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The EK1
 


The Japanese advance and the heroic stand of the 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment at Jessami and Kharasom


‘The main weight of the enemy advance fell on this battalion, in the first battle of its career.  Fighting in its own country, it put up a magnificent resistance, held doggedly to one position after another against overwhelming odds, and, in spite of heavy casualties, its companies although separated never lost cohesion.  The delay the Assam Regiment imposed on the 31st Japanese Division at this stage was invaluable.’


From Field Marshall Viscount Slim’s book Defeat into Victory.



The Japanese plan

The Japanese invasion of Burma, now Myanmar, in 1942 did not occupy the entire country.  In the north-west the Chin Hills were not occupied, although Japanese troops did demonstrate their ability to perform such an occupation should they wish to do so.  In the north Fort Hertz, now Putao, was never occupied and it remained as an Allied bastion where guerrillas from the Kachin tribe were trained and deployed southwards.  Also the northern end of the Hukawng Valley was unoccupied by the Japanese, but they did control the upper Chindwin River.

Right: Sketch of the OPERATION U-GO Japanese attacks

In March 1944 a Japanese invasion of the Indian Princely State of Manipur and the Naga tribal lands north of it was mounted across the Chindwin River with the title of OPERATION U-GO.  The aim of this invasion was the capture of Imphal, the capital of Manipur, and the occupation of Kohima to the north, which would block the route that the Allies would have to take to recapture Manipur.  The Japanese 15th Army was responsible for the invasion and its commander, Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, wished to continue his advance beyond Kohima down into the Brahmaputra Valley, a main Allied transport artery where there were many very large Allied supply bases and from where the USA was flying weapons and supplies to Nationalist China; but Mutaguchi’s superiors did not immediately endorse such a continuation of the invasion.

Mutaguchi’s divisions, the 15th, 31st and 33rd, were to travel light over very inhospitable terrain relying on the capture of British supply dumps for their future food, vehicle and fuel requirements; this practice had worked during the Japanese invasions of Malaya and Burma.  Once the Imphal Plain and its surrounding heights had been seized truck convoys carrying artillery, mortar and small-arms ammunition would move up from Burma using a road kindly built by the British from Imphal into the Chin Hills (1).  This route was called the Tiddim Road and it was easily linked into the Burmese system, allowing Japanese tanks to travel up it into Manipur.

Mutagachi had been encouraged to “think big” by contact with Indian National Army (INA) officers in Burma who stated that their renegade troops, recruited from Japanese prisoner of war camps, would be greeted as liberators inside India and that they would easily induce Indian Army sepoys in Manipur to desert to the INA.  Eventually the equivalent of an INA division operated in the 15th Army rear areas with some detachments deployed forward for patrolling and propaganda tasks, but it was never well-equipped, maintained or supplied by its Japanese sponsors.

To support U-GO another operation named HA-GO was mounted on Burma’s west coast in the Arakan in early February 1944; this was designed to draw British troops away from Assam and to pretend that the Japanese would enter India through the Arakan.  Assumptions were made by the Japanese based on their victories in Malaya and Burma that once British supply lines were cut the forward troops would retreat or surrender.  But this was not the case as by 1944 Allied aircraft were well-practised in re-supplying forward locations either by landing cargo aircraft on speedily constructed airstrips or by parachuting or free-dropping supplies.  OPERATION HA-GO failed and the Japanese units involved, elements of the 55th Division, had to retreat without supplies; some Japanese formation commanders reasoned that U-GO was just as likely to fail as HA-GO had, but these prescient generals were quietened by Mutagachi.

The Japanese advance on Kohima

In the south of his invasion front Mutagachi launched his 33rd Division against the British 17th Indian Light Division that operated around Tiddim; after destroying the 17th Division the 33rd was to attack Imphal from the south.  Further north the 15th Division with some help from the 33rd Division advanced to destroy the British 20th Indian Division in the Kabaw Valley and Shenam Pass, and then to attack Imphal from the east.  In the north the 31st Division under Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato advanced to seize Kohima and isolate Manipur, then if permission was granted to attack the British supply bases in the Brahmaputra Valley the 31st Division would lead the way.  This article deals only with 31st Division’s thrust on Mutagachi’s invasion front and the gallant resistance that the Japanese met from the Indian Army 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment. 

Satu’s 31st Division crossed the Chindwin River on the night of 15th/16th March 1942, moving quickly onwards across the Kabaw Valley.  The South Raiding Column moved on a southern axis, fighting a severe battle in the Naga Hills against 50th Indian Parachute Brigade at Sangshak which lasted until 26th March when the remaining paratroopers were ordered to break out of their defended perimeter and withdraw to Imphal.  In fact Sangshak was not a tactical problem for 31st Division to resolve, as it was in 15th Division’s area of responsibility, but Major-General Miyazaki commanding the southern 31st Division Left Raiding Column felt himself obliged to destroy 50 Indian Parachute Brigade so that it could not threaten his rear.  

Above: A ridge-top village in the Naga Hills

The sacrificial delaying action fought by 50th Indian Parachute Brigade against very heavy odds was of real value as it bought time for the British 5th Indian Division to fly in to reinforce IV Corps in Imphal and it slowed 31st Division’s advance on Kohima.  Regrettably IV Corps Headquarters had been caught off-guard, not imagining that a Japanese attack of this speed and scale was possible.  After fighting for Ukhrul and Sangshak the South Raiding Column of 31st Division moved west and cut the Imphal-Kohima road south of Kohima.

