General Slim & Lt.Col. Cumming
At the end of December 1944, as XIV Army were poised to push into Burma and chase the Japanese down to Rangoon, a senior officer of the Special Operations Executive prepared to travel to General Slim’s headquarters. Lt.Col. Mount Stephen Cumming was in charge of A Group of Force 136, meaning he was responsible for overseeing operations in Burma, French Indo-China, and Siam (Thailand). He knew that he was heading to a potentially difficult meeting, and one which could determine the role of SOE in the immanent second Burma campaign.
Before leaving, Cumming had been told ‘that G.O.C. -in-C. Fourteenth Army was dissatisfied with Force 136.’ In Slim’s view, Force 136 ‘showed no adequate return’ for the resources it had at its disposal, and that it ‘showed up in a poor light’ when compared to the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Consequently, Slim apparently recommended that ‘Force 136 ceased to operate in BURMA’. Slim’s dissatisfaction was not new. He had complained about a lack of intelligence in June and September of 1944 to 12 Army Group and Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) respectively. In Defeat into Victory, Slim again lamented the lack of intelligence he had to cope with as Army Commander:
‘I had throughout been conscious that, improving as our intelligence was since 1942, it was far from being as complete or accurate as that in other theatres. We never made up for the lack of methodically collected intelligence or the intelligence organization which should have been available to us when the war began.’
What Slim didn’t know was that most of the intelligence that the OSS had came from SOE’s Operation Dilwyn, which had been launched in March 1943. By 1944, it was well established, with a network of prominent Kachin including Major Shan Lone and Captain Zau June organising the northern area of Burma. The OSS, according to SOE files, had built their network on SOE’s goodwill, which included relinquishing Lazum Tang to help the Americans. Furthermore, according to Cumming, the intelligence that OSS was generating came from acting ‘in a “V” Force role’. In other words, OSS intelligence only cam from the immediate front, and not from teams penetrated far behind the lines.
This was one of the clarifications made by Cumming after Slim asked what SOE had contributed the Burma campaign thus far. Starting with the first Burma campaign, Cumming described how SOE had raised various levy groups, as well as establishing V Force, and slowed the Japanese advance into northern Burma by fighting and blowing up roads and bridges. Between July 1942 and December 1944, Cumming described how the Chin and Kachin Levies, as well as V Force were taken over by the Army, so that SOE could on operations further behind the lines. The main aim of these operations was twofold: cause ‘maximum interference’ for the Japanese in Burma; to maintain loyalty of the Burmese populations, and prepare them for the return of the Allied armies. To this end, by the date of this meeting, Force 136 had eleven W/T stations behind the lines spread out across Burma. He then told Slim about what SOE was poised to do with the trained Special Groups he had available.
Cumming asked if he had Slim’s authority to state that Force 136 had his support. Slim was won over. Not only did Slim now support Force 136, he unequivocally told Cumming that he wanted Force 136 to get the nationalist Burman units over to the Allied side: ‘if Force 136 could get the BURMESE to do even a portion to the Japanese of what they did to him on his lines of communication in the 1942 BURMA campaign, he would be well satisfied.’
Sim went on to give Cumming a list of tasks that he would like Force 136 to help him with:
TASKS GIVEN TO FORCE 136 BY FOURTEENTH ARMY 30 DEC. 44.
A. Observation of the following:
- Road and railway MANDALAY/THAZI preferably vicinity THAZI.
- Road and railway YAMETHIN/TOUNGOO.
- Road and railway MANDALAY/KYAUKME.
- Area YENANGYAUNG for information re Jap Military units and oil installations.
- PEGU YOMAS to watch axis RANGOON/MANDALAY and RANGOON/PROME.
- Railway PYINMANA/SATTHA and road SATTHA/ALLANMYO.
- Road THAZI/LOILEM.
- Road TOUNGOO/BAWLAKE.
- Road TAUNGGYI/BAWLAKE.
B. Interference with these lines of communication when ordered by C.O.C.-in-C.
C. Severing telephone lines
(a) Between RANGOON-PROME.
(b) ” RANGOON-PEGU
(c) ” PEGU-MANDALAY
D. Consideration of the possibility of raising the KARENS when Fourteenth Army front was approaching their country.
2 Jan 45.
Force 136 then produced an ‘OUTLINE PLAN FOR BURMA OPERATIONS JANUARY TO APRIL 1945’ which explicitly aimed to ‘assist the advance of Allied Land Forces’. At this stage, the expectation was to insert eleven Patrol or Special Groups, seventeen Jedburgh teams, and ten Burmese resistance agents. The projected number of guerrillas that would be raised was 5,500. In the end, as The Special Operations Executive in Burma reveals, these numbers were far surpassed.
To keep these men and their recruits alive and fighting, a total of 18,574 weapons were issued in the field between January and August 1945, with 5,746,403 rounds of ammunition, plus 36,876 grenades. Approximately 885 tons was flown into Burma from over 1000 RAF sorties. Was there an ‘adequate return’, one of Slim’s main complaints during 1944? Did Force 136 ‘show up in a poor light’ with this commitment? Here’s what Japanese Generals Kimura and Honda had to say:
2. EFFECTS ON JAPANESE
(a) We had difficulties in both waterway and highway transportation with small forces;
(b) Felt inconvenience as regard to the investigation of geometry (military) operation
(c) Had to send out forces to meet those British para forces therefore, was no time for training and construction of trenches. Menace to preparation for next operation.
