Chapter 15: Arakan, Kohima, and Imphal
The task of the Combined Air Forces was to carry on the strategic air offensive, of which the primary object was to destroy the Japanese Air Forces, with all that that implied. This included the defence of the United States Air Transport Command airfields in north-west India and of the city and port of Calcutta. The specific tasks of the Tactical Air Forces were to give close support to the Fourteenth Army and to the Chinese-American forces under Stilwell. Last, but very far from least, the Long Range Penetration Groups, Wingate’s Chindits, were to be kept supplied by the transport aircraft.
To fulfil this programme Peirse possessed in the autumn of 1943 forty-eight Royal Air Force and seventeen United States Army Air Force squadrons. By May of the next year these had been increased to sixty-four and twenty-eight respectively. Now at last the steadily pursued policy of building up the air forces in India, which had proceeded throughout 1943, was seen to be justified. Not only were there more aircraft of a more modern type available, but communications, though still far from what they might have been, had been greatly improved, and advanced landing grounds were providing the short-range tactical aircraft with a greater radius of action.
The enemy possessed about 740 aircraft of which some 370—comprising 200 fighters, 110 bombers and 60 reconnaissance machines—were concentrated in Burma at Heho, Ansakan, Rangoon and Chieng Mai. The rest were scattered over Siam, French Indo-China, Malaya and Sumatra. His army was drawn up along a front of about 700 miles. In Arakan, he held positions running from Maungdaw to Buthidaung, where he was opposed by XV Corps. His line of battle then ran north-west to cross the savage Chin Hills at Kalemyo and turn north up the Kabaw valley. In this area his opponents were IV Corps. Further north still, he was opposed by two Chinese divisions based on Ledo. The Japanese bases and lines of communication stretched for 900 miles from Bangkok to Myitkyina and were in consequence very vulnerable to attack from the air.
Line is the wrong word to describe the disposition of the armies which faced each other in those thick jungles and high serrated hills.
There was no continuous front. Each side held positions of which the size and site were dictated by the nature of the ground. In studying the war in Burma it is necessary not only to realise but never to forget that the British and Japanese were fighting each other in country where each was virtually blind. So thick are the jungles and so impenetrable that a field of vision of even ten yards is rare. The alternative to the jungle was the summit or higher slopes of the very steep, wooded hills. Here, too, close contact was physically impossible. Only in the river valleys or in the mangrove-swamp country near the seashore was there any ground which might be described as an open space.
The handicaps imposed by nature on the fighting men on the ground were equally burdensome to the fighting men in the air. To fly over the jungle was to fly for hour after hour over a dark green sea which was yet not a sea though as devoid of landmarks as any stretch of ocean. Not until a river wound its way into sight like Shakespeare’s spotted snake with double tongue, the spots being the green islands upon its yellow-brown surface, was the illusion broken. Such was the country over which every sortie had to be made.
With the arrival of the Spitfire squadrons, Peirse set out to achieve air superiority. The Japanese had been using the Dinah for photographic reconnaissance, an aircraft superior in performance to that of the Hurricane. With the arrival at Chittagong of Nos. 607 and 615 Squadrons flying Spitfire V’s, this advantage was soon lost to him. Within a month four Dinahs had been shot down and the Japanese could no longer photograph our dispositions in the Arakan front, where a new offensive was preparing, with their old impunity. By the end of 1943 they had lost twenty-two aircraft to our thirteen. Our best success was scored by No. 136 Squadron which, on 31st December, destroyed twelve Japanese bombers and fighters of a force attempting to attack shipping off the Arakan coast. In these preliminary encounters the Spitfire pilots showed their mettle. One of them, Flying Officer John Rudling, went so far as to ram one enemy bomber and then shoot down another. The Japanese executed a skilful raid against Calcutta on 5th December when they eluded the defence. Soon the Spitfires were inflicting losses in the proportion of eight to one. The Japanese were quick to bring up reserves in the form of fighters. These remained at a great height above slower aircraft flying as decoys to lure the Spitfires on to the attack. On 20th January, 1944, Wing Commander A. N. Constantine of No. 136 Squadron, and his wing, fought a fierce action with these aircraft. ‘On my eighth attack’, runs Constantine’s report, ‘I was on to a decoy when I was jumped by a couple I had not seen. I went into an
inverted spin and blacked out completely. I came to, thought I was in hospital and remember calling for tea. Then I discovered I was about to crash, put the Spit. the right way up and I fainted again. I was very near the jungle when I recovered the second time and found the two Japs were firing immediately ahead of me. I darted down some gulleys and so lost them’. That encounter cost the Japanese twelve aircraft. Among those of our pilots who did not return was Flight Sergeant P. Kennedy, who was attacked repeatedly by machine-gun fire as he was floating down to earth at the end of his parachute.
