Air Espionage Far East



There were tensions between the SOE Force 136, headed by Colin MacKenzie, and OSS Detachment 101 commanded by William Peers – particularly in the China–Burma–India theatre of operations. The Americans preferred to use local agents recruited from anti-colonial or nationalist factions including the communists, and a certain amount of subterfuge had to be employed by the old colonials, particularly Britain and France.

Typical was one of the first operations that No. 357 Squadron flew from Kunming in south-east China on 4 September. Flt Lt Bill Cost and the crew of Liberator BZ847 flew into the American base with six French agents on board, all dressed in RAF uniforms. By the time the aircraft took off again bound for Indo-China the agents had changed into Free French Foreign Legion uniforms. Two nights later the squadron dropped two Thai SOE agents on the outskirts of Bangkok, where the pro-Japanese government had just been overthrown by Allied sympathisers in the police and navy.

The OSS felt that the British were limiting their operations in Thailand, as well as in Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies, and was determined to establish its own airborne support for Detachment 101 and to no longer have to rely on favours from the hard-pressed RAF SD squadrons. Douglas C-47 Skytrains were in short supply and Col Cochrane was still loath to release any of his for the clandestine transport of a few agents. One type that was readily available was the Stinson L-5. Able to operate from short airstrips hacked out of the jungle by native tribesmen, the L-5 was ideal for covert missions behind the lines; its only drawback was that it could carry only one passenger – or two at a pinch – in the tandem seat behind the pilot. OSS officer Lt Philip S. Weld of Detachment 101 was flown to one such airstrip at Hpungkan-Tingsa in Burma, 60 miles south of Myitkyina, in an L-5 on 15 October. His mission was to take command of a group of Chingpaw tribesmen, but within days Weld and the tribesmen were retreating further into the jungle pursued by Japanese forces. After calling for a number of stores drops to their remote camp, all of which were unsuccessful, Lt Weld was forced to trek overland, to reach Allied lines after nearly three months in the field.

Further to the west No. 628 Squadron Catalinas continued to fly a series of long-distance SD operations to the occupied Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, including two flown by Flt Lt B. Daymond and Jack O’Meara. On the first one they had to evade a Japanese convoy to land agents at Chance Island. Daymond’s ‘Cat’ stayed on the water for two hours, covered by O’Meara circling above, while the agents checked out the bay before going ashore. Eventually the two flying boats returned to Red Hills after an elapsed time of 26 hours.

On a subsequent operation Daymond’s Catalina hit a submerged object that ripped a hole in the hull while making a night landing off Bentinck Island. With great presence of mind, he was able to take off again before the flying boat flooded and to circle the island, while his crew plugged the hole with mattresses and spare clothing, before he could land safely, offload the agents and return to Red Hills. Daymond was to fly three more operations during October, flying more than 100 hours, most of them over enemy territory.

Master navigator George Drummond had flown eleven SD missions during the month, including one on 28 October. His Catalina flew from China Bay on Operation ‘Oatmeal’ to land four agents and their equipment on the Perhertian Islands, off Kota Bharu on the east coast of Malaya, when a Japanese patrol boat appeared, causing the mission to be aborted after 30 hours in the air. Two days later Flt Lt McKeond and WO Brooks returned to the Islands with Capt Ibrahim bin Ismail and three Malay NCOs on Operation ‘Oatmeal II’. Although the agents were betrayed by informers, Ismail managed to persuade his Japanese captors that they were willing to act as double agents, and for the next six months they transmitted and received spurious messages to and from Force 136 headquarters.

Flg Off Armand Etienne, a Russian-born ‘Black Cat’ pilot serving with No. 43 (RAAF) Squadron, flew 900 miles from Bowen, Queensland into enemy territory on 24 October to rescue another Catalina crew. They had been forced down on the sea off Makassar in the Celebes after being hit by anti-aircraft fire during a mine-laying operation the previous night. The downed No. 42 (RAAF) Squadron crew had managed to taxi away from the enemy coast while covered by a long-range USAAF P-61 Black Widow night fighter, and at dawn Etienne’s Catalina A24-59 arrived overhead and landed alongside the stricken flying boat. After the crew and their equipment had been transferred to the Black Cat, the abandoned A24-100 was sunk by gunfire from the P-61.

