Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Decisive Battles: Kohima 1944

Battle of Kohima Dates: 6 APR - 31 MAY 1944

Forces Engaged: Great Britain -
for the purposes of this discussion we're going to limit the scope to the actions and forces that met near the little town of Kohima in the Assam Hills in April, 1944. For the British 14th Army, the garrison at Kohima in 4 APR 1944 consisted of an assortment of odds and sods, including:
Infantry:1st Assam Regiment (which had been conducting a fighting withdrawal since 1 APR and was probably down to no more than 400-500 infantrymen)

4th Bn, Royal West Kent Regiment (Queen's Own) - about 450 infantrymen
A total of about four companies of infantry; one each from the 3rd Bn, 2nd Punjab Regiment, 1st (Garrison) Bn, Burma Regiment, 5th Burma Regiment, and 27 BN, 5th Mahratta Light Infantry - about 200-300 infantrymen
3rd Assam Rifles (-) (The Assam Rifles were not truly infantry but a native constabulary employed in Nagaland, but by 1944 could act fairly effectively as light infantry given logistical and fire support)
The Shere Regiment (-) (a recently recruited outfit from the Kingdom of Nepal, less detachments)

Artillery: 1x25lb cannon and crew

Armor: None

Combat Support.Combat Service Support: Various small units and detachments including engineer, signals, medical, transportation, field kitchen and bakery, pioneer, and administration elements.

Approximately 2,500 all arms under COL Hugh Richards

Note: On 6 APR supporting elements of 161 Brigade, 5th Indian Division were several miles west of the main "boxes" at Kohima, including divisional artillery and two infantry battalions. In addition, aviation assets of 221 Group RAF flying out of Imphal provided close-air and logistical support for the garrison. By mid May the British forces had grown to two divisions including several armored units and a massive aerial umbrella...

Imperial Japanese Army (大日本帝國陸軍, Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun) - 31st Division (第31師団 Dai-sanju-ichi Shidan) consisting of:
Infantry: 58th Infantry Regiment (COL Takada), 124th Infantry Regiment (COL Fukuoka), 138th Infantry Regiment (COL Nara) Each Imperial infantry regiment was notionally composed of three roughly 1,000-man battalions plus regimental troops for about 3,800 infantrymen per regiment.

Artillery: 31st Mountain Artillery Regiment (About 900 artillerymen in three battalions with 12x75mm mountain howitzers per battalion for a total of 36 cannon.

In addition, Japanese infantry units carried on the now-obsolete tradition of "battalion guns"; light artillery directly attached to infantry units. Each battalion had 2x70mm Type 92 cannon (really almost more of a heavy mortar; a very short range, high-angle weapon)

for a total of 18 of these things. And the regiments appear to have had a regimental gun battery of 4x75mm field guns for a total of 12x 75mm cannon. The total number of field artillery cannon assigned to 31st Division was supposed to have been 48x75mm howitzers and 18x70mm howitzers; it is difficult to tell how many of these weapons made it through the Naga Hills to Kohima, but some did, as the battle reports will show.

Armor: IJA infantry divisions were assigned an "tankette company", largely kitted out with Type 94 九四式軽装甲車 , Kyūyon-shiki keisōkōsha "94 type light armored car" or TK tankette (TK is the abbreviation of Tokushu Keninsha, "special tractor") There is no evidence to suspect that the 31st Division managed to get their tankettes anywhere near Kohima or ever intended to take them there.

The division also had engineer and transportation regiments, each about 800-900 troopers each.

Our best guess is that the division was down to about 70% strength by the time it arrived at Kohima, so from the original 20,000 all arms probably 14,000 all arms under LTG Satō Kōtoku (佐藤 幸徳)

Although 15th Army and the overall IJA higher (Burma Area Army) should have had air support I can find little or no evidence that it was used effectively or at all in the Kohima-Imphal Campaign. I can find little or no information about the Army Air forces supposed to have been supporting the U-Go offensive except notes that the RAF had effectively gained control of the air by early 1944. So for all practical purposes the IJA at Kohima had no aviation assets whatsoever. Whatever the Furious Division (烈兵団 Retsu Heidan) gained at Kohima would be through its own efforts.

Note: Again, this is not a typical "Decisive Battles" post. For one thing, the battle of Kohima (and the related battle of Imphal) as well as the overall 1944 Burma Campaign have been extensively covered elsewhere, as I will discuss in the Sources section below. This is the second in the series of "The Imperial Japanese Army of WW2 - What Went Wrong" posts (the first was Bataan this past January, the third, on Kalkhan-Gol, follows in May...). I don't want to talk so much about the events of the battle itself as what it exposed about the IJA and why I consider it far and away the least effective and least modern of the major combatant armies in WW2 perhaps outside of Italy's. So while I do want to cover the basic events of the battle the bulk of the post will discuss what Kohima tells us about the IJA, its strengths and weaknesses.

