In India, British Field Marshall Archibald Wavell and Lt Gen William Slim began an intensive retraining program of British and Commonwealth troops after being unceremoniously thrown out of Burma by the Japanese in 1942. The training focused on how to survive and operate effectively in the jungle and dispel the myth of Japanese maneuverability and dominance in jungle warfare caused by the fall of Singapore and Rangoon the year before.
One of Wavell’s commanders took the training concept to a new level. Brigadier Orde Wingate, a tough and brilliant, but thoroughly eccentric officer (he spent hours combing his back hair, as just one example) worked for Wavell and with Slim in East Africa. He was convinced his concept of large scale brigade sized “Long Range Penetration” raids to destroy Japanese rail and supply hubs would force the Japanese to withdraw from Burma. These columns would be supplied completely by air, leaving no ground supply lines for the Japanese to sever. These columns were to operate as if they were cut off and surrounded at all times.
Unlike the Gideon Force in Ethiopia two years before, Wingate’s units did not volunteer for the arduous training required for such an operation but were assigned to him seemingly at random. Wingate received a mix of British regulars and commandos, older British reservists, Indian units of various castes, Burmese, and Gurkhas. They spent most of 1942 training to operate on foot deep behind Japanese lines for months at a time supplied by only mules and resupplied only by air. With this diverse group, he formed the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, nicknamed the ”Chindits”. A “chindit” is the corrupted spelling of “chinthe”, which Wingate couldn’t pronounce correctly. A “chinthe” is a mythical Burmese beast that is part lion and part dragon and are usually seen in pairs guarding sacred Burmese sites. The term was meant to let the Burmese know the Chindits were fighting as protectors of Burma, symbolize the marriage between ground and air operations, and give the impression there was always a second unseen column or bombing mission ready to strike.
Early in February 1943, 3000 Chindits crossed into Burma for Operation Loincloth. They marched in two battalion groups broken up into 300 man columns. The Chindits successfully penetrated deep behind Japanese lines and caused chaos for several weeks. They cut Japanese rail lines and attacked isolated outposts. Local Burmese flocked to assist the Chindits, mostly because they were paid in parachute silk, and cloth was extremely difficult to come by. However by mid-March the Japanese recovered and steadily increased pressure. On 12 March 1943 in a typical example of a Japanese response, one of the Northern Group’s columns was ambushed and nearly annihilated, saved only by Gurkhas with a kukri charge that drove the Japanese off. By late March, Wingate accepted the inevitable, and ordered everyone back to India. It would take two more months of constant marching for the Chindits to return to friendly lines.
By any statistical measure Operation Loincloth was a dismal failure. The Japanese supply lines were cut for less than a week. 1/3 of the force was killed or captured and another third was so debilitated that they had to leave service. Most of the remaining third moved on to other units after spending months, and sometimes years, recovering from the four month and 1500 mile march through the jungles and mountains of Burma. However, the Chindits captured the imagination of the British and American publics, and Winston Churchill ordered Wavell and Wingate to prepare another raid. Moreover the Americans went on to create their own Chindit-style organization: the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), more commonly known as Merrill’s Marauders. Most importantly, and far out weighing any material damage they did, the Chindits shattered the perception of Japanese invincibility in jungle warfare.