Operation Baldhead (ii)

This was a British operation against the Japanese-occupied Andaman islands group in the Bay of Bengal (19 January/21 March 1943).

It was on about 23 March 1942 that the Japanese, wishing to secure the western sea flank of their forces in Burma, made their ‘D’ (ii) landing without opposition and took Port Blair, the main town of the island group, before proceeding to garrison the islands with Major General Yoshisuke Inoue’s 35th Independent Mixed Brigade.

One of the last Britons to leave the islands before the Japanese arrival was D. McCarthy, the superintendent of the local police, who had appreciated even before ‘D’ (ii) what was likely to happen after the Japanese had invaded Burma during December 1941 in ‘B’ (iii). Just as much as the Japanese, the British understood the strategic significance of the Andaman islands group, from which Japanese warships and warplanes could sortie against any British seaborne operation moving from India toward Burma, Thailand or the Malay peninsula.

On 1 January 1942 McCarthy spotted a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane over Port Blair and saw in this further evidence of the Japanese interest in the islands. McCarthy had covered much of the Andaman islands in search of hostile Jarawa tribesmen, and knew much about the local terrain and coast, and had also searched out possible hide-outs. He had also established contacts among the other tribes, and had friendly relations with Loka, a tribal headman. The two men then started to visit coastal areas in the Port Blair area and note the varying terrain, creeks, beaches, lagoons, safe landing spots and other distinguishing features.

In October 1942, with the Andaman islands under firm Japanese occupation, R. W. Scott, the former assistant commissioner of the Nicobar islands group, which lie between the Andaman islands and the northern tip of Sumatra island in the Dutch East Indies, summoned McCarthy to the British military headquarters at Simla in India to discuss a clandestine surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering mission to the Andaman islands. As a result of his close contact with the local population and his intimate knowledge of the local terrain and coast, McCarthy was apparently the ideal candidate to lead this ‘Baldhead’ (ii) undertaking for GC I(k), which was the forerunner of the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136 that controlled East Asian SOE activities from March 1944.

The SOE’s Far Eastern operations were aimed at the launch of deep-cover penetration missions with the ultimate object of facilitating the British recapture of Burma, Malaya and, most importantly, Singapore. The Far Eastern effort comprised Group A concerned with China, Indo-China and Thailand, and Group B concerned with Burma and Malaya, and the Andaman islands penetration effort, headed by Christopher Hudson, was part of the Group B activities.

Given the opportunity to select his own team, McCarthy chose Sergeant Dickens as his British radio operator, two Indian soldiers in the form of Jamadar Habib Shah and Havildar Gyan Singh, and two former forest workers in the form of Joseph Bakla and his cousin Peter.

The team was put through extensive training, and then embarked on a Free Dutch submarine of the ‘O-21’ class for transport to the islands. The boat in question was O-24, the fourth of the class, which had been built for the Royal Netherlands navy. These boats were incomplete at the start of the German invasion of the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, so O-21, O-22, O-23 and O-24 were hastily launched and sent away to the UK. The other boats of the class were O-25, O-26 and O-27, and unable to effect their escapes these were seized and later placed in German service.

O-24 was quickly completed in the UK, but the boat’s advanced snorting system was removed as the British believed this to be dangerous. With power provided by two Sulzer Diesel engines delivering 5,200 hp (3877 kW) and two electric motors delivering 1,000 hp (746 kW), the boat had surfaced and submerged speeds of 19.5 and 9 kt respectively, could dive to 330 ft (100 m) and, perhaps most importantly, had a range of 12,000 miles (19300 km). This last made the four boats in Free Dutch service ideal for long-range operations, especially in theatres such as the Far East.

Thus it was in the naval base of Colombo in Ceylon that O-24 took on board McCarthy’s six-man team, which was to be landed on and later collected from a beach on the Andaman islands. Between 14 and 24 January 1943, the boat patrolled off the Andaman islands, and on the night of 18/19 January moved cautiously inshore to land McCarthy’s SOE team on a deserted beach on the west coast of Middle Andaman island. In addition to getting as much possible information about the Japanese strength and dispositions on the islands, McCarthy planned to locate and extract the British still on the islands.

The team’s first task was the establishment of a camp deep in the jungle and the completion of preparations for the days ahead and then, in a period of about one month, McCarthy’s team covered about 130 miles (210 km) on foot through thick jungle, in the process visiting several villages and towns, in the process assessing the Japanese defences and relaying the information by radio to India. McCarthy then headed for Port Blair, some 70 miles (115 km) distant, with Habib Singh and Joseph, in dinghies travelling by day and night, narrowly escaping detection on a number of occasions, resting in the jungle and sometimes in the middle of mangroves. The treks were terrible experiences and the men suffered acutely from leech bites.

After a few days McCarthy and Habib reached Ferragunj, and it was from the headman that they received information of the problems and Japanese brutalities on the islands. The next few days were filled with near misses and attempts at getting information from Wilayat Shah, cousin of the headman. It was at this time that Habib Shah lost his life when he slipped and accidentally fired his gun, which killed him instantly.

Now there were just McCarthy and Joseph on the move, while the other three at base camp had a relatively boring stay, except for a minor brush with some Jarawa tribesmen. McCarthy and Joseph reached base camp on 4 March, but the five men left had to wait to 21 March when O-24 arrived to collect them and land a 10-man second party to continue the work. From the log of O-24 it is clear that one of the first group, perhaps Gyan Singh, remained on the island.

The four men who returned to India were declared unfit and sick with severe anaemia, and were discharged. McCarthy did not take part in any of the four or five ‘Baldhead’ operations that later followed as parties were delivered by the British submarine Taurus, though Gyan Singh did, and a Japanese sighting of a bearded man resulted in the ill treatment of many Sikhs.

The Japanese also suspected that information was being sent to the Allies, and many other Indians were tortured and killed by the Japanese.