By Lieut-Colonel Ritchie Gardiner (From the Summer 1989 edition of Dekho!)
Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) was first conceived and established in 1940, and Winston Churchill was closely involved because he was determined that, despite our military weakness at the time, we should make aggressive war on Nazi Germany wherever and whenever we were able. The Commandos were founded at the same time, and for essentially the same object.
The purpose of S.O.E. was to carry out sabotage and subversive operations behind enemy lines in Europe, and by reason of the distinctly political nature of many of its activities it was early decided that the force would be under ‘political’, as opposed to ‘military’, direction and control. The story of European operations has been well told by M.R.D. Foot in his book “S.O.E. in France”, and a number of TV series, although fictional, will have given viewers a broad idea of the type and scope of S.O.E. activities.
Following the successes in Europe it was apparent that a similar organisation in Asia would prow to be vital in the event of a war with Japan, and towards the end of 1941 a start was made in Burma by a group called “the Oriental Mission” (which was the precursor of Force 136), which recruited and trained over 2,000 Karens as guerrillas, and they performed a very useful service during the great retreat a few months later.
The organisation was essentially the same as in Europe, but the codename “Force 136” was used from an early date, and sections were formed in Burma, Siam, Malaya and French Indo-China. At its head was a civilian, Colin Mackenzie, who was initially responsible directly to the Viceroy of India, Lord Linhithgow, but when S.E.A.C. was established, with Lord Louis Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander, Mackenzie and the heads of other secret organisations reported to him instead.
A special RA.F. squadron was allotted to 136. At first it was equipped with Hudsons, then Dakotas, and latterly Liberators for more distant missions. There was a parachute training school at Chakiala, and other schools for officers and wireless operators. All were volunteers, some with knowledge of the country, and others with previous experience in Europe. The head of the Burma section was Lieut-Colonel Ritchie Gardiner (and it is to him that we are indebted for this article — Ed).
The key to operations was the air drop, because the shelving coast of Burma more or less preduded the landing of personnel from submarines. Drops were nearly always made within three days either side of the full moon, mostly in hilly, jungle country which tested to the full the skill of the pilot.
After the 1942 retreat, most of the Karen operatives had been overrun by the Japanese invaders, but they had been instructed to hide their weapons and await the eventual return of the British. One British officer, Major Hugh Seagrim, deliberately chose to remain behind, and was hidden from the enemy by the Karens. By then the Japs had occupied the country as far North as Myitkyina. During 1943 an attempt was made to contact Seagrim when two officers, Major Nimmo and Captain McCrindle, were dropped by parachute in the hills near Toungoo. It was one of the first operations by 136, and it was a disaster! The Japs soon got news of their arrival and surrounded their camp, Seagrim managed to escape, but both Nimmo and McCrindle were killed, and the Japs started a wide-spread campaign of torture and murder in their efforts to force the loyal Karens to reveal Seagrim’s location. He was a man of high Christian principles, who loved the Karens and was positively revered by them in return, and he was driven to offer his surrender if the Japs would cease their brutal ill-treatment of the native people. His offer was accepted, and together with a fellow Karen officer and some men he was taken to Rangoon, where all were executed. His great bravery and self sacrifice were recognised by the posthumous award of the George Cross, and although it is outside this story it should be recorded that his brother, Lt-Col Derek Seagrim, had died of wounds after the 8th Army’s attack on the Mareth Line in Tunisia, and had been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. What a record for one family!
A number of operations were launched in 1944, the usual party consisting of two officers, perhaps an N.C.O., and a wireless operator. Once a party was established, others were dropped in support, followed by a build-up of weapons and explosives as necessary to train the hill-men. At this time there were hardly any Burmese nationals involved; their time was to come when it looked as if we were really on our way back. Once parties were fully established, they would seek out Japanese supply dumps and headquarters. The locations were then reported back to Force HQ in Calcutta, and the RAF carried out some very effective bombing raids.
One operation under a very capable officer was dropped near the road from Maymyo to Mandalay. This was at the time when we were beginning the advance from the North towards Mandalay, and the object was to disrupt traffic by a series of ambushes. But whilst settling in they started to report the daily movements of the Japanese, who had at least one division in the Shan States. The information proved to be so valuable that the Army requested 136 not to attempt disruption of traffic, but to report daily troop movements instead! It was classified as grade “A” information, and the 136 group continued to provide it until Mandalay was recaptured.
