What happened to Major General John Grover at Kohima?
Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Graham MC and Bar
The story of Major General John Grover’s sacking just as his division was on the cusp of victory at Kohima is a subject which has intrigued historians for years. My friend Gordon Graham wrote this fascinating piece in 2011 or 2012 to try to get to the bottom of the story. I found it today in a pile of my notes and thought readers would like to hear what he had discovered.
The personal diary for April, May and June 1944 of Major General John M L Grover, who commanded the British 2nd Division at the battle of Kohima, is a sparse document. This is understandable. It is surprising that he had time to keep a journal. The entries become longer after June 22 when the Division completed its objectives of ousting the Japanese from Kohima and opening the road to Imphal.
The entry for July 1 records Grover's visit to the 4th Brigade which was pursuing the retreating Japanese. An underlined note SAC's visit added apparently after the day's entry was completed, suggests a short-notice visit by Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander.
The entry for the following day, Sunday July 2, reads: "Grand night. Lovely fresh air. 07.00 HC [Holy Communion]. Very good congregation. 10.00 Thanksgiving Church Parade. Very good attendance and nice sermon" is the last in the diary. Two days later, Grover was relieved of his command and instructed to return to the UK where he was given, after some months, a non-combatant post. His dismissal caused a wave of resentment among the officers and men of the Division he had commanded for nearly three years, coming as it did on the heels of congratulations and acclaim on the Division's defeat of the Japanese in what history was to identify as one of the great battles of World War Two.
On July 5 Grover issued a farewell message to his troops, in which he sang their praises and said what an honour it was to have commanded them.
As a junior officer in the Division, I shared the general reaction. But it was a fleeting thing in the press of war and today is a minor incident in distant history. I gave it very little thought for the next sixty years. Some of the survivors of those who served under Grover, however, felt, and (if alive), still feel strongly about his dismissal. Lt Col Rex King-Clark for example, who commanded the Manchester's Machine Gun Battalion wrote to me a few years ago (he was then ninety-three) that he felt so emotional about it that he could not bring himself to write about it. Grover himself said nothing about it at the time or for the rest of his life. He died in 1979.
The incident was brought back to my mind during my participation in the building of the Burma Campaign Memorial Library in the 1990s. Our aim was to gather a comprehensive collection of the literature of the Burma Campaign. Among the most valued items are unpublished papers, so when I got to know Lt Colonel David Grover, General Grover's son, I asked him: "David, did your father leave any papers?"
"Did he ever he ever talk to you about the circumstances of his dismissal?"
"Why on earth not?"
"He was loyal to the Army."
Grover's silence, led me to look in the literature of the Kohima battle to see what histories and memoir writings had said about his abrupt eclipse.
Field Marshal Viscount William Slim in his Defeat Into Victory, published in 1956, mentions Grover only twice, once to remark that: "the terrain and type of warfare were new to British troops, while the unavoidable arrival of the division piecemeal made the task of Grover, the divisional commander, a difficult one." He adds that General Stopford, commander of the 33 Corps (to whom Grover reported), "was rightly urging the 2nd Division to advance." The second reference by slim is to an abortive attack which Grover ordered.
Arthur Swinson's The Battle of Kohima, published in 1966, mentions Grover eighty-five times, sometimes at considerable length and in laudatory terms. Swinson had been Intelligence Officer in one of the 2 Div brigades and a close observer of Grover's dismissal on which he reports as follows:
On Tuesday, July, Grover was asked to meet Stopford on the roadside at Maram. Here he was informed that he was to be removed from command of the 2nd Division, and would be found another appointment. Though personal relations between the two commanders remained good, it had been increasingly obvious that Stopford was unhappy about Grover's methods; while Grover did not feel that he had received the co-operation and support from 33rd Corps that he was entitled to expect. At this stage in time it is impossible to probe further into personalities; but it is quite clear that both were highly professional soldiers, and both accepted the immutable law of the British Anny: that if two commanders cannot work together, then the junior must go. Grover made no complaint at the time; nor has done since.
Lucas Phillips's Springboard to Victory, published in the same year as Swinson's book, mentions Grover non-committally five times, and does not refer to his dismissal. However, Phillips was writing mainly about the siege of Kohima (April 4 — 16), not the subsequent battle (April 16 to June 10) under Grover's command. Louis Allen's The Longest War (1984), which, like Slim's Defeat into Victory, covers the whole Burma campaign, mentions Grover four times and does not mention his dismissal. Allen's was the first definitive history to use Japanese sources, and this may explain why he has more to say about Grover's opponent General Sato, whom he mentions eighteen times.
