Chapter 14: The Long Road Back to Burma
Bounding one side of that great open space, the Maidan of Calcutta, runs a red-coloured road, fifty yards wide as measured between the balustrades enclosing it. At the far end, a white marble building, erected to commemorate an empress already half forgotten, gleams and winks in the sultry sunshine, and about half-way along it calm-faced Lord Lansdowne and inscrutable Lord Roberts, graven in stone, look down benignly from their pedestals. In the summer, autumn and winter of 1942, the statues of the pro-consul and his military colleague were the mute witnesses of a new and striking use for this impressive highway. It had become the main landing ground for the Hurricanes defending Calcutta.
The summer rains came and went; autumn passed, and with it the worst of the steamy heat, and in Calcutta British fighter pilots were still awaiting an air onslaught which they had been told for months was imminent. The macadamized surface of the Red Road, from which they took off and on which they landed, was sharply cambered and was, moreover, less broad than appeared at first sight because of the grass verges on each side. Nevertheless, a pilot of ordinary skill could make use of this improvised runway without undue difficulty, and many did so. It was indeed very necessary that they should, not only because it ran parallel to Calcutta’s main street, the Chowringhee, on one side of the Maidan, and was therefore in full view of her swarming, apprehensive citizens; but also because it placed the defence in a central position where it could repel attacks for which there would be little warning. The pilots waited at readiness in the shoddy splendour of the Grand Hotel a few yards from their aircraft, and this station headquarters, if such it can be called, was shared with a strange host of European refugees; ‘sailors without ships, aircrews without aircraft, soldiers without an army’.
Though our aircraft were frequently sent into the air, combats were few at first. The Japanese took time to prepare their attack against the teeming capital of Bengal and did not launch it until the month of December. By then all but four of the Hurricane squadrons had been already withdrawn for the purpose of supporting
a limited offensive against the Island of Akyab, off the Arakan coast, which was the only move Wavell at that stage felt able to make. Choosing their moment, eight Japanese bombers appeared one moonlit December night over Calcutta. The bombs dropped by one of them slightly damaged the oil plant at Budge-Budge, but their effect on the population was disastrous. Before dawn, one and a half million were fleeing from the city. The fortitude of those who were left behind was shortly heartened by the display in Newsreel Theatres of a film showing damage caused by the bombing, accompanied by a commentary which described Calcutta as having taken her place beside London, Coventry and Valetta among the bombed cities of the world.
To mount these early raids the enemy flew no more than twenty-three sorties on five occasions, all by night. Plague and disease, fomented by the daily growing piles of rotting rubbish left lying in the main streets by cleaners who had fled in a body, would, they shrewdly calculated, wreak far greater havoc than any number of bombs. Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, lost no time in calling for night fighters fitted with interception gear. The response, though small, was swift, and in mid-January, 1943, a flight of Beaufighters, so equipped, arrived. They were almost immediately in action. On the night of 15th/16th three Japanese bombers, en route for Calcutta, were intercepted by Flight Sergeant Pring, later to die for his country over Burma, and shot down one after the other. Four nights later Flying Officer C. Crombie destroyed two out of four more, though his starboard engine was on fire and flames licked the cockpit. This was the last raid. The citizens, including the cleaners, returned to their dwellings; the Japanese to their bases.
With the fall of Singapore and the overthrow of British arms in Burma, direct contact with the Japanese in the field had for a moment come to an end. Only the Chinese were ranged in battle against them and these temperamental warriors could not long continue without supplies. With the capture of Lashio, the Burma Road was now useless, and the construction of another out of the question for the moment. Some other way must be found, and Lieutenant Colonel William D. Old, of the United States Army Air Force, found it. He was the first airman to fly across the great Patkai mountains which divide India from Southern China. This aerial highway involved what was soon known as crossing the ‘Hump’ and along it many thousands of tons of supplies were carried before the war was over, the vast bulk of them by American squadrons. Flights were of great danger, not only because high, little-known mountains had to be
traversed, but also because of the cumulo-nimbus clouds which hung in bulbous masses of brown vapour above them. To enter such a cloud formation, except in special atmospheric conditions, was death. The currents in their gloomy depths were of unimaginable ferocity and violence and would tear the wings from Dakotas as small boys those of flies. Yet, despite these natural obstacles, a regular service was maintained by American Squadrons and some 13,000 Chinese troops carried from their lost battlefields in China to Bihar in India. At one time so steady and voluminous was the traffic over the ‘Hump’ that an aircraft took off from India every ten minutes of the day. Aircraft of No. 31 Squadron, Royal Air Force, flew this route once a week with supplies for a signals detachment stationed in China.
