On this day, Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate, leader of the 77th Indian Brigade, also called the Chindits, dies in a transport plane crash. He was 41 years old.
Wingate, a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, was a famous eccentric who both quoted the Bible and advocated irregular warfare tactics. His career as a guerrilla fighter began as he organized Jewish underground patrols to beat back Arab raids in British-controlled Palestine in the 1930s. In 1941, Wingate led a mixed Ethiopian and Sudanese force in retaking Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, from the Italians, who had invaded in 1935.
Upon the beginning of Japan’s China-Burma campaign, Wingate was sent to India to employ his experience as a guerrilla fighter and organize what became known as the Chindits–a brigade of specially trained Gurkha (Nepalese), Burmese and British troops. The Chindits were composed of two units of Long Range Penetration Groups, each made up of men-and mules. Wingate and his brigade entered Japanese-controlled Burma from the west, crossed the Chindwin River, and proceeded with sabotage activity: sneakily penetrating Japanese-held territory, attacking supply lines, and cutting communications. Once in the field, the Chindits were cut off from other units and could be supplied only by airdrops.
One of the most effective Chindit attacks was against the Mandalay-Myitkina railway, when they blew up three bridges while also beating back Japanese troops determined to stop the demolitions. The Chindits continued to wreak havoc–at one point killing 100 Japanese soldiers while suffering only one loss themselves–until a lack of supplies and troublesome terrain forced them back to India.
On the night of March 24, Wingate boarded a transport plane at the Broadway Base in Burma, destined for India. The pilot had complained earlier about the performance of one of the plane’s twin engines, but after Wingate talked with the aircrew, a decision was made to take off. The plane crashed in what is now Manipur in northeast India. The crash was so violent that virtually none of Wingate’s remains were found.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill eulogized Wingate before the House of Commons that August: “There was a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny. He has gone, but his spirit lives on in the long range penetration groups, and has underlain all these intricate and daring air operations and military operations based on air transport and on air supply.”