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  • Maria Ogborn

Chindit ‘Operation Longcloth’- 1943

‘Victory in war cannot be counted upon, but what can be counted upon is that we shall go forward determined to do what we can to bring this war to the end which we believe best for our friends and comrades in arms’.[1] – Order of the Day, by Major General Orde Wingate,

13th February 1943


Chindit Insignia (CN:INS 7092, IWM)

Chindit Training

The 77th Indian Infantry Brigade (Chindits) were ‘composed of the 13th King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, the 3rd/2nd Gurkha Rifles and the 2nd Battalion Burma Rifles, to which was added 142 Commando, and RAF section, a signals section and a mule transport company’.[2]

The training was harsh and demanding of the men of the brigade and they had to train heavily for only a short period of time considering the task. Major General Orde Wingate believed ‘any unit could be trained to meet the extraordinary LRP standards of fitness’.[3] Lieutenant Philip Stibbe wrote that it was essential to: -


keep up to scratch with our weapon training, non-swimmers must be taught to swim, muleteers must be trained to look after mules, signallers must learn to use the various types of wireless sets we were to take with us, and all the other specialist personnel must be brought up to a high pitch of efficiency in their respective jobs. Above all, we must make ourselves fit to march unheard-of distances, carrying unheard-of loads on our backs[4]


Troops needed weapons training, basic jungle survival skills, knowledge of specialist equipment and muleteers needed training to work with mules. Training ‘consisted primarily of long series of forced marches, by day or night, carrying full arms, ammunition and equipment’.[5] Training for river crossings was also a vital part of preparing for jungle fighting and the monsoon rain proved how important this would be. Stibbe noted that a ‘party of officers was summoned to a conference at Brigade Headquarters, they found their way barred by what was usually a small stream but had now become a raging torrent, swollen by the monsoon rains. Tactical training of Wingate’s LRPGs, ‘were carefully gradually inculcated to all ranks in a system of progressive training’[6] and then ‘broken down into simple stages and taught as drills that were practiced incessantly until they became almost second nature’.[7]


Brigadier Orde Wingate 1942, CN: HU 6643, IWM

There were two key forms of transportation needed by the Chindits. Firstly, mules and muleteers who were essential within with jungle environment and LRP would not have worked without them. Secondly, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and air supply lines which needed to understand LRP and carefully work with men on the ground, for LRP to work at all, however, the aircraft to train with were in very short supply. After weeks of training, the first large Brigade exercise begin in September 1942 and although ‘offensive spirit was good, the sabotage squads excelled themselves and the RAF liaison worked well’[8], many issues came to light.

On an individual level, skin problems developed due to the wet and humid conditions and soon hunger, fatigue and pace all became an apparent weakness. According to Major S.R. McMichael, ‘no consideration was given to sickness, minor injury, heat, or weather. Placed on light rations and given little water, the men were pushed beyond the limits they thought they could endure.’[9] Then there were more strategic problems such as lack or loss of equipment and officers learning ‘on the job’, the use of mules, which it was discovered needed longer training and air drops, were all being dealt with along the way.

Despite this by February 1943, the Chindits were believed, especially by Wingate, to be ready for action and prepared to enter Burma as part of Operation Longcloth.


Chindit Column ( Imperial War Museum )

Operation Longcloth

Operation Longcloth began on 8th February 1943, when the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade (Chindits) started their march into Burma from Imphal.


