The battle that time forgot

A UK poll has named victories in Imphal and Kohima against the Japanese as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’.

Written by Esha Roy | Published: August 25, 2013 2:49:11 am

They came from the south. Quietly. Hundreds of them. Japanese soldiers who marched for days. Till they reached Maibam Lokpaching or the Red Hill (as the British called it) under the cover of darkness. It was May 20,1944. The hill lay in their path,resting like a humped camel. Unbeknown to the Japanese,on the other side of the hill the 17th division of the British Indian Army had established its headquarters. Both sides caught each other unawares and,for the next nine days,the Red Hill was to witness some of the fiercest fighting either of the forces had ever seen.

As the sun rose over the hill the morning of the tenth day,just 40 of the 500 Japanese ‘white tigers’ had survived,only to beat a hasty retreat. Dozens lay dead on the other side too.

A Japanese memorial of grey stone and an ill-kept garden are what mark the fighting today. Another smaller shrine dedicated to the battle stands at the bottom of the Red Hill that some say the Japanese built in 1977—the only Japanese memorials of WWII in India. The men who died fighting for the British are buried in the Imphal War Cemetery at Dewlahland and the Indian Army War Cemetery at Hatta,in the city.

The anonymity surrounding this chapter of World War II is now set to end. In April this year,the victories over the Japanese in Imphal and another in Kohima were together voted ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ in a contest by the UK National Army Museum. A select audience of more than 100 voted overwhelmingly for the victories ahead of D-Day and Normandy (1944),Waterloo (1815),Rorke’s Drift (during the Zulu War,1879),and Aliwal (during the First Sikh War,1846).

Historians made their case for the battles to the audience over a 40-minute presentation. The case for Imphal and Kohima was made by Dr Robert Lyman,an author and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.


The Red Hill is quiet now,flanked by paddy fields and an even quieter Maibam village. Head bowed in deep prayer,a lone figure in front of the Japanese memorial stands out in the still afternoon. Mitsunori Hasuda,33,from Japan is here as part of the newly launched ‘Battle of Imphal’ tours.

This is Hasuda’s third visit to India but only the first to the Northeast. “I have always had a very keen interest in WWII since my country was involved in it,” he says,adding that he has travelled to war sites in the Solomon islands,Singapore,Laos,Cambodia,Indonesia and Yangon (Myanmar). He has also visited river Kwai where the Japanese used 30,000 prisoners of war to construct a bridge. For the past two years,he has been working in Bangkok.

Hasuda says he read up about the Battle of Imphal before visiting Manipur but was surprised when he got here. “The people here look like us—Mongoloid—I did not expect this in India.”

Talking about the battle,he notes that it was really a turning point in the World War from a Japanese perspective. “I know that many Japanese will be interested in coming to Manipur and visiting the sites.”

Another reason Hasuda feels this pull to know more about WWII is that his grandfather took part in it,though he was never posted on the frontlines. “He was excellent at calligraphy and so he used to write out the orders issued by his commanders. I never realised this before I came to Imphal,but I think this is why I feel so emotional about the war,” he says.

In Imphal,Hasuda has also visited the cemeteries where the British are buried. Explaining why he places a small glass bottle of sake in front of the memorials before offering a prayer,he says: “The Japanese believe that sake is the one thing that the dead can’t take with them into their next lives. I always say two prayers at these memorials—the first is that the ancestors and the dead rest in peace,and in the second I make a determination to study hard and work hard to make the world better,so that their sacrifices don’t go waste.”


The Battle of Imphal tours were launched earlier this year by Hemant Singh Katoch,a former United Nations and Red Cross aid worker. Having spent seven years in Geneva followed by field assignments in conflict regions like East Timor and Congo,33-year-old Katoch says he wanted to come back to India. Manipur had always fascinated him since he first visited the state in 2009 for a friend’s wedding.

“It was a very different Imphal back then… more security forces on the streets. I wanted to find out more,” he says.

During his research about the place,World War II surfaced and then kept resurfacing in passing references. “I realised these were not just minor skirmishes,not just any battle,but one of WWII’s most significant,most fiercely fought battles—and one of Japan’s biggest ever losses,” says Katoch.

