The name of Major Eric Battersby permeates SOE’s Burma files. There are numerous documents signed off ‘Eric B, Maj’ which put him squarely at the heart of much of SOE’s most controversial work, that of recruiting nationalist Burmese for work against the Japanese.
Eric Worsley Battersby was born on 18 April 1916 in Fleet, Hampshire, and later he was educated at Marlborough College . In 1935, aged just nineteen, he sailed for Burma where he passed exams and joined the Indian Police (Burma still being administered as part of India until 1937). As he noted in his unpublished memoir, ‘I was fortunate at this stage of recruitment to have surmounted one hurdle. I had been born with a club foot and one weak leg’. Serving with the police until May 1940, Battersby was then ADC to the Governor of Burma, firstly to Sir Archibald Cochrane, and later for Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, until November 1942.
It was while he was ADC during the first Burma Campaign that he had his first contact with SOE. At this time known as the Oriental Mission, Major Peter Lindsay wrote of Battersby:
Young Baddersby [sic],
ICS ., IP is intelligent, fairly knowledgeable, but doesn’t get far beyond the role of A.D.C. (Both Binns and Baddersby have been invaluable to us for advice about local conditions and people).
[ICS = Indian Civil Service, and IP = Indian Police]
From his position as ADC, Battersby was seconded to the security corps of India’s Eastern Army where he stayed until June 1943, when he was allowed home on compassionate leave. While in the UK he was recruited into SOE, officially joining on 12 January 1944. In a more lengthy report after finishing training in the UK:
He is above the average in telligence [sic], practical and has a good grasp of detail. He is cautious, adaptable and has sound judgement but is lacking in originality. He is keen and worked hard, displaying considerable energy and efficiency. He is patient, trustworthy and self critical.without [sic] lacking self confidence. His personality is pleasant, indeed he has all the social graces, including a strong sense of humour. The rather casual and debonaire [sic] manner which he adopts in social intercourse masks a serious minded attitude towards his work and duty. Although he is not lacking in powers of leadership he would probably be better employed in an important subordinate position. He should make an efficient staff officer.
In March 1944, Battersby returned to India to take up his post in the organisation known from that same month as Force 136. He was very quickly promoted to Major (April) in order to have the appropriate rank for his job, which was head of Political Warfare for Burma Country Section. This meant Major Battersby was responsible for the coordination, selection, training and deployment of Burmese nationalists – until the end of the war. In this role, he needed all the positive attributes recognised above, and probably a whole lot more. The fractures within and between the various British authorities over the use of Burmese nationalists in the last eighteen months of the war ran deep and became both vicious and enduring see my post ‘SOE and the Decolonisation of Burma’
Battersby’s experiences in Burma between 1935 and his home leave in 1943 had brought him a rich knowledge of the Burmese which were invaluable for his role with SOE. To exemplify this, here is one of the documents from the SOE files signed off by ‘Eric B, Maj’. It is addressed to Colonel Musgrave, newly in charge of SOE training in Ceylon, and dated 6 December 1944. The first Jedburgh teams had just arrived from Europe, having volunteered for more special operations after their adventures with SOE in France and Albania. The Jedburghs were three man teams consisting of two officers and a W/T sergeant, and they were tasked with dropping into Burma with nationalist Burmese agents to harness Aung San’s Burma National Army and the Anti-Fascist Organisation against the Japanese in Slim’s coming offensive. The operations they participated in were collectively codenamed Billet, which was subdivided into three areas of Burma, with individual teams taking animal monikers. Approximately sixteen Jedburgh teams were deployed on Billet operations:
My dear Colonel
- Herewith two bodies, HLA MAUNG, the bandit chief of Arakan, and BA SAW.
- Col. Gardiner [head of Burma Country Section] has asked me to write you a few llines on the handling of these men by your Jed. officers. We both feel that this is really unnecessary for you have plenty of experience of Burma and your officers, we understand, have had wide experience of strange types; but perhaps it might be useful to tell you something about each.
- Before the war, Hla Maung, a graduate of Rangoon University, was a member of the Thakin party in Burma, was slightly anti-British and very nationalistic. He was brought out of Burma in early 1944 by one of our “Thakin” agents, has since been back into Arakan, and was nearly caught by the Japs but managed to escape to our lines. During this adventure, he managed to sow the seeds of the Resistance Group in Arakan, which is now beginning to blossom. He is the man to whom all anti-Japanese Arakanese are looking to give them aid against their enemies.
- BA SAW is untried in the field, but has a stoutheart [sic], is genuinely keen to show his worth and should be an asset to the operation chiefly as an interpreter.
- Both men, and Hla Maung in particular, have a fair opinion of themselves and their capabilities, and probably will be quite prepared, after their initial shyness has worn off, to say where European methods have to be ‘modified for use in India’; and we hope you will encourage them to speak out, for not only may this be useful but it will also give them confidence in, and appreciation of, your officers, for they dislike intensely the dogmatic type.
- Finally, as you know, a Burman’s loyalties are definitely personal, and I know no ‘anti-British’ Burman who, having had personal contact with individual British, is not perfectly friendly and loyal to them; his disloyalties are to a system which allows such an apparently vile form of Government. Nobody could now call Hla Maung anti-British and I am confident that relations between him and your officers will soon settle down on a solid basis of friendship for he has great admiration for what they have already done in other areas.
Battersby’s appraisal of these men would appear to have been spot on.
Ba Saw had not even been with SOE a month when Battersby wrote this, having joined on 9 November 1944. After training in Ceylon with his Jedburgh officers, Ba Saw parachuted into Burma as part of a team codenamed Mouse. Their area of operations was in the Arakan region. His commanding officer, Major Kemball:
For more on Mouse, see my post HERE.
Hla Maung, more often referred to as Nyo Tun in the archives, or sometimes Khin Oo, was codenamed Galahad by SOE. He was one of the original ‘Knights’ brought out of Burma by the first Billet operation. For more on his operations in the Arakan, see my post ‘Only Rohingya?’
The Billet operations ended up being a huge part of SOE’s effort in Burma. The Jedburgh officers, fresh from operations in Europe, were able to deploy into Burma, often with minimal theatre-based training, with Burmese nationalists whom many British officials considered to be dangerous Fifth Columnists. They achieved their aim of ensuring that Burmese forces did not oppose the returning Allied Army. Their efforts contributed to the recapture of Rangoon, both by preventing the Japanese from reinforcing Meiktila and assisting in the assault on Elephant Point.
The man who was largely responsible for the work behind this was Major Eric Battersby. From policeman to Force 136: to my mind, he went far beyond the role of ADC, and all before he was thirty years old.