On February 13 1943, British Army Brigadier Orde Wingate addressed the men under his command: "Today we stand on the threshold of battle. The time of preparation is over, and we are moving on the enemy to prove ourselves and our methods. We need not, as we go forward into the conflict, suspect opportunity of withdrawing and are here because we have chosen to bear the burden and the heat of the day."
Wingate was the commander of a force which became known as the Chindits, the long range penetration group which he had formed for operations behind the Japanese lines in Burma. The name was taken from the Chindits distinctive arm badge of Chinthe, or stone line, which guarded the entrance to Burmese stone temples.
The 40-year-old Wingate was one of the most remarkable commanders of the war. Born into a family of Plymouth Brethren, he had become an ardent Zionist and specialist in guerrilla warfare. In 1936, while serving in the British Army in Palestine, Wingate had organised Special Night Squads to combat Arab insurgents. In the 1940-41 campaign in Ethiopia, he commanded a mobile group, known as Gideon Force, which successfully raised the local tribes against the Italians.
Bearded, covered with eczema and frequently to be seen with an alarm clock dangling incongruously from the belt of his battledress, Wingate was a massively eccentric figure who attracted as many enemies as admirers. Some thought him a genius, others a madman. Wingate compared himself with Napoleon. After a frustrating stint as a staff officer, during which he attempted suicide, Wingate arrived in India in 1942, where he was given the task of forming a small force of fast-moving guerrillas, supplied by air, who would take on the Japanese in their own element, the jungle.
The Chindits, officially designated 77th Indian Infantry Brigade and comprising British, Gurkha and Burmese troops, underwent a period of gruelling training at Wingate's hands. By the beginning of February 1943, they were ready to conduct their first independent raid behind enemy lines.
Wingate divided his 3,250 men into two groups, each consisting of a number of columns of about 450 men and 100 mules. Detachments of RAF radio operators maintained contact with the aircraft tasked with dropping supplies. Each man carried some 60lb (27kg) of equipment, including rifle, bayonet, ammunition and grenades, water bottle, four pairs of socks, spare shirt, climbing rope, utility knife and a five day ration pack, consisting of biscuits, cheese, nuts and raisins, dates, tea, sugar, milk and chocolate.
The smaller group, two columns strong and commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Leigh Alexander, crossed the Chindwin River and struck south to attack the Mandalay-Myitkina railway at Kyaikthin, 120 miles (190km) north of Mandalay. Wingate, accompanying the five columns led by Lieutenant-Colonel S. Cooke, planned to cut the same railway between Wuntho and Indaw, to the north.
Wingate drove his men hard through the mountainous Burmese jungle, a series of seemingly endless green-clad ridges and valleys. In this pitiless environment, the Japanese were only one of the enemies which the Chindits would face. There was the torrential rain which produced seas of glutinous mud and permanently sodden clothes. Dense thickets of prickly bamboo slashed clothes and flesh to ribbons. Like Wingate, many of the Chindits wore beards which obviated the need for a shaving kit, provided good face camouflage in the jungle war of ambush and stalking, and kept out the mosquitoes and ticks.
Progress was painfully slow but by the beginning of March Cooke's group was positioned to attack the railway. On March 2nd, the column led by Major Bernard Fergusson brushed aside a Japanese patrol and blew the bridge at Bongyaung, the sound of the explosion rolled around the hills as Fergusson's mules kicked and plunged in panic.
The Japanese response was swift. Two divisions were despatched to deal with the intruders, whom the Japanese, unaware of the Chindits air supply, believed to be on a reconnaissance rather than a raiding mission. The Japanese net closed in on the two Chindit groups, and a series of vicious close quarters engagements erupted in the jungle. One of Alexander's columns and its headquarters were ambushed. Survival often depended on surprise. One night, Ferguson crept into a village and approached four men sitting around a fire to ask its name. Only at the last moment did he realise they were Japanese. As they turned towards Fergusson, he tossed a grenade with a four second fuse into the fire, killing them all.