Sources: Again, since this is a blog we'll concentrate on the online references for this engagement.

The Wiki entry is surprisingly good, and is a worthwhile starting point for any websearch on Kohima. Another worthwhile source if the History Learning Site's entry for the battle. The British 2nd Division Association has a web page that discusses the engagement, although largely repeating the information available on the other two sites.

Several of the British units that fought at and near Kohima have websites discussing the units' role in these engagments. The Queen's Regiment is one, and here's a fascinating one from the 7th Bn, The Worcestershire Regiment, that features extracts from the war diary of one CPT H. Swinson, who continues the great British tradition of military raconteurs.

We'll hear more from him later.

Perhaps most appropriate for us living today is the Commonwealth War Graves site Forever India that talks about the engagements and the monuments raised afterwards to the men who never left Imphal and Kohima.

Worthwhile written works include:

Perhaps the single most worthwhile source is Field Marshal Slim's own 1956 account Defeat into Victory. Hard to get any more authoritative than the man who directed the British side of the battle.

Leslie Edward's 2009 Kohima: The Furthest Battle: The Story of the Japanese Invasion of India in 1944 and the ‘British-Indian Thermopylae’ is given universally good review at Amazon. I did not get a copy but it sounds like a must-read for the serous student of this engagement.

Fergal Keane's 2001 Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944 won the British Army "Book of the Year" award; I have no idea what the value of that is but suggests a worthwhile read.

And Robert Lyman has produced two works about the battle and campaign: Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India, 1944 in 2011, which is said to be a very excellent work, and an earlier work with Peter Dennis for Osprey, Kohima 1944 which is the usual mix of decent text, maps, and photos/pictures that characterizes this series.

The Campaign: To understand the battle of Kohima and the whole Burma campaign you have to go back in history, to the Japanese war aims and to the British history of colonization in India.

Imperial Japan's motivation for starting the "Great Pacific War" was pretty simple; it needed petroleum for its armed forces in China and the oilfields were held by the Dutch in the Indonesian archipelago. Everything else - the attacks on the U.S. in the Philippines, the French in Indochina, and the British in Singapore and Malaya - was simply to secure the lines between the petroleum in the Dutch East Indies and the Home Islands.

But once the IJA had seized the British territories along the South China seacoast it was confronted with a dilemma; those territories were no more defensible against a British counterattack than that had been against a Japanese attack. The vast British reservoir of men and material to the west in India would be a constant threat. The Japanese gains needed strategic depth, and that meant that the British forces in Burma needed to go.

Add to that the nuisance of the Burma Road. Taking a chunk out of that supply route would help strangle their old enemy the Nationalist forces in China. Together these objectives pulled the IJA 15th Army into Burma in early January 1942.

The initial conquest of Burma was quick, aided by a number of the usual early-war Allied clusterfucks; the British Burma Army was an undertrained and undersupplied trainwreck, the Nationalist "forces" were their usual shambolic selves, the Burmese climate and terrain were horrific. And Burma exposed what was becoming increasingly obvious elsewhere; that the British Empire was founded on economic sand. Britain flat-out couldn't afford to fight more than two modern campaigns, and between the Middle East and the defense of Britain itself there was little or nothing to spare for Burma.

Wartime stress was also widening cracks in the supposed "jewel in the imperial crown", India. Indian independence activities - the "Quit India" movement - was tearing up the eastern areas of Bengal and Bihar through which troops and supplies had to move as well as sucking up "reliable" British and Imperial units. And famine - which was a consistent feature of colonial India - was hammering Bengal, which also sucked up resources and hindered war production and preparation.

So by May, 1942, the British Far East forces were pinned back to the eastern borderlands of India, sick, battered, and hung down.

This part of British India was called Assam in the Forties. It was then pretty much what it is now; a lightly-peopled frontier that was very little changed from preindustrial times, dominated by steep, thickly jungled hills and the numerous threads of the Brahmaputra river system. It was probably a welcoming place for the tribes that had lived there for centuries but for troops fighting mechanized warfare it was a bloody nightmare.

Here's what the diarist from the 7th Worcestershires has to say about the Assamese hill country:
"It was silent in the jungle . . . .

Sometimes in the evening the wind would creak through the bamboo trees, waving their tall green branches against the sky; or sometimes the leaves would rise from the ground and dance onward a few steps before falling to sleep again; or the monkeys way up on their jungle roof would quarrel and screech and squeal in excitement, then swiftly swing into the leafy distance; but these temporary sounds could not break the eternal silence any more than a pebble churn the surface of a pool. Nor could the cooks rattling their dixies, nor the troops patrolling along the paths, nor any of the sounds of an army in training.

