Appendix B: The Kohima Weekends, 1957-2000
Kohima, on the borders of India in a corner of Assam, gives its name to a great and decisive battle fought and won against the Japanese in 1944. John Colvin gives a graphic description in his book Not Ordinary Men - The Battle of Kohima Assessed. At this stage in the war Army/Air Force co-operation had reached its highest level. Troops on the ground relied absolutely on the supply from the air of all commodities.
I did not take part in the battle. In the retreat of 1942 we had crossed the Chindwin to Kalewa, followed the track which was being completed to Tamu, over the Shenam heights and into the Imphal plain where the 23rd Indian Division was to be the stop for the Japanese over the monsoon which was breaking and beyond. I was commanding what there was of General Slim’s Corps Signals.
After a few days we took the primitive road which led from Imphal to Dimapur, the railhead. Much of it was single track as whole portions slid down the unstable mountainside requiring a new section to be engineered. We had a long wait at one point, which was explained when General Wavell and his escort drove through southwards to see the continuing arrival of Burma survivors ending their long journey.
As we climbed we entered the magically beautiful mountainous area of Kohima. There was attractive bird life and strings of butterflies appeared in separate follow-my-leader groups. The few Naga tribesmen that we saw seemed to be garbed mainly in blue and red beads. All in all, after the travails of our journey this all seemed a heaven on earth.
I next saw Kohima in 1944 two or three months after the battle. 23 Indian Division, which I was with, had been driving the Japanese off the Shenam heights and back towards Tamu and the Chindwin. It had been a contact Division for two and a half years and was being withdrawn for a period of rest. We passed through Kohima, which then looked like photos of the war torn Flanders of 1918 with cruelly misshapen remnants of trees and a predominant impression of muddy hillside rather than burgeoning vegetation.
The 2nd Division provided the British contribution to the battle and this was the link for me between the early and the later part of this tale. In 1956 I was appointed to command the Signal Regiment of the 2nd Division in Germany, initially in Hilden near Düsseldorf and later in Bünde. Early on I noted that the Royal Engineers had provided the first Signals provision on the strength of the Division in 1907. 1957 would therefore be a 50th Anniversary year, which deserved celebration - something to brighten the routine for all but particularly for our National Service element. This would also give an opportunity to highlight the importance of the regiment in one of the great battles of the war. Signals Regiments do not have ‘battle honours’ as they commonly serve through whole campaigns, but this unit’s moment of glory occupied a few terrible weeks after long training involving in particular preparation for Combined Operations. Camaraderie within the Division was particularly strong and this was to lead to unexpected developments in the event which we called the ‘Kohima Weekend’ in the summer of 1957. The Divisional Commander presented us with silver Crossed Keys, the Divisional sign, and we acquired the Kohima Bowl, a piece of modern silver. Later generations surmised that this represented a Japanese helmet, but this is not so.
I ran three such events and, with one small lapse, it has continued and is still going on 40 years later.
As time went by other Arms learned of the event and their veterans were allowed to join in. Divisional Headquarters took part with growing interest and gradually, particularly after the move of the Division to York, the weekend became a meeting for the Veterans of all Arms who had fought in the battle. There had long been an Officers Dinner Club, which continued its own functions but soon played a major part in all the York reunions. The Signal Regiment continued to carry out all the work involved in mounting the meetings. In a way this was a cause of regret as the new arrangement meant more work and less fun for the serving soldiers of the day. However, after seeing the enjoyment of the Veterans and meeting them during the ceremonies, few can have failed to feel rewarded for their efforts.
One of the contributions made by the Veteran organisations was, with the agreement of the Minster authorities, to reinstate part of the remaining stonework of the ruined cloister to the east of the Minster and to erect there a smaller copy of the memorial at Kohima itself. This was dedicated in the presence of the Queen Mother on a brilliantly fine Sunday. The ceremonial part of the present weekends involves an open air service and wreath laying at the memorial followed by forming up on the road at the eastern end of the gardens and a march past, led by a squadron of serving soldiers with the salute taken from the steps at the southern side of the Minster. Tourists and residents clap as the old men march by and they deserve it. After the ‘eyes right’ the march continues round the Minster and gives an ‘eyes left’ at the Memorial itself to complete the ceremony. Several of the participants are very lame but they fight their way round with the same determination that they showed in the battle itself, paying honour to their comrades who did not survive the battle and the many other comrades who have died since. The result of our effort 40 years ago is a valuable Signals contribution to many gallant men.