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The Strategic Operations Executive in British India

The Burma Campaign

The Strategic Operations Executive (SOE) was a British organization conducting espionage, sabotage, guerilla war and other violent acts against the Axis powers during World War II. Real and fictionalized accounts of the SOE have been told countless times in films and literature such as “bridge on the river Kwai”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “Guns of Navarone” and “Gravity’s Rainbow”. Unlike the British Secret intelligence Service, an intelligence gathering agency, the SOE was tasked with subversive and violent activities. It was distasteful work, but the British were frantic following early Axis victories and decided to play rough. The SOE had a huge presence in the Empire’s most prized possession, India.

From 1940-1942 the fascist Japan and Germany seemed unstoppable and were inching towards India from either side. Axis warships and submarines soon arrived in Asia’s seas to harass British shipping and attack Indian ports. In early 1942, the Japanese dealt a significant blow by capturing Singapore and Malaya. It also sank many British warships off the coast of Sri Lanka, though timely intelligence enabled a few British crucial vessels to flee to a hidden base in the Maldives. In this dire phase, SOE-India was established in Meerut in May 1941, under the innocuous name GS I(k). This organization was disguised as a record keeping unit of the army. The SOE soon grew into a huge enterprise where over 30,000 fighters were trained and sent to far flung theaters. An old mountain fort near Poona, an aerodrome in Midnapore, a dock or two in Sri Lanka, etc. were some of SOE’s numerous bases in the subcontinent. SOE-India was headed by a brilliant, one-legged Scottish veteran named Colin Mackenzie. he was once the star pupil of John Maynard Keynes himself and was a successful businessman before the war. Aiding him were men specializing in quite unlovely trades such as insurgency, guerilla war, smuggling, espionage, and psychological warfare. SOE-India was tasked to cover Persia, Afghanistan, British India, China and South East Asia. A veritable United Nations of fighters were recruited and trained for dangerous operations in these lands. Trainees ranged from Britishers and Indians to Australians to Burmese Indians to even Chinese Canadians. Professional soldiers, loyal citizens of the British Empire, Communists embittered by the invasion of Russia, or those who suffered at the hands of Germans and Japanese invaders were recruited and trained in bases all across the subcontinent.

Colin Mackenzie
Colin Mackenzie

SOE-India’s operations commenced with tracking Axis operations in Indian waters. In 1942, they discovered the cause of the German navy’s surprising successes there. German and Italian vessels which had sought asylum in neutral Portuguese Goa when the war broke possessed at least one powerful radio. The radio(s) had been transmitting information to the German Navy. The SOE also confirmed that a German couple residing in Goa, Robert and Grete Koch, were running a spy ring. Robert Koch, a German officer code-named “Trumpet”, was long suspected to be a spymaster: the SOE now decided to eliminate this threat. “Operation Hotspur” saw SOE agents shadow and kidnap the couple from Goa in December 1942. The Kochs vanish from records shortly after – there are conflicting reports on what happened to them ultimately. Some accounts say they were summarily shot in an forest a few miles within British India. Regardless, the Kochs vanished off the face of the Earth in December 1942.

The subsequent “Operation Creek” of March 1943 was most audacious. In this illegal operation conducted in neutral Portuguese territory, the SOE utilized middle-aged British civilian reservists in Calcutta. These men were “over the hill” bankers, planters, clerks and accountants, attached to the reserve units “Calcutta Scottish” and the “Calcutta Light Horse”, but were definitely not lacking of courage and conviction. Without any military or diplomatic cover, this group was to board and command the ships out of Portuguese waters so that the British Navy could capture the vessels. After basic training, the motley band took circuitous routes to Goa. At midnight of March 9, they stealthily boarded the ships. In the ensuing firefight the British got the upper hand and the captain of one of the vessels and many crew members were killed. The crew now set off explosive charges and sank their own ships – they had long expected such an attack and had decided to scuttle the ships if all was lost. However, the British clambered out with no casualties! The mission was successful as Axis successes in Indian waters plummeted. A Hollywood movie named “The Sea Wolves” (starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven no less), loosely based on these events was made, right after the story was declassified in 1978.

