’s Sikh company carefully secured equipment to stop rattles and the sole of the boots were wrapped in bandages and pattis to muffle the sounds of trekking through the night. Ajaib also donned a Sikh turban to conceal his identity (as an officer) against Japanese snipers. Since there were only enough mules to transport the battalion mortars, ammunition and battle stores, each soldier carried a three-days’ supply of rations, a jersey packed in a pouch and one bottle of water that had to last till it could be replenished.
When Ajaib awoke from his short dream, he felt greatly reassured that his destiny was to return to his village alive and well
In 1944, the troops of the Fourteenth Army were very different to those of the Burma Corps that the Japanese practically routed in 1942. Their moral was high and they were much better equipped and supplied than the Japanese. More than that, they were adept in jungle warfare and could beat the Japanese at their own game by infiltrating through the dense undergrowth at night and conducting raids and ambushes. Assisted by local guides, the battalion marched for two nights and laid-up by day. The route was against the grain of the land and after descending 500 meters to the valley floor, it ascended 1200 meters to the top of a ridge that overlooked the village of Shongpel.
While resting in the hide after the march on the first night, Ajaib dozed off and dreamt that he was walking back to his village of Dulmial. As he enters the village, his grandfather is overjoyed to see him and calls for his father to come and greet his son. When Ajaib awoke from his short dream, he felt greatly reassured that his destiny was to return to his village alive and well. His fears and apprehensions wilted and with renewed confidence, he led the company off for the second and toughest leg of the march – an 8 km night march to Shongpel – most of it uphill to the ridge line overlooking the village.
2 km short of the top of the ridge, the battalion turned off the jungle track to avoid a saddle which was likely to be held by the Japanese. It then climbed to the crest of the ridge through virgin jungle and the history of 1/16th Punjab records that, “Few who did this march will ever forget the last three hours climbing towards a skyline that forever receded. However, as the darkness at length began to lighten, the everlasting climb came to an end, incredibly the ground instead of rising fell away steeply”. The march was very well timed and in the light of the dawn, Shongpel was visible 1,000 meters below. While one company established a firm base, a second company of Solah Punjab advanced along the ridge line and seized the saddle where as expected, Japanese troops were digging in. A third company now secured a lay-back position halfway down to Shongpel and “A” Company under Captain Ajaib Khan passed through and advanced towards the village.
According to earlier reports, the village was occupied by 1,000 Japanese and the company commander decided to circuit around and attack from a more difficult but less expected direction. Led by great skill and dash by its commander, “A” Company “drove the Japanese pell-mell out of Shongpel Village capturing a British 3-inch mortar and several Japanese grenade discharger cups.” However, the Japanese were not slow to react and a fierce battle developed on the flank of the company holding the saddle. Though the battalion had not been able to capture the Rat, its primary mission of raiding the Japanese division headquarters had been accomplished. As its companies were pulling back to the firm base, “A” Company which was withdrawing in good order from Shongpel, was engaged by Japanese mortars and cup grenades. Suddenly Ajaib felt weak and sat down. A VCO saw him bleeding profusely from the back and he was carried on a stretcher back to the firm base. The battalion spent a thirsty night in a tight perimeter waiting for a Japanese attack that never came and next morning its patrols did not find any Japanese. However, to the relief of the battalion, they did locate a clear and cool mountain spring. The troops had spent thirty-six hours marching and fighting on one bottle of water each.
Ajaib was evacuated by a Dakota from a jungle strip and flown to Calcutta for surgery. Two large shrapnel were removed from his back but the doctors decided to leave the smaller ones. While Ajaib was convalescing from his injury, he was informed that he had been awarded a Military Cross that General Claude Auchinleck, C-in-C India, pinned on his chest at Sialkot. Ajaib lived a healthy life until well past the age of 80. However, during a routine medical checkup, the radiologist was concerned about five spots that appeared in his X-ray, and informed Qayyum who had accompanied his father that it required further investigation. Qayyum had a good laugh and explained to the doctor that the spots were five shrapnel which were a gift from the Japanese that his father had brought back from Burma and painlessly carried since then.