In March 1945, six Shan parachuted into Burma east of the town of Moulmein. They were part of team Antelope, led by Major Ian Abbey, Captain John Bryant, and their W/T operator, Sergeant Bassett. The team had to go on the run almost immediately, and in true guerrilla style, they used the porous border with Siam to evade capture. Meanwhile, Calcutta heard nothing from them for almost a month because the W/T set was unserviceable. The decision was taken to drop another team into the Dawna Range to try and locate the Antelope team. The Tiger team landed safely on the night of 28/29 April 1945, and within 24 hours they had found Antelope, and were able to join them by the 2 May. Another drop of personnel followed, which consisted of two V Force officers, Captain Tony Bennett and Captain Basil Flack. The following comes from the private papers of Capt. Bennett, written in 1946.
After remaining near the DZ in the hope that the aircraft which had been unable to find it would show up and drop supplies, Capt. Bennett and his men moved off in a convoy of bullock carts. They were halted by a Karen named Saw Taw Naw, an employee of Steel Brothers, a contact they had been briefed about back in India. They spent nearly a week with Saw Taw Naw, enjoying ‘wonderful meals’ and using the house as a transmitting station. While there, over a hundred villagers came in to offer their services. They also heard the news of how the Steel Brothers manager of the Mepale Valley Mill had ‘died on the Kawkareik-Mesoht road early in the war.’ It was not just on the Thai-Burma railway that the Japanese worked people to death.
Although four plane loads of weapons had been received to arm the volunteers, the group was in no position to start their guerrilla campaign when news came that a Japanese intelligence officer was coming to the village. The decision was therefore taken to move off ‘and let him come unmolested.’ It was also ‘a joke appreciated by everyone’ that the Karen accompanying the Japanese officer, Saw Aung Nyunt, was ‘one of our men’. Before they left, they had a ‘busy time’ cleaning up any trace of their presence, then they made their way to the Dali Forest Reserve, about 30 miles east of Moulmein.
The reason why the party headed to the forest was because they had received an invitation to do so. Saw Ku was an ex-Burma Rifleman who had been fighting his own guerrilla campaign since 1942, after his battalion was broken up. Bennett describes how the Japanese were ‘after his blood’, and how the Karens saw him as ‘their Protector’; ‘All their loyalty to us and the Crown was embodied in Saw Ku and they gave him every scrap of assistance he demanded in his fight.’ Bennett was impressed when he first met him:
‘He had one of the strongest personalities I have ever met. He was about twenty-two, five foot six and perfectly proportioned. Good-looking, with a wide mouth showing large teeth and brown eyes set far apart, he was dressed very smartly and had a revolver on a holster on his belt and a large ruby on his finger. He never moved without a body-guard of four eighteen-year-old toughs who would have done anything for him. When he spoke his voice was musical and his speech so slow and deliberate that it had an almost hypnotic effect on his listeners.’
Saw Ku took them to his hideout, where a month was spent training the 200 or so levies. Their diet was monotonous because of the strain it put on the local villagers to feed them, and most of their rice came from twenty miles away. The levies ‘were usually very cheerful’ though, and most of them ‘stuck to us through thick and thin’.
The Japanese never attacked them despite a month spent at this camp, where supply drops were received. Bennett writes that the Japanese knew where they were, and they were numerically superior, so that ‘we could never have stood our ground had they come’. He thought that the only reason the Japanese stayed away was because of the pin-point bombing of targets provided by the Force 136 spies, and that the Japanese had over-estimated their strength. They could not stay forever though and moved off to another camp where they were able to spend another month without being molested. They patiently waited for orders that they could start offensive operations, but in the meantime they heard about an Indian village where over 200 men, women ad children had been massacred by sword and bayonet for assisting the SOE operation. ‘The whole village was burned to the ground’ and ‘many people were pushed down a well with the bodies before they were even dead.’
As June expired, Bennett took fifteen levies and set up an OP on the Kawkareik road. During this time, Bennett heard about the Japanese targeting Saw Taw Naw’s village, where they had stayed about ten weeks earlier. The Japanese were apparently suffering from ‘spy-mania’ and had arrested Saw Taw Naw and other village elders: ‘at the instigation of the Burmese, the Japs imprisoned all Christians, English-speaking people and anyone likely to have British sympathies.’ Saw Taw Naw and Havildar Saw Bobo Htu (a survivor from the first Chindit expedition) were able to escape, but thirty ‘were beheaded, including Saw Sun Day, the pastor of Kawkareik.’
As a result of these Japanese reprisals, the locals were obviously quite scared and Bennett describes how ‘twice in three days’ he just managed to escape after being given away. Deciding it had got too dangerous to stay, Bennett moved off to rejoin the main party. The ‘leeches were terrible’ and crossing a chaung, he injured his leg badly enough that he could not walk for a week. Duing this time, the loyal Karen shuttled him from place to place to keep him safe, knowing ‘their lives were forfeit’ if caught. With no news because the W/T set had stopped working, it was not until 23 August that Bennett found out the war was over. The news he received was that ‘the Japanese had decided to make peace for six months as the Americans had broken international law and dropped a gas-bomb which killed 350,000 Japanese women and children. The Emperor had decided to make peace to save further loss of life.’
Bennett decided to go to Kawkareik to find out what was going on. Not convinced the war was over, ‘everyone was rather jumpy’, and when some villagers said they had not heard the war was over, some of the porters ran away. On entering Kawkareik, they saw Japanese soldiers sitting around, some of whom ‘grinned, others looked very glum.’ Taken to a Major, Bennett later found out that this was the Kempeitai officer in charge of the atrocities.
The Major passed him on to the Japanese Garrison Commander, a colonel, who offered him a cigarette. Bennett accepted, even though he didn’t smoke, and the colonel told him he had 2500 troops in the town, but that he shouldn’t ‘let that worry’ him, which he didn’t because ’25 would have been enough had they wanted to be awkward.’ The British party then went to find accommodation and take charge of the town. Within half an hour of settling in, the townsfolk arrived and fed them ‘like a Harvest Festival’. Bennett ate rather too much, and ‘suffered indigestion’ all that night.
On 25 August, Bennett had his first shave in sixteen weeks and about a dozen eggs made into two omelettes. The following days were spent meeting Japanese officers and locals, and he continued to be plied with food much to the annoyance of the Japanese. A hunt for a Union flag had proved fruitless, but a resourceful old sub district officer took a bed sheet and sourced some red and blue dye to make one. The flag arrived on 31 August, ‘a really excellent job made by the local tailor.’
By 5 September, the Japanese had grown tired of waiting for the army to arrive, and ‘started to disarm themselves! All day bullock carts loaded with rifles’ arrived. Bennett was worried that there would soon be ‘complete lawlessness’ in the gap between the army arriving and the Japanese surrendering their weapons. On 9 September the news was received about Captain Bryant’s death after being betrayed.
After three weeks in Kya-in, a Japanese motorboat took Bennett to Rangoon, and a light plane came and took Saw Ku to hospital; he had been injured in battle in mid August. Bennett finishes by writing how he will never forget the hospitality and devoted service of the levies. That he didn’t is evident from the rest of his private papers, and the correspondence which continued into the 1990s.