Tag Archives: World War II

Landour: Writer’s Bloc


Expansive view of the Himalayas, shaded wooded glens and quaint colonial bungalows have made Landour a writers’ getaway for ages, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Landour-Rokeby Manor Log Cabin

As I set off from Rokeby Manor along the old bridle trail called the ‘Chukkar’ encircling the three summits of Landour ridge, the pre-dawn mountain air was crisp and invigorating. The pretty forested hillside was dotted with gabled bungalows with names like Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock, echoing themes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

Some of the colonial era cottages mirrored their Scottish and Irish heritage – Scottsburn, Wolfsburn, Redburn, Shamrock Cottage, Tipperary, Killarney. It was hard to understand why the British-era cantonment of Landour, 6km uphill from Mussoorie, was named after Llanddowror, a village thousands of miles away in southwest Wales!

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The story goes back to early 19th century, when the British halted the Gurkha conquest of Kumaon–Garhwal and moved from the plains of Dehradun to create a military sanatorium in the hills. In 1825, Captain Young, the ‘discoverer’ of Mussoorie and commandant of the first Gurkha battalion raised after the Gurkha War, built the first permanent home in Landour. His house, Mullingar, was named after his county town in Ireland. By early 20th century, Mullingar became a hotel, and during World War II, was leased to the army to accommodate the spillover of wounded soldiers from the sanatorium.

I followed the path to Lal Tibba or Depot Hill, referring to the convalescent ‘depot’ that stretched around Landour’s highest point Childer’s Lodge. It was the best spot in town to catch a glimpse of a 200km long stretch of the Himalayas. And I was just in time for the spectacle. As dawn broke, the first rays of the sun fell on Himalayan peaks like Swargarohini, Bandarpunch, Chaukhamba and Nanda Devi, turning them pink, red and then a dazzling golden yellow. The telescope on top of the double-storey viewing platform offered a closer look at the ranges.

Landour Lal Tibba_IMG_0661_Anurag Mallick

Though the Chukkar became motorable in the late 1950s, a leisurely stroll is the best way of enjoying Landour’s few sights strewn along the  circular route – Landour cemetery, Kellogg’s Memorial Church and St. Paul’s Church. I reached Char Dukan, a cluster of Indian-run establishments since colonial times at the site of the old parade ground. Being a Convalescent Depot, correspondence was critical for those recuperating here so Capt Young started the Landour Cantonment Post Office in 1827, which still stood at the chowk.

Locals and tourists flock to Anil’s Café for his chai, parathas, bun-omelette and Maggi. Sachin Tendulkar, who came on a holiday to Mussoorie, made a stopover here and his Twitter endorsement graces the wall. After a large glass of the famous Ginger Lemon Honey Tea, I walked back to Rokeby in time for a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and delicious Mustard Chicken.

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Rokeby Manor, a colonial bungalow painstakingly revamped into a boutique hotel, was built in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy. Like many of the bungalows, it took its name from the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose epic poem describes battles fought near Rokeby Castle in England. “I saw his melancholy smile, Where full opposed in front he knew, Where Rokeby’s kindred banner flew…” Rokeby’s restaurant Emily’s was named after British author Emily Eden who stayed in Landour and chronicled the highs and lows of colonial life. Literature runs deep in Landour…

If you turn back the pages of history, Landour’s literary affair is not new. The British cemetery on Camel Back Road is the resting place of John Lang, dubbed as the ‘first Australian novelist’, who lived in Landour between 1850–60s. His grave dating back to 1864 was rediscovered by Ruskin Bond. This quiet nook in the Himalayas is home to leading writers such as Ruskin Bond, Bill Aitken, Allan Sealy, travel writers Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, and film personalities Tom Alter, Victor Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj.


Rokeby Manor changed hands from a British soldier to adventurer Pahari Wilson to Reverend Woodside, one of the founders of Woodstock School, set up in 1854 for American children. After it was acquired by the Methodist Episcopal Church, Rokeby was converted into a boarding house for missionary ladies studying Urdu and Hindi at the Landour Language School nearby. And that’s how its brush with hospitality began…

Away from the clamour of Mussoorie, Rokeby is a welcome patch of serenity. The lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls, quaint arches and parquet floors open out to a Tea Garden overlooking the Doon valley. After soaking in the scenery over a steaming cuppa, it was time to set out again.

Rokeby manor

Strewn across the hillside are a cluster of 19th century colonial cottages called Rokeby Residences, each offering stand-alone experiences. Staying at Rokeby gave me a chance to pop by for a look. The three-bedroom Bothwell Bank was a stone-clad log cabin with pine wood décor, fireplaces, a well-stocked kitchen, barbecue area and an outdoor jacuzzi! Shamrock Cottage, built in the 1800’s, came with a spacious garden.

The two-storied Tabor Lodge had a private deck with a tree house sit out lined with herbs in outsized cups. Pine Tree Lodge was inspired by Scandinavian architecture, with colourful patchwork stools, vintage lamps and traditional Finnish artwork. Each residence was unique! The Stubli Café serves Swiss and European cuisine while Ale House was styled like an ‘Olde English Pub’. After a nice relaxing massage at Rokeby’s Little Salon & Spa Shed, I was ready to take on Landour again!

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It is a great base for nature walks to Jabarkhet nature reserve, Kulti village or a more rigorous trek to the nearby hills of Nag Tibba. I was happy to restrict myself to less strenuous perambulations like Sisters Bazaar. Nursing sisters had their barracks near the market and visited it often, hence the name. Since Landour became home to American missionaries as early as the 1830s, it was the first place in India where the peanut butter was made commercially!

When India gained freedom in 1946, most European settlers disposed their properties and left Landour. And that’s how the peanut butter and food-processing machines ended up in the hands of Anil Prakash’s family. Prakash’s Store is famous for its chunky or smooth peanut butter, home-made cheese, jams and preserves, though it stocks pretty much everything. There’s a local saying, “If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

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Emily’s sister establishment Clocktower Café in Landour Bazaar, stands at the exact spot of an old clock tower. With funky decor and music posters, it is a great place for pizzas, pastas, burgers and Chinese fare. Back in the day, while Landour largely remained a British preserve, Indians were restricted to Mussoorie. From the Nawabs of Oudh to the princely states of Katesar, Kuchesar, Rajpipla, Alwar, Jind and Baroda, the who’s who of Indian royalty built opulent summer homes and made Mussoorie their retreat.

