33rd Division (Imperial Japanese Army)

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33rd Division
Active 1943 - 1944
Country Empire of Japan
Branch Imperial Japanese Army
Type Infantry
Garrison/HQ Utsunomiya, Tochigi
Nickname Bow Division
Engagements Battle of Imphal

The 33rd Division (第33師団 Dai-sanjusan Shidan?) was an infantry division in the Imperial Japanese Army. Its call sign was the Bow Division (弓兵団 Yumi Heidan?).

History[edit]

The 33rd Division was raised in Utsunomiya, Tochigi prefecture, but its headquarters was in Sendai. It was raised from conscripts largely from the northern Kantō prefecturers of Tochigi, Ibaraki and Gunma. Initially assigned to the Japanese 11th Army in central China, it saw combat at the First Battle of Changsha. It was transferred to the Japanese 15th Army on 6 November 1941, and took part in the invasion of British Burma, under Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai. It suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Yenangyaung. Afterwards, it was one of the key divisions in the Battle of Imphal, at which it was all but annihilated as a front-line combat force.

Battle of Imphal[edit]

Late in 1943, the Japanese command in Burma had been reorganized. A new headquarters, Burma Area Army, was created under Lieutenant General Masakasu Kawabe. One of its subordinate formations, responsible for the central part of the front facing British India in Nagaland and Assam, was the Japanese 15th Army, whose new commander was Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi. At the same time, Lieutenant General Sakurai was promoted to command the 28th Army in southern Burma. His command of the 33rd Division was succeeded by Lieutenant General Motoso Yanagida.

Mutaguchi’s plan was to have the 33rd Division destroy the Indian 17th Infantry Division at Tiddim, then attack Imphal from the south. The 33rd Division's Infantry Group HQ, under Major General Tsunoru Yamamoto, formed Yamamoto Force, composed of units of the Japanese 33rd and 15th Divisions which would destroy the Indian 20th Infantry Division at Tamu, then attack Imphal from the east. Meanwhile, the 15th Division under Lieutenant General Masafumi Yamauchi would envelop Imphal from the north, while in a separate subsidiary operation, the IJA 31st Division under Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato would isolate Imphal by capturing nearby Kohima. All Mutaguchi's divisional commanders disagreed with the plan to some extent, and Yanagida openly derided him as an "imbecile".

In the opening stages of the Battle of Imphal the 33rd Division cut off the Indian 17th Division under Major General Cowan. The Japanese 215th Regiment under Colonel Masahiko Sasahara captured a supply dump at Milestone 109, twenty miles behind Cowan's leading outposts. The Japanese 214th Regiment under Colonel Takanobu Sakuma seized Tongzang and a ridge named Tuitum Saddle across the only road, a few miles behind the Indian 17th Division's position. However, they were unable to dig in properly before they were hit by the Indian 48th Brigade on 18 March 1944, taking heavy casualties. Fighting around Milestone 109 was even more severe.

In early April the 33rd Division attacked from the south at Bishenpur, where they cut a secondary track from Silchar into the plain. Yanagida was already pessimistic and depressed by his failure to trap the Indian 17th Division. He had also been rattled by a garbled radio message which suggested that one of his regiments had been destroyed at Milestone 109. He therefore advanced cautiously. By doing so, he may have lost a chance to gain success as Bishenpur was held only by Indian 32 Brigade (from 20th Division) and the Indian 17th Infantry Division was resting after its retreat. Mutaguchi removed him from command.

In early May, the British counter-attacked. None of the Japanese divisions had received adequate supplies since the offensive began, and some of the troops were starving; others were sick with malaria, and most were low on ammunition. Although there was now no realistic hope of success, Mutaguchi (and Kawabe) ordered renewed attacks. 33rd Division, reinforced by battalions from the 53rd and 54th Divisions and under a new forceful commander, Lieutenant-General Nobuo Tanaka, broke into the Indian 17th Division's positions at Bishenpur, but failed to break through.

By late May, Mutaguchi's divisional commanders refused to make a renewed attacks on Imphal, as they were in no condition to comply. Mutaguchi finally ordered the offensive to be broken off on 3 July 1943. The Japanese fell back to the Chindwin River, abandoning their artillery, transport, and soldiers too sick to walk. The defeat at Kohima and Imphal was the largest defeat to that date in Japanese history. They had suffered 55,000 casualties, including 13,500 dead.

Later Operations in Burma[edit]

The Division was rebuilt to a strength of about 10,000. When the Allies launched their offensive into Central Burma, the Japanese withdrew behind the Irrawaddy River. A rearguard from 33rd Division took heavy losses defending the river port of Monywa on the Chindwin. During the fighting in February and March after the Allies crossed the Irrawaddy, 33rd Division defended the vital river port of Myingyan. It was not directly attacked, as the Allied bridgeheads were east and west of their positions. The division held Myingyan until most of 15th Army were already in full retreat. It suffered further casualties in attempting to retreat south.

At the end of the war, the division had moved to Moulmein in southern Burma. During the entire Burma campaign, the division suffered 22,316 casualties

, including 15,033 dead.

Organization[edit]

The 33rd Division was organized as a triangular division.

33rd Division -

  • 33rd Infantry Brigade group:
  • 33rd Mountain Artillery regiment
  • 33rd Military Engineer regiment
  • 33rd Transport regiment

See also[edit]

Reference and further reading[edit]

  • Madej, W. Victor. Japanese Armed Forces Order of Battle, 1937-1945 [2 vols]

Allentown, PA: 1981