The late Major General Charles Orde Wingate was an unusual man. He commanded the confidence of unusual men, too. Wavell believed in him, and gave him his head on two occasions, in Abyssinia, 1940, and in Burma 1943. Churchill was fascinated by his daring and powerful mind, so well attuned to his own sense of challenge. Mountbatten took him to his heart, encouraged him, and backed him to the limit, even when Wingate was being temperamentally awkward.
Wingate, it must be allowed, was one who did not joyfully suffer opposition. He drew down the lightning on his own head, alas, in the final, tragic sense, for he was killed in his hour of triumph, flying with characteristic defiance through an electric storm. When he fell his friend and commanding officer, Lieut General Bill Slim, Commander of Fourteenth Army, wrote a penetrating tribute to him in which he analysed his quality as leader. “Wingate had clear vision” wrote Slim, “He could also impart his belief to others. Above all, he could adapt to his own purpose the ideas, practices, and techniques of others once he was satisfied of their soundness.” Wingate himself considered that “the chief difference between a good and bad commander is an accurate imagination.”
Was his 1943 Expedition a success, or not? Some critics held that it achieved very little at high cost. Others pointed out that when the Chindit columns had been withdrawn again across the Chindwin River the Japs took toll of all who had disclosed themselves as our friends in Burma. If this latter argument is pushed to its logical end, however, it means that we must never abandon a Burmese village, tho’ its strategic value has become nil. Surely the proper way to assess Wingate’s achievements in 1943 is to ask: Did it’ make possible his achievements in 1944? For the Chindit operations in 1944, with their vital bearing, upon the general campaign were of unquestioned value. Judged by this test Wingate’s pioneer venture was completely justified.
He had marched then minus a landward L of C, moving without trace upon the enemy’s rear. He now improved on this idea: He proposed not even to march most of his fighting columns in, but to travel by air. The objective was as before—to cut the enemy’s L of C. Wingate acted on General Sherman’s classic dictum. “The enemy’s rear is there to play hell with,”
In Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia, he found a chief of like ideas who had already for two years led Britain’s commandos in Europe. At Quebec on the day of his appointment Mountbatten had pressed the project of the Air Commando for jungle warfare.
The plan now on hand was to put five brigades 150 miles behind the Jap lines, roughly in the triangle Katha-Mogaung-Bhamo. There they would be within striking range of the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway and the road system which served the entire rear of the Jap armies operating against General Stilwell’s American-trained Chinese divisions. These were now advancing steadily from the north through the Hukawng Valley, hauling their Ledo Road along with them.
To carry through the audacious operation it was decided that one force under Brigadier Ferguson, DSO., should march down from the north, parallel with Stilwell’s advance but through the mountains to the west of it. It involved these Chindits marching by a hundred-mile trek, to pass across the Upper Chindwin River, their rubber dinghies for the ferrying being dropped by aircraft. Four other brigades were to be flown in by gliders and set down on clearings which aerial recce photographs had revealed might bear an initial landing.
Most of these clearings had been earmarked by Wingate during his ‘43 Expedition. They had not, however, been closely reconnoitered on foot since then. They were marked on a map as open spaces. That was all.
Three landing grounds were selected for this initial hazardous Operation Thursday” they were named “Broadway” “Chowringhee,” and “Piccadilly.” But on the evening of the fly-in a last recce revealed that logs had been felled and laid across the runway of Piccadilly,” and this station was thereupon abandoned fifteen minutes before take-off. Later, a fourth strip, “Aberdeen,” named after the home of Wingate’s wife, was built.
The plan was that the first wave of troop-carrying gliders should go in, firing a red flare if the enemy were found to be in unexpected possession (except that the man who has that flare has put it in a very deep pocket and doesn’t think he’ll ever find it). Once the gliders had cast off their nylon silk tow-ropes, of course, they had to go in—and once in they had to stay in. The tow-ships. stripped bare to haul the heavy loads, had hardly petrol enough after release to get themselves back over the hostile jungle. The first wave would land, seize the clearing, fan-out and screen it while the second wave arrived. This would comprise more troops, bul1-
dozers, graders, jeeps, mules and ponies, also combat engineers to build an airport between dawn and dusk, so that the next night the giant C47 troop-carrier aircraft could bring in an army with its guns and wagons.
The initial fly-in was entrusted to a special US Air Commando, provided at the direct instance of General Arnold, Commanding General of the USAAF, on request of Lord Louis Mountbatten. The plan for this had been worked out by 33-year old Colonel Philip Cochran and his deputy Colonel Robert Alison, and consented with Wingate. Cochran had trained, and now commanded the Air Commando. His fighter-bombers had already cleared a wide aerial “fire-belt” round his landing grounds, driving back the Jap aircraft bases, by continuous attack. Cochran’s P-51’s loaded 1.000-lb rockets under each wing. Totally, in these initial strafes, and in their constant close support of the Chindits after the Air Invasion had gone in, they discharged 1.590,000 lbs of explosives on the enemy and destroyed a hundred Jap aircraft.