The monsoon of 1942 was dying away when Wavell made his first moves. There were three fronts held by the Japanese against which he might make an attack. The least difficult of them was the western in Arakan, a country of sharp-edged mountains running down to the narrow coastal plain which fringes the west of Burma. The middle front was to the north, joining that of Arakan with the plain of Imphal, and the third stretched through the fever-stricken valleys north-east of Mandalay. A glance at the map will show that the Japanese held in their hands the road system and the waterways of Burma, together with the admirable port of Rangoon and numerous bases in Siam. Theirs was the healthiest and most populous part of the country; the British, American and Chinese forces clung to the mountains and to the malaria-infested valleys of the north. If ever an aggressor was favoured by the general circumstances of geography, it was Japan. Yet in the end she failed on all three fronts to drive forward and enter the promised land of India, and she failed for one very simple, but all-compelling reason. When she had at length made up her mind to advance, it was the Allies and not Japan who held command of the air.
Fresh from a campaign in North Africa, of which the brilliance has rarely been surpassed, and of the fruits of which he had been robbed by circumstances largely outside his control, Wavell determined to follow, in a very different type of war with a very different type of troops, that hoary but ever sound principle that the best defence is attack. As has been said his first aim was exceedingly modest. He would seize the flat Island of Akyab, with its rows of old houses, crumbling evidence of former prosperity, its peaceful population of traders and fishermen, and there establish an advanced landing ground. The main object of the campaign thus planned was not so much to inflict mischief upon the enemy as to hearten his own troops.
Even before so moderate an aim as this could be attained, it was necessary for him to pass most of 1942 in building up his forces. His Air Commander, Peirse, had arrived in India in March with Air Commodore Darvall, whose Australian bush hat was soon widely known, and Air Vice-Marshal T. M. Williams. The Royal Air Force was faced with two main duties. First it had to prevent the bombing of industrial Bengal. This was a simple matter, for the commanders of the Japanese Air Forces were subordinate to those of the army who did not believe in strategic bombing; consequently there were no long-range heavy bombers available. The designed and primary duty of the enemy’s air arm was to support his troops on the ground. The second task of the Royal Air Force was to build up units and bases of a modern type from which the new squadrons, one day to arrive as reinforcements, could operate and where they could be adequately maintained.
It proved one of the greatest difficulty. Rommel’s victories in the Western Desert in June, 1942, caused a great diversion to the Middle East of supplies and equipment destined for India. The German armies were in the Caucasus, a threat to Persia, Iraq and the Gulf. Moreover, within the confines of India all was far from well. The breakdown in the negotiations between Sir Stafford Cripps and the Indian Congress Party in April, 1942, led to a half-hearted passive form of rebellion against the British Raj, of which the effect was to put a brake on the development of airfields and supply services generally. To cap all, the summer of 1942 was exceptionally sultry, so much so that numbers of natives in Bengal died from heat exhaustion, and these abnormal conditions naturally had an adverse effect upon unacclimatized Englishmen, who arrived in that torrid land from more temperate zones. To add to these difficulties there was a constant cutting by landslides of the only road between Imphal, just beyond which lay one of the fronts, and Dimapur its base. A final hindrance to expansion was the worst malaria epidemic India had known for many years. This last misfortune almost defeated the energetic commanders. So bad did it become that in October and November, 1942, 20,000 sick had to be evacuated from the Eastern Army area alone, in addition to the 15,000 already carried away to hospital soon after the exhausted army arrived from Burma.
