In Collaboration with Jim Herlihy

Burma Frontier Force
In 1937, Burma was separated from the colony of India. Up until that time, a force of Burma Military Police had been responsible for guarding the frontier. This had mostly been a mix of Indians, Gurkhas and Karens serving under British command.

The eight battalions of the BMP were later, around 1939, reduced to three; two in lower Burma, and one in Mandalay. The remaining 5 were remustered as the Burma Frontier Force with Battalions in the Northern and Southern Shan States, the Chin Hills, Bhamo and Myitkyina.

From 1937 the Burma Frontier Force took control of policing the froniter. The function of this force prior to World War 2 was to guard and police the Eastern borders of the British colony of Burma. Of these, the longest and most strategically important was with China, but there were also borders with Malaya and Thailand containing much-used routes along which movement and commerce flowed.

The six battalions of this substantial force were commanded by British officers seconded from the Indian Army. Non-commissioned ranks were enlisted from the warrior races of the Indian sub-continent (particularly the Gurkhas) and the hill tribes of the Burma frontier (particularly the Karen, Kachin, Chin and Lahu). These could rise through the ranks to the status of senior Warrant Officers, in which capacity they could (and did) command companies, patrols or outposts.

The BFF was a professional body, well able to carry out its functions. It was respected, and its mere presence was sufficient to keep out marauding Chinese bandits or deal with troublemakers among the hill tribes. It was on generally good terms with the Shan Sawbwas and tribal leaders who were the traditional rulers of the territory.

Some units and individuals distinguished themselves when the Japanese invaded via Malaya, and they conducted a fighting retreat into Indian bases from which they continued to play a part. Indeed, some elements of the Northern Shan States battalion under their commanding Officer Colonel Haswell never left Burma, and continued to harass the Japanese from the wild and inaccessible Kachin Hills. They were later regularly supplied by air with personnel, supplies and equipment.

There was a strong cavalry element within the BMP and the BFF making them the ideal retreat for the less well off Indian Army cavalry officers. The last British horsed cavalry charge may well have been carried out by the BFF. In 1942, during the British retreat through Burma, Captain A G Sandeman of the Central India Horse, on secondment to the Burma Frontier Force, led his Sikh and Punjabi Mussalman troopers in a charge against Japanese machine gunners in an action near Toungoo. None of his command survived. They were probably from the Pyawbwe Reserve Battalion, a dusty, horsey town in Central Burma.

World War 2 ended with the defeat of Japan and the re-occupation of Burma by British forces. This had long been anticipated. An embryo civil service was in existence and waiting in India to take over, while in London the recruitment of a new generation of members of the Burma Civil Service and Police was in progress. The intention was to re-instate and update the pre-war administration, to restore order in Burma, and to bring the country to a state of stability and political maturity in which self-government was a practical possibility.

Burma Frontier Constabulary
Burma Frontier Constabulary
Burma Frontier Constabulary
The post-war Frontier Constabulary was very much a re-construction and continuation of the old Frontier Force, with the same responsibilities. However, the new entity was to be more clearly an integral part of the Burma Police, answerable to the Civil Government via the Inspector General of Police, Burma. A new post of Deputy Inspector General, Frontier Constabulary was created. The redoubtable Colonel Haswell agreed to serve in this capacity and was obviously ideally suited for the task. He established his Headquarters in Lashio and went to work with a will. A pre-war Burma Police Superintendent took over command of the Northern Shan States Battalion. A European, but married to a member of one of the aristocratic Shan families, he was acquainted with the area and well connected within it.

The Japanese had paid little or no attention to the frontier areas, occupation of which would have been of no great military advantage to them. As a result, they had been less ravaged than elsewhere in the country. In Lashio, for example the pre-war barracks and offices of the Northern Shan States Battalion were still in quite good order, and there were still former members of it who had gone to ground among the local population. These, together with others from India, now resumed their former allegiance. Enlistment and training of new recruits from among the local tribes was soon in progress.