David Rooney's Burma Victory, 1992, a brief book with one chapter on Kohima, mentions Grover four times. He does refer to the dismissal in these terms:
The moment of triumph for the division was quickly soured, for officers and men alike, when they heard with amazement that, on 4 July, almost in the hour of victory, Stopford had informed Grover that he was to be removed immediately from command of the division. Soon afterwards, Churchill's personal envoy had a meeting with groups of soldiers — with no officers present. They did not complain about their conditions, but gave him a very rough ride, demanding to know what had happened to 'their general'. The sacking of Grover at that point still rankles with the veterans of Kohima.
John Colvin's No Ordinary Men, (1994) deals exclusively with Kohima and mentions Grover nineteen times. It does not mention the dismissal.
John Latimer's Burma: The Forgotten War (2004), on the other hand, mentions Grover eleven times and does report his dismissal as follows:
On 4 July Stopford informed. Grover at Maram that he was to be replaced by Major-General C G G Nicholson, a harsh example of the immutable law of the British Army; if two commanders cannot work together, the junior one must go. But it was a shock to 2nd Division, who regarded Grover as 'their general"
Latimer acknowledges Swinson as the source of his information.
In addition to the above histories, there have been a number of memoirs in which Grover is mentioned. The Sum of Things (2001) by Brigadier David Wilson, who served at Kohima as a Brigade Major, has a chapter on Kohima in which he writes:
Second Division was commanded by Major General John Grover, late of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, wounded three times in the First World War, and wearing a Military Cross with Bar as a result. He was short, lithe, very smart, very precise in his speech, and blessed with very blue piercing eyes. At the time I joined I think he was 47 years old. A Wykehamist with impeccable manners, he set the very highest standards for everyone, and if you could not come up to them, you were out looking for employment elsewhere. I don't remember ever seeing him lose his temper, but his icy reproofs in impeccable English were something to be avoided. In all my service I never came across anyone quite like him, and I am sure I speak for all of us who had the privilege to serve under him.
It was typical of him that when I joined the Division, rather than being formally marched in front of him in his office, I was bidden to dinner with him and his Staff in the Divisional 'A' Mess, where it was all quite informal, and yet I realised very well that I was being examined in microscopic detail. It was lucky for me that I came up to the mark: John Grover was to continue my instruction in soldiering, and was to be the most enormous influence on my future career.
David Wilson's career as a soldier extended from 1936 until 1971 and included the fall of Singapore and the Korean War. He maintained his connection with 2 Div and with the Burma Star Association, of which he became Chairman. Of John Grover's dismissal, he has only this to say:
John Grover, to whom I owed so much, had been replaced by Cameron Nicholson...
Two recent histories of the battle of Kohima — Fergal Keane's Road of Bones and Robert Lyman's Japan's Last Bid for Victory - give more attention to Grover's role than most of the earlier books. Keane expatiates on the reasons for the sacking of Grover, who, he says, "was partly a victim of the military politics of the Raj in its twilight". He adds that relations between Grover's all-British Division and the mainly Indian Army had never been cordial. Grover, when his Division was rushed into a crisis situation, did these relations no good by forecasting a much quicker victory than he achieved. When troops of the 7th Indian Division were brought into Kohima under Grover's command, their commander, General Frank Messervy, was, Keane says, "said to have been furious at Grover's use of his men". Lyman on the dismissal says simply "Grover was punished for the perception of failing to move with the alacrity his masters demanded."
The nub of the matter was the relationship between Grover and Stopford, who was critical of his subordinate from the outset of their relationship when he arrived at the Kohima battle zone on April. "Stopford," Keane says, "carried out the sacking of General Grover, but it was done with Slim's full authority". He adds in a footnote: "Slim never mentioned Grover's sacking in Defeat into Victory, whether out of deference to the general's feeling or a desire to bury the incident it is not possible to say. It came at the end of a period of great pressure on the 14th Army commander.”
The late Philip Malins, a veteran of the 20th Indian Division, told me in 2009 that he had had dinner with Stopford and his own divisional commander Douglas Gracey some years after the war. "Stopford", he said, "repeated several times that Grover made far too slow progress in getting his Division up the road from Dimapur. Gracey made no comment".
