On the night of 20 January 1945, a daylight sortie was made to locate suitable drop zones (DZ) for a party of five that was codenamed Rhino. Rhino consisted of Major Henry Morrison James; his 2i/c, Captain Albert Ramsay Maitland; W/T operator Havildar Aung Hla Byu; L/Naik Maung Tun Wa; and Sepoy Kham Shin.
Major James was born in 1915 and had read Tropical Agricullture in Trinidad and joined the colonial service before the war. Commissioned in 1940, he saw action in the Western Desert, Greece, and Crete before joining SOE. James volunteered for the Far East having won the Military Cross for his work with SOE’s Force 133 in Greece.
Captain Maitland was an Anglo-Burman, born in Moulmein on 5 November 1916. He had been in the Burma Auxiliary Force (BAF) before the war and during the 1942 campaign, serving as an NCO. He was commissioned in August 1944
Havildar Aung Hla Bya was a Sgaw Karen from the Bassein area of Burma in the Irrawaddy delta. He joined SOE in January 1943 and had completed two operations before joining the Rhino team. Major James considered him a ‘first class W/T operator’ and was impressed by his coolness in action.
Lance Naik Maung Tun Wa was a Burman born in 1904. He came from the Upper Chindwin area of Burma where he had been recruited by (then) Major Edgar Peacock for patrol work forward of Imphal prior to the Japanese invasion of India in March 1944. Major James described him as ‘an honest old warrior’.
There does not appear to be any surviving record for Kham Shin, but Major James reported that he was ‘Very brave in action’ but ‘need[ed] a good rocket every second day’ as he was ‘undisciplined’ and ‘childish’.
The Rhino team was to be dropped ‘blind’ (ie no reception party) on to one of the DZs scouted by Major James. On the night of the 22 January, the aircrat could not find the DZ, but the next night they managed to jump: ‘All personnel fell on trees in a wooded area and the first stick of three was dropped from a height too low for safety.’ Maung Tun Wa was injured and ‘almost unable to walk for several weeks’ as a result.
In their operational briefing, the Rhino team had been told that the locals in the area, a mixture of Chins, Burmese and Arakanese, might be expected to be on side if ‘news of recent successes’ got through to them. This lack of information on the attitude of the locals was tested almost immediately upon landing. While looking among the trees for the stores dropped with them, ‘a villager appeared and made off at high speed.’ Abandoning the search for two more packages, the party moved off and hid in jungle two miles from where they had landed. There, they slept.
In the morning, they approached a villager and found out that they were forty miles north of their intended DZ. When other villagers ‘appeared somewhat hostile’, the Rhino team ‘faded away’, moving south. Since they were so far from the intended DZ, their first object of receiving a Special Group was cancelled. A Special Group would have been a team of around 18-20 men who had all been trained together for operations in Burma. Moving off, they went to fulfil their second objective, which was to ‘recce and report bombing targets and ground attack targets on the MINBU-AN road.’
Minbu is a town on the Irrawaddy, the road west from which goes into the Arakan to the town of An, 157km away. As such it was one of the main ways for the Japanese to either retreat into central Burma, or to reinforce and resupply units opposing 15 Corps. Another SOE / Force 136 team, codenamed Mouse, was operating on the road from An northeast to Dalet.
After a meeting of headmen and priests, the locals ‘declared themselves pro-British and at our disposal.’ The Rhino team armed six men and were joined by ‘a party of twenty picturesque desperadoes’. The ‘desperadoes’ were dacoits who were armed with rifles after a recent jail break. Continuing south to avoid a strong Japanese hunt for them, the team reached the road and began recces which resulted in several bombing targets being reported. A troop concentration near Sagu was hit, and an ammunition dump blown up near Kokwa.
Contact was also made with the Burma Defence Army, and once directives had been received for cooperation with them, the Rhino team seems to have worked quite closely with them. There was a ‘series of small actions’ in the Sagu area, which accounted for ‘the death of some thirty Japs and the destruction of a staff car and its occupants.’ Two more attempts to hunt down the Rhino team were made, but both were fought off quite easily and included the death of a Kempeitai Captain named Tawara. After contact was made with 114 Brigade on 28 April, the BDA was placed under British command and employed by the Army until 15 May when they were withdrawn. Unlike the BDA, Indian National Army troops in the area ‘declined to be subverted.’
At some point after 15 May, Rhino was ordered to make their way to Rangoon by road, and on 26 May they flew back to Calcutta. In his closing comments on the operation, James considered that the team had ‘adequately covered’ the eastern section of the road, and that liaison with the BDA had been successful. After four months in the field, Rhino had lost three levies and one BDA dead, with one levy seriously wounded. Curiously, the ‘Gamebook’ of casualties inflicted by SOE up to September 1945 only records one death and one wounded for own forces with Rhino. It also records 58 dead Japanese, despite the actions described by Major James suggesting more.