The Battle of Kohima

Background

The Battle of Kohima broke the Japanese invasion of India, a bold strategic stroke devised by Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi. In March 1944, he launched the Japanese 15th Army from Burma, with the primary aim of destroying the British & Indian forces of IV corps, assembled at Imphal. Mutaguchi believed that his invasion would trigger an uprising by the Indian population against their colonial oppressors, the British.

To achieve, this Mutaguchi sent two divisions to destroy IV Corps at Imphal. His remaining division, the 31st, commanded by Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato, was to strike west to cut the road to Imphal from the great supply depot and railhead at Dimapur, preventing supplies and reinforcements from reaching IV Corps. The road was to be cut at the small village of Kohima. Once this was achieved, Mutaguchi planned to seize Dimapur, cutting a crucial supply route to China. Because of widespread civil unrest, Mutaguchi expected the people of India to rise up against the British, sparking the ‘March on Delhi’.

Kohima resembled a transit camp, with soldiers coming and going as the build up in Imphal progressed. There was a bakery, a hospital, vehicle repairs, a jail and a battle casualty replacement camp, as well as the residence of the Deputy Commissioner. It was not prepared for the speed & size of the Japanese attack. Just in time, 446 officers & men from the 4th battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents were airlifted in to meet the threat, reaching Kohima on April 4th, the same day as the Japanese. They joined Indian troops of the Assam Rifles and Assam Regiment, together with odds & sods of other units. Altogether, the garrison, consisted of about 1,500 combatants. They were massively outnumbered by the 15,000 Japanese of Sato’s 31st Division!

The Siege

The Japanese surrounded the Kohima garrison, which was entrenched along a ridge overlooking the road. Day by day, the defenders were inexorably driven in on their final defensive position, which they dubbed Garrison Hill, situated alongside a tennis court, front line of much of the bitterest fighting.

Relief

To meet the emergency, the British 2nd Division was rushed across India by road, rail and air. The small Kohima garrison was close to the limit of its endurance, but on April 18th it was relieved and the siege lifted. The Japanese invasion of India had been halted. Of the 446 West Kents who arrived on April 4th, 278 were dead or wounded. More than 600 wounded were carried off the ridge. The relieving troops gagged at the stench of excrement and rotting flesh. Lieutenant Bruce Hayllar wrote:

“Oh my God, the stink of those dead bodies! It sticks in your nose & mouth, as if death has partly claimed you.”

The Japanese still held most of Kohima and blocked the road to Imphal. Their positions were very strong, dug deep into commanding hillsides with mutual support. Bitter fighting went on for a further 7 weeks before the Japanese, deprived of food and ammunition, were finally forced to withdraw. Lieutenant General Sato wrote:

“Our swords are broken & our arrows spent. Shedding bitter tears, I now leave Kohima”.

The leading elements of the British 2nd Division heading towards Imphal met the advance column of IV Corps on June 22nd. The crisis was over!

Aftermath

The Japanese left behind around 7,000 dead, whilst the British & Indians had around 4,000 casualties.

The battle of Kohima saw some of the bitterest fighting of the second world war, both sides displaying staggering feats of endurance. Much of the fighting was at close quarters, often hand-to-hand. This and the simultaneous battle at Imphal were decisive in the Burma campaign, leaving the Japanese 15th army shattered and morale soaring amongst the British and Indians.

Learn More

The Kohima Museum in York displays many relics from the Battle of Kohima and other aspects of the Burma Campaign.

Details of the battle and associated actions can be obtained from the following:-

Road of Bones by Fergal Keane. The story of the Kohima battle and the people involved, told in a gripping narrative.

Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India, 1944 by Robert Lyman. An enthralling account, drawing on interviews with many who were present.

The Siege of Kohima. The Battle for Burma by Robert Street. Compelling personal account of the experiences in 1944 of the author’s father, a runner in the Royal West Kents.

Kohima: The Furthest Battle: The Story of the Japanese Invasion of India in 1944 and the ‘British-Indian Thermopylae’ by Leslie Edwards. Extremely detailed description of the events of the battle.

Kohima 1944 (Campaign) by Robert Lyman and Peter Dennis. Brief presentation of the campaign accompanied by coloured illustrations.