Britain’s twin battle against Japan-INA in Kohima and Imphal during the Second World War was recently voted its greatest. Here, journalist-author Kishalay Bhattacharya recalls hearing about the bloody war from eyewitnesses

Recently, U.K.’s National Army Museum conducted a poll on Britain’s greatest battle fought over the last 400 years. Waterloo, Aliwal, D-Day/Normandy, Rorke’s Drift and the twin battles of Imphal and Kohima were selected as the top five battles but in the last round, it threw up a name that came as a surprise to many. It voted outright Britain’s twin battles against Japan-INA (Indian National Army) fought in Kohima and Imphal in India during the Second World War as the greatest ever.

It is interesting news considering most Indians are themselves not aware of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II fought on their soil, which if Japan had succeeded in winning, would have changed the fate of the Allied forces and may be Indian history. During my reportage in the North East, I came across some of the eyewitnesses of this battle. One of the affected villages was Maibam Lotpaching, just outside Imphal. I cannot exactly recollect the year but when I met Taoram Gourmohan Singh he was 74. He couldn’t remember the exact date but he recalled the time. It was a little past midnight when hundreds of Japanese soldiers arrived on foot. Gourmohan had gone into hiding when the entire village was evacuated and trenches were dug along his courtyard. The same courtyard where I met him.

He was a young boy when the Japanese army fell upon the main Allied advance base in Imphal. That was April 1944. The war was right at his doorstep — on the Red Hill where the British forces clashed with the advancing Japanese army.

“I was 12 then… there were about 300 Japanese soldiers on the hill … they reached at midnight on May 20 … they first fought in Moreh but couldn’t come to Imphal … so they took this route,” he said. Gourmohan Singh’s story came to me in bits and pieces. Age had blurred his memory but he recounted carrying water for some of the Japanese soldiers. Also, carefully tucked away in a loft in his outhouse was war memorabilia, rusted, but held very dear. “I love these articles. Japan had come for India’s independence, was fighting against the British, so I keep them with me. I treasure them,” he told me. He laid them out for me in the courtyard. Bullet shells, helmets and water flasks.

It’s believed that Imphal was as bad for the Japanese as Flanders was for the Germans in WWI, for there on the bloody plain, 50,000 of the best of the Japanese army were killed. It was from the Red Hill — its supply lines cut off by a heavy monsoon — that the INA began its retreat just 10 kms short of Imphal, whose capture could have altered the course of Indian history. At least that is the claim many historians make today though there are doubts on how they might have been used by the Japanese except for generating rebellion among the Indians behind the British lines.

But the defeat of Red Hill didn’t send back the Japanese. They came close to the railhead in Assam after they took over Kohima. Without the bases in Assam they wouldn’t have been able to access a northern Burma supply route.

An eyewitness to this war in Kohima, Kuosa Kere, could still speak a smattering of Japanese when I met him. It was at Kigwema village near Kohima where General Saito, the famed Japanese commander, had stationed himself during the decisive siege of the hill town in World War II. From here, the Japanese opened attack and timed the assault at exactly 4 p.m. on ‘4.04.44’ (April 4, 1944). It lasted for two months. “It was a long war, we were warned by the Brits and were very apprehensive about the Japanese, but they were friendly. They lived with the families, paid for everything and unlike the British, they had no relationships with local women. They never misbehaved. General Saito was a very nice man. For us teenagers, the war was an adventure,” recalled Kuose Kere.

It was in June when the dangerous Japanese advance into the plains of India was finally halted by the British and the Indian forces. But what went down in history as Britain’s fiercest battles of World War II was fought on a tennis court adjoining the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow in Kohima. As many as 1200 Indian and British soldiers who died fighting the Japanese have been laid to rest there with the famous lines engraved on a tombstone: “When you go home tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

The tennis court battle was also called the Battle under the Cherry Tree. The cherry tree was a Japanese sniper post. The tree is no more but a branch of the historic tree has taken its place.

Reminiscing about the battle, once a war veteran standing in the middle of the Kohima War Cemetery, told me: “After several months, it was virtually over. We were repatriated home; we were on our way to Bombay when the atom bomb was dropped. It was all over. We don’t want it but we do need it sometimes … look at this. It’s the sad part, but anyway we came out victorious.” Tears rolled down his wrinkled cheeks.

Then there was Lily, a war-time nurse. Sitting on a tombstone, she broke down: “Sixty years ago, I was a nurse at the army-combined hospitals. So many young people had died, too many lives wasted, they died in my arms. And we still have wars.”

Fought between March 7 and July 18, 1944, the Battles of Imphal and Kohima came back to hit the headlines recently. And also to remind the eyewitnesses the times that were.

(The author’s book “Che in Paona Bazaar: Tales of Exile and Belonging from India’s North-East” (Pan Macmillan India) has a section with a detailed account of this little-known battle.)