In Burma, now occupied by the Japanese, the British were experimenting with unconventional methods of warfare. Colonel Orde Wingate had won support for the development of a deep penetration guerrilla force that would march far into the jungle, way behind the front line. There they would disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication by blowing up railway lines, as well as attacking Japanese troops. The new force soon became christened ‘Chindits’, after mythical Burmese creatures.
The conditions the troops were expected to live in were arduous enough. However, the problem of resupplying such troops by air was also experimental, and was to lead to further privations. The first column set off into the jungle in late February 1943 and received their first parachute drop of supplies in early March. Harold James was a nineteen year old officer on his first military operation:
The dropping area was strewn with ration tins, parachutes and mule fodder, and the men soon got to work collecting the stores. Burmese from the nearest village were called in to help, and in return were given the parachutes which they greatly prized, cloth being a scarcity. We soon learned that valuable information could often be obtained for a piece of parachute. The Gurkhas made handerchiefs and ration bags for themselves, and lanyards from the cords.
Four tins were dropped with each parachute, padded with a shock absorber fastened by thick webbing – although this did not always work if the parachute should break loose. The four tins could conveniently be loaded each side of a mule, allowing extra rations to be carried as reserve, and, as on this occasion, the supplies could be easily transported from the dropping zone to our camp for distribution to the men.
The hard scale daily ration laid down was:
Shakapura biscuits l2oz Cheese 2oz Milk powder 1oz Raisins and almonds 9oz Tea 3/4 oz Sugar 4oz Acid drops or chocolate 1oz Salt 1/2oz Cigarettes 2 packets of 10 Matches 1 box
To imagine that men could keep fit on a ration of this nature for three months of marching through very rough country, fighting, physically and mentally extended, is beyond belief, and would seem to show a definite lack of imagination in planning the ration menu.
But the expedition was heading into unexplored areas of logistics, and presented problems which had to be solved by guesswork before hard experience could produce the correct results.
There was no meat, although tins of corned beef were dropped later, and on occasion corned mutton for the Gurkhas. But it was bulky, and went bad quite quickly, so had to be eaten more or less in one sitting. The parachute ration was supposed to be supplemented from local produce, which often proved impracticable.
With over 300 mouths to feed, very few villages could provide more than a few mouthfuls of rice per person, and the odd chicken or egg. Some columns were lucky in coming across an extra friendly village which would be more helpful – but seldom more than once during the expedition.
The idea behind the rations selected was that they contained nothing that required cooking, except water for tea, since it was expected that troops would not be able to count on more than twenty minutes for meals. In practice
we rarely had to rush our meals.
It was also assumed that supplies would be dropped regularly, which turned out, after the first two drops, to be
a false hope, not because of any shortage of aircraft, just that the enemy’s presence often made it impossible to pick and choose time and place. As a result, for most of the expedition, one day`s rations had to last at the very least for three, and too often much longer.
A great deal of will power was needed to limit the daily intake.