The Japanese advance through Thailand, Malaya and Burma appeared unstoppable and the fate of India looked utterly precarious. The garrison of the Kohima outpost numbering some 1500 British and Indian Army soldiers faced over 13,000 fanatical and previously victorious Japanese troops.
The following sixteen days marked the turning point of the war in the Far East thanks to men like Raymond Street who fought with legendary courage and tireless persistence. Raymond was a member of the 4th Battalion The Queen’s West Kent and as a company runner he was uniquely placed to witness the dreadful and dramatic events as they unfolded.
Not only did he miraculously survive but he made a superb record of the battle as fortunes ebbed and flowed. His memories have been transcribed into this first-hand account of one of the most decisive and hardest fought battles of the Second World War.
This excerpt is from the 5th April 1944, the day the men of the The Queen’s West Kent Regiment arrived – and were immediately plunged into a ferocious battle:
Our lorries pulled up in a line, nose to tail, on the main Dimapur—Imphal Road just below IGH Spur and the men spilled out, leaving the main equipment on the trucks. The battle was already in full swing. Jap guns from the Naga village area were already causing problems. It was cloudy and misty when we got there so we reached our positions unhindered. But then the cloud and mist lifted.
No sooner had the trucks stopped than the shelling started, reducing some of the lorries to blazing wrecks. The Indian drivers ran off back down the road where we had come from. The Garrison had one large gun, a 25-pounder, located by the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow. It tried to respond but only fired one or two rounds before the Japs took it out. A chap called Browning was manning it and he got hit in the head. (He survived the rest of the siege but was killed by a machine gun burst to the stomach right at the end, when we were being evacuated). Some men made daring and dangerous trips back to the lorries to get medical supplies and blankets which were in short supply from the start.
Corporal Dennis Wykes (better known to his men as ‘Bill’) jumped off his lorry and dived straight into a drainage ditch. Bullets were flying everywhere and mortars falling all around. The mortars must have been close by, because you couldn’t hear them coming. Men were hit as they got off the lorries, and the medics had to treat them in this shallow ditch with hardly any cover.
Almost 450 of us Royal West Kents came up to Kohima. Other troops of 161 Brigade to which we belonged were delayed, and by then the Japs had blocked the road, so they couldn’t get in (although 161 Brigade eventually anived at a village just north-west of Kohima called Jotsoma, where defences were erected and artillery support provided to Kohima). Not many of us were older than thirty-two, apart from some of the officers, and most of the latter were in their twenties. Some were younger than me, and I’d just tumed twenty- four. We were split into six companies, A, B, C, D, HQ and BHQ, and detailed to particular hillside areas of the Garrison.
A Company under Major Tom Kenyon and HQ Company set up on Summerhouse Hill (also known as Garrison Hill); B Company under Major Jolm Winstanley on Kuki Piquet; C Company under Major Shaw on DIS Spur; and D Company under the young Captain Donald Easten on IGH Spur, to the west of Summerhouse Hill. As usual, I was the C Company runner attached to Battalion Headquarters (BHQ). The entire defended area was no more than 1,100 by 950 yards at its maximum. The Japs were already all around us.
The Pioneer platoon under Major Harry Smith, a former school teacher, were part of HQ Company and they set about constructing the Battalion Headquarters, organizing the cookhouse and the rest of the infrastructure that always appeared wherever we went. The platoon consisted of tradesmen: bricklayers, carpenters and a plumber. Les Crouch, Bob Clinch and Ivan ‘Angus’ Daunt were among them. Ivan and Bob joined up at the same time, together with Jack Eves, in July 1939 as militiamen. Ivan was granted a special wedding licence before they were shipped off to France. His son was three and a half years old before he saw him.
Jack was a Colour Sergeant Major. He sorted out the cooks. He and Bob were good footballers and had represented the regiment, but their defensive capabilities would certainly be tested now. BHQ was set up between Summerhouse Hill and the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow in some old Garrison Headquarters Bunkers, a little above the Garrison Commander, Colonel Hugh Richards’, Headquarters. Indian troops who were already defending Kohima before we arrived were pulling down bashas to give them a better line of fire.
It was early morning when Ron Clayton, D Company runner, and I started digging in behind a tree. When we had finished, Ron wasn’t happy with it; he thought the tree didn’t allow us a big enough field of fire and would give the Japs something to aim at, so we moved a little further up the hill and started digging again. I wasn’t happy about this but went along with it despite the work we had already done. Afterwards we were worn out and lay in our trench to rest.
Our redundant trench was in front of us now and beyond that a long curved trench, similar to those of the First World War. This housed the cookhouse, with its defences to the right. We runners were a few yards higher up, in three slit trenches. Behind us, in a big long bunker, was the Signals HQ under the command of the Signals Platoon Officer, Captain John Topham. Emie Mason, B Company’s radio operator, was in there busily testing his equipment to make contact with his company. A little further back and to our right, towards Summerhouse Hill, was the BHQ Command Post.
In the pine trees alongside us an armoured car lay on its side, its weapon missing and its huge wheels motionless. Two chaps were detailed to smash it up later and push it into the adjacent nullah (ravine) so it was out of the way. The whole area had become cratered with small shell holes, and the litter and rancid smell of past warfare filled the air.
Our Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel John Laverty. The men called him ‘Texas Dan’ because of his lean build and his hat. He always carried a six-foot bamboo staff to negotiate steep and rocky ground. His batman was Private Heffeman. They were both Irish, good friends and a right pair of characters. Heffeman always greeted everybody with ‘Top o’ the morning to you’. His experience of working in posh hotels before the war helped him in his role, but the CO had to pull rank on many occasions to shut him up.
On arrival, lines of communication were set up to all the Companies, and Major Yeo of 24”‘ Indian Mountain Battery could now direct his artillery with our 161 Brigade (located at nearby Jotsoma) from his position within the Garrison.
The enemy sent over barrages of shells that continued into the night and the next day. Joe Walsh, a young Irishman, was one of the first to be killed. One shell landed in our former trench behind the tree. This was too close for comfort, so we decided to dig deeper and widen the bottom of the trench so that we could both lie flat side by side.
As I looked out of my trench, a chap standing in the doorway of a hut near a water tank suddenly disappeared as a shell exploded in front of him. The Jap guns must have been very near because you couldn’t hear the shells coming. We called them ‘whizz-bangs’ because that’s how they sounded. We only just had time to throw ourselves to the ground as the shells screamed down on us. The tree bursts were worst; the shrapnel would ricochet amongst the branches and rain down into the trenches below.
Some of the troops used timber and the corrugated metal sheet off the bashas topped with soil to give head cover, but they couldn’t do that in the forward trenches because they had to be ready for Jap infantry attacks. Some Indian troops located near us left their trenches and made an open fire, but the smoke drew more shellfire and scattered them quickly back into cover. They didn’t do that again.
One chap who was a bike rider kept his motorbike in the long curved trench by BHQ. It was virtually brand new, and I suppose he didn’t want it damaged by shellfire. However, someone fell over it then chucked it out of the trench, and it was damaged in the next barrage. The rider was furious and laid into the chap who’d thrown it out. They were having a right set-to when an NCO broke them up, saying that we had enough problems sorting out the Japs, let alone fighting amongst ourselves. He could have put them on a charge but there was no point in that.
C Company was on DIS Spur that night and under mortar fire from the Japs. Five of the bombs landed near the platoon HQ. A corporal called Webber was told to get into his weapon pit and take cover. Just as he did so a mortar landed where he had been standing. He was lucky to get away with it.