The Delta Region today, not much different from how team Panda would have experienced it. Photo from Pandaw Irrawaddy Delta Cruises

Throughout the war in Burma, from the time preceding the Japanese invasion to after the formal end of hostilities, SOE had schemes planned targeting the Delta region of the country. In late 1941 and early 1942, there was an attempt to establish stay behind parties, and shortly after the first Burma campaign concluded, SOE’s first parachute infiltration in January 1943 was the Bassein area of the Delta.

On 3 April 1945, Jedburgh team Panda, consisting of Major Boiteux, Captain Planel and Sergeant Siddall, with Maung Thein and Tin Maung, parachuted into the Delta five miles southwest of Dedaye. Dedaye is about 90km southwest of Rangoon by road, on the Ayeyarwady River. The Japanese were just three miles away, and dawn broke before the team could recover all their containers and get away. Consequently, they hid all day in a sampan, from where Sgt. Siddall sent his first sked to Calcutta. That night, travelling by Sampan, they went to a village called Gwagale, where they met two rather prominent Burmese men.

In Gwagale, ‘we were received by Col. NEY WIN and THAKIN SOE’. Colonel Ne Win of the Burma National Army (BNA) went on to lead a military coup in 1962, while Thakin Soe, was then General Secretary of the Anti-Fascist Organisation, the AFO. At this time, the Burmese nationalists of the AFO and BNA were cooperating, but by 1949 were fighting each other for control of the country at the beginning of Burma’s long civil war. The job of the SOE Jedburgh teams sent to the Delta was to make Allies of the BNA and the AFO. The Jed teams, fresh from Europe, were considered qualified for this job because they had experience of dealing with the Maquis in France, and because they did not have any colonial bias being new to Burma.

Another important role of the Delta Jeds was to assist with the preparations for and early support of Operation Dracula, the seaborne invasion of Burma due to take place at the beginning of May. With stubborn Japanese resistance holding up the landward offensive towards Rangoon, Slim wanted the capital reclaimed before the monsoon.

The Panda team ‘was able to send back from the Field useful information re coastal defences in the Delta, most of this was due to the efforts and help of THAKIN SOE.’

On 24 April, Panda received Dog near a village five miles west of Kyaiklat. Leaving 300 armed men with Dog, Major Boiteux went to Twante as ordered by HQ in India. One hundred men had been sent ahead to ‘help the Japs on their way’ and a quantity of papers were captured:

Meanwhile, Capt. Planel had been sent to receive Major Hedley of Force 136, who was parachuting into the Delta ahead of the main seaborne and airborne forces of Operation Dracula. Hedley landed on 1 May. More on SOE/Force 136’s contribution to the battle of Elephant Point here.

Major Boiteux remained in Twante until 12 May, when he handed over to V Force. During that time, he was ‘helping, advising and distributing clothing to the people.’ The team then went to Rangoon, and Boiteux thought his ‘work finished’, but he headed back into the Delta with Major Battersby. Major Battersby was in charge of operations that dealt with Burmese nationalists, and he feared communal violence would once again flare up in the Delta in the space between the Japanese leaving and the British returning. In 1942, in the vacuum between the out-going British and in-coming Japanese, there had been a slaughter in Myaungmya, perpetrated by the (then named) Burma National Army on the Delta Karens.

Boiteux chose to leave Planel and Siddall in Rangoon, taking Despaigne and the men of team Yak with him. They travelled to Myaungmya where he stayed for the next two months ‘acting for Civil affairs and doing our best to help everyone with advice, money and clothing. Civil affairs and the Army arrived inn Myaungmya on 27 July, and on 28 July, Boiteux and Despaigne returned to Rangoon.

Before the switch from military operations to civil affairs, Boiteux thought that the ‘most important’ work his team had done was sending information for airstrikes and the intelligence about the Delta’s defences. Although the Japanese were well aware that someone was calling in airstrikes, Boiteux thought that it was best if he avoided fighting where possible. This was because ‘owing to the proximity of the enemy and flat country, we were obliged to hide in friendly Burman’s houses all the time.’

Where there was fighting to be done, Panda left it to Maung Thein, ‘who, in spite of his being very anti-British, was an able man’. Maung Thein apparently wrote a diary of what the BDA did during this time, but Boiteux never saw him again after leavng Rangoon on 12 May. He therefore never got the copy he wanted to see. In his report, however, Boiteux writes thay an estimated 500 casualties were inflicted on the Japanese between 3 April and 12 May. In June, a BDA ambush killed an estimated 60 Japanese, but by the end of June there were no Japs left in the Delta. Strict instructions from Force 136 HQ were to recover weapons from the BDA, but by the middle of July just twenty rifles and three Stens had been returned.

On 20 June, a Karen Captain who had been in the Burma Rifles came to meet Boiteux. He said that he had been told to report to the British when they returned, so here he was! Anxious to serve again, and no doubt worried about the possibility of atrocities as Battersby had been, Captain David was allowed to form a guard of Karen ex-servicemen in order to protect the populace from the ‘very unreliable’ BDA, as well as dacoits; ‘there was a lot of dacoiting in the district’. By the 23 June he had 32 men; by 4 July he was up to 80.

Captain David’s report survived, and it details what his command did in the period up until August. It seems they were a necessary part of maintaining law and order, making sure that homes were not attacked by maintaining patrols in the villages through the night. In one encounter, ‘Ma Khin Thein, aged 19 years, took out the local made revolver and loaded it with one rifle bullet and fired at the man who was on the raised platform of the ladder as he was trying to climb the house. The shot hit him below the stomach and he fell down there. He tried to roll away from the platform and Ma Khin Thein fired aother shot and hit him on the right calf. The bullet also passed through his private parts (testicles).’ Similar to stories coming out of Burma in 2021 when houses were being threatened in the lawlessness after the reassertion of military power, ‘we beat the gong and shouted out to the villagers’. The dacoit she had shot died of wounds.

There seems to hav been a thin line between the dacoits and the BDA. Major Boiteux finished his report with: ‘I found the B.D.A. composed mainly of bad hats and dacoits, they were deceitful, liars, thieves, undisciplined, and thoroughly unreliable.’

This opinion of the BDA is by no means isolated. Other SOE/Force 136 reports from other areas where they worked with the BDA said much the same. But while the men on the ground reported on the BDA in this way, elsewhere the thinking was of the need to make sure that the Thakins, the AFO and the BDA were seen as an important part of the liberation from Japanese rule. As thoughts shifted to post-war civil affairs and the reconstruction of Burmese politics, the leaders of these organisations would need to be accommodated. This included Colonel Ne Win, Thakin Soe, and of course Aung San.