Hit and Miss in the Far East

Throughout World War II the schism between those who campaigned in the East and the Pacific and those who fought in Europe remained open and divisive. Not only did the US Army concentrate its fullest attention upon Europe, it tended to allow its South-West Pacific component to wage a war of its own in alliance with the Australians, the New Zealanders and the US Navy. That suited General MacArthur, whose mission of vengeance against Japan was all-consuming. It also led to improvisations, which unified co-operation between Services and Allies might have averted. Similarly, the British forces in India, Burma and the Indian Ocean often regarded themselves as ‘forgotten’ by London, at least until Mountbatten was sent out to form a new South-East Asia Command in October 1943. Meanwhile the US Navy, of its own choice playing only a supporting role in Europe, sometimes lost contact with developments taking place there and went its own way in splendid pursuit of its own greater glory

For example, shortcomings in the Solomons apparently failed to fix in Admiral Turner’s mind the crucial importance of beach reconnaissance, pilotage and obstacle clearance. The reckoning, as mentioned earlier, came during the successful but costly invasion of Makin in November 1943, which he considered ‘my poorest appraisal of beach areas for a landing during the whole war… The Red beaches were just plain stink profumo. That’s why I pushed the development of Underwater Demolition Teams [UDT] so hard.’ This amazing admission indicates how Turner was not only unaware of the techniques already practiced by COPP and their kin for Torch, Husky, Baytown and Avalanche, but was also in ignorance of US Navy work for over a year at Fort Pierce, Florida. Already created for Europe were Beach Jumper Teams equipped with powerful demolition devices, such as Reddy Fox, a 50–100 foot long pole, filled with 28 pounds of tetrytol, which could be floated into position, sunk and then detonated, and Hot Dog, a smaller version of Reddy Fox.

Be that as it may, Turner, appalled at the difficulties of pushing Amtracks through unbreached reefs and enemy booms and barricades at Makin, now opted for what he called ‘swimming scouts’. In a letter to Admiral King on 26 December 1943 he asked for the urgent formation of nine UDTs, and, a few days later, for the setting up of an ‘Experimental and Tactical Underwater Demolition Station’. Needless to say this was easily and promptly arranged. Within four weeks UDTs, manned by navy personnel, nearly all of whom were Reservists, were at work in the forefront of the action at Kwajalein as part of Operation Flintlock. They swam ashore in daylight from LCVPs and LVTs, thoroughly protected by a typical Turner blasting operation as ‘reef-hugging battleships’ pounded the Japanese defences so hard that the demolition teams were undetected by a cowed enemy. The first assault waves on 1 February 1944 met nothing to impede their landing.

UDTs had come to stay. At Saipan in June 1944, in Operation Forager, they turned in a classic performance. Here Turner had them reconnoitre beach boundaries, blast gaps through the reefs and open channels for subsequent assault waves and the armada of landing craft and LSTs bringing in reinforcements and supplies. Without UDTs the whole schedule would have been set back and enemy resistance dangerously prolonged.

The attack on Guam, a month later, probably witnessed UDTs at the peak of their usefulness. Here they worked for three days and nights, closely protected by gun-fire, removing and demolishing elaborate man-made obstacles and blowing aside tons of reef. Extracts from the report of UDT 3 (under Lieutenant R. F. Burke) give some indication of the variety, labour and danger of their task:

Operation delayed due to grounding of LCI348 on reef. After attempts to remove the LCI, which taken under heavy mortar fire by enemy, it was decided to abandon it and crew was removed by UDT 3’s boat No. 4.

3 LCPRs sent to reef edge under heavy fire cover (sometimes within fifty yards of the swimmers) and smoke screen and launched five rubber boats. 150 obstacles removed using 3,000 pounds Tetrytol… The enemy had placed obstacles in an almost continuous front along the reef. These obstacles were piles of coral rock inside a wire frame made of heavy wire net. Dispatched all UDT Boats to respective beaches to guide LCMs and LCTs with tanks ashore over reef.

Yet it is noteworthy that the complete abandonment of stealth and the three-day bombardment in support of the UDTs ‘tipped off’ Turner’s plan to the enemy, prompting the Japanese commander to re-deploy his troops in those sectors where assault had been so clearly advertised.

