On Sunday evening, March 5th, 1944, a dozen officers on an Indian airfield
near Lalaghat pored over a set of aerial reconnaissance photographs.
These had been brought in a few minutes earlier by a pilot flying back
on a mission, which had taken him 200 miles over Japanese territory.
On the airstrip, columns of troops in field kit were already lining up
to enter a fleet of glider carriers. Some had stowed themselves inside.
They were armed with rifles, Tommy-guns, pistols, mortars, grenades and
knives. These soldiers wore green battledress, and many were bearded.
They were men of the Special Force, otherwise known as the 3rd Indian Division, Long Range Penetration Groups, and still better known as Wingate's Chindits. (They were so named by him after the Chinthay, mythical griffin, half lion, half-eagle guardian of the Burmese temples.) The title " 3rd Indian Division " was, in fact, a deception intended for the enemy. Most of its troops were British, drawn from the former 70th Division; the remainders were Gurkhas and West Africans. There were also some American engineer units. The pilots, who were revving up their engines, belonged to No. I Air Commando nicknamed on the front as “Cochran's Circus”. The enterprise in which they were jointly engaged was known in security language as " Operation Thursday." It involved flying 10,000 men and 1,000 pack animals over the mountain jungle, by night, far beyond the enemy lines, and setting them down in natural clearings in the heart of Burma. If you had raked the earth you would not have found two leaders better qualified to carry through this operation than Wingate and Cochran.
Wingate had much developed his ideas of jungle warfare since his 1943 march into Burma. That had been in the nature of a reconnaissance in force; this was to be an invasion. Then, the troops had gone in on foot and had been supplied by airdrop. Now, the troops themselves were to be flown in. The 1943 expedition had been a series of raids against communications by lightly armed bands, a game of ambush, booby-traps, and melting away again into the shadows. For his 1944 campaign, Wingate proposed to erect strongholds deep in the enemy zone, and, once established, to launch large-scale operations around these fortified bases. It involved flying in not only mobile columns and garrison troops, signal installations, ack-ack and 25-pounder batteries for jungle fortress defense, but also engineer units equipped with bulldozers and mechanical graders to construct airfields capable of handling a regular air supply service. However remote the selected sites might be, the enemy was sure to discover and attack them within a few days. So the sappers had to work fast. In his own phrase, Wingate aimed " to insert himself in the guts of the enemy." Initially, this was to be accomplished by going not where the enemy was, but where he was not. To neutralize the Japanese airfields in North Burma, for example, it would have been necessary to seize them by airborne landings, and this would certainly be Stoutly resisted. Far better to pierce the vulnerable arteries, which sustained four enemy divisions in the field and a still respectable air force.
The full Policy of Long Range Penetration did not take shape in Wingate's brain overnight. He lived long with it, altering, adapting and rejecting many an idea. At the Quebec Conference Wingate drummed continually on the need for developing airborne supply. This had been one-way traffic during his first expedition. Then, to be shot in the leg was often worse luck than being shot through the head, for the footslogging columns could not carry their wounded along with them. But suppose you could evacuate your casualties by air? Mountbatten realized that this (and much else that they debated) would require special air units. When General Arnold inquired how he might aid the new South-East Asia Command, Mountbatten put forward this suggestion. Arnold at once acceded, and assigned Colonel Philip Cochran and Colonel Robert Alison, two of his star pilots, to work out the details. No. I Air Commando was born, so named in compliment to the former Chief of Combined Ops. Wingate has recorded that " had this unique force not been provided the operation could never have been carried out."
In Cochran's Circus, South-East Asia Command found men who had mastered both the art of lifting and towing gliders and the more intricate practice of "snatching " gliders off the ground by tugs already in the air. The value of this technique in evacuating wounded from inaccessible glades and paddy fields would be demonstrated hundreds or times in the coming campaign. Cochran was himself a pilot of exceptional skill and daring, who at the age of 33 had become the legendary hero of " Flip Corkran's Adventures " in American newspaper serials. He proved to be a loyal and imaginative comrade of Wingate.
