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Paper presented at the Institute of Historical Research, at the 7th conference for New Research in Military History.  Convened by Dr. Matthew Ford @warmatters (University of Sussex) and Dr. Stuart Mitchell @SBMitchell (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst), with support from the British Commission for Military History and Department of War Studies, King’s College

Innovation, Adaptation and Change in War

New Research in Military History: A Conference for Postgraduate and Early Career Historians

26th November 2016

‘Recruiting the Natives’: The Special Operations Executive in Burma, 1941-1945

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in July 1940 after the war on the European mainland brought most of that territory under Nazi occupation.  SLIDE 1

 SOE’s raison d’etre was to continue the fight against Germany by using sabotage and subversion, and by organising secret armies within occupied Europe.  With war in the Far East looking likely, in October 1940, the decision was made to send an SOE mission to the Far East.  This Far Eastern Mission, commonly referred to as the Oriental Mission, was specifically sent with the remit to form left behind parties modelled on the Aux Units then being trained to combat a Nazi invasion of Britain.  These secret guerrilla units were to be recruited from the population of Britain’s colonial territories.

This paper will be divided into five sections SLIDE 2 to illustrate SOE’s experience of ‘recruiting the natives’ in the British colony of Burma.  Its aim, in keeping with the title of this conference, is to show that the adaptation of attitudes towards colonial peoples was slow to change in many cases, despite the preponderance of Japanese forces until about mid 1944.  Those five sections are:

  1. The ethnic composition of Burma and how this was reflected in the colony’s defence forces.
  2. The situation for the Oriental Mission in 1941 and 1942 in Burma.
  3. The evolution of SOE in 1943-44, looking specifically at the training of non-caucasian personnel for operations in Burma.  
  4. The second Burma campaign of 1945 and Force 136 operations in support of XIV Army.
  5. Conclusions

During the time of Britain’s imperial rule, an estimated 171 languages were used in Burma, including four Chinese and twenty Indian languages.  The main groups are illustrated on this map.  SLIDE 3  The majority of the population are Burmans, and they live on the central plains of Burma.  The Himalayan foothills form a horseshoe around the central plain, and are inhabited by the so-called Hill Tribes.  The most populous and well-known of these peoples are the Karen, Kachin, and the Chin.  It is these three groups that the British regarded as the martial races.  The Shan, living in the east of the country on the Shan Plateau, were not – in the main – considered to be fighting men.  

SLIDE 4 To give some idea of the population, this table shows statistics from the 1931 census and approximate figures from 1941 according to Louis Allen.  The 1941 census was lost during the retreat of 1942.  

For the defence of the colony, the Governor had various Burmese units.  Shown here is the Burma Frontier Force personnel figures for 1938-1939.   SLIDE 5 Bearing in mind that Burmans made the majority of the population, you will notice that they are perhaps conspicuous by their absence.  That is because there were just 7 Burmans in the BFF for both those years.  Even the so-called martial races of Burma only make up around a sixth of the total.  The majority of the BFF was composed of India’s martial races, although in fact by 1938/9 many of these men were sons of Indian soldiers and had been born in Burma.  

The main military unit from Burma was the Burma Rifles, or Burifs.  SLIDE 6 They were formed during the Great War and initially recruited Burmans.  In 1927, the British took the decision to stop recruiting Burmans into the Burifs.  This was reversed in 1935 when the Government of India Act  separated Burma  from the Indian Empire and allowed Burma a Legislative Assembly of its own. SLIDE 7 There was no great rush of Burmans to join the Burifs though, and even when war came and the Burifs were expanded from 5 to 14 battalions, there was still a paucity of Burmans.  The Burifs were ‘expanded’ by renaming the BFF, so for example 8 Burif only included the Sikhs and Punjabis seen in the previous table.  

SLIDE 8 So why were Burmans so unrepresented?  They were politically motivated and nationalistic.  Many wanted independence.  Political motivations were encouraged by the idea of self determination bandied around by the Allies during the Great War, by the Russian revolutionaries who had managed to overthrow the Tsar in 1917, by Irish and Egyptian nationalists in the British Empire – and by their Indian neighbours in Bengal.  There were two rebellions against British rule in the 1930s, and the British had used the Karen as guerrillas to restore order.  The British also seem to have thought they did not make good soldiers.   