Detached from European practices and US Navy and Marine expertise, and faced with the task of a major invasion of the Philippines, Lieutenant General W. Krueger’s Sixth US Army had to create its own equivalent of Amphibious Recon Patrols, Commandos and COPPs. Lacking Marines or OGs, Sixth Army called for volunteers who would scout ahead in parties of one officer and six enlisted men. Applications came from almost every unit and were given the evocative frontier title of ‘The Alamo Scouts’. Within six weeks their own training centre had done its work and 66 physically fit and indoctrinated men were braced to the task of scouring coastlines and inland defences for enemy troops. They were instructed to find and report, but to avoid fighting except when trapped.

The Alamo Scouts were soon overtaken by the crowd. No sooner were they ashore on Leyte than they found themselves in company with Filipino guerrillas led by Americans. Within a few days or even hours of reconnoitring the beaches another specialized unit was close on their heels. 6th Ranger Battalion was also a Krueger improvisation, trained to ruthless commando standards within a mere three weeks, because by now all the short cuts had been discovered by their predecessors in Europe. But they were recruited in a unique way, for Krueger simply nominated 98th Field Artillery Regiment for the job, placed it under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel H. A. Mucci, the ex-Provost Marshal of Honolulu, and told him to replace those who did not want to volunteer from a long list of those from elsewhere who did. Miraculously and by sheer hard work, an artillery unit which had manned pack guns in the New Guinea campaign was turned into spearhead infantry and found itself nominated to seize, on 17 October, the islands of Dinagat, Suluan and Homonhon which lay across the approaches to the main assault area. Because prolonged occupation of the islands was not envisaged, these were not hit-and-run operations in the true sense of the term, although the orders issued had that flavour. Enemy radio installations and gun positions were to be destroyed, documents and codes captured.

When the time came to land there was but little opposition. At Sulunan the Japanese shot once, killing one Ranger, and then ran into the jungle where they were hunted down. Neither was there any resistance at Dinagat, where guerrillas had killed the enemy, with the result that Rangers were first to raise the Stars and Stripes again on the Philippines and free to erect the navigation devices which, on the 20th, guided the invasion fleet to its main assault position. Subsequently, in January 1943, a Company of 6th Rangers, working with Filipino guerrillas and Alamo Scouts, won considerable credit and fame with a long-distance mission to rescue American prisoners of war from Cabanatuan Cavo, 35 miles behind the enemy lines. It was foot-slogging all the way with not a boat in sight, but it enabled 6th Rangers’ group to hit a high spot in history by bringing some 500 fellow Americans safely out, ambushing and killing over 400 Japanese for the loss of only two Rangers and one Scout killed. Thereafter this unit continued to operate exclusively in the infantry spearhead role on land, in much the same way as had its sister battalions in Europe. It was a remarkable feat by an artillery unit to acquire so rapidly more skill and dash than that of ordinary infantry units with more experience in the art. Was it just the name ‘Ranger’ which inspired them? The fact remains that, when assigned the task of spearheading 37th Infantry Division in the assault on Manila’s walled city, they were denied the honour because ‘they had already had too much publicity’.

The crew of Krait during Operation Jaywick

While the American Army fighting the Japanese improvised its raiding forces on the spot, Dutch, Australians and British built up theirs with ready-made bricks such as British Army and Royal Marine Commandos sent to India for use in Burma and elsewhere as spearhead units. Of the many operations attempted, most were inland, often across rivers. Here only those carried out independently at sea will be described, with pride of place given to the dedicated Australians, several of them 18-year-olds who had never before been to sea, who carried out Operation Jaywick against shipping in Singapore harbour after a voyage of over 2,000 miles from Western Australia in an old Japanese-built fishing boat renamed Krait.

Major I. Lyon, Gordon Highlanders, and Lieutenant D. M. N. Davidson, RNVR, were the brains behind Jaywick and it took them more than a year to complete its triumphant execution. Certainly it required a lot of imagination to swallow a plan which involved such a long journey through Japanese-dominated waters to launch three Folbots into a protected harbour with a view to fastening limpets on ships whose presence was no better known beforehand than that of the location of enemy defences. But Jaywick was an act of faith carried out with an unavoidable lack of information by men to whom risk was second nature, against an enemy to whom such attack was unimaginable. Setting out from Exmouth Gulf on 2 September 1943, and flying Japanese colours, Krait reached the ‘thousand islands’ of the Rhio archipelago in good order on 23 September and disembarked six men in three Folbot canoes who hid up on one of the islands. On the night 26/27 September they penetrated the encouragingly lax defences of Singapore Harbour. One canoe entered the inner Keppel Harbour, the other one fixed limpets on shipping anchored off nearby islands without serious challenge. At 0500 hours next morning all six men, exhausted by hard paddling, were hiding on an adjacent island listening to the thud of exploding limpets which accounted for seven ships of about 33,000 tons, including a fully loaded 10,000-ton tanker. By good fortune and much determination they managed to paddle for the next three days to their rendezvous with the Krait and, after 33 days in Japanese territory, returned to Australia, having survived investigation by a rather uninquisitive enemy destroyer on the way.

