December 1944, bridging the Chindwin. Photo credit: IWM open source, click HERE
The following are the comments made in the report of Maung Nyein Maung on completion of his SOE / Force 136 training course in India:
‘Industry and Keenness: Extremely keen and industrious.
Intelligence: Quick, shrewd, cunning and resourceful. Good secondary education. An excellent linguist, English Bengali, Burmese and Urdu.
Character: Patient and determined. Calculating. Drinks excessively – has been drunk on three known occasions during the course.
Personality: Sociable, friendly and in fact rather gushing. A man of the world. A strong personality.
Cover Stories: Average.
Leadership: He has the intelligence to organise, but not the stability required for a leader.
Suitability: Second in command of a small party.’
Maung Nyein Maung was born on 10 April 1899 in Monywa, a town on the River Chindwin about 128km west of Mandalay. He was an Indo-Burman Buddhist, and a second record for him is filed under the name Nirmal Chandra Mukerji, with a second alias, Maung Gyi, added in pencil. His next of kin is recorded as ‘MRS S.K. MUKERJI (OR HEIRS) C/O RAI SAHIB S.K. MUKERJI DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF GOV’T TIMBER SUPPLIES’. He was educated to degree level and spoke four languages.
Maung Nyein Maung was employed by SOE from July 1944; his report above originates from his training course at the School Of Eastern Interpreters (SEI) in India. Also known as the Eastern Warfare School (Bengal), SEI was located approximately 19km from Calcutta, and training there included ‘security, surveillance, agent management, and the planning of subversive organisations.’ (p.79) Maung Nyein Maung was trained there from 8 July to 16 August 1944 with two others. SOE assigned codenames to different nationalities who they employed as agents; you can read about Nationalist Chinese ‘Pandas‘ here, for example; Burman agents were known as ‘Panthers‘. As a collective, the officer commanding SEI, Lt.Col. Windle, wrote that the Panthers were a ‘very happy, pleasant and hardworking party’ who did ‘everything with enthusiasm’.
At the next stage in their pre-operational training, however, there was a problem. All three Panthers failed their parachute course, for one reason or another’. This meant that they could not be dropped into Burma as intended, so their operations, codenamed Kingshead, Pedantic and Overbowl had to be re-thought. Maung Nyein Maung failed on medical grounds. He was described as ‘[w]iry by constitution but getting on in years, and in very poor condition.’ His medical report continued ‘[h]as shortness of breath and should be restrained from any physical activities for about a couple of months.’ Since Maung Nyein Maung could not jump out of an aeroplane, his insertion into Burma would have to be overland, but it was recommended that if there was time, his health needed attention ‘if he has to do any long walking.’ Just over a month later, Maung Nyein Maung set out on his operation, codenamed Overbowl.
Overbowl, along with Kingshead and Pedantic, were reassessed by Major Battersby because of the parachute course failure and brought into the Billet family of operations. Major Battersby wrote:
‘As operation BILLET has more far-reaching possibilities than any of these operations, the limits of whose objectives are no more than tactical, we propose forming them into subsidiary companies of the BILLET combine, and subordinate some of their less important tasks to the all-important tasks of re-establishing contact with Thakin Soe’s Group in Upper Burma and of influencing the BDA at the right moment.’
With this in mind, the tasks of Overbowl were:
- To send out agents with information of a military nature
- Prepare a reception at a prearranged drop zone to receive stores and pigeons
- Send pigeons back with names of Thakins and BDA leaders, as well as numbers of BDA in the area.
- Arrange for any leaders of the Thakins or BDA to be sent to India for liaison
The Thakins were Burmese Nationalists, and the BDA was the Burma Defence Army, formerly known as the Burma Independence Army and led by Aung San.
On 19 September, Overbowl left Calcutta by plane for Imphal. The plan was for Maung Nyein Maung to walk into Burma from Imphal to carry out the tasks above. His destination was Taungtha in Myingyan District. From Imphal to Taungtha is over 600km, Taungtha being southwest of Mandalay. His line of march was the Chindwin River.
Map credit: Steve Rothwell, Click HERE
From Imphal, Maung Nyein Maung went to Tamu with Captain Trutwein, where he was ‘put up’ by the Civil Affairs Service (CAS) Burma. The tent he was issued leaked and ‘food supplied was totally inadequate for the needs of a healthy man, besides it is strongly suspected of being the left-overs of the officers’ mess.’ It appears Trutwein and Maung Nyein Maung went back to Imphal and then returned to Tamu between 4 – 12 October. At Tamu, Maung Nyein Maung was introduced to Maung Po Aye who was to guide him to Gaduchaung. At Gaduchaung, a new guide, Maung Mya Sein was employed. Maung Mya Sein had been ‘forced to work under the Japs but all his sympathies are for the British.’ With Maung Mya Sein, Maung Nyein Maung crossed the Chindwin to the eastern side.