The silence of the jungle is not the silence of the town, nor the open fields, nor the downs, nor the plains, nor the high mountains; it is the stifled silence of one who waits seeing his enemy bare before him. The troops knew and feared this jungle silence; they spoke in hushed voices or walked glancing about them. At night, though they slept side by side, the sentries would hear them crying out, the nameless fear having entered their dreams, look round them, then lie back to sleep again. Some became sick and others sullen, but all felt the dull stifling of the heart.

It was cold in the jungle. The men dug themselves down into the earth, slashed bamboos and unrolled them to make their beds, wove branches for a mattress, and huddled together in their blankets for warmth. But at night the dew dripped down from the tree-tops and the air would turn to a frozen breath. At Reveille there were few men who would strip to waist, for the cold stream water burned on the flesh. The morning sun would not penetrate the jungle; sometimes a thin beam would creep down the paths and paint the bamboos at a bend with gold, or sometimes skim along the roof ; but no warmth would reach the men on the ground till breakfast was eaten and work begun."
The IJA had learned to use the thick vegetation of Southeast Asia to offset their technical shortcomings. Not overburdened with artillery and armor and traveling largely on foot the Japanese infantry had adapted the German infiltration tactics of 1918 to their plans; they would probe until they found gaps in the Allied "lines" (nearly unavoidable in the dense foliage and rough terrain), slip through and reassemble across the Allied supply and communications routes.

This gave the Japanese infantry a reputation as "masters of the jungle"; the Allied troops in Burma developed bugout fever, and as soon as Japanese forces turned up behind them tended to bolt for safety, abandoning supplies that the Japanese with the threadbare logistical organization used to continue their advance.

1943 brought something of a stalemate to Burma. The British forces were still suffering from logistical and tactical problems and the so-called Arakan Campaign was a bloody mess. The attempt to regain some Burmese ground fell apart on the usual issues - British and Indian units were still fairly useless in the jungle, command and control was still iffy, and supply was hampered by the terrain and weather.

It was also at Arakan that the Allies first encountered the IJA gift for bunker-building; the damn things were built like fortresses, incredibly well concealed, and provided murderous interlocking fields of fire for the defenders.

Japanese artillery, while never numerous and relatively immobile and thus fairly useless in attack, proved vicious in defense. Bunkers and defensive lines could be pre-registered and preplotted fires called in on the Allied attackers; Japanese defenders had no fear calling in fires on their own positions and that was ruinous for the exposed Allies trying to force the positions.

So the British forces in eastern India - now organized as 14th Army - backed off and regrouped. Its new commander, LTG Slim, had different ideas about how to fight the Japanese in the jungly hills of Assam:
"The basic premise was that off-road mobility was paramount: much heavy equipment was exchanged for mule- or air-transported equipment and motor transport was kept to a minimum and restricted to those vehicles that could cope with some of the worst combat terrain on Earth. The new doctrine dictated that if the Japanese had cut the lines of communication, then they too were surrounded. All units were to form defensive 'boxes', to be resupplied by air and assisted by integrated close air support and armour. The boxes were designed as an effective response to the tactics of infiltration practised by the Japanese in the war. Slim also supported increased offensive patrolling and night training, to encourage his soldiers to lose both their fear of the jungle and their belief that Japanese soldiers were better jungle fighters."
Using these tactics and techniques the British had some success in Burma in early 1944.

This engagement was something of a rat-scramble. The British tried another attack into Arakan, the Japanese responded as they had in 1943, with a counter-attack the succeeded in surrounding a portion of the attackers; the so-called "Admin Box".

Using Slim's tactics the Admin Box held. The Japanese were unable to secure their "Churchill rations" and had not anticipated either the 360-degree defense or the effectiveness of the Allied aerial resupply and interdiction. Thousands of Japanese soldiers died of starvation and disease. The British then eventually evacuated the Arakan area because it was just a nasty malarial swamp; the Japanese regained it and held on until the collapse in 1945.

So at the beginning of the 1944 campaigning season - the summer monsoons made any sort of major military activity impractical - everyone was back to where they had been in late spring 1942; the British clinging to the far western edge of Burma and Assam in India, the Japanese still trying to close off the Burma Road and hang on to what they had gained in Burma as things got ugly for them back in the South Pacific.

At this point the sparkplug for the fight at Kohima starts sparking; 牟田口 廉也, LTG Mutaguchi Renya, commander of the IJA 15th Army since March 1943.

Mutaguchi was an interesting guy, and not in a particularly good way. He was one of these guys who see every problem as a nail and themselves as the Big Hammer. He had been a player in the 皇道派 (Kōdōha) ultranationalist faction in the Army during the Twenties and Thirties, and was thoroughly saturated with the belief that the mystical Japanesy-ness of bushido and the old-school traditional pre-Western ways was capable of defeating the effete Europeans and their industrial warfare.

