“Walker, go and tell Sparta that their children lie here for obeying their laws.” That splendid phrase of Simonides, which, in its multiple translations, constitutes the epigraph of the monument to Leonidas in the Thermopylae, is too juicy not to take advantage of it in other war memorials with the corresponding changes. It is what happens, for example, with what appears as an epitaph in honor of the 1,420 soldiers of the 2nd British Division whose remains rest in a war cemetery in India and which reads as follows: “When you go home, tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.“
In the spring of 1944 Japan, like Germany, was steadily losing ground to the relentless Allied advance. Since the resounding defeats in the Coral Sea and Midway, a true turning point, it lost control of the sea and the air. On land, the infantry was still able to fight because of its extraordinary fighting spirit and would therefore maintain its presence in Southeast Asia until September 1945.
However, the British were determined to recover Burma and launched an offensive from two points: the north, aided by the Chinese X-Force, and the south. The Japanese fiercely resisted and relied on monsoon aid, but it was only a matter of time before they ended up losing their gains, so they devised an ambitious plan that should not only stop the enemy but divert it from its objective. It was called Operation U-Go and consisted of invading India in order to keep the 4th British Corps occupied and, in parallel, encourage the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) to start an independence insurrection.
The INA, as it was also known, had been founded during the Japanese invasion of Burma and was considered the armed wing of Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind, i.e. the Provisional Government of Free India. It was led by the nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose and consisted of some 12,000 Indian prisoners of war fallen into the hands of the Japanese and equipped by them; not very well and that is why they never went from practicing minor guerrilla actions.
Operation U-Go was based on attacking Imfal and Kohima, capitals of the states of Manipur and Nagaland respectively. The capture of these two cities, key strategic points in communications between India and Burma, would interrupt the U.S. supply to Chiang Kai Sek. The person in charge of putting it into practice was Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the 15th Army and veteran of the war against the Red Army in Siberia who had also been a military attaché in France and military governor of Beijing before taking part in the invasion of Malaysia, the Philippines and Burma.
But Mutaguchi extended the plan to a possible invasion of India that would encourage local nationalists to rise up in arms. Although the whole staff did not like the idea, it was finally approved in early 1944, and was assigned to the 31st Division (consisting of the 58th, 124th, 38th and 31st Mountain Artillery regiments) commanded by Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato. This soldier, who had also fought the Soviets, was not only unhappy with the role he had played until then in the war, but also confronted his superior and considered that Operation U-Go had all the ingredients to end in failure.
Anyway, he obeyed orders. His mission was to take Kohima, pushing the British north to Dimapur. Thus, on March 15, the 31st Division crossed the Chindwin River and advanced through the jungle for nearly a hundred kilometers before splitting into three wings. The left, which was in charge of General Shigesaburo Miyazaki, met with the 50th Indian Paratrooper Brigade of Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thompson, engaging in battle for six days and forcing their retreat with hundreds of casualties on both sides. Despite the victory, that meant a week’s delay towards her target, Kohima.
The British were aware of the Japanese plans through captured documents but thought that, given the jungle foliage, the enemy would only send one regiment when, as we have seen, it was an entire division. That was the unpleasant discovery made on the ground by Lieutenant General William Slim, who barely had a battalion, a regiment and several loose platoons of paramilitaries. He hastily called for reinforcements to protect Imfal; he only received part of the 5th Indian Infantry Division, as the 161st Brigade and the 24th Mountain Artillery barricaded themselves in Dimapur, considered the most important city.
In fact, they considered that the attack on Kohima was only a distraction and that the main target was Dimapur, so Slim would only have to face a minor detachment. However, Sato sieged Kohima on April 6, disregarding Mutaguchi’s order to continue to Dimapur and Slim, who had sent many of his reinforcements to Imfal and found himself in manifest numerical inferiority. Attempts to send aid failed when the Japanese dominated the heights of the environment and Slim had to face the situation with only 2,500 troops, of which 1,000 were not even soldiers.
The Japanese artillery harshly crushed the position and the infantry captured the water tanks, so the defenders could only supply themselves at night, in a nearby spring. The battles were brutal, with the trenches so close to each other that hand bombs could be dropped directly into them, forcing the Japanese to win every metre at a high cost, sometimes in hand-to-hand combat; for example, the Battle of Tennis Court was so called because both sides were separated only by a tennis court. No wonder Kohima was later known as the Stalingrad of the East.
The battle was also compared with that of Rorke’s Drift in 1879 against the Zulu, for the ferocious and tenacious defence among decaying corpses, a good example of which could be the heroic performance of Corporal John Harman: despite being only nineteen years old, he released the ovens without help – a vital strategic point to avoid the fall of the position – and killed 44 attackers before also being hit and losing his life, receiving the Victory Cross posthumously. All selflessly complied with the order of their commander-in-chief not to surrender, aware that defeat meant an open door to the invasion of India.