The accounts of the battle of Kohima reveal little of Grover, the man. He himself having left no record, I took it upon myself, with the signal help of Bob Allen, a Kohima veteran, to find out more about Grover's life, and seek for hints which might throw some light both on the stoicism with which he treated the termination of his distinguished career and on the indifference with which his eclipse was regarded by all except those who served under him.
John Malcolm Lawrence Grover was born on February 6, 1897 in Murree in the foothills of the Punjab. His father was thirty-nine-year-old Major Henry Stanley Grover, educated at Charterhouse and Sandhurst, who had joined the Indian Army in 1878. By the time of John Grover's birth his father had seen active service in Afghanistan and Waziristan. He served in India till 1917 and was knighted and became a full general. He died in 1945. Grover's mother, daughter of an Indian civil servant, died in 1912, when John Grover was fifteen years old.
Like his father John Grover was educated at boarding schools (Winchester and Sandhurst) and could not have had much home life.
He was commissioned into the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry in 1914, when he was eighteen years old. He served throughout World War I, was wounded three times and won the MC and bar.
His service between the two world wars was mainly in India. In 1930, he married Betty Humphrey in Quetta in Baluchistan, where he was about to graduate from staff college.
His bride was the daughter of a Major General. He was thirty-three; she was twenty-one. He became CO of the 1st Battalion of his regiment in 1938. He was a Staff Officer in France in 1939 and 1940. When he took command of the 2nd Division in 1941, he was forty-four years old and had been a soldier for twenty-eight years. He was thus the product of a highly rarefied back ground, India and the army having delineated both his personal and his professional lives.
The 2nd Division had suffered severely at Dunkirk. By the time Grover took it over had been replenished with a mixture of regular officers and NCOs and volunteers and conscripts, many from the mining towns of South Yorkshire, the mill towns of Lancashire and the shipyards of Glasgow. Under Grover, the Division was to become a highly trained fighting force with a great sense of pride and destiny.
In April 1942 the Division embarked from Liverpool and Greenock, part of a huge convoy headed for North Africa, to join the Eighth Army. Without explanation, somewhere off the coast of Madagascar, the Division was diverted to India. This took Grover — and all of us — by surprise. It was obviously not part of a master plan. The British government was still reeling from the ignominious defeat at Singapore; the Japanese were invading Burma; and the Indian Congress Party was threatening rebellion.
One can imagine the world map on the wall in Churchill's War Room and someone pointing out it was only a skip and a jump from Madagascar to Bombay, a decision which was to change irrevocably the fate of Grover and his 15,000 men. Grover thus found himself back in India, where he had been born, married and lived for many years. GHQ Delhi found him a demanding and, inconvenient intruder. At troop level, evidence of a cool welcome was confinement, for ten days after our arrival, to our troopships, which we had now occupied for two months. We then disembarked into the monsoon heat of Bombay and were entrained to Poona and invited to pitch mouldy tents, dislodging scorpions who were residing there, in muddy fields where for the next two weeks lived largely on onions and dried potatoes. To GHQ India, the 2nd Div became a prolonged headache and it was mutual. The maintenance of an all-British division was expensive. The Division's ambition was to play a part in defeating the Germans. When they were threatening to break through at Stalingrad there was an aborted plan to transfer the Division to Iran. 2 Div’s fate instead was to help defend a fading empire against Japanese aggressors.
With the creation of South East Asia Command and the arrival of Mountbatten, the priorities changed from the defence and re-conquest of Burma to the invasion of the Japanese-occupied territory from the sea. Churchill had promised Chiang Kai Shek in Cairo in October 1943 that the 2nd Division would capture the Andaman Islands. But he overlooked a detail: all the landing craft were needed in Europe. One can imagine how frustrating these many aborted plans were to Grover, whose only concern was to keep the 2nd Division at fighting pitch. Even more frustrating to him must have been the detachment from the Division of a brigade to participate in the disastrous campaign in the Arakan in 1943. They were badly mauled.
By early 1944, the Division was a combat-ready amphibious force. On March 15, Grover was in Delhi, pleading with General Giffard, GOC of India Command, to cancel a plan to take 100 men from each battalion of the Division to reinforce British battalions in the Army. On that same day, three Japanese divisions started crossing the Chindwin to invade India. Grover asked if his division could be of any help, and was told that this would not be necessary. The Division's role would be in seaborne landings on the coast of Burma. Grover got back to his Division on March 18. Two days later he was ordered to move it 1,500 miles to Dimapur in Assam, on which the Japanese 31st Division was converging. The Division, scattered throughout western India, sprang into action, and rushed by road, rail and air to Dimapur, where it began to arrive on April 4, the same day that the Japanese attacked Kohima.
