The battlefield diggers of India: Uncovering the history of a battle that turned the tide of WWII in Asia

In 1944 British Army units in easternmost India won a battle that turned the tide of World War II in Asia.

The victory at Imphal and Kohima prevented the Japanese from invading the sub-continent. 

It was also the springboard for the Allied advance that would eventually see the Japanese forced out of neighbouring Burma.

The UK’s National Army Museum commissioned a poll of historians who concluded that Imphal and Kohima was Britain’s Greatest Battle.

But it’s not nearly as famous as Waterloo or El Alamein, and the men who fought it regarded themselves as part of the Forgotten Army of the Asia-Pacific theatre.

The battle was a series of brutal skirmishes fought on mountains and in jungles and many of those who died had to be buried where they fell.

Across the hills and mountains of India's most northeast parts is where these battles were fought. Credit: ITV News

But they do not lie forgotten. A team of battlefield diggers has been scouring the punishing terrain to find their remains and to provide their relatives with some answers about their final days in a foreign land.

The team is led by Yumnam Rajeshwor Singh, founder of the Second World War Imphal Campaign Foundation.

He and his team are dedicated to unearthing relics and remains, stories and memories from far flung battle sites.

A number of British families have reached out to Rajeshwor, asking him to try to find relatives killed in the battle.

The family of Private David Tod were desperate to know where their loved one lay. Credit: ITV News

On his latest trip he focused on Private David Tod from the 2nd Suffolk Regiment.

Pte Tod’s great granddaughter Sharon Vanderwerf is a nurse in Edinburgh.  As the faraway excavation begins Rajeshwor makes contact with her via a video call on his mobile phone.

She may be 5,000 miles away but Sharon gets to see where her great grandfather died.  She watches live as Rajeshwor talks her through what the team are doing. 

He assures her they are motivated and respectful.  She is clearly moved by it all.

Interviewed in Edinburgh afterwards Sharon said, “It’s amazing to know where he is now.  He’s a little less lost.

“Before, we just thought he’s out there somewhere in the jungles or mountains of the India-Burma border.  So to know where he is, his location, it’s a little less lonely for him.”

During the search he places four small crosses with poppies at the site. They bear the names of Pte. Tod and three of his comrades who died along side him. The searchers observe one minute’s silence.

It’s been a long tough trek, but nonetheless they set about searching and digging.  They find shrapnel from an artillery shell and two belt buckles. 

They are confident they are looking in the right place.

Rajweshwor has also collaborated with Japanese authorities and the team have found the remains of several Japanese soldiers.

Crosses are left in remembrance of the soldiers who lost their lives. Credit: ITV News

On this trip they did not find the remains of Pte Tod.  But they were able to provide his great grand-daughter with imagery and some answers. They’ll be back to try again. 

Before leaving Rajeshwor stands over the small crosses and recites the famous tribute to the fallen, the Kohima Epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

A firsthand account of a day spent with the battlefield diggers, unearthing WWII British relics in India

On the top of Sekta Langdabi hill, north east of Imphal - the capital of the north east Indian state of Manipur - Yumnam Rajeshwor Singh, 43,  along with his volunteers lay poppies in memory of dead British soldiers.

They recite the famous moving words of the Kohima Epitaph: "When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today."

Reading from a print out with a list of the names of dead British soldiers, he reads the war diary of the second battalion of the Suffolk Regiment - they fought on this hill around 76-years-ago and many British and Japanese soldiers died in that battle.

It is a treacherous hike to the top of the hill. Credit: ITV News

A dedicated history buff, Rajeshwor founded the WWII Imphal Campaign Foundation.

On the day I filmed with them, he had led his men on a tough trek to a remote site where four British soldiers are still buried.  Among them is Private David Tod, whose family has requested to pay homage to their loved one.

Rajeshwor is trying to trace the last remains of David Tod after receiving a request from his great granddaughter - Sharon Vanderwerf , a care worker from Edinburgh.

From India to Edinburgh, the team called Sharon to update her on their progress. Credit: ITV News

“The focus of this trip to find David Tod,” he tells his 40 volunteers who, apart from his own team, have also come from nearby villages.

Getting on the hill is a full scale military operation, there are advance teams sent to set up tents and prepare lunch after this tortuous journey - climbing this steep hilltop, there is no walking track in this wild terrain, and one has to cling onto the trees and crawl to stop from falling.

But a determined Rajeshwor, with his grit and determination, carrying a metal detector is our ray of hope. His volunteers and villagers, with spades and shovels in hand, are marching past ahead of us. On the way they keep checking the ground - looking for shrapnel, cartridges, buckles and even bones of the dead soldiers.

The Siege of Imphal, where the Allied and the Axis powers fought between March and July 1944, was one of the fiercest battles of WWII and is recognised as 'Britain’s Greatest Battle' by London’s National Army Museum.

Armed with dozens of maps Rajeshwor - also a member of the Burma Campaign Society in London and the International Guild of Battlefield Guides - and his team have been scouring the Manipuri countryside for relics of the Battle of Imphal-Kohima.

He and his team have found scores of rifles, artillery shells and grenades lobbed by the British at the Japanese and vice-versa.

Private Tod died in the battle, his family want to know more about his resting place. Credit: ITV News

“Collecting relics across the state gives an opportunity to understand that there could be multiple narratives about the war,” says team member Jayanta Luwangcha - an award winning national swimmer and a telecom professional.

Since 2017, the Japan Association for Recovery and Repatriation of War Casualties has been collaborating with the foundation on missions to recover the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the war.

Japanese enthusiasm to remember the Battle of Imphal has led to a steady flow of tourists from Japan.

The team kneel for a moment, remembering those killed in the battle. Credit: ITV News

At least 15 Japanese (veterans, soldiers’ children, and academics) had been visiting Manipur every month to reconnect with their personal histories or individual quests before the pandemic stopped travel.

Recently, three WWII fighter planes were found at the bottom of Loktak lake in Imphal.

The sites where the three planes were shot down were identified after talking to some local elders who witnessed  WWII air battles in the Bishanpur district that encompasses Loktak, the biggest freshwater lake in eastern India.

After the end of two day trip although Mr Singh and his team had not found anything this time, they are already preparing for the next expedition.