Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

Return of the Chindits, Part 1

ChinditsReturn-Mast1

Operation “Thursday,” the second Chindit operation of World War II was an integral component of an Allied plan to liberate northern Burma from the Japanese. The campaign centered around the recapture of Myitkyina city. Among the attackers were four colorful forces – Stilwell’s Chinese, Merrill’s Marauders, Cochran’s Air Commandos and Wingate’s celebrated Chindits. Their war was meant to be short. Instead, they would be pitted to the point of destruction against an enemy renowned for his toughness and unwillingness to surrender.

Divider-9BY AKHIL KADIDALDivider-9

It was the night of March 5th, 1944, and first of the gliders touched down in the Burmese clearing.

Little more than a large dirt track in the jungle, the clearing had been chosen by the eccentric British Major-General Charles Orde Wingate as one of three landing zones for his division of “Special Forces” known as the Chindits. Codenamed Broadway, the site was originally intended to take gliders carrying Brigadier Joe Lentaigne’s 111th Brigade, but unforeseen problems with the another landing area had forced Wingate to divert Brigadier Michael Calvert’s 77th Brigade there.

As they labored over that bald strip of earth, tugged by noisy C-47 Dakotas, the sounds of snapping rope tore through the air as tow lines were discarded and the gliders began their descent in the brilliant moonlight. Quickly, the craft gathering speed, utterly silent save for the howling wind and the whimpers and oaths of their terrified human cargo. Each glider was an archetype of multinationalism. The pilots were Americans, the troops a mixture of Burmese, Nepali Gurkhas and Britons from the Midlands and the northwest.

One by one, the gliders swept down towards the dark earth, alighting — and sometimes striking the ground with an earsplitting crash that sent bits of undercarriage, wood and metal flying into the trees. As the gliders came to a stop, men spilled out – automatic weapons and rifles at ready. One of them was Lieutenant George Albert Cairns of the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment. The jungle loomed all around them, the noises of the night abruptly silent.

Cairns ordered his men to fan out and keep ready for incoming Japanese troops. The noises of the nocturnal insects began anew; the night passed without incident. The next day, more gliders arrived, this time carrying heavy building equipment and troops of engineers. By March 12, “Broadway” had been turned into a formidable stronghold. By the 13th, it had a runway with heavy artillery and anti-aircraft emplacements.

Meantime, columns from the 1st South Staffords and the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles Regiment (3/6th GR), swept out from the landing zone to build a road and rail block across Japanese lines of communication at Henu, a few miles east of Broadway on the 16th. Their movement roused the Japanese hornet from its slumber. Waves of Japanese infantry hurled themselves against the entrenching British troops. Elements of the South Staffords, under Major Ron Degg, a coal miner in peacetime, advanced towards a key hilltop crowned by a small, round pagoda. They had made their way up the hill in the hours of twilight on the 16th, as day turned to dusk, and finding no opposition, dug in for the night.

The next morning, they discovered to their shock that they had dug in near a small Japanese unit. At mid-morning, both sides opened fire and the firing went on for most of the day until the British mounted a concerted attack the throw the Japanese off the hill. “On the top of Pagoda Hill, not much bigger than two tennis courts, an amazing scene developed,” Calvert later wrote. “The small white Pagoda was at the center of the hill. Between that and the slopes which came up, an extraordinary melee took place, with everyone shooting, bayoneting, kicking…”

Lt. Cairns was at the fore. He had already been bayoneted twice in the side when he was attacked by a Japanese officer brandishing a Samurai sword. The sword plunged into Cairns’ left shoulder, leaving his arm hanging on by a few strips of muscle. Cairns shot the enemy officer and picked up the sword. He moved forward, slashing left and right, leading his men deeper into the attack until finally collapsing of blood loss. Brigadier Calvert, only 31 years old, handsome and brave, knelt down beside him.

“Have we won, sir?” Cairns asked. “Was it all right? Did we do our stuff? Don’t worry about me.” Then he was unconsciousness. He died on the 19th.[i]

Cairn’s Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest military honor) was the last to be announced from World War II, its date being 20 May 1949. The original recommendation by Wingate had gone missing in late March 1944, when on a black day, Wingate’s plane crashed.

Calvert’s men had killed forty-two Japanese troops in this fierce first encounter but at the cost of twenty-three dead and sixty-four wounded. Such rates were to prove characteristic of much of the Chindit fighting, and in many ways, unsurprising.

When Wingate planned the second Chindit expedition, he had known the human cost would be heavy. But Wingate had changed tactics since his last expedition into Burma — which while a demolition raid in force, had resulted in hundreds of wounded men being abandoned to the jungle and the Japanese. This time, he had decided, the Chindits were to hold their ground in jungle strongholds — and if they fell, they were to a transported to a frontline aid station within the strongholds or flown out to India.

It was a daring tactical decision. Wingate’s decision to employ fortified positions fixed his troops in static positions, but they gave him base camps from where his forces could be supplied by air; they gave him a place to harbor the wounded, and a means to cut Japanese lines of communications more effectively than the last Chindit operation.

The strongholds gave him a staging area from where his Chindits could raid enemy positions and draw the Japanese away from forces under American Lt-General Joseph W. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, attacking towards the strategically important city of Myitkyina. But as it transpired, the strongholds worked too well, attracting sizeable Japanese forces which paved the way for ruinous battles in the jungles and valleys of northern Burma.

Divider-9GETTING READY
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When Wingate and the Chindits returned from Japanese-held Burma (now Myanmar) in 1943, he had scant idea of the treatment he and his troops would receive. Of the 3,000 men who had gone into Burma that February, 2,182 had returned four months later — for scant gains. About 450 men were casualties of war and 210 had been taken prisoner, of which only 42 would survive captivity. Wingate, who was always his own worst enemy, felt certain he would be court-martialed.

Wingate2Grievously ill from typhoid,[ii] Wingate was depressed, melancholic and railed about all those where trying to do him in. Matron Agnes McGreary[iii] of the 19th Casualty Clearing Station in Assam who nursed him back to health would write later that “there were times when it seemed as if he wanted to die. And I knew why. Those busybodies and mischief-makers at GHQ were trying to get at him again. They heard he was ill and they tried to ruin him while he was defenseless.”[iv]

  This was not the first time that this brilliant, eccentric and utterly unconventional officer, had contemplated suicide, and it had much to do with the way he had been raised.

Born in 26 February 1903 in the hill station of Nani Tal, India, Wingate’s family were ardent believers of the scripture-reciting Plymouth Brethren sect. He and his siblings were insulated from other children their own age and when he thrust into a public school in Britain, he found that his social awkwardness made him a target. Faced with such circumstances a child could either turn meek, withdrawing further or turn strong. Wingate became fearless, undaunted by bullies and taunts. His Plymouth Brethren beliefs also clashed with the Anglican majority, rendering him an outcast, and leaving him in the same category as several Jewish classmates. A bond was formed.

By 1923, Wingate was in the army, having passed out the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich with the tepid rank of 59th out of 70 students. His unremarkable classroom performance saw him relegated to an artillery battery on the Salisbury Plains. Eager to reach the tropics, he enrolled in 1926 at the University of London to study foreign languages in the hope of qualifying as an interpreter of Arabic. The romance of Arab lands was strong in England just then, inflamed by the Great War exploits of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), who was a second cousin.

Orde Wingate may have been a mediocre student, but his academia proved strong. Later that year he wrote Strategy in Three Campaigns, examining the Russo-Japanese War, the Schlieffen Plan and Allenby’s Palestine victory, in which he particularly admired Allenby’s tactics of mobility. He was also heavily influenced by a stint with the Sudan Defense Forces from 1928 to 1933, especially after he was posted to the backwater of Kassala as an infantry company commander. Here, he found he had free reign to develop tactical and training doctrines for his company without interference from his superiors. During operations against poachers and Shifta slave traders in eastern Sudan, Wingate became fascinated and astounded by the ability of his opponents to disperse and reform when under attack.

By September 1936 he was in British Palestine as an intelligence officer (GSO1[v]) with the British 5th Infantry Division. A year later, a festering Arab dissent erupted into open revolt. Bands of saboteurs began to target the Iraq Petroleum Company’s pipeline to Haifa, regularly setting it ablaze.

General Archibald Wavell the senior British officer in Palestine had only two infantry brigades to protect the pipelines, but Wingate, then an unknown, unremarkable officer, offered a unique solution. He proposed creating Jewish “Special Night Squads” with men from the Jewish Supernumerary Police led by British army officers and NCOs, to tackle the roving bands of Arab militiamen and bandits. When the Special Night Squads proved a spectacular success, Wavell found he had a new protégé in the form of Wingate.

Wingate, for his part, found he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He was only a major and 36 years old. The sky seemed the limit, yet by October 1938, exhaustion had set in, and Wingate’s subsequent activities in aid of Jewish groups proved so controversial that in some way they could be construed as treason. He was soon ejected from the country. He languished in unremarkably postings for next two years until 1940, when Italy joined the Second World War on the side of the Axis.

Wavell, who was by now commander-in-chief of the Middle East remembered Wingate and summoned him for operations in Italian-governed Ethiopia. On 18 September 1940, he sent Wingate to Khartoum in Sudan to assemble an irregular force of Ethiopian rebels to attack the Italians in Ethiopia’s Gojjam Province. Wingate christened his new unit “Gideon Force” — after the Old Testament hero who had defeated 15,000 men with 300.

With a strength of never more than 1,700 Ethiopian and Sudanese regulars, and a thousand spear and rifle-armed Ethiopian warriors and British officers and NCOs, Wingate and “Gideon Force” went after the Italian army. In January 1941, he seized the Ethiopian border town of Ulm Idla, making it the first town to be liberated by his force.

Next, in March, combining daring with bluff, he drove a 6,000-strong Italian infantry unit backed by several thousand auxiliaries along with artillery and mortars from the garrison fort of Bure, guarding the approaches into the Gojjam Province. But this victory proved a mere prelude of what was to come.

Reduced to only 1,000 men, Wingate then routed a force of 12,000 Italians plus thousands of Pro-Italian Ethiopian warriors from the key town of Debra Markos. Finally Wingate a chased after a group of about 10,000 Italians retreating from their last stronghold at Amba Alagi. Both sides ran out of food and their clothes were reduced to rags, but as cold weather set in that May, the Italians surrendered on the 19th. Gideon force had captured some 19,000 enemy troops and kept occupied vastly greater forces.

It was a brilliant effort, but for his troubles, Gideon Force was disbanded and Wingate was given a minor staff posting in Egypt. Depressed and suffering from malaria, he tried to kill himself by cutting his throat in a Cairo hotel on 4 July 1941.

Quote1“You know, I’m not the only great soldier who has tried to commit suicide,” he told his doctor later. “There was Napoleon for instance.” The doctor decided that the suicide attempt stemmed from the effects of cerebral malaria and of an overdose of Atabrine Wingate had taken to combat it.

Wingate returned to England in November 1941 and by February 1942, found himself commanding an artillery battery in a backwater of England. That changed when Wavell became Viceroy of India in January 1943. Once again he called on Wingate — this time to assemble a guerilla force for operations against the Japanese in Burma.

Wingate1

Now, having come out of Burma, Wingate found, to his surprise, that he was untouchable to the naysayers at General Headquarters (GHQ) India. Churchill lauded him and his troops as bonafide heroes. They had gone into Burma, confronted the Japanese — those masters of jungle combat — in their own backyard, and had returned to tell about it. The press lionized them across India and the free world. When Churchill, long disappointed by British military setbacks, asked to see Wingate in person to discuss future operations, Wingate jumped at the chance.

As Churchill listened on to Wingate’s stories of how his long-range penetration brigades could defeat the Japanese, he could not but feel impressed. “We had not talked for half an hour before I felt myself in the presence of a man of the highest quality,” he would write later.

Churchill asked Wingate to accompany him to the Anglo-American “Quadrant” conference in Quebec due to begin on August 17. Wingate agreed, and a gleeful Churchill planned to parade the tanned, freshly shaved guerilla leader before Allied commanders and impress his American partners, not least of all US President Roosevelt. Wingate did not disappointed. He spoke with rousing certainty and eloquence about the value of long-range penetration operations, charging his audience with his optimism.

In fact, Wingate’s enthusiasm proved contagious across the board. He was promoted to Major General and allowed to increase the strength of the Chindits to six brigades (23,000 men). “Wingate had returned to India after [such] feats of persuasion and conviction in Quebec which, even if he had done nothing else, would have caused his name to be spoken in awe wherever soldiers gathered,” wrote one of his officers after the war.[vi]

Map1Their admiration of the man also had something to do with the country which was Burma. Not many at Quebec had ever been to that great green, eastern jewel of British India, but its very name conjured all the imagery of a wild emerald world, dangerous and savage. The country was a conundrum of nature in many ways, as if crafted, not brought into being. All her rivers, valleys and jungles ran from north to south, to which humans had added railways lines and roads. Anyone traveling from east to west had to contend to razor-sharp ridges, hurtling valleys and formidable jungle-covered mountains, concealing within their green canopies all manner of wildlife and tropical diseases.

Burma-MountainsGenerally said, it was better for one to travel along the roads and valleys, with the best option being to travel over the country’s three great rivers and 10 smaller waterways. The largest was the Irrawaddy River, fed from the springs in the Himalayan Mountains, and famed as the “Road to Mandalay.” It grew to gargantuan sizes in places, almost two kilometers wide. In the center of the country it merged with the equally formidable Chindwin River and together these two mammoth rivers and their tributaries gave the geographic center of Burma more than 15,000 miles of navigable waters before emptying out into the Bay of Bengal, west of Rangoon. The third great river was the Salween, which was further east, separating Burma from Thailand.[vii]

To travel along the breadth of such a country an invader needed to be of stern stuff — which Wingate and his troops apparently were. He heard no end to the accolades at Quebec and from the British press, and if British commanders back in India sensed a prickly sensation of dread, it was soon to be reinforced by outrage, for Wingate’s winning performance at Quebec had netted him the entirety of the British 70th Infantry Division, renowned for its high levels of training and morale and now resting in Bangalore after winning laurels in North Africa and Syria.

General HQ India thought the idea incredible and the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, General Claude Auchinleck, himself a veteran of North Africa and an old India hand (he spoke fluent Punjabi and a smattering of local dialects), cautiously offered Wingate a brigade of the 81st West African Division — and when that offer was rejected, the entirety of the 81st West Africans, then training in India.

Churchill, who had come to regard the towering, handsome Auchinleck as a weak commander despite “The Auk’s” heroic first defense of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942, now intervened. Wingate was ordered, against all resistance to raise six brigades to interdict Japanese forces confronting the Chinese Army at the Salween, facing Stilwell in the north and opposing  IV Corps at Imphal, in eastern India. Armed with these orders, Wingate not only took possession of the entirety of the 70th Division, but also the previously proffered brigade from the 81st West African Division. The fury at General HQ India could not be measured.

To his further glee, Wingate was also handed  a “private air force” — the American 1st Air Commando Group – 25 transport planes, 12 Mitchell medium bombers, 30 Mustang fighter-bombers, 100 light planes (of the Vultee L-1 Vigilant and the Stinson L-5 Sentinel varieties) and 225 Waco gliders – under the command of the 33-year old Colonel Philip C. “Flip” Cochran and his deputy, Lt-Colonel John Alison.

Churchill was also intent on supplanting what he regarded as the sloth and inertia at GHQ India with new leadership, principally in the form of a new supreme commander. The choice fell on the King’s cousin, acting Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, who while only 43 years old and junior in rank, was promoted over the heads of all three senior commanders in the India. Auchinleck, who was sidelined, retained his post, but was handed the task of training and equipping the Indian Army, and transforming India into a base of operations.

MountbattenMountbatten, who was charming, handsome and immaculate in dress — and a veteran of commando operations in Europe, began in late 1943 to set up a new supreme command:  Southeast Asia Command (SEAC). His deputy was the brilliant US Lt-General Joseph Stilwell, an old China hand renowned as the US Army’s foremost expert on China (he could speak fluent mandarin). Stilwell was also a rabid Anglophobe.

Stilwell had been in Burma when it had fallen and had made his way out to India with a band of soldiers and missionaries. Since then, he had made a nuisance of himself, with his public denigration of the British, and of their rout from Burma. But even Stilwell, nicknamed “Vinegar Joe” early in his army career for his caustic nature, could find few faults with Mountbatten, calling him “a good egg.”[viii] In addition to serving as deputy commander of SEAC, Stilwell held two other appointments which called for a high degree of diplomatic skills: Chief of Staff to Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek (since March 1942) and Commanding officer of all US forces in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater. He was, however, anything but diplomatic..

Born on 19 March 1883, Stilwell was a graduate of West Point (he placed 32nd in a class of 124 cadets). Commissioned as an Infantry second lieutenant in 1904, he saw action in the Philippines during the Moro insurrection and in France during World War I. In August 1919 he became the Army’s initial Intelligence Division’s Chinese language officer and after a promotion to major, left for Peking. But life at headquarters bored him and he soon joined a road-building project as an engineering advisor. The next few months were like heaven for Stilwell who soaked up all aspects of Chinese culture and language. By 1929 he was noted a China expert among his peers and superiors.

Stilwell1In July 1929, the newly promoted Lt-Colonel Stilwell was asked to teach infantry tactics at Fort Benning, serving as second-in-command under the direction of his superior and mentor, George C. Marshall, later the US Army chief of staff. Marshall complemented little, but wrote that Stilwell was “qualified for any command in peace and war” — which was high praise indeed.[ix]

By 1935, Stilwell was back in China, this time with the designation of Military Attaché to China. Over the next four years, Stilwell built up his China credentials, but 1939 found him in California, where he stayed until after Pearl Harbor, commanding a brigade, then a division and finally III Corps in California.[x] Before the attack, Stilwell had expected to go to North Africa, now, he was going back to China. But it was not to be a happy homecoming for he soon began to quarrel with the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek, over the sloth and corruption in the Chinese army.

Mountbatten first learned of Chiang’s determination to get Stilwell’s sent home during a visit to Chongqing, China, on 16 October 1943. The reasons were evident. Over the past few months, Stilwell had railed against the injustices he had found in the Chinese Army. He had publicly and officially castigated Chinese officers who mistreated their men, often depriving them of basic rations and he had pressed Chiang to reform the army so that it could fight the Japanese on equal terms. All these Chiang tolerated to a degree but when Stilwell began to openly refer to him as “Peanut” — for the shape of his bald pate, and berate him as “obstinate, pig-headed, ignorant, intolerant, arbitrary, unreasonable, illogical, ungrateful and grasping,” Chiang felt the last straw had broken.

George C. Marshall, by now the US Army Chief of Staff, was forced to send a sharp rebuke to Stilwell, telling him “stop the wisecracks.” (Marshall also relayed a suggestion from a British general that although Stilwell did not have to join in the singing when “God Save the King” was played at a British mess, he might at least stand.) Chiang was not mollified and eager to replace Stilwell with a Chinese general on the Combined Chiefs of Staff, told Washington that Stilwell had lost the confidence of the Chinese army. It was a damning indictment.

Mountbatten caught a glimpse of the personal acrimony between both men shortly before he presented his credentials to the Generalissimo at Chongqing. Greeting Stilwell warmly, Mountbatten had offered his hand to the American. “You should not be seen shaking hands with me,” Stilwell had told him. “It will be bad for you.”

Astonished — and appalled at the thought of losing a good commander, Mountbatten had told Stilwell: “If you want your job back, I’ll get it for you.” — And he did.

Chiang was told he would not be able to employ Chinese troops in the forthcoming offensive if Stilwell was sacked. Chiang, who desired more to elevate China’s military standing in the eyes of the Allies than see Stilwell sacked, relented. Stilwell could stay. This would prove a mixed blessing to some, and a matter of life and death to others.

Meantime, Wingate and his staff were busy developing operational plans. After several revisions, a strategy began to coalesce which called for the Chindits to support Stilwell’s Chinese troops as they advanced towards the northern Burmese city of Myitkyina, close to the Chinese frontier, so as to connect the in-progress Ledo Road in northeast India with the old Burma Road into China.

