War in the East – Part Two
Wingate and His Chindits
During 1943, a rather odd commander, General Ord Wingate, organized a new force of guerrilla type fighters. It was to be a long range penetration force that would be placed behind Japanese lines to disrupt any efforts by the enemy to establish defensive positions. Officially known as the 77th Indian Brigade, it became known to the world as the “Chindits.” Their name was taken from the stone lions guarding Burmese temples.
Wingate was and is today a mystery. Some see him as a brilliant military commander, ahead of his time. Others considered him an eccentric, misguided military figure. Whatever the opinion, the fact is that Wingate’s Chindits did their job and did it well. They proved to be a large part of the undoing of Japanese efforts as a new offensive was mounted to retake Burma in 1943 and into 1944.
Major General Ord Wingate
The initial mission of the Chindits early in 1943 was that of disrupting enemy communications, sever rail lines, interdict supply columns and keep the Japanese off their toes. In the first Chindit campaign, they numbered approximately 3,500 men, including British, Australian, Indian and Gurkha troops (native troops from Nepal). They formed seven separate columns of attack and in March crossed the Chindwin River into Burma. Once there, they infiltrated behind the Japanese and attacked them from any direction. This created great uneasiness among the Japanese soldiers of the three divisions protecting Burma.
The Chindits would be supplied by air drops and remain active deep in Burma, always out of reach of retaliatory Japanese strikes. Such actions, moreover, would make the later head on confrontation by Chinese and other Allied infantry much easier in the months to come. The Japanese finding themselves in danger of being cut off by strong Chindit forces, would be forced to withdraw, fighting as they went. This would happen again and again in the Allied efforts to retake Burma.
By April, the Japanese had seen enough of this Chindits and made a major effort to cut them off and annihilate them. The Chindits, however, were able to largely elude their attackers and in small groups found their way back to India. While their initial achievements were minimal in terms of enemy killed, the effect of the operation unnerved the Japanese and proved to the Allies that the Japanese were not the invincible Jungle fighter that had been supposed.
During 1943 there was a great buildup of Allied forces inside of India for a new offensive in 1944. During the Trident Conference in Quebec, Roosevelt and Churchill heartily endorsed the Chindits and their unorthodox method of fighting. Their force would be greatly increased in anticipation of a renewed campaign to drive the Japanese out of Burma. Attending the conference was Admiral Mountbatten, who would later be named Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Southeast Asia. General Joe Stillwell had been watching the development and now went to higher authority asking for the formation of an equally efficient group of about 3,000 US soldiers that could do the same thing that the Chindits were doing. He had mentioned this to a number of top military officers and it was also given approval at the Quebec Conference.
A New Offensive and New Troops – The Marauders
There was, of course, the infighting among officers within the Southeast Asia Command but Stillwell came out the winner and would have control of this new American unit. It would work with the growing Chinese forces and operate in much the same way as the Chindits. Commanding the unit was Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill. The unit was raised by requesting volunteers from all over the world. They would make up the 5307th Composite Group (Provisional). The unit was formed in late 1943 and after a few months of intensive jungle training with Wingate’s Chindits they were made operational.
The code name for the unit was “Galahad Force.” During its six months of operations through the horrid Burmese terrain under all sorts of adverse conditions, this force would become known as “Merrill’s Marauders.” General Merrill himself was not an impressive figure but he was a good leader. His second in command, Major Charles Hunter, physically and mentally more fit the role of a guerrilla fighter. When Merrill suffered two heart attacks during the Marauder Campaign from the Indian border to the key city of Myitkyina, Hunter took over the command of the Marauders and led them from one victory to another. They were as successful as the Chindits and both units proved to be the demise of Japanese control over Burma.
During this period a new connecting road from India was built behind the advancing Allied forces to link up with the Burma Road into China. It was called the Ledo Road and was a modern marvel of human ingenuity in overcoming nature’s greatest obstacles.
The Chindits would also make attacks deep into Burma, a number of them by glider landings at places known as “Broadway” and “White City” with the aim of capturing Lashio. Both forces were quite effective in 1944 and had the Japanese defenders reeling with attacks from the front by Chinese and Indian forces and from the rear by Gurkhas and Marauders.
It would be the Allied 14th Army, under the able command of General Slim that would drive southward along the Arakan coast towards Rangoon. At the same time, more Chinese soldiers of the Tunnan Force would launch offensives from the east towards Myitkyina. It was a complex operation with thousands of soldiers from both sides involved in a deadly struggle in deadly terrain.
It was during this period that the famous battle for the Admin Box took place. Japanese counterattacking as “Force Z” threatened to cut off leading units of the 14th Army, but stout defenders and marvelous air support along with tank support stopped the enemy. The Japanese counteroffensive, brilliantly conceived, failed. They simply did not have the men or material to bring it to pass.
As the Marauders and the Chindits continued to be a thorn in the Japanese defensive flesh, a great loss occurred on March 28, 1944. Wingate, their eccentric but brilliant leader was killed when the B-25 Mitchell bomber in which he was visiting his troops at Broadway crashed into a mountain ridge, killing all aboard. As in the case of any revered leader, the Allies keenly felt his loss. He had, however, introduced a new element into warfare in Asia, the introduction and maintenance of shock forces deep behind enemy lines.
As all of this was taking place, a long planned offensive operation by the Japanese was launched from the border of Burma and India. It involved three full divisions and was codenamed “U-GO.” Now with Allied incursions into Burma the plan was changed from the offensive to capture India to another. It would spoil enemy advances into Burma and force the Allies to protect themselves from being isolated.
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