Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

60 and 80 Column Chindits 1944

By Thomas Joesbury

 

Phase II "The Gunners" [1944]

 

When 70 British Division first heard that it was to be handed over to Orde Wingate to become Chindits, its gunners 60 Field Regiment R.A. received the news with horror. It was a very crack regiment which had fought with great distinction in the Western Desert in 1941 and 1942. A hard core had formed the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, a proud territorial unit, and the skills of gunners had to be acquired  the hard way, in their spare time. The training of a competent gunner is a long and arduous one, requiring, perhaps, more brain than brawn. Now it was decreed by Wingate that the regiment should lose its guns and become infantry. That Wingate was himself a gunner did nothing to mitigate what seemed to many nothing less than desecration. A few rebelled to the extent of leaving the regiment, including the Commanding Officer. Most though submitted to the will of a man who was now a national hero with powerful international supporters. They took to their feet and began to learn to be infantrymen, albeit infantrymen of a special kind who were described by their commander as a mixture of airborne troops, commandos and saboteurs. Their hard won knowledge as gunners was an irrelevance. Infantrymen from the Essex Regiment, the Border Regiment and the Sherwood Foresters were drafted with them, together with some officers, to help to create an infantry battalion that continued to call itself 60 Field Regiment R.A. constituting 60 and 88 LRP Columns.

 

The heart of the regimental spirit had been torn out of it - and a new one, the Chindit spirit, had to be nurtured by a collection of gunners, infantrymen, signallers, sappers and medical orderlies, and R.A.F. men.

 

It was no easy task for the Column Commander, Lieut. Colonel "Mike" du Vallon and Major Neil Hotchkin. Du Vallon, a regular soldier, tall and immensely strong and fit, intense and an enthusiast for LRP operations, had been brought out especially from England for the job. A sometimes harsh disciplinarian, he did not win very much affection during the training of his heterogeneous collection of individuals, but during the operation his relentless energy and charismatic leadership earned then their respect. and a D.S.O. Hotchkin was a territorial, a stockbroker with a formidable reputation as an amateur County cricketer and noted golfer.He trained and led his column with all the panache one would expect from one whose preparation for war had taken place on the playing fields of Eton.

 

As no real regimental spirit existed, the two columns trained separately, unlike the others in the Brigade, so that both columns could the more easily grow into a cohesive, self-contained and effective fighting unit. That they were by the time they arrived by train at Mariani on 10 April. Until he knew, on 16 April, that 23 Brigade was irrevocably committed to the Naga Hills, Lancelot Perowne was a frustrated man. With 6 of his columns already in the Naga Hills seeking out, and some finding, the enemy, the static role of guarding the railways with 32, 60 and 88 Columns was uncongenial to one of his aggressive temperament. His men, though, were too busy to be frustrated.  There was the stronghold Norwich to be built, the railway to be patrolled, and good use was made of the thick jungle in which they were bivouacked, lessons being learned that would later stand them in good stead.

 

By 22 April both Columns had started the long, hard zigzag jeep track to Mokokchung. If, like "Johnnie" Burgess, they found it damned hard work, they were mercifully unaware that later, for 5 weeks they would operate in country where the rivers were so fast flowing and the hills so steep, that it was inaccessible to loaded mules, and they would be dependent on Naga porters. Many of the gunners would penetrate to Naga villages so remote that no white man had ever been seen there for several decades, among mountain ranges so fantastic that Neil Hotchkin would write to the Brigadier:- "The name of this game should be Mountain Range Penetration, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world".

 

