April 8, 1944. The Japanese advance from Burma into India, its great land offensive of World War II, is brought to a halt by Indian Army forces on a long, wooded ridge that once housed the British Imperial offices. The Battle of the Tennis Court becomes the apex of the broader Battle of Imphal-Kohima that will turn the tide in World War II’s most forgotten theater.
Multiple times this year I’ve mentioned wars that I’ve felt were forgotten and overlooked – Korea, the Irish War of Independence, the Philippine Insurrection, or others. Today I’m talking about a forgotten theater and campaign of a war that is anything but forgotten.
From January to May 1942, while the British were losing Singapore and MacArthur’s Americans and Filipinos were herded into Bataan, Japanese forces drove into British Burma. Tactical missteps and poor preparation led to the defeat of British Commonwealth and Republican Chinese forces by midyear, and the Japanese gained control of most of the country – now modern Myanmar.
A heavily jungled region of Southeast Asia, Burma was a horrible country to fight in, but also far from the main focus of the war. With much more pressing Allied problems in the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific, Southeast Asia was far on the backburner when it came to the allocation of Allied resources. While the interruption in local economies caused by the Japanese occupation of Burma caused major food shortages in India, there were no troops or planes to spare from D-Day, Italy or the South Pacific to send to backwater Burma, and the Allies were content to just hold the line.
From 1942 to 1944, British General William Slim, the local commander, conducted a series of limited campaigns with his minute resources to try and gain a foothold in the Japanese defensive lines, with mixed results. The most famous operations were the Chindit special forces raids, where specially trained British/Indian paratroopers dropped behind Japanese lines to conduct irregular warfare, and the American-Chinese expeditions to recapture north Burma and reopen the Burma Road, the vital supply line for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese.
The Burma Road was the only real war-winning objective to be gained by an Allied attack into Burma. Allied leaders restricted any objectives in the CBI Theater (China-Burma-India) to reopening lines of supply to China, and saw no interest in trying to retake the difficult country until they could spare the resources.
The Japanese, on the other hand, saw opportunity. Japanese General Renya Mutaguchi advocated an invasion from Burma into eastern India, the region called Assam. He would remove any hope of Allied support for the Chinese, as well as shut off the Allied airfields that supported the Chindit operations, a constant irritation for Japanese forces.
A successful invasion of India could, in Japanese thought, lead to a major Indian uprising. Indian nationalist and independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose had allied himself with the Nazis and Japanese, against the wishes of the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Bose believed that Axis support could finally deliver Indian independence. In 1943 Bose took command of an Indian National Army (INA) raised from Indian POWs in Japanese hands. This encouraged Japanese commanders to believe that an attack into India could result in a major revolt across the country in support of Bose, delivering the British “crown jewel” into Japanese hands and possible turning the tide of a war that was already going badly.
In March 1944, four Japanese divisions crossed the dense jungle to crash into British lines in India. The 17th Indian Division, part of the British-led Indian Army, had to cut its way out in the direction of the town of Imphal. As the Japanese surrounded it in Imphal, a second major attack began to hang up around the town of Kohima to the north. The Japanese surrounded both of these small cities and launched severe attacks day after day, well into April.
At Imphal, the British IV Indian Corps - 17th and 23rd Indian Divisions - was besieged by constant attacks, and the 17th had lost many troops on its terrible trek to escape the Japanese. One of the INA’s brigades was heavily involved in the battle, even as it served under British officers (!) who had enlisted to fight for the Japanese. Kohima almost fell, but was hastily reinforced by the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade, flown in by air. This combined force of both British Tommies and Indian volunteers was alone and facing an entire Japanese division.
On April 8, the Japanese attack stormed onto Kohima Ridge, defended by the Indian Assam Rifles and the British Queen’s Own Royal West Kent. It was the beginning of a nearly month-long struggle for sites called The Bungalow, Hospital Spur, and most importantly the Tennis Court. Even as the garrison was periodically reinforced by driblets of British troops airlifted from other parts of the front, they were barely clinging on.
Day after day Japanese attacks criss-crossed the idyllic colonial town of Kohima, and the Tennis Court became the focus of the fight, as B Company of the Royal West Kents were the barrier on which the Japanese 58 Regiment broke. Grenades were thrown across the Court at point-blank range, and night bayonet attacks foundered on heroic resistance from both the British and Indian troops.
