Skip to comments.A largely Indian victory in World War II, mostly forgotten in India
Posted on 06/23/2014 6:56:19 PM PDT by cold start
KOHIMA: India soldiers died by the dozens, by the hundreds and then by the thousands in a battle here 70 years ago. Two bloody weeks of fighting came down to just a few yards across an asphalt tennis court.
Night after night, Japanese troops charged across the court's white lines, only to be killed by almost continuous firing from British and Indian machine guns. The Battle of Kohima and Imphal was the bloodiest of World War II in India, and it cost Japan much of its best army in Burma.
But the battle has been largely forgotten in India as an emblem of the country's colonial past. The Indian troops who fought and died here were subjects of the British Empire. In this remote, northeastern corner of India, more recent battles with a mix of local insurgencies among tribal groups that have long sought autonomy have made remembrances of former glories a luxury.
Now, as India loosens its security grip on this region and a fragile peace blossoms among the many combatants here, historians are hoping that this year's anniversary reminds the world of one of the most extraordinary fights of the Second World War. The battle was voted last year as the winner of a contest by Britain's National Army Museum, beating out Waterloo and D-Day as Britain's greatest battle, though it was overshadowed at the time by the Normandy landings.
"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."
The battlefields in what are now the Indian states of Nagaland and Manipur some just a few miles from the border with Myanmar, which was then Burma are also well preserved because of the region's longtime isolation. Trenches, bunkers and airfields remain as they were left 70 years ago worn by time and monsoons but clearly visible in the jungle.
This mountain city also boasts a graceful, terraced military cemetery on which the lines of the old tennis court are demarcated in white stone.
A closing ceremony for a three-month commemoration is planned for June 28 in Imphal, and representatives from the United States, Australia, Japan, India and other nations have promised to attend.
"The Battle of Imphal and Kohima is not forgotten by the Japanese," said Yasuhisa Kawamura, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi, who is planning to attend the ceremony. "Military historians refer to it as one of the fiercest battles in world history."
A small but growing tour industry has sprung up around the battlefields over the past year, led by a Hemant Katoch, a local history buff.
But whether India will ever truly celebrate the Battle of Kohima and Imphal is unclear. India's founding fathers were divided on whether to support the British during World War II, and India's governments have generally had uneasy relationships even with the nation's own military. So far, only local officials and a former top Indian general have agreed to participate in this week's closing ceremony.
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story "India has fought six wars since independence, and we don't have a memorial for a single one," said Mohan Guruswamy, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a public policy organization in India. "And at Imphal, Indian troops died, but they were fighting for a colonial government."
Rana T. S. Chhina, secretary of the Center for Armed Forces Historical Research in New Delhi, said that top Indian officials were participating this year in some of the 100-year commemorations of crucial battles of World War I.
"I suppose we may need to let Imphal and Kohima simmer for a few more decades before we embrace it fully," he said. "But there's hope."
The battle began some two years after Japanese forces routed the British in Burma in 1942, which brought the Japanese Army to India's eastern border. Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi persuaded his Japanese superiors to allow him to attack British forces at Imphal and Kohima in hopes of preventing a British counterattack. But General Mutaguchi planned to push farther into India to destabilize the British Raj, which by then was already being convulsed by the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. General Mutaguchi brought a large number of Indian troops captured after the fall of Malaya and Singapore who agreed to join the Japanese in hopes of creating an independent India.
The British were led by Lt. Gen. William Slim, a brilliant tactician who re-formed and retrained the Eastern Army after its crushing defeat in Burma. The British and Indian forces were supported by planes commanded by the United States Army Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. Once the Allies became certain that the Japanese planned to attack, General Slim withdrew his forces from western Burma and had them dig defensive positions in the hills around Imphal Valley, hoping to draw the Japanese into a battle far from their supply lines.
But none of the British commanders believed that the Japanese could cross the nearly impenetrable jungles around Kohima in force, so when a full division of nearly 15,000 Japanese troops came swarming out of the vegetation on April 4, the town was only lightly defended by some 1,500 British and Indian troops.
The Japanese encirclement meant that those troops were largely cut off from reinforcements and supplies, and a bitter battle eventually led the British and Indians to withdraw into a small enclosure next to a tennis court.
The Japanese, without air support or supplies, eventually became exhausted, and the Allied forces soon pushed them out of Kohima and the hills around Imphal. On June 22, British and Indian forces finally cleared the last of the Japanese from the crucial road linking Imphal and Kohima, ending the siege.
The Japanese 15th Army, 85,000 strong for the invasion of India, was essentially destroyed, with 53,000 dead and missing. Injuries and illnesses took many of the rest. There were 16,500 British casualties.
