Burma - Imphal and Kohima

Stories of the Second World War

The Siege of Imphal

The easiest route from Burma (modern day Myanmar) to India is through Imphal into Assam and it was through Imphal that the Commonwealth forces retreated after the invasion of Burma by the Japanese, along with thousands of civilian refugees. Imphal became a focal point in the defence of India and also a position from which Burma could be re-entered.

The railway, road and river running through Imphal were vital for the maintenance of all Allied operations in Burma, along with its airfields. It became a main objective when Japanese forces made their thrust towards India in the spring of 1944 which they code-named U-Go.

At the time, Imphal was held by IV Corps which formed part of the newly-created 14th Army. Its make-up illustrates the crucial contribution of Indian troops in this theatre of war.

Imphal Gurkhas

IV Corps consisted of the Indian 17th, 20th and 23rd divisions, with the Indian 50th Parachute Brigade and 254th Indian Tank Brigade. When battle commenced, the 5th Indian Division was flown into Imphal to join the Corps.

There was heavy fighting in the surrounding hills and on the outskirts of the plain. IV Corps was surrounded by Japanese forces which succeeded in cutting off a long section of the Imphal-Kohima road and holding it for over three months.

The 14th Army held on grimly. Supplies and reinforcements were flown in and casualties and non-combatants were flown out. They inflicted heavy punishment on the Japanese, both at Imphal and Kohima. Of the 85,000 Japanese soldiers, 30,000 were killed.

Imphal Indian Troops

The siege ended on 22nd June, when troops from IV Corps met the relieving forces from XXXIII Corps, north of Imphal.

The Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery was started during the fighting and later, Muslim graves were brought in from a number of small civil cemeteries in the district. The graves are mostly those of Muslim soldiers of the army of Undivided India, The cemetery now contains 828 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.

Imphal Indian Army War Cemetary

At the southern end of the cemetery stands the Imphal Cremation Memorial which commemorates 868 Hindu and Sikh soldiers and airmen killed in the battle for Imphal whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith.

Imphal Indian Army War Cemtary - Cremation Memorial

The Imphal War Cemetery also contains hundreds of Indian graves amongst the 1600 commemorated there.

The Battle of Kohima

The Japanese U-Go offensive against IV Corps at Imphal in Spring 1944 had two objectives: to invade India and to disrupt the Allies' own plans to push back the Japanese.

Kohima Ridge

Part of the U-Go objective was to capture Kohima and thus cut off Imphal. To reach Kohima, one Japanese division had to go through Sangshak, held by the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade. The fighting lasted for six days from 20th - 26th March 1944, before the Indians had to withdraw, overwhelmed and desperately short of water. They lost more than 600 men. The Japanese claimed they took 100 prisoners, most of whom were wounded.

The bravery and sacrifice shown at Sangshak delayed the Japanese and allowed British and Indian reinforcements to reach the vital position at Kohima first.

Early on, the troops in the Kohima area were the inexperienced Assam Regiment and some platoons from the 3rd (Naga Hills) Battalion of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, the Shere Regiment from the Royal Nepalese Army and some companies from the Burma Regiment. The 4th Royal West Kents was the only British battalion to arrive before Kohima was cut off.

The siege began on 6th April. The garrison was repeatedly shelled and mortared, often with weapons and ammunition captured at Sangshak. The troops were driven into a small area on Garrison Hill. They had artillery support from 161st Brigade, two miles away.

Kohima

Again, they were very short of drinking water, because the supply had been captured on the first day. A small spring was discovered on Garrison Hill, but it could only be reached at night. Wounded men were hit again as they waited for treatment at dressing stations.

In what became known as the Battle of the Tennis Court some of the heaviest fighting took place around the Deputy Commissioner's bungalow. The tennis court became a no man's land, with the Japanese and the defenders of Kohima entrenched on either side, so close together that they could throw grenades at each other. On the night of 17th/18th April, the Japanese finally captured the area. The situation was desperate, but the Japanese did not follow up by attacking Garrison Hill, and when day broke, troops of 161st Indian Brigade arrived to relieve the garrison.

This battle proved to be decisive in the Battle of Kohima which was the turning point of the Burma Campaign. After a prolonged counter-offensive, the Japanese, hampered by lack of supplies and continual attacks by British and Indian troops, were finally defeated on June 22nd

The Supreme Allied Commander, Earl Louis Mountbatten described Kohima as:

"probably one of the greatest battles in history... in effect the Battle of Burma... naked unparalleled heroism..."

(The Supreme Allied Commander, Earl Louis Mountbatten)

During the Battle of Kohima, there were 4,064 British and Indian casualties - killed, missing and wounded.

Kohima War Cemetery lies on the battle ground of Garrison Hill. No trace remains of the bungalow, which was destroyed in the fighting, but white concrete lines mark and preserve permanently the historic tennis court.

Kohima Cemetery

Kohima Cremation Memorial commemorates 917 Hindu and Sikh soldiers whose remains were cremated in accordance with their faith.

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