Antony Brett-James

BALL OF FIRE
The Fifth Indian Division
in the Second World War

 

CHAPTER XXIII

KOHIMA
APRIL 1944

Kohima

A SECOND enemy thrust was directed against our railhead and supply base at Dimapur in Northern Assam. Also threatened was the little town of Kohima, nearly fifty miles to the south and high up among the Naga Hills. On March 29 the Japanese cut the road between Imphal and Kohima, and Warren's 161 Brigade flew from Dohazari to Dimapur, moved by lorry along the main road to Kohima, and settled into evacuated hospital. buildings.

Lieutenant John Wright, who commanded the detachment of 2 Field Company with the Royal West Kents, has painted the scene on arrival in Kohima for the first time. The town lay among the hills five thousand feet above the sea, surrounded by precarious cultivation on terraced slopes. The villages had been built on promontories, and there lived the picturesque Naga hill-people, with their gay blankets, their shell necklaces, and their black hair clipped short and straight or else tied on top of the head. To those who had just hurried from the bright heat of Arakan, and before that from the vast emptiness of Iraq and the Western Desert, this beautiful land of wooded hills hardly seemed to be a potential battlefield. The way up from Dimapur reminded some, at least, of the road to Mussoorie, the hill station above Dehra Dun. And it was hard to convince yourself that this arrival in Kohima was not the beginning of a hard-earned leave on the edge of the Himalayas.

You saw a village perched on the very peak of a sharp ridge, and built substantially of timber with red corrugated iron roofs. From afar the Nagas, with prodigious calf muscles, could be seen trotting up the steep paths, with their loads supported by a band across the brow. There, too, a pleasant smell of wood fires lingered on the evening air. Most welcome of all was a nip in the air as the light of day began to fail, with the promise of the luxury of a night slept in blankets, without the oppression of a mosquito net.

Brigadier Warren was occupied with the co-ordination of the Kohima defences, but the difficulties of planning were aggravated by the likelihood of his brigade being ordered back to Dimapur as Army reserve. It was, however, arranged that, on April 1, Brigade Headquarters, Laverty's 4th Royal West Kents, 2 Field Company, I.E., and 24 Mountain Regiment (Lieutenant- Colonel Humphrey Hill) less two batteries, should form a defensive box at the Treasury in Kohima, which had already been occupied by a company of Assam Rifles. This plan proved unsatisfactory: the area was dominated by a. hill immediately to the east, which was not held in strength; our water supply in the event of Japanese attacks was most precarious; and the Treasury itself was already adequately garrisoned.

But that afternoon the expected change of plan occurred. The move to the Treasury was cancelled, and 161 Brigade ordered to return next day to Dimapur. Here the 4/7th Rajputs had meantime established themselves, while the 1/1st Punjab (Major Neil M. Brodie) were concentrated along the road between Dimapur and Kohima at Ms. 16. While the Royal West Kents moved into Dimapur as Brigade rearguard, the 1/1st Punjab remained under command of the 1st Burma Regiment at Nichuguard. The rest of 161 Brigade settled around Ms.4, being entrusted with the defence of the Dimapur base and with counter-attacking inside this base, should the need arise. To this end Brigadier Warren organized two columns, "Thunder," comprising the West Kents, and "Lightning," made up of the 4/7th Rajputs, each supported by a battery of 24 Mountain Regiment.

But the general situation on the front changed next day when the 31st Japanese Division made contact with the garrison at Kohima and drove in our outposts. During the afternoon of April 4 Colonel Laverty received a warning order that his battalion would return to Kohima at dawn on the following day.

The battalion column, with Major Donald Easten's 'D' Company in the lead, set off at half past six on the morning of the 5th. At intervals they met stragglers returning from Kohima, some walking beside the road, others packed in speeding lorries. Several officers whom Colonel Richards, the garrison commander at Kohima, sent out to meet the West Kents, brought news of the contact battle. They painted so grim a picture of disorganization and lack of spirit within the defence perimeter that Colonel Laverty hoped the situation would not have deteriorated to the extent of a complete collapse before he could reinforce the garrison. Although the Japanese were already in Kohima itself and east of the village, the road to Dimapur had not been cut, and fighting was as yet confined to the first of five hill features on which the defences of the garrison box were based.

Kohima looked much the same as before. But the Nagas no longer trotted through the village. Silent was the usual hum of lorries driving down the Line of Communication main road towards Imphal. Only the roar of the troop-carrying vehicles that bore the Royal West Kents and supporting arms in this last dash into Kohima was heard. The deserted hospital with its unhinged doors and the chaos of abandoned stores could be glimpsed as the column passed towards the cross-roads where the troops were to alight. At that moment our Field Ambulance detachment was fired on, and one of its trucks disintegrated with a flash. Rather than run the gauntlet further, the men behind left the transport and laboriously made their way within the defences of the town.

