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In 2015, Sir Max Hastings published his ‘The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas, 1939 – 1945.’ Of course, I was interested to see what he had to say about SOE in Burma. What I found is what prompted this blog post.
Firstly though, here are some excerpts and links to reviews of Sir Max’s 25th book:
The Guardian– ‘Despite its revisionist air this is an old-fashioned book, rooted in the insular British 1950s, oblivious to the complexities that modern scholars have introduced to our understanding of the war’.
The New York Times – ‘But such tales of luck, pluck and doom are not the best reason for plowing through the 600 pages of “The Secret War.” To begin, the book embodies a herculean research effort down to the minutest detail. Fear not. In spite of its heft, this tome is a real page turner.’
The Telegraph – ‘Hastings made his name with his histories of active combat. This is his first sortie into the secret world, and that background shows, as he puts the codebreakers’ achievements in context by measuring them against competing sources of secret intelligence – not just in Britain but in the other main belligerent countries, including Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan and the United States. The result is authoritative, exciting and notably well written.’
Historynet.com – ‘With a lot of archival information under lock and key, World War II spycraft history leans on sources where the lines between truth, speculation, and fabrication are readily breached. However, British journalist and author Max Hastings has written The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas. It is a well-crafted, reasonably comprehensive, impeccably researched, and humor-leavened account of both Allied and Axis World War II backstage intrigue.’
The production of such a wide-ranging book is not to be underestimated, but with breadth comes the potential expense of depth of research. This can, perhaps inevitably, lead to differences of interpretation, and so it does here with regard to the small amount of Sir Max’s book which is devoted to SOE in Burma. I write this in the spirit of ‘doing history’.
Over three pages, there are four excerpts which I will look at in what follows. Before doing so,a quick comment about references. People who know the SOE file classification in the UK National Archives at Kew will know that it is HS. HS 1 files relate to the Far East, but the references have three variations in this book: ‘HI5/203’; HIS/203; and H51/304. None of these exist in the National Archives catalogue. Thus, these should, I assume, be HS 1/203 & HS 1/304. Another problem with the referencing is that one of the quotes used to help substantiate Sir Max’s criticism of SOE in Burma is not referenced at all.
The argument is that across Southeast Asia, SOE, known as Force 136, managed to contribute very little to the war effort.
p.513: ‘Attempts to conduct covert operations in Japanese occupied Burma and Malaya laid bare the colonial rulers’ unpopularity: many inhabitants betrayed the British agents and Special Operations teams thrust into their midst.’
The evidence that is then used to support this assertion are built over the following few pages. Here are the SOE in Burma related ones:
p.515: ‘An SOE party parachuted into the Kokang area of Burma in December 1943, and reinforced in June 1944, succeeded in staying alive and patrolling west of the Salween river, but failed absolutely to rouse the local population to participate in a resistance movement. Its report concluded: ‘Local opposition restricted the party in carrying out the original tasks of arming and training guerrillas’, and it was evacuated in October 1944.’
The operation that is never named here was Spiers. The Spiers operation was focused on Kokang region, which is located in the northern Shan States bordering China. The area had been contested since the 1890s, with agreements struck in 1894 and 1897 which placed Kokang in British Burma. As late as 1936 and 1937, however, Kokang had been the destination of expeditions by Burma businesses and the colonial government, one of which led to a shoot-out with Chinese troops. Essentially, what the Spiers team got embroiled in was a Chinese attempt to annex Kokang, anticipating that the British would be unable to do anything about it due to the war.
Image courtesy of Peter Harmsen: China in WW2 The propaganda belies the situation in Kokang.
Originally, the Spiers team, led by Colonel Paul Hector Munro-Faure, was to walk into the Kokang area from China, but the Chinese did not want SOE in Kokang, so they held up the team by refusing to issue the passes required for them to travel. This prompted the parachute infiltration of a second team, referred to above, which was dropped on the night of 9 December. Unfortunately for them, they landed on the Chinese side of the border, and were promptly arrested by Chinese troops. Once this parachute team were released and finally made it into Kokang they found that Chinese annexation was quite advanced, and the Chinese prevented them from having contact with the locals. They therefore made the decision to withdraw to China at the end of December. It was on their way out that they met Munro-Faure, who had by now been allowed to travel in overland. Over the next ten months, Munro-Faure and the Spiers personnel were unable to accomplish their original objectives because they were so wrapped up in resisting Chinese annexation of Kokang. With Chinese pressure being exerted elsewhere in Burma, Kokang was regarded as a ‘test case’; if the British were unable to secure Kokang, the Chinese, it was thought, would try and annex more of Burma. The ‘local opposition’ thus referred to in the quote used by Hastings to try and show how colonial people resisted SOE’s efforts is more than likely referring to Chinese nationalist forces in the original, and not Burmese.
The quote used here in The Secret War is without a reference. The files for Spiers are located in HS 1/3, HS 1/4 and HS 1/5. For more detail on this operation, see pp.110-116 of my ‘SOE in Burma‘.