Jaywick ranks with Frankton and Sunbeam A as among the most successful of canoe operations, and was also perhaps the luckiest. Both Lyon and Davidson were given to taking extravagant risks, venturing forth with a minimum of intelligence and creeping up, as Davidson did, on the tense crew of the Krait at the RV just to find out ‘how well prepared they were’ and nearly being shot for his stupidity. Both were equally obsessed with the idea of striking at Singapore, and that obsession led to Operation Rimau (Tiger), one that was even more perilously based on chance, the chance that 15 unreliable, electrically-powered submersible canoes (known as ‘Sleeping Beauties’) would be better than Folbot canoes, and that a party of 22 men, carried in cramped conditions aboard the submarine HMS Porpoise to the vicinity of Singapore, could hijack a junk, transfer the Sleeping Beauties and 11 Folbots to her and then raid the harbour.

Some measure of the wishful thinking which went into the planning of Rimau can be gauged from Dick Horton’s description of the Sleeping Beauties, which had only two speeds, full ahead at four knots and half-speed.

How it was expected to cope with the tides off Singapore, which ran at over six knots, had been left to fate. Steering and elevation was by means of an aircraft type ‘joystick’ [like the Welman submarine] and on a panel in front of the operator was a compass which was unusually highly inaccurate.

Amazingly they managed to capture a 100-ton junk, Mustika, on 28 September and transfer everything to her in two nights’ working, before Porpoise cast off for another task. After that nothing went right. The Mustika was intercepted by Malay police and the crew gave themselves away. Lyon had her sunk and took to the Folbots in an attempt to paddle the long distance to the pick-up point at Merapas Island. They might have made it if the submarine assigned to make the pick-up (not Porpoise) had stuck to plan, but she did not and, again to quote Horton, ‘no explanation of this has ever been given’. As it was, an intensive Japanese search gradually rounded them up, killing Lyon, Davidson and a few others, bringing 11 survivors to Singapore where one died of malaria and the rest were put on trial and finally beheaded on 7 July 1945.

With the death of Lyon and Davidson, no more Rimau-type amphibious operations were attempted. Dutch and Australian parties, most of the latter drawn from the Independent Companies, concentrated on the vital acquisition of information and the spread and support of clandestine activities in the Netherlands East Indies, New Guinea, Papua and Northern Borneo. They employed hit-and-run techniques but mostly left the hitting to guerrilla bands under SOE control, as did their counterparts in South-East Asia Command.

When Mountbatten assumed command of South-East Asia Command in October 1943, he brought with him that vibrant dynamism for which he was renowned, plus the operational and administrative techniques he had developed as CCO. SEAC, he said, would deal directly with Combined Operations. To make sure, he co-opted several tried members of COHQ Staff. Without the same sense of personal involvement as MacArthur, Mountbatten’s task in the Far East was still one of vengeance. Just as the Americans desired to reconquer the Philippines to wipe out the stain of the 1942 defeats at Bataan and Corregidor, so the British and Dutch were determined to recapture Burma, the Malay Peninsula and the Netherlands East Indies. But although many British viewed the capture of Singapore as an important stepping stone to the Philippines, the only strategic importance the Americans attached to the role of SEAC was the seizing of Upper Burma in order to open up land communications with China. As a result the maritime side of Mountbatten’s task initially took second place to the extension of operations southwards. In consequence it was not until August 1944 that the Small Operations Group (SOG) commenced what were, essentially, reconnaissance missions related to Operation Zipper – the projected invasion of Malaya which would come second only to Overlord in magnitude.

The Allies were all agreed that Colonel Donovan’s OSS was to be prevented from taking a strong part in Zipper in the same manner as they were restrained from ‘assisting’ MacArthur and Nimitz. Fear of American interference in the delicate Indian political scene prompted Mountbatten to copy European methods by placing OSS under SOE, and then ensuring that neither organization received much priority or help. Relatively few agents were inserted to stimulate the activities of Anti-Japanese Forces (AJF) and the flow of supplies was kept extremely low. Even at their peak in 1945, only 276 tons were delivered to SOE throughout SEAC, compared with 506 tons to Scandinavia and 1,147 to Yugoslavia. OSS agents took virtually no part in raiding (and in none at all of the amphibious type) since OGs were excluded, as they continued to be within the commands of Nimitz and MacArthur.

