Operation Battle of the Tennis Court

The 'Battle of the Tennis Court' was fought between Japanese and British-led forces within the 'Battle of Kohima' in north-western India (8 April/13 May 1944).

The advance of the Japanese 'U' (ii) operation into India was halted at Kohima in April 1944, and Garrison Hill, on a long wooded ridge on a high ridge to the west of the village, became the location of perhaps the most bitter fighting of the whole Burma campaign when a small Commonwealth force held out against repeated attacks by a Japanese division. During the Japanese siege of Kohima, heavy fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, occurred in the grounds surrounding the deputy commissioner’s bungalow, including the tennis court, beginning around 8 April and continuing until 13 May when the assaulting Japanese troops began withdrawing from the area.

Kohima Ridge is about 1 mile (1.6 km) long and about 400 yards (365 m) wide, with a series of hills and gullies extending parallel with the road from Imphal to Dimapur. In 1944, the steep slopes along the road made the ridge a truly formidable target for attack, but it was also a space of only narrow breadth from which to repel an opponent attacking in strength. By 6 March, the British, Indian and Nepalese soldiers of Kohima garrison had been surrounded on the Kohima Ridge, and as the siege began the ridge was defended in the south by the 1st Assam Regiment on Jail Hill, in the centre mainly by 4/The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, and in the north-west (Hospital Spur) by the 3rd Assam Rifles, which faced the road to Dimapur. The north-east of the ridge, on a sharp corner in the road, was the location of the bungalow and tennis court of the deputy commissioner, Charles Pawsey, and was initially defended by a composite group, thought to be British and Gurkha troops from the local reinforcement depot.

Lieutenant General Kotoku Sato’s 31st Division, one of the three divisions of Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s 15th Army, launched a series of attacks into the north-eastern area of the defences on 8 April, and these included two attacks on the area of the DC’s Bungalow. The Japanese suffered very heavy losses, but Sato poured in reinforcements to prepare for another attack. Some Allied soldiers manned a Bren light machine gun to cover the withdrawal of the defenders from the DC’s Bungalow to the other side of the asphalt-covered tennis court some 40 ft (12 m) higher up the hill. They held their ground to the last round but were then overrun, bayonetted and shot. At this stage the 'Battle of the Tennis Court' can rightly be said to have begun, and the area was rapidly reinforced by A Company of the 4/Queen’s.

During 9 April and before dawn on 10 April, the Japanese 58th Regiment attacked the defenders of the Tennis Court area almost every 30 minutes. Major Tom Kenyon, the officer commanding A Company of the 4/Queen’s, led the British, Indian and Gurkha defenders, who had now dug weapon pits and trenches on the western edge of the tennis court. During 10 April these defences and their overhead cover saved many lives as artillery shells landed on the positions. The forward trenches ran out of ammunition on several occasions but were repeatedly resupplied by a sergeant.

On 12 April it was decided to relieve the defenders of the Tennis Court with B Company of the 4/Queen’s under the command of Major John Winstanley. During B Company’s first night defending the Tennis Court, the Japanese forces attacked silently, wearing plimsoll shoes rather than boots, and almost overran the British forward positions in which one of the platoon commanders, Lieutenant Tom Hogg, survived a bayonet attack before firing all 25 rounds from his weapon and killing his assailant.

On 13 April, heavy Japanese artillery and mortar fire fell around the area of the DC’s bungalow and the tennis court. Several assaults were made by Japanese infantry, although these were repelled in what a British report described as 'some of the hardest, closest and grimmest fighting, with grenades being hurled across the tennis court at point-blank range'. But on 14 April the Japanese did not launch an attack, and on 15 April the British and Indian troops on Kohima ridge heard that Major General J. M. L. Grover’s British 2nd Division was attacking along to the south along the road linking the Dimapur and Kohima, and had broken through Japanese roadblocks to relieve the Indian 161st Brigade around Jotsoma, about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of Kohima.

On 17 April, the Japanese tried one last time to take the ridge and captured Field Supply Depot (FSD) Hill and Kuki Piquet. On the morning of 18 April, British artillery opened fire from the west against the Japanese positions, and this stopped the Japanese attacks. Elements of the British 2nd Division, the Indian 161st Brigade and tanks of Lieutenant General M. G. N. Stopford’s Indian XXXIII Corps pushed into the area to the north-west of Garrison Hill and forced the Japanese from their positions. The road between Dimapur and Kohima had been opened and the siege was lifted.

Part of the Allied force relieving the siege was the 1/1st Punjab Regiment of the Indian 161st Brigade. By the evening of 18 April, D Company of 1/1st Punjab under the command of Major Gavin Dunnett was facing the Japanese forces in the Tennis Court area. The Punjab company was attacked almost immediately by the 58th Regiment in a battle in which a South-East Asia Command public relations officer later reported 'a grenade match was played across the bungalow’s tennis courts'. The 1/1st Punjab suffered 22 casualties and lost ground, only to retake it again during the following day. The 1/1st Punjab seems to have moved rearward on 21 April, having suffered 120 casualties, to be replaced by C Company of the 1/Royal Berkshire Regiment, part of the British 6th Brigade of the British 2nd Division, which was itself relieved by same battalion’s D Company on 23 April.

The Japanese did not retreat at once. Many of them remained in the positions they had captured and fought tenaciously for several more weeks. It is not entirely clear when the battle for the Tennis Court was won, but tanks operating from the road supported an infantry attack which captured the Tennis Court area on 10 May. By the morning of 13 May, most of the positions on the Kohima ridge had been retaken by the British and Indian forces. On that day the DC’s bungalow was finally recaptured by the 2/Dorset Regiment supported by Grant medium tanks firing from the Tennis Court. The leading tank was driven by Sergeant Waterhouse of 149th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps, firing his tank’s 75-mm (2.95-in) gun into Japanese bunkers at no more than 20 yards (18 m). This tank was supported by two platoons of the Dorsets commanded by Sergeants Given and Cook.

On about 15 May, the 31st Division began to withdraw and the fresh British and Indian troops of the Indian XXXIII Corps began to reinforce and relieve the British 2nd Division and the Indian 33rd and 161st Brigades. In the aftermath of the fighting around Kohima, the troops of the 14th Army began an advance with the relief of Imphal, and this continued until Burma had been recaptured. The 'Battle of the Tennis Court' was the turning point of the 'Battle of Kohima', which was itself the watershed of the Burma campaign.