Burma Air War 1943 Part I




With the withdrawal of many JAAF units in 1943 to bases beyond the reach of the medium bombers available, in May AOC-in-C Sir Richard Peirse switched attention to ‘Lines of Communication’ targets such as roads, railways, the military transit camps at Prome and Taungup, and Rangoon. For these targets the twin-engine Beaufighter and the single engine two-seat Vengeance dive-bomber proved highly successful. Like so many aircraft the Vultee Vengeance did not initially take to the dank humidity of Burma/India and hard work was needed by maintenance units and ground crew to sort out the problems. In time, however, fitted with British 0.303 (7.7mm) machine guns in the rear cockpit to replace the original unreliable American weapons, the Vengeance proved itself an extremely effective aircraft in the hands of RAF and IAF squadrons. In fact so successful was the Vengeance and so urgent the requirement for dive-bombers and ground-attack aircraft that a number of pilots were put straight onto operations without the formality of undergoing a conversion course. They trained themselves in action. Beaufighters also excelled in the ground-attack role, strafing roads and railways, and setting fire to the oil installations at Yenangyaung. During the Allied exodus from Burma five sizeable river steamers, each able to transport large bodies of troops or tow hundreds of tons of supplies in barges, were left along the Irrawaddy. Beaufighters now accounted for four of these boats, leaving their hulks burning on river sandbars. After two or three months of monsoon storms roads became flooded and impassable and large tracts of the country reduced to waterlogged swamp. At this time the Japanese were obliged to switch to water transport, providing tempting targets for Beaufighters and Hurricanes, which duly took the opportunity to destroy 182 motorized river craft and sampans, and around 2,000 smaller craft in the Arakan and on the Irrawaddy. To put this loss into perspective a sampan carried three days’ supplies for seventy soldiers, and the building of just one such craft took twenty men a month.

Despite being pretty well obsolete and marked down for early replacement the Blenheims continued in operation for the time being, and far from cursing their temperamental charges the ground and air crew redoubled their efforts to keep their aircraft in the air. The squadrons themselves became famous for their good-humoured camaraderie and were sought after as postings regardless of the venerable age of their aircraft.

Night bombing raids by Wellingtons and Liberators were made more hazardous as a result of the navigational aids fitted to the aircraft being far below European standards, navigators often having to calculate their course by the stars, which were not always visible. The Allied commanders’ decision, in contrast to their opponents, to continue air operations where possible during the monsoon imposed yet more difficulties. Aircraft crashed in the mountains or were lost in the jungle, and of the 111 crewmen from the twenty-seven aircraft that came down in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, only sixty-nine were rescued. Burma propped up the bottom of the list of priorities for Air-Sea Rescue crews and equipment as for everything else. The effort had its beneficial effects, however, for Japanese aircraft were kept back in Siam and Allied army bases and airfields were free from attack as a result. USAAF Liberator attacks on shipping and attacks by both the RAF and USAAF on Rangoon made use of the port a very hazardous undertaking.

In June 1943 General Sir Claude Auchinleck, an old hand in the subcontinent having had a successful army career there pre-war, replaced Wavell as C-in-C India. The post was by this time mostly administrative but Auchinleck showed considerable energy in ensuring the adequate training of troops, and mobilizing India’s resources.

Signals and communications proved to be almost as much of a problem for the Allied air forces during the 1943 monsoon as hitherto. The exceptionally long distances involved, the wide dispersal of squadrons and the usual shortages of suitable equipment meant that landlines were largely impractical. One squadron kept in contact with its Wing HQ entirely by W/T, with all the disadvantages and time delays that system’s dependency on Morse code inevitably brought with it. Typex machines were one method of speeding up the W/T process but between June and November 1943 only seventy-eight units were received for the entire command, consequently the tried and tested – and painfully slow – method of referral to book cipher was the order of the day.

Landlines and communications were the responsibility of four Indian Air Formation signals units and all were heavily committed, one in Ceylon, two in the Bengal area, with the final unit left to cover the whole of the remainder of India. By November two additional units were raised and trained, one more for Bengal and one for southern India, but a shortage of trained Indian operators prevented their full implementation.

Coordination of the signals effort along the crucial Bengal front was an imperative and to achieve this plus bring closer and more effective supervision of maintenance and administration of the system, three Signals Wings, Nos 180, 181 and 182 were formed to operate from Calcutta, Imphal and Chittagong respectively, their principal duties being the administrative and technical control of all early warning equipment, permanent W/T and D/F stations. An immediate improvement was noticed, the Imphal area doubling its efficiency while on 20 October an air raid on Chittagong was detected at the previously unheard of range of 115 miles.

