BEHIND THE ENEMY LINES
The ‘Chindit’ Story
Few ordeals an Indian soldier has to go through while on training or during regular service in units demand the kind of physical toughness a route march in ‘Chindit Order’ does. It’s a legacy of our army coming down from the British Indian Army of the Second World War, probably shared by the British Army as well; a legacy of daredevil operations of troops penetrating deep into the enemy territory and creating mayhem behind his lines, such as one which no other army in the world could equal during that worldwide conflict when daredevilry was the norm rather than an exception.
The Chindit Order is a uniform kit, which besides the normal infantryman’s standard battle wear of clothing, web equipment, boots and headgear, includes the infamous Pack 08 (in principle a heavy backpack carrying his necessities to live outdoor for long duration, but in peacetime exercises filled with bricks or rocks and weighing a monstrous 32 kilos). Coupled with a rifle weighing almost 10 kilos, a side-hanging haversack (with emergent items like mess tins and shaving kit), pouched ammunition (ammo substituted by a brick in each of the two pouches while on exercise) and water bottle (and any other accessories like digging tools the unit commander feels delighted to add) the poor sod on a Chindit exercise will be lugging almost his weight. And imagine an individual having to speed-march 50 or 60 kilometres against a deadline in that kit (52 kilometres with a qualifying time of little over 6 hours as of olden times in the Commando Course at Infantry School, Mhow), his having to virtually run rather than march. And individually completing the race in time isn’t enough either; his entire syndicate of 5 has to finish in one group. God help the syndicates with an odd ‘fatso’ in their ranks; you end up carrying his weapon, pack 08 or even the person himself in a ‘fireman lift’ to qualify in this murderous test – your only reward, an overpowering feeling that there’s nothing in this world that you cannot do!
May 1942: The Japanese juggernaut that had steamrolled the Allied armies all the way through Burma to the Imphal Valley had ground to a halt for the monsoon. Though they did not renew their offensive once the monsoon passed, preferring to consolidate their power over Burma, and the British and Indians attempted counter offensives during 1942 – 43; they couldn’t make a dent in the strong Japanese defences. Into this despairing scenario came in an intrepid British officer with a penchant for unorthodoxy, Brigadier Orde Wingate. Often likened to Lawrence of Arabia, he came up with an innovative strategy of deep penetration to strike at enemy communications behind his lines. He called it Chindit expeditions; the origin of the name ‘Chindit’ having since been variously attributed to the Burmese word ‘chinthe’ for lion, some figure of Hindu mythology and some others.
The first of these, Operation Longcloth, launched in February 1943 had a 3000-strong force of British and Indian troops crossing the Chindwin River to enter Japanese-occupied northern Burma and marching 500 miles to harass the enemy and cut their rail links, with only mules for transportation and airdrops for supplies. The fighting was fierce; but in the near-3 month period till late April when the force or what was left of it made it back to India, it had generally played merry hell into the enemy. They severed the Mandalay-Myitkyina rail line, blew up many a rail bridge and finally managed to cross the next major river, Irawwaddy, aiming to strike at the strategic Gogteik Gorge railway viaduct, only to find themselves in a none too favourable terrain for their kind of operations with less jungle cover. Nevertheless they persevered fighting against heavy odds till finally forced to pull out having lost a quarter of the force by March end and the rest, short of supplies and sapped of energy from long marches, with 600 of them emaciated, being hemmed in by Japanese moving on them from all sides. Even then an ambush they set up at the fag-end of the pull-out accounted for a 100 enemy killed against loss of just one of their own.
Notwithstanding the tremendous boost it gave to the morale of the troops – that they could after all challenge the Japanese invincibility in jungle warfare – the operation came in for a lot of criticism from official circles that the achievements of the Chindits did not justify the heavy casualties they suffered. Nevertheless Wingate was ready with a second expedition, this one with a division-strong force, within a year. Orde Wingate was considered a maverick by many. A below average performer who put up a lackluster performance at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he came into his element with guerilla warfare in Palestine and Ethiopia and turned an ardent proponent of long-range penetration warfare by small forces. Unconventional to the boot in dress and manners (he preferred going around bare-bodied and talked of python meat as a delicacy), he ruffled feathers of many in the establishment, but was a true genius who certainly had Churchill’s ear and always had his way. He set a severe training regime for his men driving them beyond their endurance. The Chindit training went on the premise that with willpower a man could do things he wouldn’t himself know he is capable of. Indeed most Chindits realized what they could do only after they had done it. May be that’s where the dictum which the modern commandos of the Indian Army live by was born; when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.
Operation Thursday launched on 5 March 1944 saw over 9000 Chindits with 1000 mules entering Burma from three different points, some glider landing deep behind Japanese lines. A far ambitious mission than the earlier one, it aimed to cut off the Japanese Army of Upper Burma and threaten its advance on the Imphal plain from rear, while also severing the line of communication of the Japanese fighting the Chinese armies in Burma under its American Commander, Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell. A fourth Chindit group had already set out a month earlier from Naga Hills to traverse the grueling mountain route over 6000-foot ranges and across the Chindwin. Within ten days of the main operation being launched the 77th Brigade of the Chindits had captured Mawlu, though the 16th Brigade could not take its objective, the supply base at Indaw. Nonetheless Wingate urged his men to press on to gut the enemy. His own command though was to come to a tragic end before the month passed when he died in an air crash at Imphal on 24 March. Only 41 years old, he died the way he lived; always taking risks and ignoring official advice. RAF is believed to have warned him against flying with likelihood of rainstorms.
Early April the Chindits were reinforced by hundreds of glider-born troops. Nevertheless the conditions they fought turned horrendous with constant monsoon and diseases from diarrhoea to malaria and other tropical ills ravaging the troops. As they traversed mile up on mile of thick jungles wherein cutting their way through 100 yards took an hour they were forced to leave behind the wounded and the stragglers. Units and formations often down to nearly half their original strength carried on the inhumane fight, the men virtually turning insensitive to death and devastation. They had no time and energy left for eulogies for their fallen comrades. They fought on like automatons, desperate acts of bravery with total disregard for life a routine matter. And they achieved results, taking a key rail bridge to cut off the Japanese 18th Division arrayed against Stilwell’s Chinese and supporting the Chinese forces.
Chindits paid dearly in human cost for the half-year campaign that ended in August 1944 when the last of the Chindits returned from Burma. Half of those who returned had to be hospitalized and the remaining, after rest and recuperation with special diets, began training with reinforcements for a third operation, only to be disbanded in February 1945. The Chindits for all their unparalleled courage and grit once again came under criticism; their exploits tagged too costly for too little results. Ironically the most disparaging comment came from the American general, Stilwell, himself to support whose troops the Chindits had fought so hard. According to him they were just ‘shadow boxing’ and the expedition was a waste of time and effort. Nonetheless accolades did come the Chindits way, none greater than that from the enemy themselves. Post-war, Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese 15th Army in northern Burma in 1943, was to go on record to state, ‘The Chindit invasions did not stop our plans to attack [India], but they did have a decisive effect on these operations and they drew off the whole of 53rd Division and parts of 15th Division, one regiment of which could have turned the tables at [the coming battle of] Kohima.’ No wonder four of the Chindits were awarded Victoria Crosses.
Costly or not, the Chindits wrote a unique page of human endurance and courage in the history of warfare and a legacy for both British and Indian Armies they could immensely be proud of; and a yardstick to strive for in combat fitness.