11 March 2020
Gerald Prenderghast looks at the missions of the Allied long-range penetration forces in Burma during WWII.
The Chindits were first organised as a special operations unit, recruiting its men from within both the Indian and British armies. Conceived and created by Brigadier Charles Orde Wingate at the request of General Archibald Wavell, they saw action between 1943-44 in the Burma Campaign, participating in several long-range operations behind Japanese lines. The unit's name, Chindits, was suggested by a Burmese Army Officer, Captain Aung Thin DSO, and is a modified form of the name of the Burmese mythical beast Chinthé or Chinthay, whose statues guard Buddhist temples.
The first Chindit unit was the 77 Indian Infantry Brigade and, led by Wingate himself, they began training in the Central Indian jungles during the rainy season of 1942. The brigade consisted of 13 Battalion Liverpool Regiment and men from the Bush Warfare school, Burma, who were amalgamated to form 142 Commando Company, and 3 Battalion/2 Gurkha Rifles together with 2 Battalion/Burma Rifles. Training concentrated on long-range penetration behind enemy lines on foot with the intention of destroying the enemy's communications, individual units (columns) being supplied by air and close air support taking over the role of heavy artillery. Conventional regimental infrastructure was abandoned, the force being divided into eight columns each consisting of:
- An infantry rifle company, equipped with nine Bren guns and three 2in mortars
- A support group with heavy weapons consisting of two Vickers guns, four Boys anti-tank rifles, and two light anti-aircraft guns
- A reconnaissance platoon from the Burma Rifles
- A sabotage group from 142 Commando Company.
- There were also small, radio equipped detachments from the Royal Air Force to call in air support, while units from the Royal Corps of Signals and Royal Army Medical Corps were also attached to the column headquarters.
Much of the heavier, more cumbersome gear such as reserve ammunition, rations, heavy weapons and radios were carried by mules, which would also be used as an emergency food source once their loads were gone. Together with its 57 mule handlers, each British column numbered 306 men, with the Gurkha and Burma Rifle columns being slightly stronger, at 369 men. Two or more columns were commanded by a group headquarters, which in turn was controlled by the main brigade headquarters, although shortly before Operation Longcloth began, one column was redistributed amongst the remaining seven in order to bring those columns up to full strength. In addition to the supplies packed on the mules, each man carried a personal weapon, either a Lee Enfield rifle or Sten gun, ammunition, grenades, a machete or Gurkha knife, seven days' rations, groundsheet, change of uniform as well as a number of smaller items, giving a total weight for personal equipment of 70lbs. Most of this kit, except the weapons, was packed in an Everest carrier, essentially a metal rucksack frame without a pack.
Originally, the Chindits were intended to take part in a much larger offensive during 1943 but when this operation was cancelled, Wingate persuaded General Wavell, who was C-in-C India Command, to send his men into Burma on a smaller, independent operation. Wavell agreed, and 8 February 1943 saw the start of Operation Longcloth, with Wingate and his seven columns of 3,000 men marching into Burma. Five days later, on 13 February, the Chindits crossed the Chindwin river, making contact with the Japanese two days later. Two columns were then sent south as a diversion, receiving their air supply drops in broad daylight and then swinging west during March to attack the main Burma railway. One column successfully demolished parts of the railway but the second column was ambushed and forced to return to India. The five remaining columns turned east after crossing the river and two of them also reached the main Burmese railway and carried out a significant amount of damage, although the Japanese were subsequently able to return the railway to full operation within a week. After the attacks on the railway, Wingate ordered his force to advance across the Irawaddy river and it was here that the Chindits began to run into trouble, with water hard to obtain and a good system of roads which allowed the Japanese to confine Wingate's forces into an increasingly smaller area. By late March, Wingate had decided to withdraw his men to India and, having issued orders sending one column eastwards, he then left the rest of his force to make the return journey without further support. Crossing the Irawwady proved the most difficult part of that task, the Japanese having men on the river bank who were quickly able to concentrate upon any large group of Chindits attempting a crossing. In response to these Japanese tactics, the Chindits broke into small groups, thus allowing most of the surviving men to cross the river safely.
