Special Operations Executive

The Special Operations Executive was formed by British Prime Minster Winston Churchill and his Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, on 22 July 1940, following the fall of France. It was a clandestine organization charged to "set Europe ablaze" by conducting guerrilla warfare and supporting resistance movements in Axis-occupied territory. The SOE was formed by merging separate small organizations within the Foreign Office, the War Office, and the Secret Intelligence Service. Oddly, Dalton based its organization on the Irish Republican Army. The closest American counterpart was the Office of Strategic Services, though the latter originally emphasized intelligence rather than irregular warfare

The SOE had an unpromising start in the Far East. In January 1941, SOE set up an organization in Singapore, Oriental Mission, to organize "stay-behind" parties in case war broke out with Japan. Its head was Valentine Killery, an international businessman with no experience in covert operations. His organization was so amateurish that British Military Intelligence (MI6) refused to cooperate with it lest its own network be compromised. The Kempeitai purchased stolen files from the Shanghai branch of the Oriental Mission and tapped the phones of W.J.Gande, head of the branch, well before war broke out. On 27 December 1941 Gande and most of his network were picked up and brutally interrogated, then given surprisingly short prison sentences (four years for Gande.) The short sentences likely reflect how little the Japanese felt threatened by the organization.

Oriental Mission was further hampered by a nearly complete lack of cooperation from anyone in the regular British forces, from Brooke-Popham on down. A training school was set up on Singapore Island to train "stay-behind" parties, 101 Special Training School, but this was nearly shut down on the grounds that the mere suggestion that parts of Malaya might be taken and held by the enemy was considered very bad for civilian morale. There were more legitimate concerns about whether Europeans could blend into the native population successfully, but even the proposal by the local Chinese Communist party secretary (who was feeding useful intelligence to MI6) to train Chinese guerrillas was rejected out of hand until all of the Malayan mainland was lost.

One minor accomplishment of Oriental Mission was to organize an escape route for European civilians from Singapore through the Indragiri River of Sumatra to Rengat (102.530E 0.373S) and then the west Sumatran port of Padang. Several hundred civilians are claimed to have escaped along this route (Thompson 2005).

The principal SOE unit to operate in the Far East was the India Mission, which originally had its headquarters at Meerut (just northeast of New Delhi.) The original emphasis was on preparing resistance movements in case the Germans overran the Middle East, but when this threat receded and the emphasis switch to southeast Asia, the headquarters were relocated to Ceylon. India Mission originally had the cover name GS I(k), which was meant to sound like bureaucratese for a records office within Army headquarters for India, but the cover name was changed to Force 136 in March 1944 and it is by that name that the India Mission is best known to historians. Force 136 eventually had sections in Burma, Thailand, and Malaya. There was also a small unofficial presence in China (which was officially left to the OSS) and a minor effort in French Indochina.

Force 136 had some significant successes, particularly in Burma. There were two divisions, one working on the west bank of the Sittang with ethnic Burmese, and the other working on the east bank with the Karen people. The SOE network was able to build up a good picture of what was going on inside Burma, and by late 1943 the SOE agent, Tin Shaw ("Mr. Lancelot"), a disenchanted Thakin, was in touch with sympathetic members of Ba Maw's puppet government. Prominent in the Karen section was Hugh Seagram, who eventually decided to give himself up in order to spare the Karen further reprisals. He was executed, but the reprisals continued. By early 1945, almost 12,000 guerrillas were under arms in eastern Burma, and when they were finally instructed to rise against the Japanese (Operation CHARACTER), they were instrumental in preventing 56 Division from reaching Toungoo in time to block IV Corps from reaching Rangoon. Force 136 later stirred up controversy by pressing for amnesty for Aung San from murder charges in return for his defection to the Allied side. Slim was so unhappy with Force 136 that he tried to get it kicked out of Burma in favor of Detachment 101 of the OSS.

The chief Force 136 officer in Malaya was Freddie Spencer Chapman, who was isolated behind Japanese lines by the loss of Singapore and maintained a precarious existence among Malayan communists until regaining contact with British headquarters in 1943.  In Thailand, Force 136 established contact with the pro-Allied Regent, Pridi Panomyong, and organized a resistance movement that would have become active if the war had gone on long enough for Thailand to become a battleground.Among the SOE methods was the printing of counterfeit currency of Axis powers and occupied territories. Force 136 received 1,000,000 ten-rupee notes and over 1,000,000 one-rupee note of Japanese occupation currency for Burma, nearly 10,000,000 counterfeit Thai ticals, and 3,000,000 Nanking collaborationist government dollars.

One SOE unit, the Lyon group, was active in the islands near Singapore from September 1943 until its survivors were captured in early 1945. They were beheaded on 7 July 1945. The raid on Singapore Harbor on 27 September 1943 was successful in sinking six Japanese ships totaling 46,000 tons with limpet mines. The raid was an enormous blow to Japanese prestige, and the Japanese were unable to determine at first how it had been carried out. The Kempeitai reached the perhaps self-serving conclusion that the ships had been sunk by Chinese guerrillas working with Allied prisoners of war,  and on 10 October began a purge that became known as the XX Incident. Numerous prisoners of war and civilian internees were tortured, including the Bishop of Singapore, and thirteen died under torture. The Kempeitai officer responsible for the purge, Sumida Haruzo, claimed in his official report (Thompson 2005):

Singapore shipping espionage is carried out by natives under European instructions. An enemy espionage affair developed early in the morning of 27 September 1943 at Singapore and was commanded by Europeans hiding in the neighbourhood of Pulai in Johore. It was carried out by Malayan criminals through a Malayan village chief, and the party was composed of ten or more persons, all of whom are Malayans. As a result of the raid, six ships of 2,000 — 5,000 tons (three tankers among them) were sunk by bombs due to a clever plan.

This was wrong in almost all its particulars. Sumida was subsequently hanged for supervising the torture and murder of prisoners of war and internees.

India Mission also organized the highly unconventional raid on Erhrenfels at Marmagao, in the neutral Portuguese territory of Goa. The German freighter had been transmitting information on Allied merchant shipping movements, but a group of middle-aged volunteers boarded the ship and sank her with scuttling charges. Two other German merchantmen in the harbor were promptly scuttled by their captains, who were misled into believing that their ships were in danger of capture by British forces.


Allen (1984)
Felton (2009)
Thompson (2005)

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