Hotel Padmini Nivas, set up by a British colonel in the 1840s, became home to a queen from Gujarat. The Nabha Palace is run as a hotel by The Claridges. The Maharaja of Kapurthala’s chateau occupies a lofty perch above The Savoy. However, one of the oldest buildings in Mussoorie is Kasmanda Palace, built above The Mall in 1836, now a WelcomHeritage hotel.

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Since colonial times, the main hub of activity has been the 1.5km long pedestrian avenue The Mall. Once out of bound for natives, ironically, the same stretch is now overrun by Indian tourists who throng its cafes and shops. A ropeway from the Mall takes tourists up to the second highest peak Gun Hill, where a gun used to be fired at noon to tell locals the time. After a series of accidents, the practice was abandoned in 1919, but the name stuck… Camel Back Road, named after a distinctive camel-shaped rocky outcrop, is a loop trail leading off The Mall with an old British cemetery, where several local luminaries have been laid to rest.

Mussoorie was home to Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India between 1830–43 and the man behind the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. Tasked with measuring the world’s highest peaks, it was in his memory that Mount Everest was named. The ruins of Sir Everest’s whitewashed home stands at the edge of a cliff west of town beyond Hathipaon, whose three ridges resemble the foot of an elephant when seen from a vantage.


Just 3km from Hathipaon overlooking Benog Wildlife Sanctuary, Cloud End is one of the four original houses in Mussoorie. As per legend, when Major Swetenham came hunting from Landour, he heard a Pahari woman singing in the forest. The officer fell in love with Gulabo and followed her home. Her father, a local landlord, presented the estate as dowry in 1838. The house was named Clouds End after a peak opposite Major Swetenham’s home in Edmontia in Wales. Home to four generations till 1965, it is now run as a heritage hotel and the restaurant is named Rose after Gulabo’s baptised name.

I slowly trudged back to the Mall, bowled over by Landour’s wealth of stories. When famous American writer and traveler Lowell Thomas visited Mussoorie in 1926, he wrote about The Savoy: “There is a hotel in Mussoorie where they ring a bell just before dawn so that the pious may say their prayers and the impious get back to their beds.” Today, Landour depends on more conventional ways of telling the time, though the pace is still languorous and time does stop once in a while to pause and enjoy the view.

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Discover This: Seven Years in Tibet, via Landour
Famous Austrian mountaineer, geographer and writer Heinrich Harrer, part of the four-member team that scaled the Swiss peak Eiger’s legendary ‘North Face’, is best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (made into a movie). He was on an expedition to Nanga Parbat when World War II broke out and he was taken prisoner. Harrer was moved to the internment camp in Dehradun, where several failed attempts later, he and his associates finally broke out and escaped to Tibet via Landour.

At its closest point, Tibet is just 70 miles away. In 1959, when the Chinese forcibly occupied Tibet, the Dalai Lama made the epic crossing from Lhasa to Landour. He and his band of followers walked for 15 days and reached Mussoorie on 20 April 1959. Happy Valley, a scenic corner beyond the polo ground, became the first Tibetan settlement in India, before the seat was shifted to Dharamsala.

Rokeby manor


Getting there
Landour is 37.5 km from Dehradun by road (1 hr 30 min) and 7km from Mussoorie. The nearest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun. Jet Airways, Indigo, Spice Jet & Air India fly from Delhi to Dehradun.

Where to Stay

Rokeby Manor
Rajamandi, Landour Cantonment
Ph 0135 2631093
Tariff ₹7000-12000

Cloud End
Near Hathipaon
Ph 9634096861
Tariff ₹5700-7500

Kasmanda Palace
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2632424
Tariff ₹7000

Padmini Nivas
The Mall, Mussoorie
Ph 0135 2631093
Tariff ₹3500-7000


Where to Eat 

Anil’s Café
Pancakes, waffles, sandwiches, parathas, Maggi & ginger honey lemon tea
Ph 0135-2633783, 9259572558

Dev Dar Woods
12 rooms with terrific Himalayan views and wood-fired pizzas
Ph 0135-2632544
Email anilprakash56@yahoo.com

Doma’s Inn
Ivy Cottage, Landour
Tibetan run inn with rooms and a lovely restaurant serving great thukpa and momos
Ph 0135-2634873/4, 9259740461

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the June-July 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 


Netaji Trail: The Bose particle


On the 120th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY undertake a transcontinental journey in the footsteps of one of India’s most daring freedom fighters


He travelled from Calcutta to Peshawar as an insurance agent called Mohammed Ziauddin. As Khan Mohammed Ziauddin Khan, a mute tribal Pathan, he travelled on foot and by mule to Kabul. In the guise of a radio telegraphist and an Italian count Orlando Mazzotta, he reached Germany, met Hitler and eventually took a submarine halfway around the world to Japan to raise an army in the hope of liberating India from the yoke of British rule. There are many heroes who fought for India’s independence, but few as enigmatic as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. We retrace his incredible journey from Kolkata to Kabul, Berlin to Burma and across the Far East – Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan and North East India to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands…

As a young radical returning from Cambridge to Calcutta, Bose quit the Indian Civil Service in 1921 and rose to the post of president of the Indian National Congress by 1938. In 1939, he showed up on a stretcher and despite being unwell, defeated Mahatma Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Differences with Gandhiji on his revolutionary ideals led to Bose being ousted from the Congress. After a hunger strike led to his release from prison, he was put under house arrest by the British.


With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bose saw it as an opportune moment to wrest freedom from the British. Indian support to the colonial cause during World War I in the hope of getting independence had yielded nothing, except Jallianwala Bagh and the Rowlatt Act. The time had come for more direct action and Bose could go to any length to see India free – even shake hands with the devil if he had to. He believed in the maxim, ‘An enemy of an enemy is a friend of mine’ and sought help of the Axis powers Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to oust the British.

Accompanied by his nephew Sisir, Bose escaped British surveillance on 19 January 1941 in a car that is now on display at his home in Kolkata’s Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani. Run as a memorial and research center, Netaji Bhavan also houses relics of Bose’s footprints. He crossed the Indian subcontinent from east to west, reaching Peshawar and Kabul. British presence in the area made him travel under disguise as he finally reached Germany on April 1941, where the leadership seemed sympathetic to the cause of India’s independence. In November 1941, with German funds, a Free India Centre was set up in Berlin, and soon Bose was broadcasting every night on Free India Radio.