For a little time it might be necessary to pay dearly for command in the air. But the Japanese moment of triumph was brief, for Nos. 81 and 152 Squadrons arrived flying Spitfire VIII’s ready to take part in the Second Battle of Arakan which was due to start on 4th February, 1944. A Spitfire VIII had in Burma a true air speed of 419 miles an hour and a ceiling of 41,000 feet. These aircraft swiftly redressed the balance, and the utter discomfiture of the Japanese in the air was henceforth made certain.
As in other theatres of war, the victory of our fighters in Burma, beginning on the Arakan front, was due not only to the pilots. The ground crews deserve and must be allotted their full share, for in that inhospitable land they suffered even more than usual. Nearly half were in course of time found to have lost more than two stones in weight and three-quarters to have suffered many attacks of malaria and dysentery. The labours of Group Captain F. Carey, head of the Gunnery and Tactics School at Calcutta, must also not go unrecorded. His teaching put a fine glaze on a highly-finished article.
The ultimate object of the war, the defeat of Japan, would, the High Command considered, have been very largely achieved when the British and American forces reached China and there joined hands with those of Chiang Kai-shek. The problem confronting Mount-batten was how best to set about so formidable an undertaking. In seeking to solve it he was soon faced with difficulties created by a divergence of views not only between himself and his Deputy, Stilwell, but also between the American and British Chiefs of Staff. Into these it is not necessary to enter at any length. Briefly, Mountbatten, Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff favoured amphibious operations beginning with an assault on Malaya and ending ultimately in the capture of a Chinese port. General Marshall and the American Chiefs of Staff, supported by Stilwell—who contrived in some mysterious fashion to combine the functions and duties of deputy to Mountbatten, Commanding General of all American Forces in China, Burma and India, Chief of Staff to Chiang, Commander of
the Chinese/American forces fighting in North Burma, and Chief Lease-Lend Administrator to China—urged the recapture of North Burma by an advance from India. This would open once more the road to China. The plan to use the sea could only be fulfilled if the necessary ships and landing craft were available, and they were not. Nor could they be made so for many months to come, certainly not until the liberation of Europe had been accomplished. The alternative, an advance through the Burmese jungles, was an undertaking of great hardship and hazard. It might be undertaken if the troops could rely upon the air forces to keep them supplied; yet in November, 1943, the idea that it was possible to supply an army entirely by air transport carried on for weeks and months unrelentingly had not even been mooted. This novel and extraordinary use of air power grew as will be seen, out of what happened during the siege of Imphal, and profoundly affected the whole course of the campaign. At the beginning, however, the choice seemed to lie between an eventual attack on the Japanese perimeter when landing craft were available or a stern fight through the jungles of Burma to the confines of Yunnan.
While these alternatives were still under debate, Mountbatten, like Wavell before him, decided to pursue a forward policy and to keep the Japanese in Burma fully occupied. His resources were far more considerable than those of his predecessor and he could therefore show himself to be correspondingly more enterprising. It was in due course decided that four assaults were to be made—an offensive in Arakan to be carried out by XV Corps, under Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Christison, of which the ultimate objective was the island of Akyab; an advance southward by Stilwell from Ledo; a general harassing of the enemy during the period of these operations by the Long Range Penetration Groups; and, finally, a limited advance across the Chindwin river.
Early in November, 1943, Christison’s men began to move from their positions covering Cox’s Bazar, in the north, down the Mayu Peninsula. The country over which the advance had to be made is dominated by the very steep hills, of an average height of 1,000 feet, forming the Mayu range. Westwards stretches a flat coastal belt bordered by the Indian Ocean; eastwards lies the Kalapanzin Valley. It was Christison’s first task to seize and hold the Maungdaw–Buthidaung road, ‘a sixteen mile metalled highway running laterally across the Japanese front and close behind their main positions’. This road linked the port of Maungdaw on the coast with the town of Buthidaung inland, and stretches of it ran through tunnels. A vital part of the plan was to be the landing of the 2nd British
Division in the rear of the Japanese 55th on the Mayu Peninsula, the object being to catch the enemy between two fires. Lack of suitable craft made the landing of troops impossible. Nevertheless, the offensive prospered.
