Burma – War in The Shadows I

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In parallel with the conventional war between the opposing armies, navies and air forces, there was another war, a war in the shadows. It was waged by diverse elements, covering a wide spectrum of participants, regular servicemen and women, civilians, intelligence agencies, other countries’ nationals, mercenaries etc. But like the conventional conflict, for the operations of this other war, air support was also indispensable.

In 1943, while the first ground offensive into Arakan ran its course, an incursion deep into Japanese territory was launched. Known by the soubriquet of Chindits, 77 Brigade, led by the charismatic Brigadier Orde Wingate, set out in seven columns over the Naga Hills and across the Chindwin river to infiltrate Japanese-held territory in northern Burma. The Chindits, trained in jungle fighting, aimed to sabotage the enemy’s rear bases and communications and generally cause chaos and confusion.

From February to June 1943 aircraft of Nos 31 and 194 Squadrons RAF flew 178 sorties night and day, dropping 303 tons of supplies to sustain the Chindit columns. Aircraft would take off from Comilla, often at midnight, when only moonlight made the outlines of hills visible. The Chindit troops lit fires in the shape of an ‘L’ as a marker. When this and another flashing light was seen, the supplies packages were pushed out, some to float down by parachute, and some in free drops. Around seven packages could be dropped on one approach run, so the plane would circle around perhaps eight or nine times taking about twenty minutes to drop all packages.

The strategy for the first Chindit foray behind Japanese lines in northern Burma was entirely premised upon the seven Chindit columns being resupplied by air transport. To undertake a special forces operation of such scale overland deep into enemy territory, and hope to support it with supplies transported through the Burmese jungle and fight off Japanese patrols, would be impossible. Wingate and the Allied commanders decided to fully supply the Chindits by air transport. It relied completely on exploiting air force capability. Allied air forces were now challenged to make this new concept work, to take the air war into a new dimension, to hit the Japanese in their rear areas, where they least expected it.

Accompanying all Chindit columns, also known as Long Range Penetration Groups (LRPGs), there were RAF officers, to help prepare drop zones or landing strips and provide liaison and communication with the transport aircraft. In the second Chindit operation of 1944 RAF liaison officers went in again. Reports from photographic aerial reconnaissance were a near indispensable intelligence source for the Chindits and other operations in enemyheld territory. During a four-month long operation the Chindits destroyed railway tracks in more than seventy locations, four river bridges and blew up rocks and landslides onto rail and road routes. Another significant achievement of the Chindits was the demonstration that the Japanese troops in Burma could be beaten.

As well as Wingate’s Chindits, although not comparable with them, there were other units and forces of various kinds, which conducted operations behind Japanese lines. These included the patrols of V and Z Forces, Force 136, the cover name for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Far East, the MI-6-controlled Inter Services Liaison Department (ISLD), the Lushai Brigade and the Burma Intelligence Corps. In addition, there was the Wireless Experimentation Centre (WEC) of Ultra code-breakers in Delhi, and other ad hoc temporary units under various commands.

There follow some first-hand accounts by participants in the war in the shadows, which provide some insight of how, in a multitude of ways, the Allies’ growing reach in air support was enabling a growing diversity in the ways of waging war.

SABOTAGE AND DEMOLITION BEHIND JAPANESE LINES

In one of the ad hoc operations behind enemy lines, under the command of XXXIII Corps, Sergeant R.J. ‘Bob’ Macormac tells of being a sergeant in a troop of around seventy men. They were using Bangalore as their rear base and Dimapur in Nagaland, north-east India, had been allocated as their advance base. For their first operation in Burma this troop, or special demolition force (SDF) as they referred to themselves, travelled from Bangalore by train to Nagpur Park. There Macormac, and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Jan Compton, supervised the loading of their guns, stores and motor vehicles onto barges to cross the Brahmaputra river. On the Assam side of the river, at Gauhati, another train took them up to Dimapur. Once established at Dimapur, they commenced daily training exercises in the surrounding jungle, and were given aerial reconnaissance photographs by the RAF, sectionalized for the whole of northern Burma.

