Force 136 was the general cover name for a branch of the British
World War IIorganization, the Special Operations Executive(SOE). Force 136 operated in the regions of the South-East Asian Theatre of World War IIwhich 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 Burman or other local languages before the war, and who had been commissioned into the Army when the Japanese invaded Burma.
SOE was formed in 1940, by the merger of existing Departments of the
War Officeand 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 Germanyand 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 Killeryof Imperial Chemical Industries, who set up his HQ in Singapore. A resistance organisation was set up in Malaya, but Singapore was captured soon after Japan entered the war on December 7, 1941.
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
Meerutin 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, 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 mere record-keeping branch of
GHQ India. The name, Force 136 was adopted in March 1944. From December 1944, it moved to Kandyin Ceylon, and cooperated closely with South East Asia Command.
Force 136 was wound up in 1946, along with the rest of SOE.
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. They formed the Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army, and their first members were trained by British officers such as Freddie Spencer Chapman. Although they mounted a few operations against the Japanese lines of communication during the invasion of Malaya, they were cut off from the Allied commanders with the fall of Singapore.
Using organisers and agents such as Singaporean World War II hero
Lim Bo Seng, Force 136 was able to re-establish contact with the MPAJA, which had continued to exist in camps deep inside the forests. In isolation, the Malayan Communist Party had purged many of its members suspected of treachery or espionage, which contributed to its post-war hard-line attitude leading in turn to the Malayan Emergency. With equipment and supplies from Force 136, the MPAJA was built up to become a substantial guerilla army. However, Japan surrendered before it had a chance to stage a major uprising.
Kuomintanghad also a widespread following 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 Chinese population in the towns, unlike the MCP which drew much of its support from mine or plantation workers 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. The KMT's underground actions were often tainted by corruption or private feuding.
Other than the MCP and KMT which were predominantly Chinese based resistance to Japanese, the force also collaborated with many Malay villages, often under the patronage of Malay royalties and officials. Even though the Malays and Indians were not badly treated by Japanese forces in the beginning of the occupation, later they too felt the hardship of life under the occupation and this was magnified by the brutal treatment of anyone who was suspected of being anti-Japanese. Thus the SOE found a suitable backing among the Malays and sends their officers from
Ceylon(Sri Lanka) to train local resistance forces famously known as Harimau Malaya Force 136 (Tigers of Malaya of Force 136).
The main base for this group was near
Grik, a district in the Malayan state of Perak. The force’s main task was to form an intelligence-gathering network and, should prospects be favourable, to establish a resistance movement in northern Malaya. The force also arranged the reception of other parties of Force 136 who landed by parachute, providing them with guides and local contacts in the areas of their planned operations.
A novel loosely based on the exploit of the resistance force was produced in late 1980s and there were several known figures in the book including Lt. Colonel Peter Dobree, a well known commander of the force.
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 Calvertwas established in Burma to train Chinese and Allied personnel in irregular warfare. These plans came to an end with the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942.
Strictly speaking, SOE was not tasked to operate inside
Chinaafter 1943, when it was left to the Americans. However, one group under an officer named "Blue" Ride did operate near Hong Kong, in territory controlled by the Communist Party of China.
In a mission known as "Remorse", led by an unscrupulous businessman named
Walter Fletcher, SOE carried out dubious 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. (To be fair, many of these funds and the networks used to acquire them were subsequently used in various relief and repatriation operations. But at the same time, critics will point out that they created a pool of money that SOE could use beyond the oversight of any normal authority or budget.)
December 21, a formal military alliance between Thailand, under Field Marshal Phibun, and Japan was concluded. At noon on January 25, 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 Movementto 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, which was forestalled by the ending of the war.
Burmawas the theatre in which the major Allied effort was made in South East Asia, and Force 136 was heavily involved. Initially, it had to compete with other intelligence 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 Burman peoples in the central plains. 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.
Karens, Chins, Arakanese and Kachins
Among the minority peoples of Burma, including Chins, Karens and Kachins, there was a mixture of anti-Burman, anti-Japanese and pro-British sentiments. In 1942, the
Burma Independence Armyraised 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, and in the chaos of the British retreat into India, many of them had been given a rifle and ammunition, and 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.