On 9th January, 1944, Maungdaw fell and Christison began to press over the Nyakyedauk1 Pass against Buthidaung. To guard against an attempt on the part of the Japanese to move round the eastern end of his front and to attack his communications, he had moved the 81st West African Division to the distant Kaladan Valley beyond the next range of hills. In the early stages of its march it had been kept supplied by a jeep track seventy-three miles long running from Chiringa to Daletme. Once it began its advance, however, the Dakotas of Troop Carrier Command were to be entirely responsible for bringing it all it needed. This task became the chief commitment of No. 62 Squadron, Royal Air Force, who fulfilled it with efficiency and despatch. The jungle in the Kaladan valley is even thicker than it is elsewhere in Burma and the flight over the hills was notable for its turbulence and for the presence of the dreaded cumulonimbus cloud formations. ‘We went at low level down the river bank’, one pilot reported, ‘flying in line astern, and then the Flight Commander would find the dropping zone. Harder than that was trying to find a regular circuit on which we could drop. Usually we each needed to go round about eight times to push out the entire load of supplies, and the gorges made it difficult. We had to get low down for the dropping and then if there was a hill in front of us it meant pretty well tearing the guts out of our engines to climb over it. The up and down currents were terrifying and often we felt that we weren’t climbing at all and that we should have to crash’.
The West Africans and the Royal Air Force were soon on terms of mutual friendship, and indeed affection. On occasions when it was possible for a Dakota to land on a hastily devised air strip, the West Africans would flock round the aircrew with the liveliest expressions of regard. When landing was impossible and the supplies were dropped by parachute, they took the greatest care of what they received. One of them, indeed, in his zeal went so far as to try to catch one of the hundredweight bags of rice as they descended, for he had noted with regret that since these were dropped ‘free’, many of them burst and scattered their contents far and wide. Unfortunately, he was successful, and at once became one of the more severely injured passengers in the Dakotas detailed to fly out
the sick and wounded. These air ambulances, as will be seen, were used more and more as the campaign progressed, saved many lives and were a great factor in maintaining the spirits of the troops at a high level.
Thrice daily did the Dakotas of No. 62 Squadron bring in supplies. Had the Japanese been able to maintain but one fighter patrol over the Kaladan valley the squadron would have been undone and so would the West Africans, who would have had to surrender within a week. That the enemy did not do so was one further proof of the successful labours of the Spitfire squadrons in maintaining air superiority.
Christison’s offensive was also supported by the air force in the classic manner. The airfields of the enemy were as systematically attacked as were his supply centres, his ports, his shipping and his rail and road communications. This daily, or rather nightly, bombing carried out by British Wellingtons and American Mitchells, ‘formed the background’, says Mountbatten, ‘and the unceasing accompaniment to the land fighting. Land advances depended for their success on air protection from enemy interference. In most cases the air forces provided the spearhead of the attack; during the operations they fought the enemy in the air and harried him on the ground; and after the battle, they continued to attack his communications and bases and to weaken his fighting organization. It will not be possible to form an authentic overall picture of the land-air campaign if this is not borne in mind’.
A quarter of the operations of the Strategic Air Force was directed against railway communications, particular attention being paid to Rangoon and the newly constructed railway between Burma and Siam. The railway connecting Rangoon with Myitkyina was also the object of continuous assault and throughout its length there was always at least one bridge out of action. Farther afield the marshalling yards at Bangkok and Moulmein were bombed by Wellingtons and Liberators. From 18th April, Mitchells and Wellingtons began a daily assault on roads, especially the main road leading from Ye-U and the road from Wuntho along which supplies for the Japanese operating in the Chindwin area had to pass. A concentrated effort was made to bomb oil installations both by day and night. Those at Yenangyaung, Chauk and elsewhere were dealt with and many of the attacks, covered by escorts provided by Beaufighters, were made by day. From January to May a total of about 6,500 tons of bombs were dropped by the Strategic Air Force, which considering the long distances which had to be flown, some of them equivalent to a flight from London to Tunis, is a not unremarkable figure.
So matters stood until 4th February, 1944, when the Japanese with swift and sudden skill brought Mountbatten’s moves to an abrupt halt by opening what proved to be their last offensive on this front. At dawn on the 6th, General F. Messervy, commanding the 7th Indian Division, found himself with his A.D.C. and some orderlies unexpectedly engaged in hand-to-hand conflict with Japanese troops near the little village of Taung Bazar, nine miles behind our lines in Arakan. The general fought his way out and reached a small place called Sinzweya, where the headquarters of his administrative troops was situated. It was soon to be known as the ‘Admin Box’ and the officers and men holding out in it were to win the first of the decisive land battles of the Burma campaign.
