Reserved Jewish tailor served as UK's batman in WWII, book reveals

General Orde Wingate’s troops were known as the “Chindits,” a name that came from a mythical Burmese creature and temple guardian.

 ROYAL WELSH Fusiliers, 36th Infantry Division of the British Army, move forward on a jungle path near Pinbaw, Burma, 1944. (photo credit: PICRYL)
ROYAL WELSH Fusiliers, 36th Infantry Division of the British Army, move forward on a jungle path near Pinbaw, Burma, 1944.
(photo credit: PICRYL)

Like so many young people, Daniel Berke knew relatively little about the life and background of his grandfather, Frank Berkovitch. 

After Berkovitch died, Daniel discovered 13 pages of handwritten script about his life and experiences during World War II, and Daniel, together with his own father (Berkovitch’s son) decided to follow the story. In doing this, they read widely, and traveled to India and Burma, replicating Berkovitch’s experiences as well as they could.

Berkovitch was born in London in 1911 to poor Polish Jewish migrants. He received a rudimentary education in a local school, then pursued religious studies at the Gateshead Yeshiva, before learning the trade of tailoring.

When WWII broke out, he enlisted in the British army, expecting that he would fight against the Nazis in Europe, but instead he ended up in the Burmese jungle, fighting the Japanese.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese air force attacked the American and British fleets harbored in Singapore. The attack happened some hours before Japan declared war and joined forces with the Germans and Italians. The following day, America joined the war, and Britain took up arms against Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on America. 

 IN 1943, Brigadier Orde Wingate was in India after returning from operations in Japanese-occupied Burma with his Chindits unit. (credit: PICRYL) IN 1943, Brigadier Orde Wingate was in India after returning from operations in Japanese-occupied Burma with his Chindits unit. (credit: PICRYL)

As a fault of the arrogance of Imperialism the Japanese were considered an inferior race, and their culture and military potential disregarded. They regarded their leader, Emperor Hirohito, virtually as a god, and their military leadership subscribed to a code based on the ancient samurai tradition of bushido,  a kind of samurai chivalry of its own, which held that the greatest honor that a warrior could experience was death on the battlefield. They were unable to understand why Allied soldiers did not adhere to a similar code and, as a result, treated them in a vicious and brutal fashion.

On December 8, 1941, the members of the King’s Regiment were instructed to pack their bags, and it was at this stage that Berkovitch found himself joining thousands of troops who were being loaded onto ships bound for Africa, on the way to India to fight against the Japanese in Burma. Traveling around the coast of Africa the ships docked and the troops disembarked at Freetown in Sierra Leone. On Christmas day 1941, they again boarded ships, and continued to Durban, where 3,000 troops were greeted by South Africans. They spent several enjoyable days in Durban, before being loaded onto different ships and sailing on to India.

During the voyage they crossed the equator, landing at Bombay at the end of January 1942. From Bombay, there was a sweltering, cramped 28-hour train ride to Secunderabad, and a further journey to Central India, for training. There, the King’s Regiment became part of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade, the various sections of which would form British Maj. Gen Orde Wingate’s Long Range Penetration Force, which would march into Burma and fight against the Japanese.

Gen. Archibald Wavell, one of the most experienced generals in the British army, was put in command. He knew that intelligence about Burma was needed if there was to be any hope of fighting the Japanese. He requested that Wingate – who had served under him  and who had trained guerilla forces previously – should be called to present his views on how long-range penetration operations could change the course of the war. Wingate was required to put into effect a plan to fight the Japanese, who were masters in jungle warfare.

Wingate was described by Berkovitch as a man of powerful intellect, courage and determination – supremely self-confident, with ruthless and unorthodox ways, and a very domineering element in his character and methods. But he could also be very gentle in giving orders to his men, as they harassed the enemy with their guerilla tactics. He made it clear that the aim was to take part in the recapture of Burma.

His troops were to penetrate behind enemy lines, create havoc, distract the Japs and cut all lines of communication. Fighting would be extremely difficult, as they would be fighting under extremely difficult jungle conditions. The jungle itself could defeat the troops.

Carrying heavy packs and weapons they were required to cut through heavy undergrowth and thick-growing jungle; traverse mountain ranges and rivers; cope with hazardous weather and monsoons; deal with nasty insects, wild animals and poisonous snakes; seek for their own food and fresh water; and all this over and above attacks from the Japanese. Being initially trained in India, the men soon found that jungle conditions in Burma were far more stringent and harsher than those in India. On one occasion, Berkovitch managed to find life-saving water by following an elephant tracks to a stagnant pool, in which the elephant peed.

Wingate’s troops were known as the “Chindits,” a name that came from a mythical Burmese creature and temple guardian. They were regarded as Wingate’s brainchild, and it was they who began the fight back against the Japanese. The retaking of Burma became the longest, and one of the bloodiest campaigns of WWII. At its conclusion, the Burma Allied forces had turned defeat into victory.

BERKOVITCH SERVED in the first Chindit expedition, known as Operation Longcloth. He became batman to Wingate, who drew up Maxims for all Officers, which stipulated behavioral requirements for his men, and native Burmese. He preferred working with what he called “average men,” mainly in those in their late 20s and early 30s, who had shown their willingness and ability to complete their training to very high levels of fitness.

In marching across the Indian border to Burma, Wingate made it clear that the decision to continue lay with the individual, and if anyone did not want to go, he could back out. Bad behavior was to be severely punished, and the Chindits were given to understand that, if a man became ill or injured, he might have to be left behind, come what may.

The strength and endurance of the Chindits were amazing but in 1944, large groups of them were taken prisoner by the Japanese, who made them march hundreds of miles to POW camps. Living conditions for prisoners were primitive and cruel. The behavior of the Japanese was brutal. The atrocities they committed against their prisoners and the natives of the countries they occupied included enslavement, beatings, torture, starvation, rape, beheadings, medical experiments and cannibalism. In some ways, their treatment of their prisoners was equivalent to, or even worse than that of the Nazis.

Rumors circulated that the Japanese guards had received a “Kill all” command, ordering that all prisoners should be killed rather than fall into Allied hands. In many cases, this command was carried out, but other guards were fearful of what would happen to them if and when the Allied forces arrived, and so demurred.

After the war, in a shameful engagement in realpolitik, US Gen. Douglas MacArthur worked to obtain immunity for the perpetrators of medical experiments, in exchange for the data they had collated. Shiro Ishii, Japanese microbiologist, was never prosecuted and after the war he advised the US on the development of bioweapons.

By some miracle, Berkovitch survived and later returned to London where he took refuge in a little room, using his sewing machine to make costumes for children. He did not tell people about his experiences in Burma, doubtless suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome.

Wingate died in a transport plane crash in Burma on March 24, 1944. British Prime Minister Churchill said of him: “There was a man of genius, who might well have become also a man of destiny.”

Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion believed that, had Wingate survived the war, he would have become the first chief of staff of the IDF. Today, he is as well known in Israel as he is in Britain. Often spoken of as the father of the IDF, his stated aim was to make possible a government of the world – in which all men can live at peace and with equal opportunity of service. ■

CAPTURED BEHIND JAPANESE LINES With Wingate’s Chindits – Burma 1942-1945By Daniel BurkePen and Sword Military184 pages; $39.95