‘Probably one of the greatest battles in history... in effect the Battle of Burma.... [It was] the British-Indian Thermopylae’ – Lord Louis Mountbatten
The Battle of Kohima (also called the ‘Stalingrad of the East’) is considered to be the turning point of the allied forces’ fortunes in South East Asia during World War Two. One of the lesser-known great battles of the war, the Battle of Kohima was fought between the British/Commonwealth forces and the 31st Division of Japan's Imperial Army.
The battle was fought from 4 April to 22 June 1944, in and around the then-small town of Kohima in India’s remote North East Region. Outnumbered 1 to 10, the allied forces routed the invading Japanese forces, thereby thwarting Imperial Japan’s ambition to invade Burma through British India. By invading India, Japan aspired to cripple the allied forces’ military campaign in strategic Burma during World War Two.
Here are some comparatively ‘unknown’ facts about one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War and one that has now come to be referred to as the ‘Stalingrad of the East.’
- When the Japanese forces began their siege of Kohima, a small, hilly outpost of a town on April 6, it was defended only by a small British and Commonwealth/Anglo-Indian garrison of about 1,500 men under the command of Colonel Hugh Richards (before reinforcements arrived).
On the other hand, the invading 31st Division of Imperial Japan’s army came with 12, 000 troops (before reinforcements) under the command of Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato.
- The battle was so grim that when the allied and Japanese forces were not engaged in hand-to-hand combat, they were literally throwing hand grenades at ‘each other’s heads and faces’ at point-blank point range.
- The allied soldiers were all young, inexperienced and mostly first-time combatants. In the words of Captain Peter Steyn of the Assam Regiment:
“Young and inexperienced sepoys (‘soldiers’, in Hindi) were fighting like veterans; red-hot machine gun barrels would be ripped off, regardless of burns suffered in the process; Japanese grenades and cracker-bombs were picked up and thrown clear of the trenches with all the calmness in the world and there did not seem to be a man in the garrison afraid to carry out any task given to him.”
- The battle was relentless but the small allied force refused to yield the Kohima ridged to the large numbered Japanese force. A battle-wearied young private asked Colonel Hugh Richards: 'When we die, sir is that the end or do we go on?'
- The Allied forces’ supply base at a nearby town called Dimapur held supply dumps 11 miles (18 km) miles long and 1 mile (1.6 km) wide. As the fall of Dimapur would have been disastrous for the Allies, General George Giffard, commander of the Eleventh Army Group) rushed the bigger chunk of the Allies’ troops to protect Dimapur just in case Kohima fell.
- When the plan to take Kohima was being made by the Japanese commanders, Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato had already told his staff that his troops might all starve to death on the ridge. When the battle ended on June 22, about 64 days after it began, the Japanese 31st division was already decimated by starvation – one reason why the about 1,500 allied soldiers defending Kohima vanquished the 12, 000 strong invading Japanese war machine.
- Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato wrote several times to his superiors that his division must retreat from Kohima. He was ordered to stand and fight each time.
- Sato was inadvertently sent a telegram from his commanders congratulating him on his “capture of Kohima”. The mistake is attributed to initial confidence of the Japanese army that Kohima would be taken without much fight. Sato replied: “It is not your congratulations we want but food and ammunition.”
- Before the siege of Kohima began, the Japanese took 5,000 oxen with them to feed their troops to provide meat for 50 days – the Japanese believed that the 5, 000 oxen would be sufficient as they expected to take Kohima easily.
- During one occasion that Sato ordered his men to withdraw, his commander Lieutenant General Mutaguchi sent him a message: “Retreat and I will court-martial you.”
Sato replied: ‘Do what you please, blockhead.’
- The Allied forces lost about a total of 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded. The Japanese lost 5,764 battle casualties in the Kohima area, and many of the 31st Division subsequently died of diseases or starvation.
- After their defeat in the Battle of Kohima, both Sato and Mutaguchi lost their field commands and were given administrative positions.
- Kohima has a large cemetery of 1,420 Allied war dead maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A memorial in the cemetery carries on it the now famous Epitaph (also called the ‘Kohima Epitaph’). It reads:
“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”
The verse is attributed to English Classicist John Maxwell Edmonds (1875–1958)