In the Abyssinian campaign of 1940, Wingate had begun to explore the ideas that he later used with the Chindits, when he created and commanded a group of Abyssinian partisans. Known as Gideon Force, they disrupted Italian supply lines and provided intelligence to British forces. As Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East in 1940, Wavell had given permission for the Gideon Force for political reasons, because he had thought Wingate's idea to be militarily too unorthodox. After the disbandment of Gideon Force, Wavell requested Wingate for service in Burma in 1942 where it was intended that he raise irregular forces to operate behind the Japanese lines similar to the manner in which Gideon Force had operated in Ethiopia. Rather than organize irregular forces in Burma, Wingate spent his time touring the country and developing his theory of long range penetration on paper. During the final stages of the British retreat from Burma, Wingate had himself specially flown back to India while the rest of the army walked out. Once in Delhi, he presented his proposals to Wavell.
The 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, otherwise known as the Chindits, was gradually formed in the area around Jhansi during the summer months of 1942. Wingate took charge of the training of the troops in jungles of central India during the rainy season. Half of the Chindits were British infantry soldiers from the 13th Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment (nominally a second-line battalion which contained a large number of older men), and men from the Bush Warfare School in Burma who were formed into 142 Commando Company. The other portion of the force was made up of the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles (a battalion which had only just been raised) and 2nd Burma Rifles. Wingate trained them as Long-Range Penetration units that were to be supplied by stores parachuted or dropped from transport aircraft. Usual armament was rifles, Thompson submachine guns, pistols, mortars, grenades and knives. A mule transport company carried their supplies. The Chindits were organized into columns under the command of group headquarters which were ultimately under the command of a brigade headquarters. RAF sections were attached to each column for the purpose of air coordination.
In February 8 1943 in Operation Longcloth, 3000 Chindits, Wingate with them, began their march into Burma. The original intent had been to use the Chindits as a part of a larger offensive but it was cancelled. Wingate convinced General Wavell to send the Chindits into Burma in spite of the cancellation of the larger offensive.
The Chindits, divided into seven columns, crossed the Chindwin River on February 13 and faced the first Japanese troops two days later. Two columns marched to the south and received their air supply drops in broad daylight to create an impression that they were the main attack. They even had a man impersonating a British general along with them. The RAF mounted air attacks on Japanese targets to support the deception. These columns were to swing east at the beginning of march and attack the main north-south in areas south of the main force. One column successfully carried out demolitions along the railway but the other column was ambushed. Half of the ambushed column returned to India.
Five other columns proceeded eastward. Two, those of Michael Calvert and Bernard Fergusson, proceeded towards the main north-south railway in Burma. On March 4, Calvert's column reached the valley and demolished the railway in 70 places. Fergusson arrived two days later to do the same. The railway was put out of action only for a very short period.
On many occasions, the Chindits could not take their wounded with them; some were left behind in villages. Wingate had in fact issued specific orders to leave behind all wounded, but these orders were not strictly followed. Since there were often no established paths in the jungle along their routes, many times they had to clear their own with machetes and kukris (and on one occasion, a commandeered elephant). A single RAF squadron of 6 planes supplied them by air.
Once in Burma, Wingate repeatedly changed his plans, sometimes without informing all the column commanders. The majority of two of the columns marched back to India after being ambushed by the Japanese in separate actions. After the railway attacks, he decided to cross his force over the Irrawaddy River. However, the area on the other side of the river turned out to be inhospitable to operations. Water was difficult to obtain and the combination of rivers with a good system of roads in the area allowed the Japanese to force the Chindits into a progressively smaller "box".
In late March, Wingate made the decision to withdraw the majority of the force, but sent orders to one of the columns to continue eastward. The operations had reached the range limit of air supply and prospects for new successful operations were low given Japanese pressure. The columns were generally left to make their own way back to India. On the journey back, the most difficult actions involved crossing back over the Irrawaddy River. The Japanese had observers and patrols all along the river bank and could quickly concentrate once an attempt at a crossing was detected. Gradually, all the columns broke up into small groups. Wingate's headquarters returned to India on its own ahead of most of the columns. Through the spring and even into the autumn of 1943 individual groups of men from the Chindits made their way back to India. The army did what they could for the men. In one case, an airplane was landed in an open area and wounded men were evacuated by air. Part of one column made it to China. Another portion of the men escaped into the far north of Burma. Others were captured or died.
