• Maria Ogborn

Operation Thursday and the Chindit Strongholds -1944

Operation Longcloth, the first Chindit operation in February 1943, was not a military success. It did, however, provide experience in Long-Range Penetration (LRP) warfare, aided the propaganda campaign and despite losses, boosted morale for British troops . Critically, it also impacted Japanese thinking and lead the Japanese to ‘adopt a more forward defensive policy’[1] and a change in Japanese thinking and offensive strategy, which ultimately led to their downfall in the China- Burma India (CBI) theatre.

Operation 'Thursday' - March 1944: One of the gliders after landing at an airstrip code-named 'Broadway'. (IWM)

The operation also meant that Wingate was able to attend the Quebec Conference in August 1943 to put forward his ideas on LRP warfare, which came at a time when British leaders needed to show they were serious about defeating the Japanese. The failure of the Arakan offensive had damaged the reputation of British forces in Burma, not just at home but in America. In May 1943, at the Washington Conference, it was already clear to both the British and Americans that there needed to be ‘reorganization inside the Burma-India theatres’[2] but as both were held by the British Empire, the British Chiefs of Staff (COS) felt it was British responsibility. This caused Anglo-American tension and, in an attempt, to prove the British were committed in the Burma-India theatres, General Wavell detailed Operation Longcloth to the Americans.

In August 1943, at the Quebec Conference, Wingate got his opportunity to discuss the operation and his ideas on LRP warfare and how it would work within the CBI theatre. The proceedings gave an opportunity for British leaders to prove to the American Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) that they wanted to aide American objectives in China and that they were committed to the CBI theatre. Wingate’s proposals gave the Americans the opportunity to keep to their two strategic aims of keeping and supporting China in the war and of defeating Japanese forces.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) said of LRP warfare, ‘much is to be said for further developing this method of conducting operations on a larger scale against the Japanese’.[3]. Another key part of the Quebec conference, was the appointment of Lord Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander (SAC) of the newly created South East Asia Command (SEAC). The result of Wingate’s attendance at the Quebec Conference was improved Anglo-American relations and the joint allied preparations for what was to become Operation Thursday.

Operation Thursday

The 3rd Indian Division known as the Chindits (Special Force) now consisted of the 77th Indian infantry Brigade under Brigadier Calvert, 14th British Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Brodie, 3rd West African Brigade under Brigadier Gillmore,16th British Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Fergusson, 23rd Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Perowne, 111th Indian Infantry Brigade under Brigadier Lentaigne. It also included the Morris Force which consisted of 3 columns of Gurkha Rifles, the Dah Force and the Bladet Force made up of glider engineers. The columns were organised as they had been previously with one exception; Wingate now had the support of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and 1st Air Commando under co-commanders Colonel Cochran and Colonel Alison as well as four Dakota squadrons of the RAF. The 1st Air Commando gave Wingate the opportunity to ‘add new concepts: the defended, static “Block” across the main south-north supply road and railway feeding enemy forces in the north and the “Stronghold”, a defended airbase and sanctuary behind enemy lines.’[4] In September 1943, Arnold agreed to supply Wingate’s operation with 13 C-47s, 12 UC-64s, 100 CG-4s, 100 L-Planes, 6 helicopters, and 30 P-51s, which vastly increased Allied air power in Burma. The US also contributed 3,000 men, who became known as Unit Galahad or 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), nicknamed Merrill’s Marauders. These men were trained in Wingate’s LRP tactics, but fought under General Stilwell, alongside his Chinese force, who took then on due to his belief that the only American unit in Burma should not be commanded by the British.

