The Burma Campaign

Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force

The Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force came into being following the separation of Burma from India in 1937.  Prior to this and dating back to 1904 there had been a battalion of the same title with the Burma Military Police.[1]  The Battalion Headquarters were at Taunggyi.

In 1939 the Battalion was organised with a Headquarters Company, a Training Company, eight Rifle Companies and three Mounted Infantry Troops.  Companies consisted of three platoons and a Company Headquarters Platoon but automatic weapons were restricted to one Lewis gun per company and there were no mortars in the Force.[2]  The sanctioned strength of the Battalion was 1,432 infantry and 102 mounted infantry.  Around half of this force and two troops of mounted infantry were located with the Battalion Headquarters at Taunggyi.  Around 273 men and the remaining mounted infantry troop were at Loimwe.  Additional outposts were maintained at Kanpetlet, Akyab, Mergui and Victoria Point.[3]  The outposts at Akyab, Mergui and Victoria Point were taken over the by the newly raised Kokine Battalion, Burma Frontier Force following its formation in November 1940.  The outpost at Kanpetlet was handed over to the Chin Hills Battalion, Burma Frontier Force, on 9th June 1941.[4]

F.F.3 was formed from the Loimwe Detachment of the Southern Shan States Battalion on 1st November 1940.[5]

The Battalion Commandant from 1939 until around March 1942 was Lt. Colonel J.F. Bowerman.[6]  Bowerman left this post to become the British liaison officer to the Chinese 6th Army.

Burma Frontier Force units and deployments in the Southern Shan States in December 1941 were:

- Aungban Burma Frontier Force Satellite Aerodrome Guard
- Heho Burma Frontier Force Aerodrome Guard
- Loilem F.F.4, Burma Frontier Force less one column
Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force outposts
- Loimwe F.F.3, Burma Frontier Force less one column
Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force outposts
- Mong Pan area F.F.4, Burma Frontier Force one column
- Mawchi F.F.5, Burma Frontier Force
- Monghpayak F.F.3, Burma Frontier Force one column
- Namsang Burma Frontier Force Aerodrome Guard * guard detachments & columns
Burma Frontier Force Satellite Aerodrome Guard guard detachments & columns
Burma Frontier Force Mounted Infantry two troops
- Taunggyi Headquarters Southern Shan Area
HQ, Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force
- Thamakan Burma Frontier Force Mounted Infantry one troop, one column

* Aerodrome Guards provided by companies of the 14th (Shan States) Battalion, The Burma Rifles.

The Officer Commanding Heho Aerodrome Guard, Southern Shan States Battalion was Lieutenant A.S. Prentice.[7]

At the time of the outbreak of war with Japan, B.F.F. outposts had been reduced to a minimum and Battalions were little more than Training Centres containing recruits, and long service men unfit for active duty.[8]  The Southern Shan States Battalion, with Headquarters at Taunggyi, had five of its active companies in Frontier Force detachments (F.F.s) and the two remaining ones on landing grounds at Heho and Namsang, although these may have been replaced or supplemented by companies from the 14th (Shan States) Battalion, Burma Rifles, Burma Territorial Force.  Guard and escort duties at Headquarters were carried out by a garrison company of ex-service men recruited from local pensioners plus details left behind.  The Training Company was also functional at Headquarters in Taunggyi.  From the beginning of February 1942 there was only one officer present at Battalion Headquarters, this being an ABRO (Army in Burma Reserve of Officers) subaltern with less than one year’s service who spoke practically no Hindustani or Burmese.[9]

As the withdrawal in Burma continued, Frontier Force units gradually evacuated their stations.  By March the Southern Shan States Battalion, had been reduced to a Depot with a strength of approximately 200 all ranks, mainly administrative personnel, under the command of a junior British officer.[10]

It is believed that F.F.8, Burma Frontier Force was formed from men of the Southern Shan States Battalion in March 1942.[11]

