Wingate with Chindit leaders.

British Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate with Chindit leaders.

(Feb. 3, 2023) This week, 80 years ago, British Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate led his 3,000 Chindits into Burma (now Myanmar) on what was called “Operation Longcloth.”

The word “Chindit” is a corruption of the Burmese word “chinthe,” which means lion. The official name was “Long Range Penetration Group.” Originally, the group included Gurkhas from Nepal. The Chindits were organized into eight groups, or columns, divided between the Southern and Northern Groups.

The Chindits were originally supposed to support an offensive into Burma. When that was cancelled, Wingate prevailed upon Gen. Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief, of the Middle East Command, to send his Chindits in anyway.

On Feb. 13, 1943, the Southern Group of Chindits crossed the Chindwin River, which stretches for 750 miles, in a north-south direction, roughly paralleling the India/Burma border, until it joins the even longer and larger, 1,422-mile-long Irrawaddy River. Two days after crossing the Chindwin River, the Chindits had their first encounter with the Japanese.

Wingate had much experience in unconventional warfare. He had organized a joint British-Jewish counter-insurgency unit in pre-war Palestine. In 1941, he organized a force in Ethiopia, which helped liberate it from Italian rule and restore its emperor, Haile Selassie, to the throne. Wingate was an odd fellow, with many eccentricities, such as meeting visitors to his tent when completely naked.

Wingate’s Chindits were to cut the rail lines between the Burmese capital, Mandalay, and Lashio, and the one between Mandalay and Myitkyini. To do that, Wingate divided them into two groups. The Northern Group, comprising 2,000 men and 850 mules, was to cut the rail lines, while the Southern Group, comprising 1,000 men and 250 mules, was to distract the enemy. The Northern Group crossed the Chindwin River on Feb. 14.

Lashio was a town of less than 5,000 but was the Burmese (Allied) terminus of the Burma Road, over which China was being supplied by the Allies, until Lashio was captured by the Japanese on April 29, 1942. It is located 120 miles northeast of Mandalay, and today has 131,000 residents. Today, Myitkyini is twice the size of Lashio. It is located on the Irrawaddy River, 488 miles from Mandalay. Myitkyini was the northernmost river port in Burma.

The Southern Group was ambushed outside of the village of Kyaikthin on March 2. They were able to destroy a railroad bridge and cross the mighty Irrawaddy River on March 10 at the village of Taguang, 127 miles north of Mandalay.

On March 6, the Northern Group assaulted the village of Pinlebu, located on the Mu River, and garrisoned by 800 Japanese soldiers. At the same time, the Chindits cut the railway line in several places and destroyed several railway bridges. Meanwhile Pinlebu’s Japanese garrison suffered 30 percent dead. Attempting to cross the Irrawaddy on March 13, a column of the Northern Group was ambushed, and lost 13 men, seven of whom were wounded and left for the Japanese. Four days later the rest of Northern Group crossed the big river.

In late March, the order came to return to India, posthaste. The first Chindits reached the Chindwin River and crossed without incident. Wingate and some of his men started for India on April 7.

Six days later they were able to cross the Irrawaddy River on bamboo rafts supplied by friendly locals. Twenty days later, Wingate and his men reached the Chindwin River, only to find that it was heavily patrolled by the enemy, and there were no boats with which to cross! Those that could swim, crossed the 500 yard-wide, raging, Chindwin River, while their mates constructed rafts of elephant grass and bamboo.

Eventually, of the 3,000 men who began this “adventure,” 2182 returned to India. Of those, a mere 600 were fit for active duty, because of disease, infections, and malnutrition. Many would never return to that state of fitness. The Gurkhas, echoing Churchill’s reference to the RAF after the Battle of Britain, summed it up by saying, “Never have so many marched so far for so little!”

Gen. Wingate was killed in a plane crash in Manipur, India, on March 24, 1944. Not everyone mourned his passing. Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery said that he was, “...mentally unbalanced and that the best thing he ever did was to get killed in a plane crash ...”

Next week: Ekatarina Budanova and Liliya Litviyak

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at:

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