In February 1943, under the command of Major General Orde Wingate, the 77th Indian Brigade, also called the Chindits, began to launch guerrilla raids behind Japanese lines in Burma.
The Chindits were a long-range Special Operations raiding force organized to conduct deep penetration of the Japanese lines to attack Japanese troops, facilities, and lines of communication. They were the brainchild of Wingate who was a proponent of combined joint special operations forces back before World War II.
Early Childhood and Military Career
Wingate was born in India; his father was a career British Army officer. Wingate attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which was the training school for the British artillery officers. He graduated and received his commission in 1923.
Soon after, he was recognized as an outstanding horseman. Because of this, he was assigned to the Military School of Equitation where he enjoyed challenging the instructors. And if that didn’t make him unpopular enough with the Cavalry officers there, his growing arrogance, which was to mark the rest of his career, did.
After learning Arabic and being posted to Sudan, Wingate took over a unit along the Ethiopian border combating slave traders and ivory poachers. But it was his posting to Palestine that would change his career forever.
Wingate was a forward-thinking exponent of unconventional warfare. He began his career as a guerrilla fighter when he organized a coalition of British/Jewish troops whose counterinsurgency tactics helped to combat the Arab revolt in British-controlled Palestine in the 1930s. Wingate was one of the few British officers who supported Zionism.
He created what was termed “Special Night Squads” a combined British and Jewish group that would counter Arab saboteurs who were attacking oil pipelines. However, due to his unrestrained belief in the creation of a Jewish state, which was a political hot potato then, he was considered compromised as an intelligence officer and was hence removed and sent back to England.
Once World War II began, General Archibald Wavell was put in command of the Middle East Command in Cairo. In 1941, Wavell had Wingate create the “Gideon Force” under General William Platt in Sudan. It was a Special Operations Executive (SOE) force composed of British, Sudanese, and Ethiopian soldiers. Wingate even asked for permission from Haile Selassie to invite the Jewish Haganah fighters to serve alongside him.
The Gideon force was named after the Biblical judge and prophet Gideon who took a small, determined force and defeated the much larger Midianites.
Their mission was to drive the Italians out of Ethiopia. Wingate’s men, who numbered 1,700, harassed and attacked the Italian forts and supply lines. By the end of the campaign, his small force had taken the surrender of 20,000 Italian troops.
The Maverick Wingate in Asia
When General Wavell was reassigned and became Commander-in-Chief of the India Command, he requested that Wingate be reassigned to his command. Wavell’s plan was to use Wingate’s experience as a guerrilla fighter in Palestine and Ethiopia to create something similar to the Gideon Force, but in the Burma front.
Wingate arrived early in 1942, during the Japanese invasion. Yet, he tried to see as much of the country as possible. It was here in Asia, that Wingate would become famous, or perhaps infamous, with his fellow officers. His service was marked with bad interactions with fellow officers due to his abrupt, direct manner, which many described as arrogant. He had several personal quirks and would frequently greet guests completely naked. Against regulations he also grew a beard in the jungle, allowing his men to do the same.
He formulated his idea on how to use the guerrilla force that he envisioned and he briefed it to Wavell. The force, a brigade, would be comprised of specially trained Gurkha (Nepalese), Burmese, and British troops. The name “Chindits” was chosen for the group. It is a bastardized form of the Burmese mythical beast Chinthé or Chinthay, statues of which guarded Buddhist temples. The name was proposed by Captain Aung Thin of the Burmese Rifles.
The first Chindit group, the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, was formed in June 1942. It was composed of the British 13th Battalion, the King’s Liverpool Regiment, and the 2nd Gurkha Rifles.
Wingate envisioned that the force would be resupplied by parachute. Furthermore, instead of wielding artillery through the jungles, close air support would be used. The unit would penetrate the jungle on foot, using speed, surprise, and stealth — factors that the Japanese had already proven to be very successful in Burma.
Each Chindit had a lot of gear to carry: the men would carry a minimum of 72 pounds of equipment, which is more than the mules who supported the unit would be carrying,
“Each man carried as the SMLE rifle or Sten Gun, ammunition, grenades, a machete or Gurkha kukri knife, seven days’ rations, groundsheet, change of uniform, and other assorted items. Much of this load was carried in an Everest carrier, which was essentially a metal rucksack frame without a pack.”
