Asia and the end of the war

SIS was not as successful in the Far East as it was in the West. This partly stemmed from the fact that between the wars it had been even more starved of resources there than elsewhere. But the intelligence challenge was also much greater. Though this was never completely so, indigenous peoples in enemy-occupied territory across Asia were in general less likely to help the Allied cause than was the case in Europe. Differences of race and ethnicity meant that there were in any case fewer potential officers or agents who could melt into the background. The sometimes uneasy Allied relationship with both the Nationalist Chinese and the Americans posed further problems from time to time, and the apparent successes of SOE in the Far East tended to eclipse the less dramatic work of SIS. But the Service did have achievements out East, especially in Burma from 1944 onwards, ship-watching along the south Chinese coast and in anti-Japanese work elsewhere in the region, though much of the latter information came from liaison sources.

The Japanese onslaught

As in Europe, SIS’s experience in the Far East in the early war years was one of retreat, and following the Japanese onslaught which began on 7 December 1941 with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day and Singapore on 15 February 1942. SIS and other British personnel in Peking and Shanghai were interned by the Japanese. Frank Hill, Harry Steptoe and other staff were eventually repatriated in the autumn of 1942. Alex Summers, who got his last radio signal out of Hong Kong on 26 December 1941, was imprisoned with many others of the British community in the Stanley Camp for the rest of the war. His security was evidently better than that of some SIS colleagues. While he managed to maintain his cover as simply a local businessman, he reported afterwards that during his captivity the Japanese ‘made several inquiries as to the whereabouts of 28002 [Charles Drage]’. Godfrey Denham and his colleagues left Singapore in early January 1942. ‘There was a wholesale burning of some of our records,’ he reported from India at the end of March, ‘but 28,002 successfully managed to get away practically all of his most important records which I may mention here have proved of great value since our advent in India.’

Understandably enough, the catastrophic defeats of 1941-2 were followed by a period of recrimination and backbiting in which SIS got its share of the blame. While the Service’s intelligence from Japan itself had clearly been pretty poor, there is some evidence of accurate reporting on forward Japanese dispositions in the latter half of 1941. Responding in March 1942 to criticisms levelled by the Australian General Gordon Bennett of poor British intelligence,1 SIS asserted that twenty-one reports on Japan’s ‘preparations for Southward Move’ had been issued to the War Office and the Far East Combined Bureau between 30 November and 7 December 1941. These described a steady build-up of Japanese army and air force units in Indo-China, and included a report in early November that Japanese reinforcements ‘for ultimate despatch to Indo-China’ were arriving at Hainan Island (south-west China), and another in mid-November that the ‘Japanese [were] preparing to attack both Thailand and Burma’. On 5 December a source had reported thirty transports at Camranh Bay in southern Vietnam (one of the Japanese assembly points). ‘Strength of troops ashore estimated 48,000,’ continued the report, ‘with 250 aircraft.’

In August 1943, reviewing his work at Singapore, J. H. Green maintained that his liaison efforts had been particularly successful. Emphasising the personal factor, he reported that his liaison with Dutch and French colonial intelligence organisations in the Netherlands East Indies and French Indo-China was ‘founded entirely upon friendship and mutual trust’. When he began in 1938, official contacts with the British services had been prohibited by the Dutch (in keeping with their policy of neutrality), but he ‘commenced liaison with my friend Lovink’ (the local Dutch intelligence chief), who organised a false passport for Green to visit Batavia (Jakarta). The Governor-General of the colony was in on the relationship and (rather like General van Oorschot in The Hague) turned a blind eye to the contacts ‘provided that neither the Dutch nor the British Service Chiefs should know of it’. But the connection produced useful material. Lovink’s signals intelligence branch provided analysis of Japanese broadcast weather forecasts ‘as to time and place of invasion’, as well as two captured German cyphers and ‘two Chinese ciphers required by our cryptologists’, which were handed over to the signals intelligence section in Singapore. Green claimed that in 1941 his French liaison in Indo-China, code-named ‘Sectude’, had kept in clandestine contact using an unauthorised radio. From him ‘we received ample warning of the attack upon Siam [Thailand] and Malaya. A two months’ notice, a one month’s notice, a week’s notice and two days’ notice. The last warning gave the correct date and the actual places selected for the landings and the strength and movement of the enemy invasion fleet.’ Following the declaration of war, we received ‘full and last minute details of their [Japanese] Air and Military reinforcements to Indo-China and Siam and the location and construction of operational bases’. Green was ‘extremely proud of these successes. The full warning of the invasion’, he claimed, ‘was possibly the S.I.S.’s most spectacular success in the Far East over a period of years.’ But, however good this intelligence may have been (and in the circumstances it was understandable if Green hyped it up a bit), it could not be of much use without sufficient military forces in the region and their appropriate deployment. ‘Had we been in a position to adequately oppose the Japs or to advance against them,’ he wrote, ‘our organisation and the information given would have been invaluable and perhaps adequately appreciated.’

There were, in any case, problems with processing the material. Although Green’s reporting was apparently very well received by the War Office in London during the days immediately after the Japanese invasion, it does not appear to have contributed much, if anything, to the actual defence of Malaya. In May 1942 he asserted that much of his intelligence had been disregarded. ‘Evidently’, he wrote, ‘the pile of information which conclusively proved that a Japanese attack upon Siam and Malaya was to occur in the first week of December 1941 was set aside as “I” staff were told by a visitor from Siam that owing to Monsoon any attack would be impossible before March.’ Another ‘important contributory factor’, he claimed, was the ‘lack of any scientific system of collation. Owing to frequent changes of officers information which had been filed was soon forgotten.’ He added, moreover, that ‘information which supported preconceived ideas or previous deductions was over-valued and information which did not support such deductions was devalued, “lost” or even suppressed. ’ Denham had a similarly low opinion of the Far East Combined Bureau. ‘It is quite apparent’, he told Menzies in March 1942, ‘that much of our information never percolated through to the right persons in the right form.’ Although these SIS views were doubtless influenced by the benefit of hindsight, Green certainly identified a perennial intelligence-assessment problem in the existence of preconceived ideas, which could properly be addressed only by the establishment of effective inter-agency and inter-service machinery for collating, processing, testing and evaluating the whole range of raw intelligence material available.

