The Chindits – Operation Thursday

REMEMBERING OPERATION THURSDAY 75 YEARS ON

Operation Thursday map.
Operation Thursday- The Fly-in and establishment of the White City block.

Operation Longcloth, Major-General Orde Wingate’s initial, Brigade-strength incursion into Japanese-held North Burma during 1943, drew much criticism, as nearly one-third of the 3,000 participating Chindits became casualties. Little damage was done to the enemy, but the campaign revealed Japanese exposure to a potentially much larger “Long-Range Penetration” in 1944. This persuaded the Japanese to plan their own offensive, against Imphal and Kohima, and the failure of this plan led to their eventual undoing in Burma, with complete defeat in 1945.

Despite terrible hardships and heavy losses from disease and enemy action, Wingate was satisfied that Longcloth had proved his concept of Chindit-style jungle fighting, with specially trained troops operating behind the lines and depending entirely on air-dropped supplies, ordered up by wireless. Churchill agreed. Over dinner at No. 10 Downing Street in early August 1943, Wingate’s infectious enthusiasm for a second, much bigger Chindit operation convinced the Prime Minister. He took Wingate with him to Quebec, to the “Quadrant” conference of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The results must have exceeded even Wingate’s expectations. Six Brigades were to be trained in LRP warfare and the Americans offered Wingate his own air force – No. 1 Air Commando – with fighters, bombers, transports, gliders and light aircraft for casualty evacuation. Suddenly, Wingate had the means to launch a huge air landing assault in North Burma during early 1944. He made the most of the opportunity and developed detailed plans for what became Operation Thursday.

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General Wingate and Colonel Philip Cochran USAAF.
General Wingate and Colonel Philip Cochran USAAF. “The men that made it happen.”

Operation Thursday’s Chindits were known as “Special Force”; five other Brigades joined the original 77 Brigade (111 Indian Infantry Brigade, 14, 16 and 23 Brigades – formed from 70 Division – and 3 (West African) Brigade). Later, 23 Brigade operated against the Japanese attacking at Imphal and Kohima, leaving five Brigades of Chindits for Operation Thursday. They fought as 45 Columns, each with 400-450 men and around 60 mules and a few casualty-carrying ponies. Columns occasionally came together to confront the enemy and then dispersed back into the jungle before the Japanese could concentrate against them. This was Wingate’s original LRP concept, but the availability of No. 1 Air Commando’s aircraft allowed Wingate to add new concepts: the defended, static “Block” across the main south-north supply road and railway feeding enemy forces in the north and the “Stronghold”, a defended airbase and sanctuary behind enemy lines. The 1944 Chindit campaign, involving over 20,000 men, many of whom had already been battle-tested in the Western Desert, would be a mixture of mobile and fortress warfare. The campaign would also involve other, distinct elements: Morris Force (three columns of Gurkhas), Dah Force (a unit of Kachin Levies) and Bladet Force (glider-borne demolition specialists).

Four Brigades flew in. The exception was 16 Brigade, which marched in. Chindit training, harsh in the extreme, transformed the men. In the final weeks of 1943 and the first month of 1944 thousands of men grew to hate their packs. Even dry, a Chindit pack and equipment weighed around 70lb. Many Chindits carried around half their body weight up and down steep hills covered in dense jungle, in high humidity and with temperatures in the range 110◦-112◦ F. They crossed huge rivers, floating over holding onto a “sausage” – their kit rolled inside a groundsheet. Captain, later Major, Neville Hogan led the Recce Platoon of 46 Column, 2nd King’s Own: “We worked up a real hatred of the enemy. Japanese faces were pinned on trees. We were encouraged to slash them with our knives during exercises. We were told we were killers, whereas the Japanese were murderers – an important distinction.”

Slowly, men grew accustomed to jungle living, although many of them were hospitalised during training, with one or more bouts of malaria. A lot of training was done near mosquito-infested rivers. Gordon Hughes, a reserve Animal Transport Officer, remembered: “There was no water to spare for washing or shaving, so your daily toilet was reduced from a ‘shit, shave and shampoo’ to a shit. The next few months saw us change from ordinary troops to hardened men who could put minds and bodies to anything. No obstacle would delay us for long. We became expert at mule handling at river crossings, even to the extent that we used the animals to float poor swimmers across the widest of rivers. We were proficient at taking supply drops and distributed supplies quickly after the drop, to enable a fast getaway from the danger area. We rehearsed ambushes, attacks on airfields and blockades on roads and railways, to deny the enemy their use.”