In the same paragraph as this reference to Spiers, there is information about Operation Harlington: ‘Two British officers dropped into Karen territory in October 1943 were killed’. The two unnamed officers are Jimmy Nimmo and Fred McCrindle. The way this has been presented has three problems. Firstly, only Nimmo was parachuted into Burma in October; McCrindle was dropped in December. Second, and more importantly, this has been used to substantiate the assertion that ‘support for British activities in occupied territory did not much increase even when Allied fortunes improved.’ One reasonable inference that could be made here, on the back of the ‘local opposition’ presented for Spiers, is that these officers were killed by unfriendly locals. Both men were, in fact, shot by the Japanese in February 1944 when their hideouts were attacked. The Japanese knew that there were British paratroopers in the hills and had brought up direction finding equipment to home in on their W/T transmissions, as well as extra troops and Kempeitai officers from Rangoon to hunt them down. For more on the Seagrim story, see my SOE in Burma; Ian Morrison’s Grandfather Longlegs; Philip Davies’ Lost Warriors, and a previous blog post, ‘No Betrayal’, here. A last issue with this paragraph is that it is difficult to argue that ‘Allied fortunes [had] improved’ by late 1943 to early 1944, at least in Burma.
The next paragraph starts:
p.116: ‘Even as late in the war as January 1945, when yet another team – ‘Group Burglar’ – parachuted into Burma east of Pyminama, ‘the party was hampered by the hostility of the local population and had continually to keep on the move.’
Of all the Force 136 operations in Burma, the Burglar operation was, perhaps, a curious choice. The two operations used by Hastings thus far, and others such as Hainton, Heavy, Character, Dilwyn, or Billet, have whole files about them, whereas Burglar has a few documents scattered around a few files. Where these other named operations lasted more than six months, Burglar was somewhat shorter at just three months.
It is worth noting, that the spelling of the town should be Pyinmana and not ‘Pyminama’, and that this town was a local HQ for the Burma National Army. The Burma National Army (BNA) was one of the various names for what evolved from the original Burma Independence Army (BIA), led by Aung San, which had marched into Burma from Thailand with Japanese forces.
Major Lovett-Campbell was in charge of Burglar, team Hippo. Lovatt-Campbell was an old Burma hand (see the Men of SOE Burma), so upon landing he ‘was recognised by the village blacksmith who passed the information that the entire area was being worked by the Nippon Burma Timber Union.’ In his report, Lovatt-Campbell continued: [t]his organisation greatly influenced the course of the operation in virtue of the fact that the more influential of its employees had become, in the course of years, involved with the Japanese authorities and with local mill contractors who had exploited the exodus of Indian owners’ so that they were therefore reluctant to cooperate with Burglar. Later, however, he wrote about ‘unseen allies’ who did not dare to contact them, but who had helped them evade the Japanese and Burmese troops pursuing them. Lovett-Campbell’s report concluded that if the local Anti-Fascist Organisation’s commander had been allowed to contact him, the operation might have had better local support. It was clear to him that not everyone was against them, but they were too scared to help them at that point, not least because of the considerable Japanese and Burmese units in the area. See HS 7/105 for his report.
Later on p.516, Hastings concludes:
‘The dominant reality of British covert operations across the areas of South-East Asia occupied by the Japanese was that few local people were willing to risk ghastly reprisals to aid representatives of discredited, disliked and apparently defeated imperial powers, and this changed little even in the last months of the war. SOE achieved its only important successes in paramilitary operations against the Japanese in the wild tribal regions of northern Burma, whose inhabitants were chronically alienated from their fellow-countrymen of the plains.’
Map showing area of operations for Nation and Character in 1945. These were SOE’s largest and most successful operations, and not confined to the ‘wild tribal’ north.
As far as Burma was concerned, there were an estimated 20,000 people representative of all the various indigenous races who were prepared to help Force 136. This figure does not include those who helped by providing shelter, or food, or acted as guides who did not join SOE to fight. Added to this, there were many others who helped other units such as the Chindits, the Kachin Levies, the Chin Levies, V Force, Z Force, SIS, and the American OSS. These people helped the Allies in the face of some ghastly reprisals, carried out not only on those agents who were captured, but any villagers suspected of helping the enemies of Japan. As an indication, my Men of SOE Burma page contains a considerable number of Burmans who joined Force 136 between October 1943 and February 1944. My blog ‘Only Rohingya’ reveals how nationalist Burmans and Arakanese joined SOE during 1943-1944, despite the press widely reporting (in light of the Rohingya crisis 2017-18) that nationalist Buddhists were not recruited by the British during the Second World War. It is precisely because these Burmese people joined Force 136 that Hastings is able to write that SOE enjoyed successful paramilitary operations in Burma, but these successes were not restricted to northern ‘wild tribal regions’ (see map above) and nor were the Burmese minority races all ‘chronically alienated’ from Burman nationalists. The Special Groups deployed on Operation Character, for example, were comprised of Burman and Karen, who fought together on a nine month operation in some extremely challenging circumstances.
