The Battle of Kohima: Halting Japanese advance into India

The Battle of Kohima: Halting Japanese advance into India
View of the Garrison Hill battlefield with the British and Japanese positions shown. Garrison Hill was the key to the British defences at Kohima. Photo taken by  Official photographer of No.9 Army Film and Photographic Unit between March 1944 and July 1944. (Photo Courtesy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).


The World War II, also referred to as Second World War, was a conflict that involved virtually every part of the world during the years 1939–45.  According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the principal belligerents were the Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies—France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China.


“The war was in many respects a continuation, after an uneasy 20-year hiatus, of the disputes left unsettled by World War I. The 40,000,000–50,000,000 deaths incurred in World War II make it the bloodiest conflict, as well as the largest war, in history,” it described.


While at midnight on May 8, 1945, the war in Europe was officially over with the surrender of Germany, it continued in the “Pacific theatre as Japan remained committed to fighting.”


On July 26, 1945, the United States, Great Britain, and China issued an ultimatum called “Potsdam Declaration” by a calling for the unconditional surrender of Japan. The declaration the terms for Japan’s surrender and made dire warnings if the country failed to put down its weapons.


Without a positive response from Japan, on August 6, 1945, the U.S. military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, destroying most of the city. It was followed by another three days later in Nagasaki leading to widespread destruction. The Soviet Union, which was yet to declare war at the time of ‘Potsdam Declaration’ also declared war on Japan by then. The Britannica informed that on August 15, Japan officially surrendered and by September 2, the formal surrender ceremonies took place.


Japan concluded a separate surrender ceremony with China in Nanking on September 9, 1945. With this last formal surrender, World War II came to an end, it added.


The Battle of Kohima

‘The Battle of Kohima’ which took place between April 4 and June 22, 1944 is considered as one of the most decisive battle of the Second World War limiting the Japanese Army’s advance into India. Here the Japanese “were stopped, defeated and forced into retreat.” A brief account of the battle by narrated in is given below:


‘The Battle’

“Early in 1944 the Japanese 15th Army commanded by General Renya Mutagushi launched a pre-emptive strike across the Chindwin River. It’s primary aim and purpose was to encircle and destroy the British IV Corps at Imphal to prevent the launch of a British & Indian attack across the border to retake Burma.


To achieve this Mutagushi ordered 2 of his divisions, the 15th & 33rd to encircle and destroy the British and Indian forces on the Imphal Plain. His 3rd Division, the 31st, commanded by Lt Gen Sato was to strike west to cut the road between the great supply depot and railhead at Dimapur thus preventing reinforcements from going to the aid of IV Corps. The road was to be cut at the small hill station of Kohima which sat at the pass through the hills. Once this was achieved, Mutagushi further planned to head off into India proper. He was convinced that the Indians would then rise up in support against the British. This, the Japanese claimed, was the start of their march on Delhi.


The British of course knew that the Japanese were heading towards Kohima but they didn’t fully appreciate the numbers and the speed of approach. The Japanese 31st Division comprised about 15,500 men!!


Kohima was almost like a transit camp, with soldiers coming and going all of the time as the buildup in Imphal progressed, there was a field bakery, a hospital, vehicle repairs, a leave camp and a battle casualty reinforcement camp. With the constant movement of men, the best estimate is that the Garrison, commanded by Colonel H.U.W. Richards, consisted of about 1,500 combatant troops. These were mainly about 420 officers & men from the 4th battalion of the Queens Own Royal West Kent (4 RWK) regiment who together with the remainder of their brigade, the 161st  from 5th Indian Infantry Division had been airlifted out from the Arakan to meet the threat.


Elements of the Assam Rifles and Assam Regiment together with the soldiers from the leave & reinforcement camp formed the remainder. The Japanese arrived in the Kohima area on the 4th April and by the 5th they were fully engaged with the garrison. Slowly, day by day the defenders were inexorably driven in on their final defensive position – the Deputy Commissioner’s tennis court and his bungalow.


In the meantime, the British 2nd Division was some 2000 miles away in the south west of India at Belgaum. To meet the emergency the Division was rushed across India by road, rail and air. Speed was the essence because the Japanese had also cut the Dimapur/Kohima road and the small Garrison was completely surrounded. In Kohima itself, the Garrison was holding on, but was very nearly at the limit of its endurance. There was no time to form a proper divisional concentration at Dimapur and, as units of the 2nd Division arrived, they went straight into action, piecemeal.


On 12 Apr 44, 1st battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, with artillery and tank support, attacked and destroyed the Japanese position near the thirty-seventh milestone. 2nd Division’s operations to relieve 161st Brigade and the Kohima Garrison went on rapidly and on Tuesday 18th April 1944, the small garrison was relieved and the siege lifted. The Japanese advance had been checked. The invasion of India had been halted. From the time orders were received at Belgaum more than 2,000 miles away the British 2nd Division had taken only thirty one days to collect, organize and transport itself to engage with the enemy and to begin to push it back.


The immediate future, however, was forbidding, for the Japanese still held most of the Kohima Ridge, and their positions, dug deep into commanding hillsides with interlocking support, were very strong. The fighting went on for a further 7 weeks before the Japanese were finally forced to withdraw from the field. The leading elements of the relieving column from the British and Indian army heading towards Imphal met the advance column of IV Corps at milestone 109 on the 22nd June.  The Battle for Kohima was over!


The Japanese left behind around 7,000 dead and the British & Indian Army had around 4,000 casualties.


In the aftermath of the battle it has been said that there have been longer sieges but there have been few bloodier.


This was a battle in which everyone took part. There were no onlookers and the fighting was hand to hand for the most part. No-one was spared. Two Brigadiers were wounded and two more Brigadiers were killed as were five Commanding Officers as testimony to the ferocity of the fighting.


The Battle of Kohima, in the opinion of many, was the decisive period of the Burma campaign. Had Kohima fallen it is difficult to see how Imphal could have been relieved in time.”