The Burma Campaign
One of the most gruelling conflicts of the whole war, the Burma Campaign saw death on extreme levels. Preoccupied with Nazi Germany in Europe, the war in Southeast Asia lurched on as the Allies struggled to handle a conflict of many fronts and theatres. As a result, Allied divisions in the region were very light and Imperial Japan used this to its advantage, storming through the continent. Outmanned and outgunned, by 1943 the British had only managed a fighting retreat back to the Indian border. British presence in the area was increased in 1944 as the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) was formed under the watchful eye of General William Slim. Re-energised, the Allies were now in a position to hold firm and await the Japanese assault. The invasion of Burma was about to begin.
On the Imphal-Kohima road
March 1944 and the Imperial Japanese Army had a clear objective, capture the Allied supply bases on the Imphal plain. Known as Operation U-Go, if successful, it would cut off Allied communications to China and allow them to take over the bases for an all-out assault on British India. The attack was known as the ‘March on Delhi’ and if successful, India would be opened up for the taking by the Axis. The Japanese General in the Burma operation was the veteran Renya Mutaguchi who had already served with distinction in China, Malaya and Singapore.
At his disposal he had three Japanese Divisions who were accompanied by one Indian National Army Division, eager to secure Indian independence. The British, meanwhile, could call on the 4th Corps, which included the 17th, 20th and 23rd Indian Divisions. After some fierce fighting, by early April, the Imphal-Kohima road had been severed and the British troops stationed at Kohima and Imphal had been surrounded. The Kohima contingent had less than 2,000 men and they were in for the fight of their lives against 15,000 Japanese soldiers.
The British reasoned that their best chance of survival was creating a defensive perimeter on top of Garrison Hill. Colonel Hugh Richards, the commander, had heard of the Japanese advance from fleeing refugees. Time was not of the essence so the defensive line erected by the British was only 350 metres (1,148 feet) square and the two forces were divided by the town’s tennis court. The defensive was poorly set up, as barbed wire had been banned due to locals forbidding it as it disrupted their farming. The Japanese were already one step ahead and had sent out scouts two weeks prior to the battle to find the best routes of attack. The army had even taken 50 oxen with them to keep their troops fed.
The two sides first came into contact outside of Kohima at Jessami, where an Assam Regiment of the Indian Army were soundly beaten and forced to withdraw. The main attack began at 4am on 5 April as the Japanese began targeting the outlying areas of Kohima. These positions on Jail Hill were successfully taken but not without huge losses for the Imperial Army.
Next was the attack on Kohima itself. Beginning on 13 April, the Japanese were initially checked by an artillery barrage from the British in nearby Jotsama. However, with their superior numbers, the Japanese pressed on and managed to restart their full attack on 17 April. Agonisingly for the British, a relief column was due the day after; it was going to be a tough 12 hours. A message sent out from Kohima that night simply read:
“The men’s spirits are all right but there aren’t many of us left.”
The battle was primarily trench warfare, with the trenches only a few metres away from each other. The Japanese artillery was relentless throughout the day, with mortars, phosphorous bombs and sniper fire pinning the Allies down. The small area made the battle a free-for-all as many British and Indian soldiers fought for their lives with the orders barely filtering through from the top. Attempting to exhaust the defenders, the Japanese frequently called out their opponents to surrender. After a night of dogged resistance, reinforcements came in the shape of the 1st Punjab and Royal Berkshire regiments.
Garrison Hill had been saved but the Japanese still held on to the lower areas of the hill. There was an attempt by the Imperial Army to capture Kohima again on 22 April but this was unsuccessful. The exhausted British men finally managed to break out in June. The whole of May was spent trying to navigate through the interlocking Axis trenches that littered the hill and the retreating Japanese. The battle was so brutal that reports from the day state that many of the troops who survived were physically sick after inhaling the stench of rotting corpses. The over aggressive Mutaguchi had completely underestimated the Allies’ resolve and their expertise at holding the hilltop.
Kohima was one of the greatest land defeats ever felt by the Japanese Army. Only 20,000 of the 85,000 Japanese who had come to Burma were alive by the end of the campaign. Mutaguchi was relived of command, recalled to Tokyo and given a forced retirement. The battle is forever known as ‘The Stalingrad of the East’ due to the backs-to-the-wall defence, as well as it being an integral turning point in the war in Asia. 4,000 Japanese soldiers were lost at Kohima and the victory galavanised the British, who were able to launch renewed offences as the last of the Japanese troops were cleared from Burma and pushed back to Mandalay and Meiktila.
In a 2013 poll instigated by the National Army Museum, Imphal/Kohima was awarded the title of ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’. It beat D-Day, Waterloo, Rorke’s Drift and Aliwal to the title. Lord Mountbatten described the victory at Imphal and Kohima as “probably one of the greatest battles in history… in effect the Battle of Burma [was] the British-Indian Thermopylae.”