The rainfall in the Naga Hills in the monsoon of 1944 was the heaviest that had ever been recorded. It did not hit the Essex and the Dukes until the first week in May, but as early as 27 April 60 and 80 Columns were marching in torrential downpours and were beginning to suffer from the stomach trouble which afflicted nearly all the men of 23 Brigade. At first the medical officers were unable to pinpoint the exact cause. It consisted of periodical spells of acute diarrhoea and vomiting which might last for days on end. The effect was debilitating in the extreme, and made doubly more difficult the exhausting mountain marching. The unaccustomed heights at which the men were operating was thought to be one cause. Being constantly damp, once the monsoon really started, was thought to be another, as was the sheer physical strain of carrying immensely heavy packs up monstrously steep slopes. When the water from the springs in the Naga Hills was analysed it was found to have a high content of magnesium sulphate - a powerful aperient. After the first 4 or 5 weeks the sheer monotony of the K ration was a contributing factor. The mere sight of some of its items - the tin of corned pork loaf, especially, was enough to create feelings of nausea. Yet not all the men of 23 Brigade were affected in the same way. Ron Birch was in the Brigade Headquarters column 32. Throughout the operation he suffered from chronic constipation. In the "Dinner" K ration packet was a concentrated fruit bar which was clearly lethal for anybody with loose bowels. Men were only too glad to pass their fruit bars to Ron, though they did little to ease his condition and an astonished MO. was frequently confronted by Ron - No. 9 pills - the standard British Army remedy. When widespread dysentery, contracted in unsanitary Naga villages, affected the Brigade, Ron Birch was one of those unaffected. His bowels remained rock solid and he was fitter than most at the end.

 

"Naga Hills tummy" was no respecter of persons. The Brigadier himself suffered from it - from the moment he set foot in the hills until the moment he left them. Though he described it as "crippling", astonishingly those closest to him were unaware that he had it.  Perhaps the M. O. had found some means of giving him enough relief to enable him to command his brigade - with such undiminished competence - that he was awarded the CBE. In any case, the men of 23 Brigade did not discuss very much with each other the state of their bowels. Such medication as was available from the MO. might be sought: otherwise they suffered in silence.

 

Perowne's orders for the second phase of the operation were to engage the Japanese troops operating in the Naga Hills east of Kohima disrupting, whenever possible, their lines of communication. A triangle was drawn connecting Gaziphema, Jessami and Kharasom. It was envisaged that the Essex, the Dukes and the Borders would lay ambushes on the jeepable tracks to the west and south sides of the triangle, while the R.A. column should move to the east of Phakakedzoma, Jessami and Kharasom and lay ambushes on routes being used by the enemy to reach these places. In the event, the Essex and the Dukes were retained by 2 Division to cover the fighting at Kohima and only the Borders and the R.A.  were available for laying ambushes.

 

The jeep track which ran from the plain to Mokochaung continued southwards to Phakekedzuma was finally opened when the last of the retreating Japs had passed through. It was in fact the main line of communication along which casualties could be driven.

 

By 27 April both 60 and 88 Column had reached Mokokchaung. For the next 12 days, with 60 Column leading the way, they moved by stages towards Phakakedzoma, which was known to be occupied by the Japanese. At Baimho 60 Column on 30 April was joined by Major Howard Williams, late of the Indian Police, who had operated in these hills with "V" Force - knew the country well and was able to communicate with the people. Though racked with the pains of dysentery, he was until the end of the operations, a dynamo of resourceful energy, obtaining guides, porters and interpreters in country where the dialects were continually changing. So diverse were the languages spoken in the Naga Hills that it was not uncommon for villages separated by only a dozen miles to speak different ones. There seemed no limit to the skill with which Williams ensured that the R.A. and later the Essex columns were never without an interpreter. It was no part of the brigade plan  that the R.A. Columns should engage the enemy at Phakakedzoma. Their intention was to by-pass it and establish themselves in a stronghold well to the east of it. To do this they would have to leave the relatively gentle gradients of the jeep track and move on precipitous footpaths through the mountains rising to 4000 - 6000 feet in height. At Kivihu 60 Column on 7 May and 88 Column on 10 May left their mules. For the next 5 weeks wireless, mortars, machine guns and medical equipment would be carried by Naga porters. The realities of war in the Naga Hills were upon them.

 

When Lancelot Perowne made his plans for the second phase of the operations, the laying of ambushes on the enemy's lines of communication, he realised that the task given to the gunners was a gargantuan one. Accustomed as he had been to driving his troops to the limits of their endurance, Wingate nevertheless realised that there had to be what he called "the limit of practicability". Perowne thought that his plan lay just within this limit, but only just. He believed that if anybody could do it, Mike du Vallon would.

