The Battle of Kohima, a turning point in the Second World War that halted Japan’s advance into Asia, started on 4 April 1944. Sometimes called the “Stalingrad of the East”, it ended on 22 June 1944 with the defeat and retreat of Japanese forces. The twin victories of British and Indian forces in Imphal-Kohima over the Japanese in Northeast India were voted in 2013 as “Britain’s Greatest Battle”.
In early 1944 the Japanese 15th Army, led by General Renya Mutagushi, launched a strike across the Chindwin River with the aim of neutralising the British IV Corps at Imphal. The Japanese strategy was that such a pre-emptive attack would put an end to the British plans of retaking Burma.
The fighting in the Kohima region was, in fact, part of a bigger Japanese campaign called ‘U-Go’, in which the 15th, 31st and 33rd Divisions of the Japanese army sought to destroy the British and Indian forces at Imphal, Kohima and the Naga Hills.
While the 15th & 33rd Divisions would encircle and wipe out British and Indian forces on the Imphal Plain, the 31st Division would cut the road between the Dimapur railhead and a major supply depot. This, according to Japanese strategists, would prevent the British reinforcements from reaching the IV Corps.
Fight for every inch
Troops of the Japanese 31st Division reached about 50 km east of Kohima by April 1st.
By the night of 3 April, they were south of Kohima. The battle of Kohima began effectively on 4 April, picking up pace in the next two days. The defending British and Indian troops, overwhelmed by the Japanese onslaught, were pushed back into a small area in and around the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow and tennis court.
Meanwhile, the British 2nd Division, which was far away at Belgaum (Karnataka), was being rushed to the battlefront, the soldiers jumping into battle on reaching by land, rail and air.
Though the British and Indian forces under siege had some artillery support, they were fast running out of drinking water. The fighting was particularly heavy around the tennis court. The Japanese troops managed to take the bungalow on the intervening night of
17 and 18 April, but British reinforcements arrived the next day in the form of the 161st Indian Brigade.
The end game
Meanwhile, the 5th Brigade of the British 2nd Division had managed to pierce through Japanese roadblocks on 15 April. By 18 April, the British troops were ready to launch an attack on Kohima. On the morning of 18 April, the British artillery attacked in the West. British and Indian troops pushed into the area north-west of Garrison Hill.
The British advance was, however, quite slow, and the Japanese dug in under difficult conditions. The fighting went on for weeks. Finally, on 13 May, the remaining Japanese bunkers and trenches were destroyed by a British tank that managed to enter the tennis court.
By the end of May the Japanese troops, with their food supplies running out, were forced to retreat. The British and the Indian forces kept gaining in strength and confidence. The Royal Air Force played an important role, flying in supplies and men, and evacuating casualties and attacking Japanese positions.
On 22 June, troops of the British 2nd Division and the 5th Indian Infantry Division (who were moving north) met south of Kohima, signalling the end of the battle.
The Japanese are believed to have lost 53,000 men (dead and missing) in the overall battle in the Northeast. The British and Indian casualties were 12,500 at Imphal and 4,000 in Kohima.
Legacy of the ‘greatest battle’
The Indian memory of the war in its Northeast is complicated by two facts: first, Indian national leaders were not necessarily willing participants in the British war effort. And secondly, there was public sympathy in India for the courageous men and women of the Subash Chandra Bose-led Indian National Army. However, the Indian Congress leaders were committed in their opposition to Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.
Would General Mutagushi have gone further into India if his objectives in the Northeast were achieved? The evidence is not conclusive. The view that Indians would rise in revolt against the British once Japan marched towards Delhi—with the support of the militarily lightweight but symbolically important Indian National Army—is, at best, speculative. Nevertheless, since Japan was defeated in Imphal and Kohima, the ‘advance to Delhi’ remained a still-born idea.
The battle of Kohima turned the tide of World War 2 in the eastern theatre, preparing the ground for Japan’s retreat from Burma. Explaining its importance, the British historian Robert Lyman said in April 2013: “You have got to judge the greatness of a battle by its political, cultural and social impact, as much as its military impact. Imphal and Kohima were really significant for a number of reasons, not least that they showed that the Japanese were not invincible and that that they could be beaten, and beaten well. The victories demonstrate this more than the US in the Pacific, where they were taking them on garrison by garrison.”
Also on this day:
1949 — Parveen Babi, Hindi film actress, was born
- Veterans UK (Ministry of Defence)