London, 20th April 2013: The two victories over the Japanese, which took place in Imphal and Kohima in the north east India over the same period in 1944, were voted the winner of a contest run by the National Army Museum to identify “Britain’s Greatest Battle”. Imphal-Kohima received almost half of all votes. It was far ahead of D-Day and Normandy, in 1944 which received 25% of the vote and came second.
At the event, each contender had their case made by a historian giving a 40 minute presentation. The audience, who had paid to attend the day, then voted in a secret ballot after all five presentations had been made.
The case for Imphal and Kohima was made by Dr Robert Lyman, an author and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
“I had thought that one of the bigger names like D-Day or Waterloo would win so I am delighted that Imphal-Kohima has won. You have got to judge the greatness of a battle by its political, cultural and social impact, as much as its military impact.
“Imphal and Kohima were really significant for a number of reasons, not least that they showed that the Japanese were not invincible and that that they could be beaten, and beaten well. The victories demonstrate this more than the US in the Pacific, where they were taking them on garrison by garrison.”
The contest aimed to gauge the battles in terms of their historical impact and the tactics employed.
The battles of Imphal and Kohima saw the British and Indian forces, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General William Slim, repel the Japanese invasion of India and helped turned the tide of the war in the Far East.
Some veterans of the battles and historians have felt the victories have since been overlooked, partly because the invasion of Europe, starting with D-Day, took place while they were still being fought.
The fight for Imphal went on longer than that for Kohima, lasting from March until July.
Kohima was smaller in scale, and shorter, from April to June – but the fighting was so intense it has been described as the Stalingrad of the East.
In one sector, only the width of the town’s tennis court separated the two sides. When on 18 April the relief forces of the British 2nd Division arrived, the defensive perimeter was reduced to a shell-shattered area only 350 meters square.
The Japanese, who fought alongside some Indian nationalists, eventually lost 53,000 dead and missing in the battles. The British forces sustained 12,500 casualties at Imphal while the fighting at Kohima cost them another 4,000 casualties.
There are several memorials to the British and Indian troops who fought in the area, including one with an inscription that has become famous as the ‘Kohima Epitaph’. It reads: “When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today’
After their defensive victory, the British went on to clear the Japanese from Burma.
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