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Much has often made of the fractious relationship between the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS,) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The words used to sum up the problem between the two organisations is often something along the lines of SIS needed peace and quiet to collect intelligence, while SOE was hell bent on making loud bangs and disturbing the wasp’s nest. In the Far East, SIS used the cover name of the Inter-Services Liaison Department (ISLD), a name which hints at working with other British units, but by the later years of the war, in Burma at least, the archives suggest a much more cooperative arrangement than mere liaison.
The relationship between SIS and SOE in Burma was not always smooth, like any relationship, but the two secret services were forced together for pragmatic reasons. Probably the main reason for this is the lack of resources sent East due to the war in Europe. For example, by August 1944, it was agreed that SOE would ‘hold all normal stores for I.S.L.D.’ Another reason hinted at in the same document is that SIS was not running many operations; ‘their demands are so small’ that it was thought that storing their gear would not impact negatively on SOE’s own work. Further on, the point is made that SOE ‘already carried out so many services for I.S.L.D. that it was only logical that their Air Ops. should go through our Air Ops. Room.’
Whether their operations did end up going through SOE’s Air Ops. room is unclear, however, for on 16 December 1945, both SOE and OSS were compromised when an SIS operation code-named ‘Bittern‘ missed their drop zone by five miles. This time it was SIS who poked the wasp’s nest, prompting ‘instant’ Japanese reprisals in the area – where SOE already had three teams on the ground. The coordinating body known as P Division, set up to try and ensure the various clandestine groups did not put each other in danger, was perceived as also being at fault here.
This was not the first time that SIS were accused of putting SOE teams in jeopardy; it was an SIS party that was implicated in the successful Japanese action against Operation Harlington in the Karen Hills in March 1944. Operation Harlington consisted of three British officers, Captains Nimmo and McCrindle, and Major Seagrim. The two captains were shot dead in ambushes on their respective camps, while Seagrim later surrendered to prevent further Japanese atrocities against the Karen. He was executed in Rangoon along with seven Karen. It is fairly clear now that an SIS party missing their drop zone in February 1944 was not the main cause of Harlington’s demise, but for the rest of 1944 and into 1945 this was not evident, and the ill-feeling between the two organisations had persisted.
These two cases of SIS teams causing SOE and OSS upset during 1944 are obviously available in the SOE files released to the public domain, but what historians can’t see is the SIS files, so the extent to which SOE operations caused SIS trouble in similar ways is unknown. Despite this, the surviving SOE files lead to the assertion that SIS found itself significantly integrated into SOE rather than vice-versa. For example, a memo dated 12 January 1945 indicates that ‘I.S.L.D. operational intelligence activities ALFSEA area come under our [SOE] control.’ Arrangements were then made to ‘take over’ Karen SIS assets – Saw Torry, Ba Chit, and Aung Bwe – who were to be absorbed into SOE’s ‘general scheme for Karenni’. This definitely happened as these Karen officers became part of Operation Character later in 1945.
Taking the Karen officers for Operation Character was recognised by SOE as potentially sticky. The advice was ‘[t]act essential’ so that SIS felt that they had a ‘share in joint rpt. joint operation unified under us.’ On 26 February 1945, details of how the joint operation would work were outlined in a document titled ‘LIAISON – FORCE 136 with I.S.L.D.’ The SIS officers Saw Torry and Ba Chit were to join Character in an SIS operation code-named Breast. They were to land at a place decided by SOE to a reception party organised by SOE. Once on the ground, they were to come under the operational command of SOE because ‘the I.S.L.D. party might endanger the security of CHARACTER’. The two officers would have their own W/T link to SIS in Calcutta, but it was made clear that if the intelligence they sent was derived from SOE, then it would be prefaced ‘”Source – CHARACTER, from ……….”‘
By April 1945, in a document entitled ‘Operational Intelligence’, comparisons with Europe are made which mark out the Far East as different:
‘whereas in Europe it was not only possible but desirable to keep a fairly hard and fast line drawn between collection of intelligence by secret agents on the one hand and the launching of subversive operational parties on the other, this distinction is neither possible nor desirable in this theatre.
7. The position in this theatre is essentially that for operational intelligence and for all subversive activities similar operational parties have to be launched.’
The document then goes on to suggest that the ‘launching and operational control of such parties should be the responsibility of one organisation’, which of course was SOE. There are caveats, such as the longer term economic and political intelligence that was considered necessary for rebuilding after the war, but in terms of defeating the Japanese in both Burma and Malaya, plans for SIS and SOE integrating were clearly set out with supporting evidence of experience so far. Part of SOE’s argument was that indigenous personnel had not proved up to the task of deep intelligence operations and that they needed the direction of European officers.
