Ex-major retains grudging respect for Japanese

'If we had tried to storm the mainland of Japan, I think we would still be there,' muses Victor Brooks, a retired British major formerly of the 7th Gurkha Rifles.

The observation is tongue in cheek, but few people alive know more about the tenacity of Japanese troops.

In March 1944, Mr Brooks was among allied units decimated by Japan's 15th Army during ferocious fighting at Sangshak, in India's Naga Hills, near the Burmese (now Myanmese) border.

Mr Brooks will mark the 60th anniversary of VJ Day today at his home in a quiet middle-class English housing estate in Buckinghamshire. He does not expect to be attending any regimental reunions.

The 87-year-old was commissioned from Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1936 and is one of the last surviving officers to have served in the Indian Army.

'In a standard Indian division, there was one British, one Indian and one Gurkha brigade,' he recalls. 'They were damned good.'

Hanging from his modest walls are fading portraits of a family that traces its roots in Britain's far-flung empire back to the 19th century.

His grandfather worked in the Indian Civil Service. His great grandfather served with the 75th (Gordon) Highlanders and was with Brigadier-General John Nicholson during the storming of the Kashmir Gate in Delhi during the suppression of the Indian Mutiny.

Mr Brooks himself was born in Port Blair, where his father had transferred to the Andaman Commission from the Burma Police.

Battles in the Imphal-Kohima lasted five months, and were exceptionally brutal. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded in one engagement alone.

At Kohima, according to one account, a savage battle developed for possession of the District Commissioner's tennis court. 'Grenades were hurled where once tennis balls had bounced in harmless fun,' Brigadier E.D. Smith reported at the time.

'We were cut off in Imphal for months and supplied entirely from the air by the Americans and the Royal Air Force,' Mr Brooks said. 'The Royal Air Force came in ... irrespective of the weather.

'If they had taken Imphal and Dimapur, which had a huge railhead, there was nothing to stop them between there and Delhi.'

Mr Brooks still has a grudging soldier's respect for the Japanese troops he encountered. 'Of course, you wouldn't think that if you had been a prisoner of theirs.'

The admiration cut both ways. 'British success was due to the ability of their commanders to select a promising course of action and then pursue it with resolute intent,' said Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, the Japanese 15th Army's commander, who launched the offensive on March 7.

Casualties at Sangshak were enormous on both sides. In a matter of days, the Japanese lost 580 of their most seasoned fighters, while an Indian Army battalion lost all but three of its 20 British officers.

'The only parachute brigade at the time was more or less decimated,' Mr Brooks recalled. 'It wasn't considered a success.' It did, however, buy the Allies some valuable time ahead of the much bigger battles of Kohima and Imphal.

Historians believe the capture of Dimapur would have enabled Japanese forces to resupply for the onward push into India, where the Allied 14th Army, under General Bill Slim, was preparing to march back into Myanmar.

General Mutaguchi resisted withdrawal at immense cost, and always believed he could have taken Dimapur. He was, however, refused permission to try by Japanese commanders who may have been less concerned with advancing into India than preventing the 14th Army's push back into Myanmar.

Either way, Imphal-Kohima is considered an important and extremely bloody turning point in the war in Asia.