The Allied effort in Burma during World War II was dominated by strong personalities and hampered by divergent strategic goals. Guided by a coalition of British and Americans, the participants themselves were multiracial, including Indians, Burmese and Chinese. For the Americans, the campaign was closely linked to keeping China in the war through supplies shipped over the Burma Road. The British and the Soviets did not feel that the Chinese could make a significant contribution to the overall effort against Japan, and instead wanted the Burmese campaign to serve as a barrier for India and as a fountainhead for a future Allied drive to force the Japanese from Southeast Asia. Another problem was the American suspicion that the British were striving to preserve their colonial empire at the expense of local nationalism.
Burma was invaded in December 1941 by a relatively small Japanese contingent of 35,000 men. The initial landing was at Tenasserim, on the Isthmus of Kra, aimed at neutralizing British airfields threatening the Japanese move south into Malaya. However, the goal of the extensive campaign that followed was to cut the vital Burma Road to China. Air attacks on Rangoon—the principal port of entry for Allied supplies—commenced toward the end of December. Japan’s ensuing advance northward into the interior proceeded almost unimpeded to the Sittang River. Rangoon was finally abandoned on March 6, 1942, and after a period of reinforcement, the Japanese succeeded in routing the British. Abandoning Mandalay, British Sir General Harold Alexander was compelled to order a general withdrawal to Assam in India.
The Japanese drive into Burma was foreshadowed by their rapid advance at the beginning of the war. As the British hero of Burma, Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Viscount William Slim, recalled: “The British Empire, with its Indian and Australian comrades, lost Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. This was the greatest defeat in the history of [the] Empire.”
Burma is a large country. Compared to Europe, it covers more area than France, the Low Countries and much of Germany. To the north and west, it is bordered by the Indian provinces of Assam, East Bengal and Manipur. Farther to the north lies China. Several major rivers run through Burma, including the Irrawaddy, Chindwin and Sittang.
Internal transportation at the time consisted of a limited road and rail network and steamers plying the major rivers. However, in 1941, the most significant route was the Burma Road, which ran from the port of Rangoon through Mandalay, on to Lashio, then across the Chinese border to Kunming. Japanese plans in 1941 had not included any operations beyond the frontier of Burma, which was to become the western bastion of their Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The speed and ease of their victories had, however, produced symptoms of the “victory disease” (underestimation of the enemy), and in August 1942, General Count Hisaichi Terauchi’s Southern Army headquarters in Hanoi ordered the Fifteenth Amy in Burma to plan a limited offensive into Assam. Although this was temporarily abandoned because of American successes in the western Pacific, it was revived when the Japanese reorganized their command structure in Burma in June 1943, which brought an aggressive commanding general, Renya Mutaguchi, to power. Thereafter, two plans of action came into being. The first was to continue westward to the Arakan in southwestern Burma, where the new Japanese Twenty-eighth Army would mount an offensive against the British XV Corps, pinning down Slim’s reserves. The second called for Mutaguchi to proceed with three divisions and destroy the British IV Corps on the plain around Imphal, seizing the great Allied supply depots and depriving the British of their springboard for an offensive to retake Burma.
The British Fourteenth Army, based in eastern India, was to be the military instrument that would oppose this Japanese offensive. Lieutenant General William Slim assumed command in October 1943. He was not a member of the British privileged classes; rather, he was a product of Birmingham University’s Officer Training Corps. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Slim had been commissioned into the Regular Army as a second lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. During World War I he was wounded at Gallipoli, and while recuperating he discovered that there were periodic openings in the Indian army that allowed officers of limited means to live quite well. He applied and was granted a commission in the West Indian Regiment. Subsequently, he was reassigned to his old regiment, the Warwickshires, and fought with them in Iraq and the Middle East. Finally, in 1922 he joined the Indian army as a captain in the 6th Gurkha Rifles. He later attended the British Army Staff College and served in the Sudan. In 1942, with the Allies’ plight worsening, he returned to India as a major general. In October 1943, he took over the British Fourteenth Army.
As signs of an impending Japanese offensive mounted, Slim alerted the Allied air supply organization, realizing that rapid redeployment of troops would be necessary. The Japanese opened their offensive in February 1944 with a stunning tactical surprise, using only one of the Twenty-eighth Army’s two divisions. However, the Allies rallied and were able to frustrate the attack, inflicting a loss of 5,000 men upon the Japanese, whose total force had numbered 8,000. For the first time since December 8, 1941, the Indian army had won an unequivocal victory. It was one of the turning points of the war in Burma.