The Order of Battle was as follows: -


Commander- Brigadier Orde Wingate, D.S.O

Brigadier Major -Major G.M. Anderson

Staff Captain- Captain H.J. Lord


No. 1 Group (Southern)

Commander- Lt-Colonel Alexander- 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles

Adjutant - Captain Birtwhistle- 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles

No. 1 Column- Major G. Dunlop, MC- Royal Scots

No. 2 Column- Major A. Emmett- 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles

No. 2 Group (Northern)

Commander - Lt-Colonel S.A. Cooke- Lincolnshire Regiment,

Adjutant- Captain D. Hastings- King's Regiment

No. 3 Column- Major J.M. Calvert- Royal Engineers

No. 4 Column- Major Conron - 3/2nd Gurkha Rifles- succeeded by Major R.B.G. Bromhead- Royal Berkshire Regiment

No. 5 Column- Major B.E. Fergusson- Black Watch

No. 7 Column- Major K.D. Gilkes- King's Regiment

No. 8 Column- Major W.P. Scott- King's Regiment

2nd Burma Rifles- Lt-Colonel L.G. Wheeler- Burma Rifles

Adjutant- Captain P.C. Buchanan- Burma Rifles


The Southern Group had orders to cut the railway to the south near Wuntho and divert any attention from the ‘main body’. The Northern Group had orders to attack the railway and facilities near Nankan. The two groups were then to rendezvous and ‘the united force would cross the Irrawaddy and cut the Mandalay- Lashio railway’.[10]


Longcloth had initially been part of a wider offensive in Burma, however, when General Wavell learned that the Chinese offensive had been postponed, there was debate over whether the operation should go ahead. Wingate decided that the opportunity for further experience and to showcase the concept of LRPGs should not be wasted, that cancellation would have disappoint his men and it additionally would ‘give ammunition to his opponents and critics’.[11]Operation Longcloth was to become, according to Tony Redding, ‘an experiment in Chindit Warfare’.[12] For some of Wingate’s critics, this lack of wider aim, proved how effective the Chindits would be, before they had begun.



Chindit Operations (CN:SE 7910, IWM)

By 14th February 1943, the first of the Chindits had crossed the Chindwin river. Columns 3, 4, 7 and 8 had a difficult crossing at Tonhe, so Major Fergusson and Column No.5 made the decision to cross further down the river in sight of the drop zone, where they would meet with the rest of the group. Phillip Stibbe wrote ‘except for the watchful sentries of the Perimeter Platoon we slept soundly, thankful that we had crossed our first major obstacle with no interference from the Japs.’[13]

By 15th February, the Northern Columns had met and had begun receiving their first air drop of supplies. Similarly, by this point, the Southern Columns had managed a successful air drop and crossed the Chindwin at Auktaung. Stibbe noted that one major issue was that ‘our maps were not complete in all respects’[14] meaning that the men did not have an accurate layout of the land, in this case they were walking into marshland. The jungle itself was also proving an obstacle for the Chindits, as one officer noted, noises kept the men on their toes as they were not sure of the difference between ‘a call of a night bird – or was it a signal to a lurking enemy?’.[15]


Major Bernard Fergusson (right) 1943 (CN: HU 70591, IWM)

By 18th February, the Southern Groups had already come into contact with Japanese forces and lost both men and supplies. Stibbe recalled that several days later ‘we had heard by now 1 and 2 Columns operating far to the south, with Colonel Alexander, had already drawn blood’.[16] He also noted another issue that was already affecting the men of the Chindits, that being disease and illness. Stibbe noted of one of the men ‘looking ghastly with yellow jaundice’.[17] Between 15th February and 6th March 1943, most of the Northern Columns had received air drops and blown up railway bridges and gorges. However, Column No 4 had re-crossed the Chindwin river after losing supplies and ammunition during an enemy attack. Despite this it appears that the men of the Northern Groups felt that their efforts were having an impact on the Japanese, as Stibbe writes, ‘we were causing considerable alarm and confusion among our enemies’.[18] The Southern Groups, Columns 1 and 2, had also come into contact with the enemy and although they had successful air drops and destroyed railway bridges, Column 2 had re-crossed the Chindwin river after an enemy ambush. In spite of these enemy attacks, it was only by the 13th March, the Japanese had realised that the Chindits were being supplied by air, which they previously believed was only reconnaissance. The remaining Columns of both groups, Columns 1, 5, 7 and 8 as well as HQ, had all crossed the Irrawaddy by the 18th March.


