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Burma landings

From The Royal Indian Navy, 1939-45, part of The Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War, taken from a blog by @GibbinsDavid

What follows after a brief introduction are excerpts from the report written by Captain Blathwayt about an SOE / Force 136 operation into the Arakan region of Burma.  The operations to contact Burmese nationalists had the umbrella codename of Billet.  A Billet was an Arakanese or Burmese agent who had connections to the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) or the Burma National Army (BNA).  The Jedburgh teams that came from Europe in late 1944 were dropped with a Billet(s) into Burma to contact the AFO and BNA, to train them, arm them, and fight a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.

Captain Blathwayt’s Jedburgh team consisted of Major Kemball and Sergeant Grinham (W/T operator), with the Billets Ba Saw, Ye Aung and Aung Soe.  Billet operations in the Arakan were codenamed Manual, and this team of six were designated Mouse.

The report is instructive because it provides an insight into a number of tensions concerning Special Operations behind the lines in Burma.  I have blogged it here because it is an operation that did not make it into my book in any detail.

Team Mouse received their operational instruction on 19 January 1945.  Their area of operations was initially to be the road linking the Arakan with central Burma between Tamandu and An, and then they were to follow the road east.  On the map above, An is recognised.  Team Mouse operated from there and east towards the Irrawaddy in support of the landings detailed.

Their objectives were: providing intelligence on Japanese forces; providing targets for air attack; raising guerrillas from the local population; and to attack the Japanese when ordered to do so.  The operation was in support of both Christison’s XV Corps advancing in the Arakan and Slim’s advance on Rangoon in central Burma.  The aim was also to prevent enemy forces from retiring east and attacking the flank of XIV Army’s advance in the Irrawaddy Valley.

The operation did not get off to a great start with confusion over the packing of supplies in the plane, but team Mouse finally took off at 1900 hrs on 25 January.  Unable to find the drop zone where team Lion were waiting to receive them, Mouse parachuted ‘blind’ into an approximate area of operations shortly before midnight.  The party all landed safely, but hearing Japanese motor boats about 800 yards away, the team extinguished their lights thus precluding the bulk of their supplies from being dropped.  Their aircraft circled a few times before returning to India, and the team moved off after recovering the all -important W/T set.  They later found out that the Japanese had been on their drop zone just twenty minutes before their arrival.

The help of locals was immediately forthcoming, and Blathwayt later described the ‘villagers [as] positively affectionate towards us’.  Contact was made with Burma Country Section via Sergeant Grinham’s W/T, and intelligence about Japanese use of the road was reported on their first day, 26 January.  By 30 January, the team was ready to move off, and it is from here that selected excerpts from Captain Blathwayt’s report are presented:

30 Jan.  Locals arrived early to move us East and help us carry our stores.  Most of the journey lay through dense mixed jungle and progress was slow.  By the afternoon we had reached our temporary objectives and halted to wait for guides, food and darkness, under cover of which we were to use the Thechaung – Kolan track which was used by the Japs in daily search for food and labour.  We had to march through the jungle that night with the [W/T] battery and our destines [sic] balanced precariously on a local’s shoulders.  A very cold night.

1 Feb.  Day that was notable for the arrival of the Christian preacher from Maelatmauk with some of his congregation, some of whom appointee [sic] themselves forthwith as our bodyguard.  Asked H.Q. for arms for, a hundred [sic].  Day spent sorting stores, pity that no arms had been included.  Raid on Kolan and Letmauk, not very effective – m/gunned former and bombed latter, but Japs were very disturbed and ran about crying.  Excellent for morale.

Between 1 and 12 February, Mouse built and established a camp at Thechaung with a ‘magnificent armoury’, and on the 8th ‘Training began with .22 Mossberg.  95% very good shots.’  A local food shortage was noted, and Mouse were told that their raid on Kolan had killed 100 Japanese.  Intelligence such as the following was also transmitted:

6 Feb.  Reported: More gun positions at TAMANDU (later known as ‘strong’).

Troop movements to An daily.

Sinhondaing – 1000 Japs.

Thekantaung – still busy everyday.

Rivercraft very busy Dalet and Ohnde Chaungs.

Shaukchon A/T stores, M/T and 100-300 Japs in nearby chaungs.

By 15 February, Mouse was on the move again, continuing east.  HQ told the group it would be weeks rather than months before they were overrun by the army.  Numerous airstrikes were called in.

15 Feb.  Two of our best men were killed on Kyaukpyutaung as they left camp early to get vegetable marrows.  Two Beaufighters responsible, the nearest Jap objective was 1-1/2 miles away.  It struck a poor note after assurance to locals that they would be safe if they kept away from the Japs

16 Feb.  H.Q. reported strike on road Saboktaung w [sic] with 3 squadrons

17 Feb.  Bombing Results:  At least 400 Japs were reported killed.  Bodies were so numerous that petrol was poured over them – then burnt.

