On 7 December, 1945, exactly four years since the Japanese opened hostilities against Western targets in the Far East, Colonel Mount Stephen Cumming of Force 136 wrote a letter of thanks to the commander of RAF Jessore, in India. Addressing the bi-plane Ace, Group Captain Freddie Wightman, he wrote:
‘I should like to take the opportunity of thanking you and all members of 357 and 358 Squadrons for the support you have given us. There is no doubt that, without the keen personal interest all your staff took in our operations, we should never have begun even to attempt half what we did, and, when we did attempt it, it was the magnificent work of your air and ground crews which enabled results far beyond what everyone thought possible to be achieved in this theatre.’
After thanking Liberator crews for their pioneering flights to Malaya, he continued:
‘I feel special thanks are also due to the crews of the Hudsons, Dakotas and Lysanders which did such invaluable work in connection with pick-up operations behind the enemy lines. I know how many of our operational officers and men have good reason to remember and thank these crews for their effort in bringing wounded men out, and also for bringing in much needed replacements and reinforcements under the most trying conditions.
All members of my staff join me in conveying to you and all ranks under your command our most sincere thanks, and in wishing you the best of luck in your future careers in the RAF or on your return to civil life.’
It is obvious that Force136 would never have been able to do what it did in Burma (or elsewhere in Southeast Asia) without the RAF. This post focuses on the RAF, and the pressures it faced in doing its utmost to support special operations in Burma.
Looking East from India in the middle of 1942, there were vast distances to cover if SOE was going to ever be able to infiltrate agents or officers to lead guerrilla groups against the Japanese. Tobruk fell in June 1942, about the same time as the retreat from Burma was completed; the war situation was looking pretty bleak from the Mediterranean and European to the Middle and Far Eastern theatres. With the ‘home islands’ still threatened, the Far East was bottom of the pile for resources as far as all arms were concerned, so SOE, an organisation which had won itself few fans, particularly in the Middle East, had very little to work with. What resources were available, material and personnel alike, and especially the few RAF resources in theatre, were heavily competed for as the number of clandestine organisations grew in SEAC up to around twelve in total.
SOE was reorganised after the retreat from Burma into three groups as shown:
|Group A||Group B||Group C|
Netherlands East Indies
The new India Mission had to share the RAF’s knackered Hudson aircraft with SIS, an aircraft that only had the range to deliver personnel to Burma.
The Hudsons were based at the RAF’s Air Landing School (ALS) at Chaklala. Chaklala is located near Rawalpindi in present day Pakistan. It wasn’t until May 1943 that provision was made for the establishment of a Special Missions Unit (SMU) at Chaklala. Until that point, the Hudsons could only be used for Special Duties ‘without prejudice to the normal functions of the ALS.’
The Special Missions Unit, which was quickly redesignated to the slightly more innocuous 1576 SD Flight, had just six Hudsons – four Mk IIIs and two Mk VI. In May 1943, four were recorded as being unserviceable, and only three were modified to take parachute troops anyway. They were not scheduled to all be ready for duties until 1 August 1943 at the earliest. By June there was just one serviceable aircraft, so it was thought that by SOE planners that ‘the most optimistic results we can achieve before August’ was ‘1 Harlington sortie for the W/T set and 1 PW [Political Warfare] one’.
In the context of SOE in Burma, Harlington was an especially pressing case. During 1942, one officer, Captain Hugh Seagrim, had remained in Burma with the Karen:
‘Contacting Captain Seagrim and the Karen was one of the long-term operations planned, but getting communications established with the Karen Hills proved to be difficult. The original plan – Operation Harlington – consisted of parachuting in Karen personnel to whom W/T equipment would be dropped. They would then establish communications with Calcutta and indicate whether or notBritish officers could join them. On 19 February 1943, four Karen were landed. There were then three unsuccessful attempts to drop W/T equipment during the February moon period.’
In March and April, six further attempts to drop the signals equipment failed due to weather, navigational error or aircraft trouble. Suspicion of sabotage arose when acid was found to have leaked on parachutes, but this was never confirmed.
With the reduction in aircraft availability in May and June, and the monsoon, as well as recurring issues like those mentioned above, it was not until October that a W/T finally made its way to the Karen dropped in February.
The problems on the RAF side were not limited to the number of operational aircraft. One of the main functions of the ALS at Chaklala was parachute training, particularly the Indian Parachute battalions, however parachute training was clearly not going well. Wing Commander Maurice Newnham, DFC, was sent to Chaklala to investigate the high rate of fatalities and injuries. He was the RAF’s most experienced parachute instructor, working at Ringway, now Manchester airport. He was briefed to restore morale and the growing rift between the RAF and the Army. In his report, he wrote:
‘As a result of my investigation I am of the opinion that after making allowance for the risks which are recognised as being associated with parachuting in its present stage of development such risks have been increased because instruction has been inadequate and the maintenance of parachuting equipment has not been satisfactory.’
There was a fatality just before he arrived and two while he was there. Newnham estimated that there was 1 fatality per 500-600 jumps, a total of 17 deaths up to March 1943. Aside from the fatalities, 54 injuries had been sustained in the first 8000 descents. To put this in perspective, 2206 personnel had been parachute trained, on a much shorter course than that operating at Ringway.
