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This post was inspired by the record of Jemadar Kolu Ban. Kolu Ban, it seems, had an alcohol problem, which made him unusual; in no other file (to date) is there a reference to a member of Burma’s Force 136 having a drinking habit. British officers complaining about the lack of whiskey or the quality of the whiskey provided in a supply drop, and even an officer who had a problem with morphine have been discovered, but not alcoholism. That said, boozing it up in war time is hardly a surprise, but reading on, his deployment became extraordinary – when on earth have you ever heard of a soldier being advised to sell his rifle? This was not all that Kolu Ban’s record had to offer…
Kolu Ban was a Chin born in Haka on the India-Burma border lands, in 1917. Before being recruited by SOE in October 1942, he had been in the Burma Army signals since 1939. After completing various SOE training courses he was deployed on Operation Hainton, which was later renamed Heavy. Hainton / Heavy’s area of operations was in the Shan States, in eastern Burma.
Originally, Hainton was tasked with providing intelligence, investigating the possibility of clandestine warfare in the region, and linking up with Operation Harlington further to the west. In 1945, after being redesignated Heavy, it had a more offensive role, cutting off the Japanese escape route to Siam. The first Hainton team set out for Burma from China on 23 March 1944; Kolu Ban joined Hainton on 6 June 1944 (while in Europe D-Day was underway).
By September 1944, Kolu Ban’s position was reported as north of Kengtung on the Takaw Road. The operation was not going well. Food was scarce in the region due to a wartime decline in padi cultivation, and being so far east made resupply, even by Liberator, difficult. Failure to provide food was ‘adversely affecting British prestige’, and similar to the SOE operation in Kokang to the north, the Chinese were doing what they could to disrupt the operation. The following signal came from Hainton in November 1944:
‘Moral and physical state of men low. Festering feet and legs. KOLUBAN and 1 levy intermittent malaria. Conditions too tough for men who say can’t stand much more. 1 already deserted. Consider we should all move north of Namkha to recuperate.’
This signal is quite unusual. For all the difficulties that Burma posed for special operations, desertion and defeatism like this is almost unheard of. Later the same month, there was indecision:
‘Undecided whether wiser see KOLUBAN and party to river then with my men return base forthwith to avoid possible compromise KOLUBAN’s task and give impression whole party returned. KOLUBAN says can cope and agree white man’s presence gives suspicion. Villagers confirm Shans keeping enemy iformed [sic] my moves.’
Again, this is an unusual message, and for two reasons. Firstly, the indecision in this message is not normally encountered in the Burma SOE files. Secondly, here is an explicit reference to the operation being compromised due to the presence of Caucasian officers. In the main, British officers and their SOE teams were welcomed by the locals and afforded all assistance. Major Pennell later reported that the villagers were intimidated by the Chinese, but it is also clear from Kolu Ban’s file that the Japanese and Thais had a significant intimidatory impact, fining villagers if they had harboured strangers, and beheading two Shans in December for possession of Allied propaganda leaflets. The Japanese were also forcing Shans to join the Army, promising uniforms and weapons.
The Japanese were evidently not having it all their own way, however, for it was reported that Japs ‘stay hidden in the jungle in the daytime and return to villages at dusk.’ Allied bombing was taking its toll, some of which was being called in by Hainton. Kolu Ban was responsible for the intelligence leading to these strikes, for example reporting on 24 November ‘600 Japs Takaw. 100 HOPANG. 60 Kali.’
By late November, the food situation was becoming critical. On 27 November, a Liberator flew over Kolu Ban’s DZ, saw the signal lights, but went on to bomb Takaw before returning to drop the supply containers. On this second run, no lights were observed so no supplies were dropped. On 28 November, it was reported that emergency rations were now exhausted. Consequently, they were ‘forced send men into villages to buy rice.’ Since the villagers had been ordered to report any strangers, Kolu Ban was forced to move location. Moving location meant finding and sending coordinates for a new DZ. On 29 November, the supply aircraft observed no ground recognition, so there was no supply drop once again. On 1 December, ‘KOLUBAN reports cannot hold out much longer.’
With ‘villagers very unfriendly’ there were fears about lighting up the DZ to take a drop, and so another attempt to resupply failed again on 3 December. Five days later there came some respite when Kolu Ban reported that the bombing of Takaw had killed 50 Japs including two high ranking officers. This apparently had the effect of making ‘Sawbwa of Pangyang now friendly.’ He told his area to keep the presence of Kolu Ban and his team a secret. That same day, 8 December, the following was sent:
‘We consider [Kolu Ban] has shown great determination and guts under depressing circumstances. Strongly recommend promote Jemadar or even decoration.’
Nonetheless, the situation can’t have improved much by 18 December, as this is the date when the title of this post was communicated: ‘If funds short sell rifle.’ Shortly after this, in the New Year, Kolu Ban was withdrawn from the field. He was gazetted Jemadar with effect from 1 December 1944, and returned to Operation Heavy on 6 April 1945, remaining in the field until October 1945.
In September 1945, Kolu Ban was recommended for a Mention in Dispatches, despite Major Pennell reporting that Kolu Ban:
‘Has done extremely good work, both as W/T operator and also as a leader of outposts. But off duty he spoils this by heavy drinking.’
Never found out if he sold his rifle though…