When the National Army Museum in London invited people some years ago to nominate ‘Britain’s greatest battle’, there was a clear winner. To the surprise of many, however, it wasn’t Blenheim, or Waterloo, or El Alamein that won the top spot – but the Battle of Imphal and Kohima, fought near the border between India and Burma (now Myanmar) on 8 March-18 July 1944.
Despite this accolade, Imphal and Kohima remains relatively unknown. The multinational British Fourteenth Army, which achieved a savagely fought victory over the Japanese and their allies in the battle, was nicknamed the ‘Forgotten Army’; and the wider Burma campaign of 1942-1944, of which it was a part, is often still described as a ‘forgotten war’. We should be careful not to overstate this: many books have, after all, been written about the campaign. But while the 80th anniversary this year of the D-Day landings will rightly be celebrated amid much pomp and ceremony, it seems likely that events to mark the same anniversary of Imphal and Kohima will be considerably more low-key.
Partly, this is a result of geography. Now, as then, the landing beaches of Normandy, along with other key European battlegrounds, lie within easy reach of Britain. By contrast, Imphal and Kohima was fought more than 5,000 miles away, amid the steep hills and dense jungles of one of the Second World War’s least accessible areas of conflict – and against an enemy who presented no direct threat to the homeland. As we shall see, the courage of the Allied soldiers who fought there seems only more remarkable in the context of the battle’s remote and inhospitable location.
The background, of course, was one of failure. Beginning in January 1942, the Japanese invasion of Burma had swept all before it, driving British and Commonwealth forces out of a country that was then still part of the British Empire. The capital city of Rangoon fell in March — and the resulting 900-mile withdrawal northwards, over difficult mountain terrain and across the Indian border, achieved infamy as the ‘longest retreat in the history of the Empire’.
Plans to recapture Burma took shape in 1943 — spearheaded first by the Chindits, the legendary special operations group of the British and Indian armies, which ran long-range penetration missions behind Japanese lines under the leadership of Orde Wingate. But it was the creation in late 1943 of the Fourteenth Army under the command of Lieutenant-General William (Bill) Slim that would make the crucial difference.
As we discover over the following pages, Slim would do a remarkable job, rebuilding the morale of a shattered force, while quickly developing the capability to defeat a ruthless and fanatical enemy amid some of the ‘worst country in the world’. At Imphal and Kohima – 80 years ago this spring – the Japanese would be driven back at last, and the myth of their invincibility would finally be dispelled. Such was the battle’s significance that it has been described by more than one historian as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’.
In our two-part special for this issue, Graham Goodlad first profiles Slim, tracing his rise from obscurity to become one the greatest of WWII generals; and then looks in detail at Imphal and Kohima, to understand how this brutal jungle battle became the turning point of the Burma campaign.
This is an extract from a special feature on the Burma campaign from the February/March 2024 issue of Military History Matters magazine.