Green’s agent Sectude continued transmitting until January 1942 when Japanese surveillance obliged him to sign off, but he did so with a cheery message: ‘Of course nothing changed between us. Listen in. Goodbye. Good luck.’ The agent had told Green to monitor the English-language broadcasts of Radio Saigon for particular phrases. ‘You are listening to Saigon’, for example, was to mean ‘shipping concentration in Saigon river’, and ‘Good night to you all’ at the end of a broadcast meant ‘reinforcements sent to Malaya’. In February Calcutta reported that ‘information from 65100 [Sectude] by Saigon broadcasts’ was ‘being received in Burma’. Some direct contact was maintained with Sectude, who requested a replacement wireless set in August 1942 ‘to operate from Hanoi’. In January 1943 one of Green’s agents swam across the Red River at Hoikow (Haiku), where the railway crossed the border between China and French Indo-China, only to be told that Japanese surveillance made wireless operation difficult and so intelligence collected by Sectude was brought out by courier across the Chinese border to Kunming.

Advance warning of the Japanese attack was also passed to the Americans through Gerald Wilkinson in Manila. Two telegrams sent by Wilkinson to the SIS sub-station in Honolulu have survived in the archives (though only as paraphrases). On 26 November, citing ‘Secret source (usually reliable) ’, he reported that the Japanese would attack the Kra isthmus (in southern Thailand) from the sea on 1 December ‘without any ultimatum or declaration of break with a view to getting between Bangkok and Singapore. Attacking forces will proceed direct from Hainan and Formosa. Main landing point is to be in Songkhla area . . . American military and Naval Intelligence Manila informed.’ The second signal was sent on 2 December and comprised the text of a wire which Menzies had sent to Wilkinson. ‘Most immediate,’ it read. ‘We have received considerable intelligence confirming . . . accelerated Japanese preparation of airfields and railways [and] arrival since November 10th of additional one hundred thousand troops . . . and considerable quantities fighters, medium bombers tanks and guns (75 mm).’ The conclusion at Head Office was ‘that Japan envisages early hostilities with Britain and United States. Japan does not ?intend attack Russia at present but will act in South. You may inform chiefs of American Military and Naval Intelligence Honolulu.’2 These reports were only two of many indicating heightened Japanese activity, and whether or not the intelligence made any practical difference to the defence of Malaya, the 26 November prediction was remarkably accurate. The main Japanese landing on 8 December was indeed at Songkhla in southern Thailand. SIS, however, does not appear to have had any knowledge of the perhaps tactically more important landing further south at Kota Bharu, just inside Malaya.3

Gerald Wilkinson went on to play an important role as the main British liaison with the American General Douglas MacArthur, reporting through Menzies eventually to Churchill himself. In the dark days before the fall of the Philippines Wilkinson used his SIS secure radio link to transmit MacArthur’s urgent appeals for reinforcements as well as family messages from members of MacArthur’s personal staff which he passed on to the New York station for delivery. He accompanied MacArthur to Australia when he established his headquarters there in March 1942, and provided Menzies with a steady stream of reports on the position as viewed by MacArthur and his staff. When in September 1942 the Director of Military Intelligence pressed for ‘information from the SW Pacific area’, Menzies noted that ‘apart from my endeavours to penetrate Japanese occupied territory by an organisation based on Australia, I consider that my representative attached to General MacArthur is as well placed as anyone to obtain American information on the subject’.4 Wilkinson admired MacArthur as a commander but was less impressed with his character. While he was ‘shrewd, selfish, proud, remote, highly-strung and vastly vain’, and had ‘imagination, self-confidence, physical courage and charm’, he had ‘no humour about himself, no regard for truth’ and was ‘unaware of these defects’. He mistook ‘his emotions and ambitions for principles’.5MacArthur later sent Wilkinson as his personal representative to report to both General Wavell (the British Commander-in-Chief in India) and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. Wilkinson’s career also illustrates some of the personal costs of service during the Second World War, as his wife and two daughters were interned by the Japanese in the Philippines. After the war Wilkinson was publicly accused by MacArthur’s acerbic intelligence chief, General Charles Willoughby, of leaving his family ‘to fend for themselves’, but he vigorously rebutted the accusation and secured a full retraction.6

Regrouping in India

During January 1942, Drage, Green, their staff and some agents withdrew from Singapore to Calcutta where Denham took general charge of SIS operations in the region. With the move to Calcutta, SIS’s intelligence priorities shifted from the Pacific rim to the more immediate Japanese military challenge threatening north-east India through Burma and Australia from the East Indies. But Denham was concerned about the infrastructure of the SIS organisation in the Far East and gloomy about the overall situation in India. With the fall of Singapore clearly in mind, he wrote to London in March: ‘everything seems to me to be chaotic, and there is very little preparedness for dealing with a state of war; nor in fact is there to my mind among the civilian population any realisation of what may happen’. Denham’s morale cannot have been improved by the in-fighting within the Service in Calcutta, where Green accused Drage of indulging in intrigue and regarded Denham as unprofessional and too apt to sacrifice SIS’s core interests for the sake of temporary political advantage with the military establishment. On the other hand, unlike Green, who was an intelligence case-officer, Denham was a bureaucrat and an adept political operator attempting to create an environment within which SIS might have some chance of surviving in India. He had, in fact, strong views about the military’s fundamental misconceptions concerning the role and functions of SIS and the way in which it recruited, controlled and protected its agents. He told Menzies in March 1942 that the Director of Military Intelligence in India ‘harbours a somewhat childish resentment against our organization because it is not under Military control’. He thought that none of the Military Intelligence people in India had ‘any real field experience’, and it was ‘very easy’ for them ‘to shout for information when sitting at the seat of custom, [and] if information is not forthcoming then someone, to their mind, must necessarily be to blame’ (and that ‘someone’ was usually SIS). Warming to his theme, and echoing widely held SIS opinions about Military Intelligence officers, Denham declared that they were ‘usually grossly ignorant regarding the difficulty in obtaining the information, and what steps have to be taken in building up an organization of our nature’. Denham was ‘sorry to have to make these observations’, but he wanted Menzies ‘to know what sort of people we have to deal with and that their criticisms are usually not of any real value’. This grumble about Military Intelligence evidently struck a chord with Menzies who, marking the relevant passages in his distinctive green pencil, commented, ‘the old, old story’, and, in the margin, ‘too true’.