 

The cipher corporal of 88 Column wrote in 1945:- "There was much hand-shaking and leave taking when we marched off the next morning for Kiviku, our number reduced to just over 300 and the mules replaced by Naga porters. We started off on a track no more than a yard wide, with thick jungle on either side, and almost precipitous. In half an hour's march we descended 1500 feet, and when we halted at the bottom of the hill it was a further half an hour before my legs stopped trembling! The strain on ankles and knees caused by the effort to keep balance was terrific, and later we learned that the easiest and most comfortable was to descend such steep slopes was to run down with short steps. We then tackled the 2000 foot rise to the village of Tehenfemi which was to be our haven for the night. Now I was to learn that climbing the most precipitous slopes was as arduous and uncomfortable a business as going down them. I could never decide which was worse: going up or coming down, though in later days what small preference I had was in favour of ascents - one could at least keep one's feet.".

 

The purpose of penetrating such inhospitable country was to establish a stronghold in the vicinity of Meluri; near the tracks leading from Khanjang and Akhegwo to Phakekedzuma. An excellent site was found in the valley about 2 miles south of Meluri where the stream made a wide horse-shoe sweep forming a water barrier on all but one side.

 

The jungle here was so thick that cover from aerial observation was almost complete. By 13 May 60 Column were established here and a supply drop and other consolidation stores had been received by both columns. On 14 May 88 Column arrived and work started on building the stronghold, Grimsby, while about 100 Nagas were busily employed clearing an  area in the valley 300 yards by 30 yards for a light plane strip. The Essex and the Dukes would have been astonished that anywhere had been found in these mountains where it was possible to build such a strip.

 

On 15 May 3 light planes landed and took off again an hour later without incident.

 

It was disappointing to discover that the tracks 60 and 88 Columns had come to ambush wer not being used by the Japanese. However it was known that Jessami and Khanjan were both occupied by the enemy, and du Vallon conceived an aggressive plan to attack these two places simultaneously, the former with 3 platoons of 60 Column and the latter with the Reconnaissance Platoon of 88 Column and the Reconnaissance Platoon of 60 Column. Both places were on 18 May attacked at 0600 after strenuous night approach marches over very difficult country. At Jessami the enemy casualties were 16 killed, 5 wounded and 2 captured (they later died of wounds) for 1 of our own men wounded. 60 Column now occupied the old positions which had been occupied some weeks before by a battalion of the Assam Regiment.

 

The action at Khanjan was no less successful. 1 officer and 14 enemy other ranks were killed, for only 1 of our own men being slightly wounded ( a Gurkha 5 yards from Lt. Glow). At both places very large quantities of maps and documents were found and flown out by light plane from Grimsby. JAG selected documents at Khanjan.

 

Du Vallon had engaged the 3 platoons of 60 Column in the battle at Jessami. In a letter to the Brigadier he later described this highly successful action as "the biggest fluke ever". Be that as it may - some brave deeds were done that day.

 

Major L.G.Walker, who commanded the 3 platoons and controlled the battle with consummate skill was recommended for the MC. In the event, he had to be content with a 'mention in dispatches'. According to him the battle was really won by one of the platoon commanders, Lieut. Matthews, a most unlikely recipient of the MC. Long and lanky, he wore spectacles with a clerkly air. How he ever came to be on a Chindit operation in the Naga Hills is a mystery, for he suffered from a mild heart complaint and had been told not to take any violent exercise. Whether he lived to enjoy his decoration for any length of time is unlikely.

 

Not only was the light plane strip at Grimsby used for evacuating casualties and valuable captured enemy documents but from it both Mike du Vallon and Neil Hotchkin were able to make aerial reconnaissance's over the land on the south over which they would later operate with 3 columns. To all the other Column Commanders of 23 Brigade this would have seemed an impossible luxury. The R.A. Column's first stronghold had been named Grimsby because most of the men in the original 60 Field Regiment R.A. were from Humberside.

 

Now that Jessami and Khanjan had been cleared of enemy, it was essential to establish a second stronghold, to be names "Grimsby II" nearer to the tracks which were known to be used by the Japanese leading to Kharasom. Aerial reconnaissance had revealed that the most suitable place was Nungphung. It was the meeting point of 4 tracks, 1 from the north, 1 from the east and 2 from the south - all of them approaching the village up steep hills. About 2 miles to the north, in a valley, a suitable place at point 2207 was found to build an airstrip. On 24 May 60 Column Commando Platoon began its construction and on 25 May 60 Column HQ and 2 platoons moved there and 80 Column occupied Nungphung.