Satu’s Central Raiding Column split and headed for Kharasom and Jessami whilst the North Raiding Column also headed for Jessami, striking through the very difficult terrain of the Somra Tracts where there were no roads, only occasional bridle paths and goat tracks.  The Japanese had planned their routes well, making their own covert reconnaissance as well as utilising some Kuki tribesmen who had been discontented since Britain firmly put down a Kuki uprising during the Great War (2).  Thanks to Kukis showing the Japanese where many British “V Force” (3) advanced observation posts were concealed, the British early warning system in the Kuki and Naga Hills did not work as planned; the Japanese took out several posts and achieved surprise by moving rapidly westwards.  On the 27th March the first serious contacts occurred between elements of the 138th Regiment and the 1st Assam Regiment that was defending Jessami and Kharasom.  (Further details on the Japanese 31st Division are given at the end of the article.)


Above: The terrain crossed by the Japanese 31st Division




The 1st Assam Regiment

The Assam Regiment was a new regiment in the Indian Army, having been formed in Shillong in 1941.  Men from the Ahom, Naga, Mizo, Kuki, Khasi, Garo, Lushai and Manipur tribes of India’s north-east were at first recruited and these were followed by Adis, Nishis, Monpas and domiciled Gorkhas and Sikkhimese.  Roman Urdu became the common military language.  The cap badge depicted a rhinoceros and the regimental colours were black and orange, those of the state of Assam. Pith hats were offered to the regiment but were rejected as being unsuitable and tailors made side hats; later when Gorkha hats became available they were issued.  A determined group of Indian and European regimental officers drove the training forward despite an initially inadequate provision of clothing, accommodation, equipment, vehicles and weapons due to the rapid expansion of the Indian Army. 

Six months after formation the first operational deployment was to Digboi and Ledo in north-eastern Assam, where the oil field installations were secured and exploratory patrols were made into the Hukawng Valley in Burma to survey a new road planned by the USA to run from Ledo to Kunming in Nationalist-held China.   The second deployment was again into Burma to the Tamu area of the unhealthy Kabaw Valley and onwards to the River Chindwin, both to report on the refugee situation from Burma (4) and to reconnoitre for signs of Japanese activity.  Here the Battalion suffered its first fatal casualty when Sepoy Thesie Angami died of cerebral malaria (5)


The patrolling activities in this wild country provided a good grounding in the military skills that the unit was soon to be using on the battlefield, and the Battalion’s contribution to the defence of India’s north-eastern borders was recognised by the Commanding Officer, the tough no-nonsense, energetic and inspirational Lieutenant Colonel William Felix ‘Bruno’ Brown (see left), being appointed to be an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) with this citation:


 For the first 3 months after the Burma Army withdrew from Burma, Lt. Col. Brown with his Battalion was holding the Outpost Line along the Burma Frontier North and South of TAMU with patrols operating as far forward as the Chindwin.  It was a most trying time – Morale was at a low ebb as a result of the withdrawal from Burma, refugees in the last stages of exhaustion were coming through in hundreds, communications were precarious, rations were short and difficult to get out to forward troops and weather conditions could hardly have been worse.  In spite of all these difficulties Col. Brown by his resourcefulness, determination and unfailing cheerfulness inspired his men to carry on and thereby enabled a constant watch to be kept on the KABAW Valley.  On more than one occasion Lt. Col. Brown personally led successful raiding parties to round up villages harbouring enemy agents.  His initiative, determination and devotion to duty was of a high order.


The battalion then returned to Digboi where it was located from March 1943 to 19th February 1944 when it moved to the 57th Reinforcement Camp at Kohima.  Almost immediately from there the battalion made a three-day march over the 60-mile route through the Naga Hills to Jessami.



The British situation at Jessami

By February 1944 IV Corps had reconsidered its earlier plans for a British advance south along the Tiddim Road into Burma, as ominous indications from the upper Chindwin River signalled that the Japanese were preparing to invade Manipur.  In early March the Corps Commander ordered the concentration of his divisions in a rather languid fashion, 17th Indian Light Division having to fight its way through Japanese blocks as it withdrew up the Tiddim Road to the Imphal Plain.  The 20th Indian Division fought actions in the Kabaw Valley as it withdrew up onto the Shenam Pass which was to be held to the last.  The 23rd Indian Infantry Division was held in reserve while giving depth in defence to the Ukhrul region.  These moves were all part of Army Commander General Slim’s plan for IV Corps to fight on the Imphal Plain where British supply lines were short and anchored on two all-weather airfields, but where the Japanese supply lines would be dangerously over-extended.