Two years later, despite his recommendations, according to the Chaklala operations record book, Sepoy Sher Shanker Singh sustained injuries on 9 March that made him a fatality on 10 March 1945. ‘Despite the diligence of the Parachuting Staff, several pupils refused to make a descent as a psychological resultant to the fatalities.’ Those students are referred to as F Syndicate, which was the designation of SOE students. Then there was another fatality the next day, 11 March, when Bombardier Sanders of 44 Indian Airborne Division died.
The concurrent lack of aircraft for operations and the high incidence of fatalities in parachuting during 1943 and into 1944 undoubtedly had an impact on morale and effectiveness, which seems to have been compounded by the slowness with which the training in Europe was applied in the Far East. For SOE, I argue in my book that the period between the two Burma campaigns was an extremely important period of reorganisation, learning, and foundational operations. From the RAF log books, it appears that it was no less important for the RAF in terms of modifying existing aircraft, learning to fly new aircraft such as the Dakota when it eventually came to the theatre, and experimentation in long range flying, jungle navigation and flying in the tropics. The learning curve was a steep one, and often tragic, for aircrew as well as the parachutists mentioned.
It was clear that the old Hudsons needed replacing by an aircraft with greater capabilities. In September 1943, therefore, an appeal for Liberators was sent to London. Without Liberators, it was argued that SOE’s ‘work will come to a dead stop.’ On 1 February 1944, India Mission got its Liberators and 1576 Flight became 357 Special Duties (SD) Squadron based at Jessore in present day Bangladesh. The transformation in operational ability was immediate. In the eight months between June 1943 to the delivery of the Liberators in February 1944, just 23 sorties had been attempted. In March 1944 alone, 24 sorties were attempted, leading to the description of March as an ‘epoch making month for SD operations.’
That same month, March 1944, Hudson AM949 crashed in Burma. It was supplying an SIS operation in the same region as SOE’s Operation Spiers. The Spiers area of operations was on the far eastern side of Burma, in an area called Kokang, sitting up against the Chinese border at the extremity of the Hudson’s range. AM949
‘was lying nearly horizontal on the top of a ridge below the main crest at the SW and closed end of the Nam Po Ko valley at a height of approximately 4,600 ft. After dropping containers on its Special Duties assignment, and prior to crashing, it had turned sharply to port to avoid the crest of a 6,000 ft ridge, but it then struck several trees on a lower ridge with the outer part of the main plane[?]. The outer part of the starboard wing was ripped off. The nose of the aircraft struck the summit of the ridge and the machine came to rest’
killing four of the six crew. F/Lt James Ponsford was badly injured, but managed to drag F/O Posser, who was alive but unconscious with a fractured skull, from the wreck. The first men who arrived at the crash site were Americans of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). They apparently found Ponsford guarding Posser with his pistol before he succumbed to his injuries. 357 Squadron’s Medical Officer, Flight Officer George Graham, who had never made a jump, and its parachute instructor, Fight Sergeant White, volunteered to be dropped to Posser. They managed to save his life by trekking over a hundred miles to China carrying Posser on a litter. For their efforts to save Ponsford and Posser, the MO, George Graham, won the MBE, and Sgt. White won the CGM. At a time when morale was low, it was crucial for aircrew to know that if they were to survive a crash, that every effort would be made to recover them.
The USAAF squadrons flying ‘the Hump’ to China were well aware of the impact on morale of its aircrew knowing that if they came down there was a chance of salvation in the jungle. Many of their men were rescued by the men of SOE’s Operation Dilwyn in the kachin Hills. Stories of airmen who had bailed out and were left hanging until death found them dangling helplessly in the tall canopy of trees, or being hopelessly lost in the jungle without supplies, ate away at men’s confidence. It might be worth mentioning that, also in March 1944, the Chindit leader Orde Wingate and all aboard his Dakota were killed when it flew into the Chin Hills due to cloud coverage. Much less well known is the fate of four SD crews lost in February 1945, two from each of the Squadrons. Three aircraft ‘failed to return to base’ after operations in Burma, and one hit a cloud covered mountain in China. A fifth crew was forced to bale out of their Liberator over Bengal ‘due to petrol trouble’. All but one of the crew survived. Sgt. McLuskey ‘was forced to bale out on the second pilot’s back, and was wrenched off when the parachute opened.’
Although the Operations Record Book for Jessore contains regular criticism about the lack of recreational facilities at Jessore to help maintain morale in the face of such losses, on 23 March 1945 there was a performance of Kenneth Horne’s play ‘Love in a Mist’. ‘The appearance of the “fairer sex” in the neighbourhood created quite a diversion amongst the younger members of the station, and morale reached ceiling level.’ It is perhaps interesting that the MO’s report for March links low morale to the amount of VD cases that month within 358 sqn, and not the play. At the same time, 357 Squadron had the highest rate of dysentery, which was apparently ‘not surprising’ due to the filthy state of their cookhouse.