Already, the ambitious Ledo Road was in trouble. In late February 1943, the American builders of the road under US Colonel Lewis Pick, had stopped at the Burmese-India border for lack of engineers and equipment. Then in March, the Japanese advanced up the Hukawng valley northwest of Myitkyina, and almost reached the head of the road. Stilwell had hastily sent in part of his Chinese 38th Division, which stopped the Japanese at Nathkaw village; about 80 km (50 miles) south of the road’s starting point at Ledo in India.[xi]

The Japanese then pulled back and for months there was stalemate until the 38th Division again began a renewed push southwards. Behind them came an armada of newly arrived engineers who built the road as the Chinese advanced. Resistance was light, and Stilwell’s hopes soared. It was to prove short-lived, however.

For Wingate, in contrast, that winter in India was like Christmas. Even as his plans took shape, he received more good news. His command was to receive a new American infantry unit known as the 5307th (Galahad) Composite Unit, 2,997-strong, under Colonel Francis G. Brink, who would prove an enthusiastic disciple of his long-range doctrine, and Lt-Colonel Charles N. Hunter[xii].

For some time now, Stilwell had been pestering his superiors in Washington for a hardened American unit proficient in jungle warfare. As a result, urgent calls went out in the south and southwest Pacific, the Caribbean, and the United States for jungle-tested volunteers for a “hazardous mission.” The calls produced a collection of small-town midwesterners, southern farm boys, Native Americans, a few Japanese-Americans, and many disciplinary cases whose commanders were only too happy to see the last of. As the volunteers assembled in San Francisco, one officer remarked, “We’ve got the misfits of half the divisions in the country.”

When the unit arrived in Bombay, India, on 31 October 1943, and Stilwell learned that they were being transferred to Wingate’s command, he was nearly incoherent with rage. “After a long struggle, we get a handful of US troops and by God, they tell us they are going to operate under Wingate!” he said to his staff. “We don’t know how to handle them, but that exhibitionist does! He has done nothing but make an abortive jaunt to Katha, cutting some railroad that our people had already cut, got caught east of the Irrawaddy and come out with the loss of 40 percent. Now, he’s the expert. That’s enough to discourage Christ!”[xiii]

“Galahad” began training in jungle warfare and long-range operations with the Chindits, soon establishing a reputation for being an unruly unit. The men had been recruited from units across the South Pacific and from Trinidad of all places. On this Caribbean island was the US 33rd Infantry — the “pits of the army,” where the worst disciplinary cases had been sent. Most were looking for any way out. For many, Galahad spelt salvation — even if it meant going into the jungle hell of Burma. Other volunteers from Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands were stockade cases who were more than happy to see the light of day. These “dead end” kids (named after a 1935 stage act and subsequent Hollywood film about juvenile delinquents), were mixed among the various battalions. All were told that their new assignment amounted to three months of training followed by a relatively lax three-month tour of duty. Once in India, the regiment had taken on respectable US Army Air Force and Signals Corps personnel, but these additions had proved insufficient to cleanse the unit of its wild nature.

Chindit training officers quickly discovered that the unit had serious disciplinary problems. Their three-month stay in India was described as one part terrorizing the natives and one part keeping the military police occupied. About 10 percent of the Marauders went AWOL during training and senior officers received repeated complaints that the troops were taking potshots at cattle, fowl, and even at the feet of the locals, to “make them dance.”[xiv]

Eventually, in December, Hunter activated the unit as the 5307th Regiment (Provisional), which coalesced into three battalions: the 1st (Lt-Colonel William Osborne), the 2d (Lt-Colonel George McGee) and the 3rd (Lt-Colonel Charles Beach). In true Chindit style, each battalion split into two combat teams of 16 officers and 456 men.[xv] [xvi] The entirety of Galahad was allotted 700 pack animals.

By when the training concluded, however, Stilwell, who had been haranguing his superiors for the return of “Galahad” finally got his way. The regiment was to return to US command. Wingate, who had spent considerable time and resources training “Galahad,” was enraged. His response to Colonel Brink, who delivered the order, was: “You can tell General Stilwell he can stick his Americans up his ass.”[xvii]

Hunter, who was with Brink at the time, was stunned to hear such an American expletive from an Englishman. Wingate began to storm off, but then he turned back to Brink and said: “Francis, what I said was not intended to include you. You and I are friends and I hope we always will be.” He came back and shook Brink’s hand before climbing onto his plane.[xviii]

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Deprived of his trophy troops, Wingate again returned to strenuous task of developing tactics for his remaining troops. For this operation, codenamed Operation “Thursday,” Wingate planned to send three brigades into Burma to establish three separate “strongholds” (named after famous roads in New York, London and Calcutta) — within which, the Chindits were to develop airstrips, a dropping zone (for supplies), local field fortification, install heavy weapons, dig entrenchments, set up field hospitals and create a command headquarters.

Wingate likened these strongholds to the machan — a hunter’s platform erected over live bait (in this case, the Chindits themselves). Wingate’s plan was much as inspired by the hunting tales of India as it was biblical rhetoric. In Zechariah 9:12, the ardent Plymouth Brethren within Wingate found a calling in the passage: “Turn ye to the Stronghold, ye prisoners of hope.”

He later explained to his brigadiers that the stronghold is a “machan overlooking a kid tied up to entice the Japanese tiger. The Stronghold is an asylum for Long-Range Patrol Group (LRPG) wounded. The Stronghold is a magazine of stores. The Stronghold is a defended airstrip. The Stronghold is an administrative center for loyal inhabitants. The Stronghold is an orbit round which columns of the brigade circulate. The Stronghold is a base for light planes operating with columns on the main objective. The Stronghold is designed to fulfill a definite function in the employment of LRPG; a function which has hitherto been neglected. The motto of the Stronghold is ‘No Surrender’.”[xix]

Chindit-Logo

Wingate predicted that Japanese would go for the kill, battering themselves against the perimeter of the stronghold, held at bay by the entrenched defenders and the heavy weapons, even as other “floater” columns of Chindits operating outside, took them from the rear.

The attacking brigades were to march into Burma like in the first expedition, but alarming news in January 1944 of Japanese troops massing along the Chindwin River, forced an alteration to the plan. Wingate feared that his impending operation had been betrayed to the enemy. But unbeknownst to him, the buildup of Japanese troops had nothing to do with Operation Thursday — at least not directly.

In 1942, India had been saved from invasion following the Allied rout in Burma by the firm Japanese belief that the jungles bordering India and Burma were impenetrable. A year later, the first Chindit expedition through those same jungles had absolved the Japanese of such notions. Many Japanese commanders regarded the first Chindit expedition, not as an experiment in jungle warfare or even a commando raid, but as a reconnaissance in force —in aid of a massive Allied counteroffensive into Burma. It was imperative that Japan strike first — a view championed by Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese 15th Army in Burma.

Mataguchi was tough and widely respected in the army. He liked women and drink almost as much as he liked to fight. In 1937, he had commanded the regiment that had sparked the Sino-Japanese War by precipitating an armed clash with Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking. Now, he intended to up the ante in India. He was certain it was possible the breach the tough jungle hills bordering India and Burma. Once in India, his forces could cause havoc, on par with the chaos they had caused in Burma in 1942. Not only would a Japanese invasion of eastern India forestall an Allied offensive in Burma, it could also stimulate the seething Indian independence movement into open revolt. The initial objective was Imphal, a large, lowland town in the eastern Indian state of Manipur, but the Japanese easily saw India’s capital, Delhi, within their grasp.

In July 1943, months after the first Chindit expedition, Imperial General Headquarters told its Burma commanders to plan an offensive for the coming dry season. Consequently, by September 1943, the Japanese had begun preparations for Operation “U-Go,” amassing troops and supplies along the frontier for an offensive in early 1944. In many ways, the Japanese decision was to prove propitious for their arrangements inadvertently forced Wingate to consider the option of flying in his troops into Burma which had the added benefit, on paper at least, of keeping his force fresh and ready for battle.

By now, the force — officially known within the army and in some post-war histories simply as “Special Force” was inculcating itself in the Chindit code, albeit unevenly. It adopted the designation of 3rd Indian (Special Force) Division to confuse the Japanese, and at its core retained many of the commanders from the original 77th Brigade of the first expedition. The bulk of the officers however, were new to long-range operations, being drafted chiefly from Maj-General George Symes’s 70th British Infantry division.

The very phrase “Special Force” vexed many senior army officers who thought the presence of such a force would serve to demoralize the rest of the army. The argument was not dissimilar to those of made by senior leaders of RAF Bomber Command in England, who had vehemently opposed the formation of the “pathfinder” squadrons in 1943 (those units which illuminated the target before the main force arrived), believing that the presence of such a cohort of feted warriors, equipped with the best weaponry and technology and enjoying the highest morale, with the ready admiration of the media and civilians (including women), would cause the rest of the Command to feel inferior.

George Symes was appointed deputy commander of the Chindits. He could have protested the breakup of his division and of what, was in effect, his demotion. Instead, he took to his new role with gusto and went to great lengths to instill his troops with the Chindit creed. The force was organized into six brigades, each to operate in columns again (6-8 per brigade), of around 400 to 500 men. Heaviest weapons in the column were machine-guns and medium 3″ mortars.

Three of the new Chindit brigades: Thomas “Ian” Brodie’s 14th, Bernard Fergusson’s 16th and Lance Perowne’s 23rd, were from the 70th Division. All of these formations had fought conventional battles thus far. None had been bred with the Chindit philosophy which was alien to them as the Japanese. Fergusson was a veteran of the first expedition and sold on LRP tactics, but the rest of his brother officers were to resist or downplay Chindit doctrine, as the actions of a fourth brigade, the 111th, was to show.

This last brigade had been an orphan, having been formed in mid-1943 in the jungles of India’s Central Provinces, training for an operation in Burma much before its assimilation into the Chindits. Its commander was William “Joe” Lentaigne, a tall, charming Irishman, lantern-jawed, who would be written into the Chindit mythology alternatively as a “tiger” or as a “rank” weakling.

What was indisputable was that Lentaigne, as a Lt-Colonel, had led 1st Battalion of the 4th Gurkhas in a brilliant rearguard action during the retreat from Burma. He was said to have personally led half a dozen bayonet charges, saving the battalion time and again from being surrounded.[xx] For his actions he had been awarded an immediate DSO and promoted to brigadier. He had also, as one of his new officers discovered, lost all of his front teeth during the retreat save for a single upward-jutting incisor in the front left corner.

Eager to get his brigade operational, Lentaigne had personally handpicked its officers. Among those he had chosen was a familiar face from his old days in the 4th Gurkhas — John Masters, then only a lowly lieutenant but with the war substantive rank of major.

Masters, for his part, was appalled to receive orders instructing him to present himself to the brigade in the summer of 1943, for that previous autumn, while serving in Quetta (now in Pakistan), he had fallen in love with a married woman.

MastersMasters was not much to look at during a first glance. He was rail thin, with sunken cheeks, a receding hairline and a rather large nose. But there was no hiding the sparkle in his eyes and the flamboyance to his manner. It had been love at first sight for both and for the intoxicated Masters, although already married, any parting from Barbara, the woman he considered the love of his life, was difficult.

When told that he had been appointed the brigade-major of the 111th Brigade, he realized that not only did this posting to the jungles of Central India mean that he would soon be fighting the Japanese and not the Germans and Italians as he had supposed, but that it also meant a prolonged separation from Barbara whose husband was staunchly refusing her a divorce.[xxi]

When he attempted to have his new orders cancelled he was told that Lentaigne had asked for him personally. Masters recognized the name of his old commander but that only heightened his exasperation. No doubt the 111th Brigade was a new formation in need of strenuous training  — And no doubt, Lentaigne thought Masters could help. Yet, he was also curious: Why had Lentaigne asked for him personally when he could get any officer in India? He had tried to forget his feelings by concentrating on the landscape during the train ride to Chhindwara (now in the center of India’s Madhya Pradesh state), where the brigade had made camp, writing:

The great snow peaks slid slowly below the northern horizon. Chhindwara [is set in] a rolling country of trap rock, forested in sal and dwarf teak, very hot and dry in the summer, sunny and fresh in January and February. The jungles are full of game — wild pig, deer of several kinds, including the lordly sambhur, bear, leopard, and tiger. It is the country of Kipling’s Jungle Books, and the maps on which we worked showed the Seeonee Hills and the Wainganga River not far to the east of us. Every time I found myself alone in the jungle with Daljit [his Indian batman] — reconnoitering a site for a bombing range, studying ground for an exercise — I  expected to see Mowgli trotting through the thin trees towards me, Bagheera at his heels and Ka coming fast behind, the flat head raised and the unwinking eyes fastened on me. What a superb understanding of India Kipling had! If only he had understood Indians one-tenth as well.[xxii]

Yet, Barbara always stayed in his mind. He began to think that perhaps it was favorable for them to maintain the status quo as her husband had not agreed to a divorce. Masters, for his part, had already filed for divorce from his wife and was soon to be free. But supposing he married Barbara and was killed when the brigade went to Burma? Where would that leave her and her two children? With no money to boot? The only sensible thing to do was to settle everything once he had returned from Burma — if he returned.

Lentaigne“We’re a Long-Range Penetration brigade,” Lentaigne told Masters at the brigade headquarters in Ghatera that June. “Two battalions—1st Cameronians, under Gillespie and 4/9th Gurkhas, under Morris. …We’re organized on the same principle as Wingate’s [old] 77th Brigade, each battalion into two columns. I’ve been experimenting round a bit. It’s an unwieldy organization, inflexible. Wingate’s just out of Burma, so we’ll be getting some practical tips soon. He’s an odd bird, Wingate…”[xxiii]

The brigade had orders to be ready for independent operations in Burma by November.

“The strain on the men is going to be enormous,” Lentaigne warned. “If they try to keep an LRP brigade in the field for more than three months at the outside, they’re asking for trouble…Wingate’s had a hell of a good idea in this. The man’s a genius in some ways — but of course he’s made mistakes, and we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to think for ourselves, as well as learn from his experience. There’s no morale-raising in LRP if you lose thirty-five percent of your force. We must achieve more, and lose less. Good training, good morale. We’ll do it.”

On his sleeve was the emblem of a leopard. “That’s us,” he told Masters. “Pack of hungry leopards. Wingate chose a Chinthe for [his] lot.”

“What’s a Chinthe?”

“The lion-headed dragon that sits outside all Burmese pagodas,” Joe said. “Supposed to be the only living thing in the Buddhist religion that is permitted to use force — to guard the sacred pagodas, of course. People are pronouncing it Chindit for some reason, and that’s what Wingate’s people are being called — Chindits. The Leopards and the Chindits. But the Leopards,” he began to grin fiendishly, “are going to wipe the eye of the Chindits.”[xxiv] [xxv] In this manner, Lentaigne set the 111th Brigade on a crash course with Wingate, although no one was to know it at first, chief of all Lentaigne who had perhaps thought he was being tough.

Rhodes-JamesThe brigade soon began to acquire its officers. There was the comical, imperturbable Intelligence officer, Captain John Hedley, who apparently never divested himself of the 100-lbs of kit that he carried everywhere and a cipher officer, Captain Richard Rhodes-James, spiritual and thoughtful, just out of school with a thick, black-caterpillar moustache to hide his youthfulness. Their RAF liaison chief was a Wing Commander who had been a veteran infantryman during World War I and a film producer during inter-war years, and one of their Gurkha platoon commanders as a Lt. Bill Travers, a great bull of a man, and a famous actor after the war who would go on act in the film version of Master’s postwar novel, Bhowani Junction.

Despite Lentaigne’s competitive attitude, many in the brigade openly admired Wingate. Some, however, were wary as there was a rumor that he was returning from Quebec with members of the “shop” (the Royal Military Academy), with their preconceived and racist ideas about the Indian Army. Several officers were riven with angst and annoyance that they would come under the jurisdiction of a gang of English elites straight out of England “imbued with Churchill’s (and Wingate’s) conviction that India was a hotbed of obstructionism.”[xxvi]

Astonishingly, they were proven wrong. When Wingate came, he brought with him seasoned officers who quickly divested those in India of their own misconceptions. These were men such as Wingate’s kindly and gentle chief of Staff, Derek Tulloch and the highly competent Brigadier Neville Marks, a former Gurkha officer who as “Special Force’s” much respected chief supply officer, performed miracles of logistics.

The veneration of Wingate also rose to new heights after he had secured the support of the US 1st Air Commando Group. Unlike the Royal Air Force (RAF), who had been unflinchingly indifferent when it came to supporting the army, Colonel Cochran of the Air Commandos assured the Chindits they would do anything that was asked of them.[xxvii]

“I heard about you boys an’ all your walkin’,” Cochran told a packed hall of Chindits. “I feel real bad about all that walkin’…maybe you think I’m kiddin’, well, we can always dream can’t we?”[xxviii] He was utterly unconvincing, but Wingate studied the audience, a twinkle in his eye.

“How about letting us control the planes on to target?” asked one Chindit officer, knowing full well that the RAF would never agree to such a request. “Why sure…hell, yes,” Cochran said.

That had floored the Chindit officers. A muttering broke out in the crowd. “Look, even if 9/10ths of what this chap says is bullshit, we’ll get twice what the RAF is giving us,” one officer said.[xxix] But Cochran would prove as good as his word.

Air-Commando6

Days later when a muleteer was kicked in the crotch, the platoon commander put in a call to the Air Commandos for a medical evacuation. Cochran sent one of his “Grasshopper” light planes. The plane needed a minimum of 600 feet of runway to land and takeoff. The mule team was able to find a clearing only about 400 feet in length. Yet, the plane landed safely, had the injured man placed onboard and took off, flying him to a hospital without incident. The Chindit stock in the Air Commandos soared. Soon, the Americans also had a motto, courtesy of a British officer: “Any Place, Any Time, Any Where.”

But as the training reached its denouement some of the Chindits began to express doubts about their leader. When Wingate addressed a gathering of 700 Cameronians sometime before the eve of battle, he put on his special rasping voice with which to impress people. John Masters, who was in the assembly, remembered the scene vividly.

“You are going to die,” Wingate told the nearest Cameronian, fixing his unblinking his eye on the man. The rifleman blanched, but Wingate was already looking at another man. “Many of you are going to die, or suffer wounds, or near-starvation. All of you will meet hardship worse than anything you have imagined.”

Masters realized that Wingate was trying to impress upon the men the value of sacrifice. Instead, the Cameronians, members of a proud regiment with a rich tradition reaching back to 1700s, believed he was trying them to frighten them into heroics.

Other, more bizarre stories began to emerge — such as Wingate keeping keep a large alarm clock dangling from his belt (to remind his men of the clock against them), his passion for raw onions (several of which he sometimes kept in a pocket)  and instructing orders while nude (once, while swimming a river). He laced his fiery speeches and official writings with biblical rhetoric, and there were dark mutterings that he had become an ardent Zionist while posted in Palestine even though he belonged to the Plymouth Brethren faith which regarded the Old Testament as the literal truth. He impressed few with his untidy kit, filthy uniform and beard, in an army which celebrated impeccable “grooming standards.”

Then there was the part about him having kicked one of his staff out of a moving aircraft, which was true enough. The incident occurred early in 1944 when Wingate, flying from Ledo to Comilla in a Dakota following a heated meeting, was enraged to find that his personal ground transport was not waiting at the airport. He set upon his long-suffering GSO1, Lt-Colonel Francis Piggot in the mistaken belief that he had been responsible. Opening the fuselage door, he ordered Piggot to get out of the still taxiing aircraft and find his vehicle.

“She’ll be stopped soon, sir,” Piggot protested, indicating the aircraft.