The Sea Wolves

About this time the Japanese had conquered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In “Operation Bunkum”, the SOE landed multiple Indian-British teams to reconnoiter Japanese positions in the islands. The SOE utilized long range transport aircraft and Dutch submarines which had escaped Hitler’s grasp when the Netherlands was annexed in 1940. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensued, but the mission was ultimately successful. The frustrated Japanese vented their anger on the British and Indians military personnel and civilians, who had surrendered when the Japanese captured the islands. Unspeakable atrocities were done during the combing operations launched to capture the commandos. The British launched effective and regular air and naval attacks on the islands from December 1943. The garrison was forced to hunker down till Japan surrendered in August 1945. In 1944, the GS I(k) rechristened itself Force 136 and mostly relocated to Sri Lanka, where it expanded operations.

SOE-India achieved far more than the illustrative cases outlined above. It was a crucial element in British successes in the Indian, Burma and Malaya campaigns. In fact, in certain campaigns small SOE units inflicted more casualties than the Army formations did. Other theatres such as China, Thailand and Indo-China also saw heavy SOE activities.  The SOE also organized numerous stay-behind units and insurgencies which crippled the Japanese.

Chinese Canadians of Force 136
Chinese Canadians of Force 136

SOE-India was also a weapon of the Empire against Indians: had the Japanese successfully entered Assam and Bengal the SOE was among the groups tasked with executing the planned Scorched Earth campaign in India. For example, “Operation Dogleg” was the planned destruction of Indian power stations by SOE units. The Political Intelligence and Psychological Warfare divisions were utilized to influence public opinion during and after the Quit India Movement. The SOE also helped blunt the INA’s espionage activities and attempts to engineer mass defections in the British Indian Army.

Following the surrender of Japan, SOE-India was disbanded in November 1945. Most of the records were destroyed – perhaps due to the secrets and horrors they held. Apparently huge bonfires were made in SOE-India’s offices across the subcontinent in which documents, tapes and photographs were set alight. Most surviving documents, including the story of Operation Creek, were declassified decades later. More records await declassification even today.

PS: This is an expanded version of my article in DNA, published on December 30, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Desert Raids of the Bangladesh Liberation War

The Para 10 (SF) Raids

Today is the 47th anniversary of the Liberation of Bangladesh. The surrender of the entire Pakistani garrison in East Bengal and the gains in the Western Sector made India the clear victor of the war of 1971. It was one of our finest hours: Indians came together, overcoming multiple crises, fears,boundaries, and institutional inertia to achieve a great feat. There are many stories surrounding this victory, one of the more interesting stories is that of a small band of soldiers of the 10 Para (Commando) battalion in the Rajasthan sector.

The Hurs
The Hurs

The Pakistanis had surprised us in the Rajasthan sector in the 1965 War. Given the comparative lack of mechanization of both Indian and Pakistani armies, it was hitherto believed that both would refrain from major campaigns in the sandy Thar Desert. The vast desert border was manned by thinly spread Indian Army and State Armed Police units in isolated posts. On the other side, the Pakistani army and the Pakistan Rangers precariously manned their positions.However, the Pakistan Army approached the Hurs, a Sufi sect with thousands of adherents in Sindh. The Hurs had once unleashed a bloody insurgency against the British, which resulted in heavy reprisals – including the hanging of the Hurs’ leader, the “Pir Pagara”. The Hurs had extensive knowledge of the desert and were known to be fanatical fighters. The generals successfully appealed to the reigning Pir Pagara to field this militia. The Hurs were initially used to plug gaps in defense, but the local commanders soon realized that the Hurs would be better suited for cross-border raiding. Soon, a “Desert Force” of Hurs (commanded by a handful of professional soldiers) began to raid deep into Indian territory.

Ghotaru Fort captured

Several Indian posts fell: even significant posts such as Ghotaru Fort were captured by the Desert Force. Indian responses were rather slow and unsuccessful. This was due to the terrain, poor lines of communications, lack of adequate force and the speed of the enemy raids. The Pakistanis retained control of several points along the Rajasthan border when the war ended. Pakistan utilized this fact to her advantage in her negotiations at the ensuing Tashkent Summit. India apparently learned the lesson: within months, the capable Border Security Force was created. The 10 Para (Commando)battalion, tasked with desert operations, was raised in Gwalior in 1967. The conventional forces in Rajasthan were also strengthened.

