Force 136 was the general cover name for a branch of the British World War II organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The organisation was established to encourage and supply resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, and occasionally mount clandestine sabotage operations. Force 136 operated in the regions of the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II which were occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945.
Although the top command of Force 136 were British officers and civilians, most of those it trained and employed as agents were indigenous to the regions in which they operated. British, Americans or other Europeans could not operate clandestinely in cities or populated areas in Asia, but once the resistance movements engaged in open rebellion, Allied armed forces personnel who knew the local languages and peoples became invaluable for liaison with conventional forces. In Burma in particular, SOE could draw on many former forestry managers and so on, who had become fluent in Burmese or other local languages before the war, and who had been commissioned into the Army when the Japanese invaded Burma.
- 1 History
- 2 Operations
- 2.1 Malaya
- 2.2 China
- 2.3 Thailand
- 2.4 Burma
- 2.5 Other
- 3 Communications
- 4 Notes
- 5 Sources
- 6 External links
SOE was formed in 1940, by the merger of existing Departments of the War Office and the Ministry of Economic Warfare. Its purpose was to incite, organise and supply indigenous resistance forces in enemy-occupied territory. Initially, the enemy was Nazi Germany and Italy, but from late 1940, it became clear that conflict with Japan was also inevitable.
Two missions were sent to set up (and assume political control of) the SOE in the Far East. The first was led by a former businessman, Valentine Killery of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), who set up his HQ in Singapore. A scratch resistance organisation was set up in Malaya, but Singapore was captured on 15 February 1942, soon after Japan entered the war.
A second mission was set up in India by another former businessman, Colin Mackenzie of J. and P. Coats, a clothing manufacturer. Mackenzie's India Mission originally operated from Meerut in North West India. Its location was governed by the fear that the Germans might overrun the Middle East and Caucasus, in which case resistance movements would be established in Afghanistan, Persia and Iraq. When this threat was removed late in 1942 after the battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein, the focus was switched to South East Asia.
The India Mission's first cover name was GS I(k), which made it appear to be a record-keeping branch of GHQ India. The name, Force 136 was adopted in March 1944. From December 1944, the organisation's headquarters moved to Kandy in Ceylon, and cooperated closely with South East Asia Command which was also located there.
In 1946, Force 136 was wound up, along with the rest of SOE.
The Oriental Mission of SOE attempted to set up "stay-behind" and resistance organisations from August 1941, but their plans were opposed by the British colonial governor, Sir Shenton Thomas. They were able to begin serious efforts only in January 1942, after the Japanese Invasion of Malaya had already begun.
An irregular warfare school, STS 101, was set up by the explorer and mountaineer Freddie Spencer Chapman. Chapman himself led the first reconnaissances and attacks behind Japanese lines during the Battle of Slim River. Although the school's graduates mounted a few operations against the Japanese lines of communication, they were cut off from the other Allied forces by the fall of Singapore. An attempt was made by the Oriental Mission to set up an HQ in Sumatra but this island too was overrun by the Japanese.
Malayan Communist Party
Before the Japanese attacked Malaya, a potential resistance organisation already existed in the form of the Malayan Communist Party. This party's members were mainly from the Chinese community and implacably anti-Japanese. Just before the fall of Singapore, the party's Secretary General, Lai Teck, was told by the British authorities that his party should disperse into the forests, a decision already made by the party's members.
In isolation, the Communists formed the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). Their first arms and equipment were either donated by STS 101 before they were overrun, or recovered from the battlefields or abandoned British Army depots. The MPAJA formed rigidly disciplined camps and units in the forest, supplied with food by networks of contacts among displaced Chinese labourers and "squatters" on marginal land. Chapman had remained in Malaya after Singapore fell, but had no radio or means of contacting Allied forces elsewhere. Nevertheless, the MPAJA still regarded Chapman as the official British authority, and Chin Peng was appointed as liaison officer with Chapman.
In 1942, Singaporean World War II hero Lim Bo Seng had returned to Malaya from Calcutta, and recruited some agents who had made their way to India by 1943. Force 136 attempted to regain contact with Chapman in Operation Gustavus, by infiltrating parties which included Lim Bo Seng and former STS 101 members John Davis and Richard Broome by sea into the area near Pangkor Island. Their radio was unable to contact Force 136 HQ in Ceylon and the MPAJA contacts on Pangkor Island were betrayed to the Japanese.
In February 1945, the radio brought in by Gustavus was finally made to work. Chapman was able to visit Force 136 HQ in Kandy and report. By this time, Force 136 had substantial resources, and in the few months before the end of the war, they were able to send 2,000 weapons to the MPAJA and no less than 300 liaison personnel. About half of these were British who had worked or lived in Malaya before the war, the others were Chinese who had made their own way to India or who had been taken there by Force 136 for training. With these resources, the MPAJA was built up to become a substantial guerilla army with about 7,000 fighters. However, Japan surrendered before it had a chance to stage a major uprising.
