Kohima and Imphal

By now however, the Japanese were at the end of their endurance and British and Indian troops of the 5th Division began moving north up the main road through Kanklatongi while the 20th Division followed the Iril River towards Litan, threatening the lines of communication of the Japanese attacking Kohima.

At Kohima, the British had been ordered by Slim, knowing how vital the hill town was as the last defence before India, not to withdraw without his permission, a virtual “fight to the last man” instruction. It was imperative to deny the Japanese the mountain roads leading down to the Indian plain. The commander at Kohima was Colonel Hugh Richards who had about 2,500 troops under his command, half of which were support troops. Heading towards him was 12,000 battle hardened Japanese. In late March, the 161st Indian Brigade was sent to Kohima, but General Slim, fearing that the Japanese would send only a small force to take Kohima and make their main thrust directly at Dimapur, recalled them back to the supply base. Last minute re-enforcements of two battalions of infantry supported by artillery were rushed in and were positioned two miles west of Kohima on the highest hill on the ridge, later to become known as Garrison Hill.

Fighting began on the 30th of March as the Japanese came into contact with units of the Assam Rifles which were defending the approaches to Kohima and pushed them back.  By the 5th of April, despite desperate resistance, the Japanese had taken the strongpoints on the hills around the town and their 31st Division began probing attacks from the south.

The 161st Indian Brigade was again ordered to Kohima, but only one battalion (4th Btn Royal West Kent’s) arrived before the Japanese cut the road west of the ridge.

The siege began in earnest on the 6th of April, the garrison coming under constant bombardment from shells and mortars, in many instances by the Japanese using weapons and ammunition taken from captured supply bases. The defenders were slowly driven back to a small perimeter on Garrison Hill receiving some artillery support from units of the 161st Division, themselves cut off two miles away at Jotsuma. The British and Indian troops crouched in foxholes sometimes only yards from the enemy and constantly harassed by mortar and sniper fire making it virtually impossible to move in daylight. To make matters worse they were short of water, their canvas water tanks having been riddled with bullets. A small spring was discovered on the north side of the hill, but could only be reached at night. The medical dressing centres were exposed to enemy fire and wounded men were hit again as they waited for treatment.

The Japanese, short of food and ammunition, knew that they must finish the job quickly and threw everything they had at the weary defenders, shelling and sniping, plus infantry attacks throughout the day and infiltrating at night to silence individual foxholes. Day and night the defending troops were subjected to Japanese broadcasts urging them to surrender.

On April 11th, troops of the 5th Infantry Brigade were sent southward from Dimapur towards Kohima and after two days heavy fighting through Japanese road blocks had smashed their way to Jotsuma just two miles away.

The situation at Kohima was now desperate and Colonel Richards sent a message to 5th Brigade stating that unless help arrived in 48 hours, Kohima would fall. He added that,” The men’s spirits are all right but there aren’t many of us left”.

Some of the heaviest fighting took place at the north end of the ridge around the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow and tennis court in what became known as The Battle of the Tennis Court. The court became a no man’s land with attackers and defenders dug in on either side of the court so close to each other that grenades were thrown between the trenches.

The Japanese launched their fiercest attack on the night of the 17th, bombarding the garrison with phosphorous shells and following up with howling infantry assaults with grenades and machine guns. Despite fierce resistance the attackers captured the bungalow, effectively cutting the garrison in two. By that night the defenders were on their last legs with the Japanese swarming everywhere but still failing to mount co-ordinated attacks which would have overwhelmed the defenders. The ground, just 350 square yards around Garrison Hill, was all that remained of the perimeter held on April 5th. But the West Kent’s hung on till the dawn of the 20th when the advance guard of the Royal Berkshires of the 2nd Division broke through and relieved them. Men of the Berkshires later recounted that the stench of rotting corpses made them physically sick as they dug in on the rubble and shell scarred hill resembling a First World War battlefield.

Under cover of darkness, the British wounded were brought out under fire but their evacuation did not signal the end of the battle. The Japanese still held most of Kohima Ridge including the bungalow and tennis court. They had dug in extensively and created a warren of dug outs and bunkers and would have to be driven out amid the monsoon downpours that brought with it the mud, malaria and dysentery.

Two British Brigades of the 2nd Division were sent off to outflank the Japanese positions. One Brigade attacked the Japanese holding the nearby Naga Village while the other reached Kohima Ridge from the South West and attacked in the driving rain, surprising the enemy and capturing part of the ridge but not being able to secure the entire area. The attacks continued for a week with vicious hand to hand fighting in the mud and rain and much of the ridge was retaken by the 33rd Indian Infantry Brigade after a barrage of smoke shells blinded the enemy machine gunners, enabling the attackers to dig in and secure the captured ground.

The task of clearing the last of the enemy from their remaining positions around the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow and tennis court was given to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dorsets, but the difficult terrain and the Japanese defences made this impossible. A detachment of Royal Engineers who, using bulldozers, cut a path through the thick jungle on the slope behind the bungalow and winched a Grant tank up and rolled it down. It came to rest on the baseline of the tennis court and its commander, Sergeant Waterhouse of the 149th Royal Tank Regiment, crushed trenches and poured a hail of fire at the bunkers from less than 20 yards away. This finally broke the Japanese resolve and they were driven on to the guns of the waiting Dorsets. The ridge and its buildings had been reduced to a rat infested shell churned wilderness with half buried human remains everywhere.

On the 5th of May, General Sato signalled Mutagachi that, unless he received supplies by the 1st of June, he would have to withdraw. Mutagachi ordered him to stand, but on the 31st of May, Sato told his troops to withdraw southwards and was harried all the way by the British. Imphal was relieved on the 22nd of June after a siege lasting eighty days. The fighting had cost the British forces some 17,500 killed and wounded and the Japanese 80, 000.

The 14th Army of Brits, Australians, Sikhs, Jats, Burmese and Gurkhas, sometimes in the most appalling of conditions, chased the Japanese southwards towards Meiktila and Rangoon, inflicting terrible losses on them and, in the words of General Slim, “Fought them to a standstill”. In the three years of fighting in Burma, the Japanese suffered losses of some 200,000 against allied losses of 77,000.

The simple epitaph to the fallen at Kohima says it all.

When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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