By the end of April, after the mission of three months, the majority of the surviving Chindits had crossed the Chindwin river. They had lost a total of 818 or more men. Of the other men, Wingate almost hand picked those few he would retain. Both battalions, with the hand-picked exceptions, were put back under the normal army command structure.
Wingate wrote an operation report on returning to India, which was controversial for many reasons, including attacks on officers under his command. The report had a tendency to excuse any mistakes made by its author (Wingate) while making vicious attacks on other officers, often based on limited information. Eventually, through his political allies in London, a copy of the report was given to Winston Churchill who was impressed and took Wingate with him to the Quebec Conference. There they were promised support of a whole air task force from the USAAF. The US Army also began its own plans for the group that would later become Merrill's Marauders.
As the members of the first expedition were making their way back to India, a second Long Range Penetration brigade, 111 Indian Infantry Brigade was being formed.Popularly known as The Leopards, the brigade was raised by General Wavell without the knowledge of Wingate, who was still in Burma and who was known to have a strong dislike for the Indian Army, its diverse troop formations, and its British officers in particular. Wavell personally selected the commander of 111 Brigade, Brigadier Joe Lentaigne.
Wavell intended to use the two Chindit brigades alternately during 1944; while one brigade was operating behind Japanese lines for two to three months at a time, the other would be resting in India, while training for and planning the next operation. However, Wingate's more ambitious plans for the second expedition demanded a greatly increased force of six brigades. Wingate refused to use Indian Army formations in this force, because he maintained that their training in long-range penetration techniques would take longer and their maintenance by air would be difficult due to the varied dietary requirements of different Gurkha and Indian castes and religions, although he had little choice but to accept 111 Brigade, and two Gurkha battalions in 77 brigade. Since large numbers of trained British infantry were required, three brigades (14th, 16th, 23rd) were added to the Chindits by breaking up the experienced British 70th Infantry Division, much against the wishes of General William Slim and other commanders, who wished to use the division in a conventional role. A sixth brigade was formed by taking a brigade from the British 81st (West Africa) Division.
At Quebec, Wingate had also succeeded in obtaining a "private" air force for the Chindits, the 1st Air Commando Group, mainly consisting of USAAF aircraft. The Chindits were greatly encouraged by having aircraft on which they could call immediately for supply drops, casualty evacuation and air support. Other welcome American aid was the "K" Ration pack which, although it provided insufficient calories for prolonged active operations, was far better than the equivalent British ration pack.
The forces for the second Chindit operation were called Special Force, officially 3rd Indian Infantry Division, or Long Range Penetration Groups, but the nickname, the Chindits, had already stuck.
The new Chindit force commenced training in Gwalior. Men were trained in crossing rivers, demolitions and bivouacking. Brigadiers Calvert and Fergusson took command of two of the brigades, and were responsible for much of the training program and the development of tactical planning. Wingate himself was absent for much of the training period, first being out of the country to attend the Quebec Conference and then struck ill with typhoid from drinking bad water in North Africa on his return.
The methods of the new Long Range Penetration force in 1944 differed from those of 1943. Wingate had decided on a strategy of creating fortified bases behind the Japanese lines, which would then send out raiding columns over short distances. This change was in part forced upon him by strengthened Japanese patrols along the Burmese frontier, making a repeat of the successful infiltration in 1943 unlikely. In an imaginative move prompted by Col. Philip Cochran's assurance that he could transport both troops and supplies by glider, Wingate arranged for the bulk of the force to enter Burma by air, greatly accelerating the force's ability to reach its target objectives. Advance units would land in gliders in preselected open fields in Burma, and prepare them for large-scale landings by transport aircraft. The lavish air support provided by Col. Cochran of the USAAF's 1st Air Commando Group proved critical to the success of the operation.
Wingate also had plans for a general uprising of the Kachin population of Northern Burma. He fought over these plans with the leadership of Force 136 (an organisation set up to liase with resistance forces in Japanese-occupied countries), which was concerned that a premature uprising of the Kachins without a permanent British military presence would lead to their slaughter by the Japanese at the end of operations. Force 136 also had their own plans for a rising to be coordinated with the arrival of the regular army into Burma. Wingate was eventually convinced to scale back his original plans. Further complicating relations between the organisations were orders issued by Wingate to the commander of Dah Force (a British-led force of Kachin irregulars attached to the Chindits) not to coordinate operations with Force 136 for security reasons.
