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Battle of Kohima: The Greatest World War Two Battle Everyone Forgot

Perched on top of a mountain ridge, some 5,000 feet up in the remote hilly terrain of northeast India, lies the town of Kohima, in what is now the state of Nagaland. During the Second World War, one of the most decisive battles in the Burmese front took place here—the one that thwarted the Japanese invasion of India and helped turn the tide of the war in the Far East. Like most battles that took place in the South-East Asian theater, the Battle of Kohima remains relatively unknown because the world was too preoccupied with Nazi Germany in Europe. The Allied Invasion of Europe also steered the spotlight away from the Battle of Kohima which was still being fought when D-Day started.

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Men of the West Yorkshire Regiment and 10th Gurkha Rifles advance along the Imphal-Kohima road behind Lee-Grant tanks. July 1944. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

The two northeastern states of Manipur and Nagaland, then part of Assam, were important frontiers of the Second World War in what was known as the Burmese front. In the rough terrain and dense forests of the region, Indian and British forces fought many fierce battles against the Japanese army. One of these battles—the Battle of Kohima—saw the defeat of the Japanese, an event that sealed the fate of Tokyo’s imperial ambitions in South Asia.

Kohima is situated on a ridge that runs roughly north and south. Upon this ridge, a road ran connecting the British supply base at Dimapur, in the Brahmaputra River valley in the north, and Imphal in the south, through the town of Kohima. From Imphal, the road proceeded further south and into Burma. This was the route the Japanese intended to take to invade India from Burma. Known as Operation U-Go, the objective was to break through the hills of Nagaland and race to Dimapur on the plains. Once they take over the bases there, they could cut off Allied communication to China and then proceed for an all-out assault on British India. If successful Operation U-Go could have opened the whole of India for the Axis to takeover.

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The attack on Imphal and Kohima started in the spring of 1944. Two divisions of the Japanese 15th Army, commanded by the hot-tempered General Renya Mutaguchi, crossed the Chindwin River and moved towards Imphal. A third division commanded by Lt Gen Sato headed for Kohima. The British knew that the Japanese were heading towards Kohima but they failed to fully appreciate the numbers and the speed of the division. They did not believe that the Japanese could cross the nearly impenetrable jungles around Kohima in force. So when Lt Gen Sato’s 15,000 strong troop came swarming out of the vegetation on April 4, they found only 1,500 inexperienced men defending the hill town.

The Japanese immediately encircled Kohima and began to drive the British and Indian troops out of their position, forcing them to withdraw into a small enclosure with only the width of a tennis court in the garden of the Deputy Commissioner separating the opposing forces. So close was the fighting that soldiers threw grenades directly into each other’s trenches. Mortar and sniper fire in such a small space restricted movement, such that men couldn’t even leave to fill their water containers. Medical dressing stations were exposed to Japanese fire, and wounded men were often hit again as they waited for treatment.

When the British 6th Brigade arrived to relieve the original garrison after two weeks of fighting, they were taken aback by the condition of the garrison. One battle hardened officer commentated: “They looked like aged, bloodstained scarecrows, dropping with fatigue; the only clean thing about them was their weapons, and they smelt of blood, sweat and death.”

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The mined tennis court and terraces of the District Commissioner's bungalow in Kohima. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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View of the Garrison Hill battlefield. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

After more than a month of fighting, the British cut a path to the summit above the tennis court, dragged a tank up the slope and poured a hail of fire into the Japanese bunkers from no more than 20 yards away. After the battlefield was cleared of the enemy, the once beautiful tennis court was reduced to a fly and rat-infested wilderness, with half-buried human remains everywhere.

“Nowhere in World War II—even on the Eastern Front—did the combatants fight with more mindless savagery,” wrote American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray.

The Japanese, without air support or supplies, eventually became exhausted, and the Allied forces soon pushed them out of Kohima.

The fight for Imphal lasted more than four months—from March to July 1944, while that for Kohima lasted three—from April to June 1944. Some 55,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives in Imphal, and 7,000 in Kohima, mostly from starvation, disease and exhaustion. The British forces sustained 12,500 casualties at Imphal while the fighting at Kohima cost them another 4,000 casualties.

The huge losses the Japanese suffered in the Battles of Imphal and Kohima weighed heavily on them during the next phase of the war, allowing the Allied to take control of Burma in the following year. The defeat at Kohima and Imphal was the largest defeat to that date in Japanese history.

“The Japanese regard the battle of Imphal to be their greatest defeat ever,” said Robert Lyman, author of Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India 1944. “And it gave Indian soldiers a belief in their own martial ability and showed that they could fight as well or better than anyone else.”

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View of Kohima Ridge after the battle. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

In 2013, the National Army Museum of London, voted the Battle of Kohima and Imphal as “Britain’s Greatest Battle” beating out D-Day and Waterloo. The fighting was so intense, that the Battle of Kohima is often referred to as the “Stalingrad of the East”.

There is a War Cemetery in Kohima today with more than 1,400 graves belonging to Allied soldiers who were killed in the Battle of Kohima. The cemetery lies on the slopes of Garrison Hill, in what was once the Deputy Commissioner's tennis court. A large stone erected in memory of the 2nd British Division carries a beautiful epitaph carved on its face. The epitaph reads:

When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today

These moving lines were penned by the English poet, John Maxwell Edmonds, who was inspired by an earlier epitaph written by the Greek poet Simonides to honor the Spartans who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. This so called “Kohima Epitaph” has since been reproduced in numerous Veteran Memorials and Monuments throughout the world.

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The “Kohima epitaph”.  A beautiful tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Kohima reproduced at Kohima Memorial, in York, UK. Photo credit: Lawrence/Flickr

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A Japanese road block on the Kohima-Imphal road being hurriedly dismantled by men of the West Yorkshire Regiment within rifle shot of the enemy. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Men of the West Yorkshire Regiment clear a roadblock on the Imphal-Kohima Road. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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Kohima. Looking east, with Jail Hill in the center with main road running round it and disappearing through the cutting. Treasury Hill and Assam Rifles Barracks are slightly left and the Naga Village extreme top left. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum

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View of modern Kohima from the War Cemetery. Photo credit: Shikha a/Shutterstock.com

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The War Cemetery in Kohima. Photo credit: Preshit Deorukhkar/Flickr

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The War Cemetery in Kohima. Photo credit: Deep Goswami/Flickr

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