The focal point of the Japanese offensive then shifted to the plain around Imphal, which is located on the main line of communications between India and Burma. It was strategically important as the advanced base for the maintenance and operation of the Allied land and air forces in the area. It was also the key to the defense of Assam in India. With Imphal in their hands, the Japanese would also be able to interrupt the line of communications to General Joseph Stilwell and the air traffic over the Himalayas to China. It also would give them an advance base from which to conduct air operations of their own against India proper.
Given the complexity of the geography, it is helpful to refer to a map when analyzing the Japanese offensives against Imphal and Kohima. As General Slim pointed out: “The story of the prolonged and hard-fought battle of Imphal-Kohima…is not easy to follow. It swayed back and forth through great stretches of wild country; one day its focal point was a hill named on no map; the next, a miserable, unpronounceable village a hundred miles away.”
Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the supreme Allied commander in the area, saw the coming Japanese attack as multifaceted and taking the following tacks: “(a) an advance from the Fort White area…in an attempt to cut off 17th Indian Division in the Tiddim area, followed by an advance northward on Imphal; (b) a thrust at the Imphal Plain by a force coming up from Tamu and on up the Palel Road; (c) an advance on Ukhrul, to the north of Imphal; (d) a strike at Kohima, farther north, to cut the Dimapur-Imphal road as a prelude to attacking Dimapur itself.” While the Japanese offensive proceeded westward, its lines of communication and supply became more tenuous in the increasingly rugged terrain.
The opening phase of the offensive began with Lt. Gen. Motozo Yanagida’s 33rd Division advancing in two columns toward the Chin Hills and the town of Tiddim, which is some 8,000 feet above sea level. These positions are south of Imphal on the road leading to the plain. The Indian 17th Division in this area was isolated and understrength, and plans were made to withdraw it as soon as it became apparent that the offensive had begun. However, the British misjudged the timing of the enemy advance, and the division was threatened with annihilation.
While the invasion began on March 7, the withdrawal from Tiddim did not start until March 15, and by that time the Japanese were astride the line of retreat. The British 37th and 49th brigades, attacking from the north along the road, enabled the Allies to push aside the Japanese blocking positions. This opened up an escape route as well as enabled badly needed food, ammunition and medicine to get through to the retreating 17th Division. With the Japanese still in pursuit, the British eventually reached the Imphal Plain. It had taken them three weeks at a cost of about 1,200 casualties. But it was only half a victory for the Japanese, since General Yanagida’s goal was to stop the 17th Division from taking any further part in the defense of Imphal.
General Slim had decided to concentrate the IV Corps on the Imphal Plain to engage Mutaguchi and his Fifteenth Army, which initiated the central Japanese thrust. This army also moved across the Chindwin River more rapidly than the British had expected. The Tiddim road in the south was not the only thoroughfare westward that the Japanese could use. There were two others: in the southeast from Tamu over the Shenam Pass, and from the northeast down the track from Ukhrul. The British 20th Division, under Maj. Gen. Douglas Gracey, guarded the road from Tamu. The Japanese force, commanded by Maj. Gen. Seiei Yamamoto, consisted of a regiment of the 33rd Division with two tank battalions and some artillery in support. It moved northwest up the valley to attack Gracey’s right flank. Contact was made on March 14, and in accordance with prearranged plans, the 20th Division pulled back, barring the way to Imphal. Although the Japanese continued to advance, the British dug in along Tengnoupal Ridge and effectively blocked the road to the plain behind them.
The preliminaries were now over. The chosen battleground for the Japanese invaders was the city of Imphal, capital of the small state of Manipur, which covered some 700 square miles. The Imphal Plain was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II. Entrance to the plain from the north was along a winding road through the village of Kohima. The distance between the two towns was about 140 miles. The most vulnerable point on the road was where it crossed the summit of a 4,700-foot pass at Kohima. If the Japanese could seize the pass, Imphal would be completely cut off. If they could capture Dimapur to the north as well, they then could cut Stilwell’s supply line to Ledo and beyond.
On March 15, the second phase of the Japanese offensive began as Maj. Gen. Masafumi Yamauchi’s 15th Division and Lt. Gen. Kotoku Sato’s 31st Division poured across the Chindwin by raft, ferry and boat. For Sato, the target was Kohima. He was expected to advance at least 20 miles a day, with 5,000 oxen following and some of his soldiers acting as porters. On his left flank, Yamauchi had been ordered to bulldoze a way through the IV Corps’ positions to the east of the Imphal-Dimapur road, and then to strike at Imphal itself. General Mutaguchi, their commander, expected to capture the state capital within a month.