The 14th Battalion, Burma Rifles were also located in Taunggyi at the time of the evacuation of the town and this battalion’s war diary contains some details of the withdrawal of the Southern Shan States Battalion.  On around 16th April 1942, the 14th Burma Rifles and the Southern Shan States Battalion located at Taunggyi were detailed as “Rear Party” and were to remain in Taunggyi until the Chinese withdrawal reached the line just south of the Taunggyi-Hopong road.  At this point the Rear Party was to withdraw to Hsipaw and Lashio via Shwenyaung and Lawksawk.  The next day, Lt. Colonel H.C. Brocklehurst,[12] Commander of No.2 Special Service Detachment, was placed in command of the Taunggyi Rear Party and at 2000 hours, 20th April 1942, ordered its withdrawal from Taunggyi.  The garrison company of the Southern Shan States Battalion was now disbanded, leaving just Battalion Headquarters with around 150 Indian Other Ranks and 100 recruits.  On the way through Lawksawk the Battalion's landing ground detachment at Heho was added to the party.  Having marched through Lawksawk and then Indaw on 26th April, on 29th April the village of Naungo was reached, near the Hsipaw-Maymyo road.[13]

Elsewhere another company of the Southern Shan States Battalion was taken over by Captain A.L.B. Thompson.[14]  Thompson was in command of a party made up of his own Karen Company of the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles, which had been detached at the end of March to support the Karen Levies, and Captains Nimmo and McCrindle of the Levies with a few of their men.  On 21st April Thompson’s party was camped at Panlon (Panglong) when a brigadier on his way from Taunggyi to Lashio stopped and ordered Thompson to take command of a company of the Southern Shan States Battalion which was stranded further up the road without any officers.  The company had come from the Kawknoi Pass and was making for Lashio.  It was made up of two platoons of Pedaung Karens and one platoon of Gurkhas.  This company joined Thompson the next day and on 23rd April the combined party of Karens and Frontier Force men marched to Laika.  During the march the road was bombed frequently by the Japanese and as a result 47 of the Frontier Force men, inexperienced in battle and without good leaders, went missing.  At Laika Thomspon received news that the Japanese were in Loilem and he was advised to move immediately.  He decided to make for Maymyo.  After five day’s march the party arrived at Hseheng (according to Thompson but see below) where they met Lt. Colonel Brocklehurst’s larger party on 29th April.[15]

The next day Brocklehurst sent a Southern Shan States Battalion Mounted Infantry patrol forward to gather information from the surrounding area.  The patrol was ambushed by the Japanese at Namlan however the survivors were told by local villagers that the Japanese had occupied Hsipaw and Lashio.  All troops under Taunggyi Rear Party were ordered to rendezvous about 5 miles South of Namtu where the party was split into smaller groups which were to proceed independently, the better to evade the Japanese.  The groups formed were:

- No.2 Special Service Detachment with about three British Officers and 20 British Other Ranks under Lt. Colonel Brocklehurst

- 14th Burma Rifles with about 70 Burma Army Other Ranks plus 30 Gurkhas from the Southern Shan States Battalion, under Lt. Colonel J.D. Tucker

- One party of around 100 Indian Other Ranks of the Southern Shan States Battalion under Captain Hutchinson[16]

- A second Southern Shan States Battalion party of around 100 Indian Other Ranks under Captain Prentice.[17] [18]

Brocklehurst attached a group of 55 mules from the 2nd Animal Transport Company and Captain D. King to Captain Thompson’s party of Karens and remaining men of the Southern Shan States company which now made its own way to Tahwa and crossed the Namtu River.  The party marched on until at Nagao on May 12th Thompson decided to split his party.  His Karens, four Levies and the Gurkha platoon of the Southern Shan States Battalion pressed on, the remainder were ordered to go their own way in small parties and were given 50 Rupees each.  Hearing reports of Japanese advances cutting of their escape route westwards to the Irrawaddy, Thompson now decided to go North to the Kachin Hills.  An extremely arduous and lengthy trek now ensued and it was not until August that Thompson’s party reached Fort Hertz where on 26th August 1942 the men were flown out to India on two Royal Air Force DC-3 Dakotas.[19]

