More plentiful times: a supply drop in Burma, 1945. Photo credit Sgt. Roger Leney
In his history of SOE in the Far East, the official historian, Charles Cruickshank, claims that the organisation existed in a ‘funcional vacuum’ due to its reliance upon a European Charter. This adherence to a European Charter, which, he wrote, was usuitable for the Far East, was why SOE was unable to do very much in this theatre. Quite apart from the fact that SOE’s India Mission did have a written charter for operations in the Far East, this conception that India Mission did very little has been decisively challenged.
If there was a period of operational inertia at all, it was in the short period between the retreat from Burma by June 1942 and the beginning of 1943. The records show, however, that SOE was far from idle. Apart from organsing levy organisations along the Indo-Burmese border and in the north of Burma itself, SOE prepared for the expected invasion of India, and hurriedly trained teams for operations in Burma in 1943. By January 1943, approximately 100 personel had been trained and were ready to go, expecting to be launched either by sea or by air.
Based on a rather frustrated account of events in March 1943, written by India Mission’s commander, Colin Mackenzie, this post will show how SOE had its operational ambitions either thwarted altogether, severely postponed, or curtailed, during the middle six months of 1943. SOE is not referred to as Force 136 in this article because it was not known by that name until March 1944.
SOE had at least seven naval or para-naval operations planned for across the theatre by March 1943. Of these, three were for Burma.
Firstly, on 1 March, a Motor Launch (M/L) made its first successful sortie for Operation Cortachy. The initial aim of this operation had been to infiltrate two agents to reinforce the two agents dropped by parachute in January 1943 in an operation code-named Flimwell. The Flimwell men never made contact, having been captured and handed over to the Kempeitai, so on this sortie, supplies were cached on the coast for future use.
Second, Operation Cymbal was the plan to send a group of four Anglo-Burmans to the Rangoon River on a fishing boat with the intention of sinking a large vessel in the channel, thus blocking the entrance to the port and hopefully causing a few Japanese logistical headaches. In April 1943, This operation is recorded as ‘postponed until party fully trained.’
The third operation, code-named Slut, was a submarine launched operation aimed at setting up an observation point on an island in the Mergui Archipeligo. ‘Postponed indefinitely, due to uncertaintly re craft’, this operation did eventually go ahead as Operation Corton in January 1944. The ‘uncertainty’ was due to SOE being able to hitch a ride on the submarines of the Royal Dutch Navy operating out of Columbo. Not only were SOE in competition with SIS for space on the submarines, but their operations had to fit in with the operational duties of the Dutch Navy. Perhaps more importantly, while the Dutch crews of the submarines ‘did their utmost to help special forces personnel‘, Admiral Layton, the Commander in Chief Ceylon, ‘made no secret of his disapproval of any suggestion of [SOE] using his submarines’.
While the naval side of SOE operations sought to find its feet, airborne operations also had a few obstacles to overcome. Colin Mackenzie, commander of SOE in the Far East, concluded in April 1943 that ‘it is impossible to conduct air operations efficiently with the present equipment and organisation.’ It seems it was not only SOE that had frustrations; both the RAF and SIS had apparently petitioned London for resource. Mackenzie, at this stage, wanted a squadron for SOE, but he ‘realised that the present shortage of equipment will not permit of any immediate solution’. In this he was quite right, for SOE did not get its squadron until February 1944.
In the meantime, SOE had to reply on six old Hudsons based at the RAF Air Landing School (ALS) in Chaklala. RAF Chaklala was near Rawlpindi in present day Pakistan, but its distance from the Burma front was not an insurmountable problem. As its name suggests, the ALS was a training facility, not an operational facility. While Mackenzie recognised that the RAF personnel were rather well disposed towards operational sorties with the clandestine organisations calling on their services, this was not their first priority. In short, SOE was being expected to produce operational results with six knackered airframes and non-operational personnel. Even bearing this in mind, SOE’s experience of trying to launch operations into Burma during March 1943 makes for farcical reading.
In February 1943, a team of Karens had been successfully dropped into Burma to establish whether or not their kinsmen had remained loyal to the British and wanted to fight. They were also to establish whether or not Captain Hugh Seagrim, who had stayed behind in Burma in 1942, was still alive. At this point, planners had been wary of dropping a W/T with the initial party, so no radio contact was possible. The plan was that the initial party would signal the all clear for a second party with the W/T to be dropped. The records for Operation Harlington, and the later incarnation as Operation Character, often refer to the failures of these early days, including a hint that the operation sabotaged by person(s) uknown who destroyed parachutes by dousing them in acid.
According to Mackenzie in his April report, however, there is no suggestion of acid sabotage, which always seemed a wild theory. The damage was done by new jelly acid batteries which had ‘sweated’ in transit, and had damaged not just the entire supply of spare parachutes, but containers for drops as well. Sorties were held up until new supplies of both were delivered, but in the meantime, SOE found out – almost certainly from SIS – that Seagrim was alive and well with a bodyguard of 60 Karens and that all ‘local spies had been dealt with.’