“The night of the Party” had come. On the strip to see the most audacious air armada yet created depart on its high adventure were gathered some of the most famous leaders in South East Asia, Stratemeyer, Slim. Baldwin, Old, Davidson, Cochran and Wingate himself. More, indeed, even than the success of this mission was at stake. The Burma Air Invasion was the test (and became the model) of the great airborne assault on Fortress Europe three months later.
It was the night of Sunday. 5 March and the moon rose bright and clear as the troops piled into the gliders. They wore green battledress and full field kit, and were armed to the teeth with rifles, tommy guns, pistols, knives and grenades. Many were bearded.
Now the gliders towed in pairs were harnessed. The tow-ships’ engines roared up and cast loose, and then bouncing. swaying and straining, the aerial train rushed down the strip in a cloud of dust, hauled itself up over the trees, and headed for the heart of enemy Burma 150 miles beyond the 7,000-foot mountains. Many of the troops had never even flown before. No fighters escorted the Air Invasion, which travelled without lights and had been ordered to land by no other illumination than the moon. All depended on surprise.
Over the target, the gliders circled once to pick out the dark strip between the trees, cast off and went in.
Fifty-four flew. Unluckily, the Control Glider made a forced landing along the Chindwin River, and so no guiding power directed the ordered procession of arrival on the strip. Many of the gliders crashed on landing, some disastrously, and of course, as they piled up others coming in with no control except gravity and smashed into them. On the ground men heaved frantically and tore their muscles dragging the wrecks clear. Then the cry would rise, terrible in its urgency “Gliders!” The next wave were already diving in.
One hurtled straight into its immediate predecessor welding two machines into one ball of fiery scrap. Another, loaded with a bulldozer and other heavy machinery, whipped over sharply to avoid a wreck and ploughed into the wall of the jungle at 60 mph. On either side the trees tore off its wings, the fuselage rushed on with its load now wrenched loose from its moorings. When the fuselage halted at last the machinery continued - at 60 mph. By some miracle it flung the pilot and co-pilot up into the air while it flew out beneath them. They landed back unhurt. “I planned it just that way,” said the Yank pilot.
But there were grim scenes, too, where the surgeons amputated by light of the moon, and there were gliders that crashed far beyond in the dark jungle with a frightful cry—and then silence fell while men hunted frantically for their dying comrades.
But the enemy kept off. And considering the risks the casualties were small Of the 54 gliders which set forth, 37 arrived in “Broadway.” Eight landed west of the Chindwin in friendly territory. Another nine came down in the enemy zone, two within a hundred yards of a Japanese HQ tho’ the crews got away with it. Several flew safely through Jap ‘ ack-ack fire. The sappers began at first light to build the strip. Thirteen hours later the troop transports were landing safely, bringing reinforcements and evacuating the injured. Two days later, 3,000 men of Brigadier “Mad Mike” Calvert’s brigade had disembarked in “Broadway”
Three nights after the first fly-in there was a second landing at “Chowringhee.” Again a couple of days, and four columns of Brigadier Lentaigne’s brigade with their HQ were safely landed. Totally 12,000 men and about 1,200 animals were brought in at a casualty cost of 121 men. Four days after the landings the columns were marching off into the jungle to start business on Jap communications. “Operation Thursday” was over, the Chindits had written a dazzling new page of military history. Nor as yet had the Japs even located them, firmly planted as they were, in Wingate’s phrase “in the very guts of the enemy.”
It was his last, as it was his finest exploit. Flying towards India after a tour of his’ forward positions his plane was lost in a storm. That night, 24 March, an American pilot reported a fire blazing on a mountain side. With Wingate perished the entire crew and two British war correspondents, Stuart Emeny of the News-Chronicle and Stanley Wills of the Daily Herald.
Wingate’s Command was taken over by Maj.-General W.D.A. Lentaigne D.S.O. one of the column commanders in the 1943 thousand mile march into Burma.
Where the Chindits marched and what they did is a story not yet fully disclosed. In broad outline, Calvert’s brigade went westward to cut the roads and railway immediately behind the Japanese who were opposing General Stillwell’s advance towards Mogaung-Myitkyina. Lentaigne’s brigade operated further south also attacking communications. Ferguson’s brigade came marching all the way in a wide flanking drive from Ledo towards “Aberdeen.” At the same time a mixed British and Kachin force’ struck eastward to the Chinese frontier to cut the Bhamo-Myitkyina road. They actually entered China at one point, later closing in to complete the encirclement of Myitkyina.