Menzies recalled Denham in May 1942 (though he did not leave until October), and replaced him with Colonel Leo Steveni, an Indian Army officer with family business connections in pre-revolutionary Russia. He had served with Military Intelligence in Russia at the end of the First World War and had been British military attaché in Meshed, north-east Iran, in the early 1930s. He had been taken on by SIS in 1939 and early in 1940 was posted to Section IVB, ‘to make a speciality of military information from the Far East’. Under continued pressure from the military authorities to produce intelligence and faced with a rapidly expanding and proactive SOE presence, whose can-do approach was welcomed by the hard-pressed soldiers and airmen in India, Steveni was put in an exceptionally difficult position. In order to protect SIS’s continued existence and autonomy in the region, in the short term he had paradoxically to dance to the military’s tune and respond to their demands for immediate operational information. As an Indian Army man himself, Steveni perhaps more readily appreciated their needs, but his approach upset the old intelligence hands in SIS. Green was particularly frustrated by the army’s ignorance of local conditions. He had worked in Burma for years, had ‘trained the original Burma Intelligence Corps’ and had brought local experts on to his staff, including former Burma Police intelligence officers. Green believed that the best approach was through the ‘back-door’, via Kunming in south-western China, from where he could re-establish contact with his existing, reliable agents, targeting them on the Japanese rear areas and then towards the battle zone. The army view was that they needed agents put directly across the front line. Steveni accepted this and, ‘under pressure from the D.M.I. – through 69000 [Steveni]’, Green was compelled ‘to attempt what the Army and the other “I” organisations had attempted and completely failed to do – to send in agents over the land frontier and through the fighting line. I know this frontier’, he continued, ‘and its problems probably better than any man and, had I been backed, we should by now [he was writing in August 1943] have been reaping ample results, instead of floundering to disaster in attempting the almost impossible.’

One network for which Green had held high hopes was run by Major Louis Cauvin, who, before the Japanese invasion, had been an immigration official at Padang Besar on the Malaya-Thailand border. Between October 1940 and September 1941, Cauvin had recruited a group of Sino-Thai agents to operate in Thailand. After he had to withdraw southwards in the face of the Japanese advance, Cauvin began work on a stay-behind organisation, recruiting mainly from among Malayan Communist Party members who, being familiar with clandestine work, were well suited to be agents. Towards the end of January 1942 Green signalled from Singapore that he had arranged for Cauvin ‘and one Chinese operator’ to ‘stay behind Japanese lines’ and ‘to operate communist intelligence service which now covers the whole peninsula’. The party grew to include three Royal Signals personnel, led by John Cross, who, equipped with a suitcase radio and a signal plan for contact with a control station in Singapore, Java or Burma, were to provide the base communications for Cauvin’s ‘all-asiatic intelligence unit’. After a meeting on 27 January in Singapore with the secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party, Cauvin’s party (known as ISLD Station A) entered the jungle near Kota Tinggi in Johore, some twenty-odd miles from Singapore. Cauvin’s intention was to try to recontact some of his agents in Thailand. Green thought it ‘a brave but foolhardy enterprise as he had to travel 300 miles through Japanese-occupied Malaya, where there were no Europeans left, before he even reached the Siamese border’. ‘He has not been heard of since,’ added Green. In fact, ISLD Station A spent the next three years in Malaya under the protection of Communist guerrillas, until the survivors of the party were exfiltrated by submarine in May 1945. But their radio communications proved unreliable and, despite meticulous signals watches, they were unable to establish regular contact with any SIS signals units. Java and Burma were too swiftly overrun by the Japanese, and the frequencies Cross had been allotted were judged in 1945 to have been quite wrong for the distances that actually had to be attempted.7

While unable to transmit intelligence, the group were able to receive it, and they assembled English-language propaganda which was distributed clandestinely by the Malayan Communist Party in the ‘Emancipation News’ and the ‘Victory Herald’. Like all jungle dwellers, ISLD Station A had to live off the land, moving camp some thirty times to evade the Japanese occupying troops and subsisting on scanty rations. Cross noted that at one point in April 1944 daily meals consisted of wood potato flour and two small fish per man. The health of the whole party suffered, and Cauvin’s condition declined rapidly up to his suicide in July 1944. At the end, there was not a lot to show for the party’s efforts, which in any case were more special operations than intelligence. All Cross could find to say in his postwar report was that they had kept themselves ‘intact as a unit’, used their ‘technical resources to spread the news of Allied fighting progress’ and given the anti-Japanese forces as much advice as they had been ‘willing to take in their resistance activities’. Thus they had ‘at least been something of a nuisance to the Japs’.

