Burma Frontier Force
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The Burma Frontier Force

The Burma Frontier Force was formed following the separation of Burma from India from units of the Burma Military Police.  Six battalions were organised and were manned largely by Gurkhas and Indians.  Three battalions of the Burma Military Police were also retained. 

Southern Shan States Battalion  

Taunggyi

Northern Shan States Battalion  

Lashio

Myitkyina Battalion

Myitkyina

Bhamo Battalion

Bhamo

Chin Hills Battalion

Falam

Reserve Battalion

Pyawbwe

The Force was commanded by the Inspector-General, Burma Frontier Force, with a small headquarters consisting of a Staff Officer, one Assistant Staff Officer and a clerical establishment.  It was a civil force directly under the Defence Department, Government of Burma and quite separate from the Burma Army.  With the exception of arms and ammunition, which were supplied under Army arrangements, the Force was dependent upon the Superintendent of Police Supplies for equipment, clothing and rations; for medical arrangements upon the local civil medical authorities; and for buildings and works upon the Public Works Department. [1]

Before the separation of Burma from India on 1st April 1937, the infantry units which came to be included in the Burma Army, the Burma Rifles and the Burma Military Police were officered exclusively by British regular officers of the Indian Army.  From 1st April 1937, officers for the Burma Rifles, the B.F.F. and the B.M.P. were found by the secondment of British Service Officers in addition to Indian Army Officers for a tour of four years, extensible to five.  All officers were placed at the disposal of the G.O.C. Burma who decided the officer postings between the three forces (Burma Rifles, B.F.F. and B.M.P.).  Officers serving with the B.F.F. and B.M.P. served as Commandants and Assistant Commandants.  Apart from British Regular Officers, Governor's Commissioned Officers (G.C.O.s), the equivalent in Burma of Viceroy's Commissioned Officers in India, served with the battalions of the Burma Rifles and the B.F.F.  Following the outbreak of war, additional officers were found by the appointment of officers from the Army in Burma Reserve of Officers (A.B.R.O.).

Men joining both the B.F.F. and the B.M.P. signed on for three years initially, however this was extendable and large numbers were permitted to serve until they had qualified for pension which in the case of Sepoys began at fifteen years, N.C.Os eighteen years, G.C.Os twenty years.  The result of this system was that the average age was considerably higher than in regular units.  From 1937 the quotas of men who could be recruited from India and Nepal was considerably cut back.  Recruitment now came to depend increasingly on men born and raised in Burma and who were considered to lack the same martial qualities as those from India and Nepal.  It was felt that the overall standard of recruits declined as a result. [2]  

The duties of the B.F.F. were “watch and ward” along the frontier, the provision of escorts and guards to Civil Departments and the reinforcement of the B.M.P. for internal security duties.  The B.M.P. was to all intents and purposes armed civil police and had detachments at the Headquarters of all Districts in Burma proper which were always under the command of Civil Police officers.  There was no intention that the B.F.F. was to be used as regular troops in a modern war.  At the time of the outbreak of war there were large numbers of the Frontier Force in Rangoon which had been there since an outbreak of riots and strikes in 1938.  The result was that it had been impossible in many cases for battalions to carry out normal reliefs of outposts with the result that the efficiency of the Force suffered considerably. [3]

Each Battalion was designed for "watch and ward" within its own particular district, and was organised to provide two additional companies for employment elsewhere as required.  Of these two companies, one was intended to provide a frontier column primarily for use in its own area, and the other, three internal security platoons for use as required anywhere in Burma.  The Chin Hills Battalion alone was not given the second liability. [4]   Each Battalion had a Headquarters wing, a Training Company, and a varying number of Rifle Companies.  The Rifle Companies consisted of three platoons and a Company H.Q. platoon.  Automatic weapons were restricted to one Lewis gun per company and there were no mortars in the Force.  British officers were few in number, each battalion Headquarters having a Commandant and one or two Assistant Commandants.  Assistant Commandants were also allotted to certain selected outposts and appointments. [5]   This organisation, although not officially sanctioned until early in 1940, was being placed into effect at the time of the outbreak of war in 1939. 