The 50th Indian Parachute Brigade was in the Ukhrul area because its commander had requested that his brigade be deployed into the north-east of India to gain experience of jungle and mountain conditions.  The brigade was without one of its three battalions but the 1st Assam Regiment was allocated to the brigade order of battle, tasked with the defence of the villages of Jessami and Kharasom.  One company of 1st Burma Regiment was attached to 1st Assam Regiment and deployed to defend Phakekedzumi village.  Thus 1st Assam Regiment found itself on its own at the northern tip of the British defence plan in what had been considered to be a quiet location, as British staff appreciations had ruled out any possibility of the advance of more than a Japanese regiment through the remote and rugged Somra Tracts.  Colonel ‘Bruno’ Brown located his ‘A’ Company at Kharasom and sound defensive positions were constructed there and also for the remainder of the battalion in Jessami; the MT Platoon was back at Kohima as trucks could not move on the few rough recently constructed jeep tracks and the narrow bridle paths in the Naga Hills.

A jeep track came from Kohima to the Thetsiru River just east of Jessami and another jeep track meandered from Jessami to Ukhrul via Kharasom.  The centre of the Jessami defence was the junction of the two jeep tracks, and a network of interconnecting bunkers and trenches was laid out.  A low barbed wire entanglement surrounded the outer bunkers and foxholes, and fields of fire were cleared in all directions.  Towards the centre an inner line contained the command post, the bunker of Medical Officer 2nd Lieutenant Abdul Wahid, mortar base plates and supply dumps. 

The inhabitants of Jessami were Angami Nagas and they began to move off with their possessions into the surrounding jungle.

At Kharasom the ‘A’ Company Commander Captain John McCulloch ‘Jock’ Young, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders attached to 1st Assam Regiment, constructed similar but smaller defences and stocked ammunition, water and food.  Here the inhabitants were Tangkhul Nagas and they also made arrangements to hide their livestock and possessions.  Reconnaissance patrols moved into the Somra Tracts and Burma, discovering recent activity by Japanese patrols.  Up until then the ‘V’ Force tripwire had not reporting enemy activity on the border.


Left: Lt Gen K. Sato, Commander 31st Division


Contact is made with the Japanese

All battalion officers took out patrols and on 16th March the Quartermaster, Lieutenant David Elwyn Lloyd Jones, led a lightly armed reconnaissance patrol of two rifle sections from ‘C’ Company through the Somra Hills via Khanjang to Mol He, a ‘V’ Force stockaded post across the Burma border.  The patrol’s task was to reconnoitre tracks, camping sites and water points and it took two days of hard hill climbing to reach Mol He.  There an officer of the Burma Regiment reported that many agitated groups of Nagas were leaving their villages in Burma and crossing into India via Khanjang; the villagers stated that 300 Japanese troops were advancing towards Mol He.  This movement of Nagas continued throughout the night and the villagers used flammable wood torches to see their way in the dark along the narrow footpaths.

During the next day the Burma Administration Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills arrived to report that the ‘V’ Force Headquarters at Kuki had been captured and that groups of Japanese troops were moving westwards.  Lieutenant Lloyd Jones immediately used Naga runners to take this news down the jungle tracks back to Jessami.  It was very fortunate that the Quartermaster’s patrol was in that area as the British intelligence organisation had failed, and but for the presence of the patrol the Japanese would have surprised Jessami and Kharasom.  Lloyd Jones then covertly observed Japanese movement around Mol He.  The two Naga Naiks (Corporals) commanding the sections, Sentimamba Ao and Tekasahi Ao (6), were particularly useful to Lloyd Jones during this period.

At Jessami Colonel Brown reacted to the news brought by the Naga runners by ordering Major Sidhiman Rai to advance towards Mol He with the remainder of his ‘C’ Company with the task of delaying the enemy, but he was to keep his company intact.  Lieutenant Peter Steyn with one platoon of ‘D’ Company was despatched east of Khanjang to protect the rear of ‘C’ Company.  Major Geoffrey Blake Thurgood, 9th Battalion the King’s Own Scottish Borderers attached to 1st Assam Regiment, was sent with five ‘V’ Force sepoys to establish an information centre at Khanjang.

Two patrols were operating north of Jessami under Major Albert Irwin Calistan and Lieutenant John Narbrough Corlett; on arrival at Yisi both patrols were informed by villagers of Japanese movement and they sent this information back to Jessami using the radio of an USA airforce aircraft observer post there (7).  Major Calistan was ordered to return to Jessami whilst Lieutenant Corlett was told to take the combined strength of both patrols to the Rongmei Naga village of Meluri, nine miles north-east of Jessami.  Corlett’s task was to watch the Laruri – Phakekedzumi track and to prevent a surprise attack on the Burma Regiment garrison at the latter village.

Left:  Sketch of the Jessami - Kharasom area

At Jessami final preparations for a battle were made and a five-day supply of water was brought from the stream that was half a mile outside the defensive position; tubes of bamboo were used as containers.  A final jeep convoy of ammunition arrived from Kohima but after the empty jeeps had departed it was found that 250,000 rounds of .300-inch aircraft machine gun ammunition had been delivered which was of no use to the battalion; precious time was spent in burying this ammunition.  


The fighting west of Mol He


Major Sidhiman Rai moved quickly forward towards Mol He and linked up with Lloyd Jones’ recce patrol.  Contacts with the Japanese started almost immediately and Sidhiman Rai fought a series of delaying actions, constantly taking a toll on the advancing enemy.  One of his Platoon Commanders, Subedar (Captain) Sarbeswar Rajbongshi, was isolated during heavy fighting and later received a Military Cross: On the 25 March 44 in the MOL HE area Subedar Sarbeswar’s platoon was very heavily attacked from three sides and cut off from the remainder of the Company.   Due to his excellent control and outstanding leadership, his platoon inflicted very heavy casualties on the attacking Jap forces.  This Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer finally extricated his platoon with great skill, although hard pressed on all sides.  Throughout the fight this Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer displayed coolness and leadership worthy of the highest praise.

