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Encyclopedia > Northeast Indian Railways during World War II

The efficient running of the Northeast Indian Railways during World War II became critical to the success of the Allied war effort in the South-East Asian Theatre.


In the initial phase of the war the Japanese advanced North from Rangoon through Burma forcing allied forces to retreat into the mountains on the Indian Burma frontier. In doing so, not only did the threaten India, but they denied use of the Burma Road to the Western Allies, who had been sending supplies to the Chinese National Army under the command of Chiang Kai-Shek by that route.


Behind this frontier, there was a series of railways which were essential to supply the Allied armies with logistics they ran from the port of Calcutta to the hill station of Ledo in Assam. These logistics were not only needed by the British Fourteenth Army and many of the American and Chinese troops at the end of the line under the command of General Joseph Stilwell's Northern Combat Area Command but the Chinese under Chiang Kai-Shek in China, supplied initially by the airlift flying over the Hump and then by the Ledo Road.


From port of Calcutta a broad gauge railway ran for 235 miles to Parbatipur. Here goods had to be manhandled onto a meter gauge train. This wandered 450 miles up the Brahmaputra Valley to a ferry at Pandu which is 450 miles from Calcutta. Once ferried across the river the train continued to Dimapur over 600 miles from Calcutta. This was the main supply depot for the 14th Army. If the supplies were destined for the Northern Combat Area or trans-shipment on to China, they had to be sent an aditional 200 miles to Ledo which is over 800 miles from Calcutta.


The line had been built to server the tea plantations of Assam and had a peacetime capacity of 600 tons a day. By the time the 14th Army was formed in late 1943 this had risen to 2,800 tons. Up to Dimapur there were two other options, roads and river which could be used to suplement the rail tonnage. But there was no road to Ledo.


In eary 1944, the American Army provided six battalions of dedicated railway troops, about 4,700 men, by October 1944 they had raised the capacity to 4,400 tons and by January 1946 to 7,300 tons a day. This was possible by the increase in staff from 2 British or Indian officers to 27 experianced American railroad men on the same lenght of line and the introduction of more powerful American and Canadian locomotives. Without the trebling of capacity, the supply of Chinese troops in China would not have been possible once the Japanese attacked India and the 14th Army counter attacked.


It was possible to reach the Northen Front by river from Calcutta through the Sunderband and then up the main stream of the Brahmaputra to Dibrugarh a distance of 1,136 miles. For the Central Assam front the river Gauhati could be used, the bottle neck being that supplies to the river head had to be deliverd by the alreay overloaded meter guaged railway. The Southern front could be reached by a combination of broad-gauge railway, river-steamers and then a meter-gauge railway which ended at Dohazari rail head.


To move supplies from the Rail heads to the Army fronts three all weather roads were constructed in record time during the autumn (fall) of 1943.

  • The Ledo road in the North which went on to connect to the Burma road and supply China.
  • The campaign winning central front from Dimapur to Imphal.
  • The southern road from Dohazari south of Chittagong for the advance to Arakan.

Much of the labour for the two British roads and for constructing the many airfields was done by the 40,000 labours contributed by the Indian Tea Association who organised and managed them.

I rember once saying "Well, that railway's been washed away by floods, put out by bombing, swept away by landslides, closed by train wrecks; there's not much more that can happen to it." But there was. We had an earthquake that buckled the rails and shifted bridges over a hundred miles of it. – General Slim (Defeat into Victory IX p171)

Reference

Chapter IX: The Foundations of "Defeat into Victory" by William Slim ISBN


External links


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The efficient running of the Northeast Indian Railways during World War II became critical to the success of the Allied war effort in the South-East Asian Theatre.
In the initial phase of the war the Japanese advanced North from Rangoon through Burma forcing allied forces to retreat into the mountains on the Indian Burma frontier.
Behind this frontier, there was a series of railways which were essential to supply the Allied armies with logistics they ran from the port of Calcutta to the hill station of Ledo in Assam.
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