 

After Jessami had been occupied on 18 May patrols moving south established that a large body of Japanese were dug in about a mile south of the village. By 23 May it was estimated at 1 company in strength, and 2 platoons made a probing attack. The action lasted 2 hours  and an estimated 14 enemy were killed or wounded for 5 British wounded. On 26 May the Japanese position was bombed by Hurribombers and on 28 May patrols found the enemy had left.

 

It was clear that the stronghold called "Grimsby II" at Nungphung was much more vulnerable that "Grimsby I" had been. 6 miles to the south, at Kharasom, Naga intelligence reported about 400 of the enemy and about 70 at Kharasom Kuki to the north. About a quarter of a mile to the west of the village strong defensive positions were dug, with a perimeter of about 600 yards. Dawn and dusk 'stand-tos' were enforced, no lights allowed after 1930 and no talking above a whisper after dark. All men were ordered to be ready to repel an attack within 30 seconds of the alarm being given. At 0435 on 31 May the cipher corporal of 88 Column wrote:- "We took up our positions for the dawn 'stand-to' at 0430 cold and not very wide awake. 5 minutes later a fusillade of rifle and bren-gun fire from the eastern sector shook us from our lethargy in no uncertain manner. Firing went on spasmodically for half an hour and then a sudden sustained burst proclaimed what  must have been a very determined attack by the enemy,  because the eastern segment of our perimeter was pushed back almost to where I had my position on the south west side. I was told later that the hasty withdrawal of the platoon engaging the enemy was caused by a very fierce and forceful bayonet charge. But although our men were pushed back, they maintained a firm line, and heavy fire from them caused the Japanese to withdraw in turn and the fighting died down. A platoon sent out to attack the enemy on the flank saw no sign of the Japanese force and at 0730 we stood down and took stock.".

 

4 dead Japanese bodies were found; 3 British NCOs were killed and 1 officer was seriously wounded. This was not a high cost for an action which had continued sporadically for 2 hours. It was considered that the Japanese force was not much more than a platoon in strength, perhaps 30 men and at this time the garrison at Grimsby II was 400 strong, as its construction had only just started and only 1 platoon had been sent out in an offensive role. 88 Column's cipher corporal wrote :- "In a way it was fortunate for us that the attack came when it did, because the garrison at Grimsby II was practically at full strength.".

 

During the 3 weeks that followed, when the infantry platoons were being employed in an offensive role, there were times when the number of men in the stronghold was less than 100, and such a small body might well have been hard pressed to holding off a really determined assault. No further attempts were made by the Japanese to dislodge 60 and 80 Columns from Grimsby II. The probable reason for this was the fake information which Naga intelligence fed to them about the size of the garrison; namely that it consisted of 2 battalions, whereas there was only just over half of one. A quite untrue rumour was spread that a whole division was advancing from the direction of Mokokchung.

 

Credence was given to the exaggerated size of the garrison by the frequency of supply drops there - every 3 days instead of 5 and 5 instead of 3 planes were being used. At first huge supplies of barbed wire, ammunition and explosives for booby-trappings were dropped, then fresh supplies of clothing, much needed, and finally the basic K ration was augmented by the bulkier and more sustaining 'stronghold ration'. All these supply drops could be clearly seen by the Japanese at Kharasom and the roads to the west. By the first week in June it was clear to the Japanese commander, Sato, that his attack on Kohima had failed. The order to withdraw was given on 10 June. He was in no position to make costly attacks on what seemed an immensely strong and well-defended garrison. Instead he ensured that the tracks he would use for his withdrawal were so well defended that the task of ambushing them proved an almost impossible one for the men of 23 Brigade.

 

After 6 weeks of incessant travel in mountainous jungle heavily laden with heavy packs, where few white men had ever been before - and then only with porters to carry all of their equipment, the men of 60 and 88 Columns were able to have some rest and take stock of themselves. "A far from prepossessing lot we were" wrote the cipher corporal "No badges of rank were worn - nor were any pay books or identity cards carried - and officers and men had the same cut-throat appearance. Beards of all colours and lengths were on display, some luxuriant, some ragged and one or two curiously confined to the point of the chin. My own a pronounced red in colour, was of the second variety and no matter how much I combed it, it always remained a 'growth' never an 'adornment'. Our dress was uniform in only one respect - its dark green colour. Some there were whose trousers were raggedly cut down to shorts - a practice not much in favour because of the thorny undergrowth; some dispensed with shirts altogether and wore only cotton vests so much easier to dry than a shirt after a day's march in pouring rain; bush hats of all shapes were worn at all angles, all much battered after being used as pillows and 'fire-blowers'.".