The Nigerians adjusted well during training. Charles Carfrae, Commander of 7th Nigeria Regiment’s 29 Column, wrote: “The black Riflemen, accustomed to living simply and demanding little, adapted easily and without complaint. Making no effort to fight the jungle, they surrendered to it.” Things were more difficult for thousands of troops accustomed to life in Britain’s big cities, yet the vast majority accepted the loss of a “civilisation.” Lieutenant (later, Major) Cyril Baldock was an Animal Transport Officer with 54 Column, 45th Reconnaissance Regiment: “I was young, fit and healthy. That pack was bloody heavy but I got used to it. I accepted the hardships, as did all the others. However, this was a young man’s style of warfare. Anyone much over 30 tended to leave us.”

West African Chindits receive an air supply drop.
West African Chindits receive an air supply drop.

Philip Sharpe, a Wireless Operator with 45 Recce’s 45 Column, described a jungle exercise beginning on 17 November 1943: “Up at 4am, loaded mules, shouldered packs and rifles and marched two hours in the dark before breakfast. Off again at 07.00, weight of pack real purgatory and all I can see, now it is light, is the backside of one of our mules and the scrub and bamboo each side. This is already the hardest day of my life. Column Halt from 12.00 to 15.00 hours, mules unloaded. Contacted Brigade signals and passed messages while most of those around us had a sleep. Then off again until 18.00 hours. Unloaded mules for the night. Passed more messages, all in cypher. Completely shagged out but writing up diary.”

Many men were deeply shocked when told they would fly in, as the vast majority had never flown before. Yet, everyone’s main concern was about meeting the extreme demands of Chindit training on the ground. Only the very fittest could tolerate a Chindit load in tropical heat and humidity, when crossing steep, jungle-covered terrain. The formidable weight carried was equivalent to two heavy suitcases. This was more than double what the mules would be expected to carry, in proportion to bodyweight. The weight of clothing and basic equipment carried by each man was officially calculated at 38lbs 6oz. The Rifleman’s typical load was 56lbs 10oz. and a Bren gunner 68lbs 2oz. These figures did not include rations. Five days’ K-rations weighed 15lbs 10oz., bringing the total load of a Bren gunner, fully rationed, to a back-breaking 83lbs 12oz. Chindit Column Commander Charles Carfrae described the pain of carrying a full pack after a supply drop: “Scarcely able to stir a step under loads so intolerable, at first we found training marches agony, sweat streaming from our faces, backs and spirits alike near to breaking, legs buckling under us. But, with practice, pack-toting capacity began to improve and in a month we had developed into satisfactory beasts of burden.”

Laurence “Lou” Lake became a Wireless Operator with 17 Column, The Royal Leicestershire Regiment. He found jungle training hard-going: “It was terrible, in a word! We cut our way up each steep slope, all covered in thick jungle, went down the other side and forded the river at the bottom. Then we went up again. It was absolutely vital to get your heavy pack positioned correctly.”

Chindit training was both comprehensive and diverse, demanding extreme fitness and novel combat skills. It focused on march discipline, jungle drills for moving in and out of bivouac, dispersal, compass marching, taking supply drops, night operations, watermanship and river crossings, animal management, first aid, sanitation, individual cooking and a great deal more. Training was divided into four broad subject areas: fitness, weapons proficiency, discipline and welfare. When on the march, tight control was far from easy. A “column snake” of over 400 men and their animals, in single file, stretched back over half a mile.

A Sikorsky YR-4 type helicopter.
A Sikorsky YR-4 type helicopter.

By the second half of January, the men had matured into the role of Chindits. On January 16 1944 84 and 65 Columns (York and Lancaster Regiment) began the five-day “Exercise Steeple”. 84 Column was briefed to assault an imaginary airstrip defended by 65 Column. The location was selected for its inaccessibility. 84 Column was expected to cover 35 miles in four days, including taking an airdrop, making a river crossing and ascending a steep escarpment – all concluding with a night approach march. Meanwhile, 65 Column would make its own approach march and prepare to attack 84 Column, complete with air support.

