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Professor Richard Aldrich wrote:

‘During 1948 and 1949, in Malaya and Burma, the painful aftermath of guerrilla tactics employed against the Japanese became all too apparent […]. Wars of insurgency were easy for secret services to ignite, but now looked very difficult to extinguish.  Clandestine struggle might help to evict an occupying enemy, but only at the risk of rendering the territory ungovernable.’

Richard Aldrich, ‘Legacies of Secret Service: Renegade SOE and the Karen Struggle in Burma, 1948-50’, Intelligence and National Security, 14 (4), pp.130-48.

The question that the following seeks to answer is, did SOE’s guerrilla operations make Burma ungovernable, and if so, do Special Operations have Special Consequences?  Relating the war in the far East to the wider Second World War, it is argued that Special Operations may have contributed to Special Consequences, but this should be appreciated within the tapestry of nationalism, colonialism and the many needs of a Total War where the Burma front was not a top priority.

The Situation in 1940

On the 10 May 1940, the same day as Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, three German army groups attacked France and Belgium.  Just sixteen days later, the British and French armies began their evacuation from the beaches at Dunkirk.  

The battle for France was all but over. Hitler had achieved what the Kaiser had attempted in 1914: defeated the Allies in France within six weeks.  After the signing of the French armistice on 22 June, German officers contemplated the invasion of the British Isles. It was codenamed Operation Sealion.  

dover

From: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/hitler_postpones_the_invasion_of_britain

 

The formation of  SOE

Britain famously, but perhaps incorrectly, ‘stood alone’ to face this threat.  There were those who wanted to parley with the Germans, while those who did not want to seek an accommodation with Hitler looked desperately for means to oppose him.  Inspired by the guerrilla tactics of the Boers, the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, and the anti-colonial Sinn Fein, British officials resorted to irregular warfare.  From such a position of weakness, it was perhaps one of the more obvious means with which to strike back at the enemy, both at home should the Nazis invade, and abroad.  Accordingly, in conditions of great secrecy, in July 1940, Britain’s clandestine home guerrilla force was raised.  They were referred to by the suitably non-descript name of Auxiliary Units.  The Aux Units were to defend the British Isles in the event of invasion.  In the same month, three days after Hitler’s Fuhrer Directive ordered the invasion of Britain, the Special Operations Executive’s founding Charter was signed.

SOE was formed by the amalgamation of three existing pre-war organisations:

1) Section D

2) Military Intelligence (Research) (MI(R))

3) Elektra House (EH)

Section D was concerned with sabotage; the D stood for ‘Destruction’.

MI(R) was concerned with guerrilla warfare and special weapons.

EH was responsible for propaganda and disinformation.  

SOE to the Orient

Although originally set up to combat Nazi Germany, the earliest suggestion discovered in the archives to send an SOE mission to the far East  was 27 August 1940.  Official British policy in the Far East was to do nothing that might provoke the Japanese into starting a war.  British strategic planners in the 1930s had recognised that Britain’s chances of fighting a successful war against all three threats – Germany, Italy and Japan – simultaneously, would be impossible.  

In practice, this policy of non-provocation meant stopping the supply of the Chinese who had been fighting the Japanese since 1937.  The Chinese were supplied through Burma and French Indo China.  Japan had occupied FIC after the fall of France, closing off that supply route to China.  HMG then took the decision to close the Burma Road on 18 July 1940.  SOE was therefore sent to the Far East in conditions of great secrecy, to start organising stay behind parties modelled on the Aux Units.   

The leader of what became known as the Oriental Mission was Valentine St. John Killery, chosen because of his knowledge of the east through his employment with ICI, Imperial Chemical Industries.

Despite the secrecy – and sometimes because of it – the policy of non-provocation significantly hampered  SOE’s Far Eastern Mission from doing much useful work.  Apparently, secrets are hard to keep in the Orient, and it was felt by colonial and military authorities that organising guerrillas in South East Asia would send the wrong message to the Japanese.  

But the authorities out in the east had their own reasons for obstructing SOE.  The British military suddenly found themselves being called upon to assist a secret organisation that they were not permitted to know a great deal about.  What they did know was that a load of civilians had suddenly been given substantial officer rank – something that they had had to work their entire career to achieve – and that these civilians were authorised to make claims upon their very scarce resources of both men and materiel.     

In addition, in Europe and the Middle East, SOE’s relationship with the military had not been cordial.  The secrecy surrounding the organisation, its seemingly extravagant costs and lack of tangible strategic results, meant, by 1942, there was considerable pressure from both the military and some politicians to close the organisation down.  

