Green for Eastertide III

When daylight came, Laverty soon saw the Japanese intruders were concentrated in the bakery area, where ovens were dotted over the hillside, and he ordered his ‘D’ Company to destroy them. The job was tricky, not only because the trees obscured observation, but because the enemy now had some 75-mm. guns on G.P.T. Ridge, which were able to shoot up the advancing company in the flank. However, the attack went in; the Royal West Kents poured small arms fire into the bashas and the vehicles which were parked among them, then gave covering fire for the sappers, who rushed forward with pole charges. A series of explosions shook the hill, then the whole area became a sheet of flame through which a number of figures could be seen running. The first of these turned out to be Indian troops the Japanese had captured, and they were followed by the Japanese themselves. Fire was already belching from many of them, but others, rather than face the encircling guns, fried to death where they were. And some, perhaps the most foolish party of all, took refuge in the ovens, thinking perhaps that the brickwork would save them. But unfortunately for them, the basha containing the ovens attracted the attention of Lance-Corporal John Harman, a brilliant soldier who was soon to win the V.C. As he approached the basha, one of the Japs let off some shots which missed him, and Harman ran back to his section post for a box of grenades. Dragging this along behind him, he returned to the basha, went inside, and took cover behind the nearest oven. Here he took a grenade out of the box, removed the pin and let the safety lever fly, then counted three seconds. Quickly, before the grenade blew up on the fourth, he lifted the steel lid and popped it into the oven. There was an explosion and the Jap inside was killed; and Harman dragged his box of grenades along to the next oven. In the end, he had dealt with all ten. Curiously enough, when he went to inspect the insides of the ovens, two of the Japs were still alive, though badly wounded. These he dragged out into the open, then, putting one under each arm, carried them across to his section post. The men began cheering, and soon the excitement spread from post to post. In all, forty-four Japanese bodies were counted in the bakery area. Later, so it was realized, one of the men brought across by Harman was an officer of the 58th Regiment, and in his haversack was discovered a panorama of Kohima, indicating Japanese artillery positions. He also had a survey map, from which it appeared that his regiment was deployed with a battalion on Naga Village, whose objectives were the Treasury and the D.C.’s bungalow, at the northern end of the perimeter, a battalion on Jail Hill and G.P.T. Ridge, and a battalion in reserve on the Imphal road. The regiment’s supply base was marked at Khangjang, where also was located Sato’s divisional headquarters.

According to accounts written by Japanese soldiers after the battle, this attack was led by Captain Shiro Sato (no relation to the General), who took over the 2nd Battalion on the death of Captain Nageie. Their attacks were broken up, they say, ‘by heavy artillery fire, and when daylight came we had over sixty casualties. Then the artillery fire became so deadly that Sato decided it was better to attack than to be killed where we were, and ordered the advance.’

The Battalion Commander, Major Shimanoe, described this action as ‘a crushing defeat for the 58th Regiment’. Never in its history had it encountered such determination in defence. Some of the men could be heard complaining: ‘This is even worse than Sangshak.’

Another notable event happened this day: a Company of the 4th/7th Rajputana Rifles from the Jotsoma Box, managed to slip into the perimeter. They made a very welcome addition to the garrison.

Richards was now very much occupied with administrative problems.

The Japanese had cut the water supply on G.P.T. Ridge and only a trickle was coming through the pipe. Orders had therefore to be issued, rationing each man to a pint a day, a pitiable amount in the warm climate, and in the heat of battle. Fighting is the most dehydrating occupation known to man. Lieut.-Colonel Borrowman, now Richards’s second-in-command, worked hard at the administrative arrangements, as did Major Franklin, second-in-command of the Royal West Kents. A large number of chagals (canvas water containers) were available, and using these, and anything else they could improvise, the troops showed great ingenuity in dodging snipers and mortar fire, to brew up ‘char’. The constant shelling and mortaring, however, was ripping the leaves off the branches and the branches off the trees, so that each day the position became more exposed. Even the luxuriant growth of rhododendrons surrounding the D.C.’s bungalow and the Club area was ravaged, though some hardy bushes blossomed unconcerned. The sniping grew so bad that all movement in the daytime in the neighbourhood of Richards’s headquarters became extremely hazardous. His wireless set had failed on the morning of the 5th, as the batteries were exhausted and his charging engine had not arrived. He mentioned the matter to Laverty, to be told that the Royal West Kents’ engine had all it could do recharging their own batteries. So Richards was now cut off from the outside world, and all signals from Warren or anyone else had to go to Laverty.