As Easten's company drove in past the Indian General Hospital, the leading lorries were fired upon by rifles in Kohima Village, away to the east. Easten gave orders to dismount and the men marched the rest of the way to prearranged positions on a hill by the District Commissioner's Bungalow, the home of Mr. Charles Pawsey.

By five o'clock the company groups had unloaded most of their stores, and the fifty lorries had been parked in the shelter of a hill. Much of this transport, which the battalion had been definitely instructed to keep at Kohima in order not to block the rest of 161 Brigade, who moved up to the Jatsoma area on the same day, was to be wrecked in the subsequent battle.

That evening, after a ring which the Japanese had fired spasmodically, the Royal West Kents took up their positions: 'A' Company (Major J. Winstanley) and battalion headquarters on Summerhouse Hill; 'B' Company (Major T. Kenyon) on Kuki Picket; Major P. E. M. Shaw's 'C' Company on D.I.S. Hill; and Major D. F. Easten and his 'D' Company established themselves between battalion headquarters and 53 Indian General Hospital. At six o'clock that afternoon four Japanese guns shelled the whole defensive area for half an hour, concentrating specially on the D.C. Bungalow Spur. But the night was quiet. And save for intermittent. shelling and mortar fire, the enemy made no serious attempt to attack.

* * * * * * *

When the Royal West Kents had returned to Dimapur on April 2, it had been decided that Kohima contained sufficient troops and supplies to withstand heavy attacks. It was known well in advance that the town was an objective of the 31st Japanese Division, but it was thought, wrongly, that the enemy would not launch more than the equivalent of a brigade group against Kohima and Dimapur. In fact, he sent a full division, whose strength far exceeded that of the assorted garrison. Apart from the Royal West Kents, its attached Gunners---20 Battery (Major R. Yeo) of 24 Indian Mountain Regiment---and Sappers of 2 Field Company, our garrison numbered some 2,900 all ranks. There were the 3rd and 4th Assam Rifles, one company of the Shere Regiment, the 1st Burma Garrison Battalion, part of 313 G.P.T. Company, men from workshop, supply, medical, engineer and 'A' Force units, some signalmen of the Burma Telegraph Company, and soldiers from the 24th Reinforcement Camp who happened to be in Kohima when the road to Imphal was cut. Those units that were organized had already marched many miles across rough country from the Chindwin river, or were generally tired out from hard rearguard fighting among the hills at Jessami and Kharasom, to the east. And that part of the garrison which comprised the non-combatant administrative staffs was later to prove a liability. Not only did the special requirements of protection and disposal impose an extra burden upon the garrison commander, but the morale of these men was low and, therefore, dangerous. In many cases, quite inevitably, the troops had been collected together at very short notice; platoons and sections were composed of men from several units, under officers and N.C.O.s. whom they had never seen before; and being men from non-fighting units, their infantry training was naturally inadequate.

THE WAR MEMORIAL AT KOHIMA

ACROSS THE IMPHAL PLAIN

A PUNJABI DEFENCE POST

If the state of the garrison when the Kohima battle started was not all that might have been desired to withstand a prolonged siege, the defences had also been neglected. Vital wireless sets had not been dug in; few or no communication trenches had been dug before the arrival of the Royal West Kents, although there had been weeks of opportunity. The water points, exposed as they were, lay outside the defence perimeter and, consequently, soon fell under enemy control. Canvas tanks were available, but little effort had been made to construct alternative water points or to form reserves within the perimeter. But to offset these shortcomings, the quantity and the dumping arrangements of ammunition were good, and the presence of the F.S.D. within the defences ensured adequate food supplies at the outset. Yet, here again, the formation of reserves in individual sectors had not been completed. On the medical side, no less than five separate unco-ordinated regimental aid posts were operating when Laverty's battalion reached Kohima. Some were without stores; others had stores in abundance, but were not dug in.

This was the position at nightfall on April 5. 161 Brigade Headquarters and the 4/7th Rajputs had established a temporary defensive box on the hills outside, near Ms. 42, within two miles of the town, and on the morning of the 6th Brodie's 1/1st Punjab, who had been relieved outside. Dimapur by a battalion raised from the reinforcement camp there, joined the Brigade and deployed up the spur towards Jatsoma.