 

Wingate's concept of the stronghold - "Turn ye to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope" was that it should be both a strongly defended garrison and a place from which offensive action could be taken against the enemy.  Mike du Vallon never lost sight of his primary task of disrupting the enemy lines of communication. An ambush party leaving Grimsby II could usually expect to be away for up to 5 days - 2 days to reach the area of the ambush, a day operating there and 2 days back. Each days march involved the inevitable steep descent 2000 - 4000 feet and a similar ascent. Often these tasks were carried out in torrential rain and sometimes close proximity to the enemy meant no fires could be lit to make hot drinks. More often than not suffering from 'Naga Hills tummy' they would return soaked to the skin and utterly exhausted to recover as best they could in the stronghold. It was now that all the columns were finding that a full recovery from total exhaustion taking longer. Reserves of strength were being eaten away by sickness, a poor diet, constant damp and the precipitous mountains. Nevertheless some of those ambushing parties made some prodigious journeys and laid effective, if small, ambushes.

 

On 26 May Capt. P (Peter) Wright R.A. left with 2 platoons to ambush the Kharasom - Chakyang track. On 28 May he reported that 12 enemy had been killed in an ambush for no loss to himself. On 4 June Capt. Wright left with 2 platoons to ambush the Chakyang - Kongai track and on 7 June reported that he had killed 4, wounded 2 with no British losses. On 1 June Capt. Thomas with 16 Platoon left to ambush the Gazaphema - Karasom track but found this track and the Karasom - Jessami one too well guarded for ambushing.

 

On 3 June 88 Column Reconnaissance Platoon returned after a long and exhausting journey to and from the Challao area. They had killed 4 Japanese. These are only a few of the many patrols that went out from Grimsby II to harass the enemy.

 

Life in the stronghold was not without its problems. "We were kept" writes the cipher corporal "in a state of nervous tension by the constant anticipation of further attacks and by a series of 'alarms and excursions'  all of which occurred at night. Attached at various points to the perimeter barbed wire were flares which would be set off  by anything coming into contact with the wire and the different colours of the flares would indicate which particular section of the perimeter was being approached. On several occasions one or other of these flares was set off in the middle of the night and in every case it was discovered that an animal from the village was responsible. But, of course, each alarm entailed a 'stand - to' of everybody and the sending of a patrol to determine whether or not it was genuine.

 

Repeated disturbed nights did our nerves no good at all. The occasional accidental firing of shots by the garrison also had a bad effect on our nerves and towards the end of the occupation of Grimsby II the slightest unusual sound was sufficient to make everyone spring instantly for his rifle. Relationships became strained and remarks which would normally be taken as jokes became 'fighting talk'.

 

The 3 platoons of 60 Column which had driven the Japanese out of Jessami had remained there. Aided by the Reconnaissance Platoon from Grimbsy II on 10 June they attacked a strong force of enemy at Karasom Kuki but without success. Enemy casualties were unknown - but of our own troops 1 was killed and 8 wounded, including the long, gangling, bespectacled and unlikely hero Lt. Matthews still apparently untroubled by his chronic heart condition. However on 14 June 12 Hurribombers bombed and machine gunned the position watched by the delighted men at Grimsby II and the enemy withdrew to Kharasom.

 

It was now clear that the enemy were moving away from Kohima, not towards it. The retreat was on. Mike du Vallon and Howard Williams went to meet the Brigadier at Phakekedzuma on 13 June and returned to Grimsby II on 15 June with their orders for the last phase of the operation - the pursuit of the enemy to Ukhrul and beyond. All patrols were called in and on 19 June the battalion's mules and muleteers rejoined their columns. It was clear that the next few weeks would test the column's powers of endurance to the limit. ! officer and 47 other ranks were deemed too unfit to face the ordeal and were evacuated from Grimsby II on 22 June.

 

Of the rest, few were wholly well,  but they were spared the full knowledge of what lay before them as they prepared, without too much concern or dismay, to leave Nungphung for their long march over the Somra tracts.

When you go home

tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

we gave our today

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945 Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945
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