Nevertheless with Wavell to support them, Peirse, and Air Vice-Marshal A. C. Collier, in-charge-of Administration, addressed themselves with resolution to the task. The first step was to re-organize the Command. No. 222 Group was left at Colombo to wage war over the Indian Ocean and its islands. No. 221 Group, originally based at Rangoon, was reformed at Calcutta, and on 1st April, absit omen,
No. 224 Group came into being, apparently unofficially, for no authority for its formation appears to have been received from the Air Ministry. No. 221 Group carried out all the bomber and general reconnaissance operations on the Burmese front and over the Bay of Bengal. No. 224 Group was concerned with fighters and their doings throughout Bengal and Assam. These three Groups made up the main fighting contingent of the Royal Air Force. No. 225 was formed at Bangalore to cover the huge area stretching from Cape Comorin in the extreme south of India to Sind and Orissa in the north-west and north-east. No. 226 was a maintenance group with headquarters at Karachi, through which port most of the reinforcements for India were to flow, and No. 227 at Lahore was a training group. The enormous size of India necessitated two headquarters; the main at New Delhi, the advanced at Barrackpore beside the waters of the Hooghli, where beneath the thatched roofs of spacious huts men worked and sweated in the heat to prepare for a victory which, incredible though it seemed at the time to some of them, was one day to dawn.
The first need was to increase the number of squadrons. As a preliminary a maximum of sixty-four was agreed on in March, with one Transport and one Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, but by the end of the year this number had been raised to eighty-three. These were the ultimate aims. How long it would take to reach them was hard to predict. Yet from the first the efforts made bore fruit. Between March and June, 1942, the air force in India increased from five to twenty-six squadrons. In April of that year, the three light bomber squadrons brought out of Burma were made up to strength with Blenheim IV’s and were subsequently joined by a number of Wellingtons, the nucleus of the night bomber force. To these were gradually added the small Indian Air Force. After much contriving, it eventually reached the strength of six Hurricane squadrons, and two armed with Vultee Vengeance bombers. General Reconnaissance over the Bay of Bengal was carried out by Catalinas, Blenheims and Hudsons, but presently the Blenheims were replaced by Beaufort torpedo-bombers. Spitfires in the shape of photographic reconnaissance aircraft arrived in November, 1942, but another year was to elapse before they appeared as fighters and changed the course of the war. In the same month a few Liberators joined the Royal Air Force, but lack of spares grounded them for many months.
By the end of 1942, a total of 1,443 aircraft, if army co-operation Lysanders, and Dakota and Lockheed Hudson transports are included, were at the disposal of the Command, but a large number of these were not operational. In the first month of 1943 night-fighting
Beaufighters arrived to defend Calcutta with the results already chronicled. Subsequent reinforcements of this type of aircraft proved of the greatest use in offensive operations because of their range, which allowed them to penetrate deeply into Burma, and the fire power they were able to bring to bear on such targets as river craft, rolling stock, locomotives and mechanical transport. There were too few of them in the air, however, to achieve any marked effect before September, 1943.
Having collected what he regarded as sufficient strength on land and in the air Wavell was ready to open his attack at the beginning of December.
Akyab has been well described as the full stop at the base of an exclamation mark, of which the Mayu Peninsula is the vertical stroke above. The country composing it is split lengthwise by a spine of mountains, heavily cloaked in jungle, running down on the east to paddy-fields, on the west to mangrove swamps and sandy shores. In the north are the Chin Hills; in the middle and south the folded mountains of the Arakan Yomas. Wavell’s object, in addition to the capture of Akyab, was to clear the enemy from the Mayu Peninsula and the area south of Rathedaung.
At first success seemed possible. The Eastern Army, under Lieutenant-General N. M. S. Irwin, moved out of Cox’s Bazar and had reached the mat-built village of Maungdaw unopposed by 16th December, and Buthidaung on the following day. By 27th December Indin was occupied. Here they paused to bring up supplies. When these had arrived, and the troops were ready to advance again it was too late. The Japanese had been reinforced, Akyab was strongly held, and, what was worse, the enemy was in the Kaladan Valley on the British left flank, which he was about to pierce. Irwin held on with increasing difficulty until April when he was forced to retreat and the adventure ended.
Throughout these months the army had been well served by the Royal Air Force, which, flying ahead, had set fire to the bamboo huts of Japanese-held villages and attacked Japanese transport. Very soon movement on road or waterway by day became too risky for the enemy. A particularly successful series of sorties was flown on the 8th and 9th of March against Japanese entrenchments at Kanzauk. These so interfered with the movements of his troops that our ground forces in that area, who might otherwise have been cut off, were enabled to withdraw in good order. It will be observed that withdrawal was still the usual, the inevitable, procedure. Not until the straight paths of the air were substituted for the winding jungle track, and Dakota aircraft for the sweat-laden coolie or the oppressed mule,
would the army, presently to win renown as the Fourteenth, be able to vanquish its tenacious, but far from indomitable, foe.
