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Bill Seymour


Major William Seymour

Major William Seymour, who has died aged 96, served with the Commandos during the Second World War in Mission 204, a little-known and highly secret operation providing covert military aid to China.

6:40PM BST 25 Aug 2011

In July 1941, 80 veterans of the Commandos’ raids in the Mediterranean and East Africa — among them Seymour — were dispatched by sea from Port Suez to Burma. Although aware of their ultimate destination, it was not until they arrived at Maymyo, north-east of Mandalay, that they were briefed on the exact task that awaited them.

Despite the looming threat presented to Britain’s Far Eastern colonies by Japan, no state of war then existed between the two nations. But the Cabinet had decided that the time had come to begin helping the Chinese Army, which had been fighting the Japanese since 1937.

Seymour accordingly found himself joining some 300 British and Australian volunteers charged with training the Chinese in guerrilla warfare and carrying out sabotage missions behind Japanese lines.

So secret was the mission that no identifiable uniforms were worn and the men were advised that if captured they could legitimately be shot by the Japanese. Such were the risks and hardships involved that the troops were to draw double pay. Once hostilities were declared against Japan, the squads became the first British soldiers to fight with the Chinese Army and came under the command of Orde Wingate, then formulating his ideas on jungle warfare.

Seymour himself was sent to the eastern Shan States to harass the Japanese rearguard, but by April 1942 it was clear that Mission 204 had become cut off from British forces in southern Burma. The only routes of escape were via the railhead at Lashio, or a six-week trek on foot to Kunming, in China itself.

Seymour was sent ahead to reconnoitre the road to Lashio, but learned en route that it had fallen to the Japanese. He headed instead for Kunming, as did the remainder of the force. Tropical diseases had already weakened the health of many in the column who, with the approach of the monsoon conditions, deteriorated further.

Friendly headhunters carried the sick and supplies through the Wa States, but once over the Yunnan border the mountainous terrain and meagre rations took a heavy toll on men and mules alike. The two daily meals consisted of rice with salt, washed down with a mug of mildewed tea. Six miles was accounted the maximum daily progress that could be made by those suffering from malaria or dysentery.

Only when Kunming was almost in sight could the troops be sure that the Japanese were no longer pursuing them; but their relief was tempered by the loss of more than half of their original number.

The mission was disbanded, and in July Seymour — who was mentioned in despatches — was flown with the rest of the survivors to Delhi. None ever received the extra pay that had been promised.

William Napier Seymour, the son of an Army officer, was born in London on September 8 1914. After Eton, he joined the Scots Guards, serving before the war in Palestine and Egypt. In July 1940 the first of the three Commandos to be raised in the Middle East was formed, mainly from the still-horsed 1st Cavalry Division and from infantry battalions in the region, including Palestinian soldiers.

Seymour became adjutant of 52 Commando, which in December embarked at Port Said for use as a raiding force against the Italians in Ethiopia. Also on board was the battalion of a Scottish regiment which the Commandos suspected of stealing their seasonal comforts, among them Christmas puddings; relations on the voyage south remained frosty.

Accompanied by camels carrying rations, two companies from 52 took part in January in an attack on the Gondar road. Seymour set an ambush some 20 miles behind enemy lines, and a sharp firefight ensued when the Italians brought up reinforcements, obliging Seymour to withdraw and leave his camel to its fate.

In March 1941, 52 Commando became part of Layforce. Originally assembled for an attack on Rhodes, it was sent instead to help resist the landings on Crete. Most of its members were taken prisoner, but Seymour had ruptured his Achilles tendon (and so could not march) and had been left behind in Alexandria.

After returning from China, Seymour temporarily became ADC to the governor of Bengal while waiting to go to Staff College. In 1946 he returned to Jerusalem as brigade major in Air Landing Brigade, moving on to Baghdad as Inspector of Infantry there. He then served in Malaya with 2nd Battalion the Scots Guards before leaving the Army in 1949 to become a land agent to the Crichel estate in Dorset.

In 1954 the government was forced belatedly to honour a wartime promise to return to the estate’s owners land which had been purchased compulsorily for bombing practice by the RAF. The case attracted much publicity and came to have wide ramifications for the conduct of ministerial duties.

Seymour served as president of the Royal Forestry Society, and in retirement wrote several books, principally of military history. They included British Special Forces (1985, republished 2000); Great Battles of the World (1988); and Great Sieges of History (1991).

William Seymour died on June 22. He married, in 1945, Mary Hambro, who survives him with their three daughters.


Cdvision - 08/28/2011 09:49 AM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 2 people

A piece of history new to me. Is there any published account?

RIP Major William Seymour - a very brave man, indeed.

jeremiah_methusela - 08/27/2011 06:37 AM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 4 people

Indeed,yes, that should be done and quickly too. A small but important gesture which might even win a little credibility for the random collection of *****s which passes for the British Government.

Don't anyone hold their breath.

RIP Major Seymour and thank you Sir

markw - 08/26/2011 05:27 PM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 12 people

If the British Government had any sense of moral responsibility it would make restitution of unpaid monies, backdated and inflation proofed, to Maj Seymour's widow - and members of the other families of soldiers involved in Mission 204 so disgracefully treated

pttonline - 08/26/2011 03:50 PM - Recommended by 4 people

"So secret was the mission that no identifiable uniforms were worn and the men were advised that if captured they could legitimately be shot by the Japanese." The least of their problems I would imagine!

Typical "can do man", do the job then worry about the reward.
RIP a very brave soldier.

wilson - 08/26/2011 09:30 AM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 27 people

Another incredible person of a dying generation and informative to read of this till now clandestine campaign.

How shocking to read: " None ever received the extra pay that had been promised," and "In 1954 the government was forced belatedly to honour a wartime promise."

cousinjack - 08/31/2011 05:54 AM

Maybe I'm just cynical.....this doesn't surprise me one bit unfortunately.

jdavidj - 08/26/2011 08:11 AM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 21 people

It's interesting that the government (or at least the armed forces hierachy) were lying to our soldiers even back then. Many of us thought that lack of support from the top was a new phenomenon.

georgec - 08/26/2011 01:25 AM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 30 people

A fascinating account. I imagine Major Seymour was the last survivor of that clandestine force in Burma. RIP Sir.

beachie - 08/26/2011 01:07 AM - Description: Comment like countRecommended by 45 people

When people read about special forces, it really means special people. That’s why he lived to be 96, he was special aged 20 and remained so for the rest of his life. RIP Major Seymour, I salute you Sir.


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