Thermopylae of the East

The Battle of Kohima 1944: The mined tennis co...

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The Battle of the Tennis Court has been described by Earl Mountbatten as the Thermopylae of the East. The battle was a turning point in the Battle of Kohima. It was a battle within a battle.

probably one of the greatest battles in history… in effect the Battle of Burma… naked unparalleled heroism… the British/Indian Thermopylae.

Battle of Kohima is one of the important battles of the World War 2. It ended the siege of Imphal and put the Imperial Japanese forces on retreat. Before that, Japan had launched the U-Go offensive in North Burma on March 16th 1944. The goal was to attack India.

The gateway to India from there was Imphal, a small border town. A road went north from Manipur to the hill town of Kohima. The two places became famous for some of the most severe fighting in World War 2 history. The battle was fought from April 4th to June 22nd 1944.

3 divisions of the Japanese troops marched on the two towns. They were headed by the aggressive General Mutaguchi who had ordered his men to fight till the death. Monsoon season was coming and he was in a hurry to go on the offensive. The defending troops under General Slim were not prepared for a full scale battle with the highly experienced Japanese troops. Moreover they had little communication.

The Japanese attacked on April 4th 1944. The 31st Division attacked Kohima. They pushed the British and Indian forces to the ridge of Kohima. The soldiers used the various hills and the Bungalows to prepare the defence. The Deputy Commissioner’s Bungalow was used as the main line of defence.

The Royal West Kents, Assam Rifles and Assam Regiment were defending the area. There supply line had been cut and they were being forced back. By 9th the Japanese had forced them into the Bungalow and the other side of the tennis court.

On 13th, the defending troops were under heavy mortar firing. The Tennis Court was a scene of some of the bloodiest close quarter fighting. The British/Indian troops were on one side of the court and the Japanese forces on the other. They exchanged fire and threw grenades at almost point blank range.

The troops were able to hold back the assault. By 14th the 2nd division of the British Army had arrived to retake Kohima. It broke the Japanese lines and opened up the supply route.

On 17th April, the Japanese tried another offensive successfully. But the next day, the British Artillary of the 2nd Division and the Tanks of the Indian XXXIII corps broke the siege of Kohima and reopened the road to Dimapur.

But the Japanese who had been fighting did not retreat. They dug in and stayed at their position. It was for a few more weeks that the fighting continued. It wasn’t till 15th may that the Battle of the Tennis court was over.

In the words of Major Boshell, Commander of B Company of 1st Royal Berkshires

To begin with I took over an area overlooking the Tennis Court… The lie of the land made impossible to move by day because of Japanese snipers. We were in Kohima for three weeks. We were attacked every single night… They came in waves, it was like a pigeon shoot. Most nights they overran part of the battalion position, so we had to mount counter-attacks… Water was short and restricted to about one pint per man per day. So we stopped shaving. Air supply was the key, but the steep terrain and narrow ridges meant that some of the drops went to the Japs. My company went into Kohima over 100 strong and came out at about 60.


Countless stories of bravery are there in the Battle of Kohima. British and Indian forces had lost 4,064 men, dead, missing and wounded while the Japanese had lost 5,764. While retreating most of the remaining Japanese died of disease and starvation.

A large war cemetery stands at the Garrison Hill where once stood the Tennis Court. And on the epitaph are carved these memorable words

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today

I had a chance to visit this place long time ago and had written about my trip the the North East in the three part travel series. You can check it here Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

ABC Wednesday

7 Responses to “Thermopylae of the East”
  1. Good precis of this important battle. It always amazes me that the Japanese waited until 1944 to do what they should have done in June, 1942, after overruning Burma: keep going, invade India then and there.

  2. Roger Green says:

    again, I know nothing of this. the European and even North African theater, yes. The US v Japan, of course. But this segment doesn’t get taught in the US.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  3. Pzes says:

    Interesting Patty. I like how the way your blog is turning into a wiki-history page 😀

  4. Purbaray says:

    Enough of war…can we have peace now!!! And agree with Pzes.

  5. Nice!!
    ha ha!! Well Said Patty and Pzes 🙂

  6. Vandana Natu says:

    I visited the Kohima War Memorial in 2006. Saw the Japanese War Memorial near Moirang (Manipur) too. We know so little about them and it is for no other reason that people asked me if I was from ‘Mainland India’?? Recently visited the Delhi War Cemetery too –

  7. jabblog uk says:

    Excellent post. Not enough people know about this important battle 🙂

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