According to the Atlantic Charter, signed in August 1941, Britain and America pledged that countries liberated from Fascist invasion would have the right to self-determination.  

Churchill argued that this did not apply to the Empire, but that has not stopped the perception from growing that SOE helped to determine political futures by arming and training various groups throughout Europe and the Far East.  It is this idea of an SOE legacy that will be examined in this paper, to see whether Special Operations had special consequences in a post-war political sense.

 

The Situation in the Far East

Like the Germans in Europe, the Japanese made the defeat of western powers look ridiculously easy.  In Europe, Britain and France had been outmanoeuvred rather than out-gunned by the Germans.  In the Far East it was both.  Preoccupied with campaigns in the Middle East and Mediterranean, Britain simply did not have the resources needed to fight Japan on equal terms.  This was particularly true when it came to air defence and the Royal Navy.  Singapore was ‘protected’ by obsolete Brewster Buffalo air planes, and the naval Task Force, Force Z, arrived in theatre without carrier protection.  Force Z was sunk on 10 December 1941, soon after arrival in theatre, by Japanese torpedo bombers.

force-z

‘Force Z under heavy attack. The dire condition of the Prince of Wales is clearly evident, she can be seen steaming in circles. Repulse on the right of the picture is shown in a pall of smoke.’ http://www.forcez-survivors.org.uk/miscgallery.html

Singapore fell on 15 February 1942.  This loss was the greatest blow to British prestige as Fortress Singapore was the symbol of British power in the East.  The embarrassment did not end there.  By May, the Japanese had conquered all but the northernmost tip of Burma and seemed poised to advance into the Jewel in the Crown of Empire, India.  The colonial and military authorities had obstructed Killery from fulfilling his directives throughout most of the territories in the Far East in which he was supposed to have organised resistance.  A few left-behind parties, perhaps most famously in Malaya under under Freddie Spencer Chapman, had been hastily deployed.  In Burma, the ‘equivalent’ was Captain Hugh Paul Seagrim, who remained behind the lines until he gave himself up in February 1944.  Despite the efforts of these men, it was, overall, a case of too little, too late.

At this point, it is worth briefly taking stock of the war situation by the end of May 1942.  In the North African desert, the pendulum of war had swung back the other way and Rommel was pushing Axis forces across Libya towards Egypt and the Suez Canal.  In the Soviet Union, the renewed Nazi offensive was pushing deeper into the Ukraine towards Stalingrad.  In the Atlantic, the U boats were enjoying the peak of their success.  In Europe, the US and Great Britain had limited means with which to strike back at Nazi occupied Europe.  These included the strategic bombing campaign, commando raids along the coast, and SOE missions.  

In the Far East, the Japanese had almost reached the fullest extent of their Greater Asian Co Prosperity Sphere.  The Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, FIC, Singapore and Burma had all fallen.  The Japanese navy was virtually unopposed in the Indian Ocean, and the carrier Battle of Midway was yet to determine the Pacific.  The Axis, it seemed, ruled supreme in all theatres of war, at land, sea and in the air.  The first half of 1942 was thus bleakest point in the war for the Allies.  The major concentration of resources was put into the European and Mediterranean theatres, with the Far East at the ‘bottom of the pile’. This applied as much to all the British armed services as it did to the provision of SOE’s secret armies, but this did not mean that SOE sat on its thumb and did nothing.

 

The India Mission

The India Mission was the SOE organisation originally set up to cover India, Afghanistan, Tibet and Iran.  It was established in 1941, and was led by a well respected and competent man called Colin Mackenzie, who arrived in India in October 1941.  Mackenzie was the only SOE head of mission who remained in post for the duration of the war, which should indicate something of his calibre.  He had fought in the Great War and lost a leg, but, like Killery, it was his experience of the Far East working for J&P Coats which contributed to him getting this post.  After the fall of Burma, India Mission absorbed what remained of the Oriental Mission and became responsible for operations across Southeast Asia.

During the second half of 1942 and into 1943, the newly expanded India Mission got itself organised.  The countries for which it was responsible were split into groups.  Group A was responsible for operations in Burma, Siam and FIC.  Group B was responsible for Malaya, Sumatra and the Netherlands East Indies.  Group C covered China.  Faced with the new situation of mid 1942, India Mission’s remit had not only been extended to cover this enormous geographical area, but Mackenzie found that many of the obstacles faced by the Oriental Mission remained – such as the competition for manpower.  Mackenzie got to work, using his relationship with the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, to SOE’s advantage.  Top priority was to establish training centres, and find instructors to train and personnel to be trained so that SOE could start fighting back.  