He was also apparently kind of an asshole personally. Almost all of his division commanders either outright hated him or were deeply suspicious of his glory-hunting and willingness to see everyone else die for his country so long as he got the credit for the win.

Mutaguchi had been beating the drum for attacking the British in Assam for a year. The Wiki entry for Imphal summarizes some of what was in his head:
"His motives for doing so appear to be complex. He had played a major part in several Japanese victories, ever since the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937, and believed it was his destiny to win the decisive battle of the war for Japan. He may also have been goaded by the first Chindit expedition, a raid behind Japanese lines launched by the British under Orde Wingate early in 1943."
Another factor may have been the insistence of the Indian National Army leaders that defeating the British in Assam would inspire a nationalist uprising in India. Certainly part of the motivation was political; the leader of the "Free India" movement, S.C. Bose, was tight with the commander of the Burma Area Army.

Mutaguchi's plan was in the mold of the IJA grand tactics of the Forties. A two-division assault on British defenses centered on the Assamese town of Imphal would draw the Allied attention there and immobilize the British reserves. While all eyes were on Imphal the third 15th Army infantry division, Sato's 31st, would swing around to the north and overrun Kohima (cutting the land route to Imphal) and seize the large supply depots around Dimapur. This would both resupply the 15th Army and starve out the Imphal garrison.

Mutaguchi's plans were also based on a number of assumptions, almost all of them incorrect.

- He assumed that the British and Indian troops were still the same mooks the IJA had whipped in Burma in 1942-43, with the same tactical and logistical weaknesses. The lessons of the Admin Box had not been absorbed.

- He also assumed that the attackers would solve their logistical problems by a combination of capture and bizarre innovation. For example, he proposed to herd cattle and buffalo along the jungle tracks to act as self-propelled rations. This worked about as well as you'd expect to if you herded a bunch of cows along vertiginous jungle tracks; most of the future beef tonkatsu fell into ravines or died of malnutrition or disease.

- He also assumed that the Allies would suffer from the same engineering and pioneering shortcomings his own troops did and would be without armored and artillery support; he left his tanks and most of his cannon back at the staging areas.

Perhaps the single worst miscalculation the 15th Army commander made was the choice of unit to make the Kohima attacks. Sato, 31st Division's commander, was convinced from the get-go that Mutaguchi was all eaten up with victory disease and was grossly underestimating the logistical problems the 31st would face. He was on record with his division staff that they might all starve to death.

And there were personal issues, too; Sato thought Mutaguchi was an idiot who thought with his sword arm - he called him a "blockhead". Sato has also bee on the other side of the IJA factional fight (the Toseiha side) and considered Mutaguchi's notions of mystic Japanese bad-assery dangerous hoo-ha that would get him and his boys of the Furious Division killed.

Still, IJA discipline was still intact in late winter 1944, and so in mid-March Sato's troops moved off down the thready jungle tracks towards their objectives. Operation U-Go was on.

The Engagement: 31st Division crossed their line of departure on 15 MAR 1944, moving northwest in a broad front but slipping along the narrow trails that wound through the Assamese hills. First contact was made by the 58th Infantry north of Imphal on 20 MAR; the Allied unit, 50th Indian Parachute Brigade were driven back after the six-day Battle of Sangshak and lost 600 guys. But they knocked down 400 troopers from the 58th and delayed that unit - which had the most direct march to Kohima - for a week.

The other piece of good luck that came out of Sangshak was capture of some 31st Division documents that blew the gaff; LTG Slim now knew that the division's objectives were Kohima and Dimapur. This was crucial; 14th Army had disregarded the Kohima sector as impassable and had posted a minimal covering force in Kohima and had nothing other than support units at Dimapur. Slim sent a rocket to his superior asking XI Army Group for a release of additional reserves to strengthen the Kohima area.

These reserves turned out to be 161st Indian Infantry Brigade and 24th Mountain Artillery Regiment Indian Artillery which were flown into Dimapur. And the British 2nd Division was alerted to move from its depots in south and central India to the Assam front.

Kohima itself is dominated by a north-south ridge studded with hilltops.

The only road from Dimapur to Imphal runs along the east side of the ridge. At the time of the engagement the ridge was what the British would have called a "hill-station", the administrative and residential complex for the colonial administration of the Nagaland District. The house of the administrator was located along the road, complete with true colonial accessories such as formal gardens and a tennis court. The local gentlemen's clubhouse stood on a terrace overlooking this little pied a terre, all set amid the dense forests of the Assamese hills.

A local town, Naga Village spread over the so-called Treasury Hill and Church Knoll to the north. Other eminences, such as "GPT Ridge" Aradura Spur, rose to the south and west.

British and Indian combat support and service support troops were camped along the ridge, giving names to various features such as "Field Supply Depot or FSD Hill".

