Overlord'S Blog: Lee to Serve
In World Of Tanks the M3 Lee is a bit of a joke. This wasn't the case in Burma fighting the Japanese. Even during the later years of the war, the appearance of M3 Lee or Grant tanks was a welcome sight. For example Garrison Hill in 1944 the arrival of four Lee's was greeted with cheers from the British lines. However the subject of today's article is a bit further along a ridge line.
Kohima was the administrative center for the province of Nagaland in India. It's a ridge line that also has a main supply road running past it. The District Commissioner's bungalow, some tennis courts, gardens and a few other buildings were cut into the hill side. There was also a village and a couple of other areas occupied by British troops. Apart from those small clearings the area was very dense jungle. The area was considered such bad terrain that the British originally thought only a regiment could operate in the area. Luckily intelligence warned the British that in fact an entire division was heading towards Kohima.
The Japanese forces arrived on the 4th of April 1944. by that time around two battalions of Commonwealth front line forces were holding the area, there were also some line of communication troops.
The initial Japanese assault broke the defenders line into a collection of small perimeters. At one the Japanese over-ran the water supply. Leaving the defenders without water, until a small spring was discovered. But it was so exposed that it could only be used during the hours of darkness. At another location the hospital was almost in the front line and was under direct small arms fire.
The main fighting was at the District Commissioner's bungalow and surrounding gardens. On the first day the initial Japanese assault reached the defender's trenches. However knowing what would happen if they surrendered despite being overwhelmed all the defenders fought for their lives and threw the Japanese back. The two front lines solidified along the sides of the tennis courts, with the court as no-mans land.
For two weeks the Commonwealth forces held on until reinforcements were able to break the Japanese hold on the main supply road and open the way to Kohima.
Despite the fresh supplies the situation was still far from safe. The Japanese had to be pushed back, and that's where the tanks show up.
Along with other tank regiments the 149th Royal Armoured Corp, equipped with M3 Lee's moved up to Kohima.
In Burma the M3 had gained a reputation for being very good off road. One example comes from later in 1944. An M3 Lee from the 149th Regiment drove up Kennedy peak (the one in Burma, not the US) to take part in the fighting there. Kennedy peak has a recorded elevation of 2703 meters!
At Kohima, to finally open the road and push the Japanese back, the area around the District Commissioner's bungalow had to be secured. However to get up to the battlefield, without using the Japanese held section of the road, a tank would need to climb a slope well beyond the capabilities of any tank. At this point a daring plan was hatched. Using bulldozers to cut a path through the jungle, the bottom of the ridge line was reached. From there on a single M3 Lee was winched up the side of the 1261 meter high ridge!
The M3 commander was Sergeant J. Waterhouse of A Squadron. Riding on the outside of the tank was Lieutenant T. Highett of the Dorsetshire Regiment's carrier platoon. Lt Highett was there as a guide, having seen the area before. The following details come from both Sgt Waterhouse's and Lt Highett's after action reports ad accounts. Which are detailed in various books. It should be noted that some of their details differ slightly, however this are only in minor points.
After being freed from the winch the M3 lee found itself at the top of the ridge. Below them was the first terrace with the tennis courts on it. After a few seconds working out if it was possible the driver of the M3 Lee yelled "Hang on", and launched the tank off the 2 meter drop to the tennis courts. If the driver had gotten it wrong the tank would have been immobilized in the middle of a Japanese infantry force, and the tank would have been doomed. The Lee landed with a thump and was able to move off immediately. Although they didn't know it at the time the Lee landed upon the main Japanese command bunker crushing it flat.
The Japanese, although surprised by the sudden appearance of a rampaging tank in their midst, quickly began to pelt it with small arms fire to no avail. Sgt Waterhouse spotted a very sturdily constructed bunker, made out of a steel water tower and heavily sandbagged. The bunker was blown to pieces by a shot from the 75mm gun. With their command bunker gone, along with a strong point and lacking the ability to stop the tank, the Japanese soldiers dropped their weapons and began to flee!
For the next 20 minutes Sgt Waterhouse drove along the tennis courts dealing with trench lines and MG bunkers as he found them. The infantry from the other side of the tennis courts moved up to support the tank in clearing the area.
After the tennis courts were secured the Lee moved to the edge of the terrace, and was looking out over the District Commissioner's bungalow, which was heavily fortified by the Japanese. Not wanting to risk his tank in another drop Sgt Waterhouse took the bungalow under fire. For 20 minutes he shelled the bungalow, until he had smashed nearly all of it to rubble. Only the chimney remained standing. Infantry moved forward to clear that terrace.
During the entire 40 minute action the infantry had only taken one casualty. It had happened during the clearing of the tennis courts. The wound was light enough that the soldier was able to walk to the aid station under his own power.
On closer inspection of the Bungalow it was found that about 40 Japanese soldiers had dug in. After mopping up soldiers found some writing scrawled on the walls of a bunker. Although written by a Japanese soldier the words were in English, it said:
"British! - Too many Guns, Tanks, Troops. Japanese going. Back in Six months!"
They never were.
Kohima was the greatest defeat inflicted on a Japanese army, and has been likened to Stalingrad, both in size of the defeat and the fact it marked a turning point in the war.