‘Our people in Burma seem to have had a very square deal with the Authorities in Burma from H.E. and from the G.O.C. down [‘H.E.’ is His Excellency, ie the Governor of Burma, and GOC is the General Officer Commanding].’
So said the head of SOE’s India Mission in December 1942, reflecting on the first Burma Campaign. The same could not be said of many of the other territories in which SOE had attempted to set up Left Behind Parties (abbreviated to ‘LBP’ in these documents) and establish guerrilla forces in the Far East. When he arrived in Burma, General Alexander reviewed SOE’s schemes and agreed to support them as far as was possible. For their part, SOE recognised that ‘ultimate success’ relied upon considerable support from the Army. This was demonstrated in 1942, and again in the second Burma campaign during 1945 when SOE’s fortunes closely correlated with the extent of cooperation offered by XIV Army.
While in 1945 General Slim was keen to coordinate his operations with SOE, this same level of integration simply did not happen in 1942. There are many reasons for that, not least the fact that the Army was fighting for its very existence under immense pressure from an Imperial Japanese Army which was fighting with its greatest confidence and skill of the entire the war. Colin Mackenzie, commander of India Mission, continued: ‘Any failure should not be attributed to incompetence or lack of effort by our personnel. The time factor made heavy odds against accomplishment and some really good work was done.’
He is right that some ‘really good work was done’, such as the fighting retreat down the Toungoo to Mawchi Road, and the blowing of the bridges north of Mytkyina which prevented the Japanese from occupying all of Burma. Where Mackenzie could be challenged is on the idea that time was prohibitive. The Oriental Mission established its headquarters in Singapore approximately eight months before the Japanese launched their offensive across Southeast Asia. While it seems clear that the new Governor of Burma in May 1942 was a keen ally of SOE from the beginning of his appointment, if anything the time factor should be applied to the point at which the military decided to cooperate with SOE. Considerable support was not forthcoming, indeed until the war started not much support was forthcoming at all.
A lack of support from Brooke-Popham as C-in-C Far East compounded other problems faced by SOE though. A series of telegrams to London and Delhi, and Mackenzie’s report, give an insight into some of these difficulties faced in 1942:
- The Karen. It is widely believed that they were all stalwart Allies of the British, from pre-Second World War through the conflict and beyond. The SOE documents make clear that this is a misconception. In 1942, two Karen brothers by the name of Thomson led an anti-British organisation named after them, the Thomson Po-Min Movement. One telegram records that SOE had ‘done much work counteracting Thomson repeat Thomson fifth column movement amongst Karens.’ It is thought that they went as far as attacking British forces, as reported by Captain ALB Thompson (see last month’s post). The Oriental Mission arrested the four principle leaders, including the Thomson brothers, but the Governor released them, as well as the subordinate leaders who had also been imprisoned. The leaders of the Oriental Mission in Burma were unhappy about this, and took it up with the Governor. What this demonstrates is that even though on the whole the Oriental Mission enjoyed the confidence and support of the colonial authority, it did not mean that they always aligned on certain issues.
- The Chinese. Mackenzie wrote: ‘No adequate provision was made for liaison with the Chinese forces, though that was a most important requirement. It does not seem to have been an obligation of our people to have forged a link.’ This is also borne out by the diary of Captain Thompson in his dealing with the Chinese on the road to Mawchi. This lack of coordination with the Chinese is mirrored in the behaviour of the Army, at least in the months up to March 1942.
- The ‘Burmese hill tribes’. According to Mackenzie: ‘All these Burmese hill tribes despise the Chinese and the latter should be kept away from direct dealings with them. A white intermediary is necessary [emphasis original].’
- The Thais. One of the objectives of the Oriental Mission was to ‘make contact with Thailand’, and in January 1942 there were plans to go over the border from Burma to attack the Japanese there before they invaded. Mackenzie was scathing in his comments about the Thais: ‘There might have been one good man in Sodom and Gomorrah, but the attempt to find him proved futile. The same conclusion can in my opinion be applied to the Thais.’
- The Burmans. An SOE party was sent to Tenasserim to conduct guerrilla operations behind the lines. They returned having achieved nothing and were lucky to escape to Rangoon on some boats they requisitioned. They reported that ‘universal hostility of Burmese’ had prevented them from operating. Another Burman, Captain Tun Hla Aung (also spelled ‘Oung’ in the documents) was placd in charge of the LBPs by the Governor. Tun Hla Aung had been to Sandhurst in the early 1920s and after serving in the Army had joined the Burma police. The Oriental Mission officers did not trust Tun Hla Aung, and wrote to the Governor asking for him to be replaced by a ‘competent European’. There were ‘doubts as to his intentions’ and, despite Tun Hla Aung working with a trusted Anglo-Burman (Frederick Wemyss), the SOE officers said that they ‘cannot remain associated with the scheme’ unless the Governor acted. Dorman-Smith did not have the information he felt he needed to sack Tun Hla Aung, even though it was known that contact had been made with the released Thomson leaders. As with the Army, SOE recognised that they would be ‘infinitely weakened’ without the support of the colonial authorities, and so it proved as the LBP scheme was described as a ‘washout’. Apparently LBPs had been established in many occupied areas of Burma – unfortunately there appears to be no surviving records detailing their work.
What these few documents have illustrated, primarily, is difficulties with relationships. The complexity of 1942 appears to be a mish-mash of objection within and between all the different peoples involved in the Burma campaign. If they could not get on among and between themselves, how could they ever have been effective in squaring up to an audacious and confident enemy at the peak of their success. That they finally did, and finally achieved spectacular success, is surely among the most remarkable feats of the many that occurred in the war in Burma.