CDG 53 – Battle of Kohima, 1944
The article below is an abridged version of Combat Decision Game #53, "Battle of Kohima, 1944,” written by Andrew H. Hershey. Additional text, with illustrations, appears in the November 2012 edition of Armchair General® magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on a U.S. Tank Attack at Chipyong-Ni, 1951, and Manstein at Stalingrad, 1942. On newsstands now.
This CDG places readers in the role of Brigadier D.F.W. Warren, commander of the British and Commonwealth troops of 161st Indian Infantry Brigade, defending the outpost of Kohima along the British supply line.
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Battle of Kohima, 1944
Miserable weather, forbidding jungle terrain, rampant diseases, supply shortages, and above all a skilled and determined enemy combined to make combat in World War II’s Burma campaign a nightmare for British, Commonwealth and Allied troops. The initial Japanese invasion of Britain’s Burma colony in January 1942 advanced all the way to the Burma-India border, pushing greatly outmatched Allied forces back into India. In 1943, the British launched offensives to regain their lost territory, but the Japanese once again forced them into a humiliating retreat. Yet British and Allied commanders remained determined to win back Burma, while the Japanese were equally resolved to use Burma as a launching pad from which to extend their conquests into India – Britain’s most important colony and the vital Allied base supplying fighting forces in Southeast Asia and China.
In March 1944, the Japanese launched a major offensive in which their Burma Area Army thrust northwest across the Burma-India border aiming for India’s Brahmaputra River valley. Code-named Operation U-Go, the attack was intended to cut off Allied supply lines to British forces fighting in northeast Burma, neutralize Allied airbases flying equipment and supplies to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese armies, and pave the wave for further Japanese offensives into India. If successful, Operation U-Go would be disastrous for Allied fortunes in the region.
Soon after the Japanese kicked off U-Go, the focus of the fighting became Imphal, a major British supply base inside India about 65 kilometers from the Burmese border. Their seizure of this key objective would open the way to the Brahmaputra River valley. Their attack, however, ran head-on into major British forces gathering around Imphal in preparation to mount their own offensive into northern Burma. A fierce battle began for control of Imphal and the surrounding Imphal Plain as the advancing Japanese forces heavily engaged units of British XIV Army, commanded by Lieutenant General William Slim. (See Battlefield Leader, September 2007 ACG.) As long as Slim’s British and Commonwealth forces continued to contest Imphal, the Japanese attack would be stalled at this crucial roadblock.
As the fighting around Imphal dragged on to the end of March, Japanese commanders devised a strategy to break the impasse by striking at their British opponents’ vital supply line – a tenuous, 100-mile track connecting Imphal with the main supply base at Dimapur, India. The plan called for General Kotoku Sato to lead his 31st Infantry Division and cut the Allied supply line 120 kilometers north of Imphal at Kohima, an isolated British outpost. But when Slim learned from captured enemy documents that a Japanese division was targeting Kohima, he immediately dispatched 161st Indian Infantry Brigade to defend the town.
Armchair General® takes you back to April 4, 1944, during the World War II campaign in Burma, where you will play the role of Brigadier D.F.W. Warren, commander of the British and Commonwealth troops of 161st Indian Infantry Brigade. As the fierce battle between British and Japanese forces rages to the south at Imphal, your mission is to defend Kohima, an important British-controlled town positioned along the main Allied supply line running from Dimapur to Imphal. If you fail to prevent the Japanese from capturing Kohima, British forces at Imphal will be cut off and defeated – a strategic disaster that will open the way for the Japanese offensive to advance into India.
Kohima lies at the summit of the best pass through the region’s rugged terrain into the open plain of eastern India. The town’s strategic importance is now greatly magnified by its dominant position on the main Allied supply route between Dimapur and Imphal. With the Japanese suddenly shifting the emphasis to Kohima, both it and Imphal now combine to form the vital gateway into India for Japanese forces advancing from Burma. Thus possession of the two towns is key to the success of the enemy invasion.
Kohima is perched on an extended ridgeline featuring several prominent hilltops known as (from north to south) Treasury Hill, Indian General Hospital spur, Garrison Hill, Kuki Piquet Hill, Fuel Supply Depot Hill, Detail Issue Hill and Jail Hill. (See CDG map, right) For the Japanese to seize Kohima successfully, they must also overrun and capture each of the hilltops. If defenders can hold out on even one of them, they will prevent a Japanese victory. Yet dense jungle terrain completely surrounds the ridge, severely restricting clear fields of fire for defenders while concealing approaching attackers.