In November 1942 Steveni reported to London that ISLD had thirteen current and projected operations in hand, though only one had been completed successfully, a preliminary reconnaissance of the Akyab area on the Bay of Bengal near the India-Burma frontier over ten days in late October by two agents put in and picked up by sea. GHQ India were recorded as having been ‘very pleased’ with the information. Of the other operations, one had failed because of inadequate support (damage to a radio set badly packed by the RAF and their failure to drop a spare), while another had been delayed by the naval officer-in-charge at Chittagong failing to follow instructions. A third operation had had to be postponed ‘owing to inadvertent arrest of our agents by Police on way to their destination’. This was the result of poor co-ordination. Green claimed that although he had made arrangements ‘with the Corps Intelligence and Bengal Intelligence’, his agents had been ‘arrested and beaten by the British officer of the Security Police’. On a second attempt to cross through the battle lines, the two men were ‘attached to a party who were taking a Burman fifth columnist to be publicly executed in a border village’. But the escort allowed the prisoner ‘to escape into enemy territory’. There was, remarked Green, ‘little wonder that the agents, upon whom we had spent so much time and money’, and who assumed that they could now be identified, ‘refused to carry on with the work’.

Green had contacts across the political spectrum. Apart from his links with the Malayan Communists, through the Special Branch in Singapore he had established a relationship with George Yeh, local representative of the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang’s intelligence service. Green admired the professionalism of the Chinese, noting particularly that their ‘bumping off organisation was efficient’. Yeh supplied him with twenty potential agents who were taken to India and ‘carefully trained for specific work in parts of Malaya, Siam and Indo-China’. To Green’s intense irritation, however, Steveni insisted on deploying them on an ill-planned operation to collect information along the Malayan coast. In the absence of any well-established (let alone productive) networks of agents across Japanese-occupied territory, potentially the most valuable approach for SIS was to forge a close liaison with the Chinese. But this was difficult to achieve in a region where not only was there a range of Allied agencies, British and American, all trying to do the same thing, but also there were at least five rival Nationalist Chinese intelligence organisations. SIS’s local contact with one Chinese intelligence service in Singapore was small beer compared to the much more valuable liaison which SOE had with the Nationalists in China itself. Based in the Nationalist capital Chungking (Chongqing), the SOE representative Findlay Andrew’s main Chinese contact was General Wang Ping-shen, a close colleague of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. SOE partly financed the Resources Investigation Institute (RII), a sub-section of Wang’s propaganda and intelligence organisation, the Institute for International Studies. London complained to Delhi in March 1943 that they had ‘no knowledge of S.O.E. activities in China other than Findlay Andrew’s connection with Wong [sic] who runs R.I.I.’. But they knew that while the RII ran some special operations, it also collected ‘much intelligence which we get from S.O.E.’, and about which government departments commented ‘veryfavourably’. At present the information was ‘political and economic with some military identifications concerning Japan and Japanese occupied China’, but SOE planned to expand the organisation ‘to include other types of information’.8

A possible additional source of information was Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communists. Although the Communists and Nationalists had formed an uneasy common front against the Japanese in 1937, internecine hostilities had resumed from early 1941 and any British contacts with the Communists had to proceed with considerable discretion. In mid-July 1942 Gordon Harmon in Chungking reported that he had been visited by the private secretary of General Zhou Enlai, the ‘political head of the Chinese Communist Party’, who gave ‘evidence of a really genuine desire to co-operate against the Japanese’. The Communist emissary handed over a report which, although ascribed to human sources, was clearly derived from signals intelligence. It described a major reorganisation of Japanese intelligence in China and was an intercept of a message from the Japanese embassy accredited to the puppet regime in Nanking to the Japanese consulate-general in Hankow (Hankou). Harmon wisely noted that he had to be ‘extremely careful in contacts with this organisation’. In London, Section V thought the source ‘seems very promising’. Alastair Denniston of GC&CS confirmed that part of the message had been received in Bletchley Park but not the rest, and while the Admiralty had ‘no means of checking the truth’ of the report, they thought it ‘very likely’ and were ‘prepared to believe it’. Although Chungking reported in August a further contact promising ‘a considerable amount of information’ and a personal message from Zhou Enlai that he ‘wished to collaborate closely in Anti-Japanese effort’, the source appears to have dried up shortly thereafter. An attempt the following year to extend coverage in China and possibly develop contacts with the Communists was neatly thwarted by the Nationalists. SIS proposed to send Frank Hill, the former head of station at Peking to open a new post in Sian (Xi’an), 350 miles north-west of Chungking and a centre of Communist activity. Taking a necessarily circuitous route because of the war situation, Hill was allowed by the Nationalists to travel only as far as Chengtu (Chengdu), actually further from Sian than Chungking. London reckoned that Hill had queered his pitch with the Kuomintang by having already made indiscreet contacts with Communists in Chungking, and so they wanted him safely out of harm’s way. In the event Hill’s health deteriorated and he was withdrawn in October 1943.

Although SIS was ostensibly working alongside allies, China proved to be an extremely hostile intelligence environment. Gordon Harmon was confirmed in October 1942 ‘as representative of S.I.S. working in free China, vis-à-vis the British ambassador and Central Government authorities in Chungking’. But he did not himself run any agents and came under increasing criticism in London. In December 1943 P.14 on the China desk in Broadway thought Harmon had been unwarrantedly puffed up into ‘the position of THE Chinese expert-a kind of Pope of China whose infallibility must not be questioned’. Yet ‘he has never supplied any S.I.S. intelligence, only hand-outs from the Chinese Officials - in fact, any rubbish that they wished to palm off on us’. Claude Dansey, he asserted, had ‘picturesquely described this as “drainpipe stuff”’. An analysis of all 119 reports of Far Eastern material circulated from January to October 1943 revealed that the biggest suppliers of information were first, SOE (thirty-four reports), and, second, United States diplomatic sources (twenty-one), which, while useful as ‘background material’, was ‘not, in the main, S.I.S. information, but . . . information acquired by members of the American diplomatic and consular services in the ordinary course of their functions, and quite open and above board, as it were’. The next largest was nine reports provided by ‘43931’, the Estonian Colonel Maasing, whose information came from the Japanese military attaché in Stockholm, General Onodera. Harmon himself had only directly produced seven reports, of which ‘two at least’ were dismissed merely as ‘expressions of opinion – competent views, but not true S.I.S. information’. Despite pressure to remove Harmon, Menzies preferred to ‘wait awhile’. Harmon had the backing of Steveni in Delhi (to whom Menzies had delegated the regional direction of the Service) and stayed on in Chungking for another year. With Hill having broken down in the autumn of 1943, Menzies, perhaps as the least worst option, decided to stick with Harmon, who was recognised as ‘a difficult and touchy person to handle but one whose standing with the Chinese is such that his potentialities are enormous’.

