Defeat into Victory
On the morning of the 5th April, Richards carried out a tour of the perimeter to find that some Indian troops had come off the western end of G.P.T. Ridge (the southern end of the position) during the night. There was no alternative but to shorten the perimeter and dig new positions to close the gap. Tentage in front of these had to be struck, to provide a field of fire. The job was given to a company made up of Gurkhas from the reinforcement camp, and they hadn’t long started when sniping broke out, causing casualties. However, they behaved calmly, and went on till the ground was clear, then took over this sector on G.P.T. Ridge, helped by a platoon from the Assam Regiment.
In the afternoon, the 58th Regiment got ready to attack Kohima from the east. Apparently, unknown to the garrison, its advance guard had entered Naga Village the previous night. Captain Tsuneo Sanukawae of the nth Company has written:
‘We entered Naga Village at 4 a.m. on the 5th. The town was fast asleep. After dealing with the sentries we occupied seven depots and took about thirty trucks. The enemy had not noticed our advance and at 9 a.m. came to the depots to draw their rations. We got them and made them prisoner. At 10 a.m. I was prepared to attack the town, but at that moment we were fired on by artillery. At 1300 hours we informed our main body that we had occupied Kohima Village, and an hour later they arrived. We could not say we had won Kohima until we had gained the hill beyond the road junction, so we attacked…. Praying to God, we rushed into action, under cover of light machine-gun fire, throwing grenades as we went.’
Naoje Koboyashi, another member of the Company, has written in similar vein:
‘When we reached Kohima we were all tired out after the ceaseless advance day and night, and the troops fell asleep where they were. At first light I looked across towards the Hill [i.e. Garrison Hill] and could see the enemy soldiers walking about… they still seemed not to realize we were there.’
At this point it may be worth mentioning that the 58th Regiment was the crack formation of the Division, with a proud tradition and a long series of victories behind it. The Regimental depot was at Echigo, in the Niigato Prefecture, 150 miles north of Tokyo, on the west coast. This is an area famous for its rice harvest, and most of the men were of farming stock. They were, therefore, tough, self-reliant, and accustomed to hardship. Most of them had seven or eight years service behind them. The 58th considered themselves superior to the 13 8th, and had no great opinion of the 124th at all. However, they had been somewhat shaken by the action at Sangshak and by the ferocious defence put up by Hope-Thompson’s brigade. Many good officers and N.C.O.s had gone down leading attacks, and the Regiment arrived at Kohima somewhat mauled, and temporarily exhausted. However, its fighting spirit and morale still remained unimpaired; and in a matter of hours it was launched into the attack.
This was led by Captain Nageie of the 2nd Battalion, but it was broken up, largely thanks to the mortars of the Assam Regiment, operating from Jail Hill. Unfortunately, however, they were knocked out and there was no choice but to evacuate the whole of G.P.T. Ridge. It was while this operation was being carried out that the 4th Royal West Kents arrived, under their commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel Laverty. Warned that the unit would be coming, Richards had laid on guides for each company and went down to the road to welcome Laverty in person. As Richards records, the meeting was not a happy one: ‘Laverty merely asked, “Where’s Kuki Piquet?” I told him and he went off without speaking further.’ Fortunately, the battalion got into position without being shelled and occupied the D.I.S., Kuki Piquet and sectors of the perimeter on Garrison Hill and I.G.H. Spur. With it came a troop of the 20th Mountain Battery, a platoon of sappers and a detachment of 75 Indian Field Ambulance.
