Operation Bunkum

The enigmatic Major A Denis M McCarthy

There have been one or two articles in the press about this interesting character, briefly providing a glimpse of the maverick policeman and the other terming him Andaman’s James Bond. Mc Carthy must have sat back in his British village and wondered about it all after the war was over, but then there were a lot of people like him, people who were somewhat bored with their lives, when the World War II came along and provided some sparks, even if it were at the risk of their lives. Afterall, he must have realized early in his life that his future was not be a bobby in London, cap and all. He was destined to be in the hot tropics with the odd assortment of all kinds of natives…when the Japanese came calling.

We have been covering the CBI Theater and the Japanese onslaught briefly in previous articles and many more on the way will detail it even more, but this was at the periphery of the theater, nevertheless very important. The Penal colony was becoming more of a self supporter colony not including the cellular jail and things were somewhat stable when the Japanese conquered Burma and Singapore during their relentless march towards India.

Around March 23rd, the Japanese took Port Blair without any effort. The next three years are talked about vaguely, due to a variety of reasons, and the Japanese destroyed all records when they left. But accounts of survivors and the policeman McCarthy show that the Japanese were entrenched in the islands and were ruthless in their handling of matters out there, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps because that was how their baser instincts surfaced simmered and finally exploded. Much later when political control of the Islands was handed over to Bose, who appointed Loganathan as the Governor, but he had no possibility to control anything. But that is another story for another day and requires further study. In any case, the Japanese were on the lookout for British collaborators and spies and took action with a very heavy hand on the slightest suspicion. It was also a major embarrassment for the INA Bose supporters, and so not much information about the atrocities came out from the Indians who returned to the mainland.

The story of Operation Bumkum or Operation Baldhead as some others put it, goes back to the days before the Japanese actually occupied the islands. If you recall, the Japanese invaded Burma in Dec 1941 and by 1942, the British were out of Rangoon. They then attacked Port Blair around Feb 1942 and soon, by March the British had evacuated Andamans. By March, the Japanese were in command and between then and 1944, a lot of events, some brutal took place. However the British and the allies were quite conscious of the strategic importance of the islands, one being the fact that it was guarding the waterways and an important point on the way and secondly as it housed a number of prisoners against the British, whose opinion and voice could be used as propaganda.

The O 21 class was a class of seven submarines, built for the Royal Netherlands Navy. The ships were still incomplete at the start of the German invasion of the Netherlands and so O 21, O 22, O 23 and O 24 were hastily launched and sent away to the United Kingdom. O 25, O 26 and O 27 were not able to escape and were captured by the German forces. The Onderzeboot O 24 Dutch patrol submarine was thus incomplete when the war started in 1939. Quick modifications made it seaworthy and it appears that its snort was removed as it was considered dangerous by the British. The Sulzer diesels rated at 2,500HP could power the sub to a speed of 22mph and dive to a depth of 100m traversing a range of 12,000 miles. Equipped with a geruispeiler(listening device) from Atlas Werke (Bremen, the best on the market. De Vries was in command the sub was on the prowl since then. On a warm morning in Colombo, the submarine’s Dutch crew was complemented by a motley group of 6 people headed by an Englishman, who was no stranger to Andamans, for he used to head the police forces there. The sub Comdr de Vries’s instructions were clear, land them under cover at Andaman’s and pick them up on a designated date and time. Between 14th and 24th Jan the submarine patrolled the Andaman route and it was on the 19th that the SOE group headed by Mccarthy was dropped off at Port Campbell.

The British were forming a group (not yet called SOE) in Colombo (administered from Meerut) to be launched for deep cover penetration and this was to become the Force 136 at Colombo. Their intended destination was Malaysia and Singapore. Presumably this was the group that oversaw the Bunkum and Baldhead operations. It was here that many parties were being trained for infiltration. The Andaman penetration group was headed by Christopher Hudson and perhaps provided the kind of result the group was expecting out of its future missions to Malaya. Group A was aimed at China, Burma, Indo China and Thailand. Group B was meant for Burma, and the Andamans offshoot was attached to it.

McCarthy was the former police superintendent or commandant of the Andamans police and had left Andamans a couple of days before the Japanese landed. During his time in the Andamans he had covered a lot of the island in search of hostile Jarawa tribesmen and knew a lot about the terrain and the hideouts. He had also built up a few contacts amongst the other tribes; and pretty soon this was to help him in his undercover operation. It appears that he had planned it well in his mind before the departure from the island, and it was while at Rae Barely in UP that he was contacted by Bob Scott to work with the SOE (actually its forerunner). MCarthy soon convinced them that he could go back to the Andaman islands and lead a reconnaissance effort to figure out what the Japanese were upto. As a reader can imagine, those were the days when there were no satellites and drones and Andamans was in the middle of a vast ocean with no other means of contact. So a man on the ground was the only solution and that was what Operation Bunkum was supposed to do (a number of books confuse the name between bunkum and baldhead, I believe it was Bunkum, but why a name that meant nonsense was given to it is a question), get people on the ground and get information from them over wireless.