The problems of co-ordination within India and, above all, of providing intelligence for the armed services generally, led to the growth in Delhi of an Inter-Services Liaison Department, rather along the lines of the ISLD in Cairo, and roughly mirroring the functions of SIS headquarters in London, though it was more weighted to circulation and liaison than the production of intelligence. Its structure was military and, no doubt, so too was its ethos. Green was not impressed and thought that in Delhi money was being ‘squandered upon extravagant buildings and overpaid staffs. Bigger, better and more ostentatious appears to be the slogan.’ Under Steveni the two stations in Calcutta retained their separate identities. Early in 1943 both Green and Drage were replaced, the former by Colonel Reginald Heath, who took over responsibility for the collection of intelligence on Burma, Malaya, Thailand and French Indo-China, the latter by an officer who was given charge of ‘Japanese occupied areas of China and the Japanese Empire’. Heath, who had been mobilised in Malaya as a local volunteer naval reservist before being recruited to be Green’s assistant by SIS in late 1940, had worked for the Anglo-Swiss Nestlé milk products company before the war, spoke Malay and had a ‘good knowledge of business shipping’ in the region. The other officer, who came from a famous family of wine merchants and had briefly worked in the Azores for the War Office special operations section MIR (later subsumed within SOE), had been working as Drage’s assistant since June 1941.

SIS in Mountbatten’s Command

Changes in the overall Allied command in the theatre affected SIS further. In August 1943 Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, King George VI’s glamorous, charismatic and politically astute cousin, was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia. Mountbatten brought a distinct sense of dynamism and urgency to the command and under him a significant degree of cohesion was at last brought to the role of intelligence and clandestine operations in the region. During the autumn of 1943, as he was assembling his new headquarters at Kandy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Menzies took the opportunity to replace Steveni, who had not been a great success in what was admittedly a tough assignment. In August 1943 Brigadier Beddington, the Deputy Director/Army, whose geographical responsibilities included Asia, sounded out Gerald Wilkinson for the job, but he was not attracted by ‘an area where our organization is so ineffective, the obstacles so difficult and the future requirements so great’.9 The following month, however, Beddington found a candidate in classic SIS fashion. At his club he met a cavalryman, Brigadier Philip Bowden-Smith - ‘Bogey’ – ‘whom I had known for years’ and who was ‘looking very depressed and worried. He told me [wrote Beddington in his memoirs] that he had just been told that he was considered too old [he was fifty-two] to take his Tank Brigade on Active Service, and that he was soon going to be out of a job.’ Beddington raised the possibility of his becoming ‘our head man in India’ and brought Bogey to see Menzies, ‘and it was agreed that if he came satisfactorily through two months strenuous training (for it was work he had never done before) he would be appointed’. He also had to be vetted by MI5 (demonstrating that the recruitment process at this stage did not entirely depend on the old-boy network). Having passed his training, he arrived in India in February 1944, where, according to Beddington, he ‘proved a great success’.10 A personnel report in 1945 (another innovation marking the steady professionalisation of the Service) was positive, albeit a little more measured. It gave him a ‘satisfactory’ grading as ‘Head of S.I.S. in F.E. [Far East]’. Overall, he had ‘done his utmost under very difficult circumstances and did not spare himself in any way. Covering a gigantic area, he travelled by air continuously under conditions of sometimes great hardship and has gained the genuine affection and respect of all his officers.’

Another improvement was Mountbatten’s appointment of a ‘bluff and hearty’ sailor, Captain G. A. Garnons-Williams, to head the P, or Priorities, Division, with the task of co-ordinating all clandestine activities within the Command, including SIS, SOE, OSS and ‘political warfare’. With experience in Combined Operations (he had been involved, under Mountbatten, in setting up the Commandos in 1940), Garnons-Williams was well qualified for the job. Although he had no specific intelligence background, he became an SIS officer and on 22 November 1943 drew up a ‘doctrine’ for Bowden-Smith which revealed considerable understanding of SIS’s own perception of its role. The doctrine emphasised the extent to which Bowden-Smith (unlike Steveni) needed to keep SIS at a distance from the military command structure. ‘We are an independent organisation . . . only concerned with obtaining illicit information which we collect from sources with whom the services are not in touch. We are’, he wrote, ‘only collectors and distributors, not collators.’ SIS’s work did ‘not over-lap with that of other Intelligence organisations, and as far as possible we must avoid becoming involved with Service “I” organisations.’ Furthermore, ‘it must be remembered that we work for many Government Departments’ and therefore could not ‘always guarantee to tackle any particular task at short notice, for our existing agents may be otherwise employed or unsuitable’. Evidently reflecting on the existing situation in India, Garnons-Williams thought it ‘of the utmost importance that all quarrels, jealousies and backbitings with other services cease forthwith’. Other services had also been informed of this and he had ‘been given powers by the Supreme Commander, S. E. Asia [Mountbatten], of dismissal against any Officer who so offends’. Finally he stressed the continued autonomy of SIS in the region. ‘Although clandestine services in S.E. Asia are co-ordinated it does not mean that the services concerned part with their individuality in any way. Integration ceases at the co-ordinating committee, of which I am Chairman, and the policy for services must be that of intelligent self-interest.’ Perhaps with the Americans in mind (as much as other British agencies), Garnons-Williams added that whatever degree of co-operation was achievable, ‘this does not mean exposing the secrets of our service to another’.

