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Extracts of Fire in the night

(From Chapter Twenty- Four)

Having placed his sword in the enemy’s ribs Wingate began to twist it. On 7 March he returned to Burma after an absence of almost a year on one of the Dakotas that were flying a regular shuttle between Broadway and Lalaghat. He carried with him a rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition, not the normal equipment of a major-general but then not all that many major-generals needed to fly one hundred and sixty miles behind enemy lines in order to visit their forward troops. Besides, he had carried a rifle throughout the first Chindit expedition and, like the beard and the Wolseley helmet, it had become one of his props.

His visit to Broadway had to be a brief one. He had twelve thousand men under him now - seventeen British battalions, five Gurkha, and three West African, mostly from the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria. The days when he could lead from the front were over. John Alison showed him around the stronghold, pointed out the wrecked gliders from the night of the fly-in. It seemed much longer than a mere forty-eight hours ago. Broadway bustled with men and equipment. It looked like something that had been going on for a very long time. Then he put Wingate into an L-5 and flew him over to a satellite strip they called Chowringhee after Calcutta’s busiest street.

An advance party from another Chindit brigade - Joe Lentaigne’s 111 - had arrived here by glider to prepare a runway for Dakotas. Just as Wingate had done the previous year Lentaigne’s brigade was going to cross the Irrawaddy and raid the Japanese communications there. Calvert’s brigade was about to move south out of Broadway and establish a block across the rail road communications to the Japanese 18 Division, the heroes of Malaya, who were facing Stilwell’s offensive in the north. Calvert had already picked his spot - a place called Mawlu where the railway and the road ran only a few yards apart and it would be easy to cut both. Meanwhile, the three thousand men and for hundred animals that were Fergusson’s 16th brigade - the only brigade not to arrive by air - was coming towards the end of the four hundred mile trek it had started on 5 February - exactly a month before Calvert flew into Broadway. Fergusson’s task was to protect Stilwell’s right flank by establishing a stronghold west of the Japanese air and road communications centre at Indaw which it was to attack.

Wingate spent the night at Broadway then flew back to Lalaghat the next day to find that Tulloch had some disturbing news for him. During his absence Slim had paid a visit and told him that intelligence sources and air reconnaissance had confirmed that a Japanese offensive was pending. There were indications5 that Lt-General Renya Mutaguchi was intending to enter India with his 15th Army and attempt to seize the towns of Imphal and Kohima with their massive supply dumps. If this was the case, the commander of 14th Army told Tulloch, he might have to take the Chindits’ two reserve brigades which Wingate had intended to rotate with the ones in place so that his troops on the ground were always reasonably fresh. It was Slim’s intention to let Mutaguchi come across the Chindwin and then, with his superior numbers and greater air power, destroy the Japanese on ground of his own choice.

Before he departed Slim assured Tulloch that taking Wingate’s reserve brigades away from him was something that would only happen as a last resort and he should not concern Wingate about something that might never happen. It is hard to believe that Slim really expected Tulloch not to tell Wingate - it was well known that Tulloch was a close friend. Knowing how Wingate was likely to react to any attempt to reduce his command perhaps Slim thought that if he got his most volatile and best connected subordinate used to the idea he might be more amenable.

This was never very likely and when Tulloch told him Wingate was furious. It had been agreed with Mountbatten, he reminded Tulloch, that in the event of such Japanese offensive he would retain command of these brigades in order to harass their lines of communication. He would, he said, fly to Imphal in the morning and confront Slim and if he persisted with this nonsense he would resign. Up to the moment Wingate boarded the plane the next morning the crestfallen Tulloch was trying to persuade him not to do it, convinced that at the moment of his greatest triumph and after all they had gone through together Wingate was about to push his luck too far:

The next few hours went very slowly indeed and I expected a signal advising me that Wingate’s resignation had been accepted and naming his successor. But to my great relief there came a message that Wingate was on his way back to Lalaghat, and later, as he jumped down from the Dakota, I could see from his cheerful expression that all was well.

