weeks with the Chindits
Col (Retd) Mukhtar Ahmad Gilani recounts his experiences in Burma
during World War 2.
A few months after my commission, in July 1943 I was ordered to report
to the Chindit Headquarters located in the jungles of Central Provinces
of India. I was told by my 2nd-in-command that I would be required to
act as umpire during their training exercises. At that time I knew nothing
about the Chindits and the duties of umpire.
It was raining when I reached Ghetera railway station, an unknown, desolate
small place. There was no porter service. I was guided by the Station
Master about the location of the Army camp, I carried my luggage and walking
on a footpath, fully drenched, reached the camp. For miles the area was
full of jungle. I saw some camouflaged tents and many bivouacs scattered
under trees. I also saw stables of mules and horses. A British soldier
took me to a dug in camouflaged tent. It was an office and I saluted the
half a dozen officers present in the tent and reported my arrival. The
men I saw in the camp and the officers in the tent were all stripped to
the waist and bronzed by the weather. After a short while a frail looking
bearded soldier without badges of rank, wearing a hat entered the tent.
All stood up and I saluted again. On looking at me inquired “who
is this miserable looking creature?” The senior most replied that
“the 2nd/Lieut has been sent by the 2nd Punjab Regt. Centre to act
as umpire for the coming exercises.” He frowned and passed derogatory
remarks about those who had arranged to send a junior most officer for
umpire duty. With a grin he asked me if I had played cricket. On my reply
in affirmation he said that I would be required to act like a cricket
umpire. When I told him my name is “Gilani”, he said, was
I a Sayyed. In surprise I replied “yes sir”. Then smilingly
he said “Insha Allah” we would be meeting each other. Flabbergasted,
I left the tent and later was told that I had been interviewed by Maj
Gen Orde Wingate, the GOC 3rd Indian Division which was called the “Chindits”.
Wingate was commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1923. He had spent
early service in Palestine helping the Jewish settlers and fighting against
the local Arab guerrillas. He was able to speak and write Arabic. He had
become a passionate Zionist. For some years he was in Sudan with his local
force and also operated against the Italians in Abyssinia. Gen Wavell
had appreciated his guerrilla tactics and contribution as a leader and
was seriously considering as to how best to implement the Long Range Penetration
operation as expounded by Wingate.
As C-in-C India, Gen Wavell had ordered his staff officers to examine
the problem of the reconquest of Burma. In Central Burma Wingate was collecting
information about the country. He was plotting wild adventures in Burma.
He expounded that the enemy was most vulnerable far behind his lines,
where his troops, if he had any, were of low quality. A small force could
create havoc. If it should be surprised, it could disintegrate into smaller
parties to baffle pursuit. Supply should be by air and communication by
wireless. His proposal was to cut the enemy’s supply line, destroy
dumps, important bridges and railway lines. Wingate was commanding 77
Brigade and carrying out Long Range Penetration training in the jungles
of Central Provinces. He had submitted the following reasons to Gen Wavell
for going on with the operation in Burma behind the enemy lines.
1. The theory of employment of Long Range Penetration
columns to be tested and proved.
2. 77 Brigade had been specially trained for an operation and any delay
would cause deterioration both physical and psychological.
3. The proposed operation would provide our opportunity for finding out
the chances of getting Burmese co-operation.
4. It would prevent the Japanese starting an offensive.
5. It would stop enemy infiltration across the Chindwin River.
6. It would confuse and interrupt any enemy plan for an offensive towards
Wavell had accepted Wingate’s proposal although it had no strategic
value. According to Gen Wavell it was theoretically wrong to employ Wingate’s
77 Brigade before a follow up by the main force could take place, the
valuable information and experience which would be gained was well worth
the risk of losing even a part of the force. Wingate often came to GHQ
India, squabbled with most people, got what he wanted and returned to
Chindit is the corruption of Burmese word Chinthy which in Buddhist mythology
means a beast whose lower body is of a tiger and the upper body of an
eagle. According to the Burmese belief to ward off evil spirits Chinthy
sits on the entrance of Burmese Pagoda. Wingate named his force as the
Chindits. Wingate was often violently rude and aggressive without provocation
even to his seniors. He refused to defer or submit to anyone.
