REMEMBERING OPERATION THURSDAY 75 YEARS ON
Arrangements for evacuating Special Force were accelerated. In his final insult to the Chindits, the American General Stilwell ordered the hundred or so men of 111 Brigade still capable of functioning to guard Chinese gun positions near Pahok. Over 2,000 wounded, sick and exhausted survivors of 111 Brigade arrived at Mogaung on 27 July. The evacuation of Morris Force also began; they had left Myitkyina by 29 July. 111 Brigade (less Stilwell’s ‘111 Company’) had left Myitkyina by 1 August. 77 Brigade flew out from Warazup. With Myitkyina finally secured on 3 August, the Ledo Road’s construction continued; eventually, it joined the old Burma Road leading into China.
The background to these developments was a British refusal to continue to tolerate Stilwell’s intransigence. Mountbatten, SEAC’s Supreme Commander, ordered Stilwell to immediately evacuate all unfit men – thousands of Chindits, Gurkhas, Chinese and Kachins.
Meanwhile, 14 and 3(WA) Brigades remained operational and faced new demands from Lentaigne and Stilwell. The West Africans were to join 36th Division forces for an attack on Nampadawng, while 14 Brigade covered the flank by seizing high ground, including the re-occupied Point 2171. The Japanese units were crushed and the high ground taken – including Point 2171. The capture of Mogaung and Myitkyina broke the Japanese in North Burma. With the availability of Myitkyina airfield, the tonnage flown over ‘The Hump’ to the Chinese trebled within a couple of months.
The remaining Special Force Brigades left their operational positions immediately prior to the evacuation. The West Africans flew out from Myitkyina on 17/18 August, followed by 14 Brigade during 21-26 August. The last of the Chindits left Myitkyina on 27 August. It was over.
Many Chindits, in later years, could recall little or nothing of their evacuation. Perhaps the intense experience and the overwhelming relief were so profound that their minds were incapable of taking it in. Almost everyone was sick and virtually all went to hospital. Many could no longer take solid food. Photographs were taken, to record their shocking state on arrival at special reception camps, but, somehow, this evidence has been “lost” (The Chindit Society would be grateful if anyone with knowledge of the whereabouts of such photographs would get in touch).
Memories tend to be selective and almost random in content. Cameronian Norman Campbell: “Wingate would never have kept us in, had he been alive. We stayed in and suffered needless loss. As we were always sweating, large yellow blisters began to form under our arms, round the waist and in the groin, smelling horribly when they burst. It was as if we were rotting away.”
King’s Own Private Jim Unsworth didn’t think much of Mogaung when he arrived for evacuation. It was a sea of wreckage and rubble. They spent a sixth night without food. He went foraging and found an American who asked him what he wanted. He ordered a bucket of tea for 10 men; he was then asked if he wanted a bacon sandwich! “I had come to think that K-rations were the only food left in the world. I couldn’t believe this. He opened a huge tin of bacon and began sawing off slices of good bread. During these long months of hardship, the one thing I really craved was a good sandwich made with fresh white bread. We did have bread dropped occasionally, but it was always eaten through with maggots.” When Jim Unsworth flew out from Myitkyina he was bone weary and emaciated, weighing just six stone.
Norman Campbell had been determined to finish on his feet. Another Chindit, Rifleman Dougie Walker, felt the same way, despite being ravaged by malaria and jaundice. Campbell: “We pleaded with him to accept evacuation. He said he had walked in and he was going to walk out. And walk out he did, straight into hospital – where he died. We’d had four-and-a-half months of it by then and were absolutely buggered.”
Ian Niven, a 20 Column Lancashire Fusilier, also found himself in the ruins of Mogaung: “I looked around at the devastation. I was completely knackered. I asked myself all the obvious questions: ‘What happens next? Will I live?’ After the battle I became so ill I could hardly walk. We were then told to make for Shadazup. Somehow I made that march. I said to myself: ‘If you can get there, you can live.’ I was determined to see my mother again.” Niven had shrunk from 10 stone five pounds to seven stone seven pounds.