Meanwhile, 1st Air Commando had formed and was training for operations. It was to have a strength of 30 P.51 Mustang fighters, 12 B.25 Mitchell bombers, 100 light aircraft, 12 UC-64 utility aircraft, a fleet of up to 26 C-47 transports and 100 Waco gliders (later boosted by an additional 50). Chindit warfare proved to be a strange mixture of primitive, hand-to-hand combat and mid-1940s high technology. 1st Air Commando took on strength six Sikorsky YR-4 helicopters. Two were lost during training in India but the remaining four flew 23 casualty evacuation operations. A number of Chindits owed their lives to the YR-4.

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At the beginning of March final preparations were under way. Corporal Fred Holliday, with the King’s 82 Column: “We saw Wingate once more. He thought we were on a great adventure. He wished us good luck and said: ‘Some of you are going to die in Burma.’ That was a good send off. Little did he know that he would be among the first to die.”

Operation Thursday began on Saturday 5 February 1944, when Brigadier Bernard Fergusson’s 16 Brigade, codenamed “Enterprise”, began its long penetration march into North Burma. It would be a full month before all Brigade Battalions crossed the Chindwin river. The main target was Indaw, although two Columns were tasked to attack the town of Lonkin, in the Kachin Hills and 20 miles west of Kamaing. The march in was a terrible experience; some muddy gradients forced men onto their hands and knees. Some Columns got the mules up by sending them ahead light, then manhauling their loads.

Corporal Tom Turvey was out ahead, with 71 Column’s Recce Platoon: “The forest was now so dense that it was sometimes difficult to cover more than four or five miles a day. I accepted the situation. We had enough K-rations to allow us to survive as our stomachs shrunk. I noticed how I now felt full after just a few mouthfuls. It was all a strain and most of us were bloody terrified most of the time.”

It took 45 Column, bringing up the Brigade’s rear, nine days to cover the first 35 miles, to Hkalak Ga. They set out again on February 22 1944. By this time, the men were tiring of K-rations, which gave calories but no bulk. Smoking was confined to lunch and evening bivouacs. The Leicesters were in the lead and reached the Chindwin on February 29. They now faced a river several hundred yards wide (with the jungle-to-jungle distance twice that). Corporal Ted Treadwell of 71 Column: “Mules had to be accompanied when swimming, to hold their heads up. If they went under, they never came up. The Chindwin is a huge river and I was a bit dubious about it, but at least I could swim. When some men began to cross, they encouraged the others to try.” Assault boats were flown in to assist the crossing of the main body. Brigade Commander Bernard Fergusson fretted. It was March 1. He was supposed to be in place, in the Banmauk-Indaw area – around March 5 and 16 Brigade still had well over 200 miles to go. Wingate flew in for a conference and Fergusson told him that his best date for reaching Banmauk-Indaw was now March 20. Meanwhile, 45 Recce’s columns, still in the rear, reached the Chindwin during the afternoon of Saturday March 4. It had taken them 21 days to cover some of the wildest, toughest country on earth.

A GA-4A WACO Glider.
A GA-4A WACO Glider.

The men lived with constant nervous stress, well described by Column Commander Charles Carfrae: “No Chindit soldier could at any time consider himself secure from enemy ambush or night attack … nor could he hope for periods of rest and recuperation … It became a joke that one might meet Japanese round the next corner, but it was literal truth and when one corner had been negotiated, another appeared just ahead … stress manifested itself as a constant nagging sense of unease …”

During the first week of March 1944, the main body of Special Force prepared for the fly-in. it would begin with assault glider landings and the large fleet of C-47s and Waco CG-4A gliders was now being prepared at Lalaghat airfield, around 100 miles from the Burmese border. 1st Air Commando’s Mustangs and Mitchells were based at a second airfield, Hailakandi. The fly-in began on Sunday 5 March. Lalaghat was hot and crowded. Alongside the long ranks of aircraft and gliders were hundreds of troops in the advance party, checking weapons and equipment, tending animals, listening to final briefings, loading gliders and struggling to complete other tasks in the final hours before the first wave took off at 17.00 hrs. Lalaghat’s graded strip was full, with 83 RAF and USAF C-47s and 80 gliders. The first wave had been allocated 26 tug aircraft and 52 gliders (double tows).

