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We opened fire with all we had...
12:41pm Friday 11th September 2009 in Your Second World War Memories
To Jim Welland, memories of the Battle of Kohima in north-east India are still vivid, 65 years on.
In April 1944, Mr Welland was a corporal with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, 6th Brigade, 2nd Division, charged with relieving troops under siege by Japanese forces intent on cutting off a vital supply route.
Recalling how his platoon came under attack, he said: “It started with 75mm shells coming over, and hand grenades being thrown at our positions, and the screaming noises they made.
“We would have been a matter of yards from them, or so it appeared. However, we opened fire with everything we had.
“I had the Bren gun and I pointed in the direction of where most of the screaming was coming from – good move as it turned out. We saw shadows appear in front of us and they were laughing and talking to each other as if they were going up to the pub.
“I don’t think they realised how close they were to us. I opened fire and other positions followed suit. Being in a box formation, small arms fire and two-inch mortars was proving to be very effective.
“The artillery was brought in to quieten the enemy guns that were whipping those 75mm shells amongst us and everything seemed to be quieter apart from the continual sniper taking pot shots at us.
“Somebody got this chap eventually. He was found by one of our frequent patrols hanging from a tree very high up, dead, of course. He had tied himself to the bough of the tree so securely so that if he did get shot, he wouldn’t fall to the ground, the idea being that we would think he was alive and kicking.”
Mr Welland said a tank brought in as extra fire-power got into difficulties reversing down a hill to the road.
“All efforts by the tank crew and some aid from the Royal Army Service Corps, failed to achieve a solution,” he said. “The tank had to remain. I understand that it is still there to this day.
“The late L/Cpl Jim Jagger (RASC), a member of our Burma Star Association Branch in Colchester, told me that he was involved in trying to retrieve this tank with his section, but to no avail. They had orders to abandon.
“We had casualties after this action, of course, but I couldn’t give you a figure. Our officer commanding, a captain, was killed, and a corporal and his whole section were bayoneted in their trenches.
“It was very disturbing for us because they were our friends and comrades. I understand that we must have given a good account of ourselves. A great number of the enemy dead were found around the perimeter.”
With food and ammunition running short, American Dakota aircraft dropped supplies to the ground forces.
“What a sight,” said Mr Welland, 88, of King George Road, Colchester. “These American lads were standing at the backs of the planes, kicking this gear out. Most of it dropped almost in our laps. The Japanese did quite well out of the drop also.
“A few got caught in the trees, which we tried to shoot down by breaking the strings. We had some success, due to the fact that there was hardly any foliage left on them from the shelling, and we could accurately shoot at the strings and weaken them. The weight of the supplies attached would bring them down,” he added.
“Altogether, we had about 17 days on this hill. We were unshaven, unwashed, but well fed thanks to the air supply. As to the action, we had some quieter days when we would chance our luck and visit each other in our positions and have a ‘fag and a chinwag’.”
On one of those “quieter” days, Mr Welland managed to meet forces sweetheart, singer Vera Lynn, who had come to entertain the troops.
He presented her with a Japanese flag, taken from inside the helmet of a Japanese soldier he had shot a few days before.
“She took it and studied it, then looked at me, and said to my amazement: ‘They have better silk in this flag than I have in my knickers.’ It made my day, and what a day.”
The Battle of Kohima ended in June 1944, resulting in more than 4,000 casualties among British and Indian troops and almost 5,800 Japanese.