A 3,000-strong Free India Legion, comprising Indians captured by Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, was formed to aid in a possible future German land offensive of India. Few know that the title ‘Netaji’ was given to Bose in Germany by Indian soldiers of the Indische Legion in 1942. The title was used by the German and Indian officials in the Special Bureau for India in Berlin, before it gained popularity in India. Meanwhile, the Japanese occupied Singapore and by January 1942, Rangoon was the next to fall. On 23 March 1942, Japanese troops landed in Port Blair and captured it without firing a single shot. By spring, changing German priorities and Japanese victories in the Far East made Bose think of moving to southeast Asia. Bose met Hitler only once in late May 1942 and the Fuhrer arranged for Bose to be transported by submarine.

On 8 February 1943, Netaji boarded the German submarine U-180 from Kiel and travelled around the Cape of Good Hope to the southeast of Madagascar, where he was transferred to the Japanese submarine I-29. This was the only civilian transfer between two submarines of two different navies during World War II. Bose finally disembarked at Sabang in Japanese-held Sumatra in May 1943. If the term ‘Netaji’ was coined in Germany, equally surprising is the fact that the Indian National Army (INA) was the brainchild of Japan! Japanese major and chief of intelligence Iwaichi Fujiwara met Pritam Singh Dhillon, president of the Bangkok chapter of the Indian Independence League, and recruited Mohan Singh, a captured British Indian army captain to raise an army that would fight alongside the Japanese.


It had the blessings of Rash Behari Bose, head of the Indian Independence League. The first army was formed in December 1941 and the name INA was mutually chosen in January 1942. In February, from a total of 40,000 Indian personnel in Singapore, about 30,000 joined the INA, of which nearly 7,000 later fought Allied forces in the Burma Campaign and at Kohima and Imphal.

However, disagreements led to the first INA being disbanded by December 1942. Mohan Singh believed that the Japanese High Command was using the INA as a pawn and propaganda tool. He was taken into custody and the troops returned to the prisoner-of-war camp. However, with the arrival of Subhas Chandra Bose in 1943, the idea of an independence army was revived. In May, Bose travelled via Penang and Saigon to Tokyo, where he attended the Diet, met reporters and gave speeches addressing overseas Indians that were broadcast on Tokyo Radio. By July, Bose was in Singapore and it was with equal excitement that we arrived there on the INA trail.


As we drove past Dhobie Ghaut, the guide pointed out Cathay Cinema (earlier, the Greater East Asia Theatre), where the India Independence League’s Assembly of Representatives met on a drizzly morning of 4th July. To a resounding applause, Rash Behari Bose handed over the reins of the organization to Subhas Chandra Bose. Over the next few days, soldiers of the INA lined up in the padang (ground) opposite the Singapore Municipal Office for inspection and new recruits eagerly joined the ranks.

With Japanese support, Bose revamped the Indian National Army (INA), composed of Indian soldiers of the British Indian army captured in the Battle of Singapore. Bose received massive support among the expatriate Indian population in south-east Asia as many Indian civilians from Malaya and Singapore enlisted. Those who could not, made financial contributions. The INA also had a separate women’s unit – the first of its kind in Asia. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment was headed by Capt. Lakshmi Swaminathan, a doctor from Chennai.


The India Heritage Centre in Little India has a small section dedicated to the Indian freedom movement. A bust of Subhash Chandra Bose stands in front of a wallpaper made of INA postage stamps. The INA troops were under the aegis of the Provisional Government of Free India (Azad Hind) formed in October 1943, which had its own currency, postage stamps, court and civil code, and was recognized by nine Axis states. An INA uniform was on display while letters, cheque donations and photographs lined the wall. A magazine cover showed Captain Lakshmi in military attire.

The Provisional Government, presided by Supreme commander Bose, was formed in the Japanese-occupied Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On 30th December 1943 Netaji hoisted the Indian tricolor in British-free Indian territory for the first time at Ross Island. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were renamed Shaheed Dweep (Martyr Island) and Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island). As head of the government, Bose stayed in the British High commissioner’s house and a memorial commemorating his visit was erected near present day Netaji stadium in Port Blair.

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We followed the Bose trail past World War II bunkers dotting the island to Cellular Jail. When Netaji visited the infamous prison, he was welcomed by Admiral Ishikawa, who deliberately kept him away from incarcerated Indians and stories of Japanese torture. Like Singapore, the three year Japanese occupation of the Andamans was a dark chapter in history with innocent islanders tortured mercilessly on charges of espionage, often executed or imprisoned. Like the Changi prison, the Cellular Jail too bears testimony to the bravery of those fighting for freedom.

In early 1944, the INA marched through Kohima Pass and the national flag was hoisted in the Indian mainland for the first time at Moirang in Manipur on April 6, 1944. Kohima was strategically located on the lone road connecting the British supply depot at Dimapur (40 miles northwest) to Imphal (80 miles south). As part of Japan’s Operation U-Go, three columns aimed to cut off the Kohima–Imphal Road and surround Kohima. Between April and June 1944, Kohima witnessed the bloodiest and grittiest fighting seen in World War II.


The Battle for Kohima was fought in two phases: the 13-day siege from 4 April and clearing Japanese forces from mid-April to 22 June to reopen the Kohima–Imphal road. Both sides suffered high casualties. Grenades were lobbed at point blank range across the tennis court in ‘unending snowball fights’ as soldiers dug holes to burrow or tunnel forward using plates, mugs, bayonets or anything they could lay their hands on. The carefully tended tombstones in the grassy clearing with pretty flower beds seemed a far cry from the bloodbath of WWII. The original Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) Bungalow was destroyed in the fighting and the historic tennis court could be distinguished only by the white concrete lines denoting the boundaries.

The 161st Indian Infantry Brigade’s stand at Kohima blunted the Japanese attack. With the opening of the Dimapur-Kohima road, the 2nd Division and troops from XXXIII Corps supported the counterattack in early May. General Sato, Commander of the 31st Division, ordered Japanese withdrawal, signaling the biggest Japanese defeat in history. British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 110 on 22 June, formally ending the siege.


The fierce hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of Kohima was a defining moment in the Burma Campaign and halted Japan’s foray into India. Near the entrance of Kohima War Memorial, the Kohima Epitaph bears the immortal words: “When you go home, tell them of us and say; For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

Despite the reverses on the battlefield, Bose travelled across Penang, Rangoon and Saigon, mobilizing support among Indian expatriates to fight the British Raj. He had great drive and charisma and he coined popular Indian slogans such as ‘Jai Hind’, ‘Chalo Dilli’ and ‘Give me blood and I shall give you freedom’, which he said in a motivational speech at a rally in Burma on 4 July 1944.


