The Battle of Kohima was one of the turning points in the war in the Far East. Kohima, some thirty miles from the border of Burma, had to be taken by the Japanese if their 1944 ‘March on Delhi’ was to succeed. The fact that British and Commonwealth forces held them off at Kohima, coupled with the Japanese failure to take Imphal, ended this offensive.
The ‘March on Delhi’ started on March 7th/8th 1944. Imphal was a major target for the Japanese and two divisions attacked this city. On March 15th another Japanese division, the XXXI, attacked Kohima. The Japanese moved swiftly on Kohima. In the previous two weeks before the attack started, a small group of Japanese soldiers had reconnoitred the whole area and selected the best routes to use. Their information and choice of routes was vital and their work “must rank as one of the most brilliant feats of reconnaissance in the history of war.” (A Swinson) The advance, however, had one major flaw. The Japanese took 5,000 oxen with them to feed their troops. It was believed that these would provide meat for 50 days – which the Japanese believed would be sufficient. However, many died on the journey and a shortage of food was to become a major problem for the Japanese.
British forces at Kohima learned of the Japanese advance on March 18th when they received information from fleeing refugees. On the same day General Slim decided to move the 7th Indian Division to Imphal to strengthen the garrison there. Imphal was some 50 miles to the south of Kohima. Slim also ordered that the 2nd British Division should be moved to the area. This division contained such regiments as the 1st Royal Scots, the 1st Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the 2nd Royal Norfolk and the 2nd Durham Light Infantry. Some had fought and been evacuated at Dunkirk but up to the spring of 1944, many had not taken part in an offensive operation for many months. However, getting together all the units of the 2nd Division took time as they were dispersed all over India. Time was one thing that the defenders at Kohima did not have as the Japanese advanced with some speed. Slim was not even aware of the strength of the Japanese force advancing on Kohima and such was the general confusion that a garrison commander was only appointed for Kohima on March 22nd – a full four days after it was known that the Japanese were advancing on the base. The garrison commander – Colonel Hugh Richards – was told that three Japanese battalions were advancing on Kohima with almost certainly one held in reserve. When he arrived at Kohima, Richards found that few of the officers there knew what was going on. Far worse, no one could tell Richards just how many men he had at his command in Kohima – and the Japanese were just 60 miles away at this time. On March 24th, the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment arrived but was swiftly redeployed elsewhere. Richards found that he could acquire no barbed wire to protect the base’s perimeter as a regulation stated that no barbed wire was to be placed in the Naga Hills, where Kohima was, after complaints from local people that it disrupted their farming.
Men from the Assam Regiment formed defensive zones some 35 miles to the east of Kohima at Jessami and Kharasom. Indian forces first came into contact with the Japanese at Jessami on March 28th. They had been ordered to fight to the last man though this order was later withdrawn as it was felt that it would lead to wholesale slaughter. However, those at Jessami fought bravely:
“Young and inexperienced sepoys were fighting like veterans; red-hot machine gun barrels would be ripped off, regardless of burns suffered in the process; Japanese grenades and cracker-bombs were picked up and thrown clear of the trenches with all the calmness in the world and there did not seem to be a man in the garrison afraid to carry out any task given to him.” Captain Peter Steyn, Assam Regiment.
However, by April 1st, these men pulled back to Kohima. The order withdrawing the previous order to fight to the last man at Kharasom was never received and while some men made it back to Kohima, many did not, including the commander there, Captain Young.
With Jessami and Kharasom taken, the road to Kohima was open for the Japanese.
Men from the 161st Brigade were stationed at Jotsoma, two miles to the west of Kohima, including an artillery unit. It was this artillery that was to play a vital part in supporting the Kohima garrison.
When the Japanese started their attack on Kohima at 04.00 on April 5th, Colonel Richards had about 1,500 men under his command. Facing him were 12,000 Japanese troops. They attacked outlying defensive positions, which had been given various nicknames such as Jail Hill and FSD. Though the Japanese took these positions, they suffered heavy casualties.
On April 13th, the Japanese launched a major attack on Kohima itself. However, they reckoned without the artillery that had been set up at Jotsama. Accurate artillery fire on Japanese positions proved very effective. But the Japanese had numbers on their side and on the 17th they restarted their attack on Kohima. A relief column was due at Kohima on the 18th April. Richards later said that he believed at the time that it would be 12 hours too late.
