Operation Longcloth

This was the British first Chindit long-range penetration raid behind the Japanese lines in Burma (8 February/April 1943).

The operation was schemed by Brigadier O. C. Wingate, an unorthodox officer with considerable experience of irregular warfare in Palestine and Abyssinia, and whom General (from January 1942 Field Marshal) Sir Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief, had been pleased to receive in India during January 1942. This was at the time of Japan’s northward thrust from Rangoon, when it was appreciated by the command structure in India that most of Burma would almost inevitably be lost. Wavell appreciated that Wingate’s irregular warfare methods might prove singularly useful to the combined British and Indian effort on two scores, namely those of keeping the Japanese off balance by disrupting their lines of communication, and bolstering Allied morale by showing that British, Indian and Gurkha troops could take on and beat the Japanese in jungle warfare, in which the Japanese had acquired an awesome reputation.

Wavell was thus persuaded by Wingate that the capabilities of air supply and radio communications made it feasible for a relatively modest force, divided into a number of independent columns, to operate successfully behind the Japanese lines to harass troop movements, gather intelligence and cut communications. Wavell authorised the formation of Wingate’s Indian 77th Brigade, a special unit which was to advance into northern Burma and operate in the area to the east of the Irrawaddy river just to the south of Katha.

The name ‘Chindit’ arose from a suggestion of Captain Aung Thin of the Burma Army, and in its ‘definitive’ form this was a corrupted version of the suggested name, which is that of a Burmese mythical beast, the Chinthé or Chinthay, statues of which guard Buddhist temples.

Wingate took personal control of the training of the troops in jungles of central India during the rainy season. In the Abyssinian campaign of 1940 Wingate had begun to explore the ideas that he used with the Chindits, when he created and commanded a group of Ethiopian guerrillas, known as ‘Gideon’ Force, which disrupted Italian supply lines and provided intelligence for the British and commonwealth forces. As commander-in-chief in the Middle East in 1940, Wavell had sanctioned the establishment of ‘Gideon’ Force for political purposes, because he had thought Wingate’s idea to be too unorthodox for purely military purposes. After the disbandment of ‘Gideon’ Force, in 1942 Wavell requested Wingate for service in Burma, where it was conjectured that an irregular forces might operate behind the Japanese lines in a fashion similar to that of ‘Gideon’ Force in Abyssinia. Rather than organise irregular forces for Burmese service, though, Wingate spent his time touring the country and developing his theory of long-range penetration operations using more conventional forces.

During the final stages of the British retreat from Burma, Wingate had himself specially flown back to India while the rest of the army walked out. Once in Delhi, he presented his proposals to Wavell.

The Indian 77th Brigade gradually came into existence in the area around Jhansi during the summer of 1942. Half of the men were British infantry of the 13/King’s Liverpool Regiment, and men from the Bush Warfare School in Burma who were formed into No. 142 Commando Company. The other half of the brigade comprised the 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles and 2nd Burma Rifles. Wingate trained the brigade for deployment as long-range penetration units to operate in the Japanese rear areas on a mule transport basis with the aid of resupply from the air, the latter aided by RAF sections attached to each column to ensure adequate air co-ordination. The Chindits were organised into columns under the command of two group headquarters which were ultimately under the command of a brigade headquarters, which also controlled a deception party commanded by Major Jeffries and the HQ Group of the 2nd Burma Rifles under the command of Lieutenant Colonel L. G. Wheeler, who died and was succeeded by Captain P. C. Buchanan.

The operation was originally to have been supported by an offensive by Lieutenant General G. A. P. Scoones’s Indian IV Corps and was planned to coincide with the ‘Cannibal’ first British offensive in the Arakan coastal region. However, the lines of communication needed by the Indian IV Corps were not ready in time, and in the circumstances Scoones was unwilling to commit his formations to the east of the Chindwin river. Wavell was thus faced with the difficult position of whether or not to commit the Indian 77th Brigade alone but, swayed perhaps by Wingate’s enthusiasm, ordered ‘Longcloth’ to proceed as planned. The object of the operation was to stir up a hornet’s nest in the operational areas of Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi’s (from 18 March Lieutenant General Shinichi Tanaka’s) 18th Division and Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s (from 11 March Lieutenant General Genzo Yanagida’s) 33rd Division of Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida’s (from 18 March Mutaguchi’s) 15th Army, and so encourage greater efforts on the part of British commanders in India once the legend of Japanese invincibility had been destroyed.

