'For your tomorrow'

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
It sounded like thunder.

The rhythmic rolling of tanks and artillery, coupled with the heavy footsteps of nearly 12,000 Japanese soldiers, echoed through the dense jungles of Burma. For nearly a month, they trudged almost 60 miles toward the Kohima Ridge - their supplies dwindling rapidly.

Waiting for them were roughly 1,500 British and Indian soldiers, committed to ensuring this massive offensive would not succeed.

The operation had been coordinated by British Army Gen. William Slim, 14th Army commander, who understood the critical juncture this battle represented to the overall war, and weighed his strategic decisions carefully.

"There is only one principle of war and that's this," Slim later said. "Hit the other fellow, as quickly as you can, as hard as you can, where it hurts him most, when he ain't lookin'."

It happened fast, the morning of April 5, 1944. Japanese soldiers rushed the outlying defensive positions, in an attempt to overrun the small, Allied force. Although the British ultimately lost the positions, they inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.

"It was a hell of a battle," said John Giddings, as he spoke during a World War II appreciation event at RAF Croughton, United Kingdom, June 5, 2015. "We fought day and night to defend those six hills."

Giddings, a veteran of the conflict, paused and looked out at the crowd gathered in front of the fighter pens on base. Some were old, some young, and some had seen their share of combat - but everyone listened as he recounted his experience in what would be remembered as "Britain's Greatest Battle."

During the devastating onslaught, Giddings said the Japanese suffered massive losses at the hands of British, Indian and Gurkha defenders. However, despite the heavy casualties, the Japanese forced the Allies from the hills, pouring waves of reinforcements against the composite group.

"We were eventually fighting one another across the deputy commissioner's tennis court," Giddings said. "It was bloody tough. But, we broke the Japanese there."

In what became known as the "Battle of the Tennis Court," combatants from both sides were attacking one another every 30 minutes. The Allies had fortified their position with dug out weapon pits and trenches along the western edge of the court, while the Japanese fired volley after volley of artillery onto the field.

Giddings said one of the platoon commanders survived a bayonet attack before firing more than two dozen rounds from his rifle, killing his attacker.

"We were in Kohima for three weeks," said Maj. Frankie Boshell, B Company commander of the 1st Royal Berkshires, when asked about the battle years later. "We were attacked every single night. They came in waves, it was like a pigeon shoot. Most nights they overran part of the battalion position, so we had to mount counter-attacks."

At one point, soldiers were throwing grenades back and forth across the field, like an actual game of tennis, Giddings said. He paused again, looking down as if remembering the once beautiful landscape, which was turned into a desolate graveyard for more than 10,000 men.

"We were a family," he said, somberly shaking his head. "We did our job."

For more than two months, the battle raged. After what seemed like an eternity of fighting, British and Indian reinforcements drove the Japanese from the hills of Kohima and pursued them to the city of Imphal, where the final battle took place.

Exhausted, and constantly plagued with enemy bombardments and infantry assaults, the Allies were hard-pressed to continue the fight, Giddings said.

"When we die, sir," one young British private asked his commander. "Is that the end, or do we go on?"

Finally, when it seemed victory would never be won, the end came as the Japanese forces ran out of supplies and ammunition. To date, it was the greatest land defeat suffered by the Japanese - but it came at a heavy cost.

"I had a bad war," Giddings said. "But, in the end, we were still a family. So, I had a bloody good war too."

Setting down the microphone, Giddings smiled and asked those in attendance to remember the words carved into a memorial that lies on the slopes of Garrison Hill - which had once been a beautiful tennis court.

"When you go home, tell them of us and say," he recited. "For your tomorrow, we gave our today."