Sidiman Rai was also awarded a Military Cross for his prowess as a company commander, and his citation describes his grasp of tactics and his leadership ability:  This officer was in command of a company sent out to reinforce a small recce patrol which had made contact with the enemy at MOL HE.  His task was to delay the enemy advance as much as possible thus giving the garrisons at JESSAMI and KHARASOM time in which to complete their defences as far as possible.  He made contact with Lieutenant D.E.L. Jones’ patrol on the 22 Mar 44 and handling his company with great skill time and time again repulsed heavy enemy attacks.  On several occasions he laid ambushes which resulted in heavy Jap casualties.  He continued to delay the advance until 25 Mar 44 when a particularly heavy attack from three sides caused his company to be dispersed.  Collecting them again at a previously detailed rendezvous some 5 miles to the rear, he laid several more ambushes causing severe losses to the enemy and delaying them for a further day and a half, after which he skilfully withdrew his company to JESSAMI.  Throughout the period 22-27 Mar 44, this officer displayed calm courage, leadership, determination and devotion to duty, of the highest order which was an inspiration to all who served with him.

During Sidiman Rai’s various actions Peter Steyn and his ‘D’ Company platoon marched to the sound of the guns and joined up with ‘C’ Company.  But groups of Japanese were moving quickly towards Jessami and heavy firing was heard at Khanjang, where Major Thurgood was captured, he died soon afterwards (8) having been observed receiving a hard time as a prisoner.  ‘C’ Company began to fragment due to constant enemy attacks, and the northern part of the company moved to Meluri and met up with John Corlett’s group.  The survivors of ‘V’ Force were moving back to Phakekedzumi through Meluri and its commander, Lieutenant Colonel N.A. Stanley, ordered Corlett’s group and this fragment of ‘C’ Company to move with him (9).  This move of John Corlett to Phakekedzumi was to prove fortuitous for the Jessami Garrison.  Sidiman Rai and Peter Steyn got the rest of their men back to Jessami in time to join the main battle there.



‘B’ Company’s defence of Kharasom

Captain Young’s ‘A’ Company at Kharasom had been deploying men on patrols whilst others worked on the defences, and a smaller but similar perimeter to the one at Jessami had been constructed.  Also and importantly Captain Young had received the same order as had Colonel Brown at Jessami – to fight to the last round and the last man in order to give the Kohima garrison time to organise itself, but unfortunately the Kohima defence plan was being subjected to order, counter-order and confusion.  The reports from Mol He of Japanese movements had been passed to Kharasom and a platoon of ‘D’ Company was sent there to strengthen ‘A’ Company.  Groups of ‘V’ Force personnel and the para-military Assam Rifles (10) moved into Kharasom from the Upper Chindwin but some of them were in bad shape and Young back-loaded them to Kohima on 26 March.  

During the following morning “Stand To” at 0600 hours Young telephoned Jessami to report that at least a battalion of Japanese infantry with pack-mules plus elephants carrying and pulling guns and mortars was approaching his position; that was the last time that anybody outside Kharasom spoke to ‘Jock’ Young, as the telephone line was then cut by the enemy.  These Japanese troops were advancing from Ukhrul and they appeared not to know that Kharasom was garrisoned by the Assam Regiment.  When the enemy column was abreast of the defences a company fire order was given and many hits were made on Japanese personnel before they got into effective cover and reorganised themselves. 

Left: Sketch of 'A' Company's position at Kharasom

After being initially surprised the Japanese reacted by making a series of attacks on ‘A’ Company’s trenches and bunkers.  Regrettably the Company 2nd in Command, Subedar Karindra Rajbongshi, was killed by an enemy mortar bomb during the first attack; also Havildar (Sergeant) Zachhinga Lushai (11) was killed as he attempted to destroy an enemy radio post facing his platoon sector.  The Japanese pulled back at noon but attacked again at dusk, again failing to penetrate the defensive perimeter.  This pattern was repeated for the next three days, with the Japanese making fanatical frontal attacks but always being repulsed by the defenders.  To vent their spleen the Japanese burnt down Kharasom Village, the Naga inhabitants looking on with anger and despair from the surrounding jungle.

On 31st March a new battalion column of Japanese with mules and elephants was seen approaching Kharasom from Chakyang.  ‘Jock’ Young knew that his men were too exhausted to effectively resist these fresh troops and his water supply was almost finished.  An Orders Group was held where the company was instructed to break out with the walking wounded and fight its way to Kohima, but one man was to remain in the perimeter with the seriously wounded to carry out the “last man last round” instruction – this man was to be John McCulloch Young. 

