Map Credit: Chin Community Ministry
Recorded variously as ‘Charlie Thangkung’, ‘Thang Kung’ and Lieutenant Thaung Kong, this post is all about the Chin W/T operator who was referred to by these names in the SOE files. It is not clear whether he was commissioned, but he certainly wanted it, and was apparently promised British Army officer rank. There is no definite rank on either of his official records, other than the indication from a third party that he was a Lieutenant. With no certain rank or name (at least in the files I have seen), how should this man be written about and recorded properly, so that his part in the war in Burma can be remembered? As an Anglophone, it would be straight forward to just use ‘Charlie’, but I prefer to (try and) use his Chin name. Thang Kung seems most likely to be correct, so Thang Kung he will be (subject to change if I find anything definite).
Thang Kung was born in Maymyo on 25 September 1924. In 1942, Thang Kung retreated to the Chin Hills with the Burma Frontier Force. He was just short of his 20th birthday when he was recruited there by Captain Hobbs. He was apparently 5’2″ tall and weighed 115lb with a 34″ chest. His religion was American Baptist, and he spoke five languages: Chin, Burmese, English, Gurkhali and Hindustani. His next of kin is recorded as his brother, a school master in Haka, Chin Hills.
Training started just over a fortnight after having been recruited. From 17 August 1943, Thang Kung completed W/T training at ME9, Meerut, and then he went on to the Eastern Warfare School (India) from 21 September where he completed the paramilitary course. After that, it was back to Meerut for advanced W/T training, followed by the parachute course at Chaklala in April and May 1944. This training entailed travelling approximately 4024 miles, probably by train. This distance is slightly further than Cairo to Johannesburg.
On 5 May 1944, Thang Kung was deployed on Operation Spiers. This operation was a complicated one, where Britain and China clashed over Kokang, in the northern Shan States, rather than acting as Allies to combat the Japanese. The two records again clash, this time in the details of how Thang Kung was deployed. The first file records that Thang Kung was parachuted into Kokang on 5 May 1944, and later that he was deployed with Major Manford and Lt.Col. Kaulback. The second file records that he was deployed overland on Spiers VIII, but on the same date. Collating information on the Spiers operation from other records, it can be ascertained that:
- Major Manford was deployed overland in Spiers III during January and February, hiking into Kokang from China.
- On 5 May, Spiers VII deployed by parachute, consisting of Captains Hunter and Phillips plus three W/T operators.
- On 14 May, Spiers VIII went overland to Kokang. The party consisted of Lt.Col. Kaulback, Captain Moffatt and Havildar Tun Sein.
Thang Kung was employed as a W/T operator on this mission, so option two seems the most likely. If the dates (at least) are correct, he was back in Calcutta by 21 October. The operation had achieved very little, which might explain why:
‘Unfortunately no records of this operation mentions the work done by this member [Thang Kung] of the party.’
In November 1944, it seems that Thang Kung was in trouble with a Major Bruce for a security breach, but ‘no details available’ is written on the file.
Between 4-20 January 1945, Thang Kung was apparently back in Meerut on more advanced W/T training preparatory to being parachuted into Burma on Operation Nation as team Elk, later renamed Yak. The aim of the Nation operations was to contact the Burma National Army (BNA) and the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) in southern Burma to try and ensure they offered no resistance to Allied forces driving for Rangoon. It was hoped that even if they did not fight alongside the returning British Empire forces, that they would not fight alongside the Japanese. Force 136 was fairly confident in this hope given that by this time communications had been established with the leaders of these two organisations and successful operations had been carried out in the Arakan. The aim of Elk was to contact the AFO in the Myanaung area of the Irrawaddy Delta.
On 28 January, Thang Kung was dropped with a Burmese nationalist called Ye Tun. Ye Tun is described as a political agent, and that Thang Kung was in his care as Ye Tun knew the area and the people. Again, there is confusion in the records as to where they landed, but it is clear that it was some distance from their intended drop zone, and that they were forced to run upon landing, abandoning all their equipment. This meant that the Elk signals codes, the W/T and radio crystals were all in Japanese hands, hence the change to Yak when a replacement radio and codes arrived. The plight of Elk was reported to Calcutta on 5 February by Donkey, who transmitted that they landed ‘right near’ the enemy camp, and that ‘furious searches’ took place. Thang Kung was reportedly captured, but managed to escape.
On 2 March, Tun Gyaw was dropped to Donkey with the Yak W/T plan for Thang Kung. Eleven days later, Thang Kung was in Rangoon, and Calcutta officers were keen for him to stay there because they attached ‘greatest importance [to] your information regarding Japanese preparations to destroy water supply and properties’ in the city. They asked that he stay in Rangoon to send more intelligence, but by the time he received this message, Thang Kung was in Pyapon, south west of Rangoon. Thang Kung signalled ‘All is going well. YE TUN not with me he left me one month ago.’ He also reported that the Burma National Army was on the point of rebellion, provided intelligence on Japanese dispositions and movement, and on the strength of local guerrillas. HQ in Calcutta warned against taking any action just yet.
On 25 March, Thang Kung signalled ‘Our opinion is time is ripe for paratroopers. Everything well organised and arranged. Can you drop one Burmese officer to investigate the situation. In PYAPON district three hundred to four hundred armed Burma Army soldiers. Revolt may break at any time. I can’t control them. One officer should come and cope them [sic].’ On the last day of the month, Thang Kung reported that the rebellion had taken place and that there were around 500 casualties, although inflicted on whom is not clear. He requested an arms drop. Instead, he was told to stand by for a drop of British officers on 2 April; this was team Panda consisting of Major Boiteaux and Captain Despaigne.
On 7 April, Panda reported that Yak was surrounded and that an airstrike was needed on a school housing up to 200 Japanese. It is not recorded if this airstrike went in, but Thang Kung evidently got out of another tight spot and went on to work with the Panda team in Maungmya until 27 July carrying out Civil Affairs Service (CAS) work in the absence of CAS officials. The Burma National Army, Thang Kung reported, ‘seem[ed] to be more political than military leaders. They believe they are the liberators of Burma.’
Major Boiteaux reported that Thang Kung was:
‘A good wireless operator, organised my reception and worked very hard. He is not in the Army but certainly deserves some award.’
Another mistake; Thang Kung was in the Army. He had been enrolled in the Burma Regiment by SOE on 23 September 1943. Back in Calcutta, Thang Kung chased up the promise of promotion and Rs500 promised by Major Battersby, the officer in charge of running teams to the Burmese nationalists. It does not appear that Thang Kung received the promotion or the ‘award’ that Major Boiteaux recommended as there was little evidence to support either: Thang Kung has done ‘excellent work with various officers who have unfortunately neglected to record the fact.’