Slim had denied that he had any intention of taking his brigades off him. If they did go into Burma earlier than intended because of a Japanese offensive then they would, of course, remain under Wingate’s command. The square jawed Slim is normally portrayed as the epitome of the bluff and honest soldier but presumably he felt that a little duplicity was called for when dealing with a man with a direct line to the prime minister. For as it happens both these brigades - 14 and 23 - were indeed used to harass the rear of the attacking Japanese when Mutaguchi’s offensive came but neither of them came under the command of Special Force. In any event, Slim’s man management worked, Wingate was calmed and he returned to his headquarters. But soon he was involved in another of those paper battles with headquarters to which he was so prone - and this time without genuine grounds.

After considerable discussion as to whether publicity was advisable, and without consulting Wingate, Mountbatten's public relations staff had issued a brief handout to the press, declaring that "troops of the 14th Army" had taken part in a successful airborne operation but making no mention of Wingate, the Chindits or No. 1 Air Commando. It was intended as the first instalment of an unfolding story in which, once public interest had been whetted and security considerations superseded, full credit was to be given to the Chindits and their American comrades.

Unaware of this strategy, Wingate was concerned not just about the failure to mention the Chindits but also about the perceived slight to Cochran's men, to whom he owed so much. He had only just succeeded in mollifying Cochran over an incident in which the RAF had sent six of its Spitfires to operate out of the airstrip at Broadway before Cochran had put his own Mustangs in there. Cochran considered he had been bounced out of the airfield his own men had constructed and reacted accordingly. Assuming the for him unaccustomed role of peacemaker - perhaps because in the crush of work he had failed to consult Cochran in advance about the move - Wingate damped down the American's understandable ire.6 Now, he feared, it would be ignited again by the headquarters' handout.

The same day, he sent a furious telegram, in clear, to Mountbatten's head of publicity, Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert: "Consider whole story grossly unfair and calculated to cause despondency amongst the troops now engaged in fighting the Japanese under the most arduous conditions ... The whole operation was planned solely by staff of Special Force with assistance of No. 1 Air Commando and [USAAF] Troops Carrier Command only Your representation is a travesty of the truth ..." And so forth.

He followed up with a letter in similar vein to Mountbatten, who replied with a sharp rebuke for Wingate's "temperamental outburst." Explaining that he and Joubert were already planning how best to give the most effective publicity "both to your force and, as a matter of fact, personally to you," the Supreme Commander wrote: "Your astounding telegram to Joubert has made me realise how you have achieved such amazing success in getting yourself disliked by people who are only too ready to be on your side." In a rambling six page reply which he drafted the next day Wingate grumbled on, saying that he had only made "a very modest request that ... the truth should be told or if the time is not ripe ... that nothing should be said." Mercifully, he had second thoughts and never sent it.

Meanwhile, the Chindits themselves were involved in rather more pressing causes. Calvert had moved down to Mawlu to establish his block. But the Japanese were already there and he immediately become embroiled in a small action - there were no more than a hundred or so on each side - that would become the high water mark of Wingate’s rejuvenation of the British infantry in Burma.

Calvert had taken with him some Gurkhas and his battalion of South Staffords. The Staffords were part of Wingate’s inheritance from 70th Division. In theory they were a regular battalion - the same newly arrived unit which had done so badly in Tiberias in 1938 when the Arab raiders came in. Since then they had seen action in the western desert, notably at the siege of Tobruk and a lot of its old sweats were dead or in prison camps or had been rotated home.

Their replacements were often conscripts and their officers wartime volunteers with respectable peace time jobs to go back to. Men for instance like the lanky mortar platoon officer Lieutenant George Cairns, a scholarship boy from a Fulham grammar school who had landed a job with Banque Belge in the City of London. Cairns was newly married and in his early thirties, a bit long in the tooth for an an infantry subaltern. But he fitted in well with a regiment who knew their worth and were without pretension ; where the accents to be heard in its officers’ and sergeants’ messes were often indistinguishable.

Now some of the Staffords, Cairns among them, had got themselves in trouble. they have moved onto the railway line itself and were trying to dig in when the Japanese opened fire with machine guns and mortars from some nearby low hills. They were without proper cover and beginning to take casualties. Calvert, who had taken to wearing a flat service cap with his newly acquired brigadier’s red band around it, set off with his headquarters company to investigate, spoiling for a fight. “I was determined that we must win our first engagement.”

