Was your ancestor in 'Britain's Greatest Battle?

The 8th of May marked the end of War in Europe, so if your ancestor served during the war you might like to read this fascinating account of the twin-battles of Kohima and Imphal, known now as 'Britain’s Greatest Battle' and also the greatest Japanese military disaster of all time. Written by Dr Robert Lyman, who joined the Light Infantry in February 1981, served in the British Army for 20 years, and is the author of 14 books

Imphal at War, 1944 - Dr Robert Lyman

Imphal, the capital of Manipur in eastern India, was the focus of some of the most intense fighting in the Far East in the Second World war, as the Japanese attempted to drive out the British and so secure their western, Burmese flank and perhaps even to occupy Assam. Indeed, I believe, as I argued in the 2013 National Army Museum debates, that the twin-battles of Kohima and Imphal were together, Britain’s Greatest Battle (Read how the debate was won HERE). My aim here is not to repeat the arguments I presented then but to summarise a long and complex battle as simply as I can.

Map of the Battle lines
Map of the Battle lines

Imphal today remains remote, cut-off from the tourist world by distance, and continuing ill-informed Foreign Office advice not to travel. In 1944, the war came to Imphal unexpectedly. The Japanese had come up against Manipur in May 1942 as they chased the retreating British from Burma, long columns of weary refugees, some military but many civilians, fleeing from the conflagration in Burma, struggled across the hills from Tamu and the Chindwin. Some even made their way along tracks aside the Manipur River from as far south as Fort Kennedy and Tiddim. The Manipuris’ looked on these refugees with pity, as well as a certain amount of trepidation.  What would happen if the Japanese decided to push on beyond the Chindwin and into their own perfect idyll? For that is what they, and those lucky enough ever to have made their way into the botanical paradise of Manipur, (regarded India's easternmost province) to be. The centre, the Imphal Plain, with its ancient alluvial volcanic basin, presented a sort of fragile, otherworldly landscape that stunned visitors with its beauty. Bougainvillea, snapdragon, purple iris, white jasmine, marigolds, lilac creepers, primulas, asters and lupin flowered plentifully amidst profusions of orchid exotica coloured the dense congregations of wild banana trees, oak, teak, bamboo and peach trees.

Imphal, the capital of Manipur, was little more than a market town in 1944, dominating the plain and serving as a commercial focus for the Nagas and Kukis of the hills, who brought their produce for sale at the weekly market.  It was also the centre of British defensive efforts in eastern India, the home (in 1942) of the 23rd Indian Infantry Division and the headquarters of the 4th Indian Corps.  It was from here that, in April 1943, Major General Orde Wingate was to launch the first of his famous 'Chindit' raids into Japanese-held Burma.  The Japanese commander in neighbouring Burma, General Mutaguchi Renya, feared for a repetition of this type of attack believing that it would put Japanese hegemony on north-western Burma at risk.  He was right to be worried. The task of the 4th Indian Corps based in Imphal, commanded by Lieutenant General Geoffrey Scoones, was to secure Manipur’s mountain barrier against Japanese incursions and to prepare for an offensive across the Chindwin in the spring of 1944. This was intended as a limited affair, designed to support both the insertion of a second expedition by Wingate (transported this time by air into central Burma rather than by shank’s pony), as well as an advance towards Myitkyina in northern Burma from Ledo of Stilwell’s Chinese and American forces. By this time Scoones had 30,000 troops in the 17th, 20th and 23rd Indian Divisions and a tank brigade, which was the greatest number of troops that the difficult line of communication back to Dimapur could sustain. These forces were accordingly placed to prepare for an attack into Burma, not to receive one coming the other way. In the centre, in Imphal itself, was Scoones’s headquarters, where, in anticipation of the forthcoming offensive, it was joined by a growing array of supply dumps, hospitals, workshops and airfields; in other words, the entire, complex paraphernalia of an army preparing to advance. Imphal had burgeoned since 1942 into a massive military base the legacy of which is clearly visible today. Every day long convoys made travelled 120 miles over the hills from Dimapur via the mountaintop Naga town of Kohima, while transport aircraft spiralled out of the skies bearing men and supplies to sustain operations.

But these forces did not mean that Manipur was adequately protected from attack.  Far from it.   The huge swathe of jungle covered mountains with which Manipur is surrounded offers little protection from an enterprising attacker. In 1944 the British did what they could, by positioning scattered garrisons at Tamu in the south-east, Tiddim in the south and in some of the mountain villages to the north and east of the plain. Between Milestone 105 on the Tiddim Road and the Silchar Track, 30 miles to the south, a remarkable English anthropologist named Ursula Graham Bower led a widely dispersed group of Nagas in what was described as a ‘Watch and Ward’ scheme that covered over 800 square miles of jungle hills separating the Tiddim Valley from Silchar. These loyal Naga villagers, equipped initially with only their spears, but later with rifles, Bren guns and grenades, protected the hills from Japanese patrols, and warned off any enemy depredations into the hills. Nothing else protected the hill country in the vast rectangle of green matted mountains between Kohima and Imphal and the Brahmaputra Valley.  

It was into this weakly-defended paradise that war came in 1944.