The battle of Kohima was won by June 6 and on June 22 the road to Imphal was opened. Ten days later Grover was fired. The deed was done by Lt Gen Montagu Stopford, Grover's immediate superior. Arthur Swinson, in the preface to his book thanks both Stopford and Grover, the former "for making available a large amount of documentary material and for answering questions in correspondence" and to Grover "for letting me have material and for sparing the time to answer endless questions." The fact that Swinson interviewed Grover face-to-face, while Stopford preferred to correspond, suggests a more formal relationship with the later. Stopford and Grover are the second and third in a long list of acknowledgements in Swinson's preface, the first being Bill Slim who "patiently submitted himself to my interrogation and put me right on a number of points."
Swinson gives a pen picture of John Grover in his first chapter:
John Grover, the Divisional Commander, was at this time forty-seven years old, a passionate professional soldier with a great eye for detail. Of medium height and slender of physique, he was highly charged with nervous energy and drove himself and his staff mercilessly hard. He was correct, punctilious, and perfectionist; always demanded the highest standards and obtained them. A few weeks previously in jungle training a new staff officer had been asked to produce some loading tables, and rather than trudge round collecting first-hand data had used what was readily available. Grover took the document, glanced at it a second, then angrily thrust it back again, saying: 'Take it away and do it properly.' Faced with incompetence, sloth, or any failure of duty, even the slightest, Grover would explode with rage; and there can be no doubt that many officers were afraid of him. But on the other hand he was selfless and extraordinarily generous; and would spare no efforts whatsoever to do a thing, once convinced it was his duty. But the most remarkable thing about him was his moral command over the division. By some miracle he seemed to acquire the personal allegiance of every officer and man, and his personality not only pervaded every single unit but seems to permeate the very guns and equipment. Wherever the General walked the air quivered with nervous excitement and apprehension. Would he spot the one fire bucket in the area which wasn't full of water? Would he find a cook with dirty fingernails? Or, the worst horror of all, would some misbegotten soldier come round the corner of a hut without his hat on? The whole place was on tenterhooks until the inspection was over and he'd been safely steered into the Mess.
Grover obviously had an irascible temperament, and we can speculate that this applied to his relations with those to whom he reported as well as those whom he commanded. It is probable that when Stopford proposed sacking him, Grover had no friends in high places to stick up for him.
The respect and affection with which he was regarded by his troops are hard to explain, because he was not a charismatic man. Their admiration may have had something to do with the sense of shared suffering. He was their defender in a strange world. Bob Allen recalls the return to the UK of a shipload of survivors who arrived in Southampton on the troopship Strathmore in November 1945. As the vessel edged towards its birth, among the VIP welcome party on the dockside was a tall, slim figure with the red hatband and rank badges of a Major General. He was spotted by the troops crowding the rail, who started to chant, "We want Grover, we want Grover." He then made a speech of welcome, at the end of which there were prolonged cheers. Even officers in 2 Div who had direct contact with Grover and had chafed under his exacting regimes, still held him in high respect. David Murray, who was a subaltern in the Cameron Highlanders, recalls that after a visit to our battalion by Grover (pre-Kohima), the Camerons' Commanding Officer received a letter of reprimand because two of David's Jocks were not wearing cap badges. And Rex King-Clark, one of Grover's greatest admirers, recalls his mortification when Grover once gave him a tongue lashing because his machine guns continued to fire after their allotted time. I never spoke with Grover, although I saw him now and then as a kind of ethereal presence. I found myself briefly alone with him in June 1944 when, returning from an all night patrol behind Japanese lines, I had been asked to report my findings to Mike West, who commanded the Brigade. Walking back to rejoin my battalion, I came on a smartly dressed figure standing in the ditch. He had his back to me; chin in hand, apparently in deep thought. Unlike him I was a dishevelled mess. It had been raining all night. What, I wondered, was the correct protocol? One does not salute on the battlefield. Subalterns do not address Major Generals unless spoken to. Had he heard, I wondered presumptuously, of my report to the brigade and was he pondering on its implications? I almost said "Good morning, sir," but my courage failed me. I slipped passed him in silence. Perhaps this near-encounter was a symbolic hint of the silence on which I find myself pondering sixty-five years later.
