On 7 December 1941, the forces of Imperial Japan launched surprise attacks throughout the Far East and the Pacific. Just two weeks later Commonwealth forces in Hong Kong surrendered, and by March 1942, Singapore and Rangoon had fallen.
The Fourteenth Army
By winter 1942, what remained of the Commonwealth army in the Far East was recovering in the north-eastern Indian provinces of Nagaland and Manipur, on the border with Burma. Morale was low but their enigmatic commander, General William Slim, was undeterred. He set about regrouping, retraining and resupplying his men, intending to return to Burma at the earliest opportunity.
In 1943, Slim’s force was renamed the Fourteenth Army. It was one of the most diverse in history, with African, Indian, Gurkha and British formations. Soldiers from the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, Uganda and Kenya, worked alongside those from across undivided India, and the United Kingdom. Over the next two years they trained tirelessly to become a formidable fighting force, specialising in jungle warfare.
With the bulk of Commonwealth forces regrouping, two special operations were undertaken in Burma. In February 1943, led by their unconventional commander Orde Wingate, 3,000 soldiers of the Long Range Penetration Group, better known as the Chindits, fought deep behind enemy lines for three months. Resupplied from the air, they attacked enemy bases, destroyed railways and generally frustrated the Japanese.
The operation had a remarkable morale value for the rest of the Fourteenth Army, proving that the Japanese could be beaten at jungle warfare. But casualties were heavy, and over half the Chindit force was lost or considered unfit for any future service. Many who died have no known grave and are commemorated on the CWGC Rangoon Memorial.
Despite the losses, a second much larger operation was undertaken: Operation Thursday. In February 1944, more than 9,000 Chindits were airlifted deep into Burma. They would become a thorn in the side of the Japanese during their forthcoming offensive.
Lieutenant George Cairns VC
George Cairns was born on 12 December 1913 in Tooting, London. A bank clerk before the war, he was commissioned into the Army in August 1941, and was eventually sent to India to serve with the Chindits. In March 1944, George took part in the Operation Thursday. He landed in Burma by glider and fought with the 77th Brigade to block a Japanese supply route.
During the battle, George faced a Japanese officer armed with a sword, who cut off George’s left arm. George managed to overcome his foe, picked up the sword and continued to lead his men, killing and wounding several Japanese soldiers before collapsing. He was 30 years old.
George was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but the paperwork was with General Wingate when his plane crashed in 1944. The site could not be reached until after the war, and two of the witnesses to George’s heroism had also been killed in later actions. George’s widow persuaded the military authorities to investigate and, on 20 May 1949, his became the last Victoria Cross of the Second World War to be gazetted.
George was originally buried in Sahmaw War Cemetery but in 1954 the grave was moved to Taukkyan War Cemetery Plot 6. Row A. Grave 4
Operation U-Go and the Invasion of India
The Japanese were well aware of the Commonwealth and Allied forces gaining strength in India and China. Intending to destroy the threat, the Japanese launched Operation U-Go, the invasion of India. After fierce clashes on the border in February 1944, the main Japanese force, 85,000 strong, crossed the Chindwin River on 8 March and poured into India.
If the Fourteenth Army was defeated and the Japanese were able to advance through the Naga Hills to Dimapur, there would be nothing to prevent a full invasion of India.
The Battle of Imphal
By April, the Japanese had reached Imphal. The town lies on a vast plain, surrounded by mountains and jungle, and here the bulk of the Fourteenth Army made their stand. The Japanese moved quickly to surround the defenders but, unlike in previous clashes, the Commonwealth troops battled on, resupplied from the air. The fighting was brutal and confused, and groups of men could be completely isolated for days, fighting for survival.
Jemadar Abdul Hafiz VC
Born on 1 July 1918, in the Rohtak district of the Punjab, Abdul Hafiz served with 9th Jat Regiment in the British Indian Army during the Second World War. On 6 April 1944, during the Battle of Imphal, he led a counter-attack against a Japanese position. Although twice wounded leading the advance, he charged a machine-gun, killing the crew. He continued at the head of his men until finally collapsing. His last words were to encourage his soldiers on. For his inspirational leadership and courage he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery.
He is buried in Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery, Plot 3. Row Q.
After two weeks of constant fighting the garrison held only 350 square metres of ground near the tennis court, and the situation was desperate. Few Commonwealth soldiers remained unwounded, many were almost starving, and all were severely dehydrated. The end seemed near.
