In the Far East, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) is now fairly well known as ‘Force 136’. This name was only official from March 1944, the same month as the Japanese launched Operation U-Go, their offensive against India in the Imphal area. While still known by the non-descript cover name of ‘GSI(K)’, SOE was active in the Chin Hills and on the Chindwin, forward of Slim’s XIV Army.
Strictly speaking, SOE should not have been there. V Force had been established to work at a depth of up to twenty miles behind the lines; Z Force had been created to provide intelligence up to a depth of sixty miles; SOE was supposed to work further behind the lines where these, and other regular formations, couldn’t.
Despite this, there is archival evidence of a fairly substantial SOE effort in the Chindwin area from 1943 to 1944. Led by Major Edgar Peacock, an SOE group known as P Force worked to the front of 4 Corps to try and bring in Burmese personnel from behind the lines. By 20 February 1944, P Force is recorded as consisting of four officers, seventeen ‘native’ NCOs, 104 Riflemen, plus 24 in other roles. Further indication of the success of P Force in recruitment is provided by the training records of indigenous personnel which have been used to compile the ‘Men of SOE Burma’ page on this website; many of the approximately 114 Bamar personnel entered were recruited by P Force. They later went on to serve in the bigger operations of 1945.
Apart from the documented activities of P Force, and the later references to their value in light of the 1945 operations, SOE appears to have done little else on the Imphal Front. Given the scarcity of documents detailing SOE work here, plus Slim’s fairly well documented opinions of SOE in mid to late 1944, the inference is that SOE was not very active on the Imphal Front.
There are, however, a number of hints at more of a presence in this area than is immediately apparent, which this post attempts to foreground.
Firstly, Signals: In terms of an SOE presence in the Chin Hills, in the book Kelly’s Burma Campaign, the author, Desmond Kelly, reproduces a letter from his father to his mother dated November 1942. The Oriental Mission is a reference to SOE’s original set up in the Far East dating from 1941:
‘I have the Oriental Mission wireless set in the area now, and the corporal in charge – in return for small kindnesses such as the loan of some crockery, etc. – has offered on the Q.T. [quiet] to put through any private messages I wish to send to their agency at Calcutta whence he could arrange with a friend of his there to have them sent on by telegraph.’
The importance of the SOE W/T is highlighted in the personnel file of Corporal John Muir: Muir was Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD) for his work in the Chin Hills during 1943, his W/T being ‘the only means of communication between 4 Corps H.Q. and forward Army units.’
Major Boyt, SOE’s Army Liaison Officer, visited Imphal and Tamu at the end of January 1944. In his report, he reveals that there was a Station A at Imphal and Station 4 at Yu Camp. Yu Camp was the base of P Force. An A.III set was also available for patrols, and Station R was due to be deployed.
In a separate report by Captain C.P.H. Wilson, there is reference to a Station 2.
Secondly, Intelligence and Agents: Major C.B. Jones was given an operational instruction to leave Calcutta for Tamu on 23 January 1943 with a party consisting of two signallers and three agents. In the preamble to this instruction, the intelligence he is given advises that there ‘have been no Japanese in the Chindwin Valley N. of Mawlaik, apart from occasional officers with B.I.A. [Burma Independence Army] patrols since July.’ Further, that the Japanese are reported to be ‘building roads in the Chindwin Valley’. Whether this intelligence came from SOE or other sources is not known, but Major Jones was being tasked with going to the area to gain more, as well as to organise agents and propaganda.
There appears to have been quite a few agents in place in the Chindwin area. One documents refers to at least seven by their code-names of Falstaff, Poins, Arrowhead, David, Wilfred, Thomas, and Goldberg.
‘David’ is identified as Maung Saw Tun who was living in Tamu. ‘David’ and a headman from a Kuki village were to be involved in starting an ‘Opium smuggling racket […] between TAMU and SHEBO [Shwebo].’
‘Wilfred’ was tasked with getting guides from the eastern side of the Chindwin, based on intelligence provided by ‘Thomas’ and ‘Goldberg’. ‘Falstaff’ was possibly going to accompany ‘Wilfred’ for ‘the most dangerous part of his journey.’
‘Falstaff’ was advised to ‘look out for agents’ between 8-10am at Sagaing station, and outside the Court House between 12-2pm. To make sure of the agent, ‘Falstaff’ would ask for a match ‘and give the “Match” sign’.
What the ‘match’ sign was is not detailed, but a scheme for floating bamboo cases containing propaganda leaflets, matches and cigarettes down the Chindwin is. Each bamboo float was to have the Burmese word(s) for ‘”Hidden Treasures”‘ burnt on the outer surface because this ‘should attract attention.’ There were to be at least four phases to the release of the bamboo cases down the river, with ‘the first two paragraphs of the song’ along with matches and cigarettes in the third flotation. *More mystery here; what was the song? If it was intended to be used as part of a code or cipher, surely this is not a very secure way to release it?
Captain C.P.H. Wilson reported on his movements and actions during August 1943, revealing his cooperation with the Chin Levies. In this report, he predicted a Japanese attack at the end of the rains, during the first weeks of October 1943. He offered his opinion that the Japanese would be able to feed themselves from the land, the harvest having just been brought in, and the Japanese knowledge that the roads from India would not be up to any standard to have allowed large numbers of troops to have been brought up to the Imphal Front.
Third, Liaison & Cooperation with Army: During February 1944, SOE’s Brigadier Guinness toured the Imphal Front and his subsequent report contains information not only about P Force, but 202 and 203 Indian Field Broadcasting Units (IFBUs) who were with 17 Division; a visit to General Wingate to discuss cooperation in the second Chindit operation; and a visit to 14th Army Group where General Slim ‘stated that the only priority task he would like us to undertake next year would be attacks on the new Arakan coast road.’
In Major Boyt’s report, in addition to the information about W/T stations referred to above, he wrote about having ‘lent’ Captain Stanley White ‘to 20. Div. as O/C Rivercraft Coy and general adviser re Riverine Transport.’ Before the war, White had been employed by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. The Army wanted to take on Captain White permanently to help them on the Chindwin, and Boyt agreed that this should happen.
Apart from the aforementioned Major Boyt, the importance of liaison officers between Army and SOE at various levels seems to have been recognised, with Captain Kemball as LO with 4 Corps, for example.
A synthesis of this information reveals that SOE carried out considerable work in an area in which it was not supposed to be operating in, but that this work, including that of P Force, had a considerable positive influence on Army attitudes towards SOE. It might seem fairly insubstantial, but sharing personnel like Captain White for riverine duties are important steps towards building goodwill and meaningful relationships. What is elusive from collation of SOE activities across the Indo-Burmese border is how General Slim was able to bemoan a lack of intelligence before the launching of U-Go as evidenced by the knowledge of Japanese road building, predictions of an offensive in late 1943, visits to him by SOE liaison officers, and the existence of a network of agents extending across the Chindwin.