The joint operations in support of the army were known as RHUBARBS, and proved singularly effective, for the aircraft carrying them out could come in low and having delivered their attack slip over the nearest mountain. Some casualties were caused by a curious phenomenon described by the pilots as ‘a kind of mesmerism of water and mist’, in which it proved exceedingly hard to distinguish between the calm surface of the sea and the vaporous mists that poured down upon it from the Arakan hills. Just before the arrival of the 1943 monsoon the air forces made a three-day attack against the enemy communications and supply centres, carrying out 547 sorties, of which one quarter were flown by American squadrons.
Before the final withdrawal of the army, which took place in the second week of May, heavy casualties were inflicted on a Japanese formation of bombers which attempted in daylight to attack our main airfield at Chittagong. In repelling them Wing Commander F. Carey and Flying Officer R. Gray, by flying very low, were not only able to escape the escort of Zero fighters but to cause two of them to fly into an unnoticed small hill. By the time the campaign was over, the small contingent of the Royal Air Force was flying about 150 sorties a day.
While these events were taking place on, or close to, the coast of Arakan, an expedition, of which the ultimate success depended entirely on supplies from the air, was moving far into the interior of Burma. Led by that strange, indomitable man, Brigadier Orde Charles Wingate, seven columns of Chindits, men trained on Commando lines to operate far behind the front of the enemy, had left Imphal with orders to create alarm and confusion in the rear of the Japanese. To keep them supplied, aircraft were essential. Nos. 31 and 194 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force flew 178 sorties by night and day for this purpose and dropped 303 tons of supplies. This achievement won Wingate’s high commendation. On three nights, 15th, 16th and 17th February, about 31 tons of supplies were dropped at Myene for the northern group of the 77th Brigade, the official name for the Chindits. The pilot of one aircraft on the night of 15th made what, in other circumstances, might have been a fatal mistake. He arrived over Myene in a thunderstorm and was not able to find the dropping zone. Rather than fly back over the cloud-clutched hills with a heavy load, he decided to jettison his cargo east of the Chindwin. Unfortunately the spot he chose was within a mile or two of a Japanese post. Its garrison collected the containers, which
among other things included the mail for the whole northern force. The Japanese intelligence officers spent three days translating a selection of the letters and drawing conclusions from them. As a result the enemy abandoned the village of Sinlamaung, which was in the proposed path of the Chindits, and withdrew all his posts between the Chindwin and the Mu river valley. He did so under the mistaken impression that Wingate’s force was far stronger than it was, for he had made his estimate of its strength from the number of letters which had so fortuitously fallen into his hands. The pilot’s error must therefore be described with truth as providential.
At a later stage in the same campaign Wingate was compelled by the near presence of the enemy to cancel arrangements made to receive supplies at Kyunbin on 13th March. The message did not reach the headquarters of the Royal Air Force. The aircraft duly arrived and circled vainly above Wingate’s columns, which could clearly be seen in the jungle. These, though they needed the supplies badly enough, dared not signal for them, for to do so would have brought the enemy against them in great strength.
‘When I flew with the pilots of aircraft dropping supplies’, writes Major Wavell, son of the Field Marshal, and a Chindit, ‘they would take off about midnight from Comilla in sufficient moonlight to see the outlines of the hills. We used to drop from a very low height, from seventy to eighty feet, and the dropping point was indicated by an “L” made of fires. As soon as a light flashing beside this permanent signal was observed we would shove the stuff out as fast as we could. ... We threw out an average of seven packages during each run and each aircraft made eight or nine runs. This meant that we were from eighteen to twenty minutes over the dropping zone. On one occasion a despatcher, said to have a great admiration for the Chindits, held on to a package too long, and in a few seconds became a Chindit himself. Fortunately the parachute sufficed to sustain them both. I believe he returned safely’. He did.