We were rather shaken by arrival of 4 Japs in village asking for whereabouts of British parachutists as it would be fatal from intelligence point of view to have to bump them off, at this stage.  And their information seemed good.

18 Feb.  Heard of landing at Kantaungyi.  One Jap and four Burmese asking for us at Auk Kodu now.  It looked as if it would mean bumping them off.  However, we decided not to worry as villagers and our own men were too compromised to give us away, but recced a killing ground in case they came.  A vociferous change of guards in the middle of the night set us all jumping.

On 19 February the food situation was noted as ‘chronic’ because of a rice shortage.  Decided to stay at Atet because of the food crisis.

22 Feb.  Sitrep.  Landing at Ruwya.  West Africans arrived near Dalet.  Warning from H.Q. that no more arms would be dropped as we would shortly be overrun.  They asked about detaching one B.O. [British officer] and W/T to move East, the other would enjoy himself and be overrun after glorious beat-up.  Set out to ambush the road, met man who reported that the Japs were after us area Atet Kodu, sent note to base camp.  Marched about ten miles up the road, halted and made recce but the Japs had built buttresses and foxholes on every feature.  Small standing patrols working within stones throw of each other all along the road.  We could not in fact get on the road without a fight.  Report came in of man at Kyaw who had betrayed us to Japs.  Japs searching for us up An chaung.

Reported could not move East yet as we were in fairly tight corner.

By 24 February ‘food and water difficulties were acute.’  Major Kemball went down with dysentery; Mouse was in front of Japanese defensive positions and the Japanese were searching for them.

25 Feb.  A party was also sent to get the traitor from Kyaw but took fright at a report of Japs pounding rice at Konywa.  Informed H.Q. of situation and how local enthusiasm was evaporating with the arrival of our troops.  (West Africans) and how they wanted above all to operate near their own homes – it now seems as if they had a premonition of the primitive behaviour of the Africans.

27 Feb.  Dubious guide offered to take note to British near Dalet.  Gave him one which was never delivered.  He also informed us, falsely, that British had hospital at Aligyun.

3 Mar.  Took up defensive position up Daletaung chaung (covering Kunya and An track).  Kemball and main body arrived.  Recced the An track – found many traces of Jap in banana grove and R.A.F. leaflets.  1700 hrs deafening outburst of uncontrolled fire.  Everyone stood to.  It appeared that three of our men had walked into three Japs and had fired off 50-60 rounds.  No casualties reported – only that two of them had screamed and rolled on the ground. (However two bodies found the next day).  We pushed out small standing patrols and slept on our Brenguns.

6 Mar.  A small party of Japs (one an officer) came to the [undecipherable] crossing under our ambush position, but someone was light on the trigger and fired before the Japs were in full view of the patrol.  The sword carrier was badly wounded but they managed to get away.  The former’s body was found later in the undergrowth.

By now the situation was hopelessly compromised as the Japs knew exactly where we were and would obviously attack in strength.  So we moved further up the chaung.

Came to the conclusion that our men could never hold a defensive position as their sole bent was for hit and run raids.  Therefore, any holding of a position would devolve upon us three [i.e Kemball, Blathwayt and Grinham].  Moreover, we could not hope to control these men when the Jap arrived in any strength, so leaders weregiven [sic] complete command and sent off to operate independently in groups of 10.  We ourselves retained a nucleus of trusties.

7 Mar.  Monkeys came crashing through the bamboos and we thought at least a company of Japs had arrived.

8 Mar.  A report came in that the base camp at Atet Kodu had been raided and that Ye Aung and Aung Soe had received timely warning, thus managing to hide all the stores.  He came back and ambushed a party of about 20 Japs with a shower of grenades as they clustered around some exhibits.  The Japs came back later and had the effrontery to inhabit our village.  It was also reported that the party at Am [sic, An] had been ambushed during their orgy of rice, but fortunately only the villager who had brought the rice was killed.  An amusing acount [sic] was heard a few days after our arrival by parachute everyone (not excluding the Japs) from Dalet to An were aware of our presence, but fortunately not of our exact where-abouts.  So much was this so that a party of 200 Japs evacuated Kyaw for the jungle for fear of being turned into a bombing target.

The headman of Dalet, we heard, had been captured by the Japs at Letmauk, grilled and allotted to firing squad the following morning.  The timely arrival of a bomber over Kolan prevented this from being put into effect as the Japs all ran for shelter, leaving him to get away into the jungle.  We learned later that he was a pretty thorough collaborationist, so perhaps it was merely a cover story in mitigation of past crimes.