Brigadier Warren had decided not to put the whole of his brigade into the Kohima box. He had several reasons for this decision: the area within Kohima was too confined for the guns of Hill's 24th Mountain Regiment to fire effectively, and they could only operate to the best advantage if two mutually supporting boxes were established. Warren's decision did much to save Kohima, for the battery of mountain guns that did go in with the Royal West Kents was unable to fire, and it was the remainder of the regiment which, tirelessly, night after night, gave brilliant covering fire to the British battalion. Most of the fire was called for by O.Ps. in the garrison, with whom wireless communication did not fail. There were nights when the guns were never silent, one or more firing defensive fire targets that ringed Kohima. On one target alone, the Regiment fired some 3,500 rounds in five hours. Nor could the infantry have held out without this support.

The Brigade had so great a quantity of transport laden with ammunition and supplies that it would have been impossible to find room for these within the perimeter of Summerhouse Hill. These supplies had either to be protected outside the Kohima perimeter, or sent back to Dimapur. Warren decided to protect them, and accordingly established the Jatsoma box. This box relieved some of the pressure on Kohima by drawing upon itself attacks from which the enemy suffered as many casualties as he did on Summerhouse Hill during the actual siege. It was intended that power of manœuvre should be given to the main part of 161 Brigade. But, owing to the strength of the Japanese, the 1/1st and 4/7th were fully occupied in defending 24 Mountain Regiment so that the Gunners in turn could assist the Royal West Kents by fire.

* * * * * * *

From 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the 6th, Jail Hill and G.P.T. Ridge were heavily shelled and mortared. The jail buildings were rapidly hit, and the crest and forward positions of the 1/3rd Gurkha Rifles under Captain Frew suffered severely. Both British officers with the Burma Rifles were killed, and many casualties had to be sent down to Summerhouse Hill.

At half past ten, by which time the Japanese had infiltrated steadily on the left flank, the ninety Gurkhas remaining on G.P.T. Ridge withdrew to Jail Hill. There were not enough trenches for them, and few of these trenches had overhead cover. Half an hour later the Burma Rifles were forced off Jail Hill, and withdrew towards the F.S.D.

When Jail Hill was captured, Colonel Laverty ordered Easten's 'D' Company up from near the hospital to retake the position. But Easten's men found the Japanese too firmly established to be dislodged by anything less than a full-scale attack. And as the casualties that this might incur could not be afforded, Easten was ordered instead to reinforce F.S.D. Hill. During that morning 'A' Company of the 4/7th Rajputs, commanded by Captain Mitchell, joined the garrison, came under Laverty's command, and took over the positions just vacated by 'D' Company. They had been sent into Kohima by Brigadier Warren to ensure that the road was still clear and to gain touch with the defenders. But this road to Dimapur was cut behind the Rajput column, although small patrols continued for a time to move in and out with messages.

When the road was finally blocked, all evacuation of casualties from Kohima became impossible. The telephone cable back to 161 Brigade Headquarters lasted through for six hours more. Then the enemy cut it, and all communication was by wireless.

It was fortunate that the siege began with the dressing stations almost empty; they did not remain so for long. And it was at this stage, when desultory shelling had proved how inadequate and poorly protected were the garrison's medical arrangements, that Lieutenant-Colonel John Young, commanding 75 Indian Field Ambulance, arrived in Kohima by a circuitous route. His arrival was indeed a blessing. At once he organized with devoted energy the centralization of medical stores for the entire garrison. And parties of non-combatant Indians were set digging trenches to protect our wounded from the worst of the shell-fire.

When night fell on April 6 a company of Japanese attacked frontally in an attempt to cross the main road from Jail Hill to D.I.S. Hill, held by Shaw's 'C' Company of the Royal West Kents. While our mortars caused many casualties in the enemy's forming-up areas and on Jail Hill, men of 'C' Company killed scores of Japanese in the open. One strong attack was driven back. But under cover of the dark night an enemy platoon succeeded in infiltrating around the west flank into some bashas and pits between 'C' and 'D' Companies of the West Kents. Major Shaw was seriously wounded, and two hours later his second-in-command was hit.