Lance Corporal John Pennington Harman VC
John Pennington Harman was born on 20 July 1914, at Beckenham in Kent, the eldest child of millionaire businessman Martin Coles Harman. In 1925, his father - an avid nature lover - purchased Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. In November 1941, John was called up for service and in early 1943 he was sent to India, eventually serving with the 4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own West Kent Regiment.
In 1944, he was part of the Kohima Garrison when the Japanese attacked. John led a platoon during the desperate fighting and twice went out alone to attack enemy positions. The second time he was badly wounded, and lay dying in no-man’s land. His company commander, Major Easten, braved enemy fire to bring him in. He called for stretcher bearers, but John said “Don’t bother Sir….I got the lot. It was worth it” and died in Easten’s arms. John was 29 years old.
For his actions during the Battle of Kohima, John was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His father collected the VC from Buckingham Palace and carried the medal with him for the rest of his life.
John is buried in Kohima War Cemetery, Plot 8. Row E. Grave 3. Upon his grave marker are inscribed the words, ‘Of Lundy, The Earth is the Lord’s’
Victory at Kohima
At dawn on 18 April, the exhausted Kohima garrison prepared to make their last stand. In the enemy trenches just a few metres away they could hear the Japanese massing for their final attack. At that moment shells began falling on the Japanese positions and tanks of the relieving force could be seen arriving. The garrison was saved from annihilation and Kohima was secured.
Captain John Randle VC
John “Jack” Randle was born in India on 22 December 1917. In 1920, his family moved to England and Jack was sent to the Dragon School and Marlborough College, before going on to study law at Merton College, Oxford. In May 1940, Jack was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Norfolk Regiment. A year later he married Mavis Ellen Manser, and they had a son, Leslie.
In 1944, John was serving in India with 2nd Infantry Division. Following the Japanese attack at Kohima the Division fought its way through the mountain pass to relieve the Kohima Garrison. Over the next four weeks they fought to drive the Japanese back. During the battle John performed several deeds of incredible bravery. He had been badly wounded in the knee by a grenade but refused to be relieved. Despite the pain, he went into no-man’s land on 4 May and brought back several wounded comrades. Two days later his company was ordered to take a Japanese position on a ridge which was heavily fortified and where several attacks had already failed.
John was hit several times during the advance but, undeterred, he charged a Japanese bunker. He threw in a grenade and then flung himself across the entrance to seal it. He was 26 years old.
He is buried in Kohima War Cemetery, Plot 2. Row C. Grave 8. Upon his grave marker are inscribed the words ‘Remembered by his devoted wife, only son Leslie John, Parents and Sisters’.
Victory at Imphal
With the road to Dimapur secured, the defenders of Imphal linked up with reinforcements advancing from Kohima on 22 June.
Under constant air attack and with their supply lines mercilessly assaulted by Chindit forces and air strikes, the last Japanese attacks at Imphal launched in late June had no success.
On 3 July, after nearly five months of fighting, the surviving Japanese forces fell back. More than 8,000 Commonwealth servicemen were wounded, killed or missing, but of the 85,000 strong Japanese force that had crossed the Chindwin River in March, less than a third returned. The battles had been fierce, but it was starvation and disease that had caused most of the Japanese losses. It was by far the worst Japanese land defeat of the war to that date.
Serjeant Hanson Turner VC
Hanson Turner was born in Hampshire on 17 July 1910, but grew up in Yorkshire. He was the second eldest of nine children. He attended St. Augustine’s School in Halifax and was a member of the Rhodes Street Boys’ Brigade. After leaving school Hanson got a job as a bus conductor. In 1935, he married Edith Rothery, a local girl from Halifax, and in November 1938 they had a baby girl, Jean. Hanson was a keen gardener and supporter of Halifax Town AFC.
In 1940, Hanson enlisted in the Army, joining the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was posted to India and served as a Serjeant during the Battle of Imphal with the 1st Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment.
On 7 June 1944, he led the defence of an important position against a determined Japanese night assault. Fighting alone with grenades, he returned for more ammunition five times. He was killed while charging a group of Japanese soldiers. For his courage he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was 33 years old.
Hanson is buried in Imphal War Cemetery, Plot 6. Row B. Grave 7. Upon his grave marker are inscribed the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, ever remembered’.
Aftermath and the advance into Burma
After their defensive victory, the Commonwealth forces planned a new offensive to clear the last Japanese forces from northern Burma and drive them south towards Mandalay and Meiktila.
Battling through the monsoon, and supplied from the air, troops of the Fourteenth Army now crossed the River Chindwin. After fierce fighting, Meiktila and Mandalay were captured in March 1945.