So,in 2012,he packed his bags and arrived in Manipur. “I knew the 70th anniversary was in 2014. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to throw light on this little-known episode of WWII,and also on Manipur itself,” says Katoch.

What began as planning for a 70th anniversary commemoration turned quickly into a realisation of the possibility of War tourism,arguably the first of its kind in the country. “I had been associated with INTACH in the past,I was one of the donor members. They agreed to allow me to work on their behalf,” he says.

Katoch has since formed his own company and launched four tours—the Battle of Imphal tour,the Shenam Saddle tour,the Tiddim road tour and the Imphal walk. He is all set to launch the Victoria Cross tour—five soldiers in the war were awarded the Victoria Cross,Britain’s highest military honour—while an INA (Indian National Army) tour,detailing the entry of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s soldiers in the battle,is in the pipeline.

Katoch,also an Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Centre for North East Studies,Jamia Millia University,says: “If you look at Manipur’s history,those months from March to July 1944 are what uniquely connect it to the rest of the country as well as the rest of the world. You had Indians from different parts of the country in the British Indian Army and also in the INA,you had Malaysian Indians in the INA as well as people from the US,Kenya,Tanzania,Australia,Canada,New Zealand,Uganda and of course Japan. It was the first time that such a collection of nationalities came to Manipur. It is now Manipur’s job to reach out to those countries and re-establish those connections. Whether it’s the Pakistanis buried at the Hatta cemetery,Africans in Dewlahland’s war cemetery,Americans who evacuated casualties from the Tengnoupal,the Australians who flew to battle from Koirengei airfield or the Japanese who took the Tiddim road. They fought,and many of them died here,” says Katoch.


The Manipur Tourism Forum (MTF),a private body with close links to the government,has been supporting the Battle of Imphal initiative. Chairman Th Dhabali Singh believes it can help Manipur get both domestic as well as foreign tourists. The MTF was established in November 2011,around the time insurgency and conflict showed a determined decline in the state,and Singh says the time was ripe for an initiative such as Katoch’s.

The owner of the only three-star hotel in Manipur,The Classic,Singh adds: “Except for sporadic incidents,violence has decreased. Restaurants have started opening and showrooms,businesses are mushrooming. Others are planning hotels as well. War tourism is one area where we can focus. Since Manipur does not have industries,this is something we need.”

Recently,the MTF organised training for 20 tour operators and guides,a first for the state. “There have been British and Japanese tourists who came to visit the memorials and cemeteries earlier. But this has so far not been organised… Moreover we hope to attract Bengali tourists to the state through the INA tour and museum,marking the spot in Moirang,about an hour from Imphal,where it hoisted its flag for the first time on Indian soil,” says Singh.

According to him,the tourist flow to the state has already been seeing a steady rise.


Leishangthem Chengleinganba Meeitei is among the 20 to have received training under the MTF programme. The 30-year-old,who has a Masters in history,is looking forward to be one of the guides conducting the Battle of Imphal tours. “Apart from the fact that this will provide many youths an alternative source of employment,the situation in Manipur is such that we have very little exposure to the rest of the world and the rest of the world has very little exposure to us,” he says. “Very few among us have actually ventured beyond Guwahati. Most of us don’t even know that such a significant part of world history took place on Manipuri soil. If a small country like Maldives can sustain itself on tourism,why can’t we?”

Manipur is also gearing up for the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Imphal next year. Says Minister of State for Tourism M Prithviraj Singh,incidentally the grandson of former INA member and first chief minister of the state Mairembam Koireng Singh: “We will be organising a grand event. I have spoken to Union Minister of State for Tourism Chiranjeevi and he has assured support from the Centre. We will be the first in the country to start war tourism.”

Prof Amar Yumnam of Manipur University is organising a two-day international seminar,and hopes to bring together “a range of countries,organisations and people connected to the war”. The invitees would include representatives of governments of Japan,the UK,the US,Australia,Canada,Myanmar,Kenya,Tanzania and Uganda,as well as the Royal United Services Institution for Defence Studies,London; Imperial War Museum,London; Nagaland and Assam universities; INTACH; Ministry of Defence; Delhi Policy Group; and the Centre for Policy Research.