When dawn broke the situation was grave. Something must be done to restore it. Accordingly, Laverty ordered Easten's company to destroy the Japanese who had infiltrated. This counter-attack succeeded.. But it was rendered the more hazardous by enemy guns only a thousand yards away on G.P.T. Ridge which fired direct into the flank of our advancing troops. The detachment of Sappers, commanded by Lieutenant J. W. Wright, supported Easten by demolishing the brick walls of several bashas in which the Japanese, and some Indians, whom they had captured, were hiding. At one moment, some of the enemy soldiers took shelter in brick ovens: they were forced out by grenades. Others sheltered in an ammunition dump and in the D.I.S. Hospital stores. Their choice of refuge was ill-fated, as during the fighting both these caught alight. The confusion of battle was not lessened when a burning basha set this ammunition dump exploding. Easten's men did not fail to shoot down the Japanese like rabbits bolting from a haystack. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting also occurred. Many wounded Japanese fled into a nullah on the western side, and after the fighting died down forty-four enemy bodies were counted on the ground. Then Major Easten led his men across to reinforce Shaw's 'C' Company's position, while the Rajput Company took over the defence sector that had been retrieved in this engagement.

The next night a Rajput platoon, using a route across country north of 53 Indian General Hospital, succeeded in escorting out of Kohima, to Ms.41, eighty of our walking wounded and a hundred non-combatant Indian troops. The road from Dimapur to 161 Brigade area was still open. Supplies had been coming in and ammunition reserves were being built up as fast as possible, for it was expected that the road would be cut at any moment. During the night 'C' Company heard the Japanese forming up for an attack. Defensive fire was called for by wireless from the 24th Mountain Regiment, whose guns were outside near Jatsoma, and the attack was dispersed. On the previous night Major Yeo's mountain battery, the only one inside Kohima, had moved two of its 3.7-inch howitzers to the top of Summerhouse Hill, but only on one occasion was it possible to fire the guns from this cramped and wooded space, which was under constant enemy observation. And, later, these two howitzers had to be abandoned.

On April 8 Brigadier Warren moved his headquarters to higher and more defendable ground. The necessity of defending many vehicles, ration dumps, and gun areas had caused 161 Brigade to become extended. One result of this closing-in move was that Warren was enabled to release part of the 1/1st Punjab, in the hope that these troops might be able to open the road into Kohima. A further reason for moving was the reports from escaped prisoners and from one of our patrols, indicating that a serious threat to the Brigade's right flank might develop from the direction of Khonoma.

By eight o'clock that morning, too, the telephone line to Dimapur had been cut, and a carrier patrol of the 1/1st, which drove back ten miles to Zubza, reported that the road had been blocked. Thus, both the garrison of Kohima and Warren's defensive box were surrounded by the enemy. During that day the Japanese installed 75 mm. guns along the ridge south of Kohima village towards Merema, and their artillery on G.P.T. Ridge was reinforced by anti-tank guns. In this way, our garrison was now exposed to direct fire from east, south and west.

And at dusk Kohima was shelled by all these enemy guns together. This concentration coincided with a really. ferocious Japanese attack from Jail Hill against the thin line of 'C' and 'D' Companies. The attack was repulsed, as were two others that followed. Major Donald Easten was wounded. And Lance-Corporal J. Harman died performing the acts of high gallantry for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Many a faint heart was inspired by his sacrifice, and urged to fight on with renewed determination. By this time our two companies had inflicted about five times their total strength in casualties on the enemy.

That same night the Japanese attacked from two other directions ---from D.C. Bungalow and 53 Indian General Hospital Spurs---and obtained footholds in both these areas. Our mortar fire, which was successful in helping to repulse the attacks on 'C' Company, drew counter-battery fire by the sparks of the charge which were clearly visible to the enemy in the darkness.

This fighting in the hospital area made the garrison's medical and water problems still more acute. No longer could walking wounded be evacuated across country. No place within the perimeter lay out of enemy observation or fire. And the number of stretcher cases had greatly increased. The one small water tap in the District Commissioner's garden was now little more than thirty yards from the enemy positions, and our men had to crawl forward singly at night to fill their bottles. Although four days later another water point was found near the Hospital, this, too, could only be used by night. So desperate had the water situation become that it was rationed to half a mug a day for each man. Subsequently, when the water was supplied by air, the garrison had just enough for drinking and for the more urgent medical purposes.

Unforgettable to those who, endured the siege of Kohima was the District Commissioner, Mr. Charles Pawsey, who had spent a score of years among his beloved Naga hill-men. He lived mainly with Colonel Richards, the garrison commander, in a large bunker on Summerhouse Hill, and was to be seen wandering through the thick of the fighting, dressed in grey flannels and an old trilby hat. He encouraged his Assamese and Nagas, and provided a fine example of a British Empire administrator's devotion to duty, and to his charges.