Ningthoukhangjam Moirangningthou, 83, still lives in a house at the foot of a hill that became the site of one of the fiercest battles near Imphal. Ningthoukhangjam watched as three British tanks slowly destroyed every bunker constructed by the Japanese. "We called them 'iron elephants,' " he said of the tanks. "We'd never seen anything like that before."
Andrew S. Arthur was away at a Christian high school when the battle started. By the time he made his way home to the village of Shangshak, where one of the first battles was fought, it had been destroyed and his family was living in the jungle, he said.
He recalled encountering a wounded Japanese soldier who could barely stand. Arthur said he took the soldier to the British, who treated him.
"Most of my life, nobody ever spoke about the war," he said. "It's good that people are finally talking about it again."
never forget ....
it was a hell of a fight .
Thanks for posting this article. Do you know of any books about this battle?
Burma theater ping.
But, no matter where or when there was fighting to be done, it has always been the calm leadership of the officer class that has made the British Army what it is.
Just saw this as you pinged me. Nice article. The Burma campaign is largely forgotten ii the West as well as India. It was the ultimate backwater.
Try the book “Defeat into Victory”. It was written by Field Marshal Viscount Slim. Excellent detail about the operations around Imphal and Kohima. Covers the war in Burma from British defeat by the Japanese to the retaking of Rangoon near the end of the war.
All the troops in the world are useless without leaders. India might have weapons, plenty of soldiers, nukes...
Pakistan would probably kick their ass
It’s funny, and not just a little bit true.
Pakistan has on the whole done fairly badly whenever they fought India, both strategically and tactically. Neither country has what could be called a first rate military but India is considerably stronger in nearly all categories and seems to be better trained and practiced. The military is also much less political with fewer competing agendas among the officer corps.
In a full scale war though the decisive factor could be the role of China.
For comparisons sake, military casualties, this battle was close to the scale of Okinawa....
US - 6,821 killed, 19,217 wounded
Japan 18,844 killed, 216 taken prisoner
US - More than 12,000 killed, 38,000 wounded
Japan - More than 110,000 killed, 7,000 captured
William Slim, 1st Viscount Slim was quite a fellow. He is too often forgotten.
IMO probably the best General in the British Army. Tail end of the supply chain, an army that had the hell beat out of it, an army that most of its soldiers did not speak English.
Created the XIV Army from shattered remnants, trained them to meet and defeat the Japanese in the dense Burmese jungles. Engineered a brilliant campaign that drove the Japanese out of Burma. And his soldiers liked him. A real warrior, but a rather modest man without a strong desire for publicity and accolades that followed his victory. As different from Monty as Ike was from Patton.
rather portly fellow despite the name..
I’d rank it ahead of D-Day, but behind Waterloo in the list of Britain’s greatest battles.
My wife’s father was an airplane mechanic with the RAF in Burma and India.
Straight On For Tokio.
Lieutenant-Colonel O.G.W. White, DSO.
Gale & Polden Ltd. Aldershot 1948.
It was about my Dad's old regiment, 2nd Battalion Dorsets. The old 54th of foot. They fought a rearguard action to help get men off to safety at Dunkirk. It was with their Indian comrades that they dueled it out with the Japanese at Kohima.
I always remember in WW2 there was disappointment by the troops. This was at the news coverage about the 14th Army in Burma. The tremendous excitement at the defeat of Germany seemed to overshadow the gallant men of the British Army. The Dorsets took their heaviest loss at Kohima.
Your enemy was in your face in those days. Today, soldiers are faced with a different type of warfare. They too, will be written about with pride in future years.
Crazy battle. _I_ still remember checking out a book about it when I was 12. If it wasn’t for the Brens they would have been easily overrun, and it showed the flawed tactical leadership of the Japanese Army.
Perhaps you could read up on the Indo-Pak wars of 1965,71 and 98. In 1971, India dismembered Pakistan and midwifed the birth of Bangladesh. In '98 - the Kargil conflict saw Indian forces evicting Pakistani troops bunkered significantly above them and still suffered fewer casualties.
Hence the Paki preference for Mumbai 2008 style fidayeen attacks.
I agree with all that Slim was brilliant. When he realized what the Japanese were really up to he redeployed his troops just in time to stop them.
The whole thing was a disaster for the Japanese. They had no way to cut a supply line through the jungle and depended on being able to seize supplies in Imphal and Kohima, which they failed to do. They engaged the British and Indian troops in ideal defensive terrain. The magnitude of their defeat opened Burma to Slim's later reconquest.