Strict control was also imposed on the British Small Operations Group which began to assemble in Ceylon in April 1944 under Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. Hasler. Consisting, to begin with, of COPPs 7 and 8, which had arrived in India in the latter half of 1943, on 12 June it was ‘officially formed’ under Colonel T. T. Tollemache. It soon expanded to include four COPPs, three sections of SBS who were all Army Commandos, Royal Marine Detachment 385 and the Sea Reconnaissance Unit of long range swimmers, drawn from all three branches of Service. Apart from the fact that RM Detachment 385 and the COPPs were not parachute-trained, the functions of the four types of units overlapped, although the COPPs tended to specialize in tasks demanding thorough off-shore survey and navigation.

It is not the intention here to deal with the scores of raids classified as Force Commander Operations – that is, those carried out under Fourteenth Army, XV Corps or Force W which could be a beach reconnaissance, a fighting patrol, a ‘snatch’ of an enemy prisoner, or co-operation with local guerrilla bands. Mountbatten had specified in Operational Directive No. 14 that the SOG would provide small parties of uniformed troops ‘to operate against enemy coastal, river or lake areas’, of which there were plenty in South-East Asia, and that they would ‘NOT be qualified to work as agents’. First among the tasks they would undertake were ‘Reconnaissance of enemy beaches, seaward approaches, beach exits and coastal defences’. Second, ‘Small-scale attacks on objectives in coastal, river or lake areas’. Third, ‘The provision of markers and guides for assault landings by larger forces which may be either seaborne or airborne’.

A beginning was made between 17 and 23 August by a COPP reconnaissance of beaches in the vicinity of the Peudada River in North Sumatra – Operation Frippery. Carried by submarine, their task, ostensibly, was to assess suitability for a major landing. All that came of it was a submarine-carried demolition raid by SBS between 11 and 13 September with the railway bridge over the river as its objective – these were Operations Spratt Able and Spratt Baker, of which Able came to nothing after the two-canoe party became split up, ran into all sorts of trouble ashore and returned, baffled, to the submarine. Baker, under Major Sidders, also suffered from embarrassments. A corporal fell into the river from the bridge with a loud splash; there was a narrow shave when a Japanese bicycle patrol pedalled by; and the local natives, attracted to the scene, had to be restrained at gun-point in case they betrayed the canoeists while they laid the charge and fixed time pencils. Further delay, when time was already short, occurred to allow a train to pass. All in all it was a relieved party of SBS who paddled back to the submarine to learn later that one end of the bridge was in the water.

Spratt Baker was unique in the so-called Independent Operations by SOG in that it was the only one specifically designed to attack coastal objectives. A few were supply missions for guerrillas, of which Carpenter III, carried out on 30 May 1945, off the east coast of Johore by RM Detachment 385, was the biggest, involving a submarine and the landing of 8,000-pounds of stores and the evacuation of 12 men.

Reconnaissance was the major role, related to the projected invasion of Malaya across the Morib beaches and in the neighbourhood of Port Dickson by Force W and XXXIV Corps (Operation Zipper). Of several small operations, Confidence, on 9/10 June was alone crucial; the rest, Copyright, Baboon, Bruteforce, Cattle and Baker, Defraud, Fairy and Slumber  were diversionary.

COPP 3, carried 1,200 miles to Phuket Island by submarine, executed Baboon on 8/9 March; its task the examination of beaches and a possible airstrip – for which purpose it included among its seven members an RAF officer. The beach survey was completed, but the canoe carrying the RAF officer overturned. His crew of two Royal Engineers was killed by enemy fire as they ran up the beach, and he was taken prisoner next day. The experiences of RM Detachment 385 attempting Copyright the next day was equally hectic because the enemy were alerted, and eventually ended in tragedy. Having taken their beach samples, they were apprehended by Thai police, but fighting broke out and the men escaped into the jungle where they were hunted by both the Thais and the Japanese. One by one they were killed or captured as they tried to make their way to pre-arranged pick-up points, which the submarines kept under surveillance for the next nine days in the hope of finding them. Three were lucky enough to fall into Thai hands and spent the rest of the war as their prisoners. The two taken by the Japanese were removed to Singapore where their captors ‘honoured’ them by decapitation in the same manner as the previous Australian teams.

