Commando in Cachar

March 2012

We are indebted to Julie Warren for this great and descriptive
record of the work the Commandos did in Cachar

Thank you Julie.


  March 4 2012 




A Commando unit is known to be on the coast 60 miles west of our own positions. These troops are highly trained in seaborne landings. They are lightly equipped and are capable of long range penetration. Captain Dashwood, the notorious English spy, is at present employed as Intelligence Officer of this unit. A reward of 5 rupees alive, 10 rupees dead is offered to any man capturing him.

Captain Tolunghito

Commanding Officer, 1 Company, 1/111 Regiment


                               28 April 1944[i]

No. 5 Army Commando arrived at Silchar station on 11 April 1944 after an uncomfortable, 27-hour train journey. 2 weeks earlier they had held a memorial service for their 25 comrades killed during heavy fighting on the Arakan coast of Burma.

To the east of Silchar, the Japanese were battling the 14th Army at Imphal putting Assam, with its important communication links, under threat so the Commandos had been brought in to patrol the tea gardens of Cachar and safeguard the railway line and the Bishenpur jeep track.

From their riverside base camp in the Kasipur Tea Gardens, No.5 Commando was responsible for patrolling a broad area. The first round of patrols was carried out from the Digun Tea Estate and they had to negotiate the terrain as far as Mahur, 12 ½ miles to the north, and south to Urabil. Although there was little chance of them having to take on the enemy, they may well have embarked on their first patrol with some trepidation as they would be entering the domain of the Nagas, a people who were rarely mentioned without the epithet ‘head hunters'.

Each patrol lasted for between 3 and 5 days and they covered an average of 12 miles in a day. They would rise at dawn and aim to be on the move by 6 in the morning, pausing at the hottest part of the day to rest and eat. The rations they carried were supplemented with what the jungle could provide and they would shoot monkeys and deer, skin them, cut them into small chunks and stew them with jungle fern and bamboo shoots or they would buy cobs of corn from the villagers and eat them raw.

Their meals were also significantly boosted by the Nagas who, far from being fearsome warriors, lurking in the undergrowth and waiting to murder the Commandos for their heads, were "not only helpful but extraordinarily hospitable - embarrassingly so at times - to the infinite confusion of more than one patrol leader!"[ii]

While some of the Commandos were out on patrol, those back at the Kasipur Tea Gardens base camp took part in a training exercise called ‘Operation Alethangyaw' designed to practise what had been learnt during their recent action in Burma and to see if anything could be improved on for the future. Half of the unit acted the part of the Japanese enemy forces and took on the other half who played themselves. Supporting roles were given to the Tea Planters who had given their full cooperation in organising the exercise.

The ‘Japanese', led by Lieutenant Wunlunghito, were to patrol from Lakhipur to Kalirtok, which had been designated as the sea coast, and keep a continuous watch for the ‘British' who would be making a fictional beach landing at another of the villages in the area before attempting to discover their enemy's position. Both sides were warned that they should avoid damaging the tea gardens and that under no circumstances should they interrogate the local women!

Which side won is not recorded but once ‘Operation Alethangyaw' was over, life back at base camp became rather dull. As the monsoon gathered strength the drip, drip of the rain rose in tempo and the mud levels crept up to ankle depth. There were few entertainments to be had - just a canteen, a cinema and a Chinese restaurant in Silchar - and swimming was stopped when it was thought the river may be infected with cholera bacteria. No. 5's officers however, had managed to find a new diversion at one of the neighbouring tea estates.

The Balladhun Tea Estate had rather an unfortunate history. In 1880 it had been raided by the Nagas, its houses burned and the manager, Peter Blyth, and several of his labourers had been killed and then, on the night of 11 April 1893 the house of the Planter, at this time a Mr Cockburn, was "attacked by a body of men."[iii] They killed the watchman who was asleep on the veranda, entered the house, murdered Cockburn and chased the local woman he was cohabiting with into the jungle, injuring her so badly that she too died a few days later.

By 1944 the Planter at Balladhun was James Sinclair[iv], a man who hailed from country very familiar to the Commandos: Braemar in the Highlands of Scotland. Braemar had been the location of the Commandos' former Mountain and Snow Warfare Training Camp, and the officers enjoyed dropping in on Sinclair whenever they had the chance, to chat about the homeland, listen to his jungle tales and enjoy more civilised surroundings than they had back at the camp or out on patrol.

Sinclair's white bungalow stood on top of a tillah (hillock) of about 40 feet high and if he was sitting out on his large, open veranda, he could see if anyone was approaching through the patchwork of surrounding tea bushes. One day he caught a glimpse of someone making their way along the path leading to his bungalow and assuming it was one of his new Commando friends he called out, "What is the hurry? What about a cup of tea?"[v] The man who climbed the steps of the tillah towards him wasn't from No. 5 though; he was Lieutenant Colonel James Williams, better known as ‘Elephant Bill'.

The rangy, sunburnt Williams had settled in Burma in 1920 after leaving his native Cornwall for a job with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation as an Elephant Manager in the teak forests. In February 1942 he had helped to evacuate 20 women and 15 children from Burma to India, leading the party to safety and using a train of elephants to carry their supplies. It was after this that he was invited to become Elephant Advisor to the Eastern Army and eventually became Commander of the 14th Army's Elephant Company.

When ‘Elephant Bill' arrived at James Sinclair's bungalow at the end of April 1944, he had just completed another epic journey. His party, which had departed from the foothills to the west of the Imphal Plain on 5 April 1944, comprised 45 elephants, 40 Karens, 90 elephant riders and attendants, 64 refugee Ghurkha women and children and 4 officers.[vi] Their 170-mile journey had involved them crossing "mountains 6,000 feet high - higher than Hannibal's elephants went when they crossed the Alps to attack Rome."[vii]

It must have been during a visit to the Balladhun bungalow that one of No. 5's officers learned of Elephant Bill's presence in the area and realising what a unique opportunity it would be, he arranged for representatives from the Commando unit to spend some time undergoing training at the Elephant Camp, now settled a couple of miles from the tea estate. Those who attended learnt more about feeding themselves in the jungle and they shot, skinned and cooked giant tree squirrels, pigeons, barking deer and monkeys and foraged for edible, jungle vegetation. They also spent time with the Burmese Karen people, learning about their customs and their way of life.

As the rains abated it was only a matter of time before No. 5 Commando were sent into a more active role and on 24 July 1944 they received a movement order. By 27 July they were gone - no doubt with greatly replenished tea stocks!

Julie Warren would love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Commandos' time in Cachar or about James Sinclair and can be contacted on jw34007ATgmailDOTcom

[i] No. 5 Commando War Diary, May 1944, appendix 1, Exercise Alethangyaw, Japanese Intelligence Summary

[ii] The Third Jungle Book, No 9, March 1946

[iii] Calcutta High Court, Queen-Empress vs Sagal Samba Sajao And Ors. on 11 December 1893

[iv] Thank you to Dave Lamont for his help with information about James Sinclair and his bungalow

[v] Elephant Bill by JH Williams

[vi] Ditto

[vii] The Manchester Guardian, 31 July 1958