Before leaving for India, on 23 December 1943 Garnons-Williams went to see Menzies, who outlined to him the instructions he was giving to Bowden-Smith. They provided for ‘centralised direction and decentralised execution’ of SIS operations in the theatre. Bowden-Smith was given a directive which made plain the need for him to serve the interests of the Supreme Allied Commander, though it conferred the right to refer to London if the demands made appeared ‘inimical to S.I.S. interests or policy’. Yet it was clear who would be in effective control. All policy and intelligence requirements were to come through Garnons-Williams. Moreover, while Bowden-Smith was to be ‘in complete charge of the administration’ of his stations and staff, should he ‘wish to dismiss any officer’ he had to ‘obtain the concurrence’ of Garnons-Williams. And if Garnons-Williams wished to dismiss an officer, Bowden-Smith had to ‘carry out his wishes’ unless they were ‘entirely contrary’ to his views, in which case the matter should be referred to Menzies. Reflecting the extent to which Menzies himself remained directly involved in the management of the Service, he instructed Bowden-Smith to ‘keep me frequently informed through P.14 [the Far Eastern Section in Broadway] of the progress of the organisation entrusted to you’; nevertheless, ‘on matters of first importance you will correspond with me direct’.

Garnons-Williams afterwards maintained that he had taken on ‘a supposedly impossible task in October 1943’. When he reached India in January 1944 he found that ‘ISLD [SIS] and Force 136 [SOE] stank in every ones’ nostrils’ and he faced a ‘constant struggle to overcome the ill feeling between the Fighting and Clandestine Services and the internecine suspicions between the Clandestine Services themselves’. By the end of the war, however, he claimed that ‘the battle in Burma as far as Rangoon redounded to the credit of the Clandestine Services which were used and controlled as a whole’. Writing to the Controller Far East in Broadway on 25 August 1945, he said that ‘those senior high Intelligence officers who had experience of the Libyan and N. African campaigns’ had ‘stated that the Clandestine Intelligence in Burma was far in excess of that supplied to Alexander and Montgomery. I had Slim [commander of the Allied Fourteenth Army] in my War Room yesterday,’ he continued, ‘with Keith Park [the air force commander] and Mountbatten, and they were more than complimentary.’ Whether Garnons-Williams’s self-reported success was quite as outstanding as he claimed, his P Division certainly made a difference and markedly improved the co-ordination of SIS, SOE and OSS during the last eighteen months of the war.

There was also a surge in operations from the spring of 1944.11 In Operation ‘Bittern I’ an agent and wireless operator reported from the northern Shan States between May and September 1944, attracting praise from Mountbatten’s United States deputy, General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, for their coverage of Japanese troop and supply movements. In February 1944 (Operation ‘Blow’) four agents were parachuted in to cover the Japanese airfields in the Katha district, 150 miles north of Mandalay. They spent nine months behind enemy lines and produced seventy-four reports (twenty-one graded ‘A’ and fifty-three ‘B’), earning an MC for the Burmese officer who led the team. Operation ‘Bulge’ involved a five-agent team under a British officer who had been a planter in Burma before the war. They were dropped into the Maymo/Mandalay area, where the officer was well known, on 29 November 1944 to report on Japanese troop and supply movements. The leader of the group broke his ankle on landing, but carried on with a sixty-pound load nevertheless. The team came under pressure from the Japanese, who had become aware of the ex-planter’s identity, but they continued to operate until their wireless batteries failed in March 1945.

Some operations were not successful. ‘Bracket’, the landing of two Burmese agents (‘65538’ and ‘65539’) on Ramree island, off the west coast of Burma, in December 1943 came to grief when the agents concerned, on their way back and not far from the Indian border, spent a convivial evening with a party of Japanese soldiers, during which one of the agents boasted of his (prewar) visits to India. No comment was made at the time but the next morning a Japanese officer asked to see the two men. When their belongings were searched 65538 was found to have hidden some current Indian rupees in a handkerchief tied around his thigh. ‘Without further ado the Japanese officer smashed a large stick which he was carrying, down on to 65538’s head which knocked him unconscious.’ The officer then kicked the unfortunate man again in the head and had him shot dead. Had the officer paused for reflection and interrogated 65538, the other agent might also have perished, but he managed to escape and make his way back to Calcutta.

The administrative problems raised by having to mount and maintain operations by land, air and sea over such great distances could be solved only by an armed-services approach to logistics. To a considerable extent, logistics, climate and terrain determined the shape of operations, which became more military in concept and numbers. It may have been an inability to adjust to a quickened operational tempo and a vastly increased scale of activity that prevented Green and Drage from being as successful in India as they had been before. The traditional single agent gave way to operations involving groups of agents, usually with some military experience (particularly in Burma), operating from a jungle base and, in this respect, not unlike SOE. Training, too, required military and naval skills, the latter provided at Camp Z in Ceylon, for example, for Operation ‘Mullet’, which aimed to land agents for an observation post on an island off the west coast of Malaya in February 1944. But the venture was a catalogue of disasters. Setting off from the British naval base at Trincomalee by submarine, the eight-strong party had originally planned to seize a junk off the Malay coast to take them to their destination, but no suitable junk was found and the first attempt was abandoned. A second attempt was cancelled twenty minutes before zero hour when the submarine concerned was ordered away on patrol. The landing eventually took place on 23 February, in four folboats (collapsible canvas boats) with stores for six days. ‘Our landing was compromised from the start as we ran into fishing craft 50 yards from our landing place.’ It was decided to abort the mission, but the submarine ‘observed no signal from us and [dived] at 0527 hrs. and we were left paddling about in enemy waters in broad daylight’. That evening, ‘after 2½ hrs. rowing, with one Folboat nearly full of water [and] all torches unserviceable’, they at last made contact with the submarine, were taken back to Ceylon and the operation cancelled. During the operational post-mortem the inadequate condition of the folboats caused much heart-searching, since they had been rigorously inspected before leaving SIS stores in Calcutta (a thousand miles from Trincomalee) and again before loading aboard the submarine. After investigation, it was established that during the delays between the various attempts to launch the operation, the boats had been used by officers of the submarine depot ship for harbour parties with personnel from the Women’s Royal Naval Service, a contingency which had not, evidently, been taken into account in the operation’s planning.

