Paymaster Under Fire – Part 1

The Adventures of Lt. Col. Thurston Humphrey Sweeny OBE.
Royal Army Pay Corps

One of our favourite life stories at The AGC Museum is that of T.H.Sweeny, so we have decided to do a series of posts about him and his varied and interesting career!

Today we’re going to talk a little bit about his background, as well as set the stage for next week’s post.

Thurston Humphrey Sweeny was born in 1898 and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in September 1917. Following the war he was promoted to Lieutenant, and spent the next decade between Jamaica and Cambridge University. Unfortunately, he had hearing issues leftover from war and as his hearing got worse he was declared unfit for active service and transferred to the RAPC in 1933. Here he also thrived, and spent many postings around the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Cyprus, and Palestine. He was again promoted in 1939, this time to Major and Staff Paymaster.

Following the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945, Japanese Generals refused to work directly with the Allies on their surrender and withdrawal. The Earl Mountbatten of Burma (who had been appointed by Churchill as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command (SACSEA)) appointed Major General Sir Douglas Gracey to head up a new commission designed to be liason between SACSEA and the Field Marshal Terauchi, who was the appointed liason on the Japanese side. Gracey’s job was to convey the orders from Mountbatten to Field Marshal Terauchi (the Japanese Generals refused to deal directly with Mountbatten) and ensure that they were carried out. Sweeny was ordered to join this commission as Financial Advisor.

Sweeny was told that instructions would be given to him on route to Saigon (present day Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) and was on his way with only a 24lb baggage allowance, which he used to bring food as well as his standard effects. Despite weapons being prohibited he also managed to get a hold of a sten gun and an Australian Owen gun for himself. He was preparing for street fighting.

Sweeny and his team (an RAPC Captain and two experienced NCOs) were delayed in Delhi and then Calcutta (present day Kolkata), and left for Saigon a week later than expected. Following a flight over the Naga mountains that saw all on the unpressurised aircraft ‘gasping for breath like landed fish’, they had a three day stopover in Rangoon, Burma (present day Yangon, Myanmar) which enabled them to rest and enjoy the sights. At the end of these three days Sweeny still had yet to receive any definitive orders, and met with the Senior RAPC Officer in Rangoon, where we was again told to advise the Commission on financial matters and take responsibility for the RAPC’s Army Cash Offices (a bit like mobile army banks) in French-Indo-China. On no account was he to take any duties other than this as he would be ‘outside of his depth’.

The next day Sweeny flew out with the 7th Machine Gun Jats bound for Saigon. As the senior office in the aircraft he claimed the cushioned seat of the jeep that was also part of the cargo, far better than the canvas bucket seats of the ‘hard arsed’ Dakota. As the plane came to land it was clear that there was a firefight in progress with nationalists attempting to seize the airfield against a smaller force of RAF Regiment. Sweeny drove the jeep from the bullet ridden plane to have it taken from him and pointed in the direction of waiting lorries. Sweeny was amazed to find that they were being driven and guarded by armed Japanese soldiers… recent enemies were now his bodyguard.

Make sure to pop back next week for part 2!