Day by day Pawsey watched his bungalow home shelled and ruined, till nothing was standing of what had been a pleasant, rambling, red-tiled house with walls of asbestos sheeting. Its terraced garden had been gay with flowers. Little paths wound up the hill behind to a summerhouse at the end. And his private asphalt tennis court became the No-Man's-Land of a battle. The Royal West Kents held trenches along its upper edge, and before long the Japanese had burrowed their way into foxholes on the lower side. There were nightly, then daily, and in the end almost hourly grenade and rifle duels fought across the width of this court, without a decision for either side.

During the morning of April 9 the Japanese reinforced their hold at D.C. Bungalow Spur. Supported by the usual artillery fire, they made further limited attacks from the Hospital. Although this area was not cleared of enemy troops, heavy mortar fire and onslaughts by the Assam Rifles did relieve pressure.

Meanwhile, outside Kohima, the 1/1st Punjab had moved to the east of Jatsoma and had attacked southwards along a ridge. But lines of enemy bunkers blocked their path, and during the day's fighting the battalion suffered twenty-five casualties Though counter-attacked that same evening, they held the ground they had gained.

As the dusk enveloped Kohima, heavy shelling coincided with a rainstorm and a strong enemy attack from beyond the Bungalow. A fierce charge, accompanied by shouts and yells, was beaten off by Winstanley's 'A' Company, supported by defensive fire from the Mountain Gunners, who took a heavy toll. This first attack, on a pitch-dark night, was repulsed. But the Japanese again probed from the Hospital towards the Assam Rifles, and made a third and most dangerous thrust directed at the West Kents' now seriously depleted 'C' Company. Under cover of showers of grenade-discharger bombs, the enemy gained a definite footing in the trenches in D.I.S. Hill, that could not be manned because of our casualties.

Next day, April 10, Colonel Laverty decided that a counter-attack to regain the lost ground stood little chance of success; the fighting reserve remaining in the garrison was small; severe casualties could not be afforded. Accordingly, plans were made to shorten our perimeter by withdrawing 'C' Company to the F.S.D., by destroying the stores in the huts on D.I.S. Hill, by booby-trapping the approaches to the F.S.D., and by altering the defensive fire tasks of the Mountain Gunners to fit our new defence lines. During the night 'C' Company was successfully withdrawn through the Rajputs. But all this time the Japanese maintained pressure with great strength and tenacity along the two main approaches on which they concentrated throughout the siege: their thrusts from D.I.S. Hill towards the F.S.D. and also from Pawsey's Bungalow. Grenade-discharger fire was used in profusion, and in one mortar concentration the Japanese put down a hundred bombs in ten minutes on the small area between Laverty's command post and Young's dressing station.

April 11 was a quieter day. The Kohima garrison had hopes that Brigadier Warren, operating outside, would be able to relieve enemy pressure. 161 Brigade was now under command of Major-General Grover's 2nd British Division that had been hurried to Dimapur from India. Its 5th Brigade, fighting its way south, was now within ten miles of Kohima. The 1/1st Punjab carrier platoon moving along the road from the west side of the Jatsoma box had been ambushed on the 10th. And next day Major T. S. Ware's 'B' Company, after successfully attacking a party of enemy on the outskirts of Jatsoma village, was twice counter-attacked, but resisted hard pressure throughout the day. The sepoys held their ground.

First light on April 12 brought against Kohima yet another Japanese attack, this time against the Rajput company near the F.S.D. This onslaught was repulsed and twenty-eight enemy bodies later found, but Captain Mitchell, who commanded the company, was killed in the engagement.

* * * * * * *

Enemy mortaring, in particular from Jail Ridge, had by now made our casualty position critical. Stretchers were scarce, the stretcher-bearers and doctors had suffered casualties, and in the small area of our advanced. dressing station barely enough room remained for the lying cases.

The wounded, tended with the utmost devotion and courage by Colonel Young and his team of doctors, by the Indian orderlies of the Field Ambulance detachment and by the men of the West Kents' medical section, were pathetic. Sniped, shelled and mortared as they were in their all too shallow trenches, many were killed, or wounded a second time. Some lay in individual trenches, and some in pits that held half a dozen wounded soldiers. The small operating theatre, which was to receive two disastrous direct hits, lay in an open dugout, covered by a tarpaulin. Here John Young and his surgeons, whose numbers dwindled as the result of shelling, carved, chopped, hacked, stitched, and healed men. And they gave of their best to cheer them and inspire them, even when the days and nights seemed black beyond compare.