At the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, the Burma Frontier Force comprised a total of approximately 7,800 combatant ranks of whom approximately 2,000 were indigenous and the remainder Indian.  These were organised as follows: [6]

 

Infantry Companies

 

Total

M.I.

 

‘H.Q. Coy’

‘Trg. Coy’

‘Active Coys’

 

Coys.

Tps.

Bhamo Battalion

1

1

6

 

8

2

Chin Hills Battalion

1

1

6

 

8

-

Myitkyina Battalion

1

1

8

 

10

2

Northern Shan States Battalion

1

1

10

 

12

2

Southern Shan States Battalion 

1

1

8

 

10

3

Reserve Battalion

1

1

8

 

8

4

Total

6

6

44

 

56

13

The Reserve Battalion also embraced the B.F.F. Signals, the B.F.F. Equitation School and Remount Depot, the Government Stud Farm and later the B.F.F. Motor Transport Unit.

Immediately on the outbreak of the war in 1939, the B.F.F. took over guard duties for the airfields on the air reinforcement route to Singapore, notably the landing grounds at Akyab, Mergui and Victoria Point, and on this account the Southern Shan States Battalion, which provided garrisons for these places, was increased by three companies.  Additional detachments were raised, together with those of The Burma Rifles and the armed civil police, to take up further guard duties for new airfields, supply dumps and the supplies at Lashio destined for China.  In October/November 1940, the Kokine Battalion, B.F.F., was formed to carry out these duties but was poorly trained and equipped.

At the end of 1940 the 8th (Frontier Force) Battalion, The Burma Rifles was formed from British officers of the B.F.F. and specially selected Sikhs and Punjabi Mussalmen who had volunteered for active service anywhere.  The 7th (Burma Police) Battalion, The Burma Rifles was raised at the same time and took up a large number of men from the B.M.P. as well as the Burma Police.

Further rapid expansion of the B.F.F. occurred during the period November 1940 to April 1942 when numerous war units were formed from existing personnel in the Force.  These were: [7]

Frontier Force Mobile Detachments (F.Fs)

1 to 3

Landing Ground Mobile Detachments

3

Anti-Parachute M.I. Troops

3

Armoured Platoons

10*

* These were envisaged but never formed.

In 1941 it was decided to raise units from within the Force to carry out specific tasks on the frontier.  These units were formed from columns provided by the different B.F.F. battalions, each of which was to be capable of functioning independently.  The role of these units was that of harassing and delaying the advance of an enemy until such time as he could be engaged by the regular troops who would be brought up from the rear.  The columns were placed under young officers, most of whom were straight from cadet training units, and the units were commanded by selected senior Assistant Commandants.  Initially four such units were formed, F.F.1, F.F.2, F.F.3 and F.F.4. [8]

Frontier Force Mobile detachments varied considerably in establishment and organisation, as they were originally designed to operate in particular areas in Burma and were each organised to carry out a particular role.  Very shortly after the invasion of Burma, F.Fs. were removed from the areas in which they had been raised, and allotted roles quite different to the ones for which they had been organised.  Due to the problems encountered by these units their employment was not a general success, and during the latter stages of the campaign it was decided to reorganise them on to one establishment and to place an equal number with each division.  This reorganisation was partially completed in April 1942. [9]

As elsewhere, the raising of additional units could only be achieved by drafting men from existing units and the effectiveness of units providing drafts suffered accordingly.  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 Depots and Training Centres containing recruits, re-enlisted pensioners and long service men unfit for active duty.  They were led by a Commandant and often a single, newly commissioned Assistant Commandant.  By February 1941 the strength of the B.F.F. was 7,712 infantry and 471 mounted infantry and by April 1942, immediately prior to the evacuation, the strength had risen to approximately 12,000 combatant ranks. [10]

