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The forgotten war.

Sunderland Echo, Thursday, January 3, 1991

material on this page was submitted by Bernard Hope, the son of Tom Hope, DLI, veteran of Kohima

A ONE-TIME storeroom in York is an unlikely shrine to soldiers who fought and died in one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles of modern times.

But the tiny Kohima Museum is bursting at the seams with thousands of items of memorabilia recovered from the summer campaign of more that 46 years ago.

An office in the Army's North East District headquarters once struggled to house the ever-growing collection. But despite the elevation to more spacious quarters in Imphal Barracks, and the status of a fully fledged museum, it continues to maintain a low profile, opening its doors to the public just once a year in July.

By fitting contrast the surviving jungle fighters of the 2nd Infantry Division, whose heroics halted the march of an "invincible" Japanese Army, are free to visit at any time.

The division earned itself the nickname "Churchill's Tigers" and at the forefront of the hand-to-hand combat were the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion The Durham Light Infantry.

Three months of fighting, later likened to a bigger version of the Zulu charge at Rourke's Drift, claimed 30,000 Japanese lives and 5,500 British and Indian losses. But the episode was lamentably relegated to a chapter in a campaign which the troops who took part resentfully admitted was the "Forgotten War."

Reporter George Oliver has been to the museum in York and also examined the chilling personal accounts of the combat held in the archives of the DLI Museum in Durham.....

Forbidding zone - Garrison Hill, Kohima, in April 1944.

Scant protection on shell blasted Garrison Hill, Kohima, looking towards Kuki Piquet.


PAT ROME MC at 86 MS Camp, Kohima, Imphal Road in late 1944.

The besieged garrison on Summerhouse Hill - the only high ground which had not fallen to the Japanese. But it was vital to their plans, for without it they could not control the road which ran round the base of the hill.

THE hill town of Kohima was in peacetime a small colonial backwater in the North East Indian province of Assam - the official seat of a District Commissioner. But in the spring of 1944 the commissioner's bungalow, summer-house, and tennis court, were the principal tactical points of defence in what became the bloody highwater mark of the Japanese march across South-East Asia, and a major turning point in the whole Burma campaign. In the two years from 1942 the forces of the Rising Sun had eclipsed the British Army in Malaya, Singapore and the greater part of Burma. While the military might of the United States, and the vast resources at its command, were being used to effect in the Pacific, the Japanese harboured ambitions of a massive breakthrough on the Assam front which would carry them victoriously, into India and provoke a revolt against British colonial rule. When three divisions of the Imperial Army launched the offensive on March 6, in an operation they expected would last just three weeks, the tranquil jungle-swathed hills and ridges around Kohima were just another obstacle to be conquered along the rough road that snaked from Imphal to Dimapur. But by the time the DLI moved to within two miles from Kohima on April 17 the perimeter had been under constant attack for three weeks. The Durhams' first taste of action at Kohima was a "straight slog with bayonet and grenade" which took them onto Terrace Hill. Shortly afterwards they were able to break through encircling enemy positions to relieve the besieged garrison on Summerhouse Hill - the only high ground which had not fallen to the Japanese. But it was vital to their plans, for without it they could not control the road which ran round the base of the hill. 

Tide turned

The DLI were joined on their exposed perch by the 1st Royal Berkshires but no sooner were they installed in their new "home" than they were involved in one of the biggest night attacks the enemy ever launched from its occupation of Kuki's Piquet. By the time the tide had turned on June 22, when the surviving elements of 2 DLI linked with other British units engaged in pushing back the enemy, the battalion had lost nine officers and 117 men in repeatedly savage assaults. Two officers who survived their wounds, Major "Tank" Waterhouse and Major Pat Rome, were immediately awarded the Military Cross. Sergeant Wharton and Private Ward received the Military Medal.

Major Waterhouse, who went on to become the battalion's Second-in-Command, recalled in an article written in October 1944, that except for Summerhouse Hill the whole of Kohima was in Japanese hands.

The hill, he said, had to be seen to be believed. The Durhams were unable to evacuate their wounded who were repeatedly hit where they lay and supplies of food and water were dropped by air. Any movement attracted snipers whose constant fire exacted a "slow but heavy toll."