“A number of our guests have confirmed their attendance. Netaji’s grandnephew and grandniece Sugata Bose and Sharmila Bose will be attending. Robert Lyman,who lobbied for declaration of the Battles of Imphal and Kohima as the greatest British Battle,and Dr Hugo Slim,a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics and also the grandson of General William Slim who commanded the British Indian forces during the battle,will also be attending. It’s the biggest international event to take place in Manipur,” says Prof Yumnam.


An ELAC Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University,Dr Hugo Slim won’t be visiting Manipur for the first time. “I accompanied my father on a veterans’ visit to Imphal and Kohima in 1998. We were a group of about 50 British people—veterans of the Fourteenth Army and the widows or sisters of men who had been killed in the war,including one amazing woman from the East End of London who was 82 years old and had never been out of Britain in her life. She was determined to visit the grave of her husband before she died,” he says in an e-mail interview.

The British Fourteenth Army was a multinational force comprising units from Commonwealth countries during World War II. Many of its units were from the Indian Army,as well as from the West and East African divisions within the British Army.

Dr Slim was barely 8 when his grandfather passed away. General William Joseph Slim led the British Indian forces in the Battle of Imphal. He stayed at what is now called Slims Cottage,a heritage property inside Imphal’s Kangla Fort. “He inscribed a copy of his book about the XIV Army campaign,Defeat into Victory,and gave it to me before he died,” says Dr Slim. It was only much later,at the age of 24,that he finally read it. “It is one of the most significant books I have ever read. I was so struck by my grandfather’s humanity,intelligence and modesty as a leader,and by the extraordinary determination and skill of the one million people in the Fourteenth Army,” says Dr Slim.

With Myanmar opening up,there couldn’t be a better time to look at this period of history,he adds. “The India/Burma campaign was long known as The Forgotten Army in the UK. In the British popular imagination,the great battles and heroes were all in Europe. But military historians have begun to reappraise WWII and the XIV Army campaign is having something of a renaissance,” he says. “Scholars are recognising the campaign as the beginning of modern integrated mobile warfare (air supply etc) and a model of defensive and offensive warfare. The campaign is now taught in the UK and US military academies. Imphal is now recognised as the longest battle of WWII and the combination of so many different nationalities in the XIV Army makes it an important example of what today is called diversity… My grandfather came first,with Wellington for the best British general of all time (in the National Army Museum poll). Interestingly,they were both schooled in war in India.”

Prof Yumnam nods enthusiastically. “The World War effectively ended in Manipur,” he says. “The world is unacquainted with Manipur despite our being part of this special world history. This is our opportunity to project ourselves to the rest of the world.”

‘One of WWII’s most gruelling campaigns’

“Fought between 7 March and 18 July 1944,the Battles of Imphal and Kohima were the turning point of one of the most gruelling campaigns of the Second World War. The decisive Japanese defeat in Northeast India became the springboard for the Fourteenth Army’s subsequent re-conquest of Burma”: National Army Museum,London.

During the battle,as many as 70,000 Japanese soldiers marched to Manipur to fight the allied forces. The plan was to capture Imphal,cut off the key Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur road and prevent any British invasion of Myanmar (then Burma),which Japan had controlled since 1942. An estimated 30,000 Japanese soldiers died from fighting or disease in the simultaneous battles of Imphal and Kohima,and on the retreat back to Burma.

Soldiers carried the injured back towards the Chindwin river. Those who could not be carried were left behind. The fingers of many of the dead were cut to be cremated back home.

Around 16,000 on the British side were either killed or wounded at Imphal,Kohima. Around 12,000 of them died during the Battle of Imphal.

Around 7,000 INA men accompanied the Japanese forces till Moirang. While 400 were killed in battle,1,500 died of disease and starvation.

Till this day skeletons presumed to belong to the dead soldiers are found in Manipur.

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