The number of walking wounded was beginning to mount up; and Colonel Young considered that, as they’d been able to walk in, they should be able to walk out. So a party was organized, the guide being Lieutenant Corlett (the Assam Regiment subaltern who had taken the withdrawal message through to Jessami), helped by a Naga detailed by Charles Pawsey. The commander of the party was Major Franklin, and a platoon of the 4th/7th Rajputana Rifles, from the company just arrived, acted as escort. When evening came, and there was a lull in the fighting, the party, which now totalled some 100 wounded, plus some non-combatants, slipped out of the perimeter by I.G.H. Spur with the escort, and made its way down the precipitous slopes into the Zubza nala. The risks were great, as everyone knew, and if they bumped anything but a small patrol they’d be lucky to survive the journey. However, all went well; no Japs were encountered and for once the guides didn’t lose the way. By daylight the party were safe in Zubza, without a wounded man being lost.

On the night of the 7th, the garrison expected a heavy attack, but it didn’t materialize. When the Japs were heard forming up on the slopes of Jail Hill for an attack on the D.I.S., Major Yeo called for defensive fire from the guns at Jotsoma, which was brought down in a matter of seconds. An attack came in, but it had obviously been broken up and disorganized by the shell fire and wasn’t pressed home. Later that night, there was an attack on the D.C.’s bungalow area, but the British troops there were never in any trouble and the action petered out. Despite these minor successes, however, Richards kept any signs of optimism well under control; just after dark, he had seen a column of lanterns moving into Naga Village, obviously carried by reinforcements moving up from Jessami. He pointed out the column to Yeo, hoping that it might just be in range of the guns at Jotsoma, but unhappily it wasn’t. More frustrating still, the guns Yeo had manhandled on to Summerhouse Hill couldn’t be used against the target either; the only possible site for them, on a reverse slope, was now full of wounded. So the Japs were allowed to settle into their new position unmolested. And next morning Richards saw five elephants moving along the track, carrying more guns.

During periods of silence during the night, the Japs had brought another weapon into action: the loudspeaker. It had been set up near the Treasury, and an Indian of the I.N. A. came on, speaking in Urdu: ‘Hindustan ki jawan!’ he called, ‘Soldiers of India, the Japanese army has surrounded you. Bring your rifle and come over to us. We are liberating India from the iniquities and tyrannies of British rule.’ Someone let off a burst of Bren towards the speaker, but the voice still went on, repeating the same message over and over again. What the Indian troops thought of it, it’s hard to say. But certainly none of them moved from their weapon pits.

During this period, as more companies and platoons of the 58th came to join their comrades investing Kohima, there were inevitably men who were going into action for the first time. Naturally, their officers and N.C.O.s tried to relieve the tension by various means, some of them rather crude as in this story told by Lieutenant Seisaku Kameyama of the 2nd Battalion:

‘“You see,” I said to my soldiers, “keep your heads, keep cool. If you want to find out just how cool you are feeling, put your hands inside your trousers and feel your penis—if it is hanging down, it is good.” I tested mine, but it was shrunk up so hard I could hardly grasp it. More than thirty soldiers did the same thing, then looked at me curiously, but I kept a poker-face. I said, “Well, mine’s down all right. If yours is shrunk up, it’s because you’re scared.”

Then a young soldier said to me: “Sir, I can’t find mine at all. What’s happening to it?” With this everyone burst out laughing and I knew I had got the confidence of the men.’

The platoon went into action, and by nightfall only eighteen men out of thirty were left.

On the 7th, Stopford had passed an order to Warren via General Ranking, that he must get on and stage a counter-attack to regain the ground that had been lost on G.P.T. Ridge and Jail Hill. Warren replied that he was collecting information ‘to make sure that my attack goes in at the right place’. What he didn’t appreciate was that Miyazaki and the 58th Regiment were steadily working round his western flank and would soon be cutting him off.

Meanwhile, Stopford was hard at work on the plans for his counter-offensive. Though he had a great respect for Slim, his admiration for the 14th Army staff was minimal; and with the considerable verbal equipment at his command, urged them to get a move on. ‘I don’t think,’ he said, ‘they realize the administrative implications of attacking through this awful country… with the rains only a month away, they are terrific’ It would be fair to add that 14th Army staff weren’t the only people not to realize the difficulties; no one did.

On the 8th April the pressure on the Kohima garrison increased steadily. The enemy had now hauled some quick-firing anti-tank guns up on to G.P.T. Ridge, and these were cunningly sited so that the battery from Jotsoma couldn’t touch them. The shells from these came so fast that there was no time to duck or slide into a trench. The shell, in fact, arrived before the noise. The trees, though they gave cover from view, made the situation worse on the whole. If a shell lands on the ground a soldier in his trench is unharmed, but if the shell hits a tree its fragments explode into the trenches. It soon became evident, therefore, that head cover must be provided, though the snag about this was that it limited the soldiers’ field of fire and constricted them in the use of their weapons. Eventually the answer proved to be the construction of covered trenches besides the weapon pits; but this took time and meanwhile a good many men were lost.

