CDG 53 – Battle of Kohima, 1944
The November 2012 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “Battle of Kohima, 1944.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Brigadier D.F.W. Warren, commander of the British and Commonwealth troops of 161st Indian Infantry Brigade during World War II. In early April 1944, as the fierce Burma Theater battle between British and Japanese forces raged at Imphal near the India-Burma border, Warren’s mission was to defend Kohima, an isolated British supply center 120 kilometers north. If Warren’s brigade failed to hold Kohima against a powerful Japanese assault, British forces at Imphal would be cut off and defeated. Such a strategic disaster would open the way for the Japanese offensive to advance into India, Britain’s most important colony and the vital Allied base supplying fighting forces in Southeast Asia and China.
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The previous month, in March 1944, the Japanese had launched Operation U-Go, a major offensive in which Japan’s Burma Area Army struck northwest across the border aiming to capture India’s Brahmaputra River Valley. If successful, the attack would interdict Allied supply lines to British forces fighting in northeast Burma, neutralize Allied air bases flying war materiel to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese armies, and open the way for further Japanese offensives into India. The attack, however, was stalled at Imphal by Lieutenant General William Slim’s British XIV Army.
The fighting at Imphal dragged on throughout March, causing Japanese commanders to devise a strategy to break the impasse. They decided to attack Kohima using the 5,760 soldiers of General Kotoku Sato’s 31st Infantry Division. Seizing the small but important British base at Kohima would cut the tenuous, 100-mile-long supply line linking Imphal with Britain’s main logistical base at Dimapur, India. If Kohima fell, Slim’s army at Imphal would be isolated and inevitably defeated.
On April 4, when Slim became aware of the Japanese plans to attack Kohima, he immediately ordered Warren’s 161st Indian Brigade – then near Jotsoma, traveling on the road from Kohima toward Dimapur – to defend Kohima along with the small garrison force at the supply base and to hold it at all costs.
Warren decided to split his brigade into two forces, sending one infantry battalion (West Kents) into Kohima to stiffen the garrison and to hold key hilltops against enemy infantry attacks, while keeping his remaining two infantry battalions and artillery (24th Indian Mountain Artillery Regiment’s two 25-pounder batteries, a total of eight guns) in defensive positions at Jotsoma. This troop disposition placed his superior artillery (well protected by his two remaining infantry battalions) in the best location to provide all-around fire support for Kohima’s infantry defenders, while holding Jotsoma assured continuous logistical support from Dimapur. Sato’s force, on the other hand, was far away from Japanese supply bases, at the end of a long and tortuous jungle route vulnerable to Allied raids and airstrikes.
Yet fierce Japanese infantry attacks turned the battle into a brutal fight for Kohima’s hilltops and surrounding terrain that dragged on until the end of May. The fighting was horrific and often at close quarters as the Japanese infantrymen pressed their attacks in spite of huge casualty numbers. At one point, 161st Brigade’s West Kents infantrymen held only one of Kohima’s key hilltops.
Despite facing great odds, Warren’s brigade held on to Kohima. In mid-April, his unit was relieved of its defense mission when British and Commonwealth reinforcements, including tanks, took over the fighting. Although Kohima was secured near the end of May, Sato’s survivors – many starving and disease-ridden – held positions on the Kohima-Imphal road until late June, when they were finally destroyed or forced to retreat.
The British victory at Kohima not only ensured Slim’s July 1944 triumph at Imphal; it also marked the turning point for Allied fortunes in the Burma campaign.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: SPLIT DEFENSE, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of a World War II defense. COA One capitalized on the two key advantages Warren’s greatly outnumbered infantrymen held over the enemy: artillery and logistics. This plan placed his superior artillery in the best position to provide all-around fire support for Kohima’s defenders, and it ensured adequate infantry protection for the guns to prevent their capture or destruction by Japanese attackers. The Jotsoma position linked Warren’s brigade to the main supply base at Dimapur (to receive supplies and troop reinforcements), while his Japanese opponent, located far from Japan’s Burma bases, faced increasingly dire logistical problems and little hope of receiving reinforcements to replace heavy casualties.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: CONSOLIDATED DEFENSE put Warren’s entire brigade at risk of being cut off and besieged at Kohima and perhaps eventually overrun by Sato’s superior infantry force, and it virtually guaranteed the encircling Japanese would prevent supplies and reinforcements from getting through to the British. Significantly, it also imposed crippling constraints on Warren’s artillery – restricted fields of fire, targets masked by intervening terrain, technical gunnery problems of firing at extremely short ranges, etc. – and placed the guns at great risk of being overrun or destroyed.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: BRIGADE COUNTERATTACK was likely the worst possible course of action in this tactical situation. Since Warren’s infantrymen were outnumbered 4-to-1, counterattacking would have pit the British force’s greatest weakness against the enemy force’s greatest advantage. Even if Warren’s men had defeated a portion of Sato’s division, the British brigade likely would have remained heavily outnumbered and could have been forced into jungle fighting – at which the Japanese infantrymen were proven masters.
After Action Report
Key Principles for a World War II Defense
- Target enemy weaknesses and avoid enemy strengths.
- Make the enemy fight on your terms (location, tactics, support).
- Counter superior enemy numbers with maximum fire support (artillery and air).
- Maintain continuous logistical supply (arms, ammunition, food, etc.)
- Establish strong defensive positions on key terrain features.
- Use artillery/machine-gun fire and obstacles to channel enemy attacks into prepared kill zones.