LTG Slim had the same grand tactical vision as his opposite number Mutaguchi; he saw Kohima as no more than a roadblock or a delaying position. The real objective were the supply depots around Dimapur, and therefore 161 Brigade was held in position west of Kohima to cover the more critical position. Only a portion of the brigade - a company of the Rajputs and 4th Bn, Royal West Kent Regiment - managed to reinforce Kohima before 31st Division arrived and cut the road from Dimapur. The Kohima garrison was surrounded and the battle of Kohima had properly begun.

The details of the fighting are well described elsewhere; for about eleven days the defenders withstood a nightmarish succession of infantry attacks and shelling. The only drinking water point, on GPT Hill, was overrun on 6 APR as the British and Indian defenders were driven in to a relatively small perimetr on Garrison Hill. Before thirst could force their surrender a small spring was uncovered on the north side of the hill.

The north end of the ridge, around and within the regional Deputy Commissioner's bungalow, was a ridiculously vicious miniature death-struggle of the sort that seems to develop in protracted engagements.

The so-called "Battle of the Tennis Court" locked the West Kents and Assamese (from both the Assam Rifles and the Assam Regiment) with units of the IJA 58th Regiment in a regular WW1-style trench battle, with no man's land as the net and the two sides dug in within a short grenade-toss of each other along the sidelines.

Aerial resupply and artillery support from 161 Brigade helped hold the Kohima positions, and this dogfight went on from about 8 APR to 18 APR; the worst night coming on 17/18 APR when 31st Division troopers overran the DC's bungalow and Kuki Picquet and cut right through the defensive box. But the Japanese troops were whipped, couldn't managed to push on over the top of Garrison Hill, and by the morning of 18 APR elements of the British 2nd Division, 161st Indian Brigade and Lee-Grant tanks from XXXIII Corps cleared the north-west of Garrison Hill and opened the road from Dimapur.

But the Furious Division wasn't beaten yet. The now-pointless fight continued another month. The Japanese positions on the tennis court were cleared 12 MAY by an infantry-tank assault led by U.S.-made Lee (M3) tanks of 150 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps. The next day Japanese troops were spotted abandoning their positions not under pressure.

Sato's men were largely undone by British tactical stubbornness, aerial superiority, and logistical disaster, with the supply problems perhaps the most critical. Almost no materials reached 31st Division after 6 APR.

The Naga hills themselves provided little provender and were dangerous to forage; the Naga hillpeople were not pleased to see these strange Asian invaders and enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in the headhunting forbidden by the British authorities. Japanese foraging parties tended to simply disappear into the jungle...

LTG Sato informed his Army commander of his supply issues on 13 MAY: “Because of the rain and starvation there is no time. Decided this division, accompanying the sick and wounded, should move to a point where it can receive supplies.”

Mutaguchi's reply was characteristic of the man: “It is very difficult to understand why your division should evacuate under the pretext of supply difficulties, forgetting its brilliant services. Maintain the present position for ten days. A resolute will makes the Gods give way.”

But a resolute will cannot fill an empty belly or reload an empty rifle.

By mid-May the Allied forces, now over two-division strength, were driving in the Japanese positions north and south of Kohima Ridge. LTG Sato informed his superior that if he was not resupplied by 1 JUN he would have to withdraw. In the first week of June what was left of 31st Division began to filter southeast, and then east.

The retreat was horrific. Whatever supplies and food had been pushed up from 15th Army rear had been used up or eaten by the line-of-support troops who were as starved as the grunts. Japanese troopers literally dropped dead along the jungle trails, drowned in creeks, and were abandoned under trees. Their pursuers from XXXIII Corps, 2nd British and 7th Indian Divisions, had little to do other than walk carefully behind this deathmarch and police up the equipment from the bodies.

On 22 JUN the lead XXXIII Corps elements met 5th Indian Division advancing north out of Imphal.

The Outcome: British grand tactical victory with strategic consequences.

The Impact: Kohima-Imphal effectively broke the IJA 15th Army; the losses in men and material couldn't be and were never recovered. When 14th Army advanced into Burma the following year it was practically a walkover. The failure of the U-Go Offensive has been compared to Stalingrad, a disaster from which the IJA in Southeast Asia never recovered.

But why did this attack fail so disastrously? What had happened that had so changed the two armed forces engaged so as to reverse the British disasters of Malaya into the British walkover in Burma in three years?

Well, here's what I think:

1. The IJA suffered from a great excess of "warriorness" There's a sort of a saying about how amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk about logistics; like all sayings its as much false as true. But in general good fighters were promoted in the IJA; good logisticians - or good strategists, or good innovators - were not. In my opinion the IJA produced a fairly good bunch of company commanders. Even their best commanders had fairly serious issues with logistics; Yamashita in Malaya, Homma in the Philippines. And for all that tactical maneuver was expected grand tactical or strategic maneuver was considered effete Western caprioling; Homma was effectively relieved for not being brutal enough at Bataan.