Sustained from the air, the Chindits destroyed four bridges, cut railway tracks in more than seventy places and brought down many thousands of tons of rock upon another part of the railway line. Altogether they marched about 1,000 miles through the jungle in three months, losing about one-third of their men. They might have lost more had it not been for a Dakota which brought out seventeen of their sick and wounded and for the assistance given to a party of No. 8 Column—after their operations had been completed the Chindits had been trained to split up into small columns which made their way independently to India—which was endeavouring to cross the River Shweli. The rope, which they had thrown across it, broke,
and their only rubber dinghy was swept downstream and lost. Having bivouacked for the night, the commander of the column set his men to the building of rafts and at the same time sent, as a last resort, a wireless message asking the Royal Air Force to drop another rope and a dinghy. The rafts were almost completed and the dusk of the next day was upon the column, when an aircraft duly appeared and dropped several new dinghies, a stout new rope, lifebelts for two-thirds of the force and two days’ rations. All crossed the river without difficulty and, on return to India, their mouths were full of praise for the Royal Air Force. On this and on all subsequent expeditions Royal Air Force officers served with the Chindits, or the Long Range Penetration Group, to give them another of their official names. The manner in which they bore themselves was warmly praised by Wingate and, as will subsequently appear, the skill and experience they then acquired stood the Fourteenth Army in good stead throughout the victorious advance of 1944 and 1945.
While this first campaign was being fought, the Royal Air Force continued to make regular reconnaissance flights over the Bay of Bengal and along the coast of Burma, but discovered no targets larger than small fishing craft. Routine photographic sorties were also carried out against all the main enemy airfields and lines of communication. In the south of India and Ceylon protection was given to shipping and the convoy routes patrolled, only one ship being sunk during this period.
Active operations came to an end in June, 1943, with the advent of the monsoon. Though this imposed a halt upon the armies, the Royal Air Force continued to operate though on a reduced scale. The troops in the Chin Hills and in the area of Fort Hertz were still supplied from the air, and also those at Goppe Bazar, north-east of Maungdaw, where the track had been washed away. When it was necessary to fly over Japanese-held territory, escorts of Hurricanes were provided for the Dakotas, but interference was rare, for by the end of May the enemy was perceived to be withdrawing most of his air regiments to as far away as Siam. What had happened, as we now know, was that the Japanese High Command in Burma and Malaya was always short of aircraft and had therefore to switch them to fronts which were threatened at the expense of those which were not. Pressure, therefore, by the Americans in the Pacific meant correspondingly fewer enemy aircraft over the Burmese hills.
The First Arakan Campaign and the First Chindit Expedition came to an end, but the creation of an air force in the Far East continued at an accelerated tempo. By June, 1943, the number of squadrons had reached fifty-three, of which thirty-eight were
operational—seventeen fighter, seven bomber, nine general reconnaissance, one photographic reconnaissance, one transport and three Indian Air Force squadrons on watch-and-ward duties along the northwest frontier. The Catalina squadrons far to the south of India were gradually being reinforced by general reconnaissance Liberators, of which one, No. 160 Squadron, began operations in February. Re-equipment and reconversion were the two watchwords during the monsoon period. The light bombers of Nos. 11, 34, 42, 60 and 113 Squadrons were replaced by Hurricanes for army support, for by then the great possibilities of that aircraft as a fighter-bomber and a ground attacker were fully realized.
In early October the greatest single step in the modernization of the air forces in India was taken, and three squadrons, Nos. 136, 607 and 615, were equipped with Spitfire Vc’s. Blenheims were rapidly becoming obsolete, their place being taken by Vultee Vengeance aircraft, dive-bombers which were effective always provided that superiority in the air was assured. The close of 1943 was marked—it seemed symbolic—by the withdrawal of the last of the totally out-dated aircraft, the Mohawk fighters. For a time eight of them had been the only means of defence in the air throughout all north-east India. At last they were gone and December saw forty-nine squadrons trained and equipped in a modern manner with twelve more on the way towards that standard.
During this period one decision was taken which more than any other achieved victory. It was determined to develop air transport as much as possible. From the beginning three problems had cried aloud for solution. First, as the Arakan Campaign had shown, land communications were so bad that some method of supplementing them was essential. Secondly, an internal air communications system in India itself, capable of transporting mails, important passengers and urgent freight, was necessary. Thirdly, squadrons must be rapidly reinforced, and this required the building of a chain of airfields and the establishment of that all-important organization, Flying Control.