By 1945, almost half the Japanese forces and the INA contingent were killed. A vast number of INA troops were captured, defected or fell into British hands during the Burma campaign by March end. By the time Rangoon fell in May 1945, the INA was driven down the Malay Peninsula and disintegrated although some activities continued until Singapore was recaptured by the British. On 8 July, in Singapore’s Esplanade Park, Bose laid the foundation stone for a hastily-built memorial dedicated to the unknown fallen soldiers of the Indian National Army. On it were inscribed the proud motto of the INA – Etihaad (Unity), Etmad (Faith), Kurbani (Sacrifice).

Instead of surrendering with his forces or with the Japanese, Bose chose to escape to Manchuria in the Soviet Union, which he felt was turning anti-British. Taking off from Taihoku airport at Formosa in Taiwan, his overloaded plane crashed and he died from third degree burns in a military hospital nearby on 18 August, 1945. However, Bose was known for his miraculous escapes and dramatic appearances in the past. From eluding house arrest in Calcutta and his escape to Afghanistan and Europe under various aliases to his submarine journey from Germany to Singapore; his past exploits fuelled the myth of his future return.


To the Japanese, he was no less than an Indian samurai. Some believed he had become a sanyasi (holy man) called Gumnami Baba. According to various stories, he was seen as a recluse in the Naga hills or on an abandoned island, was a member of a Mongolian trade delegation in Peking, was hibernating in Russia or in a gulag (prison) and was spotted in the Chinese Army. Most believed he was preparing for his final march on Delhi and would reveal himself when the time was right. There were several Bose sightings, one even claiming he met Bose “in a third-class compartment of the Bombay Express on a Thursday.”

Though INA’s military achievements were limited and the British Raj was never seriously threatened by it, the psychological impact was immense. Indian troops fought on both sides at the Battle for Kohima –Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs, Marathas and Gurkhas under the Allied forces versus soldiers of Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Had the eastern offensive through Burma and North East by Japan been coordinated with the German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq, a war on two frontiers would have stretched the British forces. A Japanese-INA victory and unfurling of the Indian flag could have prompted the Indian sepoy to switch loyalties. Even in defeat, the INA managed to ignite a revolt within the British Indian army.


Several former personnel of the British Indian Army, captured fighting in INA ranks or working in support of the INA’s subversive activities, were court-martialed. The British charged 300 INA officers with treason and the first joint trial of Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Sahgal and Gurubaksh Singh Dhillon took place at Red Fort in Delhi. All three were sentenced to deportation for life. The INA trials led to huge public outcry and became a rallying point. It was the last major campaign where the Congress and the Muslim League aligned together. Immense public pressure, widespread opposition and demonstrations eventually led to the release of all three defendants. Besides the protests of non-cooperation and non-violence, there was a spate of mutinies as support within the British Indian Army wavered. During the trials, mutiny broke out across the Royal Indian Navy from Karachi to Bombay and Vizag to Calcutta. In Madras and Pune, British garrisons faced revolts within the ranks of the British Indian Army as NCOs started ignoring orders from British superiors. Another mutiny took place at Jabalpur during the last week of February 1946.

There were several factors that guided British prime minister Clement Attlee to relinquish the Raj in India, but the most important reason was the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which weakened the Indian Army – the very foundation of the British Empire in India. The RIN Mutiny made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj. When Singapore was recaptured in 1945, Lord Mountbatten, Head of Southeast Asia Command, ordered the INA War Memorial to be blown to bits. It was partly an act of vengeance for the pain the allies suffered in Imphal and Burma as well as an attempt to stamp out proof of INA’s existence. After the war, fearing mass revolts and uprisings across its empire, the British Government forbade the BBC from broadcasting the epic tale of the INA. In 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the National Heritage Board of Singapore marked the spot of the original INA memorial as one of the eleven World War II historic site markers.


As we walked down Esplanade Park in Singapore, we struggled to find vestiges of the INA Memorial. The Cenotaph of the British Indian Army stood tall in honour of ‘Our Glorious Dead’ of the two World Wars. Further down, a Chinese memorial commemorated Singapore war hero and resistance fighter Lim Bo Seng. Yet, there was no sign of INA – just a few stone slabs with peepholes. Often relegated as a footnote in history and denied the importance in the story of India’s freedom movement, was a memorial too much to ask? A local passing by noticed our perplexed look and kindly explained, “There was a signboard, but they’ve recently removed it for renovation.” We breathed a sigh of relief. Mountbatten may have demolished the original memorial, but the spirit of Bose and the INA live on…

Back home in India, the stories surrounding Netaji had always been shadowed by mystery and controversy for decades. Imagine, it was only on 14th October 2015 that the Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that it would declassify the famous ‘Netaji Papers’. Two months later, the whole country watched the broadcast of the event when the first lot of 33 declassified files were handed over by the PMO’s office to the National Archives of India. It was an emotional moment for several members of Netaji’s family and his admirers as the gesture promised to fill the many gaps and loopholes in tracing the legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose. Subsequently, 150 declassified files of the 250 files are now in public domain. Time and again, Netaji has reminded us how he would remain a statesman the world cannot ignore or bury in the dusty pages of history.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the special issue on Bose in the international biannual journal Re:Markings. 


When the twain met: Germany Reunited


PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Brocken and the remote borderlands of erstwhile East & West Germany to bring back real life stories and anecdotes of the Cold War, 25 years after the German Reunification

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It was unbelievable, standing between two former Border police officers for a picture at the very border in Bad Helmstedt that once separated them. Decades ago, the now balding Helmut Maushake from East Germany and the grey-haired Lothar Engler from West Germany eyeballed each other in hostility; today they clasped hands like long lost friends.

Each held a piece of Germany’s post-war history and memories of a wired wall that was more than just a geographical demarcation. My weeklong trip took me to Germany’s borderlands, where locals narrated stories of an Orwellian past. A period that saw the clash of two different ideologies – capitalism and socialism, sparking off a Cold War between neighbours for forty odd years. Ironically, the Iron Curtain is now a Green Strip, with many of these stretches developed into national parks and historic trails.

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We stood at the wall’s western side marked by remnants of concrete that separated Bad Helmstedt from Beendorf. Once stretching for 1400km, it divided the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany controlled by UK, France and the US from the Soviet Occupation Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. As things got strained, the wall became impermeable, affecting the lives of thousands. Pointing to the information panel, they showed us the uniforms used while patrolling the border, recalling how a mere step across the wires could set off an alarm and result in death.

