Captain Robin Rowland was 22 when his regiment was deployed to the north-eastern Indian town of Kohima. It was May 1944, and a small group of British-Indian soldiers was under assault by an entire division of Japanese forces.
Capt Rowland, now 99, vividly remembers approaching the town, following a trail of devastation to the front line.
“We saw abandoned trenches and destroyed villages, and as we moved forward the smell of death was everywhere,” he said.
The young captain was a member of the Punjab regiment of the British Indian army, on his way to help relieve 1,500 of his fellow soldiers who had spent weeks resisting 10 times their number in Japanese forces.
Cut off by the Japanese, the allied forces were depending solely on supplies by air, and very few believed they could withstand the relentless onslaught. Japan’s soldiers had marched to Kohima through what was then Burma – their aim to invade India.
The Japanese had already routed the British in Burma, but no-one expected them to successfully negotiate the mosquito-infested jungle hills and fast-flowing streams en route to Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, and Imphal, the capital of Manipur state in India.
When they did, the British-Indian troops tasked with defending the two towns were surrounded by more than 15,000 Japanese soldiers. They fought for weeks to prevent the Japanese moving through and capturing the strategic city of Dimapur, which could have opened the routes to the plains of Assam. Few believed the defenders could prevail.
The Japanese soldiers came in “wave after wave, night after night”, recalled Capt Rowland.
The fighting was brutal and the British-Indian forces were confined to Garrison Hill, which overlooked Kohima. At one point the fighting descended into hand-to-hand combat, with only a tennis court separating the two sides dug in on the hill.
The besieged British-Indian soldiers held on until the reinforcements arrived. After three months, by June 1944, with more than 7,000 casualties and almost no food supplies left, the Japanese division retreated and returned to Burma, despite orders from above to stay and fight.
“It was a terrific resistance by 1,500 British-Indian troops,” Capt Rowland said. “If the Japanese had taken Garrison Hill, they would have gone to Dimapur.”
The British-Indian forces were ordered to pursue the retreating Japanese and Robin Rowland was among the pursuers. Some of the Japanese soldiers died of cholera, typhoid and malaria, but by far the greater number perished due to starvation as they ran out of supplies.
According to military historian Robert Lyman, the battle of Kohima and Imphal…
Go to the news source: Britain’s ‘forgotten’ battle that changed the course of WWII