Wingate and his brigade entered Japanese-controlled Burma on February 13, 1943. They crossed the Chindwin River, and launched their campaign of attacks on Japanese supply and communication lines. On March 4, one of Wingate’s columns had cut the Japanese railway in over 70 places.
After three months, Wingate’s surviving men crossed back into India, having marched about 1,000 miles. Of the 3,000 men that had begun the mission, 818 were dead (either killed in action or died of disease) or taken prisoner. Of the 2,182 remaining troops, 600 were too sick to be ever used again. Wingate hand-picked the hardiest to continue for follow-on operations. The rest were transferred back to the British Army for use in conventional units.
For the next deep penetration mission in 1944, Wingate changed his strategy. Now, he also had at his disposal a dedicated air force unit specifically designed to support his guerrilla operations: the American 1st Air Commando Group, mainly consisting of USAAF aircraft.
Lieutenant General Slim, commander of the British Fourteenth Army, and USAAF General George E. Stratemeyer, commander of Eastern Air Command, issued a joint directive in early February 1944 to General Wingate and the 1st Air Commando Group. The directive established the following objectives for the Fourteenth Army:
Firstly, help the advance of General Stilwell’s Ledo force on Myitkyina by cutting the communications of the Japanese 18th Division, harassing its rear, and preventing its reinforcement. Secondly, create a favorable tactical situation for the Chinese forces to cross the Salween and enter Burma. And thirdly, inflict the greatest possible damage and confusion on the enemy in North Burma.
In pursuit of the above, Operation Thursday commenced. One brigade (16th) crossed into Burma on foot, while the others went in on gliders. Within a day, they were able to expand a rudimentary landing strip to handle C-47s. They ferried 600 sorties of men into the strip until 9,000 troops were on-hand.
Fierce jungle fighting at close quarters ensued as Wingate’s forces tried to take Indaw. Several assaults later, the men of the 16th Brigade had to be evacuated by air. On March 24th, Wingate flew to Imphal to confer with his other commanders. On the return journey, the B-25 Mitchell bomber he was in flew into a thunderstorm and crashed. Everyone on board was killed.
General Slim replaced Wingate with Brigadier Joe Lentaigne. Immediately, problems arose with the other Chindit commanders, who were, like Wingate, “outside the box” thinkers and guerrilla fighters. Lentaigne was an outsider, boasting a typical conventional officer’s background. He, in turn, believed that Wingate’s officers lacked the conventional experience to be effective commanders.
The Divisive Legacy of Wingate
The Chindits had varying degrees of success in their operations. Many British officers believed that their value was overstated. Winston Churchill, a huge proponent of Commando and Special Operations, in general, was very complimentary on the Chindits efforts in the Far East. The Japanese commander General Mutaguchi Renya admitted that Wingate’s Chindit operations had stifled their plans for most of 1943.
Part of the British negative criticism of Wingate and the Chindits came from the conventional forces’ distrust of Special Operations in general. General Slim, in a quote that many American special operators of our generation will recognize, stated that he was against Special Operations of any kind as it robbed the regular units of their best and brightest.
Historians have been split widely on Orde Wingate. Some portray him as a brilliant, though eccentric, unconventional warfare visionary. Others, depict him as a mentally unstable, arrogant loose cannon who operated well above his head.
One of Wingate’s Chindits, Sir Robert Thompson, perhaps summed it best in his autobiography, “Every time I look at the picture of General Slim and his Corps Commanders being knighted by Lord Wavell as Viceroy on the field of battle after Imphal, I see the ghost of Wingate present. He was unquestionably one of the great men of the century.”
The people of Israel and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) remember Wingate fondly. Former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, has said, “He [Wingate] taught us everything we know.” The National Centre for Physical Education and Sport, the Wingate Institute (Machon Wingate) was named after him. A square in the Talbiya neighborhood of Jerusalem, Wingate Square (Kikar Wingate), also was named after him.
This article was originally published in May 2020. It has been edited for republication.