The First Chindit Operation
To continue the narrative in chronological order the operation of the
First Chindit Force is briefly mentioned. 77 Brigade was 3,200 strong
and was divided into 8 columns. For carrying equipment, reserve ammunition,
stores, wireless sets (heavy), batteries, petrol, rations and other essential
stores 1,100 mules were available for the Brigade. The troops were selected
from British, Gurkha and Burmese units. Each Chindit soldier, from brigadier
to the lowest rank, carried about 70 pounds on him which included weapon,
equipment, ammunition, extra clothing, extra ration, water bottle and
medicines. To stop braying of mules their vocal chords were severed by
surgery. During training most of the movements were carried out during
dark hours. Long Range Penetration exercises were carried out which involved
long marches, at a stretch, of 30 to 50 miles for destruction of bridges,
railway lines and laying of ambushes and for crossing rivers and streams
After intensive training in January 1943 the Chindits moved to Imphal.
Three months reserve air supply had been dumped at a forward airfield.
All other preparations, including air support, were finalized and orders
in detail issued to all concerned. Air drop practices were held at Imphal.
Wingate divided his force in two groups. After a strenuous march of 160
miles, from Imphal to the river Chindwin on 14 February the Northern group
consisting of 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 columns (numbering 2200 all ranks and 850
mules) crossed the river unopposed at Tonbe. The Southern group consisting
of 1 and 2 columns (numbering 1000 all ranks and 250 mules) crossed the
Chindwin 35 miles further south. No. 6 column had been broken up to replace
casualties during training. The column at Myene received the air drops
(About 70,000 pounds of supplies) on 15th to 18th February and surprisingly
there was no interference from the Japanese.
The columns of both the groups proceeded to their respective objectives.
They were operating in one of the most cruel terrain in the world. They
crossed many rivers, streams, nullahs, jungles, steep hills, swamps and
passed through the treacherous Kabaw valley known as the valley of death.
They had tenacious skirmishes with the enemy at Sinlamaung, Indaw, Pinbon,
Pinblebu, Piegon, Tigyaing, Inywa, Mu river valley, Kyaikthin, Myitson
and many other places. The Chindits destroyed many bridges, railway lines,
enemy supply dumps and ambushed enemy convoys and reinforcements. They
had inflicted lot of casualties on the enemy. It is interesting to note
that the Japanese had very little knowledge about the presence of the
Chindits behind their lines. First they thought these columns were small
groups possibly of intelligence personnel and took no action. The enemy
commander at Katha gradually became aware from the clashes at Pinbon and
Pinblebu that British forces of about a brigade strength were present
in the Mu river valley. The demolition of the vital railway bridge at
Kyaikthin on 3rd March had alarmed the Japanese Army Commander who ordered
about two regiments to destroy the Chindit columns. But the Chindits often
managed to slip away in thick jungle by changing directions and were completely
free to strike when and where they would. Only once a portion of their
air drop had landed in the Japanese held area.
Due to the enemy action at various places the Chindits suffered many casualties.
Seriously wounded were perforce left with friendly locals and at the mercy
of the enemy. Sickness and physical weakness also reduced their fighting
strength. On 24th March Wingate was ordered to withdraw to the Chindwin.
Out of the total strength of 3,200 only 2,182 managed to return in small
parties through the forward posts by the end of April 1943. About 1,018
had been killed or died in the enemy held territory. As the saying goes
“They died with their boots on”. Under the misfiring leadership
of Wingate most of the Chindits had marched at least 1000 miles and some
had covered even 1500 miles. They had penetrated deep into enemy territory
and endured intense physical trials. They had collected valuable information
about the terrain and the enemy. They had forced the Japanese to employ
their reserve units against them.
According to Gen Slim Commander 14 Army in Burma “The said gave
little tangible return for the losses it had suffered and the resources
it had absorbed.” According to the official history the operation
had no strategic value but it showed that properly trained and well led
troops could infiltrate through difficult terrain and vigorously operate
in the enemy territory. It acted as a welcome tonic and to a large extent
offset the failure in Arakan about the same period. For future operation
it was also proved that even in difficult terrain forces could be maintained
by air supply, provided air superiority has available. The Chindits had
amassed experience on which future had begun to build.
