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Lions of the Jungle : The Chindits in Burma

Discussion in 'The War In The Pacific' started by Spitfire XIV-E, Jan 17, 2008.

  1. Spitfire XIV-E

    Spitfire XIV-E New Member

    Jul 26, 2007
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    via War44
    The Chindits were the brainchild of Brigadier Orde Wingate. Wingate was an unorthodox commander who had formed "Gideon Force" during 1940 to attack Italian supply lines in the Abyssinian Campaign. These were Abyssinian partizans and they were very effective at what they did, providing much intelligence for follow up British Forces. Chindit is derived from the Mythical Burmese Beast - Chinthe or Chinthay which guarded Buddhist Temples and was suggested by Captain Aung Thin (DSO) of the Burma Army.

    General Archibald Wavell, the newly installed Commander in Chief - Far East had sanctioned Gideon Force whilst C in C Middle East. He requested Wingate for service in Burma in 1942 where it was intended that he raise irregular forces to operate behind the Japanese lines in a similar fashion to Gideon Force in Ethiopia. Wingate instead spent his time touring Burma and putting his ideas down on paper for long range penetration operations. During the final stages of the British retreat from Burma, Wingate had himself specially flown back to India while the rest of the army walked out. Once in Delhi, he presented his proposals to Wavell.


    Brigadier Orde Wingate​

    The 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, otherwise known as the Chindits, was gradually formed during the Summer months of 1942. Wingate took charge of training the troops. Half of the men were British Infantry soldiers from 13th Battalion, King's Liverpool Regiment and men from the "Bush Warfare School" in Burma who were formed in to 142 Commando Company. The other portion of forces was made up of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Gurkha Rifles and 2nd Burma Rifles. Wingate trained his men as Long Range Penetration units that were to be re-supplied by Air Drop from Transport Aircraft. Usual armament was Rifles, Thompson Sub-Machine Guns, Pistols, Mortars, Grenades & Knives. A mule transport company carried their supplies. The Chindits were organised into Columns under the command of Group Head Quarters which were ultimately under the command of a Brigade HQ. RAF sections were attached to each column for the purpose of Air Co-Ordination.


    A Chindit Column crossing a river in Burma​

    Operation Longcloth

    On February 8th 1943, 3000 Chindits with Wingate among them, marched in to Burma. The original intention had been to use the Chindits as part of a larger operation but this was cancelled. Wingate convinced General Wavell to send the Chindits in to Burma in spite of the larger offensive being cancelled.

    The Chindits crossed the Chindwin River on February 13th and faced their first Japanese troops 2 days later. They were divided in to 7 columns. 2 Columns marched south and received their air supply drops in broad daylight to create the impression that they were the main attack. They even had a man impersonating a British General along with them. The RAF mounted air attacks on Japanese targets to support the deception. These columns were to swing east at the beginning of the march and attack the main North - South Railway in areas south of the main force. One column successfully carried out demolitions along the railway but the other column was ambushed. Half of the ambushed column returned to India.

    5 other columns proceeded eastwards. 2, those of Michael Calvert and Bernard Fergusson, proceeded towards the main North - South Railway in Burma. On 4th March Calvert's column reached the valley and demolished the railway in 70 places. Fergusson arrived 2 days later to do the same. The railway was put out of action only for a short period.

    On many occasions, the Chindits could not take their wounded with them ; some were left behind in villages. Wingate had in fact issued specific orders to leave behind all wounded, but these orders were not strictly followed. Since there were no established paths in the Jungle along their routes, many times they had to clear their own with machetes and kukris. A single RAF squadron of 6 planes supplied them by air.

    Once in Burma, Wingate repeatedly changed his plans, sometimes without informing all the column commanders. The majority of 2 columns marched back to India after being ambushed by the Japanese in 2 seperate actions. After the railway attacks, he decided to cross his force over the Irrawaddy River. However, the area on the other side of the river turned out to be inhospitable to operations. Water was difficult to obtain and the combination of rivers with a good system of roads in the area allowed the Japanese to force the Chindits in to a progressively smaller "box".