2. And even tactically, the IJA was crude even by the standards of 1941 and never improved. As we'll see in May, the IJA never really bothered learning the lessons of armored warfare, and against a mobile opponent was brutally mishandled, first at Khalkhin-Gol in 1939 and again against the Soviets in 1945. And, to an extent, that's understandable; the IJA was designed to fight against the Chinese, who were pathetic, and in the islands of the South Pacific where armor was not a critical skill.

But even the slower, simpler skills of infantry combined-arms were largely beyond the IJA. The Japanese Army in WW2 never developed an effective infantry-tank team. Japanese artillery was effective enough in defense but slow in attack and typically undersupplied at all times (another facet of the IJA's logistical shortcomings). Despite having respectable individual aircraft in 1941 the IJAAF never developed an effective close-support or aerial resupply system.

In fact, the single biggest element I see in the IJA's tactical bag of tricks was stagnation. The IJA never developed anything they didn't have in 1941; new tactics, new techniques, new equipment. They were great at static defense. They had some early successes maneuvering against enemies who were less competent tactically than they were; the British and the Americans in 1941, the Chinese pretty much anytime. But the Allies grew steadily better at warfighting, at doing everything from shooting, moving, and communicating to supplying themselves with new and better weapons. The Japanese never did.

3. The IJA had real command problems that it never solved, although this might have been more of a "Japanese" problem than an Army problem. Kohima is a classic illustration of everything wrong with IJA generalship. Almost everyone involved thought LTG Mutaguchi was an idiot whose plan was smoke and mirrors; nobody was willing to put the blocks to him. Meanwhile, LTG Sato's most dangerous course of action would have been to mask Kohima while driving on Dimapur - Slim worried that he would do just that. Instead, the 31st Division just threw itself at the defensive boxes on Kohima Ridge again and again; Mutaguchi doesn't seem to have tried to find out what Sato was doing or control him, and Sato doesn't seem to have bothered to find out what his commander's intent was. The entire C3I system in 15th Army and 31st Division was completely adrift, and nobody did anything until too late and the troops were dying of starvation in the jungle.

I understand that a big part of Japanese masculinity (at least in the Forties and among the sorts of guys who became Army generals, if not today) was that you didn't argue and bicker with one another. Everyone was supposed to have this amazing group-mind sort of thing that came from being all Japanese-y and culturally homogeneous. You could "disagree" but through a complex system of indirect signals and non-words that the recipient was supposed to just "get".

Well, it didn't work in this case and seems to have done fairly badly elsewhere. I'm not sure what that all ties up with, but it sure killed a lot of poor bastards in the Assamese hills for no damn good at all.

Regardless of the whys, the whats and wheres of Kohima are damning to the IJA. Before Kohima things were not going well for the Japanese war effort in Southeast Asia; after Kohima, and Imphal, things went from bad to worse. The war was lost.

All that was left was the killing. The monument at Kohima to the dead of the British 2nd Division sums it up bitterly but well:
When you go home
Tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow,
We gave our today.
Touchline Tattles: I'm afraid I really can't do better than our Captain Swinson. So here's his tale of the End of the Battle of Kohima:

"A few days after the road was open, orders came through that the Brigade would move down into Imphal for a rest. The Brigadier proposed riding down for a recce. with his gun-man. The road winds down out of the mountains and on to the grassy plain. What a relief to find a piece of flat ground again and a straight road instead of the eternal hair-pin bends every hundred yards or so!

We had a look at the Rest Camp allotted to us, then went along to 4 Corps H.Q. to see the B.G.S. As it was about one-thirty, he wasn't in his office, so we went along to "A" Mess to find him. I might mention that the H.Q. consists of well-built bashas on the side of a woody hill, and to get at it you have to cross the air-strip and then filter through whole covies of C.M.P.'s. In "A" Mess we found more brass hats than I've ever seen in one room together. Two Corps Commanders were there, their B.G.S.'s, not to mention B.G.A.'s, C.R.A.'s, and full Colonels. Lunch was finished and the mass of red was having coffee in the ante-room. The Brigader pushed his way in and I followed. In a corner I found a solitary subaltern: I didn't know him, but I fell on his neck like a long-lost brother. He was the only officer within three ranks of me. We introduced ourselves.

"Good morning," he said, "will you have a beer?"

"A beer?" I echoed. "I thought you were besieged and we were relieving you."

"Besieged?" he asked in a pained voice. "Whatever made you think that? We've been all right. Do have a beer. There's plenty in the Mess."

I accepted with alacrity. It was good stuff when it arrived, and I said "Cheerio" and swigged it down. Then unaccountably (to the subaltern) burst out laughing. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Anything wrong?"