The reckoning came when the Indo-Pak War erupted on December 3, 1971. A division of the Indian Army was directed towards Umarkot, a city en route to the metropolis of Hyderabad, Sindh. A band of commandos from the 10 Para (Commando) was designated the advance element and tasked with raiding deep inside Pakistani territory to eliminate key enemy positions. These commandos had trained intensively for such operations since July. The commando unit was led by Lt. Col. Sawai Bhawani Singh, a special forces veteran and the Prince of Jaipur. The unit also had Khoja Rajputs who knew the region well. The force would enter enemy territory without any air or armor support, in specially fitted Jeeps and Jongas, armed with only light weapons. This model of long-distance raids was created by Sir David Stirling, founder of the British Special Air Service (SAS), during the North African campaign of the Second World War. Indians had also fought in this campaign and were aware of the utility of such a force – even though the sandy Thar Desert was far worse than the North African desert.

The Para 10 (Commando)

The raids commenced on December 4; the jeeps raced 80 km into Pakistan and destroyed the Ranger base in the town of Chachro. Indian army units soon occupied Chachro in the wake of this raid. Next, the commandos launched daylight raids to capture Virawah and Nagarparkar. Later, Islamkot and Lunio also fell. During these operations, the speed and ferocity of the attacks forced enemies to panic and flee despite having superiority in numbers and position. The militia groups tasked with defending this region also did not fare any better. Logistical difficulties and terrain – and the short duration of the war – saw the Sindh campaign halt just short of Umarkot. However,by the end of the war about 13,000 sq. km of Sindh was in Indian hands.

The Sindh campaign was made much smoother by the10 Para’s raids. This was an incredible feat, highlighted by the fact that the commandos suffered no fatalities in these risky missions. The raiders had done all that was asked of them, and more. The unit was bestowed a Battle Honor – “Chachro1971” and received 10 gallantry awards: Sawai Bhawani Singh received the Mahavir Chakra. He went on to have a distinguished career in the armed forces, and as a diplomat. The 10 Para continues to be one of the premier special forces of the world.


PS: This is my article in DNA, published on December 16, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Long Rebellion of the Faqir of Ipi

The Faqir of Ipi

The North West Frontier

The North West Frontier

Undivided India’s North West Frontier had always been a zone of insurgency. Ruling or occupying forces, such as the Pakistanis, Americans, the British and the Mughals have faced the wrath of the fiercely independent, and warlike Pathan tribes of the region. Centuries of wars, and mythologies and clan genealogies set clan against clan and tribe against tribe – this made trade and cooperation very difficult. The harsh lands were unsuitable for producing enough food. However, it periodically produced charismatic religious figures who railed against “predatory infidels and apostates corrupting their lands and destroying their people”. Thus, wars, rebellions and predatory raids were regular affairs. Imperial powers tried to control with these tribes by force or bribes or using pliant local leaders. However, guided by tribal laws of honor and vendetta (a code collectively called Pakthunwali), the tribes answered only to their chiefs and holy men who rose through strength, piety and charisma. Some of these leaders rebelled against the imperial powers, sometimes uniting hitherto warring tribes. Peace could be wrung out, but only after much blood and gold had been spent. Over the years the “peace” would collapse in favor of the Pathans, leaving one to wonder if the tribes were ever truly defeated! The rebellions of Khushal Khan Khattak, Pir Roshan, The Akhund of Swat, Mullah Powindah, Hadda Mullah, etc. are still celebrated in the songs and stories of the region. Though the rebellion was less bloody than say, Khattak’s rebellion or the Roshanniya war, the long rebellion of the Faqir of Ipi is notable for its curious links to the Axis Powers and the Indian National Movement.

