The Battles of Imphal and Kohima

The little known Battle of Kohima (together with the intertwined Battle of Imphal) proved the turning point of the 1944 Japanese offensive into India, during the Second World War of 1939-1945, and has been described by various historians as 'The Stalingrad of the East' and by the National Army Museum as 'Britain's Greatest Battle'.

The battle took place in three stages from 4 April to 22 June 1944 around the town of Kohima, the capital of Nagaland in northeast India.

The Japanese plan to invade India was originally intended as a spoiling attack against the British IV Corps at Imphal in Manipur, to disrupt the Allied offensive plans for that year.

The commander of the Japanese Fifteenth Army, Lieutenant General Mutaguchi, enlarged the plan to invade India itself and perhaps even overthrow the British Raj.

If the Japanese were able to gain a strong foothold in India they would demonstrate the weakness of the British Empire and provide encouragement to Indian nationalists in their decolonization efforts.

Part of the plan involved sending the Japanese 31st Division to capture Kohima and thus cut off Imphal. Mutaguchi wished to exploit the capture of Kohima by pushing the 31st Division on to Dimapur, the vital railhead and logistic base in the Brahmaputra River valley.

On 15 March 1944, the Japanese 31st Division crossed the Chindwin River and moved north-west along jungle trails on a front almost 60 miles (97 km) wide. 

The division's Infantry Group commander, Major General Miyazaki, was ahead of the neighbouring formation (the Japanese 15th Infantry Division) when they clashed with Indian troops covering the northern approaches to Imphal on 20 March.

The Indian troops were the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade under Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thompson, at Sangshak, and fought off the Japanese until Hope-Thomson withdrew, and thus delayed the Japanese advance for almost a week.

Meanwhile, the commander of the British Fourteenth Army, Lieutenant General William Slim, belatedly realised that a whole Japanese division was moving towards Kohima.

Slim knew that there were few fighting troops, as opposed to soldiers in line-of-communication units and supporting services, in Kohima and none at all at the vital base of Dimapur 30 miles (48 km) to the north.

Dimapur contained an area of supply dumps 11 miles (18 km) long and 1 mile (1.6 km) wide. As the fall of Dimapur would have been disastrous for the Allies, Slim asked his superior, General George Giffard (commanding Eleventh Army Group), for more troops to protect Dimapur and to prepare to relieve Imphal.

Kohima's strategic importance in the wider 1944 Japanese offensive lay in that it was the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma into India.

Through it ran the road which was the main supply route between the base at Dimapur in the Brahmaputra River valley and Imphal, where the British and Indian troops of IV Corps faced the main Japanese offensive.

Before the 161st Indian Brigade arrived, the only fighting troops in the Kohima area were the newly raised 1st Battalion, the Assam Regiment and a few platoons from the 3rd (Naga Hills) Battalion of the paramilitary Assam Rifles.

Slim feared that the Japanese might leave only a detachment to contain the garrison of Kohima while the main body of the 31st Division moved by tracks to the east to attack Dimapur, which was of much greater strategic importance - however much to Slim's relief, Sato concentrated on capturing Kohima. 

As the right wing and centre of the Japanese 31st Division approached Jessami, 30 miles (48 km) to the east of Kohima, elements of the Assam Regiment fought delaying actions against them commencing on 1 April.

Nevertheless, the men in the forward positions were soon overrun and the Assam regiment was ordered to withdraw. By the night of 3 April, Miyazaki's troops reached the outskirts of the Naga village and began probing Kohima from the south.

The next day, the 161st Indian Brigade was ordered to move forward to Kohima again, but only one battalion, 4th Battalion Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Laverty, and a company of the 4th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment arrived in Kohima before the Japanese cut the road west of the ridge.

Besides these troops from 161st Brigade, the garrison consisted of a raw battalion (the Shere Regiment) from the Royal Nepalese Army, some companies from the Burma Regiment, some of the Assam Regiment which had retired to Kohima and various detachments of convalescents and line-of-communication troops.

This meant that the garrison numbered about 2,500, of which about 1,000 were non-combatants.

The siege began on 6 April, when the garrison was continually shelled and mortared, in many instances by Japanese using weapons and ammunition captured at Sangshak and from other depots, and was slowly driven into a small perimeter on Garrison Hill.

They had artillery support from the main body of 161st Brigade, who were themselves cut off 2 miles (3.2 km) away at Jotsoma, but they were very short of drinking water.