When 6NR’s 66 Column arrived at Mogaung, they prepared for evacuation to Tinsukia Reception Centre in Assam. Lieutenant Larry Gaines, however, was one of three officers who had been too ill to move forward from Pahok: “… by this time I was in a terrible state. I went down with typhus and that was my worst experience. We all had severe runs and felt very ill. I remember looking down at what I had ‘done’. The stool was a green liquid and it was bubbling!” Two doctors parachuted in to help the sick and wounded; Gaines was rehydrated with a saline drip. When finally able to fly out to Tinsukia, he went on to hospital in Poona. At that point he went down with malaria.
Lieutenant Denis Arnold MC, a Platoon Commander with 29 Column, was lucky to survive. On reaching Pahok he fell dangerously ill: “Scrub typhus was diagnosed. I had a very high temperature and a severe headache – there was no chance of continuing. The rain poured down on men just sitting on the ground. Very many gave up. I was lucky. My American jungle hammock was a lifesaver and I also had some morphine, which eased the persistent, violent headache and a temperature of up to 106 deg. I was carried on an improvised stretcher towards Pahok East. I then travelled on the Mogaung jeep train to Myitkyina and arrived at an American Hospital.” He was hospitalised for just over a month.
Many stomachs revolted upon first contact with rich food. Paddy Dobney, Administrative Officer with the York and Lancaster’s 84 Column, watched Private Clixby wolf down a tin of oily fish. During the bumpy flight to safety Clixby went a funny colour, got to his feet, shouted a single word – “Sardines!” – and let the whole lot go.
The York and Lancaster Chindits had subsisted on K-rations for 20 weeks. Now, the mere sight of a K-ration packet brought on intense nausea. Equally, shrunken stomachs rejected “luxury” foods. Many men seemed to exist on tea and cigarettes. They were the last to leave the hills, reaching Pahok on 23 August. Lieutenant-Colonel Graves-Morris, Battalion Commander, later wrote: “It was a sorry sight to see these columns of diseased and dying men dragging themselves along or being helped by their less sick comrades.” An Army photographer said he had to take photographs, “for nobody would believe it, without the evidence.” Where are these photographs?
One 84 Column veteran, Fred Gerrard, claimed that the Chindits coming out were segregated from other troops, due to their extremely emaciated condition. Gerrard wrote: “I have yet to see a photo of the remnants of a column coming out.” Of the Battalion’s c. 900 all ranks who had flown into Aberdeen on 2/3 April, only 18 officers and 380 ORs made the last march to Mogaung and safety. Of the 398, only 12 escaped hospitalisation back in India. They lost 29 killed in action (including five officers), 107 wounded (including seven officers, three of whom were wounded twice) and another 58 ORs died of sickness and exhaustion. A total of 15 officers and 315 ORs were evacuated sick. When Fred Gerrard neared Myitkyina airfield, he asked an American for directions. His jaw dropped: “It was probably the first time he had seen a skeleton move and speak.”
The detached 23 Brigade also pulled out, having helped defeat the Japanese at Kohima and Imphal. Captain Tony Wailes was with 60 Column (60th Field Regiment, RA). They moved east, towards safety. They made a particularly difficult hill climb at night. Phosphorescent sticks were placed on backs, to allow the column snake to progress in the darkness: “Halfway up, I put my hand on my shin to see what was biting, only to feel, through my slacks, the swollen bodies of two very large leeches. I stopped and persuaded them to leave go with a cigarette. I bled profusely for some time but I think the loss of blood did me good!”
Jim Unsworth, of the King’s Own, was a six stone skeleton on arrival at Myitkyina. A Sergeant told them to dump their clothes and enter the first tent: “He handed out towels, soap and shaving kit. Showers had been rigged up. We scrubbed ourselves and went to another tent for a haircut and shave, then on to another for new clothes and boots. There was one last marquee to visit. We went inside and saw a huge meal: fresh fruit, pineapples, mashed potato and meat. No one ate the food. We just had some tea. The MO said it was understandable, as our stomachs had shrunk so much, but I do remember having a bit of breakfast the next morning. During the next day we were promised a film show, but this was a disappointment – an Indian production on the dangers of malaria!”
Some men who came out alive struggled to stay in that condition. Lancashire Fusilier Ian Niven, on the cusp of death, passed out during his evacuation flight: “I woke up on a ‘slab’ in a tented field hospital. I was laid out, stark naked, with people throwing buckets of ice over me. As I came to I had the sensation that I was flying to Heaven, moving through white clouds. Later, I discovered that they had more or less given me up for dead. My temperature had gone way over the top; I think it reached 108 deg. Higher than that and it’s curtains.” Niven was found to have amoebic dysentery – he spent six months in a series of hospitals.