 

Mirzali Khan was born in 1897, into a clan of the Utmanzai tribe of North Waziristan. After religious studies he became a student of the Chaharbagh Nazqib, the greatest religious leader in Afghanistan at the time. After Hajj, he settled in Ipi, a village near the city of Bannu. Soon he became well known for his piety and acquired a reputation as a saint with divine powers. In 1936 the controversial ‘Islam Bibi’ case marked the end of his hitherto peaceful career. An alleged forcible conversion to Islam of a minor Hindu girl was judged illegal, and the girl was returned to her family by the British courts. The Faqir called for Jihad against the British in November 1936 and thousands flocked to his banner. The Faqir attracted so much support due to recent events: Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Khudai-Khidmatgar movement shocked the British. Massive agitations were launched in the region when Gandhiji’s Civil Disobedience Movement began in 1930. The British retaliated strongly and many died in police firings and Air Force attacks in places such as Peshawar, Takkar and Hathikhel. Anger seethed as the British clampdown continued for years – the Islam Bibi judgement had only provided the spark.

 

RAF over Waziristan

RAF over Waziristan

The rebels struck at visible symbols of British authority, supporters of the British but rarely attacked Hindus. When the rebellion strengthened the British Army sent two columns (including armor) and chased the Faqir into the mountains. The subsequent planned withdrawal after mopping-up operations was ascribed to the Faqir’s divine powers! Now many more came to join him. He succeeded unifying some tribes and launched bolder attacks. Soon a huge force of over 40,000 soldiers were deployed to combat the Faqir. The British campaign was soon fragmented and bogged down. Their armor and vehicles were not of much use in the mountains and the Faqir’s guerilla tactics inflicted heavy damage on them. Many miraculous powers commonly attributed to the Faqir, which agitated colonial authorities. The story went that the Faqir could turn a felled tree into rifles and his hands could heal injuries. Chief among the very worried authorities was Sir Olaf Caroe, governor of the North West, veteran of the Great Game and many plots, and a seasoned administrator of British India. However, despite the Faqir’s best efforts (including a personal letter to Jawaharlal Nehru), he was unable to gather wider support outside the North West Frontier Province. Even powerful tribes such as the Afridis and the Mohmands refused to support him, perhaps fearing his stature. The Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was now wedded to Satyagraha and refused to support the bloody rebellion. The British now employed scorched earth tactics and used the Air Force heavily. Royal Air Force aircraft bombed many villages and mountains where the Faqir held sway. The British had swarmed over Waziristan and the faqir decided to move into a safe region which outsiders knew very little about. The vast cave complexes of Spin Ghar mountains, in a region called Gorwekt near the Afghan border, became the Faqir’s base. The British methodically killed his sons and hundreds of followers, but the Faqir continued to elude and harass them.

 

The Faqir

The Faqir

Many British now suspected that the Faqir’s warfighting ability had a secret sauce – he was likely funded by the Empire’s Axis enemies, Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Imperial Japan. This was true – the Italian ambassador Pietro Quaroni was neck deep in anti-British operations in Afghanistan. He supported the Faqir with cash, technical assistance, arms and ammunition. In fact, it was this colorful diplomat who provided Subhash Chandra Bose his fake papers as an Italian nobleman and enabled him to evade British agents and enter Russia. In this he was assisted by the “Quintuple Agent” Bhagat Ram Talwar aka Rehmat Khan, code-named “Silver”, who was also apparently linked to the Faqir’s rebellion.  – but that is another story. German intelligence was also active in Kabul, under Ambassador Hans Pilger and resident chief-spy Lieutenant “Pathan” Witzel. The Germans had not-so-bizarre plans named Operation Fire-Eater and Operation Tiger, for an uprising at India’s north-western frontier in September 1941 – when the German invasion of Russia was expected to be completed. Bose was now in Berlin and had raised a small Indian Legion for the aim of liberating India through an invasion from Afghanistan. The Germans also provided aid to the Faqir through direct and indirect means. It was a long shot, but the Axis continued to feed the Faqir’s rebellion. The Axis powers felt that the Faqir’s rebellion could be channeled to unleash Afghan and Muslim rage to topple British India – a dream shared by many of the Empire’s former foes such as Lenin, the Ottoman Caliph and The German Kaiser.

