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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, but
this was 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
party secretary (who was feeding useful intelligence to MI6) to
train Chinese guerrillas was rejected out of hand.
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
switch to southeast Asia, the headquarters were relocated to Ceylon.
India Mission originally had the cover name GS I(k), which was
sound like bureaucratese for a records office within Army
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
Karen people. The SOE network was able to build up a good picture
what was going on inside Burma, and by late 1943 the SOE agent,
Shaw ("Mr. Lancelot"), a disenchanted Thakin, was in touch with
sympathetic members of Ba Maw's puppet government. Prominent in
Karen section was Hugh Seagram, who
to give himself up in order
to spare the Karen further
reprisals. He was executed, but the reprisals continued. By early
almost 12,000 guerrillas were under arms in eastern Burma, and
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.
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.
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