To the surprise and delight of Mountbatten, General Hanayoa chose this moment to open an offensive on the largest scale. His object seemed to be nothing less than the invasion of India. In launching it he was carrying out a grand design known to the Japanese High Command as operation ‘C’. Entry into India was to be secured by splitting open the British front, sealing the eastern from the western half and cutting all lines of communication. Each half was then to be destroyed separately and the roads running through Chittagong and Dimapur to India freed. This ambitious project was to be carried out in two phases. In Phase One the port of Chittagong on the Arakan front was to be seized and the reserves, under General Slim, drawn off and fully committed to the battle before Phase Two opened about a month later. In this phase the Allied bases at Imphal and Dimapur were to be captured, the lines of communication through Assam severed, and as soon as the Japanese troops were on Indian soil, Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the so-called National Indian Army, was to be set up at the head of a puppet government. Such was the strategic design.
To execute it the Japanese relied on tactics which had up till then proved irresistible. Our forces were to be outflanked, when as a consequence they would immediately seek to retreat. They could then be cut to pieces. It was in fact to be a repetition of the old story. The Japanese troops, eager and well-trained, would advance through jungle deemed too thick even for them to penetrate, create the necessary confusion and then win the inevitable victory. On this occasion, however, the Japanese High Command had totally neglected one factor, and that a decisive one—the power of the air. Instead of retreating, the army received immediate orders to stand and fight and to rely on the air forces for supplies. It did so, and that is why the victory was won. It was as simple as that.
The first shock to the Japanese and the fanatical commander of their advance guard, Colonel Tanahashi, who expected to be in Chittagong within a week, was the resistance of the ‘Admin Box’. For the first forty-eight hours all had gone well. The Japanese had achieved a very great measure of surprise. Throughout the days and weeks preceding their attack, no movement in the jungles behind their lines had been observed either by day or by night. Pilots of Hurricanes on patrol reported that on our side of the valleys and hills they could plainly see the headlights of our own lorries moving down to Maungdaw and the bivouac fires of our troops. Over Japanese territory, however, all was as dark and silent as the proverbial grave. By the morning of 6th February the Japanese had passed through dense jungle and their outflanking forces had turned south and west according to plan—Tanahashi’s force to cut the Nyakyedauk Pass, and the other, the Kubo force, to cut the road connecting Bawli Bazar with Razabil.
By 10th February the enemy had duly cut the Nyakyedauk Pass and completely surrounded the ‘Admin Box’. They had also, by efforts almost superhuman, dragged their guns over the Nyakyedauk range and established themselves in the jungle close to the communications of the 5th Indian Division, which they harried but did not succeed in cutting off. In these manoeuvres they had been assisted to the fullest extent possible by their air forces, which on the first day had flown a sweep of 100 aircraft and on the following of 60. It must have seemed to the Japanese High Command that victory was close at hand, if not assured, and so it would have been had not the supply aircraft of Brigadier General William D. Old, that veteran of the ‘Hump’ crossings into China, come into immediate action. As has already been told, arrangements had been made and were in operation for supplying the West African Division from the air. With the sudden advent of the enemy in force, another eager claimant for supplies from the same source entered the field. The 7th Indian Division, or rather that part of it in the ‘Admin Box’, had to be sustained, and only Old’s Dakotas could do it. The communications of the 5th Indian Division, almost but not quite surrounded, were also in danger and they, too, would have to be supplied in the same manner. Fortunately Peirse had been caught very wide awake, and large quantities of stores, including rations for ten days for 40,000 men, had been accumulated at Comilla and other airfields. These could now be moved where they were vitally needed and, thanks to air superiority, at a trifling cost—to be accurate, one Dakota. ‘But’, Peirse reported, ‘the operation while it lasted was of such unexpected magnitude that I was compelled to
request the loan of a number of Commandos (C.46’s) from the India/China Wing of the United States Air Transport Command, and these aircraft were promptly and unstintingly supplied’. The critical period lasted not quite one month, from 8th February to 6th March, and during it some 2,000 tons of supplies of all kinds, from ammunition to fresh eggs for the wounded, were dropped, the average load of each Dakota being between 6,000 and 7,000 lb. This feat, for feat it was, and others of a similar kind, took the enemy entirely by surprise, ruined his plans and turned what might well have proved the victorious opening of a campaign to cease perhaps only at the gates of Delhi, first into a check, then into a rout.
