Most of us may not even be aware of one of the greatest battles ever fought on our soil seventy-five years ago, almost at the same time when the allied troops were landing and advancing into Western Europe. It was the turning point of the war with Japan – which until then appeared unconquerable and was threatening the plains of Assam and Bengal- suffering a great defeat and never again becoming a menace to India.
In March 1944, the Japanese 15th Army began an advance with the intention of capturing the supply bases on the Imphal Plain and cutting the road linking Dimapur and Imphal at Kohima. With Imphal and Kohima in their hands, the Japanese would be able to interrupt air supplies to China. It would also give them a base from which to conduct air attacks against India.
The overall command of the Japanese forces was with General Mutaguchi and the divisional commander who was sent to attack Kohima was Lt General Sato, who considered his superior to be a blockhead. The overall command of the British-Indian forces was with Lt General Slim (later Field Marshal). Lt General Scoones was commanding the 4 Corps at Imphal and Colonel Richards was in charge of the Kohima garrison.
The Japanese offensive started very effectively. On 29 March, they cut the Imphal-Kohima road and quickly isolated the hilltop town of Kohima, capturing all but the central ridge by mid-April. Colonel Hugh Richards had hastily organised a scratch force from his 2,500-strong garrison, many of whom were non-combatants. Faced by 15,000 Japanese, the British-Indian troops held a tight defensive perimeter centred on Garrison Hill. The result was Kohima saw some of the bitterest close-quarter fighting of the war. In one sector, only the width of the town’s tennis court separated the two sides. When the relief forces arrived, Richards’s defensive perimeter was reduced to a shell-shattered area only 350 metres square. Despite the arrival of the reinforcements, the battle continued to rage around Kohima and Imphal until mid-May, when Sato’s division began to withdraw.
The Japanese could have withdrawn fairly easily had Mutagachi not persevered long after it was clear the offensive had failed. The Japanese 15th Army, 85,000-strong, eventually lost 53,000 dead and missing. The British sustained 12,500 casualties at Imphal, while the fighting at Kohima cost them another 4,000 casualties.
Field Marshal Slim who was in overall command was known as a soldier’s soldier. He loved his Indian soldiers and they adored him in return. He was clear that “the Indian soldier’s needs are not so numerous or elaborate as the Britisher’s, but his morale can be affected just as severely by lack of them.” Hence he was very particular that his soldiers were always adequately provided for. He said once: “The Indian soldier has three loyalties: to his home, to his religion, and to his regiment and his officers.”
The Indian National Army which took part in the battle was called Jiffs by the British officers. The unfortunate INA soldiers – a ragtag outfit without much military experience – were ill-equipped to face the battle-trained soldiers on the other side.
This is what Slim says in his book “Defeat into Victory”: “The Indian National Army’s Gandhi Brigade was on this front, and, towards the end of April, parties of Japanese, accompanied by Jiffs disguised as local inhabitants and as our sepoys, infiltrated towards Palel. No damage was done and the signal reporting the occurrence ended, ‘enemy now being slain’. This attempt was a stout-hearted effort in contrast to the abortive ‘attack’ made on one of our positions by the Gandhi Brigade on the night of the 2nd/3rd May, in which a large party of Jiffs was ambushed and scattered as it approached. After this, considerable numbers of these unfortunate Jiffs appeared to be wandering about the country without object or cohesion. They had suffered a good many other casualties at the hands of our patrols and during May were surrendering in large numbers, but our Indian and Gurkha soldiers were at times not too ready to let them surrender, and orders had to be issued to give them a kinder welcome. The Gandhi Brigade took no further appreciable part in operations and what was left of it the Japanese in disgust used mainly as porters.”
Kohima war cemetery which is the burial and the memorial site for the soldiers who fell in the battle has this epitaph:
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.