How stiff was the task confronting Peirse and his successors, Air Marshal Sir Guy Garrod and Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, will be understood when it is realized that in August, 1942, there was only one transport squadron in existence, No. 31, and that this was equipped with worn-out American airliners. Even with these grossly inadequate means, many small isolated parties in difficult hill country were kept supplied, sporadically, it is true, and not upon a sufficiently lavish scale, but they were not left to rot unsuccoured. In those early days such problems as the type of stores
which could be dropped without a parachute and the type which could not, what ground signals could be sent and what could not, and many other problems were discovered and solved. By December, 1942, internal air services in India were being maintained by No. 194 Squadron flying Hudsons and they continued this important work for nine months until replaced by No. 353 Squadron. Before 1943 was out the weekly mileage of one transport squadron had risen from 5,000 in December, 1942, to 37,000 in November, 1943, a seven-fold increase in less than a year. By the beginning of January, 1944, it was possible to carry, not battalions or brigades only, but whole divisions by air, and to keep them fully supplied once they reached the battle area. ‘It is not untrue to say’, wrote General Sir George Giffard, General Officer Commanding, Eastern Army, in October, 1943, ‘that without this assistance (airborne supply to outlying garrisons) we could not have held, during the monsoon, positions we held in May last.’
This expansion in all branches of the Royal Air Force—fighters, bombers, reconnaissance and transport—was accomplished only by the construction of a large number of airfields. A programme involving the building of 215, each with two runways and accommodation for two squadrons, was adopted in March, 1942, and placed first on the list of urgent tasks. Difficulties ranged from a lack of roads, telephones and telegraphs, to the corrupt practices of local contractors and the obstinacy of civilians, whose notions of what constituted a satisfactory site for an airfield differed sharply from those of the Royal Air Force. In the Punjab and United Provinces the local governments showed themselves to be efficient and helpful; but farther east, where the need was greatest, the lack of enterprise was the most grievous. Machinery was scarce, skilled engineers scarcer. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that progress at the beginning was lamentably slow. By the end of 1942 only five operational airfields had been completed, but eighty-eight possessed one serviceable runway. Sixty fair-weather strips had also been laid out. A modification of the original programme hastened the pace of construction and by November, 1943, when South East Asia Command came into existence, a total of 275 airfields had been completed and fifteen more were still a-building. Of these, 140 possessed two runways, 64 one runway, and 71 fair-weather strips. Supply and maintenance depots had also to be multiplied. This, too, proved no easy task, but a main unit was established at Allahabad, the railway workshops near Calcutta were taken over and the resources of a derelict Indian aircraft company at Bangalore were used for the repair of flying boats.
Signal facilities had also to be provided. In March, 1942, not a single radar station existed in the whole of India, but by December fifty-two had been set up and were operational, and filter rooms had been established in, among other places, Calcutta, Imphal and Comilla. The year ended with the completion of a radar network along the Assam/Burma border, strengthened by observers working on the pattern of the Royal Observer Corps, who used wireless to make their reports. These Wireless Observer Units of the Royal Air Force were stationed at 20-mile intervals throughout the Arakan Yomas and along the Chin Hills. Those manning them led a lonely, monotonous existence, deprived of all comforts or amenities save when some army officer, tired perhaps of his own mess, would visit them for a game of pontoon and a glass of the Chin rice wine, called Zu. Many posts grew their own vegetables, and in that climate garden peas could be eaten three weeks after the seed had been planted.
So much for the sinews of the air war. It continued to be fought even during the period of the monsoon and after the British forces had withdrawn from Arakan in a campaign which had cost them 2,500 casualties, not counting those who fell victims to malaria. As the weeks went by, first the Vultee Vengeance dive-bomber and then the Beaufighter gradually came into service. The first was for a time withdrawn owing to various defects which took some months to put right. Its pilots had to train themselves to dive-bomb while on operations and soon developed a high degree of skill. Presently sinister but gratifying reports of what they had achieved began to reach headquarters. ‘After the bombing six funeral pyres were seen’, said one, following an attack on Maungdaw on 30th August. At Razabil on 19th September six lorry loads of dead were, it was said, removed after Vultee Vengeance aircraft of the Royal Air Force had paid that place a visit.
