Some have called it “Britain’s Greatest Battle,” others have declared it to be the “Stalingrad of the East.” By all accounts, the Battle of Kohima was a turning point in the struggle to thwart the Japanese invasion of India in early April, 1944.
Kohima Ridge was a strategic point on the road from Burma to India. It was the summit of a pass through which the Japanese 31st Division planned a march to capture the vital railhead at Dimapur, and onward to control the supply route through the Brahmaputra River valley. The defending forces, which included the Assam Rifles and the 7th Rajput Regiment, were greatly outnumbered by the Japanese. The fighting was intense. At one point the opposing forces fought hand-to-hand. Both sides gained, then lost the advantage in the battle. The 1,500 British and Indian defenders were able to stall nearly 15,000 Japanese for over 10 days, until reinforcements arrived.
When Captain Robin Rowland and the Punjab regiment arrived, they found a scene of utter destruction. “We saw abandoned trenches and destroyed villages, and as we moved forward the smell of death was everywhere,” he said.
The Japanese continued to attack–wave after wave, night after night. Although exhausted and running low on supplies, they continued to fight for several more weeks. The monsoon rains began in mid May, compounding the misery. But the Japanese were eventually forced to retreat, and lost not only the battle for Kohima, but also their gains in Burma. It was a defeat from which they would never recover. By the end of the battle, the British and Indian forces had lost over 4,000 men. the Japanese lost nearly 6,000.
The Battle of Kohima has been called Britain’s “forgotten battle.” Unlike the campaigns of Europe, the battle for control of India and Burma was far away, and immediately after the war was eclipsed by India’s drive for independence. There is a memorial to those who died on the battleground. On it is written this famous epitaph:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today”
Photo: Robin Rowland sits with members of the Punjab regiment for a photo after the Japanese defeat. Credit Robin Rowland.