KOHIMA! WITH THE D.L.I. 25 YEARS AGO
It was a glorious victory on a forgotten battlefield
material on this page was submitted by Bernard Hope, the son of Tom Hope, DLI, veteran of Kohima
by Peter Chatt, Sunderland Echo, Thursday, March 27, 1969
"I was at Kohima."There cannot be many men alive today who can make that claim; but whoever they are they should be accorded respect on this 25th anniversary of the battle - for they fought through an ordeal comparable only to Stalingrad in the second world war or to Passchendaele in the first.
A quarter of a century ago Burma was a forgotten battleground. Companies, battalions, divisions disappeared into this sweating wilderness with few to note their struggle. More familiar fields provided the focus of attention - the brutal slogging match in Russia, the triumphant seizure of North Africa, the descent upon Italy, the naval actions on two great oceans - while the war in the jungle went unnoticed. yet in many ways it was the hardest ware of all.
It was fought against a crafty, ruthless, and expert enemy who adapted himself to the terrain. His uniform was light, his boots strong and rubber soled. He lived off the country, carried only a water bottle, a ball of rice, and some scraps of dried fish for savour. His weapons were automatics suited to the close-quarters encounters of the jungle, grenades, light machine-guns, and tow-inch mortars. He did not march along the roads if he thought they were defended, but hacked his way through the jungle or followed little-known paths. The first news that the Japanese were attacking came when defending troops in the forward positions could get no reply from their headquarters in the rear.
The start of 1944 found the Japanese with a battle plan which was audacious, far-reaching, and simple. This was nothing less than a wholesale advance into India. All told, 100,000 troops were to march to the assault, first to seize the British bastions at Imphal and Kohima, and then to proceed another 30 miles northwards and put themselves astride the Bengal-Assam railway, the main supply road to General Stilwell and the Chinese. If all went well, they would by this time have virtually by-passed the 14th Army and left Stilwell out on a limb. India would then stretch before them, and their long-term plan was to move westwards to Calcutta - relying on political unrest in India to pave the way for their advance into the Delhi.
In the third week of March, 1944, eight Japanese divisions were committed to the assault. The crack 31st Division was given the Somra hills and debouching on the Imphal-Kohima road, thus cutting the last link between the British 4th Corps in Imphal and the outside world. The Japanese were then to turn their attention on the garrison of Kohima itself and, after taking the town, were to move north to cut the main railway.
The fist part of this plan went to schedule. The Japanese surged over the Kohima ridge, cut the roads, and isolated Kohima itself, which stands 5,000 feet high on a saddle in the Naga hills, and was little more than a scattering of thatched huts in the midst of banks of rhododendrons. Kohima was then laid under a murderous barrage. The garrison, which included a battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment and a battalion of the Assam Regiment, was small - it mustered all told just over 1,500 men, including convalescent soldiers, civilians, and cooks. Against it was launched the full fury of the Japanese 31st Division, numbering 12,000 men.
For 14 days and nights the defenders of Kohima held the bridgehead to India. Now the eyes of the world were upon them because the Japanese had already made their usual enormous radio claims, among which was the one true one that they stood at last upon Indian soil.
It is doubtful whether there is a more glorious stand in the annals of war than the defence of Kohima. The battle was murderous and the supply line was in the air, and by parachute. While Lt.-General Montagu Stopford's 33rd Corps was smashing down from Dimapur to Kohima, the men inside the town disputed every inch of ground against overwhelming odds. Slowly the perimeter contracted until finally, after two weeks of relentless siege, the defenders were confined on one solitary hilltop, completely surrounded and raked day and night by artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. But the 33rd Corps, with the British 2nd Division, which included the 2nd Durham Light Infantry as its spearhead, got through and, as they entered the ruined town, they saw parachutes festooned on every other tree, showing how well the air supply crews had done their job. Not a building was left undamaged and the dead lay unburied in the ruins were grimy and bearded riflemen, so dazed after their ordeal as scarcely to realize that they were saved.
But the battle of Kohima was not over. The Japanese launched a last furious all-out effort to capture the town, because without it their battle plans were useless. On the night of April 22 the 1st Royal Berkshires and the 2nd Durham Light Infantry were holding Garrison Hill, and it was the D.L.I. which bore the brunt of the attack. The enemy rained down shells and mortar bombs and, behind that shower of death, came the fanatical Japanese infantry. Fortunately for the men in the weapon pits an ammunition dump had been hit, and flames and smoke shot high into the air, setting light to the tree tops. When the Japanese attacked uphill they were visible in silhouette and a murderous curtain of small-arms fire swept through them. The Durhams suffered heavily from the enemy's spring grenades, but held their positions, lying shoulder to shoulder. Below them they could hear Japanese officers and N.C.O.s shrieking at their men, urging them on to yet another assault, and the fighting went on till daylight, with the Durhams launching a successful counter-attack.
The Durhams lost 15 officers and over 100 men in this struggle, but the losses they inflicted on the enemy were even greater, for the equivalent of four Japanese companies had been killed and wounded.
In one place, only the tennis court of the District Commissioner's bungalow separated the Japanese from the British lines. After many days of slaughter across the tennis court the British managed to winch up a Lee tank over a gradient of one in three to fire over open sites into the enemy bunkers. That tank did its job, but its burnt-out shell remained in Kohima as a sign of the price of victory that its crew paid. This costly battle raged for weeks, and the names of the Durham Light Infantry, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, and the Royal West Kents will always be associated with Kohima.
The Japanese finally withdrew on the night of June 6; the battle of Kohima was over. It had lasted 64 days and had seen some of the most stubborn and bloody fighting of the second world war. Of the 100,000 Japanese who raced with sword and grenade for Imphal, 50,000 were dead.