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 by air from the Arakan.
Of these, the 161st Brigade, of
the 5th Indian Division, was flown to Dimapur in late March 1944. The
brigade soon 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 (FSD) Hill and Detail Issue (DIS) Hill. There was space to deploy
only a single battalion – the 4th Royal West Kents, supported by the Assam
Rifles and the Assam Regiment. The brigade’s remaining infantry – the
1st/1st Punjab Regiment and the 4th/7th Rajputs were deployed two miles west of
Kohima at Jotsoma, with the brigade’s artillery.
The first attack on Kohima was
made after dark on April 4th but was unsuccessful. The 161st Brigade was
rushed forward to reinforce Kohima. There was space to deploy only a
single battalion – the 4th Royal West Kents, supported by the Assam Rifles and
the Assam Regiment. The brigade’s remaining infantry – the 1st/1st
Punjab Regiment and the 4th/7th Rajputs were deployed two miles west of Kohima
at Jotsoma, with the brigade’s artillery.
No sooner had the positions
been established by April 5th than 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 April 7th, however, the now hard pressed West Kents were
reinforced by a company of Rajputs from Jotsoma. Further Japanese attacks
began on April 8th and by the next day the defenders had been forced back to the
tennis court at the Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) 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 April 10th and 11th.
Ferocious, hand-hand fighting
erupted on April 13th as the Japanese attempted to seize the DC’s bungalow and
tennis court positions. The attacks were finally beaten by artillery fire
from Jotsoma and the Japanese now focussed on eliminating these positions but
without success. On April 14th, the newly arrived British 2nd Division and
the 161st Brigade had opened the Dimapur-Kohima road. Desperate Japanese
attacks were launched against FSD hill on the evening of April 16th 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 April 18th, troops of the 2nd
British Division, the 161st Brigade and tanks of the 149th RAC forced the
Japanese away from the road and Garrison Hill. The siege of Kohima was
On April 20th, the 6th Brigade from the 2nd Division took over at Kohima and the remnants of the garrison were sent to Dimapur and the balance of the 161st Brigade returned to Jotsoma. This small but ferocious battle was one of the decisive battles in South East Asia.
Now began the bloody task of
clearing the Japanese from the Kohima area. By May 13th, many of the
Japanese positions had been taken in fierce fighting. A few positions
still held out including the DC’s bungalow. Continued fighting
eventually forced a Japanese withdrawal that began by mid-May. Further
reinforcements now came in to relieve the 2nd Division and the 33rd and 161st
Brigades whose infantry had born 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 Division from Kohima and the 5th 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 then 7,000 in the fighting around Kohima.
See also the Veterans UK website for a commemorative booklet on Kohima - 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'.
For details of the Kohima Museum in York, England please click here.