Once the orders had been issued to platoons and sections several of the sepoys became restive and some discipline was lost as men pulled out too soon, but three separate groups of sepoys made it back to Kohima.  ‘Jock’ Young’s exact fate is not known but reports from villagers stated that explosions came from within the perimeter as Young presumably demolished ammunition stocks.  The following morning a Japanese attack entered the perimeter to be met with grenades thrown from a bunker; Japanese machine gunners engaged the bunker at close range until ‘Jock’ Young was dead.  He had obeyed his orders, and he also had saved the fit men in his company and the attached platoon from ‘D’ Company (12), most of those making it back to Kohima, but he and the severely wounded were dead.  Ironically the order to defend Kharasom to the last had been rescinded, but communications in the Kohima area were so chaotic that the new order to withdraw never got through.  ‘A’ Company officers who made it back to Kohima found that the military authorities there were unable to comprehend that Kohima was being threatened by large numbers of Japanese troops, as they preferred to believe their own staff appreciations and so considered that the Japanese in the area were just small groups there to raid British lines of communication.


Above: Map of Northern  Burma

(Peter Steyn’s The History of the Assam Regiment states that to assist in the disengagement of the Kharasom Garrison from its attackers, and to provide transport in the withdrawal, 23 jeeps were sent out under an escort from 1st Battalion 1st Punjab Regiment, but that the jeep column was ambushed and captured intact by the enemy.  The jeeps were then used by the Japanese to move supplies along the Imphal-Kohima road.  The First Punjabis. History of the First Punjab Regiment describes the ambush at a road block followed by heavy and confused fighting that resulted in the Punjabis losing two men killed and 13 wounded, but does not mention the loss of the jeeps.  However the citation for a Military Cross award to Subedar Abdul Ghani MBE of 1st 1st Punjabis mentions the ‘Battle of the Jeeps’ on 30 March 1944 on a track east of Tuphema that led to Kharasom.) 


The defence of Jessami

After the dawn “Stand To” On 28th March Colonel Brown ordered his Jessami garrison to remain alert and ready for action.  This order was justified at 0855 hours when the company commander holding the road-junction sector, Major J.E. Askew, excitedly reported that 24 Japanese with an officer at their head were marching towards him down the track from Kharasom.  The Battalion Command Post ordered “Hold your fire”.  The enemy group halted at the wire obstacle blocking the road in front of the defensive position and bunched around the officer, 40 yards away from two defensive Bren light machine guns.  The two guns were ordered to fire and it was observed that around 20 of the enemy were hit.  Spirits amongst the defenders soared.

Details of the contact were telephoned back to Kohima and a request for unit identification was received in reply.  Naik Jamkishei Kuki of ‘B’ Company and Paokhodang, a “V” Force scout, volunteered to crawl forward over the open ground to the nearest body.  Naik Jamkishei was killed (13) but Scout Paokhodang persevered until he was forced back by accurate fire from enemy reinforcements.  Major Sidhiman Rai then took a platoon out but he also was forced back by heavier enemy fire.  For the remainder of the day the Japanese tried to draw fire from the garrison’s mortars and machine guns, so that the locations could be engaged by enemy mortars and regimental guns.


Left: Sketch of the Jessami position




That night to the shouted sound of “Banzei!” complemented by cracker-bombs and attacking mortar and machine gun fire, several Japanese charges were made against the perimeter, but none of them broke into it.  The enemy tactics did not vary and were defeated by the defensive fire of the Assam Regiment sepoys.  Individual Japanese infiltrators were more successful and a few covertly crawled through the outer defences only to be killed by sepoys in the inner ring of bunkers.  During this first night the defenders did not lose any men either killed or wounded.

The dead Japanese infiltrators were in fact a bonus as some of their corpses carried documents, equipment and a unit flag.  Volunteers were called for to take these items back to Kohima, and later Lance Naik Jogendra Nath and a sepoy slipped out of the perimeter and successfully delivered the items to Kohima Garrison Headquarters.  During the second day of the siege the enemy practised his version of subtlety as Japanese and INA soldiers called out both in English and Hindustani for the surrounded sepoys to surrender.  Sovehu Angami, a 3-inch mortar Havildar fighting with 1st Assam Regiment at Jessami, later recalled: “The INA soldiers would ask our soldiers to go and join them in Hindi. Sometimes, our soldiers would invite them in Hindi and fire at them when they appeared!”

Right: Jemadar Tonghen Kuki MC

High ground to the south overlooked the perimeter and the second day’s fighting saw most of the Assam Regiment mortar baseplate positions being targeted by Japanese fire; these defensive mortars, which could not be protected by overhead cover because of the high trajectory of the weapon, were hit by enemy fire and became unserviceable.  The sepoys manning the mortars could take cover in bunkers during the enemy counter-battery fire, but the mortars had to stay assembled in their open pits ready for action.  No. 356 Naik Emitsang Ao commanded a mortar at Jessami and he later received a Military Medal after the Kohima fighting for bravery when commanding mortars there, the citation mentioning his “conspicuous success in the Jessami action”.   Emtisang Ao was later commissioned as an officer in the regiment.

Another NCO whose gallantry was recognised at Jessami received an Indian Distinguished Service Medal, he was No. 202 Havildar Khandarpa Rajbongshi:  This platoon havildar commanded a sector of the JESSAMI box between 28th March and 1st April 44.  He was a constant inspiration to his men, cheering them on and steadying them as wave after wave of attacks were put in on his front.  Time and again he filled the breach when casualties caused gaps in his sector, and often at great hazard to his life he fetched up ammunition to his forward posts.  His untiring efforts at JESSAMI and again at KOHIMA between 5th and 20th April displayed superb leadership, devotion to duty of a high order and complete disregard of personal danger.