Wingate's brigade headquarters section reached their original base in April 1943, ahead of most of the columns, but his men were still returning to India as late as the autumn of that year. Of the 3,000 Chindits who had begun the operation, 818 men, a third of the original forces, had been killed, taken prisoner or died of disease, and of the 2,182 men who returned, 600 were too ill from wounds or disease to return to active service. Out of the remaining men, Wingate effectively hand picked those few he would retain, while the rest were sent back to their original battalions. They must have been glad to go, given Wingate's callous disregard for the lives of his men.
Despite some criticism of the Chindit's activities and effectiveness, the report Wingate wrote upon his return, deriding many of the officers under his command and effectively ignoring his own shortcomings, persuaded Churchill to take the Chindit commander with him to the Quebec conference, where his ideas about long-range penetration units operating behind enemy lines received substantial support.
However, even as the first Chindit units were leaving Burma, Wavell was forming a second unit, 111 Indian Infantry Brigade, with Brigadier Joe Lentaigne in command. Wavell's plan was to use two Chindit brigades during 1944, one group operating behind Japanese lines for 2-3 months, while the second group trained and rested for their next operation. However, upon his return from Quebec Wingate ignored these plans, having been given authority at the conference to implement far more ambitious objectives for the second Chindit expedition, which would require that his new force be expanded to six brigades. Despite his dislike of Indian army formations he was obliged to accept 111 brigade and the Gurkha and Burma Rifle Battalions from 77 brigade but he was also able to add 14, 16 and 23 brigades to his force from the battle-hardened British 70 Infantry Division, as well as a brigade from the British 81 (West Africa) Division and these were the men he used for the new expedition, designated Operation Thursday.
While in Quebec, Wingate had also managed to obtain a USAAF air force group exclusively for the use of his Chindits. 1 Air Commando Group was seen as a welcome addition by the troops, who could now immediately call upon their own aircraft for casualty evacuation, supply drops, and air support, thus preventing the fatal delays which had been inherent during Longcloth. Training for all units in crossing rivers, demolitions and bivouacking began in Gwailor late in 1943 and despite the introduction of designations such as 3 Indian Infantry Division, Wingate's men remained the Chindits.
A new strategy
Increased Japanese activity on the Burma border forced Wingate to modify his previous plans, the presence of strong Japanese patrols in that region making it impossible to repeat the infiltration operation of 1943. Instead, Wingate conceived a strategy in which the Chindits created fortified bases behind enemy lines, from which raiding columns could operate effectively against the enemy, but without needing to move more than a relatively short distance from their original base. To facilitate these plans and after receiving reassurances from the commander of 1 Air Commando group, Colonel Philip Cochran, about the feasibility of the operation, Wingate specified that the majority of his Chindits would enter Burma by glider, landing on a series of pre-selected open fields, where, once established defensively, the troops would prepare those areas for large-scale landings by transport aircraft. The rest of the garrison could then be flown in and the fortified bases swiftly constructed.
Plans for the Chindit's operational deployment went through many revisions and reviews before their final role was decided upon, but eventually they were ordered to assist General Joseph Stilwell in establishing the Ledo road through northern Burma, which would link up with the original Burma road and provide an overland supply route to China. The Chindit's part in this operation was to be their usual long-range penetration operation, this time in the rear of the northern Japanese forces, where they would disrupt the Japanese military organisation and allow Stilwell's men to complete the construction of the road link.
16 Brigade, commanded by Bernard Fergusson, left Ledo in Assam for Burma on 5 February 1944 on foot, while the other five brigades were sent in by air, thus allowing them to immediately get down to the job of building the necessary fortified bases and associated airstrips, in accordance with Wingate's original strategy. Three unprepared landing zones were selected, codenamed Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowringhee and the first unit, 77 Brigade, prepared to fly into Piccadilly by glider on 5 March. Unfortunately, a late aerial reconnaissance revealed Piccadilly to be unusable and Slim ordered Brigadier Michael Calvert, commander of 77, to attempt a landing at Broadway instead, which the younger man was more than ready to try. The site was less than perfect and the Chindits sustained heavy casualties from the rough landings, but they were able to make the landing strip ready for transport aircraft by the next day, the morning of 6 March. Chowringhee was also used by Chindit gliders on 6 March without the men of 111 brigade encountering any opposition.