Major Neville Hogan.
Major Neville Hogan. 46 Column Recce commander in 1944.

Captain Neville Hogan commanded the King’s Own 46 Column Recce Platoon: “I had never flown. I had never seen a glider before. I watched the American ground crews laying out more tow ropes. Privately, I hoped for a very big earthquake. This seemed the only way such a huge operation could be stopped. I remember everyone smiled too much. They all wore identical ‘bravado grins’. I know I was saying my prayers.”

Michael Calvert, commanding 77 Brigade, had a very clear view of his role in Operation Thursday: “My job was to cut, and keep cut, all the communications of the Japanese Divisions facing Stilwell (the American General commanding Chinese forces in North Burma), in order to help his advance south. My plan was to do this first by establishing a ‘stronghold’, which would be our base. My main force of 77 Brigade would advance from that base immediately to establish and maintain a Block across the road and railway between Mawlu and Hopin. A third job was to deny the use of the Irrawaddy to the Japanese. Fourthly, Lieutenant-Colonel Herring, with his Dah Force and the 4th/9th Gurkhas, was to cut the other route to the Japanese in the north – the Bhamo-Myitkyina road.”

Two large clearings had been identified for the night fly-in, codenamed Broadway and Piccadilly. The first four gliders landing at each clearing were pathfinders, carrying airstrip marker and communications teams. They were warned that they had just 40 minutes to lay out flares to mark the landing zone, with a second cluster directly below the glider release point. After 40 minutes, glider pairs would start to land at two to five minute intervals.

The runway construction at Broadway begins.
The runway construction at Broadway begins.

Wingate and other senior officers had an unpleasant last-minute scare. An unauthorised air reconnaissance sortie had produced some alarming images. It looked like the operation had been compromised, with Piccadilly appearing to be deliberately obstructed by huge teak logs. After some desperate soul-searching, it was decided to land all the advance parties at Broadway. (In fact, these clearings were created and used, traditionally, for teak log drying). While Broadway looked free of obstructions, long grass disguised logs and deep ruts caused by elephants dragging out logs for drying. This contributed to the chaos when the Broadway landings began a few hours later. Despite everything, the fly-in began at 18.12hrs, just 72 minutes late.

It was soon found that dual-towing of the heavily laden gliders was over-ambitious. They flew on in brilliant moonlight, east towards Broadway clearing – 130 miles behind Japanese lines. The transports’ engines laboured as they fought for height to cross the hills, attached to the overloaded gliders.

Chindits wait to emplane at Lalaghat.
Chindits wait to emplane at Lalaghat.

Charles T. Campbell was the Engineer on Major Orio “Red” Austin’s C-47, “Assam Dragon”. They were one of the first away from Lalaghat: “We were pulled into position and hooked up. We were third or fourth in line. We had two gliders, on short and long tow. The pilot of the long tow glider spent the entire flight yawing from side to side. This caused our pilot all sorts of problems. It was a real threat – this could whip a C-47 into a crash. Anyway, Austin, being the man he was, persevered and took them all the way.” They were briefed to return to Lalaghat and then do it all over again that night!

Many gliders failed to reach the clearing. Frank Anderson, a Vickers gunner with the King’s 81 Column, experienced an abrupt end to his flight: “We were on dual tow and overloaded. Our glider was in the long tow position. We got up OK but conditions were very turbulent. We were aloft for about an hour when the two gliders suddenly began to sheer into each other. The short tow cable parted and then ours went. Our lives now rested with our American glider pilot, Captain Randles. Instinctively, everyone clasped hands. We gripped so tight that the fingernail impressions remained for some time afterwards. There was no panic as we went down and no time to do any thinking. I just felt: ‘Well, we’re done with it.’ Suddenly, I could see water and heard I Randles shout: ‘It’s a lake!’ Then – bang! We were in the lake. We ploughed in and everyone tumbled down into the nose. The Vickers fell on top of me and I was trapped as the water came in and the fuselage flooded. Luckily, they managed to get me out in time. That was my first and last flight in a glider.”

Personnel list for Glider 22P.
Personnel list for Glider 22P. This glider went missing on March 5th 1944 and did not land at Broadway.