The same applied to the Southern Shan States Battalion, based in Tounggyi. Here, however, the job of reforming and training the Battalion was given to a British Army officer seconded for the purpose. By name Jimmy Battle, he was well qualified for the job. A sturdy figure, with close-cropped hair and a bristling moustache, with an accent betraying his Lancashire origins, he was 100% soldier. He had joined the Army at fourteen as a boy soldier, straight from elementary school. Taking advantage of Army educational programmes, and by natural ability, he had become in his twenties the youngest Company Sergeant-Major in a peace-time Army in which it could take fifteen years or more to attain that rank. Granted an Emergency Commission at the beginning of the war, he had been posted to the Far East where much of his service had been with Orde Wingate's Chindits in deep penetrations of Japanese held territory. His regular army background showed in an obvious liking for smart turnout and military ceremonial, but he was essentially a totally down-to-earth individual who believed that the only valid criterion of the worth of a unit was its performance in the field rather than on the parade ground.

Under his tutelage the Southern Shan States Battalion rapidly became the best trained and most effective example of the new incarnation of the unit. It is perhaps worth examining in some detail.

Southern Shan States Battalion
The Taunggyi Headquarters consisted of a central barrack square capable of taking large parades and in constant use for drill and weapon-training purposes. Around it were well-constructed barrack blocks which accommodated in some comfort the Headquarters Company. The platoons of this were commanded by Warrant Officers still known by their Indian Army titles of Jemadar. The whole Company was commanded by a Karen pre-war Frontier Force Officer, the Subedar. Of the Platoons, the two longest serving were at a high state of training, and could be used for patrolling or other activities as required. The remaining three platoons were at various states of training, and this was a continuous process under the supervision of Jimmy Battle.

The battalion also maintained the largest and best established Frontier Constabulary outpost. This was at Loimwe in Kentung. This State had three important borders - with China, Thailand and French Indochina. The outpost consisted of two companies. The first contained three platoons, one of Gurkhas and the other two of tribesmen, with the Lahu predominating. They were trained up to the point where they could drill and fire a rifle, but had a long way to go. The second company was of similar composition except for the Gurkhas, but at an even lower level of training. One platoon was reasonable, one coming along, and one consisted of recent recruits who were still at the stage of getting used to wearing boots and not dropping their rifles. Sergeants commanded the platoons, the companies were commanded by Jemadars, and there was a middle-aged Karen Subedar of long service in the Burma Rifles. His function was to act as second in command to the Assistant Commandant commanding the outpost, and to be responsible for day to day administration. There were thirty pack ponies, in charge of an equal number of civilian Chinese muleteers, tall tough characters from the mountains of Yunnan, just across the border.

A big advantage was that a wartime Army unit that had left behind them when they departed large supplies of ammunition. This made it possible for live firing training to be carried out on the adjacent range more frequently than would otherwise have been the case. Another advantage was the attachment to the unit of a Sikh Sub-Assistant Surgeon, a qualified medical practitioner worth his weight in gold in an area where such expertise was otherwise non-existent. Another Sikh was in charge of the wireless set through which it was possible to communicate with the Tounggyi Headquarters. One of the duties of the Outpost was to keep a 24 hour guard post on the road used by travelers from Thailand and French Indo China to enter the Shan States.

The Sawbwa, the Shan ruler of the State, was a friendly and energetic young man. He had been sent to school in Australia before the war, and had only recently returned. His English was more fluent than his Shan, which he had to re-learn. During his absence his father had been assassinated and his brother had taken over as Regent. When the legitimate Sawbwa returned after the war he had promptly made it clear that he was the boss and intended to rule in fact as well as name. He had progressive ideas, and was grateful for the stability provided by the Frontier Constabulary. In this he took a great interest. He was very interested in weaponry, and liked to visit the BFC range and try out various firearms. He was quite proud of his Australian nickname of 'Shorty'. His 'Palace' in Kentung was a large, rambling wooden building, swarming with family and servants, the grounds beautifully kept by chained gangs of miscreants from the small jail, guarded by members of his small private police force who also supplied his bodyguard. Meals in the 'Palace' were quite formal affairs. When they had guests, the family ate in Western style at a large dining table, from good crockery and with knives and forks rather than chopsticks. However, the servants served food and drink from a crouching position, since they could not hold their heads higher than their aristocratic masters. They entered the room and conducted their business bent double.