Wingate kicked him out of the moving plane. When Lt-General Henry Pownall, Chief of Staff to Mountbatten, demanded an apology, Wingate told them brusquely that, “I always used to kick my younger brother off moving buses and quite suddenly the old impulse came over me.”[xxx]

It was apparent to many that Wingate possessed something of a “demonic power,” but few were able to separate the chaff from the truth when it came to the stories of his life. Even when the facts were established there appeared to be a Jekyll and Hyde quality to Wingate that would go on to bewilder legions of historians and even those who had met him in the decades after the war.  What is known is that he possessed a charm and force of character, even as an irascible temper constituted the darker side of his nature.  This has allowed detractors and revisionist historians to question his sanity and military acumen. In reality, Wingate’s perpetual impatience with select subordinates and even senior commanders was to be his greatest Achilles’ heel. In this way, he was the inscrutable mirror of his American counterpart, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. On one typical occasion, during a meeting with General Giffard, chief of the 11th Army Group, Wingate graciously elected to have Lentaigne chair the proceedings. Suddenly exasperated that Lentaigne was not being “tough” enough Wingate derided him publicly and took over as chairman.[xxxi]

Masters would later write that only Wingate’s closest friends had known of the intricacies of his life, of his battles with depression, of his time in Palestine and of his attempted suicide. “I wish we [had known],” Masters would later write. “It would have removed… suspicions that his intenseness was a theatrical trick, not a genuine part of his nature.”[xxxii]

That Wingate suffered from an extreme persecution complex, one which arose from his childhood, is easy to understand, but his contempt for easterners and the Indian Army on the whole is more difficult to understand. In this aspect, his feelings may appear to faintly mirror those of Churchill who was deeply biased when it came to Indians and contemptuous of the Indian Army, which he though incompetent and nothing than an armed “Frankenstein’s monster.”[xxxiii] Churchill, was to be equally disparaging of the African brigades fighting with the British Army, writing in his seminal work, The Second World War, that the “Colonial” African soldiers like the Indians, were not to be trusted being that they were ill-disciplined, inefficient and not as professional as their British counterparts.[xxxiv] Arguably, some of his sentiments about India were a product of the societal and military ramifications of 1857 Indian mutiny, which had gravely fractured Anglo-Indian relations and trust.

Biases were not a British monopoly, however. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell disliked Gurkhas and Indians, but hated the Englishmen more because they had been the ancient enemies of the United States and because he considered them snobs with an irritating capacity for self-deprecation mixed with an “ineffable sense of superiority.”[xxxv] In one memorable entry in his diary, Stilwell described the British as “bastardly hypocrites [who] do their best to cut our throats on all occasions. The pig-fuckers.”[xxxvi]

It is arguable that all three of these men disliked easterners owing to their experiences in the east: Wingate had spent part of his early childhood in India and Churchill had served there — in Pune and Bangalore — in his twenties, just before and after the Boer War and Stilwell had retreated there after being drummed out of Burma in 1942. In Stilwell’s case, few had known the extent of his vitriol. His diary, filled with every manner of profanity and praise, was to be not published until after the war. He was simply known among the British for being prickly and regarded as good old “Vinegar Joe.”[xxxvii]

Yet, to describe Wingate a racist in Churchill’s mold, is wrong. Wingate’s bias arose purely over a need to gauge military effectiveness. The Indian Army, in his mind, was too conventional to make the grade and largely served as a “system of outdoor relief” for its members. In a typical example of Wingate’s prejudice, he came to suspect the fighting prowess of all Gurkhas following the dismal performance of a single battalion, the 3/2nd Gurkhas, in the first Chindit campaign. He thought them lazy, unimpressive and disloyal. But what Wingate never realized was that Gurkha troops did not become loyal over magnetism of personality, but out of care, familiarity and consideration. Wingate’s words searing indictment against the Indian Army deeply wounded the army establishment as much as it did ordinary officers such as John Masters, who always described himself as “a professional soldier of the old Indian Army.”

Masters admired Wingate, but he came to regard him as a man “lacking humanity.” Wingate, Masters also believed, was a man who worked for great ends, and during which the masses who were less than great, served as little more than “muddlers and fools whom he must use to attain his ends.”[xxxviii]

To people like Auchinleck, Slim and many in that old British Indian Army, however, Wingate’s insults of Indians and the Indian army were near unforgivable. After all, these were men who constituted the largest volunteer military force in the world, numbering two million at its peak. True, poverty had driven many into the army, but so had a sense of loyalty and the martial callings of their ancestors. They were professional soldiers who knew the meaning of sacrifice. They were India incarnate. As John Masters wrote:

These were men from every caste and race — Sikhs, Dorgras, Pathans, Madrassis, Mahrattas, Rajputs, Assamese, Kumaonis, Punjabis, Garhwalis, Naga head-hunters—and, from Nepal, the Gurkhas in all their tribes and subtribes… These men wore turbans, and steel helmets, and slouch hats, and berets, and tank helmets, and khaki shakos inherited from the eighteenth century. There were companies that averaged five feet one inch in height and companies that averaged six feet three inches. There were men as purple black as the West Africans, and men as pale and gold-wheat of skin as a lightly sun-tanned blond. They worshiped God according to the rites of the Mahayana and Hinayana, of Sunni and of Shia, of Rome and Canterbury and Geneva, of the Vedas and the sages and the Mahabharatas, of the ten Gurus, of the secret shrines of the jungle. There were vegetarians and meat-eaters and fish-eaters, and men who ate only rice, and men who ate only wheat; and men who had four wives, men who shared one wife with four …There were men who had never seen snow and men who seldom saw anything else. And Brahmins and Untouchables, both with rifle and tommy gun.[xxxix]

Nevertheless, when Wingate crafted “Special Force” he preferred to have mostly Englishmen, followed by Africans, some Scots, a few Gurkhas and a small number of Indians —the latter primarily in the service companies. In any case, Wingate had little time to be concerned with race relations. As the training reached its end phase, his plan for Operation “Thursday” had begun to coalesce. Three primary objectives were to be secured or blocked: the Indaw area with its Japanese airfields, the railway line running north from Mandalay to Myitkyina and the road running from Bhamo to Myitkyina. The attacking brigades and auxiliary units were given specific orders.

Brigadier Bernard Fergusson’s The 16th Brigade, moving on foot from the Ledo Road, was to seize the key Japanese communication center of Indaw, and the surrounding countryside, with its two valuable airfields housing Japanese aircraft.

Calvert’s 77th Brigade was to land by glider at Piccadilly and Broadway, to block the Mandalay to Myitkyina railway line.[xl] Lentaigne’s 111th Brigade was to also land at Piccadilly several days from where it was to advance south of Indaw to protect the 16th Brigade’s southern flanks. After a successful landing, Calvert and Lentaigne’s brigades were to convert Broadway and Piccadilly into proper airstrips, allowing the rest of the brigades to be flown in along with heavy weapons and equipment, and permitting aircraft to be based there. A constant stream of transport aircraft would ensure supplies, while lighter aircraft evacuated the wounded and provided forward air supply. Meantime, a smaller force known as Blaine’s Detachment (Bladet for short) was to blow up railway lines in the area.

 Lt-Colonel “Jumbo” Morris’ 4/9th Gurkhas and 3/4th Gurkhas (collectively known as “Morrisforce”), were to land by glider at LZ Chowringhee, and advance to the mountains east of the Bhamo-Myitkyina Road, to block the road. Lastly, “Dahforce” under Lt-Colonel “Fish” Herring, was to land by glider at a minor LZ codenamed Templecombe, to be built by locals Burmese laborers. Once on the ground, the Dahforce was to enlist local Kachins for guerilla operations and support Morrisforce.

The remaining three brigades — the 3rd West African, the 14th and the 23rd Brigades were held in reserve, intended to be used as relief. Wingate thought 90 days (about three months) was the most his men could operate behind enemy lines. As events transpired, many of the brigades would remain for much longer.

Attached to each brigade was an RAF signals section with RAF pilots (all volunteers) who requested air support and supply drops. Via the use of large and powerful high-frequency radio sets which were powered with a petrol-powered charging engine, all of which could only be carried atop the strongest mules, they maintained close-communications with the main operations airbase in Agartala, India.

Procedures in airdropping supplies were honed to detail. Chindit RAF sections had been instructed to form DZ (Drop Zones) in favorable positions – usually a short stretch of open ground – and then mark it with smoke from fires forming a large “L.” It was a system that would lead the way in efficient airdropping procedures.

Kachins, Karens and other Burmese were to be used as guides, and every Chindit carried a 24-kg (55 lb) pack along with five-days of rations. Furthermore, each column was given 60 mules to carry the heavy supplies, including mortars and radio equipment (erratic No. 22 wireless sets which would incidentally do its part to undo the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, Netherlands, that autumn). Combined training between the ground and the air units had produced a mutual understanding of each side’s needs and capabilities – creating perhaps the finest example of allied air-to-ground cooperation of the entire war.

Starting weeks earlier than the other brigades, Brigadier Bernard Fergusson led his 3,900-strong 16th Brigade out of Ledo that February on what would transpire as a tough six, week march south traversing nearly 400 kilometers  (250 miles). At the end of the march lay their objective, a stronghold named “Aberdeen” which existed only on paper and in the mind. Wingate intended that “Aberdeen” should rise from the ground on the labor and toil of 16th Brigade after their long march.

 For Private Arthur Baker of 71 Column (2nd Leicestershires), Wingate’s plan smelled of lunacy. The battalion had fought at Tobruk, it had fought at Syria. It had been bloodied and it had spilled blood. Its cadre was made up of pre-war regulars, and its corps d’esprit was magnificent. But it had never conceived an operation as the one it was now engaged in. “We thought [Wingate] was mad to begin with, but…he never expected anyone to do anything he couldn’t do himself,” Baker said. “But not many of the 2nd Leicestershires liked him.”

Like him or not, one thing the professional soldiers of the 2nd Leicestershire were prepared to do was to follow orders. They would build Aberdeen alright. Then they would march south to confront the Japanese at Indaw, still over 80 km (50 miles) away.

Divider-9OBJECTIVE – MYITKYINA
Divider-9


To try and tell the story of the Chindits without telling the tale of “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, his Chinese and his Marauders, is like trying to talk about Abraham Lincoln while ignoring Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac.

Like the Chindits, Stilwell’s Americans were on the move, and his Chinese — even before that. In October 1943, 16 months after Stilwell’s humiliating retreat from Burma, his Chinese troops, freshly trained in India, had reentered Burma, attacking down the Hukawng and Mogaung river valleys, to drive back the Japanese 18th Division and clear the way to China’s Yunnan province. It was hoped that other Chinese units in Yunnan would also attack eastward, making the offensive a short one.

There was only one problem with this: the 18th Division was no ordinary formation. Commanded by Lt-General Shinichi Tanaka, the division, which went by the codename of Kiku (Chrysanthemum), was possibly the finest division in the entire Japanese Army. At its back, in China’s Yunnan province, was the equally tough Japanese 56th Division.

Against such opponents, Stilwell’s “X” Force — five India-trained Chinese divisions — were expected to liberate the entirety of northern Burma and capture the key Burmese town of Myitkyina (pronounced mitch-e-naar). It was to prove a far more difficult undertaking than anyone could have believed — a matter of military difficulty, yes, but also a problem of politics.

Hukawng1On 30 October 1943, elements of the Chinese 38th Division under Colonel Sun Li-jen met a reconnaissance company from the 18th Division in the Hukawng Valley and a firefight erupted. Hukawng Valley, which translated into Burmese as “Valley of Death,” had been named after an ancient massacre, but that is not to suggest that the terrain was the mild. Running 15 to 50 miles east to west and 130 miles from north to south, the valley was crisscrossed with rivers and broad streams which turned into raging torrents in the rainy season, transforming the earth into cholera-infested slush, and giving birth to hordes of malarial-carrying mosquitoes.

Tanaka believed he was destined for a quick victory and sent Colonel Nagahisa’s 56th Regiment to destroy the 38th Division (all Chinese divisions were usually of regimental strength). On November 3, Nagahisa made a surprise counterattack at Yubang Ga, cutting-off and surrounding three Chinese battalions. He then moved in to annihilate them.

But these Chinese behaved differently from the ones the Japanese had met before. They did not break panic and flee. Their divisional commander, Sun, a graduate of Purdue University in Indiana, and the Virginia Military Institute, had been establishing a reputation as the “Rommel of the East.” Now he showed his mettle. His troops quickly formed a defensive box bristling with heavy weapons and the armor of the 1st Provisional Tank Group, and called in air drops.

Stilwell9Nagahisa’s men pitted attack after attack against the Chinese box. The assaults dragged on for weeks, suffering heavy casualties even as the anxious Chinese held on for dear life. Worried, Stilwell flew in from Delhi. Wearing his usual weather-beaten campaign cap and carrying a carbine, he moved among the Chinese, goading them into action. On December 24, he personally called in a heavy artillery barrage and saw with satisfaction, the blasts ripping holes in within the Japanese ranks.

He was present at his command post in the box when, as the dull light of December closed, Sun’s troops broke through to two of the besieged battalions, while the Chinese 22nd Division relieved the third. The routed Japanese abandoned their positions along the river and fled south.

It had cost the Chinese 800 casualties, but they had achieved the remarkable — a real victory. For four long years, the Chinese Army had fled from superior and inferior Japanese forces. Now, for the first time in their history, a Chinese division had beaten one of the finest Japanese regiments in existence.

Tanaka was furious. He radioed 15th Army headquarters that he intended the take his entire division to Shingbwiyang, north of the eastern Chindwin, where Stilwell’s advanced HQ was located. Mataguchi forbid it. In light of the buildup of Operation “U-Go,” he could not afford to send supplies to Tanaka. Instead, the 18th Division was to hold Maingkwan, south of the Chindwin.

In any case, Tanaka, barring from his quest for revenge, need not have worried. As soon Stilwell left the area, the Chinese again became unsettled. Squabbling ensued, inaction grew. Sun began to complain loudly that Stilwell’s chief of staff, Maj-General Haydon L. Boatner, had endangered his division by seriously underestimating Japanese opposition in the Hukawng Valley, and demanded his removal. Stilwell disagreed and as Sun’s superior, the matter should have ended there. Chiang, however, saw this as another example of American interference —never mind that “X” Force was under Stilwell’s command or that the force had been entirely trained and equipped by the United States. Besides Chiang had another agenda, and what was more important, he could see the future.

He needed these well-equipped and trained Chinese divisions to fight Mao’s communists and had no intention of seeing them frittered away fighting the Japanese who were bound to lose anyway. Armed with Chiang’s support, the 38th and 22nd Division inched their way down the Hukawng Valley, taking few risks, until coming to a total halt on 29 January 1944. No amount of threatening, cajoling or displays of murderous rage from Stilwell would unseat Sun from his positions in the valley.

Mountbatten was rapidly running out of patience. Already angry at Stilwell for undermining his plans (codenamed Axiom) for a seaborne invasion of Sumatra, Malaya, Singapore and maybe even Hong Kong, which were then formally rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, Mountbatten became annoyed by continued Chinese lethargy.[xli]

On 14 January 1944, Mountbatten decided to deploy Galahad and other Chinese troops from Ledo to help break the deadlock and pave the way for a concerted advance towards Shaduzup, Myitkyina and Mogaung.

Myitkyina was a key Japanese stronghold and airbase in northern Burma, and it lay right in the middle of the route envisioned for the India-China Ledo Road, still under construction by American engineers. From the British viewpoint, Myitkyina was not at all important, but to Stilwell, it was an end goal. Once secured, his forces could finish the Ledo Road and the send war supplies to Chiang’s forces in China — thus fulfilling the primary American objective in the theater.

For some time now, an overland land route into China had proved the stuff of elusive dreams.  Originally, cargo destined for China arrived in the theater at Karachi in western India (now Pakistan), but once the threat from Japanese air power was broken by RAF Spitfire fighter aircraft in December 1943, cargo began to arrive at Calcutta in eastern India. The supplies then proceeded by railroad, road, and ferry to Assam, an Indian province abutting the Burma border. Theater communications suffered substantially from the fact that the British had designed the defenses of India to meet an attack from the west, leaving the eastern transportation network in shambles. Not only were lines of communications unusually long – the railhead near Dibrugarh in northern Assam was an incredible 67-day journey by rail from Calcutta, just 530 miles away as the crow flies. The line was congested and inefficient, plagued by differing railroad gauges, slow construction, and differing national attitudes on the allocation of resources.

Map2

The situation was improved slightly in November 1943 when the Allies reached an agreement for 4,600 American railroad workers to help operate key sections of the lines. Once the goods reached Dinjan airfield in Assam, American C-47 Dakotas and heavy C-46 Commandos flew them over the Himalayas to China. The volunteer pilots flying this route – called the “Hump,” had to contend with poor weather, 15,000ft mountain peaks, and enemy fighters operating from Myitkyina.

A successful assault on Myitkyina could not only secure the skies over Northern Burma for the “Hump” fliers, but it could also open a road route to China. Stilwell hoped the introduction of Galahad, now under the command of the tall, immensely likeable Brigadier Frank D. Merrill[xlii] would boost fighting spirits of his Chinese forces. Merrill was only 41, was in poor health, but Stilwell liked him, as did Slim who offered him high praise as “a fine, courageous leader who inspired confidence.”[xliii]

At 10 pm, on February 1, as an incandescent lunar light filtered onto the darkened landscape below, Galahad set off in a fast march from Ledo — ostensibly to keep their move a secret. They failed in part for soon after “Tokyo Rose” — that infamous Japanese radio propagandist — began to announce on the radio that two American divisions had departed Ledo.[xliv] Within days, the troops of Galahad were at the base camp at Ningbyen in Burma, on the shores of the Tanai River (which became the Chindwin downriver), 20 miles west of the Indian frontier.

On February 21, Stilwell went to Ningbyen to see the Americans off. “Tough-looking lot of babies,” he wrote later in his diary. “Told Merrill what his job would be. Good luck! You know what I want. Go in there and get it for me.”[xlv]

Quote2Three days later, on the 24th, the unit — by now christened “Merrill’s Marauders,” courtesy of James Shepley a Time and Life reporter, departed Ningbyen. At the fore were the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) platoons, advancing fearlessly.

“My pack is on my back, my gun is oiled and loaded,” wrote one young Marauder in a letter home. “And as I walk into the shadow of death, I fear no son of a bitch.”[xlvi]

Weeks before Merrill and his second-in-command, Colonel Charles Hunter, had discussed whether to truck the troops deep into Burma or have them walk the distance. Hunter had argued for the men to walk the 140 miles from Ledo to Shingbwiyang, saying that “I felt strongly that, from the standpoint of breaking in the animals and men, the long hike would solve several primary deficiencies… It would condition the men and animals, who would most certainly would be getting soft after nearly three weeks spent in merely getting from Deogarh to Ledo,” by train — a slow, 1,000-mile journey.

            Hunter believed that a march from Ledo would allow the pack saddles to be broken in and that the muleteers would become better acquainted with their animals. Unlike the mules used by the Chindits, these animals did not have their vocal chords severed to prevent announcing the unit to enemy forces. There was simply no time to carry out the procedures.

The long march would also “separate the men from the boys,” Hunter said.[xlvii] It proved a persuasive argument, and the Marauders indeed marched.

En-route, a Chinese liaison officer from the 38th Division joined the regiment as did the 1st Provisional Tank Group, an American-led Chinese armored force, initially with nine tanks under US Colonel Rothwell Brown, although it had an authorized strength of 100-125 M3 Stuart light tanks.[xlviii] From April 1944, the tank group received Sherman medium tanks.

Stilwell8

Merrill laid out the objectives of his Marauders: block the road between Jambu Bum and a jungle village called Shingban, hit the Japanese 18th Division command post, then move on in the thick of jungle towards the Kachin-village of Walawbum (30 miles south of Ningbyen as the crow flies), before advancing on their final objective: Myitkyina, involving grueling marches over mountainous territory.

Tanaka of 18th Division, watching the slow American advance, decided to leave a rear-guard behind to block the Chinese, while the greater part of his division withdrew south.

