The 1st Chindit Expedition, Operation Longcloth, 1943
In December 1941 Japan declared war on Great Britain and the United Sates of America. Japan had already been at war with China since 1931 and had forces positioned in the far east ready to attack. Lightning strikes were made against such targets as Pearl Harbour, Hong Kong and Malaya. Soon after the British suffered a humiliating defeat and retreat in Burma.
In January 1942, when the Japanese invaded Burma, the British War Office offered the services of Lieutenant-Colonel Orde Wingate, DSO, to General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief India. It was thought that there would be a role for Wingate in Burma with his proven guerrilla expertise having previously carried out guerrilla operations in Palestine and Abyssinia with great success.
When Wingate arrived in March 42 he was tasked with organising guerrilla operations in Burma. Wingate then began his investigations and this was when he met Major Michael Calvert, who later became one of the most successful Chindit commanders. Together they carried out a reconnaissance of the terrain of north Burma.
Long Range Penetration Theory
Wingate then put forward his theory that formations of troops supplied from the air could operate for long periods in the jungle. The troops would be organised into columns, each large enough to inflict a heavy blow to the enemy but small enough evade action if outnumbered. The columns would march into enemy territory to disrupt the Japanese army’s communications and supply lines and to create havoc behind its lines.
Wingate called this Long Range Penetration.
77th Indian Infantry Brigade (Chindits)
The Long Range Penetration plan was approved and Wingate’s experimental force was formed and became 77th Indian Infantry Brigade.
The brigade was made up of
- 13th Bn The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment
- 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles
- 142 Commando Company
- 2nd Burma Rifles
- Eight RAF sections
- Brigade Signal Section from The Royal Corp of Signals
- A mule transport company
The brigade now had to prepare themselves for two enemies, the jungle and the Japanese. Wingate did this by training them in the jungles of central India, at Saugor near Jhansi, ready for column and bivouac life, jungle warfare, river crossings and the care and handling of mules.
The mules were vital to the Chindit operation as they carried the heavy weapons, ammunition, radios and medical supplies. The airdrop of supplies to the Chindits would also include fodder for the mules.
It was during this training period that Wingate chose the name Chindits for the force. It was a mispronunciation of the Burmese word Chinthe (a mythical creature that stands guard outside Burmese pagodas).
The original plan was that the Long Range Penetration group would be part of an offensive into north Burma but this offensive was cancelled. Wingate then proposed that the Long Range Penetration operation should still proceed, but now alone, to test the theory and gain vital experience of such jungle operations, and to test the Japanese and disrupt their planned offensives.
General Wavell agreed to this and the Chindits were ordered into Burma. The campaign was given the code name Operation Longcloth.
Wingate organised his force into two groups.
1. Northern Group, consisting of columns 3,4,5,7,8 and Brigade HQ, totalling 2,000 men and 850 mules.
2. Southern Group, consisting of columns 1,2 and group HQ, totalling 1,000 men and 250 mules.
(no. 6 column was broken up to replace casualties during training)
Attached to each column was a RAF section.
A rear HQ remained behind to organise the air supplies for the columns.
Each column was typically composed of –
- About 400 men built around an infantry company
- Reconnaissance platoon of the Burma Rifles
- Two mortars and two Vickers machine guns
- Mule transport platoon (about 120 mules)
- RAF liaison officer and radio operators to direct air supplies
- A doctor
- Radio detachment to provide communications between columns
Each column would march independently and be supplied by air. Where necessary columns would concentrate to achieve specific tasks.
Wingate’s aim of this column organisation was to achieve mobility and security. Without having to rely on road-based transport and land based communications lines, a column could go anywhere it wishes. Mobile units would then make it difficult for the Japanese to find them thereby providing security.
Air supply was provided by detachments from 31 and 194 Squadrons RAF and operated from Agartala in eastern Bengal. It varied in size during the expedition but seldom exceeded three Hudson and three DC3 aircrafts. Fighter escorts were provided when the range permitted but were not available when emergency drops had to be made at short notice. No aircraft was lost during the operation. The Chindits selected the drop zones when and where required. Initially it was thought that airdrops would only succeed in open clearings but by chance an emergency airdrop had to be made in jungle terrain, this proved successful and this method was to be used again. Even though the airdrops themselves were successful, the difficulty of the operation meant that on average each man only received half of the rations they required. By the end of operations the RAF had flown 178 sorties and dropped 303 tons of supply.