That the casualties among the supply aircraft were so few was due not only to the efforts of the Spitfires, which during the Arakan campaign destroyed or damaged some sixty of the enemy, but also to an efficient warning system which gave due notice of the advent of fighter or other Japanese aircraft. Nevertheless, it must not be thought that this demonstration of a new power in warfare was easily or cheaply made. The margin between success and failure was often perilously low. On one occasion, for example, the crew of a Dakota loaded with tank shells watched their cargo sail down on the end of its parachutes, saw it collected and rushed by men at the double to the waiting tanks on the edge of the dropping zone. Before the wheeling aircraft had set course for home the flash of guns showed its crew that the shells which they had dropped were already being fired. Three times the main ammunition dump in the ‘Box’ was hit by Japanese shellfire and blown up; three times it was renewed from the air.
Inside the Dakotas, when over the dropping zone, ordered labour could be seen at its most intense. The despatchers put the loads in neat piles by the open door. As the moment of dropping approached, the pilot would bank his aircraft and lift the tail to make sure that the parachutes would not become entangled with it. This done, he signalled to the ‘kicker’. This man, lying flat on his back, pressed his shoulders against the fuselage and his feet against the load. When the green light flashed, he thrust with his feet, and as fast as he kicked the supplies into space they were replaced by the sweating despatchers beside him. ‘They made a first-class drop of it’, said Brigadier M. R. Roberts, commanding the 114th Brigade of the 7th Indian Division, long afterwards. ‘There were about twenty dropping zones and the supplies were put into them in conditions of very great difficulty. On my own zones the losses were only a little over two per cent., though each one of them was in full view of the Japanese. It went on day and night.’ The same witness
pays tribute to the impunity with which the supply aircraft carried out their task, and gives the reason, which he saw with his own eyes. ‘On the 10th February’, he says, ‘I saw the entire Japanese Air Force destroyed’. In this he exaggerates, but for a man close beset as he was and utterly dependent on the air force such an exaggeration is pardonable.
‘About 80 plus came over and stooged around and then started to peel off by squadrons. I put on my tin hat and made for my command post, but as I was entering the slit I heard the high whine of hotted-up Spitfires. The battle took place right above my head and in twenty minutes I saw fifteen Japs go down. These were all that the air force actually claimed destroyed, but they put in fourteen as probable and twenty-three damaged. I saw one Jap Zero swoop down and I thought he was going to shoot us up, then he shot up again practically perpendicular, towering like a pheasant hit in the lungs; then he fell backwards and crashed. In view of the fact that after that battle I never saw more than three Jap aircraft at any one time, my view is that both the probables and the damaged were in fact destroyed.’
The beleaguered force did all it could to help the airmen. During a supply drop Japanese positions were kept under machine-gun and small arms fire. For the evacuation of wounded an air strip, 200 yards by 40, constructed by coolie labour, was laid out and some fifty light Austers used it to fly out about 300 wounded a week. The pilots were, for the most part, very gallant, very skilful Americans. ‘One of my company commanders’, says Brigadier Roberts, ‘had an abscessed tooth. He was flown out in the morning, the tooth extracted, and he was back that evening by six o’clock. At midnight he led his company in a successful counter-attack’.
Such a display of control of the air, and its meaning, was too much even for the fanatical Japanese, who from being triumphant attackers were presently clinging to their positions far away from any source of supply and growing daily hungrier and hungrier. ‘It broke our hearts’, said a prisoner, ‘to see the stuff dropping on the British troops day after day, while we got nothing’. They revenged themselves in their usual fashion by murdering prisoners after torture and by cutting the throats of patients in a dressing station which they overran.
Nor did the air force confine itself in the aid it gave to the army to the dropping of supplies. Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers frequently took part in the fray and in due course evolved a technique which was as successful as it was ingenious. Once more let Brigadier Roberts tell the story.
We practised ruses on the Japanese [he said]. When we had decided what position had to be attacked, we got the Royal Air Force to bomb it beforehand, sometimes with bombs set with instantaneous fuses, sometimes with delayed action fuses of anything from five
minutes to several hours. By mixing these the Japs were kept constantly under cover, for they never knew when a bomb would go off. On the day of the attack, the Royal Air Force would drop bombs with no fuses at all, and while the Japs cowering in their foxholes were waiting for them to go off the British infantry would arrive and kill them with the bayonet. Another ruse was to put on bogus fighter strafes, the fighter aircraft diving on the Jap position, but not firing their guns and thus keeping the Japs down while our infantry went in. The object of these ruses was to get the infantry over the last 300 yards of the advance when they were most vulnerable. Six months afterwards, in October, certain Royal Air Force pilots visited us in order to see the targets for themselves. They then went out on patrol and walked many miles, returning exhausted with their feet badly worn. We gave them rum and sent them back on mules. I had a letter back to say that first we had worn out their feet and then we had worn out their bottoms.