On a November winter morning, we were invited for the launch of Grenlehrpfad information trail to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and 25 years of German Unification. Today, the former border area near Elm-Lappwald Nature Park is a popular walking and cycling site. We trudged along a path carpeted by autumn leaves past a lake with ducks paddling around.

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Behind us, a board captured the ironic humour of the Bad Helmstedt townsfolk with the words emblazoned across the German black, red and gold tricolour – “40 jahre am arsch der welt, jetzt mitten un Deutschland” meaning “Forty years in the world’s ass, now in the middle of Germany!” We laughed and thumped our glasses of beer and scooped into bowls of hot goulash.

The contrast between East and West was palpable. Easterners seemed more wary and guarded while talking of their grim past. West Germans, like our guide Jens Becker, were light-hearted and open. A frequent traveller to East Berlin, Jens elaborated how one needed ‘day visas’ and ‘transit visas’ for the highways. “The visa was given in the East and once you reached West Berlin, you returned it at the border.

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Back then, they even checked how long was your drive from one point to another. If you took longer, they suspected you were up to something. So no stopping to admire the scenery, getting lost or whimsical detours!” he revealed. Helmstedt was a key border point to reach West Berlin and Becker pointed out three famous checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.

Driving past fields and beautiful brick homes to Grenzdenkmal, we met local guide Hans Gunter Apun at what looked like a bus stop; it was a shelter near the inner German border in the former Soviet Zone. “The demarcation line that later became the border reminds us of a period that started in 1945 and ended in 1989, when the wall came down”, he explained. Hans lived 3km away in the British Occupation Zone. In 1945, the border was marked by a barrier of barbed wires. People tried to cross it at night using the cover of bushes.

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Before the war ended, the victorious Allied powers and anti-Hitler coalition of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided that Germany would lose the eastern territories, be divided into four occupational zones, with France invited to occupy parts of Germany. Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, was also divided into four sectors. In Berlin, you still see sideboards – Former American or British Sector. After the war was over in 1945, everybody was euphoric. At first the four powers unanimously administered Germany as a whole – socially, economically, politically. But that did not last long.

“Things changed in 1946-47 because of ideological differences”, Apun explained. “The Western allies had a different vision from the Soviet Union’s Eastern zone on how to organize public life. And that caused all the problems, friction and confrontations in the following forty years. The more the two sides disagreed, the more the East reinforced its border. They built walls near villages, towns, any habitation. But never on the Western side!”

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“We were allowed as close to the border as we wished,” Apun chuckled. “The West German Border Police warned us, ‘Sir don’t put your foot there – it may cause diplomatic problems!’ People on the other side were not allowed to even go near the border.” By 1961, obstacles prevented cars from crossing. The entire 1400km border had a strip of land 10m wide, which was always ploughed and raked, to detect footprints of potential refugees!” Apun remembers.

At Sorge, in the restricted zone of the former German inner border (also the smallest town in the county with just 86 people), we met the lovely Mayor Inge Winkel. She ran a small museum to keep the past alive, replete with a model of the region, original signboards, warnings, black-and-white pictures of border posts with a collection of tickets, permits and passes issued to people. A 13km stretch of the wall was retained as a reminder why history must not repeat itself. The town’s name, Sorge, meant ‘worry’ or ‘preoccupation’.

IMG_8898Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

Sharing glimpses of her life in the GDR, Inge rued how a special 5km stretch called Sperrgebeit was a Closed Zone where everyone was prohibited. It was cleared of vegetation and one needed a special permit if you lived there. Another 500m near the border was closed to all. Minefields were planted with danger signs cautioning people not to venture further. She remembers how some young people made a dramatic escape from east to west before the walls were reinforced. “We had a very hard winter and were hit by snow as high as the fences, so people with skiing skills managed to escape to the other side!”

A short drive past a railway track led to the entrance of the open-air museum showcasing Sorge’s actual border. The razor straight pathway cutting through tall trees could pass of as a scenic walking trail if it wasn’t for the strange stray relics around – wired fences, dog runs for patrols, and a perforated concrete cylinder that allowed water to flow but prevented anyone from swimming through canals and escaping! Further down the path was a watchtower called B-Tower.

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The trickiest part was that the high security border lay deep in the Eastern side and people coming from the freer Western side didn’t actually realise they had reached Eastern territory, for which they could be shot! The ground near the fence was always bare, often poisoned so nothing could grow and officers could check for footprints. We posed for pictures at the border fence that once emanated frissions of shock.

In the lovely half-timbered town of Wernigerode, the famous heritage train Brockenbahn took us to the highest hill in the Harz mountains. Being the best vantage to survey the region, Brocken used to be a high security area. A watchtower intercepted radio signals and an old domed listening post at Urian was used for Stasi surveillance. The TV tower and museum display old espionage and communication equipment besides geological history. Over 50 shows of the famous rock opera ‘Faust’ have been performed on the summit.

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The Brockenbahn chugged past fir forests. The foliage had begun to turn in late fall and we saw how the Cold War had left several tracts along the border undisturbed for decades. Nature takes over where man is scarce. The transformation of a virtual Death Zone into a place brimming with life was inspirational. Fauna that had long disappeared, now returned.

Today people walk their hounds, hike, cycle, picnic and enjoy peace and tranquillity that now pervades the region. Twenty five years on, the changes were more than geographical or political; the old border had transformed the emotional, ecological and cultural fabric of Germany.

IMG_8373Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

Getting there:

Fly to Hannover and drive 122km to Wernigerode in Saxony Anhalt, from where Bad Helmstedt, Grenzdenkmal and Sorge are short drives away. From Wernigerode, the heritage steam train Brockenbahn takes you on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway to Brocken in the Harz mountains. www.hsb.wr.de

HKK Hotel Wernigerode +49 (0) 39439410 www.hkk-wr.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 January 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Real Steel: Jamshedpur’s unknown war history


From steel rails, armaments to a tank called Tatanagar, Jamshedpur played a small but crucial role in the two World Wars. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover the war history of India’s first steel city 

40th BG's B-29 bomber 42-6310 Hump Happy Jr takes off from Chakulia

Jamshedpur is renowned as India’s Steel City, but few know of its significant contributions to the world. Decades ago this pretty little town with tree-lined avenues was a war zone, when fumes emanating from its chimneys mingled with smokescreens, factory hooters merged with air raid sirens and anti-aircraft fire lit up the skies. While the world celebrates the centenary of World War I and the end of World War II, Jamshedpur’s history lies forgotten.