I thought of the weary, beerless months we'd spent trying to relieve these people. "No, nothing wrong," I said, "but it's a bloody funny war, isn't it?"


Leon said...

Do I even need to bother complimenting you on another excellent post (excellent post BTW)? Well researched and written as always (seriously, talk to a publisher).

I actually have some (incredibly vague effete 21st C) tie in with this campaign. I've actually gamed the U-Go campaign at the operational level. It was the most brutal and painful fight I've played (as the Japanese). You faced horrible supply issues where starvation was pretty much guaranteed if you didn't win (and capture Allied supply dumps), the terrain was awful for the attack, and there was no opportunities for maneuvering or outflanking your opponents - just straight up frontal attacks. I don't think I even got close to Kohima...

I also have to feel sorry for Sato, being under that twat Mutaguchi. How much harder would the Pacific Campaign have been if the Japanese leaders figured out that Bushido won't beat bullets? It only took a few battles in WW1 for the French to realise that elan doesn't work in modern warfare.

mike said...

Nice post Chief! I believe your conclusions re the IJA are on target.
I have been interested in the Burma campaign ever since I was a boy. Not sure why? My father fought in Italy and my uncles fought in Europe also except for one who saw Okinawa. But how could anyone with a historical interest in military matters not be fascinated by the struggle in Burma? Just look at the colorful characters involved:

Vinegar Joe;

1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma;

Author Peter Fleming who was a master of disinformatzia for Mountbatten, and was older brother to Ian Fleming of James Bond fame;

Bo Aung San, Burmese nationalist, one of the founders of the BIA (later the BNA) the Burmese puppet army of the Japanese who later betrayed them and went over to General Slim, and who was father to Nobel winner Aung San Su Kyi;

General Slim, called by many the most outstanding British general of that era surpassing Montgomery and Alexander;

Author George MacDonald Fraser of the Flashman series, who fought at Meiktila and Pyawbe as a private and later a lance corporal in a battalion of the Border Regiment – nicknamed the Reivers or sometimes the White Gurkhas - and BTW do not tell him that after Kohima and Imphal it was a walkover as his squad lost two KIA and several WIA at Meiktila - his memoir ’Quartered Safe Out Here’ is a superlative account of those battles;

Orde Wingate and his Chindits;

Author John Masters who commanded one of Wingate’s Chindit Units, the 111th Gurkha Brigade;

Colonel Phil Cochran of the 1st Air Commando Group in Burma who was the inspiration for the character Flip Corkin of the Terry and the Pirates cartoon strip of my youth;

Survivors of the USS Houston and hundreds of thousands of other POWs who were building - and discreetly sabotaging! – the Burma Railway linking Japanese the huge supply depots in Thailand with Burma.

Ael said...

When ever I think about the Burma campaign I end up thinking about the limits of human endurance (for everyone involved).

FDChief said...

mike: Re: GMF, no question that for individual troopers you can get just as dead in a one-sided rout as you can in the most desperately close-run thing ever. No "walk-over" is ever a walkover for the poor SOB who gets killed walking over the other poor SOBs. But in purely military terms the IJA was pretty much a spent force. There was still a lot of killing left to do, but it was just corduroying the road to surrender with corpses...

Interestingly, I've read both GMF's and Master's autobiographic recollections of the campaign, and what I came away with was the vast difference in outlook between the North British private and the Colonial British colonel. Masters has a very rose-colored glasses view of 14th Army; in his mind, it seems, everything was wonderful and brotherly-in-arms until those rascally politicians came in and broke up the Empire. Fraser doesn't seem so convinced of that, but, then, you don't really see any of the colonial units through his eyes - his concept of "empire" seems to be little more than a notion and a fading one at that. I think his nostalgia for the great days of the Raj crept over him with age.

FDChief said...

Ael: And beyond. The notion of spending years trying to survive, much less fight, in that sort of place makes me shudder...

Pluto said...

There's no doubt that Burma was bad but everything I've heard suggests that the terrain around Bona in New Guinea was probably the worst that large numbers of troops fought over in the Pacific War.

I also agree with the other reviewers, Chief. Yet another bang-up job.

mike said...


Well the Japanese held up Slim at Meiktila for almost two months. After that it was the rout you talk about for the 260 miles to Rangoon except for a slight road bump at Pyawbe. They pressed on as hard as they did because they did not want to get stopped by the monsoon and then let the IJA reorganize and consolidate a defense of Rangoon.

One thing did stand out from reading Fraser, Masters, and a bio of Slim. That was the innovative use of air resupply for the spearhead units. Food, ammo, and POL was never a problem. I understand it was mostly the US 10th Air Force although I am sure the RAF participated. 10th AF supported Kohima and Imphal also. Hmmm, did they do a nighttime/daytime split as in Europe? Both Fraser and Masters spoke well of Yank Close Air Support. And didn't Masters also praise deep jungle medevacs of wounded Chindits by Yank piper cubs?