During the moon from 15 March, four Harlington sorties failed, and then Mackenzie was told there would be no more sorties in April and May ‘owing to the likelihood of unfavourable weather’. Operations might start again in June, but Mackenzie doubted it because the monsoon usually only had a brief lull in that month. Mackenzie was therefore concerned about the immediate needs of Harlington, which he could do nothing about. One of the failed sorties was attributed to a lack of navigator training over Burmese terrain, connected to the observation that RAF personnel from the ALS were not being untrained for operational duties.
‘A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.’ Photo credit: IWM
During February and March 1943, Operation Longcloth, the first Chindit expedition, set off. In mid March, the request came in for an aircraft to be loaned from SOE to parachute two signallers to Wingate’s men in Burma. Mackenzie sanctioned the loan on condition that the loan did not interfere with their plans to get Harlington, Dilwyn, and a third operation, Eyemouth, into the field. Timings for sorties were carefully coordinated with the RAF to coincide with bombing raids, used to cover the parachute infiltrations. On 19 March, the plane was sent, but the pilot found that nodody had been briefed to be dropped so no personnel turned up for his services. The pilot therefore came back withthe aircraft. On 21 March, as a second request came in, which was allowed on the proviso that the aircraft flew its sortie on the 22nd and was back for SOE use on 23 March. No aircraft came back, and SOE were later informed that the plane had crashed in India on 24 March.
Apart from contacting the Karen with Operation Harlington, plans to contact the Kachin further north through Operation Dilwyn were also ready to go. Similar to Harlington, the plan was for indigenous personnel to go first and give the all clear for subsequent parties which would include British officers. By the time of the Chindit request, two Dilwyn sorties in March had failed. The first was aborted when the navigator lost his way, apparently due to a malfunctioning compass. On a second sortie ‘whilst circling round [the DZ], the bomb rack containers were released over the jungle and lost. This appears to have been a fault in the bomb release mechanism.’ As a result, the DZ had to be changed to a second location. Both these aborted sorties were attributed to the age of the Hudsons causing electrical problems, as well as ‘continual defects’ such as petrol leakage, high oil consumption due to the need for mechanical overhaul.
Moreover, as well as Harlington personnel in need of sorties, after two failed Dilwyn sorties a third was seen as desirable as promptly as possible ‘before their confidence was completely undermined.’ There was a fear that the Kachin team might refuse to jump, so the loss of the plane to the Chindits was significant. Chindit operations also necessitated the selection of a third DZ for the Dilwyn team after the fiasco with the bomb racks, and Eyemouth also had to change DZ twice due to ‘proximity of Chindits’. The message SOE received was that Wingate had priority. In the end, Operation Eyemouth was never launched due to these reasons and three abortive sorties on 25, 27 and 28th March due to weather.
The SOE diary for March air sorties therefore looks like this:
12 March – 1st plane arrived with acid damaged containers
14 March – 2nd and 3rd planes arrived
15 March – first Harlington failure due to weather
18 March – second Harlington failed due to weather & first Dilwyn failure due to ‘pilot unable find target’
19 March – ‘Lent plane for dropping signallers to WINGATE’
20 March – Plane returned
21 March – second Dilwyn failure due to bomb rack container loss & third Harlington failure ‘owing pilot failed find target’. Lent plane to Chindits.
23 March – successful Dilwyn sortie. ‘Intended EYEMOUTH but plane not returned.’
24 March – Attempted Harlington. ‘Failed owing weather.’ Another ‘EYEMOUTH but plane not returned.’
’24th/25th Plane lent for dropping signallers to WINGATE. Crashed in India.’
26 March – Eyemouth cancelled due to weather. ‘New plane arrived p.m.’
27 March – ‘All flying cancelled account weather.’
28 March – ‘All flying cancelled account weather.’
While the weather does appear to have been a prominent factor in the frustrated circumstances of the air sorties, the main issue appears to be – as ever in the Far East – a severe lack of supplies and competing interests for the use of them. SOE didn’t even have their own lorries to transfer their men from barracks to airbase, relying on the RAF to play taxi on the ground as well as in the air. In his report, Mackenzie writes that he hoped to have two 30cwt trucks given to him next month.
Far from operating in a ‘functional vacuum’, due to an inappropriate European orientated charter, SOE appears to have worked hard to become operational as soon as possible after the disasters of 1942, with several air and sea infiltrations launched in the first months of 1943. That these endeavours did not always meet with success, from accidents with acid jelly batteries and bomb rack containers, to the more structural problems of supply, training, and operational priorities, should not really come as a surprise. It should, however, ‘set the record straight’ in terms of perceptions of SOE’s performance in the Far East.