The Battle of Kohima March – July 1944: View of the Garrison Hill battlefield with the British and Japanese positions shown. Garrison Hill was the key to the British defences at Kohima.
Inside the perimeter things were very different. In the area of the DC’s bungalow and the tennis courts, the defending troops came under increasingly heavy artillery and mortar fire, and had to repel frequent infantry assaults by the Japanese battalion based on the Naga village. Initially these attacks were beaten back, but the Japanese gradually advanced and reached the end of the tennis court. From this time until the siege was lifted, the area saw some of the hardest, closest and grimmest fighting, with rifle and automatic weapons and showers of grenades being hurled across the tennis court at point-blank range. The Assam Regiment, the Burma Regiment and the Royal West Kent HQ fought off the attacks, and were helped by the remarkably accurate fire from the Jotsoma guns – guided by the indefatigable Major Yeo.
On 9 April, while the Japanese were strengthening their grip on Kohima, General Stopford, XXXIII Corps Commander, conferred with General Grover of 2nd Division. They both realized that the whole of Sato’s 31st Division were attacking Kohima, and Grover undertook the task of clearing the road to Kohima as quickly as possible; he planned an attack with two brigades.
At Jotsoma, the Japanese put in constant attacks on the brigade box, but were repelled by welldirected automatic fire and by well-aimed 36 grenades. After five days of battle the whole area was littered with bloated corpses, and inside Kohima the defenders hoped every day that the battalions in Jotsoma would break through and raise the siege, but the troops in the Jotsoma Box were now themselves surrounded and fighting for their lives.
On 10 April Grover ordered Brigadier Hawkins and 5th Brigade (Worcesters, Dorsets and Cameron Highlanders) to lead the advance towards Kohima from their position near Zubza where there was a Japanese road-block. Things were not easy and for his part Warren even considered withdrawing the whole Kohima garrison to Jotsoma. Grover forbade this. The following day 5th Brigade, in their first real action, sustained a fair number of casualties by milling about in the open and failing to adapt quickly enough to the harsh realities of battle. Grover and Hawkins went forward near Zubza, and when they saw the height and steepness of the hills and the depth of the jungle realized that their original plans – made without having reconnoitred the ground – were absurdly optimistic. The danger and the dilemma of commanders giving orders without having seen the ground over which the troops must operate was frequently illustrated at this stage of the Kohima battle. Stopford thought Grover was slow; Grover thought Hawkins and 5th Brigade were slow; and Hawkins thought his leading battalion was slow – until he saw the ground.
Many of the battles at Kohima and Imphal were not really battles for divisions or brigades, but rather for companies or even platoons, confined to narrow jungle tracks. The 2nd Division not only had to adapt to totally new terrain and a new type of warfare, but at the same time adapt to mule transport, 400 mules having arrived just when 5th Brigade reached Zubza.
Inside Kohima the Royal West Kents, in a spirited attack, had driven the Japanese out of the DC’s bungalow, but they were running dangerously short of supplies of all kinds: water, medical supplies, 2-inch and 3-inch mortar ammunition, rifle and Bren ammunition and 36 grenades. Because of their urgent plight they asked for an air drop. Their tiny dropping zone, less than 300 yards long, lay between Garrison Hill and Kuki Piquet. At the same time, the beleaguered Jotsoma troops asked for an air drop. Shortly afterwards the aircraft arrived over the Kohima dropping zone and responded correctly to the signals. Then the tense defenders, knowing that their lives depended on getting water, ammunition and supplies, watched with mounting horror as these vital supplies floated off into the Japanese positions. Then a new flight came in. The men’s spirits rose when the parachutes landed safely, but when they opened the cases they found that they contained the 3.7 ammunition for the howitzers in the Jotsoma Box. The final straw came when the Japanese began, with devastating effect, to fire the mortar bombs which had just been dropped, from British 3-inch mortars which they had captured previously.
The Japanese continued to press forward around the whole perimeter. Some of the heaviest clashes took place in the FSD area, where the Japanese held on despite counter-attacks by the Royal West Kents, Rajputs and Assam Rifles. Wherever men were fighting, they could see the appalling condition of the wounded, who lay in the open and were often hit by shell and mortar fire. Morale was not helped by the knowledge that no one was getting out. On 13 April Colonel Richards, the garrison commander, issued a special order of the day, congratulating the whole garrison on their magnificent effort and appealing to everyone to stand firm because help was on its way. In fact he conferred with Laverty and Warren the next day, and they all agreed that unless they were rescued soon it would be too late. They knew that 2nd Division was advancing towards them, but the beleaguered garrison began to wonder if they would ever arrive. The Royal West Kents continued to defend the FSD area against wave after wave of Japanese attacks. The sections often held their fire until the enemy were only 15 yards away, and then slaughtered them with Bren and rifle fire. If a few got through they fought hand-to-hand. One man in the RWK passed out, but regained consciousness later to find a Japanese officer in his trench. He waited for a suitable moment, killed the officer with his bare hands and returned to his Bren gun. If the Dakota was the hero of the Burma war as a whole, the Bren gun was the saviour of the infantry soldier in close-quarter fighting in the jungle.
