2nd Bn The Queen's With The Chindit Force
The formation of the Chindits
In March 1942 the 2nd Bn The Queen's Royal Regiment (2 Queen's) arrived in Ceylon with the 16th Infantry Brigade Group who became the island reserve force against a possible Japanese landing. They had come from the Middle East where they had fought in the Western Desert, Tobruk and Syria and were now about to add the Japanese to the Germans, Italians and vichy French whom they had fought.
In February 1943 the Brigade moved to India to rejoin their Division, the 70th Infantry Division, and after carrying out various types of training, in September it was disclosed that the whole Division was to become Long Range penetration Troops under Major General Orde Wingate.
Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, DSO, who had been a column commander on General' Wingate's first deep penetration into Burma, took over command of the 16th Brigade. Meanwhile, Lt Colonel J F Metcalfe had assumed command of 2 Queen's from Lt Colonel H G Duncombe who took over 1 Queen's in 7 Indian Division.
The role of the deep penetration force was decided at the Quebec Conference in 1943. With US General Stillwell's Chinese fighting in the Hukawng Valley in the north of Burma, the Indian Army (one-third British, two-thirds Indian) attacking the Japanese in Imphal, Tiddim and the Ukhrul areas and in the south in the Arakan, it was decided to insert a division behind the enemy lines to assist in the Allied advance. 70th Division was to be the main part of' this force and for security purposes, was renamed 3rd Indian Division but was more commonly known as the 'Special Force' or the ‘Chindits’. The Division was concentrated in the Central Provinces of Indian for special training.
The overall plan was for 16th Brigade to march to the Indaw area of Burma, finding their way over relatively unknown mountainous jungle covered country while 14th, 11th and 77th Brigades were to be flown in and landed by gliders and Dakotas.
Long range penetration forces required a special organisation based on the lesson learnt in Wingate's 1943 expedition. 16th Brigade was formed into eight columns, 2 Queen's Nos 21 and 22; 2 Leicesters Nos 17 and 71; 45 Reconnaissance Regt Nos 45 and 54 and 51/69 Field Regt RA Nos 51 and 69.
Of the Queen's columns, No 21 was commanded by Lt Colonel J F Metcalfe and No 22 by the Second in Command, Major T V Close. Each column consisted of Column HQ, reconnaissance platoon, including a section of the Burma Rifles, a support and a commando platoon. Each rifle company had four platoons of four sections and a flamethrower platoon, total strength 225 men; the rifle company in 21 Column was commanded by Major E B G Clowes and in 22 Column by Captain A S Blackman. The support platoon had 3-inch mortars and two Vickers machine guns (MMGs). The commando platoon, all Royal Engineers, carried explosives and tools for engineering tasks.
Each column numbered 400 men, 75 mules and 12 ponies. The mules were to carry 3-inch mortars, MMGs, medical kit, PlAT (an anti-tank weapon), flame-throwers, ammunition and hundreds of maps for the long march. The ponies were for casualties. Rations and all personal kit were carried on the man.
The column was to be resupplied by air-drop every five days and a man had to carry five days 'K' rations and everything required for three months operations, including a 'Mae West' for crossing the Chindwin River. The resulting load weighed up to 651b and a strict limit of age and fitness was necessary for those taking part.
Following the concluding exercise in December 1943, 16th Brigade moved to Ledo, its concentration area in Northern Assam. The Queen's columns arrived on 23rd January and detrained in the dark as the operation was a profound secret. They were hidden away in the thick Manipur jungle in heavy and continuous rain. Here briefing took place.
The start point for the Brigade's march lay at Tagap Ga 70 miles to the south east on the Ledo road beyond the summit of the Patkai Hills; from here the Brigade was to march across the Naga Hills. To reach the start point the mules and leaders walked, the remainder were carried in lorries with Chinese army drivers. It rained continuously and the muddy road was appalling going for both vehicles and mules; hairpin bends were-frequent and the road rose and fell over, 5000 ft hills.
Tagap Ga was reached before dawn on 31st January 1944 by those in transport, the mules arriving a few days later. Beyond Tagap Ga the road was impassable to wheeled traffic and from then on all resupply would have to be by airdrop.
