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Stellar role of the Assam Regiment in the Battle of Imphal
Source: The Sangai Express / Defence Spokesperson

Jodhpur, June 24 2014: India soldiers died by the dozens, by the hundreds and then by the thousands in a battle here 70 years ago.

Two bloody weeks of fighting came down to just a few yards across an asphalt tennis court.

Night after night, Japanese troops charged across the court's white lines, only to be killed by almost continuous firing from British and Indian machine guns.

The Battle of Kohima and Imphal was the bloodiest of World War II in India, and it cost Japan much of its best army in Burma.

But the battle has been largely forgotten in India as an emblem of the country's colonial past.

The Indian troops who fought and died here were subjects of the British Empire.

In this remote, northeastern corner of India, more recent battles with a mix of local insurgencies among tribal groups that have long sought autonomy have made remembrances of former glories a luxury.

Now, as India loosens its security grip on this region and a fragile peace blossoms among the many combatants here, historians are hoping that this year's anniversary reminds the world of one of the most extraordinary fights of the Second World War.

The battle was voted last year as the winner of a contest by Britain's National Army Museum, beating out Waterloo and D-Day as Britain's greatest battle, though it was overshadowed at the time by the Normandy landings.



39 explosives from WWII found
39 explosives from WWII found


"The Japanese regard the battle of Imphal to be their greatest defeat ever," said Robert Lyman, author of "Japan's Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India 1944." "And it gave Indian soldiers a belief in their own martial ability and showed that they could fight as well or better than anyone else" .

The Assam Regiment was raised on 15 June 1941 in Shillong by Lt Col Ross Howman to meet the claim of the then undivided State of Assam for its own fighting unit and to counter the threat of the Japanese invasion of India.

The young regiment soon proved its capabilities within three years of its raising, at the consecutive battles of Jessami, the epic defence of Kohima and the capture of Aradura, all of which were awarded as Battle Honours (now as Pre-Independence Battle Honours) to the Regiment.

The Regiment earned high praise for its combat skills in World War II.

The regiment won six battle honours including Jessami, Kohima, Aradura, Toungoo, Kyaukmyaung Bridge-head and Mawlaik.

It was also awarded the theatre honour Burma: 1942-45,said Col SD Goswami,a defence spokesperson and an Assam regiment officer.

The battlefields in what are now the Indian states of Nagaland and Manipur some just a few miles from the border with Myanmar, which was then Burma are also well preserved because of the region's longtime isolation.

Trenches, bunkers and airfields remain as they were left 70 years ago worn by time and monsoons but clearly visible in the jungle.

This mountain city also boasts a graceful, terraced military cemetery on which the lines of the old tennis court are demarcated in white stone.

A closing ceremony for a three-month commemoration is planned for June 28 in Imphal, and representatives from the United States, Australia, Japan, India and other nations have promised to attend.

"The Battle of Imphal and Kohima is not forgotten by the Japanese," said Yasuhisa Kawamura, deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi, who is planning to attend the ceremony.

"Military historians refer to it as one of the fiercest battles in world history" .

A small but growing tour industry has sprung up around the battlefields over the past year, led by a Hemant Katoch, a local history buff.

But whether India will ever truly celebrate the Battle of Kohima and Imphal is unclear.

India's founding fathers were divided on whether to support the British during World War II, and India's governments have generally had uneasy relationships even with the nation's own military.

So far, only local officials and a former top Indian general have agreed to participate in this week's closing ceremony.

"India has fought six wars since independence, and we don't have a memorial for a single one," said Mohan Guruswamy, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a public policy organization in India.

"And at Imphal, Indian troops died, but they were fighting for a colonial government" .

Rana T..SChhina, secretary of the Center for Armed Forces Historical Research in New Delhi, said that top Indian officials were participating this year in some of the 100-year commemorations of crucial battles of World War I .

"I suppose we may need to let Imphal and Kohima simmer for a few more decades before we embrace it fully," he said.

"But there's hope" .

The battle began some two years after Japanese forces routed the British in Burma in 1942, which brought the Japanese Army to India's eastern border.

Lt.Gen.

Renya Mutaguchi persuaded his Japanese superiors to allow him to attack British forces at Imphal and Kohima in hopes of preventing a British counterattack.

But General Mutaguchi planned to push farther into India to destabilize the British Raj, which by then was already being convulsed by the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

General Mutaguchi brought a large number of Indian troops captured after the fall of Malaya and Singapore who agreed to join the Japanese in hopes of creating an independent India.

The British were led by Lt.Gen.

William Slim, a brilliant tactician who re-formed and retrained the Eastern Army after its crushing defeat in Burma.

The British and Indian forces were supported by planes commanded by the United States Army Gen.

Joseph W.Stilwell.

Once the Allies became certain that the Japanese planned to attack, General Slim withdrew his forces from western Burma and had them dig defensive positions in the hills around Imphal Valley, hoping to draw the Japanese into a battle far from their supply lines.

But none of the British commanders believed that the Japanese could cross the nearly impenetrable jungles around Kohima in force, so when a full division of nearly 15,000 Japanese troops came swarming out of the vegetation on April 4, the town was only lightly defended by some 1,500 British and Indian troops.

The Japanese encirclement meant that those troops were largely cut off from reinforcements and supplies, and a bitter battle eventually led the British and Indians to withdraw into a small enclosure next to a tennis court.

The Japanese, without air support or supplies, eventually became exhausted, and the Allied forces soon pushed them out of Kohima and the hills around Imphal.

On June 22, British and Indian forces finally cleared the last of the Japanese from the crucial road linking Imphal and Kohima, ending the siege.

The Japanese 15th Army, 85,000 strong for the invasion of India, was essentially destroyed, with 53,000 dead and missing.

Injuries and illnesses took many of the rest.

There were 16,500 British casualties.

Ningthoukhangjam Moirangningthou, 83, still lives in a house at the foot of a hill that became the site of one of the fiercest battles near Imphal.

Ningthoukhangjam watched as three British tanks slowly destroyed every bunker constructed by the Japanese.

"We called them 'iron elephants,' " he said of the tanks.

"We'd never seen anything like that before" .

Andrew S.Arthur was away at a Christian high school when the battle started.

By the time he made his way home to the village of Shangshak, where one of the first battles was fought, it had been destroyed and his family was living in the jungle, he said.

He recalled encountering a wounded Japanese soldier who could barely stand.

Arthur said he took the soldier to the British, who treated him.

"Most of my life, nobody ever spoke about the war," he said.

"It's good that people are finally talking about it again" .

The Defence Spokesperson Colonel Goswami is from the Assam Regiment.


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