VJ Day and the King’s Regiment

On 15 August we commemorate the anniversary of VJ Day or Victory over Japan Day. Japanese radio broadcast Emperor Hirohito’s recorded message of unconditional surrender, effectively ending the Second World War and allowing British soldiers to begin to return home. VE Day (8 May 1945) had already marked the end of the Second World War against Germany and her allies in Europe. 

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In my post commemorating the anniversary of VE Day I wrote briefly about the Chindits who were the largest of the Allied Special Forces trained in guerrilla warfare, sent into Japanese-occupied Burma (now called Myanmar). They were a multi-national Special Force comprised mainly of British battalions alongside the Gurkhas Rifles, Burma Rifles, Nigerian battalions, Royal Indian Army Service Corps and Hong Kong Volunteers, with airborne support from the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force. 

I would now like to focus on journal extracts and personal accounts from our archive relating to the part played by the King’s Regiment 13th and 1st Battalions who served in the Far Eastern region during the Second World War. 

Collection highlights

The related objects pictured here, including the Chindit badge above, are all currently on display at the Museum of Liverpool’s City Soldiers gallery. The Chindit name was derived from ‘Chinthe’, a mythical beast shown on the badge, represented as half lion, half griffin, guardian of Buddhist temples.

bank note with image of a temple

Second World War Japanese occupation 5 Rupee bank note, issued by the Japanese government.

Japan had entered the British Colony of Burma in 1942 promising them independence. It soon became apparent that Japan intended to maintain control over Burma and key trade routes to China. The Chindits were sent deep behind enemy lines to sabotage Japanese communications during the British advance. The jungle had few established paths and they often had to hack their way through using machetes and locally made Kukris. In dense forest, men could get lost if they strayed just a few metres away from their colleagues. The maps they carried, like the one pictured below, were printed onto brightly coloured silk so that they could be used to signal aeroplanes, but folded very small and easily hidden away if they were captured.

map printed on brightly coloured silk

Orange silk map of Burma as issued to Chindit columns, printed both sides 'NORTHERN BURMA' and 'CENTRAL BURMA', 1:1,000,000.

wide brimmed hat with King's Regiment embroidered badge

Bush hat of khaki felt.

large knife and leather pouch

Machete and scabbard used by Captain FC Freeman during 1944 Chindit expedition.

The first expedition in 1943

The first ‘Chindit’ expedition, Operation Longcloth, included the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment’s 13th Battalion, who marched into Burma in February 1943 - their task was to disrupt communication and supply lines. By the end of March they received orders that their part of the mission had been successful and they were to return to India. Some were sick or wounded and couldn’t make the journey out. A few were airlifted to safety, but many had to be left behind. It was a desperate situation. Private Robert Valentine Hyner was with the 13th Battalion and remembered the orders from their Commanding Officer, Orde Wingate: 

“I want you all to get back safely to India. You have my orders that you can go back with a column, a platoon, or with just one mate, as long as you get out.”

Robert said it was obvious Wingate knew they would not make it as a complete unit and stood more of a chance in smaller groups, his memoirs give us a good insight into his experience:

"We slept that night in a dried-up river bed, with the moon shining very brightly. At about 3am Brigadier Wingate called us together and told us to surround him. The orders from India Command were that we had succeeded in our job and we were to return to India. The Brigadier said “the enemy were to the East, North, South and West and in fact we were bloody well surrounded.” He also said that we had kept at least 100 Japanese looking for each one of us and we had kept them well occupied. His idea seemed to be that if we were split up there would be less chance of a main party running into trouble. He also told us that our last dropping would be this morning. Then the journey back to India would begin. 

Daylight was shining through the jungle; the noise of guns and mortars could be heard very near. Orders of fixed bayonets were given, Bren guns were checked and we were now ready for battle. We walked up the river bed for about 100 yards when an NCO beckoned us to proceed up the jungle path. Branches of trees were falling above our heads, mortar bombs were exploding. By now we were all fully awake. Firing was coming from the tops of the trees, so I fired a short burst from the Bren gun in that direction. No-one fell down from that particular tree, but the shooting stopped. After a number of bursts from Tommy guns by different men, we realised these Japanese must have been tied to the trees and were snipers. During this encounter we had no idea of what was really happening. Suddenly I came across my 2 Platoon Officers who had found themselves a lovely cover behind a beautiful fallen tree and were shouting “Bren gunners forward”. Myself and five other men ran forward to the position indicated by them. We were soon pinned down under heavy fire. Fortunately, where we went, there was a large boulder and a bank of earth, but we could not poke our noses over as they would have been shot off. 

