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Asia’s Stalingrad and Britain’s Greatest Battle: the Siege of Kohima

One of Japan’s last offensives during the Second World War was Operation U-Go. In March 1944, over 80.000 Japanese soldiers under the extremely aggressive general Renya Mutaguchi crossed the border with India. It really says something when you’re considered to be extremely aggressive as a Japanese general during the Second World War, to be fair. The Japanese rapidly advanced on the British strongholds of Imphal and Kohima. What followed was nearly three months of besiegement and deplorable living conditions for both the Allied and Japanese troops. The battle of Kohima and the simultaneous Battle of Imphal saw troops from both sides suffer horrid inhumane conditions. It earned the Battle of Kohima the nickname:  “Stalingrad of the East”. Others have referred to it as Britain’s greatest battle. Eventually, an Allied breakthrough was forced with a curious tactic involving the slope of a hill, a tank, and a hail mary of crashing through the Japanese lines of defence. 

Japan’s Operation U-Go

On March 6th, 1944, the Japanese army launched Operation U-Go. It was one of the last offensives by the Japanese during the Second World War. The objective of the offensive was two-fold: firstly, they wanted to prevent the Allied powers, mainly the British Empire, from retaking Burma. Secondly, the Japanese wanted to break into India via Kohima and Imphal, two cities near the Burman border. Once captured, the Japanese wanted to establish a power base there, to keep up the fight against the Allied powers. 

Even though by spring 1944 the war had progressed to a point where the Axis power’s loss in the European theatre was more or less inevitable, and Japan’s position didn’t allow for much optimism either, the Japanese command still figured this offensive had a chance of success. Reason for that was the fact multiple British offensives in the Arakan, the coastal region of Burma, had failed. The Japanese military command figured the British were inept jungle fighters and pushed for Operation U-Go to be realised. Victory was undoubtedly awaiting them.

Okay, so Geographically, Imphal was the border town that was crucial in accessing India from Burma. Located in the district Manipur, Imphal was an isolated border town. Very isolated. A road that spanned 210 kilometres to the north linked Imphal to the remote hill town of Kohima. For Kohima, this road was the only available route to the outside world. As these two towns were extremely strategically located, they became the Japanese targets. And this isolated road and the two remote border towns would suffer some of the most brutal scenes of warfare of the Second World War. 

General Renya Mutaguchi, known for his temper and brutality, led two divisions of the Japanese 15th Army into India in March 1944. The divisions crossed the Chindwin River, advancing rapidly on Imphal. A third division advanced onto Kohima. In total, 80.000 battle-hardened Japanese troops crossed into India, rapidly advancing on British held strongholds. The thing is, both the British and Japanese operated under unfavourable conditions. Mutaguchi’s supply lines from Japan were extended to the degree that his divisions could rely on a month’s worth of supplies, at most. And two months from his offensive, he was very well aware, monsoon season arrived and the planned offensives would become impossible to carry out due to the heavy rains and mudslides.

On the other hand, the British armed forces under 14th Army general William Slim had been preparing for an attack on the Japanese. The fact they had been preparing an offensive, basically meant the British army was anything but prepared to carry out a defensive battle. Communications were obviously subpar due to the isolated locations and long distances, and housing a large number of troops was near impossible in an area devoid of any proper settlements. There was a crucial advantage General Slim enjoyed, however. His British 14th army had been driven out of Burma back in 1942. The past two years, he spent moulding this ragtag bunch into a professional, disciplined army with a high morale. Yet, they had never fought a large scale battle. The Japanese on the other hand were experienced and hardened soldiers, veterans from jungle-fighting in some of the worst conditions imaginable, especially under their commander Mutaguchi who had told his troops they were expected to fight to the death. 

View of the Garrison Hill battlefield

British aerial reconnaissance provided General Slim with enough intelligence that his fears were confirmed: the Japanese were on the offensive. He ordered his 14th Army to prepare for a Japanese attack. Over several days the troops were establishing their positions, yet General Slim and his troops were surprised by the sudden rapid advancement of the Japanese. The mountain roads many Allied soldiers had dug in were crucial strategic positions: if the Japanese managed to overtake them, the Indian plain was wide open for them to invade. The Japanese would be virtually unopposed and able to cut the communications from large parts of Allied forces. Both Imphal and Kohima now became British strongholds, preparing for a deadly and desperate last stand against a Japanese assault.

