SOE was not supposed to be an intelligence organisation, with clear lines of responsibilty set out so it did not stand on the toes of the Secret Intelligence Service. Intelligence naturally came with SOE operations, however, and became quite a source of antagonism between the two services, with consequent impact on other Allied organisational and operational bodies. After the war, it was recognised that the intelligence which Force 136 had supplied ‘played such an important role in the operations of the South East Asia Command that it deserves a thorough study.’ It was hoped that by instructing all the commanding officers of SOE’s operations to include a section on intelligence in their reports, a collated file could be created which would inform ‘planning of the so-called “clandestine” intelligence in the post war period.’ The following extracts come mostly from a thirteen page summary that was able to be written about early 1946, pending the arrival of all the reports needed to write a full appreciation of SOE’s role.
Although in this report it states that Force 136 was primarily tasked with organising secret armies and attacking enemy lines of communication, rather than acting in an intelligence role, there were some operations in Burma which had intelligence as their main objective. The most famous example is John Hedley’s Bison Special Group, who were particularly put out that they were forbidden from attacking Japanese targets making their way down the road to Mandalay. Instead, he and his men had to make do with sending in incredibly detailed reports of what they observed. The same was true for Dilwyn parties in the north of the country.
With this new focus on intelligence in the Burma area of operations, in Janyuary 1945, training for Force 136 teams back in India and Ceylon began to include intelligence training, and the Intelligence Department of Force 136 was reorganised in January 1945 to better coordinate the material that was coming in from the various teams on the ground.
The various methods of collecting information listed in this document all applied to Burma:
- Permanent Visual Observaton Points (VOPs)
- Temporary Observation Points
- Fighting Patrols
- Native Agents
- Captured Documents
- Cooperation of Leaders of Resistance Movements
- Cooperation of Native or Colonial Authorities officially collaborating with the enemy
With all the dangers associated with maintaining a Permanent Visual Observation Point, the reports suggests that the ‘most outstanding’ example was a joint SOE/SIS effort near Singapore which watched Japanese shipping for fifteen months. Not mentioned here, are a couple of W/T stations operating for just as long in Burma; Station 1 and Station X of Operation Dilwyn in the Kachin Hills area. Both were maintained by a Kachins who were left behind when almost all of the Dilwyn personnel were withdrawn in June 1944.
Temporary VOPs were used for watching enemy movements ‘chiefly in Burma.’ Hedley’s Bison team proved the apprecition at HQ Southeast Asia Command that the Japanese would retreat to Siam via Kengtung to be wrong. The intelligence was timely, allowing corrections to be made. The value of having men on the ground was demonstrated here, because photo reconnaisance was drawing a blank as the Japanese spent the day heavily camouflaged in the jungle, only moving at night.
Most intelligence apparently came from patrols, especially in Burma where Force 136 made its greatest commitment in the Far East. Between 28 January and 23 May 1945, the following reports came in from SOE teams in Burma:
Strength, Dispositions and activities
Troop dispositions: 72
Troop cconcenrations: 174
A/T concentrations: 7
Arty concentrations: 26
M/L concentrations: 10
Locations of HQs: 33
Locatin of OPs: 13
Areas clear of troops: 1
Detailed identifications: 3
Defences and Dumps
Defences, areas and positions: 28
Dumps including MT parks: 127
Road, Rly. and River movements: 235
Transit and staging posts: 16
Road and railway conditions: 22
W/T, Telephone and Telegraphs: 11
Movements by water: 4
Lines of retreat: 2
Bombing results: 48
Aircraft and Airfields: 6
PWs reports: 5
Appreciations of situations and intentions: 6
Answers to detailed questionnaires: 1
TOTAL: 919 reports
The report goes on to say that this is not the complete picture of intelligence provided in Burma during this period because messages went directly to liaison officers with 14 Army and NCAC. Recognising that the value of the reports listed above by ‘this HQ’ was ‘difficult’, some idea of value might be drawn from ‘numerous congratulatory messages from N.C.A.C and A.L.F.S.E.A.’.
Cooperation with Resistance Movements
In Malaya, Force 136 worked with the Malaya Peoples Anti-Japanese Association (MPAJA), as this report specifies. In addition, as Becca Kenneison (in her 2019 book ‘SOE in Malaya’) has pointed out, the Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Army (OCAJA) and Malay guerrillas were also sources of intelligence for the Force 136 teams there. In Burma, there were at least four groups that SOE worked with, three of which are specified in this report: the Arakan Defence Force (ADF); the Kokang Defence Force (KDF); more famously, Aung San’s Burma National Army (BNA). The fourth group was the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO).