General Mutaguchi launched a massive attack in March.  Coming from the south, south-east and east, he hoped to cut off the British from the rest of India within days. Moving quickly with only the bare minimum of supplies the Japanese took on, however, far more than they could chew. They were not to recognise this publicly, however, until late July, when the starving remnants of the once mighty Japanese legions were forced back into Burma. They did not manage to break the defence of Manipur, even though they took the British by surprise and made early gains.  In the final analysis the Japanese took far too many risks with supplies, and assumed that the British and Indian forces would be weaker than they were. Equipped with aircraft, tanks and well-trained Indian and British troops, the British turned back the enemy across the front, although at times it was a close-run thing. It took huge effort by the British to remove the threat of Japanese victory. An entire Indian division (10,000 men) was flown into Imphal and Dimapur from Arakan by transport aircraft, moving directly into battle from the airfields on which they landed. The vast majority of soldiers had never flown by air before. Tanks crawled up the imposing heights of Nunshigum to remove Japanese infiltrators, and a vicious, hand-to-hand struggle ebbed and flowed its way at all points of the compass around the Imphal Plain, in flooded valley bottom and wet, jungle-matted hillside, for four months.

Imphal main airfield, in 1944 and 2017
Imphal main airfield, in 1944 and 2017

During July the entire structure of Mutaguchi's command disintegrated, men and units were left to fend for themselves in the life-and-death struggle, to evade the clutches of the slowly advancing XIVth Army. By the last day of July 1944 the battle for India could be said to be over. So perished Mutaguchi’s army and, with it, Japanese dreams of victory in India. Of the 65,000 fighting troops who set off across the Chindwin in early-March 1944, 30,000 were killed in battle and a further 23,000 were wounded, a casualty rate of an unprecedented 81 per cent of combat forces, and 46 per cent of the total size of Fifteenth Army. Only 600 Japanese allowed themselves to be taken prisoner, most of them too sick even to take their own lives. Some 17,000 pack animals perished during the operation and not a single piece of heavy weaponry made it back to Burma. The battle had provided the largest, most prolonged and most intense engagement with a Japanese army yet seen in the war. The extent of the disaster is captured by a comment by Kase Toshikazu, a member of the wartime Japanese Foreign Office, who lamented, ‘Most of this force perished in battle or later of starvation. The disaster at Imphal was perhaps the worst of its kind yet chronicled in the annals of war’. The latter might better have included the caveat ‘Japanese’ to avoid charges of exaggeration, but his comment captures something of the enormity of the human disaster that overwhelmed Fifteenth Army. It might more fairly be described as the greatest Japanese military disaster of all time. The cost? The British, Indian and Gurkha troops of the XIV Army suffered 16,000 casualties at Kohima and Imphal, many of whom recovered under XIV Army’s medical care.   

Of all the invading armies of history, it is hard to think of one that was repulsed more decisively, or more ignominiously, than this invasion. Its defeat was not the fault of the Japanese soldiers, who fought courageously, tenaciously and fiercely, but of their commanders, who sacrificed the lives of their troops on the altar of their own hubris. The importance of this victory was overshadowed at the time, and downplayed for decades afterwards, by the massive victories which brought the Second World War to an end in Europe and the Pacific. But only as the generation that witnessed and participated in it passes away does the cool light of history begin to reveal that the battles in India in 1944, epitomized in the fulcrum battle at Kohima, were comparable with Thermopylae, Gallipoli, Stalingrad, and other better-known confrontation battles where the arrogant invader became, in time, the ignominious loser. It is clear that Kohima/Imphal was one of four great turning-point battles in the Second World War, when the tide of war changed irreversibly and dramatically against those who initially held the upper hand. The first was at Midway in June 1942 when the US Navy successfully challenged Japanese dominance in the Pacific. The second was at Stalingrad between August 1942 and January 1943 when the seemingly unstoppable German juggernaut in the Soviet Union was finally halted in the winter bloodbath of that city, where only 94,000 of the original 300,000 German, Rumanian and Hungarian troops survived. The third was at El Alamein in October 1942 when the British Commonwealth triumphed against Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika in North Africa and began the process that led to the German surrender in Tunisia in May 1943.  The fourth was the battle at Kohima and around Imphal between March and July 1944 when the Japanese ‘March on Delhi’ was brought to nothing at a huge cost in human life, and the start of their retreat from Asia began. Adjectives such as ‘climactic’ and ‘titanic’, struggle to give proper impact to the reality and extent of the terrible war that raged across the jungle-clad hills during these fearsome months. Lord Louis Mountbatten called Kohima ‘one of the greatest battles in history, of naked unparalleled heroism, the British/Indian Thermopylae’. 

The Japanese attack on Manipur in 1944 was also in one sense an invasion of India. Mutaguchi harboured dreams, ultimately unfulfilled, that his offensive might prompt Indians to rise up against the Raj. This did not happen, not because Indians supported the Raj, but because they were more frightened of being ruled by an aggressively fascist Japan. Most could also see that the end of the British Empire was also in sight. The many hundreds of thousands who served in the Indian armed forces during the war recognised at the time that the defeat of the Japanese represented not merely the end of the Japanese empire, but also the beginning of the end of the British in India.  By fighting against Japan they had a chance of preserving a future independent India as a democracy.  Time was to show just how successful they were to be.

Dr Robert Lyman joined the Light Infantry in February 1981 and served in the British Army for twenty years. He is the author of 14 books, among which are Slim, Master of War; The Generals; Japan’s Last Bid for Victory; Kohima, 1944; and Among the Headhunters. He can be found at www.robertlyman.com and on Twitter (occasionally) @robert_lyman. He is a trustee of the Kohima Educational Trust.  

Ever wondered if your ancestor was a FEPOW?

Search these collections from Forces War Records today and see who you could to add to your family tree. 

Far East Prisoners of War 1942-46 

Imperial Prisoners of War held in Japan

Gurkhas and men of the West Yorkshire Regiment advance under cover of forward tanks in the Kohima-Imphal area on the Burma Front.
Gurkhas and men of the West Yorkshire Regiment advance under cover of forward tanks in the Kohima-Imphal area on the Burma Front.




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