Shortly after 6.30 pm on the night of April 22 the forward platoon of one company was taking "hammering" from artillery and spring grenade while Japanese automatics kept the defenders machine guns pinned down.

"Things were getting pretty serious. They came up the slope shoulder-to-shoulder, the leading wave wearing gas masks and throwing phosphorous grenades.

"They were knocked down but as soon as one man fell another took his place. The inevitable happened and they broke through the centre wrote Major Waterhouse.

The Durhams re-grouped and inched forward again lying shoulder-to-shoulder but further grenade attacks inflicted heavy casualties.

But they remained resolute and finally began make the Japanese pay for their "gains".

During a lull in fighting Major Waterhouse paused for a cigarette and chat with another officer about Teesdale and their next leave.

Minutes later, when the Japanese onslaught resumed the other officer, also a major, was dead.

At 5 am the following morning the Durhams were ordered to regain lost ground and managed retake two positions and failed at the third before the entrenched Japanese on Kuki's Piquet forced a withdrawal by "opening up with all they had."

Five days later the Japanese attacked at midnight, this time with the leading men carrying bags full of grenades but no other weapons. Sheer weight of numbers gave them the upper hand as they took the plateau on top of the hill but shortly afterwards a charge led by Captain "Conky" Greenwell, signalled by stirring blasts on his hurting horn, restored the status quo on the hill later graphically described as "a disordered jumble of bodies alive and dead."

Captain Greenwel! was later to write: "I lived in captured Japanese positions for several days - it was a regular eye-opener. I used to think the Geordie was the best digger of all, but the Japanese has him cold in the respect."

'At one stage I stood up and, smack, I was knocked round and found my arm hanging limp, useless, and numb'

The horror of one night of bloodletting

FROM a hospital bed, where he was recovering from wounds received at Kohima, Major Rome, then a 22-year-old lieutenant, found time to chronicle the full horror of one night of bloodletting.

He described how he and his platoon sergeant were woken by incoming shells and mortars - the prelude to a major Japanese attack on the DLI positions.

"The Japs seemed to be cooking up a bit of nonsense. I stuck my head out of our hole and found the area thick with smoke, smelling of cordite, and the whole area lit by fires. An ammo dump on the hill was blazing away merrily, a dump of food and stores was also burning. Some of the trees had caught fire and were adding to the crackling of ammo going up and the dull thud of bully beef tins bursting," he recorded.

"Suddenly we heard yelling and high pitched screams, they were attacking.

Brens opened up on the perimeter and all hell was let loose. There was the rapid stuttering crackle of the Japs' light machine guns, the heavier thudding of the Brens, grenades, sten, mortars and Banzai yelling Japs.

"And above all the area was illuminated by fires and heavy with smoke with figures dashing hither and thither," he added.

Lt. Rome and his sergeant, each armed with a Sten and grenades leapt from their fox-hole to stir up men in platoon positions nearby but, as they made their way to battalion HQ fifty yards away, the sergeant was hit and killed.

'It was a question of grenades, more grenades, and shooting when you saw something'

"Everything was very confused but it seemed the Japs had broken through and, to judge by the screaming, were massing for another go. It was a question of grenades, more grenades, and shooting when you saw something.

"The remainder of the night was a confused memory set against a background of fires, smoke, and noise, with isolated incidents springing to mind. At one stage I stood up and, smack, I was knocked round and found my arm hanging limp, useless, and numb. I thought it was broken but it didn't hurt which was fortunate. I crawled around with it hanging for a bit before I got a rifle sling and hung it in that around my neck," he wrote.

He watched as one fellow officer, armed with a kukuri, led an attack into the Japanese trenches before he was killed. And he praised stretcher bearers for their inspiring courage.

"They knelt in the open, patched chaps up, carried them back and then returned for more. They were unstinting and without thought for themselves," added Lt Rome, who shortly afterwards was evacuated along with the other wounded.

Major Rome, who lives in retirement in Wiltshire, paid a return visit to Kohima in 1990 where a monument bearing the names of the fallen still stands.


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