When Cameronian Norman Campbell reached Tinsukia Reception Centre he had his first hot water wash in nearly six months. One encounter at Tinsukia was engraved on his memory. He went up to an Indian WI tea wagon. Two ladies were laughing and chatting as he approached: “One turned to serve me and I saw the smile leave her face. She looked at me with disbelief and sympathy, the pity written all over her face. I had lost a lot of weight. I was gaunt and my ribs were showing. I was as yellow as a canary through taking Mepacrine. I will always remember that look.”
Lieutenant Andrew Sutherland of 60 Column, 23 Brigade, had malaria and weighed in at nine stone 12 pounds – about 60 pounds lighter than five months ago … “the same as I had weighed when I was only 13 years old.” His diet now consisted of minced boiled liver and mashed bananas, supplemented by M&B sulfa drugs and enemas. He spent four months in hospital.
Private Jack Redding of the King’s Own, a survivor of desperate hand-to-hand combat in “The Deep” at Blackpool, remembered little of coming out, other than that the last leg was by truck. They had landed at Dinjan and were driven to Tinsukia Reception Centre. Jack Redding had lost around three stone from an already wiry frame. On recovering and after leave, he was offered the choice of becoming a driver or transferring to the Catering Corps. This was not a difficult decision as he had starved for five months. He was posted to a Catering Corps unit and was content to spend a peaceful, well-fed six months cooking breakfast for troops. He was no longer hungry and he was out of reach of the King’s enemies.
Of course, the condition of the POWs in Japanese captivity was even worse. Philip Stibbe survived 17 months as a prisoner. Later, he wrote: “After a time we became hardened and even callous about the everyday sight of suffering and death. Some of us even laid bets as to who would be next to die. Perhaps this was heartless but it was preferable to the utter misery and total despair which could so easily have overwhelmed us. Everything possible was done to save the lives of the sick, but it was worse than useless to grieve over the inevitable.” Their greatest fear was beri-beri, a deadly disease resulting from lack of Vitamin B.
Plans for more Chindit operations were abandoned and Special Force was disbanded in March 1945. It proved impossible to obtain sufficient British replacements to re-form the Chindits as a six-Brigade force. What remained of the Chindits came to be seen as one of the very few reservoirs of soldiers with combat experience available in the Far East.
Most Chindit survivors had an instinctive feeling that something bordering on the unique had been achieved. They had fought together at the outer extremities of human endurance. There was a cachet to being a Chindit. The very word produced mixed emotions, a blend of awe and something approaching pity. 16 Brigade was proud of its almost impossible march into Burma and the valiant struggles around Indaw. 111 Brigade remembered the heroism and trauma of the unequal struggle at Blackpool. 77 Brigade found glory at White City and a near Pyrrhic victory at Mogaung. There were also the achievements of Morris Force, along the Bhamo Road, of 14 Brigade and 3(WA) Brigade after Blackpool fell and, of course, of 23 Brigade around Kohima.
Chindit Battalion Commander Philip Graves-Morris summed it up: “This was warfare made possible by science and technology but fought at the most primitive level, with no acknowledgement of Western concepts of ‘civilised’ warfare. With the Monsoon rains the Chindits starved as air-dropped supplies dwindled. Eventually, fewer than five per cent of the surviving force were judged, on medical assessment, to be fit to continue operations.
A June 15, 1945, paper by Lieutenant-Colonel J.N. Morris, RAMC (“The report on the health of 401 Chindits”), stated: “These men came from all parts of Britain, belonged to different formations and presented manifold disorders, but they tended to conform to a clinical pattern and the group spirit was strong among them. What we learned to call the ‘Chindit Syndrome’ soon emerged: the frequent association of long hair and long dirty nails; superior intelligence, morale and manners; fatigue and hunger, pallor and loss of weight; skin sepsis, diarrhoea and malaria … I think it may be safely said that each patient had two or three conditions requiring hospital treatment.”