Rather than withdraw, and jeopardise the Chindits' future. Wingate pressed deeper into enemy territory towards the Irrawaddy river. Leaving his force two rivers to cross when they fell back to India. Wingate crossed the Irrawaddy on March 19 and linked up with the columns led by Fergusson and Major Michael 'Mad Mike' Calvert. But now the Chindits found themselves in heavily patrolled, open, waterless territory which was totally unsuited to guerrilla operations.
The commander of British IV Corps, Lieutenant-General Scoones, ordered Wingate to withdraw. Wingate in turn instructed both groups to disperse in small, independent parties.
Alexander's group shifted to the east, hoping to reach the safety of China, while the northern group fell back on the Irrawaddy.
The men were now exhausted and riddled with disease. The wounded had to be left behind. One of them, Lieutenant Philip Stibbe of Fergusson's column, later recalled his first night alone: 'As it grew dark I heard a lot of rustling in the leaves near where I lay and, to my horror, I saw several large spiders about the size of my hand crawling towards me. No doubt they were attracted by the smell of blood. It was a beastly sensation lying there unable to move while these loathsome creatures crawled nearer.'
Stibbe was captured by the Japanese but survived the war.
One by one the small groups of Chindits completed the nightmarish return march to cross the Chindwin. Of the force which had set out nearly three months before, over 800 were lost, killed or wounded, many of them in the last stages of their March, where the Japanese lay in wait for them.
A number of the survivors were so debilitated that they never saw combat again.
On the face of it, the first Chindit campaign had not been a success. the Chindits had cut a few railway lines - which were quickly repaired - and killed several hundred Japanese. But they had achieved a tremendous psychological victory when it was needed most, taking the fight to the enemy and in the process undermining the myth of Japanese invincibility in the jungle.
As a result, the Chindit force was expanded to six infantry brigades, totalling some 23,000 men. Wingate was promoted to Major-General and given a 'private air force' - 25 transports, 12 bombers, 30 fighters, 100 spotters and 225 gliders of the USAAF's No. 1 Air Commando.
By March 1944 the Chindits operated southwest of Myitkina against the Japanese rear while the latter were conducting the U-Go offensive against Imphal and Kohima. The air-supplied strongholds established by the Chindits tied down two and a half enemy divisions, but on the evening of March 24 Wingate was killed when the Mitchell bomber in which he was flying crashed into a hillside south-west of Imphal. Under their new commander, Brigadier William 'Joe' Lentaigne, the Chindits were then moved north to support General Stilwell's Chinese-American Army whose advance on Myitkina had been held-up by stubborn Japanese resistance.
By the second week in July the Chindits had reached the limit of their endurance. But the hard-bitten 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell, who had misused the lightly armed Chindits in assaults on heavily defended positions, a role for which they had not been trained, refused all requests to relive them.
Finally, he was sternly reminded by British Admiral Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, 'If they are not soon relieved we may both be faced with the accusation of keeping men in battle who are unable to defend themselves.'
Stilwell chose to keep the remaining fit men on garrison duty, but by the end of August the rest of the Chindits had been flown out to India. Losses were 5,000 men. It can be argued that more was demanded of the Chindits than any other Allied troops in the war.
They responded magnificently.
77th Indian Infantry Brigade
February 1943 Northern (No.2) Group Brigade Headquarters (Brigadier O.C. Wingate)
Group Headquarters (Lt-Colonel S.A. Cooke)
No.3 Column (Major J.M.Calvert)
No.4 Column (Major R.B.G. Bromhead)
No.5 Column (Major B.E. Fergusson)
No.7 Column (Major K.D. Gilkes)
No.8 Column (Major W.P. Scott)
2nd Burma Rifles (Lt. Colonel L.G. Wheeler)
Independent Mission (Captain D.C. Herring)
Southern (No.1) Group
Group Headquarters (Lt. Colonel L.A. Alexander)
No.1 Column (Major G. Dunlop)
No.2 Column (Major A. Emmett)
142nd Commando Company (Major J.B. Jeffries)
Each Column, of approximately 400 men, was a self-contained unit with its own fighting troops, medical, signals and air liaison sections, sabotage group and platoon of scouts, guides and interpreters.