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Japan's Last Bid For Victory: The Invasion of India, 1944

There were four great turning point battles in the Second World War, when the tide of war changed irreversibly and dramatically against those who initially held the upper hand.  

At Midway in June 1942 the US Navy successfully challenged Japanese dominance in the Pacific for the first time; at El Alamein in October 1942 the British Commonwealth triumphed against Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa and began the process that led to the German surrender in Tunisia in May 1943; at Stalingrad between August 1942 and January 1943 the seemingly unstoppable German juggernaut in the Soviet Union was finally halted in the winter bloodbath of the city, where only 94,000 of the original 300,000 German, Rumanian and Hungarian troops survived; and at Imphal and Kohima between March and July 1944 the Japanese were decisively defeated in eastern India, their ‘March on Delhi’ brought to nothing and at huge cost in human life the start of their retreat from Asia begun.

It is the last of these great turning points that is the least remembered – and in the West at least – least recognised for the decisive event that it was.  
 
This – the Battle for India – was a bloody, desperate affair drawn out over four months in the cold, rugged mountain hills of eastern Manipur and Nagaland that provided the gateway to the Brahmaputra Valley, Bengal and the rest of India.  If General Mutaguchi had managed to get his army of 100,000 through this gateway to India many confidently predicted that an anti-Raj uprising would ensue – not least the leading Independence advocate Subhas Chandra Bose – leading to defeat and humiliation for Great Britain in the ‘Great Asian War’.

But the Japanese did not succeed, despite making desperate attempts, and sacrificing thousands of lives (half of the entire Japanese invasion army perished) in the attempt. It entailed bitter encounter battles through jungle encrusted valleys, extraordinary feats of endurance, not least by the Japanese during their crossing of over one hundred miles of supposedly ‘impassable’ hills, the two great sieges at Imphal and Kohima respectively, and a desperate fighting withdrawal by the defeated, starving Japanese three months later, with many thousands of soldiers dying in the mountain wildernesses, some resorting to cannibalism to survive.   
 
This battle for India is not just the story of two armies meeting in violent confrontation.  It is the story of Indian nationalism and of the movement led by Subhas Chandra Bose to recruit and lead disaffected ex-Indian Army Prisoners of War in the Indian National Army against their erstwhile leaders and brothers who had decided to fight for Britain.  

It is the story too about the civilian population caught up in the fighting, particularly the mountain people of the Naga Hills, forced to escape into the hilly jungle and to survive off wild plants and roots while violent battle raged all around them.  It is also the story of the British and American transport pilots flying their Dakota and Commando aircraft to drop supplies to the besieged troops at Kohima and evacuate the wounded from Imphal; of the battalion of 500 territorial soldiers (the Royal West Kents) who held off an entire Japanese division of 15,000 for 16 desperate days during the initial siege of Kohima, and amongst others of the 23rd Brigade of Orde Wingate’s ‘Chindits’ who operated far behind Japanese lines to cut and harry their communications.  
 
The Battle for India is a balanced, accessible account of this enthralling confrontation, providing strategic perspective mixed with human detail about the front line fighting in the strategically crucial gateway to India during the spring and early summer of 1944.

Using the latest available archival material and the oral testimonies of veterans, the book demonstrates that Imphal and Kohima fully justifies their place amongst the critical turning points of World War Two.  It tells the story through the eyes of those who were there of the two great sieges of Imphal and Kohima and explains the role of Indian nationalism in Japanese plans.  

It introduces for the first time in narrative accounts the voices of the Naga people caught up in the fighting.  Most importantly, it places these battles squarely in their correct historical context.  This was the engagement that stopped the Japanese from invading India in 1944, and began the decline in Japanese fortunes in south east Asia which ended with their defeat in Burma in August 1945.  In this respect Imphal and Kohima were one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War.  
 
The book explores the twists and turns of the Japanese invasion of India in 1944, all of which hinged around Imphal, capital of Manipur, and the mountain village of Kohima, situated strategically on the road between Imphal and the Brahmaputra Valley.  It examines the reasons for the invasion, especially the ego of the Japanese General Mutaguchi, desperate for military glory, as well as that of Bose, whose politicking persuaded General Tojo in Tokyo to support the plan, and to raise an army of disaffected Indian soldiers from the thousands of Prisoners of War captured during the capture of Malaya and the fall of Singapore in February 1942.
 
It concentrates on the story of the sieges of Imphal and Kohima. Using archive material and entirely new interviews of those who were there it looks at the fighting through the eyes of a wide variety of servicemen and women cooped up in their jungle prison, including British and Indian infantrymen, British and Indian tank crews, artillerymen, anti-aircraft gunners and USAAF and RAF airmen, as well as Naga men and women.  The story is balance through memories of Japanese combatants, including interviews with the late Lieutenant Masao Hirakubo.  
 
The Battle for India views this long, desperate affair through the eyes of political leaders (Churchill, Tojo and Bose), British and Japanese commanders and their troops, focusing on the critical points of preparation and fighting. The themes explored include political and military decision-making; the respective qualities of the fighting services (British, Japanese, Indian, Gurkha and Indian National Army); Japanese fighting spirit (‘bushido’); the roles of the various arms and services in defending Imphal and Kohima and in lifting the sieges of both Imphal and Kohima (infantry, tanks, artillery, fighter aircraft) and the operations to sustain the troops by air supply.  

It concentrates on the experiences of those who had to do the fighting.  It ends with the long retreat of the Japanese Army back to the Chindwin, a fraught period when many thousands succumbed to starvation and disease, and many also to cannibalism.  It details the fighting methods; descriptions of intense all-arms battle; air combat and air supply, including the operations of one of Orde Wingate’s Chindit columns, the 23rd Long Range Penetration Brigade.

I discuss the role played by General Slim in shaping the battle and creating decisive victory despite the worriers in London and the gainsayers in New Delhi. Intimate portraits of the combatants are drawn and the atmosphere of conflict recreated as well as the pressure and frantic action in headquarters; the sights, sounds and smells of the battlefield; the loneliness and responsibility of command; and the fear and heroism of the soldiers.
 
By taking this approach I wanted to be able to understand how and why this battle for India was fought.  But I also wanted to discover how its inherent passion and fortitude made Imphal/Kohima such an important factor in the turning the tide of arrogant Japanese militarism in 1944, and thus made the recovery of Burma and the collapse of Japanese hegemony possible in 1945.   
 
Imphal/Kohima was not just the battle for India and the preservation, for a brief moment, of the Raj.  It was the first defeat of a Japanese Army on land in the Second World War, and began the process that led to the Japanese defeat and humiliation in Burma in 1945.
 
Erratum
Annoyingly, the two errors contained in Kohima, 1944 have also found their way into this book. On page 73 the Tennis Court is described as ‘below’ the Bungalow. Of course, it was ‘above’.  Then, on Line 29 of p. 91 the name ‘Kimura’ inadvertently appears. It should read ‘Kawabe’.  These mistakes will be corrected in new editions of the book.


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