- Raymond Steel with Robert Steel
Kohima was a hill station which incorporated workshops, a hospital and a bakery, while providing transit accommodation for troops involved in the movement toward the build-up of Imphal. Fleeing refugees gave the British forces the information that the Japanese were on their way but it was not appreciated just how fast the Japanese would move across country. This was because reconnaissance by the Japanese had previously found the best routes to follow in their advance on Kohima.
The battle for Kohima has been regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest battle of all time and several books have been written covering how a multi-national force of some 1,500 men fought off a division of some 13,000 Japanese troops. However, this book by Raymond and Robert Steel gives a matter-of-fact, first hand, account of just what happened during the siege period of some two weeks. In fact, the fighting went on for another seven weeks before the Japanese were forced to withdraw completely from the area.
The fourth battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment was stationed at Kohima and Raymond Street was a runner (messenger) throughout the whole siege taking information to and fro between the companies and their battalion headquarters.
In the Preface Robert, Raymond’s son, explains that he has written the book as though he were his father, recounting what actually happened to him and some of the other survivors of that siege.
Chapter 1 provides the background of Raymond’s (born 1920) early life in Birmingham, his time as one of the LDVs (later to be the Home Guard) at the beginning of the war and his growing concern that he was not called up because his employment was classed as a reserved occupation . Eventually he volunteered and signed on for a period of seven years in the 4th battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, describing his time before being drafted for overseas in December 1942.
Following a description of his experiences on first arriving in India and the training involved, he explains how he suddenly found himself in the 4th Battalion, the Queen’s Own royal West Kent Regiment as part of what was to be the Fourteenth Army, prior to the Arakan campaign. He admitted later that although he and his comrades considered themselves battle hardened following Arakan, he had no idea just how bad things were to get.
After this Raymond then provides a day-by-day account of all he saw and experienced during the whole of the siege, in such detail that it covers the next three chapters. He recalls those he knew and what happened to them in such a simple, yet almost prosaic way, that it puts to shame many modern accounts of today’s heroes.
Once the relieving forces arrived and the siege was over Raymond and his remaining comrades were withdrawn to Dimapur for what is now known as rest and recuperation before being moved back to Kohima to advance behind the retreating Japanese many of whom were still providing pockets of resistance. Eventually he was allocated leave in India, which involved a journey on foot, by trains and paddle steamer before arriving in Calcutta and then on to Simla where he describes the remainder of his leave, even to the point of somewhere which sold an English breakfast.
On Raymond’s return from leave he was involved in the advance south of Imphal and writes of what happened in some detail, even to the point of explaining how he cleared the barrel of a Japanese rifle he found. During this time he was injured and sent on leave to England following a spell in hospital. He was on leave on VE day but still had to return to his unit and back to the front line via Rangoon, and spent a period where he was involved in mopping up operations of one form and another, including the supervision of prisoners until the war ended. In 1946 he was allocated a month’s home leave but was destined not to spend it all because of malaria and other ailments and in 1947 he was formally discharged from the army on medical grounds.
The whole book is rounded off with a Postscript covering Raymond Street’s life since leaving the army, followed by an Appendix A naming those who fell during the siege of Kohima and Appendix B providing a précis of what happened after the siege.
The book is well written and certainly worth reading. Myself, I actually read it twice to ensure I had taken all in regarding that very long battle. My only wish would be that distances between the features described could have been given for completeness, though I am aware that other books have included such information.