The Foe With Fearless Eyes

Seven decades since World War II, the tale of a largely unknown British officer remains a legend with Myanmar's Karen People, who are still fighting the Myanmar government - now a military junta - for independence. Liz Coward looks at the wartime exploits of Major Hugh Paul Seagrim — or “Grandfather Longlegs”.

In December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), aided by the Thai Phayap army, and Burmese Independence Armies, invaded the British colony of Burma.

The 300 strong Burmese Independence Army (BIA) was led by Aung San, leader of the left-wing intellectual political party, the Thakins.

The Thakins was one of three rival nationalist parties intent on reviving Bamar identity, culture and politics.  

All looked to foreign countries for assistance, so the Thakins decided to support Japan in the invasion, in the hope of realising their aims.

As today, in the 1940's Burma was comprised of many ethnicities. The coastlines and lowland plains of the Irawaddy Delta were dominated by 10 million Bamars.

In contrast, the jungle hills were home to seven million people from hill tribes such as the Chins, Shans, Arakanese and Karens who tended to support the British. 

The fight against the power base of the ethnic Bamars is still at play with the current struggle of ethnic armed groups in Myanmar.

Japanese invasion of Burma January 1942 / photo Getty

As the British and Indian armies fled before the Japanese onslaught, 20,000 Burma Rifles soldiers, included Chins, Kachins and Karens, were given the choice to withdraw to India or return to their villages to await further orders. 6,186 troops withdrew to India whilst the rest remained in Burma waiting for the British to return.

Major Hugh Seagrim of the 19th Hyderabad Regiment of the Indian Army was attached to the 20th Burma Rifles when the Japanese invaded.

He was a charismatic, dynamic and spiritual man who left an indelible mark on those who met him.

In January 1942, Seagrim was poached from the army to join the British Special Operations Executive, (SOE).

Major Hugh Seagrim, 20th Burma Rifles/ photo supplied

The role of the SOE was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance missions and train and lead local resistance.

It was known as Winston Churchill’s ‘Secret Army,’ and along with two other officers, Seagrim was sent into the Karen Hills to raise a force attack Japanese lines of communication.

Seagrim lived amongst the Karen and grew to love them, a feeling which was reciprocated.

At the time, it was not anticipated that the Japanese and their allies would chase the British, Indian and Chinese out of all but northern Burma.

When that became clear, Seagrim and his fellow officers were ordered to withdraw.

However, Seagrim volunteered to stay but, lacking a wireless transmitter, subsequently lost all contact with SOE.

On 17th May 1942, Burma was declared independent and Ba Maw of the Sinyetha  Party was appointed Head of State. The BIA was replaced with the newer and smaller Burma Defence Army.

Aung San was aghast that the Japanese had turned their back on the Thakins so quickly and installed their bitter rival in government in a supposedly independent Burma.

By January 1943, the SOE was attempting to re-enter Burma and Operation Harlington was launched to see if Seagrim was still alive.  

The first step saw Lieutenant Ba Gyaw parachuted into the Karen Hills to establish contact with him. He did and eight months, (and 20 attempts later), a wireless radio was dropped.

In October, Captain Nimmo flew in, followed two months later by Captain McCrindle. By Christmas 1943, the SOE had a team deep within enemy territory.

Vital intelligence, such as Aung San’s desire to switch sides, subsequently began to be transmitted to Allied HQ.

Seagrim passed on the Karen’s desire to rise up and fight but was told to hold off for nine months. Unfortunately, the increased activity in the Karen Hills and Seagrim’s ill-fated rumour that a British battalion was embedded within, invited a fierce Japanese response. Nimmo and McCrindle were ambushed and killed in a Japanese attack but Seagrim and a Karen officer managed to escape.

Shortly afterwards, Seagrim learned that 270 Karen had been arrested and tortured for information on his whereabouts. To save others from the same fate, he surrendered.  Along with eight of his closest followers, Seagrim was arrested and taken to Rangoon jail.

A Force 136 Force Special Group Ferret - mixed ethnicities working with British SOE/ photo courtesy Richard Duckett

By 1944, the SOE’s effectiveness was proven and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Commander SE Asia Command, insisted that the army make full use of SOE operations.

Seagrim’s comment that the Karen wanted to rise up finally bore fruit. 

General William Slim, commander of the British 14th Army, decided to transition the Special Operations Executive from intelligence to military operations.

In April 1945 Operation Character tasked the SOE with raising a guerrilla army of 12,000 Karen in the Karen Hills. Its role was to support the 14th Army’s advance on Rangoon by attacking the Japanese as they retreated down the Mandalay-Rangoon Road, the only major road to the Burmese capital.

If the Japanese could hold the town of Toungoo, the 14th Army would be prevented from reaching Rangoon before the monsoon started and the Allied amphibious landing commenced.

In preparation, three-man SOE teams, fresh from Europe, were parachuted into the Karen Hills along with over 3,000 weapons. In all, 80 British officers, 30 NCOs and over 100 men were flown in.

The SOE and Operation Character teams, of mixed ethnicity, including Bamars, successfully mobilised 12,000 Karens across 7,000 square miles. They created mobile Levies responsible for ambushes and guerrilla warfare and static Levies to guard the villages and prevent the Japanese from taking food, rest and shelter.

This irregular army came under Slim’s command and from March 1945, was called Force 136.

On 13th April, Force 136 was ordered into action. As the Japanese retreated down the road, Force 136 attacked its flanks from the Karen Hills. It directed airstrikes, blew up bridges and lorries and harried the 50,000 strong  Japanese force.

So effective were the attacks that the Japanese dubbed the Karen, ‘The Foe with the Fearless Eyes.’  In the ensuing engagements, Force 136 killed 11,874 Japanese, (more than were killed by conventional forces in Burma), for only 22 losses. 

Remembering Force 136 on ANZAC Day, Nhill Australia 2017/ photo courtesy Nhill Free Press & Kaniva Times

Crucially, the Japanese were prevented from regrouping at Toungoo, allowing the 14th Army to continue its progress to Rangoon and eventually retake Burma.

On 4th August 1945, the war in Burma ended, and the British resumed their colonial control of the country.   

However Major Hugh Seagrim was executed at Rangoon Jail nearly a year before, on 22nd September 1944 along with eight of his closest followers, including Lt. Ba Gyaw.

Seagrim received a posthumous George Cross, and is revered by the Karen people to this day.

Operation Character has been described as ‘one of the most successful SOE operations of the whole war,’ and Force 136 is still remembered fondly on ANZAC Day by the Karen diaspora.

Banner image : Japanese officers arrive at Mingaldon airfield, Rangoon, to take part in surrender negotiations in 1945.

- Asia Media Centre