Operation Cheetah

This was a British special forces operation to parachute a three-man team of the Special Operations Executive’s Force 136 into the Kachin hills area of Japanese-occupied Burma to establish links with local resistance forces (January 1945).

One of the team members was Richard Rubinstein, who had been dropped into France in the 'Douglas 1' mission in August/October 1944. Recalled to SOE headquarters in London, Rubinstein was given the three options of returning to the army, dropping into Germany with the SAS as part of the programme to ensure the safety and release of Allied prisoners of war as Germany’s defeat approached, or going to Burma. Rubinstein opted to go to Burma, and higher authority also agreed that those who had the experience of fighting with the resistance in occupied France would be the first and best available to be switched to Burma after VE-Day.

Rubinstein departed London on 3 November 1944, and reached Bombay in western India via Liverpool and the Mediterranean in Otranto during December 1944. Rubinstein joined Force 136, and was initially based at a small, idyllic beach coconut plantation near Colombo in Ceylon. At this time Lieutenant General Sir William Slim’s British 14th Army was fighting its way south from north-western Burma, with Chinese support, toward Rangoon, which for logistical as well as operational reasons he needed to reach before the monsoon broke in June and ended all possibility of fast-moving mobile operations, and Slim therefore welcomed any help Force 136 could provide in organising friendly Burmese to help harass and destroy the Japanese behind their lines, as they made their fighting retreat. The Burmese leaders had been as anti-British as they were anti-Japanese, but soon realised, after the start of the Japanese occupation of Burma, that the British were by Burmese standards far the lesser of two evils, and offered to help SOE.

The evening before the 'Cheetah' party was inserted, extra pockets were sewn onto tunics, seams were reinforced, rifles zeroed, and rucksacks repacked. The limit was 45 lb (20.4 kg), but with emergency rations, medical kit, wireless parts and ammunition, this limit was quickly exceeded. After the usual hectic briefing (the men had not been warned for the mission until 20.00 on 23 January), with no written orders and only a brief verbal background, interviews, preparation of codes, and maps and reports to digest, at 18.00 on 25 January 1945, the party lifted off for an undertaking also known as 'Dilwyn/Monkey' in a Consolidated Liberator aeroplane of the RAF from Jessore, about 50 miles (80 km) to the north-east of the SOE operational headquarters in Calcutta. The three-man party was parachuted into birma, and comprised, in addition to Rubinstein, Major Hugo Hood and, as radio operator, Ken Brown. The party was dropped over Burma at 21.30, and was to aid an SOE intelligence group led by William Howe (a former puice planter in the country), Captain Kum Ge Tawng Wa (his Burmese second-in-command) and a resistance group of about 200 men.

The aeroplane approached the drop zone, which was marked by fires, and the party was dropped together with its radio equipment and a load of arms and other supplies, onto a small plateau deep in the country of the Kachins, who are a cheerful hill people, fiercely loyal to the UK in World War II and who had been, in many cases, soldiers in the British-led Burma Rifles and thus ideal cadres for resistance groups. The party was met with hot coffee and then conducted to a comfortable hut with bamboo sleeping mats and blankets.

The arms were distributed and immediately British army training and discipline of the Kachins took over as they formed up and started drilling and marching. The members of the party had some army rations, but generally depended entirely on the Kachins, who accepted them completely and provided food such as fruit, rice with chillies, and stewed meat and vegetables, which the British supplemented with bartered eggs, buffalo milk and the occasional chicken. The men of the party lived in the field with the Kachins, sleeping in thatched huts or in the open with mosquito nets.

In the area of Kutkai, some 20 miles (32 km) square at cool at it is at an altitude of about 4,000 ft (1220 m), the country is very wild and, at that time, largely unexplored. Within five days, the entire group was ready, after some basic training, to go on the offensive. The members of the 'Cheetah' party organised and supervised many ambushes of Japanese military targets, mining roads and tracks, shooting up convoys on roads, in camps and along paths, and inflicting many casualties. Intelligence on the whereabouts of the Japanese and on their movements arrived from a variety of Kachin local sources. Another of the party’s tasks was the provision of a small detachment to prevent the ravages of Chinese deserters and local bandits, whose attacked Kachin villages while the men were away fighting the Japanese.

In general the Kachins preferred to be told how to deploy and to be given firm and clear instructions, and then to get on with the job without any interference from the members of the British party. They were extremely tough, fierce and courageous and wanted to keep their British leaders and advisers safe jungle bases while they undertake the fighting. The Kachins rightly asserted that the British, wearing trousers, with lighter skins and greater height than the Kachins, were far too conspicuous in the bush.

By the end of the first week in February the Kachins had fought six actions (on 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 February), in which 109 Japanese had been killed, 31 wounded and 42 taken prisoner for later evacuation and interrogation. By the end of February the Kachins had killed and wounded still larger number of Japanese. Groups of 10 to 20 Kachin guerrillas would occupy concealed outposts and, after reconnoitring for Japanese bivouacs, attack at night. Japanese stragglers were also picked off by day and night. The Kachin casualties were very few.

To support these fighting patrols, there were two small headquarters, to which supply drops could be made and from which the outposts were reinforced and supplied. The 'Cheetah' party also formed a camp for local refugees and arranged drops for them of food, salt, blankets, clothing and medical supplies. On one occasion, 45 escaped Indian prisoners of war arrived and their evacuation was arranged, and the 'Cheetah' party even recovered matériel looted from the Kachins by Chinese deserter bands.

Among the Kachin guerrillas who worked with the 'Cheetah' party fighters was the Duwa (chief) 'Rusty' Shan Lone, who worked with another resistance group some miles from that controlled by the 'Cheetah' party, and he arranged the amalgamation of the two groups to create a 400-strong anti-Japanese unit.

As Chinese Nationalist forces arrived in March 1945 from the north, the 'Cheetah' party was ordered out in Douglas Dakota transport aircraft, which flew into a captured Japanese airstrip, delivered more arms for the Kachins and brought out the 'Cheetah' party as well as 13 Kachins for further training before deployment into more hostile central Burma.