Despite Garnons-Williams’s best efforts, the inevitable tensions and problems of co-ordination between SIS and SOE surfaced from time to time. This was exacerbated by the fact that SOE’s stock-in-trade of special operations and support for indigenous resistance groups was more readily appreciated by the military men in South-East Asia Command than SIS’s purer intelligence work. As a result SOE had become the predominant British clandestine agency in the region, in terms of both operations and intelligence. Officers at Fourteenth Army headquarters, moreover, had also come to admire OSS’s more integrated operations and intelligence structure, so much so that in January 1945 Slim’s chief of staff, General George Walsh, proposed amalgamating SIS and SOE and subordinating them to the OSS, which he regarded as an altogether more effective covert organisation. This was a non-starter, but Garnons-Williams still had to work out some acceptable arrangement.

As in Europe, there was the underlying issue of what sort of intelligence was required. In the spring of 1945 Garnons-Williams wrote to Bowden-Smith and his opposite number, Colin Mackenzie, who headed SOE’s India mission, seeking to establish priorities between long-range intelligence on political, economic and social targets and more immediate operational intelligence. Fighting SIS’s corner (which as an SIS officer himself was quite understandable), and with the end of the war in mind, he observed that SOE’s involvement in intelligence-gathering should not be taken as a precedent. He thought it ‘important that we preserve a long range view in which the British Secret Intelligence Service shall (a) carry out its proper function and (b) have an eye to the future’. The ‘greatest danger in the past’, he asserted, had been ‘interference’ with SIS ‘by the Military and other Organisations’, and, with Mountbatten’s support, he was currently endeavouring ‘to undo the harm which has been done in the last two or three years’. While Bowden-Smith and Mackenzie both responded by stressing the valuable intelligence contribution of their agencies, it was clear that SOE was by far the more productive, and Garnons-Williams laid down that current operational intelligence work should be handed over to SOE (or OSS), so that SIS could concentrate on the future. In comparison to the large SOE organisation, he stressed that, ‘by long-range standards’, the ‘small Service of S.I.S.’ was ‘infinitely the most important’. Garnons-Williams also argued that ‘no single member of I.S.L.D. in this Theatre will be of the slightest use after the war because he is completely and absolutely “blown” already and the organisation will have to be built anew’. A further factor was signals intelligence which ‘fortunately’, he said, was ‘unknown to all except 5 officers!’ in South-East Asia Command. But nothing should be done to jeopardise the agency – SIS – which controlled it. ‘I would myself ’, added Garnons-Williams, ‘rather see the whole of agents work, except for political, social and economical intelligence, handed out to Force 136, Z Force or OSS and leave ISLD to its true role.’12

Working relations between SIS and SOE on the ground (as was the case in other theatres) appear to have been markedly better than the more institutionalised relations at higher levels, especially in London. Just as Garnons-Williams was endeavouring to iron out inter-agency coordination, local SIS-SOE relations were damaged by a visit in May 1945 from London of Colonel George Taylor of SOE’s Director of Far East Group and Commander J. P. Gibbs, recently appointed SIS Controller Far East. So unhelpful was their attitude that Mountbatten himself was moved on 23 May to write a joint letter of complaint to Menzies and the head of SOE, Colin Gubbins. ‘Much as I liked both Taylor and Gibbs, and enjoyed their visit from a personal point of view,’ he wrote, ‘I am sorry to have to tell you both that your two representatives . . . have not helped me in the prosecution of the war.’ Indeed, until their visits, Mountbatten claimed, SOE and SIS had been ‘collaborating in a far more friendly and get-together spirit’. He fully backed Garnons-Williams’s proposals for giving operational intelligence the first priority. ‘No one’, he wrote emolliently (though with a sting in the tail), ‘could be more insistent on the absolute necessity of true S.I.S. operations, but I am afraid I cannot allow them to interfere with my over-riding urgent military Intelligence and clandestine needs, in view of the rapid campaigns I am now planning. ’ In a private postscript to Menzies alone, Mountbatten added that he ‘entirely’ sympathised ‘with the need for setting up your organisation with a view to the postwar Intelligence’ and did not ‘seek to interfere with any steps’ Menzies might take in this matter. Indeed, Mountbatten was ‘prepared to do anything’ he could to help.

Broadway had to accept a scheme giving priority to SOE for the collection of immediate operational intelligence (though in the event, with the unexpected capitulation of Japan on 14 August 1945 following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the wartime structure soon lapsed). Gibbs, however, in an otherwise amiable letter of 1 August to Garnons-Williams (whose only son had married Gibbs’s only daughter in July the previous year), effectively accused him of letting down the SIS side. ‘You have no real knowledge of our firm,’ he wrote, ‘and it is not possible that you should have, partly because there is [sic] never any opportunity for giving you any training, and partly because you are, of course, Dickie’s [Mountbatten’s] man, and he is not only completely S.O.E.-minded, but also, being a German, only has a military point of view.’ ‘For heaven’s sake,’ he added, ‘remember that the military point of view is the last thing that interests our firm.’ Garnons-Williams was quite unrepentant. Replying on 25 August, he conceded that ‘the firm’ was ‘not interested in war’, but argued the ‘inescapable fact’ that ‘in this theatre it was fully committed to military activities when I took over, admittedly without proper resources, and so had to be used in a military manner’. He claimed that he had ‘succeeded from the overall point of view, with the honest help of Bogey [Bowden-Smith] in detail and administration, in making it [SIS] function in this part of the world after beginning on an extremely bad wicket’. As for the ‘peace time setup’, that was ‘your affair’, and for the immediate future Garnons-Williams had secured Mountbatten’s approval ‘to exclude Bogey from coordination, only coming to me for transport. I have told Bogey not to put his operations into me at all. In fact,’ he concluded, ‘his Service is being put back into the obscurity from which it should never have been taken three years ago; that, I know, will make you feel happier.’