Merrill estimated his troops would run into enemy forces in a week — on March 2nd. Two days after the regiment’s departure from Ningbyen, however, the I&R platoon from the 3rd Battalion (Combat Team Orange), ran into a squad of Japanese. Corporal Werner Katz, a German refugee, veteran of the Spanish Civil War and naturalized American, was on the trail, in the midst of high elephant grass, thinking “about America and New York,” when he saw an Asian.

“He called over to me,” Katz remembered. “But as I got closer, I said ‘My God, that’s a Japanese.” Katz got up his rifle and shot the man between the eyes. At that moment, he spotted the blunt shapes of a Japanese Nambu machinegun to his left. The gun opened up. One bullet struck Katz’s watch, a second grazed his nose. He fell into a groove in the earth. When other Marauder scouts appeared to engage the enemy, Katz opened fire on the Nambu. The Japanese fled. Katz became the first Marauder to win the Purple Heart.

Nearby, the I&R Platoon of the 2nd Battalion proved not so lucky. Private Robert W. Landis, a veteran of battles for New Guinea, was at point when he was struck by a burst of Japanese machinegun fire. He became the first Marauder to die in combat, and had the dubious honor of also being the first American infantryman to be killed on continental Asia since the Boxer rising of 1900 in Peking.[xlix]

Other small battles erupted on the trail to Walawbum, amid jungle undergrowth, amid elephant grass and swampy ground. By nightfall on March 3rd, the Marauders had crossed the Nambyu Hka River, outside Walawbum. The next day, elements of the 3rd Battalion dug in and attempted to secure the village, only to come under heavy fire. The 56th Japanese Regiment had attacked and the I&R Platoon, in the front, found itself arrayed against at least 200 Japanese troops. The platoon, aided by mortars and just two machine-guns, left the field littered with Japanese dead, but under continuous heavy fire,  prepared to withdraw across the river.

Katz was wading chest-deep in water, clutching one end of a litter holding up an injured Marauder, when he looked back and saw a Nambu being leveled his way. “This is the end,” he thought.

On the opposite bank, PFC Norman Janis, a full-blooded Sioux Indian known as “chief,” saw the same gun and a Japanese soldier squatting behind it. Janis shot him in the head. When another took the victim’s place, he was also shot. Janis estimated he killed about seven Japanese this way.

Map3On the night of March 3rd, meantime, further north at Maingkwan, Colonel Brown’s 1st Tank Battalion blundered into the Japanese. The tanks were filing behind two armored bulldozers carving a path through the jungle, when the bulldozers came under fire. One bulldozer was knocked out by an anti-tank gun, while the other Japanese guns including artillery pieces, hammered the accompanying tanks and Chinese infantry. Two tanks, driven by inexperienced Chinese drivers fell into the Idi River. It quickly became apparent to Brown that he faced a battalion of Japanese. His Chinese were taking heavy casualties, but the tanks also began to take a toll on the Japanese who withdrew at dawn. The battle had claimed four armored vehicles and had resulted in nine American casualties. Chinese and Japanese losses were heavy. The two M3 Stuart tanks which had fallen into the river were pulled from the river and repaired.

By March 5, the Marauders had erected roadblocks to prevent the reinforcement of Japanese troops at Walawbum.  A Nisei Sergeant, Roy Matsumoto, climbed a tree and tapped into the Japanese telephone lines. Information obtained by Matsumoto allowed the Marauders to pinpoint the location of an enemy ammunition dump (which was bombed by Allied planes), and enabled Merrill to deploy Lt-Colonel McGee’s 2nd Battalion to set up additional roadblocks against Japanese forces rushing towards Walawbum.

Nevertheless, the Japanese attacked on March 6th unleashing heavy mortar fire against the Marauder foxholes, which were well protected, but not so the animal stockade, which left several mules killed. Later in the day, a company of Japanese waded across the river and mounted a Banzai charge which was met with murderous American fire near the river’s edge.

Among the many banzais heard was the odd cry: “Eleanor eats powdered eggs” — to which, Major Tony Petito, a Nisei officer, responded — in Japanese: “Tojo eats shit.”[l]

The American automatic weapons blazed away until their barrels turned red. Two heavy machine guns deployed overlooking the water each expended over 5,000 rounds of ammunition, until the river was whipped to froth and until the banks ran wet with blood. One of the machineguns, manned by Corporal Joseph Diori became so overheated that it ceased to work just as the Japanese began to quit the fight.

An estimated 400 Japanese troops died in the battle; only three Marauders had been wounded. It was enough for Tanaka, who decided to withdraw from the area. The battle of Walawbum was over. The Marauders had claimed 800 of the enemy for 200 casualties, most of them wounded.

Stilwell saw this as an opportunity to finish off the Japanese. He urged the Chinese to resume the offensive from Maingkwan. The Chinese succeeded in driving the Japanese from Jambu Bum, but south of Walawbum, they appeared to run out of steam. Although the Chinese 66th Regiment (of the 22nd Division) nearly surrounded the Japanese here, the Chinese brigade commander, Major Yu, refused to complete the job, leaving a passage for the Japanese to escape, in keeping with Sun Tzu and old Chinese military practices.

It was a great missed opportunity. Nevertheless, Stilwell was pleased and he instructed the Marauders and part of the Chinese 30th Division — altogether, about 7,000 men — to make hard for Myitkyina.

Stilwell6

Divider-9BACK TO BURMA
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Four days after the Marauders had set off their fast march from Ledo to Burma, Brigadier Bernard Fergusson’s 16th Brigade also departed Ledo, traveling southwest. Wingate had been there to see them off. “You are going into Burma,” he told the gathered troops. “Imagine yourself climbing up one side of a house and down the other in mud, and you think it’s impossible. It is not, because that is just what you are going to do.”

Few of the troops believed him outright. After all, they had trained to the point of exhaustion and had been engaged in relentless marches. How much different could Burma be? Much more arduous than they could have imagined, it transpired.

Map4

The 16th Brigade had orders to enter Burma further south, and to get there the brigade was transported by US trucks over part of the Ledo Road by Chinese drivers. One of the men onboard was Color Sergeant Harold “Tommy” Atkins of 21 Column (2nd Queens), who had worked a houseboy for a Charterhouse Public School back home in England before the war. He had joined the territorial army in 1937, and was posted to Palestine and Crete. He had seen action in Syria and at Tobruk, before sailing to India with his regiment. He had seen the world, but he had not seen anything yet.

LedoRoadThe Ledo Road proved an unending series of S-bends carved out of the mountainside, which climbed above the clouds, wound down into ravines and crisscrossed rivers on rickety bridges built with the wood from the surrounding jungle. “It was an atrocious road,” Atkins said. “It was still under construction by hand by thousands of coolies — Indians, Chinese, all sorts of people, and some giant American equipment.”[li]

But what was more dangerous, in Atkins’ view was the hair-raising manner in which the Chinese drove, even as the opaque, gray clouds overhead wept unceasingly. Many of the Chindits, traveling by truck had felt sorry for the muleteers who had to walk the distance with their animals. Now, they envied them.

Eventually, upon reaching the foothills of the Naga Hills everyone alighted from the trucks and advanced on foot. But reaching the Chindwin – not even their halfway point – proved an appalling 23-day struggle. The 2nd Queens were at front. This battalion, with six hundred men, seventy mules and twenty ponies was forced to travel by single column as the paths and tracks which crisscrossed the hills were never able to accommodate two men walking abreast. An enormous line began to take shape, stretching for 65 miles from end to end. At the tail end, long lines of troops waited their turn to enter the mountain trail headed east.

Sappers, moving ahead of the column, had cut steps into the hills to help the heavily laden men and mules traverse peaks that rose to 12,000ft in places. Yet, within half a day, the rains washed away the steps. Fergusson would write later that: “The rain was torrential and almost continuous; the gradients were often one in two…Many mule loads had to be carried by hand up steep slopes, and the path had to be rebuilt two or three times.” He felt especial sympathy for the mule leaders who “had the worst job of all.” These men had not only to manage their own loads but also ensure that the mule’s back did not get sore.

“Sometimes the mules fell over the sides of the mountain, down to 200-300 ft,” said Color Sergeant Atkins. “Men had to dump their packs, climb down, unload the mule, and help it up. Strangely very few were badly injured. They loaded them up, only to have it happen again with another mule. It was as hard to go down the hills as climb up. At times you were running and felt your knee joints under strain. It was as exhausting as climbing. In some places we had to offload the mules and send them off sliding down on their haunches, and put the loads on bamboo slides to manhandle the loads down. You arrived at the bottom to see another ruddy great climb up it seemed never ending and went on like that till we reached the Chindwin.”

As the mules carried doubly important loads such as wireless set, mortars, heavy machine guns, charging sets and ammunition, muleteers fretted night and day over their charges. The men also struggled under overloaded and gigantic packs, akin to loads that had been carried in the 1943 expedition. Then, the total weight carried by his troops had been about 72lbs — half the weight of the average man. The Everest pack alone weighed six lbs. They carried seven days’ worth of rations, amounting to 14lbs in weight, bayonet, rifle, a knife (of the Sykes, Bowie, dah or Kukri variety), three grenades, a groundsheet, a spare shirt, trousers, four pairs of socks, balaclava, rubber shoes, a jackknife, toggle-rope, canvas life-jacket, a “housewife” (sewing kit), mess-tin, rations bags, water bottle, a chagul (a canvas water bag, but which did not prevent water evaporation), and other assorted items.[lii]

Food was another point of contention. Unwilling to put his men through the privations of 1943, when they had marched into Burma without adequate supplies, Fergusson had taken up the matter with Wingate who promised them proper rations.  What transpired was that the men were issued American K-rations, replacing the bully beef with egg and bacon, and the hard tack with biscuits. Unfortunately, the rations had been designed for short duration consumption, which mean that they had to be used for no more than fifteen meals (five days) in a row before they were replaced or augmented by other rations.[liii] In its most common form, the K-ration offered troops 2,830 calories a day — which was to prove far less than the 6,000 calories the troops were burning up under exertion.

K-Rations

Wingate understood this, and to give the men variety, authorized the delivery of one “luxury” meal per man during airdrops — which proved erratic in practice for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the enemy was near, and would mortar the DZ. On other occasions, ground mist interfered with drops because the planes could not see the signals being flashed from the ground. Sometimes the planes would simply fly over the DZ without dropping their loads as the troops on the ground had failed to flash the most recent signal, which was changed every five days.[liv] When they could get it, however, the Chindits found the “luxury” meal desirable — with its 14 ounces of bread, a 7.5-ounce can of fruit, two ounces of margarine, two ounces of rum and one raw onion. In addition, it also contained a supplement of tea, sugar, salt and powdered milk, totaling 6.5 ounces. The ravenous Chindits usually ate this “luxury” meal at the drop zone.

On the afternoon of February 28th, the leading elements of the brigade finally came upon the Chindwin. Captain Rodney Tatchell, a former architect, and now at the age of 35, a commando platoon leader remembered the “wild sight and sound” of the river. “It was an amazing spectacle and looked rather like a bank holiday at Brighton,” he remembered as men clustered at the water’s edge, some already in the river.

The men gathered five miles north of Singkaling Hkamti, at a bend in the Chindwin, watching in awe as a flight of Dakotas come over low and dropped rubber boats for the crossing. Two Waco CG-4 gliders, loaded with boats, outboard engines and fuel also landed softly upon a sandbar nearby.  Once the craft had been emptied of supplies, foisting gear on the gliders were set up. The C-47 Dakotas came in low, and snatched the gliders back into the air. It was an astounding performance, but the men had little time to dwell on what they had seen. Already, bands of Leicestershires were assembling the boats and pushing off into the water. They were the first across. There were not enough boats for everybody, so the troops went over in batches. Some of the muleteers had trained their animals to swim, and now both men and beast took the water together, some of the men hanging onto the mules, their kit rolled up in ponchos. The average Briton was a poor swimmer, having never learned it as a child, but Wingate had ensured that swimming was an integral part of Chindit training.

GliderPickup

By when Color Sergeant Atkins swam to the opposite bank, a good half mile away, and pulled himself to shore, heaving and panting, he spotted two men walking by the river’s edge. One was naked except for a battered slouch hat on his head, a monocle at his eye and a towel around his waist — Brigadier Fergusson. The brigadier, who had grown a formidable beard, had none of the usual twinkle in his eye. Atkins thought he looked downright fearsome. The other, steel-eyed and scruffy in an old Khaki drill suit, was Wingate who had landed by light plane on a sandbar much earlier.

Blimey, that was our “top brass” responsible for all our doing, Atkins thought. He wondered what the more conventional dressed brass hats of the European Theater of War would say if they had seen them.”[lv]

The brigade took the next six days to organize itself on the east bank. On March 5, it set off for the Indaw area, 120 miles to the south.  The troops were told that the Japanese were nearby, but none were seen, and in any case, morale was sky-high. They were out of the mountains for now and in relatively flat country.

Meantime, that same evening, Lalaghat airbase in India teemed with activity. Large numbers of C-47 Dakotas tested their engines. Dozens of gliders stood off the tarmac, being positioned into place. Jeeps sped here and there, long lines of men stood in the area off to the dispersal, inspecting their equipment and weapons, loudspeakers announced instructions.

The heavy brass stood nearby: General William “Uncle Bill” Slim (commander of the British-Indian 14th Army), Air Vice-Marshall John Baldwin (commander of the RAF’s 3rd Tactical Air Force), US Maj-General George Stratemeyer (of Eastern Air Command), and US Brigadier-General Williams D. Old (of US  Troop Carrier Command). They watched lesser souls such as US Colonel Cochran, Brigadier Michael Calvert, his staff officers and the infantry discussing last-minute news and making small plans. It was the big night. Calvert’s 77th Brigade was preparing to make its grand launch into Burma.

Divider-9A HARD LANDING
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When Wingate had released the execution order for Operation “Thursday” on February 29, he had envisioned a force of Dakotas towing 40 Waco gliders each to Broadway and Piccadilly.

The Dakotas were to takeoff at 1700 on March 5, so as to ensure that the pathfinder gliders reached the objective shortly after dark. The main force was to depart 40 minutes later. Because of the grave shortage of transport aircraft, however, each Dakota was to take off in one-minute intervals, towing an unprecedented two gliders — a concept brought into existence through the “can do” spirit of the Air Commandos, even though it terrified many pilots.

Five air units were to provide the heavy transport aircraft for the job — the USAAF’s 27th and 315th Troop Carrier Squadrons, the RAF’s No. 31 and No. 117 Squadrons and the 25-odd Dakotas and C-46s of the 1st Air Commandos. In addition, Air Commando UC-64 Norsemen transports were to airdrop a thousand pounds of concertina wire and other supplies to help establish the perimeter defenses of Broadway and Piccadilly.

The air operation was scheduled to last seven days. For the first three days, troops were to be landed at Piccadilly and Broadway, on the fourth day, March 8, part of the 111th Brigade was to be flown to Chowringhee.

Hoping to achieve maximum surprise, Wingate had forbidden air reconnaissance over the landing zones lest the Japanese deduce their intentions. Wingate’s RAF liaison officer, Squadron Leader Terence “Terry” O’Brien protested. The Japanese in Burma had no radar or an aircraft tracking system. In any case, it was impossible for the Japanese to identify the target area simply by plotting the route of a photo reconnaissance aircraft, which covered hundreds of miles as a matter of routine. The RAF’s No. 681 Squadron — a Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) flying Spitfires and Mosquitoes, regularly operated over Burma at 20,000 to 30,000 ft. A simple request to RAF headquarters could have helped Wingate and his staff monitor changes at the landing zones.

Wingate “was surrounded by more pilots willing to help than any army commander ever had before,” O’Brien would write in a trilogy of his memoirs after the war. “And his own army staff were not idiots. They were highly skilled professionals … they must surely have known something about aerial reconnaissance and could have advised him — had they been allowed or dared. Apparently they were not or did not. Hard to believe that some people could have been so meekly deferential, and one man so barbed against advice.”[lvi] If O’Brien had grave doubts about the condition of the landing zones that evening, so did Colonel Cochran, leader of the Air Commandos.

Cochran, who had been chosen personally by General of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Henry “Hap” Arnold to head the Air Commandos (then titled “Project 9,” like some oddball science-fiction movie to come)[lvii], epitomized American initiative, athleticism and confidence. With his broad jaw and easy smile, he also embodied American good looks.

He had joined the Army Air Corps in 1936, at the height of the great depression, only because “it looked like a good way to make a pretty easy living.” He was right and was soon earning $75 a month — more than what a lot of people made during those days.

By 1941, he was commander of the 65th Fighter Squadron, flying P-40 Kittykawks in Connecticut, and approached the cartoonist Milton Caniff, whom he had known from Ohio State University, to design an insignia for the squadron. Some months later, while watching Cochran and other pilots practice fighter airplane maneuvers near Groton, Connecticut, Caniff realized “what potential material” they were for his carton strip, Terry and the Pirates.

After America’s entry into World War II, Caniff had “Terry” join the USAAF. On August 3, 1942, he gave Terry a new companion, the swashbuckling Captain Flip Corkin, modeled on Cochran whom Caniff regarded as the quintessential American fighting officer.

Cochran1

By 1943, Cochran was in the war for real. In November 1942, he had led a group of 35 replacement pilots and planes to Algeria. Casualties were heavy, and soon Cochran realized that he was the most senior surviving officer in the 58th Fighter Squadron. In the next six months of the war, Cochran personally blew up a German headquarters at Kairououn, Tunisia, and shot down two German fighters, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star and a slew of other medals. His feats had earned him the adoration of the American media and the attention of “Hap” Arnold.

Now as Wingate worked at his tent at the west end of the runway, busy issuing orders and coordinating activities at Hailakandi airfield, Cochran, on a hunch, ordered his chief of photo reconnaissance, a New Yorker, 1st Lt. Charles Russhon to fly out in a B-25 and get last-minute photographs of the landing zones. He told Russhon to hurry. There were just a few hours to go before the main force departed Lalaghat.

A scant fifteen minutes before the planes and gliders were due to take off, Russhon reappeared from Hailakandi, breathless with excitement, the still-wet photographs of the sites clutched in his hands.

PiccadillyThe results proved a bombshell to Wingate and his staff. The photos showed that Broadway and Chowringhee were untouched by human hands, but at Piccadilly, large logs were strewn across the crossing. Two days ago the area had been clear. Now, it was impossible to land gliders on it.

Initially there was a sort of dumbfounded silence among the gathered officers, then alarm spread, minds racing for an explanation. Had the landing site been compromised? As Piccadilly was the same clearing from which Lt-Colonel Walter “Scottie” Scott and the wounded of the 13th King’s Regiment (Liverpool), had evacuated from last year, and as such had been well photographed for the 28 June 1943 edition of Life magazine, it was conceivable the Japanese knew of its significance. Wingate’s chief of Staff, Derek Tulloch, also said later that Wingate had been convinced that the Chinese had betrayed his secret. Did this mean that the other sites had also been divined and compromised — and left alone for an ambush?

Wingate took the photographs to “Uncle Bill” Slim. After several minutes he came towards the cluster of Chindit officers, handed the photos to Scott, now preparing to take 1st Battalion of the King’s regiment (Liverpool) into Burma, and turned his head away, his head bent, his hands clasped behind his back. “He looked a forlorn and lonely figure as he walked towards the setting Sun,” Scott said. “After going about 30 yards, he returned” and called to Brigadier Michael Calvert, Scott’s superior.[lviii]

Calvert, who had planned on going in with the first wave of gliders with Scott, considered the problem. He had a soft, soothing voice uncharacteristic of a fighting man, but which made men listen. Calvert had known Wingate for two years now — since those first tumultuous days in Burma in 1942, when in the midst of the Japanese invasion, Calvert was on the staff of the Bush Warfare School at Maymo. There had been an erroneous rumor then —possibly exaggerated by the officers at the School, that Wingate was there to take command of all irregular operations even though he had no combat experience of any kind in the Far East.

Calvert

Several of the Bush Warfare officers had known something Wingate before, of his campaign in Ethiopia, and of his failed suicide attempt in 1941, and thus shared the regular army’s mistrust of the man’s unconventionality. Goaded by such whisperings, Calvert had been angry at first — determined to waste little time, or courtesy with this upstart Lt-Colonel. When he found Wingate in his office, sitting in his chair, he had glared. As if talking to a subordinate, he had demanded to know who he was.

