The Special Operations Executive in China
With the approaching 70th anniversary of VJ Day, a veteran of SOE’s Force 136 recalls his war in China
Article by John Stanfield
For English people, World War II started in August 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. For China, the war started many years earlier, with Japan’s infamous ’21 Demands’ and their subsequent encroachment into Manchuria. Initially this was an undeclared war, and then in 1937 it became a full scale conflict. By the end of the year Japanese forces occupied much of coastal China. The world was horrified by this blatant aggression, but it was not until December 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl harbour and invaded South East Asia that America and Britain were drawn into the war against Japan, and became allied with China against this common enemy.
As Japan gained control of the coast, access to China became very difficult, and eventually the only way in and out of the country was by air from India, over the Himalayan Mountains to Kunming in the South West. Only small quantities of supplies and personnel could be sent into China… And these personnel included men of Force 136 of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). SOE was a subversive force established by British premier Winston Churchill to undermine and attack enemy forces in occupied countries, and Force 136 was its main Far East unit. This was the organisation to which I, as a young British officer, was posted in 1943.
FROM ENGLAND TO CHINA
My parents were missionaries in China, and I was born in Hankou (Wuhan) in 1921.My sisters and I grew up surrounded by Chinese children, and of course we learnt Chinese. In the 1930s I was sent back to school in England. In August 1939 my parents had recently returned from China, having lost their home in Changsha when the Japanese burnt the city. For my part I had just entered Liverpool University. When war was declared, I was drafted into the Army’s ‘Signals’ organisation. Training involved the theory and practice of radio, field-craft, learning how to fire weapons and how to drive vehicles. In 1941 I was sent to ‘officer school’ and in 1942 I became a lieutenant in the Signals Section of an Artillery unit. Then at the beginning of 1943 I was sent to India where I was assigned to run the signals office at Army Headquarters in Delhi.
I did not enjoy Delhi. The town was hot and dirty and the work was boring. Luckily I had a friend in the Personnel Postings Office and she, knowing that I could speak Chinese, put my name forward to SOE; and as luck would have it, they happened to be looking for signals officers to serve in China. So very soon afterwards, I found myself posted (with the rank of captain) to M.E.9, a ‘school for spies’ in Northern India, where agents and wireless operators of many nationalities were trained for secret work. In the weeks that followed I was given the code name BB669 and made ready to take up the job of ‘second in command’ of Force 136 China Signals.
At M.E.9 I learnt about ciphers and codes and how to use the various types of radio sets supplied to our agents behind enemy lines. First the A3 set that was disguised to look like an ordinary suitcase; then the more powerful B2 set, which could communicate from China to India. For me the training was soon over and in the spring of 1944 I was despatched to China by air over the Himalayas to Kunming.
Kunming was lovely when I arrived, and I can still picture the city and its beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. Our Force 136 office was 13 miles along the lake at Shi Shan under the Western Hills. There were about 15 British and Chinese signalmen living in an old house there. We worked to India and up to Chunking, relaying messages from our agents. This was a comfortable post, but it didn’t last long as I was soon ordered to move to our forward base in Kweilin.
Kweilin was nearly 500 miles away from Kunming. The journey took four days over bad roads in a worn-out truck. But somehow the truck completed the journey. At Kweilin I was in charge of the Force 136 office, which comprised 3 Britons and 20 Chinese operators. Our main tasks were to service our agents, support local Chinese forces and units of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG). This organisation was formed mainly of British and Chinese soldiers who had escaped from Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion. These men were now collecting intelligence on Japanese movements in South China, which they relayed to us for onward transmission to Chungking and Delhi.
Sadly the Japanese did not leave us in peace. In September they launched a major drive (The ‘Ichi-go Offensive’) south from Changsha to disrupt the American air base construction programme and to create a continuous Japanese controlled land corridor from Manchuria, to their front lines in Burma. Kweilin was in the way, and the Ichi-go Offensive was a nightmare for those in its path. There were insufficient Chinese forces in this part of the country to resist the Japanese, so the Chinese – and we – had to retreat.
