11 March 2020
Peter Duckers explains what medals were awarded for the campaigns in Burma and the Chindit operations in particular.
When it came to awarding campaign medals for Far East Service, the British authorities authorised only two general campaign awards, apart from the 1939-45 Star, which was the basic overseas’ service award. The two medals were the Pacific Star and the Burma Star. Both conformed to the general series of British World War II awards, like the other campaign stars (for Africa, Italy, Atlantic etc.) in being simply stamped out of alloy, with plain reverses.
The Pacific Star, which is quite a rare award in the British series, was, as its name implies, granted to all services for operations in and around the Pacific. These were mainly the island hopping campaigns that followed Pearl Harbor, including those for British colonies like the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Hong Kong and operations in the Dutch East Indies (e.g. Java). It is mentioned here only because, somewhat strangely, it was also the campaign medal granted to British and Commonwealth (largely Indian) forces engaged in the Malaya campaign after the Japanese invasion in December 1941 and in the unsuccessful defence of Singapore prior to its fall in February 1942. The latter also involved significant numbers of Australians. What Churchill called the, "worst disaster in British military history,” saw about 80,000 British, Indian and Australians taken prisoner, to add to the 50,000 previously captured in Malaya.
The colourful ribbon of the Pacific Star ribbon has a yellow centre bounded by green, representing the forests and beaches of the Pacific. To the left and right of the green are sky blue (for the Royal Air Force) and navy blue (for the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy); the edges of the ribbon are in red (for the Army).
On the Burma front, the campaign medal awarded for the struggle to resist the initial Japanese invasion, then hold them in check and then reconquer lost territory, was the Burma Star. The medal was awarded for one day or more of operational service, in any branch, during the Burma campaign between the 11 December 1941 and the 2 September 1945. It also rewarded service in China and Malaya between 16 February 1942 and 2 September 1945 - strange that 1941-42 service in Malaya was rewarded with the Pacific Star and later 1942-45 with the Burma Star! Since the Japanese maintained such a superiority in the Pacific Ocean area, the Allies were not in a position to strike back and regain a foothold in Burma until early in 1944 and the total surrender of the Japanese did not come about until 2 September 1945.
We, perhaps, forget the scale of the Commonwealth involvement in these operations, but the Burma Star was awarded not only to British personnel but also to Indian, Malay, Burmese, West and East African, Canadian and other forces involved.
The medal’s ribbon has a red centre with dark blue, orange and dark blue edges. The red represents British and Commonwealth land forces, the dark blue bands represent British Naval Forces and the orange, the sun. Aerial forces - not separately represented in these colours - were of course crucial to the success of the campaign.
Awards of both Stars to British personnel were unnamed, though the recipient's name and details were officially impressed on the reverse for Australian recipients and for some Indians. In the latter case, this does not seem to have been universally applied. Many as issued stars to Indians are unnamed, as are most that were eventually awarded to what became Pakistan’s forces after Partition. It is generally considered that the cost and complexity of naming Indian medals (and issuing them) led to the abandonment of an official naming policy, such was the desire to actually get them to their recipients and such was the sheer number to be issued.
Two clasps were awarded with these Stars - ‘Burma’, to be worn on the ribbon of the Pacific Star and ‘Pacific’ to be worn on the Burma Star. It was not possible to receive both stars so the recipient was given the medal representing his/her first service then the appropriate clasp if earned. The clasps were struck in yellowish copper zinc alloy and were sewn onto the medal's ribbon. When medals are not worn, a small silver rosette worn on the ribbon bar denotes the award of a clasp.
Difficult as the Burmese terrain and forests were, the British quickly learned to use forest tribes like the Lushai and Naga, as information gatherers and guerrilla fighters (levies) and apart from using regular Commonwealth forces, local initiatives were taken to combat and resist the Japanese invasion. One good example is the deployment of the Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary frontier police force in India, raised in 1835. After the lightning Japanese advance in 1942, the Assam Rifles was one of few organised military forces on the frontier capable of fighting back and was engaged in a number of independent actions behind enemy lines, part of the task of rear-area defence and rear-guard duty which fell to them during the British retreat into India. Later, elements of the Assam Rifles fought in the defensive boxes established around Kohima, whilst others, from the 4th Battalion, trained as airborne troops and were dropped near the Sittang River, behind Japanese lines. The 1st Battalion, part of the Lushai Brigade, provided resistance in the Chin Hills.
