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Asian agents had impossible task: Second World War files released yesterday show how poor planning hampered the Allies' secret missions against the Japanese, Stephen Ward reports QBY: STEPHEN WARD

The War Office made impossible and unrealistic demands on agents trying to mount covert missions against the Japanese during the Second World War, according to documents released yesterday.

The distances involved in the Far East made it hard to maintain supply lines and agents were urged to concentrate on sabotage, although in the rural economies of the region there was little of value to attack, papers on the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for the war show. Initially, submarines were the only means of transport; aircraft with sufficient range only became available late in the war.

The files were opened for the first time yesterday as part of a commitment by John Major two years ago to more open government. Secret files are being released at the Public Record Office after they have been ruled no longer to be a threat to national security or people still living.

The SOE was set up to carry out acts of sabotage, subversion and propaganda behind enemy lines. It was best known for its work in occupied Europe, but yesterday's release covers only operations in the Far East, run from bases in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, far away from Japanese- occupied Malaya (now Malaysia) and Burma.

Operations faced the difficulty that white-skinned British agents could not pass themselves off in the streets as locals. It was also much harder to find a resistance movement to encourage, when many local people saw Britain as a colonial power.

London constantly urged the SOE's chief in India, Colin Mackenzie, to concentrate on sabotage. 'To contend that a sabotage and fifth column organisation is not practicable is to accept the gospel of despair and defeatism,' the War Office told him.

One ambitious plan codenamed 'Oblivion' put forward in 1943 would have landed Canadian Chinese volunteers on the south China coast. They were trained and ready to start from Australia by December 1944, when the Americans vetoed the operation, saying it would have been a waste of a submarine.