Help was on the way. Almost forgotten to World War II buffs, General William Slim was one of the great commanders of the war. Alone among Allied commanders, he achieved the perfect balance of character, tactical brilliance, attention to detail and logistics, and *humility* (the last quality alone counts out Patton or Montgomery). As soon as the Japanese offensive began, Slim reacted quickly, identifying the strongpoints of Imphal and Kohima, reinforcing them, and building relief columns to break the Japanese hold on the towns. If the towns fell, India fell.
The British XXIII Corps advanced to save Kohima, the 2nd British Infantry Division in the lead with a small clutch of M3 Lee tanks – obsolete in Europe, but more than adequate for the dense jungle and poor Japanese antitank abilities. On April 15, the 2nd Division broke through the Japanese perimeter and relieved the beleaguered 161st Brigade. Instantly, the Assam and Kent boys were joined by Rajputs and the Royal Warwickshire, taking position for the counteroffensive.
It is important to understand how difficult this battle was to fight for the British. Air supply was vital because the jungle was so thick, and the roads so poor, that it was desperately hard to move supplies or heavy equipment into the fight – especially the critically needed artillery and tanks. The Battles of Imphal and Kohima were a triumph for air supply, delivering 500 tons per day. The Japanese were masters of jungle fighting, but the trickle of British/Indian firepower proved effective. They finally assembled enough artillery to blast the Japanese off the hill, and the Japanese retreated into the jungle, fighting bitterly.
In the south at Imphal, meanwhile, the Japanese had surrounded the town completely with no British relief column in sight. For this reason, Slim made Imphal the priority for airlift and reinforcement and sent both Indian Army troops as well as Chindit commandos to reinforce the makeshift fortress. With Kohima secure by June and reinforcements pouring in, Slim launched a march south to cut Japanese forces off.
The Japanese, despite their heavy fighting and high spirits, had been on a logistical shoestring to begin with – the entire campaign plan had depended on cutting British forces off and destroying them early. When the British managed to pack troops into Imphal and Kohima and reinforce them by air, the Japanese were hundreds of miles from their supply bases and literally starving to death while trying to win the campaign. With no route to victory once Slim had fought his way to Kohima, they had no choice but to fall back to the east and hope to salvage something from the debacle.
British/Indian forces from Imphal and Kohima finally joined hands on June 22, three months after the hellish campaign had begun. The Japanese forces were in full retreat, reduced to a rabble and abandoning all their transport and artillery. Many soldiers were too sick or malnourished to walk, dying on the march back. The Japanese suffered almost 55,000 casualties, their largest defeat of World War II up to that time, against Allied losses of 13,000.
The Japanese threat to India, if it had ever existed, was over.
The Indian National Army forces had fought bravely alongside the Japanese throughout the whole campaign – even if they did not fight nearly as well as the Indians that fought alongside the British. The INA was virtually ruined by the campaign, but its strange journey was not yet over. More British Indian deserters and prisoners would join its ranks, and many of its men were put on trial after the war. Despite Gandhi’s and Bose’s differences, the Indian National Congress came out in support for the INA soldiers. Even though most British Indian soldiers had served the Empire with surprising loyalty and remained proud of their service, it was hard to condemn their fellow Indians for fighting for independence. The INA remains a hot topic of controversy in Indian politics well into the modern era. It’s a touchy subject.
With the Japanese utterly defeated in northern Burma, the Allies, despite their meager resources, were prepared to launch an offensive campaign to secure future domination of Asia. Slim’s brilliant 1945 campaign into central Burma would be Japan’s most crushing land defeat of the war, and the American-Chinese capture of Myitkyina (coming August 3) would open the road to China.
The Battle of Imphal-Kohima was the most decisive battle of World War II that almost no one has ever heard of, with long-term repercussions for India, Southeast Asia, and even China. The War Cemetery in Kohima holds British and Indian soldiers together – symbolizing the complicated national relationship that won the great campaign. Its inscription reads, fittingly for both Britain and for Indians on both sides, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Book Recommendation: The Burma front of World War II is one of the most forgotten chapters of that long conflict. For a good overview, see Jon Latimer, Burma: The Forgotten War (London: John Murray, 2004). For a broader account of Britain’s conflict in the Far East, look to Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).