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Kohima and Imphal

The battles of Kohima and Imphal changed the course of the war in South East Asia when an army made up of British, pre-partition Indian, Gurkha, and African forces, supported by Naga tribes of North East India, and Burmese hill tribes, dealt the Japanese Imperial Army its greatest defeat.

Following the declaration of war by Japan against the British Empire in December 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army enjoyed a string of victories as Britain lost its colonies in South East Asia and its armies had been forced to retreat back into Northern British India.

IWM_IND002864_ WestAfricanDivision

African forces of the 14th

In 1943, General William Slim took command of what would become the 14th Army – a collected force of British, pre-partition Indian, Gurkha, and African troops. African forces would come from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. ©IWM (IND 2864)

African forces of the 14th

In 1943, General William Slim took command of what would become the 14th Army – a collected force of British, pre-partition Indian, Gurkha, and African troops. African forces would come from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. ©IWM (IND 2864)

General Slim had been planning to take his newly trained, rebuilt force on the offensive by retaking Burma but before he could strike, the Japanese launched an offensive into India. On 29 March 1944 over 15,000 soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army surrounded a mixed British and Indian garrison of 2,500 men in Kohima.

The garrison perimeter was reduced at one point to just 350 metres square and those forces at Kohima witnessed some of the worst close quarters fighting of the Second World War.

Finally, on the 18 April a relief column broke through the Japanese siege relieving the British and Indian forces.

An Indian infantry section of the 2nd Battalion (Credit: @IWM IND 2917)

The core of the 14th

At the core of this multi-cultural, multi-national force was the British-Indian army, the largest volunteer army in history. At its height, this force consisted of approximately 2.5 million men and it played a significant role in campaigns across Asia, North Africa and Europe. ©IWM (IND 2917)

The core of the 14th

At the core of this multi-cultural, multi-national force was the British-Indian army, the largest volunteer army in history. At its height, this force consisted of approximately 2.5 million men and it played a significant role in campaigns across Asia, North Africa and Europe. ©IWM (IND 2917)

The Battle of Kohima was not by any means over at that point - with fighting continuing until the Allied forces were able to link up with those at Imphal.

At Imphal, British and Indian forces had been besieged since the 5 April. However, by mid-May relief forces had fought their way through and by the 22 June those forces had been completely relieved.

The besieged units were able to carry on fighting thanks to the system of resupply they’d successfully used against the Japanese at the Battle of Admin Box in February 1944. This system relied heavily on a robust series of supply drops by the RAF who flew in nearly 19,000 tons of supplies, over 12,000 men and evacuated around 13,000 casualties.

A bull of the 5th Indian Infantry Division entering an airplane in preparations to an airlift from Arakan to Imphal Plain, behind the Japanese lines, March-July 1944.

The successful 'Box' system of fighting and resupply

A bull of the 5th Indian Infantry Division being loaded into an airplane in preparation for an airlift from Arakan to Imphal Plain, behind the Japanese lines, March-July 1944. @IWM (IND 3766)

The successful 'Box' system of fighting and resupply

A bull of the 5th Indian Infantry Division being loaded into an airplane in preparation for an airlift from Arakan to Imphal Plain, behind the Japanese lines, March-July 1944. @IWM (IND 3766)

The success of the `Box` system and the courage and resoluteness of the Fourteenth Army had inflicted on the Japanese Imperial Army the worse defeat in its history.  

The devastating victory of the 14th Army, arguably the greatest British led victory of the war, had once and for all shattered the belief in the invincibility of the soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army and had completely changed the dynamic of the war in South East Asia as victory after victory followed for the 14th Army.

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Cost of war

The battles of Imphal and Kohima cost the Japanese Imperial Army dearly, of the 85,000 men that started the battles 53,000 were killed or declared missing. By comparison 14th Army suffered nearly 17,000 casualties. (Courtesy of the National Army Museum)

Cost of war

The battles of Imphal and Kohima cost the Japanese Imperial Army dearly, of the 85,000 men that started the battles 53,000 were killed or declared missing. By comparison 14th Army suffered nearly 17,000 casualties. (Courtesy of the National Army Museum)

By May 1945 the 14th Army had become the largest army in the Commonwealth, totalling approximately one million personnel, it had retaken much of Burma, including Mandalay and Rangoon, and was preparing to retake Malaya and Singapore before the Japanese surrendered following the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The legacy of the battles of Imphal and Kohima echoes on in the inscription taken from a cemetery for British soldiers who fell at Kohima. That inscription we know as the Kohima Epitaph:

“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”.

The Stories of Kohima and Imphal

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