75 years later, British soldier returns to battlefield Kohima
Richard Dey, the 92-year-old World War II veteran had the battlefield replaying in his mind as he laid a wreath at the Kohima War Cemetery on Friday. The 4th of April marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Kohima fought between the Allied Forces and the Japanese Army on the Naga Hills in 1944.
“It was a very lump-in-the-throat kind of a morning,” Dey said. “Have you seen animals being run over? The sight of humans dying during war is no better. We soldiers don’t like to recount it,” he said.
It is Dey’s first visit to Kohima since he left India in 1946. An ordinary soldier of a little over 18 years, part of the Royal Welch Fusiliers assigned to the Second Division, he fought the Japanese in Kohima in 1944, christened the bloodiest and fiercest battle of the Second World War.
Over 11,000 casualties included more than half from the Japanese forces and the rest from the British and the Indian forces.
Dey said he had arrived in Kohima as part of the reinforcements. “We were part of the relief force from the second division which came to help the men under siege,” he said.
“Kohima is still very grubby,” remarked Dey at the cemetery. “I would have imagined it to be cleaner, but it is still very untidy. Perhaps the government has little money to spend,” he said.
A few steps away a band of the Assam Rifles prepared for the event, and visitors including the British High Commissioner to India and the Japanese Ambassador in New Delhi arrived at the event which is part of a year-long commemoration of the anniversary of a battle which ended in June 1944.
Back in 1944, Dey travelled for four days in a train from Bombay to Ranchi before being sent up. “In Ranchi, there was four days of jungle training. There would be cardboard cutouts with Japanese faces hanging on the trees and we would take potshots,” he said.
In Kohima, Dey was also amazed. “I wonder how we did it,” he said. “How did we climb these hills even as we were being shot at all the time,” he said.
“In the car, seeing the jungles and the hills, I was reminded of how we would cross them as we moved about up and down from Dimapur,” he said.
Dey, who now lives in London, is grateful to the Nagas. “Had it not been for them picking up the rifles, I would not have been here,” he said.
Nagas fought on both sides with some helping the Allied Forces while others including AZ Phizo, regarded as the father of the Naga national movement, along with Subhash Chandra Bose, were with the Japanese in quest for liberation from the British.
Where the War Cemetery stands today was part of the Garrison Hill, and the spot for the tennis court of the British Deputy Commissioner’s residence. It is this tennis court which was the site of fierce fighting and savagery.
The epitaph reads, “Here, around the tennis court of the deputy commissioner, lie men who fought in the Battle of Kohima in which they and their comrades finally halted the invasion of India by the forces of Japan in April 1994.”
“They were all comrades, friends. We were all in it together,” said Dey.