On a bend in the road in the city of Kohima stood the bungalow of Charles Pawsey. He was the British Deputy Commissioner in the region in 1944, when the focus of World War II had shifted to Burma’s border with India in the North East.
The Japanese army, pitted against the Allied forces in the war, had captured Burma from the British and was advancing towards British-India. The plan was to capture Imphal, capital of present-day Manipur, close to India’s border with Burma. By taking Imphal, the Japanese could cut off British supply lines and thwart a retaliatory attack on Burma. Imphal would also serve as a base for the Japanese to launch a much larger attack on India.
The best way to take Imphal would be to sever the main supply route linking the town to Dimapur, which housed a major Allied supple base. The idea was to isolate and strangulate the British-Indian forces in Imphal. No food, no water, no munitions.
There was one other detail that had to be taken care of first. Severing the Dimapur-Imphal route meant taking control of Kohima, then no more than a hilly town in present-day Nagaland. It served as a mountain pass between Imphal and Dimapur and was strategically vital to the Japanese army.
Between March and July 1944, Kohima and Imphal saw some of fiercest fighting on the Eastern front in the Second World War. The Allies were unprepared for the 15,000-strong Japanese troops, who were advancing in waves on 2,500 British-Indian soldiers. Garrison Hill, which overlooked Kohima, and the gardens and tennis court at the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow inside the town, saw some of the most intense fighting.
The battle was so brutal and gruesome that it sometimes resulted in hand-to-hand combat between the two sides. There were times when all that separated them was Pawsey’s tennis court, with trenches dug at opposite ends. History has immortalised it as the ‘Battle of the Tennis Court’.
Both sides showered grenades on each other, causing heavy casualties. Since they were utterly outnumbered, the Allies feared they would lose the battle. But as British reinforcements kept arriving, they soldiered on.
The Battle of Kohima raged for more than four months. Had it not been for the extensive air support that the British-Indian Army received from the Royal Air Force, the outcome might have been very different. Eventually, the Japanese ran out of supplies, resulting in starvation and disease. The monsoon only made things worse. Finally, they admitted defeat.
The Battle of Kohima was a turning point in the Asian theatre of war during World War II. It was tough, it was grueling, it claimed 11,000 lives, and it prevented a Japanese invasion of India. It also prepared the ground for Britain’s re-conquest of Burma.
Although World War II ended not long after, in September 1945, it would be a long time before Kohima recovered from the devastation it had seen. Before leaving Kohima, the British established a war cemetery, where they had buried fallen Allied soldiers. Inscribed on the war memorial at the site the famous line:
As the wounds of war began to heal in years to come, Britain and Japan established diplomatic relations. During this time, a London-based Japanese war veteran named Masao Hirakubo began making contacts with British war veterans who had fought in the Second World War.
These exchanges resulted in the setting up of the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation in 1983, established largely due to the efforts of another Japanese war veteran and businessman named Ryoichi Sasakawa. He also formed an organization for the Burma Campaign war veterans, known as the Burma Campaign Fellowship Group.
In early 1984, Hirakubo visited Kohima to attempt to reconcile the war veterans of both Japan and Kohima, now the capital of Nagaland in India. During his visit, he met Reverend Abraham Alangimattathil, the Bishop of the then recently founded Kohima-Imphal Diocese, which was in need of a new cathedral, after it was delinked from the Dibrugarh Diocese.
To build a bridge between the veterans of both countries, the GBSF and the families of slain Japanese soldiers donated money towards the construction of the church, which became the Mary Help of Christians Cathedral. Also known as the ‘Kohima Cathedral’, it is located 4 km from the Kohima War Cemetery. The cathedral has a prayer inscribed in Japanese that reads:
“…It is with thankfulness that we heard that Catholic Cathedral was being built at Kohima, where Mass would be offered every morning in memory of the fallen”.
Since then, along with Imphal, London and Rangoon, Kohima has been a meeting ground of war veterans and their families. Then, in 2002, a Japanese church delegation arrived in Kohima, and apologized for war crimes committed by the Japanese during the Battle of Kohima. In 2012, Prince Andrew of Britain unveiled a monolith in the World War II Museum built by the Nagaland government at Kisama, 12 km from Kohima, where he also met surviving Naga war veterans.
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