As the troops of the Royal West Kents sorted themselves out and slid into their weapon pits, Richards had a talk with Major Dick Yeo, the gunner, who was digging in his 3.7 howitzers in the garden by the D.C.’s bungalow. He had not got out many words, however, when the Jap artillery began plastering the area. Moving over to Laverty’s headquarters, Richards was in time to see the enemy launch an attack on Jail Hill. The defenders replied with rifle and Bren fire, and all the grenades they could lay their hands on; but, unsupported by artillery or mortar fire, they obviously couldn’t hold out long, and as the enemy mortars took their toll and casualties mounted, gaps began to appear. Soon the Japs got a foothold on the near side of the road, and it became clear that, if Jail Hill was to be held, a counter-attack must go in at once. This was organized by Lieutenant Brown and Subadar Kapthuama Lushai, of the Assam Regiment, but it made no headway and, when Brown was killed, immediately broke up. So within twenty-four hours the perimeter was shortened for the second time.
To say that the Royal West Kents were displeased to be pushed back into Kohima, and invited to fight alongside the motley collection of detachments which formed the bulk of its garrison, was an understatement. They were horrified; and one cannot blame them. Troops in the field like to fight alongside their sister units which they have grown to know and trust; and under their own commanders. They like their own gunners to support them, their own R.A.S.C. or I.A.S.C. to supply them, and their own doctors to look after them. They tend to despise base or L. of C. troops, and prefer to have as little to do with them as possible. The idea of going into battle with them is anathema.
But to understand the feeling of the Royal West Kents is not to uphold their prejudices. In fact, the Assam Regiment and the Assam Rifles had already fought the Japanese with great gallantry; and the scratch companies of British and Gurkhas possessed great fighting quality too. Some officers of the Royal West Kents began to appreciate this; but, on the whole, mistrust dispersed very slowly and in some quarters not at all.
The man who bore the brunt of this mistrust and suspicion was undoubtedly Colonel Richards. Many accusations were made about him at the time, and many have been since; but all have proved entirely without basis or fact, though only now is the record being put straight. Richards, as must be evident, had a most unenviable task. He had been trying to plan the defence of Kohima without any idea as to the troops he would have allocated, and his administration was of necessity hasty and improvised. As the Royal West Kents observed caustically, the defences were badly dug; but they had mostly been completed by civilian labour before Richards arrived. The arrangements for water supply, as they observed also, were quite inadequate; but Richards had had no time to institute engineering works, even if there had been men to carry them out. The medical arrangements were unsatisfactory too; but until it was known which medical units would be in the siege, more advanced arrangements were out of the question. However, Richards was the commander; and unjustly took the blame.
It cannot be said that Brigadier Warren helped the situation either. As already mentioned, he was very pro-Indian and very anti-British service; and he resented the fact that Richards, whose experience lay solely with British and West African troops, should be in command of a garrison containing Indians and Gurkhas. From the first day of the siege, Warren refused to deal with Richards and spoke to Laverty direct. In his own phrase, he regarded Laverty as ‘the tactical commander of the Kohima box’.
However, in his major decision, perhaps the most important of his whole career, Warren did more than any one man to save Kohima. This decision was to form a second box with the other two battalions and eight of his guns at Jotsoma, two miles along the road towards Dimapur. Pushed forward again on the 5th, his orders had been to put the whole brigade into Kohima, but with the perimeter shortened and the enemy already attacking it, he realized that the situation had changed completely. There was no longer enough room for three battalions and, not less important, there was no position from which to fire his guns. With his excellent eye for ground, Warren at once appreciated the dominant position of Naga Village, to the north of the perimeter, but it was very doubtful if he could reach it; and the tactical situation demanded that he should be on the Northwest, that is the Dimapur side of Kohima, so that he could link up with the 2nd Division when they advanced along the road. After a quick reconnaissance, he decided on an area near the village of Jotsoma, just over two miles from Kohima. It was not an ideal defensive position by any means, but it commanded an excellent view