Chindit jungle strongpoint faces third Japanese attack

Chindits at rest in their jungle bivouac.
Chindits at rest in their jungle bivouac.

The Chindit operations in the depths of the Burmese jungle were an experiment in unconventional warfare. Sending large forces deep behind Japanese lines and then supplying them by air was an inherently risky business. Through audacity they had caused a serious disruption to the Japanese forces in Burma, although at considerable cost.

But the Chindit tactics were finely balanced. They had established strong bases in the jungle which the Japanese would attack, and in making such attacks the Japanese would be vulnerable to ambush. If there were no Chindit forces available to mount such ambushes and counter-attacks, then the isolated outposts became a liability, a danger to themselves.

Such were the considerations facing John Masters, commanding 111 Brigade at the “Blackpool block”. He could send out a large force to meet the attack, weakening his main defences, or he could compromise. The situation was compounded by the difficulty in communicating with his commanders and the inflexibility of his orders which required him seek permission before moving the base. Ultimately the decision had to be made by the US General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, a man not noted for his sympathies towards the British:

On May 22 enemy forces began to push forward from the southeast. Four artillery pieces, from the same direction, shelled the airfield. Two light planes and a C-47, which were on it, took off immediately. The third phase of the Blackpool battle began.

I sent the Cameronians out towards the enemy, to delay his advance. I debated long and anxiously whether I should send out another battalion to lie in wait on the hill feature to the south (adjoining our boar’s tail), where they would be on the flank of the Japanese advance-if it continued in the direction it seemed to be taking. I decided against it, and I think I was wrong.

The grim, set-teeth, bulldog struggle to hold the Deep had had its effect on me, and I was incapable of repeating the stroke (bold to the point of rashness), which had stripped the defences of Blackpool to concentrate on the vital area. I should have done it again, trusting to my knowledge of the Japanese in battle, but there was a purposeful and professional air about this new assault which I did not like.

He was pushing in my patrols and outposts; he was shelling the field; he was not coming on like a mad dog, and I did not think I could trust him to do the obvious. I held everyone, except the slowly retreating, overpowered Cameronians, inside the block. But, oh God, let 14. Brigade come! The greatest opportunity of the entire Chindit campaign lay there, then, before my eyes. I sent out signals which passed from urgency to frenzy. Hurry, hurry, kill yourselves, but come!

Late in the afternoon C-47s came for a daylight supply drop, escorted by P—38s. From down the valley, behind the advancing Japanese, above the intermittent pop and crackle of small arms fire, I heard the one sound I had been expecting, and fearing, the sharp double crack of heavy anti-aircraft guns. Puffs of yellow-black smoke appeared behind one of the C-47s. They turned for home. The P-38s searched and dived, but the A.A. guns did not fire again.

With a heavy heart I sent a Most Immediate signal to Joe asking for permission to abandon the block at my discretion. The direction of the new Japanese attack would prevent night supply drops on the airfield, and, with the A.A. guns, only night drops were now possible. Night drops on the block, or on the jungle to the west, could never keep us supplied with ammunition in heavy battle. It would take too many men, too long, to find and bring in the boxes.

The prospects were grim. Had my orders been more flexible I would have moved the brigade out of the block then and there, withdrawn a short distance into the jungle, and hung about there, ready to emerge and establish a new block when 14 Brigade and the West Africans appeared. But I had no discretion, and when my request reached Joe Lentaigne he had to take it to Stilwell.

It couldn’t have come at a worse moment, for the attacks on Myitkyina had failed, the Marauders had reported their condition, and Stilwell’s misanthropy was at its strongest.

He told Joe Lentaigne we were a bunch of lily-livered Limey popinjays. Joe replied hotly. Every minute of argument, accusation, and counter-accusation at Shaduzup cost my men more lives, saw the expenditure of more irreplaceable ammunition, and locked us more closely into an action which could only have one end, and from which, minute by minute, it became more difficult for me to extricate my brigade if permission eventually were granted.

See John Masters: The Road Past Mandalay.

Operation 'Thursday' - March 1944: One of the gliders after landing at an airstrip code-named 'Broadway'. The men are waiting for daylight to begin work on the airstrip.
Operation ‘Thursday’ – March 1944: One of the gliders after landing at an airstrip code-named ‘Broadway’. The men are waiting for daylight to begin work on the airstrip.

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