The water supply point was on GPT Ridge, which was captured by the Japanese on the first day of the siege.

While a small spring was discovered on the north side of Garrison Hill, it could be reached only at night. 

The medical dressing stations were exposed to Japanese fire, and wounded men were often hit again as they waited for treatment.

Some of the heaviest fighting took place at the north end of Kohima Ridge, around the Deputy Commissioner's bungalow and tennis court, in what became known as the Battle of the Tennis Court.

The tennis court became a no man's land, with the Japanese and the defenders of Kohima dug in on opposite sides, so close to each other that grenades were thrown between the trenches.

The American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray wrote about the fighting at Kohima between the Japanese vs. the Anglo-Indian troops: 'Nowhere in World War II – even on the Eastern Front – did the combatants fight with more mindless savagery'.

On the night of 17/18 April, the Japanese finally captured the DC's bungalow area - and other Japanese captured Kuki Picquet, cutting the garrison in two.

The defenders' situation was desperate, but the Japanese did not follow up by attacking Garrison Hill as by now they were exhausted by hunger and by the fighting, and when daylight broke, troops of 161st Indian Brigade arrived to relieve the garrison.

By 11 April, the Fourteenth Army had about the same number of troops in the area as the Japanese.

The British 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division broke through Japanese roadblocks to relieve 161st Brigade in Jotsoma on 15 April, and the British 6th Brigade took over 161st Brigade's defensive position allowing the 161st Brigade with air, artillery and armour support to launch an attack towards Kohima on 18 April.

After a day's heavy fighting, the leading troops of the Brigade (1st Battalion, 1st Punjab Regiment) broke through and started to relieve the Kohima garrison. 

By this point, Kohima resembled a battlefield from the First World War, with smashed trees, ruined buildings and the ground covered in craters.

Under cover of darkness, the wounded (numbering 300) were brought out under fire, however although contact had been established, it took a further 24 hours to fully secure the road between Jotsoma and Kohima.

During 19 April and into the early hours of 20 April, the British 6th Brigade replaced the original garrison and at 06:00 hours on 20 April, the garrison commander (Colonel Richards) handed over command of the area.

6th Brigade observers were taken aback by the condition of the garrison; one battle hardened officer commentated: 'They looked like aged, bloodstained scarecrows, dropping with fatigue; the only clean thing about them was their weapons, and they smelt of blood, sweat and death'.

The Japanese reorganised their forces for defence. Their Left Force under Miyazaki held Kohima Ridge with four battalions. The divisional HQ under Sato himself and the Centre Force under Colonel Shiraishi held Naga Village with another four battalions. The much smaller Right Force held villages to the north and east.

While the British 6th Brigade defended Garrison Hill, the other two brigades of 2nd Division tried to outflank both ends of the Japanese position, in Naga Village to the north and on GPT Ridge to the south.

The monsoon had broken by this time and the steep slopes were covered in mud, making movement and supply very difficult - in places the British 4th Brigade had to cut steps up hillsides and build handrails in order to make progress.

The British 4th Brigade, having made a long flank march around Mount Pulebadze to approach Kohima Ridge from the south-west, attacked GPT Ridge in driving rain and captured part of the ridge by surprise but were unable to secure the entire ridge. Two successive commanders of British 4th Brigade were killed in the subsequent close-range fighting on the ridge.

Both outflanking moves having failed because of the terrain and the weather, the British 2nd Division concentrated on attacking the Japanese positions along Kohima Ridge from 4 May onwards.

Fire from Japanese posts on the reverse slope of GPT Ridge repeatedly caught British troops attacking Jail Hill in the flank, inflicting heavy casualties and preventing them from capturing the hill for a week. However, it was finally captured by 33rd Indian Infantry Brigade on 11 May, after a barrage of smoke shells blinded the Japanese machine-gunners and allowed the troops to secure the hill and dig in.

The last Japanese positions on the ridge to be captured were the tennis court and gardens above the Deputy Commissioner's bungalow.

On 13 May, after several failed attempts to outflank or storm the position, the British finally bulldozed a track to the summit above the position, up which a tank could be dragged. A Lee tank crashed down onto the tennis court and destroyed the Japanese trenches and bunkers there.