Long Range Penetration has two requisites: (i) power to penetrate deeply ; (ii) power to stay there. Though Wingate set a limit to the period that men could endure the conditions his campaign would impose, he intended to relieve and replace them, not to withdraw the Force itself. Before these operations could begin, there was a further service Wingate required of the air forces. Would they sweep the sky clear of all interfering enemy aircraft, and keep it so? The coordinating air control of Operation Thursday had been placed in the hands of Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, Commander of 3rd Tactical Air Force, and he not only covered the enemy airfields but also arranged deception sorties to simulate night landings in areas remote from the real landings. The bombers of Strategic Air Force (led by Major-General Howard C. Davidson, U.S.A.A.F.) ranged over Rangoon and the Irrawaddy River ports. They dealt such blows that the Japanese seem to have suspected Lower Burma was about to be invaded. Every enemy effort to discover by deep reconnaissance what was really afoot was defeated by the Spitfires of 221 and 224 R.A.F. Groups, and to this sure shield Operation Thursday owed much of its success. Meanwhile, around the chosen landing grounds, Cochran scorched a wide aerial fire-belt, driving back the Japanese fighters from their advanced bases. The pilots of his P.51 Mustangs loaded 1,000-lb. bombs under each wing, and went in to low-level attack. In these initial strafes and in their unflagging co-operation with the Chindits after the invasion had been launched, Cochran's Circus discharged a million and a half pounds of explosives on the enemy.
Everything was now set for D-Day of the first Allied airborne invasion. Five brigades, amounting almost to the bayonet strength of a couple of divisions, were to be set down on three landing grounds, " Piccadilly," " Broadway " and " Chowringhee. " These clearings (they were no more) were situated in the triangle Mogaung-Indaw-Bhamo, and had been earmarked by Wingate from the ground-floor during 1943.
The plan was that the first wave of troop-carrying gliders should land, signaling to those following if the enemy was found to be in unexpected possession. Once the gliders had cast off their towropes, of course, they had to go in and, once in, they had to stay in. The tow-ships, stripped bare to haul the heavy loads, had hardly petrol enough after release to get themselves home over the hostile jungle. The first wave would occupy the clearing, fan out, and screen it while the second wave arrived. This would contain more troops, bulldozers and graders, and also combat engineers to build an airstrip between dawn and dusk, so that the next night the C.47 Dakota aircraft could bring in an army, with its guns, wagons, jeeps, animals and heavy wireless sets.
Once established in this region, the Chindit columns would strike against the railway, road and river systems, which served the Japanese army operating against Stilwell's Chinese-American forces. These were approaching from the north through the Hukawng Valley, hauling their Ledo Road with them. To guard Stilwell's right flank, one of Wingate's Brigades (the 16th, commanded by Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, D.S.O.) had been marching for a month through the Naga Hills on the west, parallel with his line of advance. They were now nearing the invasion area. Cochran sent off a photoreconnaissance pilot for a last look round. And then-disaster. The photographs disclosed that huge trees had been felled across Piccadilly, so that no landing there was possible. Had Operation Thursday been betrayed at the eleventh hour? Broadway was still clear, as the same set of photographs showed, but how long would it remain so? Or, perhaps it would be left clear and ambushed? For a moment Wingate questioned if the operation could now be mounted at all. But General Slim, who was present with Stratemeyer, Baldwin, Cochran and Old, firmly intervened against postponement. The enemy undoubtedly knew of Piccadilly, where the landing of a Dakota had been photographed in the American magazine " Life " the previous year. It was reasonable to assume that the log obstruction of this clearing was no more than a routine precaution. Said Slim, who rarely reveals either elation or depression, " things are seldom as bad as they seem." The effect on morale of a postponement had also to be weighed. The risk was calculated, and taken. Cochran walked off to de-brief his crews. The order was to switch to Broadway the troops who had been bound for Piccadilly. The landing on Chowringhee was scheduled for the following night. It seemed unlikely that the total of 80 gliders could be landed on a single strip during the hours of darkness, but as many as possible were to be launched.
How to explain the change of plan to the crews, who for weeks past had been briefed and rehearsed with maps and models of Piccadilly, and now had to be told that their mission must be carried out in a new and strange area ? With superb sense of leadership Cochran begin, " I say, boys, we've found a better place to go to. "
An hour after the hitch had occurred, the tugs rolled up the runway to their start lines. The first gliders, towed in pairs, were harnessed. The tugs' engines roared up, and the machines were cast - loose. Bouncing, swaying, and straining, the aerial train rushed down the strip in a whirlwind of dust, hauled itself up over the trees, and set forth over the 8,000-foot mountain barrier for the heart of enemy-held Burma. It was twelve minutes past six o'clock.
