- Contributed by
- Renfrewshire Libraries
- People in story:
- Bombardier John Stewart
- Location of story:
- India and Burma
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 January 2006
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Jan Kilgariff of Renfrewshire Libraries on behalf of Anne MacIntyre and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, I thought I would tell the story of my father, John Kirk Stewart, who was a Bombardier with the Royal Artillery in both India and Burma for five years.
I am telling his story as I would like to remind people of the great feats performed in that long and remorseless campaign by ordinary men from many nations, who sustained one resounding defeat and several major reverses before decisively beating one of the most formidable opponents ever encountered by the British. It is not too much to say that the 14th Army took on and defeated the Japanese. It was the only occasion in World War Two where a Japanese field army was beaten and this was achieved despite the early calamities, an appallingly unhealthy climate, and a multitude of administrative problems aggravated by the different languages, feeding requirements and religions of what was the last great multi-racial army to fight under the British flag. One great quality shines out from this campaign and that is the enormous extent of the comradeship and sense of ‘belonging’ that united the British, Indian, Ghurkha, Burmese and African. They were indeed the great team of which General Slim, their leader, spoke so warmly.
Dad was one of those ordinary men and he was awarded the Burma Star.
Here is the story of the battle he endured at Kohima and Imphal.
Kohima and Imphal
On March 6th 1944, the Japanese launched the U-Go offensive in northern Burma. U-Go had twin aims: to pre-empt the Allies own plans to retake Burma and to break into India itself. The failure of successive British offensives in the Arakan, the steamy coastal region from which it was hoped it would be possible to gain access to Central Burma, had reinforced the Japanese high command’s low opinion of their opponent’s abilities as jungle fighters. They were confident of victory, but were soon to be taught a terrible lesson. The gateway to India lay through the isolated border town of Imphal in the then district of Manipur. A 130-miles (210km) road wound north from Imphal to the hill town of Kohima before running on to the railroad at Dimapur.
It was Kohima’s only contact with the outside world and would link the two remote settlements in the high hills of Assam in some of the most savage fighting in the war.
Two divisions of the Japanese 15th Army, commanded by the hot-tempered General Renya Mutaguchi, crossed the Chindwin River and moved on Imphal. The third headed for Kohima. Both the Japanese and the British were operating under severe disadvantages. Time was not on Mutaguchi’s side. Once battle was joined, his troops could rely on no more than a month’s supplies. In May, the monsoon would arrive, making offensive operations all but impossible. In contrast, the commander of the British 14th Army, General William Slim, had been preparing to go over to the offensive and was not best placed to receive an attack in a sector where there were such poor communications and few facilities for the basing of large numbers of troops now committed to the front. Nevertheless, Slim had one invaluable advantage under his superb leadership, the Fourteenth Army had been transformed from a shattered force which had been driven out of Burma in the spring of 1942 into a highly motivated army. But it had yet to fight a full-scale battle against experienced Japanese troops who had been ordered by the super-aggressive Mutaguchi to fight to the death.
The British were prepared for the Japanese thrust. Ample evidence of the build-up was provided by aerial reconnaissance. Nevertheless, Slim was surprised by its initial speed. By April 5 the Japanese had cut the Imphal-Kohima road and isolated the settlements. Slim ordered his subordinate commanders not to withdraw without permission from higher authority. It was imperative to deny the Japanese the Mountain roads which led down into the Indian plain. Imphal and Kohima, the later situated on a saddle ridge which in happier days was bright with forests and tropical flowers, would have to be held at all costs.
At Kohima, last-minute reinforcements were rushed in from Dimapur by the commander of the British XXXIII Corps, Lieutenant-General Montagu Stopford. Two battalions, supported by artillery, were positioned 2 miles (3km) west of Kohima itself on the highest hill of the ridge, later to be known as Garrison hill.
Fighting began on the 30th as General Sato’s 31st division pushed back the scattered units of the Assam Rifles and other regiments which were defending the approaches to Kohima. The commander at Kohima, Colonel Hugh Richards, had a force of approximately 1200 men to resist the all-out attack of 12,000 Japanese jungle veterans. He had to rely on the arrival of a breakthrough force from Dimapur, the British 2nd Division, without which his defenses would be overwhelmed.
The Japanese arrived on April 5th. In the teeth of desperate resistance they took the strong points on the hills and hummocks around Kohima. The pattern of the battle was now set.