Don Francisco said...

Another good post chief. I read Slim's account a couple of years back, it's one of the clearest accounts by any general I've read. Despite the IJA being a far inferior opponent to the Wermacht, it's hard not to compare the resources he had and the results he got with Monty.

mike said...

Chief - Wasn't Burma the first use of helicopters in wartime? Primarily for medevac and light transport if I recall.

Ael - Gona? And the Kokoda Track to get there over the spine of the Owen Stanley mountains.

FDChief said...

Pluto: Agree; sounds like New Guinea was flat-out awful. Same problems with the IJA there, too; terrible logistics meant that thousands of the poor bastards died of starvation and disease in the jungle. Plus...headhunters!


FDChief said...

mike: My understanding is that most of the tactical air operations in Burma were RAF. The Wikipedia entry for CBI says "In the autumn of 1943 SEAAC had 48 RAF and 17 USAAF squadrons; by the following May, the figures had risen to 64 and 28, respectively.", suggesting that most of the A/C in theatre were British.

The USAAF did provide pretty much all the heavy bombers, but my understanding is that most of those missions were deep-strike raids on logistical targets similar to the raids in Europe...

DF: I know that his guys in 14th Army loved Slim, thought he was the best of British generalship in WW2. Given what he had to overcome, I'd say that their estimation might be right. Mind you, the competition isn't exactly intense. The only real competitor I'd put up there would be Auchinlek, with Monty and Wavell perhaps distant thirds. All three of the others had definite strengths and flaws, only Slim was perhaps the best rounded of all. He made his mistakes, too, but perhaps his greatest strength was that he LEARNED from them and didn't repeat them.

Don Francisco said...

Agree with your comment that Slim learnt from his mistake - the longer he ran 14th army, the more competent its operations & capability. You couldn't say the same of 8th army or 21st AG.

Thinking of doing anything else on the IJA? It's been a great series of posts.

Leon said...

Forgive me if you've already covered this but, what about Shanghai 1937? Some liken it to the Japanese Stalingrad. There's also the Ichi-Go campaign by the IJA in 44 which was a tactical sucess.

FDChief said...

DF, Leon: The battle for this month is Khalkhin-Gol, 1939; Zhukov and the Red Army trounce the IJA and set Imperial Japan on the fatal course of Drang nach Suden...

mike said...

Chief -

You are correct I am sure that the RAF and/or Brit Commonwealth squadrons provided the greatest number of combat sorties at Kohima and Imphal and follow-on ops in Burma. I do believe though that you will find at least half or perhaps the majority of combat cargo and troop carrier sorties in support of Slim were done by the 10th Air Force. As far as I can find the Brits only had about four C-47 squadrons in theater, The rest of their transports were little guys or bomber conversions with not much load capacity.

"Mountbatten ordered 24 American air-transports off the Hump route to fly-in the 5th Indian Division from Arakan to the Kohima battle. By rail this movement would have taken four weeks. The first echelons of Brigadier Warren's 161st Indian Infantry Brigade reached Kohima in time to reinforce the garrison before all roads were cut. Mountbatten's decision was taken on his own responsibility, for the American aircraft flying on the Hump route were not under his command, but directly under that of General Arnold in Washington. General Arnold concurred in this action."

And the 443rd Troop Carrier Group (C-47s) was diverted from Europe to help resupply Slim's forces.

At least 20 of those 64 RAF squadrons you mention were in Ceylon waiting for a repeat of the Kido Butai raid on Colombo. And many other of those 64 RAF squadrons you mention were part of the Fleet Air Arm aboard Royal Navy A/C carriers in the Indian Ocean (3 RN fleet carriers at 5 to 6 squadrons each) and several smaller escort carriers. And how many were training squadrons for the RIAF?

The American long range bombers you mention were shutting down Rangoon Harbor to Japanese shipping and also bombing Japanese supply depots in Bangkok. They played a large part in Slim's victory.

FDChief said...

mike: Point well taken on the transport A/C; the British never did produce anything equivalent to the US C-47/C-46. So most of the logistical support would have been flown in US A/C by US crews.

Though one (I think) often-overlooked factor in the Allied success in WW2 was the degree to which the major Allied powers were able to integrate their forces. So the fact that the vast majority of the ground troops were British and the logistical air transport was American never became a problem. Given the difficulty that the Axis powers had making their own armed services work together, the international cooperation the Allies achieved is nothing short of amazing...

brian said...

Thank you for another excellent post. I echo what Leon said; you should think about sending these in to popular-history magazines - they don't pay much but you'll be in print!

Try http://strategyandtacticspress.com/writing-articles/, they have three magazines that publish this kind of thing (I've been writing stuff for them off and on for 20 years)