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History of the Burma Star Association

Webmaster: We are indebted to Pauline for this work despite not being well.  Thanks Pauline and we all hope you get back to full health soon

Special Forces in Burma WWII

by

Pauline Hayton

 

In July 1940, a British secret service, called Special Operations Executive, was formed to promote subversive warfare in enemy occupied countries. 

The Far East Branch of the SOE, known as Force 136, operated extensively in Burma, also Thailand, French Indo-China and Malaya. This was not an intelligence-gathering service. Instead, Force 136 officers were to:  

¨      contact indigenous resistance groups

¨      assess their usefulness to the British authorities

¨      operate with these groups against the enemy force

¨      ensure arms were supplied if an armed rebellion would assist the returning British

¨      organise and lead the uprising when it took place 

The success of Force 136 in Burma can be seen by these figures for the four weeks prior to June 27th 1945: 

Allied regular forces consisting of five Divisions and 5,000 men of the Burma National Army killed 1,835 enemy soldiers while Force 136 with only 8,000 men killed 1,790. 

When the Japanese drove the British from Burma and seemed likely to invade India, General Sir Archibald Wavell, in April 1942, ordered the creation of a secret guerilla organisation called V Force. It was to operate along the 800 mile mountainous Eastern Frontier of India running from the Himalayas in the north to the Bay of Bengal in the south. When the Japanese invasion took place, V Force was to remain behind enemy lines to: 

¨      harass their lines of command

¨      patrol enemy occupied territory

¨      carry out post-occupational sabotage

¨      provide post-occupational intelligence 

The frontier was organised into areas corresponding to the civil areas of administration. Each area of V Force consisted of: 

¨      Commander

¨      2nd in command

¨      Adjutant and Quarter Master

¨      Medical Officer

¨      1,000 enlisted guerillas of the race living in the area

¨      Four platoons of Assam Rifles 

The Assam Rifles were a force of five military police battalions maintained by the Assam Government and composed of Gurkhas commanded by British officers seconded from the Indian army. 

V Force officers were recruited locally. By May 1942 the area commanders had been appointed: 

¨      Ledo Area              Lt. Col. R. M. Pizey (a tea planter)

¨      Kohima Area          Lt. Col. G. S. Lightfoot (a police officer)

¨      Manipur Area         Lt. Col. E. M. Murray (Assam Rifles)

¨      Lushai Hills             Commandant Lushai Battalion Assam Rifles

¨      Tripura Area           Lt. Col. Hollington Sawyer

¨      Arakan Area           Lt. Col. Donald 

As soon as the areas were organised, V Force sent out patrols into Burma to collect stragglers from the defeated Allied forces and gave help to refugees fleeing to India. 

To improve the intelligence network, each area split its territory into smaller areas. An officer and a small force of Assam Rifles were stationed in a secure base from which patrols operated forward to gather information. 

The Japanese did not invade India in 1942. This allowed V Force Officers to consolidate their deployments, explore their areas, make defence posts and enlist the local tribes―the Nagas in the Naga and Cachar Hills, the Kukis in the hills around Imphal, the Chins south of Manipur and the Lushais in the Hills, which extended to the Arakan. 

When the invasion did not materialize, the Tripura Area, west of the Luhsai Hills, was disbanded being too far to the rear to be of service, and V Force’s role was changed to intelligence gathering. V Force moved forward through the hills and established outposts in enemy territory in the area of the Chindwin River as far as Kalewa and then across to the northern Arakan. 

By 1943, V Force had become a very large command with each area covering 3,000-10,000 square miles. In December of that year V Force was split into two zones―Assam Zone, which contained the Ledo, Kohima, Manipur, Lushai Hills and Cachar Hills areas, and Arakan Zone, consisting of the Arakan and what remained of the Tripura State area. 

The caches of food, which V Force had built up, were allowed to run down during the summer and autumn of 1943. This policy had serious repercussions in 1944 when several V Force areas were overrun by invading Japanese. Without food caches, it was not possible for the Force to remain behind enemy lines to harass and stir up resistance. V Force personnel had no choice but to make their way back to Imphal and Kohima through the Japanese lines. Equipment and supplies were lost, but casualties were few. With the Japanese invasion, the primary and secondary functions of V Force became redundant bringing an end to V Force in those areas. 