The nationalist Burmans largely perceived the Indians and Gurkhas in the Burifs as a foreign army of occupation, and centuries old ethnic clashes between the hill tribes and the Burmans was exacerbated by the former’s recruitment into the Burifs and their use in the suppression of Burman nationalism.  Some Burmese nationalists were therefore attracted to the Japanese idea of a Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and began to collaborate with the Japanese.  From July 1940 a clandestine Japanese military intelligence organisation called the Minami Kikan was active in Burma, under the command of Colonel Suzuki.  Between March and July 1941, the Minami Kikan smuggled thirty Burmese nationalists out of  Burma.  The so-called thirty comrades, including Aung San, received military training in Japan.  Later, when Japan invaded Burma, they did so with the Burma Independence Army led by Aung San.  

  1. The situation for OM

While the Minami Kikan was busy recruiting Burman nationalists, SOE’s Oriental Mission began to arrive in Singapore to start preparing for the coming war.  The head of the mission was Valentine St. John Killery.  According to an unpublished Cabinet Office history of the Oriental Mission, Killery arrived in the Far East with ‘no directive for SOE aims and intention in the area’.  This was taken up by the official historian of SOE in the Far East, who argued that Killery went to the Far East with a European Charter which was unfit for the operational differences SOE would encounter in the east compared to Europe.  My research has uncovered a Far East charter written by Killery on 6 April 1941.  SLIDE 9 Killery explicitly addressed the British policy of non-provocation of Japan, but it is clear that he was expected to establish ‘post occupational organisations in British Possessions on the lines of the Aux Units, Home Forces’ and to set up a ‘[t]raining centre for Para-military operations.’    

Such schemes would necessitate ‘recruiting the natives’, but as far as military and colonial officials in theatre were concerned this would be contrary to the policy of non-provocation.   Killery had written in his charter that Oriental Mission activities must be undertaken only in consultation with the relevant military and civil authorities.  These authorities obstructed him to the extent that in October 1941 Killery offered his resignation to the C-in-C Far East, ACM Brooke-Popham.  It was refused, but ‘recruiting the natives’ continued to be an issue.  

On 20 November, SOE London’s Overseas Liaison Officer, Major Alleyn O’Dwyer, wrote to Killery urging him to work separately from the civil authorities so that he could start recruiting Asians immediately.    He told Killery that ‘authorities at home are unaware of the extent of the restrictions imposed upon you by some diplomatic and colonial office representatives in territories in which you are intended to operate.  Let them know and you will be able to get on.’  This Killery didn’t do, for O’Dwyer later criticised Killery for sticking to the part of his charter where he had stated that the Oriental Mission must work in agreement with the local authorities.

In Burma, the situation with the local authorities was somewhat different to, for example, Singapore or Malaya.  Due to the 1935 Gov’t of India Act the Governor of Burma was responsible for the defence of the colony, not the army commander.  In August 1941, Killery visited Rangoon and agreement was reached on the functions of OM in Burma; this included raising and training left-behind parties to counter any Japanese invasion.  Indeed, where most other civil and military leaders are listed as being obstructive in the SOE records, Sir Reginald Dorman Smith is described as ‘extremely cooperative and helpful’.  In September, however, Brooke-Popham visited Burma and reversed the agreement on left-behind parties because the military had plans which would ‘absorb the limited personnel, both European and native’.

But the governor of Burma was not to be outmaneuvered by the C-in-C.  Dorman-Smith was apparently determined to ‘make what arrangements he could to prepare the country to meet the shock of invasion.’  Recruiting the natives for post-occupational work went ahead when Dorman-Smith made a BFF officer, Henry Stevenson, commandant Burma Levies by ‘special appointment’ and promoted him to Lt.Col.  SLIDE 10 Ostensibly, Stevenson was the governor’s man, but Stevenson was trained at STS 101 in August 1941 and given OM code number 0.8200; this means he has an SOE personnel file in the National Archives.

SLIDE 11 There were at least two left-behind schemes that were being implemented in advance of the war with Japan.  One scheme focused on the ‘martial races’ in the hill country, and the other focused on the Burmans in the central area.  In the frontier areas, Stevenson and OM officers recruited Kachin and Karen levies.  By February 1942, OM reported that the Siamese border extending north from Papun was ‘covered’ albeit with ‘limited arms and stores’.  From January, Captain Hugh Seagrim had been organising the Karen in the Papun area, Captain William Evans led the area north of Seagrim in the SSS, and further north Stevenson had been organising the Kachin in the NSS.  Not all the military in Burma approved: Brigadier Curtis of 13 Brigade described the levy scheme as a ‘boy scout show’.  

