Lysander Mk.IIIA(SD) Unit: 357 Sqn, RAF Serial: C (V9289)
Burma, 1945. Camouflage scheme: Dark Green/Ocean Grey, undersides – Night. Code letter – Medium Sea Grey.
AIR SUPPORT FOR ISLD (MI6) AGENTS AND ACTIVITIES
At the time of the Japanese invasion of Burma, Leslie Thom was a platoon commander in the 8th (Frontier Force) Battalion Burma Rifles which, in January 1942, was one of the first regiments to encounter Japanese troops in their attack on Moulmein. Lieutenant Thom then participated in the longest retreat in British military history, all the way north over 1,000 miles and mostly on foot, to Imphal in India. After a period of convalescence, recovering from malaria and dysentery, and promoted to captain, he was posted as an intelligence officer to HQ 23rd Indian Division with whom he served right through the siege of Imphal.
Not long after the Imphal battle was over, Thom was recruited into the Inter Services Liaison Department (ISLD) in Calcutta. ISLD was the cover name in the Far East for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. In reality, ISLD’s main activity was deep intelligence-gathering by means of agents dropped into enemy territory in Burma, Siam (Thailand), Malaya and Indo-China. They worked closely with No. 357 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, which was commanded by Wing Commander Bob Hodges. The RAF Liaison Officer with ISLD was Squadron Leader Charles O’Brien.
Thom’s wife, Maureen (neé Stevens), whom he met in India during the war, recorded his account of some of his ISLD operations which he first spoke of only in later years in the 1990s. The following is an edited summary taken from a transcript by Maureen of his description of some of those operations.
ISLD Operations carried out by Captain Leslie Thom, 1944–45
Captain Thom’s first operation was on an August night of the full moon during the monsoon of 1944. After taking off from Jessore in a Hudson bomber, he was to drop an agent by parachute into the Bassein area, which was a port on the Irrawaddy delta not far from Rangoon. In the first operation the agent could not be dropped because of ground mist, which was obscuring visibility over the dropping zone. In a second attempt during the full moon in September Thom dropped the agent successfully as planned.
In October 1944 Thom left Madras in southern India with five agents and their equipment aboard a Catalina flying boat, bound for Bentinck Island in the archipelago off Burma’s south-east, Tenasserim, coast. Soon after take-off the automatic pilot broke down so that the rest of the flight was flown manually, around 70 feet above the sea to avoid radar detection by the Japanese.
Maureen: They passed the Andaman Islands, and could see Japanese warships in the harbour. Landing at Bentinck Island in moonlight was tricky, as the pilot could not judge the state of the water surface. Actually there was a considerable swell, and they hit the water fairly hard. Leslie was thrown forward and his ‘Mae West’ inflated, and so he told the pilot that he couldn’t go ashore because he was pregnant!
After managing to deflate and dispense with his Mae West, Thom accompanied the five agents safely ashore in a rubber dinghy. Another Catalina, which had followed them with more stores for these and other agents already on the island, attempted to land, but it must have hit the water even harder, so revved up again and headed for home. The heavy landing had split the belly of the Catalina’s fuselage. Another Catalina had to be sent out later with the agents’ supplies. Thom’s Catalina made a successful take-off despite the swell, and after a round trip of twenty-four hours arrived back in Madras.
During the November full moon Thom took some Karen tribesmen, who had been trained as agents, in a flight in a Liberator bomber, from which they parachuted into an area south of Papun.
The next month it was Christmas Day when Thom dropped a Kachin agent, known as Zaw Rip, from a Dakota into the Kachin Hills. In February 1945 Thom dropped another agent into the Bassein area. However, the flight crew had little experience of enemy action and, after dropping the canister, changed direction to take a look at some lights and action on the Daga Bridge near Bassein. Despite Thom’s warning not do so, the pilot circled the bridge to satisfy his curiosity.
Maureen: The next thing they knew was the sound of something like hail hitting the fuselage. They were being shot at, fortunately at the tail end! Charles O’Brien, who always met the aircraft on their return, was absolutely furious with the pilot for his lack of responsibility.
ISLD was not the only clandestine group supported by No. 357 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, which operated B-24 Liberators and Dakota IVs. Some of the groups serviced by No. 357 Squadron included:
Group Main Support Service
ISLD Dropping and supplying agents into Japanese occupied territory.
Force 136 Dropping and supplying saboteurs into Japanese occupied territory.
Z Force Dropping and supplying patrols in front of Allied lines to assist the path of the main force.
D Division Faking parachute descents for deception operations.
E Group Support arrangements to assist the escape of PoWs from Japanese camps.
OSS Support for USA organization similar to Force 136.
In a typical month in 1944–45 No. 357 Squadron would fly more than a hundred sorties. Operations ranged across Burma, Siam (Thailand), China, Indo-China and Malaya.
AIR SUPPORT FOR FORCE 136
In late 1944 from Cox’s Bazar Flight Lieutenant Gerry Smith was flying airto-ground operations in support of the army, bombing and strafing enemy positions. A typical sortie carrying one 500lb bomb could last up to one-and-a-half hours. Some operations, however, were supply drops to Long Range penetration Groups (LRPGs) in Japanese territory, such as Force 136.
