In 1944, Kohima in the Naga Hills of Assam, north-east India, was an important hill station on the only road between the major British supply base at Dimapur and Imphal. When the Japanese launched their U-Go offensive in March 1944, the Kohima garrison was made up from a few units of the Assam Rifles, the 1st Battalion Assam Regiment and line of communication troops. As the full strength and threat of the Japanese offensive became apparent to the British, reinforcements were hastily moved to the Imphal-Dimapur area, many arriving by air from the Arakan.
Of these, the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade, of the 5th Indian Infantry Division, was flown to Dimapur in late March 1944. The Brigade advanced down the road to Kohima and began to establish defensive positions around the village. The key terrain was Garrison Hill and the wooded slopes of Kohima Ridge with key features such as Jail Hill, Field Supply Depot (F.S.D.) Hill and Detail Issue (D.I.S.) Hill.
The first attack on Kohima was made after dark on April 4th but was unsuccessful. There was space to deploy only a single battalion – the 4th Battalion, Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, supported by the Assam Rifles and the Assam Regiment. The Brigade’s remaining infantry – the 1st Battalion, 1st Punjab Regiment and the 4th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment, was deployed two miles west of Kohima at Jotsoma, with the Brigade’s artillery.
No sooner had the positions been established, the advance guard of the Japanese 31st Division attacked. After the initial attack, the West Kents withdrew from exposed positions and the Japanese were able to establish themselves elsewhere on the ridge. By 7th April, however, the now hard pressed West Kents were reinforced by a company of Rajputs from Jotsoma. Further Japanese attacks began on 8th April and by the next day the defenders had been forced back to the tennis court at the Deputy Commissioner’s (D.C.) Bungalow. At the same time, the defenders were cut off as the Japanese now also blocked the tracks to Jotsoma and the road between Jotsoma and Dimapur. Further Japanese gains at Kohima were made on 10th and 11th April.
Ferocious, hand-hand fighting erupted on 13th April as the Japanese attempted to seize the D.C.’s bungalow and tennis court positions. The attacks were finally beaten back by artillery fire from Jotsoma and the Japanese now focussed on eliminating these positions but without success. On 14th April, the newly arrived British 2nd Infantry Division and the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade opened the Dimapur-Kohima road. Desperate Japanese attacks were launched against F.S.D. hill on the evening of 16th April and the positions changed hands several times before the British withdrew to Garrison Hill. A dangerous situation for the defenders, now hemmed in on three sides at Garrison Hill was relieved when on 18th April, troops of the 2nd British Infantry Division, the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade and tanks of the 149th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps (R.A.C.) forced the Japanese away from the road and Garrison Hill. The siege of Kohima was lifted.
On 20th April, the 6th British Infantry Brigade from the 2nd British Infantry Division took over at Kohima and the remnants of the garrison were sent to Dimapur. The balance of the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade returned to Jotsoma. This small but ferocious battle was one of the decisive battles in South East Asia.
The Relief and Clearance
Now began the bloody task of clearing the Japanese from the Kohima area. By 13th May, many of the Japanese positions had been taken in fierce fighting. However, a few positions still held out including the D.C.’s bungalow. Continued fighting eventually forced a Japanese withdrawal that began by mid-May. Further reinforcements now came in to relieve the 2nd Infantry Division and the 33rd and 161st Indian Infantry Brigades whose infantry had borne the brunt of the fighting.
Attention now turned to lifting the siege of Imphal and clearing the Japanese from the road between Kohima and Imphal. Continued heavy and close quarter fighting resulted in the eventual opening of the road and British and Indian troops of the 2nd Infantry Division from Kohima and the 5th Indian Infantry Division from Imphal met on 22nd June at Milestone 110. The siege of Imphal was now over.
The Kohima fighting resulted in British and Indian losses of around 4,000 men dead, wounded and missing. The Japanese lost more than 7,000 in the fighting around Kohima.
The Kohima Garrison on 4th April 1944
detachment 24th Reinforcement Camp one 25pdr gun
CRE 112 Commander Royal Engineers and staff
GE Kohima officer and staff
1st Battalion Assam Regiment about 200 men, others withdrawing on Dimapur
a company, 3rd/2nd Battalion Punjab Regiment about 140 men
a company, 1st Garrison Battalion Burma Regiment
a company, 5th Battalion Burma Regiment
two platoons, 27th Garrison Battalion 5th Mahratta Light Infantry Regiment
3rd Battalion Assam Rifles (Naga Hills Battalion) less detachments
detachments “V” Force
The Shere Regiment Nepalese Contingent
221st Line Construction Section signals, less detachment
detachment Burma P&T Signals
detachment IV Corps “R” Signals
detachment “T” Line of Communication Signals
80th Light Field Ambulance from 50th Parachute Brigade
detachment 53rd Indian General Hospital
19th Field Hygiene Section
49th General Purposes Transport Company, RIASC
39th Cattle Conducting Section, RIASC
87th Indian Field Bakery Section, RIASC
622nd Indian Supply Section, RIASC
1432nd Company, Indian Pioneer Corps
24th Reinforcement Camp
Administration Kohima Garrison commander and staff
Reinforcements on 5th April 1944
2nd Field Company, Bengal Sappers and Miners, IE
20th Mountain Battery, Indian Artillery 4 X 3.7inch mountain guns
4th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment 18 officers and 420 men
75th Field Ambulance
For a commemorative booklet on Kohima visit the Kohima Educational Trust web site or download the PDF publication “The Battle of Kohima, North East India 4 April - 22 June 1944” here. 'Right click' on the link and select 'Save as'.
The 2nd British Infantry Division and its role in the battle for Kohima are commemorated by The Kohima Museum in York, England.
06 December 2017