1st Air Commando

The 1st Air Commando was formed for the purposes of Operation Thursday and aiding the Chindits in Burma. Wingate had argued during Operation Longcloth that ‘cooperating aircraft should be kept on the job, and not changed with every action’[5] and the 1st Air Commando allowed this to become a reality. Wingate now saw that the 1st Air Commando was could to some degree substitute heavy artillery and LRPGs no longer needed to wait for the main force to exploit the situation that they had created. The role of the 1st Air Commando was to fly troops into the Burmese jungle, evacuate the wounded and sick, supply the ground troops, to increase air superiority in Burmese territory, and supply air cover. While air supply was not a new idea, Slim noted that the difference between Burma and other theatres of war, was that in Burma ‘we made air transport an absolutely normal method of supply’[6] instead of ‘an emergency measure’.[7]

Col. Philip “Flip” Cochran of the USAAF in 1944.

The co-operation and co-ordination between air supply and the Chindits was essential for the operation to make any impact at all in Burma. T. Atkins of The Queens Royal Regiment, who had marched into Burma with Fergusson’s 16th Brigade, would write in his diary that ‘Both the Royal and American Air Force Supply and Light Plane Pilots were magnificent, without them we would not have survived’.[8] According to Lord Mountbatten, the Chindits and 1st Air Commando served as ‘the best example of inter-service and inter-Allied co-operation in the war’.[9]

With the 1st Air Commando at his disposal, Wingate began to plan for Operation Thursday. As the initial plan for the 1944 offensive in Burma fell through, Wingate developed the ‘concept of a stronghold for each Brigade, sited in inaccessible areas, provided with defensive garrisons, field and anti-aircraft artillery, a transport-aircraft landing strip and light aircraft.’[10] These Chindit ‘strongholds’ could be supplied by air and be used ‘not just to be to divert Japanese forces away from the front, but to lure them into situations where they could be destroyed in detail, making a major contribution to the main battle’.[11] Wingate’s plan was for these strongholds to move the Japanese from the main offensive. There was to be floater columns who would seek out Japanese reconnaissance patrols.

The main aims of the Chindit operation, as identified by General Slim, were:

I. Aiding ‘the advance of Stilwell’s Ledo force on Myitkyina by cutting the communications of the Japanese 18th Division, reassigning its rear and preventing its reinforcement’

II. ‘Creating a favourable situation for the Yunnan Chinese Forces’

III. ‘Inflicting the greatest possible damage and confusion on the enemy in North Burma’.[12]

Stillwell was unconvinced by the Chindits for most of the Burma Campaign. Stilwell did however gain command of, LRP trained, Unit Galahad and place them under Brigadier General Frank Merrill. Stilwell said ‘it felt wrong that Wingate had been given an American regiment.’[13] In December 1943, Stilwell’s forces have begun their advance in North Burma and by March 1944, the Chindits too had begun Operation Thursday in the North, while the rest of General Slim’s Fourteenth Army were in the South.

The completed landing strip at the airstrip code-named 'Broadway'. (IWM)

Operation Thursday began on the 5th February 1944, a month prior to the launch of Japanese Operation U-Go, with Fergusson’s 16th Brigade marching from Ledo to Indaw, to what would become the ‘Aberdeen’ stronghold and cut the communications of the Japanese 18 and 31 Divisions. Wingate and Cochran had chosen four locations from the Chindit strongholds, codenamed ‘Piccadilly’, ‘Aberdeen’, ‘Broadway’ and ‘Chowringhee.’ The fly-in to build these strongholds began on 5th March 1944 and had an unsuccessful start. Reconnaissance had shown that ‘Piccadilly’ had been blocked.

Slim suggested that Wingate thought ‘that the fly-in should be cancelled’[14] but with the 16th Brigade already on their way to ‘Aberdeen’ and with the morale of the men at risk, abandonment was not a viable option. Instead, Wingate decided to divert those aimed for ‘Piccadilly’ to ‘Chowringhee’. The fly-in to Broadway was not an initial success either. Many of those due to fly in on the initial gliders were men of Calvert’s 77th Brigade and there were ’83 RAF and USAAF C-47s and 80 gliders ready at Lalaghat. Due to both obstacles obstructing parts of Broadway and the lay of the land, many gliders were destroyed upon landing while others collided with each other. It was later found that on the fly-in each many gliders had been overloaded.