He got to a ridge where he could observe the Japanese “milling about a pagoda on top of a little knoll”. On another small hill but lower down, were the Staffords - clouds of dust coming from the mortar bombs exploding around them. They were trying to retaliate with their Vickers machine guns and their own mortars. But the Staffords were in a hopeless position, overlooked and without much cover. It looked like the Japanese had seized the initiative and thwarted Calvert’s plan to establish a rail and roadblock before he could get started.

While the Gurkhas cleared the Japanese off another of the hills Calvert ran down to the Staffords accompanied by the RAF liaison officer Bobbie Thompson, Corporal Young, his Anglo-Chinese batman and Paddy Dermody who had once earned his living as a jockey. He arrived a little breathless to be greeted by cries of, “Thank God you’ve come sir.”

Calvert looked around him and saw a number of dead and wounded, noted the absence of cover, and realised that something had to be done quickly:

I then told everybody that we were going to charge Pagoda Hill. There were reinforcements on our left flank (the Gurkhas) who were going to charge as well. so, standing up, I shouted out “charge” and ran down the hill with Bobbie[Thompson] and the two orderlies. Half of the South Staffords joined in. Then looking back I found a lot had not. So I told them to bloody well “Charge, what the hell do you think you’re doing.” So they charged. Machine-gunners, mortar teams, all officers - everybody who was on that hill.

Among them were Lieutenants Norman Durant, who was in charge of the Vickers guns, and his friend George Cairns. Calvert, who was carrying a rifle with a fixed bayonet, was originally in the lead but as they ran down the hill the Staffords had been occupying, crossed the dirt road to Mawlu and began to climb Pagoda Hill he was soon overtaken by Cairns and Durant who recalled:

I went up the hill like a two-year-old...To this day I’m not quite certain what I expected to see - the place deserted or the Japs on the run I suppose, but what I actually saw was a Jap section climbing out of their trenches... and coming straight at me; the leading two with bayonets fixed and rather unfriendly expressions being about 20 yards to my right. I fired my revolver twice and nothing happened - I was later to find the hammer had worked loose.

Durant threw a grenade and immediately threw himself down the side of the hill, catching a bullet in the leg as he did so. Then the subaltern, who despite his wound was still able to get to his feet, limped back up the hill, picked a Japanese rifle off the ground and attempted to join the extraordinary melee taking place at the summit where bayonets and rifles butts, Kukris and Samurai swords were all being employed. One of the first things Durant saw was George Cairns and a Japanese soldier wresting on the ground. He watched Cairns break free, pick up a rifle and bayonet and, “stab the Jap again and again like a madman.”

It was only when I got near that I saw he himself had already been bayoneted twice through the side and that his left arm was hanging on by a few strips of muscle. How he found the strength to fight was a miracle...There were a lot of our dead and Jap dead lying about. But the Japs still held the top of the hill and things were looking critical. We might have been pushed back if the Brigadier had not shouted, “Come on now, one more effort, you’ve got them on the run...and before we knew what was happening the Japs were running.

The battle of Pagoda Hill was over. The Staffords’ casualties were twenty-three killed and sixty-four wounded. Calvert said that the savagery of the fighting was, “not unlike that depicted in scenes from ancient battles”. According to Calvert and other eyewitnesses George Cairns was not bayoneted but had an arm practically severed by a Japanese officer wielding a Samurai sword which Cairns picked up after shooting the officer. A sergeant literally kicked the head in of a Japanese soldier who had feigned death and shot another lieutenant in the Staffords. In all, fourteen British officers participated in the charge of whom three were killed and four wounded. Cairns lingered for three days before he died of his terrible injures. On Calvert’s recommendation he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Many of his officers and men thought Calvert himself had earned a VC for the valour and leadership he displayed that day. His prompt action had saved the block which he now reinforced with the rest of his brigade. Soon it would have its own air strip, a battery of field guns, anti-aircraft guns and bunkers roofed with sleepers torn out of the railway. With almost daily supply drops from the RAF and Cochran’s Air Commandos there were soon so many parachutes hanging off the surrounding vegetation that the pilots gave it the name White City.

The Japanese only ever made one attempt, rather half hearted by their standards, to attack the Broadway Stronghold on the ground. But for weeks they tried to break Calvert’s grip on White City, this constriction in the throat of 18 Division, which was increasingly obliged to live off the land and husband its ammunition. Hundreds of decomposing Japanese corpses lay around its perimeter- some of them suicide squads who had blown themselves up trying to blast a path through the barbed wire entanglements Calvert had put down. Cochran’s light plane pilots coming in to pick up the wounded told each other that you did not need a compass to get to White City: all that was required was a decent nose. The determination of the American fliers to get the British wounded away from these horrors often meant that their unarmed planes were grossly overloaded and could hardly get into the air.