It was a lecture by philosopher Thomas Carlyle in Manchester that inspired JN Tata to establish India’s first steel plant. Motivated by Carlyle’s words “The nation which gains control of iron soon acquires the control of gold”; Tata roped in top American geologists and engineers to give shape to his vision. In 1907, the Tata Iron and Steel Company or TISCO (now Tata Steel) was established. The first ingot rolled out on Feb 16, 1912, ushering in an era of industrial revolution and the eight-hour work schedule in India. However, it took a global event to give the town its name…

IMG_6176_Jamshedpur B&W-Anurag Priya

When the First World War broke out in 1914, much of India’s steel output was diverted to construct steel rails for transporting troops and supplies. Nearly 1,500 miles of rail and 300,000 tonnes of steel produced in Jamshedpur were used in military campaigns across Mesopotamia, Egypt, Salonica and East Africa. After the war, a British parliamentary report affirmed, “It would have been impossible to carry on the campaign without the iron and steel of India, which has been the foundation of railway and water transport, as well as the telegraphic and telephonic equipment employed in the country.”

In 1919, Viceroy of India Lord Chelmsford visited the Tata Steel plant and praised the company for producing steel that had saved the Mesopotamian campaign. As a fitting tribute, Lord Chelmsford christened the steel city Jamshedpur in memory of its founder Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata and renamed Kalimati railway station as Tatanagar.

IMG_6592_Jamshedpur B&W-Anurag Priya

Tata Steel helped shape another iconic landmark – Calcutta’s Howrah Bridge. Of the 26,500 tonnes of steel used to construct the cantilever bridge, 23,000 tonnes of heavy tensile steel came from Jamshedpur. During WWII, as Japan entered the China-Burma-India theatre of war, the British feared the steel plant was a high value target that might be bombed. ‘Yellow signals’ wired from Calcutta warned of impending Japanese air raids. Several bomb shelters were set up across the city while anti-aircraft guns were placed at Jojobera.

Tata Steel came up with ingenious ways to protect itself. Steel ropes were tied to gas balloons and released to prevent Japanese fighter planes from diving down to bomb the factory. As camouflage, tar boilers were set up 40 ft apart within the steel factory to create smokescreens. Bartholomew D’Costa, an enterprising Anglo-Indian contractor was entrusted this task while apprentices were paid an extra allowance of Rs.15 per month for round-the-clock supervision.

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Since there were no proper hotels in Jamshedpur to lodge Allied troops, Bartholomew’s son John was asked to hastily build one! Using bricks from his kiln and cutlery bought from Lord’s, a Calcutta hotel that was closing down, he set up The Boulevard Hotel in December 1940. Interestingly, British airmen paid 14 annas per head a day and managed their own mess while the Americans paid one rupee 16 annas a day for room and board. Taking us on a tour of hallways lined with sepia prints of wartime Calcutta, John’s son Ronald D’Costa chuckled, “There were regular drunken brawls between American and British troops. The chairs and tables that survived the fights have been used in the hotel and the attached Brubeck Bakery.” The exposed bricks bore the initials DC (D’Costa)!

But Jamshedpur’s best was yet to come. During WWII, when United Kingdom could not meet the demand for Armoured Fighting Vehicles, Commonwealth countries began developing their own armoured cars. India developed a series of Wheeled Armoured Carrier, Indian Pattern or ACV-IP better known as the ‘Tatanagar’. The vehicles used Ford truck chassis imported from Canada and armour-plated hulls constructed by Tata Steel. Between 1940 and 1944, 4,655 units were built at the Railway workshop with a special plant set up for Armour, Hull, Axle and Tyre tracks. Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company or TELCO (now Tata Motors) completed the last order in 1945 when it took over the railway workshop.

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Ironically, the first vehicle to roll out of Tata Motors was not a truck, but a tank! The multi-role Tatanagar was widely used for reconnaissance, ferrying personnel, mounting anti-aircraft weapons and as a Forward Observation Officer’s vehicle. Weighing 2,626 kg with 14mm armour, it could seat 3-4 people and touch speeds of 80 km/hr. Impenetrable by ordinary bullets, its hull saved many lives and won the admiration of soldiers. It was used by various Indian Infantry Divisions across Syria 1941, North Africa 1941-42, Malaya Command 1941 and Italy 1943-45 and also saw action in the 1950 Korean War, aiding the 18th British Infantry Division, 8th Australian Infantry Division and Royal New Zealand Artillery.

For nearly half a century its legacy lay forgotten until two Tatanagars were found in the Indian Army scrap yard. By cannibalizing the parts of one to help build the other, the Tata Motors team from Engineering Research Centre and General Transport managed to get one to working condition. It even featured in the Carnival parade from Jubilee Park to Gopal Maidan and local Republic Day celebrations in 2014. When we visited Tata Motors, it was thrilling to see the original 95HP Ford V-8 Petrol Engine rev to life.

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Jamshedpur’s war history was not restricted to the ground. Not too far from the city, a slew of airfields once bellowed with bombers taking off for the first overland bombings of Japan. We drove down the Jamshedpur-Kolkata highway to the closest airstrip at Dhalbhumgarh, an ancillary field for more strategic ones nearby. Driving a mile off NH-33 past neat rows of sal trees we turned left onto a wide unmarked highway. Oddly, clumps of vegetation shot through the tarmac like obstacles in a gaming video. Only after driving a few hundred meters on this ramrod straight superhighway did we realize that we were on an old airstrip! Hidden by overgrowth were the ruins of an abandoned air terminal.

Built around 1942 to conduct raids against advancing Japanese armies in Burma and aid transport operations in China, many such airfields were clustered around India’s eastern frontier, with easy access to the port at Calcutta. Since Japanese control of the China Sea cut off seaborne supplies, pilots had to fly 500 km from India to China over the world’s tallest mountain range, the Himalayas. With its harsh terrain, misty peaks and sudden weather changes, ‘The Hump’ as it was called, was the world’s most dangerous overland air route.

Typhoon McGoon III over Hump

An excerpt from the poem Flight of No Return, by Sunny Young captures the perils.
“Crumpled engines, wings and tail… help pave the Hump’s Aluminum Trail…
A dog tag here, a jacket there, a picture worn by love and care…
A parachute unopened lay, no time to jump, no time to pray…
In this far, forgotten place, of jungles, mountains, rocks and space…”

Targetting enemy transportation in Burma, sorties bombed bridges, locomotives, railroad yards and other targets to delay movement of supplies to Japanese troops. In Nov 1943 Operation Matterhorn was launched for overland operations against the Japanese homeland. But the airfields were not big enough for the new American bomber, B-29 Superfortress. Four air bases in India would be upgraded as launch pads for the B-29’s four staging posts in China’s Sichuan province to bomb Japan.