Although the main role of the US Navy and RAAF Black Cats was to locate and intercept nocturnal enemy shipping in the Pacific, on what were known as ‘Mike Searches’ by the Americans and ‘Milk Runs’ by the Australians, some of No. 43 Squadron Catalinas also carried out spoof raids, dropping ‘window’ to confuse Japanese air defences during mining operations in the waters around the Philippines.

At the beginning of December in the Burma–China–India theatre Dakota KJ921/‘H’ of No. 375 Squadron flew the first RAF pick-up operation into Burma from Jessore. Its pilot, Australian Flt Lt Terence ‘Pat’ O’Brien, had survived a tour on Coastal Command Blenheims before being seconded to the Army in India. Almost by chance he had found himself in the co-pilot’s seat of a Waco glider on Wingate’s second Chindit operation and had spent four months fighting his way out of the jungle with the help of local tribesmen and OSS agents. One of the latter, codenamed Edgar, was Capt Oliver Milton, a British-born soldier who had been dropped behind the lines in 1942 tasked with rescuing USAAF airmen shot down while flying the formidable mountain ranges between India and China known as the Hump.

Escorted by eight US Marine Corps F4U Corsairs, Utgoff’s PBY flew from the recently taken base at Leyte Gulf to Luzon, the most northerly island of the Philippines and still deep in Japanese-held territory. He landed at an isolated bay and ten evading airmen and escaped PoWs were ferried out to the flying boat by the Filipino villagers who had hidden them from the Japanese. As he climbed away from the bay, Utgoff sighted a Japanese patrol boat heading for the village and asked the Corsairs to intervene. The enemy vessel was sunk by the fighters’ 0.5in machine-gun fire.

At the beginning of 1945 the strength of the Allied special operations organisations had reached its peak. Some 12,000 men and women worked for SOE, almost a quarter of whom were trained as agents. They included some 500 FANYs who worked as wireless operators and cipher experts keeping contact with agents in the field. Although, unlike some of their colleagues in Europe, none was sent into the field herself, they manned some of the most remote outposts in the Allied theatre. Eight of them had even flown the Hump to Kunming, the important Allied railhead leading to the Chinese government’s wartime capital at Chungking.

OSS had almost exactly the same number on its staff at 40 locations around the world, including 2,000 at Field Station London. At this time 45 per cent of its operations were directed to its Far East Theatre of Operations (FETO), with less than 20 per cent devoted to the European theatre, including Germany.

During January No. 357 Squadron flew a total of 105 SD operations including its longest to date, from Chittagong to South Lahore, flown by Flg Off John Churchill on 25 January, in an airborne time of 21 hours 55 minutes. The squadron’s last Hudson operation was flown in January when Flt Lt King mounted a mission from Kunming in China to pick up a single Free French agent from Indo-China, which was still under a pro-Japanese, Vichy-style administration.

OSS Detachment 404, attached to SEAC Headquarters at Kandy in Ceylon, was responsible for operations in Thailand, previously considered an SOE stronghold. However, on 25 January an OSS mission was flown to the Gulf of Thailand by a No. 628 Squadron Catalina to make contact with pro-Allied members of the Thai government. One of the three agents assigned to Operation ‘Sequence’, Richard Greenlee, who had been brought up in Thailand as the son of a US missionary, was picked up again by the same flying boat on 4 February on the first leg of a journey to Washington to brief his superiors on the outcome of his meetings.

