Surprise as the Norfolks arrive at Kohima

Men of the Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol, 26 January 1940.

Men of the Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol, 26 January 1940.

The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment had started the war in France, where a number of their men had been captured at Le Paradis and massacred by the SS. The remainder had been evacuated via Dunkirk. Four years later they found themselves rushed into action again.

The urgent need to re-inforce the British lines at Imphal and Kohima had seen the Battalion flown up from their bases in India, an novel means of moving regular troops at the time.

Sergeant Fred Hazel was sent forward with an advance party of tanks. In the morning of the 14th he went to look around the area by himself. The newly arrived men were not yet aware that the Japanese were attempting to infiltrate the whole area, the concept of a front line had little meaning. Suddenly he saw some men approaching through the jungle, at first he thought they were Indian troops, but then he realised:

I could see all these little hats bob—bobbing up and down. Then of course, just to cap it all, I realized I’d left my rifle behind! Dear oh dear! The thoughts that passed through my head at that moment — I thought, “My God, you’ve got a short war, laddie!”

I couldn’t stay there because they would pass within two feet of me, so I kept one eye on them and one eye sort of swivelling down to the ground as I walked backwards. I didn’t want to tread on any twigs and alert them.

…[He managed to get back to his detachment and roused the men who were sleeping beside the tanks]…

I was thinking there was nine of them at that stage. I said, “Nobody fire until I give the word”. I got my rifle and waited for the ‘nine’ to appear. It became nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fteen, sixteen, seventeen…. In the end we had a hundred of them lined up. As the first one started to disappear from view into the woods again I fired and everyone then joined in with rifle and Bren guns.

[There was just one isolated case of a man whose nerve failed]

On ‘Day One’ you could tell those you could rely on and those you couldn’t rely on. I had a Bren gunner six foot away from me in a monsoon trench and he never fired a shot. I said to him, “Give me that gun!” Expecting that he would run out and give it to me, but he never budged. I went and grabbed it off him and ran back into my little slot, only to find that he hadn’t even got a magazine on it. So I said, “Pass me the magazine!” He just threw them out and they landed in between us. He was grey. In the end I said, “Go down on the road and watch the road to make sure that nobody pinches the trucks”. Well I think the road was pretty safe so I got him out of the way. I think he was very grateful.

After the first few shots they dived into the trees and returned the fire. The whole exchange of fire must have lasted about an hour and then it petered out. I had three of the lads hit. We had no idea of how many we’d killed. Someone from 5th Brigade was aware of what was going on and had sent for the ambulances. The three wounded were taken away.

One of them had been wounded in France, during the retreat to Dunkirk he got shot in the backside. As he passed me on his stretcher he sort of sat up, beamed at me and said, “I’ve been shot in the arse again!” I wondered if it was his custom to stick his arse in the air to get it shot at.

…[After the end of the action he was called over to see his Colonel who was talking to the Brigadier]

I thought to myself, “Crumbs! Now what have I done wrong!” I went over to him and he said, “Where the bloody hell have you been?” I said, “Well we ran into a little bit of trouble…” He said, “I know, I’ve had it all, chapter and verse, on the telephone!”

I thought I’d better tell him, I said, “I lost three men wounded”. He said, “Do you know how many you killed.” I said, “No!” He said, “Thirty four — I call that bloody good odds!”

The whole account of Sergeant Fred Hazell, D Coy, 2nd Norfolks and many more personal accounts by men of the Regiment can be found in At the Sharp End : From Le Paradis to Kohima – Second World War Regimental Actions – The 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment 1940 – 45

An infantry section on patrol in Burma, 1944.

An infantry section on patrol in Burma, 1944.

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