As a deception to Baboon and Copyright, Bruteforce, consisting of four men and two canoes from RM Detachment 385, were carried by Catalina flying boat to land on the Burmese coast at Ziggon on 29 March, their orders stating they should leave behind traces of their presence. Nothing more was heard of them, however, and a search by Catalina two days later was abortive. There does seem to have been an exuberance about SOG deceptions. When it came to leaving traces of their presence, their teams tended, in the opinion of those who had experience of Europe, to overdo it a bit. The team from RM Detachment 385, under Lieutenant A. L. Croneen, RM, which went by submarine to North Sumatra on 15 April, simulated a battle on shore with Tommy-gun fire and grenades, without, apparently, impressing anybody, for there was no response. And Clearance Baker in West Siam was criticized for leaving so much kit behind as to be unrealistic: in Europe only scraps were thrown away to indicate a minor mishap.

How effective deception raids were must remain in doubt. Defraud, by ten men from RM Detachment 385 in the Nicobar Islands on 18/19 April, certainly succeeded in bringing back information, but its aim of engaging the enemy and inflicting casualties came to naught for lack of enemy. Fairy, in the Tavoy area on the same night, was called off after the canoes had left the destroyers carrying them due to miscellaneous problems including the sighting of an unidentified motor boat.

As for Confidence, it can only be remarked that this was one of the few essential beach reconnaissances which fell short of requirements, despite the very considerable endeavours of the members of COPP 3 under Lieutenant A. Hughes, RNR, to complete the job. Taking eight men in four canoes, he landed in two parties on the Morib beaches on 9 June. Hughes’s party managed to return to their parent submarine, HMS Seadog, with sufficient evidence, it seemed, to indicate that the beaches they had examined were adequate for a major invasion. But the party with Captain Alcock, a Canadian, lost contact with Seadog, as well as among themselves, and remained ashore, having discovered their beaches unsuitable. This had repercussions, for no further attempt was made to examine the beaches for fear of compromising the main Zipper operation. As for Alcock and his men, their subsequent adventures amounted to a saga in itself. Captured and reunited by a unit of Javanese AJF guerrillas, they were handed over to a well organized, but suspicious band of Chinese Communist AJF whose methods were, to say the least, uncompromising and brutal. After a prolonged investigation of Alcock’s credentials, they were grudgingly recognized as allies, especially when it became known that the Japanese were offering a reward of Malayan $10,000, later increased to $100,000, for their capture. For their enlightenment, they were invited to witness the torturing of a spy and his subsequent decapitation. They were told SEAC had been informed of their survival, but during the next few weeks were almost constantly on the move with the AJF unit, their health gradually deteriorating from malnutrition and jungle sores. When contact was made by the AJF with SEAC, it took a long time for arrangements for their rescue to be made by Force 136, which was responsible for clandestine operations along with OSS. It was September before they at last emerged, and by then the war was over.

There is no doubt that the SOG filled an essential need in the same manner as Amphibious Recon Patrols and the Alamo Scouts. The information they provided could not have been acquired in any other reliable way, and the price paid in lives for 174 operations was by no means exorbitant – nine killed, five missing and two wounded.

Great good fortune also attended the Zipper landings at the Morib beaches and close by Port Dickson in Malaya, since they eventually took place without opposition on 9 September when the war with Japan was over. If it had been otherwise the last major and prestigious amphibious operation of the war might have been catastrophic and not simply the fiasco that it was. For as a result of inadequate reconnaissances and the false conclusions drawn therefrom, the landing craft and men faced beach conditions which somebody in the Royal Navy described as ‘vile’. Many craft became grounded too far out to permit unloading, while others touched down on terrain which precluded rapid unloading. Scores of vehicles were drowned and chaos reigned on congested beaches because egress from them was extremely difficult through dense vegetation and trees. A few yards inland narrow roads, bounded by deep ditches and soft ground, prevented vehicles from getting off the roads without becoming stuck, with the result that traffic jams of fearsome dimensions built up and the tanks ripped the frail roads and their shoulders to shreds. Only men on foot could move inland and it was fortunate for the unsupported infantry that the Japanese tended to assist rather than resist. It was a strange irony, indeed, that, under Mountbatten of all people, the culminating British operation from the sea should be so badly prepared, and not so very surprising that his despatches draw a veil over an episode most people preferred to forget. Zipper’s troubles were not the fault of the COPPs, but the experience of Confidence was not lost on the Marines or without significance for the future in their contacts with the AJF bands. For these guerrilla bands were an enemy of the future who, during the next decade, would challenge Britain for power in Malaya throughout long-drawn-out operations in which Marine Commandos would play an important role.

1 thought on “Hit and Miss in the Far East

  1. Pingback: Hit and Miss in the Far East – faujibratsden

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