The second night’s fighting replicated the first night – waves of “Banzai!” shouting attackers surging towards the perimeter after having wound themselves up into a frenzy.  The attacks were repulsed but it was much harder work as the loss of the mortars meant that the hordes of Japanese were not being broken up before they reached the wire.  Infiltrators again crawled through but again were killed by the defenders’ inner ring.  Many sepoys were showing signs of great strain and fatigue but their battle drills continued to be performed professionally, red-hot Bren gun barrels being stripped off the weapons and immediately replaced with cooled and clean barrels.  Japanese grenades and cracker bombs that landed in trenches were immediately seized and thrown back.

Havildar Seikham commanded an isolated bunker outside the perimeter and when he ran short of food and ammunition the Jemadar Adjutant, Jemadar (Lieutenant) Tonghen Kuki and Sepoy Thangtinjam took their chances against enemy fire to take supplies to Seikham, Thangtinjam getting across to the bunker first.  Tonghen Kuki received a Military Cross for his gallantry:  After three days of hard fighting between 28th and 30th March 44 at JESSAMI, it was known that our men in a forward and isolated bunker position were short of food.  Jemadar TONGHEN KUKI volunteered to get the food to them although aware that the ground was covered by Japanese machine guns at very short range.  Despite the fact that he was clearly visible to the enemy he again and again crossed the open space to the bunker carrying food, water and ammunition, under constant enemy fire from which he was eventually badly wounded in the head.  The magnificent courage of this Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer undoubtedly saved the lives of the men in the bunker as well as enabling them to continue the fight.  His complete disregard of personal safety and determination were in the finest traditions of the service

  Back at Kohima it was decided to rescind the ‘fight to the death’ instructions given to ‘Bruno’ Brown and his men but the telephone line had been cut and the one radio at Jessami had been damaged and was unserviceable.  An uncoded message telling the Jessami Garrison to break out and return to Kohima was dropped from an aircraft, but it landed outside the perimeter and the Japanese got to it first.  The enemy then knew more than 1st Assam Regiment knew, and Japanese plans were made to ambush the tracks to Kohima. 

Right: Subedar Emtisang Ao MM

At Phakekedzumi John Corlett knew of the withdrawal order and soon realised that ‘Bruno’ Brown did not; Corlett decided to deliver the message to Jessami himself.  Later after the Kohima fighting John Corlett received a Military Cross, and the first part of his citation reads:   When this officer’s battalion had been invested at JESSAMI with no other orders than to hold on it became necessary to send orders for it to withdraw.  The battalion wireless had been damaged and various attempts by runner and by air had failed to get the message through.  Lieutenant CORLETT, who had previously come with a patrol from JESSAMI to PHAKEKEDZUMI, volunteered to deliver the message although he knew not only that this would entail passing through the enemy’s lines but also that any movement at night near his own box would be fired on.  The battalion dispositions had been changed since he had left JESSAMI, and in the old battalion position he found himself among the enemy.  He however continued in his attempts and succeeded in locating the Garrison and delivering his message.  He thereby saved the Garrison from destruction and brought a much needed accession of strength to the KOHIMA Garrison.  On the day after his arrival in JESSAMI (1 Apr 44) and before the evacuation he behaved with great gallantry manning a Light Machine Gun himself when all the men of the Sub-Section had become casualties, and going himself for more ammunition under heavy and continuous fire.

In fact John Corlett was fired upon by the Jessami defenders as he approached them at night, but by strenuously and positively using his voice he was safely admitted within the perimeter.  Meanwhile the Phakekedzumi troops withdrew in good order to Kohima.  ‘Bruno’ Brown considered that it was too late that night to effect an orderly withdrawal from Jessami so the garrison remained fighting during the following day whilst plans were made and orders issued.   Knowing that the Jessami Garrison intended to withdraw the Japanese decided to destroy it, and attacked repeatedly, getting inside the perimeter where some bunkers changed hands more than once in very savage fighting.  In the end the 1st Assam Regiment regained control of its ground but there were large gaps in the defences; once darkness fell the withdrawal plan started. 

Back at Kohima the 1st Assam Regiment was written off by the senior military authorities who interpreted orders to defend the Dimapur supplies bases as meaning that Kohima should not be garrisoned and all troops should be moved to Dimapur; fortunately ‘Bruno’ Brown and his sepoys were unaware of this.  The defenders moved in groups in different directions according to the sector that they had been defending, but some groups walked into Japanese ambushes, losing sepoys killed, wounded, captured and missing.  The Medical Officer, Lieutenant Abdul Wahid, was one of those captured as was the Head Clerk, Jemadar Phukon, but Phukon managed to escape later during the Japanese retreat.  A recently commissioned Jemadar, Lalhuliana Lushai (14), was one of those killed in action.


Major Calistan was successful in getting most of his sepoys back to Kohima and later he was awarded a Military Cross, the Jessami part of his citation being: Between 28th March 44 and 2 April at Jessami this Officer's Company was heavily attacked by the enemy. In spite of wave after wave of Japanese attacks, this officer by his magnificent example of cool courage and confidence and constant inspiration to his men succeeded in maintaining intact his perimeter. On 2nd April 44 when this perimeter was evacuated, this officer succeeded by his skilful leadership and determination in extricating the majority of his company and leading them safely to Kohima.