A network of some seventy Air Ministry Experimental Stations equipped with radar stretched from the Assam–Burma border south to Akyab, and continued on to cover Calcutta and coastal areas that might be subject to attack. Forward of the stations in Eastern Bengal were the Wireless Observer Units, with posts across the Manipur Road and southward through the Chin Hills as far as the Arakan Hill tracts. These units were in the process of replacement by Indian Mobile Wireless Observer Companies manned by personnel employed on Observer Corps duties in and around Calcutta, Vizagapatnam and Madras. Reports flowed through a number of filter rooms:

Imphal, Chittagong and Calcutta covering Bengal.

Vizagapatnam, Madras and Trincomalee covering the Eastern seaboard.

Cochin and Bombay covering the Western seaboard.

Ground-to-air communication improved but was still greatly hampered by shortage of equipment. Thirteen Direction Finding stations were established on the trans-India reinforcement route, while a number of fighter stations were equipped with Very High Frequency Radio Transmitters. Shortages were apparent, however, in the supply of aircraft Ground Control Interception equipment necessary for operations rooms to direct fighters on to hostile formations. With approximately half the required units available care had to be taken that for each section of two fighters one should be fitted with the necessary apparatus.

With the impending arrival of modern bombers to swell the command, experience with the operation and maintenance of their specialized communications equipment in the difficult climatic conditions to be encountered was needed. To this end No. 1577 Flight was formed and equipped with the Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax but the inevitable shortages of equipment meant that development of advanced radio aids to navigation, submarine detection and precision bombing remained in the overloaded ‘pending’ tray.

A number of circumstances led to a reduction in usage of the venerable Blenheims, which were in any event in short supply. Vultee Vengeance squadrons, training since the beginning of the year, began to achieve operational status in addition to which a substantial reserve of Hurricanes accelerated the switch in roles from the Hurricane as fighter to the ‘Hurribomber’ fighter/light bomber, a move made more practical toward the end of the monsoon when Spitfires at long last began to appear in India in some numbers. As a result Blenheim Squadron Nos 11, 34, 42, 60 and 113 RAF converted to Hurricane Mk IIC fighter/bombers, while Nos 607, 136 and 615 Squadrons RAF converted from Hurricanes to Spitfire Mk VCs, which entered service in Europe at the end of 1941. Wilfred Goold recalls the inevitable ups and downs when 607 took delivery of their new aircraft:

On September 25 a bunch of us flew to Karachi in a Short Empire flying boat, it took 11 hours and 55 minutes. Having assembled our new ’planes we then flew back to Alipore without any hitches, only to find on arrival that we couldn’t fly the Spits as some clown in Area Headquarters had consigned all the spares back to the Middle East because he ‘knew we didn’t have Spitfires in this area’! In October the Squadron flew to an Air Fighting Training Unit at Armarda Road to get used to the Spitfire in combat roles. Armarda Road was a place where only the best was accepted. It was staffed by experienced operational pilots; the Chief Instructor was Frank (Chota) Carey, DSO, DFC Bar, DFM, Bar and so on.

We spent about 14 days doing all sorts of attacks, and we felt very comfortable with our new ’planes.

Flight Lieutenant Goold here mentions the refresher courses in gunnery and tactics at Armarda Road headed by Group Captain Frank Carey, a highly experienced pilot deservedly credited with much of the exceptional improvement in the standard of RAF and IAF fighter pilots in the Burma campaign. Group Captain Carey and his team were constantly engaged in a battle of wits to counter changes in the tactics of the enemy and improve those of the Allies.

A fully equipped and operational Beaufighter Mk VI Squadron, No. 89 RAF, arrived from the Middle East and celebrated by shooting down a JAAF reconnaissance aircraft within days. Newly formed within India Command, No. 211 Squadron RAF was also equipped with Beaufighters. Lack of available aircraft meant that only one heavy bomber squadron, No. 355 RAF equipped with Liberators, was formed within the command between June and November.

Hurricane Mk IIBs found a vital new niche as Fighter Reconnaissance aircraft, Nos 135 and 261 Squadrons RAF taking on this role plus No. 5 Squadron, which had been equipped with Hurricane Mk IID ‘tank busters’ but re-equipped due to a lack of suitable targets in the India/Burma theatre.

In March 1942 India was able to offer sixteen all-weather airfields of which only four were considered operational in all respects by the standards of the day, plus twenty fair-weather strips. By November 1943 the total had risen to 285 airfields plus fifteen under construction. Of these an impressive 140 were complete in all respects, 64 had one all-weather runway prepared, and a further 71 could provide fair-weather strips plus dispersals and domestic/technical accommodation in varying stages of readiness. A number of airfields were constructed on behalf of the USAAF airlift to China and by November 1943 thirty-four all-weather airfields plus eleven fair-weather strips had been handed over, in addition to which facilities were offered at a number of RAF airfields. The airfield construction programme was a mammoth undertaking costing some £50 million and brought to light a number of difficulties, notably a shortage of heavy construction equipment, engineers and supervisors. Work sub-contracted to civilian construction companies was not always up to standard and everywhere delays were experienced due to poor communications or inadequate control. Despite the problems by the end of the 1943 monsoon the Allied Air Forces in India were in a position to continue their rapid expansion in the knowledge that suitable bases existed from which to operate.