In isolation in jungle camps for several years, the MCP and MPAJA had purged themselves of many members suspected of treachery or espionage, which contributed to their post-war hard-line attitude and led in turn to the insurgency known as the Malayan Emergency.
The Kuomintang also had a widespread following in the Malaysian Chinese community in the days before the War, but were unable to mount any significant clandestine resistance to the Japanese. Partly, this was because they were based among the population in the towns, unlike the MCP which drew much of its support from mine or plantation workers in remote encampments or "squatters" on the edge of the forest. Most of the KMT's supporters and their dependents were therefore hostages to any Japanese mass reprisal.
When Lim Bo Seng and other agents from Force 136 attempted to make contact with Kuomintang networks in Ipoh as part of Operation Gustavus, they found that the KMT's underground actions there were tainted by corruption or private feuding.
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From 1938, Britain had been supporting the Republic of China against the Japanese, by allowing supplies to reach the Chinese via the Burma Road running through Burma. SOE had various plans regarding China in the early days of the war. Forces were to be sent into China through Burma and a Bush Warfare School under Michael Calvert was established in Burma to train Chinese and Allied personnel in irregular warfare. These plans came to an end with the Japanese conquest of Burma in 1942.
Strictly speaking, SOE was not tasked to operate inside China after 1943, when it was left to the Americans. However, one group, Mission 204, formally known as 204 British Military Mission to China and also known as Tulip Force attempted to provide assistance to Chinese Nationalist Army. The first phase achieved very little but a second more successful phase was conducted before the Operation Ichi-Go offensive forced their withdrawal in 1944.
In Operation Remorse, a businessman named Walter Fletcher carried out covert economic operations such as trying to obtain smuggled rubber, currency speculation and so on, in Japanese-occupied China. As a result of these activities, SOE actually returned a financial profit of GBP 77 million in the Far East. Many of these funds and the networks used to acquire them were subsequently used in various relief and repatriation operations, but critics pointed out that this created a pool of money that SOE could use beyond the oversight of any normal authority or accountability.
On 21 December 1940, a formal military alliance between Thailand under Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram and Japan was concluded. At noon on 25 January 1942, Thailand declared war on the United States and Great Britain. Some Thais supported the alliance, arguing that it was in the national interest, or that it was better sense to ally oneself with a victorious power. Others formed the Free Thai Movement to resist. The Free Thai Movement was supported by Force 136 and the OSS, and provided valuable intelligence from within Thailand. Eventually, when the war turned against the Japanese, Phibun was forced to resign, and a Free Thai-controlled government was formed. A coup was being planned to disrupt the Japanese occupying forces in 1945, but was forestalled by the ending of the war.
Burma was the theatre in which the major Allied effort was made in South East Asia from late 1942 onwards, and Force 136 was heavily involved. Initially, it had to compete with regular formations such as the Chindits and other irregular organizations for suitable personnel, aircraft and other resources. It eventually played a significant part in the liberation of the country by slowly building up a national organization which was used to great effect in 1945.
Two separate sections of SOE dealt with Burma. One concentrated on the minority communities who mainly inhabited the frontier regions; the other established links with the nationalist movements among the majority Bamar peoples in the central parts of the country and the major cities. It has been argued that this division of political effort, although necessary on military grounds, contributed to the inter-community conflicts which have continued in Burma (Myanmar) to the present day.
There were Indians and Afghans who were part of Force 136 and were heavily involved in Burmese operation, like C. L. Sharma, an Indian Professor of Linguistics at British Army Headquarters in India who later became an active member of Force 136 and spent almost 6 years mainly in various missions of the Force in Burma.
Karens, Chins, Arakanese and Kachins
The majority community of Burma were the Bamar. Among the minority peoples of Burma, including Chins, Karens and Kachins, there was a mixture of anti-Bamar, anti-Japanese and pro-British sentiments. In 1942, the pro-Japanese Burma Independence Army raised with Japanese assistance, attempted to disarm Karens in the Irrawaddy River delta region. This created a large-scale civil conflict which turned the Karens firmly against the Japanese.
The Karens were the largest of the minority communities. Although many lived in the Irrawaddy delta, their homeland can be considered to be the "Karenni", a mountainous and heavily forested tract along the border with Thailand. They had supplied many recruits to the Burma Rifles (part of the British forces in Burma during the early part of the war), and in the chaos of the British retreat into India, many of them had been given a rifle and ammunition and three months' pay, and were instructed to return to their home villages to await further orders. The presence of such trained soldiers contributed to the effectiveness of the Karen resistance.