 

The situation got murkier in late 1937 when a charismatic and well-known Syrian holy man called Shaami Pir – of Prophet Muhammed’s lineage and kinsman of an exiled Afghan King – arrived in the region. He quickly stirred up another major rebellion in the opposite direction – against the current Afghan King whom he called a usurper. There was a confusion on who was behind this new rebellion – (the Germans or Italians or Soviets or British or the exiled Afghan King). However, after a few bloody battles along the Afghan border, the wily Olaf Caroe bribed the Shaami Pir to end the rebellion and return to Syria (after bombing the Pir’s army to bits) in 1938. The Faqir of Ipi kept away from this rebellion, wary of Shaami Pir and his followers – who were from tribes that refused to join his own rebellion. Later it turned out that the Shaami Pir was tasked by other groups in the German government to cause trouble in Afghanistan but infighting within German ranks, bureaucratic rivalry and intelligence failures led to the initiative failing. If the Pir and the Faqir were brought together to attack the British, things might have been very very different!. At least it could have made a considerable dent on British hold on the region, but that opportunity had passed. The Germans would try to get both the Shaami Pir and the Faqir to raise hell on their behalf but now the situation turned unfavorable for the Axis by late 1942.

 

Ambassador Quaroni

Ambassador Quaroni

On the other hand, the Faqir had narrow aims and worldviews. He did not care for Fascism or Communism or Lebensraum or the Indian independence movement. All he wanted was to eject the British from the land of the Pathans, Pakhtunistan. He took foreign assistance but also avoided being closely identified with foreigners or their proxies. As 1942 came to a close, Axis failures in Russia and Africa ended all hopes of invading India from Afghanistan. The British also persuaded the Afghan king (who was hedging his bets so far) to expel most of the Axis diplomatic mission but the remnant managed to keep funding the Faqir’s rebellion. This was to tie down British Army in the region to make things easier for the Japanese who were sweeping across South East Asia towards India. The Italians ditched the Axis in 1943 and Ambassador Quaroni promptly defected and spilled the beans to British intelligence. The Japanese advance also halted at India’s North Eastern borders by 1944. Now all hope of toppling the British Raj was lost. The consequent drying up of Axis support did not stop the Faqir – he continued his war against the British. The British for their part continued to retaliate heavily, even though the threat of invasion of India was over, and the British Raj in India was ending.

 

The Faqir, no fan of the Pakistan idea, now aligned with the Khudai Khidmatgars for an independent Pakhtunistan. In fact, he felt that the idea of Pakistan was an abomination created by heretical Qadianis, Ahmadis, predatory Islamic gentry, and apostates. He also realized that his land and people would be under the control of Punjabis and rich Muslims who would emigrate to Pakistan from India. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Faqir led a grand tribal conference in the city of Bannu. This conference passed a resolution calling for independent Pakhtunistan. Despite pleas to the British and the Indian leadership, no help came. The Pakistani authorities launched a major crackdown on the separatists. The Frontier Gandhi and major leaders were jailed, and all agitations were crushed. However, the Faqir escaped once again. Pakistan was now his new enemy as her government continued the British tradition of killing the Faqir’s people. There are tales of support from the Soviet Union, the Afghan King, the Khudai Khidmatgars who escaped to India and even the Indian government – support which kept alive the rebellion. The Pakistan Army and police could not get much headway in the Faqir’s home grounds. The cave complexes of Spin Ghar were vast and uncharted and the Faqir and his troops moved through them like Ghosts, evading capture and striking their new enemy. He created his own cabinet, an advisory body and a representative assembly of 180 members from the tribes loyal to his cause and held court in the caves. The Faqir of Ipi continued his rebellion from his mountain stronghold till he died in his bed in 1960, unbowed and uncaught.

 

The Faqir's Grave

The Faqir’s Grave

Today the Faqir of Ipi is largely forgotten outside his haunts. His grave still stands in Waziristan and his tale is still told in the region. When Osama Bin Laden fled to the caves in the Afghan border, historians and strategists raked up the case of the Faqir of Ipi to show how a popular and motivated movement can survive in those lands despite the efforts of the authorities. After the death of the Faqir, the rebellion faded away and the tribes were appeased through bribes and promises. Most importantly, they were left alone in the semi-autonomous F.A.T.A. (Federally Administered Tribal Area) territory of Pakistan for a long time. Today, things are back to the “normal” in the Faqir’s land: the Pakistani military (and American drones and Special Forces) now prowl the same lands and skies hunting new rebels and terrorists. Perhaps what they say is true – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

PS: This is a much expanded version of my article in DNA, published on December 2, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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