The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolks, landed at Bombay in June 1942, and immediately embarked upon intensive training in jungle warfare and combined operations.
Early disappointments had seen two seaborne landings against the Japanese fail. The first an assault on the Andaman Islands, which would have formed a good base for air attacks on Japanese lines of communication and a naval base for light craft; the second on the southern half of the Mayu Peninsula, near Akyab, behind the enemy lines and designed to cut off an entire Japanese division. Neither of these ambitious projects came to anything, the Far East had taken a low priority to the European operations. The rueful phrase 'The Forgotten Army' was just beginning to assume significance.
The 2nd Royal Norfolks were still getting on with their jungle training through 1943 and into 1944; if they should not go to war by sea, then they would go by train, truck or on foot. In the event, they went soon enough and, as it turned out, by air. In March 1944 the Japanese launched their offensive on the central Burma front as a prelude to their planned invasion of India. It consisted of a violent three-pronged attack made by three divisions: the 33rd in the south near Tiddim, the 15th in the centre opposite Imphal and the 31st ill the north near Ukhrul and Kohima.
The Japanese 'March on Delhi' gained some initial success: the whole of British 4th Corps was surrounded on the Imphal Plain, while Kohima, defended by a weak brigade and a motley miscellany of garrison troops, was completely ringed by the Japanese 31st Division.
At this critical moment Major-General John Grover was ordered to bring his 2nd Division from India to the relief of the garrison at Kohima. The Japanese radio arrogantly announced that the British 'were rushing their crack 2nd Division up to try and relieve Imphal, which is impossible.
The 2nd Royal Norfolks flew from Calcutta to Dimapur in Assam, a distance of 600 miles, and on April 10th, 1944 set out for the relief of Kohima. The 2nd had an early success: Number 18 Platoon of 'D' Company, under the command of Sergeant C. Hazell, was attacked by 100 screaming Japanese in the early hours of April 14; the platoon killed at least 30 of the enemy at a cost of one man killed and two wounded.
From that day until May 29, every officer and man, save the desperately wounded, fought almost continuously in the bloody slogging match which was the Battle of Kohima. No battle honour of the Royal Norfolk Regiment was more hardly earned than Kohima: certainly, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, and Lord Louis Mountbatten said that it was, in effect, 'The Battle for Burma'.
'Death Valley', 'Jail Hill', 'Aradura Spur', 'Norfolk Bunker', 'G.P.T. Ridge' - these are the places where men of the 2nd Norfolks marched, fought, swore and died: where the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Scott, a veritable giant of a man who carried them all, led bayonet charges and hurled an incalculable number of grenades; where Captain Mather, the medical officer, and his devoted band of stretcher bearers saved scores of lives; where Company Sergeant-Major Bert Fitt charged into a Jap bunker, bren gun blazing from his hip, and finished the job by throwing it into the Japs' faces; where Majors Conder, Swainson and Murray-Brown (who had been in that first patrol in France in 1940), all seriously wounded, refused to be evacuated.
It was in the attack on 'Norfolk Bunker' on the morning of May 6th that Captain John Randle won the second of the Regiment's World War Two Victoria Crosses.
There are many Norfolks who contend that John Randle had already won the V.C. two days earlier: on the 4th he had taken over command of his company when the company commander was wounded. Although painfully wounded in the knee by grenade splinters, he continued to cheer his men on, until the company had captured its objective and consolidated the position. He then went forward and brought in all the wounded men who were lying outside the perimeter.
Despite his wound, Randle displayed the contempt for pain, which seemed almost commonplace among officers of the Royal Norfolks, and refused to be evacuated. On the night of the 5th he carried out a daring reconnaissance in bright moonlight, prior to a further attack by his company on positions to which the enemy had withdrawn.
At dawn on the 6th the attack went in, led by Randle: one of his platoons managed to reach the crest of a hill held by the Japs; another ran into heavy machine-gun fire from a bunker. John Randle immediately realized that this particular bunker covered not only the rear of his new position, but also the line of communication of the whole battalion. His knee, from the wound he had received two days earlier, troubled him badly; he had been hit yet again, this time in the face. Barely able to walk and with his face covered with blood, John Randle knew what he must do.
Armed with a rifle and bayonet he charged alone at the machine-gun post. He was hit again and again by bursts of fire, but he reached the bunker and silenced the gun with a grenade which he threw through the slit. He was dying fast, but he had one more duty to perform in death; he flung his body across the opening bunker slit so that the aperture should be completely sealed.
'The bravery of this officer could not have been surpassed,' says the official citation, 'and by his self-sacrifice he saved the lives of many of his men and enabled not only his own company, but the whole battalion, to gain its objective and win a decisive victory over the enemy.
Such bravery is in the great Norfolk tradition.
At Kohima today is the memorial to the 2nd British Division a giant edifice of stone, on which are inscribed these moving words:
'When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For their tomorrow
We gave our today.'
John Randle, six other officers and 79 soldiers 'gave their today' at Kohima; 15 officers and more than 150 men were wounded. In addition, there were many sick chiefly cases of dysentery, brought about by the vile climate and Japanese ignorance of elementary hygiene. But the expression 'evacuated sick' has no place in the story of the 2nd Royal Norfolks at Kohima. Men far gone with this crippling and enervating disease, an embarrassment to themselves and their comrades, refused to report sick rather than create a gap in the sagging line.
The record of the 2nd Battalion had always been a glorious one, but never more so than at Kohima.
The story of this famous now extinct regiment was written by Tim Carew and edited by Lt-General Sir Brian Horrocks.
'The Royal Norfolk Regiment' was first published in 1967 by Hamish Hamilton of London.