During 1944 a total of 566 operational reports were received from all SIS posts in China, most of which were passed on only to the local military authorities.13 Some 150 reports, however, were sent to London, of which 116 were graded ‘A’ or ‘B’. In January 1945 SIS reported to the United States General Albert C. Wedemeyer, recently appointed chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek, that the Service had forty-one staff in China, all men, including communications and support staff, distributed among ten stations, the largest of which were Kunming (nine), Nanping (nine) and Chungking (five). The Kunming station and its south-west China sub-posts operated into north-east Burma, French Indo-China and Thailand in support of British and United States/Chinese military operations in Burma, and had done so since at least 1942. Chungking, by contrast, was a liaison station within the British embassy, in touch with Chinese intelligence organisations and other government bodies, such as the Maritime Customs and the Salt Gabelle, from which SIS sought to recruit personnel. Of the forty-odd SIS representatives, twenty were agent-running case-officers (this information was not supplied to Wedemeyer) who between them, over the course of the war, controlled upwards of four hundred agents and contacts of all nationalities. SIS told Wedemeyer that the Service in China was ‘a non-operational organisation whose sole object it was to produce information for the benefit of Naval and Air Task Forces in the China Theatre’, and underpinned this benign view by showing the general a telegram from the United States Army Air Force confirming the accuracy of an SIS report about air-raid damage to Japanese shipping at Amoy in south-east China.

The station in Nanping, upstream of Foochow (Fuzhou) in Fukien (Fujian) province, and another smaller station originally at Wenchow (Wenzhou), south-east of Shanghai, had a coast-watching function among others, and were probably the source of the intelligence on shipping in Amoy. Other stations ran agents who visited Japanese-occupied territory and in their turn recruited resident agents. Why did these people become agents? The head of the Kweilin (Guilin) station, a former policeman who with Chinese Communist help had escaped from Japanese interment in Hong Kong in 1942, offered some thoughts in December 1943. ‘What constitutes a promising agent’, he wrote, ‘is about as explainable as “horse-sense”’, but there were a few who would ‘work under a feeling of patriotism or loyalty to the British cause’. But the majority were ‘out for pecuniary gain, and of these only a rare few will be satisfactory in a strict business sense’. He hazarded that ‘perhaps the best field for the general raw material of agents’ was ‘to be found in the young lower middle class of country bred Chinese adult’, who showed ‘a fairly shrewd sense of proportion in regard to expenditure’ and had ‘an inherent knack of adapting themselves to the changing circumstances of war. Their minds are receptive to ideas,’ he concluded, ‘although initially they are chronically unobservant.’

The intelligence provided by SIS on local Japanese activity in China can never have been more than useful, rather than essential. Shipping was another matter, as Allied attacks on shipping affected Japanese forces across South-East Asia as far afield as Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, all targets for Allied reoccupation. By mid-1944 coast-watching - the observation, identification and reporting of enemy shipping - had become a major requirement for some SIS stations in China, and Calcutta was seeking suitably qualified personnel to support it. Not only did officers need to have appropriate language qualifications, ‘they must, if possible, have had sea-going experience and be able to instruct on naval matters’. SIS told General Wedemeyer in January 1945 that the output from all the Service’s Chinese stations amounted to some seventy intelligence reports a month. While ‘a large proportion of these reports’ were ‘of background or static information’, he calculated that during the forty-one days between 1 December 1944 and 10 January 1945, ‘21 operational sightings of enemy shipping off the China coast were passed to American air and naval liaison officers for operational action’. Information also came from the ports in south China. In May 1944 a sub-source working as a coolie in the Hong Kong naval dockyard reported on the completion of a vessel in the shipyard, as well as giving some details about dockyard staff. Reflecting the difficulties in getting information out, this report was not circulated until November 1944. Coast-watching was not confined to the shore. SIS acquired a junk in Foochow and equipped it with a wireless set. It made its first voyage in December 1944 crewed by members of the Nanping station. A month’s costs for the junk, including repairs and the crew’s pay, came to 71,500 Chinese dollars, about £120 at the going black-market rate (and approximately £4,000 at current values).

The end of the war found SIS’s China stations generally well informed about Japanese activity in China, including the operations of Japanese political warfare units under the generic term ‘kikan’. As late as June 1945 the Wenchow station was still reporting on the ‘Ume’ (plum) Kikan, the Japanese organisation controlling puppet military bodies in Chekiang (Zhejiang) province. SIS reported on suspected Japanese agents in Hong Kong, such as an unidentified woman who made weekly journeys on a military train to Canton, ‘sometimes accompanied by other women, usually young’, whom the source believed were ‘being trained for espionage purposes by the Japanese in Canton’. They also reported on the location and personnel of Japanese intelligence organisations in Peking and Canton. But while the SIS stations in China had done much to meet their wartime task, they were not similarly well informed on Communism, the forte of the prewar SIS China stations. In January 1945 General Wedemeyer had told representatives of British and United States clandestine organisations operating in China that they were not to interest themselves in ‘matters which pertain to the internal affairs of China, i.e. they were not to have anything to do with the Communist question, etc.’. The Japanese as a common enemy had formed the only basis upon which the presence and activity of Allied secret services in China were tolerated in wartime. Peace was to be another matter.

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