Royal Norfolk soldier George Johnson’s family will mark 70th anniversary of the Siege of Imphal in India
Four members of a Norfolk family are making an emotional journey to India to visit a Second World War battlefield – 70 years after their relative fought there with Britain’s “forgotten army”.
Company Sergeant Major George “Johno” Johnson is believed to be the only soldier from the Royal Norfolk Regiment who served at the Siege of Imphal, a pivotal series of small but vicious battles between March and July 1944.
Now his son and three grandsons are preparing to take part in the 70th anniversary commemorations on April 7 in Kanglatongbi, where the soldier was stationed during the fighting.
Chris Johnson, 60, a painter and decorator from Bergh Apton, south of Norwich, will travel in memory of his father, taking along his 20-year-old son Harry.
Two other grandsons are joining the family pilgrimage: David Westgate, 45, from Scarning in Dereham, who works as a sales engineer at Premier Pallet Systems in Gressenhall, and his brother Andy Westgate, 48, a telecoms engineer from Poringland.
Their journey will include visits to key battle grounds, the war memorial at Kanglatongbi, and defensive trenches in “Lion Box” – the zone which Johno had been tasked with protecting.
David Westgate said it would be an emotional trip. “It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up to think that it will be 70 years to the day that my grandfather was there fighting for his life, and that he was one of the few fortunate enough to come back,” he said.
“My grandfather died when I was 16, so I want to understand what he went through and to see where he spent that time. I know it is going to be a really emotional time.”
After returning from the war, Company Sergeant Major Johnson lived in Lakenham, Norwich, before his death in 1985. His son Chris Johnson has researched and written a book about the defence of Imphal by the British 14th Army – later dubbed the “forgotten army” because their far-flung exploits were often overlooked as the European campaign drew to a close.
In March 1944, as the advancing Japanese army sought to capture supply depots that would have given them a strategic foothold in India, the British withdrew into defensive “boxes”.
Mr Johnson said his father, who had been assigned away from his regiment to look after a reinforcement camp in eastern India, found himself defending Lion Box at Kanglatongbi, a crucial supply depot north of Imphal.
He said: “The whole area of the Imphal plain was one large garrison, built up with British and Indian troops to launch the counter-offensive into Burma.
“There was a lot of ordnance, food and fuel there. When the Japanese attacked and surrounded Imphal it was their intention to capture as many of these supplies as they could, and the largest depot was at Kanglatongbi. When the Japanese cut the main road to Kohima, all the personnel withdrew into defensive ‘boxes’ – and my father was one of them.
“Our family knew very little about what happened. One particular man later said to mother that ‘if it was not for Johno we would all have been killed in the jungle’. Father played it down, and the story was never told.”
During his research into the siege of Imphal, Mr Johnson has uncovered stories about his father’s war which were never told to the family.
On his visit to Kanglatongbi, he hopes to visit the scene of one particularly harrowing tale.
Mr Johnson said: “Within the family, there was a story that father had shot his own man at one stage, because he was too badly injured to be
“Nothing else was said. But after the war, my father often ad his old pals coming round and it was overheard.
“They were part of the rearguard when the area was being evacuated. The RAF came over and mistook them for the Japanese.
This chap was father’s runner, and he had been sent out of the trench to take a message, but he was hit in the back and it blew his guts out.
“There was nothing to be done, and no medical help on hand. The Japanese were in danger of over-running them, and father ran out of his trench to help send him on his way, the poor chap.
“He never spoke about it. His officer, Captain Charles, said it was one of the bravest things he had seen during the war – but you don’t get medals for things like that.”
The family will also be visiting the war memorial at Kohima, where many Royal Norfolk soldiers fought and died during one of the turning points of the war in the Far East.
If relatives wish for a poppy cross to be placed at the Kohima memorial, or to have photographs taken, they can contact David Westgate on firstname.lastname@example.org