ON 16 March 1944, crack spearhead troops of the Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions with their sights firmly on Delhi and the Indian Plain made an unexpected crossing of the River Chindwin. They then cut their way through dense jungle-clad mountain ranges with the intention of launching a surprise attack on the none too strongly manned Imphal and Kohima.
Unaware that they were in the path of a substantial enemy advance, Indian, Gurkha and British troops of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade were on patrolling exercise. On 19 March, Lt-Col Paul Hopkinson commanding 152 Indian Parachute Battalion informed his adjutant, Major Tom Monaghan, that at least a battalion of Japanese were advancing. It was the beginning of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War. It was also one of the most critical.
With casualties mounting the brigade commander, Tim Hope-Thompson, ordered all his battalions to hold the high ground at the Naga village of Sangshak. It was vital to delay the Japanese advance in order that Kohima and Imphal could be reinforced. Desperate for barbed wire and barely able to dig in to the rocky surface, isolated and unsupported apart from an occasional airdrop, the Indian Parachute Brigade, in appalling conditions, held up the enemy advance for six days and nights, inflicting heavy casualties, but at considerable cost to themselves. Of the 27 officers in Monaghan's battalion, 13 were killed and nine wounded.
Heavy artillery that had been brought up by elephants continually rained down and counter-attack upon counter-attack took place. To add to the horror on the last night it rained. Water seeped everywhere, the wounded and dying slid into the mud and the floors of the operating dugout became a treacherous maw into which precious surgical instruments and dressings were washed and finally disappeared. Monaghan recalled, "Casualties rose steeply. Shell fire disinterred the shallow-buried dead and the stench of bitter warfare pervaded the whole area." This was battle at its most primitive and violent.
After six horrendous days of almost continuous fighting, 50 Indian Parachute Brigade were ordered to "fight their way out and return to Imphal". In the chaos of withdrawal, not all the wounded could be located. During the arduous journey to Imphal many died of their wounds. Of the 2,000 men who had held off two divisions, just over half made it. Later Lt-Gen William Slim addressed a heartfelt "Special Order of the Day":
Your parachute brigade bore the first brunt of the enemy's powerful flanking attack, and by their staunchness gave the garrison at Imphal the vital time required to adjust their defences. To the officers and men of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade I send my congratulations.
During the battle, while manning the wireless, Monaghan heard of the heroic actions of Lt Andrew Faul. He immediately reported this to his commanding officer who later tried to have the officer awarded a posthumous VC, but all the eye- witnesses had been killed. Incredibly, few medals were awarded for this vital and costly action and no battle honour was granted.
Less than three months later, on 10 June, on the Ukrul Road leading to Imphal, a Japanese unit held the high ground called the "Bastion". Tom Monaghan, now commanding the remnants of B Company, 152 Indian Parachute Battalion, was ordered to clear the enemy. With the support of three tanks Monaghan organised the attack with considerable speed. Despite his company's being under heavy fire from machine-gun and grenade discharges he led the attack with considerable courage, and, although early on shot in the thigh, he inspired his men forward and was with them as the bayonet charge secured the hill. His citation for his Military Cross reads:
This officer's very fine leadership and cool courage were an inspiration to his men and to all who witnessed the action.
Monaghan was born in Dublin in 1920 and educated at the Duke of York's Royal Military School, Dover. When he was six his mother died of typhus and a year later he lost his father, who had fought in the First World War. He enlisted into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in 1938, serving with them in France. He was evacuated with his regiment from Dunkirk, where his older brother was killed on his 21st birthday.
In 1940 he was commissioned into the Indian Army, where he volunteered for the newly formed 152 Indian Parachute Brigade and was appointed adjutant. He continued with the brigade until 1947 when he rejoined the Inniskillings in Lahore, where he commanded the Amritsar detachment of the battalion during the turbulent time of "partition". After several staff appointments he retired from the Army in 1954.
He went to Pakistan in 1955, where he managed hotels and then worked as a consultant on the construction of dams, waterways and power stations. In 1969 he returned to UK to work in administration.
Tom Monaghan was a rugged, handsome and charming man with a rich sense of humour. He had a lifelong interest in literature and the theatre and appeared in several amateur productions. In his later years he was secretary to the Brentford Conservative Club and active with the Royal British Legion, who accompanied his coffin at his funeral.
Thomas Joseph Monaghan, soldier: born Dublin 24 September 1920; MC 1944: married 1946 Bridget Keays-Byrne (four sons, one daughter); died London 28 December 1998.
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