The route south to Rangoon lay open and in early May the city was taken.
The Japanese surrendered three months later.
By the end of the Second World War tens of thousands of Commonwealth service personnel had died in the Far East. Graves Registration Units (GRUs) worked to bury and record the resting places of the dead, but nowhere was this task harder than in the jungles of north-eastern India and Burma. The fighting raged across vast areas, often covered by dense jungle, and after more than three and a half years of war, many thousands had no known grave.
In the late 1940s, the work of the GRUs in India and Burma were considered complete and the cemeteries were passed into the perpetual care of the War Graves Commission. The Commission appointed the architect Colin St. Clair Oakes, and he transformed these rudimentary burial grounds into permanent and fitting final resting places.
Colin St. Clair Oakes
Colin St. Clair Oakes was born in Tanyfron, North Wales. In the early 1940s he was working in Bengal, designing municipal buildings throughout the province. He was an active member of the Territorial Army and upon the outbreak of war with Japan he was called up for service with the Royal Artillery. He served as a captain in the Fourteenth Army and fought in India and Burma with the 36th Indian Infantry Division.
In 1946, Oakes was offered the position of Principal Architect for the Far East on the recommendation of Sir Fredric Kenyon, a founding father of the Commission. At 36, he was the youngest Principal Architect in the Commission’s history and the first to have served during the Second World War.
Oakes designed and oversaw the building of many our sites in Asia, creating some of the most iconic cemeteries and memorials of the Second World War.
Kohima War Cemetery
Kohima War Cemetery is perhaps the most iconic of the CWGC’s cemeteries in the Far East. The first burials were made here during the fighting in 1944, and it was decided soon afterwards that a permanent cemetery should be built.
Over the following years isolated burials were brought from across the surrounding area, and plots for different religions were created.
In August 1948, the cemetery passed into the care of the War Graves Commission. Colin St. Clair Oakes incorporated the unique features of the site into his design, including the tennis court across which the battle had raged, and the only cherry tree to have survived the battle.
Today, almost 1,300 Commonwealth servicemen are buried here. More than 900 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated in accordance with their faith are commemorated on the Kohima Cremation Memorial within the cemetery.
There are also many memorials placed by comrades and veterans in memory of those buried here. Inscribed on the 2nd Division Memorial is the famous Kohima Epitaph:
When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
Photo: Sketch of the 2nd Division Memorial, from the CWGC archive. Artist unknown.
Imphal War Cemetery
This cemetery was begun during the war and more than 500 servicemen were laid to rest here. After the fighting was over the Imphal plain and the surrounding mountainous jungles were searched and the graves and remains of 1,000 other personnel were brought here for burial.
The cemetery was designed in the style of a Mughal garden, using geometry and water to create an atmosphere of calm reflection. The entrance is a late example of the Indo-British Imperial style developed in the 19th Century.
Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery
This cemetery was begun during the war, and today almost 1,700 Commonwealth service personnel are buried or commemorated here, more than 200 of whom remain unidentified.
Many of those who died at Imphal belonged to the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim faiths. Muslims were laid to rest in Imphal Indian Army War Cemetery, while Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated in the cemetery in accordance with their faith. They are commemorated by name on the Imphal Cremation memorial, which stands at the heart of this cemetery.
Taukkyan War Cemetery and the Rangoon Memorial
Taukkyan War Cemetery was begun in 1951, when isolated graves and remains from battlefield cemeteries from across Burma were brought here. Today, this is the largest CWGC cemetery in Burma and almost 5,600 Commonwealth servicemen are buried or commemorated here.
At the centre of the cemetery is the Rangoon Memorial. It commemorates nearly 27,000 Commonwealth service personnel who died in Burma and India and have no known grave. It is the largest CWGC memorial to the missing of the Second World War in the world.
The cemetery and memorial were designed by Henry Brown, and unveiled in 1958. The two colonnade wings of the memorial are designed to provide shade, while the central rotunda allowed space for translations of the memorial inscription, ‘They Died For All Free Men’, in Burmese, English, Urdu, Hindu and Gurmukhi, all with equal prominence.
The memorial was unveiled by General Sir Francis Festing, Commander in Chief of the Far East Land Forces, on 9 February 1958. Among those present were more than 50 of the relatives of those commemorated on the memorial, who travelled from the United Kingdom.
In his address, General Festing said
The memorial presents a picture of a simple truth – that of a multitude of men of many races and widely differing faiths, who all gave their lives in a common cause