Operation Argent

This was an Allied special forces operation to parachute men of the French element of the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136 to aid the Laotian resistance against the Japanese near Phou Loi (10 July 1945).

Force 136 was the general cover name for a branch of the Special Operations Executive, which had been created to encourage and supply resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, and occasionally mount clandestine sabotage operations. Force 136 operated in those parts of the South-East Asia region occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945. Although Force 136’s senior leadership was provided by British officers and civilians, most of its personnel were indigenous to the areas in which they operated. This recognised the fact that in the first and middle stages of the war against Japan it was impossible for British, US and other white persons to operate clandestinely and therefore effectively in the cities and other more highly populated areas of Asia, but once the local resistance elements had begun to engage the Japanese in what then became open rebellion, members of the Allied armed forces with a knowledge of the local peoples and their languages came increasingly to the fore in the provision of liaison with conventional forces.

Especially in Burma, the SOE benefited from the presence, readiness and skills of persons, such as forestry managers, who had worked in the area before the war and become fluent in the local language or languages: many such men had received service commissions at the time of the Japanese invasions which had overrun their countries or colonies.

The SOE had been established in the UK during 1940 through the amalgamation of existing War Office and the Ministry of Economic Warfare departments for the express purpose of inciting, organising and suppling indigenous resistance forces in enemy-occupied territory. The first enemies were, of course Germany and Italy, but from a time late in 1940 it became clear that conflict with Japan was also all but inevitable.

Therefore two missions were established to organise and exercise political control of SOE operations in the Far East. The first was led by a former businessman, Valentine Killery of Imperial Chemical Industries, who based his organisation in Singapore. Killery had time only to begin the creation of a resistance organisation in Malaya, but Singapore was captured on 15 February 1942, little more than two months after Japan’s entry into the war. The second mission was established in India by another former businessman, Colin Mackenzie of the clothing manufacturer J. and P. Coats. The India Mission initially operated from Meerut in north-west India, a location which reflected the current British fear that the Germans might overrun the Middle East and Caucasus, and possibly seek to reach India, which would demand the establishment of resistance movements in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

After the disappearance of this threat following the Axis defeats in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein and Stalingrad, the attention of the second SOE mission was switched to South-East Asia. The Indian mission’s first cover name was GS I(k), suggesting a record-keeping branch of GHQ India, but the name Force 136 was adopted in March 1944. From December 1944 Force 136’s headquarters were located at Kandy in Ceylon, thereby facilitating co-operation with the headquarters of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command also located there.

In Malaya, the SOE’s Oriental Mission tried to establish ‘stay-behind’ and resistance organisations from August 1941, but their plans were opposed by the colonial governor, Sir Shenton Thomas. The mission was able to begin serious efforts only in January 1942, after the start of the Japanese ‘E’ invasion of Malaya. An irregular warfare school was set up as STS 101 by the explorer and mountaineer Freddie Spencer Chapman. Chapman himself led the first reconnaissances and attacks behind Japanese lines during the Battle of the Slim River (6/8 January 1942). Although the school’s graduates undertook 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 a headquarters on Sumatra, but this island too was overrun by the Japanese in ‘L’ and ‘T’.

Before the beginning of ‘E’ on 8 December 1941, the makings of a resistance organisation already existed in the form of the Malayan Communist Party, whose membership was largely of the considerable Chinese community in Malaya and wholly anti-Japanese. Just before the fall of Singapore, the British authorities told the party’s secretary general, Lai Teck, that his party members should disperse into the forests, a decision which had in fact already been made by the party’s members. The communists were isolated in the forests but created the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), whose initial weapons and equipment had been provided by STS 101 before this latter was overrun, or recovered from places where there had bee fighting, or taken from stocks in abandoned British military 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 lacked radio or any other means to contact Allied forces elsewhere. Nevertheless, the MPAJA still regarded Chapman as the official British authority, and Chin Peng was the MPAJA’s liaison officer with Chapman. Lim Bo Seng, who had become celebrated as a leader of a volunteer Chinese force which fought the Japanese as they approached Singapore, returned to Malaya from India in 1942 and recruited a number of agents, who made their way to India by 1943.