More generally, the criticism of of the Secret War that local people did not support British operations is not all that sophisticated. It takes an incredible amount of bravery for a civilian to compromise their safety for a small group of soldiers, or an agent, who are far behind the lines and likely to disappear before there is change in the war situation. Both Chindit operations and the hunt for Nimmo, McCrindle and Seagrim, had resulted in Japanese reprisals that were so feared that the locals were somewhat hesitant to cooperate with SOE. Even the Karen, often portrayed as Britain’s staunchest of Burmese allies for the duration of the war, were only persuaded to cooperate with Operation Character once two more Special Groups joined the first one. A mix up in drop zones (DZ) meant that the subsequent teams all used the first team’s DZ, which swung the balance in favour of taking up arms again against Japan because they believed the British were returning in sufficient enough force to ensure their safety. What this shows is that when the war was going badly many Burmese peoples contributed to the war effort, even those nationalists thought to be anti-British (although we should not mistake being anti-Japanese as necessarily pro-British). Once ‘friendly forces’ retired without consolidation or lasting eviction of Japanese forces from territory, reprisals were exacted which understandably made people think again before risking their community to further tortures. This situation was not peculiar to Burma, or to Southeast Asia.
To return to the reviews presented at the beginning of this post, it is up to others to read The Secret War and make their mind up whether they agree with them or not. For my part, I was dissatisfied with the Burma pages, but that is hardly surprising considering the years I have now put into this small part of World War Two. The same amount of time can’t possibly go into researching broad histories for just a couple of pages which contribute to a few hundred.
It is also up to readers to decide whether breadth sacrifices accuracy, or if – when it happens – accuracy is sacrificed for other reasons.
October 21, 2018 at 6:48 pm
‘‘The dominant reality of British covert operations across the areas of South-East Asia occupied by the Japanese was that few local people were willing to risk ghastly reprisals to aid representatives of discredited, disliked and apparently defeated imperial powers, and this changed little even in the last months of the war.” Really? I think Max Hastings should take a quick look at the HS files covering Malaya. While the pattern of events here was far from simple – the war-time alliance between SOE and the communist guerrillas of the MPAJA was based on both parties being anti-Japanese, rather than upon any deeper agreement – many, many local people, of all ‘races’ contributed to information networks, at massive personal risk (torture and death being a quite likely outcome). In the last 8-9 months of the war, Operation HEBRIDES in northern Perak had no difficulty whatsoever in recruiting local Malay men directly into an SOE-run force, establishing not only a group of armed guerrillas but also a widespread information network. To be fair, Max Hastings is not alone in reporting inaccurately on SOE’s Asian endeavours. Other wide-ranging works on World War lack accuracy (‘get it wrong’, in layman’s terms) when they tackle aspects of the war which have been little researched. A quick scoot through a handful of files, however expert the researcher, is not the same as a steady trawl and detailed analysis. And while we all make mistakes, numerous flawed citations do not inspire faith in the author’s attention to the pettifogging detail that we all have to attend to if the history we write is to be worth anything at all. Because if it isn’t accurate, in all the details and the quotes and the references, we might as well write fiction.
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August 17, 2019 at 7:17 am
Our small flotilla of Burma RNVR Bengal Flotilla Fairmile MLs 414, 415, and 418 took part in a few clandestine operations behind Japanese enemy coastlines during 1944/45 to secretly land or pick up in full darkness, some Allied agents of S.O.E., Force 136, and Royal Marine Commandos. I was a crew member of ML 415. Disappointed at not finding any mention of our seaborne hush-hush operations.
August 17, 2019 at 8:05 am
Maybe that’s something we could put right together? There is very little I have found in the archives on special boat activities, but I do recall a para-naval report somewhere which might include something you recognise/remember. Can you email me through the contact page?
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August 19, 2019 at 4:00 pm
My email is ‘ firstname.lastname@example.org‘
December 3, 2022 at 5:40 pm
Hi Richard, my father was a navigator on 160 squadron Liberators flying from (then) Ceylon to drop supplies and sometimes people to the Chindits – and SOE. Is this connected with what your books are about? They also flew to Singapore to lay mines in the harbour.
December 3, 2022 at 7:31 pm
Thanks for getting in touch. Your father must have had some adventures and some very long missions. Respect and thanks for his often overlooked yet massively important contribution.
My first book is all about SOE in Burma, so yes, your dad’s role in 160 sqn was crucial to SOE across the theatre. Even 160 sqn don’t get much ‘air time’ as the two SD sqns serving SOE for the duration were 357 and 358sqn. 160sqn filled a critical need over an intense period, as I understand it.
I have not done a great deal on the RAF side of things, but recognise nothing would have been possible without them so there are a few posts on my site to acknowledge their role. My book focused on what happened on the ground, as nobody had told that story yet.