WWII Air Support in the Far East & the Chindits

WWII Burma Star

Air Support in the Far East, WWII

RAF Chindit Signallers
British Chindits-Loading Mules onto a C47 Dakota
WWII Chindits Loading a jeep into a C-47 Dakota transport aircraft
Chindit Colum prior to departure at Jungle Airhead
Chindit jungle column
WWII Radio, T1154 and R115A
RAF Wireless operator on a DC-47
DC-47 over Burma, prior to Chindit airdrop
Chindit DC-47 Jungle Resupply
DC-47 Supply drop during Operation Loincloth
DC-47 at Bayan Lepas Penang Malaya 1943
RAF Signals team on the 2nd Chindit expedition, 1944
Jungle airfield, 1944
Chindits erecting a Operations and Communications tent
WWII Dakota C-47 lands during on a monsoon at a Chindit MoB
Brigadier Wingate and Chindits at a jungle dispersal area 1943

Malaysia, Singapore and Burma

While the focus of the Royal Air Force in WWII was winning the war in Europe. The task of the RAF in the Far East was to support the armies fighting the Japanese. However, at the start of the war in the Far East the British Army was often poorly equipped and frequently out manoeuvred by the Japanese. As a result, the RAF faced disastrous defeats in Malaya and Singapore, forcing its retreat to the Burma-India border.
To address such failings, it became clear to General Slim who was the British 14th Army Commander, that air supply could redress the balance in his favour. Slim used air supply with more imagination than perhaps any other British general at the time, both to stabilise his frontline and to launch the attack that would ultimately re-conquer Burma. Two of the most important innovations to be tried out by the British Forces was to adopt the use of long-range radio communications and the dropping of supplies to the men in the field by the Royal Air Force.
One of the leading protagonists of this form of warfare was Major-General Orde Wingate DSO. Wingate trained this force as long-range penetration units that were to be supplied by stores parachuted or dropped from transport aircraft and were to use close air support as a substitute for heavy artillery. They would penetrate the jungle on foot, essentially relying on surprise through mobility to target enemy lines of communication (a tactic that the Japanese had previously used in 1942 to great effect against British forces in Singapore and Burma).  
During the East African Campaign of 1940–41, Wingate under General Archibald Wavell (Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command) had begun to explore guerrilla tactics, when he created and commanded a unit known as Gideon Force, composed of regular troops from Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as Ethiopian partisans. Gideon Force disrupted Italian supply lines and collected intelligence.   In 1942, after the disbandment of Gideon Force, Wavell who had since been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the India Command requested the services of Wingate in Burma. It was intended that he would raise irregular forces to operate behind the Japanese lines, in a manner like Gideon Force. Wingate arrived in Burma in March 1942 and for two months as Japanese forces advanced rapidly, he toured the country developing his theories of long-range penetration,
The name Chindits is a corrupted form of the Burmese mythical beast Chinthé or Chinthay, statues of which guarded Buddhist temples. Their operations featured prolonged marches through extremely difficult terrain, undertaken by underfed troops often weakened by diseases such as malaria and dysentery. Wingate took the unusual but very sensible decision to take Royal Air Force personnel with him to co-ordinate the air drops. ‘Who better to talk to a pilot in the air than a pilot on the ground?’ In April 1942, a message was transmitted across the military network that read: ‘Volunteers are required for a special mission — officers who have knowledge of Japanese aircraft and wireless operators who have a thorough knowledge of ground-to-air communication.’  
Once identified and trained, RAF signallers were attached to the Headquarters and each of the formation columns. Their main job was to co-ordinate the requirements of the column and consisted of an RAF officer and two NCOs. These teams would recce areas for suitable air supply drops, co-ordinate the requirements of all columns and pass the information to the Brigade Head Quarters via the RAF wireless set. They would then mark the identified strip, light flare paths, and supervise the drop from the ground.
The wireless equipment used was the best available at that time:  T1154 transmitter and R1155 Receiver
This equipment was normally found in aircraft e.g, specifically the Avro Lancaster. They also had access to the SCR-694/BC1306, 18 and 19 radio sets. Although adapted to be as portable as possible the units still formed quite a cumbersome load and was therefore carried in two leather panniers, one on each side of a mule’s back. learning how to look after and cope with these obstinate animals became part of their daily life, and often frustration. Together with these mules the RAF signallers marched many miles during WWII and exercises in the central provinces of India. Ensuring that they had the best equipment caused quite a stir. Teams were often instructed to proceed to Karachi Maintenance Unit at Drigh Road and to take what was needed from the shelves of the depot, then to bring the equipment back by rail to Jhansi.
On one occasion, having been assured that everything had been arranged and that they would be expected. Signallers travelled by train from Jhansi to Gwalior, the by BOAC Sunderland flying boat across India to Karachi. However, on arrival they were anything but expected, but due to perseverance and tenacity of the individuals, the equipment was secured.
The job of the Signals team on the HQ column was to coordinate wireless contact with all columns and with RAF HQ at New Delhi, who planned and executed the requirement for the air supply drops. When Wingate’s column commanders were surrounded by the Japanese, he could then inform them to hold position and provide resupply from the air. On more than one occasion the Chindits, cleared forward operating strips in the dense jungle to move entire divisions of troops from one critical point to another by air. In addition to the supply work, the RAF team co-ordinated the Close Air Support operations, marked drop zones and indicated where the small ambulance aircraft could land.
An example of the work undertaken and coordinated by the RAF in Burma was Operation Thursday on the second Chindit expedition in March 1944. Operation Thursday was the code name given to the airborne invasion phase of the campaign. The aim was to fly in a force of 10,000 men, 1,000 mules’ equipment and supplies into clearings in the heart of Burma behind enemy lines. Three sites were selected for the initial landing grounds and were given the code names Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowringhee named after famous roads in London, New York, and Calcutta. These landing sites had been chosen in inaccessible areas to avoid contact with Japanese ground troops and all sorties were to be flown at night to avoid Japanese aircrafts. The plan was for a first wave of gilders to land troops to secure the site. A second wave would land more troops and American engineers with their equipment to construct an airstrip so that C47 Dakotas could bring in the remaining troops and equipment. Flights were flown from three airfields: Hailekandi, Lalaghat in Assam, Tulihal in the Imphal plain
All glider operations would be mounted from Lalaghat. Distance from Lalaghat to destination was 270 miles and from Tulihal 180 miles. Operation Thursday commenced on March 5th, 1944. Prior to and during the fly-in the Japanese air force had been much weakened by raids on their airfields by 1st Air Commando USAAF and the RAF. In the first two days 78 Japanese aircrafts were destroyed and many more damaged. This had allowed the operation to proceed with little interference from the Japanese air force.
Wingate now had 3 brigades in Burma and all enemy attacks had been repulsed. Operation Thursday was successfully over, and Churchill sent Wingate a telegram congratulating him and the Chindits on the outstanding success of Operation Thursday. This was the largest Allied airborne operation ever conducted until the forces under Eisenhower landed in France. It was one of Wingate’s finest triumphs, but tragedy followed a few days later when the plane carrying Wingate crashed.
Air Marshal Baldwin, the commander of the Tactical Air Force of SE Asia Command, who witnessed the operation said:
“Nobody has seen a transport operation until he has stood at Broadway under the light of a Burma moon and watched Dakotas coming in and taking off in opposite directions on a single strip at the rate of one take-off or landing every 3 minutes.”