    In late March, Wingate made the decision to withdraw the majority of the force, but sent orders for one of the columns to continue eastward. The operations had reached the range limit of air supply and prospects for new successful operations were low given Japanese pressure. The columns were generally left to make their own way back to India. On the journey back, the most difficult actions involved crossing back over the Irrawaddy River. The Japanese had observers and patrols all along the river bank and could quickly concentrate once an attempted crossing was detected. Gradually, all the columns broke up in to small groups. Wingate's headquarters returned to India on its own ahead of most of the columns. Through the spring and even in to the autumn of 1943 individual groups of men from the Chindits made their way back to India. The army did what they could for them. In one case, an aircraft was landed in an open area and wounded men were evacuated by air. Part of one column made it to China. Another portion of men escaped in to the far north of Burma. Others were captured or perished.

    By the end of April, after the mission of 3 months, the majority of the surviving Chindits had crossed back over the Chindwin River. They had lost a total of 818 or more men. Of the others, Wingate almost hand picked those few he would retain. Both battalions, with the exception of the hand picked men, were put back under the normal Army command structure.


    Although British Army Officers in India criticized the effectiveness of the Chindits (Japanese railway communications had been out of commission for less than a week), their effect on the morale of the allied troops in India was refreshing, and they were given plenty of publicity.

    On returning to India, Wingate wrote an operation report. The report was contraversial for many reasons including attacks on Officers under his command. The report had a tendency to excuse any mistakes by its author (Wingate) while viciously attacking other officers often based on limited information. Eventually, through his political allies in London, a copy of the report was given to Winston Churchill who was impressed and took Wingate with him to the Quebec Conference. There they were promised support of a whole Air Task Force. Much of the Air Transport available for the 2nd operation was provided by C-47 aircraft from the USAAF 1st Air Commando Group which was created to support the Chindits. The US Army also began its own plans to create a battalion that would later become Merrill's Marauders.

    The forces for the 2nd Chindit operation were called Special Force , officially 3rd Indian Infantry Division , or Long Range Penetration Groups, but the nickname, the Chindits, had already stuck.

    As the members of the first expedition were making their way back to India, a 2nd Long Range Penetration Brigade, 111 Indian Infantry Brigade, (which, despite the name, was formed like 77th Brigade from British & Gurkha Units only) was being formed by General Wavell without Wingate's knowledge or approval under Brigadier Joe Lentaigne. Wingate's plans for the 2nd expedition demanded a greatly increased force, of 6 brigades. Wingate refused to use Indian Army Formations in this force, because he maintained their training in Long Range Penetration techniques would take longer and their maintenance by air would be difficult due to the varied dietry requirements of different Indian Castes and religions. Wingate also made no secret of his dislike of the Indian Army and its officers.

    Whatever the reason, large numbers of trained British personnel were required quickly, and 3 brigades (14th, 16th & 23rd) were added to the Chindits by breaking up the experienced 70th Infantry Division, much against the wishes of General William Slim and other commanders, who wished to use the division in a conventional role. A 6th brigade was found by taking a brigade from the British 81st (West Africa) Division.

    The expanded Chindit force trained in Gwailor. In addition to men from previous regiments, new men came from 2nd Battalion King's Own, 2nd Black Watch, Queen's Royal, Leicesters, Lancashire Fusiliers, 2nd Yorks & Lancs and 2 regiments of Royal Artillery, with 3 Battalions of the Nigeria Regiment and more Gurkhas. Men were trained in crossing rivers, demolitions and bivouaking. Brigadiers Calvert and Fergusson took command of 2 of the brigades. Wingate himself was gone for much of the training period being first out of the country at the Quebec Conference and then struck ill with Typhoid from drinking bad water in North Africa on his return trip.


    The planning process for the operation went through many revisions. At one point it was intended to be part of a larger offensive by the Chinese and Indian Armies in to Northern Burma. But eventually it was decided to send in the force on its own, as in 1943.

    The methods of the Chindits in 1944 differed from those of 1943. Wingate had decided on a method of creating fortified bases behind the Japanese lines which would then send out raiding columns over short distances. This change was in part forced upon him by improved Japanese patrols along the frontier making a retreat of the successful 1943 infiltration unlikely. The lavish Air Support provided by the 1st Air Commando Group also allowed him this option.