From Tagap Ga a track was believed to run south over the Patkai Hills to Hkalak Ga where the Chinese had a small outpost. The Brigade would have to march in single file and the engineers were sent ahead to widen the track for the mules.
The march finally started on 5th February with the Queen's columns, 21 and 22 in that order - leading. The first obstacle was a 2,000 ft hill with a gradient in places, of one in one; the rain made the track too slippery for loaded mules and so they were unloaded and the men, forming a human chain, manhandled these heavy loads up the hill; at the top the mules were reloaded. At the end of the first day 22 Column's tail was still on the Ledo road.
"The march was the heaviest imaginable. The rain was torrential and almost continuous. No single stretch of level going existed between Tagap and Hkalak, and few thereafter. The cold was intense particularly at bivouacs over 5000 ft. The 70lbs which men were carrying were greatly increased in weight due to saturation with water. A dry bivouac was practically unknown. Leeches were innumerable, but less unpleasant than the Polaung fly whose vicious bites hardened to a septic lump. Wireless communication was difficult and supply dropping on the whole atrocious; up to 40 or 50% of the supplies falling hundreds or thousands of feet down the cliffs and becoming a dead loss. Columns averaged nine days to cover the thirty-five miles from road head to Hkalak."
Individual mess-tin cooking was used, men lighting wood fires, cooking and eating their meal in 45 minutes. on 7th February Lt Colonel Metcalfe decided that the mules could not reach Hkalak in time for an airdrop; so taking 21 Column's rifle company under Major Clowes, they went ahead. Unencumbered the column reached the highest point, 5700ft, on the morning of 10th February, and dropped down to Hkalak in the evening.
Hkalak Ga was a small stockaded post on a hill crest cleared of jungle and occupied by a Chinese company, three Americans and a doctor with an excellent little hospital. The Queen's columns took two supply drops here while the Leicesters passed through on the 17th February to lead on the next stage; they took with them 22 Column's reconnaissance platoon under Captain J B C Palmer.
The four days march to Lulum Nok was comparatively easy, with no hills higher than 2000ft; there were no more Polaung flies but a distinct increase of leeches. Unfortunately, Lt Colonel Metcalfe was taken ill and Major Clowes took over command of 21 Column.
On 29th February, 22 Column at last reached the Chindwin River, with 21 Column arriving the next day. The Brigade had covered 110 miles since the start. The river was 300 yards wide, swift flowing with broad, sandy banks bordered by thick jungle. There was a Japanese post six miles to the south west.
An hour before dusk three Dakotas towing three gliders appeared and after circling, the gliders made a perfect landing on the river bank. They contained collapsible boats and outboard motors; with them the Leicesters crossed that night. At first light the Queen's columns crossed; the equipment was carried in the boats, while the men swam, pushing their personal kit and equipment in two man sheet bundles; the mules also swam free.
South of the Chindwin the Leicesters continued to lead, followed by 22 and 21 Columns. The going was easier and the rain had ceased - it became hot by day and reasonably warm at night.
The columns were now behind the Japanese lines and occasionally contact was made. On 8th March the gunner columns, 51 and 69, were sent 40 miles eastwards to raid the Japanese base at Lonkin; this they successfully did, the Japanese garrison fled and quantities of stores were destroyed.
On 10th March the Leicesters bumped a Japanese patrol, killing one and capturing one. The next day the Queen's columns reached Sezin, a village overlooking the broad and shallow Uyu River; a supply drop was taken and a light plane brought back Lt Colonel Metcalfe to resume command and took off with mail for home.
General Wingate's plan had been to establish 'strongholds' within striking distance of Indaw; they would be ditched, dug and wired and should contain or command a landing strip for Dakotas. 16th Brigade was allotted the Manhton stronghold named 'Aberdeen'. Others were named 'Broadway', 'White city', and 'Blackpool' and were established by the other three brigades who were flown in.
Sezin to Aberdeen took 8 days at an average of 12 miles a day. After a fairly easy march through Letpan, Taungle, Nanaw and Le-u, then down the Meza valley, the Queen's columns reached Aberdeen on 19th March some 300 miles since their start at Tagap Ga. The next day working parties prepared a landing strip and a supply drop was taken.
