IFBU Insignia: Credit Psyopsinsignia

There’s already some information about IFBUs out there, see for example this on the Friends of the Intelligence Corps website and this thread on WW2 Talk. There is also the fairly well-known death of two IFBU officers. Firstly, the Fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who was killed in action on 25 March 1945; secondly, the officer commanding the IFBUs, Lt.Col. George Steer. Having now looked through all my HS files for Burma, and finding information about the IFBUs in over twenty files (excluding the related personnel files), there is more to add, to the extent that perhaps the IFBUs should have more of a place in the historiography of the Burma campaign than they currently do. What follows is a little taster, since this research is for a book I am working on, along with the unpublished diary of one of IFBU unit’s commanding officers.

The IFBUs were political warfare units. Later, IFBU was changed to FPU, Forward Propaganda Units. They were formed by Lt.Col. George Steer, an Australian journalist, who had experimented with battlefield propaganda in the Middle East and North Africa. From the beginning, there was a dual role for the unit. Firstly, they would set up loudspeakers on the frontline to broadcast to the Japanese. Korean National Army personnel were used as the language experts. They would also fire propaganda leaflets to the enemy by way of 2″ mortars. Secondly, they were to establish markets in the jungle, selling scarce goods such as salt, clothing materials and cooking oil. The former was intended to demoralise the Japanese enemy as much as possible, with the goal of inducing surrender; the latter was in order to get the locals on-side and gain battlefield intelligence. The unit was first used in the Arakan in 1943:

‘The unit served throughout the First Arakan campaign and demonstrated the value of local propaganda in providing Intelligence with a belt of well disposed country through which Japanese infiltration was rendered much more difficult.’

This success led to a meeting on 25 March 1943 in which the name ‘Indian Field Broadcasting Unit’ was agreed, and a plan for expansion to ten units by 1 January 1944 decided. At this point, the new IFBU War Establishment allowed for 56 personnel per unit with a Captain in charge. These five IFBUs were ready just in time to be deployed to Arakan and Imphal as the Japanese launched their offensive against India.

In the battle of Imphal, the IFBUs took ‘heavy casualties’. They operated on the frontline throughout the battle, and the Mahratta troops detailed to protect the IFBUs suffered approximately 70 casualties. Bearing in mind that the Imphal battle was a defensive for the Allies, it was recognised that the task of the IFBUs in convincing Japanese troops to surrender was more difficult, ‘we know the Japanese listened with interest’ to the IFBU broadcasts. Where they had more success was with the Indian National Army (INA). An entire INA brigade surrendered, which 14 Army attributed largely to IFBU propaganda. Captured Japanese documents revealed some of the impact of the IFBUs on Japanese troops, to the extent that a 4 Corps report stated that the IFBU work ‘undoubtedly contributed to the lowering of morale’ and contributed to the surrender of at least four Japanese soldiers.

During the Imphal campaign an example of what was broadcast was described as ‘The impossibles’: the Japanese were told ‘you cannot win the war’; ‘you cannot surpass our manpower and production’; ‘you cannot take INDIA; you cannot even take IMPHAL’. As the Japanese situation deteriorated, shortages of food, ammunition and and sickness was also broadcast, as well as the threat of the monsoon coming. One report states that all Japanese who surrendered at Imphal did so with IFBU “surrender tickets”.

Gurkhas clearing ‘Scraggy’, April 1944: Credit National Army Museum

Lt.Col. Steer’s report on the IFBUs at Imphal contains the names of well known features that were hard fought over, and thus might add to our knowledge of the battle. For example, in certain circumstances (not defined), the IFBU broadcast would ask for a surrender and the raising of a white flag by the Japanese. Steer relates four incidents of where the Japanese put up a flag: Nippon Peak on 1 and 2 April; 4 May at Lamyenchaung; and on 28 May on a ‘pimple’ south of Buri Bazaar. Normally, both sides apparently observed a ‘fire truce’ when the IFBUs broadcast. This was only broken at Scraggy, a feature defined by Latimer as ‘the most bitterly contested hill on Shenam Saddle’. At Potsamgbam, it was observed that sixteen Japanese came out of their bunkers to lie inn the sun and listen to the broadcast before returning to their position, and the OC of 1 Battalion 215 Regiment north of the Silchar Track came out with his staff to listen.

These successes at Imphal caused General Slim to support the expansion of what were soon to be renamed FPUs, for the advance into Burma. The officer commanding an FPU in 1945 was an Anglo-Burman named Major Alfred Trutwein. He was in charge of a Force 136 operation codenamed BARGE which was specifically launched in support of 14 Army as it advanced on the Chindwin from December 1944. Major Trutwein had served with the IFBUs at their inception in the Arakan in 1943, and then at Imphal. It is his diary which will hopefully be published later this year, with more about the IFBUs, their personnel, and their part in SEAC’s Psychological Warfare campaign – which was run by SOE / Force 136.

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