The Burma Campaign

Account of the Defence of Morgan Hill, Shenam Ridge - 1944

By Major-General Geoffrey C De Egglesfield Collin, M.C.

© Tim Collin 2019


Editor's Note: I am indebted to Tim Collin, son of Geoffrey Collin, for granting permission to publish this account. 

For an introduction to the then Captain Collin's 1944 diary see here.  For the transcript of Captain Collin's 1944 wartime diary, see here.


In early 1944, the Japanese launched their major attack from Burma into India.  114 Field Regiment, a Sussex territorial regiment, had supported the 20th Indian Division in its fighting withdrawal through appalling country.   By April, the Division was attempting to prevent a Japanese breakout on to the Imphal plain, by holding a number of positions in the hills, one of which was on the Shenam Ridge.

After three months of fighting, we were battle experienced and morale was good; but we had learned to respect the tenacity and fighting qualities of the Japanese especially during their night attacks; their tactics were often inflexible and predictable, but they were determined and fanatic; in three months we had taken no prisoners.

F.O.O. target area sketch - Captain Geoffrey Collin

Artillery observers target sketch as used by Captain Collin at Shenam, Imphal 1944

On 10th April, my O.P. party – myself and three signallers – were ordered forward to a small hill nicknamed Morgan overlooking the track leading up to the Shenam Ridge.  Tired, hot and overloaded, we reached the small bare hill an hour before darkness.   Like the infantry, we moved and fought entirely on a man-pack basis, carrying all our equipment, food, weapons, wireless set and batteries, telephone, and the wretched Signalling Lamp D.S.S.R. (Daylight Signalling Short Range); a relic of the pre-War fighting on the North West Frontier, we thought, and we resented having to carry it.

Morgan was held by a platoon of Indian infantry.   As we settled into our slit trenches, and took stock, we were apprehensive of the night before us.  Our hill was the forward position and it was an obvious target for the next Japanese attack; and it was very isolated, being some 400 yards from the nearest infantry position.  Some rather thin barbed wire ran around the top of the hill, 300 yards from our cluster of shallow trenches, the ground being unsuitable for any deep digging.   Apart from our rifles and Bren guns, it was clear to me that the only other support on which we could rely was from our troop of four 25 pounders, sited about 4,000 yards away;  hence the presence of my OP party in this position.

Looking around our small hilltop position, I realised quickly the unusual problems we would face in observing and correcting our artillery fire.  The thick jungle just beyond and below our wire would make it impossible to observe shells falling, especially at night; and the steep hills and crests around our position would cause interesting trajectory problems.   Clearly we should have to rely on the sound of the bursting shells to correct our fire, and indeed on sounds of the enemy in the jungle to locate our targets in the first place.

Thirty minutes before dusk, Jap shelling started.   Single rounds, accurately placed.  I could see the flash of the guns, and whilst trying to get a compass bearing on to them, a shell landed in our OP party’s trench, fatally wounding the wireless operator and smashing his set.  After a quick reorganisation of the chaos, we found thankfully that our telephone line to the guns was still intact.  However, our relief was to last only a few moments, as the line was destroyed by shell fire well outside our own wire, and too far out to be repaired by us.

Our last hope to retain our communications with our guns was the signalling lamp which we had so much despised.  We connected it to the large wireless batteries, switched on and miraculously it still worked.   The gun position was just visible about an intervening crest, and to our utter relief we quickly received an answering flash.  By the dim light of a torch, we huddled on the floor of the slit trench and tried to sort out the various code sheets which were used to transmit artillery fire direction orders, using the Morse code, in which we had all been trained but on which we were all a bit rusty.

We had not long to wait before we heard the unmistakable sounds of Japanese infantry moving and forming up in the jungle some 150 yards away, followed by the first assault on our position.  Quickly we called for supporting fire, using the signalling lamp.  The first shells landed well away from the target, and so anxiously, we gave corrections based on our estimate from sound only on where they had landed.   Soon our shells were falling just outside our own wire, and by the cries and evident confusion they were breaking up the Jap attack.  At least four further attacks were launched during the night, from differing sides of the hill, but in each case they were utterly disrupted by our shell fire, followed by grim and determined close-quarter fighting by our own infantry with those few who penetrated the wire.  When opportunity allowed, our O.P. party joined wholeheartedly in this fighting, with rifle, bayonet and grenade.  During quieter intervals I crawled into the Indian Platoon Commander’s slit trench, and we conversed briefly in basic Urdu.  His wide grin was a tonic, as we both knew that our ability to hold on throughout the night was slight.  Once again I experienced that tremendous bond of mutual respect and confidence that existed between all our OP parties and the infantry with whom we lived and fought.

Although we had to rely totally on the use of our signalling lamp, each time its beam pierced the night it was greeted with a hail of bullets, followed by mortar fire.  We devised a simple system of sending a few orders in about 30 seconds, ducking back into the trench and then popping up a few yards away for the next series of orders on the lamp.  Altogether a hair-raising business, but the continued passing of artillery fire orders by means of this lamp was our one and only lifeline, and the only chance we had o holding on to our position.  If the artillery fire had failed, our small platoon position would have been rapidly overrun.

An hour before dawn, after we had beaten off yet another determined attack, the Japs withdrew and everything became quiet.  With the coming of daylight, we counted the dead bodies within our own position, and also astride the wire; those outside the wire had been removed by their comrades,  We tended our wounded, buried our dead – not easy in that cramped area and into a hard ground – and repaired our slit trenches and the wire.   Although physically exhausted, we all experienced the intense satisfaction of having held on to that vital position for a valuable 12 hours; our guns had again played a major part in our battle, thanks to the ability to maintain communications through the signalling lamp, when all else had failed.  During the day, our telephone line was repaired and we received a new wireless set; however, we spent much care and attention on our previously maligned Signalling Lamp D.S.S.R.

21 July 2019