of Kohima Ridge, and was near enough for the guns to give close support to the garrison. There was another point in its favour: Warren had a good deal of transport, which had to be brought into the defended area, and, by a stroke of luck, Jotsoma was on a loop road running up to the high ground, from milestone 431, and descending three miles later. The road junctions were dubbed ‘Lancaster Gate’ and ‘Paternoster Row’, and so they were known throughout the campaign. All day during the 6th April, Warren’s men moved up to Jotsoma, and quickly prepared their defensive position. The Rajputs (less one company which had succeeded in joining the garrison of Kohima) occupied the Southeastern sector, and the Punjabs closed the box to the north and east. Meanwhile, the guns of the 2nd Battery, waiting on the road at milestone 42, provided a sitting target for the Jap mountain gunners, now established over the valley to the north, on Merema Ridge. Shells rained down among the hastily scooped-out gun pits, but by some miracle did no damage; and when the 2nd Battery began returning the fire, the Japs immediately took their guns out of action. Major John Nettlefield records: ‘Shortly afterwards, an elephant carrying what our binoculars seemed to indicate was another mountain gun, was spotted ambling along the Bokajan track. Our first round landed very close and the elephant was seen to charge, apparently out of control, into the nearby cover. We followed up with a few more rounds for luck—we were sorry about the elephant, but it was war…’ By the late afternoon the eight guns were in position on a reverse slope in the Jotsoma box, and radio contact was made with Major Yeo in the garrison. Immediately the guns began registering, and laying on defensive fire tasks, which could be called for as required by the garrison. They were required at once, and at short intervals for many days. At the peak of their activity these Indian mountain gunners were firing at the rate of 400 rounds per gun per day; and despite the pressure, the infantry recorded that they had never seen such accurate shooting in their lives.
The night of the 5th April had been a quiet one for the Kohima Garrison; but Colonel Fukunaga, commanding the 58th Japanese Regiment, had been at work planning an attack on Jail Hill for the next morning. Soon after first light, heralded by a heavy mortar barrage, it went in and the defenders were driven off. The Japanese suffered heavily in this engagement, and Captain Nageie was killed at the head of his men. (In Japanese accounts, incidentally, Jail Hill is known as ‘Uma Hill’ and Garrison Hill is usually called ‘Deputy Commissioner’s Hill’.) An incorrect report reached Laverty that only a platoon of Japanese had been involved in the action, so he at once ordered a company to stage a counter-attack. Preparations were at once put in hand, but it soon became evident that there was something like two companies of Japanese on the hill, firmly established in defensive positions. Any assault would have involved the garrison in a large number of casualties which it hadn’t the faculties to handle, so the operation was called off. The loss of jail Hill was serious, however, as it dominated the D.I.S. and F.S.D., though fortunately the woods still gave the men on the perimeter a good deal of cover.
Right through the 6th there was intermittent shelling and mortaring, which made movement within the perimeter increasingly dangerous. Troops had to keep in or near their trenches and the business of distributing food and water became almost impossible in the hours of daylight. But some movement had to take place: as obviously the D.I.S. and F.S.D. would be the enemy’s next objectives, all non-combatants had to be cleared out and found a place on I.G.H. Spur.
At Maymyo General Mutaguchi was not displeased with the march of events. His 33rd and 15th Divisions were now battering at the gates of Imphal, while his fellow member of the ‘Cherry Society’, General Sato, had reached Kohima at the appointed time, and signals indicated that he had already secured two-thirds of the objective.
It was not mere chance that Sato hit the jeep track running from the Chindwin to Jessami and Kohima. Since December 1943 a Lieutenant Masa Nishida and a mixed party of Japanese troops and Indians (all disguised as natives) had been operating in the country between the Chindwin and Kohima with orders to reconnoitre five routes for the 31 st Division. All the men had been specially selected and trained at the Nakana School for espionage in Tokyo, and they accomplished their mission brilliantly, though not without some hair-raising escapes and adventures. The fact that the track had been built at all by his enemies was, of course, a slice of luck for Sato; but, as Clausewitz remarks, ‘War is the province of chance’ and, with an operation as daring as the advance on Kohima, Sato was surely entitled to any luck that was going.