Meanwhile the Southern Shan States Battalion parties that had been split off from Brocklehurst’s original Taunggyi Rear Party marched over the hills through Mogok towards Myitkyina where Frontier Force Headquarters were thought to be.  On arrival at Katha it was found that the Japanese had already been there and gone up to Bhamo by river the previous day.  As there were considerable difficulties in getting food and given that such large bodies of men would draw attention, it was decided to divide the formation into smaller groups under GCOs and to send these by different paths to the Hukawng Valley and then on to India.[20]

Other men travelled independently of these parties, having been separated earlier.  On 2nd May, the 14th Burma Rifles encountered six members of the S.S.S. Battalion Mounted Infantry patrol ambushed at Namlan on 30th April.  These men stayed with the 14th Burma Rifles until 8th May until the party split once again.   However this party of six was again ambushed, at Sin, and all but two taken prisoner.  These two made contact with the 14th Burma Rifles party on 15th May and one of the men stayed with this group to reach India, the other joining a party led by Mr G.E. Turnbull of the Burma Frontier Service.[21]

It is estimated that the men of the Battalion marched at least 800 miles before they reached their destination, much of this journey undertaken without formal supply arrangements.[22]  From the immediate border area they were sent on in drafts to Hoshiarpur in the Punjab which had been nominated as the centre for the collection and reorganisation of the Burma Army.  A “Taunggyi” Battalion, B.F.F. was reported as being located at Hoshiarpur in September 1942.  This probably referred to elements of the Southern Shan States Battalion, B.F.F.  On arrival at Hoshiarpur, along with others of the Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police, the men were registered, given advances of pay, replacement clothing and sent to their homes on war leave.  On return from leave, the men were sorted out and medically graded.  Those found suitable for further service were eventually drafted to Battalions of The Burma Regiment which was formed from Burma Frontier Force and Burma Military Police personnel on 1st October 1942.  Initially six infantry battalions were raised, with a mounted infantry and a training battalion also planned, all organised into two administrative brigade.[23]

17 November 2017

[1] "The Lineages and Composition of Gurkha Regiments in British Service", J.L. Chapple, 1984

[2] “Burma Frontier Force … 1939-1942” By Lt.Col H.M. Day, WO 203/5694

[3] “Burma Frontier Force”, WO 106/3673

[4] “History of the Chin Hills Battalion, 1894 …”, MSS Eur E250

[5]Burma Frontier Force; Short History of F.F.3” by Major J.H. Turner, WO 203/5702

[6]  John Francis Bowerman, born 28th November 1893.  In ranks 187 days (temporary 2ndLt.), 26th January 1915 to 31st July 1916; temporary Lieutenant, 1st August 1918 to 28th November 1918).  Commissioned Lieutenant, Machine Gun Corps, 26th October 1916.  First World War, served Iraq, 18th September 1916 to 31st May 1917; wounded; Operations against  the Marris ( N.W. Frontier), 20th February 1918 to 25th March 1918.  Appointed Indian Army, 29th November 1918.  Promoted to Captain, 20th October 1919.  Served Afghanistan, N.W. Frontier 1919; Waziristan, 1920-21; Waziristan 1921-24.  Attached to 1st Battalion, 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis (1921), later 10th Baluch Regiment.  Served N.W. Frontier of India, 1930-31.   Seconded to Burma from 26th January 1931, Burma Military Police.  Promoted to Major 20th October 1933.  Served Burma, 1930-32 (Saya San Rebellion).  Commandant, Myitkyina Battalion, Burma Frontier Force, 1937.  Inspector General, Burma Frontier Force, 1938 until 9 months leave until 22nd October 1938.  Commandant, Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force, 1938-1942.  Liaison Officer to Chinese 6th Army in the Southern Shan States, April 1942.  Assumed command of the Burma Frontier Force in Myitkyina on 4th May 1942.  Later, as Brigadier-General, C.O. 2nd Burma Brigade in India from 1st October 1942.  Commander, Fort Herz Area Headquarters, 22nd October 1943 to 14th May 1944, until evacuated by air to India with Typhus, flying out on 16th May 1944.  As temporary Brigadier, awarded C.B.E., 6th June 1946.  Died 18th December 1983 (British Army List; Indian Army List; “War Services of British and Indian Officers of the Indian Army 1941”, Savannah (2004); War Diary 14th Burma Rifles, WO 172/986 (War diary, WO 172/986; IOR L/WS/1/1313; “Burma Frontier Force … 1939-1942” By Lt.Col H.M. Day, WO 203/5694).