The second scheme in central Burma was politically sensitive since it required recruitment of Burmans, some of whom might be nationalists.  Consequently, Governor Dorman-Smith was heavily involved, and the plan was put to the Burmese Defence Council.  The plan was for each district in the Rangoon area to have a left-behind organisation where two ‘natives’ ‘in the know’ would recruit and organise ‘toughs’.  These so-called ‘toughs’ would distribute weapons once the British had withdrawn and provide intelligence from behind the lines.  ‘Toughs’ were to be ‘stiffened’ by specially trained ‘thugs’ infiltrated through the frontline that was anticipated within Burma.  The Defence Council agreed to this plan with the condition that a Burman was placed in charge.  Captain Tun Hla Oung, a Sandhurst graduate of 1921, was appointed ‘chief organiser’.  Oriental Mission officers protested about this ‘ambitious opportunist’ and ‘would-be leader of young Burmese’ being given the role.  Dorman-Smith refused to back down, hoping to keep the Burmans on-side.  

The OM officers’ suspicions of Captain Tun are illustrative of a persistent wider debate about the reliability of the Burmese population during the first Burma Campaign.  SLIDE 12  The contention that there was a strong Fifth Column is given added impetus by the fact that when the Japanese invaded Burma they did so with  Aung San’s Burma Independence Army.  Add to this the stories of isolated British troops having their throats cut by hostile bands of Burmese and the Japanese tactic of infiltrating British positions dressed as Burmese and the result was an accusation at the time that ‘All Burmese are traitors.’  Against this view, Dorman-Smith, in his report on the retreat from Burma, reckoned that the traitorous Burmese only accounted for .0003% of the population in April 1942, and that just 0.02%  or about 5000 Burmese had joined what became known in some circles as the Burma Traitor Army.  Bayley and Harper, authors of Forgotten Armies, contend that the rumour that all Burmese were traitors was fabricated by the army in order to ‘justify and explain its failures.’  

SLIDE 13 Military opinions on the performance of the Burma Rifles in the first Burma campaign are also pretty damning.  The prevailing opinion seems to have been that the Burifs did not compare to an average Indian battalion; of the 14 battalions of Burifs, praise seems reserved for 8 Burif, the battalion composed of Sikhs and Punjabis.   The commander of 17 Division, Major-General Jackie Smyth apparently believed that the Burifs should only be used for reconnaissance.  SLIDE 14  The attitude towards the Burmese in 1942 thus seems to be caught in the false dichotomy that all Burmese were traitors and not much good at warfare – unless they were in the BIA.   

SLIDE 15  In June I presented a paper which argued that in 1942, the Oriental Mission influenced the outcome of the war in Burma.  Part of that argument included the rearguard action of a depleted company of Burifs.  SLIDE 16 Under the command of  Captain Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson, an under-strength company of Karen joined OM on the road leading east from Toungoo to Mawchi.  Stripped of entrenching tools, LMGs, and allowed just 50 rounds per man plus two Thompson sub machine guns, the Burifs with levies and a some OM officers held up the attempted Japanese hook through the SSS long enough for  some accounts to assert that they allowed the main Allied army to escape to India in 1942.  SLIDE 17

  1. Recruiting the natives for Burma

As the remnants of the Burma army reorganised in India during the second half of 1942, SOE’s India Mission came under pressure to prove itself.  Operations were planned along the same lines as the dual left-behind scheme of 1941-2.  Soldiers needed to be recruited for guerrilla work in the frontier areas, and agents needed to be recruited for work in the towns and cities.  This latter posed a significant challenge in that, unlike in Europe, caucasian agents could not slip unnoticed into Asian society in Japanese occupied territory.  For Burma with its diverse ethnic composition, this meant that Burmese as well as Indians and Chinese could potentially be trained as agents.        

According India Mission’s 1945 report on training, by the end of the war, India’s training schools had handled about 2500 personnel.  Of these, approximately 1500 had been Asian personnel who did not speak English.  Just 6140 of around 20,000 Burmese troops reached India in 1942.  Competition for personnel from this pool was intense – as the army, the Chindits, the American OSS and SOE all competed for recruits in late 1942.   