Shortly before the end of 1941, the F.F. units in the Southern Shan States and Tenasserim were placed under operational control of the Army and became subject to the Burma Army Act.  Army scales of rations and clothing were sanctioned for them, but for all other purposes they remained under the Inspector General, Burma Frontier Force.  At a later date the whole of the Force was put under the Army in Burma for operational purposes.  Given the variations in systems and procedures there were inevitable problems and it would have been better if the whole Force had been placed under the Army immediately the war broke out with Japan.  The position of the B.M.P. was different and they continued as before until April 1942 when they were then put under the Army in Burma for operations and merged into the B.F.F. for other purposes. [11]

The Inspector General, Burma Frontier Force, who in peace time was head of the Force, was made the commander of Central Area, a line of communications organisation, during January 1942. [12]   Withdrawals in Lower Burma increased the importance of this office and it soon became almost impossible for one officer to carry out the dual role.  Headquarters Burma Frontier Force moved to Pyawbwe in February 1942.  In April, the Headquarters was split in two with Rear Headquarters under the command of the Senior Staff Officer being sent to Myitkyina and Advanced Headquarters under the command of the Inspector General going to Yenangyaung.  These moves made a bad situation worse.  Nothing was done to rectify this and the Battalion Headquarters found it impossible to get decisions on many important problems were left to carry on to the best of their ability often completely out of touch with what was going on in Burma itself.

As the withdrawal in Burma continued, Frontier Force units gradually evacuated their stations.  The F.F. detachments operating with the Army withdrew under the orders of their respective formations and battalions, mainly by the Northern evacuation routes.  The Reserve Battalion went by the Tamu route, and the N.S.S., Bhamo, and Myitkyina Battalions by the routes through Myitkyina.  The Commanding Officers of all three latter Battalions became casualties in their respective Battalion areas which left the N.S.S. and Bhamo Battalions without any British Officers.  The S.S.S. Battalion, which in March had been reduced to a Depot with a strength of approximately 200 all ranks, mainly administrative personnel, withdrew under the command of a junior British officer through Lashio to the North.  It was then obliged by the situation to split up into small parties, each to make their way to India by the best way possible. [13]

During the retreat to Myitkyina and subsequently from there to India, there was a great deal of disorganisation in the Headquarters of several Battalions.  This was mainly due to the absence of British Officers and to the fact that Battalion H.Qs contained practically no organised bodies of fighting troops with reasonable equipment but were made up mainly of unfit men who had either been used only on guard or escort duties or were employed as clerks, pioneers and on other sedentary duties.  The morale of the men in the B.F.F. was understandably affected by the large number of families still left in Burma at the end of April.  Families in Rangoon were got away by sea and those of the Reserve and Kokine Battalions were moved out by the Tamu route.  Those from Taunggyi (the S.S.S. Battalion) Lashio (the N.S.S. Battalion) and Bhamo were mostly, moved to Myitkyina.  There were at least 1,200 at Myitkyina by the end of April.  Many of the men on service had no idea where their families had gone and a number went off to ensure that their families got away safely.  Most of the families eventually made their way without any transport to India, suffering sever hardships on the way.  Many died along the way.  Upon reaching India there were many cases of men who had lost contact with their wives and of many wives who had lost their husbands. [14]  

The Inspector General, Brigadier F.A.G. Roughton was caught up in the desperate fighting at Yenangyaung where on 19th April 1942 he was evacuated across the Pin Chaung with the Commanding Officer of the 1st Burma Division, Major Bruce Scott.  Totally exhausted, Roughton was evacuated to Mandalay and from there by hospital launch where shortly after he died on 21st April 1942.