Force 136 attempted to regain contact with Chapman in ‘Gustavus’, in which Lim and two former STS 101 personnel, John Davis and Richard Broome, were landed from the sea into the area near Pangkor island. Their radio was unable to contact Force 136’s headquarters in Ceylon, and the MPAJA contacts on Pangkor island were betrayed to the Japanese. The radio equipment delivered by ‘Gustavus’ was finally made to work in February 1945. Chapman was able to visit the headquarters of Force 136 and make a report.

By this time, Force 136 had substantial resources, and in the few months before the end of the war Force 136 sent 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 grew to become a substantial guerilla army with about 7,000 fighters.

In August 1945 Japan surrendered before the MPAJA was able to launch a major uprising against the returning British. It is worth noting that, in its isolation in jungle camps for several years, the MCP and MPAJA had purged themselves of many members suspected of treachery or espionage, and this was a key element of their post-war attitude and led inevitably to the anti-British insurgency known as the Malayan Emergency.

The Kuomintang, thinese nationalist party led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, had also possessed a widespread following in the Chinese community of Malaya in the period before ‘E’, but was not able to undertake any significant clandestine resistance to the Japanese. This resulted from the fact that in part the party’s numerical strength rested in urban populations more tightly controlled by the Japanese after the success of ‘E’ and in therefore in part also from its lack of support from mine and plantation workers in remote areas.

When Lim and other Force 136 agents attempted to make contact with Kuomintang networks in Ipoh as part of ‘Gustavus’, they quickly discovered that the KMT’s underground activities were just as tainted by corruption and feuding as those of the KMT’s in China proper. Force 136 also collaborated with many Chinese Malayan villages.

As a multi-religion and multi-racial country, the population of Malaya was also strongly divided along communal and religious lines, with some portion of the populace loyal to the Allied forces, while others loyal to Germany and Japan. Agents therefore constantly risked the threat of betrayal. Even though the Moslem Malays and the local Indian population were not badly treated by the Japanese in the early stages of the occupation, these two ethnic groups later began to feel the hardship of life under the occupation, a fact magnified by the brutal treatment meted out to anyone suspected of anti-Japanese sentiments. This paved the way for SOE to find support from a number of Malays, and Force 136 sent officers to train the Harimau Malaya Force 136 (Tigers of Malaya of Force 136).

Some Malays were strong supporters of the Japanese and became actively involved in Kempeitai (army police) mopping-up operations and a number of atrocities. However, this spurred greater resistance to the Japanese and thus a more positive reception by the Malay population to the efforts of Force 136.

The main base for this group was near Gerik, a district in the north-western area of Perak state. The force’s main task was to form an intelligence-gathering network and, should the situation make it feasible, to establish a resistance movement in northern Malaya. The force also arranged the reception of other Force 136 parties delivered by parachute, providing them with guides and local contacts for the areas in which they planned to undertake operations.

Since 1938 the UK had supported China against the Japanese, largely by allowing the delivery of equipment and supplies by rail from Rangoon to Lashio and thence by road over the ‘Burma Road’ to Kunming in south-western China. The SOE had several 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 the command of Major J. M. ‘Mike’ Calvert was established to train guerrillas to fight the Japanese in China. These plans came to an end with the Japanese 'B' (iii) conquest of Burma in 1942.

Although the SOE was meant not to operate inside China after 1943, when this became a US ‘province’, the British Army Aid Group under an officer named Lindsay ‘Blue’ Ride did in fact operate near Hong Kong, in territory controlled by the Chinese communist party rather than the Kuomintang. In ‘Remorse’, the businessman Walter Fletcher carried out covert economic operations such as efforts to obtain smuggled rubber, speculate in currency etc within Japanese-occupied China. As a result of these activities, the SOE actually returned a financial profit of £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.