Some British place-names will be forever associated with these exploits. There was the road-rail block of “White City,” which perhaps had been better named “Red City,” from the blood that flowed there. It was imperative for the Japs to remove this block, which was throttling the life out of their troops in the Mogaung Valley. They brought up tanks to support their infantry. Our gunners replied with 25-pounders and Bofors. A ferocious hand-to-hand battle followed. Men of the South Staffs and Lancashire Fusiliers waded in with bayonet and rifle butt. The Gurkhas and West Africans engaged with their native knives, the Japs with, their two handed swords. An incessant rain of grenades burst over the heads of the fighters and among the groups inextricably mixed-up in personal combat. Calvert, with fixed bayonet, led his men forward a dozen times. The battle continued through the night, while overhead the -air transports went on steadily delivering supplies.
At dawn it was seen that the Japs were digging themselves in on a bill overlooking “White City.” Immediate an assault was launched to dislodge them. The cost was high. When the general Allied counter-attack was unleashed the enemy fled, leaving his wounded, equipment and weapons on the ground.
But he came back, time and again, striving furiously to break our grip on his L of C. An eye-witness describes how the Japs rushed- blindly into our minefields and over our booby traps, and were blown to pieces or else mown down like’ autumn corn by our riflemen and machine-gunners. Wave after wave of them came on, howling like hyenas. They piled up on to our wire, which by morning was festooned with bodies, many of them stripped naked by the explosions from mortars and grenades, Scores were killed by their own Bangalore Torpedoes, which they carried to blow gaps in our barricades. At a crisis of the battle Cochran’s Air Commandos planted a huge load of high explosive on Jap concentrations preparing to move up. The pilots had been reluctant; so short was the distance separating the forces that they feared to hit our own men. But urged by the ground troops, they unloaded on the enemy everything they had, bombing with deadly precision and’ destroying, hundreds. “White City” was never taken by the Japs, tho’ we abandoned it later.
“Blackpool” was another jungle Tobruk. This was the most famous stamping ground of Lentaigne’s old brigade: the “Ghost Force.” They included men of two Gurkha units, the Cameronians, the Kings Own Royal Regiment and the RA. This brigade had been flown in to “Chowringhee,” but the Japs had discovered the strip and concentrated against it a few days later. They bombed and finally occupied it, but by this time Lentaigne’s brigade were blocking the Jap L of C northward. They saw to it that no reinforcements got up from the south.’ Then they turned their attention to the enemy branch lines from Indaw to Homalin. With road block and ambush they stopped all traffic.
It was now decided to move nearer to Stilwell, who was already investing Kamaing. By an 80-mile march over the mountain jungle the brigade descended on Hopin, 30 miles SW of Mogaung, and’on the Myitkyrna-Mandalay railway. It was here “Blackpool” came into being.
The Japs reacted violently against this new challenge. For two weeks they flung strong forces continuously against the post. In the final assault, which began on May 23, they brought up 105-mm and 75-mm artillery. During one bombardment 300 shells fell inside the perimeter within an hour.
The garrison gave up its airstrip and prepared to fight it out. It meant’ sacrificing the service most valued of all by the troops (and most uplifting to them)—the flying-out of their
wounded in Cochran’s light L5 recce planes. The hard decision had to be made. As it was, with superior strength, both in men and arms the Japanese broke through the perimeter of the fortified position, and contested the possession of the commanding hill features. But fighting prolonged engagements is not Long Range Penetration troops’ role. They fight with the equipment they carry on their backs, and so, with their ammunition low, their rations low, and the foul weather precluding further airborne supplies, the brigade walked out of “Blackpool” They bore their wounded on their shoulders, slashing a path through the undergrowth and man-high elephant grass, hacking footholds ‘up and down precipices of mud.
Their line of march lay up the valley of the lndaw Chaung, towards the hills around Mogaung. The valley had become a morass and it was hard going for men dog-tired with 20 days and nights almost unceasing fighting.
It was now, indeed that they proved that they were indeed among the “toughest of the tough.”
They attacked and drove in the enemy outpost positions in the hills west and south-west of Mogaung. They fought another bitter battle for the possession of Point 2171 and they held this feature against night-and-day artillery bombardment by the Japs until relieved by fresh troops. This flanking thrust considerably expedited the final withdrawal of the Japanese from these hills, and the subsequent capture of Taungni.
Most important of all, they demonstrated once more that British and Indian troops can fight back long after the Jap considers that they have had enough. It is then, in fact that our men have shown themselves at their finest in this unrelenting warfare.
But by this time the whole campaign on the Northern Front was moving towards its climax. Stilwell’s flying column of Marauders had seized the air strip at Myitkyina. and were halfway into the town. His main forces were moving on Mogaung, Japan’s great base in North Burma.