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The Mergui Archipelago: Picture Credit Tom H Trip Advisor upload
The title for this post comes from the identification password that was used to exfiltrate the Corton team from Elphinstone Island in October 1944. The correct reply was ‘We don’t like them either.’ The operation’s commanding officer was critical of such a long identifier; he wrote ‘I consider a long phrase for a password inadequate, since had a Japanese folboat approached’ they would have been shot before ‘monkey nuts’ were offered.
‘Monkey Nuts are Rotten’, ironically, seems to sum up the operation, judging by Capt. Green’s post operational report. This post aims to give some insight into the difficulties of clandestine operations but the setting is of a different nature to other posts on this website. This operation was submarine launched, and its area of operations was an island, launched primarily for intelligence rather than aggressive patrolling…
The Mergui Archipelago is billed in today’s tourist brochures as one of the last unspoiled places on earth:
‘In the novel Biggles Delivers the Goods by the British author and RAF pilot Captain W.E Jones, the protagonist Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth flies over the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar on his way to fight the Japanese. The passage reads, ‘To the right, the horizon was defined by a long dark stain that was the forest-clad hinterland of Lower Burma. Below the aircraft, like a string of green beads dropped carelessly on blue velvet, were the islands of the archipelago, lonely, untouched by civilisation …’
Located in the Tanintharyi Region, the southern strip of Myanmar that borders Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago (Myeik Archipelago) is one of the most sumptuous and unspoilt segments of Southeast Asia. There are estimated to be 800 islands scattered across the 400 square kilometres of the Andaman Sea. The archipelago features virago islands, coral reefs, tropical fish, lagoon caves and undisturbed wildlife.’ See Sampan Travel
Map credit: Enacadamic
The island now called Thayawthadangyi was called Elphinstone Island before Burmese independence. The SOE operation to the island was tasked with setting up a W/T transmitter on the island and acting as a relay station; to collect intelligence about local boats and collect intelligence from the mainland; to report enemy air and sea activity and, lastly, to look into the possibility of establishing caches of stores for future operations. The personnel for the operation, codenamed Corton, were Capt. K.E. Green, Lt. A.M. McNab, three Anglo-Burmese other ranks and two W/T operators (one British and one Indian). Corton I was launched on 31 January 1944 and ran until the night of 5/6 April. Corton II ran from 5/6 April through to 14 October 1944.
According to Captain Green, malaria was ‘the main cause of the failure of this operation’, but it seems the disease was just one of their many difficulties. There is a whole section of the report dedicated to ‘weather’, which, you might say, is typically British. The diary entry for July might give you some idea of when to plan your journey to Mergui:
‘July 1 – 31 – Nothing occurred during July of any importance. It rained for 27 days without stopping and it was impossible to have any lookouts or patrols during this month.’
July is, of course, monsoon season. In this weather their .32 pistols rusted quickly, especially because the holster collected oil and water. Green reported that a waterproof holster would have been most welcome as the pistol was ‘never dry’. Additional problems with firearms included the magazine for the pistols. They became weak ‘within four months’ even with the precaution of resting the spring and loading only four rounds. Sten magazine springs also weakened, but their .22 rifles apparently kept well.
The wet conditions also caused ‘great trouble about footwear’, wrote capt. Green. Rubber shoes lasted four days on patrol, and shoe laces rotted extremely quickly. Now barefoot, Green asked for a size 10 boot to be supplied. He was quite angry when he received a size 9 instead. In his opinion, the shoes ‘used by planters in this area during peacetime’ would have been a better option as they lasted six months and were ‘extremely light.’
Other things that perished in the wet conditions were their Folboats because the rubber was of such poor quality. By contrast the Y Type dinghy had rubber of a much higher quality, and so lasted. Medical equipment was not packaged in water tight containers so their supply of pills perished and bandages and lotions became contaminated with rust. Iodine and dettol, for example, were in rusted tins.
Even if they had had serviceable medical kits, their medical training before deployment was ‘insufficient’. Green’s opinion was that it was his civilian experience of working in the tropics which got them through. It was all very well being prepared for tropical diseases such as malaria, but ‘toothache, earache, a stiff neck, indigestion, flatulence, etc’ could make a man ‘useless in action’. Sgt Jarrett had six weeks of tummy trouble, for which Green thought concentrated peppermint would be a remedy. After asked for, he received six cheap penny packets, which, he wrote, was ‘not funny, but pathetic.’ During Corton I, the entire team had the runs and ‘bright green stools’. Green wondered if there was sulphur in the water supply. The men also suffered from Orchitis, inflammation of the testicles. McNab broke out in boils shortly after arriving, approximately 20-30 of them.
It wasn’t just the medical training which Green felt was inadequate. When Corton II landed, the surf was rough, and the untrained men bringing the dinghies of supplies ashore managed to sink two of them. Their entire biscuit ration was wiped out by sea water. The two W/T operators were not jungle trained or boat trained, and only half trained as W/T operators. Green wrote that these were ‘grave errors, obviously’. What might explain such poor preparation is that at this point in early 1944, SOE was still trying to achieve results to justify their existence. This could just mean getting operations into the field, and this sort of corner cutting infers considerable pressure.
Corner cutting aside, there was still considerable lessons to be learnt and developments to be made, from submarine landing procedures to operational food supply. The ‘brassed tins of bacon were the only tins which did not blow.’ Weevils got into the flour and oats, and the tins of pressed fruit either had flies in them or were fermented. The dahl they were supplied was the type the Burmese used to feed their cattle, so Green asked for a better quality for human consumption; ‘Shakapara biscuits are rather tiring’, Green wrote. Of the 56lbs of curry powder they were issued, they only used 6lbs, the same weight of chocolate that they consumed. More seriously, the tins of petrol leaked, and this was on the submarine en route to Elphinstone Island. The Captain of Adamant had not been told that petrol was being brought on-board, and the tins had been stacked by the sub’s diesel engine.
It seems that the Japanese were less of an enemy than the weather and inexperience. This is not to say that Corton was a waste of time. Testing equipment and procedure on a live operation provides invaluable lessons, and all indicators suggest that SOE acted upon many of these lessons and were thus able to not only survive until the end of the war, but to carry out some spectacularly successful operations on the Burmese mainland from late 1944.