The particular difficulties attributed to Asian recruits compared to Europeans were threefold.  Firstly, problems with language ranged from sheer number to the ‘multi-interpretational nature’ of Asiatic languages.  Secondly, filtering of recruits was made difficult because of a greater variation in ‘initial ability’.  Where most Europeans had had a standard schooling, the diversity of experience amongst Asians ranged from urban-based college graduates, through to partially educated but trained soldiers, to remote, rural-based, illiterate recruits.  Lastly, it was believed that Asian recruits did not learn from lectures in the same way as Europeans.  Visual and practical classes were considered more effective, if only for linguistic reasons.

According to the same report, ‘Undoubtedly the most difficult type of Asiatic to deal with was the Chinese element, recruited mainly from the ranks of the K.M.T. through the Chinese Central Government’.  The main reason given for this was that everything centred on not ‘losing face’.  According to the author of the training report, ‘[b]y an astute wielding of the weapon of “face” these recruits, by and large, were more trouble to the schools than all other students put together’  Tactics to save face included feigning understanding, and acting beneath the intelligence of their Chinese group leader.  A second reason given for why the Chinese were perceived as difficult is due to international politics.  Chiang Kai-Shek’s government put considerable effort into ensuring the agents he sent to SOE were ‘thoroughly indoctrinated against “foreign” influence’.  Other Asiatic races were only seen as problematic when they did not receive pay or promotion that had been promised when recruited.

In April 1943, the head of BCS said that it had been hard to find ‘native’ personnel who they thought had the qualities to do the job.  To illustrate his point, he wrote that in late 1942, 300 Burmese were canvassed of which just four were chosen, and they were later ‘discarded as unsuitable.’  By January 1943, however, approximately 100 recruits had been trained and were ready for operations.  

Operation Flimwell was launched in January 1943.  It was BCS’s first parachute infiltration and consisted of two Karens who were tasked with contacting their countrymen living in the Irrawaddy Delta region of southern Burma.  Even if they had not landed on a house and been captured immediately, their chances of success could not have been high judging by other operations.  On 15 June 1943, Operation Mahout was launched.  Sunil Datta Gupta, an Indian, was parachuted into Southern Burma with the intention conducting political warfare amongst Rangoon dock workers.  He was reported missing, and it was not until 21 July 1945 that he was found and re-joined his unit.  On 13 October 1943, two more Indians were parachuted in as Mahout II.  One agent was killed on infiltration, and the other, Sudhir Ghosh, was arrested within three days, however the Japanese released him on parole because his ‘cover story [was] believed’.

  1. Operations in 1944-45

SLIDE 18  and flick through remainder  x4 SOE India Mission’s two best known operations of 1944-5 nearly did not come to fruition. For some parties on both sides, Burmese and British, an unpalatable decision had to be made.  Memories of the 1942 retreat were still raw, especially the idea that a Burmese Fifth Column had hastened defeat.  For many former policemen and politicians of colonial Burma, SOE wanted to arm traitors, Burmese who had committed a crime against the British crown.  Aung San was at the top of a CAS(B) black list.  For the Burmese, a decision had to be made about an alliance with the colonial master whom many had actively fought against in one form or another for half a decade or more.  Memories of British colonial oppression were equally as raw, so being anti-Japanese did not automatically translate into pro-British.  Yet there were some who were able to reconcile these feelings sooner in order to get on with the job of defeating the Japanese.

One such man was the Governor of Burma  In Dorman-Smith’s opinion, the British should start a new relationship with the nationalist Burmans, based on trust.  His reaction was perhaps surprising, considering the coolness of his former private secretary and the complete objection of his former head of Rangoon Police (General Pearce and Brigadier Prescott respectively).  Ultimately, Mountbatten, Slim and SOE prevailed and Operations Character and Billet went ahead, recruiting, training and arming the hill tribes and nationalist Burmans.  These operations greatly assisted Slim’s campaign to recapture Burma before the monsoon, providing 14 Army with the bulk of its intelligence, and by recruiting over 12,000 guerrilla fighters who prevented the Japanese from regrouping to defend lower Burma.


Myths of 1942 persist, particularly that Burmese units did not fight very well, and that there was a large nationalist fifth column whose treachery played a  significant part in the Japanese victory.  As SOE’s Major Battersby wrote, there are certainly examples of these, but ultimately the defeat in Burma in 1942 came down to ‘Britain’s inability to reinforce the FE with troops and aircraft.’  But changing attitudes towards recruiting the natives, both in an innovative special operations role with SOE and in an adapted conventional role with 14 Army, went a long way towards achieving victory in Burma in 1945.  

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