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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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