15th Division (Imperial Japanese Army)
|Active||1905 - 1925; 1937-1945|
|Country||Empire of Japan|
|Branch||Imperial Japanese Army|
|Engagements||Second Sino-Japanese War
Battle of Imphal
Battle of Meiktila / Mandalay
The 15th Division was one of the four divisions raised in the closing stages of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). With Japan's resources strained to the breaking point towards the end of that conflict, the entire Imperial Japanese Army was committed to combat in Manchuria, leaving not a single division to guard the Japanese main islands in case of attack. The 15th Division was raised from men in the Nagoya area, and was originally based in Toyohashi, Aichi prefecture. After the conclusion of the Treaty of Portsmouth, it was dispatched to Korea as a garrison force.
The division was ordered to join the IJA 15th Army in Burma on 17 June 1943, but was delayed with road-building in Thailand for several months. Arriving in Burma, the division took part in the attack on Imphal, (Operation U-Go) along with the IJA 31st and 33rd Divisions.
Operation U-Go was planned to start in the beginning of March 1944, but because of 15th Division's slow arrival start of the offensive was postponed to 15 March. 15th Division hold the central position of the three attacking divisions and its primary objective was to cut the road between Imphal and Kohima at Kangpokpi. On the map this was the shortest and most direct route towards Imphal, but it had to cross difficult terrain with only poor tracks. Because of the difficult terrain, the division’s ordinary artillery was replaced with mountain guns and the anti-tank equipment was left behind on the assumption that the British would not field tanks due to the difficulty of the terrain. Of the division’s nine battalions, one had been detached to the force dealing with the second Chindits operation, and most of 67th Regiment was still in Thailand.
Thus 15th Division started the campaign with 6 battalions, 18 guns and a commander, Lieutenant-General Masafumi Yamauchi, mortally ill with tuberculosis. Soon it had to be urged onwards by the commander of 15th Army, Renya Mutaguchi A British force at Sangshak was within 15th Division’s operational area, but because of its slow speed, units from 31st Division assaulted this position on 23 March. 60th Regiment arrived soon after, but was not allowed to take part in the final assault 27 March. 15th Division cut the Imphal-Kohima road at Kangpokpi on 3 April. Soon the division occupied Nunshigum Ridge, which overlooked Imphal. From here the Japanese could threaten the headquarters of the IV Corps and also marked the closest they ever came to Imphal. The British counterattack on this ridge included M3 Lee tanks, which came as a shock to the Japanese as they had considered the terrain to be completely impassable to armored vehicles. The tanks proved decisive - although the British suffered heavy losses, the defending Japanese battalion was almost annihilated. Despite this setback Yamauchi continued his encirclement of Imphal from the north. The British commander, Geoffrey Scoones drew the conclusion that the 15th was the weakest link in the Japanese front and ordered Indian 23rd Infantry Division and Indian 5th Infantry Division to destroy it. In the following months the British with their superiority in numbers and almost unstoppable tanks drove the Japanese off one hill after another.
In the middle of June the 31st Division began retreating from Kohima after suffering heavy casualties. This left 60th Regiment blocking the Imphal-Kohima road in an impossible situation and the British broke through and reopened the road on 22 June. The next day saw a change in command, with Yamauchi replaced by Lieutenant-General Ryuichi Shibita. On 7 July the division received orders for a last-ditch attack on Palel, but by now it had been shattered as a military formation; its remnants retreated back across the Chindwin River to safety.
After the defeat at Imphal and Allied advances in the North, the Japanese forces in Burma were forced to take up the defense and try to stop the Allies from crossing the Irrawaddy. In January 1945 the 15th Division was, together with the 53rd Division, thrown into the defense of Mandalay. The division had received some reinforcements, but at 4500 men it was still less than half of nominal strength.
The opposing unit, Indian 19th Infantry Division, established its first bridgeheads on the eastern side of the Irrawaddy on 14 January and all attempts to dislodge them failed. After a rapid build-up, the British commander, Thomas Wynford Rees ordered his men forward. Brushing aside all opposition, its forward elements were within sight of Mandalay 7 March. 15th Division, now under the command of Major-General Seiei Yamamoto, had received orders to defend the former Burmese capital to the last man. Of the two main positions, the Japanese were driven off Mandalay Hill by 12 March, but the thick walls of Fort Dufferin withstood artillery and air bombardment. On 18 March the division received new orders allowing its withdrawal, which it did through the sewers on the night of 19 March.
By this time the Japanese position in Burma had completely collapsed. The survivors of 15th Division (less than half its original strength of 15,000 men) retreated via the territory of the hostile Karen people and through the Southern Shan States, back into Thailand, where it remained at the time of the 1945 surrender.
The order of battle for the 15th Division included:
- 51st Infantry Regiment (Kyoto)
- 60th Infantry Regiment (Kyoto)
- 67th Infantry Regiment (Tsuruga)
- 21st Field Artillery Regiment
- 15th Construction Regiment
- 15th Transport Regiment.
Reference and further reading
- Louis Allen, Burma: The longest War, Dent Publishing, 1984, ISBN 0-460-02474-4
- Jon Latimer, Burma: The Forgotten War, London: John Murray, 2004 ISBN 0-7195-6576-6
- Madej, W. Victor. Japanese Armed Forces Order of Battle, 1937-1945 [2 vols]
Allentown, PA: 1981