So began a movement, which was until the invasion of Fortress Europe the greatest airborne adventure of the war. Long after night had come the tugs continued taking off from Lalaghat at five-minute intervals. They were within radio call of their base, and linked by telephone with their gliders. Not one in twenty of the airborne troops had ever flown before. No fighters escorted the air armada, which traveled without lights and had been ordered to land by no other illumination than that of the moon. All depended on surprise and no man knew what lay at the end of his journey.
Over Broadway, the tugs circled to pick out the dark strip between the trees. Then " Good luck ! " and the gliders cast off and went in. Of the 67 gliders that flew, 32 landed on Broadway. None was hit by ack-ack fire, though several were fired on; 9 came down in the enemy lines, 11 on friendly soil. The other 15 were turned back by signal because of the congestion on Broadway, and returned safely to their base. The crashes and crash landings between the two points were due to the parting of towropes unable to bear the strain of the double loads. Some of these accidental descents had an unexpected value, for they occurred almost on top of Japanese Divisional Headquarters, 100 miles from the scene of operations. The enemy could not have been unaware of the exceptional traffic overhead that night, for the sky was filled with the roar of engines. But when his sentries were tired on, he seems to have been misled into believing that a series of flying Commando raids was taking place.
Meanwhile, all had not gone according to plan at Broadway. The advance party gliders had landed, but the Control Glider had been forced down on the banks of the Chindwin River. No guiding brain, therefore, directed the procession of arrival on the strip. Lacking a ground control, gliders overshot the mark and ploughed through the deceptive ground beyond, which was cut up by timber-hauling ruts and buffalo-holes overgrown with grass. Other gliders came to grief on the strip itself, and, as they piled up, the next arrivals crashed into them. On the crowded runway, men heaved frantically and tore their muscles dragging the wrecks clear. Then the cry would rise again, terrible in its urgency, Gliders ! " The next wave was diving in. One glider, loaded with a bulldozer and other heavy machinery, whipped over sharply to avoid a wreck and plunged into the wall of the jungle at 60 m.p.h. On either side the trees tore off its wings, the fuselage rushed on with its load, by now wrenched loose from its moorings. When the fuselage halted at last, the bulldozer continued its momentum. This worked the hinge by which the pilots' seat is swung upward to let the vehicle drive out. Pilot and co-pilot were thrown into the air, the bulldozer shot out beneath them, and they landed back unhurt. " I planned it just that way," said the American pilot.
But there were grim scenes, too, where the surgeons amputated by light of the moon, and there were gliders that crashed far beyond in the jungle with a frightful cry, and then silence fell while men hunted frantically in the darkness for their dying comrades.
The casualties were lighter than anyone dared expect. Twenty-three men were dead, and as many more injured. Four hundred troops and many stores had been delivered. But almost all the mechanical equipment, so necessary for clearing away the debris quickly, had been lost. Brigadier Calvert, who’s 77th Brigade was the spearhead of the air invasion, decided to halt all further traffic towards him. At first light the engineers of the U.S. Army 900th Field Unit began to level the surface by hand. Thirteen hours later the first Troop Carrier Command transport landed safely, bringing reinforcements and evacuating the injured. That night 55 Dakotas came in to Broadway. This transportation continued without hitch or interference by the enemy for five more nights.
Meanwhile, the gliders had opened up a second branch at Chowringhee, south of the Irrawaddy bend (Broadway and Piccadilly both lay north of the bend), and with the same speed four columns of Brigadier W. D. A. Lentaigne's Brigade, with its headquarters, were carried in.
The operations of Troop Carrier Command were supervised (and its hazardous first flights led) by General Old, who long ago had made himself familiar with these landing grounds by flying low over them in moonlight. His transport service worked so smoothly that one illegitimate passenger, bound for Imphal, found it more convenient to fly from Lalaghat via Broadway than by the recognized route. The Dakotas made 660 sorties and the gliders 78; they transported 9,052 troops, 1,360 pack animals and 250 tons of equipment, at a casualty cost of 121 men. Not a single Dakota was lost. Four days after they had landed the columns were marching off along the jungle paths to start business on the Japanese communications.