Meanwhile, the headquarters party of Fergusson's 16 Brigade had completed its epic, 400-mile march from Ledo to reach its operational area and set up a stronghold, not far from one of Wingate's most prized objectives, the twin Japanese airfields of Indaw East and West. This stronghold was to be called Aberdeen, after Lorna Wingate's home town. Fergusson and his men arrived utterly exhausted by their trek, which had taken them over over some of the most difficult and mountainous jungle terrain to be found anywhere in Southeast Asia. "The march was the heaviest imaginable," Fergusson would recall.

No single stretch of level going existed between Tagap and Hkalak and few thereafter. The cold was intense, particularly at bivouacs over 5,000 feet. The seventy pounds 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 ...

Two columns had been hived off from the brigade, en route, to attack a Japanese garrison at Lonkin, on Stilwell's right flank, and would not catch up with Fergusson for another ten days. Other elements were still foot slogging down the trail, three or four days away. So 16 Brigade was tired and significantly under strength when Wingate flew in by light plane on 20 March 1944 to confer with Fergusson.

The monocled Scots brigadier wanted desperately to give his men a few days' rest and consolidate his force. But Wingate insisted on an immediate assault on the airfields at Indaw, arguing that delay might give the Japanese the chance to bring in reinforcements to defend them. He told Fergusson he planned to fly 14 Brigade into Aberdeen as soon as the airstrip was ready and that these troops would attack Indaw from the west while Fergusson launched an assault from the northeast. His doubts overcome, Fergusson agreed to move on Indaw on 24 March fully expecting to be backed up by 14 Brigade. But it was not to be.

When on 21 March Wingate flew back to army headquarters at Comilla to meet Slim found that changing circumstances required 14 Brigade to be assigned a different task - to set up a new stronghold, about 60 miles southwest of Aberdeen and disrupt the rear communications of the Japanese divisions that were attacking Imphal. But because of a communications snarl-up that has never been fully explained - but was probably a result of Wingate's decision to move his operational headquarters from Imphal to Sylhet - Fergusson was not informed of this change of plan. The consequences were calamitous for Fergusson: his unrested brigade's attack on Indaw was driven off with heavy casualties.

Still, it was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a close-run thing. A column of the Royal Leicester Regiment, skilfully aided by close support from Cochran's fighter bombers, came close to capturing the Indaw East airfield, only withdrawing when Fergusson - "damned angry" that his calls for support from 14 Brigade had gone unanswered - ordered a general pullback on 29 March.

Some five days before Wingate had made another grand tour of his possessions. He had first visited Broadway, then flown on to Aberdeen and finally dropped in on White City where Calvert gave him his guided tour.

He had sensible suggestions for everyone, whether it was the siting of a machine gun, the lie of a three inch mortar, a point of hygiene to the doctor, the means by which the Protestant and Roman Catholic padres could keep up morale, the places for burying the dead, or the siting of the wireless aerials etcetera.

Calvert took him for a stroll along he railway and Wingate kicked the lines and said: “So this is 18 Division’s rail communications.” They had known each other for almost exactly two years now since they first met at the Jungle Warfare School in Maymyo on the eve of the great retreat. During that time they had achieved so much, packed so much into it that it must have seemed much longer.

Wingate showed him the messages of congratulation he had received from Churchill and grumbled that now Mutaguchi’s offensive had at last started there were threats to take Special Force’s air support away from them. He confided that he had sent Churchill a message saying that if he was given another three Dakota squadrons he could take the whole of northern Burma. Before he took off Wingate informed Calvert that he had been awarded a bar to his DSO. “Let it go to your heart and not your head,” he told him.

“Yes sir. Thank you sir,” said Calvert, and he watched Wingate climb back into the L-5 that had brought him from Broadway. He never saw him again.


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  Fire in the Night : Wingate of Burma, Ethiopia and Zion
by John Bierman and Colin Smith

Random House
New York, 1999.

MacMillan, London,2000,
Pan Books, 2001 ISBN 0333 72576 x
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