As this was transpiring, Slim realized he would need reinforcements and turned to Mountbatten to provide air transport for his troops currently positioned in the Arakan. Permission was given, and by the end of March the entire British 5th Division had been landed on the Imphal battlefield. They arrived in the nick of time—the Japanese were only nine miles from the airfield as they were landing.
Although the early situation around Imphal was critical, an even more dangerous threat was being aimed at Kohima. For some unknown reason, the Japanese did not mount a major attack against Dimapur to the north. The struggle for Kohima has been designated one of the major battles of World War II, yet the defenders were few in number, and the disputed area was measured in yards. But when victory had been won, many described it as the crucial turning point in the Burma campaign.
While conducting their offensive on Imphal, the Japanese simultaneously drove toward Kohima. General Slim had foreseen this, and had reinforced the garrison and established new defensive positions in the northern village. However, once again the British were not prepared for the Japanese offensive to develop so quickly. In the town itself, there were mixed units of the Assam Rifles, a Burmese regiment, Gurkhas, Punjabis and Mahrattas, together with pioneer, sapper, ordnance, transport, ambulance and medical units. The covering positions at Phek, Kharasom and Jessami, which lay to the east and southeast of Kohima, were held by the Assam Regiment. A full Japanese division came up against them.
The British forward troops resisted the enemy’s advance, inflicting more than 1,000 casualties. But as the strength of the Japanese thrust became evident, Slim decided to draw back all outposts and concentrate the troops in Kohima proper. General Slim wrote: “Within a week of the start of the Japanese offensive, while 17 Division was still fighting its way out [in the south], it became clear that the situation in the Kohima area was likely to be even more dangerous than that at Imphal. Not only were enemy columns closing in at much greater speed than I had expected, but they were obviously in much greater strength.” The Japanese cut all roads into the town and effectively isolated it, for there was no airstrip. The small garrison of 3,500 was pitted against 15,000 Japanese, who laid down a murderous barrage from the heights. The siege lasted 16 days. In the end, the Allies held on to this vital bridgehead to India.
To meet the powerful Japanese thrust, Mountbatten had summoned the XXXIII Indian Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Montagu Stopford, from the far side of India. Stopford arrived in the area and was told by Fourteenth Army commanders that he was to stop Japanese penetration into the Assam valleys, keep open the road from Dimapur to Kohima and prepare to drive south beyond Kohima and link with the IV Corps on the Imphal Plain. In addition, by April 1944 the 5th Brigade had reached Dimapur from Arakan by plane, and had been immediately ordered to Kohima by the local area commander. The 4th Royal West Kents headed its march. As reinforcements arrived, Stopford resolved to use them to force open the road to Kohima. Slim remembered: “As I shuttled between Dimapur, Imphal, and my headquarters at Comilla, I was beginning to see light. We had hard days ahead of us, but everywhere our troops, unperturbed by events, were steady and full of fight. We had lost nothing vital.”
The heights around Kohima gradually fell to the Japanese, and the enemy was able to effectively attack the British garrison and any relieving columns trying to reach it. As the battle progressed, supplies ran short and the village had to be supplied by air. Water was an acute need. The British were gradually forced into a tiny area that was to become famous in this bloody battle as “Summerhouse Hill.” As Slim recalled: “Luckily, Sato continued to limit himself to frontal attacks on Kohima, first by day and then, as the toll exacted by the garrison and by the swift retaliation of our aircraft in daylight proved too high even for Japanese stomachs, by night. Throughout the day and in the intervals between these night attacks, the enemy artillery, mortars, and machine guns hammered relentlessly at our positions.” Kohima’s ordeal had entered its third week before the first reinforcements could reach it, crawling in on April 18 via the only gully that gave access to the garrison. Finally, the Royal Berkshire Regiment marched into Kohima and ended the siege. A strange scene greeted the liberators. Parachutes hung from every other tree. Not a building in Kohima was left undamaged, and most were mere rubble or ashes. The dead lay unburied, and little squads of grimy and bearded riflemen stared blankly at the relieving troops.
Still, the battle was far from finished. At that point the Japanese launched additional furious all-out efforts to capture the town. Royal Air Force bombers smashed two of their assaults, and a final attack was also repelled. Eventually, the enemy was driven from the heights, and the Allies gained full control of the area. The battle cost the Japanese 4,000 dead. Now that Kohima had held and Dimapur was no longer threatened, Slim could give his attention to the situation at Imphal, which had been under siege since April 5, when the Japanese cut the Kohima-Imphal road. Earlier, he had diverted troops from Imphal to the Kohima area. However, his optimism was reflected in his evaluation: “Imphal was in no danger of falling.” Lieutenant General Sir Geoffrey Scoones, commander of the IV Corps located in the Imphal area, had laid out his defenses so that he could react to threats from all points of the compass.
