Kohima, The Battle that Saved India
Osprey Campaign Series, published 2010
In March 1944 the Japanese Army launched Operation U-Go, an attack on Assam in India intended to inspire a rising by the Indian populace against British rule. The Japanese plan would rely on mobility, infiltration and captured supplies to maintain the momentum of the attack. A month earlier the Japanese had launched Operation Ha-Go which was intended as a feint to draw British attention away from the Imphal area where the brunt of the U-Go attacks would take place. But British forces employed new defensive techniques to counter the Japanese infiltration tactics; forming defensive boxes, supplied by air, they held out against determined Japanese assaults until the Japanese were forced to withdraw, short of supplies. These tactics were again employed on a larger scale when Imphal and Kohima were surrounded during Operation U-Go.
Kohima (the ‘Stalingrad of the East’) was the crucial key point to the successful defence of Imphal, and took place in two stages. From 3 to 16 April the Japanese attempted to capture Kohima ridge which dominated the road along which the British and Indian troops centred on the Imphal plain were supplied. As the small garrison held out against fierce and repeatedly desperate attempts to destroy them by the Japanese 31st Division, so the British 2nd Division fought to break through and relieve them. Then for over two months from 18 April, British and Indian troops counter-attacked in an effort to drive the Japanese from the positions they had already captured that blocked the road to Imphal. The battle ended on June 22 when British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 109, thus ending the siege of Imphal.
2. Origins of the Campaign
The conquest of Burma in 1942 brought the Japanese Army to India’s borders, and during 1943 the concept of advancing into Indian itself began to take shape. North-east India (Assam) was important as the American base for the provision of supplies to Nationalist Chinese forces via airlift operations over ‘The Hump’ (the mountainous region between India, Burma and China). In Late 1943 the Japanese command in Burma was reorganised, and a new headquarters, Burma Area Army, was created under Lieutenant-General Kawabe Masakasu.
One of its subordinate formations, responsible for the central part of the front facing Imphal and Assam, was 15th Army whose new commander was Lieutenant-General Mutaguchi Renya was impressed by the apparent success of the first Chindit operation of 1943, and whose instinct was to mount an offensive against Imphal. He may have also been influenced by Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian Nationalist who led the Azad Hind and the Indian National Army. The idea that their western boundary would be controlled by a more friendly government was attractive to the Japanese and was also consistent with the idea that Japanese expansion into Asia was part of an effort to support Asian government of Asia and against western colonialism.
3. Opposing Commanders
Directing the operations of 15th Army was Lieutenant-General Mutaguchi Renya who, as a divisional commander, had been a ‘star’ of the conquest of Malaya and Singapore. Now he proposed a ‘March on Delhi’, and declared: ‘I started off the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which broadened out into the China Incident, and then expanded until it turned into the Great East Asia War. If I push into India now, by my own efforts ... [I] will have justified myself in the eyes of the nation.’ His principal subordinate in this grandiose scheme with the task of securing Kohima and thus cutting off the Anglo-Indian Fourteenth Army on the Imphal plain from resupply was Lieutenant-General Sato Kotoku.
But Sato and Mutaguchi were from opposing army factions and there was mutual deep distrust between them. Sato was convinced Mutaguchi was using the offensive to further his own ambitions and was reluctant to see his men die for so vain a purpose. However, governed by shosho hikkin (‘implicit obedience to an imperial order’) he was, at least in public, supportive of his superior. But to avoid annihilation, he would try to give his men the best chance of success, the essential element of which was supply; yet, the supply situation remained deeply unsatisfactory for offensive operations and the planners had long given up hope of getting anything more than reinforcing units and war material to Burma.
On the British side, overall command of Fourteenth Army lay with Lieutenant-General William Slim, but operations in and around Kohima would be directed by his subordinates; in particular the commander of XXXIII Indian Corps, Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford, and the commander of British 2nd Division, Major-General John Grover, a dedicated professional known as ‘Blackjack’ among the division, which regarded him highly. But the close nature of the fighting meant that in many ways this would be a ‘soldier’s battle’, with commanders finding their ability to influence the fighting very limited, and forced to rely on the individual skill, initiative and bravery of their juniors.
