From here retreated Japanese troops marching into India

Why the Battle of Kohima has been voted Britain's greatest ever

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati | Published: April 23, 2013 12:34 am

“When you go home tell them of us and say,for your tomorrow we gave our today.” This is inscribed on one of the memorials at the Kohima War Cemetery,resting place of 2,338 soldiers of the Allied Army after one of the most decisive battles in World War II,80 days long and a turning point in history.

The Battle of Kohima has now been voted Britain’s greatest battle,overshadowing Waterloo and D-Day of WWII. The voting was organised by the National Army Museum,London.

The Japanese had marched into India from what was then Burma,their plans having included an invasion of Delhi,before allied forces fought them off. It was from the Battle of Kohima that the Japanese retreat began,and historians refer to Kohima as “Stalingrad of the East”.

In March 1944,General Renya Mutaguchi,commander of the Japanese 15th Army,launched three of his divisions across the river Chindwin in Burma into the Naga Hills,then part of Assam,with the objective of smashing British preparations “for an eventual offensive into Burma.” He called his plan the “March on Delhi”.

Also codenamed U-Go,his plan was to send the Japanese 31st Division,comprising 58th,124th and 138th regiments and the 31st Mountain Artillery Regiment,first to capture Kohima and then to proceed into mainland India. Kohima,at the summit of a pass,offered the Japanese the best route into India; it was the key point in the supply line between the Dimapur railhead and Imphal,where three three Allied divisions almost simultaneously faced another major Japanese attack.

The British IV Corps,headed by General William Sim,was scattered,with the southernmost division bypassed by the Japanese,blocking its chances of retreating to Imphal. As the Japanese advanced,the 20th Division withdrew. The British 2nd Division,which was then in Belgaum in southern India,was rushed by road,rail and air in record time.

The Japanese troops first entered the Manipur hills and attacked Ukhrul on March 19. They then moved ahead,targeting both Kohima and Imphal and cutting off the vital link road on March 29 despite being numerically lower than the British. On the night of April 4,they attacked Kohima,taking control of the dominating heights around the town,and cutting off the road at Zubza,in the process delinking the Kohima garrison from reinforcements in Dimapur.

On April 10,General Slim ordered a general counteroffensive,leading to a reopening the roadblock at Zubza by the 1st Battalion on April 14,while the 2nd Battalion marched on the invaders. The Japanese advance had been checked,but they were still holding most of Kohima.

On April 17,the Japanese made one more attempt to occupy the Kohima ridge. They captured the FSD Hill and Garrison Hill positions. But early next morning the British artillerymen showered heavy fire on the Japanese positions,and with troops of the 161st Brigade and tanks from the 33rd Corps pushing in,they threw the Japanese out of their positions. The road between Dimapur and Kohima was cleared,and the siege lifted.

The Japanese,still bent on taking Kohima,did not retreat at once. Many of them stayed in positions they had captured and kept fighting for several more weeks. By May 13 morning,most of Kohima had been reoccupied by British and Indian forces. Two days later,the Japanese began to withdraw as fresh British troops marched up from the Assam valley.

The fighting went on for seven more weeks,ending in a complete Japanese withdrawal by the third week of June. Having cleared Kohima,the British and Indian army then began marching towards Imphal,till they finally met their comrades who had driven the Japanese out of Imphal at milestone 109. That was June 22; the Battle of Kohima had finally ended.

The Battle of the Tennis Court

It was actually fought on a tennis court on the bungalow complex of Charles Pawsey,then deputy commissioner of Naga Hills.

The Kohima ridge,which consisted of at least four distinct hills — Garrison Hill,Jail Hill,Field Supply Depot (FSD) Hill,and Detail Issue (DIS) Hill — and the deputy commissioner’s bungalow were used as the main lines of defence by 4th Royal West Kents and supporting troops from the Assam Rifles and the Assam Regiment. When the Japanese attack intensified,the British and Indian troops were forced to back out of the bungalow to the other side of the court.

On April 13,the British troops came under heavy fire,turning the tennis court and the DC’s compound into the field of a grim battle. Grenades were hurled across the court like tennis balls,leading to heavy casualties on both sides. The tennis court battle lasted one more day,until the Japanese retreated.

THE LOSSES

4,064

British and Indian troops killed

5,764

Japanese casualties

2,338

Allied soldiers at Kohima War Cemetery

917

Hindu and Sikh soldiers marked on Kohima Cremation Memorial at highest point of cenetery

1,421

In graves,including 1,070 from UK,5 from Canada,3 from Australia,2 from East Africa,1 from West Africa,9 from Burma,33 from India,1 non-war person.

1,274

Of the 1,421 identified

147

Remaining tombstones read “A soldier of the 1939-45 war,known unto God”

FROM THE ARCHIVES

“When the history of the war comes to be written,the fight here will be put down as the turning point of the war when the Japanese were routed and their downfall really began”

Field Marshal

Archibald Wavell

C-in-C,India (later Viceroy)

“To begin with I took over an area overlooking the Tennis Court… We were attacked every single night… Most nights they overran part of the battalion position,so we had to mount counter-attacks… Water was restricted to about one pint per man per day. So we stopped shaving. Air supply was the key,but the steep terrain and narrow ridges meant that some of the drops went to the Japs. My company went into Kohima over 100 strong and came out at about 60.”

Major Boshell

who commanded ‘B’ Company,1st Royal Berkshires,in the 6th Infantry Brigade

(Source: The Battle of Kohima,North East India,4 April- 22 June 1944,British MoD 2nd World War Commemorative Booklets)

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