On arrival here at Infal, we had to report to the stores, which had been set up by our own regiment, the 13th King’s, where we were issued with boots, socks, shirts, slacks, shorts, hose tops, razor blades, mess tins knife fork spoon and one pair of sharp scissors issued between us, which had to go to a barber to cut our hair and we had to hack away at our own beards before shaving. Small round baths were produced where we had a bath, washed our hair and de-liced ourselves with someone spraying powder of some sort on to us. We burnt our new jungle greens because they were infested with lice and we then dressed in our new gear of shorts and shirts. 

Next morning I went into Infal Hospital for a check-up. I weighed only seven stone; my normal weight was 12 stone. A nursing sister called me into a room as she wanted to tend my wounds, which only consisted of jungle sores. While she was attending to me she asked why there were no seriously wounded amongst our lot. I replied “if you couldn’t walk you were left. We all knew this before we went into action.” She then broke down and cried her eyes out and had to leave the room. She returned later to do my 30 or 40 jungle sores and put ointment all over them. "

Line of soldiers crossing a river

A Chindit column (or soldier formation) crossing a river in Burma, 1943. The ‘columns’ were trained to fight together or disperse quickly if thing swent wrong, reassembling rapidly by radio contact. Mules used for transport of supplies were vital. (© IWM IND 2290)

The second expedition in 1944

It took several weeks to get all of the survivors back to India. Planning for a second Chindit operation, Operation Thursday, began immediately. This time the 1st Battalion would take part. They would fly in to a jungle clearing nicknamed ‘Broadway’ in gliders and clear a runway for powered aeroplanes. The second expedition took place early in 1944.

painting showing military planes landing and soldiers running from them

Colour print by artist David Rowlands, shows the Chindits, 1st Battalion King's Regiment, landing at Broadway, Burma, 5 - 6 March 1944. 

Private Vincent Worral, serving in the 1st Battalion of the King’s, was part of the second expedition in 1944, here he describes their preparations:

"Yes, today was a very special day. Our beloved leader General Orde Wingate was coming to an ‘O group’ with our platoon officers. Then we would finally know what was expected of us. We all knew that the operation started today, but not exactly what the operation was.

At midnight we would leave Assam by glider and land in North Burma in a logging clearing which had been named ‘Broadway’. Once there we had to put the clearing in shape ready for a Dakota (DC3) landing field, where troops would be landed for an assault on the ‘up till now supreme’ Imperial Japanese Army, who had swept through Burma from Malaya and were now on the doorstep of India. Then, when we had completed ‘Broadway’ we would join up with the other troops for the assault. Taking the Japanese from the rear, we would push right up North for 200 miles or so, eliminating the Japanese we contacted, and just behind a town called Mogaung, the Americans, under the famous General Stilwell, would have an airstrip ready to fly us out to India for recuperation, and then two months leave. 

Up to now there had been no observation of the Japanese in the immediate vicinity of Broadway, but one never knew where the crafty fellows were. So that was it. “so chaps” ended Captain Freeman “get as much rest as you can for it’s a tough job. Be outside on parade at 23:15 hours, ready for the transport to take us to the airfield, and good luck chaps”."

Private Arthur House was also with the 1st Battalion:

"The Japanese searched for us deftly stabbing their bayonets into the undergrowth; as the noise of their search grew farther away, we re-grouped and found five men were missing, Sgt King, Ptes Blundell, Fairfield and Sammy Booth, as well as the American pilot.

Sgt McGee decided to march towards the Chindwin, he was hoping our missing men might reach us there. We reached the Chindwin two days later; Des Thompson and I were the first to reach it and we were surprised to see how wide and fast flowing it was. On the other side was a Japanese officer, complete with sword, pacing backward and forward on the narrow strip of sand at the water’s edge. He kept looking across to our side as if waiting for someone. Eventually he walked back into the jungle. 

We set to work cutting lengths of bamboo to be tired together with our bedding lines. With our clothes and rifle secured on top, we hoped to kick and float across the river. It had worked in training anyway! As darkness fell, we were all ready, then to our amazement, the Japanese arrived a hundred yards from us. Making an infernal racket, they proceeded to cross the Chindwin with storm lamps, floats, ponies and much shouting. Sgt McGee said “there will never be a better time to cross” and he and Pte Milburn waded in. We never saw them again. Two of the stronger swimmers followed them, but within a minute they were back saying that the current was too strong and the water was very cold. In their opinion the non-swimmers wouldn’t stand a chance. 

So now there were eleven of us left and we were still on the wrong side of the river!"

By 1944 the Japanese were being driven back on several fronts. The simultaneous Battles of Kohima and Imphal were a turning point in the campaign in Burma. After the four month battle, the Japanese had suffered their worst ever defeat with 55,000 casualties, including 13,500 killed. The two Chindit invasions, coupled with an uprising of the Burmese Independent Army saw Burma return to British rule in 1945.

My next post will concentrate on the personal account given by Philip Hayden who was the last surviving King’s Regiment Chindit living in Merseyside.