In a rare glimpse into SIS operations, included in this file of documents is an ‘I.S.L.D. INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS’ which presents a contrary view to the SOE opinion of Oriental agents. In two years to the end of August 1944, 3233 reports were assessed as having ‘value’ or ‘considerable value’, of which an estimated 75% were from ‘Oriental agents penetrating deep into occupied territory beyond the control or active direction of European officers’. Operations in Burma are specifically mentioned, as is the theft from a Japanese destroyer of ‘the complete Degaussing blue print for Japanese Naval vessels.’
Arguments about the effectiveness of Asian agents continued in April, with the commander of Force 136, Colin Mackenzie, arguing that the statistics presented by the Director of ISLD were inconsequential because they were for a period beginning in 1942 and the situation had changed by 1945. By the time the war abruptly ended with the atomic bombs four months later, SOE in Burma had overseen successful operations with SIS assets, and it appears the same procedure had been applied to Malaya. In Burma at least, it seems to have worked well, with Major Torry actually ending up in charge of his own sub-area of Operation Character.
Maybe Mackenzie had an eye to the future, but ultimately of course, SIS survived and continues today as MI6, while SOE was closed down in 1946.
January 24, 2020 at 5:38 am
‘Inter service’ rivalry should perhaps be understood as and and redefined as treason. Pride in one’s own service is understandable and actually striven for—but co-operating in order to win the war should (must!) be paramount.
March 30, 2020 at 11:20 am
Reblogged this on Pacific Paratrooper and commented:
An interesting look back into the British operations in the CBI Theater during the Pacific War.
March 30, 2020 at 3:44 pm
Thank you very much, for the very interesting information about interaction of intelligence services in the AP area. Best wishes, and stay save! Michael
April 1, 2020 at 8:22 pm
Interesting subject. Seagrim was a true hero – far different from the way the newspapers use the term these days.
April 3, 2020 at 6:31 am
I agree that the use of the word ‘hero’ is overused to the extent that it is devalued these days. Still, heroism is subjective…
Seagrim was a remarkable man, as were the Karen who were executed with him. Lt. Ba Gyaw in particular stands out for me.
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April 3, 2020 at 12:28 pm
I don’t know much about the subject. I knew about Seagrim because of my interest in medals, but have been extending my knowledge of WW2 Burma in the last few days. I just found a reference to Kan Choke and was surprised to find out how many of the SOE in Burma were over 50. Remarkable men. Also always struck by the way so many Burmese and Indians stuck by us. So much to know – so little time!
April 4, 2020 at 8:50 pm
Kan Choke was an incredible guy.
Another over 50 was Lt.Col. John Cromarty Tulloch, nicknamed ‘Pop’. He was quite a colourful character.
For more on Seagrim, see
Ian Morrison: Grandfather Longlegs (published in 1947)
Philip Davies: Lost Warriors (published in 2017)
And of course he features in my book. Paperback discount code if you are interested is GLR MP6 on the Bloomsbury website
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April 4, 2020 at 9:09 pm
Thanks, I’ll have a look later. 🙂
April 4, 2020 at 8:30 pm
Reblogged this on depolreablesunite.
April 5, 2020 at 9:45 am
Wow, that is some great research and insight into the covert activities behind the scenes gp, one can only imagine how much of this covert activity affected all operations during the war years, the full story may never be known as its ramifications could possibly continue into this day, cheers.
August 15, 2020 at 2:59 pm
I have ordered your book. However, I would like to make contact for advice. My dad went into the Royal corps of Signals in early 1940. He appears to have joined the 25th Div of the Indian army and was discharged from them to SOE. He was also a Chindit. Served u dear Wingate and Slim. I have a discharge card . I cannot di d him on your magnificent list of men and one woman so fat.
His name is Thomas Brian O’Connell known as Brian
August 25, 2020 at 5:20 pm
Thanks for messaging and for buying my book. I hope you enjoy it.
There are three O’Connells listed on a search of the NA https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/results/r?_q=HS+9+o%27connell&_sd=&_ed=&_hb= but no Brian.
His is not a name I have seen, but perhaps he was with SOE and not in Burma?
Have you applied for his army record? https://www.gov.uk/get-copy-military-service-records
Sorry I can’t help much, but good luck.
October 6, 2022 at 12:22 am
Hi. I am trying to trace the origins of SOE. My understanding and deductions are that: (1) it came from three desks set up in 1938 within the War Office’s SIS; and (2) these three units came under the Ministry of Economic Warfare in July 1940, and formed the SOE. Would you know of a source that could confirm that? Thank you.
October 7, 2022 at 6:18 pm
Most general books on SOE will confirm that it was formed in July 1940 by an amalgamation of Lawrence Grand’s Section D, Electra House, and MI(R). See for example William Mackenzie’s Secret History of SOE, or Nigel West’s Secret War, or Foot’s Special Operations Executive.