The Japanese were pressing on with their infiltration of Burma and into India. They had been halted at Sangshak where a fierce engagement held them up for several days. They then moved onto another hastily reinforced outpost at Jessami, where they now met the first defences on Indian soil.
The position was well camouflaged, the Indian Army troops of the Assam Regiment had been ordered to fight to the last man. Just before 9am on the 28th an advance party of 25 Japanese emerged from the Jungle and stood at the barbed wire perimeter fence. None of the defenders were in view. As the Japanese officer examined his map two Bren guns opened up – and 23 of the Japanese fell dead and two wounded men crawled off into the undergrowth.
As the day wore on more Japanese arrived and attempted to provoke the Jessami outpost into action but they held their fire rather than reveal their positions. Then as darkness fell the Japanese began to launch ‘Banzai’ infantry attacks in an attempt to breach the perimeter. The defences stood up to the onslaught. On the following morning the perimeter was strung with Japanese bodies. But now the defenders were hugely outnumbered, facing the greeter part of a whole Japanese Division.
And so the battle continued. There were no casualties inside Jessami during the first day but as more and more Japanese arrived they came under repeated attacks:
Young and inexperienced sepoys were fighting like veterans; red hot machine gun barrels would be ripped off, regardless of burns suffered in the process; Japanese grenades and cracker-bombs were picked up an thrown clear of the trenches with all the calmness in the world and there did not seem to be a man in the garrison afraid to carry out any task given to him.
Captain Peter Steyn, Assam Regiment
By the 30th the British senior command had decided the stand at Jessami had served its purpose and sent orders for the outpost to withdraw. Twice a light aircraft dropped messages for the withdrawal in a canister – but on both occasions they fell outside the perimeter. Finally on the 31st a British officer risked being shot by his own side and broke into the encampment from the surrounding jungle to give the orders. Most of the men were able to break out the following night and make their way back to the nearest British base at Kohima.
General Sir William Slim was now working hard to redress the imbalance in forces, bringing up reserves from India. Every effort was being made to re-inforce the next strategic outpost that lay in the path of the Japanese. Kohima was an administrative base for the region, not a military outpost, although it contained a convalescent hospital.
The delay the Assam Regiment imposed on the 31st Japanese Division at this stage was invaluable. Behind this screen, desperate efforts were in hand to make Kohima Ridge into a great road-block to bar the way to Dimapur. Non-combatants and hospital patients had already been evacuated, and, under the energetic and determined leadership of Colonel Richards, commanding Kohima, the men in the convalescent depot, some ﬁve hundred of them, were issued with arms, organized into units, and allotted to the defences.
Every man who could be scraped up from administrative units was roped in to ﬁght. More trenches were dug, dressing stations prepared, defences manned, but it was a very misceﬁaneous garrison of about a thousand who stood-to as the covering troops were forced slowly back, and it was a grim prospect they faced – as ﬁfteen thousand ravening Japanese closed in on them.
Further back lay the military supply base of Dimapur. It occupied the strategic gateway to India but had few combat troops on it’s strength:
In Dimapur I had asked the brigadier commanding the base what his ration strength was. ‘Forty-ﬁve thousand, near enough,’ he replied. ‘And how many soldiers can you scrape up out of that lot?’ I inquired. He smiled wryly. ‘I might get ﬁve hundred who know how to ﬁre a riﬂe!’
But, as at Kohima, everything that could be done to put the sprawling base into a state of defence was being done. As I walked round, inspecting bunkers and rifle pits, dug by non-combatant labour under the direction of storemen and clerks, and as I looked into the faces of the willing but untried garrison, I could only hope that I imparted more conﬁdence than I felt.
The stage was set for a the last great defensive battle against the Japanese, the defence of India itself.