77 years ago today, during one of the most gruelling campaigns of the Second World War, two simultaneous battles were just beginning: those of Imphal and Kohima.
The former took place around the city of Imphal, the capital and largest city in the state of Manipur, Northeast India. 85 miles (137km) away from Imphal lies the city of Kohima, the capital of neighbouring state Nagaland and second-largest city in the region.
Both cities would serve as the citadels from which British India – and the wider allies beyond – could mount their defence against the encroaching tide of Imperial Japan’s death march through Southeast Asia.
From 1931 onwards, Imperial Japan had set Asia ablaze. Beginning with their conquest of Korea, the Japanese would move swiftly to conquer Manchuria shortly thereafter, before invading China in 1937. In December of that same year, one of the most brutal incidents in the Asian theatre – if not the century itself – would occur, the infamous Rape of Nanking. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese were murdered, raped and looted en masse in one of the most horrifying events in human history.
By 1940, Imperial Japan would become would of the three key Axis powers along with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Over the course of this year, much of the Chinese coast would become swallowed up by the Japanese war machine, followed by French Indochina (modern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Thailand and Malaya in 1941.
In the following year, the relentless fury of the Japanese would spread to Singapore, the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), the Philippines, New Guinea and eventually Burma (modern Myanmar). It would then be from their position in Burma that the Japanese would seek to conquer India – and wider Asia beyond. Indeed, Japanese Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi saw it as his destiny to win India for Japan, and would stop at nothing to do so.
Along with fellow Lieutenant-General Masakazu Kawabe, they planned to launch a two-pronged attack at Kohima and Imphal, cutting Allied lines of communication and supply in the process. However, their planned operation – codenamed U-Go – would face far more resistance than they might’ve imagined.
Under the command of Field Marshal William “Bill” Slim, Lieutenant General Geoffry Scoones and Air Marshal John “Jack” Baldwin, the British-Indian forces were not to be underestimated. Between their five divisions, most were composed of both British and Indian personnel. In each brigade, there existed one British, one Gurkha and one Indian battalion; however, crucially, there were two brigades that were composed entirely of Gurkha units.
The Gurkhas are renowned worldwide for their ferocity, tenacity and unwavering loyalty. For two centuries now, they have served as an integral and universally-respected part of the British Army. However, they truly began to cement their reputation over the course of the two world wars, with some 200,000 Gurkha warriors participating overall.
“Better to die than be a coward” is their motto, and during the course of the Battles of Imphal and Kohima, they would prove it time and again. It is said that their signature blade, the 18-inch long curved knife known as the kukri or khukuri, must taste blood before being sheathed again. During the two battles, there would be many chances for their blades to be satiated.
The Twin Battles
After receiving intelligence that a major Japanese offensive was looming, Slim and Scoones planned to withdraw their forward divisions to the Imphal plain in order to force their opponents to fight at the end of long and difficult lines of communication. However, it was not to be: they had misjudged both the date of the attack and the impending Japanese force. 5 days earlier than they had anticipated, the Japanese began to cross the Chindwin River on the 8th of March.
At the site of a supply dump in Moreh and the Burmese area of Tamu, the 20th Indian Division held the line. On March 20th, a clash between six Lee medium tanks of the 3rd Carabiniers and six Type 95 Ha-Go tanks resulted in the lighter Japanese vehicles becoming completely destroyed. Acting Major-General Douglas Gracey was vehemently opposed to any form of retreat, but on March 25th he was ordered to detach some of his division in order to make a reserve for the IV Corps.
The result, however, was that their division was left too compromised to hold both Tamu and Moreh, and soon they withdrew to the Shenam Saddle, a maze-like complex of hills through which the Imphal-Tamu road ran. Forced to abandon their supply cache, Moreh was set ablaze and over 200 cattle slaughtered. Thankfully, the division managed to retreat in good time and made good on their retreat.
Meanwhile, to the far south, the 17th Indian Division had become cut off by the Japanese 33rd Division. Major General Cowan was warned of an encroaching Japanese force against the rear of his division on March 8th by the V Force (a ragtag band of locally raised guerrilla fighters), and they were able to regroup just in time.
On March 13th, the Japanese 215th Regiment assaulted a supply dump 20 miles behind Cowan’s lead outposts, while the 214th seized Tongzang and an accompanying ridge named Tuitum Saddle a few miles behind the Indian Division’s main position.
17th Indian division began to withdraw the day after. At the Saddle, the 214th Japanese regiment were attacked by the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade on the 15th, suffering heavy casualties along the way. This attack proved a worthwhile diversion, and Cowan had by this point managed to secure the most vulnerable point in his division – the bridge over the Manipur River. They managed to cross on the 26th of March, destroying the bridge behind them.
