Long ago,on the eastern front

Although the British voted it so,the Imphal-Kohima confrontation was not the greatest battle of World War II

Written by Kaushik Roy | Published: April 27, 2013 2:54:45 am

Although the British voted it so,the Imphal-Kohima confrontation was not the greatest battle of World War II

On March 4,1944,the Japanese launched their last ground offensive in Burma,known as U-Go. Three Nipponese infantry divisions of Renya Mutaguchi’s 15th army converged on the hill towns of Imphal and Kohima. “Bill” Slim’s 14th army used five divisions and by mid June,the Japanese thrusts were defeated. However,in 1944,the English-speaking world did not pay much attention to the struggle that unfolded in the jungle-covered regions of the India-Burma border. The attention of the Western world was on fighting in Italy (Anzio and Rome) and Operation Overlord (June 6,1944).

The British personnel in the 14th army,out of frustration for lack of attention to their activities in the Far East,described themselves as members of the “Forgotten Army”. Both official accounts and popular histories,including Hollywood movies,focused overwhelmingly on combat on the European fronts. In the new millennium,a group of British military officers,including some academics,started arguing that combat against Japan in Burma was as important as fighting against Hitler’s Festung Europa. The new genre of operational historians started claiming that Slim was a greater general than Bernard Montgomery,the man who defeated Erwin Rommel in Normandy. Some Indian writers claimed that Indians played a prominent role on both sides during the climactic confrontation at Imphal and Kohima. In reality,how important was Imphal-Kohima in the context of global warfare? And how important was the role of the Indians in this campaign?

Despite the assertion of some populist writers,the Japanese strategic aim in launching U-Go was not to conquer India,but to occupy the important military bases of Imphal and Kohima in order to disrupt the Allied ground offensive,which the Japanese rightly predicted would be launched into central Burma in mid-1944. It is true that 70 per cent of the personnel in Slim’s army were Indians. There was only one British division and two African divisions in Burma. The rest of the five infantry divisions comprised of Indians. However,most commissioned officers in even the Indian divisions were British.

Some over-emphasise the role played by the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army/ INA) in the Imphal-Kohima campaign. Only 7,000 INA personnel participated in this campaign. Moreover,they were neither trained nor equipped for frontline combat. They were assigned rear area security tasks. The Japanese aim was to use these units for encouraging sedition and rebellion among the Indians behind British lines. However,the INA failed to perform these tasks. The Nagas around Imphal and Kohima sided with the British and hated the Japanese,due to the latter’s pillage and plundering of village livestocks. Actually,the Japanese had no option,as their supply line from Chindwin was in ruins while the 14th Army enjoyed the luxury of air supply. The British armed many Nagas for self-defence. Military training imparted to them by British officers in wartime and the capture of weapons of retreating Japanese soldiers enabled the Nagas to conduct armed insurgency against independent India in the 1950s. Moreover,the jawans remained loyal to their white masters and shot at the INA personnel. Regimental loyalty prevented mutiny among the British-officered Indian soldiery. Only the demobilisation of the 1.8 million strong Indian army in August 1942 and the British failure to provide the demobilised jawans with jagirs and jobs turned them against the Raj. But that is a separate story.

How important was U-Go in terms of lethality in the context of der totale krieg? About 1,57,000 Allied troops were used to counter the Japanese invasion in 1944. The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had about five divisions in Burma (including one in Arakan and another in north Burma deployed against Joseph Stilwell’s Chinese-American troops). In comparison,some 3,56,000 Allied soldiers jostled at Normandy. And the Wehrmacht had 58 divisions to defend west Europe. Between February and July 1944,the 14th Army suffered 24,000 casualties (including 12,000 at Imphal and 4,000 at Kohima). The corresponding figure for the IJA was around 90,000. Of the Wehrmacht troops in Normandy,2,50,000 became casualties after the German defeat at Falaise Gap on 21 August 1944. So,Imphal-Kohima was a smaller affair than Normandy. However,both these battles were chicken feed compared to what was going on in the Ostfront.

In the summer of 1944,Stalin launched Operation Bagration. By the end of 1944,the Red Army had advanced from Smolensk to the outskirts of Warsaw. The Wehrmacht suffered almost a million casualties. The point to be noted is that 70 per cent of the Wehrmacht was always on the eastern front. So,if any battle could be categorised as decisive,it had to have been one fought on the Russian front.

Historical perception is different from historical reality. Every nation uses history for national mythmaking and a professional historian’s thankless job is to blast the myths and counter-myths of history. To conclude,Imphal-Kohima was not a world shaking event and the INA (despite its post-1947 importance) was merely a cog in the wheel.

The writer is a Kolkata-based senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo

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