Soon to be isolated from the outside world, the commander of British forces in Dimapur, north of Kohima, Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford, rushed last-minute reinforcements into Kohima. Two artillery battalions were positioned several kilometres west of Kohima and a third, the 4th West Kents, were situated inside Kohima on the highest hill. This hill would become known as Garrison Hill, for the Allied forces would make a desperate last stand on it. All the while the Japanese were swarming the area surrounding both Kohima and Imphal, cutting the villages off from the outside world, digging themselves in and preparing their artillery positions and assault.

The Heroes of Kohima

On March 30th, the first fighting between the Japanese and British commenced. The roads and entries leading to Kohima were defended by Indian regiments among which the Assam Rifles, India’s oldest paramilitary organisation. Colonel Hugh Richards, commander of the Kohima troops, about 1200 of them, attempted to hold back the full-fledged assault by hardened Japanese soldiers. General Kotoku Sato, lead the attack on Kohima and with relative ease, pushed back the Assam Rifles and other units. Outnumbering the British by 10 to 1, the Japanese now besieged Kohima. All Colonel Richards could do was hope they managed to stand their ground until a relief force, the British 2nd division, arrived to push back the Japanese. When this 2nd division would arrive… well, Colonel Richards didn’t know.

By April 5th, another crucial development happened. General Mutaguchi’s troops had cut the road between Imphal and Kohima. Both settlements were now isolated from each other and the outside world. General Slim’s reaction was to order his officers to resist retreating unless they were ordered to do so by higher-ups. The Japanese, unable to advance into Kohima due to the fervent resistance by the British and Indian forces, overtook cliffs, hilltops and strongholds surrounding the settlement. Soldiers from both sides would often be stuck in trenches, sometimes just several yards away from each other. The situation was incredibly chaotic; soldiers didn’t know whether the men in trenches closeby were enemies or not. According to a West Kents officer, reminiscing about the battle, a grenade being fired would only take several seconds to reach British defence lines. 

The Japanese made eager use of their artillery, mortars and snipers. With significant volume, the British were shelled. The men were pinned down, movement was near impossible as a fraction of a second without cover meant near-certain death. The majority of British forces engaged in the fighting around Kohima only knew what the situation was like within their own trench and line of defence. They simply couldn’t reach the rest, nor communicate with them.

Aside from the mortars and artillery, the Japanese used loud broadcasts in English urging the British and Indian troops to surrender. General Sato personally ordered these calls, in an attempt to demoralise the troops who were defiantly resisting the constant barrage of Japanese shelling. Both at dawn and sunset, Sato had ordered for increased shelling to take place. The defending Allied troops barely enjoyed sleep, as during the night the rustling of plants and grass kept most defenders awake. It could very well be Japanese troops infiltrating behind their lines, ready to stab or shoot them in a suicidal attack once they managed to get close enough. Slowly but surely the Allied forces were pushed back all the way onto Garrison Hill. Shortage of water made the situation even worse. Sleep-deprived, in horrible mud-caked conditions with the smell of war, constant shelling and rotting corpses lying around the Allied defence lines, it was unsure if they could hold out much longer.

On April 11th, nearly a week after the Japanese assault and shelling started, General Stopford sent the 5th British Infantry Brigade towards Kohima from Dimapur. Now, I mentioned the 161st brigade previously with their artillery was stationed several kilometres west of Kohima. This division provided cover to the small pocket of allied defenders with their artillery fire. When Stopford’s 5th British Infantry Brigade reached the 161st, they overtook their defensive position. The 161st was now in a position to launch a full-fledged counter-attack on the Japanese. It was during this time a message was sent from inside Kohima: the situation was desperate. The shelling and shortage of water meant that if help didn’t arrive within 48 hours, Kohima would fall. The message read, “while the men’s spirits are all right, there aren’t many of us left…”. 

On April 17th, the Japanese launched their most brutal offensive yet. The slopes of Garrison Hill were under constant attack. Artillery and mortar barrages were supplemented with suicidal infantry assaults, machine gun fire and the occasional grenade. The Allied forces used their howitzers to fend off the assault as well as they could. The night after, April 18th, after over a day of intense fighting, it looked as if Kohima would fall. 