A few British army officers had also been left behind in the Karreni, in a hasty attempt to organise a "stay-behind" organisation. In 1943, the Japanese made a ruthless punitive expedition into the Karenni, where they knew a British officer was operating. To spare the population, a British liaison officer, Hugh Seagrim, voluntarily surrendered himself to the Japanese and was executed along with several of his Karen fighters.
However, Force 136 continued to supply the Karens, and from late 1944 they mounted Operation Character, in execution similar to Operation Jedburgh in Nazi-occupied France, in which three-man teams were parachuted to organise large-scale resistance in the Karenni. Some of the Character teams had previously served on Jedburgh, others had previously served in the Chindits. In April 1945, Force 136 stage-managed a major uprising in the region in support of the Allied offensive into Burma, which prevented the Japanese Fifteenth Army forestalling the Allied advance on Rangoon. After the capture of Rangoon, Karen resistance fighters continued to harass Japanese units and stragglers east of the Sittang River. It was estimated that at their moment of maximum effort, the Karens mustered 8,000 active guerrillas (some sources claim 12,000), plus many more sympathisers and auxiliaries.
SOE had some early missions to Kachin State, the territory inhabited by the Kachins of northern Burma, but for much of the war, this area was the responsibility of the American-controlled China-Burma-India Theater, and the Kachin guerrillas were armed and coordinated by the American liaison organisation, OSS Detachment 101.
The various ethnic groups (Chins, Lushai, Arakanese) who inhabited the border areas between Burma and India were not the responsibility of Force 136 but of V Force, an irregular force which was under direct control of the Army. From 1942 to 1944, hill peoples in the frontier regions fought on both sides; some under V Force and other Allied irregular forces HQ, others under local or Japanese-sponsored organisations such as the Chin Defence Force and Arakan Defence Force.
The Burma section of Force 136 was commanded by John Ritchie Gardiner, who had managed a forestry company before the war and also served on the Municipal Council of Rangoon. He had known personally some Burmese politicians such as Ba Maw who had later formed a government which, although nominally independent, collaborated through necessity with the Japanese occupiers.
In 1942, when the Japanese invaded Burma, the majority Bamar (Burman) people had been sympathetic to them, or at least hostile to the British colonial government and the Indian community which had immigrated or had been imported as workers for newly created industries. Bamar volunteers flocked to the Burma Independence Army which fought several actions against British forces. During the years of occupation, this attitude changed. The Burma Independence Army was reorganised as the Burma National Army (BNA), under Japanese control. In 1944, Aung San, the Burmese nationalist who had founded the BIA with Japanese assistance and had been appointed Minister of Defence in Ba Maw's government and commander of the Burma National Army, contacted Burmese communist and socialist leaders, some of whom were already leading insurgencies against the Japanese. Together they formed the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) under the overall leadership of Thakin Soe. Force 136 was able to establish contact with this organisation through links with Burmese communist groups.
During the final Allied offensive into Burma in 1945, there were then a series of uprisings in Burma against the Japanese, which Force 136 supported although it had little control or even influence over the rebellious BNA and its supporters. The first rebellion involved a locally recruited force known as the Arakan Defence Army turning on the Japanese in Arakan. The second involved an uprising by BNA units near Toungoo in Central Burma, beginning on 8 March 1945. The final uprising occurred when the entire BNA changed sides on 27 March.
The forces of the AFO, including the BNA, were renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces. They played a part in the final campaign to recapture Rangoon, and eliminate Japanese resistance in Central Burma. The BNA's armed strength at the time of their defection was around 11,000. The Patriotic Burmese Forces also included large numbers of communists and other irregulars with loyalty to particular groups, and those Karens who had served in the BNA and Karen resistance groups in the Irrawaddy Delta.
In arranging the acceptance of Aung San and his forces as Allied combatants, Force 136 was in direct conflict with the more staid Civil Affairs Service Officers at South East Asia Command's headquarters, who feared the postwar implications of handing out large numbers of weapons to irregular and potentially anti-British forces, and of promoting the political careers of Aung San or the communist leaders. The AFO at the time of the uprising represented itself as the provisional government of Burma. It was eventually persuaded to drop this claim after negotiations with South East Asia Command, in return for recognition as a political movement (the AFPFL).
Indian National Army
Another force operating under Japanese command in Burma was the Indian National Army, a force composed of former prisoners of war captured by the Japanese at Singapore and some Tamils living in Malaya. However, Force 136 was prevented from working with anyone in the Indian National Army, regardless of their intentions. The policy towards the INA was formed and administered by India Command, a British rather than Allied headquarters.