    Wingate also had plans for a general uprising of the Kachin population of Northern Burma. He fought over his plans with the leadership of Force 136 (an organisation set up to liase with resistance forces in Japanese occupied contries), which was concerned that a premature uprising of the Kachins without a permanent British military presence would lead to their slaughter by the Japanese at the end of operations. Force 136 also had their own plans for a rising to be coordinated with the arrival of the regular Army in to Burma. Wingate was eventually convinced to scale back his original plans. Further complicating relations between the organisations were orders issued by Wingate to the Commander of Dah Force not to coordinate operations with Force 136 for security reasons.

    During the last months of 1943, planning was conducted to carry out the strategy for India as originally determined at the Quebec Conference. The overall plan eventually focused on the use of the Chindits in the reconquest of Northern Burma when in November the strategic plans for the dry season campaign of 1944 were decided at SEAC. The strategic plans were approved by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Cairo Conference and although other offensives in Burma were scaled back or cancelled, Stillwell's Northern Front offensive with the Chindits participation survived the cuts. But the uncertainty of the strategic plans, meant that the plans and contigency plans for the use of the Chindits repeatedly changed up to the very start of operations.

    The Chindits were assigned the task of helping the forces of General Joseph Stillwell push the Ledo Road through Northern Burma to link up with the Burma Road and re-establish an overland supply route to China. The Chindits were to aid Stillwell with a long range penetration operation behind the Japanese forces opposing his forces on the Northern Front. It had originally been intended that the IV Corps would attack on the Central Front and cross the Chindwin to tie up Japanese forces which could otherwise be used to aid the Northern Front. As the Japanese launched their own attack on the Central Front, this advance did not meet its objectives, but it still meant that most Japanese forces were tied on the Central Front and not available to reinforce the Japanese 18th Division on the Northern Front. The Japanese offensive on the Central Front resulted in further proposals and refinements of the plans for the Chindits.

    To facilitate these strategic orders on February 4th 1944 General Bill Slim, commander of 14th Army, and USAAF General George E. Stratemeyer, commander of Eastern Air Command, issued a joint directive to Wingate and Phillip C. Cochran, the commander of the 1st Air Commando Group, to march and fly in to Indaw and from there under the command of 14th Army carry out the objectives of :

    (i) Helping the advances of Stillwell's Ledo Force on Myitkyina by cutting the communications of the Japanese 18th Division, harassing it's rear areas and preventing it's reinforcement.

    (ii) Creating a favourable situation for the Yunnan Chinese forces to cross the Salween and enter Burma.

    (iii) Inflicting the greatest possible damage and confusion on the enemy in Northern Burma.


    Troops of the Nigeria Regiment, 3rd West African Brigade (Thunder), boarding a Dakota Transport Aircraft at the start of Operation Thursday.​

    Operation Thursday

    On February 5th 1944, Fergusson's 16th Brigade left Ledo for Burma. They avoided Japanese forces by traversing exceptionally difficult terrain. The rest of the Brigades were brought in by air to create fortified bases with airstrips.

    3 landing zones, codenamed Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowringhee were selected. Calvert's 77th Brigade prepared to fly by glider in to Piccadilly on the night of March 5th. A last-minute reconnaissance revealed Piccadilly to be covered with logs, making a landing impossible. In some accounts of the incident, Wingate insisted that the operation had been betrayed and that other landing zones would be ambushed. To proceed would be "murder". Slim accepted the responsibilty of ordering a willing Calvert to proceed with the operation, using Broadway instead. Broadway was a worse landing ground and there were many casualties in crash landings, but Calvert's men were just able to make the strip fit to take Transport Aircraft. Chindit Gliders landed on Chowringhee the next day. It was later revealed that the logs on Piccadilly had been placed there to dry by Burmese Teak Loggers. The real problem was the failure to maintain observation of the landing zones (e.g. with High Flying Photo Reconnaissance Spitfires) before the forces were deployed.

