When assessing the success of the Chindits’ missions, The Times of India concluded that Orde Wingate’s 3,000-man force had dealt the Imperial Japanese Army a deadly blow in the Burmese jungles, ripping the aura of Japanese invincibility to shreds while scoring significant triumphs over the invaders.
Propaganda is a wonderful thing.
The truth of the matter is that, while Wingate’s charges were able to disrupt Japanese communications and rail services to some degree, they weren’t nearly as successful as The Times of India made them out to be. It didn’t take long for the Japanese to figure out that these Long-Range Penetration groups were supplied solely from the air, and once they did, the soldiers searching for supply lines to attack were recalled and the hunt for the groups intensified significantly.
Towards the end of March (a little more than one month into the mission), the Chindits were recalled from Burma but, at this point, several of the groups (there were seven in total) were more than a 1,000 miles deep, and had an arduous journey of extraction ahead. And the return trip was more dangerous, with the Japanese in hot pursuit from both the front and rear.
One by one, each group crossed the Chindwin River and made their escapes. The group with Wingate was actually the first to reach safety. Three days later, Fergusson’s Column Five reached India with the Japanese just six hours behind them. The last of the Chindit groups (Column One), led by Lieutenant Dominic Neill, didn’t arrive until June 6, 1943. As they crossed the Chindwin, they were told that Japanese pursuers, which had been dogging them for days, were but thirty minutes behind. Operation Longcloth had ended.
Of the 3,000 men that began the expedition, fewer than 2,200 returned. And of those, only 600 were ever fit to serve in the military again. An estimated 205 Japanese soldiers had been killed. Neill, reading the newspaper accounts, probably chuckled at the reports as he said, “I killed a lot of lice…not too many Japs.” Mike Calvert’s Column Three probably saw the most action, and not all that much overall.
But in southeast Asia in 1943, any positive news was pounced on. In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster gives a good summation when he writes, “Still, having seeped into Burma, smashed a spoke of Japan’s defensive wheel, and emerged to tell about it, Orde Wingate and his Chindits – no matter what the reality – were heroes worldwide.” In fact, Prime Minister Churchill was so impressed with the results, fact or fiction, that he seriously considered putting Wingate in charge of all British and Indian troops in India. The idea was quickly (and probably wisely, given Wingate’s extreme eccentricity) quashed by senior commanders.
But the Chindits had proven that, given good supply logistics and extreme dedication to task, the Long-Range Penetration mission had potential, and Operation Longcloth was a mission that verified that potential.
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road