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The two SOE operations in Burma which have had the most exposure are Operation Character and Operation Nation. The former was the largest Force 136 commitment to Burma, and probably the most successful in its support of General Slim and XIV Army. The latter was probably the most controversial because of its cooperation with Burmese nationalist forces. These two operations combined inflicted the most casualties upon the Japanese, and both helped enable the reconquest of Rangoon in May 1945. There were, of course, many other operations sent into Burma, such as the focus of this post, Operation Heavy.
Operation Heavy was originally designated Hainton, and was first deployed in March 1944. In cooperation with the Americans, the team flew to Szemao via Kunming. Their intended area of operations was the Shan state of Kengtung, which borders China to the east and Siam to the South. The Japanese had given this state to Siam, and installed a ruler, known locally as a Sawbwa, who had been detained by the Burma government before the war.
The operation had three main aims: to gather intelligence from the state; to organise guerrillas to operate on the road running from Kengtung to Siam; and to establish contact with the personnel of Operation Harlington, whose three W/T sets had not been heard on air since February (Harlington was later re-designated Character).
The advance party of the operation consisted of two British officers (Majors Jones and Bridge), two Chinese Nationalist intelligence officers supplied by Chiang Kai Shek, two Karen W/T operators (Havildar San Htu and Havildar Nyunt Yin), and a Karen Jemadar (Saw Sein Lwin). They set out on foot with 26 mules for the Sino-Burmese border, stopping short on the Chinese side at a town called Manna:
‘The local Chinese were not unnaturally deeply suspicious […] but the presence of the Central Government Chinese Intelligence Officers together with some judicious bribes and a show of giving all intelligence obtained to the local Chinese authorities, helped to maintain an uneasy peace.’
At Manna, the first 75 recruits were given intelligence training and sent over the border into Burma to contact the pro-British Lahu people and to distribute propaganda. Contact was made with a Roman Catholic priest at Mongyang, approximately 20km into Kengtung State, and two ex-Burma Army Jemadars were brought out to Manna. Two patrols were sent out in August which ‘were able to confirm that locals were being forced by Jap troops to make camps along the main road’ going from Kengtung towards Taunggyi and Meiktila. The biggest camp, able to accommodate up to 1000 troops was being built at Mongping, about 40km west of Kengtung.
Between September and February 1945, Heavy grew to three teams, codenamed Calf, Lynx and Wolf. In line with Siamese Country Section’s policy, efforts were made to subvert Siamese troops rather than fight them. Relations between the Siamese and the Japanese was described as similar to that of the Italians and Germans in North Africa, so there was almost some success with this; unfortunately for Heavy, the Siamese officer got reassigned without notice just before a meet. In addition to this subversion, some airstrikes were called in on the main Kengtung road and on the Salween ferry at Takaw, the latter killing nine Japs. From March 1945, however, when XIV Army began its drive on Rangoon from Meiktila, ‘orders were given for the enemy to be harassed on as large a scale as possible with a view to drawing Japs into this area’.
On 21 March, active patrolling commenced and the first attack on Siamese troops was carried out, successfully driving them from their post, killing four and capturing stores and two Bren guns. Ten days later there were three more attacks which caused 41 casualties on the Siamese side. By the beginning of April, the three Heavy teams had recruited approximately 350 guerrillas ; by the end of the month this had risen to 625. They had the road from Siam via Kengtung to the River Salween covered, and newly introduced Dilwyn teams were just on the other side of the river and easily contactable by Heavy personnel. On 23 May, a Siamese Major tried to surrender, and offered a complete battalion to work with Heavy if they could agree a date for them to attack the Japanese together. Suspecting a ruse and mindful of Siamese Country Section’s high policy, ‘this offer was refused.’ Shortly after this, at the end of May, ‘heavy’ Japanese counter attacks forced Calf to retreat and join Wolf, but not before inflicting 130 casualties upon the Japanese. They lost all their stores though.
In June, there were no major actions, but around 2000 Japanese troops were kept bottled up in Kengtung, while in July the recruits went to plant paddy. Expecting to collect intelligence and train for operations after the monsoon, news of the Japanese surrender came as a surprise on 15 August and operations ceased. The town of Kengtung was occupied by Heavy personnel on 29 August, and was responsible for law and order until the Civil Affairs Service arrived. On 29 September, two Japanese officers who refused to surrender were shot. By 25 October, the Heavy teams were all in Rangoon.
In summing up the operation, Major Pennell wrote:
Results obtained by the Operation:
- Unfortunately could not carry out original mission i.e. to contact the CHARACTER area, due to the inability of getting agents. CHARACTER area being approximately three weeks journey away.
- We had forced the Jap and Thai to withdraw south from the China border to the immediate vicinity of Kengtung.
- We were in a position if the need arose, able to hold the M.T. road TAKAW/KENGTUNG sufficiently long enough to let the Army through.
- We had inflicted the following definite casualties:
Thais killed 84
Japs killed 1 officer & 4 O.R.s
Levys killed 2
wounded (slight) 8
5. THAI. Were jittery and were doing everything in their power to seek an excuse to withdraw to Siam.
6. JAPS. There was an unconfirmed report in the second week of August that they had sent 2,000 re-inforcements from Cheingrai to Meh Sai, just over the Kengtung border.
7. We were receiving whole hearted support from all races in the area occupied by us.
For a list of personnel, see my Operations and Personnel list.
NB: It is curious that Capt. Ronald Shearn (photo below) of the Lynx team is not recorded as a casualty. He was killed in action leading an attack against twenty pro-Japanese Thai troops in Mongton Monastery. Shot in the wrist and stomach, he died of wounds on 4 May.