Mc Carthy quickly created a team for this purpose and they were all trained extensively for the mission at hand. The team comprised British sergeant Dickens, ex policemen Habib Shah and Gyan Singh, Ranchiwalas Havaldar Joseph Bakla and his cousin Peter. Mc Carthy was in the meantime formally commissioned into the Sikh regiment and trained later with his team at Khadakvasla. Later, intensive training was provided at Colombo and it was from here that they boarded the O 24 destined for Andamans. In addition to getting details of the Japanese entrenchment, Mc Carthy planned to take away the remaining Englishmen with him back to India. Landing on the west coast of Andamans, McCarthy walked about the 130 odd miles for over a month with his team through the dense jungles and villages, as well as the towns, surveying the defenses and entrenchments. The reports were passed on through wireless transmissions to Calcutta.

In the meantime, a few of the British were sent to Singapore and Rangoon ( I am not sure about who or how many, for I had assumed that all except a couple had already left Andamans), but the supply officer AG Bird (a.k.a.Chirrie or chidiya – Hindi word meaning bird) a well liked lanky veteran in Andamans was to bear the brunt of the Japanese. He was brought to trial with a board traitor hanging around his neck, based on a false report by a convict turned intelligence officer named Pushkar Baghchi. Bird and Ram Sarup (who had Baghchi’s job after Bagchi was caught for theft by Bird earlier) were sentenced to death. They were beaten mercilessly, Birds arms were twisted and broken and finally Birds head was hacked off with a sword by a Japanese officer Col Bucho. After this Ram Sarup was ceremoniously pardoned and let go.

Things took a turn for the worse when local women were rounded up as comfort women, but this did not quite work out due to the opposition and a consignment of Korean women were brought in. Bagchi was the person who did most of this legwork for the Japanese, but soon he himself got on their wrong side and was put in jail. The general situation was to soon become worse with shortages and lack of necessities, for there was no petrol or supplies.

Meanwhile McCarthy had landed. Their stay at the Andamans undercover is fodder for a thrilling movie, and one of the first steps was to set up a camp deep in the jungle and prepare for the arduous days ahead. McCarthy soon headed for Port Blair, 70 miles away with Habib Singh and Joseph, in dinghies travelling by day and night, narrowly escaping detection on a number of occasions, resting in the jungle and sometimes in the middle of mangroves. The treks were terrible experiences and the men suffered a lot due to leech bites. After a few days McCarthy reached Ferragunj together with Habib. It was from the headman that they received information of the problems and brutalities at the island and learned of the execution of the Supply officer Bird.

The next few days were filled with near misses and attempts at getting information from Wilayat shah the headman’s cousin. But the attempt resulted in another disaster, for Habib Shah lost his life to an accident as he slipped and his gun went off killing him instantly. Now there were just two, McCarthy and Joseph while the other three at base camp had a relatively boring stay, except for a minor brush with some Jarwa tribal’s.

Even though they reached base camp on 4th March, the extrication took place around 21st March when the O24 again came to Port Campbell. As they took away McCarthy, a second group was inserted to continue the work. From the O24 records, it is clear that some of the first group remained back, perhaps Gyan Singh. The Japanese were on the lookout for spies, a number of Indians were butchered for this reason, suspected of collaboration, while Mc Carthy was up and about with his team, scouring the islands. The records state thus

21 Mar 1943: O 24 lands the British Army (SOE) shore party 'Bunkum II' on the Andaman islands. The party consists of 10 men. O 24 also successfully contacts agents of shore party 'Bunkum I'.

22 Mar 1943: O 24 takes members of the shore parties 'Bunkum I' and 'Bunkum II' back on board at the Andaman coast.

24 Mar 1943: O 24 delivers supplies for the shore parties 'Bunkum I' and 'Bunkum II' at the Andaman coast.

The party back at the home base had the wireless fired up and messages were sent to Calcutta. The reports of the Japanese entrenchment and locations were radioed to the CBI headquarters.

Now we get back to the CBI operations that we talked about. The report on the CBI site states- Air power grew rapidly in 1943 with the 10th and 14th Air Forces not only counter-attacking enemy planes, but bombing Japanese installations all over Southeast Asia and Eastern China. At the end of the year we had unchallenged air superiority over our own vast land stretches and when Maj. Gen. George Stratemeyer was made commanding general of USAAF in the CBI, the Theater had become a major air command of the U.S. Army. The 10th air force was operating from Asansol in Bengal. Reports mentions that many ships were sunk on their way to Port Blair, and the airport was bombed often.