“Wingate,” came the reply, calm.

Calvert pointed out that Wingate was sitting in his chair. Wingate politely moved. The irritation dissipated when Wingate began to ask him all the “right questions.”

“Clearly he knew all that I knew about unconventional warfare and a lot more,” Calvert later wrote. “He was streets ahead of anyone I had spoken to…. Suddenly I no longer felt tired.”[lix]

Later that April, even as the Japanese kept up their relentless advance, Wingate spent some time traveling around central Burma with Calvert, who was amazed at the way Wingate studied the ground and the countryside. “I had been looking at the countryside with unseeing eyes,” Calvert said. “… It was humbling.”[lx]

As Burma’s collapse became more pronounced, Calvert had stayed behind to carry out sabotage operations, but eventually his unit broke up. Finding themselves in danger of being cut off and starved, Calvert and a handful of stragglers made for India.

Eating what scraps of food they could find, they eventually reached the Chindwin. Deciding the worst was behind them, Calvert separated from his men for a short swim. He chose a bend in the river, stripped off his ragged clothes and jumped in. When he surfaced, he saw to his horror, a Japanese officer on the bank, similarly lured by thoughts of a swim. At first both men hesitated, then the Japanese officer advanced into the water to eliminate Calvert in what was clearly meant to be a fight to the death. Calvert was once a regimental boxing champion, which his medium but powerful physique suggested, but the Japanese man knew jujitsu. In the end, it proved an unequal struggle. In spite of desperate kicks and claws at his face, Calvert held the Japanese officer underwater until his body jerked and went slack. When Calvert let it go, the body floated off downstream, like some “ghastly, yellow Ophelia.”[lxi]

Overcome with revulsion and exhaustion, Calvert staggered back to his men who were some distance away, laughing and playing in the water. Leaving Calvert to recuperate, the troops went off in search of the Japanese officer’s unit. Catching the 20-strong enemy by surprise along the river, the British blazed away until all the Japanese were dead. As the last echoes of gunfire receded, swallowed up the jungle, the body of the drowned Japanese officer floated past.

Although the incident would haunt him for the rest of his life, Calvert knew what had to be done in times of war, no matter how hard it was, and now he suggested that the entire force of 80 gliders (Slim reduced this to 60) be landed at Broadway at once. If there was indeed an ambush waiting, Calvert wanted everyone and everything on hand to tackle the Japanese.

Besides, to delay now meant waiting for the next full moon. With the Japanese offensive into India imminent, to stay also meant being absorbed into IV Corps at Imphal without ever having had a chance to prove themselves again. “We knew we had to go,” Calvert wrote later. “We could never again be keyed up to such a pitch, morally, physically or materially.”[lxii]

Wingate returned to Slim, who, according to the official Indian history, Reconquest of Burma, offered his verdict: “The operation will go on.”[lxiii] When Wingate came back to his officers, he gave fresh orders as though Piccadilly had never existed. Scott’s battalion was to go to Broadway right away.

Only after the war did the Allies discover that Burmese teakwood farmers had simply laid the logs out to dry at Piccadilly without ever having known the significance of that jungle clearing.

Cochran took the responsibility of informing his transport and glider pilots of the change. “He sprang on the bonnet of a jeep,” Slim would later write. “’Say fellers,’ he announced. ‘We’ve got a better place to go to’.”[lxiv]

Groups of men broke into activity. Loads had to be switched and aircrews had to be briefed on the new plan. Sixty-one gliders were unloaded and harnessed with their tows in pairs to the twin-engined Dakotas acting as the tug-ships. Battledress-clad Chindits piled into the gliders with full field kit and armed to the teeth with submachine guns, Brens, rifles, bayonets, pistols, knives and grenades. Retaining the lessons of the earlier Chindit expedition, many wore beards.

WingateGp

Calvert arranged to send the codeword “Soyalink” (a much despised ersatz sausage manufactured from soybeans) to headquarters in the event of failure; “Pork Sausage,” if successful.

Despite the dramatic change of plans, the operation was delayed for only 72 minutes. At 6.12 pm, the first Dakota, towing its two gliders, roared up its engines and upon a signal from a ground officer, sped down the runway at full throttle, sweeping into the reddening skies. The rest of the glider train followed, bouncing and swaying all the way down the airstrip, leaping into the darkening skies and heading for the heart of enemy-occupied Burma. The airborne stage of “Operation Thursday” had begun. The mission was no longer in the hands of Wingate and his staff; it rested with the Dakota pilots and Americans of the Air Commando. Cochran’s deputy, Lt-Colonel John Alison piloted a glider towed by the second airplane. Cochran would have gladly joined him had he not been ground on Wingate’s personal order.

For some time now, Cochran had been personally leading the Air Commando attack sections into action over Burma. With their P-51B Mustangs armed with 500lb-bombs and even 325lb naval depth charges which proved devastating when used against jungle-covered targets, they had bombed railway lines, junctions, warehouses and marshaling yards, while the larger B-25 Mitchells had bombed railway bridges and other rail targets. Initially, nobody had seen any Japanese fighters, but then on February 14, ten Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” fighters of the Japanese 50th Sentai had appeared out of the blue. A sprawling aerial melee erupted. Two Air Commando P-51s were shot out of the sky and three planes damaged. In return, the Americans shot up one Oscar which crash landed. After this Wingate had put a stop of Cochran’s combat flying. He was simply too valuable to lose.

ACGNobody had ever tried two towing two gliders at once under operational conditions before and the grossly strained Dakota and glider combinations labored for more than 250 km (150 miles) over enemy lines and 7,000 ft mountains, with heavily loaded Chindits, stores and terrified mules. Struggling with the controls, the Dakota pilots had to use every iota of experience, strength and concentration to clear the highest mountains and combat the increasing air turbulence. No fighters escorted the aerial armada. The element of surprise was crucial to success. But already, they had been spotted.

Colonel Sakuma Takanobu, commander of the 214th Infantry Regiment was leading his regiment through the Kabaw Valley when near the village of Kantha, he heard the roar of engines. Looking up he saw huge aircraft flying overhead, their red and green navigation lights blinking. The airborne stream appeared endless. “Must be going to bomb Rangoon,” Takanobu thought and put them out of his mind.[lxv] Others were more astute.

When the formation flew over Indaw airfield, they were met with a bewildered silence from the airfield’s fighter and anti-aircraft guns. No one knew what to make of this armada. But when Lt. Narabayashi awoke Suzuki, the sleeping Chief of Staff of the 5th Air Division, the colonel, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, merely said: “So, they’ve come at last.”[lxvi]

Major-General Naburo Tazoe,[lxvii] commander of the 5th Air Division in Burma, had long suspected that the Chindits would use gliders in their next venture into Burma. Now, he made quick, accurate assessments about the implications of the sightings. But other Japanese commander, myopic in their focus on India and their invasion, Operation “U-Go,” set to launch soon, paid the reports scant mind.

The landing zone at Broadway was flanked by jungle-clad mountains descending to the edge. The clearing, east of the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway valley and west of the Irrawaddy River, was itself no more than a scrub fields in an area with streams and small villages. The nearby trails were poor, suitable only for men and mules. As the gliders arrived over the area, they spotted the landing zone illuminated by brilliant moonlight, but a ground haze interfered with visibility.

The Wacos were grossly overloaded. These surprisingly complex machines (they cost $15,000 apiece and had 70,000 parts), could carry two pilots, 13 troops and equipment and its maximum carrying weight, as set by the manufacturer was 3,750 lbs. It was the only US aircraft of the war which could carry more than its weight which the Air Commandos took advantage of by increasing the maximum weight capacity to 7,500 lbs. But several gliders were overloaded even beyond this capacity, with some weighing about 9,000 lbs. Some of those overloaded carried 4,320 lb Clarkair CA1 bulldozers, a vital bit of equipment.

Waco

US Captain William H. Taylor in the lead pathfinder glider, touched down at about 10 pm. The craft landed heavily. Chindits exited the craft to tackle any Japanese opposition. The surrounding jungle was silent. Moonbeams flitted off the faces of the men and created phantoms in the foliage. Eventually, it became clear that the area was deserted. Taylor ordered that the “all clear” green flare be fired and had smudge pots positioned along the intended flight line.

Slowly, one by one, the rest gliders of the glider cut loose from their tugs and dived. The journey from India had taken close to 2½ hours, but the pilot’s fears had been realized – over a dozen gliders had been lost. Some broke their tow-ropes as the Dakotas, engine straining and overheating, struggled to get over the high mountains. Others were thrown about by air turbulence and crashed, while still others missed the landing zones all together. Gliders and Dakotas crashed over a wide area, killing or injuring many of their occupants.

Four gliders had crashed shortly after takeoff; two more were cut loose over Lalaghat when their Dakota developed problems, and two more were released over Imphal when their Dakota found that it was consuming so much fuel that it would never reach Broadway. Six of these castaways landed in India, the remaining two west of the Chindwin. A further nine gliders were lost east of the river, in enemy territory. US Lt-Colonel Arvid Olson, the Air Commando Operations officer, was aboard one such glider. Seven of the nine crews of these doomed machines dodged Japanese patrols, endured hunger and other privations to return to India — Olson among them.

Two of the gliders had landed near the headquarters of the Japanese 31st Division, another two crashed near the headquarters of the 15th Division and three came down near a Japanese regimental Headquarters area, part of the invasion force for “U-Go.” None of the prisoners that the Japanese captured, talked, and staff officers concluded that the men were commandos seeking to create havoc for Slim’s IV Corps. SEAC later reported that the Japanese then spent the better part of a week combing the area along the Chindwin for further gliderborne mischief-makers, their attention firmly “focused away from the area of the main landings.”

One glider pilot, an American 2nd Lieutenant who was captured alive, had been blinded after his glider struck a teak tree. The other 17 men in the craft had escaped into the jungle, leaving him behind. “Otherwise, he would have never have let himself be taken alive,” said war correspondent Iizuka Masaji, deputy head of Yomiuri Shimbun’s East Asian, who was told of the man’s interrogation later.[lxviii]

The pilot gave only his name and the address of his family, and when pressed to reveal the name of the airfield he had flown from and his destination, he had replied: “There is something called Bushido in the Japanese Army, or so I’ve heard. We too have the soldier’s spirit. I would rather die than betray my country.”

Japanese intelligence officers went to work trying to calculate where the glider had been headed, eventually deciding that it had been towed from a base west of Imphal, with the destination being “a sandy area in the jungle, which the invaders were to find by flying over Paungbyin and turning north at the Irrawaddy.”

The 15th Division’s commander, Lt-General Masafumi Yamauchi, who was grievously ill with tuberculosis, estimated that sixty gliders had been involved and estimating that each held nine men, deduced that about 700 men had landed somewhere in Burma. Mataguchi was only informed about the development on March 9, by when his troops were already advancing on Assam.

Back at Broadway, frightful accidents began to take place. A close inspection of the ground by the first teams of Chindits and engineers had revealed that the ground was not as flat and ideal as believed. The earth was pitted with groves made by towed teakwood branches and trunks. Other teak logs and buffalo holes were concealed under high elephant grass and there were two standing trees on the flight path.

The second landing glider crashed after its pilot tried to avoid hitting Taylor’s glider. Lt-Col. Alison, in the third, however, landed without mishap and immediately took command of landing operations as Lt-Colonel “Scottie” Scott and his men attempted to set up a rudimentary perimeter. Patrols of men went out for miles to make contact with the enemy.

Meantime, a massive pileup of gliders began to take place. Alison quickly ordered the smudge pots rearranged to disperse the landing gliders, but if the smudge pots were not rearranged after two landings, gliders were seen to plow into others on the ground and into the surrounding jungle. In fact, despite the efforts of Alison and Scott, dozens of serious mishaps occurred. Two gliders landed short of the field, into the jungle, killing everyone onboard including the commander of the US 900th Airborne Engineers Aviation Company.

Many Chindits desperately tried to drag the wrecks clear, and free dozens of trapped men, but already another group had dived. One hurtled straight into another on the ground, welding into another glider in a ball of scrap. Another, carrying part of Lt. de Witt’s Commando Platoon (20 Column) and other American engineers was still overhead, when the pilot remarked: “It looks like a hell of a mess down there. But I’ll see what I can do.”

To the horror of one of the commandos, Private John Mattison, he saw the pilot making straight for the trees. Calvert, who had already landed, found that he was directly in the path of the incoming glider. The craft shot between two trees, the wings came off and the fuselage bounded forward for some time. By some miracle, everyone lived.

By now, Calvert was starting to grow appalled at the growing tangle of mess on the flight path. He decided Broadway could take no more gliders until the wreckage was cleared. The cries of the wounded punctuated the night air and fire from flares appeared to magnify sheer amount of wreckage on the ground.  Elsewhere at Broadway, grim scenes were being carried out. Doctors carried out amputations by moonlight and able Chindits began to hunt out their lost comrades who had crashed into the jungle. Sometime, they found survivors dazed and shocked, but too often they found them dead or badly wounded.

Calvert ordered the smudge pots extinguished, but more gliders continued to appear. Clearly, there was no way additional gliders could be landed at the field. Yet, when he attempted to relay this information to India, Alison told him that the force’s only radio had been damaged in the landing. Exhausted and dejected, Calvert lost his temper with Alison. “Unnecessarily,” as he wrote later.

One of Alison’s corporals, a communications specialist, however, worked feverishly on the radio until it was able to work for a short time. Calvert wasted no time, and sent the only message he could: “Soyalink.”

Wingate was still at Lalaghat when the coded signal arrived at about 2.30 am. Lt-General “Uncle Bill” Slim would claim for years soon afterwards that the Chindit leader lost his head and had made a spectacle of himself.[lxix] Whether this was a product of Sim’s bias against the Chindits who had poached his best men, is unclear. What we do know is that Slim himself, in that moment of great angst, was “a tower of strength, absolutely calm, absolutely in the picture and worth a guinea a minute to the staff whose nerves became badly shaken,” as Calvert’s deputy Colonel Claude Rome later described the scene.[lxx]

What we also know is that Wingate sought out his chief of staff, Brigadier Derek Tulloch and told him that it looked as though the operation had failed. Tulloch did not think so, and told Wingate to get some sleep.

Cochran, meantime, immediately recalled the second wave of gliders. All heeded the call, except one Dakota towing a single glider, badly-overloaded with engineering equipment belonging to US 2nd Lieutenant Robert R. Brackett of the American 900th Airborne Engineers.[lxxi]

An exhausted Calvert, Life Correspondent William Vandivert and Alison had been napping near the landing path when they heard the incoming craft, and the cries of men on the ground shouting, “Glider!”

The craft swept over the landing ground, pulling up just in time to avoid a wreck but plowed into the jungle wall at 100 km/h (60 mph). Trees on either side tore off the glider’s wings, but the fuselage still carried on with its load now wrenched loose from its mooring. When the fuselage finally halted several hundred feet away, the machinery still continued on – at 60 mph. The bulldozer flung the pilot and co-pilot out, while it sailed out underneath them. The American pilots fell back unhurt. “I planned it just that way,” the lead pilot, US Flight Officer Gene A. Kelly, remarked later. Brackett had also survived.

Calvert was too sleepy to worry. With this last entry, the skies over Broadway fell silent. Only 37 out of 61 gliders had managed to reach Broadway, but it was acceptable because there were no Japanese. Out of those gliders that had arrived, 34 had been so damaged that they could not be towed back out. Human casualties were of a graver nature. Calvert would later estimate that he had 31 men killed (including four Americans) and 21 wounded. Later, these figures were reduced 24 total casualties, with the most of the killed being those onboard the two gliders which had fallen into the jungle short of the field. Among the dead was US Captain Patrick Casey, the commanding officer of the 900th Airborne Engineers, who had been given the important task of clearing the debris and building the airstrip.

Waco2

Four hours later, at the silvery light of dawn, on March 6th, Calvert was awoken by a monocled figure with thirty men standing in perfect parade formation behind him. “Major Shuttleworth, sir,” the man said, “And thirty men of the 1st Battalion, The Lancashire Fusiliers reporting for orders, sir.”[lxxii]

At Lalaghat, Wingate awoke to the exhilarating news that the codeword “Pork Sausage,” had arrived.

Broadway

Wingate’s staff would later estimate that the night had passed with the successful delivery of 539 personnel, three mules and 29,972 pounds of stores at Broadway. These figures were conservative. Captain Taylor said equipment which had never been listed in manifests, had made its way onboard the gliders, including a great white charger which one Chindit had offered an astonished Alison while he busy trying to move the smudge pots around the field.

At dawn, the light illuminated a truly desolate picture. “Parts of gliders strewn all over the field,” Alison later wrote. “There were [a number of] dead and many wounded.” Calvert was despondent. If the wounded were not flown out soon, some would die. Worse, the wreckage would limit his freedom of maneuver if the Japanese arrived.

With Casey dead, the onus of building the airstrip fell on his young deputy, 2nd Lt. Brackett. When Alison had asked Brackett how long it would take to carve an airstrip out of the mess, Brackett, in typical American can-do spirit, had replied: “If I have it done by this afternoon will that be too late?”[lxxiii] Calvert realized that it had been good decision to use American engineers. “Alison had wanted US airborne engineers,” he wrote later, “[And in any case] British and Indian engineers had said the project was not practicable.”[lxxiv]

Brackett was true to his word. His surviving engineers and the Chindits began bulldozing a landing strip on Broadway. Further airdrops were hurriedly scheduled. Just thirteen hours after construction of the airstrip had begun Dakota transports and 15 L-1 and L-5 light planes, flying over at tree top level, began making regular landings at the field, bringing in reinforcements and taking out the wounded.

By mid-morning, the glider wrecks, tall grass and foliage around the makeshift airstrip had been cleared, and 55 gliders towed singly, landed safely that night at Broadway – now with a fully lit runway and radio tower.

Later that evening, Wingate arrived in person with Brigadier-General Old to see them. The Chindit leader had a grown a massive beard, even though he was not directing operations from the field and was wearing his oversized Kitchener topee[lxxv]. The officers believed his visit gave a boost to the troops, but the rank and file tried to stay out of his way and pretended to be busy[lxxvi]. Wingate, however, was in fine humor. Calvert was told that he had been put in for a second DSO. It was perhaps apt that it was his 31st birthday. “Let it go to your heart and not your head,” Wingate would tell him a few weeks later, after the medal was granted.[lxxvii] Scott would also be awarded a DSO, although as Calvert pointed to Wingate, Alison had also deserved something as success would have been impossible without him.

Broadway2

US Troop Carrier command sent 62 Dakotas into Broadway on that night. During the peak of activity, a Dakota could be seen departing or arriving every 47 seconds. It struck Alison and Calvert’s RAF liaison officer, Squadron Leader Bobbie Thompson that Broadway was busier than a civilian airport. “La Guardia [airport in NY] has nothing on us,” Thompson quipped.[lxxviii]

“Nobody as seen a transport operation until he has stood at Broadway under the light of a Burma full moon and watched Dakotas coming in and taking off in opposite directions on a single strip all night long at the rate of one landing or one take-off every three minutes,” added another RAF officer.

That same day, Wingate, flush with the success at Broadway gave the green light to transport one half of Lentaigne’s 111th Brigade by Dakota to Chowringhee – the last of the landing zones – on the other side of the Irrawaddy, and thus cut-off from the forces at Broadway. This did not unduly worry the men of the 4/9th Gurkhas, who had orders the rendezvous with the North Kachin Levies. It, however, worried Lentaigne.

Squadron Leader O’Brien, who been expecting to go to Chowringhee on March 10 was astonished to learn that he would be going that night, with a nine-glider force of engineers, Gurkhas and his own RAF liaison team — the vanguard of a 100-strong force of gliders to follow.

