The battles of Imphal and Kohima, in the spring of 1944, were both bloody and decisive. And as Sir Max Hastings says, they ‘deserve to be vastly better known than they are.’
At the start of 1944 the Japanese planned a vast offensive – codenamed Operation U Go. The plan was extremely ambitious – to advance beyond the western border of Burma into British India and spark a revolution. Fighting alongside the Imperial Army were soldiers of the Indian National Army (who demanded the independence of India) and the Japanese hoped that their presence would show the general Indian population that this operation was less an invasion and more a ‘liberation’. Key Japanese objectives along the way to attaining this grand vision were the capture of British supplies at the town of Imphal and the occupation of the hill village of Kohima to the north east. Kohima was particularly important because it controlled the road to the major administrative and transport centre of Dimapur. With Dimapur in Japanese hands, the Imperial leadership believed the whole of western India would be open to them.
On 5 April 1944, Japanese troops under the command of Major-General Shigesaburo began the attack on Kohima. Here, high up in the mountainous borderland of Bengal – today’s Bangladesh – a fierce battle began. A struggle that – according to the historian Andrew Roberts – ‘rates with the great sieges of British history, such as that of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu war.’i
The Japanese managed to cut the road from Kohima to Dimapur and from Kohima to Imphal, so the small British garrison was forced to fight on alone. The British force – fighting at close quarters with the Japanese – managed to hold out against vastly superior numbers. Then, on 18 April, a battalion of Punjabis from the British India Army managed to force their way into the fight. The siege finally ended two days later.
Meantime Japanese soldiers of the 33rd and 15th Divisions had cut off and isolated British units in the larger settlement of Imphal, south west of Kohima. Jimmy Evans, then a captain in the British Indian Army, heard the news when he was on leave, and immediately asked to rejoin his unit in Imphal: ‘The movement patrol people said, well, the only way you’ll get back in is by air. And I went into the little office on the airfield, an RAF chap was sitting there, pilot officer I think, and I walked in there with the orderly and I said, "Look, I hear you’re flying in rations to Imphal from here, can you give me a lift in?" He said, "What the hell do you want to go for there, it’s cut off?" I said, "It’s my battalion." It’s hard to explain to him that your battalion is your family, I mean, it was like going back to your family. Anyway we got in.’
Captain Evans was an officer in a Gurkha regiment. Around 250,000 Gurkha soldiers from Nepal served in the British army during the war. But large numbers of Indians, Burmese, Karen, African and other troops of varying nationalities were also fighting alongside the British – particularly in the struggle against the Japanese. Indeed, around two million Indians fought in the British army during the Second World War – a fact that is often forgotten today.
The fighting around Imphal, just as around Kohima, was intense. And Captain Evans soon found himself at the centre of the action: ‘Firing began… and there was nothing I could do except do the same thing. And I remember for some reason I had two revolvers with six shots in each, two revolvers and some grenades… And there was a Jap just over the top of the hill in a foxhole, and he fired, he fired at me and bobbed down. And I waited till he came up again and fired with the revolver. And this went on for some time. I suppose I’d exhausted my six shots and I thought I’ll have to do something, I’d got a grenade so I took the grenade out, I must have held it in the left hand because, yes, it was in my left hand, my pistol’s here, and I waited until he came up again and I slowly lobbed it over my shoulder like that, and then, phhrrrrrr, bang, and I was lying on the ground.’
As Captain Evans lay injured, a Gurkha offered him first aid: ‘And he took a look and he said, "Oh, that’s alright, sahib, that’s quite a small one," and he took out first aid. But I said, "It’s hurting at the back," and I leant forward and I can remember just looking over my shoulder at him and I saw his eyes open, because what he’d seen was where it had come out at the back, and, of course, it had splayed… It’s the Japanese, their rifle, their two point whatever it was, was a beautifully made rifle, as Japanese stuff always was, their engineering, and the bullets were small enough, 303, and they again were beautifully made but they were hard, they were hardnosed; and, you know, the softer a bullet is the more it shatters when it hits you, and thank God for me it went through just above the heart and hit the back of my shoulder blade, I suppose, and then went down shattering the ribs, and, in fact, the cleanliness of the Japanese bullet saved my life on that occasion.’
That night – as every night in the battle – the Gurkhas fought bravely. And their valour was most certainly appreciated by their comrades. ‘And then the most amazing thing,’ says Captain Evans. ‘I mean, from 800 yards away there was a cheer, a British cheer went up from the hill, it was the Northamptons who’d been having a grandstand view and they’d watched it all and as they saw the Gurkhas go over the top they went, "Hooray!"… The old Gurkha was the terror of the Japanese, the battalion’s reputation was tremendously high.’
Imphal was cut off by road for nearly three months, and the British relied entirely on the RAF to airdrop everything from ammunition to rations. But the Japanese were facing even tougher problems. They were at the absolute limit of their supply lines and, rather like the wildly over-ambitious Nazi plans for Operation Barbarossa, their whole strategy had depended on capturing whatever they needed from their enemy. So every day the British held out weakened the Japanese effort.
At the end of May 1944 the Japanese pulled back from Kohima entirely. The overall commander of Operation U Go, Lieutenant General Mutaguchi, had failed dramatically to provide his own superiors with the breakthrough they craved, and by the end of June the road to Imphal was open once again and the Imperial Army was in full retreat. The Japanese had lost around 60,000 killed and wounded in the operation. It was a catastrophe for them.
The question now was what should the Allies do in response? ‘After the Japanese recognised that they were beaten and retreated back across the border into Burma, Churchill then wanted to do nothing much more about it,’ says Sir Max Hastings. ‘He did not want to go into Burma. What he wanted was to launch an amphibious campaign straight up the coast to Rangoon and then subsequently to Malaya because he saw no point in fighting in I think what he called ‘the dreadful fevering jungles’, because he couldn’t see the purpose. But the Americans were only willing to support a campaign in northern Burma because they wanted the land route into China opened. What they wanted, and their key strategic purpose in South East Asia, was to open the route to China because they were absolutely obsessively committed to try and make China a major player in the Second World War, which Churchill correctly judged as not a realistic objective.
‘Because the land route from India up into China lay through Burma, the Americans would support, above all with aircraft, a British campaign in northern Burma, whilst they would not support the amphibious operation down south which they had no interest in. So the British very reluctantly agreed to send this army on from the victorious battlefield [at Imphal and Kohima] into Burma to fight a campaign which [General] Bill Slim then conducted brilliantly, inflicting a major defeat on the Japanese.’
The battles of Imphal and Kohima had indeed proved to be, as the Japanese leadership almost certainly realized at the time, their last chance of inflicting defeat on the Allies in mainland Asia. And now, whilst General Slim and his troops fought their way down through Burma, the Japanese concentrated still more on their attempt to frustrate the advance of the Americans in the Pacific.
i Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, Allen Lane, 2009, p. 271
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