With Fourteenth Army’s advance into Burma, V Force took on a different but prominent role of short-range intelligence gathering similar to the role of Z force, with which it was merged. Officers and men of V Force were trained to parachute into Burma to collect and transmit back operational intelligence from enemy occupied territory immediately forward of the leading formations. This also included establishing contacts with local populations, but did not include undertaking sabotage, guerilla activities or being fighting patrols. V Force was active in the area between regular army units and Z Force, which operated 80-100 miles in front of the main force. 

My interest in Special Forces, particularly V Force, has to do with the type of character attracted to work in these irregular forces. All V Force officers were volunteers who invariably chose to lose rank and pay to be in V Force. The vast majority of young men who joined were brimming with energy, tending to find army regulations and traditions irksome and stuffy. The British army has usually been able to find a niche for the unconventional soldier, witness Lawrence of Arabia and Orde Wingate, leader of The Chindits. The adventurous V Force volunteers joined for the action, excitement, and the danger of working behind enemy lines. 

One such man was Colonel Betts. After seeing action in Abyissinia and the Western Desert as an officer with the 2nd Punjab Regiment, he was disgusted with his posting to an organisation transporting labourers from India to North Assam purely because of his ability to speak six Indian languages. A chance meeting with some V Force officers convinced him to make some changes. Tired of languishing on the railways, Colonel Betts removed himself from his duties ferrying Indian labourers and presented himself at V Force headquarters as a volunteer. By the time the Colonel’s unit traced him, he was far behind enemy lines. Colonel Betts remained in V Force until war’s end. 

Another V Force volunteer was Captain Anthony Irwin, whose restlessness in England was leading him into trouble. The army dispatched him to H. Q. Eastern Army, India in April 1943 where he was appointed Liaison Officer. Within days, he realised the formalities and restrictions of such a position were becoming too tedious for his adventurous spirit. Having met officers involved in guerilla activities and impressed by their Esprit de Corp, he applied to join V Force. “This meant giving up his appointment and higher rank and entering into service in the notoriously unhealthy, inhospitable jungle tracks along the Burmese border, among tribesmen of whose lives and languages he was totally ignorant.”―quoted from the book Irwin later wrote titled “Burmese Outpost”. 

In his book, Irwin tells the following story of a daredevil V Force officer.  

There were only eight hundred yards separating the British and Main Japanese positions, and in this no-man’s land stood a sprawling, deserted village. John, the V Force officer of the story, decided, as only a madman would, to move into the most comfortable house in the village and raise the Union Jack. Even after two British shells landed only twenty yards from his room, John did not move out but dug slit trenches and then settled down to a roast beef dinner courtesy of a cow which had been killed in the shelling. With dinner over, he retired to bed. At midnight, his scout awakened him warning that many Japanese had entered the south end of the village. He pulled on his trousers, grabbed his Tommy gun and ran down the stairs to the accompaniment of a terrifying racket being made by thirty Japanese running towards him from the bottom of his garden. He dived into one of the slit trenches already full with his men and prepared to fight. But the Japanese suddenly turned to the house next door about one hundred and fifty feet away. They surrounded the house and set it alight, then performed a war dance, shouting their battle cry while firing into the air and brandishing bayonets, swords and flags. By some miracle, they had not seen John and had gone to the wrong house. The dance continued for twenty minutes before they tired of their sport and returned to their own lines. When all was quiet, John left the trench to inspect the burning house. He found the Japanese had stuck Japanese flags into the ground all around it in retaliation for John’s audacity at flying the Union Jack in no-man’s land. The next morning, when the Japanese awoke, John heard shouts of dismay from their camp at the sight of the Union Jack flying proudly above John’s house. All that day the flag flew without being damaged by Japanese mortar shells fired at the village. As night fell, the flag was lowered and John moved to another house. This time he was ready to take on any marauders who came to the village, but the Japanese stayed home. 

As you can see, the men in Special Forces, V Force in particular, were interesting and lively characters. As well as Anthony Irwin’s book previously mentioned, another book to read would be “Life of a Jungle Wallah” by G. Peacock. Information about V Force was obtained from the Public Records Office, London from records HS1/212, WO172/4585, WO203/1064, CAB106/178.

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