Handed a Rs 100 note (a large amount then; today worth about $1.50) in case he crashed on the Indian side of the border, O’Brien assumed the co-pilot’s seat in a Waco glider. A captain from headquarters began to reel off tales about the horrific landings at Broadway. O’Brien turned white. The captain added cheerfully, “But you’ll get there all right. Good luck.”

O’Brien who had always believed a glider was light, free as seagull and so silent that once could hear dog barking on the earth below, was in for a shock. “The Waco” was not a glider,” he later wrote. “It was more a wallowing barge than a glider.”[lxxix]

Worse, O’Brien’s pilot seemed to have strange ideas about how to fly the craft. The tow line shivered taut when the tug plane increased throttle. The Waco jerked forward, nearly ejecting O’Brien from his seat, and momentarily, a high-pitched shrieking began. O’Brien looked over at the pilot and saw that he had pushed the control stick forward so that Waco’s nose was scraping along the runway. The dust outside was so thick that the tow line was no longer visible.

The pilot heaved back on the stock and the Waco’s nose came up, the screeching replaced by a roaring sound that the wind made against loose canvas. As it took to the air, the entire aircraft creaked, the inner ribs and joints whining, the wooden segments apparently cracking. Then they could make out the moonlight gleaming off the tugging Dakota 150 yards ahead.

When O’Brien looked back into the cabin, he saw the Gurkhas jammed so tight that it looked as though the person who had closed the outer door had used force to lock it into place. Not one of the Gurkhas was strapped in. O’Brien realized that if the Waco crashed every man would be hurled towards him and the pilot at 150 miles per hour.

Reaching Chowringhee, the pilot cut loose from the tug and dived straight for the ground. A howling grew which was more terrifying than the descent. The landing speed was incredibly high, faster than O’Brien could have possibly imagined it would be.

The ground loomed up at them. A mighty bang sounded as the Waco hit the grassy earth, the impact pinning everyone in their seats. The Waco bounded back up in the air and came down once more with a loud thud, rumbling over all manner of obstacles, logs, boulders, stumps, before coming to a jarring halt. It seemed incredible to O’Brien that no had been killed. In fact, no one had even been injured. The rest of the gliders were equally fortunate for the most part but the Waco carrying the all-important bulldozer crashed. Without the bulldozer, an airstrip could not leveled, or so O’Brien thought.

BulldozerHe had not contended with the chief sapper officer, who went to work with the Gurkhas with only four shovels and 12 Kukris — the distinctive, curved Gurkha dagger. From 11 pm night to morning, they worked relentlessly, leveling the ground, filling in depressions, clearing debris and glider wrecks. A day later, on March 7, another glider with yet another bulldozer arrived, landing safely. The noise of the dozer as it went to work, shattered the peace, but no Japanese arrived although they were thought to be close.

Among the first gliders which had landed at Chowringhee, five were packed with the 60-odd volunteers of Blaine’s Detachment (Bladet) — so named for James Blaine, a veteran of the first Chindit operation when he had been Calvert’s sergeant-major.

Now with a commissioned, Major James Blaine, had orders to take his force to blow up rail lines and a rail bridge between Mandalay and Myitkyina, to give the Japanese the impression that large numbers of British troops were operating in the area.

Unfortunately for Blaine, he discovered on the following day that he had been injured during the landing and was not able to march for long distances. Appalled, he handed over command to his deputy, Lt. Arthur S. Binnie, and returned to India with the glider pilots being flown out that day. Binnie now faced a conundrum — nearly the all the men in the unit were novices. Blaine’s battle experience had been crucial. However, relying on one of the few veterans in the unit, Company Sergeant-Major Chivers, Binnie led his unit deep into the jungle, towards their objective.

By the third night, March 8, Chowringhee was ready to accept Dakotas and as those great aircraft came, Chowringhee became, in the words of O’Brien, a “magical fairground at its extravagant peak. Wheels of colored light circling about in the moonlit sky, cones of brilliant landing lights flashing across the trees and strip, red and green beams from the signal lamp at the edge of the strip, aircraft rumbling in, taxiing, and taking off, fiery red of roaring exhaust clouds of dust whipped up to float across the stars, files of clanking men following blue guide lights, asthmatic calls of devocalized mules, a jeep scurrying about with headlights blazing, shouting men, clattering mule ramps, thumping doors, squealing brakes.”

The senior 111th Brigade officers were among those that arrived that night. The sight of Chowringhee was breathtaking from the air. Orbiting C-47 Dakotas flitted in and out of the darkness over a clearing so brightly lit that it outshined even that great Calcutta thoroughfare after which it had been named.

Cones of light illuminated the jungle walls and the landing strip. Major John Master’s Dakota began its descent; the aircraft touched down with a bump, racing along the dirt airstrip, the trees flashing by, the lights a blur, until the plane slowed and the tail dropped to the earth.[lxxx]

Alighting from the craft, Masters found Brigadier “Joe” Lentaigne sitting under a tree, with a radio. He could also see Lt-Colonel Alison, having flown in earlier, sitting in the cockpit of a landed C-47 which served as his control tower. By dawn, the brigade headquarters and four columns of Chindits (30, 40, 49 and 94) had landed.

Chowringhee was to exist for three nights before it was discovered by the Japanese. But before the enemy bombers appeared, over 2,000 people had been landed and disappeared into the jungle. By when the Japanese bombs finally fell, Chowringhee was as a ghost encampment.

A thousand men of Brigadier “Jumbo” Morris’s Morrisforce, had gone northeast towards, towards Sima, on the east of Myitkyina on the 9th, and another 100 had gone to recruit local Kachins. The remaining —constituting the headquarters of the 111th Brigade with 30 and 40 Columns had set off, on March 10 towards their rendezvous point, 130 miles away to the west, where they were to meet their columns of Cameronians and 2nd King’s own who had landed at Broadway.

As the brigade headquarters moved west that day, they heard the noise of aircraft engines, different from those of Dakotas and the Mustangs. They were Japanese Oscars, headed to attack Chowringhee. Soon one could hear the distant noises of gunfire and bombs as the Japanese strafed and bombed the three or four derelict and broken gliders which had been abandoned at the field. Everyone along that long stream of Chindits began to laugh and smile.

The Japanese were slower to discover Broadway, their efforts upset by roving bands of Air Commando fighters which prowled northern Burma. Initially, traces of the Japanese air force were few but on March 8, the situation turned. A Nisei intelligence technician, Staff Sergeant Shojiro “Tom” Taketa had intercepted Japanese communication between pilots and ground controllers at an airfield identified only as “Nagoya.”[lxxxi]

Cross-referencing with Allied intelligence data, Taketa guessed that the Japanese were massing attack aircraft in the Shwebo area. Takeda passed on the information to Cochran who placed his Assault Section on alert. Lt-Colonel Grant Mahony was to attack the airfield immediately with 500 lb bombs.

Arriving over at Anisakan airfield with 21 Mustangs, Mahony spotted 17 Japanese fighters on the ground. Peeling off, the Americans swept over the airfield, dropping bombs on the airfield ack-ack positions, even as furious lines of anti-aircraft fire erupted. Then the Mustangs came in low, guns blazing, ripping tarmac, men and metal to bits. They made as many as eight to nine runs before heading for home. On the way back, Mahony led his section over the Japanese-held airfields at Onbauk and Shwebo. Some 60 fighters, bombers, transports and trainers lay gleaming at the dispersals or were in the process of landing. It was like a picnic for the Air Commandos.

Japanese planes began to fall out of the sky trailing black smoke as the Mustangs rolled, banked and swooped among them, guns blazing. Other Mustangs went low, strafing targets on the ground. By when the fracas was over, a total of 27 Japanese fighters, 7 bombers and 1 transport aircraft had been destroyed. One Mustang was lost when it collided with an “Oscar” fighter. Both combatants were killed.[lxxxii]

Eager to exploit the initial strike, Cochran next sent in nine B-25H Mitchell medium-bombers under Lt-Colonel Smith and Major Radovich, and it was already night when these aircraft arrived over the airfields at Onbauk and Shwebo. Moonlight revealed all, and the Mitchells bombed from a bare 2,000 feet, plastering the airbase with fragmentation bombs, destroying at least 12 more aircraft.  The results had been extraordinary. “In one mission, the [Air Commandos] obliterated nearly one-fifth of all known Japanese air force in Burma,” wrote Maj-General George Stratemeyer.

Air-Commando2

Meantime, aircraft deliveries continued to take place at Broadway. Between March 5 and 11th, after over 579 sorties by Allied transport aircraft, Wingate had 9,052 men, 1,283 mules, 143 horses and 509,283 pounds of equipment ready for action 200 miles behind enemy lines in Burma  – for the loss of 121 men.

Supplies landed between March 5-11[lxxxiii]

Personnel Horses Mules Supplies
Broadway 7,023 132 994 44,218 lbs
Chowringhee 2,029 43 289 64,865 lbs
Total 9,052 175 1,283 509,083lbs

Meantime, Fergusson was speed marching towards “Aberdeen.” His orders specified that he establish the stronghold by March 12, but he had also promised Wingate that he would deal with a Japanese garrison at Lonkin, on his right flank. So, 900 men of Lt-Colonel Sutcliffe’s 51 and 69 Columns (all ex-artillery gunners) set off north towards this town as Fergusson, with 3,000 men and 400 mules pushed on towards Indaw, still in single file in the thick of jungle. Awaiting them was a mortal hardship few could have comprehended.

Divider-9HARD TIMES AHEAD
Divider-9


Back on the Indian frontier a great movement of men and machines had been taking place. On the night of 7/8 March, the Japanese 33rd “White Tiger” Division, long holding its position west of the Chindwin at Kalmyo, began to move north into India. It soon met its old adversaries from the 1942 Burma retreat— the Indian 17th “Black Cat” Division near the important frontier town of Tiddim. Slim had neglected to pull the 17th Division back towards Imphal, even though he had received credible information of the impending Japanese attack days before.

A furious battle erupted. The Japanese quickly learned that the Black Cats had learned much since their ignominious exit from the country two years ago. The old Japanese tactics of enveloping an enemy force once again fell to pieces as it had with the Chinese 38th Division in northern Burma a month ago. The Black Cats simply held their ground and called in artillery strikes on the attackers. The 33rd Divisional Commander, Lt-General Hiroo Saito began to despair, and soon discovered that far from surrounding the enemy forces, his own division had become besieged. His leading units fell back in haste and the Black Cats were able to get away to Imphal.

On March 15, the Japanese 15th Division crossed the Chindwin and breached the Indian border near Tamu, climbing the steep mountain ridges to overlook the flat plains of Imphal. Its commander, Lt-General Masafumi Yamauchi, had been given the task of advancing his division through the “hill like a ball of fire,” and seizing Imphal town.[lxxxiv]

Mataguchi had planned a three-week lightning campaign intended to secure the key town of Imphal, capital of India’s Manipur province and the important hill town of Kohima, about 50 miles north which led the way to the railhead at Dimapur. That his men did not have enough supplies if the campaign were to drag on for longer did not unduly concern a general known in the army for his tenacity and boldness — and for his total lack of concern for the hardships of the ordinary soldier. Besides, he knew the British had a large supply dump at Tongzang, which he aimed to capture. His troops also had orders to plunder farms and towns in India.

Meantime, further north, the Japanese 31st Division began to move on Kohima and the Dimapur railhead. Their capture posed grave ramifications for the British. “Kohima with its rather scratch garrison and, what was worse, Dimapur, with no garrison at all, were in deadly peril,” Slim later wrote. “The loss of Kohima we could endure, but that of Dimapur, our only base and railhead, would have been crippling to an almost fatal degree. It would have pushed into the far distance our hopes of relieving Imphal, laid bare to the enemy the Brahmaputra valley, with its string of airfields, cut off Stilwell’s Ledo Chinese, and stopped all supply to China.”[lxxxv]

Stilwell, who learned of the events unfolding near Imphal on March 16, was appalled. “After lunch bad news [his italics] from Imphal. Limeys have the wind up. [They are] flying in the 5th [Indian] Division from Arakan and looking for more troops. This about ruins everything.” Then, two days later, a day before his sixty-fifth birthday, he added. “Japs crossed [Indian border] on the 16th … Imphal threatened. This ties a can to us and finishes up the glorious 1944 spring campaign.”[lxxxvi] But just how much of “a can” the Japanese had tied, Stilwell was not to experience as much as Wingate was to.

As Slim began to look for seasoned units to protect Kohima, the natural choice fell on the British 2nd Infantry Division, the only, wholly British division that was operational in India. The choice was well-conceived as the division would eventually do much frustrate Japanese ambitions in a battleground that was later renowned as the “Jungle Stalingrad.” But then Slim did something remarkable, and which although not entirely unexpected,[lxxxvii] infuriated Wingate to the point of blind rage — He appropriated the 23rd and elements of the 14th Chindit Brigades, which Wingate had carefully husbanded to relieve his first wave of troops.

Wingate threatened to resign, but in the end, he decided to carry on with the 12,000 Chindits already committed in Burma. Slim’s decision, however, would have consequences upon the field of battle in Burma.

The Japanese, puzzled at the scattered glider landings and the range of Chindit columns, were initially slow to respond to all that was developing around them. Local Japanese units launched uncoordinated and unsupported attacks on the dug-in Chindits.

On the morning of March 6th, less than 12 hours after the Chindits had landed at Broadway, Major-General Tazoe, alarmed by reports of enemy airborne landings near Katha, had flown to Maymo to see meet Mataguchi. Tazoe had the last intelligence reports with him, which said that airborne units had been spotted north of Mandalay and that the railway line at Mawlu had been destroyed.

If he didn’t strike soon to wipe out the fermenting airborne units, Tazoe warned Mataguchi, they would soon blossom into a strong force capable of disrupting Japanese communications and its lines of supplies.[lxxxviii] Furthermore, there would be nothing to stop Stilwell’s “X” Force from linking up with the Chinese Army in Yunnan province, east of Myitkyina. Tazoe asked Mataguchi to “hurl against the every unit he could, even it meant halting the Imphal operation.”

Mataguchi was placid. “You worry too much,” he remarked to Tazao who was now red-faced. “You are an airman, so naturally you think it’s important. What kind of strength can they muster? Your 5th Air Division would know if they had a hundred or two hundred gliders, so we know what the limits are. And how are they going to supply the men they have dropped? While they are scuttling around Katha, I’ll be in Imphal and cut the line to Ledo. They’ll simply wither on the vine.”

Tazoe had barely time to consider his retort when Mataguchi went on: “There are a couple of paratroop divisions in India. Let them use them. It is still not important if they drop them in the middle of Burma when the battle is happening elsewhere.”[lxxxix]

“Don’t you realize that the transport capacity of their planes?” Tazoe argued. “With 300 aircraft, they can move 30,000 tons a month —the equivalent of 100 trucks a day. Look what’s happening in Arakan. They are placing steel planking to making runways, and receiving and dispatching planes…”

Mataguchi’s patience gave out. “Let them do what they like with their airborne units. I’ll cut their very roots in Ledo. I have never lost a battle yet.”

Tazoe was astounded, but Mataguchi wasn’t done yet. “The Gods are with me, Tazoe,” he said. “Leave it to me.”

In desperation, Tazoe flew to Rangoon to see Lt-General Masakuzu Kawabe, commander of the Burma Area Army, and Mataguchi’s superior. Kawabe proved more reasonable, but even he said that the invasion of India could not be postponed. Best leave it to Mataguchi, Kawabe said.

Tazoe flew back to his headquarters at Shwebo in a daze. Something had to be done. The Air Commandos were in the process of hammering his combat forces, but Tazoe was determined to make the invaders pay. He would attack the enemy where he found them, before the situation became totally out of control.

When the Japanese finally identified Broadway, Tazoe unleased his surviving air units. On the early afternoon of March 13th, some 55 Ki-43 Oscar fighters and three bombers appeared over the stronghold. Although the Chindits had hoped to keep Broadway secret for as long as possible, they had been prepared for this eventuality. An SCR602 portable radar unit (a device of limited range) had been installed and a detachment of six Spitfires Mk VIIIs from the RAF’s veteran No. 81 Squadron had deployed at the airstrip.

In mid-1941, the squadron had been one of two RAF units to see battle over Russia, having been sent over for a short stint. They had claimed 13 German fighters over the chilly steppes of Northern Russia before eventually going on to see combat over Tunisia and Italy — where the squadron’s veterans came to decorate the noses of their spitfire with an “Ace of Spades” insignia — lifted from the Messerschmitt Me109s of their German opponents from Jagdgeschwader 53, which used the same emblem as a badge.

Led by Squadron Leader W.M. “Babe” Whitamore, admired for his boyish good looks and bravery, the squadron had seen action over the Arakan peninsula. On February 27, however, the squadron had moved to Kangala, on the eastern side of the Imphal Valley, where a squadron member, Flying Officer Alan Peart of New Zealand, fell in the love with the place. “The valley gave me a strong impression of Shangri-La of Lost Horizon fame,” he wrote. “It was high up in the mountain range separating India from Burma.”

The view was never more contrasting at Broadway. Arriving on March 10, the squadron detachment found the place prosaic. “Terribly small, and rough, runway,” said Flying Officer Larry Cronin of Australia. “Jungle all round — aircraft drop in from over the treetops. Wrecked gliders lying everywhere.”

Four days earlier, on the 6th, Cronin who had already felled three enemy aircraft over Sicily the year before, had shot down a Japanese Ki.46 “Dinah” bomber south of Imphal, giving the squadron its 99th victory. The squadron had been in a riotous mood ever since as the pilot who scored the squadron’s century was entitled to a Rs 900 pot (about £58.80 — a handsome sum at the time). With the detachment’s deployment to Broadway, the winnings were likely to be claimed soon.[xc]

Spitfire

Given a scant five-minute warning of the Japanese raid, five of the Spitfires moved onto the rough airstrip to take off, managing to just get airborne before the Japanese appeared. Cronin and Sergeant A. Campbell were the last to scramble. They had barely gained altitude when they were swarmed by Oscars. Campbell and Cronin were set upon by eight fighters “firing like mad from 80 yards behind.” Cronin escaped by the skin of his teeth. Campbell died.[xci]

Four Air Commando Mustangs were also at the field and had been since the previous evening. Their flight leader, Lt-Colonel Mahony attempted to scramble his section, but the departure of the first two Mustangs created so much dust on the ground that it embroiled the two last Mustangs in an opaque world, leaving them blind.

MahoneyAs the two pilots waited for the dust to subside, a bomb fell near a P-51 manned by Captain Hubert Krug, knocking him unconscious. A fire erupted around the craft. Chindits and ground crews rushed to pull Krug from the stricken machine. There were unable to get to him in time and Krug was badly burned. Cochran was furious, especially because he knew that to fly fighters into Broadway during the day was tantamount to inviting a Japanese attack. He immediately recalled Mahony’s section to Hailakandi.[xcii]

Meantime, the air battle continued to rage overhead. Air Vice-Marshal Stanley Vincent was present at Broadway when the dogfight began. Vincent, a World War I, watched mesmerized as Japanese Oscars began to spiral out of the sky. Cronin, angry at being shot at, set upon one an Oscar, firing until the enemy craft blew up. Whitamore, Flight Lt “Bob” Day, Cronin and Captain Robert “Moon” Collingwood of South Africa, who like Cronin was an “ace-in-waiting,” all shot down Japanese planes that day. The pilots also claimed two more Oscars damaged. The 900 rupee cash prize went to Whitamore.

The strafing, however, had destroyed the radar set.[xciii] There was now not to be even to be scant warning when the Japanese attacked next. Both sides returned home to lick their wounds. The Spitfires returned to Tulihal in India for repairs, but were back at Broadway within 24 hours. Curiously, the Japanese did not show. Then, on the 16th, the Japanese came in low, at dawn, catching the defenders unawares.

Six Spitfires scrambled, and a sprawling melee erupted over Paungbyin. Flight Lt Alan Peart shot down one and damaged another before the Japanese fled. Like Cronin and Collingwood, Peart was now an ace with five confirmed victories.