It was on the 8th that John Harman won his V.C. During the night, so it was discovered, the enemy had established a machine-gun post covering the D.I.S. This meant that if an attack were made, the men of the Royal West Kents could not defend themselves and would be slaughtered if they withdrew. So, ordering the rest of his section to give him covering fire with the Bren, Harman worked his way round to a position from which he could attack the post. Moving forward slowly between the trees, he brought up his rifle and shot one Jap, then another. There were still three of them left, with automatics, but with immense courage Harman fixed his bayonet, then ran up the ridge towards them. By some miracle the Japs all missed him, and then within seconds he was leaping down on them with his bayonet. Watching from a distance, the rest of his section could see his rifle rising and falling as the bayonet went in and came out again. Then there was a scream and a single shot, and the astonished soldiers saw Harman hold up the machine-gun for them to see, then fling it away among the trees. A burst of cheering broke out, and Harman came down from the ridge to start walking back to his section post. Seeing this the men shouted to him to run, to get back into cover, to stop being a bloody fool, but for some unknown reason Harman ignored their entreaties and walked on till the inevitable happened. A machine-gun post further along the ridge that no one had spotted opened up and shot him through the spine.

Altogether, the 8th wasn’t a happy day, either inside the perimeter or outside it. A patrol from the Jotsoma box, moving back along the Dimapur road to mend a telephone wire, found the road blocked by milestone 36, just to the north of Zubza. The troops manning the block were from Colonel Torikai’s 13 8th Regiment, and they had come across from the Merema Ridge with the object of stopping reinforcements from reaching Kohima. Reconnoitring, they found a spur running across the road and out into the valley, with two pimples on it which would make a most effective defensive position. Immediately they began digging in. So Warren’s force was now besieged just as surely as the garrison he’d set out to relieve, and already Miyazaki was exerting pressure on his right flank. Warren, however, took things calmly. He’d acquired some chickens from the local village, and got his men to construct a chicken run just near the mess. Ian McKillop, a liaison officer from the 5th Brigade, was amazed to see him calmly eating his breakfast eggs, while the guns thundered away in the dell outside and the birds flapped and squawked excitedly. The eggs were supplemented by wild raspberries, which a bihisti (a water carrier) collected on the hillside and brought in for Warren, Grimshaw, his brigade-major, and the other members of the staff. In the evenings, the demands of war were not allowed to interfere with Warren’s favourite game of cards and many enjoyable hands of ‘vingt-et-un’ were played.

There was no time to play cards in Kohima. At dusk the enemy artillery opened up from the east, the south, and the west, then an attack came in on 53 I.G.H. Spur. It was held in the main, but some of the Japanese succeeded in establishing themselves across the road and began digging in on the lower slopes of the spur. It was impossible to deal with them in the confusion and darkness; a counter-attack had to wait till the morning. Meanwhile, another attack came in on the D.C.’s bungalow at the eastern end of the perimeter. This was helped by a heavy mortar barrage, but the troops in this sector, who were well dug in, weathered it without serious casualties. But the Japanese kept on coming on, wave after wave of them streaming over the road, scrambling up the steep slopes, and pushing on through the undergrowth. Eventually the garrison troops had to withdraw, and take up a position behind the bungalow. Here our troops were dug in along the banks at the western end of the tennis court and fought back with grenades; the Japs replied by hurling their own grenades from the other end of the tennis court. So this small rectangular area became the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the garrison and the Japanese and was to remain so for some weeks, the focus of some of the bloodiest fighting in the whole battle. To restore the situation, Richards ordered a counter-attack by platoons of the Assam Regiment and the Burma Regiment, and later the Royal West Kents attacked. These had only limited success, and most of the area the Japs had captured they were able to retain. A man who distinguished himself again in this night of bloody and confused fighting was the gunner, Dick Yeo. As Richards records: ‘He controlled the defensive fire with great accuracy, and was able to bring it down on call at an incredibly short distance in front of our troops. There is no doubt that this fire resulted time and again in breaking up the Japanese attacks. We could hear their screams as it fell among them.’

On the morning of the 9th, the Japanese still went on attacking to extend their gains on I.G.H. Spur; but the attacks were held. Then the ground lost the previous night was heavily mortared and Colonel Keene put in a counter-attack with two platoons of the Assam Rifles to recover most of the area. In the afternoon the enemy began mortaring the F.S.D. area, though no attack developed. Intermittent shelling continued all day. Inevitably, some shells fell among the wounded lying in the open around the A.D.S., and it was learned that forty had been killed.