Some men took leave in the foothills of Kanchenjunga; others found refuge in the Nilgiri Hills above Bangalore. Not everyone made good choices. Corporal Ted Treadwell, of the Leicesters: “I should have gone to Darjeeling. The place I ended up in was full of beggars. I took £200 backpay with me and blew the lot. What a waste!”
Medical Orderly Percy Stopher also lacked prudence. He and seven others drew their back pay and borrowed more. They went on leave with the huge sum of £1,400 (the average house price in Britain in 1944 was £500). “When we returned, we had just £32 between us!”
Some, though hard to believe, still hungered for adventure. Animal Transport Officer Bill Smyly secured a posting as ATO with the 5th/1st Gurkhas on the North West Frontier. Others, however, found it difficult to escape the grasping fingers of chronic malaria. They included Norman Campbell. As soon as he recovered, another bout put him back in hospital. He spent most of February and March 1945 in a hospital bed.
In the post-war years, Slim was dismissive of the Chindits’ contribution. He claimed that the Chindits and other Special Forces “did not give, militarily, a worthwhile return for the resources in men, material and time that they absorbed.” He added: “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units. Commanders who have used these special forces have found, as we did in Burma, that they have another grave disadvantage – they can be employed actively for only restricted periods.”
Many Chindits, of course, would have argued that their period of behind the lines service was not restricted enough! Slim’s comments about “super soldiers” can be discounted, given the background of a large proportion of Special Force and the Chindits of 1943.
New perspectives develop over the years. Orde Wingate’s vision of mobile warfare by light forces, supported from the air, has had a profound impact on modern military thinking. Michael Calvert wrote: “Highly mobile units, travelling light and supplied by air, are now widely used in the armies of the West as a whole and are, in fact, the very basis of the modern British Army. These were the methods Wingate pioneered in Burma with the Chindits.”
Yet, what did the Chindits of Operation Thursday achieve, in hard military terms, at the time? Special Force was broadly equivalent to two Light Divisions. In assessing its achievements, it makes sense to first consider the enemy. The hard-fighting Japanese had an immense capacity to tie-up Allied forces. Three Japanese Divisions had engaged seven-and-a-half to nine British/Indian Divisions at Imphal/Kohima. One crack Japanese Division, the 18th, resisted three and, later, five Chinese Divisions and one American Brigade in the Hukawng Valley and a single Japanese Division confronted 12 Chinese Divisions on the Salween.
The Chindits cut communications and destroyed supply dumps of all five enemy divisions. They largely destroyed a Japanese force of 10 Battalions – approximately divisional strength – and subsequently took on the 53rd Division. According to the 15th Army Commander, Mutaguchi, just one Regiment of 53rd Division “might well have ensured success” on the Imphal front.
Sir Robert Thompson, who took part in both Chindit operations, later reflected: “In strategic concepts and ideas, Wingate was ahead of his time. No-one else would have thought of establishing and maintaining Strongholds with airstrips in Japanese-held territory.” The reconquest of Burma was itself General Wingate’s greatest memorial. No planner and no General had ever considered retaking Burma from north to south.”
The Chindit operations were expensive. The factors of climate, wilderness, starvation, disease, Monsoon and a remorseless enemy made for heavy casualties. Many died in the change of role from Long Range Penetration to frontline assault troops (for which they were not trained nor equipped). Chindit casualties (excluding all sick) from 16 May 1944 – the onset of the Monsoon – to 19 August totalled 3,628 killed, wounded and missing. The Report on Operations stated that casualties over all six Brigades (that is, including 23 Brigade) totalled 297 officers and 3,627 ORs; 102 officers were killed in action or died of wounds. A further 171 were wounded and 24 were missing. A total of 888 ORs were killed in action or died of wounds. In addition, 2,255 ORs were wounded and 484 were missing. They killed 5,381 Japanese and wounded 706, with another 86 “captured alive”.
The 1944 campaign was made possible by 1st Air Commando. Its Mustangs flew 1,482 combat missions and lost five aircraft. The B.25s flew 422 strikes with the loss of one aircraft (plus the bomber in which Wingate died). Light aircraft flew 7,500 missions and evacuated 2,200 men. The Light Plane Force lost 40 L.1 and L.5 aircraft and five pilots. There were also the C-47 and glider losses during the initial landings and subsequent operations.
Many men found Chindit warfare a life-changing experience. Major Bill Williams, of the South Staffords: “I find memory a kind thing. It erases painful events and focuses on comradeship – the friendship.”