Bob Macormac was born on 12 October 1914 in Havant, Hampshire, in the UK. His first job was as a van driver for London Transport before doing a spell at sea, joining the Hudson Bay Company shipping line as a seaman, and circumnavigating the world twice. After enlisting in March 1939 in the Royal Engineers, in 1943 Macormac was posted to India with 118th Light-Anti-Aircraft Regiment, sometime after which he was transferred in 1944 to the SDF troop under XXXIII Corps command.

The first Burma operation for Macormac’s SDF troop was to seek and destroy a large Japanese munitions’ base near Maingkwan in the north-east of Kachin state. From Dimapur the SDF convoy took the road up to Kohima where they picked up two Kachin guides, then through the Naga Hills. The Kachin guides took the troop into Sumprabum, a town in their home country, Kachin State. News was gleaned there on the dumps to be hit and on the strength of the Japanese guards. Because the town of Sumprabum had suffered at the hands of Japanese forces, the Kachin guides said there were more local Kachin volunteers if needed. At an Orders Group, Lieutenant Compton set out a plan for a reconnaissance patrol of the supply dumps and by using the RAF photographs and local knowledge a route was mapped out.

At dusk, with one section of men and the Kachin guides, Macormac and Compton moved out on foot from Sumprabum. Macormac was in the lead plus another local Kachin guide, who had previously sighted the dumps.

The following is a summary extract from a transcript by Sergeant Macormac:

Moving south east but keeping to the north of the Jap area, our intention was to then move south on to them and make our assessments. Everyone was on edge, only to be expected I suppose, it was our first action against the Japs.

It was eerie in the valley, everything being completely strange to us. We had scouts out ahead and on our flanks, close in. The jungle was sparse, many clearings, and chaungs, I didn’t like it at all.

A little after midnight the local guide indicated to Macormac that they were nearing the dumps.

But we still did not know the extent of Jap defence and patrols of the area, and had not caught sight of any of them. Yes, you might say I was scared. We crept on until our guide stopped us. We were there. There were three dumps in a triangle with a 100 yards spacing, and in the centre of the dumps was the Jap camp.

We lay there watching and waiting, no noise, no talking, and no sudden movements. Then we heard voices. Walking as perimeter guards of the dumps, came two Japanese. The first Japs we had seen. It was obvious from their casual attitude that this was not a guard against hostile troops, just a guard against pilfering natives.

On our way back we decided the job had to be done the next night in case the news got to the Japs of our presence.

The troop’s plan was to reach the enemy dump area after midnight. A section would advance ahead, take out the perimeter guards, and return to the troop. Nine bombers and equipment carriers would then advance and seed the east and west dumps with explosives. On completion of these two dumps a chain of explosives would be run from east to south dump, continue to west dump, and wire up to a detonating point.

The mortar section was take up position in the unmined area between east and west dumps. Some 100 yards to the north of that line, Troop HQ section would support the mortars with Bren guns and small-arms fire. Sections 1 and 2 would position on the east/south flank, Sections 3 and 4 on the west/south flank, while Sections 5 and 6 would dig in fifty yards south of the south dump.

We reached the perimeter area, positions were taken, and everyone was standing by. We were in time for the three hourly appearance of the perimeter guard, who were taken out as planned.

The explosives were put in place at each dump, also anti-personnel mines, and wired back as planned. With a rank of detonators in front of us we were ready. At the first explosion everyone would open up with everything they had into the Jap camp. Down went the detonators and up went the three dumps.

All hell broke loose. Jonah’s mortars were causing havoc, so were the Brens of THQ, 5 and 6 Sections. When the Japanese made their break to the flanks, Jan and I blew the detonators for the chain of anti-personnel mines, and the chain reaction kept going. In the Japs initial response those who got past the mines were picked off by our flanking sections. Return fire by machine guns was now coming in from the triangle, and I flashed a signal to Jonah to pour it in on them.

We knew that it was impossible for a force of our strength to hold what we guessed might even be a Jap company. We still had to thin them down to stand any chance of getting out from under. I said to Jan, ‘How about a twenty-minute mortar concentration, and then see how the sections hold out.’ This we did and the sections, firing from foxholes, were picking them off and holding.