The official legal system in the area was 'Shan States Custom Law', traditional observances and customs well enough understood but not committed to paper. The basic principle was that the Sawbwa or his representatives were the law. Allegedly some pre-war British Resident with a tidy mind had tried to codify this. According to the story, after specifying nine offences and their penalties in paragraphs numbered one to nine, he had given up the struggle and concluded with a tenth paragraph reading 'Anything which is not an offence under the preceding nine sections shall be an offence under this section'.

With Jimmy Battle in command there was little chance of the unit being allowed to slide into inactivity. Active patrolling took place in the Tounggyi area, which had a border with Burma. On one occasion when a local band of dacoits were terrorising a locality close to the Kentung border he did not wait to go through the diplomatic niceties of getting authority to operate outside his area, but personally took a Company-strength patrol to the area. When he approached the hilltop 'stronghold' from which they were operating undisturbed, they made the mistake of firing on the patrol from long range. The BFC hillmen went straight for them whooping with glee, and the dacoits remembered urgent business elsewhere and made off at speed, abandoning their arms in their flight. They did not re-assemble. The BFC Company had undergone a valuable training exercise with live fire, and the area was restored to order without a single casualty.

The Loimwe outpost was also active rather than passive, and regularly patrolled its area both to make its presence felt and as part of its ongoing training programme. Its manning of the important frontier post was an important function not only to manifest its control of the area but to provide protection from banditry for an important trade route.

Through it in 1946 passed an interesting letter addressed to the Officer Commanding Loimwe. Brought by a Laotian trader from Indo-China and written in French, it was from a Foreign Legion officer on the other side of the border. He explained that he had returned to take over the same outpost that he had commanded before the war, and expressed the hope that the cordial relationship he had then enjoyed could be re-established, and that a fraternal visit could be arranged. He commented on the unsettled state of the country, and explained that he himself never moved with less than a platoon. It appeared that the French were not as welcome in the hill areas as the British on their side of the border. This might, perhaps, be partly due to the nature of the Foreign Legion itself. While it had a justified reputation as a magnificent body of fighting men, it was not equally noted for its ability to maintain friendly relations with the local civilian population.

On another occasion the FC Sergeant on duty at the checkpoint questioned two young Europeans who were hitching a ride on a Thai truck returning to Chiangmai in Thailand after delivering goods to Kentung. He noticed they were dressed only in shirts and shorts, and that their luggage consisted of small army issue haversacks. They had no passports or identity documents. He decided to detain them. They turned out to be two deserters from a British Army regiment stationed in Burma. Their intention had been to make their way through French Indo-China to Saigon, where they hoped to be able to sign on some merchant vessel and go wherever fate might take them. To assist in this project they were equipped with a very small-scale map torn from an atlas and two tins of corned beef. The Assistant Commandant Loimwe when they appeared before him quite admired their enterprise, but explained to them that Saigon was a very long way away, that the country through which they would have had to pass was in an unsettled state, that the French would have returned them if insurgents had not killed them, and that their chances of contracting malaria, dysentery or tick typhus would have been high. They agreed that they had not given the matter sufficient thought, and would be better off rejoining their battalion and facing the music. They were fed, bedded down for the night, and dispatched to Tounggyi next morning in the Station jeep escorted by a two-man escort.

