The photo above was shared with me by the son of the Sergeant who had added himself to the top left. Why Sergeant Len Pearson missed the photograph being taken is unknown, but that he kept a copy and added himself to it suggests a few things about how he might have felt about his comrades in arms.
The photo came without any other information, so while I was excited to receive it, I was also intensely frustrated. I had a list of names from the archives for this group, but how was I ever to work out who was who? The British officers were the easy part. From left to right it is Major Bill Nimmo, Major Eustace Poles, and Captain William Ansell.
If I could find out the names of the rest of the men in the Special Group, not only could I unite a face with mini biographies already written on my Men of SOE Burma page, I could provide irrefutable evidence of the ethnic composition of SOE teams in Burma. As I have written elsewhere, Louis Allen in his Burma: The Longest War wrote that SOE had two separate departments, one for the Burmans (Bamar), and one for the other races. In all the coverage about the Rohingya crisis from 2017, those media stories that looked back to the colonial past often continued this myth of how the British sidelined the Burmans in favour of other races during the Second World War. While my research was already challenging this narrative, now the ethnic composition of a team from Operation Character can be revealed.
Operation Character was one of SOE’s largest – and arguably most successful – operations of the entire war, not just in Burma. There were approximately 12,000 guerrillas raised in the Karen Hills between February 1945 and the withdrawal of the teams by November 1945. Originally, four Special Groups were flown in, codeamed Otter, Ferret, Hyena, and Mongoose. These four Special Groups mostly consisted of P Force personnel who had been operating in the Chindwin area forward of Imphal between August 1943 and May 1944. The ‘P’ in the name ‘P Force’ came from their commander’s surname, Lt.Col. Edgar Peacock.
The training cards from fifteen files of Burmese SOE personnel reveal that P Force recruited many Burmans during its time in the Chindwin area of north west Burma. They also showed that many of these men were retained for future operations after withdrawal from the Imphal front and deployed on operations all over Burma, including in the Karen Hills with Operation Character.
Here is the ethnic composition of Ferret group:
Rifleman Ba Khine – Burman
Recruited by P Force in December 1943
Havildar Zau La – Kachin
Recruited by SOE in October 1944. ‘Thoroughly reliable N.C.O. proved himself in action under Capt Ansell at HAWLUDO 23 July 1945. Very efficient scout and adept in jungle warfare.’
Naik Saw Kyai Htai (Kya Tai) – Karen
Joined SOE 8 February 1943. Army Service Corps since 1941.
Signalman Paw Luh – Chin
Joined SOE in August 1943, refused promotion, a ‘first class W/T operator.’
Lance Naik Kyaw Ho(e) – Burman
A cultivator recruited on 1 June 1944 in the Chindwin area.
Lance Naik Lu Wa – Burman
Recruited by P Force December 1943: ‘Usually very cheerful, energetic and willing, but apt to get the sulks.’
Naik Than Pe – Burman
A cultivator recruited on 1 June 1944: ‘A young NCO who did not shine during training but who has developed into a brave and dependable NCO.’
Naik Lu Pe – Burman
Recruited 27 February 1943 and acted as Lt.Col. Peacock’s escort.
Havildar Kyaw Yin – Karen
Recruited 1 March 1943: ‘Not very quick witted, but has proved himself capable and brave. His individual coolness and courage in action is known throughout these hills.’
Awarded the Burma Gallantry Medal (BGM).
Naik Tun Shein – Burman
Recruited January 1944: ‘[a]n extremely fine young N.C.O. Staunch, hard working and reliable.’
Naik San Kyi – Burman
Recruited 5 January 1944: ‘Very keen fighter – brave and reliable – always cheerful in spite of any adverse circumstance.’
Naik Ba Tun – Burman
Recruited December 1943: ‘An extremely staunch and dependable NCO. Brave and reliable.’
Jemadar Saw Mawluku – Karen
Recruited April 1943: ‘I cannot speak too highly of Jem Saw MOLU KU.’
Subedar Tun Sein – Karen
Joined SOE 1 April 1943: a ‘most excellent V.C.O.’
Jemadar Chandring Anan – Kuki
Recruited September 1943: ‘Jungly and tough physically’.
Jemadar Tun Sein – Burman
Recruited January 1944: ‘[a] most excellent officer, very brave and dependable, with the capacity to command. Level headed and clear thinking.’
Naik Sa Kyai – Burman
Joined SOE Christmas Eve 1943: ‘good and thoroughly staunch N.C.O. [He was] in several actions and is brave and reliable.’
Naik Maung Ba Kyaw Galay – Burman
Recruited by P Force: ‘exceptionally keen and reliable N.C.O.’
Five different ethnicities:
11 Burman (Bamar)
Contrary to the impression given throughout the years, this shows that the different ethnic groups did work together, that a Special Group with a majority of Burmans operated in Karen territory, and that the British (or SOE at least) did not segregate the different peoples of Burma for war fighting. Despite the atrocities that we know happened which makes it easier to cast generalisations regarding clear sides in an ethno-nationalist conflict that continues to this day, there was clearly cooperation too. Perhaps this can help us to understand the divisions between and within ethnic groups, as well as some of the seemingly confusing decisions that were made in the period from the end of the war, through independence, to civil war in 1949.
My thanks to Arthur, son of Captain Ansell for providing the last piece of the jigsaw to make this possible.
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