By the middle of March the besieged were becoming the besiegers. On the 11th Buthidaung, and on the 12th Razabil, were captured by the 7th and 5th Indian Divisions respectively. The famous tunnels fell into our hands some days later. The 81st West African Division also achieved success by the capture of Kyauktaw and Apaukwa, but from these they were driven out by a sudden and fierce concentration of the Japanese. On 23rd March the outer ring of the Kyaukit defences was pierced. By then air supply on the Arakan front was no longer necessary. Most of it was at once switched to the central and northern fronts. By the beginning of April the Arakan battle was over and victory lay not with the Japanese, who had been so confident of obtaining it, and who had by then left more than 5,000 of their best troops dead on the battlefield, but with the Allies; with XV Corps, with No. 224 Group of the Royal Air Force and with Troop Carrier Command.
Despite the total failure of Phase One of the Japanese grand design, Phase Two was set in motion at the appropriate date. Air reconnaissance showed troop movements, road building, and the construction of rafts at various points along the Chindwin River. An attack by the Japanese was evidently to be launched upon Imphal. IV Corps was at once concentrated in that area together with No. 221 Group of the air forces. The importance of Imphal, which lies in the midst of a lovely and fertile plain—the haunt in season of unnumbered duck and other aquatic birds that live on its reed-fringed lakes—was that it stood athwart the main line of communications by land between India and Burma. For a long time it had been our advanced base for the central front. ‘Maungdaw–Buthidaungit was also the nodal point on which hinged the defence of Assam and was vital to any force invading Burma from India or vice versa. With the Imphal plain in their
hands ... the Japanese would be able not only to attack our bases and airfields in the Surma valley but also to interrupt the vital Assam line of communication on which Lieutenant General Stilwell’s forces and the air ferry route over the “Hump” depended’. So writes the Supreme Commander, who, when the attack came, was in hospital at Ledo with both eyes bandaged, having been struck by a branch of bamboo while travelling in a jeep on his return from a visit to Stilwell’s Chinese. Fortunately the injury was not serious and within a few days he was back again in control.
The Japanese attack opened on 8th March with two thrusts upon Imphal made by the 15th and 33rd Japanese Divisions, one along the west bank of the Manipur River in the area of Tiddim, the other north-west up the Kabaw valley in the area of Tamu. For a time the position was grave, even crucial, for the only lines of communication, the Dimapur/Kohima/Imphal/Tiddim road and the Imphal/Tamu road, were in the area of the enemy’s advance and could therefore be very easily cut, thus isolating all the troops in Imphal and its area. That this might happen had been foreseen and orders had been issued to the 17th Indian Division to quit Tiddim. It did not, however, begin its withdrawal until 13th March, five days after the Japanese offensive opened, and by then it was too late, for a strong force of the enemy’s 33rd Division was already across the Imphal/Tiddim road.
In order to assist the 17th Indian Division to extricate itself the commander of IV Corps was forced to utilize for the next three weeks all available reserves at Imphal. To replace these formations—an urgent necessity—it was decided to accelerate the move, already planned, of the 5th Indian Division. This acceleration could only be achieved by the use of air transport. Air Marshal Baldwin, however, reported that there were not enough transport aircraft available to move the division. It was then that Mountbatten made a bold decision, one which not only saved the day but, as in Arakan, transformed almost a certain defeat into unequivocal victory. By a diversion of transport aircraft from other commitments the 5th Indian Division could be taken from the Arakan to the central front, and they would be carried by No. 194 Squadron, Royal Air Force, and by aircraft of the United States Air Transport Command, which for months had been engaged in maintaining supplies to China over the ‘Hump’. To interfere even for a short time with this vital traffic was, as Mountbatten notes in his despatch, ‘contrary to my directive as well as to my personal instructions from the President, and I realized that I was risking his goodwill and that of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff by taking this independent
action’. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate. To have lost Imphal and Kohima would have laid open the road to India. At any cost, even the temporary dislocation of high strategic plans, that road must be barred. The necessary orders were issued, twenty Commando aircraft were taken off the ‘Hump’ route, No. 194 Squadron was diverted from its normal duties and the 5th Indian Division was flown into Imphal. This operation required 758 sorties. In addition transport aircraft took in the 50th Parachute Brigade, two strong Indian battalions flown from the Punjab, and an infantry brigade taken from Amarda Road, south-west of Calcutta, to Jorhat in Assam. This last was the most impressive lift of all and was accomplished by Commando and Dakota aircraft: the first, flying 99, the second 129 sorties, transported 3,056 officers and men together with nearly 100,000 lb. of stores, 50 motor-cycles, 40 jeeps and 31 trailers, sixteen 25-pounder guns and eight 3.7 howitzers.
