The 3,000 men of the original 77 Brigade were the first of the Chindits. Led by General Orde Wingate, they marched into occupied Burma in 1943 and destroyed Japanese supply depots and attacked rail and other communication targets. They paid heavily: around one-third were lost and wounded and sick who could no longer march had to be left behind. The health of 600 of the survivors was so poor that they were unable to regain combat fitness and rejoin the fight.
This first Chindit campaign caused little material damage overall, but the ease with which these troops infiltrated North Burma had a profound effect on Japanese thinking. After Operation Longcloth, the 1943 Chindit expedition, the Japanese decided that their defensive posture in Burma was no longer viable. Accordingly, they decided to mount an offensive against Assam, aimed primarily at Imphal and Kohima. This led to their eventual defeat and undoing in Burma, during 1944 and 1945.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered by 77 Brigade’s Operation Longcloth columns, Wingate considered his visionary concept of ‘Long Range Penetration’ (the infiltration of jungle fighters behind Japanese lines, supplied entirely by air) had been fully vindicated.
Wingate’s plans for a second Chindit campaign – Operation Thursday – caught the imagination of Churchill, who ensured that he got more than he wanted for this much larger expedition. Six Brigades (including a refitted 77 Brigade) were trained as Chindits and became ‘Special Force’. The 23 Brigade was deployed to disrupt communications behind the Japanese attacking Imphal and Kohima. Another Brigade, the 16 Brigade, marched in but the other four Brigades became an air landing force. The Chindits now had a private air force – the American No. 1 Air Commando – with gliders for assault landings, C-47 transports to airlift in the main force, light planes for casualty evacuation and a force of Mustang fighter bombers and B.25 bombers trained in ultra-close air support.
The men of 16 Brigade opened Operation Thursday in the early weeks of 1944, when they began a long penetration march into Burma. This involved some of the worst country on earth. A Chindit carried his home on his back. The typical weight of a Chindit heavy pack, small pack and weapons was around 72lb (80lb for a Bren Gunner).The men were carrying half their body weight. The weight increased when their equipment was wet - which it was for most of the time, as North Burma is the wettest region on earth (with the exception of dry teak jungle, which has no water at all). They operated, for the most part, in the dim green light under the jungle canopy, with visibility often 30 ft or less. They lived with the constant fear of ambush. Most ambushes were, in effect, accidents - with a Chindit column and a Japanese force ‘bumping into’ each other. The men also lived with the fear of disease, such as the deadly cerebral malaria and scrub typhus.
Typical temperatures were 110-112 deg. F., with extreme humidity. Clothes and webbing rotted in the rain and sweat. A Chindit required 12 pints of water daily, but often had to go without. They subsisted almost entirely on air-dropped K rations. Each man was supposed to receive three meal packs per day for five days (i.e. 15 packs). Airdrops were often cancelled or were unsuccessful, with stores missing the drop zone, and five days’ rations had to last eight days or longer. The author’s father, Rifleman and Bren Gunner Jack Redding (of 41 Column, King’s Own Royal Regiment, 111 Brigade), lost three stone in 18 weeks while behind the lines.
Jack Redding was among several hundred troops who set out from Lalaghat airfield, Assam, in assault gliders on Sunday, March 5, 1944. Dual-towed behind C-47 transports, they flew on in bright moonlight over occupied Burma. Their destination was ‘Broadway’, a rough jungle clearing 150 miles behind Japanese lines. Many gliders were lost but the landing was unopposed. The advance party worked round the clock to improve the clearing, allowing C-47s to land late the following day.
The second Chindit campaign unfolded, marred by the tragic loss of Wingate in an air crash, only three weeks into the operation. Nevertheless, the men of 77 Brigade put a highly effective block on the main railway supplying the Japanese armies in the north. This ‘stronghold’ was held for seven weeks, despite daily attacks by Japanese forces determined to penetrate the wire and kill everyone inside.
The Japanese never captured White City, which was abandoned only at a time of the Chindits’ choosing. Special Force columns headed north and put a new block on the railway. This was known as Blackpool. It was sited too close to the Japanese front line; within three weeks the enemy broke in, having made the re-supply of the block impossible by bringing up AA guns. The garrison of around 2,000 men escaped with their lives by a miracle, although some of the most seriously wounded were shot, to prevent them falling into Japanese hands.
With Wingate gone, the Chindits came under the command of the American anglophobe General Stillwell. They were misused as assault troops and kept in during the monsoon. Eventually, most of them could hardly stand, let alone march. It is generally accepted that the Chindits experienced probably the worst sustained infantry fighting experience of the Second World War. Many men lost one-third of their body weight whilst in Burma. Everyone went to hospital on coming out; the majority could no longer take solid food. Most were suffering from ‘Chindit Syndrome’, a condition in which the individual soldier had two or three conditions - typically malaria, dysentery and septic jungle sores - any one of which required hospitalisation.
Today, the new 77 Brigade inherits a proud legacy. That Chindit flash, the ‘fabulous lion’, means more today, to the handful of surviving veterans, than words can possibly express.
By Tony Redding