But one of the last words on the defenders of Jessami should go to ‘battalion bad boy’ No. 1778 Sepoy Wellington Massar (right) , a man of the Khasi tribe.  Later at Kohima Wellington was to repeat the acts of bravery that he displayed at Jessami, for which he received an Indian Distinguished Service Medal.  The first portion of the citation reading: Throughout the battle at JESSAMI between 28th March and 1st April this sepoy, a Number 1 on a Light Machine Gun, showed courage and determination of the highest order.  In spite of repeated attacks on his post by ever increasing numbers of the enemy supported by mortar fire and infantry gun, he remained cool and steady, maintaining a very accurate fire which took a heavy toll of the attackers.  When his Light Machine Gun had stoppages he continued to hold the attackers at bay with rifle and grenades.  When the withdrawal was ordered on the night of 1st/2nd April he was the last man to leave his sector.


Wellington was to die of wounds at Kohima after losing a leg.  Another ‘bad boy’ in a British regiment was to show the same contempt for danger and the same prowess on the Kohima battlefield, he too was to die at Kohima and he was to receive the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. (15) It is a fact that men who do not fit in in barracks and are the despair of Adjutants and Sergeant Majors, sometimes find their spiritual home on the battlefield and they thrive there until they are killed; so it was with Sepoy Wellington Massar.



Kohima

Colonel ‘Bruno’ Brown and his main party from Jessami arrived at Kohima on the afternoon of 3 April.  Small groups straggled in also, having been helped considerably by Naga villagers whom they met on the way who invariably welcomed, sheltered and fed them.   Those who were captured had different experiences, from being ritually beheaded as was Sepoy Ngulkhothang (16) who was taunted so much by his captors that he kicked a Japanese officer down, to those who like Company Havildar Major Satkhosei planned and executed escapes.  Whilst 12 men of 1st Assam Regiment were recorded as being killed in action or dying of wounds at Kharasom and Jessami, the exact number of sepoys who died in ambushes or in captivity on the trails back to Kohima will never be known.  Some sepoys who knew the local terrain, such as Sovehu Angami, avoided enemy ambushes by striking northwards into the Brahmaputra Valley, from where they re-joined their battalion when the Kohima Battle had ended.


Above: Jessami Village today

At Kohima the decision to abandon the town had been reversed and key features were to be defended.  1st Assam Regiment was quickly allocated ground to occupy and hold; the Assam Rifles barracks at Kohima providing food, boots, clothing, blankets, equipment and weapons and ammunition.  On 4th April the 1st Assam Regiment numbered just over 260 all ranks and the unwounded sepoys prepared for their next round with the Japanese 31st Division, strengthened by the experiences of the past fortnight which had shown that Japanese attacks could be defeated.

The British XXXIII Corps was now responsible for Kohima and it reported in its despatches: “161st Brigade arrived at Kohima on 29 March.  Orders were given to the Jessami and Kharasom garrisons to withdraw on the night 31 March/1 April – the former via Milestone 44 Phakekedzumi track, the latter via Gaziphema.  A message in clear was dropped on Jessami by air but, unfortunately, not on the garrison.  The consequence of this was that, when 1st Assam Regiment withdrawal took place, all roads and tracks leaving from Jessami were heavily ambushed by the enemy.  The withdrawal of 1st Assam Regiment completed a brilliant operation by a comparatively new battalion in their baptism of fire.  Not only had it held the enemy attacks and inflicted more casualties than it suffered, but it had successfully delayed the enemy’s advance and thus given valuable time for preparation to the Kohima Garrison.  The spirit of the battalion was magnificent throughout, and in the end it had extricated itself without any of the help it had been led to expect.”


Lieutenant Colonel William Felix Brown OBE who sadly was later to be killed in action in Burma was awarded a Distinguished Service Order with the citation:

 Lieutenant Colonel BROWN’s battalion occupied positions at the villages of JESSAMI and KHARASON, some sixty miles East of KOHIMA, in order to prevent the enemy’s advance from that direction.  On 28 March, the enemy attacked in force; these attacks continued daily and though unsupported, Lt-Col BROWN continued to fight his battalion with no thought of withdrawal, thereby imposing many valuable days of delay on Japanese forces advancing against KOHIMA.  Many attempts by air and runner to order Lt-Col BROWN’s battalion to withdraw failed; eventually an officer of the Assam Regt succeeded in getting through the Japanese lines with orders to withdraw.  Lt-Col BROWN by his resourcefulness, succeeded in extricating his battalion and in leading a large portion of it through successive Japanese ambushes to concentrate at KOHIMA and continue to fight.  Throughout the whole of these operations this officer’s leadership, initiative, courage and unfailing cheerfulness in adversity instilled in all ranks under his command a high spirit and devotion to duty for which no praise can be too great.