Wingate determined not to sit upon the doorstep of his achievement. The approach of Fergusson's marching brigade had raised his strength to 12,000 combat troops. They were planted, in truth, " in the guts of the enemy," and not even yet located by him. But this period of immunity was rapidly running out. Wingate gave the order to abandon Chowringhee and move across the Irrawaddy towards a new stronghold which he had planned about 40 miles west of the railway. It was named " Aberdeen," after his wife's home. It was not too soon. The Japanese at last reacted. Two hours after the rearguard of Lentaigne's brigade had withdrawn from Chowringhee, the enemy bombed and strafed the burnt-out gliders on that abandoned strip. Within a few days Fergusson had hacked a clearing at Aberdeen, and on March 23rd a fourth Chindit brigade (the 14th, commanded by Brigadier Tom Brodie) was flying in. Operation Thursday was over.
It was Wingate's last, as it was his finest, exploit. Tragedy set a seal upon his triumph. Flying towards India the next evening, his plane was lost in a storm. An American pilot, landing about midnight, reported that he had seen a machine crash in flames on a Mountainside in the Naga lands. Air and ground reconnaissance parties went out, and eventually found the charred remains of a Mitchell bomber. Thirty yards away from the wreckage lay Wingate's battered " coal-scuttle " topee, which had been a landmark to every man in his command. With this singular soldier perished the American crew and two British war correspondents, Stuart Emeny of " The News Chronicle " and Stanley Wills of " The Daily Herald."
What Wingate might ultimately have accomplished will never be known. Mystery, and mysticism, too, threaded the man's life. You could never quite distinguish where the real and the romantic merged in him. He acted, and also exhibited, as when he walked around with an alarm clock dangling from a chain and ringing periodically " to remind people that time was passing. " He survived his adventures long enough to impose much of his pattern on the jungle war. Some critics complained that his Special Force or " Private Army " was an extravagant venture; there is no doubt he demanded (and obtained) for it unusually generous Supply. Others considered that there should be no " specializing " anyway, but that all troops in the Burma theatre should be equally well trained and equipped. This was a sincere if unintended tribute to " the Man," as Cochran called him, His Command devolved on Brigadier Lentaigne, D.S.O., one of his most trusted lieutenants.
It would be too Complicated to chart the movements of Letaigne's thirty-odd
columns, for some of them marched a dozen times over the same track.
The story of Fergusson's brigade may be taken as representative of the
experiences of the Chindits.
It was February 5th when Fergusson, a blue eyed, six-foot Highlander, monocle firmly screwed in his eye, led his men out of Ledo in the valley of the Upper Brahmaputra under the shoulder of the Hump. They included the Queen's, Leicesters, Reconnaissance Regiment, Royal Artillery and Royal Signals. The Recce men had discarded their motors and the artillerymen their guns; marching across these unmapped mountains with gradients of one-in-one they proved themselves equal to the sturdiest infantry. The youngest of Fergusson's men was 19 years of age; the oldest was 45.
No trails led to the south; the Chindits made their own. Often they had to carve a path through the undergrowth with machetes, relieving the relays of sweating men at the head of the column every three or four minutes. Some days they advanced only a couple of miles. The hills were so steep that men had to crawl on hands and knees, and they were so slippery with the rain that pours in torrents in this region, the wettest on earth, that even the mules fell. Fergusson reported: " It was the worst track I ever saw animals go over. I do not recall any stretch of level going more than a hundred yards in length." With the brigade, all the way from Ledo, marched their mascot bull, Oscar the Chindit. He carried sick and wounded men on his back, and was beloved.
Fergusson's men were equipped with the same kind of kit as Wingate's pioneer expedition, and relied even more on air supply. Few human beings inhabit this desolate tract, and for many days they did not even sight a Japanese. Level areas, suitable for supply-drop, were not easily found, and rations and ammunition would come parachuting down only to get caught in the topmost branches of the trees. Then a marksman would be called for to shoot the bundle free-a delicate operation when a case of grenades was involved.
