Tuesday 28 February 2023

The Siege of Kohima (April 1944)

 Nagaland is unlike any other part of India. Located tight against the Myanmar border the Naga people have a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, having more in common with their Burmese neighbours than with the bulk of the Indian population with whom they share a common nationality. Unlike the rest of the sub-continent the area is predominantly Christian. Indeed, the Nagas have worked hard to maintain their own unique cultural and ethnic identity, eschewing attempts to paint them as 'Indian'. This has, in recent years, manifested itself in violent protest which is why Nagaland has been closed to foreigners for most of the post war period. Now, however, it is possible to go there - and so, with the help of a travel firm called Cultural Experience, I did just that.

Wartime bridge on the Dimapur / Kohima road

In her book 'Naga Path' Ursula Graham-Bower, offered up her impressions of Nagaland. A fantastically dramatic setting - knife edge ridges and hills looming blue and green out of the cloud - razor-backed spurs sweeping down into deep valleys. Graham-Bower was a remarkable women. Appointed by Slim as a senior British Army commander she was a key figure in mobilising V-Force as an intelligence gathering operation after Japanese successes in Burma, which had brought them up to the border where they were in a position to threaten British India. Looking out of the window during our flight from Calcutta to Dimapur, I could see what Graham-Bower was getting at in her description. 

Nagaland from Calcutta to Dimapur flight

It somehow seemed appropriate that our journey started from Dimapur as during the Second World War this town was a strategically important rail hub and the starting point for the transfer of supplies, by road, up to Kohima. Actually, taking the road in question, one quickly comes across a bridge built by military engineers in 1942. Unused now it is sobering to think that in 1944 all road traffic going up to Kohima traversed this historic structure. Nowadays the road to Kohima is mostly metalled but the route it takes has not changed over the years - following an ancient track and winding its way through stunning mountain scenery.

Kohima from hotel window

In 1944 Kohima was a relatively small village. It sits on the Kohima Ridge which Robert Lyman, in his excellent book, 'A War Of Empires: Japan, India, Burma and Britain 1941-45' describes as an enormous physical barrier, especially so to an army intent on moving farther west towards Dimapur; consequently it's defence and retention are critical if this route is to be barred to an invader. Furthermore if Kohima fell then Imphal would be starved of supplies. The storm did come of course - the U-Go offensive into India was a massive endeavour and the attempt by the Japanese 31st Division (of the 15th Army) to take the Kohima Ridge in April 1944 was thwarted by a heroic defence and eventual counter-attack by British and Indian forces who, under General Slim's leadership, had regained confidence and rebuilt fighting capability after major defeats in Burma over the previous eighteen months.
View of Kohima from Garrison Hill

During the siege, which started on the 4th April 1944, the 2,500 strong garrison was commanded by Colonel Hugh Richards, a man who some feel was treated quite shabbily afterwards. Under his command, Richards had one Battalion of the Queen's Own Royal West Kents (under Colonel John Laverty) and one Company of the 7th Rajput Regiment - both from 161st Brigade. In addition, Richards had a raw battalion from the Royal Nepalese Army (the Shere Regiment) and various detachments of rear-echelon troops. Nowhere was the fighting more intense than within a small perimeter on Garrison Hill in proximity to the Deputy Commissioners bungalow. Fighting was fiercest around an asphalt tennis court which served as 'no-mans land' during hand-to-hand fighting. Fittingly, the spectacularly sited Kohima Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery is located on this spot and the tennis courts have been remarked in the grounds.

Cross of Sacrifice - Tennis Court
Kohima CWGC, Garrison Hill

During this first tage of the Battle of Kohima - the siege,  the defenders were supported by 161st Brigade's artillery which was deployed in the Jotsoma area, about two miles from the epicentre of the fighting in Kohima. The picture below is taken from just above the main gun positions and one can see Garrison Hill on the horizon about a third of the way in from the left. Relief for the defenders of Kohima began to arrive on the 18th April in the form of Major General John Grover's 2nd Division. The 1st Battalion, 1st Punjab Regiment of the 5th Brigade being the first to pierce the Japanese encirclement.

View of Garrison Hill (far distance, left hand side) from Jotsoma

An authentic battlefield relic can be found at the foot of Garrison Hill in the form of a Lee Grant tank still in the position where it came to rest on May 6th whilst supporting troops of the 2nd Division. An information board nearby gives the detail: Under treacherous monsoon condition, the tank careered down the hill, lost a track and crashed against a tree, where it came under enemy fire. The crew jammed the triggers of the tank's machine guns to fire continuously, set the turret to rotate and escaped back to British lines. It remains in place as a memorial to the heroism and sacrifice of all of those who fought in the battle. As can be seen in the image below, reading the information panel was not easy.

Lee Grant Tank - Kohima

Lee Grant Tank - Information Boards

Even after the relief had started, Lieutenant General Sato's 31st Division continued assaulting Garrison Hill although they were eventually forced into a defensive posture with four Battalions seeking to hold the Kohima Ridge in the face of a concerted British counter-offensive. Faced with a deteriorating supply situation, confused orders and decisive Allied advances Sato pulled back on the 1st June. This, despite no explicit orders to do so from the overall Japanese Commander of 15th Army, General Mutaguchi.

For more images from Kohima click here.