On 14 February 1943 the Indian 77th Brigade began its approach from Imphal, the brigade being organised as four Gurkha and three British columns, each consisting of some 400 men, two 3-in (76-mm) mortars and two medium machine guns, with supplies carried on some 100 mules, though longer-term supply was reliant on airdrops organised by Major Peter Lord and two RAF squadron leaders. On reaching Tamu, the brigade divided into two major parts, the No. 1 Group (Southern) under Lieutenant Colonel L. A. Alexander (Major Dunlop’s No. 1 Column and Major Burnett’s No. 2 Column with 1,000 men and 250 mules) crossing the Chindwin river at Auktaung, and the No. 2 Group (Northern) of Lieutenant Colonel S. A. Cooke and accompanied by Wingate (Major J. M. Calvert’s No. 3 Column, Major R. A. Conron’s [from 1 March Major R. B. Bromhead’s] No. 4 Column, Major B. Fergusson’s No. 5 Column, Major K. Gilkes’s No. 7 Column and Major W. Scott’s No. 8 Column with 2,000 men and 850 mules) crossing the same river farther to the north at Tonhe.

The two groups then pressed on to the east, along basically parallel routes but with the smaller Southern Group simulating a larger force in an effort to draw most of the Japanese attention, its primary mission being the cutting of the railway line between Mandalay and Mogaung. There were frequent but generally successful brushes with small Japanese parties during this period, but progress was much hampered by the Chindits’ erroneous belief that they had to find open ground for air drops to reach them. Once it had been appreciated that the drops could be made in jungle, the pace of the advance increased. Diversionary raids were mounted off the line of advance, but the two groups each lost one column dispersed during the early days of March.

However, on 3 March No. 1 Column blew the railway just north of Kyaikthin, and three days later Nos 3 and 5 Columns achieved comparable results between Nankan and Bongyaung.

Iida now ordered the concentration of three regiments (one each from the 18th Division, 33rd Division and Lieutenant General Yuzo Matsuyama’s 56th Division, and each of three battalions) to eliminate the Chindits, who were now heading for the Irrawaddy river, which five columns crossed with difficulty between 10 and 18 March.

Wingate planned to operate against the Burma Road in the region of Maymyo, with the friendly Kachin Hills and China to his back. However, the area between the Irrawaddy and Schweli rivers proved a disaster as it was open, dry country offering little protection to the Chindits, all possible targets were some distance away, and the region was at the very limit of the Chindits’ air supply and radio capabilities.

Wingate thus decided on 24 March to withdraw, ordering his column commanders to return by the means they thought safest. No. 1 Column made for the Kachin Hills, another for China, a third prepared an airstrip and was flown out, and two others opted for the overland retreat back to the Chindwin river. But the Indian IV Corps had meanwhile fallen back from the Chindwin river, and the Japanese had prepared a cordon defence along the river, catching many Chindits who thought they had reached safety.

The Chindits struggled back to India during late March and April 1943, and of the original 3,000 men and 1,100 mules some 818 men had been killed, taken prisoner or died of disease, leaving just 2,182 men and only two mules to return after covering some 1,000 to 1,500 miles (1600 to 2400 km) behind the Japanese lines. However, of the survivors 600 were crippled by exhaustion, malnutrition, dysentery and malaria.

One of the oddest outcomes of the 1st Chindit Expedition, which was deemed only a qualified success by Wavell, was ‘U’, schemed by Mutaguchi as he had been very impressed by the Chindits’ methods, and this officer now proposed a comparable but much larger offensive by the Japanese against Imphal in 1944. This offshoot of the 1st Chindit Expedition matured as the three-division ‘U’ offensive of 1944 planned and executed by the 15th Army.