Swinson also gives a pen picture of Stopford:
The most important thing about Stopford was his ability, his achievement, and his potentiality as a soldier. Though his walk was unhurried, his mind moved very fast; and his ostensibly calm exterior often concealed the explosion already working its way to the surface. He had courage and the power of command, two of the most important qualities of a soldier. He could write and speak powerfully and lucidly. He was very ambitious; some would call him ruthless; but that he was a very professional commander, there could be no doubt whatsoever.
While Swinson is carefully neutral between the two men, the fact that he places them in juxtaposition in contrasting terms in the first chapter of his book gives a hint to the reader that the relationship between them is at the heart of the drama he is about to relate. He calls the chapter "Four Generals; One Rendezvous". The other two Generals are Stopford's and Grover's opposite numbers: Lt Gen Renya Mutaguchi, Commander of the Japanese 15th Army and Lt Gen Kotuku Sato, Commander of the Japanese 31st Division; the attackers at Kohima. This is a skilful piece of scene-setting on Swinson’s part. Sato too did not get on with his superior, whose plan to invade India he never supported. Like Grover, Sato was blamed for taking too long to capture Kohima. Mutaguchi blamed Sato for not making a lightning attack on Dimapur, just as Grover was criticized by Stopford for not recapturing Kohima more quickly and making a faster advance to Imphal.
History was to show that both Grover and Sato were victims of poor planning. The 2nd Div was rushed into battle at forty-eight hours' notice, after being told it wasn't needed. The Japanese 31st Div was not given the supplies of food, ammunition and weapons that its high command had promised. Grover arrived in Dimapur the same day as Sato arrived in Kohima. Each, with their troops locked in mortal combat for the next two months, was under pressure to achieve daunting objectives.
Sato was fired by Mutaguchi on July 5, the day after Grover was fired by Stopford. Sato was offered a pistol, which he declined to use. More dramatic than Grover in his farewell message to his troops, Sato wrote "Our swords are broken and our arrows gone. Shedding bitter tears, I now leave Kohima. I ask the forgiveness of those who lie dead at Kohima because of my poor talent. Though my body is parted from them, I shall always remain with them in spirit. Nothing can separate those of us who were tried in the fire at Kohima."
Grover returned immediately to the UK, where, after some months, he was appointed Director of Army Welfare. Someone must have had a conscience about his dismissal, because in 1945 he was given the high honour of a CB, specifically for his service with the 2nd Division. Sato ended the war in a minor position in Indonesia where, in a final touch of irony, he found himself, after the Japanese surrender, one of thousands of prisoners under the command of General Stopford who, after being promoted to full General and awarded a KGB, became GOC Burma and Allied Forces in South East Asia.
John Grover retired from the army in 1948. He was fifty-two. He was admitted to the Order of St John in 1961. He came occasionally to the divisional reunions. He never went back to Kohima. A letter in The Times from General Jackie Smyth VC in 1950 refers to Grover's intervention to ensuring that the word "their" on the Kohima war memorial was changed to "your".
He died on June 11, 1979. A notice in the Daily Telegraph placed by his wife Betty and son David specified: "No mourning, flowers or letters." The only obituary I was able to locate was in The Wykehamist.
And the silence? His son attributes it to "loyalty to the army". We corresponded about the exact wording after our conversation because I wanted to quote him in my book. David Grover died shortly afterwards and left £l,000 in his will to the Kohima Educational Trust, which decided to use to endow three "Grover" scholarships in Nagaland.
Grover's silence was certainly not suppressed resentment. He and Stopford remained on amicable terms. An element of stoicism no doubt. A stiff upper lip certainly. An engrained habit of discipline evidently. One hint is in that last entry in the Grover diary which, sparse though it was, never failed to record his attendance at church parades and services. In the vocabulary of Christian virtues, John Grover's silence would be called forbearance.
Thanks for reading The War Room! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Although I have read Gordon Graham's account on Grover before, I di enjoy reading it again here. When one reads and studies the many individual actions on the different stages of the Battle for Kohima, there is a feeling that perhaps (from nearly 80 years on AND from my chair), that perhaps Grover could have moved quicker but was he perhaps more careful of the lives in his hands. The late Reverend Bill Davidson (a capt in 100th AA Regt RA at Kohima), Said that Grover generally called for a Padre to pray with him before he committed his men to battle..
It’s interesting that the bark, bite and chaffing of a senior Officer can become admired, no loved, by his subordinates. How is it achieved, after all, do we not all go through the same battle schools, training regimens, yet some have “it” and some do not. A mighty observation of a Senior Officer Dr Robert, if only he had left a memoir. Have you? Have I!