Burma - Parachute Drop

A supply drop to Operation Character in 1945

Based upon reports from late 1942 and the early part of 1943, the following post sets out the problems with supplying SOE’s India Mission.  The India Mission was designated the more widely known moniker of Force 136 in March 1944.  A report on ‘Manufacture and Supply in India’ was written on 19 September 1942, and is stamped as received over a month later on 24 October.  The report itself had already been ‘delayed by excessive demands on the bag’ which limited the inclusion of communications from around India that should have fed into the report.  This can be seen as a further indication of the conditions prevailing in India in the wake of the  Japanese occupation of Burma and the absence of a credible Royal Naval presence in the Bay of Bengal.

The reports used here were the result of investigations into the feasibility of India Mission becoming independent of the UK in terms of production of its ‘confidential’ stores, the so-called ‘sweets and toys’ that SOE is known for.  Some of the ‘confidential’ items are not particularly exciting.  Compared to exploding rats and exploding soy sauce, items such as time delay fuses and other booby trap devices don’t quite hit the SOE headlines.   Such items were essential to the proposed work of SOE, however, and local production would have been very convenient. 

There seem to have been two main barriers to local production.  The first is that explosive delay mechanisms such as the time pencil required quality workmanship which ‘could only be undertaken in properly equipped modern workshops.’  These workshops, as well as ordnance factories were under the control of the Master General of Ordnance (MGO), who, it was reported, was unwilling to deviate from his schedule to produce ‘major munitions of war.’  Since sufficient supplies from the UK were getting through, the MGO’s workshops and factories had enough work to do without taking on SOE work. 

In comparing the production and supply situation in the UK to India, the point was made that through ‘early personal contacts established with the Ministry of Supply, the War Office , and the Royal Arsenal’, SOE in Britain could gain highest priority.  In India, ‘all known capacity of the better class in machines and men ha[d] been fully taken over by the Supply Department, and in particular the Directorate General of Munitions Production’.  The Director General of Munitions Production (DGMP) was Sir Guthrie Russell.  Russell and his officers in India were ‘most kind’ but ‘completely unshaken’ by their contact with SOE officers seeking production opportunities.  When SOE enquired about possibilities with engineering firms, they found that [i]n all cases the control by the Supply Department appeared to be complete’ and all ‘machine tool capacity […] fully taken up’ for up to the next nine months.

What seems to have been most frustrating for SOE was that during 1940, Captain Francis Nixon had approached sources of production in India and had some success in cultivating opportunities for the initial Far Eastern Mission.  Apparently these opportunities ‘were allowed to lapse’, leaving the competing government agencies to gain their monopoly over production.   The situation just described, however, would appear to pertain only to what SOE considered its ‘confidential items’. 

The second barrier was the materials to make such equipment.  Although a possible production solution of having these devices made for SOE in ‘bazaar shops, garages, etc.’ was considered, it was discounted because there was a ‘complete absence of some components which would still have to be imported.’  Further concerns included the risk of second class workmanship, and the security risk.  It was noted in the summary of this report that [i]t is impossible […] to produce in quantity any device involving music wire, springs or spring steel.’

More positively, the report records that there had been ‘[s]ome success’ in sourcing some items in India.  The list provided includes ‘underwater containers, scaling equipment, rubberized fabric, rubber solution, shot firing cable, flash lights, batteries and bulbs, rubberized bags, rubber gloves, tools and fighting knives’.  For example, 400 yards of rubberized plastic were obtained; 2500 rubberized bags were sourced from the Bengal Waterproof Company; and Dunlop’s were able to provide rubber solution.  A meeting in August 1942 found that a factory in Kirkee could produce M-L Flares, the only incendiary not requiring ‘foreign’ parts.  Furthermore, it was agreed that ‘non-confidential items’ could be termed ‘Army Stores’, and kept in Army ordnance depots.  SOE would be able to access their supplies from these depots, having been shipped in from ‘home’.  

A second report, dated 22 January 1943, concludes that based on the September report summarised above, ‘the project for rendering India independent of home supplies should be abandoned’.  Relying on the shipping of supplies did not completely solve the problem of ensuring India Mission had the materials it needed to carry out its war fighting role.  The first item discussed in this January report is subtitled ‘Supplies from Home: Delays.’  Boats might be diverted not only from their intended port, for example docking in Karachi rather than Bombay; at least two ships were diverted to the Middle East in August and September 1942.  If the stores were unloaded at Karachi, they took ‘much longer’ to arrive at Jubbulpore, SOE’s main storage camp.  Secondly, when the ports were especially busy, the procedure was to clear supplies as quickly as possible with the result that they went to storage ‘throughout the country without reference to the addressee’ making the tracking of supplies especially difficult.  It was worked out that the average time for supplies to arrive in SOE hands from leaving Station XII in the UK was five months.  Specifically, in the case of Type 6 Pull Pressure and Release Mechanisms, Rigid and Flexible Limpets, and Bostik, twelve months on these were still unavailable in India.  Delays in production in India were also frustrating; talks were still on-going about the ML flares being produced in Kirkee nearly six months after the initial meeting.

The second section of this report highlights problems with the organisation of India Mission.  Apparently stores were ‘relegated[…] to a very minor position most inadequately staffed with one officer’.  Stores became a part of the accountant’s office, and as a consequence technical information was not distributed to the people who needed it.  For example, it is pointed out that ‘Instructions for the storage of Incendiaries’ was not given to the storekeeper at Jubbulpore, and ‘Performance Charts for Time Pencils’ did not get sent to the scientific adviser.

The author of this report, Lt.Col. C. Bailey, known on this document by his SOE code symbol ‘D/X’, was forthright in his opinion that not only were stores not given the status within SOE that they deserved, but that the right people were not placed in the right role to look after it.  He admits that he has painted a ‘gloomy picture’ but that it would improve with experience and with training.

Before things improved however, the ‘gloomy picture’ got considerably darker.  On 25 May 1943, the Jubbulpore depot burnt down with the ‘loss of all stores’.  The cause of the fire was a pocket time fuse, and incorrectly stored incendiaries.  Lt.Col. Bailey’s comment about ‘Instructions for the storage of Incendiaries’ not being given to the storekeeper at Jubbulpore  seems to have proved disastrous.  

All of this had repercussions for India Mission’s operations, most of which were into Burma at this time.  Factor in the needs of all the competing clandestine organisations in theatre, including the American OSS, as well as Europe being the priority for resources, a better understanding of why it took so long for SOE’s operations to start producing tangible results in the Far East can be gained.  And I haven’t even mentioned parachutes and aircraft.