BATTLE AT KOHIMA BY ROY (JIM) WELLAND
Early in April 1944 the Japanese confrontation was at Kohima, a village high up in the Hills in Naga country, East Assam. The railhead at Dimapur connected with Imphal. The Japanese had to be stopped. The invasion of India was their obvious target. The Forces engaged in this task were putting up a magnificent fight to hold the enemy at bay.
We, the Royal Berkshire Regiment, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, had just left the Arakan and arrived in Dimapur. We learned of the identity of the Forces doing their utmost to defend Kohima and suffering terrible losses (casualties) in the process. The Royal West Kent Regiment (RWK) and Assam Rifles, plus followers, had distinguished themselves immensely in this very defensive battle.
We in the 6th Brigade comprising Durham Light Infantry (DLI), Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF) and Royal Berkshire Regiment, had orders to break the siege and relieve these beleaguered chaps. With the siege broken (this would be mid April 1944), we proceeded up the road towards Kohima until we came to the base of Garrison Hill. We were ordered to spread out and keep our eyes peeled. We had already been sniped at a few times so we didn’t need a lot of telling, I can tell you. We climbed very cautiously until we reached the top, but we lost three men on our way up. When we finally made contact with these gallant defenders (RWK) we got a few “low gear” cheers from these unshaven, smelly chaps who you could see had had a very rough time. One chap, with a bloodied bandage around his head, seeing me and my section approaching his trench, said “It’s good to see yer Corp. Give them bloody hell. Black your faces first, otherwise they will think you are a bloody bunch of virgins”. They got out of their foxholes, trenches and other protective cover that they had hurriedly put together, and we very quickly occupied these as sniping was getting very frequent. We wished the RWK boys a nice long leave on their way down to the transport on the road below.
As we were left to it, we decided to improve our defences. The trench occupied with two other chaps had a terrible smell of petrol in or near it. So in between being sniped at, I found at the back, on the top, two empty big petrol drums – protection possibly, dangerous very likely. I shifted them the next day. After a rough night with the Japanese continually calling out “Tommy, are you married Tommy, and what is your wife doing now? Think of all those Americans, all sex crazy”. Their English was very good, but you could never see them. The Japanese also occasionally broadcast “Tokyo Rose” over our trenches, not quite in the same vein as Hitler’s Lord Haw Haw..
The Platoon I was in checked our surroundings carefully in daylight, and our position in particular. We had to be placed so that we could give “cover fire” for each other when attacked. This happened the following day – our second on this hill after another night of Japanese catcalling the “Tommy” phrases. It started with 75mm shells coming over, and hand grenades being thrown at our positions, and the screaming noises they made. These were coming from The Tennis Court area. We would have been a matter of yards from them, or so it appeared. However, we opened fire with everything we had. I myself had the Bren gun and I pointed in the direction of where most of the screaming was coming from. A good move as it turned out. We saw shadows appear in front of us, and the cheeky buggers were laughing and talking to each other as if they were going up to the pub. I don’t think that they realised how close they were to us. I opened fire and other positions followed suit. Being in a box formation small arms fire and 2inch mortars was proving to be very effective. The artillery was brought in to quieten the enemy guns that were whipping those 75mm shells amongst us, and everything seemed to be quieter apart from the continual sniper taking pot shots at us. Somebody got this chap eventually. He was found by one of our frequent patrols hanging from a tree very high up, dead of course. He had tied himself to the bough of the tree so securely so that if he did get shot, he wouldn’t fall to the ground, the idea being that we would think he was alive and kicking. The Japanese were full of tricks like that.