King’s Own Chindit Jack Redding buried his memories, with just the occasional wry comment about walking a thousand miles in the jungle without getting lost, when, much later in life, he took a wrong turning in the car. Sometimes he would tell his eldest son, good-humouredly – “You’d be no good in the jungle!”
Philip Stibbe spent two years as a prisoner: “When we returned to England at the end of the war, we found it difficult to understand why people worried if they could not find a bed for the night or couldn’t put milk in their tea; it seemed strange to us to complain so much about the shortages.”
Eric Sugden served with the Bedfordshire and Herfordshire’s 61 Column: “Chindit service changed my values. Certainly, it gave me a permanent and deep appreciation of good, straightforward food. Even today, I enjoy my food in a different way having been in that Column.”
Some men never lost their loathing of the Burmese jungle. George Hill, with the Queen’s 21 Column: “Why was this part of the world so malevolent and what caused it to be so? As far as we were concerned, every damn thing! The heat and humidity. The sweat, the rain, or its absence – too much water (if only from above) or too little – the mud or the dust, the jungle, the sometimes almost impenetrable undergrowth, the mountains, the precipices, the murderous slopes, the insects and the disease, in almost any permutation. One must also not forget, of course, those bloody packs.”
Former RAF Officer John Knowles reflected: “No-one who has not gone through what we went through for some 800 miles can have the faintest idea of what it was like … Something entered our souls that made it possible to bear the burden. This continues to set us apart from everyone else, including other soldiers in other campaigns. Like the ordained members of some strange priesthood, we are once and forever Chindits.”
Many former Chindits – especially, perhaps, those from city backgrounds with no previous experience of working with animals – remember the mules with great affection. Most men never lost their fear of being kicked, but everyone admired the way in which the mules continued until they dropped.
Wingate’s personality looms large over this story. There is rich irony in the fact that Wingate’s detractors have ensured his continued prominence. Sir Robert Thompson commented: “It has made him such a controversial figure that his reputation will last forever.”
Many men (not just his critics) saw Wingate as self-centred and callous, but such verdicts sell him short. He had a well-disguised caring side. When visiting a hospital he saw all the sick and wounded, then asked if he’d missed anyone. He was told about a dying soldier named Heppinstall. Wingate insisted on seeing him, despite the fact that he’d been unconscious for days. On arriving at his bedside, he shouted: ‘Heppinstall!’ There was no response. He shouted the name again and the man’s eyelids fluttered. Wingate repeated his name and the eyes opened. Heppinstall attempted to salute and said: ‘Oh! Sir! I didn’t know it was you.’ Wingate then said: ‘Heppinstall. You are to get well quickly, because I need you.’ ‘Yes Sir’, replied the sick man. His recovery began from that moment. Wingate’s sense of humour was also camouflaged. He once told Alice Hay, his mother-in-law, that Michael Calvert was the best soldier he knew, adding with a grin, “Except me, of course.”
There can be no doubt that Calvert was a true warrior. Fred Holliday, of the King’s 82 Column, offered a blunt view: “Calvert was a very unusual character. To be frank, he didn’t care a toss about anything. He was bordering on the bloodthirsty. His personality was so different from that of Lentaigne and Masters. Calvert had a strong partnership with Wingate. The men of 77 Brigade worshipped Michael Calvert. When Lentaigne was chosen to succeed Wingate, they just couldn’t believe it. We all expected Calvert to take over.”
Were the Chindits a success? Dick Hilder, with 14 Brigade’s HQ Column, took a straightforward view: “At the military level the Chindits disrupted three Japanese Divisions and took some of the weight off Imphal and Kohima. We dispelled the notion that the Japanese were invincible in the jungle. Until then, our soldiers really thought that the Japanese were superhuman. I remember talking to people who felt that way.”
Bernard Fergusson, a Column Commander in 1943 and a Brigade Commander in 1944, wrote that Wingate “seemed almost to rejoice in making enemies”, but “he was a military genius of a grandeur and stature seen not more than once or twice in a century.” He also observed: “Some of those who now whisper that he was not all he was cracked up to be remind me of the mouse who has a swig of whisky and then says: ‘Now show me that bloody cat’.”