They came down on the Indian side of the Chindwin and were soon back at Lalaghat. They then flew out again, but this time in a Dakota. Just 35 of 61 gliders reached Broadway. In many cases, the overloaded dual tows proved too much. Nine of the 26 gliders failing to arrive were less fortunate than Frank Anderson’s. They crash-landed in Japanese-held territory; about half of those on board reached safety. Eight, including Anderson’s, landed in friendly territory. Others were recalled. Those reaching Broadway faced great peril as they cast-off and settled into the approach. Neville Hogan: “As we came in at Broadway, our right wing hit another glider and the landing was very hard. Somehow, our mule broke both frontlegs and my first duty on the ground was to shoot the animal. The mule was our only casualty.”

The occupants of many other gliders were much less fortunate. Peter Heppell, with 81 Column: “The wheels came off on impact; we swung round and ended up facing the jungle edge. Getting out in the bright moonlight felt dodgy – we had no idea what or who was waiting for us.” On looking around, Heppell saw that Broadway was a shambles. He began helping to remove stores from the glider: “As I went back to the fuselage, something made me run for it. Then another glider hit ours. Its cockpit ran down our left hand wing, causing a number of casualties. The incoming glider’s wing also knocked off my bush hat. I found it, put it back on and returned to the open door of our glider. All I could see was a collection of rifle muzzles. It appeared that some of our blokes had been forced underneath. I can’t remember anything else, I’ve got a complete blank from almost immediately after the collision.”

Neville Hogan: “When we got out of the glider I heard men screaming for help in the darkness around me. The casualties mounted as more gliders came in and piled into the wrecks.”

Corporal (later Sergeant) Peter Heppell, Royal Engineers.
Corporal (later Sergeant) Peter Heppell, Royal Engineers and attached 82 Column on Operation Thursday.

The advance parties found it impossible to clear the wrecks – they could not be moved across the deep ruts in the grass. Michael Calvert, 77 Brigade Commander, gazed at the devastation around him: “I knew that many of the first wave had not turned up at all. I saw quite a large number of men in front of me killed or wounded. The glider path was jammed with broken gliders.” Calvert decided to send a signal halting the fly-in. Many back at base assumed that the landing had been opposed, but, in fact, the Japanese were nowhere to be seen. Only three of the gliders landing at Broadway were undamaged. Peter Heppell was told to carry out a very unpleasant duty: “Our second glider overshot the strip and landed in the trees. Two or three at the very back of the glider got out but all the rest were killed. During the morning Lieutenant Johnny Long, our Section Commander, asked me to set fire to that glider. This was not an order, but Long said it was the best we could do for them. I declined. I told him I wanted to get on with my duties. I always felt guilty about that. Decades later, on returning to Burma, I found the names of the men in that glider. They now rest in Rangoon Cemetery. I drew comfort from the fact that they had received proper burial.”

Sixty-six men were lost in the gliders failing to reach Broadway. Twenty-three men died and 30 were injured in the Broadway landings. The first wave assault gliders landed 539 men, 29,972 pounds of equipment (including four mini-bulldozers), airfield lighting, a few mules and other gear. At 06.30 on Monday March 6, Calvert sent the success signal, having been much encouraged by the leader of a team of US Army Engineers, who claimed he could have a C-47 strip in action that evening. It was time to set to work, to improve the strip marked out across the clearing. The Chindits organised working parties. They worked by hand, alongside a small tractor and scraper. Meanwhile, light aircraft flew in to begin evacuating the gravely injured. Calvert was heartened to see a grader, jeep, two bulldozers and a carryall now hard at work on a strip 2,000 ft long and 300 ft wide. The major job was filling in the ruts, two to four feet wide, over a foot deep and as hard as stone in the dry season. Broadway was to be turned into a well-defended base.

Grading work at Broadway was minimised. Only mounds over 3 in. high were removed. The first C-47 landed at 7.10pm. Peter Heppell: “Within an hour or so of completion, Broadway strip was an amazing sight, with flares blazing and planes coming in with their lights on.” Further improvement of the strip was required, then the main body was flown in. Corporal Jesse Dunn was with the Commando Platoon of the South Staffords’ 80 Column: “It was chaos when we arrived. There were wrecked gliders all over the place and we were ordered to help clear up. We soon moved on, however, and began our march to establish what became White City Block.”