That was close. Luckily, on April 11, reinforcements arrived for Slim that equalized the forces and made it possible not only to relieve enemy pressure and relieve the defenders, but also to launch a counterattack. On the night of April 26, the important position of Garrison Hill was recovered and then the help of the RAF was decisive, both to bombard the enemy and to supply theirs and bring in troops (up to 12,000 men). Miyazaki built bunkers and had in his favor that the jungle and mud (the monsoon had begun) forced the enemy’s tanks to move slowly, but he had already lost the initiative.
The roles were reversed and now it was the British who had to recover land at blood price. However, over the course of a week, the peaks occupied by the Japanese fell one after the other. The tennis court became again the land of no one who, before the failure of its assault conquest, had to be shot down by a tank, evicting its defenders on May 13. Witnesses told that the spectacle was dantesque, with shattered corpses, pasture of rats and flies, plus a burnt ground and full of sockets that reminded a landscape of the First World War.
And reinforcements continued to arrive to prop up the counteroffensive as the Japanese dug in at Naga Village and Aradura Spur. There they resisted until the end of May, when the lack of supplies proved decisive: it was supposed to be a lightning campaign, so Sato was only given food for three weeks, to be supplemented with what had been taken from the British; but the British, realizing the move, bombed their own warehouses when they fell into Japanese hands.
The supply convoys sent by Mutaguchi only carried ammunition and Sato considered that his superiors were not aware of the dramatic situation they were going through, so considering that they had been left to their own devices, he disobeyed the order – absurd to him – to join the forces attacking Imfal and opted for withdrawal on 1 June. This exposed Miyazaki, who also had to retreat painfully, destroying bridges behind him.
As they, pursued by the Indo-British, retraced their steps hoping to find the previously organized supply lines, they came across a terrible reality: the units had consumed everything available, both in food and medicine. Thus, the Japanese casualties amounted to 5,764 men in combat alone, not counting the wounded, many of them killed by their comrades in the face of the impossibility of giving them medical treatment, in compliance with bushido- and the sick who died after malaria and beriberi. The enemy registered a significant number as well: a total of 4,064 soldiers. Kohima’s seizure had failed and Imfal’s siege was broken on June 22; the result of Operation U-Go was a disaster, as Sato had predicted.
He was deposed by Mutaguchi, who accused him of premeditated treason and unequivocally handed him a revolver and a white band. Sato, outraged, refused to commit suicide, claiming that he had saved his men from “senseless annihilation” and demanding a war council in which he hoped to justify himself and denounce the clumsiness of the commanders. He could not because the lieutenant general of the 31st Division, Masakazu Kawabe, ordered that he be declared incapacitated for mental collapse at the beginning of July. He was returned to active duty months later, and at the end of the war, he devoted himself to helping the men under his command. Miyazaki, on the other side, was promoted to the head of the 54th Division.
As for Mutaguchi, the enormous losses of Operation U-Go, both human and material (he could not save a single tank or cannon) caused the opposite effect to that expected and precipitated the fall of Burma in 1945. The defeat, considered the greatest in Japan’s history (it even led to the resignation of Prime Minister Tojo), led to his dismissal, and he was forced into forced retirement in December 1944, although he was later put in charge of a military academy. At the end of the war he was extradited to Singapore to be tried for war crimes; he served three years in prison and was released in 1948. He died in 1966.
Finally, it should be noted that Slim, much appreciated by his soldiers, managed to keep the Indians loyal and won a brilliant victory that he attributed in part to Sato’s lack of enthusiasm (he even had a mockery that forbade bombing his command post to keep it alive). He participated in the reconquest of Burma, was promoted to general and then appointed Chief of Staff, bestowing him with honors, including being Knight of the Great Cross of the British Empire and Knight of the Order of the Bath. He retired from military life in 1952 but would still be governor of Australia (with an obscure allegation of child sexual abuse) until his final retirement. He died in 1970.
Sources: La tormenta de la guerra (Andrew Roberts)/Kohima (Arthur Swinson)/The Burma Campaign. Disaster into triumph, 1942-45 (Frank McLynn)/Burma victory. Imphal, Kohima and the Chindits March 1944 to May 1945 (David Rooney)/Fighting through to Kohima. A memoir of war in India and Burma (Michael Lowry)/The trees are all young on Garrison Hill (Gordon Graham)/Not ordinary men. The story of the Battle of Kohima (John Colvin)/Wikipedia