In early 1942, Wingate was transferred to India at the request of General Archibald Wavell, who commanded Allied forces in the Far East. Wavell had known Wingate since service in Palestine and respected his innovative thinking, especially in the use of irregular forces. Wingate was tasked to apply this ability against the Japanese in Burma, who had seemed invincible up to that time. To accomplish this mission, he developed the concept of long-range penetration operations, which consisted of semi-independent guerrilla forces operating deep in the rear of Japanese forces. These forces would be resupplied by air.
Under cover as 77th Brigade, Wingate formed what he called the "Chindits" out of disparate elements of Gurkhas, the Burma Rifles, and British units, and he conducted strenuous training in central India through 1942. On 16 February 1943, this force of about 3,000 men with 1,000 pack animals crossed the Chindwin River into northern Burma, thereby launching the first Chindit operation (Operation longcloth). The force was organized into six columns, the nucleus of each being an infantry company, and given the objectives of disrupting communications (notably, by cutting the Myitkyina-Mandalay railway line) and creating general havoc through ambushes and other small-unit operations. longcloth, which ended in late April, achieved mixed success and took heavy casualties. Only 70 percent of those who had crossed the Chindwin in February returned, and of these, only about 28 percent would be fit for future active service.
Nevertheless, in a theater where all had been doom and gloom previously, the campaign's limited achievements were widely heralded. British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, in particular, seized on the publicity and promised Wingate his personal support for future operations, even taking him along to the Quebec ( quadrant) Conference in August 1943. Plans now commenced for a larger, more ambitious campaign. Using the cover of 3rd Indian Division, six brigades and a U.S. air contingent were trained for an operation that was to be coordinated with a push south from northern Assam by a joint Sino-American force under General Joseph Stilwell. Wingate expanded his concept to include "strongholds," semipermanent bases from which operations could be conducted. Each was to be built around an airstrip and include other support facilities.
On 5 March 1944, the second Chindit operation (Operation thursday) began. One brigade having already begun to move by foot into the area of operations the previous month, two additional brigades, preceded by glider-borne pathfinder teams, were flown into strongholds deep inside Burma. The remaining brigades were held in reserve. Once again, there were some successes. The railway line was again interrupted, the town of Mogaung was briefly captured, and the Japanese response appeared generally confused. Unfortunately, Wingate was killed in a plane crash on 24 March. Without his inspired, if unorthodox, leadership, the operation slowly began to lose momentum. Eventually, it would collapse from both exhaustion and outside intervention.
In early April, the Chindits were put under Stilwell's operational control. Stilwell distrusted the Chindit concept (and the British), and despite their specialized training, the Chindits were turned into regular infantry formations. In August, they were withdrawn from combat and at the beginning of 1945 disbanded.
In concrete terms, the achievements of the Chindits seemed small and their cost-effectiveness questionable. However, Japanese Fifteenth Army commander General Mutaguchi Renya would write after the war that Chindit operations, especially Operation thursday, were an important reason why his forces were unable to invade India. In any case, the Chindits served as a morale booster at a critical time and were a pioneering concept for special operations brought to fruition by a determined and imaginative Wingate in the face of significant opposition. George M. Brooke III
Bidwell, Shelford. The Chindit War. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979.; Bierman, John, and Colin Smith. Fire in the Night: Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia, and Zion. New York: Random House, 1995.; Calvert, Michael. Prisoners of Hope. Rev. ed. London: Les Cooper, 1971.; Thompson, Julian. War behind Enemy Lines. London: IWM/Sidgwick and Jackson, 1998.
George M. Brooke III