‘BLOODY’ BURMA—A PART OF WORLD WAR II THAT FEW KNOW ABOUT, AND MOST FORGET
It’s a sad thing that so many people are ignorant of history because life makes little sense unless you know what has gone before; or such is my opinion. Others may have a different perspective.
Burma loomed large in my life, not just because of my grandmother’s happy memories and because it had been my mother’s country of birth, but also because it had been the scene of intense combat between the British and the Japanese during World War II,and because one of my relations, Lieutenant General Walter ‘Joe’ Lentaigne, a former Gurkha officer, had not only distinguished himself there—but had commanded the Chindits after Wingate was killed.
Wikipedia contains a graphic description of Joe Lentaigne’s courage:
He (Joe Lentaigne) soon gained a legendary name for bravery. "Once this bespectacled giant had his revolver kicked out of his hand in a hand-to-hand scrap with four Japs. he tore the sword from the leader's hand and killed him with it; then, turning on the others, hewed one to the ground and chased the other two back into the jungle. Another time, when the Japanese had captured an ambulance convoy, a wounded officer in one of them heard a noise which he described as like the roaring of the Bull of Bashan. It was Joe Lentaigne arriving. He had charged ahead of his Gurkhas and arrive first, killing several Japs before they caught up with him. The ambulances were saved."
‘Bloody Burma’ indeed! Joe Lentaigne is illustrated above. Somehow he doesn’t really look like a killer, but he certainly seems to have been one. Much of the fighting in Burma took place in the jungle at close quarters and under terrible conditions. Disease was rife, and because supply was so difficult, malnutrition was a serious problem.
Wingate, himself, was an odd duck by military standards, but he was also a truly remarkable warrior. In the late 1930s, while serving with the British Army in Palestine, he helped to train Jewish settlers—who were being raided by Arabs at the time—to fight back and generally take the initiative. In that way, he became, in effect, one of the founders of the Israeli Defense Forces. And he also got kicked out of Palestine by the British.
Though still a comparatively junior British Army officer, he then went on to be instrumental in driving the Italians out of Ethiopia—a truly extraordinary military achievement just in itself.
But he is probably best known for creating the Chindits—a special unit which was established to penetrate deeply behind Japanese lines, and which was to be supplied solely by air. The objectives were to destabilize the Japanese by threatening their lines of communication, and to make it impossible for them to invade India from Burma.
The success of the Chindit concept remains a matter of debate—they had a profound effect on the enemy but took terrible casualties—and Wingate himself was killed in a plane crash in 1944.
My great uncle Major General Joe Lentaigne (who sadly I never met) was then appointed to take over the Chindits and he commanded them until they were disbanded in 1945.
Coincidentally, Major General Wingate’s son was a classmate when I was at Ampleforth College—the celebrated Catholic school run by Benedictine monks which, as it happens, also educated David Stirling, the legendary founder of Britain’s SAS Regiment.
The foundation of the SAS is such a great story that I have fictionalized it and included it in my fourth Fitzduane novel, THE BLOOD OF GENERATIONS.
The name “Chindit” is an English corruption of the Burmese word “Chinthe” describing a mythical lion.
Great name. Great deeds. Great unit. It seems to me it would be a sad thing, indeed, to forget about them.
When at Ampleforth, I am not sure we all believed the stories of young Wingate. However, we got a lesson when the Emperor of Ethiopia arrived in London for a state visit, and then invited our classmate, Orde Wingate, to visit with him. It transpired that the emperor was young Wingate’s god-father.
All in all, I’m rather proud of the family’s Burmese connections.