4. Opposing Armies
Despite their stunning early successes of the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Army remained remarkably backwards in adopting modern methods and equipment, particularly in the realms of logistics, so that for the arduous journey to India its soldiers would have to rely on their own ability and endurance to carry the means of war on their shoulders. As such, a force that was already short of firepower would find its guns critically short of ammunition, and as the battle progressed, its men increasingly short of rations. Nevertheless, the Japanese soldier was imbued with a dedication to the cause of his Emperor unmatched around the world, and a hardiness that meant only death would ensure his defeat.
Under Slim Anglo-Indian forces, reorganised as Fourteenth Army, had been revitalised and brought back to effectiveness after earlier defeats and poor command. As with most major ‘British’ formations, it was an ‘Empire’ army, with important elements from west and east Africa, India and Burma, as well as from Britain. They were well supported by air units, especially by transport largely provided by the Americans and were thus, at an important stage, able to achieve a mass airlift of both reinforcements and supplies into the threatened area.
5. Opposing Plans
Mutaguchi’s plans called for the capture of Imphal and Kohima by advancing towards the Brahmaputra River valley, sectioning the Allied supply lines to northern Burma and to the airfields supplying the Nationalist Chinese over ‘The Hump’. Mutaguchi's proposal was at first firmly rejected by the staff at Burma Area Army. However, Southern Army, the headquarters for all Japanese forces in South East Asia, was in favour of it. Kawabe’s staff persuaded Southern Army that there were severe logistical risks with Mutaguchi’s plan, only to find that the Japanese Imperial Army HQ in Tokyo also supported it.
The plans for the offensive directed three divisions to initiate a diversionary attack (Ha Go) in Arakan to cover the coast, while another two divisions would watch Stillwell’s American-Chinese forces in the north. In the centre three divisions from Mutaguchi’s 15th army were push into Manipur to capture Imphal, scattering British forces and forestalling any offensive movements against Burma. n a subsidiary operation, the 31st Infantry Division under Lieutenant-General Sato Kotoku was to attack and capture the vital depot at Kohima before advancing north towards Dimapur and the Brahmaputra valley.
6. The Campaign
Starting on 15 March 1944, the Japanese 31st Division crossed the Chindwin River near Homalin and moved northwest along jungle trails on a front almost 60 miles (100 km) wide. Although the march was arduous, good progress was made. The left wing of the division, 58 Regiment, commanded by the division’s Infantry Group commander, Major General Miyazaki Shigesaburo was ahead of the neighbouring formation (15th Infantry Division) when it clashed with Indian troops covering the northern approaches to Imphal on 20 March. The Indian troops were the Indian 50th Indian Parachute Brigade under Brigadier Hope-Thompson, at Sangshak. Although this was not Miyazaki’s objective, he decided to clear them from his line of advance. The Indian troops were desperately short of drinking water, but Miyazaki was handicapped by lack of artillery, and the battle continued for six days before reinforcements from 15th Division forced Hope-Thompson to withdraw. Crucially Miyazaki, who had the shortest and easiest route to Kohima, had been delayed for a week.
Meanwhile Slim had belatedly realised the strength of the force moving on Kohima which had very few fighting troops available to defend it; the vital base of Dimapur thirty miles to the north had none. As part of the hasty reinforcement of the Imphal front, the 5th Indian Division was flown up from the Arakan front where they had just participated in the defeat of the Ha-Go offensive at the Battle of the Admin Box. While the main body of the division went to Imphal, 161st Indian Brigade (with 24th Mountain Regiment, Indian Artillery), was flown to Dimapur. The British 2nd Division, 23rd (Long Range Penetration) Brigade (originally part of the Chindit force), and Headquarters XXXIII Indian Corps under Lieutenant General Montagu Stopford were also ordered to move there by road and rail.