Wingate would soon hear the codeword, ‘Soya Link’, for the cancellation of any more aircraft into Broadway. Several hours later the codeword ‘Pork Sausage’ would be heard, indicating that the fly-in had after all been successful. Despite this success, thirty men had been killed and around thirty had been injured. Wingate opened ‘Chowringhee’ for its first fly-ins the same day. By 10th March 1944, Calvert’s 77 Brigade and half of Lentaigne’s 111 Brigade, had landed at Broadway. Churchill wrote to Roosevelt on 14th March informing him ‘between March 6th and March 11th, 7500 men with all their gear and with mules were successfully launched.’[15] Churchill told Roosevelt ‘we are all very pleased Wingate’s venture started so well’[16]

British, West African and Gurkha soldiers waiting at an airfield in India (IWM)

The fly-in to Burma had therefore been a success despite its initial bleak outlook. Bidwell describes it as ‘a tour de force of staff work’[17] considering that ‘no one in India had had any previous experience of an air-transported operation on so vast a scale.’[18] It was also an achievement that by this time the Japanese had not detected the size or the significance of the operation. In a letter to Roosevelt, Churchill wrote ‘the operation appears to have been a complete success’.[19] Japanese Monograph 134, indicates that on the 9th March, the day after Mutaguchi’s 15th Army had crossed the Chindwin, Japanese HQ was ‘informed that on the 5th an enemy airborne unit had landed’.[20] Mutaguchi would later state that is due to allied air power being focused on Operation Thursday ‘the crossing of the Chindwin River, in the initial phase of the Imphal offensive, was accomplished without enemy air interference’.[21] On 10th March, after Lentaigne and his men had left ‘Chowringhee’, the Japanese began an air attack on the base. On 13th March ‘thirty enemy fighters attacked Broadway’[22] and were faced with both ‘a troop of light anti-aircraft artillery’[23] and ‘a flight of Spitfires from 221 Group RAF’.[24] The Japanese had been slow at the detection of the operation and gave the Chindits time to penetrate deep behind enemy lines.

Strongholds of ‘White City’ and ‘Aberdeen’

‘Chowringhee’ stronghold was abandoned as soon as fly- in was complete but ‘Broadway remained an important stronghold. Calvert and his 77th Brigade had marched out of ‘Broadway’ before the enemy arrived, to establish a stronghold that would become known as ‘White City’. This stronghold, in an area near Henu, ensured ‘the road and railway leading up to Mogaung and Myitkyina would be permanently disrupted’.[25] Fergusson’s 16th Brigade had also established ‘Aberdeen’ stronghold, ‘around the area of INDAW (RAIL) Northern Burma’,[26] where they soon began ‘the proper task which was to interfere with the supply lines of the Japanese’.[27]

Chindit Operations - 1944 (IWM)

The creation of ‘Aberdeen’ enabled the 14th Brigade and the West African brigade to fly-in to Burma on 22nd March. By 16th March, the 77-brigade had ‘attacked a small enemy garrison near Mawlu on the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway’ [28] and would soon aide Stilwell’s advance by cutting ‘the main road and the rail communications to the Japanese’[29] that were fighting against Stilwell in the North. The cutting of the main road meant that the Japanese 18th division in the north ‘had to live off accumulated stocks’[30] and were ‘fundamentally compromised by the Chindit fighting along the railway’.[31] Lentaigne’s 111th Brigade who had flown in to ‘Chowringhee’ had also by this time turned north and cut the important Bhamo-Myitkyina road. The men of the Chindits were already ‘raising havoc’[32] which, according to Kolakowski, had begun to panic ‘the Japanese rear area troops’.[33] The first enemy encounter at ‘White City’ was a Japanese regiment trained to deal with the airborne invasions and the Chindits had drawn away Japanese troops meant for the invasion of Imphal away from their main aim. It would seem the Chindits were indeed executing their role of causing confusion, causing the Japanese to draw attention away from their main aim and aiding Stilwell’s advance. Slim however, believed that the Chindits efforts would ‘only delay for a couple of months two infantry and one artillery battalions of the Japanese 15th Division on their way to take part in the offensive against Imphal’[34] and Japanese testimony does indicate the Chindits were having an effect on the Japanese Army. After the initial detection of an allied invasion, ‘Col. Suzuki, Chief of Staff for the Air Division considered the airborne invasion threat so serious that he recommended reconsideration of the Imphal Operation’.[35] General Mutaguchi had realised that the ‘invasion was a diversionary attack’[36] designed to draw Japanese attention away from their main focus of the attack on Imphal but they still had to take ‘a more serious view of the strength and potentialities of the Wingate Airborne Force’.[37] The Japanese had to attempt to ‘destroy the invading force with various small units which were immediately available’.[38]