(d) Captured armes [sic] from British Para forces were used as outfit for our troops.
(e) Feeling of anti Japanese among natives increased by day and had difficulties obtaining supplies and natives became to act more and more anti Japanese
At the same time there were many dacoity and had to increase troops not only to the front line but various places in the area under Japanese occupation.
3. STEPS TAKEN TO MEET BR PARA FORCES
(a) C-in-C Divisional Commander assigned area to each force to keep law and order as well as to annihilate Br Para forces’ activities. But they were scattered all over and their cooperation with one another was excellent therefore we obtained very little results.
(b) Prohibited the movement of small Jap forces and reinforced garrison of dumps and of important points of communication
(c) Tried our best to keep law and order in our territory so that the troops at the front can fight without disturbances.
(d) Tried to get as much information regarding Br Para Troops and planned to intercept their objects but did not succeed.
A note at the end of this report states that this Japanese appreciation ‘only covers our operations in the Moulmein Area which were on a comparatively small scale.’ Apparently the Japanese were instructed to write an appreciation of the main Operation Character and Nation areas, but that remains a document to be found somewhere in the files, if it was written and survived. What does exist are some documents written by XIV Army and American units:
Colonel James F. Pinkney at 10 USAAF HQ wrote to Major Boyt, Force 136 Liaison Officer in the Dilwyn area of operations, on 5 March 1945:
Dear Major Boyt,
I wish that you would pass on to the man in the field our appreciation for the fine work that they have been doing. That information has been extremely helpful to us and has, as we all know, certainly paid dividends in our campaign against the enemy.
I know their’s is a hard and dangerous work with but few opportunities to learn or know of its overall effects. In our opinion these effects have been great.
JAMES F. PINKNEY
On 6 March 1945, General Stilwell’s son, Colonel Joseph Stilwell Jr, wrote to ‘officers and Men, Force 136’ through Major Boyt:
- Congratulations and thanks are in order to you Officers and men of Force 136 operating in Northern Burma. Your information has been coming in fast, it has been high in accuracy, it has been in sufficient detail to enable the airforce to use it for target date, and it has helped us keep tabs on the Japs’ dispositions, strengths and intentions.
- The officers and men of your unit have played no inconsiderable part in the success of the present operations.
- May our continued association bring Japanese consternation.
On 3 May, General Slim sent a message to all Force 136 teams in the field:
‘Am more than pleased with the splendid work all parties in the field have already done in killing Japs and passing intelligence. I rpt I call on you for one last all out effortto hit the Jap hard while you still have chance in this final Burma phase. Good luck to you all.’
It might have been a final phase for Slim, given that Rangoon was in Allied hands, but there were still about 50,000 Japanese in the Karen Hills, and 20,000 on the west bank of the Sittang. The Force 136 teams still had a lot of fighting to do throughout May, June, July and halfway into August.
On 31 July 1945, a message was sent from 98 Indian Infantry Brigade to HQ 19 Indian Division about Reindeer, one of SOE’s Operation Nation teams in the Pyu area. In it, Brigadier Charles Jerrard stated that Reindeer intelligence was ‘of the utmost value’ and that without it ‘such successes as we have had would scarcely have been possible.’ In an offensive role, Reindeer dealt with ‘numerous parties of Japanese, large and small’ showing ‘resourcefulness and courage’. Overall:
‘The assistance afforded by Reindeer to tps under my command has extended over a very wide field and has been of the greatest possible value.’
On 28 August 1945, General Montagu Stopford, now commander of the recently formed 12 Army in Burma, wrote to Force 136 headquarters:
Now that the Japanese have accepted terms for the surrender of their armies in BURMA and SIAM, I wish to take this opportunity of thanking and congratulating all ranks on the great part which FORCE 136 has played in the final defeat of the enemy in BURMA. For many months all of us who have served in 12 and 14 Armies have watched with admiration the skilful manner in which your hazardous operations behind the enemy’s lines have been conducted and we have realised the many difficulties of weather, country and supply which you have had to overcome. The large number of casualties which you have inflicted on the enemy demonstrates the success of your persistent harassing tactics which undoubtedly hastened his disorganisation and eventual defeat. Your loyalty, skill and endurance have been an example to all and I hope that it may not be long now before you can return to your homes with justifiable pride in your achievements.
Looking at the map below, it can be seen that most of Slim’s requests (reproduced above) in section A, numbered 1-9, were met by Force 136 teams. In particular, Bison, reporting Japanese movements in the Mandalay area, receives much approbation in the archives; its commander, Major Hedley wrote about his experiences in Jungle Fighter.
Map Credit: The National Archives, HS 7/104
Of the further three sections of Slim’s requests, only ‘C’, severing the phone lines, is something I haven’t found any evidence for. Regarding ‘B’ and ‘C’, both ‘interference’ with Japanese lines of communication and raising the Karen were very successfully carried out, surpassing all expectations.
A meeting on 30 December 1944 between an Army Commander and an SOE officer managed to alter inaccurate perceptions, come to an agreement, and then cooperate in such a way that an entire campaign benefited from close liaison between conventional and irregular forces. Thankfully, the two men involved had the qualities of leadership to ensure this happened.