Kohima ridge runs roughly north-south while the Dimapur-Imphal road climbed to its northern end and ran along its eastern face. North of the ridge lay the inhabited area of Naga Village, crowned by Treasury Hill and Church Knoll. The various British and Indian service troop encampments in the area gave their names to the features which became important during the battle. ‘Field Supply Depot’ became FSD Hill or merely FSD, while south and west of Kohima Ridge was another christened GPT Ridge (‘General Purpose Transport’), and the jungle-covered Aradura Spur. In 1944, Kohima was the administrative centre of Nagaland and the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow with its gardens and tennis court stood on the hillside at a bend in the road.
Before 161st Indian Brigade arrived the only fighting troops in the area were the recently raised Assam Regiment and some of the paramilitary Assam Rifles. Late in March, 161st Indian Brigade deployed in Kohima but was then ordered back to Dimapur. Meanwhile the Assam Regiment fought delaying actions against the main body of the Japanese 31st Division to the east of Kohima from April 1, while Miyazaki’s troops from the south were probing Kohima on 3 April. Although 161st Indian Brigade was ordered forward again only one battalion, 4th Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment arrived in Kohima before the Japanese cut the road west of the ridge.
By April 5 the British had been forced back onto the Kohima ridge held by 4th Royal West Kents and supporting troops from the Assam Rifles and Assam Regiment. As they were cut off they would have to rely on air resupply by the Royal Air Force. Continually shelled and mortared from 6 April the garrison was slowly driven into a small perimeter on Garrison Hill. They had artillery support from 161st Indian Brigade, themselves cut off two miles away at Jotsoma, but as at Sangshak the garrison was very short of drinking water, and the dressing stations were exposed to Japanese fire; wounded men were hit again as they waited for treatment.
Some of the heaviest fighting took place around the Deputy Commissioner's bungalow and tennis court, in what became known as the battle of the Tennis Court. The Japanese launched a series of attacks into the north-east region of the defences on April 8, and by April 9 the British and Indians there had been forced back out of the DC’s Bungalow to the other side of the tennis court. The other positions came under heavy attack and the perimeter shrunk and during this period, Lance-Corporal John Harman, the 19-year old heir to Lundy Island, won a posthumous Victoria Cross.
On April 13, the troops defending near the DC's bungalow and the tennis court came under increasingly heavy artillery and mortar fire, and had to repel frequent infantry assaults. This area was the scene of some of the hardest, closest and grimmest fighting, with grenades being hurled across the tennis court at point-blank range. But on 14 April the Japanese did not launch an attack and on the 15th British troops on Kohima ridge heard that the British 2nd Division was attacking along the Dimapur-Kohima road, and had broken through Japanese road blocks. But by the night of 17 April, the defenders’ situation was desperate.
That day the Japanese tried one last time to take the ridge, and succeeded in capturing FSD to the Garrison Hill positions. But on the morning of 18 April British artillery opened up from the west against the Japanese positions which halted further Japanese attacks. Elements of the British 2nd Division, 161st Indian Brigade and tanks from XXXIII Corps pushed into the area north-west of Garrison Hill and forced the Japanese from their positions.
On the morning of 20 April, 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment relieved 4th Royal West Kents. Already most rifle companies in 2nd Division were reduced, some to as few as 30 men, but the road between Dimapur and Kohima had been opened and the siege was lifted. While nineteen British and Indian regiments would earn the battle-honour ‘Kohima’, only the Royal West Kents and Assam Regiment were awarded the honour ‘Defence of Kohima’. As John Colvin says, ‘Kohima really was the turning point of the Burma campaign’, and but for 4th Royal West Kents whose motto was Invicta - ‘Unconquered’ - the siege would not have lasted beyond the first couple of days.
The Tables Turned
Miyazaki continued to try to capture Garrison Hill, and there was heavy fighting for this position for several more nights, with high casualties on both sides before the full strength of 2nd Division could be brought to the battle and enable the British to begin offensive operations. Moreover, despite British success in relieving the garrison, the Japanese who had been fighting to capture Kohima had no intention of relinquishing the gains they had already made; they would stay in the positions which they had captured and would fight tenaciously for several another two months. The monsoon had by now broken, and the steep slopes were covered in mud, making movement and supply very difficult. By this stage the pressure on Sato and his division was enormous, yet the fortitude and endurance of his soldiers would guarantee further punishing battles.