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Aerial photograph of the Piccadilly landing ground.
Aerial photograph of the Piccadilly landing ground covered in logs.

On March 6 Wingate decided to open Chowringhee, a clearing named after Calcutta’s main street and situated 60 miles south of Broadway. Following the loss of Piccadilly, the Special Force Commander felt uncomfortable about relying on Broadway alone. Gliders landed at Chowringhee, followed by C-47s bringing in Morris Force, 111 Brigade’s HQ and the 3rd/4th Gurkhas Columns. There was no intention of holding Chowringhee as a base; it was abandoned as soon as the landings were completed.

Meanwhile, Bernard Fergusson’s 16 Brigade continued to march in, making for Indaw. Over the years, there has been speculation over the reason for going in on foot, taking many weeks, when the bulk of Special Force came in by air, in just a couple of hours, landing fresh and ready to go. It has been suggested that Wingate ordered 16 Brigade to go in a month earlier, as “insurance” against the possibility of cancellation of the main fly-in operation weeks later. By now, 16 Brigade’s Chindits were exhausted and very hungry, as they had put up with the uncertainties of air supply drops for some weeks. On March 12 Fergusson received orders to seize Indaw’s airfield, destroy supply dumps in the area and establish a new Stronghold, to be known as Aberdeen. The Brigade continued south, moving parallel to and west of the railway.

At Broadway, the main Chindit Stronghold, work continued to fortify the perimeter against Japanese attack, with anti-aircraft guns, a double wall of wire and dozens of bunkers covered by an interlocking fire plan. Other columns headed for the location on the main railway where White City Block was to be established. Trekking from Chowringhee, Morris Force Columns headed north-east, to cut the Bhamo-Myitkyina road, as 111 Brigade’s British Battalions marched south from Broadway to link up with other elements flown into Chowringhee. Their job was to stop Indaw being reinforced from the south.

White City Block was to be established at Henu. It took several days to reach this village; 80 Column Rifleman Horace Howkins found the going tough: “Our march to White City was very tiring. I got fed up with the K-rations after a few days but liked the cigarettes.” Loimaw Peak, at 4,500ft, was their toughest climb.

Brigadier Calvert in 1944.
Brigadier Calvert in 1944.

Broadway’s first serious challenge came on March 13, when Japanese aircraft raided the Stronghold. However, a flight of six Spitfires had flown into Broadway the day before, together with a mobile radar. Four of the attackers were shot down, for the loss of one Spitfire. As Michael Calvert’s main force neared Henu, anxious to block the main road/rail supply line for the Japanese 18th and 56th Divisions, 1st Air Commando took the offensive. They attacked bridges, railyards and supply dumps and did severe damage in raids on three Japanese airfields, destroying 78 aircraft.

The Japanese were forced to react when the Chindits blocked road and rail communications supplying their forces fighting General Stilwell’s Chinese divisions. The site for the Block, Henu village, was near Mawlu and about 20 miles north of Indaw. The Block would be manned by the men of five Columns, with a further two columns acting as “floater” defenders – operating outside the wire and with the job of cutting the line above and below Mawlu and giving Calvert more time to set up his defences, then disrupting the activities of Japanese attacking forces.

White City viewed from Pagoda Hill (2008).
White City viewed from Pagoda Hill (2008).

It took around five days to march from Broadway to Henu. The South Staffords were the first to arrive and the Japanese reacted before they could dig in – they would have to fight for the Block. When Calvert arrived, he could see that a feature which became known as “Pagoda Hill” was the key. The Japanese holding it would have to be shifted. The enemy also occupied an adjacent hill to the east. When Calvert came up in the late afternoon he decided on “shock tactics” – a bayonet charge up Pagoda Hill. The Chindits had already taken many casualties and there was a strong desire to get to grips with their opponents. Calvert yelled “Charge” and they ran up the slope, to be met by the Japanese, who charged down. This produced a vicious hand-to-hand struggle in an area only some 50 yards square. The action was successful. A posthumous VC was awarded to Captain George Cairns of the Somerset Light Infantry, attached to the South Staffords. Cairns had his arm virtually severed by a sword-wielding Japanese officer. He had also been bayonetted twice through the side. He repeatedly bayonetted his opponent, discarded his weapon, picked up the sword and continued to fight until he collapsed.