By the beginning of 1945, Force 136 had over 70 officers and nearly 12,000 men under arms, mainly from Maymyo to Rangoon All were either behind or in amongst the enemy lines, until overtaken by our troops, and with 18 to 20 W.T. stations they were mostly in regular communication with Force HQ in Calcutta A great many ‘tip and run’ raids were carried out, which forced the Japs to divert substantial bodies of troops to protect their supply dumps and lines of communication.
From a strategic point of view, perhaps the most valuable operation was carried out during our drive down the main road from Meiktila to Rangoon. The Japs had at least one division (the 15th) in the Shan States, and were poised to move it down to Toungoo, where the road from Mawchi debouched from the hills. XIV Army HQ requested 136 to do all they could to hinder or frustrate this move. This led to a whole series of ambushes on the road which finally turned into a pitched battle. The 15th Division was delayed for over a week, and lost its race with the British IV Corps for Toungoo. Had they won, and effectively blocked the main road, it is questionable as to whether or not the advance to Rangoon would have been able to continue as it did.
When Aung San indicated that his ‘Burma National Army’ wanted to desert the Japanese and come over to our side, the Burma Government were bitterly opposed Aung San had more than one charge hanging over him, including murder, and if the Government had had its way he would have had very short shrift. But although the charges were sound and well authenticated, such a course would certainly have caused the BNA to revert to the Japanese side. Force 136 was obliged to intervene at the highest political level, to overrule the Burma Government, but it was a thoroughly nasty business and it left a good deal of bitterness.
General Slim had originally wanted 136 to take control of Aung San and his army, but for various reasons, as the foregoing will have indicated, it was finally decided that they should come under Army command. However, at Slim’s request, 136 provided liaison officers who acted under Army HQ direction. it is impossible to be precise but there is little doubt that much of the work later attributed to Aung San and the Burma National Army was actually carried cut by Force 136 guerillas, who inflicted very heavy Japanese casualties, before, during and after the Sittang crossing.
For reasons that were partly political and partly racial, there were two divisions in 136, which were kept entirely separate, Roughly, the “Burmese Section”, or “Anti-Fascist Organisation” (A.F.O.), worked principally on the West bank of the Sittang. Their motives in running the risks that they did, were hardly pro-British, but to a fair extent pro-Burmese. During the breakout they did yeoman service, but could very easily have been mistaken for members of Aung San’s army. He wanted publicity at that time, and he got it. 136 had precisely the opposite objective because the A.F.O. was very deeply involved behind enemy lines, and their sense of security surprised many who knew the Burman well. On the East bank of the Sittang
however our guerillas were mostly Padaungs and Karens, who distrusted the Burmans and hated the Japs, both for very good reasons. The British who knew them could not help liking them, and it was clear that the Karens had a natural affmity for Europeans, probably because of the long-established Christian traditions in their hills. They suffered much from the Burmans in 1942, and from the Japanese in 1943 when the hunt for Hugh Seagnm was on. Their motives were strongly pro-British and their loyalty beyond question. It was a great worry and a source of much sorrow that after the war we had to leave them to the tender mercies of their big brothers, and the worry proved to be fully justified because the Karens and the Burmese have been at war ever since.
No figures are available for casualties inflicted on the Sittang itself, but in Burma as a whole, from Lashio to Thaton, Force 136 claimed to have killed or wounded about 18,000 Japanese. Force HQ sometimes doubted the accuracy of figures sent in by the field, and from time to time asked for checks. On such occasions the reported figures were proved beyond doubt by methods which nowadays would be considered rather gruesome!
General Slim often pressed for Force 136 to come directly under his command, and although this was never conceded liaison officers were attached to all major army formations, which were informed of the Force activities. After the war, Slim paid the following tribute:
“Our own levies led by their British officers were a most valuable asset and had a real influence on operations. They were tactically controlled by wireless from Army Headquarters, told when to rise, the objectives they should attack, and given specific tasks. They could not and were not expected to stand up to the Japanese in pitched battles , but they could and did in places harry them unmercifully. Their greatest achievement was the delaying of the 15th Japanese Division in the Loikaw Mawchi area, thus enabling IV Corps to reach Toungoo first, but they rendered almost equally valuable services. They had an excellent jitter effect on the Japanese, who were compelled to lock up troops to guard against attacks on their lines of communication.”