TUCKED away behind York Minster in Dean’s Park stands a row of ancient stone arches which were once part of the old Archbishop’s palace.

Fixed to the stone at the base of the central arch is a simple bronze plaque. Kohima, 1944, it says.

This simple plaque commemorates one of the greatest battles of the Second World War.

The Battle of Kohima, which raged for weeks around the remote Indian hill station of the same name, was where the tide finally turned in the war against the Japanese. Until Kohima, it has been said, the Japanese never suffered a defeat. After Kohima, they never had a victory.

The Kohima Museum at York's Imphal Barracks is dedicated to the battle. Among the soldiers who fought and died there were members of the signals regiment of 2 Division – forerunners of today’s 2 Signal Regiment - as well as many others soldiers from Yorkshire attached to other army units.

The Battle of Kohima began 75 years ago last Thursday, April 4, and raged on and off in distinct phases until June 22.

Kohima was strategically important because it stood at the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma into India. The road running through the pass was also the main supply route between the British base at Dimapur and Imphal, where three divisions of British and Indian troops faced the main Japanese advance.

Kohima was the administrative centre of Nagaland in north east India. The bungalow of district commissioner Sir Charles Pawsey stood on the hillside at a bend in the road, with its gardens and tennis court on terraces above.

Here, in early April 1944, a garrison of about 1,500 British troops of the 4th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment, supported by Indian garrison troops from the Assam Rifles and Assam Regiment, was surrounded by advancing Japanese troops.

The Japanese arrived in the Kohima area on April 4 and the battle began. The garrison was continually shelled and mortared. Slowly, day-by-day, the defenders were driven back to their final position: the district commissioner’s bungalow and his tennis court.

Here, for the best part of two weeks, the worst of the fighting raged, in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Tennis Court’.

But help was on the way. The British 2nd Infantry Division had been widely dispersed across India. Units were rushed across the sub-continent by road, rail and air - and on reaching Kohima were thrown into action piecemeal.

On April 12, the 1st Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, with artillery and tank support, destroyed a Japanese strong point, and by April 19 the Japanese advance had been checked.

But the larger battle was still only beginning. The Japanese held much of the high land around Kohima, and they were strongly dug into the hillsides. A direct assault would have been impossible. Instead, three British brigades - the 4th, 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades - decided, with the help of troops from the Indian 161 and 33 Brigades, to try to outflank the Japanese.

In the monsoon rain, they worked their way along muddy paths, through country covered by thick jungle and broken into steep-sided chasms.

After vicious hand-to-hand fighting, and with the help of local Naga tribesmen who acted as porters and stretcher bearers, they managed to push through into position on the the flanks of the Kohima ridge.

Other British units from 2nd Division had come up, and the battle continued to rage in appalling monsoon weather. But eventually the British and Indian troops won out. By May 16 the Battle of Kohima itself was won - though the fight for control of the Imphal Road continued until June 22.

The cost of victory was high, however.

It has been said that the battle, which raged from April 4 - June 22, 1944, was the fiercest fought by British forces during the whole of the Second World War. The battle ground was likened to the Somme because of its utter desolation.

An article on the BBC’s WW2 People’s War website describes the scene around the shattered Kohima Ridge. “The shattered leafless pines, firs and oaks looked like grotesque dancers transfixed," it says. "A dense forest teeming with life had been stripped. Violence and destruction were everywhere. Bodies lay... where they fell, one of top of the other... Japanese and Allied soldiers together in death.”

Earl Mountbatten, then supreme commander of Allied forces in South-East Asia, described the actions of British and Indian soldiers as 'naked, unparalleled heroism'. And today, that heroism is commemorated by one of the most beautiful military cemeteries in the world, on the hill slopes of Kohima.

Last week, 92-year-old Burma veteran Richard Day flew out to Kohima to take part in a series of commemorations to mark the 75 anniversary of the beginning of the battle.

Ironically, admits Bob Cook, the former Royal Signals warrant officer who is now the volunteer curator of the Kohima Museum at Imphal Barracks, Mr Day didn't himself see action at Kohima. A veteran of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he was a 'battlefield casualty replacement' brought in as one of the replacements for British soldiers who died at Kohima.

Mr Day did, however, see action as the British pushed the Japanese back into Burma. And last week he was the sole British Burma veteran at Kohima, representing all the countless other British soldiers who fought - and too often died - there 75 years ago.


The Kohima Museum at Imphal Barracks is the only museum in the country that focuses entirely on the Burma Campaign.

Opened in 1992, it contains a wealth of photographs, medals and other memorabilia - from British, Indian and Japanese units units that fought at Kohima and in the Burma campaign.

"We have had visitors from Japan," says Bob Cook, the former Royal Signals warrant officer who is now the museum's volunteer curator.

"We had a meeting between two veterans of the battle, one British and one Japanese, some years ago and even though they realistically could have been shooting at each other back then, they embraced as seniors.”

The museum is open to the general public on Thursday mornings from 9-12 (just turn up at the Imphal Barracks guardhouse, but bring photo ID). Group bookings, for which a small contribution is expected, can also be made by ringing 01904 665806.