    Over the next week, 600 sorties transferred 9000 men to the landing zones. Chowringhee was abandoned once the fly in was completed, but Broadway was held with a garrison which included field artillery, anti-aircraft guns and even Spitfire Fighters for a brief period. Fergusson's Brigade set up another base named Aberdeen north of Indaw, in to which 14th Brigade was flown. Calvert's Brigade established yet another, named White City at Mawlu, astride the main railway and road leading to the Japanese Northern Front. 111 Brigade set up ambushes and roadblocks south of Indaw (although part of a brigade which landed at Chowringhee was delayed in crossing the Irrawaddy River), before moving west to Pinlebu.

    Ferocious jungle fighting ensued around Broadway and White City. At times, British and Japanese troops were in close combat, bayonets & kukris against katanas. On March 27th, after days of aircraft attack, the Japanese attacked Broadway for several nights before the attack was repulsed with flown-in artillery and the aid of Kachin irregulars locally recruited.

    However, a setback occurred when Fergusson's brigade tried to capture Indaw on March 24th. The original intention had been to seize the town and its airfields on March 15th but Fergusson had to report that it was impossible. Wingate appeared ready to change the brigade's mission but on March 20th, he reinstated Indaw as the target. The brigade was already exhausted from its long march, and there was no time to properly reconnoitre the objective. The units were dismayed to find that the Japanese controlled the only water sources. Fergusson expected that 14th Brigade would cooperate in the attack, but they moved west instead. Also, Japanese reinforcements had moved in to Indaw, which was a major road & rail centre. Fergusson's Battalions, attacking seperately, were each repulsed. After this, most of the tired 16th Brigade were flown out.

    Change of Command

    On March 24th, Wingate flew to Imphal to confer with Air Force Commanders. On the return journey, his aircraft is believed to have flown in to a thunderstorm, and crashed in the jungle covered mountains. All aboard were killed.

    Bill Slim, Commander of 14th Army which had loose operational control over Special Force, selected Brigadier Joe Lentaigne to be Wingate's replacement after conferring with Brigadier Derek Tulloch, Wingate's Chief of Staff. The choice was made on the grounds that Lentaigne was the most balanced and experienced commander in the force ; he had been an instructor at the Staff College at Quetta, had commanded a Chindit Brigade in the field (albeit for only a few weeks but none of the other Brigade commanders had more experience). As an officer of Gurkha Troops, he had a similar outlook and background to Slim. The other Brigade commanders were unknown quantities, mostly without staff qualifications with some having never even commanded a battalion sized unit in combat before 1944, and Wingate's staff officers lacked the necessary combat experience.

    What Slim ignored was complaints inside the Chindits that Lentaigne was an outsider in Wingate's force and had been critical of Wingate's methods & techniques. In this respect, he would be opposed to several of the Brigade Commanders and staff of the Chindits. Wingate had disliked him because he was selected by Wavell without Wingate's approval. (Wingate also tended to hold Indian Army officers, and Gurkha Officers in particular, in total contempt).

    It is probably fair to say to say that nobody could have filled Wingate's shoes. Wingate had sustained his force outside of normal Army Command through political connections that no successor would have available. The other dilemma of any successor was that they would constantly be 2nd guessed by those who thought they knew exactly what Wingate would have done in a particular situation. The same officers who would go to extraordinary lengths to justify even the most flawed decisions by Wingate would attack any successor whenever the opportunity presented itself.

    The move North

    Several major changes were made at the highest level. Much of the air Support was diverted to the critical battles of Imphal and Kohima, where troops were cut off and could only be resupplied by air. 23rd Brigade, yet to fly in, was also despatched to Kohima. Those Chindits already operating in Burma were ordered to assist US General Joseph Stillwell on the Northern Front.

    In April, Lentaigne ordered the part of 111 Brigade that was west of the Irrawaddy, now commanded by John Masters, to leave their earlier outposts, move north near Hopin and to build a new stronghold, codenamed Blackpool, and block Japanese supply routes. Calvert was ordered to abandon White City and Broadway and support Masters.