Men crouched in slit trenches sometimes only yards away from the enemy. One officer of the West Kents calculated that from the plop of a grenade being fired to its arrival was no more than 14 seconds. The intensity of Japanese artillery, morter and sniper fire in such a small space meant that movement between units was virtually impossible by day and extremely hazardous at night.
Few of the men locked in this fight for survival had a clear idea of what was happening beyond the lip of their own trench. Day and night the British and Indian troops were subjected to Japanese broadcast appeals to surrender. Sato’s aim was the exhaust the defenders of Kohima. Japanese artillery was most active at dawn and sunset, shredding nerves as well as destroying targets. When darkness fell, the Allied troops stood to in the dark before the moon rose, straining to catch the rustle of Japanese infiltrators moving behind them. As one of Kohima’s defenders observed, this stoked the fear that when he awoke the occupants of the next gun pit might be the enemy.
On April 11th Stopford sent 5th British Infantry Brigade up the Dimapur-Kohima road. Two days later it had smashed its way through to the Jotsoma ‘box’ held by 161st Brigade. By now, the situation at Kohima was desperate. A message was sent to the 5th Brigade that unless help arrived within 48 hours Kohima would fall: ‘The men’s spirits are all right but there aren’t many of us left…’ On the 17th the Japanese launched their fiercest attack on the slopes of Garrison Hill. Phosphorous bombardments were followed by howling infantry assaults with grenades and machine-guns. To the din was added the fire of the defenders’ howitzers.
By the night of the 18th the men holding Garrison Hill were on their last legs. One young private asked Colonel Richards, ‘When we die, sir, is that the end or do we go on?’
The Japanese swarmed everywhere but were unable to mount a co-ordinate battalion-strength attack which would have spelled the end at Kohima. The ground around Garrison Hill — just 350 yards (320m) square — was now all that was left of the perimeter which had held on April 5. But the men of the West Kents hung on until dawn of the 20th when troops of the Royal Berkshires, the advance guards of 2nd Division, broke in to relieve them.
The stench of rotting corpses was so thick on Garrison Hill that many of the Berkshires were physically sick as they dug in on the battle-scarred hill, whose blasted trees were festooned with blackened shreds of the parachutes used in the air supply of the Kohima garrison.
The evacuation of the West Kents did not mean the end of the battle. The Japanese still occupied most of the Kohima massif and would have to be driven off amid the downpours of the monsoon, which brought with it mud, malaria and dysentery.
The most savage fighting of the battle erupted in mid-May. The sliver of ground at stake was the British Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow and its adjacent tennis court. This had been seized on April 9 by the Japanese who had built a warren of bunkers and weapons pits on the surrounding terraced hillside. The task of winkling out the Japanese was given to the men of the 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment. It was a dirty business made more difficult by the terrain which denied the Dorsets any armored support. A solution was found by the Royal Engineers who cut a path to a spur behind the bungalow. They then winched a Grant tank up and pushed it down the slope. It came to rest on the baseline of the tennis court, where its commander, Sergeant Waterhouse of the 149 Royal Tank Regiment poured a hail of fire into the Japanese bunkers at no more than 20 yards (18m) range.
The Japanese fled on to the waiting rifles of the Dorsets. Only the chimneystack of the bungalow remained. The rest of the landscape around was a shell-churned rubbish dump alive with rats. When he saw it, General Stopford compared it with the Somme in 1916: ‘One could tell how desperate the fighting had been.’
By now the Japanese had run out of time, supplies and ammunition. On May 31, Sato ordered his men to withdraw to Imphal. Exhausted and riddled with disease, they were harried all the way by the Allies. Imphal was relieved on June 22, after over 80 days of siege, and now it was the turn of Mutaguchi to throw in the towel. Early in July, his 15th Army pulled out, the survivors struggling down liquefied roads to cross the Chindwin on to the Burma plains. Only 20,000 of the 85,000 Japanese who had come to invade India were left standing.
Slim now had a springboard for the reconquest of Burma. The cost to the allies had been 17,857 British and Indian troops killed, wounded and missing. The dead at Kohima have their own simple and moving monument which bears the epitaph: ‘When you go home, tell them of us, and say: “For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.’
After the war John came back to Elderslie, married Janet (Jenny Palmer) and had one daughter, Anne.
During the war Janet and her sister Margaret served as V.A.D.’s at the Military Hospital at Erskine.
Dad worked for many years as a Civil Servant at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Bishopton and later was promoted to work for the Inland Revenue in Paisley. He died in 1979. Mum is now 92 years old and still lives in Elderslie.
Written by daughter Anne MacIntyre, Linlithgow
With thanks to the Burma Star Organisation.
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