[7] "Scots in Burma", A. McCrae

[8] WO 203/5694

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

[10] WO 203/5694

[11] Seppings, Carlyle Edmund (Imperial War Museum interview, 1996), Imperial War Museum; WO 203/56997.

[12] Henry Courtney Brocklehurst, born 27th May 1888, Swythamley, Staffordshire.  Commissioned 10th Hussars.  Royal Flying Corps, 1916-1918.  Game warden of the Sudan.  On the Special List (April 1942), as temporary Lt. Colonel, 1st December 1940.  From late 1941, C.O. of 2nd Special Service Detachment, initially based at the Bush Warfare School, Maymyo.  Brocklehurst drowned in late June whilst fording a river.  Date of death is given as 28th June 1942 by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Commando Veterans Forum).

[13] War Diary 14th Burma Rifles, WO 172/986 (War diary, WO 172/986); WO 203/5692

[14] Arthur Leonard Bell Thompson born, 1st December 1917.  Before joining the Army, worked on the staff of Steel Brothers, Rangoon, 1941.  Promoted to Lieutenant, ABRO (ABRO 088), 14th October 1941.  Served with the 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles, 1941 to 23rd March 1942.  As Company Commander of the Karen Company, 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles, ordered to take his company from Toungoo to support the Karen Levies operating in the Mawchi area., 23rd March 1942.  Served as Lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles, 1944.  Served with Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), 1944 to 1945.  As temporary Captain, The Burma Rifles, awarded the Distinguished Service Order, gazetted, 22nd March 1945, the citation for which reads:

Brigade:            Burma Levies, Burma Army
Unit:  1st Burma Rifles, attached Burma Levies

Action for which recommended: -           On March 23rd, 1942, Captain Thompson, with 135 Karens of his Bn. was ordered to join a Burma Levies detachment under Capt. Boyt in the Karen Hills.  His force was limited to one rifle and 50 rds. per man, plus four TSMG [Thomson Sub-Machine Guns].  Capt. Thompson was ordered to cover demolitions by levies on the Toungoo-Mawchi road.  On 2/4/42 the Japs moved up the road a spearhead of approx. one Bn. supported by AFVs and m/c troops.  Capt. Thompson engaged this greatly superior enemy force at the Paletwa bridge, which had been destroyed, and delayed it with heavy casualties till his left flank was overrun and his position turned.  Capt. Thompson then extricated his force and took up another position further up the road.  25 Karens were lost in this engagement.  Sporadic minor clashes occurred as the enemy moved cautiously forward until 4/4/42, when the party took up a new position over the next major demolition and again fought it out till overrun, inflicting heavy casualties on the Japs and greatly delaying and discouraging them.  In this action the Karens lost a further 45 men including Sub. Thong Pe.  After assisting with further demolitions the party then passed through the Chinese who had by then moved up.  Throughout this period Capt. Thompson’s party was subjected to constant pressure by a greatly superior enemy.  Capt. Thompson showed the highest quality of courage, leadership, and skilful handling of his men throughout.  His determined reaction to enemy pressure during this critical period was of the utmost importance to all concerned in this very significant action.  In all Capt. Thompson gained some four days time for regrouping of the Chinese 6th Army in the Southern Shan States.  This enabled the 6th Army to hold up the Japs just long enough to let the Chinese 5th Army, then fighting at Pyinmana, send a division (the 200th) round to Taunggyi in time to stem the enemy’s thrust westwards through Thazi-Meiktila-Yenangyaing.  It is a fact that Capt. Thompson’s magnificent delaying action saved the Chinese and British armies in Burma from encirclement.