We discussed at length the situation and finally made up our minds to try and get through to the West Africans and to put them in the picture regarding Jap opposition and our own rather mouse-like dispositions of recce patrols all the way to Anchaung.  We came to the conclusion that there must have been an informer in our midst so we resolved not to move off until everyone had been sent off to their battle areas, and noone [sic] was told of the projected link-up.

The night of 9 March was spent in a rice hide they discovered. ‘Everyone overloaded their stomachs and slept well.’

10 Mar.  At 0930 hrs we got to the high feature overlooking the airstrip at Dalet and the great battlefield of 1 West African Bde. (the battle of the 150 Japs against 6,000 blacks).

We decided to leave Ba Saw and the remainder, about 14 in all, while Blathwayt, Grinham and Kemball tried to get through the battle and find out the lie of the land.  We had two guides with us.  It got quite sticky as we approached the airstrip  Eventually we came out on the other side of the battle on some wide-open paddyfields and promptly got shot up with three bursts of LMG by our balck [sic] brothers, regardless of our shrieks of protest a few bars of God Save The King, black blasphemy and vituperation and the frantic waving of a pair of pants on a carbine.  However, they didn’t – or couldn’t – shoot us after all and we sent the guides back for Ba Saw and party.

11 Mar.  Moved South with the Bde.  At first we were greatly impressed by the load carrying capacities of the West African, but were rather disturbed by his lack of soldier qualities and the methods of his Commanders.

Over the next couple of days, tension seems to have mounted between the Force 136 team and the Brigade commander, who wanted to use Mouse to probe forward with the ‘leading section of the leading platoon’ of his troops.

13-16 Mar.  Accompanied Bde. to Shaukchon, cooperated where possible by contacting locals and getting rather dubtful [sic] intelligence.  Cases of rape by W. Africans occurred near Taungmaw.  Kemball left of [sic, for] Akyab.  Range practice, rifle, sten and bren – very good results.

22 Mar.  Kemball returned from Akyab with news that:

  1. We were to wind up as soon as possible.
  2. Pay men off and complete list of those holding weapons for C.A.S. [Civil Affairs Service].
  3. Get names of those who wanted to join C.A.S. Police Force.

But the situation was such that we could not get out of the Bde. box – firstly despite warnings on account of the somewhat ‘trigger-happy’ Africans and secondly on account of the Jap who had all tracks and the Bde perimeter patrolled in depth.  We decided to wait until the situation cleared.

25 Mar.  Ye Aung came in with small party and was badly beaten up by West Africans/  This incident was subject of a letter of complaint to the Div. C.A.O.

26 Mar.  At night Japs infiltrated and fired off a few L.M.Gs, mortars, grenades and crackers.  The effect was instantaneous – panic.  Every African started firing atnothing [sic] in particular.  We were pinned in our positions with Jap fire coming in on one side and West African fire on the other three and with Jap mortars coming down on top.  Eventually even the Jap grew frightened and left the West Africans to fight it out amongst themselves.  Final count: 2 Commanding Officers, 7 Europeans, 35 West Africans killed – Jap nil.  Ammunition expended 70,000 .303 and 264 grenades (of which only 62 went off because they were primed).  However, Mouse still alive.

27 Mar.  Lesson of the previous evening was that we were safer anywhere but with the West Africans.  Mouse left for Daletchaunng by road.

29 Mar.  Kemball saw C.A.O. [Civil Affairs Officer] and asked him to put up the letter about Ye Aung’s assault.  As a result had a stormy scene with G.S.O.1 who sympathised with his West Africans.

30 Mar.  Kemball saw the General who accused him of spreading scurrilous rumours at H.Q. 15 Corps about bestialities of West Africans.  Quite untrue.  He merely stated facts.

Mouse eventually left the field on 19 April after 84 days on operations.

In summary, six brief points of interest, much of which is pertinent to Special Forces teams today:

  1. That radio contact with HQ was essential to success – supplies, intelligence for the Army and Airforce, orders, and prestige with locals – all depended upon the W/T.
  2. That the level of reliance upon the locals was high, and that they could never be sure of their safety.  In this example, there was a suspected traitor in their party.  Other things could compromise cooperation, such as the ‘friendly fire’ incident with the Beaufighters related here.
  3. That Force 136 teams had to be sensitive to local needs, eg tending paddy fields over going to fight or the proximity to home in which locals were willing to fight (to protect their village or to be on hand to work in the paddy).
  4. That being behind the lines could be intense; sleeping on their Bren guns, a noisy change of sentries and a troop of monkeys, and the fear of betrayal – all contributed that sense of being on edge in this report.
  5. That Special Forces teams in Burma were able to contribute to the success of the campaign by providing intelligence from important river crossing points to enemy troop numbers and concentrations which allowed effective airstrikes.
  6. That relations between (at least) this team and the West African troops and their officers was ‘difficult’.  The impression given here of West African troops is one of ill-discipline in numerous forms, which is at odds with many other sources.

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