Although Japanese forces surrounded Kohima and swarmed all over its surroundings, they seemed unable to coordinate a proper assault that would have indeed meant the end of Kohima. The Allied troops were confined to a 320 square metre perimeter around Garrison Hill, awaiting the rescue mission that would hopefully soon arrive.

The men of the West Kents managed to keep the Japanese out of Garrison Hill when, on the dawn of the 20th, the troops of the Royal Berkshires and 1st Punjab Regiment arrived. These quickly broke through the scattered Japanese and relieved the West Kents. Under heavy fire, the wounded were evacuated. Personal testimonies state that the stench of rotting corpses was so overwhelming many of the fresh soldiers arriving got sick. Nevertheless, they dug in on the battered hillside. Ready to face the ever so determined Japanese. 

Now as this was transpiring, the first monsoon hit the area. If the situation wasn’t bad enough already, I mean, the area looked like a grim first world war meatgrinder with blasted trees, mutilated corpses and shreds of parachutes that were used to air supply the Koshima regiment. Now rain poured down on this heap of suffering, bringing with it mud, malaria and dysentery. The Japanese occupied most of the area around Koshima and it was priority these jungle fighters be pushed out of the area as soon as possible.

The Allied Powers push back

The Japanese under Major General Shigesaburo Miyazaki attempted to break through the refreshed defences on Garrison Hill, to no avail and suffering heavy casualties. The Japanese were now forced to reorganise their troops on the defensive, as the Allied powers were granted a bit of breathing space by their latest success. In the middle of May, the heaviest and most savage fighting of the entire battle took place. And that really says something. At stake was the British Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow, with its adjacent tennis court. The Japanese had seized this area within a week of its initial assault in early April. Now, a month later, the British were preparing to retake it. In the meantime, the Japanese had erected bunkers and fortifications, not to mention weapon pits on the hillsides surrounding the Bungalow. The 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment was tasked with ejecting the Japanese from this location. The terrain deprived the Dorsetshire Regiment of any armoured support and, according to observers, the conditions the Japanese had lived in were ‘indescribable’. The Regiment was getting ready for a dirty and savage business. 

The tennis court

The Royal Engineers found a solution that allowed for a pathway to be established behind the bungalow. If they winched a Grant Tank towards this and pushed it down the slope, it would immediately crash onto the tennis court and stand amidst the Japanese line of defence. Sergeant Waterhouse, in command of the 149 Royal Tank Regiment, was given this task, and so they did. As the Lee tank rolled onto the tennis court is was welcomed with a barrage of fire from the Japanese. In return, the tank fired at the Japanese bunkers from close range, no more than 20 metres away.  Now the Dorset infantry started firing at the Japanese positions and advanced onto their fortifications. The Japanese, in a panic, fled from the tank that was firing at them from close range, running straight into the Dorsets rifles. 

The Dorsets were quick to capture the hillside where only the chimney stack of the bungalow remained. The surrounding area was battle-scarred, with craters from the shelling, dead bodies everywhere and rats running around the place. General Stopford is said to have remarked that it reminded him of the battlefield of the Somme from the First World War, stating “one could tell how desperate the fighting had been.”

The Imphal-Kohima road

The breaking point for the Japanese was the lack of supplies and ammunition. On May 31st, after several more counter-offensives by the Allied powers which weren’t all successful, the Japanese finally retreated. The Japanese supply lines had been cut, and their resupply missions brought ammunition rather than food. They had been in combat for well over two months, while their initial food supply had only lasted them for three weeks.

The memorial

General Sato ordered his men to withdraw to Imphal. Demoralised, exhausted, wounded, riddled with disease and under constant allied attack, they retreated. To top it all off, the British 2nd division and 7th Indian division pursued the Japanese and used their momentum to relieve Imphal, which had been under Japanese siege for 80 days as well. On June 22nd, Imphal was relieved and General Mutaguchi now too abandoned his offensive. In early July he ordered his Japanese 15th Army to retreat. Severely impeded by the mud and chaos monsoon season brought with it, the Japanese crossed the border with Burma via the Chindwin river. Of the 80.000 Japanese troops tasked with invading India, merely 20.000 were left standing as they retreated. 

The allied powers suffered well over 17.000 British and Indian casualties. Those that fell at Kohima have their monument bearing the epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us, and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today.” And that’s how one of Japan’s last offensives in India during the Second World War started very promising, but soon turned into an absolute hellhole.

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