Though this particular action forms the subject of this recommendation it was not the end of Capt. Thompson’s excellent work.  Although later cut off by the enemy, he withdrew the very small remnants of this force through their lines and brought his men to safety in Fort Herz after a march of some 900 miles.  Throughout this desperate adventure, made as it was with virtually no supplies and very little money for food, Capt. Thompson continued to display the same high standard of leadership, and it is safe to say that without it none of the party could have made the journey.

Recommended by: H. Stevenson (late Lt. Col, Commandant Burma Levies)

Worked as an industrial journalist for the steel industry, post- war.  After the war became a writer of crime and thriller novels, writing under the pen name of Francis Clifford, late 1950s.  Died, 24th August 1975.  Wrote an account (under his pen name Francis Clifford) of his trek through Burma to Fort Herz from where he was eventually flown out to India.  Published after his death, 1st January 1979  ("Desperate Journey", A.L.B. Thompson writing as Francis Clifford, Hodder & Stoughton (1979); Anglo-Burmese Library; HS 9/1/1460/6;; London Gazette; Thacker's Directory 1941; War Diary 1st Burma Rifles, WO 172/974 (War diary, WO 172/974).

[15] “Diary of Capt. Thompson & Report on Movements of Karen Company from Toungoo – Mong Pawn and Thereafter”, Burma Levies, WO 203/5712

[16] Thomas Coulter Hutchinson, born, 27th November 1913.  Before joining the Army, was a "Rangoon banker", 1941.  Commissioned to the General List from O.C.T.U. as 2nd Lt. (189600), 28th April 1941.  Posted to the Northern Shan States Battalion at Lashio, 5th May 1941.  Temporary Major, 15th June 1941.  As Captain, Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force, on the withdrawal from Taunggyi as part of Taunggyi Rear Party.  Took command of a SSS Battalion party for the trek to India, 30th April 1942.  War substantive Captain, 15th June 1944.  After the war appears to have returned to banking in the Far East, 1945 ("Distinctly I Remember", H. Braund, Wren (1972); British Army List; FindMyPast; London Gazette; War Diary 14th Burma Rifles, WO 172/986 (War diary, WO 172/986)).

[17] Alan Sharp Prentice, born, 1910.  Travelled to Rangoon aboard SS "Pegu", occupation "Clerk", leaving Birkenhead, 18th April 1935.  Joined the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, 1935.  Travelled to Rangoon, aboard SS "Salween", leaving Glasgow, 26th July 1940.  Commissioned from OCTU Cadet to the General List as 2nd Lt. (217681), 26th October 1941.  Officer Commanding Heho Aerodrome Guard, Southern Shan States Battalion, B.F.F., 1942.  War substantive Lieutenant, 14th March 1942.  Part of the Southern Shan States Battalion, Burma Frontier Force detachment forming part of Taunggyi Rear Party on the withdrawal from Taunggyi.  Led a detachment of around 100 men to India, a journey of around 750 miles.  Served with the Kachin Levies, out of Fort Herz, 1942 to 1944.  Temporary Captain, 30th November 1942.  First post-war Agent of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company at Mandalay, 31st August 1945.  As Mercantile Assistant, Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, resident in Mandalay, married Brenda Ruth Houston, Rangoon.  Travelled from Rangoon to Glasgow, aboard SS "Prome" with wife.  Occupation "Irrawaddy Flotilla Company", 1st June 1947.  Left the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company upon nationalisation, 1948.  Managing Director of the road transport subsidiary of the Colonial Development Corporation, Tanganyika, 1949 to 1951.  Returned to the United Kingdom, 1952.  Worked for Stonegate Farmers, United Kingdom, 1952 to 1973 (Anglo-Burmese Library; "Tales of Burma", A. McCrae, James Paton (1981); "Scots in Burma", A. McCrae;; British Army List; FindMyPast; London Gazette).

[18] War Diary 14th Burma Rifles, WO 172/986 (War diary, WO 172/986); WO 203/5692

[19] WO 203/5712

[20] WO 203/5692

[21] War Diary 14th Burma Rifles, WO 172/986 (War diary, WO 172/986)

[22] WO 203/5692

[23] IOR L/WS/1/1313