On 21 December 1940 a formal military alliance was signed between Japan and Thailand, the latter under the prime ministership of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram. On 25 January 1942 Thailand declared war on the USA and UK. Some Thais supported the alliance on the grounds that it was in the national interest, or that it was merely sensible to create an alliance with a victorious power. Other Thais opposed the alliance and established the Free Thai Movement. This latter was supported by Force 136 and its US counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services, and provided valuable intelligence from within Thailand. As the war turned against Japan, Phibunsongkhram was forced to resign on 1 August 1944 and a Free Thai-controlled government was formed. A coup was being planned to disrupt the Japanese occupation 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 a time late in 1942, and the campaign involved Force 136 in a major way. The SOE in Burma had at first to compete with regular formations and irregular organisations such as the ‘Chindits’ for personnel, aircraft and other resources, but gradually came to play a major part in the reconquest ofd Burma by steadily developing a national organisation which was used to great effect in 1945.

There were two separate SOE bodies in Burma: one concentrated on the minority communities living largely in the frontier regions, and the other established links with the nationalist movements among the majority Burman peoples in the central parts of the country and the major cities.

Among the minority peoples of Burma, including Chins, Karens and Kachins, there was a mix of anti-Burman, anti-Japanese and pro-British sentiments. In 1942 the pro-Japanese Burma Independence Army, which had been raised with Japanese assistance, attempted to disarm Karens in the delta of the Irrawaddy river, and this triggered a major civil conflict which turned the Karens firmly against the Japanese.

The Karens were the most populous of the minority communities. Although many lived in the Irrawaddy river delta, their homeland is the Karenni, the mountainous and heavily forested tract along the border with Thailand. The Karens had supplied many recruits to the Burma Rifles, an element of the British-led forces involved in Burma during the early part of the Japanese ‘B’ (iii) invasion. As the defeated British and Indian forces pulled back in great disorder into north-eastern Indian by May 1942, many men of the Burma Rifles had been given a rifle, ammunition and three months’ pay together with orders to return to their home villages and there 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 an attempt to lay the foundations for an effective ‘stay-behind’ organisation.

Force 136 continued to supply the Karens, and from a time late in 1944 mounted ‘Character’ that was an operation analogous to ‘Jedburgh’ in German-occupied France: ‘Character’ this involved the parachute delivery of three-man teams into the Karenni to organise large-scale resistance. Some men of these ‘Character’ teams had previously served in ‘Jedburgh’ teams, and others were ‘Chindit’ veterans. In April 1945, Force 136 stage-managed a major uprising in the region in support of the Allied offensive into central Burma, and this was largely instrumental in preventing Lieutenant General Shihachi Katamura’s 15th Army of General Heitaro Kimura’s Burma Area Army from forestalling the advance of Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army down the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers toward Rangoon.

After the capture of Rangoon, Karen resistance fighters continued to harass Japanese units and stragglers, most especially Lieutenant General Masaki Honda’s 33rd Army to the east of the Sittang river, as they sought to escape and link with the Japanese occupation forces in Thailand. It was estimated that at their moment of maximum effort, the Karens mustered 8,000 (according to some sources 12,000) active guerrillas as well as many more sympathisers and auxiliaries.

The SOE had some early missions to Kachin state, the land of the Kachin people in northern Burma, but for much of the war this area was the responsibility of the US-controlled China-Burma-India Theater, and the Kachin guerrillas were armed and co-ordinated by the US liaison organisation, the OSS’s Detachment 101.

Various ethnic groups, such as the Chins, Lushai and Arakanese of the western 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, it should be noted, hill peoples in the frontier regions fought on both sides, some under ‘V’ Force and the headquarters of other Allied irregular forces, and others under local or Japanese-sponsored organisations such as the Chin Defence Force and Arakan Defence Force. The Burma section of Force 136 was led by John Ritchie Gardiner, who had managed a forestry company before the war, and also served on Rangoon’s municipal council. He knew a number of Burmese politicians, including Ba Maw who had later formed a government which, although nominally independent, collaborated through necessity with the Japanese occupiers.