Military obstructions, however, still needed working on.  Intrigue in the Middle East had ultimately resulted in SOE losing the confidence of many officers in the armed services, including General Slim.  Winning the respect of the military in the Far East was now up to Mackenzie, who was explicitly told in March 1942 to only employ personnel who could cooperate with the military and win their confidence.                                   

Re-taking Rangoon

During 1942-3, India Mission concentrated on establishing the infrastructure necessary to conducting operations into enemy occupied territory.  It also deployed exploratory missions into Burma, but was handicapped by a lack of resources, the most important of which was Asian personnel and aircraft with the necessary range to deploy across the subcontinent.

It was not just men and aeroplanes that were lacking.  British planners anticipated taking Rangoon from the sea.  In August 1942, 5000 troops were landed at Dieppe, essentially testing out both the German defences and the new landing craft.  In November 1942, further amphibious operations were carried out in Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa.  The Mediterranean continued to take precedence over Southeast Asia into 1943 with the landings in Sicily in July, and a subsequent trio of landings in Italy from September.  By 1944, plans were well advanced for the main effort Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, DDAY, and a further landing in Italy at Anzio in January 1944 prevented resources from going east.  Time after time therefore, the promised landing craft for a seaborne assault upon Rangoon to re-conquer Burma were denied.

With resources denied, maintaining pressure on the Japanese in Burma was sought by a variety of organisations.  The most famed for their exploits in Burma are the Chindits.  In February 1943, the Chindits had launched their first offensive.   The Chindits were the brainchild of Orde Wingate, known for his exploits in Palestine during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, and more recently for successfully leading irregular troops against the Italians in Abyssinia.  The initial Chindit concept was to put a brigade of approximately 3000 specially trained troops into the ‘guts’ of the enemy, to blow up dumps and carry out operations against the enemy’s lines of communication.

The arguments about the strategic effectiveness of the Chindits are many, but it is generally accepted that by trekking over the Chin Hills from India into Burma the Chindits showed the Japanese that they could do it in reverse and attack India.  The idea of the ‘March on Delhi’ was born, and the Japanese Army began preparing for a major offensive in early 1944.  Their aim was to destroy British forces on the Indian frontier and prevent supplies from being flown over The Hump to China.

The Chindits also proved another important point:  that large groups of soldiers behind the lines could be supplied by air – something which was crucial to the success of SOE operations in 1944-5.  

The Japanese launched their attack against India in March 1944.  The campaign has been widely recognised as being the turning point in the Burma campaign.  At Imphal and Kohima, General Slim held his nerve and inflicted the largest defeat upon Japanese forces suffered in the Far Eastern war.  The consequence of the Japanese defeat was that it now looked possible to re-conquer Burma overland.  Until this point, taking Rangoon from the landward side was something that had not been considered possible.  

In order for this to happen, Slim realised that he would need the eastern flank of his advance into Burma protected.  This would prevent Japanese forces attacking his vulnerable line of communication as it stretched back across challenging terrain to India.  Eventually, Slim was convinced to use India Mission to fulfil this role.  In March 1944, the India Mission’s new cover name was Force 136.  After the Japanese defeat at Imphal and Kohima, and in the closing months of 1944 as Slim advanced his forces towards the Burmese border, there was a great urgency to get Force 136 missions into the field to raise, train and arm the locals in time to protect Slim’s immanent offensive to reclaim Rangoon.    

 

SOE in Burma

Like much of the British Empire, Burma is an ethnically diverse country.  In the central plains, the population is predominantly Burmans.  The Burmans were the most politically developed people of Burma, and wanted independence from the British Empire.   In the hills that surround the central plain lived the so called Hill Peoples.  The largest groups consisted of Chins, Naga, Kachin and Karen.  Of these groups, the Karen were the largest, followed by the Kachin.  Both the Karen and Kachin had, in the main, remained loyal to the British throughout the war.   

The loyalty of the Karen had, in part, been sustained by a Burma Rifles officer, Captain Hugh Seagrim.  In 1942, Seagrim had chosen to remain with the Karen, as one SOE officer put it, ‘flying the flag’ for the empire.  By December 1943, promoted to Major, Seagrim had been joined by two more British officers and a party of trained Karens flown in from India.  In February 1944, the three British officers were compromised, partly due to the landing of two SIS agents.  The new arrivals, Captains Nimmo and McCrindle were shot dead in Japanese attacks on their hideouts, but Seagrim escaped into the jungle.  The Japanese then started torching Karen villages and murdering the inhabitants, so Seagrim gave himself up to stop the atrocities.  The Japanese took Seagrim to Rangoon where they shot him plus seven of his Karen soldiers in September 1944.

