"Oops!... I did it again."
Yep — reading a book while pursuing every imaginable Wikipedia, Google Maps and YouTube distraction.
Why is the story so compelling?
It's been called the 'Stalingrad of the East'. 'Britain's Thermopylae'. More significantly, 'in 2013, it was voted as Britain's greatest battle after a debate at the National Army Museum in London, a surprise winner over the likes of D-Day and Waterloo' (see here).
That is a big call! D-Day? Waterloo? No — Kohima!
We are surprised because 'the great struggle at Kohima existed on the war's periphery' (281). D-Day was six weeks away and London was preoccupied. 'As for the British public, the extreme peril of the Kohima garrison and the scale of the Japanese threat were unknown' (283). As for the soldiers themselves, 'in those first weeks of April 1944 they were unaware of the marginal consideration being given in London to the fighting. The men saw no further than the corpse-littered ground in front of them...' (284).
1500 British and Indian troops took on 15,000 Japanese ones. It was thought that if Kohima fell, so would India. For 16 days they held their ground on the Kohima Ridge, in a battle that eventually centered around a tennis court behind the residence of the District Commissioner, Charles Pawsey. It was hand-to-hand, trench-'n-bayonet warfare akin to World War One.
Kohima Ridge was about a mile long and roughly four hundred yards in width, a series of hills and gullies that ran alongside the road. With steep slopes along much of the road side of the perimeter, it presented a formidable obstacle for any attackers trying to scale their way up. But it was a narrow space from which to repel an enemy attacking in strength and the other side of the perimeter, away from the road, was overlooked by mountain slopes which offered enemy artillery any number of ideal firing positions (226).
|The extended Kohima Ridge today, from a vantage point on the road to Dimapur. The key battles were back from that ridge just above the highpoint of the pine tree in the foreground (I think!).|
|The Naga Hills are gorgeous, with this photo taken near Zubza — a key place in the story.|
The tennis court
The drama around the tennis court, writing as I am in the middle of the Wimbledon fortnight (!), is scarcely believable. About two hundred men 'were dug in around Pawsey's garden of rhododendrons and cannas' (306) ... facing the Japanese 'in trenches across a patch of ground no more than twenty yards wide' (306). The two sides 'pitched grenades back and forth' (xvii) — or shall we say 'lobbed', in the hope that artillery and bayonet-battles did not result in too many 'passing shots'?
It is astonishing.
In one person's description, 'it was the nearest approach to a snowball fight that could be imagined' (Glancey, 134). 'At one stage a Japanese soldier was digging soil from a foxhole when the dirt landed in a British trench' (383). It is estimated that 55,000 Japanese lives were lost in the battles around Kohima and Imphal, with 7000 dying around the the tennis court (Glancey, 135).
The site is now a War Cemetery. Here is my photo on a suitably moody, monsoon day.
|The significance of the tennis court is seen on the cover page!|
Aren't you beginning to feel the need for a map?! I sure am ... but then I always am 😀.