At other times hungry troops would hear the roar of planes circling overhead in the mist, and even see them diving with fearful risk through the gray shroud to find the men they were supplying. Then down would float the precious load-only to have the wind lift it at the last moment as it was about to land, and drop it gently over the edge of the precipice. Men then had to pull in their belts and make three days' rations last for five. Food means much to soldiers at all times. Tramping through an evil-smelling jungle, drenched by rain, dried-out by noonday's sun, drenched again by night's heavy dew, food (and tobacco) becomes an obsession.
When the Chindits crossed a jungle track each man made his own way so as not to wear a path. The rear platoon swept dust over the footprints. The man worked in pairs in almost every form of activity, fighting, marching, making a bivouac, cooking, eating and washing.
They had covered 100 miles in this fashion before they came to the tawny Chindwin, the river they must cross to enter into the heart of the Japanese domain. An eyewitness describes how the first marching column emerged from the jungle in single file, hungry, weary, weighted down with equipment, leading their mules and oxen. They trudged to the water's edge, and as dusk fell campfires sprang up along the fringe of the trees. The drone of aircraft sounded.
At the first throb of the engines all flames were doused. The plane wheeled overhead flashing a message, to which the bivouac made answer with a lamp. Then suddenly petrol fires blazed up in the form of a huge letter L, the first plane roared down over their heads, and out of its dark hull came a cascade of sacks. They contained letters from home, food, ammunition, cigarettes, newspapers, even snuff and spectacles.
It was the job of the Leicesters to build the bridgehead on the far side of the Chindwin, but where were the bridges or boats ? Again the planes came, towing gliders high above the river, bringing rubber boats with outboard motors. They landed on a sandbank and unloaded, and a few minutes later the Leicesters had set up their bridgehead, without a single casualty. " Hannibal eclipsed! " cried Wingate, who came in with Cochran in a light plane to inspect them. The march continued, making a detour to destroy the Japanese garrison at the jade-mine center of Lonkin. By mid-March, as we have seen, the brigade had arrived at Aberdeen and fortified it.
Turning south-east then, Fergusson launched a surprise attack on Indaw, a built-up area of dumps, vehicle parks and aircraft on the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway. It was this railway, which supplied the enemy forces in North Burma opposing Stilwell's advance from Ledo down the Mogaung Valley. Men who had covered 80 miles in the previous five days made the assault. For half of this time they had been without fresh water, and wounded men had drunk rusty container water used to cool the machine-guns. Indeed, the fighting at Indaw circled round the desperate effort of the Chindits to force their way down to the banks of the Meza River. It was in vain. From well-sited bunkers the enemy covered every approach with machineguns, and our men suffered the agony of seeing, almost touching, the water and being denied the taste of one drop of it.
It had been one of the British objectives to occupy the air-strip at Indaw. But the Japanese were able to concentrate rapidly along the railway from either end, and though Brodie joined with Fergusson they did not together possess the strength to seize and hold Indaw. It was not the primary role of Long Range Penetration troops to fight prolonged engagements away from their strongholds. They did battle with the equipment they carried on their backs. And so, with ammunition and rations running low, the two brigades drew off from Indaw. In all, Fergusson's men marched 600 miles. Though his operation achieved no great strategic success, as an example of courage and endurance this march will rank with the finest of all time.
Meantime Calvert's brigade had marched out of Broadway, and, striking westward, also assailed the railway. At Henu his men erected their famous road-rail block of " White City," which had been better named " Red City, " from the blood that flowed there. It was imperative for the Japs to remove this block, which was throttling the life out of their troops in the Mogaung Valley. They brought up light tanks and 150-mm. " Coal-scuttle " mortars to support their infantry. Calvert's gunners replied with 25-pounders and Bofors guns. A ferocious battle followed. Men of the South Staffs, Lancashire Fusiliers and 6th Gurkhas attacked with bayonet and rifle-butt. The Gurkhas and West Africans engaged with their native knives, the Japanese with their traditional two-handed swords. An incessant rain of grenades burst over the heads of the fighters and among the groups inextricably mixed up in personal combat. " Mad Mike " Calvert, with fixed bayonet, led the Gurkhas forward. An officer who was there describes White City battle as " mediaeval. " Its characteristic was its savagery. " The conduct of our troops, says this officer, " was beyond all praise”. The Staffords had to advance up a gradient of one-in-two in the teeth of murderous machine-gun and rifle fire. They went up that hill as steadily as if they had been on maneuver. Many scores of bodies lie there, with faces shot away, testifying what they went through. But they reached the crest and took no prisoners. Japanese snipers still swing in the trees to which they had lashed themselves before they died. " The battle continued through the night, while overhead the air transports went on delivering supplies.