Imphal and Kohima

The Japanese had launched Operation U-Go as the fly-ins of Operation Thursday began. The plan had been to send the Japanese 33rd Division to ‘prevent the enemy moving into south china via India, Burma and Yunnan’[39] and capture ‘the well-stocked British base at Imphal’[40] and go on ‘to cut the Bengal-Assam railway line which supplied Stilwell’s Chinese divisions’.[41] With so much focus in Wingate’s operation, what ‘the British command had failed to see was that a far stronger Japanese force than they had imagined was threatening Kohima’.[42] By 29th March, Imphal and Kohima had been encircled and cut off by the Japanese. Slim noted that as of early April ‘the Japanese were pressing hard on the rim of the Imphal plain; they still threatened the Dimapur base, while the Kohima garrison was in dire peril’.[43]

Battle of Imphal (IWM)

The IV Corps, trapped by the Japanese, now had to be completely re-supplied by air, taking air resources away from the Chindits who were causing havoc in the Burmese interior. The 23rd Brigade, who had been kept behind as reserves, were transferred to the Fourteenth Army under General Stopford. In April the Brigade was sent to Kohima to guard the railway line and attack Japanese lines of communication. As of May, the 23rd Brigade were moving behind General Miyazaki’s 31st Division and patrolled and ambushed small groups of Japanese. Stopford’s 33 Corps was sent to march on and relieve the men at Kohima. 23rd Brigade were used to aid the advance of 33 Corps by continuing to cut Japanese communication and supply lines along the Kohima- Imphal Road. Slim stated that ‘the contribution of 23 Brigade to 33 Corp’s advances was real and effective’.[44]

On 3rd July 1944, General Mutaguchi called an end to Operation U-Go and the Imphal/Kohima offensive. Mutaguchi would later state that the Chindits had caused communication problems that ‘resulted in alienating the division commanders from the Army headquarters’[45] and prevented the essential movement of supplies. It had also led to the diversion of some of the 15th army meaning they ‘could not be used as a strategic reserve for the Imphal Operation’.[46] What is clear is that the Japanese were fully aware of the Chindits efforts in Burma and that the Chindits were making life difficult for the Japanese army. Despite the disruption to the Japanese, the continuing attacks on the Chindits were causing many casualties, the men were growing increasingly tired and fatigued and there were serious cases of disease such a dysentery and the Chindits had been behind enemy lines far longer than expected. Then, on March 24th 1944, on his way back from visiting his Chindit strongholds, Major General Orde Wingate was killed when his plane crashed into the side of a mountain range near Imphal.