Although the two gunner columns, 51 and 69, had not arrived after raiding Lonkin, Brigadier Fergusson decided to attack Indaw straightaway in order to gain the maximum surprise. Only six columns were available and his plan was to make a main attack on Indaw with two battalions from the north down the Kyagaung Ridge with a diversionary threat from the south by one column and to establish a block on the road Banmauk-Indaw by another column to prevent reinforcements reaching Indaw from the west. The subsidiary operations were to be carried out by the two Queen's columns.
21 Column started first on 21st March and reached south for four days through the Nami Reserve Forest, across the Nami Chaung, the Banmauk-Indaw road and the railway and on to the south west of the Indaw Lake. No Japanese were met. 7 Platoon (Captain Finlay) were detached to prepare a dropping zone but the rendezvous miscarried and the platoon had to carry on independently.
On the evening of the 25th March, the column reached the Sedan Chaung, a stream difficult to cross and Lt Colonel Metcalfe decided to bivouac on the near side. As they were getting into bivouac, three truck loads of Japanese drove down a hidden track into the middle of the column. The first truck was stopped by Bren gun fire and the second ran into it. A spirited action followed, the Japanese working round the flanks of the column: Lt Colonel Metcalfe was wounded and Major Clowes took over command. The flamethrower fuel carried on a mule caught fire; the mule stampeded and many others followed it.
Because of the confusion, Major Clowes ordered the column to concentrate on the far bank of the stream. The rifle company and Column HQ completed this difficult move, but unfortunately two men were drowned, but from the rest of the Column two officers and seventy men were missing and many mules. The next morning the Column moved on to the forward rendezvous and found all but four of the missing men but few load-carrying mules. Amongst the loads missing was all the reserve ammunition.
Lt Colonel Metcalfe, recovered from the shock of his wound, then took the column on another five miles to their objective south east of Indaw.
Meanwhile, 22 Column, under Major Close, left Aberdeen on 22nd March with the Reconnaissance Platoon under Captain J B C Palmer going on ahead to divert attention from the column. They reached the Banmauk-Indaw road at the 20th milestone having left a 'soft party' halfway to take an airdrop and follow on later.
The 20th milestone was an ideal ambush site with the Meza river and road running east side by side, and to the north the jungle was thick and the ground rose steeply. At dusk the column started to take up positions on the north side of the road: suddenly vehicles were heard - men and mules quickly got off the road: 17 lorries passed full of Japanese soldiers and happily without seeing any of 22 Column.
'An hour later the ambush was set but nothing further passed that night. During the day, mules were watered and the column withdrew 200 yards north into daylight positions in the jungle. That evening the ambush was again set. At about midnight the sound of lorries from the east was heard. Seven trucks appeared, closed up and as the leading lorry reached the head of the ambush, the MMGs opened fire followed by a tornado of fire from the rest of the ambush. After 15 minutes there was complete silence.
At dawn the Japs sniped the column from the south bank of the river, killing Lieutenant H I Sparrow. A patrol was sent out and silenced the sniping. The seven lorries were inspected: they contained a few dead but a lot of kit - the Japanese had removed some of their dead and wounded in the night.
The Column was forming up to move off when the Japanese counter attacked from the east: two platoons were despatched under Captain Blackman to destroy them which they successfully did. Meanwhile, a party of enemy to the west set fire to the jungle and advanced behind the flames: they too were beaten off. At this point Captain Palmer and the Reconnaissance Platoon rejoined the Column.
In this action it was estimated that the Japanese had lost 20 killed, 30 wounded and 6 vehicles destroyed. 22 Column had one officer and 4 men killed and 4 men wounded. The Japanese did not use this important road for a further five weeks. Major Close was awarded the DSO and Private Bramble, the medical orderly, the MM.
The main battle for Indaw had not gone well; the Leicesters captured Inwa but the Reconnaissance Regiment's columns found the Japanese dug in strongly at Thetkegyin and along the Indaw lake and could not move them. For two and a half days the Column could find no water and finally their thirst-maddened mules stampeded and they were forced to withdraw.
21 Column south east of Indaw were unable to influence the battle and were ordered to move back into the Kachin hills. 22 Column became the Brigade's reserve and were ordered to help the Reconnaissance Regiment but later withdrew before they could reach them; finally they were ordered to cover the withdrawal of the Leicesters and so Major Close ambushed the Tondaw-Auktaw road.