The 2nd Battalion, the Dorsetshire Regiment, followed up and captured the hillside where the bungalow formerly stood, thus finally clearing Kohima Ridge. The terrain had been reduced to a fly and rat-infested wilderness, with half-buried human remains everywhere. The conditions under which the Japanese troops had lived and fought have been described by several historians as "unspeakable".

The situation worsened for the Japanese as yet more Allied reinforcements arrived. The 7th Indian Infantry Division was arriving piecemeal by road and rail from the Arakan. Its 33rd Indian Brigade had already been released from XXXIII Corps reserve to join the fighting on Kohima Ridge on 4 May.

The 114th Indian Infantry Brigade and the Division HQ arrived on 12 May and (with 161st Brigade under command) the division concentrated on recapturing the Naga Village from the north. The independent 268th Indian Infantry Brigade was used to relieve the brigades of British 2nd Division and allow them to rest, before they resumed their drive southwards along the Imphal Road.

Nevertheless, when the Allies launched another attack on 16 May, the Japanese continued to defend Naga Village and Aradura Spur tenaciously. An attack on Naga Hill on the night of 24/25 May gained no ground. Another attack, mounted against both ends of Aradura Spur on the night of 28/29 May was even more decisively repulsed. The repeated setbacks, with exhaustion and the effects of the climate began to affect the morale of the British 2nd Division especially.

The decisive factor was the Japanese lack of supplies. The Japanese 31st Division had begun the operation with only three weeks' supply of food. Once these supplies were exhausted, the Japanese had to exist on meagre captured stocks and what they could forage in increasingly hostile local villages.

Shortly before the siege of Kohima began, the Japanese had captured a huge warehouse in Naga Village with enough rice to feed the division for three years, but it was immediately bombed and the stock of rice was destroyed. 

The British 23rd LRP Brigade, which had been operating behind the Japanese division, cut the Japanese supply lines and prevented them foraging in the Naga Hills to the east of Kohima. The Japanese had mounted two resupply missions, using captured jeeps to carry supplies forward from the Chindwin to 31st Division, but they brought mainly artillery and anti-tank ammunition, rather than food.

By the middle of May, Sato's troops were starving. He began considering pulling his troops back to allow for resupply, and notified Fifteenth Army HQ that he would withdraw on 1 June, unless his division received supplies. 

Finally on 31 May, he abandoned Naga Village and other positions north of the road, in spite of orders from Mutaguchi to hang on to his position. (For a divisional commander to retreat without orders or permission from his superior was unheard-of in the Japanese Army.)

Miyazaki's detachment continued to fight rear-guard actions and demolish bridges along the road to Imphal, but was eventually driven off the road and forced to retreat eastwards. The remainder of the Japanese division retreated painfully south but found very little to eat, as most of what few supplies had been brought forward across the Chindwin had been consumed by other Japanese units, who were as desperately hungry as Sato's men.

Many of the 31st Division were too enfeebled to drag themselves further south than Ukhrul (near the Sangshak battlefield), where hospitals had been set up, but with no medicines, medical staff or food.

Indian XXXIII Corps followed up the retreating Japanese. The British 2nd Division advanced down the main road, while the 7th Indian Division (using mules and jeeps for most of its transport), moved through the rough terrain east of the road.

On 22 June, the leading troops of British 2nd Division met the main body of 5th Indian Infantry Division advancing north from Imphal at Milestone 109, 30 miles (48 km) south of Kohima. The siege of Imphal was over, and truck convoys quickly carried vital heavy supplies to the troops at Imphal.

During the Battle of Kohima, the British and Indian forces had lost 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded. Against this the Japanese had lost 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area, and many of the 31st Division subsequently died of disease or starvation, or took their own lives.

The huge losses the Japanese suffered in the Battles of Imphal and Kohima (mainly through starvation and disease) crippled their defence of Burma against Allied attacks during the following year.

Two Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions during the Battle of Kohima: Lance Corporal John Pennington Harman, 4th Battalion, Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, 161st Indian Infantry Brigade, 5th Indian Infantry Division, and Captain John Niel Randle, 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd British Infantry Division.

The War Cemetery in Kohima of 1,420 Allied war dead is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery lies on the slopes of Garrison Hill, in what was once the Deputy Commissioner's tennis court. The epitaph carved on the memorial of the 2nd British Division in the cemetery has become world-famous as the Kohima Epitaph. It reads:

When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today

The verse is attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds (1875–1958), and is thought to have been inspired by the epitaph written by Simonides to honour the Spartans who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.

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