By December, special Air force teams arrived as thousands of Indians toiled to improve Kharagpur, Chakulia, Piardoba and Dudhkundi airfields with 7500 ft long runways and 10-inch thick concrete. On April 2, 1944 the first B-29 bombers touched down in Chakulia. It took a month to fly over the South Atlantic Transport route from Kansas via Florida, the Caribbean, Natal in Brazil, the South Atlantic Ocean to West Africa, re-assembling at Marrakesh, flying through Algeria and Egypt to Karachi before crossing India to reach this eastern nook!

The first combat mission took off from Chakulia on June 5, 1944 with squadrons of the 40th Bombardment Group attacking the Makasan railroad yards at Bangkok. At the time, the 2261-mile round trip was the longest bombing mission during the war. Often black paint was applied to the aircraft’s underside to reduce reflection from Japanese searchlights while flying low-level night missions. Planes emblazoned with strange names like Gallopin’ Goose, Calamity Sue, Postville Express and Old Bitch U Airy Bess sitting on runways in this rural hinterland would have been quite a sight.

WWII airfields-Old Bitch 1

Bombers struck aircraft plants in Burma, Yawata steel factory in Japan, besides transportation centers and naval installations in Thailand, China, Indonesia and Formosa. Fired by these successes, the B-29 squadrons moved to more strategic locations in the Central Pacific – like Tinian in the Mariana Islands from where Enola Gay and Bockscar dropped the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war.

Post-war, there was huge demand for construction and hence road rollers. On April 22,1948 amid shouts of Vande Mataram and Jai Hind, India’s first swadeshi road roller ‘City of Delhi’ rolled out of Jamshedpur, followed by others named after India’s big cities – Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Jubbulpore and Patna. It wasn’t until 1954 that the first Tata truck was produced in collaboration with Daimler Benz. As for the airfields, some were modified for commercial use while most others lay abandoned. We saw cattle roaming on runways that once roared with fighter planes! Traces of these historic airfields and taxiways are best comprehended when viewed from the air, much like the Nazca lines of Peru…

IMG_8244_Jamshedpur-Anurag Priya


Getting there:
Jamshedpur is 130km from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand and 283km from Kolkata. Drive 60km from Jamshedpur on the Kolkata highway NH-33 to the WWII airstrip at Dhalbhumgarh. From there Chakulia airbase is 21km away and Kharagpur about 80km further via SH-5. Local trains from Tatanagar to Howrah ply on the route.

Where to Stay:
The ideal base is the rural tourism site Rusika Sangeko at Amadubi, 9km from Dhalbhumgarh railway station, run by Kalamandir of Jamshedpur.
Ph 0657-2320109 Email kalamandir.jsr@gmail.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 May 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/real-steel-jamshedpur-s-little-known-war-history

The Battle for Kohima: Heroes of World War II


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Kohima War Cemetery to understand why the 1944 conflict is hailed as Britain’s greatest battle, telling their story in 1944 words…


In a recent poll organized by The National Army Museum in London, the Battle for Imphal/Kohima in 1944 was voted as Britain’s greatest battle ever. The fact that it ranks higher than celebrated conflicts like the Battle of Waterloo or the D-day landings at Normandy speaks volumes of its significance to the British.

At a debate, historian Robert Lyman argued that ‘Great things were at stake in a war with the toughest enemy any British Army has had to fight’, hailing Kohima as one of the turning points of World War II. There were 12,600 Commonwealth casualties and 58,000 on the Japanese side in what writer Sir Compton Mackenzie described as “fighting as desperate as any in recorded history”.


Nearly seventy years after the war, we disembarked at the railway station at Dimapur, the 10th century Cachari capital known for its totemic chessman figures, and bounded on a bus to Kohima. Undulating clusters of tin roofs presented themselves as Angami men cloaked in red striped shawls looked somber like Native Indian chiefs. We watched live creepy-crawlies at the Keeda bazaar in the Supermarket, took a walk around the khels (old colonies), visited local landmarks like the Catholic Cathedral and State Museum, until a gate ushered us into Kohima War Cemetery spread across the battleground of Garrison Hill.

Except for the old man squatting amidst the headstones, weeding, there was no one else. His eyes crinkled against the sun as he turned to see us before he resumed his task in quiet meditation. We stepped forward hesitantly, dumbfounded by the utter size of the garden of remembrance that bore the weight and price of war. Stories of brave soldiers, sons and fathers, grim tales of grit, loss, separation and pain… buried in the ground. And memories, lying like open wounds in a strange clinical geometry of stone tablets. Poignant messages and goodbyes that could bring tears to even battle-hardened hearts…


Lance Corporal CE Culverwell, The Dorsetshire Regiment, 1st May 1944, Age 24 “Dear Charlie, To the world you were only a soldier, To us you were all the world”

Private AW Evans, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 5th May 1944, Age 28 “Come you back, You British soldier, Come you back to Mandalay”

Captain EA Davies, The Dorsetshire Regiment, 4th June 1944, Age 31 “Too Far away your grave to see, But not too far to remember thee”

Row upon row we read names from every corner of England, Scotland and Wales, of young and old, brigadiers and privates, tank-drivers and stretcher-bearers, snipers and signalmen. The terraces led us to the Cross of Sacrifice in a quiet grassy clearing overlooking the valley. Out there in the perimeter of India’s northeast, at 5000 feet in the Naga Hills, Kohima seemed like a charming hill station. Was this really the site of one of the world’s bloodiest battles?


Kohima was strategically located on the only road leading from the supply depot at Dimapur (40 miles northwest) to Imphal (80 miles south). From 1942, the British Fourteenth Army, under the command of General William Slim, had set up tactical bases at Dimapur and Imphal for an eventual offensive into Burma. In early 1944, Lt General Renya Mutagachi of the Japanese Fifteenth Army was ordered to halt British preparations. As part of operation U-Go, the Japanese planned to split the 31st Division into three columns that would cut off the Kohima–Imphal Road and surround Kohima. Between April and June 1944 Kohima became the location of a bitter bloodbath in the Second World War.