In general, the situation looked so promising that Mutaguchi permitted himself a few moments of his ‘private speculations’. Interpreting the intelligence reports which came flooding in from Assam, he suddenly realized that there was a ripe plum ready for picking: the base of Dimapur. This had not figured largely in the initial planning of the campaign, the generals probably assuming that it would be heavily defended; but now it was at his mercy. If Sato took it, which he should be able to do with a regimental group, the British could neither reinforce their beleaguered troops in Kohima and the Imphal Plain, nor use the railway to retreat to India. The whole central front would be paralysed, then smashed. Mutaguchi sent off two signals, the first to Sato ordering him to advance on Dimapur at once, cut the railway, and secure food and supplies for his troops; and the second to General Kawabe, commander of the Southern Area Army, asking him to signal Count Terauchi to request the air cover to Dimapur. Once this request had been agreed, so Mutaguchi calculated, Sato could reach Dimapur in three days. But it was not agreed; Kawabe replied immediately that ‘Dimapur is not within the strategic objectives of the 15th Army’. Mutaguchi protested, giving his own interpretation of the order, but Kawabe remained adamant.
The reason for the difference in interpretation was this. The Japanese generals had argued so bitterly among themselves during 1943 that the final orders for the Burma offensive were something of a compromise. The instructions sent to Kawabe by Imperial Army in Headquarters on the 7th January 1944 ran as follows: ‘C.-in-C. Southern Army will break the enemy on his front at the opportune time, and will capture and secure the strategic areas near Imphal and in North-East India for the defence of Burma.’ But what were ‘the strategic areas’ and how far did they extend? The phrase was a vague one, capable of many interpretations; Kawabe interpreted it strictly, and Mutaguchi more liberally, stretching it to accommodate his daydreams. Mutaguchi was right, there could be no doubt whatsoever; this was what Napoleon called ‘the favourable moment’, and Sato had only to hold Dimapur for a month to bring the British to the brink of disaster. But Mutaguchi dared not disobey Kawabe; and the moment passed. Sato’s troops were called back, to join in the fight for Kohima.
On the night of the 6th April, Lieut.-Colonel John Young, commander of the 75th Field Ambulance, made his way into the perimeter and took charge of all the medical arrangements. Deciding that the five aid posts should be amalgamated into an A.D.S. (Advanced Dressing Station), he sited this on the reverse slopes of Summerhouse Hill, not far from the Royal West Kents’ command post. Men of the Pioneer Corps dug trenches for the wounded, and Young designed a large pit, covered by a tarpaulin, for an operating theatre. Though this was the most sheltered spot to be found, it was by no means ideal, and the condition of the wounded, lying out in the slit trenches, was pitiable in the extreme. The whole area was shelled and mortared day and night, and some of the men were wounded a second time, and others killed. The officers kept their revolvers loaded under the blankets, ready to shoot themselves if the Japanese broke through the perimeter. Young was quite tireless, and an inspiration to all the medical staff and stretcher-bearers. He attended the wounded in the open, quite regardless of his own personal safety, and on one occasion led a party outside the box to retrieve some medical supplies from a lorry on the road.
On the night of the 6th, the 2nd and 5th Companies of the 58th launched their attack on the D.I.S. and F.S.D., coming in two columns from Jail Hill. Both these features were protected on the western flank by steep banks and the Japanese had to cross the road to reach them. It was here that the guns of Jotsoma caught them, firing on a prearranged defence task. Dozens of the attackers went down on the tarmac, and many more, having survived this curtain of fire, were destroyed by the rifle and Bren gun fire which poured down at them from the defence posts, and by the grenades which came rolling down the banks. The first attack faltered, stopped, then broke up; but a second wave came on, then a third, then a fourth. But the covering fire from the Japanese mortars was accurate, and as time went on gaps appeared in the forward rifle pits. Small parties of Japanese streamed through these gaps and made for the bashas and huts on the hilltop. Here they found a good store of grenades, which they began using with good effect against ‘C’ Company of the Royal West Kents, who had to throw out a protective flank. Nothing could be done about these insurgents till daylight, however, as any action within the box might result in casualties to friend as well as foe.