This article is an edited transcript of Imphal and Kohima with James Holland, available on History Hit TV.
One of the lesser known battles of World War Two was fought around Imphal and the neighbouring village of Kohima, in Nagaland, north-east India, in 1944.
Imphal and Kohima are sometimes regarded as separate engagements but it’s perhaps better to consider them as one big battle which took place in the spring and summer of 1944.
Having driven the British out of South-East Asia, humiliating them in Malaysia, Singapore and Burma, the Japanese were now pushing into the heart of the British Raj.
It was the task of William Slim, recently appointed as the commander of the British Army in the region, to repel these Japanese forces, led by General Renya Mutuguchi.
Two years of misery in the jungle
In 1942, the British had tried to get into Arakan in north-west Burma (now Rakhine State in Myanmar), but made an absolute hash of it.
Their misery was quickly compounded by a monsoon that completely destroyed whatever infrastructure was available in the jungle.
There were no roads, just muddy tracks, and when the monsoon came, you simply couldn’t pass them. It became very hard to supply the front line.
So the British were forced to wait another year until the monsoons were over and they could try again. But the monsoons hit again in 1943 and they still couldn’t do anything.
At that point, the morale of the army was at rock bottom and the physical condition of the men was no better. There was also lots of disease, particularly malaria, which further weakened the troops.
Of course, illness significantly eroded efficiency – soldiers had to be removed from the battlefront and transported quite a long way to hospitals in Bengal.
There was also an issue around skills. The soldiers weren’t properly trained for combat in Asia. They were still doing the standard infantry and artillery drills you’d use in Europe.
Something had to change and, under the leadership of Slim, it did. The troops were properly trained, access to medical treatment was improved and strategy evolved.
Victory at the Admin Box
The first evidence that these changes might bear fruit arrived with a great victory in Arakan, in the early part of 1944.
The battle was fought at a site that was known to the British as the “Admin Box”. The Japanese tried to outflank the British and surround them, but the Anglo-Indian force held its ground and decimated the Japanese.
It was a triumph built on Slim’s decision to implement a newly defensive approach.
The Japanese troops were typically very lightly equipped, a tactic designed to maximise speed and mobility. But it meant that they had very limited supplies, including food. By standing their ground until the Japanese were exhausted, the British-Indian forces were able to defend the Admin Box and emerge victorious.
The strategy would go on to be the template for success at Imphal and Kohima.