11 March 2020
Edward Hallett delves into the subject of Chindit uniforms and equipment, asking what is available to the collector.
Although seen very much as a special unit right from the start, little specialist equipment was issued to the Chindits before they went into the jungle. For the most part they wore the same uniforms and webbing equipment, carried the same weapons and used the same equipment as every other soldier fighting in the jungles of Burma. What differed was how much equipment they carried. Due to the long time they would be expected to fight on their own, and the precariousness of jungle supply drops, they carried far more ammunition, food and equipment than most British and Empire soldiers, either on mules or on their own backs.
For a flavour of what a Chindit had to carry this account by former Chindit, Bill Lark, is illuminating, ‘On the march, every man had to carry 100 rounds of ammunition, which went in pouches on the pack, and in another pouch you put your milk sachet which you squeezed out and made last for five days. The mules had what was called numnah - I think that was the word - pads under their saddles. It was hairy stuff about half an inch thick, and we used to cut a strip off this and fit it to our pack straps as cushions, which helped a bit with the 70lb you were carrying. You had the ammunition, plus blanket and groundsheet, one set of clothes – socks, shirt, vest, maybe trousers - five days’ K-rations, two hand grenades, first aid kit, mess tin, bayonet, bottle and chuggle. On your belt hung your Dhar, which was a Burmese type of machete, to chop your way through. And when you’ve got all that lot on you, you’ve some weight I can tell you.’
This article looks at the uniforms, webbing and personal kit carried by British, Indian and African soldiers in the jungle in the last couple of years of the war, by extension this was also what the Chindits were mostly equipped with. Just as the 14th army was made up of units from across the Empire, so was the equipment used by its troops. Although much use was made of British made equipment, wherever possible more local production (i.e. Indian) was emphasised to save valuable shipping space for items that could not be manufactured in theatre. Most soldiers were issued with Indian-made uniforms, webbing equipment and small items of personal kit. Smaller quantities of British and South African-made personal gear were also available. Obviously for those collecting in the UK it can be challenging to find original, Indian-made items, but many troops did bring them back home with them. They are available to collectors if you are prepared to search for them. Do not expect to find genuine pieces of uniform or equipment actually used by Chindits, most was so rotten it was thrown away as soon as they left the jungles. Instead collectors should look out for identical pieces of jungle equipment that were on general issue, this can prove challenging enough.
When the British first fought the Japanese in 1941 they were still wearing the sand coloured khaki-drab uniforms. These were designed for the dusty mountains of the North West Frontier rather than the verdant jungles of south east Asia and offered no camouflage at all to those wearing them. Very quickly arrangements were made to dye them green to better merge in with jungle vegetation. This was, however, just a stop gap and soon uniforms were made from new in jungle green. The uniforms themselves went through a number of iterations and by the time of Operation Thursday, most men would have been issued with a locally-made jungle green, lightweight battledress. This uniform was closely inspired by the woollen battledress worn across the Empire, but was made of a lightweight cotton. These were produced locally and the trousers were made of cotton drill, whilst the blouse of an open weave Aertex fabric that aided cooling. They were never very popular as they tended to move apart at the waist, exposing the lower back to insects and skin abrasions from the equipment the soldier was wearing. These uniforms are surprisingly hard to find today as most were worn until they fell to pieces and an Indian-made set of jungle green battledress can set the collector back over £600. Underneath this, locally produced cotton underwear was worn. For hygiene men would try to wash these whenever they had the opportunity. Indian-made underwear, in clean unissued condition, can be found for around £20 a pair.
Headgear was essential in the jungle as it kept both the sun and the rain off the wearer’s head. The traditional bush hat had been in service in various forms since the Boer War and was made of wool, with a broad brim that could be pinned up at one side. The heavy rain of Burma soon gave the hats a distinctive floppy look. A separate ‘pugaree’ of folded cloth was wrapped around the base of the crown. Often cap badges or divisional insignia would be worn on the upturned brim and examples can be found for around £80-£150 depending on the insignia, size and condition.
Chindits, and indeed most Allied troops in Burma, used variations of the standard 1937 pattern webbing sets used throughout the British Empire. These sets were, however, produced in India and collectors should note the different texture of the cotton webbing which is noticeably coarser than British or Canadian-made examples. The webbing was also dyed green from the middle of the war onwards, with blackened brass fittings for better camouflage in the jungle. The design of the individual components was generally the same as other manufacturers but the water bottle carriers used a buckle, rather than a press stud, to fasten the top-securing strap and the quality of all components is generally lower. Interestingly it was very common for troops to have two water bottle carriers on their webbing sets. One for a water bottle and one for the mess tins which fit in the carrier nicely. It is very hard to get a complete set of jungle green Indian-made webbing so the collector will probably have to pick up individual components and build a set that way.