Sergeant Arthur Wilshaw, RAF Wireless Operator (Chindit)

Rather fittingly and to emphasis the experience of the RAF Signals teams and impact on the individual the words of Sergeant Arthur Wilshaw, shown with his radio equipment as part of a Chindit Colum in Burma clearly articulates his Chindit experience:

‘Individual training progressed to platoon training, platoon to column, column to group, and group would exercise against group. Problems arose on all sides, signals, ciphers, transport, demolitions, all having to be solved and solved quickly. Exercises got stiffer, those that were considered unfit were weeded out. Soldiers were made NCOs and NCOs were made soldiers and had to prove themselves worthy of the leadership that would be required of them before either being ousted or re-admitted to the fold.’

“I found myself allocated to the Headquarters column together with Flight Sergeant Alan Fidler and Squadron Leader (now promoted) Longmore. Our main job was to co-ordinate the requirements of all columns, the RAF element of each being an RAF officer and two NCOs. These teams would recce for a suitable area for an air supply drop, co-ordinate the requirements of all columns and pass the information to the Brigade Head Quarters via the RAF wireless set. They would then go out, light flare paths in a line with the dropping zone and supervise the drop from the ground. My job on HQ column was to keep wireless contact with all the columns and also with RAF HQ at New Delhi who planned and put into execution the requirement for the air supply drops. We were to carry our wireless equipment on mules and learning how to look after and cope with these obstinate animals became part of our daily life. Together with these mules we marched many, many miles on exercises in the central provinces of India.”

I went into Burma just over nine stones in weight and came out a mere five and a half stones. After a month in hospital the adventure was over for me.”

Years later Arthur went on to say : 

“The Chindits – even now after all these years I still have a great sense of pride in knowing that I was one of them and even more so, in the fact that I was one of the very few RAF Chindits.”





Mountbatten and Slim, Burma

Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and the 14th Army

Mountbatten arrived in Delhi in October 1943 – as the commander in chief of a multinational force comprising of British troops, Gurkhas, Chinese, Americans, Africans, Australians, Burmese, French and Dutch.  

Following discussions with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.  He then asked General Slim and his staff on how they assessed the situation in Burma and how he proposed to rectify the situation .  

He famously told his men –

“I hear you call yourselves ‘The Forgotten Army’. Well, let me tell you that this is not ‘The Forgotten Front’ and you are not ‘The Forgotten Army’.  In fact, no one has even heard of you.  But they will hear of you because this is what we are going to do…”

 and he told them personally of his plans and of taking the war to the enemy. 


Video: Chindits