By Bejay Browne
A Paphos resident has just returned to Cyprus after being invited to Clarence House in London to have tea with Prince Charles, as recognition of his services with the Chindits, the famous special forces unit which fought under Major General Orde Wingate in Burma during World War II.
One of an ever decreasing number of surviving Chindits, 92-year-old Peyia resident John Knowles and his wife were invited to meet the prince, the royal patron of the Chindits’ Old Comrades Association.
With the association’s numbers now so small, the organisation is being wound down and the gathering on November 19 was a form of recognition and a thank you for the Chindits’ services, said Knowles.
“I have met the prince before, but only on parades and in a more formal setting. This was a sit down conversation with invited Chindits and their guests, held in his private residence. He had three drawing rooms with five tables in each. There were eight sitting at each table and he spent time with all of us. Orde Wingate’s granddaughter and her mother sat at our table,” he told the Sunday Mail.
An original if controversial military leader, Wingate was assured a place in military history with the tactics he employed against the Japanese in Burma. He formed and led the Chindits, consisting of British infantry, Gurkhas and Burmese, which operated behind enemy lines. An exponent of the value of surprise attacks, Wingate also made air support for supplies a focus of a military campaign for the first time.
This meant a tough life for the Chindits with their gruelling deep-penetration treks behind Japanese enemy lines where they had to fight in the jungle and were reliant on airdrops for their supplies.
Knowles was born in New York in 1923 but later took Canadian citizenship and became a pilot and intelligence officer with the Royal Canadian Air Force (1941-45).
The 92-year-old said that the bravery and talent of the RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain appealed to his longing for adventure, and his determination to fly.
“I got fired up by the deeds of the RAF pilots, who I regarded as more than mortal. They became my heroes. I wanted adventure and had to wait until I was 18, when I went to Canada to join up.”
Knowles was born in an affluent area of Manhattan, where he lived with his siblings, two brothers and a sister, all of whom are now dead. His father was a well-known classical musician and opera singer, and had studied in Paris.
“But then my father had a throat operation, which is a disaster for a singer, and things went from bad to worse. We had to move to Brooklyn and it got tougher and tougher for my father to make a living as a door to door salesman and doing odd jobs.”
After quitting his job at Macmillan’s publishing in New York, Knowles enlisted in 1941 and was accepted for pilot training – he got his wings with the Canadian air force in 1942.
A young Knowles said that he first volunteered for the flying squadron in south east Bengal, but that they were effectively a ‘monsoon squadron’, and didn’t see any action.
“The Japanese air force had pulled back to Thailand and Malaysia, (as they’re now called), during the monsoon season and I didn’t see any enemy during that time. Ours were more like ‘propaganda’ flights, for who I don’t know, as I don’t think the enemy was reading our newspapers,” he said.
“It was more a case of being up there in the sky and ‘flying the flag’. However, the newspapers reported that we were conducting sweeps.”
Knowles said that as a pilot, he felt disheartened and bored by his lack of action. This would soon change, however, when an announcement for volunteers led him to sign up for the Chindits.
“I was bored silly. Every fighter pilot wants to be an ace, and I hadn’t even seen any enemy aircraft.”
Knowles had already heard of the Chindits and met a few of the fighters who had taken part in the first campaign in 1943. He said he was very impressed, even though they had taken a ‘terrible beating’.
“They were supported by the RAF, but there were no resources, so they couldn’t do much harm and they took heavy casualties. I was intrigued by the whole idea. ‘This is something I want to do,’ I thought, as at that point the enemy was a theoretical thing.”
Knowles was assigned to the border regiment and after only a day and a half training he said he was ‘yanked out’, to replace a fully trained fighter, who had completed his training programme. He was then assigned to the Queen’s Royal Regiment, as an RAF liaison officer, as part of the Chindits.
“Wingate had attracted the attention of higher people in Britain and the USA by this point. This was the first time that supported operations had happened on that scale. As a Chindit, I was part of an infantry column, let’s just say that I carried a weapon and fired it a few times.”
Knowles’ experience in the Chindits featured in a book on Wingate written by Colin Smith, author, military historian and former correspondent for the Observer newspaper.
A Nicosia resident, Smith co-wrote the Wingate biography Fire in the Night with the late John Bierman, and the two men met with Knowles in Paphos, whilst researching the book.
Explaining the significance of Wingate’s military tactics, Smith told the Sunday Mail that in order to replenish his Chindit columns behind Japanese lines in Burma, Wingate invented parachute drops.
“This is where RAF officers like John Knowles came in. Wingate didn’t want just anybody trying to direct pilots over a crackly radio onto a jungle clearing they had marked out. He wanted airmen talking to airmen, people who understood the difficulties.”
Smith explained that during the spring of 1944, Knowles was on ‘Operation Thursday’, the second and larger of Wingate’s expeditions. Most of the Chindits were inserted by air in towed gliders and the exception was a column under Brigadier Bernard Fergusson, he said.
They were required to make a 400-mile trek from the Indo-Burmese border to set up a stronghold in their operational area.
“All of the Chindits had to be fighting soldiers and you had to learn quickly. There came a point when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I’ve got to get out of here.’ It was a tough time, we marched through rain, carrying heavy loads; it was an old fashioned type of military,” Knowles said.
“We were completely beat by the time we got there, we were all walking skeletons.”
Due to recurring malaria, Knowles was eventually invalided back to Britain, as he was not medically fit to fly. He was later assigned to a Canadian bomber group in Yorkshire as an intelligence officer, briefing and de-briefing pilots bombing Germany.
Post war, Knowles worked for both the Canadian government and the United Nations. He is fluent in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and has a working knowledge of Greek and several other languages.
Knowles said that he was one of approximately 18,000 Chindits but that he has no idea how many are still alive, as not all of them are members of the Chindits’ Old Comrades Association.
“At Clarence House there were 14 Chindits, all British except for me. Prince Charles was very nice, and he knew that I had travelled from Cyprus,” said Knowles.
“We had a long chat about the war and how I got involved, I told him that I liked adventure and flying. He’s a good man and I’m very fond of him.”