(OFF-SITE LINK FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT HENU) Sgt. William Clift. M.M
At dawn it was seen that the Japanese were digging themselves in on a hill
overlooking White City. Immediately an assault was launched to dislodge
them. The cost was high. When the general counter-attack was unleashed
the enemy fled, leaving his wounded on the ground. But he came back,
time and again, striving furiously to break the grip on his communications.
An eyewitness describes how the Japanese rushed blindly into minefields
and over booby-traps, and were blown to pieces or else mown down like autumn
corn by riflemen and machine-gunners. Howling like hyenas, they piled
up on to the wire, which by morning was festooned with bodies, many of
them stripped naked by the explosions from mortars and grenades.
Scores were killed by their own Bangalore torpedoes, which they carried
to blow gaps in the barricades.
At a crisis of the battle, Cochran's Air Commandos planted a load of high-explosive on Japanese concentrations preparing to move up. The pilots had been reluctant; so short was the distance separating the forces that they feared to hit their own men. But urged by the troops and guided to their targets by R.A.F. pilots serving with them on the ground as " spotters " at visual control-posts, they unloaded on the enemy everything they bad, destroying hundreds. Visual control-posts later became a widely used device for calling up aircraft to bomb or strafe enemy positions, which were checking the attack. The Japanese never took White City, though in May the Chindits abandoned it on establishing a new jungle Tobruk further up the railway line in the Hopin Valley. This was at Blackpool, " 30 miles south-west of Mogaung.
Blackpool was the stamping ground of Lentaigne's old 111th Brigade, the " Ghost Force. " They included the Cameronians, King's Own Royal Regiment, the troops of two Gurkha units and the Royal Artillery. After their withdrawal from Chowringhee they had crossed the Irrawaddy and moved towards Bhamo at the same time that a mixed British and Kachin force struck down along the Chinese frontier to cut the Bhamo-Myitkyina road, This latter force actually entered China at one point, reappearing to operate against Myitkyina from the east. Lentaigne's brigade returned to harass the enemy, who were desperately holding on to Mogaung and Kamaing. By an 80-miles march over the mountains they descended on Hopin. Here they were within a few minutes' aircraft flight of the Japanese front line against Stilwell.
The Japanese struck back violently against this new challenge. For two weeks they flung strong forces against the post. In the final assault, which began on May 23rd, they brought up 105-mm. and 75-mm. artillery. During one bombardment 300 shells fell inside the perimeter within an hour. The garrison gave up its airstrip and prepared to fight it out. It meant sacrificing the service most valued of all by the troops (and most uplifting to them)-the flying out of their wounded. The hard decision had to be made. As it was, with superior strength, both in men and arms, the Japanese broke through the perimeter and contested the possession of the commanding hills. But now the time of the monsoon had come and as the clouds closed in, precluding further airborne supplies, the brigade evacuated Blackpool. They had fought for 20 days and nights, and now faced a march through the morass of the Indaw Valley towards the hills around Mogaung. They tied their Wounded on their backs and set forth, slashing a path through the elephant-grass, hacking footholds up and down precipices of mud, wading along tracks which had become torrents.
By this time the whole front was ablaze, for the Japanese had delivered their last and greatest attack on India a few days after Operation Thursday had been launched. The airborne invasion of Burma, which had captured the imagination of the world by its novelty and daring, receded in interest as it merged in the general campaign of the Fourteenth Army. The battles at Kohima and Imphal, where the main power of the Japanese Army was held, and broken, took the center of the stage, and the marching and maneuvering of the Chindits in the mysterious forests beyond the Chindwin were obscured.
Their contribution to the defeat of the Japanese on the Ledo front was considerable. For three out of five months they blocked the railway to Myitkyina, main Japanese base in North Burma. Rarely did the enemy risk sending up a large convoy. A few motor transports would make a dash for it at night, running the gauntlet to their own front line. The Chindits spotted one troop train moving along in daylight; they called up the air force, which came over the hills from Imphal and wiped it out.
