Lieutenant John M Young –
Remembered by Glasgow City Council
On the 30th of March 1944 a 24 year old Scotsman, Lieutenant John Young, was Officer Commanding A Company, The 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment defending a position close to the village of Kharasom in Nagaland, India: as the crow flies about 40 miles from Kohima, roughly 75 miles by track.
The battle of Kohima involved the most intensive fighting experienced by any British or Allied troops in World War 2 and the “Kohima epitaph” carved on the war cemetery there has become famous around the world:
“When you go home,
tell them of us and say,
for your tomorrow,
we gave our today.”
John Young was born in Glasgow in August 1919. He had two brothers and a sister and the family lived in Jedburgh Gardens off Great Western Road. John was a pupil at Hillhead High School and after leaving school became a bank clerk. Like so many young men of his generation he realised that war was inevitable and in May 1939 he joined the Territorial Army. Most men who did this in 1939 were demonstrating a desire to serve their country and at the same time allowing themselves the freedom to choose which branch of the Armed Forces they served within. If they had waited for war to start and conscription, they would have had no say in which branch of the services they were sent to: Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force.
John Young joined the Glasgow Highlanders, the TA Battalion of The Highland Light Infantry and within weeks of joining he was promoted to Lance Corporal. By the end of 1939, by which time war had been declared and he had been “embodied” into the British Army as a full time soldier, he had been promoted to full Corporal. Before the end of 1940 John Young had reached the full rank of Sergeant and had become an Instructor. The HLI was the Glasgow Regiment and a Sergeant in that unit of the British Army needed excellent soldiering skills and considerable strength of character. To have reached and held the rank of Sergeant in that short time John Young must have been an exceptional soldier. He was clearly a natural leader and in March 1941 John Young was commissioned and made an officer in The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
It was a wartime emergency commission and John Young never actually served within an Argyll unit. He completed officer training and went on various courses such as signalling and ration organisation. In 1942 he was put in charge of a draft of men aboard a troopship bound for India and arrived in Bombay in July when he was attached to The Assam Regiment as Adjutant. This was a new formation raised in 1941 comprising Indian troops and NCOs with British officers. John Young then went on courses on jungle warfare, gas warfare and Bren Gun Carriers before rejoining the Battalion as Officer Commanding A Company.
In early 1944 the British 14th Army under General William Slim were preparing to attack and retake Burma. Slim, in his autobiography, freely admits that the Japanese surprised him by their decision to attack first and by the speed of their advance. There was a very real risk that the Japanese Army would reach Dimapur with its vast stores of food and war material and then threaten the whole of India and the only real chance of stopping them was at Kohima, a hill station not organised for defence. Only a scratch force of one British Infantry Battalion and 1st Battalion The Assam Regiment was available and there was little time to fortify Kohima. To delay the Japanese advance John Young was ordered to take his company of just over 100 men to the village of Kharasom, stop the Japanese from advancing further and fight to “the last man and the last bullet”.
The order to fight to the “last man” was given very, very rarely in World War 2 and only in the most desperate of circumstances. Every hour granted to the defenders of Kohima to dig trenches and bunkers, set up barbed wire and gun positions would be vital and John Young knew that they were depending on him and his men to stop the Japanese at Kharasom for as long as possible. He prepared his position very carefully and sent out patrols to watch for the Japanese advance units which he knew were coming his way. Eventually one of his patrols returned with the news that a whole Japanese battalion was coming along the track. John Young instructed his men to stay hidden and only when the Japanese column were within point blank range, quite unaware of the presence of Young and his men, did he give the order to open fire, inflicting very heavy casualties.
For the next three days and nights John Young and his company held off attack after attack by the Japanese. On the morning of the fourth day, low on ammunition, water and food they saw yet another Japanese battalion arriving to support the unit they had defied for so long. John Young had lost contact with his Commanding Officer early in the battle when mortar fire had killed his Second in Command and destroyed his radio link and he was unaware that the order to fight to the last man had been cancelled. He was an intelligent young man and realised that his position had now been by-passed and to sacrifice his remaining men would serve no purpose. He called his senior NCOs and ordered them to take their men and break out that night and make their way back to the Regiment at Kohima. He told them that his orders were to fight to the last man and that he would be the last man. In any case, he explained, he would stay and defend the many wounded. The last time they saw Lieutenant Young he was stacking ammunition and hand grenades preparing for the next Japanese attack.
Most of his men made it back to Kohima and took part in the following battle and the eventual defeat of the Japanese. The morning after they broke out from their position at Kharasom, Naga villagers heard heavy firing from the area followed by the crump of hand grenades then silence.
Three separate, well researched history books report the story of John Young: “A History of the Assam Regiment” by Peter Steyn, 1947, “Springboard to Victory” by C E Lucas Phillips, 1966 and “Not Ordinary Men” by John Colvin, 1994.
John Young has received no recognition of any kind for what was an act of gallantry and devotion to duty rarely surpassed in the annals of British Military history.
In the papers of Sir Charles Pawsey (now deposited with The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst), District Commissioner in Nagaland at the time, the villagers of Kharasom reported that the Japanese were so impressed with John Young’s conduct that they shaved the head of his corpse and buried him with full military honours in the style of an honoured Japanese soldier. Pawsey comments, “There is no question that their stand in the last days of March gave time for something to be got ready at Kohima. They saved Kohima and India.” No senior British diplomat ever made a statement like that lightly.
When John Young’s parents claimed his medals in 1950 they received the same four they would have received if their son had been a storeman in the 14th Army. They were quite unaware of the heroic circumstances of his death.
The importance of the Siege of Kohima to the allies cannot be overstated. If the garrison had failed to hold out and the Japanese Army had been allowed to advance the course of the war in the Far East could have been very different. By stopping a Japanese regiment for four days at Kharasom John Young and his men won vital time needed to prepare the defence of Kohima. Every casualty they inflicted on the Japanese was one less soldier to attack Kohima and it is generally accepted that the garrison there only just held on, against overwhelming odds, until relief arrived. Kohima was the turning point for the British Army and the Indian Army in the war against Japan. After Kohima, General Slim’s 14th Army experienced only success in the fighting to drive the Japanese out of Burma. John Young’s contribution has never been acknowledged until now.