The 77th Indian Brigade’s first mission into Burma met with limited success. In case you don’t recall, this group of fighters, better known as the Chindits, had stepped into Burma to take on the Japanese forces in February of 1943. Their long-range penetration mission was something of a tactical experiment, and it was organized by the more-than-a-little-eccentric Orde Wingate, a Colonel who quoted extensive passages of the Bible and walked around with an alarm clock strapped to his wrist.
His “missionary” work in Burma, called Operation Longcloth, succeeded in disrupting some of the Japanese communication and rail services, but met with heavy casualties. Of the 3,000 men than began Longcloth, more than 800 were killed, captured, or died of disease. And 600 of those that returned were too wounded or sick to remain in active service.
But Wingate, now a Major General, knew how to “accentuate the positive…eliminate the negative”. Talking up the successes of the mission, he gained the ear of Prime Minister Churchill, and he gained the opportunity to give it another go. In fact, Wingate’s testimonials at the Quebec Conference inspired U.S. Army leaders, including President Roosevelt, who then started planning similar forces of their own (a subject we’ll tackle at some point in the future).
The second mission, named Operation Thursday and begun in early February of 1944, was much larger (involving a full division still called the Chindits) and had at its command its own mini “air force”, charged with close air support and dropping supplies. The jungle warfare in 1944 (like 1943) was fraught with peril. Diseases, hunger, and a more prepared enemy made the going very difficult. But worse was to come.
On March 24, 1944, General Wingate was returning to Burma from a troop-morale visit in India when the B-25 Mitchell in which he was a passenger crashed into the Indian hills west of Imphal, killing everyone on board. All that could be identified of Wingate among the charred wreckage was his helmet. As the heart and soul of the Chindit forces, his loss staggered the men. His good friend and subordinate Mike Calvert said, “We were numb from the shock. We could not yet understand or appreciate the consequences. It was like going smoothly along in an aeroplane when the navigator comes in and says, ‘The pilot has died of heart failure. There is no copilot and none of us knows what to do.’ “
General Slim bypassed Calvert, who may have been a logical choice to succeed Wingate, because Slim deemed “Mad Mike” nearly as eccentric (and therefore unstable) as the now-dead General. Instead, he brought in Major General Joe Lentaigne, one of Wingate’s unit commanders, to carry on. While Letaigne was well-versed in Wingate’s methods, he had often been critical of them, which put him at odds with a good deal of the force. It may be true that the Chindits didn’t always like Orde Wingate, but they were fiercely loyal to him.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that any man appointed to take over would have stood in General Wingate’s shadow. His were big shoes to fill. But the despite the darkness that descended over the Chindit forces on this day, there was still a battle to be fought, and an enemy to be defeated in the Burmese jungles.
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road