In place of a bomb the Spitfire would carry a canister of supplies, similar in size to the bomb, which would automatically release a small parachute when it was dropped. To try and pinpoint the drop onto the ground, the approach and release of the canister would be similar to a bombing run. The navigation briefing would typically describe the target to be near a river and a particular bend as a marker, and usually the men on the ground would be near some kind of clearing in the jungle.
When Smith flew in an operation to drop such supplies to Force 136 he found his motivation to complete a precision targeting was heightened. The sister of his wife, Theone, was married to one of the men in Force 136.
I would make at least one approach flight to the target area for reconnaissance. Then I would circle around before making a run in from another direction, to hopefully deceive any enemy observers and antiaircraft fire. To make the final drop of the heavily packaged canister of supplies, I would take the Spitfire down to close to tree-top height, in effect in a similar approach as if I was dropping the 500lb bomb.
A critical and vital source of intelligence to support the war on land, at sea, in the air, and in the war in the shadows, was aerial reconnaissance. Perhaps the most important aerial reconnaissance squadron was No. 681 Squadron RAF, flying the Spitfire Mk XI. In 1944–45, as the culling of the Ki-46 111 Dinah intensified, and the fighters of the Allies’ EAC gained an increasing zone of air superiority, the scope and range of Allied aerial reconnaissance grew more and more extensive.
In July 1944 Flight Lieutenant Ron Gardner joined No. 681 Squadron at Calcutta. From there, and later from Imphal and Monya in Burma, Gardner completed fifty reconnaissance operations over Japanese-occupied territory, in the main on solo sorties flying the Spitfire XI.
Flying solo meant that navigation was very hard. There were few landmarks in north-east India and Burma, apart from rivers, and if you could see them rail lines and bridges. Very often some pilots lost direction, and on their return ran out of fuel and had to make a forced landing somewhere. During our flying training in Canada you were selected for specialised Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, on the basis of flying ability and temperament – the need for an unflappable character.
With the Spitfire Mk XI, its 1,600hp Rolls Royce Merlin engine [and a pressurized cockpit] allowed us to cruise up to 40,000 feet taking photographs. The aircraft had been modified to take the heavy camera equipment, which was installed behind the cockpit. Our training had given us guidance on what to look for, in areas where we were photographing. We usually took off at first light – and no food or drink before or during the flight.
Ronald Charlie ‘Ron’ Gardner was born on Christmas Day in Merewether, Newcastle, NSW, Australia. After first joining the Australian Army as rifleman in 1940, he enrolled in the RAAF on 7 November 1941 in Sydney. Following initial training on Tiger Moth aircraft in NSW, Gardner was posted in June 1942 to flying training school in Ontario, Canada. After specialized training at the No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit at Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, he was posted in May 1943 to Britain. A spell of six months in 1944 with No. 680 Squadron RAF based in Cairo followed, before Gardner was transferred in June 1944 to No. 681 Squadron RAF at Calcutta.
On one of my reconnaissance flights I found myself off course, so I began to follow a river, flying below tree-top height and below the top of the river banks, looking for a return direction. Suddenly I came to a clearing in the jungle. It was a Jap base, and I flew over it at about 50 feet. I am not sure who was more surprised, there were Japanese running everywhere. I stayed low flying below the range of any of their anti-aircraft guns, and got out of there in a hurry
Whilst operating from Monya in Burma, some of the local villagers collaborated with the Japanese by lighting campfires at night at each end of the airstrip, indicating markers to the Japanese bombers. A memorable event at Monya was when a gleaming silver DC-3 Dakota, escorted by two Spitfires, landed on the airstrip. It was a surprise visit by Lord Louis Mountbatten. He spoke to me personally, along with several other airmen, and his visit was a great boost to our morale.
Not only were reconnaissance pilots invariably on their own if intercepted by JAAF fighters, they also had to fly alone against the other enemy, the monsoon. One of the first Spitfires to be used in India and Burma became a victim of the atrocious monsoonal weather. On 8 June 1943 a pilot of a Spitfire IV of No. 681 Squadron was returning from a reconnaissance operation over Arakan. Near the Sunderban mountains between Chittagong and Calcutta he was confronted by a huge monsoon thunderstorm.
Unable to see any possibility of getting over or around the monstrous clouds, he descended to about 100 feet to see if there was a chance to get underneath. Flying under a line of squall clouds, a sudden downdraft dumped the aircraft onto the ground. The Spitfire hurtled along the ground, breaking up as it did so. The pilot eventually came to a stop hundreds of yards from the point of the forced landing, still pinned in his cockpit seat. There was little else of the aircraft remaining around him. Miraculously, he was unhurt and able to walk to the nearest village.
Air power had become crucial to undertaking so many operations in the war in the shadows, and in all its manifestations had become integral to the whole fightback in Burma. Now the Allies were taking air power to another level, and into new and innovative methods of air support to assist the army’s drive into Burma.