Collectors should also look out for theatre-made modifications to equipment produced at a local level to try to improve the utility of the webbing sets. Examples can include sewing basic pouches to the sides of a large pack to increase carrying capacity, leather cups sewn to the back of packs to add bamboo to make an improvised frame and belt loops fitted to water bottle carriers to allow them to be fastened directly to the waist belt. None of these modifications were officially sanctioned, but a blind eye was turned by officers as they recognised the need for men to modify equipment to improve operational efficiency.
Personal kit and equipment
The personal kit men took into the jungle was limited. Eating and keeping clean were the two main priorities, other items were often just additional weight that were not necessary for survival and quickly left behind. To eat, men were issued with mess tins. Many brought tinned iron mess tins with them from Britain and these are easily distinguishable with the two grooves rolled into the sides of them, expect to pay £20 for a pair of these. Those equipped in theatre used Indian-made mess tins, either tinplate examples with distinctive soldered seams or oval aluminium examples. Both of these designs are hard to find in the UK and prices average £120 for a pair of either. It is worth noting that to shave off a couple of ounces from the weight they had to carry, it was not uncommon for soldiers to cut down the height of the mess tin to just above the handle hinge. Cutlery was also minimal. A spoon was used for everything, with the standard-issue jack knife being used if a particularly tough piece of meat needed cutting. Again the emphasis was on shaving down a few ounces here and there and if a fork was not essential, it wasn’t taken into the jungle.
Other essential personal kit included wash and shaving instruments. Although the Chindits on the first mission were allowed to grow beards, for the Second Chindit Expedition some officers, especially amongst the Scottish units, were far stricter on shaving and it was expected that men would be clean shaven at all times. Men carried brushes and safety razors with them, and used a little of their precious water to make a lather for a rough shave. Items were a mix of basic army issue brushes and razors and those privately purchased of higher quality such as Gillette. Military issue items can be spotted by the broad arrow marking and collectors should expect to pay around £20 each for brush and razor. All these were held in a wash-roll that also had space for other personal items such as a comb, spare shoe laces and a sewing kit. This could be rolled up into a small package, holding the contents secure and easily slipping into a pack. Again, many carried Indian-made examples and these can be spotted by the rougher weave of the fabric and the circular Indian Army acceptance stamp.
To cut paths through thick jungle vegetation a variety of bladed tools were used, Burmese dhars and Ghurkha kukris were both carried but the most common cutting tools were machetes. Two designs seem to have been used, the gently curved ‘bolo’ style, British-made machete from a Sheffield company such as Martindales and the squared off, crude looking, Indian machete. Both were issued in leather scabbards that could be worn on the waist. British made machetes can be found for around £60, Indian machetes are £100-£150. Whilst designed for use in clearing jungle foliage, these machetes were also used by the Chindits as a melée weapon in hand to hand combat with the Japanese, famously so during the fighting to take Pagoda Hill.
The effects of malaria had caused great problems on the first Chindit expedition, so more care was taken on the second to ensure men were adequately prepared to deal with mosquitos. As well as anti-malarial tablets, men were issued with mosquito repellent in small metal tins. This repellent reacted badly with contemporary plastics and had to be kept away from celluloid as it melted it. As they continued to be used extensively after the war, these tins are still easy to find today, normally with their original contents. They are often quite badly damaged so it may be harder to find one in nice condition and they normally sell for approximately £30 a tin.
Water was always a problem in the jungle and there were times when it was hard to get fresh drinking water. The water bottles men were issued with could only carry a couple of pints, so extensive use was made of chaguls, or chuggles. This was a jute water bladder; when left to soak for a couple of days the fibres swelled up and prevented the water from leaking out. The water inside slowly evaporated out through the sides of the chagul and this helped keep the contents cool. This incredibly simple piece of equipment had been used by Arabs in the deserts of North Africa for centuries and was an ideal way of carrying extra water as once empty it weighed almost nothing and could be easily stowed until needed again. The design remained in use into the 1990s and collectors should be careful to check the date printed on the outside to determine its era. Water sterilisation powder was also issued, but as it was often issued in large tins, once opened it quickly de-chlorinated and lost much of its effectiveness.
Collecting British jungle uniform and equipment from World War II is one of the more challenging areas for a collector, with far fewer items available and consequently uniform and equipment is frequently more expensive. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating area for a collector and careful hunting will lead to an interesting and rewarding collection.
Read all about the Chindit operations in our main feature.
Discover what medals were awarded for the actions in the Far East.
Could you live on this? Take a look at the K-rations.