The battles of Kohima and Imphal became two of the greatest struggles of the Second World War, rivalling El Alamein and Stalingrad, though it still remains comparatively unknown. To the men who fought there however, it remains “The Battle”. If the Japanese had won, the road to India would have lain wide open before them.
The Battles of Kohima and Imphal became the turning points in the Japanese attempt to invade India and were fought in the Assam region on the Indo-Burmese border between 8th March and 3rd July 1944.
The Japanese offensive, codenamed U-Go, was launched on the 6th March 1944 with three aims; to disrupt the planned allied offensive to retake Burma and to open the way for their invasion of India. Their third objective was to cut the supply line to the American General Stilwell’s Northern Area Combat Command fighting in China and northern Burma in support of the Chinese Commander Chiang Kai Shek, thus freeing up the huge number of Japanese troops committed there to fight elsewhere. The gateway to India centred on two isolated towns on the North East border of India, Imphal in the district of Manipur and Kohima, a hill town some 130 miles to the north and sited on the summit of the pass leading to India.
Imphal was an important logistical supply base for British forces and was defended by IV Corps of the British 14th Army, commanded by General Scoones, under the overall commander General William Slim.
Beyond Kohima was the railhead of Dimapur, the major British supply depot and its capture would be vital to the Japanese supply line if India was to be taken. Slim’s plan was to withdraw his troops from their jungle outposts, bringing them closer to Imphal where the flat plain would enable his superior air and artillery forces to destroy the Japanese.
Two divisions of the Japanese 15th Army, under the command of the hot-headed General Mutaguchi, crossed the Chindwin River on the 15th March and advanced on Imphal. Mutagachi, with an over inflated sense of his own abilities and believing that he was destined to conquer India, calculated that a major advance north across the Chindwin River would destroy the British and Indian forces guarding the gateway to the sub-continent. He also sent a third force, the 31st Infantry Division led by Lieutenant-General Sato, to mount a simultaneous attack on the border town of Kohima.
The left wing of the attackers, led by General Myazaki, first clashed with allied troops of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade covering the approaches to Imphal at Sangshak. The battle raged for the next six days with the Paras putting up fierce resistance until, out of water and ammunition, they withdrew with losses of some 600 men against the Japanese 400.
The Japanese plan was to surround Imphal and launch a major attack from the south assisted by elements of the Azad Hind, an Indian resistance group dedicated to overthrow British rule in India. These rebels were used as guides and also to infiltrate British lines and encourage troops of the British Indian Army to desert.
Speed was essential for the success of the Japanese attack. Their forces had supplies enough for about a month of fighting but were at the end of a very long supply line. Furthermore, the monsoon rains would start in May and make movement even more difficult. Mutagachi’s forces took 5,000 oxen with them for food, but many died through lack of forage or were stolen by locals hostile to the invaders. He relied on a quick outcome and hoped to supply his forces with food and ammunition from British stores after the battle. This gamble had worked in the past, but now, being far from their own supply base and with total British air superiority in the region; his Divisional Commanders were less than happy with the plan. Mutagachi had also assumed that the British would be unable to deploy their tanks in the steeply wooded hills around Imphal and had left behind most of his field artillery, their chief anti-tank weapon, bringing with him just a few light tanks.
On the 20th March, the 20th Indian Division, under Major General Gracey, was holding the outpost positions at Tamu and Moreh when the Japanese attacked. Gracey’s force included six M3 Lee tanks of the 3rd Carabiniers and after a short fierce fight; six Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks were destroyed.
Gracey was happy to stay in position and slug it out, but when he was ordered to detach some of his force to provide a reserve for IV Corps, leaving him too weak to hold the line, was forced to withdraw. The supply dump at Moreh was set ablaze and 200 cattle slaughtered before he left.
Further south, the 17th Indian Division was cut off by the advancing Japanese and the road to Imphal cut. A counter attack by the Indians drove the enemy from the road, but further north the Japanese captured the supply dump at Milestone 109. Another attack by the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade drove them out and the Indians then withdrew, taking the supplies from Milestone 109 with them.
Both the Japanese and Indian divisions had suffered heavy casualties and Scoones had been forced to commit his only reserves, the 23rd Indian Infantry Division, to aid the 17th. These divisions, supplied by parachute drops, got back to Imphal on April the 4th.
On the 28th of March, the Japanese 60th Regiment cut the road north of Imphal, while the 51st Regiment advanced on Imphal from the north east. It was now that Slim’s air superiority came to the rescue. He was able to transport the experienced 15th Indian Infantry Division and all it’s equipment, (Jeeps, mules etc) to the Imphal plain in readiness for the Japanese onslaught.
The Japanese 33rd Division, under General Yanagita, attacked from the south, cutting a path through the jungle to Imphal from Bishenpur. They captured Tongzang and cut off supply lines to the Indian infantry’s 17th Division withdrawing towards Imphal. The British General Scoones sent his only reserve, the 23rd Indian Infantry Division to the aid of the 17th and with the help of the RAF supplying them by air, were able to make their way back to the Imphal plain. A garbled radio message to Yanagita suggested, (incorrectly) that part of his force had been destroyed at Tongzang and this, coupled with a lack of supplies, caused him to halt his advance just 10 miles from Imphal. Other Japanese units advancing directly up the Tiddim-Imphal road, suffered severely from British artillery fire.
Further attacks were launched on the Tamu-Imphal road, the only metalled road the Japanese could use and was vital to them for bringing up their light tanks and artillery for the assault on Imphal itself. Also on this road was Patel airfield, one of only two all weather airfields on the Imphal plain, vital to the defenders for resupply. A Regiment of the Azad Hind was sent across country by the Japanese to infiltrate Patel airfield and attempt to persuade its Indian defenders to defect, but when this failed, the Hind launched an all out attack on the field but were driven off with over 250 killed and many more wounded.
A new attack on the road was mounted by the Japanese on April 4th, but due to poor communications, the infantry were not ready and twelve Japanese light tanks found themselves exposed to British anti-tank guns and were destroyed. Heavy fighting developed on the hills straddling the Tamu-Imphal road with the Japanese capturing many of them, but was driven back by British and Indian counter-attacks, both sides suffering heavy losses.
The Japanese 15th Division then encircled Imphal from the north and captured a British supply dump at Kanglatongbi, only to find that it had been emptied of food and ammunition. The 51st Regiment seized the Nunshigum Ridge overlooking the main airstrip at Imphal. This was a major threat to IV Corps and a counter-attack was immediately launched, supported by air strikes, massed artillery and the M3 Lee tanks of the Carabiniers. The Japanese were driven off but with great losses on both sides. It was reported that every officer of the Carabiniers and the attacking Indian infantry was killed or wounded during the fight.
Imphal was now surrounded but by the 1st of May, the Japanese advance, short of food and ammunition, had come to a halt. Scoones then mounted a counter-attack on the Japanese 15th Division, reckoned to be the weaker of the encircling forces. If successful, the siege could be broken and help sent north to the beleaguered hill town of Kohima. A fresh Indian division was flown in and ordered to retake Mapeo Spur, a steep ridge overlooking Imphal, but found the Japanese defences almost impregnable, being dug in on the reverse slope of the ridge where the artillery could not reach. This meant an infantry assault with rifle and bayonet, only to be driven back by mortar fire and grenades time and time again.