Men and mules of Brigadier Bernard Fergusson's 21 Column, 1 May 1944.(IWM)

Brigadier Lentaigne was given the role of Chindit commander, by General Slim, following Wingate’s death. Lentaigne then handed the command of his 111th Brigade to his brigade-major, Jack Masters. With the Japanese now ‘falling back from Imphal/Kohima the focus switched again’.[47] Due to this the Chindits ‘no longer had direct responsibility for assisting IV Corps’[48] and, on 9th April 1944, General Slim gave the orders that effectively ‘transferred the whole Chindit effort back again to assisting Stilwell’.[49] The Chindits were informed that they were to bring to an end their operations in the Indaw area of Burma and were to begin to move north, focusing on supporting Stilwell’s North Combat Area Command (NCAC), where Stilwell’s Chinese force had been outnumber at Myitkyina. It was in doing this that the role of the Chindits began to change and one major issue for them was that air supplies had begun to diminish due to supplies being focused on Kohima.

Some of the West African Brigade took over White City after it was abandoned by Calvert and his 77th Brigade, who had moved north to set up a position east of the vital railway valley, through which Japanese supplies ran north to Mogaung and Myitkyina as well as support the 111th Brigade. The Morris Force had begun moving north and blocking the Bhamo road leading to Myitkyina. The 111th Brigade also moved north to form a stronghold known as ‘Blackpool’, located around 30 miles to the south of Mogaung.

Men of Merrill's Marauders (

Blackpool Stronghold

The stronghold of Blackpool marked the end of ‘Wingate’s quasi-guerrilla system of spreading the mesh of independent columns in which the Japanese would become entangled’.[50] The planned role of the 111th Brigade was to ‘trap the depleted Japanese 53rd Division and smash it against the anvil of the Blackpool defensives’, [51] supported by the 77th Brigade and two West African Brigades. The oncoming monsoon rains would be an issue for the Chindits and therefore it was important that the Brigades were all in place in and around Blackpool by 23rd May. In reality, the 111th had reached the location of Blackpool later than planned and the 14th West African Brigade remained at White City a week longer than expected. On 8th May, the first gliders flown into Blackpool had crashed and the rest of the supply fly-in was called off. The following day the Japanese made their first attack on Blackpool. The Japanese continued their attack and by 14th May ‘1st Air Commando strike aircraft were called in to punish the attackers’.[52] However, the inevitable monsoon soon meant that air support became hard to rely on. On 17th May 1944, General Slim placed the force under Stilwell’s command. The Japanese continued their attack and shelling until the 25th May by which time many men had been taken as POW. In a letter sent from Masters to Lentaigne he states that the brigade could no longer defend Blackpool due to ‘1. No floaters, 2. No food, 3. No ammunition, 4. No DAS, 5. Considerable casualties and no replacements.[53] The 111th had fought to hold Blackpool for as long as they were able but Stilwell believed that they had simply abandoned the stronghold, much to the anger of Masters and the men of the Brigade. The 111th Brigade was then due to aid the 77th Brigade at Mogaung despite having ‘been stretched beyond its fighting capabilities’.[54]

The death of Wingate would have a profound effect on the Chindit and the choice of location of Blackpool Stronghold shows the lack of tactical knowledge and lack of understanding of Wingate’s LRPGs. The 111th Brigade bravely held the stronghold but was up ‘against constant attack for three weeks, cutting the enemy’s main line of communication at a crucial time’.[55] Stilwell was still unimpressed and angered at the abandonment of Blackpool, but the Chindits had managed, under extreme circumstances, to continue to cause chaos for the Japanese and managed to draw Japanese troops away from the fighting around the areas of Imphal and Kohima.

The Chindits and Unit Galahad would continue to fight in Burma until August 1944, with evacuation beginning in June. They would go on to fight at the Siege of Myitkyina and the Battle of Mogaung.