Water was becoming a pressing problem, as nothing came through the pipes any more and the tanks were holed by shell-fire. Fortunately, Colonel Keene had discovered a spring in a re-entrant running into the side of I.G.H. Spur and, as news of this got round, men came scrambling over the hill to fill chagals and water-bottles. It was obvious, however, that if this practice went on there’d be far too many casualties, so water parties were organized which crawled forward at night. The ration was fixed at three-quarters of a pint per man per day—enough to sustain life but not much more.

The 9th April was Easter Sunday. It was impossible to bring men together in the Kohima box to celebrate this great day in the Christian calendar, but at Bokajan the padres of all denominations put on their jungle-green surplices, set up their mobile altars, and celebrated Holy Communion on the fringes of the jungle. Many officers and men attended these services, kneeling on the muddy jungle floor with their weapons by their side. There was no music and little singing, and very often the voices of the padres were drowned by the roar of trucks, which came slithering along the tracks, and punctuated by the chatter of the refugees streaming by, or of the stragglers from the detachment which had bolted from G.P.T. Ridge, who were now being questioned at the Field Security Collecting Post. But the services were very real, and to some men unbearably moving, as they realized they might well be hearing the familiar words of the service for the last time. For many this was the case.

While the services were going on at Bokajan, and Colonel Keene was launching his counter-attack on I.G.H. Spur, Stopford and Grover were in conference with Ranking at Dimapur. The 124th Regiment had now been identified, so it was clear that a whole Japanese Division was now operating in the area, and plans had to be laid on that basis. As Grover had nearly half of his division now concentrated, it was agreed that he should take operational control of all the area forward of Dimapur, while Ranking should remain responsible for the railway. Grover’s orders (which were later formalized at a meeting in the evening) were to open the road to Kohima, clear it of the enemy before the monsoon, and secure it as a firm base for further offensive operations. Operations were to start at once.

At this stage, Grover, who had only arrived on the 1st April, had not seen Kohima nor any of the mountainous country beyond Nichugard. He appreciated, however, that Kohima would be the stage for his first major battle and studied it carefully on the map. He noticed that on the right flank the high ground ran up towards Mount Pulebadze and Mount Japvo, and came to the immediate conclusion that the best way to deal with the situation was to put in a left hook with two brigades via the Merema Ridge. The importance of this latter feature struck him forcibly: it overlooked the whole length of the road from Zubza to Kohima; and if the Japs got astride it with any considerable force of artillery, they could paralyse the movement of both men and supplies. But when he made this early plan, Grover still imagined that there would only be a Jap regiment at Kohima; and he could not know that in Assam maps can only give a very feeble impression of the ground.

It was an uncomfortable night both at Jotsoma and Kohima. The sky was covered by black clouds and then the rain came down, soaking the men in the slit trenches and the wounded lying out in the open. At Jotsoma there were sporadic attacks, and forward positions in the Punjabis’ area changed hands time and again, as desperate, hand-to-hand fighting blurred the edges of the perimeter. At 2200 hours the Japanese at Kohima put in an attack across the tennis court, and kept it going for an hour and a half; but automatic fire, well directed and controlled, supported by a liberal use of hand grenades kept them at bay. On the far side of the tennis court, the shells brought down by Major Yeo’s orders were forming a curtain, cutting off the movement of reinforcements, and for long periods it was only twenty-five yards in front of the perimeter. The second attack came against the Assam Rifles on the I.G.H. Spur, but they held it without trouble. It was put in by companies of the 13 8th Regiment, and an identification was obtained. The garrison had for some days suspected that they had three regiments against them and now they had proof of two at least. The third attack came in against the Royal West Kents in the D.I.S. area, and was preceded by a shower of grenades, fired from discharger cups. The Japs could not break the line, but some took refuge in trenches evacuated by the wounded, and from these they were able to make life very uncomfortable for the section posts near them.

By now, after five days of siege, corpses, Japanese, Indian and British, were littering the hillside; the smell was obnoxious and the flies were a constant torment. Unfortunately, there was an acute shortage of shovels and entrenching tools and some units, like the Assam Rifles, had none at all, as they weren’t on their establishment. The Royal West Kents, quite understandably, were unwilling to lend their entrenching tools, so the corpses lay where they were, black and swelling. To make matters worse, the garrison were now beginning to realize that Warren and the two remaining battalions of 161st Brigade wouldn’t be able to help them, except with their guns; and the 2nd Division in Dimapur seemed a long, long way away. All they could do was go on fighting and hoping; they’d no illusions as to what would happen if the position were over-run.

But the situation was changing, if slowly and painfully. On the 10th April, Victor Hawkins summoned his battalion commanders and gave out his orders. His staff were to work all night laying on transport for the whole brigade, which at first light the following morning was to leave the hot, humid, flea-ridden atmosphere of Dimapur and move forward into battle. The brigade’s orders were to open the road, make contact with the 161st Brigade, and be prepared to capture Kohima.

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