At 08.00 on April 18th, a major artillery assault targeted Japanese positions as men from the 1/1st Punjab Regiment marched on Kohima. These reinforcements meant that the Japanese did not take Kohima. The relief of Kohima was completed when the Royal Berkshire Regiment arrived on April 20th.
The Japanese restarted their attempt to capture Kohima on April 22nd/23rd. However, this attack at night backfired. The attack started with a major Japanese mortar attack on Kohima. Men in weapons pits were safe but an ammunition dump was hit. The explosion set fire to nearby trees and as the Japanese infantry attacked up Kohima Hill, they were clearly silhouetted against the night sky. Men from the Royal Berkshire’s and the Durham Light Infantry raked the advancing Japanese with accurate small arms fire. On the morning of the 23rd, British forces counter-attacked to removed the Japanese from Kohima Hill. The attempted Japanese attack had been a dismal failure. The commander of the Japanese forces there, Sato, told his Intelligence Officer, Colonel Yamaki:
“We’re losing so many troops this way that before long we’ll be too thin on the ground to achieve anything.”
Sato faced another major problem – a chronic shortage of food. Only 1,000 out of the 5,000 oxen had reached Sato’s headquarters. The local population had done what they could to remove any food that might have been available locally.
Sato was incorrectly sent a telegram from his commanders congratulating him on his capture of Kohima. Sato replied:
“It is not your congratulations we want but food and ammunition.”
Those defending Kohima also suffered from supply issues. To make matters worse, the RAF announced that it would have to re-deploy its transport aircraft to the Middle East, meaning that airdrops would cease. The issue was raised with Mountbatten who ordered the aircraft to remain in the region. In this Winston Churchill supported him:
“Let nothing go from the battle that you need for victory. I will not accept denial of this from any quarter, and will back you to the full.”
On May 3rd, the 2nd Division launched their attack on Japanese positions surrounding Kohima. Japanese mortar fire proved especially effective in countering this attack, as did the series of inter-locking trenches that the Japanese had dug around Kohima. The hilly terrain was also taking its toll, as was the weather. Rain became a major problem affecting the use of transport. Men fell ill with dysentery. Sleep was a luxury. However, the success of the Japanese was completely undermined by their supply problem. Sato had been promised 250 tons of food but none arrived. Men who scoured the countryside for food never returned – the Naga people despised the Japanese. Junior officers under Sato started to question his command, believing that he was too far back from Kohima to fully understand what was going on.
On May 12th, Lee-Grant tanks were used to attack Japanese bunkers – much to the delight of the infantry who had been detailed to attack them. By 15.00 the tanks had completed their task. On May 13th, Japanese soldiers were seen to be leaving their trenches in other areas around Kohima. Sato sent a message to his commander:
“Because of the rain and starvation there is no time. Decided this division, accompanying the sick and wounded, should move to a point where it can receive supplies.”
Sato’s commanding officer, Mutaguchi, replied:
“It is very difficult to understand why your division should evacuate under the pretext of supply difficulties, forgetting its brilliant services. Maintain the present position for ten days. A resolute will makes the Gods give way.”
Sato followed his orders and maintained his position. Ironically, while he had lost the middle ground in Kohima, his men still held very strong positions on either flank around Kohima. These were attacked in a series of highly successful moves by men from the Ghurkhas. By June 3rd, Lee-Grant tanks were in a position where they could attack those Japanese defenders who remained.
Sato ordered his men to withdraw. Mutaguchi sent him a message:
“Retreat and I will court-martial you.”
“Do what you please.”
The last major Japanese unit moved back on June 6th/7th. The Battle of Kohima had lasted for 64 days.
A Japanese war correspondent, Shizuo Maruyama, wrote:
“We had no ammunition, no clothes, no food, no guns. At Kohima, we were starved and then crushed.”
Both Sato and Mutaguchi lost their filed commands and were given administrative positions.
Kohima “was one of the greatest battles of the Second World War, rivalling El Alamein and Stalingrad, though it still remains comparatively unknown. However, to the men who fought there, it remains “The Battle”. (Swinson)