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The Battle of Kohima

01:00 Mon 29th Apr 2002 |

The Battle of Kohima has been compared to the siege of Stalingrad and, from another war, to the Somme. It stands as one of the great turning-points of the Second World War, and as testament to the British 14th Army - the 'Forgotten Fourteenth'.

High in the Naga hills on the North-East Frontier of India, close to the borders with Assam and Burma, the�hill-station of Kohima was a vital first step on the Japanese military advance on India itself, launched on 6 March 1944.

Upwards of 100,000 Japanese soldiers were readied for the push. British troops, though aware of a build-up of enemy forces, were ill-prepared when the enemy advanced.

Kohima was close to the vital Bengal-Assam railway line. Surrendering this to the Japanese would threaten Allied supply lines and open up a passage to Calcutta.

An Allied garrison of 1,200 fighting men under Colonel Hugh Richards, units of the 14th Army, were cut off by dense jungle and with no airstrip to allow easy reinforcements.

They faced a Division of some 12,000 men of the Japanese 15th Army under General Sato.

On 5 April the Imphal-Kohima road was taken by the Japanese, leaving Kohima completely isolated. While a relief column fought their way 40 miles through jungle terrain from Dimapur, Sato's men turned their attentions on Kohima itself.

The troops trapped inside the town defended every inch of ground. There were artillary exchanges but also fierce hand-to-hand combat, sniper fire and bayonet attacks.

For a fortnight, the siege continued bloody day and bloody night. A message from the besieged troops gives an eerie indication of the conditions: 'The men's spirits are all right but there aren't many of us left...'

On the night of 17 April they launched an all-out attack on Garrison Hill, where the Allied troops had made their last stand.

Troops of the Royal Berkshires, broke through Japanese lines to relieve the defenders of Garrison Hill on 20 April, but the Japanese assault continued.

The fiercest fighting of all came in May, when all that stood between the two sides was the District Commissioner's tennis court - no more than 20 yards apart.

The attacks on Kohima lasted until June: 64 days in which the outcome of the War in Asia was in the balance. With the coming of the monsoon rains and with supplies running out, the Japanese retreated.

Thousands had died on both sides, but the human cost to Japan was far greater, as were the consequences. India still stood, and the British 14th Army under General William Slim was able to return to the offensive and march into Burma.

A War Cemetary stands now on the site of the battle for the tennis court in Kohima. Roses have been planted, the grass is always cut, the views across the Naga Hills are calm and beautiful.

There is an inscription on the memorial, which has come to be known as the 'Kohima Epitaph' and has been repeated at war memorials throughout the world. It reads:

'When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today'

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