The two selected by the Subedar turned out to be two Toungthus, members of one of the wilder and woollier minority tribes. Short but broad, they were muscular characters with stern impassive faces and some impressive tattoos. The party set off, with the driver and one escort in the front, and the other in the back with the two youngsters. The jeep and escort duly returned a few days later to report that they had delivered their charges to the Commandant as instructed. They failed to report an incident which had occurred on the journey, which they presumably thought not worthy of mention. They had driven straight to his bungalow where one of the escorts had reported to him with a look of conscious pride. Outside in the jeep he found the driver and remaining escort, one very dead body, and one young soldier rigid with shock and fear. According to the escort, the dead man had made off into the bush during a halt and refused to stop when shouted at. According to the survivor, his companion had been going to answer a call of nature and had not realised that he was being ordered to stop. This was almost certainly true, since one would have been unlikely to make a break for it without the other. The Army were informed, and collected the bodies, alive and dead.

Northern Shan States Battalion
The Northern Shan States Battalion was equally active. Composed largely of Kachins, the Jemadars and Subedars were Shan. There were adequate training facilities. The essential pack transport here in the North was mules rather than the Shan ponies used in the South. They were big, strong, well-cared-for beasts, in the charge of civilian Chinese muleteers. Tall Yunnanese with hard, bony faces, they kept largely to themselves and mixed little with the hillmen, whose good humour and sense of fun they did not seem to share. They were serious, hard working and reliable.

Very shortly after its reconstruction the Battalion was confronted with the problem of bandit raids from across the border with China. These were large incursions, carried out by ''soldiers' of the army of the Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek. It did not take long for the enthusiastic Kachins of the newly reformed BFC to persuade them that villages on this side of the border were not fat chickens ripe for their plucking. Thereafter there was to be no further trouble from that quarter.

Lashio was a slightly larger Headquarters than Tounggyi, containing as it did Colonel Haswell's office as well as that of the Northern Shan States Battalion. It was also responsible for the administration of another frontier outpost, Pyongyang. . This was a post-war addition to the Frontier Constabulary presence, and existed to discourage the Chinese from crossing the ill-defined border, but also to deter the more undesirable activities of the Wa. Some of this tribe of primitive hillmen lived peaceable lives, and were amenable to the rule of the local Sawbwa. These were known as the 'Tame Wa". Others, living in less accessible areas and known as the 'Wild Wa' retained their traditional habits. These included headhunting. The Sawbwa regarded them as a threat, and was pressing for action against them. A punitive expedition against them was being planned, for which the take-off point would be Pyongyang.

Pyongyang contained none of the amenities of Loimwe. A post-war addition, it had been constructed from scratch. Building materials, rations and monthly pay all had to be carried up by mule convoy from Lashio. Accommodation for both men and officers consisted of 'Bashas', huts constructed of bamboo, thatched with interwoven leaves, and elevated on stilts. Furniture was made from the ubiquitous bamboo, and the floors were of woven bamboo strips. Latrines were primitive, and ablutions were carried out by pouring pots of water over the head from clay pots. Lighting was by paraffin lamps. Other huts constituted the kitchen areas on which food was prepared on open fires on stone slabs at floor level. None of this was any hardship to the hillmen, but it needed a special type of European or aristocratic Shan to actually enjoy it.

As time went on, it became more and more evident, even in the remotest parts of the country, that the British were on their way out. For many Burmese, and even for some Shans, this was cause for rejoicing. For the rank and file and for many of the officers of the Frontier Constabulary it meant sadness and foreboding as they faced the breaking of old loyalties and a problematical future. For those who had been comrades in arms the parting was particularly poignant. The last European Assistant Commandant to command Pyongyang was presented with a gold ring to which all ranks had contributed, and a laboriously compiled document reading 'Remember Heart! Til will meet after years!" The wording might have been obscure, but the sentiments were clear.

It was the end of an era.

Predecessor Units
Burma Military Police
Burma Country Profile
Burma's Last Days

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by Stephen Luscombe