Defeat to Victory: Battle of Kohima 1944

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One of the most heroic sagas of the Second World War was the stand of the British-Indian 14thArmy at the gates of India at Kohima under General William Slim.

Background

The setting for the battle was all in favor of the Japanese Army which had pushed the British-Indian army right across Burma.

There was also the factor of Subhas Chandra Bose and the Japanese repeatedly asked the Indians to surrender and throw off their British masters. But by and large we now have the statistics and know that 98 % of the British Indian army did not waver in their loyalty to the English. Both the soldiers of the British and Indian armies, both of a different skin color, one white and one brown fought together. In a way, I feel that was the correct choice as events have shown that the Japanese were cruel rulers as evidenced by their massacres in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which were supposed to be ‘liberated’ and Netaji could do nothing about it.

The Last Stand at the Gate of India

At the beginning of 1944 the Japanese had reached the gates of India.  The Japanese force was commanded by General Renya Mutagachi, a die-hard veteran of the war and an able general. He commanded the Japanese 15th army with 3 divisions namely the 15th, 31st and 33rd divisions. He had along with him a small force of renegade Indian soldiers in the form of the Indian national Army led by Bose.

The British command decided to make their stand at Kohima which was garrisoned by both British and Indian troops. The 2nd British division and the 7th Indian division held fort inside Kohima.  Expecting an assault the defenders readied for facing the Japanese assault. Kohima airfield was heavily defended as it was to be the life line of the 14th Army. 

SiegeofKohima

Siege of Kohima

The Siege of Kohima

The On 4th April the Japanese struck all along the border. As per the plan of general Mutagachi, he wanted to avoid a head on clash and planned to encircle Kohima. He was confident that after encirclement and without supplies the British Indian Army would surrender. Here he made a grave miscalculation as the British Indian army of 1944, was different from the earlier force that had been annihilated by the Japanese. Its morale was high and it was also now better equipped. Information was also received of the massacres conducted by the Japanese army in the Andaman Islands and the Indian soldiers were in no mood to surrender. The Indian troops facing the Japanese were hand-picked by slim and consisted of a preponderance of Sikhs and Rajputs.

History records that the Japanese imperial army could make no headway and despite repeated assaults and some bitter fighting the British Indian army refused to give ground. People who have taken part in that battle have mentioned that the bravery of the 14th army was legendary and for the first time the Japanese suffered a bloody nose. The RAF continued its supply missions round the clock and serious causalities were also airlifted out.

The Last Attack of General Mutagachi

At the same time the frontal attacks of the Japanese force against entrenched positions was taking its toll, both in terms of morale and man power. The Japanese were up against some very determined resistance. News also reached the Japanese commander that General Slim was building up another big army and was coming to the aid of the garrison in Kohima. This had a salutary effect on general Renya and he requested the Japanese war council for advice. In fact freshly recruited Sikh and Indian troops were being despatched with heavier guns and the Japanese command knew that the battle was lost. In a last desperate attack before the arrival of the reinforcements general Mutagachi launched a final assault. The Japanese could make no headway and in turn suffered heavy causalities.  There was again bitter hand to hand fighting, but the attack failed.

On 22 June 1944, the Japanese commander gave orders to withdraw. It had been a stunning defeat for the Japanese and India was saved. The Indian-British army now counterattacked and the Japanese began to retreat.

Epilogue

The Battle in Kohima is as important as the battle of Stalingrad, but it is not given its due. The British Indian army gave a heroic account of it and carried the day against the imperial force. Subhas Bose at that time realized that his cry of ‘Delhi Chalo’ was an empty slogan.

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