Anglo-American war-time relations in the Far East, and particularly in Burma, are often characterised as being fractious. This is primarily based on divergent strategies for the defeat of Japan, and exemplified by the character of the American General, Joseph Stilwell. Often described as ‘acerbic’, his moniker of ‘Vinegar Joe’ and his eventual dismissal in October 1944 paint a picture of Allies at great odds with each other in Southeast Asia. Of course, Anglo-American relations have a greater depth than this, with some serious talent in Southeast Asia Command, on both sides. More importantly, that talent worked together pretty well, on the whole. At the level of the clandestine organisations, it is probably fair to say that this situation described of the higher command was reflected in much the same way.
The following blog post is mostly sourced from the SOE War Diary, using entries from October 1942 to June 1943. The parts on the Far East are instructive concerning the relations of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), when it was in its infancy, with the Special Operations Executive, which was by then over two years old. There is a tangible notion of the British feeling a sense of superiority over the relatively inexperienced Americans, but also a recognition that this might very soon change. With this in mind, the British seem to have wanted to capitalise on their present ascendancy by consciously manoeuvring themselves into the best position they thought possible for the future.
In October 1942, an excerpt of a report by SOE’s Colonel Taylor described how ‘O.S.S. itself seemed still extremely embryonic and not yet capable of any serious work’ but it was recognised that the head of OSS, General Donovan, was gathering ‘capable’ personnel to establish his organisation. At the same time, Taylor reported, OSS was wasting time ‘in waffling conferences […] which were of no use’, which prevented special operations from being developed sooner. The entry goes on:
Nevertheless, however much of a mess O.S.S. might be in at the moment and however useless they were likely to be for the next six months or so, they would eventually get themselves straightened out and then would be a very important factor indeed in our sphere.
Given the anticipated importance of the OSS in the future, it was thought that ‘S.O.E.’s best insurance’ against any problems ‘was the development of close collaboration with O.S.S.’ That collaboration needed to happen immediately because SOE could be of greatest help ‘whilst they were still floundering in their initial difficulties’. On this basis, the British believed that planning for SOE’s North African mission should be a conducted jointly, especially since the set up there, known as Massingham, was expected to be used by the Americans ‘as very much a test case for collaboration.’ If SOE could ensure successful working relations and help get the Special Operations (SO) part of OSS up and running, it was expected that ‘this would greatly facilitate our [British] handling of them [OSS] in other areas.’ Those ‘other areas’ included Southeast Asia.
The OSS mission to what they called ‘CBI’, China, Burma India theatre, was known as Detachment 101 (Det. 101). Activated in April 1942, its personnel arrived in Karachi in July 1942 and soon established a base on a tea plantation at Nazira in the north east of India. The intention had been for Det. 101 to be based in China, under the command of General Stilwell, but by October ‘China was still closed to them’ so the unit ‘remained in India developing plans for working into Burma from there.’ This was contrary to the London Agreement, however, in which the global responsibilities of SOE and OSS had been agreed. Signed during the summer of 1942, per the London Agreement, OSS was only permitted a liaison presence in India as it was a British sphere. Tensions with the Americans over the British Empire had played their part here.
On 30 September, the commander of Det. 101, Major Karl Eifler, was informed by OSS in New York of the terms of the London Agreement, ‘and instructed him to co-operate closely with S.O.E.’ On 8 October, OSS even offered to withdraw Eifler’s team from India if the head of SOE in India, Colin Mackenzie so desired. Whether it was with the anticipated need for cooperation with OSS in mind or not, Mackenzie decided that ‘it would be impolitic’ to have Det. 101 removed and ‘preferred to make an agreement of his own which would make it possible for EIFLER and his mission to remain.’ The outcome was the agreement that, in India, SOE was the senior partner. Det. 101 would come under Mackenzie’s command. OSS would not be able to operate in Burma without the approval of Wavell, as Commander in Chief India, and Stilwell could not be used to overrule Wavell. The War Diary entry for November recorded that Washington would confirm Mackenzie’s proposal to Eifler.
By 7 November, however, Mackenzie had been told that Wavell had agreed to OSS taking over a zone in Northern Burma since the Chinese were still refusing to host Det. 101. For missions in the north of Burma, Mackenzie understood that Stilwell would have command. This all turned out to be false, with Wavell wiring to say that ‘so long as he was C.-in-C. no arrangement of that kind would be accepted.’ Where the rumour came from is not specified, but perhaps the Americans were not overly happy with Mackenzie’s plan: the War Diary indicates that the British thought that Mackenzie’s arrangements ‘would virtually convert the Americans into a sub-mission’ of SOE. This is not inconceivable given that SOE was loaning OSS personnel and supplying them with ammunition no longer produced in the US (.32 calibre), plus 5000 Sten Guns and as much 9mm ammunition as could be provided. The OSS had also asked for equipment, including rubber suits, helmets, spine and heel pads, crepe ankle bandages, and parachutes.
By December, the war diary records that:
MAJOR EIFLER, in spite of MACKENZIE’S efforts to bring and keep him to heel, continued to do as he pleased, sheltering behind GENERAL STILWELL, Washington or the U.S. Military authorities in Delhi as requisite.
It appears that the promise made by Washington to inform Eifler of his place in the command structure had not been followed through on. On 18 December, New York, not Washington this time, reported that Eifler had been informed of his position ‘in accordance with S.O.E.’s wishes’, but it appears that communiques continued to flash around the globe between London, New York, Washington, New Delhi, Calcutta and Chungking, and the dispute was still rattling on as the year came to a close.
For the next six months, up to June 1943, the war diary records the continuing dispute over command, including the jurisdiction of Wavell and Stilwell, the arguments over the establishment of liaison officers, and the level of integration of the two secret services. In June, ‘[t]he situation was still fluid but it seemed clear that O.S.S. had no intention of abiding by the London Agreement and London were entering a protest.’ Cooperation had all been one way, with the OSS giving nothing in return. By this point in June, approximately nine months had been spent attempting to work out how to coordinate the two organisations. That they had failed to do so seems to be the consequence of an abundance of obstructions, including but not limited to:
- Stilwell’s position vis-à-vis Wavell
- British attempts to suborn Det. 101
- Chinese refusal to host OSS
- British concern over US interference in India and Burma
On 14 May 1943, a communication from the India Office to London outlined the situation as they saw it:
At present American effort tends to set up organisations parallel to those existing resulting in duplication waste of effort and material and uncoordinated or even divergent action. In particular present system results in British ad American staffs receiving divergent Intelligence and views. Another aspect of this is that American propaganda and publicity, unwittingly or not, th[r]ough being primarily pro-American rather than pro-United Nations, tend to play into the hands of Congress by implied reflection n British effort. Thus United States actions help to produce unsettled conditions in India and thereby aid Congress and Jap sponsored propaganda aimed at undermining the loyalty of Indian population in general and Indian Army in particular.
It was decided to shelve attempts to find a resolution until the Quadrant conference in August 1943. It was felt that it was only at this level of command could a solution be found. The entry in the War Diary for October 1942 in which it was predicted that SOE had about six months to capitalise on their position can be judged as not being far wrong; the OSS and indeed the Americans as Allies in the war, had become the senior partners by the middle of 1943, but SOE, in India/Burma at least, had not been able to fulfil their aim of close collaboration as insurance against anticipated American ascendancy.