McCarthy himself wrote that they saw three flying fortress’s in the air which came and bombed the town, presumably targets pin pointed by them. Next task was to signal for their extraction and soon the O24 was there to get them off the island. The whole group was upon return declared unfit and sick with severe anemia and were discharged. McCarthy did not take part in some four or five Bunkum or Baldhead operations of the future, but Gyan Singh did, so much so that the sighting of a bearded man by the Japanese resulted in many Sikhs being ill treated later by the Japanese. In addition it was suspected that somebody was relaying information to the Allies, and many other Indians were tortured and killed by the Japanese. Soon this resulted in supplies getting short and further agony in the islands. McCarthy was the first to report the Japanese Brutalities that took place during their occupation.

It took a year before the final actions were taken. By 1944 beginning a few more bombing sorties were undertaken against the Japanese in Andamans. Further insertions were done by the British submarine HMS Taurus. On 9th Oct 1945, Andamans was finally liberated, thanks to some extent on the efforts of McCarthy and his Bunkum operation….


Dec 1943- The Andamans raid took place Dec. 6 - the first of its kind in several months. The heavy ships apparently took the island defenses by surprise, and, of the few fighters which attempted to intercept, one was destroyed, one probably destroyed and three damaged.

During the early stages of 1944, the 7th, now a part of the newly formed 10th Air Force, continued to strike the enemy in Burma, Thailand and the Andaman Islands, inflicting heavy damage to their installations

The Imperial war museum has a film on the retaking of Andamans – The synopsis reads thus - 9 October 1945, at approximately 1000 hours: Japanese Army and Navy delegates arrive to sign a formal surrender at the Gymkhana Ground, Port Blair; one of their escorts is enormously tall and they await the arrival of the British and Indian delegation. Brigadier J A Salomons, commander of 116th Indian Infantry Brigade and officer commanding land forces Andaman and Nicobar Islands, arrives and inspects a guard of honour; some of the troops appear to be wearing 'Rajput' shoulder titles. Salomons takes his seat and reads the terms of surrender. Seated Japanese naval officer, Vice Admiral Hara Teizo. Seated Japanese army officer, Major-General Tamenori Sato. Japanese interpreter reading the terms. Vice Admiral Hara signing the instrument of surrender and affixing his seal………..

Teizo approaches the Allied delegation's desk, salutes, and places his sword on the table. Closer shot shows the junior Japanese naval officer saluting and placing his sword carefully on the table before marching away. Sato surrenders his sword. Japanese delegation marches off. In the Andaman Islands, after more than three and a half years of Japanese occupation, troops of 116th Indian Infantry Brigade make an amphibious landing at Port Blair to take the surrender of the Japanese garrison, while Civil Affairs troops see to the welfare of the population…………..

You can see the entire surrender here in pictures….

Recently an unexploded shell was found near Port Blair’s airport. It is apparently a shell from one of the bombing sorties resorted by a couple of flying fortress bombers of the CBI theater.

The O 24 was decommissioned in June1955 and sold to be broken up for scrap in June or September 1963. McCarthy was awarded an MBE and retired to New Delhi followed by repatriation to the UK. Nothing is known about the other Indian members of the SOE team, which as you can imagine, is not unusual. They were the other unheralded heroes of the campaign in Andamans.…

This incidentally was the first of the SOE operation success after its formation. The SOE launched many other interesting operations since then. Later the Andaman Islands were also used for other Malaysian missions such as Durian.

Able Seaman Whitehouse Bromley Kent UK– Interestingly there was only one British prisoner in Andamans during this period. Able Seaman Whitehouse was the only British prisoner of war on Ross Island, having spent ninety days adrift in a lifeboat after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on the SS Woolgar. However, other sources suggest that the D/S Woolgar, a Norwegian-operated vessel built in Sunderland in 1914, was sunk by Japanese aircraft. She was attacked on 7 March 1942, 150 miles off Tjilatjap, and went down in 12 minutes. 6 men, including Whitehouse, survived 88 days in a lifeboat, although one died ten days after reaching land..


Red Sun over Black Water – Jayant Dasgupta
Kalapani – LP Mathur
Oneindianews article
Light of the Andamans - Maverick McCarthy
Dutch Submarines timeline

Bunkum – It is an interesting usage. Meaning insincere speech making by a politician intended merely to please local constituents. insincere talk; claptrap; humbug. How the word came about is equally interesting. From Wikipedia we note this - In 1820, Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina, in the U.S. House of Representatives, rose to address the question of admitting Missouri as a free or slave state. This was his first attempt to speak on this subject after nearly a month of solid debate and right before the vote was to be called. Allegedly, to the exasperation of his colleagues, Walker insisted on delivering a long and wearisome "speech for Buncombe.". He was shouted down by his colleagues. His persistent effort made "buncombe" (later respelled "bunkum") a synonym for meaningless political claptrap and later for any kind of nonsense..Although he was unable to make the speech in front of Congress it was still published in a Washington newspaper..

Pics – thanks to Dutchsubmarines…