Last Stand at Kohima

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A battle less remembered

Those famous words that form the epitaph at the Kohima War Cemetery tells the world what soldiering is all about! The British still come, year after year, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the long-dead soldiers who lie buried in the graves there, to pay their respects. Indians do too but only tourists. Memories of an ancestor who died in a war fought almost three quarters of a century ago remain limited to an odd photograph if there is one at some corner of the house in most Indian homes from which the Indian soldiers memorialized at the cemetery came from. Yet these were the men who took Indian soldiering to the pinnacle of its glory by winning what has now come to be regarded as one of the greatest battles of the Second World War. Of the 2500-odd Allied Soldiers buried or memorialized there more than half the number are Indians, nearly a thousand Hindus and Sikhs cremated and a memorial built for and more than three hundred belonging to other faiths who were buried.

The Japanese war machine after its successful blitzkrieg through the Malay Peninsula, ending in the humiliating British surrender of Singapore, had steamrolled its way through Burma pushing the Allies all the way into the Imphal Valley in Indian territory in 1942 but had lost its steam for extended line of communication and heavy monsoons. By the time it regained momentum and set forth on a renewed thrust in 1944 the Allies had gathered their wits and were ready to stand their ground, well-entrenched at Imphal which they had turned into their forward logistics base. The Japanese planned to envelop Imphal and isolate it while severing its road link with Dimapur, the Allied railhead in the Assam plains, by taking Kohima which fell in between. Should Kohima fall it would be curtains for the Allies since nothing could stop the Japanese speeding downhill to Dimapur just 30 miles away and onward to Calcutta. India faced an imminent threat of a Japanese invasion.

When troops of the Japanese 31st Division began forays at the outskirts of Kohima on 3 April, the Allied garrison comprised only a depleted brigade with barely 1500 combatants, a third of them British and the rest Indians. By 6 April the Japanese with their overwhelming superiority in men and weaponry had driven the defenders into a small perimeter on Garrison Hill, the focal point of the Kohima Ridge they were trying to hold. For the next twelve days the miniscule garrison, outnumbered 10 to 1 and bereft of adequate food and water, doggedly fought off attack after attack by an equally stubborn enemy. Some of the bloodiest fighting took place around the Deputy Commissioner’s Bungalow and the tennis court at the north end of the Kohima Ridge. The combat was so fierce that at one stage the belligerents were facing each other dug down on either side of the tennis court throwing grenades at each other (The Kohima War Cemetery is unique that it occupies the actual battlefield and the tennis court is still preserved amidst the graves as a poignant reminder of ‘The Battle of the Tennis Court’. American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray who researched the battle were to write “Nowhere in World War II – even on the Eastern Front – did the combatants fight with more mindless savagery”). The Japanese ultimately managed to capture the DC’s Bungalow area during night 17-18 April but failed to take the whole of the Garrison Hill and when the day broke on the 18th Allied reinforcements had arrived from Dimapur breaking the siege. What the troops of the 161 Indian Brigade which broke through saw was a battlefield reminiscent of World War I, with torn-up trees, blown-up buildings and craters all over the ground. An officer of the brigade wrote of the battered garrison being relieved, “They looked like aged, blood stained scarecrows, dropping with fatigue; the only clean thing about them was their weapons, and they smelt of blood, sweat and death”.

With the arrival of the reinforcements the tables were turned in the battle. The Allies counterattacked; but the Japanese held on tenaciously to the positions they had captured, though undergoing just as much privations as the defenders of Kohima earlier did. It took almost a month’s gritty battling for the Allies to recapture the whole of Kohima Ridge, with the tennis court being finally taken on 13 May. The Allies had to bulldoze a road up the hill to drag up a tank and crash it down on to the dogged defenders before they gave up. What the victors saw at the recaptured Japanese posts was ground reduced to a fly and rat-infested wilderness with half-buried human remains everywhere. The conditions under which the Japanese troops had lived and fought have been described by historians as “unspeakable”.

As the Allies pushed ahead with their offensive to exploit their victory at Kohima, the Japanese, starving, exhausted and demoralized by lack of supplies though, put up a gritty fight refusing to yield ground. The fight would go on for yet another month and more with both sides taking a heavy toll of casualties and the monsoon playing havoc on both. The battle which is often referred aptly as the Battle of Kohima and Imphal would eventually end only on 22 June when the leading elements of the British 2nd Division advancing southward from Kohima would meet up with the point troops of the 5th Indian Division, which had been fighting at Imphal all along to break the siege and now pushing northward, at Milestone 109, 30 miles south of Kohima on the Kohima-Imphal Road. The nearly 3-month long saga had claimed over 4000 Allied casualties and nearly 6000 Japanese ones. For the Allies it was their greatest victory in the South-East Asian campaign and for the Japanese the worst defeat and the beginning of their ultimate defeat in the war itself more than a year later when the Allies would push them relentlessly back along Burma and Malaya all the way to the sea.

What made the Indian soldiers put up such a stellar performance in this battle which outdid even their own legendary battlefield record of the past? The British have often attributed it to patriotism since for the first time in the war they were fighting to defend India itself. That however would be too simplistic a perspective, because fighting against them alongside the Japanese was the Indian National Army which had patriotism as its core motive. In fact an average Indian soldier in the Battle of Kohima, besides facing the perils and privations of war was also under tremendous psychological strain on the righteousness of what he was engaged in. On one side was his call of duty ingrained by his military discipline. On the other side was his nationalist sentiments influenced by the freedom struggle taking place all over India. He had often had to convince himself that though fighting under the British flag, he was fighting for a free world which often sounded hollow when his own country was not free. And now with the INA cadre in the enemy trenches beckoning him through loud hailers to desert his post and join their ranks to fight for a free India, he would have come under tremendous strain to hold fast. What then made him not just fight, but fight so ferociously? There is some logic in believing that the talk of Japanese brutality in the countries they had invaded had made him wary of them and he found no merit in changing sides to replace one master with another. However in the eventual count one factor stands out which has always stood the Indian soldier in good stead; his soldier’s honour. He couldn’t imagine himself to be a turncoat – a namak haram; the most despicable creature a person can turn himself into to the Indian psyche. That just about saved the bacon for the British who remained on tenterhooks throughout the battle; what if?

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