Seagrim’s reputation amongst the Karen was such that it endures to this day.  Affectionately named Grandfather Longlegs on account of his height, the flame of Karen resistance was kept alive after his death.  Consequently, when in late February and early March 1945 four ‘special groups’ led by British officers were parachuted into the Karen Hills, there was a welcome response to the call for recruits to form a guerrilla army.  In the end, approximately 12,000 Karen joined Force 136’s largest mission in Burma; it was called Operation Character.  

There is some speculation as to whether or not British officers promised the Karen a state of their own as an enticement to take up arms, but it is worth noting that the Karen did not demand one as a condition of their fighting the Japanese.  

The Karen levies of Operation Character were eventually led by around 80 British Officers.  Their task was to protect the advance of Slim’s XIV Army as it made its armoured dash for Rangoon.  This they were able to do; Rangoon was back in British hands by 3 May 1945, just before the monsoon set in.  After the capture of Rangoon, the regular army prepared for Operation Zipper, the invasion of Malaya.  At this point it was anticipated that the war would last until at least December 1946.  In Burma, operations by the regular military largely ceased as they prepared for Zipper.

This meant that Force 136 operations such as Character now took the brunt of the fighting.  Force 136 fought to prevent approximately 50,000 Japanese from regrouping in Southern Burma, from where it was thought that they might stage a counter attack back towards Rangoon.  If they did not try that offensive, then they would be in a position to oppose the proposed Malayan landings. The largest attempted breakout by the Japanese trapped in Burma occurred in July and continued into August.  It has been called the Battle of the Breakout.  In July, General Montagu Stopford admitted that in the last month Force 136 had killed more Japanese than the regular army.  Fighting continued into August, with Force 136 teams inflicting huge losses upon the Japanese.

Upon hearing news of the Atomic bomb and the subsequent surrender on 15 August, one Force 136 officer, Major Turrall, took it upon himself to contact the Japanese to tell them the news.  The Japanese did not believe him, took him prisoner and slapped him about. Many Japanese continued to fight Force 136 guerrillas into late September.  By the end of the operation in October, Character accounted for nearly 11,874 Japanese dead for just 22 of their own, a kill ratio of 545/1.

If Operation Character is the most well known of SOE’s operations in Burma, the second is Operation Nation.  Nation was actually one part of Operation Billet, which was divided into three to cover different areas of Burma.  Manual was the codename for operations in the Arakan; Grain for middle Burma; Nation for lower Burma.  Where Character had concentrated on recruiting Karen as guerrillas, Billet was a mission to the Burman population, specifically, it was tasked with contacting the Japanese sponsored Burma National Army (BNA) and the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO).  

The BNA had started life as the Burma Independence Army and had accompanied the Japanese when they invaded Burma in 1942.  The BIA, led by Aung San, had believed the path to freedom from British rule lay with the Japanese and their proclamations of ‘Asia for the Asians’ and their promises of a ‘Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.  Not all Burmans had been convinced however, and while the Japanese established their rule in Burma in mid 1942, two nationalist leaders decided to make the trek to India to contact the British.  Thein Pe and Tin Shwe did not believe that the Japanese had come to Burma to assist the nationalist cause, which was found to be accurate rather soon after the British withdrawal.  The problem was convincing the British that there were Burmese nationalists who wanted to fight on the same side as the British to eject the Japanese.  As far as many British were concerned, Burma had become filled with a Fifth Column who had significantly assisted the Japanese victory in 1942.  

In November 1943, India Mission was eventually convinced to place some trust in Thein Pe, and it is here that the story of Operation Billet began.  From late 1944, SOE supplied weapons to the Burma National Army (BNA), or Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF) as they were renamed in June 1945.  Many British officials had preferred the name ‘Burma Traitor Army’ since 1942, so embracing what they considered to be a quisling army from late 1944 was an objectionable policy.  It caused bitter disputes during the war, involving SOE, Mountbatten, the exiled government of Burma, the Civil Affairs Service, Burma (CAS(B)), General Leese and the Foreign Office in London.  Equally distasteful to the same people was the arming of the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO), an amalgamation of Burmese nationalists with a particularly strong Communist streak in its leadership.  It led to an accusation of SOE creating a ‘legacy’ in Burma, based on arming groups who would later fight each other.  SOE is has been faced with similar accusations for its work in Malaya, Albania and Greece.

