Victoria Cross as the Siege of Kohima begins

The Battle of Imphal-Kohima March - July 1944: General view of the terrain at Kohima.

The Battle of Imphal-Kohima March – July 1944: General view of the terrain at Kohima.

The Japanese 31st Division had now pushed aside the minor diversionary outposts that held them up as they invaded India from Burma. They now confronted the British administrative outpost at Kohima, where a hastily organised system of defensive trenches had been dug. Kohima Ridge was to see a desperate battle unfold as the British troops, heavily outnumbered by the Japanese, clung on.

The terrain did not lend itself to defence because there were not enough men to hold onto all the high ground along the ridge. Many of the positions were overlooked by Japanese, who brought down fire as soon as the British moved out of their trenches. All the time the Japanese were trying to move closer, either with attacks in the open or sneaking in between the British positions overnight:

Major Donald Easten of the Royal West Kents describes the situation on the 8th April:

The Japanese had infiltrated between my ‘D’ Company and ‘C’ Company [now under Captain Tom Coath] which was next to us. When we woke up the next morning they had a machine-gun post [in a bunker] between the two companies, making movement extremely difficult, if not impossible, during daylight. I was discussing how we were going to tackle this with the Sergeant-Major when Lance-Corporal Harman, without saying anything to either of us, ran forward.

He got under the line of fire of the Japanese machine-gun. We saw him take a grenade out of his belt, most probably a three or four second one, pull the pin out, count ‘One, two’, and put it through the slit of the bunker. He dived into the bunker after the grenade had gone off, then came out with ajapanese machine-gun and said ‘There are two dead japanese in there.’ It was amazingly brave.

The following day, Easer Sunday, 9th April there was no respite for the Royal West Kents. Once again Harman seized the initiative, as described by Major Easten:

I was close to Harman when I heard him say to his section ‘Right. Give me covering fire.’ He fixed his bayonet and charged the short distance down the hill, firing as he went. He shot two or three Japanese, bayoneted another and the rest ran away. As he came back up the hill he was shot, probably in the back, as Japanese opened up from the other side of a gulley he was in.

However for the men stuck, pinned under fire in the forward trenches, there was no respite that day. Corporal Norman describes the scene:

Corporal Taffy Rees, who was sitting next to me in the pit when Lance-Corporal Harman ran past, wouldn’t stay in the pit but stood on the top of it [to watch]. I tried to pull him back into the pit because the Japanese had fixed lines [of fire] on our pit. But he wouldn’t let me and whilst Harman was engaged in his action,Taffy was hit twice in the side.

Sergeant Tacon shouted out ‘Hang on,Taffy, I’m coming’, but as he crawled towards him he [Tacon] was hit in the arm and leg, fracturing it. He just managed to roll out of the danger area.Although we cou1dn’t help Taffy we did start talking to him because he was only about 2 yards from us down in a dip. He told us that he was paralysed. He was soon delirious and for eight hours he was screaming, shouting and calling for his Mum and Dad and praying, until he died.

While he was laying there Captain Coath tried to get a smoke screen laid down so that Taffy could be evacuated by stretcher bearers but that proved unsuccessful. lt was really nerve-racking for the 14 of us left because we couldn’t defend ourselves if we were attacked.

For these and many more personal accounts of the battle see Leslie Edwards: Kohima: The Furthest Battle.

John Pennington Harman VC

John Pennington Harman VC

Lance Corporal Harman was awarded the Victoria Cross:

At Kohima, Assam, on 8th April 1944, Lance Corporal Harman was commanding a section of a forward platoon. The enemy had established a machine-gun post within 50 yards of his position which became a serious menace to the remainder of his company. Unable to bring the fire of his section on to the post, Lance Corporal Harman went forward by himself and annihilated the post, returning with the enemy machine-gun.

The next morning, having first recovered a forward position, he again charged an enemy post alone, shooting four and bayonetting one, thereby wiping out the post. As he returned Lance Corporal Harman received an burst of machine-gun fire in his side and died shortly after reaching our lines. Lance Corporal Harman’s heroic action and supreme devotion to duty were largely responsible for the decisive way in which all attacks were driven off by his company.

British infantrymen use a dismounted tank machine gun at Kohima.

British infantrymen use a dismounted tank machine gun at Kohima.

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