Such organisations are said to have ‘supplied a great wealth of information’, particularly political and economic intelligence. Burma is singled out again, this knowledge having helped Dorman-Smith’s government in exile and the Civil Affairs Service in their planning for post-war reconstruction. Importantly, information concerning prisoners of war and camp locations enabled the Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War & Internees (RAPWI) organisation to be ‘fully prepared to cope with the situation immediately after VJ-Day.’
All these positive outcomes are balanced by the assertion that ‘purely military intelligence’ supplied by resistance movement leaders ‘was often of questionable value, owing to the oriental propensity for exaggeration, inability to distinguish rumours from the truth, and the complete lack of trained oservers.’ This sort of comment about ‘native’ agents permeates the files from the beginning of the war, and now, here it is at the end of the war too. It is worth noting, however, that General Slim placed great value on the quality of intelligence coming out of Northern Burma. He thought it originated with the Americans, until he was put straight by SOE in December 1944; it was the Kachin men of Operation Dilwyn.
Three instances of a finding important documents in Burma are given. The Hyena team of Operation Character took a Japanese intelligence officer prisoner and he was carrying a ‘haul of revealing documents’. The Dilwyn team and an Operation Nation team also ‘captured a number of important documents’. These intelligence coups all came in 1945, and contributed to the defeat of the japanese in Burma. The Hyena team, for example, found the Japanese plans for the big breakout from central Burma which took place in July. Known as the ‘Battle of the Breakout’, the Character teams were able to wait along the intended route of retreat to southern Burma and ambush the japanese to such a successful extent that one officer described it as a ‘Turkey Shoot’, while another called it ‘one-sided killing’.
The positive of these three ‘scoops’ is countered by the apparent failure of operational teams to understand the importance of identity discs, and a consequent failure to relay the intelligence about Japanse units. One party allegedly ‘religiously collected Japanese discs’, but only to prove how many enemy they had killed.
Native Agents & Interrogations
Under these two headings, very little is furnished by the report. While there were agents sent into Burma, as detailed here and here for example, and there were interrogations of men returned from behind the lines, like here, the report spends little space and has no examples for these methods of gathering intelligence.
Cooperation of Friendly Native Administrations or Governments that were Officially Collaborating with the Enemy
Siam is singled out for attention here. A ‘wealth of precise information’ such as order of battle and industrial capacity ae listed, which ‘could not have been obtained by other means.’French Indo China is also given a lot of space, detailing how French officials sent out valuable intelligence between May 1944 and the 9 March when the Japanese took over the administration, capturing many SOE W/T sets.
With all this intelligence coming in, and its importance so highly rated, there obviously needed to be systems in place to distribute it to ensure maximum impact. The report concludes that ‘the methods of distribution of Force 136 intelligence was clumsy, inefficient, and slow.’ It then goes on to detail why this failure occurred.
Firstly, SOE was established as ‘a purely OPERATIONAL Clandestine Force, secret intelligence being the exclusive prerogative and duty of I.S.L.D. [SIS].’ This is despite the fact that other documents specifically place SOE under ‘Intelligence’ rather then ‘Operations’, with the cover name GSI(K) an acronym for General Service Intelligence. It is true that intelligence was badly distributed though, this much is clear from the archives, but part of the problem, as pointed out here, is that Force 136 intelligence went to ISLD for sifting and scrutiny. What it needed, was to go to a body which could collate and distribute as required; ISLD did not collate, and thus ‘proved only to be a retarding influence.’ The report then goes on to set out how ISLD made huge errors in sharing Force 136 intelligence, causing a lot of acrimony between the various Allied agencies. For example, six reports from ISLD introduced a total of 37 errors and omissions from the Force 136 original. Errors included place names, leaving out grid references, omitting length of runways and most important Japanese radar details.
In Burma specifically, Force 136 teams transmitted intelligence revealing that the Japanese had wthdrawn and left dummy guns on Elephant Point, but the invasion still went ahead as planned rather than reacting to the intelligence. As a result, a chance was missed to ‘bottle-up’ the Japanese forces trying to retreat from the area.
Despite this, the report concludes that intelligence provided by Force 136 ‘contributed materially to the final success of Allied armies in the S.E.A. theatre’. Ground operations were assisted by ‘hot’ intelligence from behind the lines; air operations benefitted from target indication, damage reports, and saving photo reconnaisance; tactical planning was informed by ‘precise topographical information’, lines of communication, and Japanese logistical problems; strategic planning was facilitated by provision of the ‘broad picture’ in Japanese occupied territory; diplomatic planning was enhanced by knowledge of the ‘feelings and trends’ of local populations and governments; huge differences were made to the ability of RAPWI and E Group to deal with prisoners of war ‘efficiently and without undue delays.’