Cameronian Norman Campbell made some perceptive remarks about Wingate’s bond with Special Force: “It was an unusual kind of warfare, invented by one man and, perhaps, to an excessive extent run by one man. His demise opened up an enormous void. Wingate should have had a Deputy virtually living with him. That Deputy should have been fully informed and as well known to the troops as Wingate himself. It is said that no-one is irreplaceable but Wingate, in these circumstances, was just that.”
Animal Transport Officer Bill Smyly considered the 1944 Chindit campaign in phases: “White City was the Chindits’ perfect operation. Mogaung was our bloodiest Battle Honour. Blackpool was our disaster.”
Sickness was the greatest enemy. Mountbatten, SEAC Supreme Commander, came to regard disease as a weapon of war. During a lecture at the RUSI immediately after the war, he made an extraordinary comment on the subject of disease: “In 1943, for every man who was admitted to hospital with wounds, there had been 120 who were casualties from … tropical diseases. By 1944, these 120 men had been reduced to 20, although hospital admissions still reached between 14,000 and 15,000 per week in peak periods. By 1945 the rate had dropped to 10 men sick for every one battle casualty and, during the last six weeks of the war, these 10 had been reduced to six. The enemy had no medical advisory division and appears to have made no advances in medical research. As our troops became more and more immune from circumstances against which the Japanese had no remedy, I was determined to enlist disease as an additional weapon on our side and deliberately chose unhealthy areas in which to fight.”
In a letter home on returning from Burma, Captain Norman Durant MC described the enemy in the context of the times: “They look like animals and behave like animals and they can be killed as unemotionally as swatting flies. And they need to be killed, not wounded, for as long as they breathe they’re dangerous.”
Some hearts remained hardened. Neville Hogan: “I regard them as murdering swines. I hate the Japanese and have no wish to be involved in reconciliation.” Asked whether his strong Christian faith demanded forgiveness, he replied: “Yes, I should forgive, but I saw the POWs. I saw the cut noses and tongues. They cut off the penises of two of my own men.”
Lancashire Fusilier Ian Niven was also blunt: “I have no time for them. They committed terrible acts and were without conscience.”
Some Chindit veterans left hatred behind. Jesse Dunn, of the South Staffords: “The vast majority of Japanese alive today were not born in 1944. I am not particularly fond of the Japanese, but I have no hatred.” Norman Campbell said much the same: “I don’t hate the Japanese. What would be the point?”
RAF Officer John Knowles attempted to return a map case belonging to First Lieutenant Kootaroo Nakada of the Japanese Army Pay Corps. He discovered that Nakada had died of malaria in Burma. Knowles had no hatred of the Japanese: “It is surely ridiculous to hate an entire race or nation. They are people, like you or me. Post-war, I have been friendly with a number of Japanese. As a UN Project Manager in Pakistan, I had a very competent Japanese consultant on my staff. He was a friendly chap, with an excellent sense of humour. When I mentioned that I had served in Burma, he said: ‘Ah! So that’s why we lost!’”
Above all else, the memories are strong. Norman Campbell: “I still have a clear mental picture of Blackpool Block. When I close my eyes I can see Namkwin Station and, at about 5 o’clock, the rail bridge blown during our first night at the Block.”
The men stayed Chindits for the rest of their lives:
- Peter Allnutt, 43 Column, 12th Nigerian Regiment: “Chindit service was tough. Some never got over it. It was very character-forming and, in most cases, it was a tremendous boost to self-confidence.”
- Frank Anderson, 81 Column, 1st King’s (Liverpool): “I realised that, money or not, other people were no different to me. I was the equal of any man. I always spoke my mind.”
- Peter Heppell, 82 Column, 1st King’s (Liverpool): “I couldn’t talk about it for a long time. I felt it was of no interest. I was in Burma for five months and saw only one road … and I crossed that on my stomach! It is amazing how quickly one adapts to living rough.”
- Dick Hilder, HQ Column, 14 Brigade: “My time as a Chindit sharpened me. The Chindits gave you confidence – a very strong feeling of self-reliance. I learnt to accept things. If something really lovely is destroyed, I don’t mourn it but, instead, think: ‘Well, its had its day’. The Burmese jungle taught me that material things are just that … things! The Chindit experience left me with one thought: ‘You’ll never have anything so bloody dreadful in your life again’.”