In the next seven days, Dakota transport aircraft moved 9,000 men to the three landing grounds. Chowringhee was abandoned once the troop movements were completed but Broadway was held for a short period, while Fergusson's 16 Brigade built another base, Aberdeen, north of Indaw. Calvert's men also built a fortified base, designated White City, at Mawlu, conveniently across the main railway and road leading to the Japanese northern front. 111 brigade did not build any fortifications but instead set up ambushes and roadblocks south of Indaw, before moving west to Pinlebu. Broadway and White City both suffered intensive attacks from Japanese forces but real problems for the Chindits began to develop when Fergusson's 16 Brigade made their planned attack on Indaw on 24 March. Japanese reinforcements and a number of other factors made it impossible for Fergusson's men to capture the town and after a series of attacks had been repulsed by the Japanese defenders, Wingate ordered the exhausted men of 16 Brigade to be flown out.
Wingate left for Imphal on the day of Fergusson's attack to confer with a number of senior air force commanders, but on his way back the US B-25 he was travelling in flew into a tropical thunderstorm and subsequently crashed into a mountainside, killing everyone on board. Slim immediately appointed Brigadier Joe Lentaigne to command the Chindits, after conferring with Brigadier Derek Tulloch, Wingate's Chief of Staff, over the advisability of such a decision. Although superficially Lentaigne looked the best choice both in terms of combat experience and command expertise, unfortunately, his conventional approach had led him to criticise Wingate's methods and techniques, resulting in tensions between him and Wingate's staff which were never properly resolved.
The campaign in the north
After Wingate's death there were several important changes to the Chindits' role in Burma. Much of their air support was diverted for use in resupplying the troops engaged in the battles at Imphal and Kohima and 23 Brigade, who were waiting to fly in to Burma, were also diverted to Kohima. Those Chindits still operating in Burma were brought under the command of General Stilwell, who ordered them to abandon Indaw and begin disrupting the supply lines of the Japanese forces who were opposing his Northern Combat Area Command.
In April 1944 Brigadier Letaigne ordered 111 Brigade, which was still west of the Irrawaddy, to move north and build a new stronghold, designated Blackpool, which was intended to block the main road and railway at Hopin. Calvert was ordered to abandon White City and Broadway and move in support of John Masters, who commanded 111 Brigade. Calvert and Stilwell objected to this as they were convinced that abandoning White City would allow Japanese reinforcement to move north, but Lentaigne overruled him, claiming the Chindits in the two bases were too far apart to reinforce each other and aircraft could not support them during the monsoon. Masters established Blackpool on 8 May 1944, but was immediately attacked by large concentrations of Japanese troops with heavy artillery and, having no possibility of reinforcements due to the weather, was forced to abandon Blackpool on 25 May, after 17 days of continual fighting.
Slim finally handed control of the Chindits over to Stilwell on 17 May 1944 and this presaged one of the darkest periods of the force's existence. Stilwell used them ruthlessly, implementing a number of missions in which the Chindits were not supported by tanks or artillery and involving: Calvert's 77 Brigade, who lost half his men taking the town of Mogaung; 111 Brigade, who were ordered to capture a hill designated Point 2171, after which of the original 2,200 men, only 119 men were fit for duty; a second section of 111 Brigade, known as Morris Force after its commander Lieutenant Colonel Morris, ordered to surround Myitkyina me in March 1944 but by 21 April only 25 men were fit for duty; and 23 Brigade, who contributed significantly to the starvation of the Japanese forces at Kohima.
By 27 August all of the Chindits had left Burma, having had 1,396 men killed and 2,343 wounded, with half the survivors confined to hospital on a special diet, although, surprisingly, total casualties were less than for Longcloth. Healthy men were returned to the training camps, but considerations of cost obliged the Army to merge these remaining men with 44 Airbourne Division (India), while the Chindit's HQ and signal units became the core of the Indian XXXIV Corps. Wingate's Chindits finally ceased to exist as a unit in February 1945.
Collect the jungle kit that the Chindits wore. See the feature here.
Discover the range of medals awarded to the men fighting in the jungle.
Could you live on them? It's the jungle rations.