 

The SOE ‘legacy’

The debate about an SOE legacy continued after the war.  Did SOE help make Burma ‘ungovernable’?  The accusation made by at least two writers in the 1950s, Donnison and Tinker, is that Force 136 – specifically the head of mission, Colin Mackenzie – informed Burmese nationalist leaders that they would be supplied arms to assist the final victory in Burma, and that if they helped Force 136, the returning Burma Government would be unable to ignore their political demands.  Mackenzie was accused of having by-passed both the head of CAS(B), Major-General Pearce, and the Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral Mountbatten with his decision to arm Burmese nationalists.  In Donnison’s opinion Mackenzie’s unilateral assurance had ‘far reaching implications for the future’.

When Tinker published his two volume document compilation charting Burma’s path to independence in 1983, he again presented Force 136 as having acted irresponsibly by arming the AFO and BNA, asserting that ‘The decision to recognise the AFO, and thereby accept the BNA as a pro-Allied force, was arguably the most important British policy commitment made in Burma’s re-conquest and decolonisation’.

My research has revealed that Mackenzie kept both Mountbatten and Slim informed of what Operation Billet was up to.  All three men were concerned with defeating the Japanese primarily, but Mountbatten was also looking to the future when the goodwill of Burmese nationalists would be necessary for a peaceful transition to independence to occur in Burma.  The need for that goodwill came much sooner than expected with the two atomic explosions which ended the war in August 1945.  The other game changer a fortnight before the Nagasaki bomb was the election of a Labour government in the UK.

Between the election in July 1945 and August 1946, the Labour government backed Aung San, treating the BNA/AFO as ‘favoured allies and not as enemies.’  The Karen became increasingly nervous that wartime assurances were not going to be met: ‘They were told that the Burma White Paper promised a separate hill state under the British’, but the Labour government wanted to maintain influence with Aung San, and supporting the Karen would destroy the relationship.  In an effort to gain reassurance and publicity, in August 1946 a delegation of four Karen went to London calling themselves the ‘Karen Goodwill Mission’.  They hoped to ‘persuade the British government and public that the Karen had a legitimate claim to an autonomous state within the Commonwealth.’  

Having chosen Aung San as the future for Burma, the Karen delegation was given a cold shoulder.  The British Government ‘did not wish to get entangled with Karen political demands which might prove embarrassing’.  This was a bitter pill to swallow after loyally serving the British for close to one hundred years.   There were those in Force 136 who certainly felt that the British had betrayed the Karen when Burma was granted independence in 1948 and the Karen did not get their autonomous state with the creation of the Union of Burma.  

It has been claimed that there were up to 18 SOE officers and NCOs involved in supporting the Karen insurgency against the Union of Burma from 1948, chief of whom was Lt.Col. Tulloch of Operation Character.  Also arrested in Burma for his involvement was Major Alex Campbell, who had served with Tulloch on Operation Character.  So apart from Tulloch and Campbell, how many ex-Force 136 officers were secretly assisting the Karen in their fight against the Burmese government?  The press was continually printing stories about ‘white faced persons’ that had apparently been seen in the jungle with the Karen.

Here’s the opinion of the Foreign Office:

‘The present Karen fighting can hardly be said to spring from relations with communism, imperialism or any other such outside influence.  No doubt there have been irresponsible Englishmen, fond of adventure, and perhaps devoted to the Karens, who have encouraged and assisted them in fighting.  But the number involved has been negligible.’

Burma’s leader, U Nu, had different ideas, suspecting all ex Force 136 officers of being potential plotters.  He had men such as Frederick Wemyss brought in for interrogation.  Wemyss was an Anglo-Burman who had worked on the Nation operations to the AFO and BNA, meaning two of the men he had trained were part of the Burman Cabinet in 1948.  Since many of the men recruited into SOE had originally worked for business or government in Burma before the war, many went back to their jobs.  Wemyss had been a policeman, and had returned to that role.  He was not found to have any involvement with Tulloch, but had been mentioned in one of Campbell’s letters – intercepted by Burmese intelligence – as someone to contact.  

