1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? Burma 1942: SOE’s role in ‘Defeat into Victory’

This is the sixth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

DR RICHARD DUCKETT

The performance of British and Empire forces against the Japanese in the Far East during 1942 is generally regarded as having been poor. The collapse of all Western colonial armies was rapid. Between January and May of that year, the American colony of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and the British possessions of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Borneo and Burma all came under Japanese Imperial control. Similarly, the judgement on the work of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) across the Far East has been one of failure to achieve anything of strategic importance during 1942. In what follows, this interpretation of the clandestine work of SOE, in Burma specifically, will be reassessed. It is argued that amidst the catastrophes of 1942, SOE’s actions significantly contributed to the second Burma campaign in 1945, helping to turn ‘Defeat into Victory’.

Britain’s longest retreat in military history, the 900 or so miles from southern Burma to India, has been called a Far Eastern Dunkirk. There are three salient actions carried out by the Oriental Mission during the retreat which will be outlined here. Firstly, the Oriental Mission fought a significant rearguard action which contributed to the Allied army’s escape from Burma; second, the demolitions of the Oriental Mission prevented the Japanese from occupying all of Burma; lastly, the foundations for what Richard Aldrich has called SOE’s ‘most spectacularly successful military operations of the war’ were laid in 1942 when Captain (later Major) Hugh Seagrim remained in Burma with the Karen people.

Many of the men recruited into the Oriental Mission were civilians, and in Burma this often meant people who had worked in the timber or mining companies. As war loomed in the late ‘30s, many of these men enlisted into units such as the Burma Frontier Force or the Burma Rifles, so they were not without military training by 1941. Besides Seagrim, there are four more men of interest to this piece; Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Stevenson, Captain Jack Barnard, and Captains Noel Boyt and Arthur Thompson. Boyt was a forestry manager for Steel Brothers, and Thompson had been commissioned into the Burma Rifles (Burifs) in December 1939.

Thompson, with a company of Karen Burifs, and Boyt with his recently recruited Karen ‘levies’, were ordered to cover General Bruce-Scott’s 1 Burma Division which was retreating along the eastern bank of the Sittang River via Toungoo and Meiktila towards Mandalay. Between 2 and 5 April, Boyt and Thompson fought a fierce delaying battle along the Mawchi Road which delayed a brigade of the Japanese 56 Division for an estimated eight days. Having won the race to Mandalay, successful British demolitions denied the Japanese the Ava bridge over the Irrawaddy. This helped ensure the bulk of Allied forces escaped to India. Thompson’s citation for a DSO stated ‘It is a fact that Capt. Thompson’s magnificent delaying action saved the Chinese and British armies in Burma from encirclement.’

As Burcorps negotiated its way over the hills to India, the Japanese continued their northward advance up to Myitkyina. Between Myitkyina and the next large town of Sumprabum there were five bridges, all of which were destroyed by Oriental Mission teams under the command of Lt.Col Stevenson and Captain Barnard. These demolitions prevented the Japanese from ever occupying all of northern Burma. Retaining Fort Hertz, modern day Putao, which is approximately 57 miles north of Sumprabum, meant the Allies had an airstrip in Burma. By the time the Japanese began probing north towards Sumprabum again in 1943, the British had reinforced the area with Indian paratroops and the organisation of the north Kachin levies. It was from this base in northern Burma that both SOE and OSS launched their earliest missions into occupied Burma, and it was the starting point for the offensive to reopen the Burma Road. In the meantime, air supply of Chinese Nationalist forces – what the official historian of the war in the Far East noted as crucial to Allied strategy – continued to be viable partly because the Japanese were unable to base fighter aircraft at Fort Hertz.

Lastly, Captain Hugh Seagrim, a Burma Rifles officer recruited by the Oriental Mission, was tasked with raising the Karen to help resist the Japanese invasion. A lack of weapons rather than a lack of recruits meant that Seagrim was not able to do much in 1942, but instead of escaping to India or China after he was cut off, Seagrim chose to stay in the Karen Hills. His presence was instrumental in keeping the Karen resistance alive through 1942 into 1943 when SOE parachuted in several Karen and two British officers. After this mission was compromised, Seagrim surrendered to the Japanese in early 1944 to end Japanese reprisals against Karen villagers. He was executed in Rangoon in September 1944. Seagrim was affectionately known by the Karen as ‘Grandfather Longlegs’, and when in February 1945 SOE, now called Force 136, returned to the Karen Hills over 10,000 Karen volunteered to fight the Japanese as part of Operation Character. Lasting from February to October 1945, the Character operation protected Slim’s flank and prevented the Japanese from regrouping at Toungoo before British forces reached the town. This ensured that the road to Rangoon was left open, allowing its recapture in May 1945.

In the mess of the retreat and the recriminations about the failure of British arms, the actions described above were barely noted, nor have they been integrated into later histories of the Burma campaign. Major Lindsay, commander of the Oriental Mission in Burma, wrote in his 1942 report that SOE officers felt ‘their contribution to the war as a whole had been so slight that there was not much object of harping on the past.’ At that time, the strategic impact of what the Oriental Mission had achieved was far from clear, but even after the defeat of Japan, because of the secret nature of SOE, their part in turning defeat into victory amidst the disasters of 1942 have remained hidden.

Image: Map showing Northern Burma, adapted from map entitled ‘Transportation System 1942-1943’ in Charles Romanus and Riley Sutherland, United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater, (Dept. of the Army, Office of the Chief of Military History, 1953), available here

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