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The Enigma of Major Tom Harrisson | Warren Reed reviews Kill the Major by Paul Malone
In March 1945 British Major Tom Harrisson and 42 Australian, New Zealand and British guerrillas dropped behind enemy lines in Borneo with the mission of gathering intelligence on the Japanese occupation. After parachuting into the remote central mountains, the guerrillas ventured alone, or in pairs, into the jungle to recruit traditionally head-hunting local tribespeople. While all 42 survived their jungle ordeal, rather than revere their leader, Major Harrisson, many hated him and three wanted to kill him.
In this review of Kill the Major former ASIS officer and author of Hidden Scorpion, Warren Reed, discusses why Major Tom Harrisson inspired such animosity amongst the team of guerrillas he led on such a successful mission in Borneo.
In wartime, leaders are chosen because they have a bundle of relevant skills. There’s rarely time to examine personality traits that might impact on the troops under their command nor, ultimately, their effectiveness in the field. This is certainly the case with Major Tom Harrisson who is credited with leading the most successful Allied guerrilla effort in Borneo in the closing stages of WWII.
Harrisson was, by any measure, an eccentric in the full British sense of the term. At Oxford in the 1930s, he regularly walked into the city not only barefoot but with painted toenails. This fetish proved useful, he said, because it laid the foundation for tough feet.
Before WWII broke out, Harrisson had experience in British North Borneo as an ornithologist, leading a 1932 expedition of eight Oxford and Cambridge scientists exploring and studying the flora and fauna in the little-developed state of Sarawak. None of his team, and very few white men, had previously ventured into the highlands close to the border with the then Dutch territory of Kalimantan, which constituted the remaining two-thirds of the Island.
Harrisson later undertook an expedition to the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, present-day Vanuatu, which saw him move from ornithologist to anthropologist, spending a year, in his own words, “living with the cannibals”.
Back home, he realised that his new form of “participatory observation” could be applied in Britain. This led to the formation of Mass-Observation, an organisation that studied the lives of ordinary British people, which Harrisson founded with English poet, Charles Madge.
The following quote provides some insight into how Harrisson, in 1940, doggedly kept his eye the mission he had to accomplish, a quality that served him well in Borneo despite not winning him many admirers amongst the men he led. It comes from a new book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson (William Collins, London, 2020), pages 46-47:
“The German raid on Rotterdam lingered as a reminder of what could very soon befall the city. So likely was this prospect that, three days later, on Friday, May 24, with the moon still bright – a waning gibbous – Tom Harrisson, director of Mass-Observation’s network of social observers, sent a special message to his many diarists: ‘In the case of air raids observers will not be expected to stand about … it will be entirely satisfactory if observers take shelter, so long as they are able to take shelter with other people. Preferably with a lot of other people.’ ”
As the author, Erik Larson notes, “The opportunity for observing human behaviour at its most raw was just too perfect.”
In 1942, Harrisson joined the King’s Royal Riflemen, from which he was selected to undertake officer training at Sandhurst, Britain’s prestigious military college, where he graduated as a Second Lieutenant the following year.
Harrisson’s knowledge of Northern Borneo more than qualified him for the task of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering behind enemy lines. Moreover, his anthropological bent would have informed his strategy of directing the 42 Allied guerrillas under his command to “live off the land” among local tribespeople, arguing that if his men “couldn’t get the locals to support them with food, they were hardly likely to be able to retain them as recruits.”
That maybe so but the 42 guerillas had to endure dysentery, tropical ulcers and malaria as well as poor food supplies and faulty equipment in the jungle. Pleas for assistance and even complaints seemed to fall on Harrison’s deaf or derisive ears, culminating in at least one solider’s active plan to ‘kill the Major’ and two more seriously considering that option.
Nevertheless, the drive to recruit local tribespeople to the cause by winning their trust and ‘blending in’ was very successful. The traditional head-hunting tribesmen readily joined the cause, alienated by the cruelty of the Japanese military and the exploitation of their limited resources on the island. Ably led by the Allied guerillas, they attacked Japanese outposts and ambushed enemy patrols with great stealth and effectiveness.