It is true that at least two ‘white faced persons’ were killed along with the Karen leader Ba U Gyi by the Burmese military in February 1950.  One was Captain Vivian, the same man who had been sentenced for his alleged role in the assassination of Aung San.  Captain David Vivian had not served with Force 136 though, but a Captain Godfrey Vivian had.  Godfrey Vivian had returned to colonial service in Nigeria in late 1945.  The New Times of Burma described the Captain David Vivian who was shot alongside the Karen leader Ba u Gyi as a ‘Renegade British Army Officer’, and did not make the link to Force 136.  The other man killed with Ba U Gyi was ‘Mr Baker’.  It is unclear who Baker was, however, there was a Mr Baker who worked at the British embassy in Rangoon who appears to have left the city by February 1950.

Other names that were alleged to have been involved with the conspiracy are Aubrey Buxton, a ‘tall man’ called John Bingley, Jack Percival, Oscar Jackson, Major Tyce, Major Gilmour, and Major Lovatt-Campbell.  Of these, just Lovatt-Campbell was formerly Force 136.  Major Verney Lovatt-Campbell had been involved in Dilwyn operations between 1943 – 1945.  By 1948 though, when he was accused by the Burmese police of leading Karen in an attack north of Tavoy in southern Burma against government troops, he was in Uganda.  The evidence of the FO and KV files suggests that there were just two former Force 136 men involved.  

 

Conclusion

We have seen how SOE was created in 1940 after the defeats suffered on continental Europe.  The inspiration for its formation was a mix of anti-colonial organisations such as Sinn Fein and irregular units such as those raised by Lawrence of Arabia.  What SOE had in common with the sources of its inspiration was that they were all born out of a position of weakness.  It might seem, therefore, somewhat paradoxical to title this talk ‘Special Operations, Special Consequences’.  How can something born out of weakness, that is starved of resources and lacking the confidence of many in the establishment leave a legacy in so many countries?       

It was from a position of weakness that Britain had promised the Arabs an independent Arabia if they conducted irregular warfare against their Ottoman masters in 1915-16.  Part of the Lawrence legacy is the enduring Arab-Israeli/Palestinian Israeli Conflict.  In Yugoslavia and Albania SOE’s arming of Communist guerrillas contributed to the creation of totalitarian Communist regimes.  In Greece a civil war began in 1944, and in Malaya where SOE had armed the largely Chinese MPAJA, an insurgency began in 1948 which lasted until 1957.  

This idea that SOE’s ‘secret armies’ made territory ungovernable is quite a seductive one, and for some could offer up SOE as a convenient scapegoat for the post-war conflict that so many countries experienced.  To be sure, SOE had its enemies within the British camp.  The military, generally, had never liked SOE for various reasons, one being the allocation of scarce resources to an organisation that did not fight war in the ‘right ‘ way; another because SOE officers quickly achieved ranks that career soldiers had worked all their lives for.  The British Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, also had a problem with SOE, mainly because SOE was in competition with them for the same resources and then carrying out operations in what had been, until then, SIS territory.  It is no surprise that SOE was quickly shut down in January 1946, and it was SIS that weeded many of the SOE files.  

It is worth remembering those places which were rocked by violence where there was no secret army raised by SOE to fight the wartime enemy.  In India, over a million died in the partition of the Indian Empire in 1947.  Across the British Empire in Africa, once independence had been granted, violence was sadly the norm in many countries.  In Burma, like in India or Palestine, violence between the various factions began before the British withdrew.  The stakes were high, both for those who were no longer protected by the colonial power, and for those who had been fighting for independence for many years.

In 1945, Burma was awash with weapons.  The nationalists had been trained and armed by both the Japanese and the British.  Those opposing a Union of Burma were largely the Hill Peoples who had made up the pre-war colonial military units such as the Burma Frontier Force and the Burma Rifles.  In that sense, both sides were armed and trained even if there had been no SOE in Burma.  

It would be somewhat disingenuous, however, to ‘write off’ SOE’s influence in Burma and suggest that conflict would have happened anyway, like in other places across the British Empire.  What needs reassessing is the reputation that SOE has been given by some writers.  SOE was one of the tools at Slim’s disposal, and he eventually decided to use it to help ensure his offensive succeeded.  Further, Slim had insisted that Force 136 operations in 1945 came under Army control at the top, and local control on the ground.  This reveals that Force 136 did not ‘bypass’ the Army commander, as has been alleged, and that it became, by 1945, an integrated part of British Arms.  Blaming one organisation’s part in a terrible conflict for the resulting aftermath is too narrow to be sustained, even without factoring in the colonial dimension.  This indicates that we should be wary of the extent to which we perceive Special Operations as having Special Consequences beyond their short term military objectives.    

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