Maung Nyein Maung wrote in his report that ‘everywhere on the east bank [of the Chindwin] there were Jap spies. Any stranger was regarded as a British spy and liable to be shot.’ The pair made it to Kindat where Maung Mya Sein was left and a new guide took Maung Nyein Maung on to Masein. Conditions for the locals was harsh. Maung Nyein Maung described how their ‘[c]lothes were in tatters’ and rice and salt were not available. What food existed was being sold at ‘exorbitant prices which could never be dreamt of.’ In his opinion, ‘[t]he people were longing for the British to return.’
From Kindat, Maung Nyein Maung made for Masein, which had been abandoned due to bombing. That being the case, Maung Nyein Maung was unable to find any of his contacts, so continued on to Kaset, but ‘as Jap spies were seething all over’ it was ‘too hot’ for him to stay. He decided to cross back to the western side of the Chindwin, and was shot at by spies on the way. Feeling a bout of malaria coming on, Maung Nyein Maung decided to return to British lines. Returning to Yu-Wa, Maung Nyein Maung contacted Maung Mya Sein as arranged.
One of the leaders that Maung Nyein Maung had tried to contact during his travels was codenamed Ariaswamy. Maung Mya Sein told Mung Nyein Maung that Ariaswamy was ‘willing to come over but wanted to be sure of [his] credentials.’ Apart from Ariaswamy, Maung Nyein Maung had sent agents to contact other leaders, and made sure that those agents carried out their task by having other agents spy on them to make sure ‘really did the job required.’
Interestingly, it is at this point that Maung Nyein Maung’s record mentions the Kin Scouts. The Kin Scouts rarely get a mention in the work or the files on Burma. They had been formed by the exiled government of Burma, and had been stationed in the Chin Hills. Both the Army’s Major General Gracey and SOE’s Major Peacock had a very low opinion of the Kin Scouts in 1943 and early 1944. Maung Nyein Maung wrote that the ‘Kin Scouts from V Force’ (V Force is a more well known and respected unit) were undermining his operation by spreading the word that he was ‘an unknown figure’ and that only someone with officer rank could carry out this sort of work. Consequently, Ariaswamy and other leaders that had been willing to ‘come over’ backed off. Maung Nyein Maung wrote ‘[h]ad I been an officer even of the lowest rank I could have stood my ground and spoken to V Force about it’, but as it was he returned to Gaduchaung by 8 November.
Now ill with malaria, Maung Nyein Maung was taken back to CAS HQ at Tamu where he was denied medical help because the senior chief civil affairs officer, Lt. Col. Keely, and another officer, Major Rollins did not know who he was. Maung Nyein Maung wrote to Calcutta and a Major Smith came to help him at Tamu, and take him back to Calcutta. Along the way, he was apparently bombed, but it fell 200-300 yards away.
To return to the four objectives that Overbowl was tasked with, it could be surmised that the operation was a failure. Maung Nyein Maung never made it to Taungtha; there is no mention of taking a supply drop or of sending any pigeons back to India; and it also seems that no BDA or Nationalist leaders were persuaded to leave for India. That said, in his travels, Maung Nyein Maung found that in the Chindwin area the people were in a desperate state and many wanted the British to return; he named two of the main Burmese spies in the Kaset area; he reported clashes between the Japanese and the BDA; he reported that the ‘Thakins do not seem to be in favour with the Japs’; about 100 Japanese troops were allegedly in Laung-ka-Teik south of Masein and a further 25-30 at Ywatha-Thetke Kyin; the locals told him that the retreating Japanese had told the Burmese that they were only temporarily retreating while other Japanese officers were openly claiming that they were fighting a losing battle and would not be in Burma much longer. Lastly, approximately six lines of the last page of this record have been redacted. The inference is that those six lines reveal the identities of ‘a party of Burmans’ who were assisting the Japanese. All of this would presumably have been of use to Slim and his advancing Army who faced the prospect of crossing the Chindwin to advance into Burma after the battles of Imphal and Kohima.
Overall, not a bad effort for a man who ‘[d]rinks excessively’ and who was judged to be ‘in very poor condition.’ Perhaps it was his other qualities which saw him through…
Part of the reason why this post has been written was because I had seen the trio of operations that include Overbowl mentioned in, at most, two other files. A mention was about it, so I had become somewhat resigned to never finding out any more. Part of the gap has been filled, but there are two more Panthers to pursue, codenamed Kingshead and Pedantic. Perhaps their story can be found amongst the remaining training cards that I am making my way through to help complete The Men of SOE Burma. Postscript – unfortunately not! Training cards all sifted now.