Right: Subedar Sarbeswar Rajbongshi MC



Notes on the Japanese 31st Division

Leslie Edwards’ book Kohima. The Furthest Battle is the best source for plotting Japanese movements and dates during OPERATION U-GO.  He writes:

“The third of the three Japanese divisions, 31 Division (containing 15,000 men), the one ordered to take Kohima, advanced in three columns being split into further sub-columns taking different routes towards their interim and final objectives.  The first across the Chindwin River was the northern column, or Right Raiding Column, at Pinma, near Tamanthi.  In it was the 3rd Battalion, 138 Regiment, with various ancillary units, which, after engaging in some minor skirmishes with defensive units on the west bank of the river, entered the Somra Hills intending to approach Jessami from the north and then head towards Kohima. 

The southern column, the Left Raiding Column, crossed the Chindwin south of Homalin on 15 March at Monkali, Hpanaing and Letpantha, crossed the Burma/India border on 18 March and headed towards Ukhrul intending to turn north to approach Kohima from the south.  In it were all of 58 Regiment, the 2nd Battalion 31st Mountain Artillery Regiment, the Headquarters of the 31st Infantry Group (comprising the three infantry regiments under Miyazaki) and ancillary units.

In the middle column, the Central Raiding Column, was the main body of 31 Division, which over several days crossed the Chindwin at Maungkan and Kawya, roughly midway between Tamanthi and Homalin.  It included 124 Regiment, the rest of 138 Regiment, the rest of the 31st Mountain Artillery Regiment, the Headquarters of 31st Division, and other units.  It headed south towards Somra where it split, the 1st Battalion of 138 Regiment going to Kharasom, the rest going north to Jessami.”

The Divisional resupply plan was to secure food from British dumps at Kohima once that town had been captured.  The Division acquired oxen and horses from villagers in Burma and then in the Naga Hills and loaded these with supplies, but this logistical tactic on the whole failed as the beasts kept falling down the steep hillsides in the Somra Tracts.  Elephants acquired in Burma were useful to the Japanese for pulling regimental guns and carrying ammunition, but the Japanese gunners’ advance was limited to the speed of the elephants.

Above: Commemorative plaque at Jessami


SOURCES:

Leslie Edwards. Kohima. The Furthest Battle. (The History Press, Stroud 2009).

Fergal Keane. Road of Bones. The Siege of Kohima 1944. (HarperCollins, London 2010).

S. Woodburn Kirby, Major General. British Official History. The War Against Japan. Volume III. The Decisive Battles. (Naval & Military Press soft-back reprint 2004).

Bisheshwar Prasad (General Editor). Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War, 1939-45. The Reconquest of Burma, Volume 1. (Orient Longmans, India 1958).

Mohammed Ibrahim Qureshi, Major. The First Punjabis. History of the First Punjab Regiment. (Gale & Polden, Aldershot 1958).

William Slim. Defeat into Victory. (Pan Military Classics paperback 2009).

Peter Steyn MC, Captain. The History of the Assam Regiment. (Orient Longmans, India 1959). 



(1) The British IV Corps was rather leisurely preparing for an advance into Burma by building roads towards Tiddim and Tamu and jeep tracks further north towards the Kabaw Valley.  It appears that few if any of the many Staff Appreciations produced by the IV Corps Commander envisaged Japanese invaders of India using these roads and tracks, but they did.
(2) It needs to be firmly stated that as this article shows, many Kuki sepoys fought hard against the Japanese.
(3) “V” Force was created by the British during the Japanese invasion of Burma and it was planned to be a “stay behind” organisation that would operate deep behind enemy lines, but by 1944 the Force was concentrating on providing short-range reconnaissance and intelligence information from areas forward of the British front line.
(4) Details of the refugee situation from Burma can be extracted from the article The Retreat from Burma 1942. The Struggles Through the Northern Passes that can be seen on this website.
(5)] No. 566 Sepoy Thesie Angami is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial with his date of death recorded as 13th July 1942.
(6) No. 635 Naik Tekahasi Ao received a Mention in Despatches (MiD) later in the Burma Campaign.
(7) These observer posts were part of the large USA supply mission to Nationalist China.  Planes flew from India to China over the ‘Hump’, or intermediate mountains, and the observer posts reported weather conditions and any sightings of planes that had come down in the jungle.
(8) Geoffrey Blake Thurgood is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial and his date of death is recorded as 4 April 1944.
(9) Nicholas Austhwaite Stanley, Royal Indian Army Service Corps attached to ‘V’ Force, was appointed to be an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) later in 1944 and in 1946 he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in recognition of his ‘V’ Force exploits in Central Burma.
(10) The Assam Rifles had been formed as a para-military force to support police activities in border regions.  During World War 2 the regiment was upgraded to being an effective light infantry force that usually formed the backbone of ‘V’ Force operations, often working behind enemy lines.
(11) Subadar Karindra Rath Nagbonshi and No. 141 Havildar Zachhinga Lushai are commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial.
(12) John McCulloch Young is buried in Kohima War Cemetery.
(13) No. 306 Naik Jamkishei Kuki is buried in Kohima War Cemetery.
(14) Jemadar Lalhuliana Lushai is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial.
(15) Lance Corporal John Pennington Harman, a millionaire’s son who fought at Kohima in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his heroism.
(16) No. 524 Sepoy Ngulkhothang Sanchou, Assam Regiment, is commemorated on the Rangoon Memorial with his date of death recorded as 5th April 1944.

 
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