These extensive troop movements took place not a moment too soon. In the third week of March the small Allied force moving up from Dimapur was halted and held at bay on the road to Kohima. Ukhrul had to be abandoned by the 23rd Indian Division after a fierce and gallant action against strong enemy forces. The road was cut, Imphal was isolated and preparations to withstand a siege were in full swing. Then the 5th Indian Division arrived, and was followed by the arrival of the 7th. Two of its brigades joined the XXXIII Corps, battling up the road from Dimapur on one side of the Japanese block, and one the IV Corps at Imphal on the other side. Thus by the beginning of April the two opponents were locked in fierce conflict, but their numbers were not unequal, and thanks to the swift and imaginative use of air power, Mountbatten’s forces were able worthily and with confidence to sustain the fight. It took place in two principal areas—at Kohima and round the plain of Imphal.
It was on 4th April that the Japanese opened their attack on Kohima and in so doing provoked some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Kohima is a small town or large village standing on a high ridge which there thrusts itself out of the forests of jungle. It is inhabited by Nagas—a primitive folk, hunters of heads upon occasion, weavers of exquisite cotton cloth, and strong friends of Britain. For many months they had helped our guerrilla forces, the Kachin Rifles among others, to harass the Japanese, and had unflinchingly endured the savage reprisals which from time to time had fallen upon them. Now one of their principal centres was to become a battlefield. The ridge on which it stands is high, the hills on each side of it higher still, and the country wild and very thick save on the ridge itself, where it is open.
The sudden arrival of elements of the Japanese 31st Division at the outskirts of Kohima in the beginning of April had, as has been seen, created a very dangerous situation. The position was very thinly held by a battalion of West Kents and a detachment of the Assam Rifles, their ranks swelled by a number of convalescent officers and men, nursing orderlies and administrative troops. The convalescents, who were recovering from malaria and other diseases, had been sent to Kohima to take advantage of its lovely and invigorating climate. Now they were suddenly called upon to fight for their lives. Soon driven from the small straggling town, they found themselves holding a position where the long road from Dimapur struggles up to the crest of the ridge. Here stood the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow with its asphalt tennis-court and its terraced gardens hewn out of the hillside. Close beside it was Summer House Hill, and this was joined to another, called Treasury Hill, by a saddle. The battlefield, dominated by a third, College Hill, which the Japanese held, was very small. It was surrounded by a path known in peacetime as the Ladies Mile, round which a man could walk in a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes. The area occupied by the garrison, some 2,000 men in all, was therefore not much larger than 400 by 500 yards. Here the sharpest fighting of the campaign took place. It began on 4th April and continued until the 20th.
At one time the Japanese held one edge of the tennis-court and the beleaguered garrison the other. They had food, but were very short of three essentials for a prolonged defence—water, ammunition and medical supplies. These were provided by the Royal Air Force. Everything was dropped on Summer House Hill, the only possible place still in the hands of the defence on which there was a chance to collect the containers. Even so, the task, both for those in the air and those on the ground, was far from easy. The hill is covered with pine trees whose branches soon became festooned with parachutes to such an extent that those on the ground, detailed to collect the supplies, were ordered ‘to make for the place where the parachutes were thickest’. Even then, they could only do so at night, creeping on their bellies, and as often as not encountering Japanese intent on the same errand. The only supplies the garrison could be certain of receiving were those falling directly into the slit trenches, which soon began to scar the hill, and half a dozen men were killed or wounded by containers dropped from so low a height that their parachutes failed to open. The drop was made usually between ten and eleven in the morning by Dakotas lumbering up the valley from Dimapur and casting down their loads under intense small arms fire from a height of between 200 and 300 feet. Though hit and hit again, not one was lost.