Brigadier J.F. Bowerman assumed command of the Force in Myitkyina on 4th May 1942. [15]    Accompanied by the senior Staff Officer, Burma Frontier Force, he arrived in India by the Hukawng Valley route.  From Assam he was immediately flown to G.H.Q. India, Delhi, to obtain orders as to the future of the Frontier Force and the B.M.P., the latter having been placed under the control of the Inspector-General, B.F.F. in April 1942.  Orders were received that all members of both Forces were to be sent to Hoshiarpur, Punjab, where a reception Depot was formed.  Drafts of men began arriving at Hoshiarpur from 15th June 1942.  A Force Headquarters and a Headquarters of each Battalion were opened.  As they arrived, the men were registered, given advances of pay, replacement clothing and sent to their homes on war leave.  During the period June to December approximately 10,000 all ranks passed through Hoshiarpur.  On return from leave, the men were sorted out, medically graded, and those found suitable for further service were eventually drafted to Battalions of the Burma Regiment.  This new Regiment was formed from B.F.F. and B.M.P. personnel on 1st October 1942.  Considerable difficulty was experienced during this period of reorganisation owing to very few senior British Officers being present, to the large amount of sickness among both officers and men and to the difficulty in obtaining arms and equipment with which to commence training. [16]

 

Some interesting tales are to be found on the Burma Frontier Constabulary web page.  The B.F.C. was the post-war successor to the B.F.F.


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

[2] WO 203/5692

[3] WO 203/5692

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

[5] WO 203/5692

[6] WO 203/5694

[7] WO 203/5694

[8] WO 203/5692

[9] WO 203/5694

[10] WO 203/5694

[11] WO 203/5692

[12] Francis Arthur Guy Roughton, born, 6th July 1884.  As Cadet, Royal Military Academy, commissioned as 2nd Lt. (3886), Royal Garrison Artillery, 15th July 1903.  Promoted to Lieutenant, Army, 15th October 1905.  Promoted to Lieutenant, Royal Garrison Artillery, 15th July 1906.  Appointed Lieutenant, Indian Army, the 113th Infantry, from the Royal Garrison Artillery, 3rd March 1908, with seniority from 15th October 1905.  Promoted to Captain, 15th July 1912.  Served as Staff Captain, Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, 9th September 1917 to 25th April 1918.  As Captain, appointed D.A.Q.M.G., Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, with the rank of temporary Major whilst so employed, 26th April 1918 to 5th January 1919.  Promoted to Major, 15th July 1918.  Mentioned in Despatches for distinguished and gallant services in Mesopotamia (Iraq), gazetted, 27th August 1918.  Mentioned in Despatches for distinguished and gallant services in Mesopotamia (Iraq) whilst serving with the 113th Infantry, gazetted, 21st February 1919.  Served as D.A.A. & Q.M.G., India, 13th May 1919 to 15th September 1919.  Served as D.A.Q.M.G., Northern Command, India, 1st November 1920 to 31st May 1923.  Served as G.S.O. 2, India, 1st June 1923 to 31st October 1924.  Promoted to Lt. Colonel, 6th February 1929.  Promoted to Colonel, 6th February 1932.  Transferred to the Unemployed List, 6th February 1933 to 13th October 1933.  Served as A.A. & Q.M.G., India, 14th June 1934 to 24th June 1935.  Promoted to Colonel, 14th June 1934, with seniority from 6th February 1933.  Employed as Inspector-General, Burma Frontier Force, granted the temporary rank of Brigadier, 1st April 1937.  Retired, 25th June 1940.  Awarded C.B.E., 12th June 1941.  After the fall of Rangoon in early March 1942, moved to Yenangyaung with the Advanced Headquarters, Burma Frontier Force where he also became Commander, Central Area (a line of communication headquarters), March 1942.  Exhausted, he was evacuated across the Pin Chaung with the C.O. of the 1st Burma Division, Major Bruce Scott, by carrier, 19th April 1942.  Was evacuated to Mandalay and from there by hospital launch where shortly after he died, 21st April 1942.  Mentioned in Despatches, gazetted, 28th October 1942 (British Army List; CWGC; Indian Army List 1921; London Gazette; WO 203/5698; WO 203/5698).

[13] WO 203/5694

[14] WO 203/5692

[15] 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 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 of British troops at Fort Herz, 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 (http://www.rothwell.force9.co.uk/burmaweb/WO_172_986.htm); IOR L/WS/1/1313; WO 203/5694).

[16] WO 203/5694

 

 

14 May 2015

 

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