During the last months of 1943, planning was conducted to carry out the strategy for India as originally determined at the Quebec Conference. In November, the overall plan for the dry season campaign of 1944 determined by South East Asia Command focused on the use of the Chindits in the reconquest of northern Burma. These plans were approved by the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Cairo Conference and although other offensives in Burma were scaled back or cancelled, Stilwell's Northern Front offensive with the Chindits' participation survived the cuts. The uncertainty of the plans nevertheless meant that the plans and contingency plans for the use of the Chindits repeatedly changed up to the very start of operations.
The Chindits were assigned the task of helping the forces of Joseph Stilwell push the Ledo Road through northern Burma to link up with the Burma Road and re-establish an overland supply route to China, by mounting a long range penetration operation behind the Japanese opposing his forces on the Northern Front. It had originally been intended that the IV Corps would attack on the Central Front and cross the Chindwin to tie up Japanese forces which could otherwise be used to aid the Northern Front. As the Japanese launched their own attack on the Central Front, this advance did not meet its objectives, but it still meant that most Japanese forces were tied on the Central Front and not available to reinforce the Japanese 18th Division on the Northern Front. The Japanese offensive on the Central Front resulted in further proposals and refinements of the plans for the Chindits.
On February 4, 1944, Lieutenant General Slim, commander of the British Fourteenth Army, and USAAF General George E. Stratemeyer, commander of Eastern Air Command, issued a joint directive to General Wingate and Colonel Philip Cochran, the commander of the 1st Air Commando Group, to march and fly into Indaw and from there under the command of the Fourteenth Army carry out the objectives of:
On February 5, 1944, Fergusson's 16th Brigade left Ledo for Burma. They avoided Japanese forces by traversing exceptionally difficult terrain. The rest of the Brigades were brought in by air to create fortified bases with airstrips.
Three landing zones, codenamed Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowringhee were selected. Calvert's 77th Brigade prepared to fly by glider into Piccadilly on the night of March 5. A last-minute reconnaissance revealed Piccadilly to be covered with logs, making landing impossible. In some accounts of the incident, Wingate insisted that the operation had been betrayed and that the other landing zones would be ambushed. To proceed would be "murder". Slim accepted the responsibility of ordering a willing Calvert to proceed with the operation, using Broadway instead. While Piccadilly had already been used to evacuate casualties during the first Chindit operation in 1943, Broadway had to be selected from the results of aerial reconnaissance. It turned out to be a poor landing landing ground and there were many casualties in crash landings, but Calvert's men were just able to make the strip fit to take transport aircraft the next day. Chindit gliders also landed on Chowringhee the next day, without opposition.
It was later revealed that the logs on Piccadilly had been placed there to dry by Burmese teak loggers. The real problem was the failure to maintain continuous observation of the landing zones (e.g. by high-flying Spitfire photo-reconnaissance aircraft) before the forces were deployed.
Over the next week, 600 sorties by DC3 transport aircraft transferred 9000 men to the landing zones. Chowringhee was abandoned once the fly-in was completed, but Broadway was held with a garrison which included field artillery, anti-aircraft guns and even Spitfire fighters for a brief period. Fergusson's brigade set up another base named Aberdeen north of Indaw, into which 14th Brigade was flown. Calvert's brigade established yet another, named White City at Mawlu, astride the main railway and road leading to the Japanese northern front. 111 Brigade set up ambushes and roadblocks south of Indaw (although part of the brigade which landed at Chowringhee was delayed in crossing the Irrawaddy River), before moving west to Pinlebu.
Ferocious jungle fighting ensued around Broadway and White City. At times, British and Japanese troops were in close combat, bayonets and kukris against katanas. On March 27, after days of aircraft attack, Japanese attacked Broadway for several nights before the attack was repulsed with flown-in artillery and the aid of locally-recruited Kachin irregulars.