The battle for Kohima was fought in two phases: the siege from 4 April, which lasted for 13 days, and clearing Japanese forces from the area to reopen the Kohima–Imphal road. The second phase stretched from mid-April to 22 June, causing high casualties for both sides. Cut off from Dimapur, the defenders had to rely on daily air supply by the RAF. Despite these obstacles, they withstood the heavy fighting without backing down. The Kohima ridge comprising Garrison Hill, Jail Hill, Field Supply Depot (FSD) Hill, Detail Issue (DIS) Hill and the Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) Bungalow, were used as the main lines of defence.


The original DC’s bungalow was destroyed in the fighting, but white concrete lines denoted the boundaries of the historic tennis court. With heavy artillery, mortar fire and infantry assaults, this area saw some of the hardest, closest and grittiest fighting. Officers’ diaries recount how sniping duels seemed like ‘unending snowball fights’, grenades were lobbed at point blank range across the tennis court as if it were a tennis match and how soldiers dug holes like beavers for burrowing or tunneling themselves forward using plates, mugs, bayonets, entrenching tools or anything one could find. The hardships they faced were inconceivable, yet the hostility of the terrain was apparent in the steep slopes and dense vegetation… Decades ago, things would have been worse.

As Lieutenant Horner, signals officer of the 2nd Royal Norfolks, 4th Infantry Brigade, described: “The physical hammering one takes is difficult to understand. The heat, humidity, altitude and the slope of almost every foot of ground combine to knock the hell out of the stoutest constitution. You gasp for air, which doesn’t seem to come, you drag your legs upwards till they seem reduced to the strength of matchsticks, you wipe the sweat out of your eyes… So you stop, horrified to be prodded by the man behind you or cursed by an officer in front.”


Major Boshell, who commanded ‘B’ Company, 1st Royal Berkshires, in the 6th Infantry Brigade reported: “The lie of the land made it impossible to move by day because of Japanese snipers. We were in Kohima for three weeks. We were attacked every single night… They came in waves, like a pigeon shoot. Most nights they overran part of the battalion position, so we had to mount counter-attacks… Water was short and restricted to about one pint per man per day. So we stopped shaving. Air supply was the key, but the steep terrain and narrow ridges meant that some of the drops went to the Japs. My company went into Kohima over 100 strong and came out at about 60.”

The 161st Indian Infantry Brigade’s defensive stand at Kohima blunted the Japanese attack. With the opening of the Dimapur-Kohima road, the 2nd Division and troops from XXXIII Corps moved into the area to support the counterattack in early May. On 31 May, General Sato, Commander of the Japanese 31st Division, ordered the first units to withdraw and wrote with a heavy heart: “We fought for two months with utmost courage and have reached the limits of human fortitudes… Shedding bitter tears I now leave Kohima.” 


Forced to retreat, it was the biggest Japanese defeat in their entire history. British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 110 on 22 June, formally ending the siege. The fierce hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of Kohima, especially in the garden of the DC’s bungalow, was a defining moment in the Burma Campaign and pivotal in halting Japan’s foray into India.

We walked around the terraced cemetery, pausing at a headstone now and then. There were 1420 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. Some were stark, in the nameless incomplete shock of death itself, others etched in grief by their families and friends. At the highest point of the cemetery stood the Kohima Cremation memorial, commemorating 917 Hindu, Sikh and Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army cremated in accordance to their faith. At the base, near the entrance, was a memorial to the IInd Division – a massive stone dragged up by Naga tribesmen, etched with the immortal words renowned as the Kohima Epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us and say; For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.


The cemetery also contained memorials to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment, 4th Battalion of the Gurkha Rifles and other regiments. Strewn across Kohima’s landscape were monuments to the Royal Scots at Aradura Spur, the Royal Norfolks on GPT (General Purposes Transport) Ridge and the Durham Light Infantry at Kuki Piquet. The Kohima War Cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which looks after 1,179,000 war graves at 23,203 burial sites in 148 countries around the world.

In a message ‘to all ranks on the Manipur road’, Earl Mountbatten wrote ‘only those who have seen the horrific nature of the country under these conditions will be able to appreciate your achievements’. He described the war as ‘probably one of the greatest battles in history…in effect the Battle of Burma… naked unparalleled heroism… the British/Indian Thermopylae’.


The Battle for Kohima was critical for many reasons. Its implications were immense; its irony, inextricable. Indian troops fought on both sides – under the Allied forces were Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs, Marathas, Gurkhas and others, while on the opposing side leading the Japanese advance were soldiers of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Would the possibility of a Japanese-INA victory and unfurling of the Indian flag have prompted the sepoy to switch loyalties and ignite a revolt within the British Indian army? If the eastern offensive through Burma and North East by Japan was coordinated with the German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq, could a war on both frontiers have threatened the British Empire? How would an alternate outcome to the war have rewritten world politics?

The questions rose as we trod gently, realizing how the future of great empires lay rooted under the grass below our feet. Some answers we’d never know. Perhaps, no one can comprehend what it must have been like. Perhaps, the ghosts of war are meant to waft in memories of our consciousness. The words of Kohima war veteran Major Gordon Graham of the Cameron Highlanders will return to haunt us. When he revisited the battlefield in 1954, he recorded his feelings in a moving tribute ‘Memories of Kohima’.


“The trees are all young on Garrison Hill, and in Naga Village children are playing. The wet earth and sprouting shrubs have the same spring-fresh smell. And there is no stench. Grass-filled fox-holes still mark forgotten remains and some rusty ration tins and leather straps have escaped, as too worthless to pick up, a decade of scavengers.

Beneath the Hill, the graves… in orderly, impersonal, endless rows. In this geometrical panorama there is no heartbreak, no rebuke, no regret. It is a design of peace, the pious peace that follows war, the repulsive peace of ‘Never Again’. It is the mute attempt to express the inexpressible by those who, helpless, are left behind. It has the same conscious inadequacy as the ‘Remarks’ column in the Visitors’ Book, where a sudden embarrassment catches the pen which has written smoothly the name and address and then stumbles on to an anti-climactic ‘Very impressive’ or ‘A fitting resting-place for heroes’. But one ex-soldier had written in a flash of perceptiveness, ‘I wish my name were here’.

Statistics can be comforting. Fifty thousand rupees; 200 saplings; 36 tons of cement; 1387 graves; and 10 years. Like the poignant milestones, past which the country bus had driven in as many minutes as the advancing troops had moved in days, these figures measure the thinker, not the thought. To some they are mere computation; to others they are the sight, smell, and touch of a forgotten battlefield. Just as, at the summit crossroads where the bus groans to a standstill, the level space above is to some that which was once a tennis court and is now a war cemetery; to others it was a point of dominating destiny.”

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.