As a testament to the performance of Assam Rifles during the war, members of the unit received no fewer than 48 gallantry awards, including three MBEs, five Military Crosses, four Orders of British India, one Indian Order of Merit, 13 Military Medals, 15 Indian Distinguished Service Medals and seven British Empire Medals.
As the British struggled to resist and hold the Japanese advance in 1942, the idea was developed of operating behind enemy lines in an attempt simply to harass and disrupt Japanese lines of communication and supply. One of the newly-established forces set up to help this process, and founded out of the Assam Rifles and local knowledge, was Victor Force (or V-Force). This was a reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and guerrilla organisation, raised in April 1942 when the Japanese advance was at its most threatening and an invasion of India seemed likely. The organisation, which would operate along the 800 mile frontier between India and Burma, was also envisaged as a ‘stay-behind’ force. If the Japanese invaded India late in 1942, V-Force was to harass their lines of communications with ambushes and sabotage, and to provide intelligence from behind enemy lines.
The force was organised into six area commands, corresponding to local administrative areas, which in turn reflected the ethnicity of the inhabitants of the frontier. Each area command had four platoons (about 100 men) drawn from the Assam Rifles as a basis and up to 1,000 locally enlisted tribal guerrillas (auxiliaries). Area commanders and other officers were rarely regular Army officers but, given the need for local knowledge and languages, were drawn from police officers, civil administrators or tea planters. As the Japanese did not invade India in 1942, V-Force was able to consolidate in the wide area between the Allied and Japanese main forces. Bases and outposts were set up, standing patrols instituted and intelligence gathered and collated. By the end of 1943, the force had been reorganised into two main zones: Assam Zone, including Imphal and the frontier to its north, and Arakan Zone to the south. In later operations, V-Force was able to provide a degree of warning about the movements of Japanese reserves to threatened areas and carry out acts of sabotage.
The biggest of the forces set up to operate behind enemy lines were, of course, the famous Chindit columns. Established by their iconic and unorthodox leader, General Orde Wingate, the aim was to deliver and set loose far behind Japanese lines powerful military forces which would harass and disrupt enemy lines of communication, carry out acts of sabotage and ambush isolated enemy units. They would inflict the greatest possible damage and confusion.
There were two major Chindit expeditions. The first, known as Longcloth, between Feb-April 1943 involved about 3,000 men, half of whom were Gurkhas. They marched over 1,000 miles during the campaign and suffered a very high casualty rate. The far larger second series of operations, known as Operation Thursday, between Feb-August 1944, was the second largest airborne invasion of the war and consisted of a force of up to 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers. Vital air support was provided by the 1st Air Commando USAAF. US forces, especially of the USAAF, were heavily involved in these operations and the Americans later formed their own force, Merrill’s Marauders, to operate in similar ways.
As purely campaign awards, British and Commonwealth forces who were involved in the two series of Chindit operations received nothing more the 1939-45 Star and Burma Star for their services - there was no distinctive award or clasp for them. In terms of medals for gallantry or distinguished service, the usual awards were available within the established British system. For the Chindit operations, an impressive array of awards was made, reflecting the severity of the conditions and the fighting. An approximate tally of these is:
- Victoria Cross: Four - one South Staffs, three to Gurkha regiments
- Distinguished Service Order: 28 (including Bars e.g. to Orde Wingate)
- Military Cross: 119 - including four to RAF, 25 to Burma Rifles
- Distinguished Conduct Medal: 12 - including one to a Nigerian soldier
- Indian Order of Merit: Four - Gurkhas of 3/2nd, 6th and 9th Gurkha Rifles
- Indian Distinguished Service Medal: 16 - all to Gurkhas
- Military Medal: 93 - including 10 to West Africans and 21 to Gurkhas of the 4th, 6th and 9th Gurkha Rifles
- Burma Gallantry Medal: Nine - all to the Burma Rifles
The Chindit VCs were those awarded to Lt. G. A. Cairns, Somerset L.I. attached to South Staffs (airborne); Rifleman Tulbahadur Pun, 6th Gurkha Rifles; Capt. M. Allmand, Indian Armoured Corps attached to 6th Gurkha Rifles and Captain (temporary Major) F. G. Blaker, M.C., The Highland Light Infantry, attached 9th Gurkha Rifles.