As important as any military operations, the Chindits demonstrated once more that British and Indian troops can fight back long after the enemy consider that they have had enough. " I do not believe the British soldier is braver than any other," says Slim, " but he is brave for longer, and it is the extra ten minutes that count." The soldiers of these roving columns needed that quality of endurance above all. They had to carry their household on their back, food, blankets, cooking utensils, medical gear, besides their weapons and ammunition. They possessed pack animals, but there were heavy wireless sets, mortars, and wounded men to be strapped on these or placed on a ring-saddle, and there is a limit to the number of mules that a column can usefully employ. Sickness and wounds were the hardest problem. Malaria was impossible to avoid. You cannot wear a mosquito net while marching, and if you wear a veil it is torn to pieces. On the other hand, if you smear yourself with anti-mosquito cream it stops up your pores, and you nearly burst from heat exhaustion. Other jungle curses were jaundice, dysentery, scrub typhus and Naga sores, which turn septic and spread like prairie fire. Some soldiers' backs were blanketed with elastoplast strips to cover these raw patches. Such items are inseparable from jungle war, and troops in all zones suffered from them. But the marching columns far away in the enemy country had to wait for the planes to evacuate their casualties. They owed a double debt to the doctors and medical orderlies who marched with them.
Evacuation by air was the supreme service which Mountbatten's forethought had secured for his Command. Several thousand of the Chindits were brought out to the hospitals and leave centers in India by this method. The pilots flew across mountains three times as high as Snowdon, in storm, darkness and enemy fire. There is weather in these parts, which will toss a transport plane upside down, spin it as a leaf in a gale, or tear its wings off. The controls ice, instruments go haywire, and water pours in through the joints as by a forced-feed spray, lightning flashes along the wings and round the airscrew. Such are the conditions that had to be fought to carry out Mountbatten's order " Fly through the monsoon." The pilots would start off from India in cloud down to the level of the tree-tops, cross the frontier mountains without catching a glimpse of them, and emerge over Burma in sunshine-perhaps to find a Japanese fighter waiting for them. Then the message would come through to base " Zero on my tail, warn all aircraft," and another brave man had gone down.
There was no air recovery service in the jungle it that time. Forced landings were not often possible. You had to bale out, and then you had a 100-mile walk ahead of you. Out of 30 pilots in succession who were forced down, ten successfully made that journey home. The strangest flying of all was done by a couple of Sunderland flying boats. The Sunderlands had been designed for submarine patrol work, not to fly over Himalayan Mountains. Nor had their pilots been trained for such work. But they stripped off their guns to give their aircraft greater lift, and skimming the trees to creep under the Japanese fighter net they put down their hulls on Indawgyi Lake in the heart of the jungle. " Gert " and " Daisy " took safely to India more than 600 sick and wounded. When the water was too rough for them to come in, a fleet of outboard motorboats used to ply northward up the river to the American lines in the Mogaung Valley. This " Chindit Navy evacuated another 1,000 patients.
When the men came out of the jungle after five months they were pretty tired, and they showed it. Bearded troops seem always to look more gaunt, and most of these bad shed many pounds of weight. They asked first of all for their mail--that blessed Letter from Home-and might home never forget it. To a sergeant who had taken a fine part in these incredible marches and battles and had been wounded in the head, his wife wrote: " I expect you're having a good time in a garrison town and not half as busy as you say." " It was still worth having," said the sergeant.
Wingate had signaled them a day before his death: " One day you will be proud to say ' I was there. ' " Those who were there and returned will remember others who did not come back.
There was the machine-gunner who refused to leave his gun for 48 hours, though enemy fire had set the jungle round him blazing and the rubber pipe of his gun was melting.
There was the wounded sergeant who twice threw himself from the mule on which his comrades had placed him because he would not slow the march and imperil their chance of getting through a Japanese encirclement.
And there was the major who got his fatal bullet at an ambushed well while searching for water for his men. He ordered them to leave him, asked for extra ammunition for his rifle, sent a message to his wife, and remained lying there waiting for his last enemy.
So soldiers and airmen drawn haphazard from the towns and villages of Britain, India, Africa and America, of all kinds and races, and of varying ages, stuck it out through one of the hardest campaigns in history. Whatever else he did, Wingate made men see a star above the battlefield.