A Failure That Became a Triumph
On Feb. 8, 1943, 3,000 British, Gurkha, and Burmese troops – organized into seven columns of approximately 400 men each – crossed the border of India and entered the rugged jungle terrain of Burma in Operation Longcloth. Longcloth was more than an offensive against Japanese troops. It was also the debut of a new way of waging war, the Long Range Penetration (LRP) in which the attacking force operating deep inside enemy-held territory would be supplied and supported entirely by air. The leader of the operation and innovator of the LRP tactic was one of the more colorful, charismatic and controversial military commanders in the war, Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate.
Originally, Longcloth was to be in support of a major offensive into Japanese-held Burma. But in December 1942, a combination of clashing strategic goals among the Allies, inadequate logistics, a fragmented command structure, bad weather, and other deficiencies caused Commander in Chief India Field Marshal Archibald Wavell to cancel the offensive. Wingate, however, was convinced that a scaled-down offensive using his force that had been trained in jungle guerrilla warfare was still viable. On Feb. 7, 1943, he successfully prevailed upon Wavell and U.S. Army supply chief Lt. Gen. Brehon Somervell, who was visiting at the time, to allow him to launch Operation Longcloth with the 77th Indian Infantry Division, better known to history by its nickname “Chindits” a corruption of the word Chinthé, the Burmese mythical animal guardian of Buddhist temples.
“Wingate was a strange, excitable, moody creature, but he had fire in him.”
– Field Marshal Sir William Slim
To some, Wingate was a brilliant, eccentric leader of unconventional operations. To others, he was a dangerous maverick. Short, wiry and full-bearded, he looked and regularly acted like an Old Testament prophet – an image reinforced by his evangelical Plymouth Brethren upbringing. His arrogance bordered on the delusional. In 1941, while leading the irregular Gideon Force, a forerunner of the Chindits, in Ethiopia against the Italian army, after he had delivered a typically impassioned jeremiad, his assistant Capt. Douglas Dodds-Parker punctured Wingate’s posturing by saying, “Come on, Orde, you are not Napoleon yet, nor even T.E. Lawrence.” Despite flaws that included the flouting of the principle of chain of command, Wingate’s restless imagination and innovative tactics helped him make friends in high places, none more important than Wavell and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Wingate’s vision of Longcloth was that his columns, spread throughout northern Burma and at times acting independently and occasionally in support of each other, would break and disrupt the Japanese Army’s vital Mandalay-Myitkyina north-south rail artery, raid Japanese troop bases and harass patrols, and in general prove to the Japanese Army in Burma, and by extension the world, that a new master of jungle fighting had arrived and could beat the enemy at its own jungle warfare game.
Longcloth lasted three months. When Wingate returned to India in late April, it was with 818 fewer men and with the survivors so debilitated by disease, wounds, and malnutrition that all but 600 had to be discharged for medical reasons. Though the Chindits had blown up bridges and cut in dozens of places the Mandalay-Myitkyina rail line, it was fully repaired within a week. Despite numerous battles with the enemy, the Chindits inflicted relatively few casualties. It was also not Wingate’s finest hour. In his report on the mission, failings that were his he attributed to subordinates, and he took the lion’s share of credit for successes earned by them.
William Slim, then lieutenant general and commander XV Corps in India, noted in his postwar autobiography, Defeat into Victory, “As a military operation the raid had been an expensive failure.” Though Longcloth proved that large-scale operations deep behind enemy lines could be supported by air supply, Slim noted, “[I]t was a costly schooling.” Yet, Slim acknowledged the operation “was justified, not on military, but on psychological grounds.” It was “a triumph of British jungle fighting over the Japanese.” Morale of allied troops in the region dramatically improved once word of the Chindits’ exploits was circulated. Slim wrote, “For this reason alone Wingate’s raid was worth all the hardship and sacrifice his men endured, and by every means in our power we exploited its propaganda value to the full.”
Wingate received a second bar to his Distinguished Service Order medal for Longcloth. Churchill was so impressed that he ordered Wingate to accompany him to the Quadrant conference in Quebec where Wingate gave a presentation on the LRP tactics to the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Promoted to major general, he was placed in command of a larger Special Force and led a second expedition into Burma in February 1944. On March 24, 1944, his B-25 crashed behind enemy lines, killing everyone on board. Churchill mourned the loss of a “man of genius who might have become a man of destiny.”