[1] Major General I. L. Grant, ‘Burma: The Land Campaign’, The RAF and the Far East War 1941-1945, Bracknell Paper No 6 A Symposium on the Far East War (United Kingdom, 24 March 1995), p.18. [2] J. J. Sbrega, ‘Anglo-American Relations and the Selection of Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia’, Military Affairs, Vol 46, No .3 (October, 1982), p.140. [3] Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Digital Library, WWII Operational Documents, Quadrant Conference, August 1943, Papers and Minutes of Meetings 1943, (Washington DC, 1943), p. 230 [4] ‘Operation Thursday’ [5] Anglim, S., ‘Orde Wingate- Guerrilla Warfare and Long-Range Penetration 1940-44’, Small wars and Insurgencies, Vol 17 (2006) p. 254. [6] Derek Salmi, ‘Slim Chance: The Pivotal Role of Air Mobility in the Burma Campaign’, The Drew Papers, Drew Paper no.15, Air University Press Air Force Research Institute Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama (2014), p. 33. [7], Anglim, S., ‘Orde Wingate and the theory behind the Chindit operations: Some recent findings’, The RUSI Journal, p. 95. [8] Surrey History Centre, T. Atkins, 1944, The Far East, Burma, The Chindits, Ref: QRWS/30/ATKI/8. [9] David Rooney, ‘A Grave Injustice: Wingate and the Establishment’, Cross Current, History Today, (March 1994), p. 12. [10] Mead, P., ‘Orde Wingate and the Official Historians’, The Journal of Contemporary History, Vo l. 14, No. 1, Sage Publications p. 57. [11] Ibid., p. 255. [12] Ibid., p. 296. [13] Bidwell, S., ‘The Chindit War-Stilwell, Wingate and the Campaign in Burma: 1944, p. 73. [14] Slim, Into Victory, p. 298. [15] FDR Library, Map Room papers 1/1942-4/5, Churchill to Roosevelt, No 603, 4th March 1944, National Archives and Records Administration, New York, p.1. [16] Ibid., p. 2. [17] Bidwell, The Chindit War, p. 108. [18] Ibid., p. 108. [19]FDR Library, Map Room papers 1/1942-4/5, Churchill to Roosevelt, No 603, 4th March 1944, National Archives and Records Administration, New York, p. 2. [20] Japanese Monograph 134, Burma Operations Record, 15th Army Operations in Imphal Area and Withdrawal to Northern Burma (Revised Edition) Tokyo: Headquarters United States Army, Japan Oct 1952; revised 1957, Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library, Digital Library, Fort Leavenworth, KS, p. 94. [21] Ibid., p. 150. [22] Slim, Into Victory, p. 305. [23] Ibid., p. 305. [24] Ibid., p. 305. [25] Rooney, D., ‘Wingate and the Chindits: Redressing the Balance, p. 123. [26] T. Atkins, 1944, The Far East, Burma, The Chindits, Surrey History Centre, Ref: QRWS/30/ATKI/8. [27] Ibid., [28] Slim, Into Victory, p. 305. [29] Ibid., p. 305. [30] Kolakowski, ‘The Coming of Modern War’, p. 20. [31] Ibid., p. 20. [32] Ibid., p. 19. [33] Ibid., p. 19. [34] Slim, Into Victory, p. 306. [35] Japanese Monograph 134, Burma Operations Record, p. 94. [36] Ibid., p. 94. [37] Ibid,. p.95. [38] Ibid., p. 94. [39] Japanese Monograph 45, History of Imperial General Headquarters, Army Section (Tokyo: Headquarters United States Army, Japan 1952, p.162. [40] Beevor, A., The Second World War, p. 673. [41] Ibid., p. 673. [42] Ibid., p. 673. [43] Slim, Into Victory, p. 362. [44] Slim, Into Victory, p. 395. [45] Japanese Monograph 134, Burma Operations Record, p. 149. [46] Ibid., p. 150. [47] Redding, T., ‘War in the Wilderness: The Chindits in Burma 1943-1944, p. 262. [48] Ibid., p. 262. [49] Bidwell., p. 167. [50] Bidwell, The Chindit War, p. 223. [51] Ibid., p. 223. [52] Redding, The Wilderness, p. 283. [53] Redding, The Wilderness, p. 316. [54] Redding, The Wilderness, p. 340. [55] Slim, Into Victory, p. 317.

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