On return from Burma the British press, particularly, gave wide publicity
to the valiant deeds and exploits of the Chindits. They had become heroes
and their achievements were read with great interest. Wingate went to
England on the invitation of Prime Minister Churchill and was interviewed
in detail. Churchill took Wingate with him to attend the summit conference
in Quebec called Quadrant where the plans for future allied strategy were
discussed. Wingate captured the imagination of Churchill and President
Roosevelt. His plan to employ a much bigger force for Long Range Penetration
operation behind the enemy lines was accepted and was promised necessary
resources. He was confident his guerrillas would liberate, and fought
hard to keep his strategic concept from being damaged and frequently made
complaints direct to Churchill even bypassed his C-in-C and Supreme Commander.
The Chindits Jungle Training Camp
As mentioned in the opening para, I had reported my arrival during July
1943. The same evening I was ordered to proceed on a recce mission. As
per my orders next day at dawn I proceeded to recce a big stream, about
10 miles away from the camp, for finding fordable places for troops, mules
and light vehicles. I was given a horse, map, compass, pistol, ground
sheet, haversack (for carrying cooked meal, tea, ration etc) and water
bottle. I had to cover a distance of about 25 miles in 12 hours daylight
and return with the information plotted on a sketch.
As I entered the nearby jungle area about thirty monkeys suddenly appeared
and surrounded my horse. I fired two pistol shots and they disappeared
into the jungle. I followed a narrow path at the centre. The sun was rarely
visible, but with the help of map and compass I kept the direction. After
about 10 miles I reached the edge of the jungle and I saw some people
working in fields. After a few hundred yards the big stream became visible.
I kept on moving along its bank for two miles and made inquiries from
the locals about any bridge and fordable place. I was lucky to find a
narrow wooden bridge for pedestrians only. A few cattle at a time could
also cross on it. A few miles down stream I found two places which were
used by cattle for crossing the stream and the same could be used for
light vehicles when water level subsided. I measured the depth, width,
height of the banks and noted the current speed. With the help of a local
I was able to find a shorter route and returned to the camp before dark.
My effort was appreciated.
The life in the camp was very busy. Every second night I as Umpire, was
sent with patrols, ambush or raid parties covering at least a distance
of 15 miles. Even as umpire I had to carry my weapon, live ammunition,
grenades, cooked meal, field ration, a blanket and mosquito net. I also
participated in a few two sided Long Range Penetration exercises of 4
to 5 days duration, each time covering a distance of 30 to 50 miles through
thick jungle and hilly area. During one exercise supplies for the troops
were air dropped.
During two sided exercises I saw Wingate carrying the same weight with
the leading columns. Even during rain exercise would continue. Like the
troops he would also cross flowing streams and nullahs and continue marching
without changing his wet boots and socks. He corrected tactical weaknesses
on the spot and often made changes in the situation to test reaction of
the commanders. At times during exercises Wingate would tell his soldiers
that during actual battle in Burma some of them would not return and seriously
wounded would be left behind at the mercy of enemy and locals. Such frank
talk though demoralizing but majority accepted his frankness because they
knew that life was fleeting.
In August 1943 I completed my 6 weeks attachment with the Chindits. I
returned with rich experience of Long Range Penetration, minor tactics,
patrolling, raid, ambush and destruction of bridges etc, which proved
very useful during the various battles in which I had participated in
Burma with my battalion.
The 2nd Chindit Operation
It was launched in March 1944 in Burma behind the enemy lines. The 3rd
Indian Division, commanded by Maj Gen Wingate, consisted of 5 brigades
(23 battalions + Morris Force + Dah Force of Levies) which operated in
different directions to cut the enemy lines of communication to their
troops facing Gen Stilwell’s forces in the north. Gen Stilwell was
the American Commander of the Chinese and American troops. For covering
the 2nd Chindit operation, even briefly, a separate full-fledged article
Death of Wingate
I was serving with my unit in Arakan when in April 1944 I came to know
that on 24th March 1944 Maj Gen Wingate was killed in an air crash in
the hills of Imphal. I really felt gloomy because I had developed lot
of regard and respect for him. As mentioned in various military history
books Wingate’s death was a profound shock to every Chindit down
to the humblest mule driver. He was their inspired leader in war, their
protector, their champion against the unfeeling, invisible bureaucracy
of staff. He often bypassed proper channel for wanting essential items
and support for his troops. Churchill, Wavell, Mountbatten, Auchinleck
and Slim always protected Wingate from those who sought to frustrate his
plans, which was a great tribute of his ideas and leadership qualities.