After fighting in the ongoing Imphal campaign, your 161st Indian Infantry Brigade was withdrawn to Kohima at the end of March. Then yesterday, April 3, it was ordered to leave Kohima and move to Dimapur. Today, barely 24 hours later as your 1,400-man brigade was en route to Dimapur, your orders were suddenly changed again: Reverse march, return as quickly as possible to Kohima, and defend it at all costs against an anticipated attack by an entire Japanese division.
General Kotoku Sato’s 31st Infantry Division is composed of 5,760 troops organized into 58th Infantry Regiment, 124th Infantry Regiment, and 138th Infantry Regiment, supported by 31st Mountain Artillery Regiment. Japanese forces primarily rely on light infantry tactics, which to this stage of the war they have masterfully conducted. Their successes in the jungles of Malaya and Burma have shown them to be tough, resilient and extremely adept at maneuvering rapidly in miserable weather and difficult terrain. Sato’s infantrymen carry bolt-action Type 38 (6.5 mm) and Type 99 (7.7 mm) rifles, light and medium machine guns, mortars (50 mm and 81 mm) and hand grenades. The division’s artillery regiment contains 30-40 artillery guns (70 mm and 75 mm) light enough to be manhandled through the jungle and over rough terrain.
Your 161st Indian Infantry Brigade opposing Sato’s division contains British and Indian troops organized into three 450-man infantry battalions: 4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment (British); 1st Battalion, 1st Punjab Regiment (Indian); and 4th Battalion, 7th Rajput Regiment (Indian). Your men are principally armed with bolt-action No. 4 Mk I Lee-Enfield rifles, Bren light machine guns, Vickers medium machine guns, hand grenades and mortars (81 mm). Two batteries of 24th Indian Mountain Artillery Regiment provide heavier fire support with a total of eight 25-pounder (88 mm) guns.
In addition to your brigade, a small British garrison in Kohima under Colonel Hugh Richards has been subordinated to your command for the town’s defense. Its combat strength is limited to a few hundred soldiers with small arms, some mortars and one 25-pounder gun. The men include inexperienced recruits from 1st Battalion Assam Regiment and an ad hoc battalion-equivalent of soldiers gathered from the garrison. Approximately 1,000 non-combat support troops are in Kohima to oversee the supply depot, hospital and communications systems, but they cannot be counted on to be of any value in combat.
ON THE DIMAPUR-KOHIMA ROAD
As you receive General Slim’s order countermanding your move to Dimapur and directing you to return at once to Kohima, your brigade is strung out along the Dimapur-Kohima road with the Punjab battalion leading the column and the West Kent battalion (positioned closest to Kohima) bringing up the rear. You are traveling with the Rajput battalion near the center of the column in the area where the road passes by the village of Jotsoma. The brigade’s artillery troops are situated between the Rajput battalion and the West Kent battalion.
You immediately halt the column and summon your battalion commanders to hurry to your location. Within a half-hour, they are gathered around you in a roadside clearing, obviously curious to find out what is going on.
"Gentlemen," you explain, "the army commander has canceled the brigade’s move to Dimapur, as it appears that the Japanese are up to something. From what I can gather from his new orders, enemy forces – probably a full division – is headed for Kohima, likely intending to capture the town to cut the main supply route to our chaps fighting at Imphal. We’re to turn around immediately and defend Kohima at all costs, regardless of what the enemy throws at us. I don’t need to tell you how important it is that our forces win the battle at Imphal, but they can’t do that if we don’t hold Kohima."
The grim prospect of a lone brigade facing an entire Japanese division is reflected in the dark looks on your battalion commanders’ faces. You must take their minds off what the Japanese might do to them and start them thinking instead about what they’re going to do to the Japanese.
"All right men," you announce, "I want you to listen carefully to three courses of action I’m considering for how we can best accomplish our new mission."