I asked Jonah how much he had left for his mortars. ‘Can’t remember,’ was his reply. I said to Jan that we don’t want to carry any home, so let’s blast them all off. When the mortars stopped firing, it was so quiet, then came the caterwauling of the Japanese as they started to move out, but not far. The sections’ Brens hammered at them, and even rained grenades at them.

The Japanese were being held, but it was time for us to move out. First I had to check all sections for their casualties. Our total casualties were ten wounded, which included one seriously, a stretcher case. We had to get them all back now. Sections 5 and 6 were to retire to the original start point, collecting the wounded on their way. As we assembled the remainder of the Troop, we waited for a counter-attack from the Japs. Not a movement from them. Were we going to get lucky?

The return to Sumprabum proved uneventful. With no enemy pursuit detected, Lieutenant Compton decided to radio XXXIII Corps to report results and task finished: ETA at advance base Dimapur ninety-six hours from time of transmission; three dumps completely destroyed (later confirmed by aircraft reconnaissance), casualties being returned were nine wounded and one dead. The stretcher case, Samson, died over the Naga Hills, where it was very cold after the Hukawng Valley heat.

In another operation close to the border with China, air support would prove crucial to their survival. From the start-point at Imphal the troop travelled overland to the Bhamo area and crossed over the border into China. From there they undertook reconnaissance and made an attack plan to approach another Japanese supply dump from the east. Macormac had early misgivings about the operation.

Our recce patrol showed that this was not going to be easy. It was just one dump surrounded by weapon pits and foxhole defences, with the Jap force camped between the perimeter defence and the dump. We spent over forty-eight hours observing the target area, then withdrew linking up with the rest of the Troop.

Since we needed extra demolition gear that we had not been able to carry with us, we were due for a supply drop by air. I suggested it have a couple of bombers with it to plaster the target, to give us extra cover. The strength of the Jap force in this area was so large it seemed that we were out of our depth.

The RAF duly bombed the area but the dump did not blow from the raid. Macormac and his troop were taking a beating, and after about half an hour, on receiving a radio signal from HQ, Lieutenant Compton ordered a withdrawal. He remained with a section, giving covering fire, and was wounded before being in the last group to withdraw. Macormac found himself counting the casualties.

Altogether we had fifteen dead, eighteen walking wounded, no stretcher cases. In the circumstances I think we got off light, but it was such a waste, a needless bloody waste of manpower. The looks on the chaps’ faces told a story. It was going to be hard to knock it out of them. They looked so disheartened, they had lost mates. The firepower from Jap lines had left the men in shock.

We got back to the area allocated to us by the Chinese, who took us in a motor convoy north to a point east of Launggyaun in hill country. Our withdrawal from there was rapid, excess weapons, ammo, medical, food and other supplies, we handed over to the Chinese.

The troop’s return route from there was through hill country following the Salween river, which made a fairly good passage for the convoy. Averaging about 50 miles a day it took them over three days to reach the contact point on the China/Burma border.

At the border crossing we were met by Kachin guides, and said goodbye to our Chinese escort. It was only then that it struck me how all nationalities, with whom we had come into contact, Kachin, Burmese and Chinese, had gone out of their way to assist us. We moved out, and struck out for Sumprabum, and then on to the Naga Hills and into Kohima.

We laid up overnight at Kohima, and picked up our transport next morning for our run down to Dimapur. We had been out over six weeks on this one, it would be good to get back to advance base. At Dimapur we found a relief section there already to take over as the new base guard, which meant we were being pulled back to Bangalore. We had mail from home, the first since leaving Bangalore about three months ago.

We were told that it had been a valiant attempt made by the troop against such odds. As soon as Corps got a radio message from the RAF bombers over the target near Bhamo, it was realised that an impossible task had been given to us, and the order to withdraw sent immediately to Lieutenant Compton.

The strength estimated by the RAF was far in excess of 1,000 enemy troops, and the perimeter defence was greater than expected. The bombardment by the RAF, and their assessment of Japanese force strength, leading to the withdrawal, had clearly saved Macormac and his troop from being wiped out.

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