Thorburn, William Ian Edward


Thorburn – who used his middle name, Ian – was the only son of Lieutenant-Colonel William Thorburn DSO, TD, DL, of Craigern, Peebles. His mother, Winifred Alison Thorburn, was the daughter of Edward Hopkins, of Claremont, Nutfield, Surrey. A keen and effective member of his house football and cricket sides, he won his Flannels in his last summer, when he was also a Commoner Prefect.

After a year in France and Germany, he went up to Trinity College, Oxford in 1934, where he represented the University at golf for two years (1937-1937), and took a second in Law (the Register states History) in 1938.

In 1937 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Scots (Supplementary Reserve), and on the outbreak of war went to France as a company commander with 1st Battalion. Wounded and evacuated from Dunkirk, he then became Adjutant of the battalion, and sailed for India in May 1942. After a course at the Quetta Staff College, he held the appointments of DAQMG and GSO2 in 2nd Infantry Division, with the rank of Major, until in April 1944 he took over the post of Brigade Major, 5 Infantry Brigade (2nd Division), in the middle of the Kohima battle.

A hill town in Assam, in north east India, Kohima was the scene from April to June 1944 of one of the most bitterly fought battles of the Second World War.  Earl Mountbatten described it as probably one of the greatest battles in history.  Under the command of General William Slim, the British and Indian XIVth Army had been building up bases at Dimapur and Imphal in preparation for an offensive into Burma.  The Japanese, under the command of Lieutenant General Mutagachi, were ordered to put a stop to these preparations.

Fought in three stages from 4th April  to 22nd June 1944, it is sometimes referred to as “The Stalingrad of the East”.     In the early part of the conflict the Japanese attempted to capture Kohima ridge, an area consisting of features such as Garrison Hill, Jail Hill along with the Deputy Commissioner’s Bungalow and the tennis court over which much of the fighting took place, and is now the site of the Kohima Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.  This area dominated the road by which the besieged British and Indian troops of IV Corps at Imphal were supplied.  On 13th April the Japanese had the advantage of the British and Indian troops on the ridge, with the troops defending the District Commissioner’s bungalow and tennis court coming under increasingly heavy artillery and mortar fire.  This area was the scene of some of the hardest, closest and grimmest fighting with grenades being hurled across the tennis court. In the end the attacks were beaten off with the help of remarkably accurate fire from the Royal Artillery positioned at Jotsoma ridge and the siege was lifted shortly afterwards.

On 13th May the Japanese abandoned the Kohima ridge, having come under sustained attack from the British and Indian troops who eventually regained much of the area previously lost to the Japanese, although they did, however, continue to block the Kohima-Imphal road.  From 16th May British and Indian troops pursued the retreating Japanese and re-opened the road. The battle ended on 22 June when British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 109, ending the siege of Imphal.

Thorburn was killed that day, May 21st 1944 (the Register states May 24th), at the age of twenty-eight.   He rests in grave 3.B.15 of Kohima War Cemetery.

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War: World War 2

  • Surname: Thorburn
  • Forenames or initials: William Ian Edward
  • House: A
  • Years in School: 1928-1933
  • Rank: Major
  • Regiment: 5 Infantry Brigade
  • Date of Birth: 31st August 1915
  • Date of Death: 21st May 1944
  • How Died: Killed in Action
  • Location in War Cloister: Inner F2
  • Decoration: NA
  • Burial Site: Kohima War Cemetery: Grave 3.B.15