The ‘Special Force’ was the brainchild of Major General Orde Wingate, one of the most unorthodox soldiers ever to serve in the British Army. Wingate realise that if the British were ever to defeat the Japanese in Burma they must abandon their reliance on defensive positions, railways & fixed supply lines and fight fire with fire.
He planned to use groups of men highly trained in jungle warfare, organised into independent columns, to operate behind Japanese lines. This force became known as the ‘Chindits’, after the Chinthe, a mythical Burmese creature which was said to inhabit dense jungle.
The Leicestershire Regiment was unique in that it contributed two battalions to the Special Force – the 2nd & 7th. Each battalion provided two columns, which were numbered at random to avoid giving away clues to the Japanese. The 2nd battalion provided 17 and 71 Columns, whilst the 7th battalion, a war-raised formation, provided 47 and 74 Columns.
After many months of intesive training in the jungles of central India, in which the men learned how to survive in the jungle, how to move silently, construct booby traps and demolish railway bridges, they were ready to go. Only those physically up to the challenge were selected. 17 and 71 Columns marched in to Burma from India, whilst 47 and 74 were flown into specially constructed landing strips deep in the jungle behind Japanese lines, and then began causing havoc.
Mules went in with the men and were the main means of transporting heavy items such as machine guns and mortars. They also carried the heavy radio sets which the Chindits used to call in a supply drop from the air. As the Chindits had no heavy weapons apart from the mortars, they instead relied on close support from the air, in the form of American Mustang fighter bombers.
Although there was much fighting, with ambush and counter ambush taking place, jungle conditions also accounted for many lives. Lieutenant Richard Perkins (left), of 74 Column remembered: “the deaths among my own platoon during the latter stages [of the campaign] were far more due to illness, malnutrition … malaria and scrub typhus. Many of my men died of that, far more than were lost in actual combat.”
In retrospect, far more important than any collateral damage which they may have inflicted on the Japanese was the effect which the Chindits had on morale. Prior to Wingate’s campaign, many British soldiers were frightened of the Japanese, indeed there was a reluctance to go into the front line. The Chindits showed that the Japanese were not supermen, and that they were far from invincible.