Despite both main divisions – the Japanese 33rd and Indian 17th – taking heavy losses, it would be Yanagida, the Japanese commander, who would be the first to crack. He was said to receive a garbled radio message that one of his regiments had been killed at Tongzang, and, fearing the worst, did not press the pursuit of the 17th, despite stern reprimands from Mutaguchi, his superior.
Scoones nevertheless sent the bulk of his only reserve, the 23rd Indian Infantry Division, to assist the 17th Division. Supplied by parachute drops from Allied aircraft, both divisions made their way back to the Imphal plain on the 4th April.
Imphal itself had been left vulnerable to the Japanese. The Indian 50th Parachute Brigade was the only force left to cover northern approaches and was roughly treated during the Battle of Sangshak by a regiment of the Japanese 31st Division making its way to Kohima.
Japan was beginning to find a footing. The 60th Japanese Regiment would go on to cut the main road to Imphal on 28th of March, and the 51st began its march on Imphal from the north-east. Yet their plans would not be all successes: a diversionary attack by the 55th Division was circumvented by Admiral Louis Mountbatten, commander-in-chief of Allied Southeast Asia Command. He had taken steps to secure aircraft, allowing Slim to move the battle-worn and ready 5th Indian Infantry Division along with all its artillery and transport by air from Arakan to the Central Front in only eleven days. One brigade and a mountain artillery regiment went to Dimapur; the other two brigades and field artillery and the divisional HQ went to Imphal.
From the beginning of April, the Japanese attacked the Imphal Plain from several directions: from Bishenpur, Shenam-Palel and Kanglatongbi–Nungshigum. At the former, the 33rd Division attacked from the south, cutting a secondary track from Silchar into the plain. A commando raid destroyed the bridge there, and, while the 17th and 23rd Indian Divisions were regrouping after their retreat, it was down to the 32nd Indian Infantry Brigade, detached from the wider 20th Division, to hold the line. Comprised of almost 50% Gurkhas, this brigade fought valiantly, and the Japanese suffered severely from artillery fire.
Shortly thereafter, Japanese advancing directly up the Tiddim-Imphal road were halted 2 miles south of Bishenpur as the troops of the 17th Indian Division roared back into life. The Japanese commander Yanagida, who had already confounded and frustrated Mutaguchi by what was perceived as excessive caution, was finally relieved of command at the end of the month.
At Shenam-Palel, the Yamamoto Force attacked the Shenam Saddle which was defended by the main body of the Indian 20th Division. Along the main road from Tamu into Imphal, this was the only metalled road the Japanese could use, and it was crucial for them to break through to allow Yamamoto’s tanks and heavy artillery to attack the main defences around the city itself. Another integral piece of infrastructure, the Palel airfield, was vital to the defending force as it was one of only two all-weather airfields in the plain.
The Japanese attacked the road on 4th April, but their efforts were disjointed at best: their infantry was not ready to join, and instead twelve tanks were caught exposed by British anti-tank weaponry. For two long weeks from the 8th to the 22nd of April, heavy fire took place along the five peaks which commanded the road easy of the Saddle. Despite initial Japanese success, British-Indian forces managed to counterattack and recapture some of those peaks initially lost. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the process.
Having failed to capture the road and secure the five peaks, Yamamoto sent troops to the rough terrain north of the Saddle to raid the Palel airfield. These included the Gandhi Brigade, or 2nd Guerilla Regiment, of the Indian National Army (INA) – collaborators with Imperial Japan who sought Indian independence from Britain.
They attacked Palel on the 28th of April, and attempted to induce the Indian defenders to yield and surrender. After some initial hesitation, the defenders rallied and fought back against the INA, inflicting 250 casualties with shellfire and hastening the Gandhi Brigade’s retreat.
At Kanglatongbi, the Japanese 15th Division’s 60th Regiment captured a supply dump while the wider division encircled Imphal from the north. However, the depot had already been emptied of food and ammunition, and would serve as little more than a minor distraction.
However, a battalion of the Japanese 51st Regiment commanded by Colonel Kimio Omoto seized the crucial Nungshigum Ridge which overlooked the main airstrip at Imphal. This was a huge win for the Japanese, and a major threat to the IV Corps and necessitated a big response. On the 13th April, the 5th Indian Division counterattacked with an almighty ferocity. Nicknamed the ‘Ball of Fire’, the 5th Division were lauded by Lord Mountbatten himself in his memoir, citing their courage, effectiveness and relentlessness: “Its record was second to none and I was proud to have such a fine formation under my command”. Indeed, they would be one of the few Allied divisions over the course of the war to fight against all three Axis powers (the German, Italian and Japanese armies).