The position near the edge of Colonel Laverty's perimeter, on the slopes of Summerhouse Hill, was terribly exposed. The wounded could watch the Japanese loading shells into their mortars, and they could hear the mortar shells landing close beside them. They listened to the shelling and the screaming. They watched bombs dropping from hostile aircraft, and parachutes swaying down with precious supplies. Many died of gangrene, and a few of despair. Burial of the dead was almost impossible, and the smell of rotting corpses became hideous towards the close of the siege.

In the words of Donald Easten, who had commanded 'D' Company: "Many of the wounded I feel sure died in the last few days because they had given up hope. Yet they were incredibly cheerful, outwardly, up till the end. Those who were not wounded were too busy to think much, except perhaps at night, just before the time due for the evening hate, when they wondered whether their turn would come tonight." From the moment when the enemy launched his first attack of each evening against some part of the thinly held perimeter, the night was rendered horrible, laden with noise and fear and blood. And not a man among the defenders but prayed for the break of day and some measure of relief from the dread of this war in darkness.

With nightfall the feeling of isolation increased. There was often neither telephone nor wireless by which to communicate with adjoining positions, and attention became concentrated upon the strip of ground before your own small sector. In nearly every case this took the form of a steep slope that ended in a pool of darkness.

Out of this, records John Wright, seemed to come a commotion of Japanese voices raised in argument. Such sounds of apparent altercation amazed the hearers, and exploded the myth of the Japanese superman noiselessly sneaking up to our positions. You could almost sense a degree of confusion among the enemy as he formed up to attack. And the crump of 3-inch mortars from the Royal West Kent support company and the shells from the mountain guns sailing over to bring defensive fire restored a feeling of security that tided over the anxious defenders.

In the early morning nerves became tensed again. The Japanese trick of lobbing grenades up to our trenches usually brought forth a fusillade of small-arms fire. Whole magazines of Bren ammunition went streaming off into the dark at no particular target. As soon as order had been restored, frenzied shrieks from another quarter told that an attack was coming in elsewhere, and the commotion would again increase.

It was fortunate that our men were not short of ammunition. Perhaps the most eventful period of an eventful and harassing twenty-four hours was this early morning. After a night of confusion and, possibly, a dawn. assault, there were many tired and curious eyes peering out of trenches to observe any changes that had occurred during the night. Great boughs of trees felled by gunfire might alter the scene. Up on the hillock to your left, where earlier a fight had been seen by the light of a burning basha, a flow of British profanity now proclaimed to the general relief of all within earshot that they were still among friends. Though secure to your front, an air of uneasiness prevailed, until it became known how much ground, if any, had been yielded in your rear.

But, welcome though the daylight was, it was far more dangerous to move about by day than in darkness. As the trees gradually disintegrated under shell fire, so our troops became more and more exposed. And the consequent development of crawl trenches seemed to leave scarcely one patch of ground that had not been dug up.

Major P. E. M. Shaw, who lay for days among the wounded, recalls with admiration the untiring efforts of Colonel Young and his assistants, whose work was beyond praise. Young was awarded a D.S.O. for his outstanding conduct. Food was brought to the wounded by night, and in daylight Shaw had in his little trench a tin of biscuits and another of tomato soup, which when empty he used for another purpose. The wounded were kept going by the heartening tales brought round by the padre and others who could spare time to visit them. The officers, from whom pistols had been removed when they were first carried in on stretchers, insisted on having their weapons back; some, at least, had decided in the long hours and days of anxiety and fear that, if badly wounded again, they would shoot and be finished with it all. All day and all night they lay and watched and waited. They could talk to those in neighbouring trenches, they could watch the guns firing from outside Kohima, and the tanks of 2 Division some distance down the road. It often happened that those who carried food and drink round from trench to trench were sniped and killed.

Shaw has told how he tried to read a volume of Shakespeare, but could not concentrate on the reading of it. When Randolph, padre of the Royal West Kents, came to see him one day he lent him a Bible, and this Shaw found much simpler to read, against and within the turmoil and restless fury of a battle that raged ever closer from day to day. As the perimeter shrank, so the position of the wounded became more precarious. On the last day of the siege a British private fell into Shaw's trench. He apologised, when Shaw asked with magnificent patience and restraint what was the reason of this abrupt arrival. The man had come to take up a firing position, so restricted had the outer line of our defence now become.

Water and medical stores were scanty. Indeed, it was only when Colonel Young led an unarmed carrying party through the enemy lines one night to reach some trucks abandoned in the open that sufficient blankets were obtained for the wounded. Laverty was obliged to ask Brigadier Warren, with whom wireless communication remained good throughout the siege, to arrange air supply of medical stores, water, and certain types of ammunition, in particular grenades.