The small town lay in the middle of a natural bowl measuring 20 to 30 miles in diameter, surrounded by high, forested hills providing excellent viewpoints for observers, who could see any movement on the open plain below. General Slim pointed out: “Like unevenly spaced spokes of a wheel, six routes were covered on the Imphal Plain: (1) From the north, the broad Kohima road, (2) Also from the north, the footpath down the Iril River Valley, (3) From the northeast, the Ukhrul road, (4) From the southeast, the tarmac Tamu-Palel road, (5) From the south, the rugged Tiddim highway, and (6) From the west, the Silchar-Bishenpur track.”
The northern sector of the perimeter was held by the Indian 5th Division. It met the first Japanese attack at Imphal, which came from the north with the seizure of the commanding heights of Nungshigum. Whoever held this summit possessed the key to Imphal. If the main all-weather airfield, which lay nearby, was captured or rendered useless by artillery fire, that would gravely affect the air supply to the IV Corps. Finally, the British were able to wrest control of the vital summit from the enemy and continued on to capture the remaining heights.
General Gracey’s 20th Division in the Palel area faced the problem of defending 25 miles of frontage in difficult terrain, spread over several hundred miles of broken, hilly country, ideal for patrolling by the Japanese. Gracey deployed his brigades so that they held the higher points for good observation and endeavored to deter Japanese penetration. Even so, at times the enemy threatened to break through. General Yamamoto, commanding the 33rd Division’s infantry group, was well supported by artillery as he pushed up the main Palel road, and the battle raged between April 4 and 10. When the Japanese finally withdrew, the 20th Division had yielded only two miles of ground and successfully held another series of hilltops, known as Crete West and Scraggy.
Still, Japanese units fought on in the Palel area well into June. The Indian 23rd Division had taken over the sector in May, and some of the most ferocious fighting at Imphal took place in the southwest corner, where General Yanagida’s 33rd Division had followed its drive up the Tiddim road by hooking around to cut the Imphal-Silchar trail. In a series of battles, the British held firm. There were further struggles in the south, but Slim’s men remained undaunted. With the failure of the Japanese 33rd Division’s thrust at Bishenpur, the tide turned in the IV Corps’ favor. Slim outlined the struggle along the perimeters of the plain in the following terms: “The fighting all around its circumference was continuous, fierce, and often confused as each side maneuvered to outwit and kill. There was always a Japanese thrust somewhere that had to be met and destroyed. Yet, the fighting did follow a pattern. The main encounters were on the spokes of the wheel, because it was only along these that guns, tanks, and vehicles could move.”
In retrospect, by the middle of May 1944 the Japanese had been thrown on the defensive at Kohima, and the British advance had begun along the Imphal-Kohima road. Around Imphal, danger from the north and east was unlikely. To the south and west, where the 33rd Division was being reinforced, there was still the prospect of a last attempt to secure victory by the Japanese. However, their ultimate failure was assured by the arrival of the monsoon season. The strain of the weather affected both sides, but Slim realized that he had to continue attacking at Imphal until the enemy had been defeated. It would not serve his purpose if the Japanese were allowed to slip away and retire to the far side of the Chindwin River.
On June 22, light tanks coming down from Kohima linked up with elements of the Indian 5th Division. The siege of Imphal was over, and as the monsoon rains poured down, the relentless pursuit of Mutaguchi’s army began. General Slim noted, “It was clear now, at the beginning of June, that on the Kohima front the enemy was breaking and pulling out as best he could.” At the same time, the British pushed forward from Imphal. While Japanese units deteriorated, individual enemy soldiers fought on stubbornly.
When the smoke had cleared in the Imphal-Kohima area, the Japanese had no delusions, declaring that “the disaster at Imphal was perhaps the worst of its kind yet chronicled in the annals of war.” When the offensive began, the Japanese Fifteenth Army had approximately 100,000 front-line soldiers, of whom 53,000 became casualties. The official figures show that 30,000 were killed in battle, while hundreds more died after the defeat became a rout, victims of sickness, malnutrition and exposure. Every tank and gun of Mutaguchi’s invading force was lost. A staggering 17,000 mules and pack ponies perished during the operation. As the Japanese feared, the Imphal Plain became the fountainhead of the successful British effort to retake Burma.
This article was written by Jonas L. Goldstein and originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of World War II.
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