VJ Day 75: Role of the Chindits in the Burma campaign

Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day) was celebrated by the Allies on 15 August 1945. It marked Japan’s surrender and the end of World War Two. This year the 75th anniversary of VJ Day will be commemorated.   

This article explores the role of the Chindits in the Burma (now Myanmar) campaign; one which helped to deliver victory for the Allies in the pacific and far east during World War Two. 

Who were the Chindits? 

The Chindits were British empire troops who carried out guerrilla-style operations in Burma during the Second World War. The force was made up mostly of the British Indian Army and the Gurkhas. It also included Burmese soldiers who had escaped Japanese occupation. The name chindit was derived from the chinthe, a Burmese mythical creature and temple guardian.  

The Chindits were formed to raid deep behind Japan’s forces and disrupt its supply lines. They conducted two expeditions. The first was launched in February 1943 and the second in March 1944, both under the command of Brigadier Orde Wingate. The military historian C G H Dunlop describes the Chindit concept as Wingate’s “brainchild”. 

What was the role of the Chindits in the Burma campaign? 

Burma was part of the British Empire during the Second World War.  

Japan invaded the country in January 1942. It captured the then capital city Rangoon in early March 1942 and drove the British forces out of the country.  

By 15 March 1942, British forces had been forced to retreat across the Indian border. According to Dr Peter Johnston from the National Army Museum, it was the longest retreat in British history, covering a distance of 1,000 miles

After its retreat, the British forces immediately started to form its plans to recapture Burma. Part of this strategy was the use of long-range penetration, which was to be carried out by Wingate’s forces. The purpose of the Chindits was to enter Burma through the gaps in Japan’s defences and move deep into the country, behind Japanese lines. The Chindits’ role was to disrupt Japan’s communications and attack its supply lines. 

What happened during the expeditions? 

The Chindits’ first expedition, Operation Longcloth, took place between February and June 1943. The 3,000-man brigade entered and withdrew from Burma by foot, with only mules for transport and with limited air support. The brigade fought in columns of 300 to 350 men. They based themselves in strongholds hidden in the jungle. At first, the Chindits easily moved into lightly occupied north Burma. They were able to cut the railway lines at a number of points and encourage Burmese resistance groups. However, when the Japanese began closing in on the brigade, the columns were forced to break into smaller groups and make their way back to India over the next several months.  

According to Dunlop, the Chindits marched over 1,000 miles. They spent a lot of their time fighting or attempting to avoid the Japanese. Although they were supplied by the air, the small rations were not enough to sustain the men. Also, except for one occasion when a supply aircraft was able to land, the air support could not evacuate the casualties.  

According to Dr Johnston, 818 men were killed, wounded or missing: 27 percent of the original force. Dunlop says that many of the men that did return were unfit for further service. 

The second expedition took place between March and August 1944. Codenamed Thursday, the operation involved a much larger force and greater air support. Over 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were allocated to what became officially known as Special Force. The force was again under the command of Brigadier Orde Wingate.  

During the second expedition, dedicated air support was provided by the 1st Air Commando, United States Army Air Force. As a result, most of Special Force was flown into Burma, and it was possible to take in better supplies and reinforcements. The air force was also able to fly out causalities by air during the operation. 

According to the historian Raymond Callahan, the role of Special Force was to operate deep behind Japan’s rear. The intent was to assist the British 14th Army under the command of Lieutenant General William Slim, and the American forces under the command of Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell. 

However, Wingate was killed in an air crash less than three weeks after the start of the expedition. Callahan states that “deprived” of his “drive and high-level support” the Chindits played a very different role than the one “envisioned” by Wingate. Callahan suggests that the Chindits had little “direct impact” on Slim’s campaign. The 14th Army went on to win a number of decisive battles, and by May 1945 the Allied forces had recaptured the capital city, Rangoon. 

What were the fighting conditions in Burma? 

During the expeditions the Chindits had to deal with Burma’s difficult terrain, the threat of disease and severe weather. Burma was surrounded by jungle-covered mountain ranges and divided by several rivers. Its monsoon season affected roads and communications, and dangerous wildlife and disease thrived in its climate.  

What were the achievements of the expeditions?  

The first expedition had limited results. It had only caused temporary damage to the Japanese communication and supply lines, and the number of casualties amongst the Chindits had been high. However, a number of commentators agree that the operation had helped to boost morale among other Commonwealth troops and the British public. Dr Johnston argues that the expedition had shown that the Japanese were not “invincible in the jungle”. Dunlop states that it demonstrated the “potential of air supply”. He suggests that Wingate’s use of air transport in both campaigns “contributed much to the tactics that led eventually to allied victory in Burma”.  

Callahan and Dunlop argue that during the second expedition Special Force was kept in the field for too long. Dunlop states that after initial success, the Chindits were “misused” in a “conventional infantry role” for which they were “ill-equipped”. However, both stress that during the two expeditions, the Chindits fought with “courage” and “endurance”. During the second expedition four Victoria crosses were awarded. 

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Image by No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit from the Imperial War Museum.