The Japanese were pushed off the hill, 1st Air Commando began flying close support. Securing the Block was expensive; Calvert’s casualties included three dead and four wounded officers out of the 14 participating in the charge. Twenty other ranks died and 60 were wounded. Japanese losses were heavier, with 42 dead sprawled across Pagoda Hill alone. It was sobering to consider that the enemy, in this action, was a second line engineering unit!

Pagoda Hill offered some sharp lessons. Jesse Dunn: “When we went to help on Pagoda Hill, some of our men were killed by Japanese who had pretended to be dead and had fired at their backs.” Dunn and his comrades would not make the same mistake: “… on one occasion we finished off 10 Japanese wounded, to avoid similar incidents.”

John Hutchin, (80 Column) 1st South Staffordshire Regiment.
John Hutchin, (80 Column) 1st South Staffordshire Regiment.

On March 18 Calvert’s force took a large night drop, including wire and entrenching tools. They slaved away to turn the Block into a fortress. The parachutes festooned across the forest canopy gave the Block its popular name – White City – soon a maze of slit trenches and bunkers roofed with heavy timbers. Private John Hutchin, with the South Staffords’ 80 Column, described an early attack: “Hundreds attacked us at about 07.00, with the last daylight assault at around 16.00. Night attacks then followed. Their bugle calls made us laugh. Bizarrely, they sounded like Tiger Rag. We cut fire lanes on the approaches to the hill, but we had no wired defences at that stage. Nevertheless, our Vickers, Brens and 2in. mortars were sufficient to slaughter the Japs.” White City, with its commanding position, became a powerful concentration of force, with Calvert’s three Battalions steadily reinforced. The Block grew a heavily wired perimeter and a garrison strong enough to raise a substantial force for mobile action. Calvert regarded White City as “ideally situated around a series of hills about 30ft to 50ft high, with numerous small valleys in between, with water at the north and south. I brought the village of Henu into our defended area, so that we would have a good field of fire across the paddy to the south. I also brought into the perimeter what we called ‘OP Hill’, a feature slightly higher than our own little hills, to give us good observation. Our perimeter was now about 1,000 yards long, mostly along the railway, and 800 yards deep.”

White City, with its commanding position, became a powerful concentration of force, with Calvert’s three Battalions steadily reinforced. The Block grew a heavily wired perimeter and a garrison strong enough to raise a substantial force for mobile action. Calvert regarded White City as “ideally situated around a series of hills about 30ft to 50ft high, with numerous small valleys in between, with water at the north and south. I brought the village of Henu into our defended area, so that we would have a good field of fire across the paddy to the south. I also brought into the perimeter what we called ‘OP Hill’, a feature slightly higher than our own little hills, to give us good observation. Our perimeter was now about 1,000 yards long, mostly along the railway, and 800 yards deep.”

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Calvert now had 2,000 men inside the Block, with mobile “floater” columns operating to north and south, together with a sizeable force protecting Broadway. He called in air strikes to punish a Japanese force at nearby Mawlu. Those inside White City found life held few attractions. Horace Howkins: “… we were constantly shelled and charged by the Japs but I felt sure we could hold them. They never got through our wire. The Vickers guns saw to that.”

White City had C-47 and light aircraft strips functioning by March 21. Late on that day the Japanese launched a major night attack and fighting continued for the next 48 hours. The perimeter held, with the help of air support. John Hutchin: “In our slit trenches we could see each night attack develop, with the advancing Japanese silhouetted against the sky. I spent seven weeks at White City. The hand-to-hand fighting continued. We used bayonets, machetes and knives.”

An aerial photograph of the White City block, November 1944.
An aerial photograph of the White City block, November 1944.

The Japanese then began to organise, with one Battalion each contributed by the 18th, 56th and 15th Divisions, to form an Indaw-based anti-airborne forces Brigade. One of the three Battalions was diverted to attack Broadway. Spitfire cover was lost after a destructive Japanese air raid on March 18. The following day, Fergusson’s footsore 16 Brigade columns neared Manhton village and prepared to establish Aberdeen Stronghold. The Japanese priority, however, was the destruction of the established garrisons at Broadway and White City.

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