The Japanese had now reorganised their forces for defence: their Left Force under Miyazaki held Kohima Ridge with four battalions; the Centre Force under Sato himself held Naga Village with another four battalions, while the much smaller Right Force held villages to the north and east. The other two brigades of 2nd Division tried to outflank both ends of the Japanese position in Naga Village and on GPT Ridge. After promising starts, both moves failed because of the terrain and the weather, and from 4 May the Division concentrated on the Japanese centre along Kohima Ridge.
The first of these attacks was led by 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers and proved abortive; the Fusiliers managed to gain the crest but could not cling to it and lost 189 men in the operation, while another battalion of the same brigade, 2nd Durham Light Infantry, was by now reduced to a headquarters and two weak companies. In every instance the fighting was at extremely close quarters and often very confusing. Major Michael Lowry described the attack by ‘B’ Company, 1st Queen’s Royal Regiment, on Jail Hill on 10 May: ‘This night approach, in my opinion, was most difficult – very tricky navigation and altogether rather nerve-racking, something I shall never forget… I had to navigate the column – in fact, I had to lead it. Very tricky, no defined tracks, thick undergrowth, down hundreds of feet round spurs and up hundreds of feet and across re-entrants, hacking, pushing, stumbling, and through ruined bashas and so on …’ However, by the morning of 13 May, many of the features in the Kohima had been taken by the British-Indian forces, although a few including the DC’s bungalow, were still holding out against 2nd Dorset Regiment and their supporting tanks.
Since the offensive started, the Japanese had been forced to make do with meagre captured food stocks and what they could forage in increasingly hostile local villages. This was partly due to the British 23rd (LRP) Brigade, which had been operating behind the Japanese 31st Division, cutting Japanese supply lines and preventing them foraging in the Naga Hills to the east of Kohima. The Japanese had mounted one resupply mission, using 17 captured jeeps to carry supplies forward from the Chindwin, but they brought mainly artillery and anti-tank ammunition rather than food.
By the middle of May, Sato’s troops were starving. To support their renewed attack on Kohima Ridge the British had now amassed 38 3.7 inch mountain howitzers, 48 25-pounder field guns and 2 5.5 inch medium guns. The RAF also bombed and strafed Japanese positions while the Japanese could oppose them with only 17 light mountain guns, with very little ammunition. Sato considered that the Headquarters 15th Army was neither taking any notice of his situation (as they had issued several confusing and contradictory orders to him during April) nor exerting themselves to move supplies to his division.
He began pulling his troops back to conserve their strength, thus allowing the British to capture Kohima Ridge. On 25 May he notified 15th Army that he would withdraw on 1 June unless he was supplied. (For a divisional commander to retreat without orders or permission from his superior was unheard-of in the Japanese Army.) Finally on 31 May, he abandoned Naga Village and other positions north of the road, in spite of orders from Mutaguchi to hang on to his position.
The siege and battle had lasted 64 days and it seemed all that remained was for the victorious British-Indian troops to drive down the road to Imphal; yet the Japanese continued to defy them at every turn. The tough little Miyazaki led a rearguard force of 750 men as every bridge and culvert that could be demolished was turned into another defensive position, and all the time the rain fell continuously. It would take another three weeks of intense fighting to reach Milestone 108 where a linkup was made with lead elements of 5th Indian Division coming north from Imphal, marking the end of the long siege of that place. Sean Kelly was part of the vanguard, and recalled that ‘we sat alone in the sunshine and smoked and ate. Soon the staff cars came pouring both ways. The road was open. It was a lovely day.’
The British and Indian forces had lost around 4,000 men, dead, missing and wounded. The Japanese had lost more than 5,000 men in the Kohima area fighting. After ignoring army orders for several weeks, Sato was removed from command of Japanese 31st Division early in July. The entire Imphal offensive was broken off at the same time. Slim had always derided Sato as the most unenterprising of his opponents, but Japanese sources blame his superior, Mutaguchi, for both the weaknesses of the original plan, and the antipathy between himself and Sato which led to Sato concentrating on saving his division rather than driving on distant objectives. This battle was ultimately to prove the turning point of the Burma Campaign.