    Master's force established Blackpool on May 8th and were almost immediately engaged in fierce fighting. Whereas White City had been deep in the Japanese rear, it's defenders had had plenty of time to prepare their defences and its attackers had been a mixed bag of detachments from several formations, Blackpool was close to the Japanese Northern Front, and was attacked by 2 regiments from the Japanese 53rd Division, with heavy artillery support. Because the monsoon had broken and heavy rain made movement in the jungle very difficult, neither Calvert nor Brodie's British 14th Infantry Brigade could help Masters. Finally, Masters had to abandon Blackpool on May 24th, because the men were too exhausted after 17 days of continual combat. 19 Allied soldiers, who were so badly wounded as to be beyond hope of recovery and could not be moved, were shot by the medical orderlies.

    Final Operations

    On May 17th, Slim had formally handed control of the Chindits to Stillwell. Stillwell insisted that the Chindits capture several well defended Japanese positions. The Chindits had no support from tanks or artillery and this led to heavier casualties than before. Some have considered these operations to be abuse, but others have pointed out that if the Chindits cannot carry out such operations, their usefulness in practice is open to question. And given Wingate's lack of concern over casualties in the first Chindit operation, it's difficult to suggest that the losses in these battles were inconsistent with his methods.

    Over the period June 6th to June 27th, Calvert's 77th Brigade took Mogaung and suffered 800 casualties (50%) among those of the brigade involved in the operation. Fearing that they would then be ordered to join the siege of Myitkyina, Calvert shut down his radios and retreated to Kamaing, Burma. A Court Martiall was likely until Stillwell and Calvert met in person, and Stillwell finally appreciated the conditions under which the Chindits had been operating.

    111 Brigade, after resting, were ordered to capture a hill known as Point 2171. They did so, but were now utterly exhausted. Most of them were suffering from malaria, dysentry and malnutrition. On July 8th, at the insistence of Supreme Commander, Admiral Mountbatten, doctors examined the Brigade. Of the 2200 men present from 4 and a half battalions, only 119 were decalared fit. The Brigade was evacuated, although Master's sarcastically kept the fit men, "111 Company" in the field until August 1st.

    The portion of 111 Brigade east of the Irrawaddy were known as Morris Force, after its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel "Jumbo" Morris. They had spent several months harassing Japanese traffic from Bhamo to Myitkyina. They had then attempted to complete the encirclement of Myitkyina. Stillwell was angered that they were unable to do so, but Slim pointed out that Stillwell's 30,000 Chinese troops had also failed in that task. Morris Force was evacuated at about the same time as 77th Brigade.

    14th Brigade and 3rd West African Brigade remained in action, assisting the newly arrived British 36th Infantry Division in its advance down the "Railway Valley" south of Mogaung. Finally, they were relieved and withdrawn, starting on August 17th.

    The last Chindit left Burma on August 27th 1944.


    23rd Brigade, which had been diverted from the main Chindit campaign, never the less acted as a long range penetration unit behind the Japanese fighting at Kohima. From April to June 1944, they marched long distances through the Naga Hills, mostly in Monsoon Weather which made movement very difficult. They contributed in a large measure to the starvation of the Japanese at Kohima, the decisive factor in that battle. Although not engaged in major battles, they accounted for large numbers of Japanese stragglers and Foragers, suffering 158 battle casualties themselves.

    The end

    The Chindits had suffered heavy casualties : 1396 killed and 2434 wounded. Over half had to be hospitalised with a special diet afterwards. As bad as the numbers may seem, those suffered by the force in 1943 were proportionally much higher.

    The healthy were sent to training camps to await new operations. However, when the army command evaluated the men and equipment required to return the Chindits to operational status, it was decided to transform the force in to an Airborne Division in India. Beyond direct requirements, it was known that the British element of the Chindits would be decimated in 1945 by the need to repatriate personnel who had served more than 4 years overseas.

    During the early months of 1945, several of the Headquarters and many of the veterans of the Chindit operations were reformed and merged in to the 44th Airborne Division (India). The Chindits were finally disbanded in February 1945.


    Men of the 13th Battalion, King's Liverpool Regiment who took part in the first Chindit Operation.​

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