However, it was impossible for the tribal warriors working alongside the guerrillas to comply with the Geneva Convention, the international rules of war. No holds were barred and Japanese heads were taken by warriors under Allied command because traditional practices could hardly be questioned under the circumstances.
Typical of the gory action scenes in Kill the Major is a story recounted by Corporal Roland Griffiths-Marsh, who led a group of twenty tribal warriors, armed with their traditional parangs (machetes) and blowpipes, upriver and into a mangrove swamp to capture a band of Japanese soldiers. Suddenly, the warriors set upon the soldiers in what Griffiths-Marsh described as a “primitive and fantastic mass of rising and falling parangs”.
A final victory howl terminated the slaughter and Corporal Griffiths-Marsh said, “Though I had experienced the Libyan, Greek and Crete campaigns as an infantryman, this was something unknown to me. I wanted to retch, but could not.” The flotilla returned to their village with the warriors’ spoils – the heads of their victims - grotesquely displayed over the bows.
These were the sorts of experiences Harrisson’s men grappled with, often on a daily basis in the Borneo jungle. Sometimes, Harrisson would seem to appreciate this, but on other occasions he would appear infuriatingly oblivious to his men’s trials and tribulations.
To his credit, however, Harrisson stood up for his men and their warrior recruits when it counted. With the formal Japanese surrender in August 1945, the AIF ordered the guerrilla forces to move out of North Borneo, leaving the locals to battle on alone against two units of Japanese soldiers still active in the region.
One of his fellow British officers noted that Harrisson was adamant he would not abandon those who had served his guerrilla force so well and would “rather face a Court Martial than do so”.
Harrisson himself said: “I would like to feel that we as a party have left everything straight, everyone happy and a good clean name for ourselves in Native history. These people … have done a marvellous job helping us. It is up to us to see that they get a fair deal in return and are not just left without thank you or an aspirin.”
Harrisson and his team of 42 guerrillas, aided by their jungle compatriots eventually forced the surrender of the last company of 400 Japanese combatants, two months after the war’s official end.
While Major Harrisson remains an enigmatic figure throughout the book, he is also the source of useful insights and indeed praise of the Australians under his command. He acknowledges the emphasis Australian guerrillas and soldiers in general, placed on initiative and independence, along with the concept of officers as a separate, barely existing class saying, “There is really a sort of exaggerated masculinity and virility among the better types of Australian men, which at times can be fairly insufferable; but which is absolutely invaluable under active service, military conditions.”
He also observed that, once they got into uniform, it was almost impossible to separate the Sydney bank clerk from the Darling Downs shearer or the range rider from Darwin.
Harrisson commented that, from what he had seen of his men’s operations, “Australians have twice the bushcraft and five times the initiative [of the English]. And they don’t grumble so much.”
He also praised their capacity for improvising all sorts of crude machinery and speculated that in the absence of guns or hand grenades, “they would have leapt from behind trees to strangle Japanese colonels”.
Despite evidence of the misery and deprivations of his guerrillas, and the desire to murder him in some courts, at the conclusion of the war, Harrisson confirmed his support for his men by recommending 13 of the 42 for military awards.
As to Harrisson’s assessment of himself, he concluded with the tongue in cheek, or perhaps self-aware, line: “A large-size shithouse … promote to MP.”
Paul Malone’s Kill the Major – The true story of the most successful Allied guerrilla war in Borneo is an informative and enjoyable, if sometimes shocking, read. It casts light on one of the lesser-known theatres of the Pacific War and packs a mighty punch in terms of insights into military leadership and human nature under the most extenuating combat circumstances.
[Admin note: Interestingly, former intelligence officer Reed's review was written before the review by Major Truscott was posted on our website. Both reviews raise the question of intelligence capabilities and arrive at opposing conclusions.]