In 1943, the Japanese made a ruthless
punitive expeditioninto 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", which organised large-scale resistance in the Karenni. In April 1945, Force 136 stage managed a major uprising in the region in support of the Allied offensive which prevented the
Japanese Fifteenth Armyforestalling the 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 guerillas (some sources claim 12,000), plus many more sympathisers and auxiliaries.
SOE had some missions to the territory inhabited by the Kachins of northern Burma, but for much of the war, this area was the responsibility of the American China-Burma-India Theater.
The various groups (Chins, Lushai, Arakanese) who inhabited the actual border areas between Burma and India were the responsibility 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 Forceand Arakan Defence Force.
Burmese political links
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 Mawwho 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
Burmanpeople had been sympathetic to them (or at least hostile to the British and the Indian community). During the years of occupation, this attitude changed. Force 136 was able to establish contact with Burmese communist groups, and through them with Aung San, commander of the Burma National Army(reorganised from the Burma Independence Army/Burma Defence Army). The Burmese groups, communist and BNA, were organised into a political organization called the Anti-Fascist Organisation(AFO) under the overall leadership of Thakin Soe. While Force 136 was willing to work with any Burmese group, regardless of its politics, it was not willing to work with anyone in the Indian National Armyforces in Burma regardless of their intentions.
There were then a series of uprisings in Burma against the Japanese coordinated by Force 136. The first involved the Arakan Defence Army turning on the Japanese in Arakan. The second involved an uprising by BNA units in northern Burma. The final uprising occurred when the entire BNA changed sides.
Force 136 coordinated and supported the BNA's decision to change sides on
March 27 1945. 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 overall Patriotic Burmese Forces, beyond that number, included large numbers of communists and other irregulars with loyalty to particular groups. The group also included 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 amounts of weapons to irregular forces and of promoting the political careers of Aung San or 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.
Force 136 was also active in more conventional military-style operations behind Japanese lines. 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
Douglas Dakota) 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 Gowof Argyll, Scotland(originally 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 Dimapurwith 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 Freefame.
Force 136 played only a minor part in attempts to organise resistance in
French Indochina, led mainly by French commander Roger Blaizotin cooperation with Lord Philip Mountbatten. Indochina was not originally part of the South-East Asian theatre, and therefore not SOE's responsibility. There were also American reservations over restoring the French colonial regime after the war, and the complexities of the relationships between the Vichy-leaning officials in Indochina, and the rival Giraudist and de Gaullist resistance movements made liaison very difficult. SOE had few links with the indigenous Viet Minhmovement.
Except for the island of
Sumatra, the Dutch East Indies were also outside South East Asia Command's area of responsibility. In 1943, an invasion of Sumatra, codenamed Operation Culverinwas 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.
Another combined Allied intelligence organisation,
Special Operations Australia(SOA), which had the British codename Force 137, operated out of Australiaagainst 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 (4,480 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
Peraklate in the war). The Royal Navymade few submarines available to Force 136. Eventually, converted B-24 Liberatoraircraft were made available to parachute agents and stores.
In Burma, where the distances involved were not so great,
C-47 Dakotatransport aircraft could be used. Lysander liaison aircraft could also be used over shorter distances.
British Army Aid Group
OSS Detachment 101
Free Thai Movement
Burma National Army
* "Burma: The Forgotten War",
Jon Latimer, John Murray, 2004; ISBN 978-0719565762
M. R. D. Foot, BBC Publications, 1984, ISBN 0-563-20193-2
* "Jungle Fighter", John Hedley DSO, Tom Donovan Publishing Ltd, ISBN 1-871085-34-9
* "The Jungle is neutral",
Freddie Spencer Chapman, Lyon Press, ISBN 1-59228-107-9
* "Burma: the longest War", Louis Allen, J.M. Dent and sons, ISBN 0-460-02474-4
* "Sabotage and Subversion: SOE and OSS at War", Ian Dear, Cassell, ISBN 0-304-35202-0
* "Mission Scapula Special Operations Executive in the far east ", Arthur Christie, ISBN 0-9547010-0-3
* "Forgotten Armies", Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-029331-0
* "Irregular Regular", Colonel David Smiley - Michael Russell - Norwich - 1994 - ISBN 0 85955 202 0
* [http://www.myfareast.org/SingaporeMemorials/force136.html Far East entry]
* [http://www.burmastar.org.uk/force_136.htm Burma Star entry]
* [http://www.m.a.christie.btinternet.co.uk/ Mission Scapula entry]
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