On the far side of the hill the JAAF also busily repaired and constructed airfields. As the Allies retreated through Burma destruction of the country’s industry and infrastructure, including airfields, had taken place to the extent that on the final withdrawal of the Allied armies the JAAF estimated that only fifteen to eighteen airfields were in operable condition. By August 1943 that total had risen to 100.

During 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army and the JAAF in Burma received the bulk of its supplies by sea more or less without hindrance, but by 1943 Allied attacks on sea lanes had grown in intensity until the JAAF estimated that less than one third of the resupply required actually arrived, leading to an inevitable diminution of strike power. Japanese transportation within Burma was chiefly by rail, but again Allied air raids were greatly disrupting the service and necessitating a switch to road and air, 4th Motor Transport Company designated to the former and 11th Air Transport Unit designated to the latter by 5th Hikoshidan.

A welcome but temporary reverse of the draining away of units from 5th Hikoshidan occurred towards the end of the year, reinforcements arriving in the shape of the 33rd and 204th Fighter Hikosentai.

At the Quebec Conference the formation of South East Asia Command was agreed, bearing overall responsibility for military operations in the Burma/India/China theatre with at its head Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and on entering the Royal Navy saw action during the First World War aboard Admiral David Beatty’s flagship, the battlecruiser Lion. By 1937 he was promoted Captain and in June 1939 was given command of the destroyer Kelly, becoming Captain (D) of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla in September that same year. Mountbatten’s career at sea was undoubtedly spectacular – in short order the Kelly had nearly capsized, been in collision with another destroyer, was mined once and torpedoed twice. Finally she capsized off Crete under full helm at 34 knots while under attack by German aircraft. Anxious for senior officers with undimmed offensive spirit, in April 1942 Churchill made Mountbatten Chief of Combined Operations with the rank of Vice Admiral, and a de facto member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. At forty-three years of age Mountbatten was young for a position as important as Supreme Commander SEAC but he cut a dashing figure that appealed to both Churchill and to the Americans – an important consideration as he would have US forces under his command. The device chosen by Mountbatten to represent the new command was the phoenix, a fabulous bird of Arabian mythology that rose from the ashes of its own funeral pyre with renewed youth. The symbolism was self-evident and the device doubly appropriate as the coming campaigns could only be carried forward on the wings of the air forces.

Another vitally important Allied appointment took place in October 1943 with the appointment of General Slim to command of the newly formed Fourteenth Army, effectively giving him control of all Allied ground forces in the theatre, his task the re-conquest of Burma.

For the air forces Mountbatten’s plans were to be bold and controversial, the new C-in-C proposing nothing less than the full integration of all RAF, USAAF and IAF units under a single unified command, with Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse as Allied Air C-in-C. General Stilwell, until that time in overall command of US Air Forces – and a well known Anglophobe – became Mountbatten’s Deputy Supreme Commander while retaining his autonomous role in China. Once again the often stated US position – that they were only in India to supply the Chinese, not help the British reinstate Burma into their Empire – raised its head. Given the long-term US antipathy towards ‘empires’ in the military sense this was scarcely a surprising, or unreasonable, attitude for them to take, but it did place significant obstacles in the path of the unified air command that would provide the best means of beating the Japanese.

As thunderclouds from the argument replaced the waning monsoon, lengthy discussions between Peirse and Stratemeyer to try to resolve the problem came to nought, the American refusing to be budged from the position that he and Stilwell had adopted that there should be two parallel commands, not a single unified command. Mountbatten took up his position as C-in-C on 16 November and on 12 December issued the directive integrating the theatre air forces. Finding himself faced with threats from both Stratemeyer and Stilwell to go over his head to Washington, Mountbatten states that he ‘read the Riot Act to both’, as a consequence of which the American generals agreed to carry out the directive but asked that their objections be passed to Washington, which Mountbatten did together with his reasons for refuting them. The new C-in-C SEAC believed himself to be on pretty firm ground as he had already sounded out General Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff, and General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, Commanding General of the USAAF. The American stance concerning Burma notwithstanding, the two senior US officers appreciated the necessity for the command structure to be as streamlined and uncomplicated as possible, and gave their unofficial backing. Official confirmation came on 4 January with Mountbatten’s receipt of a letter from General Marshall confirming the approval of the US Joint Chiefs for the unified command, while retaining the right to transfer units from the Tenth and Fourteenth Air Forces should it become necessary. Given the lead by his superiors General Stratemeyer grasped the new realism, issuing a General Order which included the phrase ‘we must merge into one unified force, in thought and deed neither English nor American, with the faults of neither and the virtues of both.’


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