The Norfolk man who is tracing his dad's war history in India
PUBLISHED: 13:07 30 June 2019 | UPDATED: 13:07 30 June 2019
Overshadowed by the struggle in Normandy, the hard-won victory at Imphal 75 years ago changed the course of the war in the Far East. Steve Snelling speaks to a Norfolk man engaged in an epic mission of remembrance to commemorate a 'forgotten' battle in a faraway land.
The journey back to Imphal is not for the faint-hearted. Chris Johnson, one-time soldier and truck driver, grimaces at the very thought of it.
One bit in particular still fills him with dread as he recalls a precarious drive through rugged hills from Dimapur to Kohima along a twisty road teetering on the edge of precipitous slopes.
"It was horrendous," he says. "There were landslips, hairpin bends, no barriers, overtaking on blind corners… Frightened the life out of me."
But there were no complaints and no regrets. Quite the reverse.
What Chris describes as "a truly amazing experience", exhausting, exhilarating and extraordinary in equal measure, was part and parcel of a 25-year-long odyssey born of an enduring obsession to unravel the truth about his father's role in one of the most critical but lesser-known battles of the Second World War.
In a timber-beamed cottage on the fringes of Bergh Apton near Loddon, a remarkable story emerges of an historical quest with unforeseen consequences and a deeply personal mission of remembrance and reconciliation that has inspired an Anglo-Indian fellowship determined to ensure the sacrifices of a disparate band of men 75 years ago are not forgotten.
At its heart is the story of George 'Johnno' Johnson, a story that began to unfold in a real sense in 1995, some 10 years' after his death, when Chris began to dig into his father's military history.
"I knew he'd served 21 years in the Royal Norfolk Regiment," he explains. "I knew that he was a great regimental soldier and was reminded of it as a boy every September when I'd have to move out to make room for his old comrades who'd turn up for the annual regimental reunion.
"I remember hearing tales of his army days, mostly from his time before the war, but nothing apart from a few snippets about what he'd done during the war.
"It was only when I asked my sister if I could have my father's photos from when he was in the army and she said, 'yes, on condition that I research his service with the Norfolks' that I gradually began to discover what he'd been through. And once I started, that was it. I was hooked."
Like pieces in a vast human jigsaw puzzle, the fragments of history, drawn from a plethora of archives and the memories of a small army of veterans, were painstakingly assembled to bring a life once obscure into sharper focus.
Chris found the usual vicissitudes of a service career spanning 12 years' mostly in India and China. He learned how the war had delayed his father's plans to resume civilian life, that he'd met and married a Norwich girl in 1940 and been fortuitously spared the wretched fate of so many of his friends when a bout of illness prevented him travelling to Singapore and the humiliating debacle that ended with the bulk of the 18th (East Anglian) Division in Japanese captivity.
But it was the discovery of his involvement in the defence of the so-called Lion Box, a desperate action in the sprawling four-month long battle of Imphal, which caught his imagination and set him off on an epic journey of historical exploration that has spawned a book, created an enduring association among relatives of the men who fought and died there and culminated in his third and grandest commemorative tour of the former battleground.
Back home in Norfolk, he pores over a myriad of images and video footage as he marvels at the memory of a cycle of ceremonies, large and small, marking the 75th anniversary of a struggle which thwarted Japan's invasion of India and helped decide the outcome of the Burma campaign.
"It's been incredible," says Chris with a shake of the head. "When I started out on all of this I never dreamt in a million years it would lead to all of this.
"At one of the commemorations, held at the war memorial at Kanglatongbi, where the Lion Box was situated, there were 10 retired generals present, and our little group was given the honour of laying the first two wreathes, one on behalf of the Burma Star Association and the other on behalf of the Lion Cubs of Kanglatongbi as we, the children and grandchildren, of the British veterans have become known. It just blew me away…"
Seventy-five years ago, Lion Box represented the largest of the many supply bases dotting the Imphal Plain. Officially styled 221 Advance Ordnance Depot, it was spread across 25 hectares and its significance was not lost on the Japanese when they launched their offensive in March 1944.
The ferocity of the subsequent fighting would testify to its importance and the great gallantry displayed by the defenders remains a source of pride and inspiration to the modern-day Indian army.
"What made it so incredible," explains Chris, "is that most of the men who fought there were non-combatant admin troops who found themselves suddenly performing the duties of frontline infantry against one of the toughest enemies in the world."
They included a contingent of the Indian Army Ordnance Corps, for whom Kanglatongbi would become an esteemed battle honour, engineer and service corps units as well as several hundred men from a nearby reinforcement camp whose British instructors included one 'Johnno' Johnson.
By then a company-sergeant-major, 'Johnno' had arrived on the plain to take up his new assignment some six months earlier. As a trainer, his job was to ready young troops for combat in preparation for the planned re-conquest of Burma.
But all of that changed when the Japanese launched their pre-emptive strike. With the road cut a few miles to the north, 'Johnno' and the rest of the men based at No 20 Reinforcement Camp withdrew into the Lion Box, as Chris puts it, "both for their own protection and to help protect the vital stores there".
Amid the long grass and jungle scrub hurried efforts were made to strengthen the defences to resist the inevitable enemy attack that followed four days later.
It marked the start of a prolonged struggle, which at times bordered on the desperate, to stave off defeat while simultaneously trying to evacuate as many of the stores as possible.
For two nights in a row attacks were beaten off, but with the enemy tightening its stranglehold around a shrinking perimeter orders were received to pull back to Imphal.
