Day 9: The Battle Of The Tennis Court
Rupert Winchester takes a break from all the festivities and steps into the pages of history…
Every Englishman of a certain vintage is familiar with the name Kohima, even if, like most people in the world, they couldn’t find it on a map to save their lives. They know of Kohima because, in the spring of 1944, Britain and its Indian allies fought the Battle of Kohima, a battle that military historians describe as being as important as Thermopylae or Stalingrad. In 2013, it was voted by Britain’s National Army Museum as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle.’
After dramatically taking Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma, the Japanese saw the logic of trying to wrest India from the British in a move that would have destroyed the Empire and probably cost the Allies the war.
Kohima was strategically important in the wider 1944 Japanese offensive, it lay on the summit of a pass that offered the Japanese the best route from Burma downhill and on to the great plains of India.
The Japanese advance into India was halted at Kohima in April 1944. The fiercest hand-to-hand fighting took place in the garden of the deputy commissioner’s bungalow, around the tennis court, when a small Commonwealth force held out against repeated attacks by a Japanese division. The action is now known as the Battle of the Tennis Court, reminiscent of Betjeman and Surrey; a strangely muted and unmartial name for such a fierce fight.
The savagery of the Battle of the Tennis Court is almost unimaginable. It lasted from mid-April to mid-May. The air was thick with grenades and bullets; the ground was a morass of viscous mud and poisonous snakes, the bodies of the dead, both Allied and Japanese, were ground into the earth like so much bloody compost.
Eventually the Japanese became overextended, their supply lines were disrupted, and many of them starved to death or died of diseases. Their armies began their long retreat away from India.
The Japanese lost an estimated 7,000 men. The British and Indian losses came to 4,604 soldiers, the youngest a mere 16 years old.
The war cemetery at Kohima is beautiful. It occupies the site of the tennis court, it is still marked out, its white lines and neatly clipped grass incongruous with the knowledge of the carnage that took place there 70 years ago. Many of the ranks of graves are of unknown, or unidentifiable soldiers, with the simple inscription: Known Unto God.
As Wellington said after the Battle of Waterloo, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.” A friend whose father fought there told me: “Even until the end of his life, he said he could recall the name of every man he fought alongside. But apart from that he would not – or could not – ever speak of it.”
Today, young smartly-dressed Nagamese eat their lunch and playfully flirt with one another between the neat headstones. At the foot of the cemetery is a stone with a simple cross carved into it. And the following inscription:
When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today
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