Force 136 was also active in more conventional military-style operations behind Japanese lines in Burma. Such an operation could comprise a group of up to 40 infantry with officers and a radio operator, infiltrating Japanese lines on intelligence and discretionary search and destroy missions. Such missions, which could last several weeks (supplied by C47 transport aircraft) kept close wireless contact with operational bases in India, using high-grade ciphers (changed daily) and hermetically sealed wireless/morse sets.
Every day (Japanese permitting) at pre–arranged times, the radio operator (with escorts) climbed to a high vantage point, usually necessitating a gruelling climb to the top of some slippery, high, jungle-clad ridge, and sent the latest intelligence information and the group's supply requests etc., and received further orders in return. The radio operator was central to a mission’s success and his capture or death would spell disaster for the mission. To avoid capture and use under duress by the Japanese, every SOE operative was issued a cyanide pill.
One such radio operator was James Gow (originally from the Royal Corps of Signals), who recounted his first mission in his book "From Rhunahaorine to Rangoon." In the summer of 1944, the Japanese push toward India had been stopped at the Battle of Kohima. In the aftermath of the battle, Japanese forces split up and retreated deep into the jungle. As part of the initiative to find out if they were reforming for a further push, he was sent from Dimapur with a 40-strong group of Gurkhas, to locate groups of Japanese forces, identify their strengths and their organised status.
Discretionary attacks on isolated Japanese groups were permitted (no prisoners to be taken), as was destruction of supply dumps. One particular Gurkha officer under whom James Gow operated was Major William Lindon-Travers, later to become Bill Travers, the well-known actor of Born Free fame.
SOE's French Indo-China Section (1943–1945)
Force 136 played only a minor part in attempts to organise local resistance in French Indochina, led mainly by Roger Blaizot, commander of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (FEFEO) and General Eugène Mordant, chief of the military resistance. From 1944 to 1945 long-range B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft attached to Force 136 dropped 40 "Jedburgh" commandos from the French intelligence service BCRA, and agents from the Corps Léger d'Intervention also known as "Gaur", commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Huard, into Indochina. However Indochina was not originally part of the South-East Asian theatre, and therefore not SOE's responsibility. Notable French Force 136 members dropped in Laos in 1945 include: Jean Deuve (22 January), Jean Le Morillon (28 February), Jean Sassi (4 June), Bob Maloubier (August)
There were also American reservations over restoring the French colonial regime after the war, which led the Americans eventually to support the anti-French Viet Minh. Together with the complexities of the relationships between the Vichy-leaning officials in Indochina, and the rival Giraudist and de Gaullist resistance movements, this made liaison very difficult. SOE had few links with the indigenous Viet Minh movement.
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Dutch East Indies & Australia
Except for the island of Sumatra, the Dutch East Indies were also outside South East Asia Command's area of responsibility until after the Japanese surrender. In 1943, an invasion of Sumatra, codenamed Operation Culverin, was tentatively planned. SOE mounted some reconnaissances of northern Sumatra (in the present-day province of Aceh). In the event, the plan was cancelled, and nothing came of SOE's small-scale efforts in Sumatra.
During September 1945, after the Japanese surrender, up to 20 small teams (normally 4 men, an Executive Officer, a signaller, a medical officer and a medical orderly) were parachuted into the islands of Dutch East Indies, 6 weeks ahead of any other allied troops. Known as RAPWI (Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) Teams, they were tasked with locating and arranging care for all those who had been held in camps. Using Japanese Surrendered Troops, they arranged food, quarters and medical suppliers for the tens of thousands of POW and internees, saving many lives. Many of the Executive Officers were members of the Anglo Dutch Country Section (ADCS) of Force 136.
Another combined Allied intelligence organisation, Special Operations Australia (SOA), which had the British codename Force 137, operated out of Australia against Japanese targets in Singapore, the other islands of the Dutch East Indies, and Borneo. It included Z Special Unit, which carried out a successful attack on shipping in Singapore Harbour, known as Operation Jaywick.
Until mid-1944, Force 136's operations were hampered by the great distances involved; for example, from Ceylon to Malaya and back required a flight of 2,800 miles (4,500 km). Such distances also made it difficult to use small clandestine craft to deliver supplies or personnel by sea (although such craft were used to supply the MPAJA in Perak late in the war). The Royal Navy made few submarines available to Force 136. Eventually, converted B-24 Liberator aircraft were made available to parachute agents and stores.
In Burma, where the distances involved were not so great, C-47 transport aircraft could be used. Westland Lysander liaison aircraft could also be used over shorter distances.
- Bayly and Harper, p.262
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- Bayly and Harper, p.348
- Rayment (2013), pp.241-258
- Le Journal du Monde news, Patricia Lemonière, 2009
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