On the 8th February 1943 the Chindits commenced that advance into Burma from Imphal.
Initially the columns met no opposition but soon some of the units were sighted by the Japanese, who initially believed them to be small groups gathering intelligence. Not until there had been a number of engagements with Japanese outposts and patrols and the demolition of railway bridges did the Japanese realise the force was of brigade strength The Chindits were beginning to hurt the enemy. The Japanese had been caught by surprise and were confused, not knowing the intention of the Chindits or how they were supplied. Three regiments, each of three battalions, were sent to the area to locate and destroy the invaders. The Chindits were now being hunted.
The Japanese were not aware that the Chindits were being supplied by air and sent troops west of sightings of the Chindits hoping to cut their land supply routes. On 13th March an airdrop attempt was interrupted and aborted as the column awaiting the supplies encountered a Japanese position near the drop zone. The Japanese now realised that the Chindits were being supplied by air and the troops searching for the supply lines were brought back to intensify the hunt for the Chindits.
By now the Chindits were deep in enemy territory. Withdrawal would be hazardous as the return route to India required crossing two major rivers, which would now be guarded by the Japanese. Despite this the Chindits continued their advance east attacking targets as they went.
On 24th March Wingate was ordered to withdraw. By then the Chindits had advanced so far that they were at the extreme range for their air supplies and airdrops was becoming difficult. They also found themselves in an area short of water supplies, heavily patrolled by the Japanese and were beginning to suffer from exhaustion. The Japanese had now committed a large force in an attempt to surround and capture the Chindits.
Wingate gave the order to return. Non-essential equipment was dumped and mules no longer required were turned loose. By now the Chindits were tired and short of food, many were exhausted or sick, and faced a dangerous journey home pursued by the Japanese. Many were ambushed and captured by the waiting enemy.
One column continued to China, another built an airstrip in jungle clearings and evacuated the sick and wounded by air, the rest returned by re-crossing the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers either as a column or split into smaller dispersal groups to avoid the Japanese net. One column received a supply drop of rubber dinghies and lifebelts to assist with a river crossing. Some of the columns had now lost their radio equipment and were unable to call for supply but some of these units were fortunately located by reconnaissance aircrafts and received supplies as a result.
Of the 3,000 officers and men that went into Burma only 2,182 came back four months later having covered between 1,000 and 1,500 miles deep in enemy held territory. They were in poor condition, suffering from tropical diseases and malnutrition but in high spirits and proud of their achievements. Of those that returned only about 600 were passed fit for further active service.
Achievements and Lessons Learnt
The Chindits had entered north Burma, caused damaged to railway, inflicted casualties to the enemy and returned. They had shown that it was possible to infiltrate and operate in difficult jungle terrain deep in enemy held territory.
Wingate had proved his theory of Long Range Penetration could work and that allied troops could raid effectively behind enemy lines and valuable lessons were learnt on the use of mules, the importance of radio communications and most importantly they proved the success of using air supplies for maintaining such operations in the jungle. This had not been tried before and the experienced gain proved later to be invaluable.
The Japanese admitted after the war that the Chindits had been difficult to deal with and had disrupted their plans to rest their troops and the preparation and training of them for the next phase of the war. The railway Mandalay-Myitkyina was put out of action for four weeks forcing the Japanese to use longer and limited lines of communications. Between six and eight Japanese battalions had been diverted from other planned operations.
The Chindits were the first troops to fight back after the defeat in Burma and the operation showed that British troops could take on the Japanese and win. The Japanese had been thought to be invincible jungle fighters, the Chindits proved that this was not so. The legend of the Japanese superman was dealt a savage blow. This had a tremendous effect on the morale of troops in India.
There were problems with the care of the sick and wounded, many had to be abandoned or left with friendly Burmese villages. As a result, the ability to evacuate sick and wounded became high priority for future missions.
Winston Churchill had been so impressed with the operation that, along with other Allied leaders, agreed to Wingate’s plans to launch another Chindit expedition, but on a much larger scale, this time consisting of six Long Range Penetration brigades. This second expedition returned to north Burma in March 1944.