Kohima was one of the decisive battles of World War II though it was underrated by British military historians for a while. Mountbatten, on the other hand, in his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian army had no illusions. It was the Japanese thrust into British India accompanied by the Netaji&’s INA troops  and it was fought out on a ridge in Nagaland through a tennis court and an administrator&’s bungalow with troop movements uncertain, water sources captured and uncaptured and spurts of bravery and miscommunication. Though theoretically it was part of the British Fourteenth Army under Field Marshal Slim, the battle ended up being a piece meal encounter of divisions sporadic reinforcements being sent up from Dimapur, transport problems, lost troops and misdelivered airplane drops.

Arthur Swinson has a name for writing military history and he documents it in a way that makes the reader seem that they are present. He captures the shifts and changes of the battle for Kohima and how it built up as part of the greater Japanese strategy. He also emphasizes that communications in those times were uncertain — the Japanese and the British forces not on the spot were convinced that Kohima had been captured and possibly Imphal. His descriptions of   hand-to-hand combat are vivid and do great credit to his research. People dying for reasons no one can comprehend like Lance Corporal Harman who won a Victoria Cross and who might have been alive after his courageous attacks if he had only listened to the warning shouts; cattle meant to feed troops going missing down the steep cliffs of the region and the loyalty of the Nagas who served the British because of Captain Pawsey, the  Deputy Commissioner of Kohima, who was like a father to them and who had his ear to the ground as far as information in the hills was concerned but who was disregarded because of British prejudice where the locals were concerned. Swinson&’s style makes for vivid easy reading though yes, one has to focus on the names and the ever changing divisions involved.

Battles are always a clash of personalities as well as a clash of troops with the various hierarchies getting in the way. All that contributed to the chaos at Kohima, though the atmosphere was lightened by jaunty commanding officers who feasted on eggs and wild strawberries for breakfast even in the middle of Japanese fire. There is no doubt that the situation was horrific — the air was filled with the stench of rotting corpses, Indian, British and Japanese — with no time for hygiene or quarter. It was won because the British held out and because the Kohima ridge was a fort of a kind, albeit divided areas — the Deputy Commissioner&’s house and tennis court were on three terraces and it was impossible to see what was happening on each individual terrace, not to mention the nalas which provided extra cover.

Swinson also mentions that much of the ammunition destined for Kohima did not reach; there were rumours that the Congress Party had liberated it to help the Hindus in their fight against the Muslims. Comments like these, true or otherwise — Swinson says that rumours are usually true in India — might make the book slightly unpopular among today&’s patriots, though none of it detracts from the urgency of the battle and the tribute it pays to courage and endurance in the face of seeming hopelessness. It ends with a hope for peace in the Naga Hills which seems doubtful since the North-East  is at loggerheads with main India and each other.

Regardless, this is the kind of book from which epic movies are made.

the reviewer is a freelance contributor