Six weeks later he returned to Thailand on another RAF Catalina as part of an OSS operation codenamed ‘Siren’. He would remain in the country while yet another No. 628 Squadron flying boat picked up his two colleagues, one of whom was suffering from a nervous breakdown, and an evading pilot, Lt W.D. McGarry, who had been a PoW for more than two years. William ‘Black Mac’ McGarry had joined the American Volunteer Group (AVG), known as the Flying Tigers and based at Kunming, six months before Pearl Harbor and had scored ten victories when his P-40 was shot down by anti-aircraft fire while attacking a Japanese air base at Chiang Mai in Thailand on 24 March 1942. Captured by the Thai forces, he was handed over to the Japanese who, after a short interrogation, handed McGarry back to his captors. He escaped from an internment camp in May 1944 and had lived on the run with the help of friendly villagers for almost a year before making contact with the OSS mission.

Operation Siren had been mounted by the OSS as a token of appreciation for McGarry’s old boss, Gen Claire Chennault, who had formed the Flying Tigers in 1940. He now commanded the US 14th Army Air Force in China and frequently provided some of his overburdened fleet of transports to support OSS operations. Between February and April several OSS agents were inserted along the south coast of China between Hainan and Hongkong as part of Operation Akron, flown by armed USAAF C-47s that were now being released for use by Detachment 101. Following the invasion of the Philippines USAAF Catalinas also began to undertake clandestine support operations, dropping agents and stores to native resistance fighters over a wide area in the South Pacific. On 19 March two OSS agents, four downed US Navy aircrew and a Catholic priest were plucked from the south coast of China by a USAAF 2nd Emergency Rescue Squadron (ERS) OA-10A Catalina based at Morotai. On another mission by the 2nd ERS Lt Shandelmeir landed on the coast of Naburos Island to pick up five evading airmen and deliver weapons, ammunition and leaflets to the tribesmen who had located them.

No. 112 ASR Flight RAAF, based at Darwin, was another Catalina unit specialising in long-range rescues of Allied aircrew in Japanese-held waters and was involved in one of the most demanding air-sea rescues of the Far East campaign. It took place on 6 April 1945 when ten RAAF Mitchells and four Liberators attacked a Japanese troop convoy, escorted by the light cruiser Isuzu, off Koepang in the Netherlands East Indies. Japanese Zero fighters shot down two of the Liberators, with eleven members of the crews taking to their parachutes. Catalina A24-54, flown by Flt Lt Bullman, alighted in the area and had picked up four of the survivors when it too came under attack from another Zero, setting the flying boat on fire. It sank within minutes and the survivors of this attack had hardly enough time to scramble onto a five-man dinghy dropped by one of the circling Liberators.

A second No. 112 ASR Flight Catalina, A24-58, was sent to the scene with Flt Lt Robin Corrie at the controls. He was able to land near the dinghy to pull all the airmen aboard, including Bullman, and was searching for two others when two Japanese twin-engined Nakajima J1N Irvings attacked with cannon fire. The blister-gunner of A24-58 responded while Corrie made an emergency take-off with water cascading through the open blisters. Pursued by the Irvings the overweight Catalina twisted and turned only a few feet above the sea, and it was only when the covering Liberator threatened the Japanese fighters that Corrie was able to make a laboured climb to 3,500 feet and the safety of a cloud bank. The flying boat, escorted by the Liberator, eventually arrived safely at Darwin and although another search was mounted for the missing aircrew, none was found.

The US Navy’s VPB-34 was also actively involved in rescuing downed airmen, as illustrated by a long-range mission flown over the Philippines by its charismatic commanding officer on 10 December. Lt-Cdr Vadm Viktorovich ‘Vad’ Utgoff, affectionately known as the Mad Russian, was the son of a Russian count, Viktor Viktorovich Utgoff, who had been a seaplane ace with the Imperial Russian Navy in the First World War. After the Revolution, he had emigrated to the United States with his good friend Igor Sikorsky, the pioneer flying-boat designer whose company built the first Trans-Pacific PanAm Clippers in the 1930s. So the young Vad Utgoff had flying boats in his blood.

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