Course of Action One:
"My first plan of action," you begin, "is the quickest to implement and gives us the most flexibility to react to whatever plan of attack the enemy uses. We’ll split the brigade defense by sending the West Kent battalion back to Kohima at once, while the remainder of the brigade – including the artillery – establishes a strong defense here near Jotsoma. The West Kent battalion and the Kohima garrison will defend from the hilltops along Kohima ridge, supported by intense fire from our 25-pounder guns. This places a solid force at Kohima, while the brigade’s remaining two battalions protect our artillery and stand by to maneuver against the enemy’s weak points or, if necessary, to go to Kohima and reinforce the defenders there."
An obviously pleased Lieutenant Colonel Humphrey Hill, who commands the two batteries of 24th Indian Mountain Artillery, responds first. "Colonel, this plan allows me to use my eight 25-pounders most effectively in this tactical situation. Kohima ridge and its approaches for several kilometers are well within range of our gun emplacements here at Jotsoma. And with two of the brigade’s infantry battalions protecting our guns, there’s less danger of the Japanese breaking through, overrunning our artillery positions and eliminating the brigade’s main fire support."
Lieutenant Colonel John Laverty, commander of the West Kent battalion, is much less supportive of this plan. "Colonel, with respect, I must point out that my single battalion will be hard-pressed to defend the whole ridge against an entire Japanese division. I cannot rely on the Kohima garrison to add much to our defense, and even the prospect of one or both of the other infantry battalions reinforcing us merely raises the specter of feeding the brigade into the battle piecemeal and allowing the larger enemy division to defeat our units one by one."
Course of Action Two:
"The next course of action I’m considering," you continue, "is to go ‘all in’ at Kohima by moving the entire brigade there as rapidly as possible. This consolidated defense will keep the brigade together in one place, allow us to shift forces to areas that become vulnerable to enemy breakthroughs, simplify ammunition redistribution between companies and battalions, and put the greatest number of defenders on the ridge’s key hilltops."
Laverty enthusiastically replies, "Colonel, this plan allows the brigade to create the strongest possible defensive position on Kohima ridge, and I fully support it for the reasons you’ve stated. A consolidated defense with the brigade occupying all the hilltops gives us the ability to create interlocking fields of fire between our positions and thus protect one another’s flanks. This setup will be one damned tough nut for the Japanese to crack."
Hill, however, voices his doubts about the plan. "Frankly, Colonel, I have reservations about my artillery guns’ ability to provide maximum fire support under these circumstances. From a technical fire-control standpoint, firing defensive barrages into the Kohima ridge area from positions here at Jotsoma is much more effective than firing out of a restricted area consisting of numerous hilltops that will inevitably prevent our fire from reaching some sectors."
Course of Action Three:
"Finally," you conclude, "the last plan under consideration is to beat the Japanese at their own game. From Malaya through Burma, time and again we’ve seen the enemy maneuver swiftly through the jungle, outflank our positions and then hit us with surprise attacks where we least expect them. Well, by now we’ve been at this game long enough to have learned the ‘rules.’ Thus while the Kohima garrison holds the hilltops and absorbs the enemy’s initial assault, we’ll launch a full-brigade counterattack against a vulnerable Japanese flank. Meanwhile, the brigade artillery will provide fire support from positions at Jotsoma."
Major Ewing Grimshaw, your operations officer, eagerly expands on the tactical advantages of your counterattack plan. "Well done, Colonel! It’s high time we gave the enemy a dose of his own medicine. Even a cursory glance around the ridge reveals that the area is made up of restrictive terrain broken by numerous ravines and streams. Such rugged landscape will make it impossible for an entire division to move through as a single body; thus the attacking Japanese forces will be fragmented into several smaller elements highly vulnerable to a well-coordinated counterattack."
Laverty offers a word of caution on this final course of action. "Colonel, my only concern with this plan is the Kohima garrison’s ability to avoid being overrun before our counterattack produces the desired effect. If the Japanese brush aside the garrison and quickly capture Kohima ridge, they will turn the tables on us and we will suddenly find ourselves having to attack and capture Kohima, which will be held by an entire enemy division!"
You appreciate your battalion commanders’ frank comments, but now it is time to make your decision. You end the meeting by saying, "Thank you, gentlemen. Now please return to your battalions and stand by to receive brigade battle orders. Good luck to all of you."
Brigadier Warren, what is your decision?
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About the Author
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the "USMC Gazette" and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
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