However, a setback occurred when Fergusson's brigade tried to capture Indaw on March 24. The original intention had been to seize the town and its airfields on March 15 but Fergusson had to report that this was impossible. Wingate appeared ready to change the brigade's mission but on March 20, he reinstated Indaw as the target. The brigade was already exhausted from its long march, and there was no time to properly reconnoitre the objective. The units were dismayed to find that the Japanese controlled the only water sources. Fergusson expected that 14th Brigade would cooperate in the attack, but they moved west instead. Also, Japanese reinforcements had moved into Indaw, which was a major road and rail centre. Fergusson's battalions, attacking separately, were each repulsed. After this, most of the tired 16th Brigade were flown out.
Slim, the commander of British Fourteenth Army which had loose operational control over Special Force, selected Brigadier Lentaigne to be Wingate's replacement after conferring with Brigadier Derek Tulloch, Wingate's Chief of Staff. The choice was made on the grounds that Lentaigne was the most balanced and experienced commander in the force; he had been an instructor at the Staff College at Quetta, had led a Gurkha battalion with distinction during the gruelling retreat from Burma in 1942, and had commanded a Chindit Brigade in the field (albeit for only a few weeks but none of the other Brigade commanders had more experience). As an officer of Gurkha troops, he had a similar outlook and background to Slim. The other Brigade commanders were unknown quantities, mostly without staff qualifications with some having never even commanded a battalion sized unit in combat before 1944, and Wingate's staff officers lacked the necessary combat experience.
What Slim ignored was complaints inside the Chindits that Lentaigne was an outsider in Wingate's force and had been critical of Wingate's methods and techniques. In this respect, he would be opposed to several of the Brigade commanders and staff of the Chindits. Wingate had disliked him because he was selected by Wavell without Wingate's approval. (Wingate also tended to hold Indian Army officers, and Gurkha Officers in particular, in total contempt.)
It is probably fair to say that nobody could have filled Wingate's shoes. Wingate had sustained his force outside normal army command through political connections that no successor would have available. The other dilemma of any successor was that they would constantly be second-guessed by those who thought they knew exactly what Wingate would have done in a particular situation. The same officers who would go to extraordinary lengths to justify even the most flawed decisions by Wingate would attack any successor whenever the opportunity presented itself.
In April, Lentaigne ordered the main body of 111 Brigade west of the Irrawaddy, now commanded by John Masters, to move north and build a new stronghold, codenamed Blackpool, which would block the railway and main road at Hopin, south of Mogaung. Calvert was ordered to abandon White City and Broadway and move north to support Masters. Calvert was opposed to this, as his brigade had successfully held these two strongholds for months. Stilwell also feared that abandoning White City would allow Japanese reinforcements to move north. However, Lentaigne insisted that the Chindit brigades were too far apart to support each other, and that it would be difficult to use aircraft at White City and Broadway during the monsoon.
Masters's force established Blackpool on May 8 and were almost immediately engaged in fierce fighting. Whereas White City had been deep in the Japanese rear, its defenders had had plenty of time to prepare their defences and its attackers had been a mixed bag of detachments from several formations, Blackpool was close to the Japanese northern front, and was immediately attacked by Japanese troops with heavy artillery support. As Calvert and Stilwell had feared, abandoning White City had allowed the Japanese 53rd Division to move north from Indaw. A heavy attack against Blackpool was repulsed on May 17, but a second attack on May 24 captured vital positions inside the defences.
Because the monsoon had broken and heavy rain made movement in the jungle very difficult, neither Calvert nor Brodie's British 14th Infantry Brigade could help Masters. Finally, Masters had to abandon Blackpool on May 24, because the men were exhausted after 17 days of continual combat. Nineteen Allied soldiers, who were so badly injured as to be beyond hope of recovery and could not be moved, were shot by the medical orderlies.
Over the period from June 6 to June 27, Calvert's 77th Brigade took Mogaung and suffered 800 casualties (50%) among those of the brigade involved in the operation. Fearing that they would then be ordered to join the siege of Myitkyina, Calvert handed over Mogaung to Chinese troops, shut down his radios and retreated to Kamaing, where Stilwell had his headquarters. A court-martial was likely until Stilwell and Calvert met in person, and Stilwell finally appreciated the conditions under which the Chindits had been operating.
111 Brigade, after resting, were ordered to capture a hill known as Point 2171. They did so, but were now utterly exhausted. Most of them were suffering from malaria, dysentery and malnutrition. On July 8, at the insistence of the Supreme Commander, Mountbatten, doctors examined the brigade. Of the 2200 men present from four and a half battalions, only 119 were declared fit. The Brigade was evacuated, although Masters sarcastically kept the fit men, "111 Company" in the field until August 1.
