Mars and Clio
the magazine of the British Campaign for Military History Review
Readers familiar with Robert Lyman’s previous books on the war in Burma – notably Slim Master of War and The Generals – will not be disappointed with this. It is a tour de force, the result of massive and meticulous research on original sources, both British and Japanese, and supported by interviews with all ranks on both sides, from generals to privates, giving their own vivid versions of the horrors they faced.
To put the whole campaign in perspective, Lyman gives an admirably clear description of Mutaguchi’s plans for a three division attack across the Chindwin, directed at Kohima and Imphal, with the further aim of capturing the massive stores at Dimapur. Then, using those supplies, to advance into Bengal – Chalo Delhi – led by Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army (INA).
As the Japanese attack progressed, Slim showed his true greatness. He had the courage to withdraw his divisions to the Imphal plain in order to fight the key battle at a place of his choosing. The pressures on him were immense – including that from generals at a comfortable distance in Delhi and London, who wanted “to fling divisions across the Chindwin”. General “Punch” Cowan, commanding 17th Indian Division, was one of the heroes of the campaign. He showed excellent leadership, withdrawing his division up the Tiddim road, then in the savage fighting around Imphal, and finally as his division advanced to victory.
The detailed and admirably clear descriptions, both of the pressures at the highest level and the seemingly endless horror and suffering both of the Fourteenth Army, including Indian, Gurkha and African soldiers, and their Japanese enemy, do not make this a comfortable read.
But Lyman’s persistence in detailing every action, from the siege of Kohima, 5 – 18 April, including the continuous savagery of the battle as the Japanese were slowly driven out, to the battles around the siege of Imphal, tell this gruesome story as it should be told, so that the stark brutality suffered by the fighters on both sides is there for all to see.
While the soldiers fought on in ghastly conditions, Slim himself was yet again under intense pressure. Ably backed by Mountbatten and by Churchill, he obtained aircraft from the American forces flying over the Hump, to fly two divisions from the Arakan to counter the threat at Kohima and Imphal.
Many military histories fail to consider the effect of battles on the local population, but Lyman, well-known through his support for the Kohima Educational Trust, rightly presents the views and memories of Naga men and women, who, as young people, lived through the battle. They give moving and poignant descriptions of how initially the Japanese and the INA tried to ingratiate themselves, but after a couple of days they were stealing food, murdering those who resisted, killing the animals, and raping the women. The Nagas showed amazing loyalty to the British and cold hatred for the Japanese.
Among voluminous quotations, often the shortest are memorable. A British soldier, facing another well-defended Japanese fox-hole said “Them little buggers can’t half dig”. Later, two Japanese soldiers had just one grenade. They embraced with the grenade between them, and terminated their wretched existence.
In an outstanding and massively detailed book, one omission is surprising. Miyazaki, the able, ambitious and aggressive commander of the leading brigade of 31 Division had orders to make straight for Kohima. To increase his prestige and expecting to sweep out the British, as he had done in 1942, he turned aside to attack Sangshak, where he was delayed for seven days by the remarkable bravery of the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade.
Had Miyazaki not turned off to Sangshak, he would have reached Kohima at least five days before the Royal West Kents or any other major unit had arrived. There was then nothing to prevent his force reaching Dimapur with all its stores, and advancing in to Bengal.
The chapter entitled The Chindits appears to be misleading. It describes the actions of 23 Brigade which Slim took away from the main Chindit operation, and deployed to the north of Kohima to prevent any advance by 31 Division. Far more significant for the Chindits’ role in the defeat of the Japanese offensive was the establishment of the strongholds under Brigadier Calvert at Broadway and White City.
These and other strongholds forced Mutaguchi, at a critical moment in his advance to transfer eight battalions with armour and artillery – the equivalent of more than a division – to attack the Chindits.In spite of these two minor caveats, this is a superb book – surely the definitive description of Japan’s last attempt decisively to defeat the Allies in Burma.