From this point on the Japanese began to target all remaining columns of the Chindits. Wingate’s critics were seemingly proved right at the end of March 1943 as Wingate’s men were ordered to withdraw from Burma. Once across the Irrawaddy, the ability to drop supplies became limited, there was little equipment, men became sick and wounded, hundreds of miles into enemy territory, with little food and rations. This withdrawal itself proved difficult. Those men who managed to arrive back in India were ‘exhausted, dirty and hungry’[19], while many did not return, including Lieutenant Philip Stibbe who was wounded and left in the jungle, where he was captured and became a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW). This would sadly be the reality for many men of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade.


Operation Longcloth was not a military success. General Slim concluded that despite the fact the columns of 77th Brigade had cut communications, caused some damage and ‘pushed two hundred miles eastward into Japanese-held Burma’,[20] for the most part ‘as a military operation the raid had been an extensive failure’.[21] There was indeed a huge loss of equipment and there were many injured, wounded, sick and captured with seemingly little to show for their brave efforts. For both his contemporaries and modern critics of Wingate, this lack of military results proved the Chindits effectiveness, showed that his ideas produced little success and represented a huge waste of resources. Indeed, to some extent this was accurate. However, the operation was a ‘physical and psychological victory over the jungle and the Japanese’,[22] and it did much to boost the morale of the British troops, which was at a low point and had been for some time. Louis Allen wrote of Operation Longcloth in his account ‘Burma: The Longest War’:-


‘Longcloth had panache, it had glamour, it had cheek, it had everything that the successive Arakan failures lacked. It was the perfect psychological medicine for an Army sadly devoid of confidence in its methods, its purposes and its ability to fulfil them’[23]


Wingate’s operation had shown that LRPGs could work, function and possessed the potential to cause disruption behind enemy lines but increased air support was essential to allow LRPGs to prove their full potential.

Brigadier Ferguson summed up his feeling about the operation in 1946: -


‘the achievement of that first expedition was not spectacular but it provided useful experience. We learned a great deal about tactics, about the short comings (as well as the virtues) of the Japanese as a fighting man, about the military topography of the country, and about the enemy's communication system. We also proved that supply-dropping was feasible.’[24]


Bibliography

[1] Chindits, Operation Longcloth, Wingate’s Order of the Day, http://www.chindits.info/Longcloth/Orderof%20theDay.htm (Accessed 7th January 2021) [2] David Rooney, Wingate and the Chindits: Redressing the Balance, (London, Sharpe Books, 2019), p.76 [3] Major. S. R. McMichael, A Historical Perspective on Light Infantry, US Army Command and General Staff College (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1987), p.33 [4] Philip Stibbe, Return via Rangoon, (London, Leo Cooper, 1995), p. 18. [5] Tim Moreman, Chindit 1942-45, (Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2009), p. 13. [6] Ibid., p.16. [7] Ibid., p. 16. [8] Rooney, Redressing the Balance, p. 77. [9] Major. S. R. McMichael, ‘Light Infantry’, p. 16. [10] Tony Redding, The Wilderness: The Chindits in Burma 1943-44, (Stroud, The History Press, 2011), p. 45 [11] Rooney, Redressing the Balance, p. 79. [12] Redding, The Wilderness, p. 32. [13] Ibid., p.62. [14] Stibbe, via Rangoon, p. 64. [15] Fergal Keane, Road of Bones: The Epic Siege of Kohima 1944, (London, Harper Press, 2011), p.156 [16] Ibid., p. 71. [17] Ibid., p. 66. [18] Ibid., p. 70. [19] Moreman, Chindit, p. 42. [20] W. Slim, Defeat into Victory, (Cassell, London, 2009) p. 185. [21] Ibid., p. 185. [22] Moreman, Chindit, p. 4. [23] L. Allen, Burma: The Longest War 1941-45, (London, 1984), p. 118. [24] Bernard Fergusson, Upper Burma, 1943-44, Geographical Journal, Vol. 107, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Feb., 1946), p. 2.

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