The Chinese evacuated Kweilin (a city of a quarter of a million people) and I remember the evening before we left, watching the city burn with flames and explosions lighting up the night sky. The roads and the railway were packed with refugees. Conditions were grim, but nobody wanted to be around when the Japanese arrived.
For our part, we were fortunate in being able to get away in our decrepit old trucks. Petrol was unobtainable and we ran our vehicles on low octane wood alcohol which gave very little power.
Our line of retreat led from Kweilin back to Kunming via Yishan, Dushan and Kweiyang. The journey was long and hard. We were beset by illness, breakdowns and shortages but managed to keep our radios going, using a steam-driven generator to charge our batteries.
Back at Kunming at last, I took over the Force 136 office. A job I held until I was reassigned in May 1945 as Officer in Charge of Signals in North China, based in Sian and working with the Chinese Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI).
So a flight to Chunking, and a four day truck ride to Sian via Chengdu in company with Major-General Ho Kan Tzen of the DMI and two English signallers who were to train General Ho’s staff in the use of our English radio sets. At the time of our arrival, Sian was still surrounded by high walls and the city had an antique appearance. My first month was uneventful, but in late June I had the task of establishing two ‘out-station’ wireless posts at strategic points on the Yellow River near the village of Wa Yin, to which agents could bring information about Japanese movements.
I needed to move seven men and a large quantity of radio equipment. To do this I had a jeep and a quarter ton trailer. By now I was used to China’s poor roads, but the track from the Sian rail head to Wa Yin was the toughest drive of my life. Precipitous cuttings and gorges and deep, deep dust. Most of the way I had to use low ratio gear. No vehicle other than a jeep could have done it.
We finally arrived at Wa Yin, the village nearest our destination. A very poor place, much damaged by Japanese shell fire, but with tough welcoming inhabitants. An American OSS radio post was nearby with a similar mission to ours. Having completed the task, I returned to Sian to meet Colonel Bridge, a senior British officer who had arrived to liaise with DMI concerning plans to equip a guerrilla force to harry the Japanese. Force 136 would supply equipment, weapons and communications. Early August found me still in Sian, busily drawing up plans for this guerrilla army.
THE END OF THE WAR
On August 8 1945 I was at a dinner party when we heard shouting in the street. A boy was sent out to find out what was happening, and he returned with a news sheet headlined ‘Extraordinary bombs of enormous power have destroyed two cities in Japan and the Japanese have surrendered’. Astonishment all around. Only yesterday we were planning attacks on the Japanese, and now everything stopped.
There followed a strangely quiet interlude. A trickle of prisoners of war came to see us. Then a signal arrived from Chunking. Major-General Ho, Colonel Bridge, Stanfield and some of his signallers were instructed to fly at once to the capital. On September 14 a DC3 Dakota aircraft was sent for us, and we flew the three hour journey to Beijing’s West Airfield near the Summer Palace. We were met by a party of Japanese officers wearing swords and high boots. A fleet of luxurious Japanese Army staff cars transported us into town and we took over the 3rd floor of the Beijing Hotel, where I established a radio station. We settled in and behaved like tourists for a few days. The situation was extraordinary. The Japanese garrison was still armed and cooperating with the Chinese and Americans (who were starting to arrive), to keep order until they could be replaced.
Then my boss Colonel Bridge was transferred back to Chunking to take over the Force 136 office, and I was left in charge in Beijing with my small staff of signallers. We were the only British military unit in North China. Soon afterwards, a signal arrived from Chungking telling me that I had been promoted to Major, and I was alerted that I must represent Great Britain at the official surrender ceremony of the Japanese Army in North China on National Day on October 10.
I had to do something about my appearance as I looked very scruffy in my well worn tropical tunic and trousers. So I found a tailor who made me a smart new service uniform … using the best quality Japanese officers drill material.
John Stanfield, now a 94 year old gentleman, lives in South West England. 70 years ago he witnessed the ceremony in Beijing when the Japanese Army surrendered to the Allies, and he signed the surrender document on behalf of the British Army.