22 Column remained in the Auktaw area for another two weeks laying ambushes on roads and tracks. They suffered an ambush themselves, with two men killed and one officer and two men watering mules presumed captured. The column also successfully raided Nantha and destroyed the bridge across the Ledan chaung in a night operation. The column carried out one more ambush on the Auktaw-Mawlu road, when Captain Sykes of the Commando Platoon was tragically killed by one of his own booby-traps. On 11th April they were ordered back to Aberdeen and arrived there on 13th April.
21 Column ordered into the Kachin country, had a long march, during which Lt Colonel Metcalfe still troubled by his wound was flown out to hospital and Major Clowes again took command. Finally they arrived in Aberdeen on 10th April.
Meanwhile Captain Finlay, with 10 Platoon, who had missed the rendez-vous with 21 Column earlier, had moved into the hills to the east and met several enemy patrols. On 27th March, near the Indaw-Katha road, they found a large Japanese protective position and killed several but the Japs were reinforced and they had to withdraw. Flight Lieutenant J G Gillies, the 21 Column R A F officer, was with Captain Finlay and made a sketch of the ammunition dump and its 128 bashas; subsequently he was flown out to India and led a bombing raid which destroyed 123 of the bashas.
21 Column's Reconnaissance Platoon were ordered to White City, where 77 Brigade astride the Japanese communications to the north, were being heavily attacked; they were involved in one night battle there, and then were withdrawn to Aberdeen.
By this time, the overall situation had changed. General Wingate had been killed when his plane crashed in a thunder-storm and the Japanese with three divisions were strongly attacking Imphal and aiming to cut the supply route to General stillwell and the Chinese in the north. To assist in countering this, the majority of the supply-carrying aircraft were removed from supporting the Chindits and this curtailed their activity greatly.
After resting and re-equipping at Aberdeen, 16th Brigade was given the task of destroying Indaw West airfield; the Gunner columns 51 and 59 were to approach the objective from the north while the Queen's Columns, acting as one unit under Major Close (Lt Colonel Metcalfe had been evacuated to India), were to raid the airfield from the west.
The Queen's Columns left Aberdeen on 18th April and reached Tondaw on 21st. It was by now very hot, and after a day's rest, they continued to the Meza river and moved carefully south to Seiktha where Major Close established a firm base.
D Company, under Captain Blackman, was sent off to raid the airfield, which they succeeded in over-running without resistance. After destroying the installations, they returned to Seiktha; here the whole Battalion remained strongly dug-in, hoping the Japanese would attack, which they did not.
On 26th April news was received that 16th Brigade was to return to India; this was received with a feeling of relief but anti-climax. The Brigade was ordered to Broadway.
Broadway was 50 miles to the north east and involved climbing 3000 ft hills. 21 and 22" Columns' journey took seven days moving north through familiar places - Tondaw, Auktaw, Hkochi and Konhka - then east over open country to Mawlu; this they skirted to the north as an air raid was taking place. They crossed the Indaw-Myitkina railway, followed by a steep climb over the Kachin hills. There was one scare of the enemy in the Mychla area and Major R M Merrett (who had rejoined from 51 Column RA) was sent to investigate but found nothing.
On 3rd May the Battalion reached Broadway and were flown out each night to Imphal and finally on to Comilla. By 7th Mayall were out of Broadway and the 2nd Queen 's ended the Chindit campaign. Sadly, even at this late stage there were casualties as one Dakota carrying ten men and four mules crashed into the mountains.
On arrival at Comilla, the Battalion stayed in a rest camp. A large number of men entered hospital with malaria, tick typhus, jungle sores and other complaints.
In time, the Battalion moved to Bangalore and those men who had served more than five years overseas returned to the UK.
How severe the test had been may be realised by Brigadier Fergusson's statement that, as far as he knew, "no Chindits had ever gone into action except thoroughly and absolutely exhausted before they ever began."
The following figures (for 21 Column) will give some idea of the strenuousness of the campaign. In Burma 94 days, of which 67 were spent on the march and 27 halted. The total mileage covered was 575, an average of nearly nine per marching day. The highest point reached was 5,700 feet. Six air-strips had been constructed and sixteen air-drops taken.