At the time of ‘B’ (iii), most Burmans had been sympathetic to the Japanese, 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. Burman volunteers flocked to the Burma Independence Army, which fought several actions against the British-led forces. This attitude steadily changed during the years of Japanese occupation.

The Burma Independence Army was reorganised as the Japanese-controlled Burma National Army (BNA). In 1944, Aung San, the Burmese nationalist who had founded the BIA with Japanese assistance, was minister of defence in Ba Maw’s government and was commander of the BNA, 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 its existing links with Burmese communist groups.

During the final Allied offensive into southern Burma in April and May 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, which turned on the elements of Lieutenant General Shozo Sakurai’s 28th Army in the Arakan western coastal region. The second involved an uprising by BNA units near Toungoo in central Burma, starting on 8 March 1945. The final uprising occurred when the entire BNA changed sides on 27 March. The forces of the AFO, now including the BNA, were renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces. They played a part in the final campaign to recapture Rangoon, and in the elimination of the last vestiges of Japanese resistance in central Burma. The armed strength of the BNA at the time of its 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 Civil Affairs Service officers at the South-East Asia Command’s headquarters, who feared the post-war implications of giving large quantities 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 the AFPFL political movement.

Another force operating under Japanese command in Burma was the Indian National Army, composed largely of former prisoners of war captured by the Japanese at Singapore and supplemented by a number of Tamils living in Malaya. However, Force 136 was prevented from working with anyone in the INA. Policy with regard to the INA lay in the purview of 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 for the gathering of intelligence and the implementation of search and destroy missions. Such missions, which could last several weeks and were supplied by Douglas C-47 transport aircraft, maintained close wireless contact with its base in India with the aid of high-grade ciphers, which were changed daily, and hermetically sealed radio equipment. At prearranged times every day, the radio operator and his escort climbed to a vantage point, a process which generally involved a climb to the top of a slippery, high and jungle-covered ridge, and from here sent the latest intelligence information and the group’s supply requests etc., and received orders. The radio operator was central to the mission’s success, and his capture or death generally spelled disaster for the mission. To avoid the worst which Japanese interrogation could inflict, every SOE operative was issued a cyanide pill.

Discretionary attacks on isolated groups of Japanese troops were allowed, but no prisoners were to be taken), supply dumps were also targeted.

Force 136 played only a minor part in attempts to organise local resistance in French Indo-China, led mainly by Roger Blaizot, commander of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (FEFEO) and Général de Corps d’Armée Eugène Mordant, chief of the military resistance in Indo-China. In 1944/45 Consolidated B-24 Liberator long-range bombers 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 Indo-China. This region was not originally part of the South-East Asian theatre, however, and as such was not SOE’s responsibility. There were also US reservations about the restoration of 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 Indo-China, and the rival Giraudist and de Gaullist resistance movements, this made liaison very difficult. SOE had few links with the indigenous Viet Minh movement.

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, the ‘Culverin’ invasion of Sumatra was projected as a SEAC responsibility, and SOE undertook a reconnaissance effort in the north-western part of Sumatra. In the event, the plan was cancelled, and nothing came of SOE’s small-scale efforts in Sumatra.

During September 1945, the month after the Japanese surrender, some 20 small teams (normally four men, an executive officer, a signaller, a medical officer and a medical orderly) were parachuted into the islands of Dutch East Indies, six weeks ahead of any other Allied troops. Known as RAPWI (Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) teams, these were tasked with locating and arranging care for all those who had been held in camps. Using surrendered Japanese troops, they arranged food, quarters and medical suppliers for the tens of thousands of POW and internees ion their areas. 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. Force 137 included the ‘Z’ Special Unit, which carried out the successful ‘Jaywick’ attack on Japanese ships in Singapore harbour.

Up to the middle of 1944, Force 136’s operations were hampered by the great distances involved: the flight from Ceylon to Malaya and back was 2,800 miles (4500 km). Such distances also made it difficult to use small craft for the clandestine delivery of supplies and/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, however, and late in the war 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.