Conclusion — With Reference to Operation
Gibraltar - 1965
In early 1965 Ceasefire Line (now Control Line) in Kashmir was suddenly
activated by the Indians. There was hardly any week when a serious incident
did not take place. The Indian patrols would raid and loot villages situated
near the Ceasefire Line in Azad Kashmir. The Indian forces attacked many
Azad Kashmir posts and even captured a few of tactical importance. Ceasefire
violations were registered but the Indian forces continued their aggressive
actions. In retaliation to the Indian aggressive actions in various sectors
of Azad Kashmir the Azad Kashmir Forces hurriedly raised Gibraltar Force
consisting of few thousand volunteers from various units. They were imparted
two months training in guerrilla tactics.
The terrain in Kashmir was considered most suitable for infiltration by
small parties. The two months training for the Gibraltar Force, consisting
of volunteers, was inadequate the task it was expected to perform. No
special equipment was available to facilitate its activities behind the
enemy lines inside the Occupied Kashmir. They were promised only moral
help in the form of food and shelter by some friendly locals. The Mujahideens
were carrying their personal weapons and pouch ammunition. Reserve rations,
reserve ammunition, and other essential stores were carried by volunteer
Mujahid parties. Long range wireless communication was not available.
Patrols and messengers were used for establishing contacts.
On 7th August 1965 Operation Gibraltar was launched. The force was divided
into companies, platoons and patrols. They penetrated deep into enemy
held territory. Some of the targets were located between 40 to 60 miles
from the Ceasefire Line. They raided enemy camps, supply and ammunition
dumps and Headquarters. They ambushed enemy convoys, destroyed vital bridges
and installations. They inflicted lot of casualties on the enemy.
The Indians were taken by surprise but soon they began attacking important
Azad Kashmir posts for sealing off the bases of the guerrillas. The Mujahideens
also suffered casualties and endured intense physical trials. They received
little help from the locals. They ran short of rations and ammunition.
Evacuation of casualties who posed a serious problem and many were left
at the mercy of friendly locals. Since there was no linking up offensive
by the main forces the operation proved a strategic failure. Most of the
Mujahideens returned after few weeks, through difficult routes, with the
help of friendly locals. Many were captured by the enemy and Shuhads were
buried as Amanat. On the other hand the enemy continued offensive action
against Azad Kashmir posts. Therefore, even the many acts of valour and
brave actions of the Mujahideen had failed to lessen pressure on the Azad
Kashmir forces. Thus Operation Gibraltar proved costly in both men and
material, and did not achieve any significant success.
It is sufficiently evident from the study of military history (particularly
the Chindit operation) that infiltrators cannot operate for a long period
without support from the locals and also that their operation behind the
enemy lines has no strategic value, unless linking up with offensive by
main forces is carried out. In the circumstances in which Operation Gibraltar
was launched, it had no strategic value and military damage and casualties
inflicted on the enemy were small compared with the effort involved. However,
it proved that well trained and motivated troops could infiltrate through
difficult terrain and operate in the enemy held territory. The experience
gained was to prove of great value.
1. CHINDITS - RICHARD RHODES JAMES
2. Beyond the CHINDWIN - BERNARD FERGUSSON
3. THE CHINDIT War In BURMA - 1944 - SHELFORD BIDWELL
4. The War Against JAPAN VOLUME-ii - Maj Gen WOODBURN KIRBY
5. Defeat Into Victory - FM W.SLIM
6. Report By the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia - Vice Admiral
7. memoirs - Lt Gen GUL HASSAN KHAN.
About the Author
Commissioned from OTS Mhow in April 1943 and joined 2 Punjab Regiment.
Served with 7/2 Punjab, part of MDIV in Burma operations from December
1943 to September 1945. Commanded platoon and company in action and led
many patrols. Remained with my unit in Thailand, Malaya and Singapore.
After an adventurous journey reached Pakistan in the end of November 1947.
Participated in Curzon operation in the NWFP. Commanded Company (3 Punjab)
in 1948 in Bhimber sector. Commander 14 Punjab part of Operation Grand
Slam in 1965 war in Chamb-Jaurian sector and Sialkot sector. Retired in
1967 but recalled in 1971 and commanded a heterogeneous force in action
in Kasur sector. Also served as Grade II and Grade I staff officer in
Have been contributing articles for Hilal, Pakistan Army Journals and
various newspapers and magazines of the country. Presently author of about
two dozen books, was Editor of Defence Digest (Urdu) for over 3 years.