Three days after the play, another morale crushing tragedy occurred on 26 March when Liberator KH397 crashed after hitting trees on take off killing all nine crew of 358 Squadron, as well as some Indian villagers and cattle. Five days later on 1 April, Liberator KH323 also crashed just after take off, killing all nine crew plus six Force 136 personnel. The 26 March crash was due to having hit trees at the end of the runway, and it’s thought that the 1 April crash was due to climbing too steeply with a heavy load to avoid making the same mistake. The SOE team onboard was codenamed Hart, and they were one team of five that took off that night as part of Operation Nation.
February and March 1945 were huge months for Force 136 in Burma as they rushed to get operations like Nation into the field in time to support XIV Army’s race for Rangoon, and ensure Burmese nationalist forces didn’t oppose them. The Army’s advance into Burma was codenamed Capital, later becoming Extended Capital. On 16 November 1944, a document entitled ‘Force 136 Operations in support of CAPITAL etc’ set out SOE’s projected needs in terms of airlift. They planned on deploying seventeen Special Groups, all of which were to be introduced and maintained by 357 Squadron. A Special Group, as originally conceived, consisted of twenty personnel, two British Officers, one British Other Rank, two W/T and fifteen Burmese (including three NCOs). They calculated that they would need:
|Month||Projected sorties (no food)||Projected sorties (with food)|
What actually got attempted and were successful was:
The largest SOE operation in 1945 in support of the Army’s advance was Character. Operation Character was Operation Harlington revived after Seagrim, Nimmo, McCrindle and seven Karen had all been killed by the Japanese.
Ferret Special Group of Operation Character
This next table shows the number of sorties flown for just one part of Character, for the group codenamed Hyena. Most drops were made to Hyena from Jessore with additional drops from Toungoo in brackets:
|Totals||40||33 (+32)||73 (105)|
In addition to this, there were sixteen Spitfire sorties from 18 June onwards and 60 Lysander flights which ferried out the wounded, brought in replacement bodies and helped maintain supply.
For the Hyena commander, Lt.Col. Howell, ‘Light aircraft were worth their weight in gold’ as they were able to get beneath the cloud and navigate the jungle clad valleys during the monsoon months where the larger Daks and Liberators couldn’t. On more than one occasion, it was the free drop of ammunition from Spitfires and Lysanders that saved SOE teams from being overrun by the enemy during July and August.
After the Army had retaken Rangoon, they largely stopped offensive operations in order to regroup and plan for the invasion of Malaya. This meant that the Japanese were able to regroup and start putting SOE teams under pressure. Lt.Col. Tulloch’s Walrus group was forced to consolidate on its HQ in July and they fought for their lives in a five day battle. ‘A really splendid show was put up by the RAF’ wrote Tulloch, ‘often under extreme difficulties’. He had ‘nothing but praise for the high standard of efficiency, the individual resource and daring’ of the aircrew. Another Walrus officer went further, writing ‘the only thing that saved our bacon was the ammo dropped from Lysanders of which 90% was completely undamaged when free dropped packed in straw.’
Lt.Col. Critchley, in charge of Mongoose area, also singled out the RAF for praise, judging the skill of the pilots to be of a ‘very high order’. Later on, he finished his post operational report writing: ‘Tribute must be paid to the RAF, especially the many aircrews who lost their lives.’
The ‘many aircrews’ Lt.Col. Howell recognised are given a measure in another report on Force 136 by Lt.Col. Lisle King when he wrote that there were more RAF lives lost from 357 and 358 Sqns supplying operations than from Force 136 teams on the ground. Discounting indigenous personnel this is certainly accurate.
So what were all these aircrew sacrificing their lives for in terms of SOE’s operations in Burma? An estimated 20,000 indigenous personnel were recruited by SOE. The majority of these guerrillas were employed on Operations Nation and Character:
In all, the Character operation employed approximately 80 British officers, along with over 100 Burman and Karenofficers and men in an area of about 16,800-18,000 square kilometers (6,500-7,000 sq. miles). They recruited and trained some 12,000 levies. From the earliest deployment in February to the latest withdrawal in November meant that the operation ran for over nine months. By 25 April 1945, a total of 179 air sorties had been flown to support the four groups. Taking the surrender of 11,000 Japanese to the Mongoose team, as well as 11,874 killed according to the Game Book statistics, Character acquitted itself well militarily.
Returning to Cumming’s letter which opened this blog, some sense as to why it was written should now be clear: quite simply, without the sacrifices of the RAF, SOE would not have been able to achieve its ‘most spectacularly successful operations of the war’ which contributed, I argue in my book, in no small measure, to the Allied victory in the Burma.
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December 5, 2020 at 9:23 pm
Never see mention of 181 Signals Wing, RAF….
April 16, 2021 at 12:49 pm
Superb article. The early fatality rate of airlining school in India is mind-boggling. I am surprised they still found volunteers to train there after that flurry of accidents. Thank you for putting this article together
April 16, 2021 at 1:14 pm
Thanks for your kind feedback.
They did have issues but ultimately military rules/compulsion won I suppose, as well as doing something about it.