* * * * * * *

The superstition of date was justified, for April 13 became known to the garrison as "the black13th." This title was due to three main misfortunes that befell the defenders of Kohima. They suffered more than usually heavy mortaring and sniping during daylight, and Young's medical dressing pit received two direct hits. The first supply dropping, apart from one sorely needed pannier of medical stores, was a failure. Despite frantic Very light signals from the West Kents, three entire plane-loads, including 3-inch mortar ammunition, were dropped on the enemy. The full consequences of this dismal sight---urgently needed supplies falling into enemy hands---were realized when our own troops were later bombarded with their own mortar ammunition.

And what of the third misfortune that day ? After 'A' Company of the Rajputs had been reinforced at the F.S.D., an attack was put in by one platoon of the Assam Rifles. But when our men came under machine-gun fire from G.P.T. Ridge, they were forced to return before their objective was reached. As a result, the enemy was left with positions thirty-five yards from the crest of the hill, while his guns could still fire directly into our own trenches on the forward slopes. The night that followed, far from being quiet, was rent with bitter fighting. When, at the F.S.D., the Rajputs were forced from their trenches by direct hits from 75 mm. guns opposite, Major Winstanley had to send forward one platoon from his 'A' Company at Kuki Picket to save the front positions. Their place at Kuki was taken by the platoon of Assam Rifles whose attack had been broken up during the day. On 'B' Company of the West Kents the Japanese made a heavy rush attack from the D.C. Bungalow. When one of our Bren guns jammed, enemy soldiers succeeded in penetrating into the shade of a small and important hillock. Lieutenant King, the forward platoon commander, restored the situation by driving them out with grenades, but not before the Bren gunner himself had picked up a shovel and with it attacked his Japanese assailants.

Throughout April 14 the enemy continued to fire his mortars and from time to time smoke bombs landed in our positions. 'A' Company, who near Pawsey's Bungalow had repulsed yet another attack early that morning, were replaced by a company of the Assam Rifles, and took over a less active position north-west of the Hospital.

The war diary of the Royal West Kents comments here: "This was the fourth occasion on which, after statements by the relieving forces that they hoped to make contact on the morrow, hopes of relief, reinforcement, or evacuation of casualties were dashed."

As the days wore on, each one with its rumour of relief, it became a sort of grim joke that tomorrow they really would be relieved. But tomorrow never seemed to come. 161 Brigade had so far cleared the spur running forward from Jatsoma to Ms.41. Five Brigade, led by the Cameron Highlanders, had driven back Japanese opposition at Ms.38. Next day, the 15th, when both brigades made contact, the Jatsoma neighbourhood was found to be clear of enemy troops.

Meanwhile, in Kohima itself, the defenders had spent their first night without a large-scale attack. The enemy had spent the day shelling 'A' and 'C' Companies by the F.S.D., and the fresh casualties only served to increase the terrible congestion in the dressing station. That afternoon a patrol from the 4/7th Rajputs managed to sneak into Kohima and gain touch with Laverty's headquarters. No Japanese had been seen on the way, and although the main road was still blocked, this patrol was able to return before dark.

A quiet night followed, apart from several local probing attacks and intermittent harassing fire. April 16 saw the occupation by the 1/1st Punjab (now commanded by Warren's former Brigade Major, Lieutenant- Colonel E. H. W. Grimshaw, who had taken over from Major N. M. Brodie) of unoccupied Japanese positions on what were known as Punjab Ridge and Picket Hill. At the same time, Five Brigade relieved the 1/1st Punjab in the Jatsoma box. And by the following day Cargill's 4/7th Rajputs had also been relieved by the incoming British division. Now Brigadier Warren had both his Indian battalions free to open the two miles of road between Jatsoma and Kohima.

But, meanwhile, the weary defenders had been making overoptimistic preparations for evacuating the wounded. This was due both to messages received and to observation that our troops were fighting on the main road north-west of the town. The supply drop of water, rum, grenades, and ammunition was successful, though a very difficult operation, for our pilots had now to drop the stores into an area that was only some eight hundred yards long and three hundred yards wide.

It was estimated that the Royal West Kents had so far suffered two hundred casualties, of which number forty-five had been killed. Many who were not listed as casualties had in fact received slight wounds and heavy shocks from the shelling. And a number of the less seriously wounded had returned to their companies, because the A.D.S. was already overflowing with stretcher cases.

That night, April 16/17, was particularly dark, foggy, and wet.

