The Battles of Imphal and Kohima, in northern India, fought between 8 March and 18 July 1944, were the turning point of one of the most gruelling campaigns of the Second World War. They opened the way for the British 14th Army to invade and recapture Burma.
The Japanese plan was to surround and destroy British forces in the Imphal plain, starving them of supplies by cutting their only road link to their base at Dimapur. The advance on the Imphal front began on 15 March.
On the Japanese right flank their 31st Division crossed the River Chindwin and advanced some 70 miles towards Kohima, to sever communications between Imphal to Dimapur.
This involved crossing some of the toughest country in the world: vehicles could not be used, so all arms, ammunition, equipment and supplies had to be carried by the troops themselves and by pack animals, horses, mules, oxen and even elephants.
The Battle of Kohima 5 -18 April 1944
Kohima became the focus for the British effort to hold the road links to India. Surrounded by 15,000 Japanese, the British-Indian garrison based on the 4th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment and the locally based Assam Rifles, under the command of Colonel Hugh Richards (of the Worcestershire Regiment) held a tight defensive perimeter.
Between 5 and 18 April Kohima saw some of the bitterest close-quarter fighting of the war. In one sector, only the width of the town’s tennis court separated the two sides.
When on 18 April the relief forces of the British 2nd Division arrived, the defensive perimeter was reduced to a shell-shattered area only 350 metres square.
British, Indian and Gurkha troops fought to hold or to relieve Kohima. Many of those who were killed have no known grave, but the cemetery established in the gardens of the District Commissioner’s bungalow has 1,237 graves. Of these, 37 are officers and men of the 7th Worcestershire who were killed in April to June. Eight others lie buried in the battle area in unrecorded graves.
The relief of Kohima and Imphal, April to June 1944.
The 2nd Division fought its way to Kohima, relieving the garrison on 19 April. This still left a large number of Japanese in the surrounding area, who had to be defeated in order to clear the road to Imphal.
5th Brigade of 2nd Division, which included the 7th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, was therefore given the task of cutting the Japanese supply route north of Kohima.
On 27 April the Brigade came up against a strong position just beyond Naga Village, a mile from Kohima, on a terraced feature called Church Knoll. Attacking this position involved winching up tanks for close support, air and artillery support, and a series of infantry assaults on each successive terrace, most of them some five feet high.
On the 19th May the 7th Worcestershire advanced. The Japanese, making skillful use of the terraces, were able to site their bunkers so that as each terrace was scaled the attack came under withering fire from bunkers in the next terrace.
After a short interval, operations were resumed on 2 June to the south of Kohima and continued until 16 June. 2nd Division cleared the road, and the Japanese army, unable to defeat the defenders at Imphal or to supply itself adequately through thick road less jungle, had to withdraw. Now starving, less than a third of the original force survived the fighting and the subsequent retreat.