That night, to avoid an approaching storm, the Spitfires flew to Imphal but they had only just landed at Broadway that next morning when a quartet of Oscars appeared, guns blazing. Peart and Whitamore scrambled. Their Spitfire Mk VIIIs were arguably the best fighters in the theater as long as they did not get into a turning dogfight where the Japanese fighters excelled. “I remember Whitamore hauling his machine off the ground with emergency boost,” Peart said. “I did the same. We had to do a crazy maneuver — a kind of stall turn off the ground — to try and get behind the Ki-43s to stop their strafing run. I don’t think that we were very successful.”[xciv]

A much larger formation of Ki-43s appeared and set upon the outnumbered Spitfires. The low-altitude fracas, fought at less than 2,000ft within a five-mile radius of Broadway tested the skill and machines of both pilots. Broadway’s anti-aircraft gunners blasted away at the Japanese but were unable to the stop them from strafing the four Spitfires on the ground, and killing a pilot, Pilot Officer W.J. Coulter, who was trying to taking off.

Overhead, Whitamore was fighting for his life. He shot down one Japanese plane before he was shot down and killed himself. Peart, who witnessed his demise, found himself in a desperate struggle of his own. The fight went on for forty minutes. Peart shot down one Oscar but weariness started to get the better of him. “I was so exhausted that I was just looking for a place to crash-land, rather than let myself be shot down — there was nowhere else I could go,” he said later. “I could hardly move I was so exhausted. Suddenly, there weren’t any Jap fighters — they’d gone.”[xcv]

Peart, who had achieved his last victory of the war, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). In his Spitfire, the only one now airworthy, he flew back to Kangala.

Back at headquarters, the highly likable Cochran, who normally got on splendidly with Wingate learned that the Spitfires had been based at Broadway’s on Wingate’s personal request. Not only was it an act of recklessness which had had serious ramifications for his many small planes and transport aircraft also at the airstrip, but Cochran felt that Wingate had betrayed him by using the Royal Air Force. For over a month now, the Air Commandos had been beating up Japanese airfields across northern Burma for Wingate, sacrificing men and machines in aid of the Chindits and at the moment of glory when it should have been the Air Commando alone at Broadway, Wingate had brought in the RAF whom Cochran considered headline chasers.

He stormed up to Wingate in his office and let loose:  “The worst thing to do would be to land fighters on that field in the daytime and have the Japs see them,” he said. “You’re just waving a red flag at a bull. Any more of this, we’re off you. You did a thing you shouldn’t have and you double-crossed us. You undercut us.”

Wingate, who was known for his temper, looked him straight in the eye and said, “I did, didn’t I?”

Cochran was flabbergasted by the admission. “That just about cut me off,” he said, although he was still furious.

Afterwards, he became aware that the office had not been soundproof and that everyone within earshot had heard the exchange. He would be accused of bad manners and of being an arrogant yank. But Wingate had his adjutant draw up a message to Churchill, Mountbatten and a long list of superior officers taking full responsibility for what had befallen the Spitfires.[xcvi] It was also decided that further fighter operations from Broadway were impractical because of the lack of air warning. The Spitfires subsequently operated from Kangala, fitted with long-range tanks, ready to take off at a moment’s notice.

Meantime, Mataguchi, perhaps with a tinge of worry brought on by Tazoe’s words, ordered whatever units were available to attack the Chindit invaders. He also ordered up the 24th Independent Mixed Brigade, which had been deployed at Tenasserim, on the southern “leg” of Burma, near the Thai border, to guard against a possible British seaborne landing across the Gulf of Martaban. It was his intention that the Chindits should behave as the mouse for his bag. Yet, sometimes the best of plans went to seed.

On March 9, Calvert led most of his 77th Brigade out of Broadway, leaving that stronghold in the hands his older but loyal deputy, Colonel Claude Rome and a rearguard of Gurkhas. Rome promptly fortified the perimeter with barbed wire and developed a system of bunkers. The stronghold became a collection point for Allied casualties in the area who were subsequently flown out to hospitals in India. Broadway’s contribution to this end was immensely valuable and Rome intended to keep it operational until the end of the campaign. Broadway soon began to boast of maintenance workshops, a dispensary, shops for local Burmese (which certainly won many hearts and minds) a garden and a chicken farm. Rome had a certain luxury of time when it came to fortifying his positions. The Japanese were initially content to send scattered air raids against Broadway, but that would change later in the month, when Japanese infantry reached the area.

Of those units of the 77th Brigade which left Broadway, Lt-Colonel Scott’s 1st King’s own (Liverpool) went east towards Bhamo, while Calvert’s troops went west through the tough Kaukkwe Valley, headed towards the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway line, which the Japanese were using to supply forces fighting Stilwell’s Chinese. One column from Lt-Colonel Christie’s 1st Lancashire Fusiliers went to cut the rail lines at the towns of Mawhun and Kada, while the other under Major David Montieth went south to the Irrawaddy, to halt river traffic. Meanwhile, five columns under Calvert (including Captain Ian MacPherson’s crack Brigade HQ Defense Company — a Gurkha unit which was Calvert’s personal assault force) converged on the rail town of Mawlu further south.

Map5Calvert admired his subordinate officers. There was Lt-Colonel “Boom” Skone of the 3/9th Gurkha Rifles, “solid, robust,” firmly married to his regiment, who marched uncomplainingly despite the spur bone growth his heel; Lt-Colonel Richards of the 1st South Staffordshire Regiment, a broad quiet, man who had been among the last escape to escape Singapore before it fell; Lt-Colonel “Scottie” Scott of the 1st King’s (Liverpool), a man of “great strength and goodness of character” and Lt-Colonel Christie of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers, a veteran of the Arakan fighting and a delightful character “disarmingly truthful and courageous, even though “dogged by sickness.” Calvert’s brigade-major was Francis Stuart, a thin, serious-looking veteran of the fighting in North Africa who was both a poet and soldier. His RAF liaison officer, Squadron Leader “Bobbie” Thompson, was a veteran of the first Chindit expedition and a colonial administrator in Malaya before the war. [xcvii] Of Ian Macpherson, the Canadian who commanded his HQ Defense Company, Calvert said he was the “finest men I have ever met, skillful and fearless.” Then there was Lance-Corporal Young, Calvert’s Anglo-Chinese orderly who was always dependable and always at his side.[xcviii]

Thompson

Some, but not all of his troops were combat veterans, especially the South Staffords who had fought at Tobruk. But none had been prepared for the arduous nature of Burma. The six-day march towards Mawlu proved exhausting with the troops struggling to get their mules over the Gangaw Range and its primeval, dark, jungle which barred the way.

Their objective was the small village of Henu on the Nankye stream (chaung in Burmese), a collection of scattered huts and buildings built next to expansive fields of rice paddy, going south and west as far as the eye could see. Dense woods occupied the land to the north, and a group of seven foothills rose to the northeast, including one with a small, white pagoda on its summit. A railway bridge and a road spanned the Nankye Chaung. Save for a picturesque view, it was an unremarkable place, but here was where Calvert had orders to block the railway.

The block, eventually christened “White City,” would straddle the railway about 32 km (20 miles) southeast of what would become Aberdeen. It became so fortified and held for the next seven weeks against waves of attacks that it would divide historians on whether or not it constituted a stronghold. But that was in the future.

DeggOn the afternoon of the 16th, troops from Lt-Colonel Richards’s 38 Column and Major Ron Degg’s 80 Column (both from the 1st South Staffords), arrived at the hills overlooking Henu. Lord Wavell, who had once commanded the Aldershot Brigade in the ‘30s had come to regard the Staffords highly, calling them “the best.”[xcix] The Staffords were to prove that his words were not idle praise.

They quickly occupied the main road which ran past the town and in between two hills, excavated trenches and built other defensive positions and attempted to dig-in on the facing hill, destined to go down in the annals of military history as “Pagoda Hill.” A rifle platoon from 80 Column and a Vickers medium machine-gun platoon (commanded by Lt. Norman Durant) began to occupy the position at the foot of a hill adjacent to Pagoda Hill.

The area seemed largely clear of Japanese troops, but that assessment was illusory. In fact, hundreds of Japanese troops were in the area. At Henu village (concealed behind the bulk of Pagoda Hill) were two companies of Japanese troops from a railway engineering battalion and some administrative troops. In addition, a combat platoon (under 2nd Lt. Kiyomizu) from Major Takemura’s 2nd Battalion of the 51st Infantry Regiment (II/51)[c] and two infantry companies from III/114th Infantry Regiment[ci] were nearby. There was also a Japanese battlegroup made up of two companies from the III/114th Infantry Regiment, which had been stationed in the Mandalay-Maymo area under Lt-Colonel Jiroku Nagahashi of Mataguchi’s headquarters, and 500 rear-echelon troops at Mawlu, about a mile south from Henu. Three hundred assorted infantrymen were also at Nansiang, a few miles north of Henu.

Map6Calvert’s force was surrounded by enemy forces on three sides, although they had only a vague hint of it. The Japanese, for their part, were slowly becoming aware of the emergence of this new threat although the fog of war left them insouciant. At dawn on the 17th, as Chindits cavalierly strolled about their rudimentary lines, they were not much disturbed by the sight of other troops on the road or on the adjoining hills.

Lt. Durant and his men, exhausted after spending all night digging foxholes and trenches, finally finished up at dawn. Moments later Durant began to put on his combat webbing when he heard “a terrific yammering” on the hill opposite[cii] [ciii]. He remarked to his sergeant, John C. Jenkins that the “locals” were making a lot of noise,” and casually left his trench to inspect his forward section positions. A group of six soldiers, “equally unconcerned, were seen down the hill towards the road.  To his horror, Durant realized they were Japanese and they were no more 80 yards away.

Grabbing a Bren light machine gun being carried by one his men in front, Durant opened fire from the hip. He didn’t stop until the 30-round magazine ran dry. When the smoke cleared, he thought he “missed the lot, but had succeeded in giving them the surprise of their lives.”[civ]

At the moment, firing broke out somewhere behind him and news arrived that the Japanese had infiltrated Hill “A” (Pagoda Hill), which had not been improperly secured that night. The Japanese were troops from 2nd Lt. Kiyomizu’s combat platoon, who had come onto the summit, lightly armed, under the cover of morning mist. Before setting out Kiyomizu had been told by his battalion commander, Major Takemura that the eyes of the regiment were on them and that he expected Kiyomizu to fight well. For Kiyomizu the burden was heavy, but he carried it. When the mist lifted, he and his men attacked. In a short time, the summit was theirs, but there was to be no victory for Kiyomizu. He had been shot and killed at the start as he was extolling his men with his sword.

For the longest time, a sort of half-hearted battle continued with its lethal mundanity, the day punctuated by the cracks and barks of rifles, machineguns, mortars and assorted small arms. Using Pagoda Hill as a staging area, the Japanese repeatedly attacked the positions held by Degg’s men. At about noon, heavy machine and rifle fire began to rake Durant’s position from Japanese troops atop Pagoda Hill. From another position on the adjoining Hill D, Japanese mortar teams lobbed bombs upon the Chindits. By 1 pm, most of the men in Durant’s machinegun platoon and a nearby rifle company were casualties. The rifle company leader had been killed, his deputy had wounds in both legs and one of the platoon commanders had been shot in the buttocks. By late afternoon, the Japanese had breached Degg’s lines.

Calvert, who in touch with Degg via wireless was appalled at the news, but there was nothing he could do about it just yet. His brigade headquarters was still some distance away to the east, but he radioed saying he was on his way with two companies of Gurkhas and “would counterattack any feature held by the Japs.”[cv]

At about 4 pm Calvert arrived. He had not only 25 Column (Brigade Headquarters) with him but also the Gurkhas of Major Freddie Shaw’s 63 Column who were his reserve. Coming over of what was later known as OP Hill, Calvert was astounded by the sight of the battle before him. The Japanese, from the late-Lt. Kiyomizu’s platoon, joined by reinforcements, milled about on the summit of Pagoda Hill even as shell bursts enveloped the South Staffords trapped on the road below.

“I was determined we must win our first engagement,” Calvert later wrote. And he and his troops went into the fray.

His arrival resembled, for many, as “that moment in an American film, when the police, with sirens screaming, arrive in time to help the hero whilst the audience applauds wildly.”[cvi]

One moment the South Staffords had been cowering in their exposed positons under a withering hail of Japanese fire, the next, all firing had stopped. Bewildered, the Staffords had looked up to see Calvert striding up on the crest of the hill behind them. Exhilaration erupted among the men as they saw Shaw’s Gurkhas fanning out behind Calvert, attacking the Japanese mortar teams on Hill D.[cvii]

Soon, Calvert was among them, rifle and bayonet in hand. The dead and dying lay everywhere, in the trenches and on the road.

“Thank God, you’ve come, sir,” Degg told him.

Someone brought Calvert up to par on the situation and Calvert turned to Major John Jeffries, a “Longcloth” veteran, and asked: “How many men can you spare for the attack [on Pagoda Hill]?”

“About twenty,” said Jeffries.

“Right, we’ll go straight up.”

PrintCalvert told everyone that they were going to charge up the hill. Shaw’s Gurkhas were to provide covering fire. Then, there was nothing else left to do. Calvert stood up and shouted “Charge!” and ran up with hill, followed by Squadron Leader “Bobbie” Thompson, his two orderlies, Lance-Corporal Young and Corporal Paddy Dermody, [cviii] and only about half of the South Staffords.

Looking back, Calvert yelled, “Charge! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Abruptly, everyone left their positions and charged — the machine gun teams, the mortar men, the officers, everyone who had been clinging to their positions at the base of the hill.

The Japanese also charged and a wild, no-holds-barred fracas began. This was where Lt. Cairns, a mortar officer with the Staffords, was to earn his Victoria Cross. Calvert told Jeffries to clear the area right of the Pagoda while he instructed Durant to clear the left, where there were some bamboo thatched houses.

Durant went to his task “like a two-year-old,” as he later remembered, followed by his sergeant, Jenkins, and an assault party. Bounding along a path which cut to the left of the hill leading to the houses, he rounded the corner and came face-to-face with a Japanese squad. The Japanese began climbing out their trenches under the nearest house some 20 yards away, bayonets out, heading straight for Durant who had only his revolver ready.

He pulled the trigger. The pistol didn’t work. The hammer had worked loose. The world became surreal. Time appeared to slow down and with a sickening sensation, Durant realized he was alone. Jenkins was still 30 yards away, beyond the corner. Durant looked down at his hand, at a clutched grenade. He realized he was still running towards the Japanese and pulled the pin, throwing the grenade over the heads of two Japanese soldiers in front. He swerved left, leaping over the side of the hill, feeling a violent kick in the knee as he went. Although he never heard the report, he knew at once that he had been shot. He fell about 12 feet and lay on the ground helplessly, thinking that he was not able to move and would soon be nothing more than a dummy for Japanese bayonets.

“What the hell did I volunteer to come here for?” he thought angrily. “This is the last time I’ll do anything like this unasked.”[cix]

Strangely, no Japanese appeared and crawling, he managed to get back onto the path leading to the top. Jenkins, who came upon the scene shortly after Durant disappeared over the side, saw that the grenade had caused casualties among the Japanese. He and the assault party shot the two leading Japanese soldiers and seeing no sign of Durant, he assumed he had been captured. Jenkins went berserk, hurling grenades every which way until the area was clear of Japanese. Later, when he moved back around the hill, he stumbled upon Durant who was alive and well.

As dusk settled, the Staffords appeared to falter, and Calvert led another charge to rally their spirits.[cx] The Japanese abandoned the hill and retreated into Henu followed by rancorous groups of Gurkhas and Staffords, who used flamethrowers to flush out, kill, maim and terrify the remaining Japanese. Those that survived fled west, across the paddy fields, into the jungle wall far beyond.

The Chindits began to dig in, laid barbed-wire and created a fresh defensive line ahead of Pagoda hill and Henu. Further Japanese attacks were possible and no one was in any mood to take chances. They were right to be prepared.  That night the “Nagahashi Unit” battlegroup arrived, screaming alien, terrifying curses and cries in the dark.

Nagahashi was a veteran of the Malayan campaign and the capture of Singapore. Now, he was here, in the wilderness of Burma with the 18th Division. In the latter part of 1943, he had led an 80-man Special Intelligence Party in the Hukawng Valley near Taro, intending to gather data on Stilwell’s Chinese troops. When the Chindits arrived at Broadway, he was reassigned and given command of what would become “Nagahashi Unit.” He had little actual combat experience since Malaya, when his men had fought against demoralized and underprepared British and Indian forces. Now, he was soon to discover that he was facing troops of a far different mettle.

Calvert’s men fired white star shells, bathing the front in a brilliant, ethereal light. As the charging Japanese closed the distance, the Chindits, waiting behind their machine guns and mortars, opened fire. Many of Nagahashi’s men died in the first few minutes; he, grievously wounded, a little later.

Later that night, Allied transport planes airdropped a mass of ammunition, supplies and tools. Much of the supplies fell near brigade headquarters set near OP Hill. Some of it would take days to reach Henu, but with what little they could accumulate the Staffords and Gurkhas completed the railway block and fortifications that following day. The battle of the Pagoda was over and “White City” was born — christened so for the many parachutes that adorned the landscape.

Airdrop2

On the following morning, March 18, the Japanese mounted another attack, this time at the other end of the perimeter. Calvert sent a large assault force to clear a nearby tract of jungle occupied by the Japanese. Major Jeffries led the attack. Casualties were heavy. Jeffries was among those who died. Durant had heard his last words over the wireless: “I’m going in now, so will close down.”[cxi]

Reinforcements arrived at White City and further air drops took place. The men quickly transformed the earth to house an airstrip, a series of bunkers and called in airstrikes to neutralize the strong Japanese forces swirling around the stronghold. Air Commando B-25 Mitchells came in low, bombing a gully along the Nankye Chaung which was packed with Japanese troops.[cxii] Some of the Mitchells had 75mm, forward-firing cannons installed, and these were used to conduct pinpoint strikes on enemy strongpoints identified by RAF liaison and Chindit officers. “The British were terribly impressed,” Alison said. The Japanese loss of life was immense.

By now, Christie’s troops had blown up a bridge at Mawhun, further north, while Major Monteith’s detachment of 100 men from 20 Column had brought all river traffic on the Irrawaddy to a halt. The rest of 20 Column, under Major Shuttleworth, had reached the main road at Pinwe.[cxiii]

White City began to grow in strength, fed on relentless supply drops and garrisoned by a growing number of Chindit troops. The Japanese continued to probe the perimeter from Mawlu for five consecutive days from the 18th to the 22st. During an attack on the night of 21/22 March, the Japanese breached a part of the line held by Lt-Colonel Richard’s South Staffords, and close-quartered fighting carried on for most of the night. During a lull in the fighting, Calvert’s Japanese-speaking Intelligence officer, Captain Paddy Ryan, went forward to listen in on the Japanese. He heard a fierce argument in which the surviving troops were debating whether they should continue the attack or withdraw as all their officers had been killed. Eventually, they decided to attack again.

The battle began anew. As dawn broke, Richards decided to personally lead a counterattack with two platoons to rout the enemy. His men succeeded but Richards was wounded in the chest. In the field aid station, he cheerfully told Calvert that he had killed seven Japanese before being wounded.

PrintCalvert called in repeated airstrikes on the surviving Japanese, all from the III/114th Regiment. The Japanese battalion adjutant, Lt. Satrai, who was stunned in an explosion, was captured. Disgusted with himself, he told Calvert and Captain Ryan that he belonged to a battalion in which capture was considered worse than death. “Interrogate me, and shoot me,” he told Ryan.[cxiv] He was sent to a hospital in Assam, India, where he insisted he be shot. When he discovered he captors intended to do no such thing, he had asked to see the matron and the commanding officer of the hospital. He thanked them for their kindness but said it was dishonorable for him to live. He then turned his face to a wall, and refused all food and water. Although force fed, he died only five days later. A postmortem could find no reason for his death.[cxv]

Once all the commotion died down, Calvert went down to the line to see what the situation was, accompanied as usual by his orderlies Corporal Paddy Dermody and Lance-Corporal Young. As they climbed Bare Hill, Paddy shouted: “Look out, sir,” and shoved Calvert to the side. At the same time, Dermody was shot in the groin and crumpled to the ground. Calvert charged around a nearby tree and emptied his revolver into a wounded Japanese soldier who had shot at them. Calvert and Young carried Dermody to the main field hospital nearby, ordering some Gurkhas nearby to ensure that Bare Hill was clear of all enemy troops. The Gurkhas conducted a sweep and found 11 Japanese. Dermody and Richards were evacuated to a hospital in India.[cxvi]

According to Calvert, the battle of 21/22 alone had cost the Japanese at least sixty dead (although it was likely more) and four prisoners. The Chindits had lost six officers and 28 men killed. Another six officers and 36 men had been wounded.