The Beaufighters were even more successful. They were in action from the beginning. One arrived at Myitkyina, the largest Japanese air base in North Burma, in time for a ceremonial parade held on the birthday of the Emperor. The troops were standing, rigid, round a flagpole from which fluttered the rising sun of Japan. In front of them were their officers seated upon horses. A burst or two from the 20-mm. cannon in the Beaufighter and the parade became a shambles. Writhing bodies strewed the brown earth, stricken horses galloped in panic through ranks of dead and wounded men, the flagpole was struck and the proud flag drooped in the bloody dust.
The monsoon went on; so did the war. Elderly Blenheims ‘that even a museum would have rejected’ continued to fly, their indomitable ground crews sometimes working for two days at a stretch to
make them serviceable, and round the damp tree-fringed airfield of Fenny the phrase, ‘It will clear in the air’, echoed almost as monotonously as the grunt of pain wrung from men tortured by prickly heat, who, in default of jacks and winches, hoisted bombs upon their backs so that yet another sortie might be flown. The few Wellingtons and Liberators available at that time and operating at night against communications were afflicted, strange as it might seem to those unfamiliar with monsoon conditions, with icing in the air and occasional cyclones on the ground. These storms were sometimes so fierce as to lift a Liberator at dispersal bodily into the air.
The decision to continue in operation during the period of the monsoon increased casualties but very greatly raised the temper of the pilots and men. Sorties in soaking, bumpy weather under brown, weeping clouds over green, impenetrable jungles, had little of the dramatic in them, but all ranks were sustained by the knowledge that they were doing, as a matter of regular and normal routine, what the enemy, with better airfields and a better organization, dared not do.
As the rains drew to an end, the main thought of the solitary men in the observer posts, no less than those in the crowded mess tables in Chittagong, Barrackpore and a hundred other places, was, ‘When will the war end?’. When the First Arakan Campaign had been launched, the rash and reckless had talked glibly of being in Tokio by Christmas. After its failure, hearts were correspondingly cast down. Then came two events which changed all. In November, 1943, South East Asia Command, which had been officially created at the Quebec Conference, came into being and as a direct consequence, the British and American Air Forces in that theatre were, in December, combined to form a single operational whole. Hardly had this fact been assimilated when there appeared the first of many consignments of Spitfires; modern fighters had at last reached a theatre of war where the troops were beginning to be described by the press as belonging to the ‘Forgotten Army’. Then came the most remarkable news of all. The new Command was to have a new Commander, Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten. He had begun the war as the captain of a destroyer in which he had fought in the Mediterranean and the North Sea, narrowly escaping death when his ship was sunk under him. He had continued it as Chief of Combined Operations and as such had been responsible for the raids on Vaagsø, St. Nazaire and Dieppe. Now he was to control what was obviously one day—perhaps soon, but assuredly sooner or later—to be a united force of British and Americans intent on one object, the destruction of Japan. He was the youngest Supreme Commander in the field since Napoleon and his device was the Phoenix.
The air forces of the new Command, staffed by both British and American officers, were placed under Peirse, with Garrod as deputy, and the Second in Command was Major General George Stratemeyer. He was also Chief of Eastern Air Command for operations in Burma, with headquarters in Calcutta. General Stratemeyer was a man of high vigour with a great desire to attack the enemy. ‘We must merge into one unified force’, he said in a memorable Order of the Day, ‘in thought and in deed, neither English nor American, with the faults of neither and the virtues of both. We must establish in Asia a record of Allied air victory of which we can all be proud in the years to come. Let us write it now in the skies over Burma’. The campaign was soon to show how well and gallantly this exhortation was fulfilled.
The new Combined Headquarters controlled the destinies of all the Royal Air Force operational units in north-east India and all those of the United States Tenth Army Air Force. This united or ‘integrated’ force, to use the word current in all reports and despatches, was subdivided into a Tactical Air Force, under Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, and a Strategic Air Force, under Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson of the United States Army Air Force. The Transport Units of both the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force became a single organization to which the name Troop Carrier Command was given. It was placed under Brigadier General D. Old of the United States Army Air Force. Similar steps were taken to merge the Photographic Reconnaissance Units of both allies and their commander was Wing Commander S. G. Wise, Royal Air Force. Complicated though these arrangements might appear on paper, and though they aroused the opposition of Stilwell, the Deputy Supreme Commander, they proved highly satisfactory in practice. Both air forces were filled with the right and true spirit of co-operation, and like Chaucer’s Doctor and Apothecary, ‘Each of them made other for to winne’.