The Burma Campaign

F.F. Columns of the Burma Frontier Force

The Burma Frontier Force was formed in April 1937 when the government of Burma was separated from India.  The duties of the Burma Frontier Force were to keep the frontiers under observation and to maintain peace in the frontier areas.  Additional roles included the provision of escorts and guards to members and facilities of the civil administration and also reinforcement of the Burma Military Police for internal security duties.[1]

In 1941, faced with the prospect of war, it was decided to form special units from within the Burma Frontier Force to undertake specific tasks on the frontier.   The different Burma Frontier Force battalions provided columns which were organised into the new detachments.  Each column was capable of independent action.  The detachments were named simply, being identified as "F.F." (Frontier Force) followed by a number.  The role of the detachments was to harass and delay the advance of an enemy until such time as the enemy could be engaged by the regular troops of the Army.  The columns were under the command of junior officers, most of whom were straight out of the cadet training unit.  The detachment commanders were specially chosen senior Assistant Commandants of the Burma Frontier Force.  The commanders of the first four detachments to be raised were all Majors.  In combination with the raising of new battalions, the effect of forming the F.F. detachments was to considerably weaken the original Burma Frontier Force battalions.  All the regular and experienced Assistant Commandants were posted to the F.F. detachments along with the best Governor's Commissioned Officers (G.C.O.s), N.C.O.s and men.  The battalions became little more than depots, capable of maintaining only a few outposts, and under the command of raw, inexperienced junior British officers.  Many of the men who remained were unfit or re-enlisted pensioners.[2]

Each detachment had a small headquarters, which included a single British officer who tried to combine the role of Adjutant and Quartermaster.  The headquarters proved to be far too small in size to adequately support the detachment columns under wartime conditions.  Each column was the equivalent of a normal rifle company in size, but without the support weapons that a regular infantry company would expect to field.  Each column had only a single out-dated Lewis gun.  Additional weapons in the form of a single Bren gun, five Thompson sub-machine guns and one mortar per column were issued once the war with Japan began.  As a result, although the increase in firepower was welcome, the men had no time to learn how to use them properly before they were used in action.[3]

At the end of 1941, the Burma Frontier Force as a whole was placed under the operational command of the Burma Army but remained for all other purposes under the Inspector-General, Burma Frontier Force.  When the war with Japan began in December 1941 there were five F.F. detachments, each with a unique organisation tailored to the task given it.  F.F.s 1 to 4 were roughly equivalent to an infantry battalion in size but F.F.5 consisted of only a single column of about company size.  The primary role of the first Frontier Force Mobile detachment (F.F.1) was to operate in front of the Regular Army in the defence of the Burma Road, and in given the nature of the terrain in this particular area, contained three troops of Mounted Infantry and sufficient M.T. [Motor Transport] to mechanise approximately one-third of the detachment.  F.F.2 was responsible for the defence of the Southern Tenasserim Coast and in addition had a special mission on the Siamese frontier.  For this purpose it had little motor transport, no mounted infantry, but five sea-going schooners with which to patrol the Tenasserim River and neighbouring sea coast.  F.F.3 was formed mainly from the existing garrison of Loimwe outpost, provided by the Southern Shan States Battalion, and was entrusted with the forward protection of Kengtung State.[4]

F.F.s 1, 3 4 and 5 remained on or near the frontier with Siam (Thailand) up until around the middle of February 1942.  F.F.s 4 and 5 had successful encounters with Thai troops but the arrival of the Chinese Expeditionary Force in the Shan States during February brought about the withdrawal of British troops and the F.F. detachments with them.  The F.F. detachments came to be used in a number of ways, sometimes as guards for aerodromes and other vital installations and sometimes as regular troops.  They were especially valued in the reconnaissance role and often operated under the command of the 17th Indian and 1st Burma Infantry Divisions as a reconnaissance screen or flank guard.  The original five F.F. detachments were later reorganised on at least one occasion, as a result of losses in action and to meet the requirements of their new role as reconnaissance units.  Three additional F.F. detachments, 6 to 8, were formed from January 1942 onwards.  The last detachment to be formed, F.F.9 appears to have been formed at the end of March 1942.  These latter detachments were hastily formed and little training was given to the junior officers and many of the men who were posted to them.  As the Japanese invasion progressed and the British were forced into a long retreat, the F.F. detachments appear to have been formed and reformed on a number of times.[5]