Before they could do so, however, the Japanese launched a further powerful assault on a misty, rain-drenched Good Friday, April 7, penetrating the defences. Attack and counter-attack followed during which bayonet charges were frequent and the fighting almost hand-to-hand.
With shells bursting all over the 'box' the defenders had begun their fighting retreat when tragedy was added to the misery. "Dad was part of the rearguard which was mistakenly bombed and strafed by RAF Hurri-bombers," says Chris. "It must have been terrible after all they'd been through.
"And in the course of my research I found out that my father's runner, a man called William Howard, had been seriously wounded. They couldn't do anything for him and my father took the decision to shoot him to ease his suffering.
"I can't begin to know what he must have felt, but his officer later told me that he considered it one of the bravest things he'd ever witnessed during the war."
It was an act of humanity which prompted one of the most poignant of all commemorations during an anniversary tour rich in emotion, as Chris explained:
"Having discovered the name of the runner and his fate I managed to trace the family and after a lot of soul-searching I made up my mind to contact them to lay the ghosts to rest.
"I invited them over to see me and, of course, there were a lot of tears, but following on from all of that, we became friends and William Howard's great grand-daughter came with us to Imphal and we were able to have a little ceremony, say a few prayers and lay a wreath on roughly the spot where he died."
In all, some 20 'Lion cubs', including Chris' son Harry and nephews David and Andy Westgate, were drawn back to the Manipuri battlefield. They brought with them a shared resolve to ensure the memory of their loved ones never fades and the hope that by walking in their footsteps they might gain a deeper understanding of what they went through.
It's a feeling Chris has long appreciated. "I remember the first time I travelled there. Back then things were more restricted. There was serious unrest in the area and we had to have armed guards with us and weren't allowed to wander about, but even so when we reached Milestone 109 and I knew I was just a mile away from where my father's camp had been I recall the strange feeling that came over me.
"It was eerie and awesome at the same time to realise that I was looking at the same hills that he would have looked at and trekked across on patrols.
"It's an incredible sensation. You can read about it in books, but to be able to stand on the actual spot where a battle took place is quite amazing. You are literally standing in the presence of history and there's nothing quite like it."
Such journeys, however, are not without their challenges. Five years ago, Chris ended up in hospital after collapsing, dehydrated with stomach trouble, during an arduous trek up a hill just to the north of the Lion Box where men of the Suffolk Regiment had fought and died.
"We'd found a Japanese bunker and came across bayonets and live hand-grenades, but I was getting worse and worse till eventually my legs gave out and the lads had to carry me to the top where we laid poppy crosses for the British soldiers who died there."
Though hardly less physically demanding, this year's battlefield tour, which extended across the rugged Shennam Saddle to the Burmese border, was accomplished without casualties.
And the rewards for their sweltering effort were plentiful - from the discovery of wartime trenches cut into the slopes of Picquet Hill, where the Japanese first penetrated the Lion Box defences 75 years ago, to conversations with local villagers who could point out with remarkable precision where various positions were sited.
"Thanks to our Manipuri friends who acted as our guides we were able to get to places no one else could have found," says Chris. "Once we were walking through what amounted to people's gardens, with their straw huts, goats and pigs, and we stumbled across a chap who was able to tell us tales about the fighting that his father had told him."
And in between the battlefield treks were the myriad ceremonial acts of remembrance, from Kanglatongbi to New Delhi, from the site of the conflict to the vast military cantonments that are home to the modern Indian army.
Five years earlier, a senior Indian army officer had promised "an even grander" commemoration for the 75th anniversary and, says Chris, he was as good as his word. And the 'Lion cubs', feted and lauded wherever they went, were at the heart of it all.
At the largest ceremony, held at India's national war memorial, Chris was given the signal honour of laying the first wreath - the first and only foreign national to do so - ahead of a bevy of generals. "I've never seen so much gold braid and red tabs in one place before," recalls Chris.
Then there were the other low-key but no less significant memories; of a visit to the Manipuri museum that the 'Lion cubs' had helped to establish and of countless small ceremonies performed as tributes to the men who helped to win the sprawling, tide-turning battle of Imphal but never came home.
Together they add up to the fulfilment of a mission and in a manner that has exceeded by far Chris' expectations.
As if to prove the point, tangible evidence looms large in a room laden with military memorabilia in the shape of a replica of the scaled-down silver version of the Kanglatongbi memorial which Chris helped unveil in the officers' mess of the Indian Army Ordnance Corps.
It was presented to the 'Lion cubs' in honour of their devoted acts of remembrance. "I started out with the aim of finding out more about my father and then to ensuring that the battle of Kanglatongbi was no longer forgotten," muses Chris. "And all that's happened since then is proof that it isn't any more. But to see it develop from a 'Forgotten Army' backwater to something as prominent as it is today is quite incredible."
Chris, however, is not resting on his laurels. Twenty-five years after embarking on his quest, the odyssey continues with work ongoing for a second, more comprehensive book charting the story of the Lion Box. "Since I wrote the first book," explains Chris, "I've found out so much more and collected so much new material and so many fresh stories that I just have to put it all down."
Steve Snelling is among the speakers at a commemorative event marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Kohima at Norwich Castle Museum on July 1 (5.30-8pm). Tell Them of Us charts the involvement of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in the fighting and explores the site and remembrance of the action. All proceeds for the evening will go to the Kohima Education Trust. For more details visit www.eventbrite.co.uk