The Imphal Operation
When they met in Tokyo during the Greater East Asia Conference, Subhash Chandra Bose appealed directly to Prime Minister Tojo and Foreign Minister Shigemitsu for an invasion of his own country which was under British control. This became one of the factors that prompted the Army to carry out the Imphal Operation.
The Army made a decision in January 1944 on an operation to capture Imphal and the surrounding areas in northeast India. The scheme of Renya Mutaguchi, Commander of the Fifteenth Army, however, was initially met with an outburst of opposition from the Imperial Headquarters and other quarters. The prime concern was the supply line. The Indian border area did not have any decent roads and was a nest of diseases such as malaria. The air superiority in the area was in the hands of the Allied Powers. Despite such obstacles, Mutaguchi insisted on carrying out the operation with an obsessive persistence, even sending a letter of appeal to Tojo.
Mutaguchi, who was the Commander of the regiment that was involved in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, said, “Since I’m the one who started the war by firing the first shot at the Marco Polo Bridge, I feel I must bring this war to an end.”
The Southern Army and the Imperial Headquarters approved his plan only after Commander of the Burma Area Army Masakazu Kawabe, Mutaguchi’s superior officer when the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred, agreed with him.
Kawabe told Tadashi Katakura, who was Senior Staff Officer of the Burma Area Army, “Mr. Tojo has called on me to come up with a big achievement, in addition to our support of the Indian independence movement.”
Mutaguchi planned to rely on the enemy for food and greatly underestimated the British forces. “They will surrender if you fire three times with your muzzle pointed at the sky,” he said, boasting that he would capture Imphal in three weeks. A staff officer of the Fifteenth Army in charge of logistics shocked his counterpart in the Burma Area Army by telling him, “We are going to have wild grass for food.”He explained. “We can’t do anything about it since it’s the Commander’s policy.”
In March 1944, three divisions of the Fifteenth Army started their march forward but soon got bogged down as British forces intercepted and resisted their advance. All Division Commanders who were reluctant to push forward were dismissed from their posts. One of them, Masafumi Yamauchi, commander of the Fifteenth Division, sent a telegram to the Air Division, saying, “Our sick and starving men on the front line have lost their ability to fight without ammunition in torrential rain and in a sea of mud, all because of the incompetence of the Army and Mutaguchi.”
In mid-May, Hikosaburo Hata, Vice Chief of the Army General Staff who inspected the southern front, reported to Chief of the Army General Staff Tojo that, “The prospect of the Imphal Operation is extremely difficult.” Tojo raised his voice at Hata and said, “Such pessimism won’t get us anywhere,” but later confessed in agony, “We are in trouble.”
The front line had entered the rainy season, and soldiers fell to hunger and malaria, one after another. Kawabe and Mutaguchi just kept trying to second-guess each other, and neither man called for a halt of the operation when they met in early June. The operation continued until a termination order arrived from the Southern Army on July 3. By that time about 72,500 men had been killed or wounded.
The center of the “Absolute National Defense Zone,” Saipan, fell into enemy hands on July 7 of the same year. From then on, Japan became a target of continuous air raids of U.S. B-29 bombers from Saipan. The Tojo Cabinet collapsed on July 18.