Three, and possibly four, F.F. detachments came to be under the command of the 17th Indian Infantry Division after the withdrawal from Rangoon in early March 1942.  These were F.F.2, F.F.3 and F.F.6 (and possibly a column of F.F.7).  The detachments appear to have been formed, albeit loosely, into a Frontier Force Group (F.F. Group), apparently under a single commander, Major Mostert.  Certainly Mostert, the Commanding Officer of F.F.2, recalls that F.F.6 was added to his command at Tharrawaddy.  He records that F.F.6 consisted of three columns.   Given that the two columns of F.F.2 were considerably under strength, Mostert added the officers and men of the F.F.6 columns to his own.    The first reference to the "F.F. Group" is in the 17th Indian Division Operation Instruction No. 10, dated 14th March 1942.    By now the men were in poor shape.  A Staff Captain serving with the Inspector General of the Burma Frontier Force (the Force headquarters), Captain K.L.G. Hales, recalled that "...F.F.s Two (the second F.F.2) and F.F.6 were with 17th Div and had suffered heavy casualties in the fighting round Pegu, the men were weary with fighting and marching and it was essential to bring them back if possible".  Other detachments operated with the 1st Burma Infantry Division.[6]

By now, late in the campaign, the higher command had decided to reorganise the F.F.s to break up the “big” F.F.s and make them into smaller mobile units of two companies each and to create a separate force of Mounted Infantry by amalgamating the surviving mounted elements.   Orders to this effect were issued on 3rd April.   It was decided to carry out the reorganisation at Yenangyaung which had recently become the Advanced Headquarters of the Inspector General of the Burma Frontier Force, having relocated there from Pyawbwe in February, the Rear Headquarters moving to Myitkyina.  At Yenangyaung the Inspector General, Brigadier Roughton, combined these duties with that of the Commander, Central Area, responsible for maintaining and protecting the lines of communication.  By April Yenangyaung was also home to a draft of B.F.F. reinforcements.  F.F.1., F.F.3., and F.F.4 were concentrated in the scrub along the North of Pin Chaung and reorganisation and re-equipping began around 4th or 5th April 1942.  Liaison officers were now appointed to the hgher formations, with one at Corps Headquarters and one for each of the two divisions.  Lt. Colonel G.G. Pryce was appointed Commander Corps Burma Frontier Force.  Major W.R.V. Russell was appointed Commander Frontier Force (C.F.F.) to the 1st Burma Division, a role similar to that which Major Mostert had been performing and would continue to do so for the 17th Indian Division.  There were insufficient personnel and the resulting newly reorganised infantry columns were somewhat below the planned establishment.  All were re-equipped except for wireless equipment by 16th April.  It is not certain whether the re-organisation was completed in full.[7]

The F.F. detachments continued to support the Burma Army as it retreated to India.  Those officers and men who survived were eventually gathered at Hoshiarpur where they were placed in the general pool of Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police.  In October 1942, this pool was formed into the newly formed battalions of The Burma Regiment.

09 December 2017

[1] “Report on the B.F.F. 1939-1942”, by Brig J.F. Bowerman, WO 203/5692

[2] WO 203/5692

[3] “Notes on [the] Burma Frontier Force”, by Captain Hales, WO 203/5698; WO 203/5692

[4] WO 203/5692; WO 203/5698

[5] WO 203/5692

[6] WO 203/5698

[7] War diary1st Burma Corps, WO 172/403; “Burma Frontier Force” by Lt. Colonel G.G. Pryce, WO 203/5697; “F.F.1’s Part in the Burma Campaign” by Lt. Col. W.R.V. Russell M.C.; WO 203/5699