The shelling of our positions was getting heavier, so a tank was brought up to almost the top of the hill behind us, to give us some extra fire power. The artillery were already doing an excellent job, but it was thought however , this tank being closer, could add another problem for the enemy. This tank, as an added interest, finished it’s tour of duty with some aplomb, and found that it could not reverse back down the hill to the road, all efforts by the tank crew and some aid from the RASC, failed to achieve a solution. The tank had to remain. I understand that it is still there to this day! The late L/Cpl Jim Jagger (RASC), a member of our Burma Star Branch in Colchester, told me that he was involved in trying to retrieve this tank with his Section, but to no avail. They had orders to Abandon.
We had casualties after this action of course but I couldn’t give you a figure. Our Officer Commanding, a Captain, was killed, and a corporal and his whole section were bayoneted in their trenches. It was very disturbing for us because they were our friends and comrades. I understand that we must have given a good account of ourselves. A great number of the enemy dead were found around the perimeter.
We realised then what the RWK and Assam Rifles had put up with. By the way, there were still a number of their dead comrades lying about our positions from when they had experienced similar action. There was no opportunity or place to bury our dead. The Japanese cremated theirs. We could smell their fires at night.
Food was now getting short and our ammunition was getting low. Supplies were not getting through. So that it appeared to us that we were surrounded and cut off. I believe this was the case, because Dakota aircraft were coming over and dropping supplies of food, ammunition and medical items. What a sight! These American lads were standing at the backs of the planes, kicking this gear out. Most of it dropped almost in our laps. The Japanese did quite well out of the drop also. A few got caught in the trees, which we tried to shoot down by breaking the strings. We had some success, due to the fact that there was hardly any foliage left on them from the shelling, and we could accurately shoot at the strings and weaken them. The weight of the supplies attached would bring them down. Our Cookhouse was a RWK construction, well camouflaged, central in the Box formation and adequately protected . It proved to be invaluable when our supplies arrived. The ingenuity of our cooks with bully beef (corned beef) and Burma Road (rice) and soya beans, making some quite tasty meals, incredibly. Sections of men had to take it in turns dashing from their trenches, foxholes, etc. to the cookhouse with their mess tins etc. and then sprinting back to their standby positions. A bit chancy this.
Altogether we had about 17 days on this hill. We were unshaven, unwashed, but well fed thanks to the air supply. As to the action, we had some quieter days when we would chance our luck and visit each other in our positions and “have a fag and a chinwag”. With careful caution and a guard keeping watch, of course! You could go to the “loo” with a little more confidence now, not so much sniping, thank God. Talking about the “loo”, the structure had to be seen to be believed. It was in a medium sized tent (well camouflaged). A long shiny pole about 12 feet long, suspended between two stakes “Y” shaped at each end, above a trench about 6 feet deep, with piles of earth at each end with a shovel sticking out. You took your time sitting on the pole, believe me, it was quite slippery. A sudden fright could be embarrassing.
As time went by, the situation was getting quieter and we were able to patrol further without too much bother. About mid September 1944 we were told that Vera Lynn was about to visit and entertain us. This was hard to believe as the area was still pretty dangerous with the occasional sniper. However she did show up. What a lovely young lady with a beautiful voice. She was like an angel to us. I was quite lucky. I got a space at the show, almost at the front. I stood there and thought of home instantly. I also remembered that a few days earlier that a Japanese soldier wandered into my position. He looked lost, but I shot him before he realised where he was. He fell to the ground instantly dead. His helmet came off and rolled towards me. I picked it up, still very warm from his head, and a Japanese flag fell out, neatly folded, a nice souvenir. I thought to take it home. But getting back to Vera Lynn. She had the courage to come to entertain us in the front line, so I thought “I might try and give this flag to her. The MPs were very protective of her, and also her husband Harry Lewis was concerned. However I managed to get closer, and believe me, she was walking towards me. I took the flag from my pocket and held it in front of her. She stopped, and I offered it to her. She took it and studied it, then looked at me, and said to my amazement “The little buggers have better silk in this flag than I have in my knickers”. It made my day, and what a day!! Eventually we came down on to the road where transport was available to take us back to base for a rest and much needed reinforcements.