The Japanese took advantage of the weather and attacked from Pawsey's Bungalow. At first their efforts were in vain, but towards morning heavy pressure brought the enemy troops towards the top of F.S.D. Hill, thus gaining some ground that the defenders could ill spare. Having had no water with which to wash or shave since April 5, and an almost negligible amount of sleep or rest, they were extremely weary. But 'A' and 'C' Companies at the F.S.D. were, on the 17th, relieved by the Assam Rifles, who were able to retake a few trenches both in this area and near the Bungalow. 'A' Company returned to its original positions just south of Summerhouse Hill, which by now could scarcely be called a rest area. Although not subject to direct enemy pressure, it had for some days past been under as heavy fire as anywhere else in Kohima.

The thirteenth night of the siege brought further disasters upon the garrison. The enemy put down a concentrated barrage on F.S.D. Hill. Our exhausted troops holding this feature drew back. The Japanese were not slow to exploit this withdrawal, though only in small numbers. Our troops could not be rallied to make a counter-attack, and 'D' Company of the West Kents, at Kuki Picket near by, peering into the darkness, began to be affected by the confusion of their neighbours. The Company Commander was wounded, and C.S.M. Staines, M.M., who had already been blinded in the fighting but had refused to go back for treatment, was killed. As a result, 'D' Company was forced under pressure to draw back. And many good men were lost in this onslaught. One could hear the yelling Japanese, the screams of the wounded and dying. And our wounded men lying in darkness on Summerhouse Hill must have wondered whether the enemy, successful at last, would try to carry the main hill that night. It was fortunate that this time the enemy, though less than one hundred yards from Summerhouse Hill and Laverty's command post, failed to exploit his success. Doubtless the stout resistance by the remnants of 'C' and 'D' Companies and the defensive fire brought down on our abandoned positions by 24 Mountain Regiment had inflicted severe casualties.

April 18 was the last day of the siege of Kohima. Grimshaw's 1/1st Punjab, supported by tanks, cleared the road up to 53 Indian General Hospital, and joined the garrison.

It was about ten o'clock in the morning that Major Ware's company filed up from the road, picking its way through the dead of three nations. "We must," records Easten, "have presented a strange spectacle. Bearded, filthy men with glazed eyes, who had not slept for fourteen days---we all slept a little, I suppose, but mainly standing up. Wounded, with filthy bandages and pale, grey faces, and weak but cheerful grins. The entire hillside was pockmarked with trenches, the trees shattered by shell fire and festooned with parachutes."

But however strange, the siege was over, the isolation relieved, new strength added to the dwindling, weary garrison. And the old comradeship between British and Indian soldier was heartening; the battered hillside rang with shouts of "Shahbash, Royal West Kents !" from the Punjabis, and "Good old Johnnie, everything teak hi now, eh !" from the British..

Over three hundred wounded and some two thousand noncombatant troops were evacuated. Enemy snipers were active throughout the day; and during the evacuation of our wounded still further casualties were caused by enemy mortar and shell fire directed at the ambulances. Colonels Laverty and Grimshaw made readjustments in the shrunken, overcrowded perimeter, and the 1/1st took up positions on Hospital Ridge.

More non-combatants, and the Shere Regiment, were evacuated next day. The supply dropping on a now tiny plot of scarred ground continued to be accurate, though several men were struck when certain packages dropped either without a parachute or with an unopened one.

During the night of April 19 two enemy attacks from near the Bungalow, supported by grenade-discharger fire, had to be repulsed, and in these engagements two company commanders (Captains Smith and Koath) were wounded. Then, on April 20, the 4th Royal West Kents and attached troops, still in good heart though utterly battle-weary, were relieved by the 1st Royal, Berkshire Regiment and driven back to Dimapur. Since April 5 they had successfully resisted no less than twenty-five major Japanese attacks, during which more than 250 enemy soldiers were seen to be killed. Sixty-one members of the battalion had been killed in action, thirteen were missing, and 125 had been wounded.

Well might Donald Easten write this passage years afterwards, when the memories had begun to fade and the scene to grow blurred:

"But the greatest honours are due to Tommy Atkins. He had fought for six months in Arakan, they had flown him to Dimapur, marched him up to Kohima, marched him back again. Then back once more to Kohima, where he was shot at as he got out of his trucks. He fought hand-to-hand battles practically every night, and his pals were shot down all round him. If he was wounded, he had no hope of evacuation. Day after day he was promised relief which never came; and his platoon, or section, or just 'gang' got smaller and smaller. My own company finished up twenty-five strong; one platoon consisted of a single grinning private, who asked if he could put a pip up. And Tommy Atkins did all that on half a mug of liquid every twenty-four hours."


Chapter Twenty-Four

Table of Contents