The 5th responded to the Japanese with air strikes, massive artillery strikes and M3 Lee tanks. The Japanese had thought that the slopes were too steep for the tanks to climb, and it was true that the tanks had never been tested on such gradients whilst in action, yet they nonetheless proved highly effective. The Japanese had no answer to the tanks, and they were driven from the ridge with enormous casualties – every officer of the attacking infantry was killed or wounded.
The Allied Counter
All Japanese assaults had come grinding to a halt by the 1st of May, and Slim and Scoones began their counterattack against the Japanese 15th Division, the weakest of the formations and the one which, if defeated, would enable the siege to be broken once Kohima was recaptured.
Initial progress was slow. A tropical monsoon had broken, as was common in the region: movement was therefore difficult, rations were running low and artillery ammunition had to be carefully conserved despite relief from airdrops.
The Ball of Fire returned once more and was joined by the 89th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 23rd Indian Division (later replaced by the 20th) to recapture the steep ridges in the area which were held by the Japanese. Due to the nature of these slopes, though, they were mostly impregnable. Allied artillery couldn’t penetrate their angle, and storming them with troops proved ineffective. The British-Indian forces had hit an impasse.
Meanwhile, IV Corps regrouped and the 23rd Indian Division took over the defence of the Shenam Saddle. Then the 5th diverted their attention to driving north from Sengmai up the main road through Kanglatongi while the 20th Indian Division advanced along the tracks to the Iril River towards Litan and Ukhrul, disrupting the Japanese 15th Division’s lines of communication in the process.
At this point the Japanese had reached the limit of their endurance. Their troops were starving, supplies were inadequate, and the situation was becoming ever more fraught to the extent that Lieutenant General Sato ordered the retreat of his 31st Division in order to find food. In turn, this allowed the Indian XXXIII Corps to drive the Japanese from Kohima and begin their march south.
Similarly, the Japanese 15th Division was eventually forced to abandon their positions atop the ridges in order to scavenge for supplies. Shortly thereafter, the troops of IV and XXXIII Corps met their rendezvous at Milestone 109, at last breaking the siege of Imphal.
Just prior, to the South of Imphal, the 17th Indian Division had faced off against the Japanese 33rd Division, with heavy casualties on both sides amidst rigorous fighting before eventually reaching deadlock.
To break the standoff, Major General Cowan planned to send the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade into the Japanese division’s left flank whilst the 63rd Indian Infantry Brigade charged from the front. At the same time, the Japanese commander Major General Tetsujiro Tanaka had planned to infiltrate through the Indian 17th Division’s front to seize crucial markers in the middle of the Indian positions. Like much else over the course of the two battles, both moves played out almost simultaneously.
The Gurkhas of the 48th cut the road behind the Japanese, but couldn’t be reinforced by the 63rd Indian Brigade, and so had to fight its way through the Japanese positions. The Gurkhas performed heroically, carving their way through the Japanese – albeit with tremendous losses. Due to this incursion into their own rear the Japanese were unable to reinforce their forward troops – and so, one by one, little by little, isolated Japanese parties were wiped out.
The new commander of the 33rd Division, Lieutenant General Nobuo Tanaka, was forceful and aggressive, ordering repeat attacks which further reduced many of his division’s battalions to handfuls of men. Although reinforced by the 53rd Division, Tanaka’s men once more attacked wildly, and, despite some initial success, suffered further devastating casualties by shellfire. By the end of June, they were all but exhausted.
The End of the Battles and the Aftermath
Although it took until early July for the Japanese to fully admit defeat, some among their high command realized that the operation should have been broken off as early as May. Lieutenant General Hikosaburo Hata, Vice-Chief of the General Staff, had inspected the Southern Army’s heardquarters in late April and return to Tokyo pessimistic. His concerns were dismissed by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo as Hata’s main source of information was junior staff officer Major Masaru Ushiro. Ultimately, Tojo had decided that the operation was to be fought unto the bitter end.
Other generals had been to survey the situation for themselves, yet officers repeatedly concealed their losses for fear of losing face. The commanders likewise did not wish to bear the responsibility of ordering a full retreat. At one stage, Mataguchi ordered the 31st Division (which had just retreated, starving, from Kohima) to join the 15th and attack Imphal. Neither division complied. Indeed, neither division was in any condition to. Upon finally realizing the folly of his situation, Mataguchi at last relented. The Japanese abandoned their equipment, artillery and transport.
The defeat was total and catastrophic. At that point, it was the single largest defeat the Japanese had experienced over the course of the war. Some 54,879 casualties (among them close to 14,000 deaths) were incurred over the battles, along with 12,000 pack horses and 30,000 cattle.
The battles would prove a major turning point in defending India from the Japanese invaders, and would change the course of the Burma campaign (as well as the wider war) indelibly.
Today the Imphal War Cemetery and Kohima Cemetery is there to commemorate the British and Indian soldiers who fought so valiantly over the course of the twin battles. We salute them.