Space does not allow the recitation of all their deeds, but as an example, the VC was awarded posthumously to Major Frank Blaker per London Gazette of 22 of September, 1944, for the following act of gallantry: ‘In Burma on 9th July, 1944, a company of the 9th Gurkha Rifles was ordered to carry out a wide, encircling movement across unknown and precipitous country, through dense jungle, to attack a strong enemy position on the summit of an important hill overlooking Taungni. Major Blaker carried out this movement with the utmost precision and took up a position with his company on the extreme right flank of the enemy, in itself a feat of considerable military skill.
Another Company, after bitter fighting, had succeeded in taking the forward edge of the enemy position by a frontal assault, but had failed to reach the main crest of the hill in the face of fierce opposition. At this crucial moment Major Blaker's Company came under heavy and accurate fire at close range from a machine gun and two light machine guns, and their advance was completely stopped.
Major Blaker advanced ahead of his men through very heavy fire and, in spite of being severely wounded in the arm by a grenade, he located the machine guns, which were the pivot of the enemy defence, and single handedly charged the position. When hit by a burst of three rounds through the body, he continued to cheer on his men while lying on the ground.
His fearless leadership and outstanding courage so inspired his Company that they stormed the hill and captured the objective, while the enemy fled in terror into the jungle. Major Blaker died of wounds while being evacuated from the battlefield. His heroism and self sacrifice were beyond all praise and contributed in no small way to the defeat of the enemy and the successful outcome of the operation.’
In terms of other gallantry awards, it should be noted that British, Australian, Canadian and West African forces could all receive the same awards and that existing air and naval awards (like the DSO, DFC, DFM, DSC etc.) and were also open to Commonwealth recipients serving in Burma. However, the Indian army retained its own system and whilst the VC, DSO, MC, BEM and other British awards were open to Indian recipients, they also had the venerable Indian Order of Merit (IOM), the Order of British India (an Indian officer’s award) and the Indian Distinguished Service Medal, established in 1907. The Military Medal (established in 1916) was only opened to Indian recipients in 1944.
The Indian Order of Merit, originally founded in three classes in 1837, had been reduced to two in 1911 and again reformed in 1939, when its design was slightly altered to show the legend, ‘Reward of Gallantry’ in place of the earlier ‘Reward of Valor’. It was further amended in 1944 to one single class - though examples of these in groups (awards of 1944-45) are rare. Only four IOMs were awarded for Chindit operations.
The Burma Army
We, perhaps, forget that Burma also had its own army. In 1937, Britain’s Burmese dominions were separated from India as an administrative unit and Burma became a distinct entity. As such, it was given its own army, with British officers, and known generally as Burma Army (not the Burmese Army). Its principal regiment was the Burma Rifles, which had a number of Indian volunteers in its ranks and as officers. To keep its native Burmese officers and men on a par with the existing Indian Army system, two new awards were created. One, the Order of Burma, established only in 1940, was, like its counterpart the Order of British India, essentially a long-service award for native Burmese officers though, equally like the OBI, there are known examples awarded for distinguished service over a shorter period or even for acts of gallantry.
The other distinctively Burmese award was the Burma Gallantry Medal, established in 1940 and first awarded in 1942. Until it became obsolete in 1947, it was the counterpart to the Indian Distinguished Conduct Medal. Both of these Burma Army awards are exceedingly rare and therefore expensive on the infrequent occasions when they appear on the market – only 24 Orders of Burma were ever awarded prior to its demise in 1947 and only 207 Burma Gallantry Medals, of which nine were given for Chindit service, all to the Burma Rifles. Just one recipient ever earned both - Hon. Lieutenant Maji Tu, Burma Rifles.
The basic British campaign awards for Burma, and for Chindit operations, are easily and cheaply available on the collectors’ market, though, as with all British medals and groups, those with definite provenance and gallantry awards with especially good citations are highly sought after and can be very expensive.
Read all about the main Chindit feature here.
Enjoy a taste of the jungle with the K-ration.
What did the Chindits wear? Find out about their uniforms here.