Inside the Kohima garrison, under constant pressure from the whole of 31st Division, the defenders came close to despair as day after day help failed to appear. For their part, the leading troops of 2nd Division were finding to their cost the effectiveness of the well-sited Japanese bunkers. The Japanese too were suffering appalling casualties. Attacking at Zubza on 13 April, they lost 96 out of 100 men, and they suffered similar losses elsewhere. In spite of the delay 5th Brigade was making some progress, and on 14 April was ready to attack Zubza with mortars, artillery and tanks. At 1230 hours the artillery started a bombardment and the 3-inch mortars joined in. The tanks moved forward, the Camerons mounted the ridge and the Japanese fled – a complete Japanese Company had been wiped out. Later that day another battalion of 5th Brigade, the Dorsets, pressed forward and made the first contact with the defenders of the Jotsoma Box. Even then, Warren expressed his grave fears about the remaining troops inside Kohima – especially the Royal West Kents who, out of a total of 600 men had more than 250 wounded waiting to be brought out.
While Warren understood the plight of the Kohima defenders, he realized too the danger from the Japanese artillery on Merema Ridge which dominated the road into Kohima. He therefore decided that the final rescue operation would have to be postponed from 16 to 17 April. What Warren could not have appreciated was the intensity of the attacks and counter-attacks and the savage hand-to-hand fighting which was continuing in every part of the shrinking area inside the garrison. On 16 April, near the DC’s bungalow and the tennis court, a mixed unit of the Assam Regiment and the Assam Rifles put in another attack. On FSD the Royal West Kents still held out, but were slowly driven back in hand-to-hand fighting. Then when Warren again postponed the assault designed to rescue them, the troops began to wonder how much more flesh and blood could stand.
On the night of 17 April, the forward positions on Kuki Piquet were taken over by the Assam Regiment and Assam Rifles, all of whom had fought valiantly during the siege. Soon after taking up their positions they were subjected to a prolonged and severe bombardment and finally, after 12 days of shelling, sniping and bloody hand-to-hand fighting, they gave way. They rushed back through the defending lines, but the weary West Kents, helped by Sergeant-Major Haines who had been blinded but stayed with his unit to steady them, held firm. Colonel Laverty heard on his battalion 48 wireless set what had happened, realized that he did not have the men to keep the whole perimeter safe now the Assam soldiers had broken, and decided to withdraw from Kuki Piquet. At that moment Sergeant King, who throughout the siege had used his 3-inch mortars with great accuracy, and who already had a severe wound to his face and jaw, carefully resited his mortars to fire on Kuki Piquet and plastered the Japanese who had just taken it over. Thus in the final stages, the perimeter defended by the Royal West Kents and the Assams had been reduced to a few hundred yards, from the area of the DC’s bungalow to Garrison Hill.
As the sun rose on the morning of 18 April the gaunt survivors looked out on a scene of almost total devastation, with every tree and building blown to bits and the whole area littered with Indian, British and Japanese corpses – all infested with swarms of black flies. Over everything hung the stench of death and putrefaction. The enemy were within 100 yards of the command post and the dressing station where 600 badly wounded men lay helpless in a shallow slit trench. Most of the wounded had kept their personal weapon with one round in the breach, just in case. All suffered from the additional hazard posed by several hundred petrified non-combatants who were milling about completely out of control.
At about 0800 hours on 18 April the defenders noticed a change in the pattern of gunfire, and realized that 2nd Division’s 25-pounders must have got within range. The ever accurate aim of Major Yeo directed heavy bombardments on to all the Japanese positions, and RAF Hurribombers strafed the Japanese on GPT Ridge. Hardly able to believe it, the defenders watched as infantry, with tanks and artillery support, advanced towards them. Following close behind, came convoys of Bren carriers, 3-ton trucks and ambulances. By midday, 1/1st Punjabis, who had themselves been surrounded in the Jotsoma Box, made the first contact with the Royal West Kents, and moved in to strengthen the positions of the battered, depleted and exhausted companies. The Japanese snipers did not give up, but took their toll of the Allied wounded as they moved down to the ambulances, and of the non-combatants as they rushed headlong down the hill.
After the initial advance of the Punjabis, the Royal Berkshires came in to relieve the Royal West Kents who were now at the end of their tether. Most had not washed, had not shaved, had not changed their clothes or their boots, and had hardly slept since 5 April. With bleary eyes sunk deep in their sockets, and drooping shoulders, they looked like scarecrows. They were too exhausted even to reply to the normal good-natured ribbing of the Royal Berkshires. In silence they slowly trudged down to the waiting transport. The padre, who had assumed heroic proportions in the eyes of his men, was still there, comforting and guiding. As the Royal West Kents moved out, their final view was one of utmost desolation. Jagged leafless tree stumps, churned-up earth, damaged weapons, blood-soaked clothes and boots, severed limbs scattered across the trenches, bloated corpses lying everywhere, and over all a mosaic of red, blue, green and white parachutes stretching down to Kuki Piquet.
Flung into an ill-prepared position, seething with indignation and frustration at the dithering incompetence of the base staff, removed from their brigade and divisional support, the Royal West Kents, helped by the Assam Regiment and the Assam Rifles, for 13 crucial days had held up the advance of the entire Japanese 31st Division. The Kohima siege was the turning-point of the Burma war and the Japanese never again made a major advance. Rarely has a single battalion of any regiment stamped its mark in the annals of military history as the Royal West Kents and the Assam Regiments did at Kohima.