The portion of 111 Brigade east of the Irrawaddy were known as Morris Force, after its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel "Jumbo" Morris. They had spent several months harassing Japanese traffic from Bhamo to Myitkyina. They had then attempted to complete the encirclement of Myitkyina. Stilwell was angered that they were unable to do so, but Slim pointed out that Stilwell's 30,000 Chinese troops had also failed in that task. Morris Force was evacuated about the same time as 77th Brigade.
14th Brigade and 3rd West African Brigade remained in action, assisting the newly-arrived British 36th Infantry Division in its advance down the "Railway Valley" south of Mogaung. Finally, they were relieved and withdrawn, starting on August 17.
The last Chindit left Burma on August 27, 1944.
The healthy were sent to training camps to await new operations. However, when the army command evaluated the men and equipment required to return the Chindits to operational status, it was decided to transform the force into an Airborne Division in India. Beyond direct replacements, it was known that the British element of the Chindits would be decimated in 1945 by the need to repatriate personnel who had served more than four years overseas.
During the early months of 1945, several of the brigade headquarters and many of the veterans of the Chindit operations were reformed and merged into the 44th Airborne Division (India), while the force headquarters and signals units formed the core of Indian XXXIV Corps. The Chindits were finally disbanded in February 1945.
Military historians disagree on the Chindits' military significance. The debate is part of the ongoing one of whether the deployment of special forces are a net asset to a campaign or whether the investment in time, material and men that such operations demand outweigh the advantages gained. For example, did the interdiction of Japanese supply lines during Operation Thursday by the Chindits contribute more to Stilwell's advance than if the resources committed to the operation had been used to provide Stilwell with another regular division to fight alongside his X Force.
The views of the majority of the post-war British military establishment were made succinctly by Slim (commander of the Fourteenth Army), when he wrote "... the Chindits, gave a splendid examples of courage and hardihood. Yet I came firmly to the conclusion that such formations, trained equipped and mentally adjusted for one kind of operation were wasteful. They did not give, militarily, a worth-while return for the resources in men, material and time that they absorbed. ... [Special forces] were usually formed by attracting the best men ... The result of these methods was undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the Army." He makes several other arguments against special forces, about the danger of ordinary battalions thinking that some tasks could only be performed by special forces, and that special forces can only stay in the field for relatively short periods compared to regular battalions. He sums up that "Anything, whatever the short cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the Army spirit is dangerous." To underline his point he suggests that "This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corps of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier, who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be expected to climb a tree". He does acknowledge the need for small units to stir up trouble in the enemy's rear area but does not make it clear if he is talking about V Force or the actions of Force 136.
Others, like Sir Robert Thompson, himself a Chindit, have asserted that the idea behind the Chindits was a sound one, but that they were just badly handled and used in operations for which they were not properly equipped or trained, for example in static defence. A third view is that despite the relatively insignificant losses that the Chindits were able to inflict, their propaganda value in 1943, at a time when the Army was on the defensive, was a moral boost to the people of India and Britain. It has been hard to reach a consensus on any of these issues due to the partisan nature of the discussions surrounding Wingate himself.
It has also been argued that the Chindits also contributed to the overall success of the Allied armies in Burma through the innovations in air supply techniques and organisation which their operations required. The Allied air forces were later to use these tactics to supply increasingly large forces which were cut off by enemy forces, or were operating independently of road or rail lines of communication.
Three of the Brigade commanders on Operation Thursday subsequently wrote autobiographies, which contained their comments on the Chindits' concept and practice of operations. Bernard Fergusson, originally an enthusiastic supporter of Wingate, later came to feel that Wingate lacked both consistency and flexibility in his plans, which contributed to Fergusson's long, pointless march and his defeat at Indaw. John Masters, who was a close friend and supporter of Lentaigne, felt that the Chindits' mobility was sacrificed in holding fixed defensive positions or attacking strong Japanese positions, without the necessary support. In criticism of the whole Chindit concept, he points out that the Chindit force had the infantry strength of two and a half line divisions, but, without supporting arms, it had the fighting strength of less than one. Michael Calvert, who was closest to Wingate, remained an absolute unquestioning defender of Wingate and his methods.