After the last Japanese were repulsed, Calvert sent out his Gurkhas to mine the areas around Mawlu, and setting about improving the defenses in preparation his long stay at White City. ♦

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[i] Shelford Bidwell, The Chindit War, 221.

[ii] Wingate fell ill in December 1943.

[iii] Matron McGreary, a member of the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, was well known to many Chindits through their hospitalization. She was known to her staff as Sister Saf Karo (make it clean) (Michael Hickey, The Unforgettable Army, 93).

[iv] John Masters, The Road Past Mandalay, 155-156.

[v] GSO: General Staff officer, Grade I.

[vi] John Masters, The Road Past Mandalay, 139.

[vii] R.D. Van Wagner, Any Place, Any Time, Any Where, 10.

[viii] Gerald Astor, The Jungle War, 157.

[ix] Jon Diamond, Stilwell and the Chindits, loc. 20, Ch. 1.

[x] In Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film, 1941, veteran actor Robert Stack plays “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell to fine effect, especially during the hysteria of the so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” in December 1941.

[xi] Ledo is in the eastern Indian state of Assam.

[xii] Brink was appointed “officer-in-charge” of training on 13 November 1943, and not the commanding officer of the unit. Instead, Col. Hunter (who had been appointed Commanding Officer all Casual Detachments, shipment 1688) discharged the duties of a commanding officer, since the unit had not been officially activated.

[xiii] Astor, 162.

[xiv] Charlton Ogburn, The Marauders (1960), 72, 79.

[xv] Romanus, Charles and Riley Sunderland, Stilwell’s Command Problems, 35.

[xvi] Each combat team comprised of three rifle platoons, plus a heavy weapons squad, a heavy weapons platoon, a pioneer and demolition platoon, an Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) platoon and a medical detachment. The combat team had in total: 306 M1 Garand rifles, 52 submachine guns, 86 M1 carbines, 4 x 81 mm mortars, 4 x 60mm mortars, 2 heavy machineguns, 2 medium machineguns and 3 M1 Bazookas (2.56-inch rocket launchers), ibid.

[xvii] Astor, 170.

[xviii] This incident took place in Delhi, following a conference in January 1944. Wingate’s pilot that day was Colonel Cochran, chief of the US Air Commandos. (Astor, 170).

[xix] Michael Calvert, Prisoners of Hope, loc. 4318, 83%, Appendix II.

[xx] Masters, 130-131.

[xxi] Ibid, 128.

[xxii] Ibid, 127.

[xxiii] Ibid, 133.

[xxiv] British slang for “defeat humiliatingly.” At the time, when Lentaigne had made this remark, in June 1943, the 111th Brigade was not yet a part of the Chindits, although that would change in a month’s time.  Later, after the brigade had joined the Chindits, John Masters recorded Lentaigne as saying: “Well if we’re going to be part of Wingate’s private army, let’s relax and enjoy it. We’re Chindits now and, by God, we’d better all stick together, because the rest of the Army’s going to be out for our blood.” (Masters, P. 140)

[xxv] Ibid, 134-135.

[xxvi] Ibid, 160.

[xxvii] Ibid., 144.

[xxviii] Fergusson, Wild Green Earth, 218-19.

[xxix] Masters, 144.

[xxx] Bidwell. Also, Masters, 156.

[xxxi] Bidwell

[xxxii] Masters, 156.

[xxxiii] Cat Wilson, Churchill on the Far East in the Second World War, 116.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 119.

[xxxv] Shelford Bidwell & Dominick Graham, Tug of War, 100.

[xxxvi] Peter Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, loc. 7536, 53%, Ch. 4.

[xxxvii] Masters, 155.

[xxxviii] Ibid, 157.

[xxxix] Ibid, 162.

[xl] Piccadilly: 24-29N 96-46E, Broadway: 24-45N 96-45E, Chowringhee: 23-57N 96-24E, Templecombe: 23-48N 96-10E

[xli] Stilwell opposed Axiom because he wanted to retain the impetus of action in Burma.

[xlii] Merrill was given command of the regiment on January 4th, just days after the unit returned to Stilwell’s command. Brink was sacked to make room for Merrill. Hunter, who had been vying for the top spot, was thwarted — and not for the last time. (Astor, 171)

[xliii] Slim, Defeat into Victory, 254.

[xliv] Astor, 193.

[xlv] Ibid., 192

[xlvi] Ibid., 194.

[xlvii] Ibid., 192-93.

[xlviii] The 1st Provisional Tank Group primarily supported the Chinese 22nd Division. The Tank group was composed of six tank battalions:  The 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions (Provisional) were supplemented by a company-sized contingent of Americans (most of who were from the 527th Ordnance Company (Heavy Maintenance) (Tank), with an enlisted strength of 222 men and 9 officers. The 1st Battalion was commanded by Lt-Colonel Chao Chi Hwa from March 1944. The 3rd through 6th Battalions (Provisional) were essentially Chinese training battalions, with American advisors. Total strength of Chinese personnel in the group (all six battalions) was over 1,800 men. All of the Chinese tank battalions had English speaking officers, trained and educated in the United States. (http://www.cbi-theater.com/1ptg/1ptg.html).

[xlix] Tony Redding, War in the Wilderness, 91-92.

[l] Astor, 200.

[li] Julian Thompson, Forgotten Voices of Burma, 156-58.

[lii] Fergusson, Beyond the Chindwin, 249.

[liii] When physiologist Dr Ancel Keys was commissioned to create the K-ration in 1941, his instruction was to design a pocket-sized meal that was ready to eat and non-perishable. (The Black Watch Castle & Museum: https://blackwatchmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/object-of-the-month-k-ration-packs/) (Last accessed: 29 May 2016)

[liv] Desmond Whyte, RAMC (Thompson, 179-83.)

[lv] Harold Atkins, IWM Interview, Catalogue# 12440

[lvi] Astor, 202-203.

[lvii] Later it became the 5318th Provisional Air Unit.

[lviii] IWM Scott Interview, Catalogue#12352

[lix] Calvert, Fighting Mad, loc. 980-989, 23%, Ch 8.

[lx] David Rooney, Mad Mike, loc. 579, Ch 4, 16%

[lxi] Calvert, Fighting Mad, Loc.424-1432, 42%.

[lxii] Calvert, Prisoners of Hope, loc.239-247, 5%, Ch 1.

[lxiii] Allen, 324, footnote 2.

[lxiv] See Slim, Defeat into Victory.

[lxv] Allen, 316.

[lxvi] Allen, 326.

[lxvii] Named as Noboru Teizo or Naboru Tazoe in some sources.

[lxviii] Allen, 326.

[lxix] See Slim’s Defeat into Victory

[lxx] Calvert, Prisoners, Loc. 345-354, 7%, Ch 1.

[lxxi] The 900th Airborne Engineers, with a strength of only 4 officers and 124 enlisted men, would carry out five, separate glider landing missions during the course of Operation “Thursday,” apparently earning them the privilege of having made the most glider-borne landings of any glider-borne unit of World War II. The 900th participated in the landings at all the Chindit strongholds: Broadway, White City, Aberdeen, Chowinghee and Blackpool.

[lxxii] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 362, 7%, Ch 1.

[lxxiii] Van Wagner, 54.

[lxxiv] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 371, 7% Ch. 1.

lxxv] Topee —hat in Hindi. Wingate’s headwear was essentially a pith helmet.

[lxxvi] Astor, 207.

[lxxvii] Wingate would inform Calvert that the medal was granted, during a visit to White City on March 24 — it was to be the last time that anyone at White City ever saw him. (Calvert, Prisoners, Loc. 876, 17%, Ch 3.)

[lxxviii] Calvert, Prisoners, Loc. 406-415, 8%, Ch 1.

[lxxix] Astor, 208.

[lxxx] Masters, 179.

[lxxxi] Van Wagner, 56.

[lxxxii] Captain Eric H. Schneider was the unfortunate Air Commando pilot killed. (Van Wagner, 56)

[lxxxiii] Van Wagner, 57.

[lxxxiv] Astor, 217.

[lxxxv] Ibid., 217.

[lxxxvi] Ibid., 218.

[lxxxvii] Wingate had confided to the 14th Brigade Commander, Brodie, on March 23rd, that he feared that Slim would employ the brigade in Imphal, and that he intended to use them in Burma before Slim could get his hands on them.

[lxxxviii] Allen, 327.

[lxxxix] Ibid.

[xc] Andrew Thomas, Spitfire Aces of Burma and the Pacific, 42.

[xci] Ibid.

[xcii] Van Wagner, 59 & Astor, 226.

[xciii] Allen, 352.

[xciv] Ibid, 43

[xcv] Ibid.

[xcvi] Astor, 226-227.

[xcvii] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 558-586, 11%, Ch. 2.
xcviii]
Ibid., loc. 661-670, 13%, Ch 2.

[xcix] Redding, 101.

[c] From the Japanese 15th Division

[ci] From the Japanese 18th Division

[cii] The hill was Pagoda Hill.

[ciii] Bidwell, 119

[civ] Astor, 221.

[cv] Ibid., 222.

[cvi] Ibid., 222.

[cvii] Ibid., 222.

[cviii] Calvert, in his memories, Prisoners of Hope, says he charged down the hill.

[cix] Astor, 223-224.

[cx] In Bierman and Smith’s biography of Wingate, Fire in the Night, the two writers claim that Calvert was the only brigadier in the WWII armies to personally lead a bayonet charge.

[cxi] Bidwell, 123.

[cxii] Astor, 225.

[cxiii] Calvert, Prisoners, loc. 734, 14%, Ch. 3.

[cxiv] Ibid., loc. 797-814, 15-16%.

[cxv] Ibid., 3022, 58%

[cxvi] Calvert, Fighting Mad, 2517-2525, 74%

12 responses to “Return of the Chindits, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Chindits – In 1944 | Hermes' Wings

  2. Diana Hoare June 28, 2016 at 2:46 am

    I am rather intrigued that I have been sent these emails. Did I sign up for it? Very pleased and interested because my father was a Chindit in Burma in the 1944 campaign. His name is Lt. Col. ‘`Pat’ Hughes 12th Battalion Nigeria Regiment 12 & 43 Column. He never talked about his time there which I can understand as it must have been a terrible time. My husband and I visited ‘White City’ in November 2014 and subsequently have had a plaque erected in memory of all those who fought at White City.

    Diana Hoare

    >

    • Akhil Kadidal June 28, 2016 at 3:51 am

      Diana, you likely received the notifications because you chose to follow the blog. Welcome!

      Lt-Col. Pat Hughes is a famous name in Chindit lore. Unfortunately, I have not focused much on the activities of the Nigerians at White City and after, in part because of a scarcity of verifiable data. If you have any information you would like to share, do kindly let me know. I’m still in the process of editing and refining this history and would gladly accept inputs at this stage.

  3. Rupert Christie August 25, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    Thanks for researching all this history of the White City, in which my father, Lt-Colonel J N H (“Hugh”) Christie was involved. He described a lot of the campaign to me. The march after the White City was the most gruelling time, fighting disease, the monsoon, hunger and fatigue and the Japanese in that order. He could not express enough gratitude for the Dakota crews who flew in supplies without which they would have all died. He was especially grateful as he knew his force was of no immediate military value at a time of great peril for the campaign as a whole. In his debriefing with Brigadier “Mike” Calvert afterwards, he described what he and his men had been through, and, at the end of his account, the question of awards and decorations for bravery was raised. Calvert told him, ‘Well, Christie, you were there and I wasn’t. You are the best judge as to how to award these,’ and passed him an envelope containing three DSO medals. My father was obviously quite surprised, and puzzled, having to decide what best to do. He was also presented with quite a difficult problem. Two recipients were obvious to him, and chose themselves, men who had been superb throughout, and thoroughly deserved the medal, — but what to do with the third one? He had a natural disinclination to award it to himself, although the commanding officer might be expected to receive one. There was a third man — I know none of the names — under his command who had been thoroughly brave for most of the time, but had wavered occasionally, and was full of self-doubt, for whom my father knew that the medal would have meant an enormous amount. He could not resist the temptation to award it to him. Quite an unusual story for the awarding of medals in the British army, don’t you think?

    • Akhil Kadidal August 26, 2016 at 12:16 am

      What an amazing, interesting story. I can just picture Calvert passing him the envelope of medals. It’s a pity you can’t remember the names, but it shouldn’t be too hard to unearth their identities. The number of DSO awardees during the campaign was rather select. In any case, I certainly believe your father deserved one.

      I have heard of other instances of medals being awarded in such a fashion during the war. In the US Army, for example, such practices were common for lower-rung medals such as the Purple Heart…etc. I also think it had a lot to do with how the 77th Brigade was organised – it was an informally led but effective fighting force. The most effective of all the brigades. Morale and initiative were sky high – unlike in the regular army.

  4. Rupert Christie November 4, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Dear Mr Kadidal,
    Thank you so much for your reply concerning the DSOs, and for your generous comment that my father definitely deserved one. Unfortunately, it never did his career in the army very much good, as he never publicised the incident — that would have defeated the object — and it was thought peculiar that he went through the Burma campaign without any award for bravery.
    I would like to record some other aspects of his time in the jungle. He told me that flame-throwers were very effective weapons in all the skirmishes they were involved in. However, the source of the weapon was very obvious to the enemy, especially at night, and therefore attracted a great deal of fire. The mortality rate of the holders of these weapons was correspondingly very high. The system of attributing the flame-throwers was by lot, and the men began to dread this ordeal of drawing by lots, which was very close to being awarded a death sentence. The ordeal was so bad, and had such a bad effect on morale, my father decided, that the advantages of the flame-throwers were more than counter-balanced by the bad effect on the men, and he discontinued the use of them.
    During the route marches through the jungle during the monsoon, after the White City campaign, there were times they were more than ankle-deep in mud for 24, or even 48, hours at a time. They had to sleep, as best they could, leaning against bamboo, or a tree. They were all suffering, to different degrees, from malaria and dysentery, and other diseases, and were all, as my father said, ‘as weak as kittens’. My father, at 6’3″, weighed 8 1/2 stone when he left the jungle. During these marches, there was a rota of back-markers in the line, who brought up the rear, and were responsible for helping along the falterers, and those too weak to keep up on their own. This duty was obviously quite onerous, as, for most, it was all they could do, to keep themselves going. My father, as was to be expected, took his turn with all the others, and had recently finished one of his terms on the rota, when it became the turn of one of the men — it might have been an officer, I am not sure — to bring up the rear. My father knew he was not up to it. He had recently been one of the ones to collapse, who had had to be helped on. My father asked him if he could do it, and the man assured him he could, which my father doubted in the extreme. But the whole company was in a state of collapse, including himself, and, the man insisting, he let him go to the rear. At the next rest break, it was found that the man was no longer with them. My father had to live with that for the rest of his life. Could he have done things differently? They were all at the extreme limits of collapse. They were in a different territory of being half dead and half alive, and the margin between the two was very slim, and one had just slipped further along the line.
    After incidents like these, it is easy to see that the awarding of medals, or not, might not have seemed of any great consequence.
    Thank you so much for all the work and research you have made about the Burma campaign.
    Rupert Christie.

  5. Rupert Christie November 8, 2016 at 11:09 am

    Thank you again for your reply.
    Re-reading your account of the White City campaign, I notice you referred to ‘Lt-Colonel Christie, a veteran of the Arakan campaign’. I wonder if the above incidents happened in that campaign, rather than after the White City. I am afraid I am a little hazy on the detail, just remembering individual annecdotes my father told me.
    An amusing incident was his account of being summoned to report to his commanding officer in his tent. He entered to find Calvert stark naked standing on his head, doing yoga. My father tried to carry on, as if this quite normal.
    On another occasion, he told me that, after battle, they had a roll call of the injured and the dead, an assessment of the battle, and an analysis of what could have been done better, and what had gone badly. He told me that he felt the casualties were almost always, generally speaking, amongst the brightest and the best, and that there was a rump of his men who knew how to look after themselves in battle, and made sure that they did not stick their necks out unnecessarily. He felt resentment that these casualties were often the most heroic, doing their duty unselfishly, even when it meant great risk to themselves, whereas the others were less prone to self-sacrifice, but better survivors.
    Appertaining to this, he also mentioned that the army experimented with issuing amphetamines before battle, to sharpen up the troops. I am not sure if this was the British, or American, army. The experiment was not considered a success, however. It was thought that the men took unnecessary risks, and that it was unfair to expect men to fight when the balance of their mind was deliberately impaired, and that the risk-taking could not only be detrimental to the safety of the men, but that the extra unnecessary casualties could also be an overall disadvantage in battle.
    I will try and remember his descriptions of some other aspects of the campaign, at the risk, perhaps, of becoming tedious.
    I remember that I was very resentful that I did not discover he had been a Chindit until I was about fourteen years old. Neither he nor my mother had ever mentioned it. I had read tens of hundreds of those wonderful quarter-sized war comics, so wonderfully drawn, since I was eight, and my top heroes had always been Spitfire pilots, followed closely by Chindits. And I had been denied the proud satisfaction of knowing my father had been one of those Chindits, all that time! It was really hard to bear, but I was really proud in the end, after all, and still am.
    When I asked him his opinion of Wingate, having made this discovery that he had been a Chindit, he replied that he was obviously a very brilliant and innovative military strategist. He thought it a great pity, though, that when he died, he took a lot of his overall strategy with him, as he had not imparted it to anyone else. His successors were left to pick up the pieces of what he had intended to do next, and it was not at all clear to them. That was all I remember of his thoughts on Wingate.
    I am sorry he is not here himself to make his own account, much more lucidly, and certainly more accurately. He wrote extremely well. But I hope these few scaps of what I remember him telling me are of some interest.
    Rupert Christie.

    • Akhil Kadidal November 8, 2016 at 11:25 am

      The fighting in Arakan, in Burma’s southwestern peninsula, was separate from the Chindit campaign, and went on until mid-1944, even during the second Chindit operation. I can’t remember the details just now without looking back at my footnotes and sources, but my research indicated that Lt-Col. Christie had fought in Arakan in 1943.

      You know, I’m immensely grateful for all your comments – they serve as an invaluable addendum and certainly do much to flesh out your father as a person. Brigadier Calvert, of course, wrote a bit about him in his books.

    • Akhil Kadidal November 8, 2016 at 11:36 am

      I’m curious, did your father ever write his memoirs, a book? If so, where can I find a copy? It would make a stellar addition to my Chindit library.

      • Rupert Christie November 8, 2016 at 3:23 pm

        Thanks again for your interest. He would have been thrilled to be described as a ‘stellar addition’. I remember him modestly describing himself as carrying on his normal business at the staff college in Quetta when he was suddenly swooped up by a giant aeroplane, and dumped in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by Japanese.
        After the war, my mother told me, he wrote a set talk on his Chindit experiences, that he gave on numerous occasions, to army audiences, but I never heard it, and I do not think a copy of it still exists.

      • Akhil Kadidal November 8, 2016 at 10:22 pm

        Ah, a real pity that a written work did not survive.

        It’s just a thought, but perhaps you could write a book – About his wartime experiences, yes, but also about your relationship with him. You certainly have a flair for story-telling, without any pretentiousness as it were. And Lt-Col. Christie comes off as such a warm, principled man. Just an idea.

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