To this invaluable, if passive form of help, active was added. In sixteen days, four Hurricane fighter-bomber squadrons flew above 2,200 sorties in the area covered by the Japanese 31st Division, many of them directly against the besiegers, while the same number of Vultee Vengeance squadrons, besides providing direct support, attacked enemy dumps and camps. Their tactics were to fly up the valley following the Manipur road from Dimapur, round the side of a hill and then to go into the attack, their targets being first the Japanese positions on College Hill and secondly those on Treasury Hill. ‘To see them roaring in low, the whole place rocking with the noise of their engines, and then above this sound to hear the loud voices of the bombs, renewed our hearts every time they came’, said a sergeant of the Assam Rifles, and he spoke for every man within the circuit of the Ladies Mile. So they held on, enabled to do so by their own courage and by the unflinching support which they received from the air. At last, on 20th April, worn out by their exertions and by a ‘terrible lack of sleep’, they were relieved by units of the 2nd British Division. The Japanese, however, still held Kohima itself and continued for some time to fight fiercely in defences constructed in the surrounding hills, ‘31st Division so densely covered in jungle that they were almost, but as it proved not quite, inaccessible to our tanks’.
The Battle of Kohima was one aspect of the victory, the successful defence of Imphal the other. As has been said, this lovely town, the reputed original home of the game of polo and so full of gardens that its size is hard to judge, lies on the main route to Burma. Built in the midst of a wide plain, it stands at the end of the long road running from the railhead at Dimapur up through Kohima and then down through thick jungle lit by the blossoms of the flame-of-the-forest tree, which burn like candles in the dark green night, to the spacious plain. This highway was prolonged by two tracks along which wheeled traffic could move, one leading to Tamu, the other to Tiddim. At the far end of them two divisions of the Fourteenth Army were preparing to advance into Burma when on 8th March, as has been related, the Japanese struck first and cut their communications. The effect of this move was to isolate the 17th Division beyond Tiddim. It had therefore to fight its way back and this it did with great difficulty, being aided by fighter-bombers which smashed road blocks, and kept supplied by the Dakotas of Troop Carrier Command, whose containers held not only ammunition but even newspapers. The other division at the end of the Tamu road was more fortunate and was able to withdraw in time to Imphal.
On 29th March the Japanese moved again and severed the main road between Imphal and Dimapur at the 107th milestone. The
encirclement of Imphal had been accomplished and the men of the Fourteenth Army who held it were now cut off. They would have been doomed but for the air. The tactics which had saved the ‘Admin Box’ in Arakan were to be repeated on a larger scale. One hundred and fifty thousand men in contact with the enemy and 138 miles from the nearest railhead had to be maintained solely from the air. They needed somewhat more than 400 tons of stores a day and these were brought into a valley ringed by the guns of the enemy.
At first the Japanese were triumphant. ‘The investment of Imphal is complete’, boasted the Tokio radio in the early days of April. ‘Owing to lack of ammunition, the sound of the enemy’s guns is weakening. When the last shot is fired, Imphal will automatically fall. The fate of IV Corps, supplied by a scared and dwindling air force, is sealed’. That scared and dwindling air force flew more than 10,000 sorties in the first fortnight of April, one-third of them by transport aircraft.
To enable the air force to maintain supplies to the beleaguered town the army strove to confine the Japanese to the hills surrounding the plain. In this task IV Corps, dramatically reinforced from the air as it had been, was most successful, though its accomplishment involved a consumption of supplies at such a rate that, despite all the efforts of Troop Carrier Command, the daily ration of each individual had to be reduced. Even so the consumption of food and ammunition by the end of April was still greater than the quantities brought in. ‘I was confronted’, says Peirse in his despatch, ‘with unprecedented demands for the large scale delivery of reinforcements and supplies not merely to the beleaguered forces of the Imphal plain but also to the garrisons holding out at Kohima and elsewhere. These demands were met’. This was not quite true. Sufficient supplies were flown to the garrisons to enable them to eat and fight, but early in April it became necessary to reduce food rations to sixty-five per cent. of the normal. The existence of the army was maintained by keeping up an average of 275 tons a day throughout the siege and 400 tons a day in June. The aircraft which had brought the 5th Indian Division did not return empty, but carried many thousands of non-combatant troops, the administrative services, indispensable to an army in the field but not absolutely necessary to one which is besieged. In May, Troop Carrier Command flew out from Imphal some 30,000 more of these troops, together with two hospitals and their staffs.
The local air defence of the town was in the hands of the fighters and fighter-bombers of No. 221 Group, which used six airfields within the ring. The Group was under the command of Air
Commodore S. F. Vincent. As soon as the decision to stay and fight had been taken, Vincent called his airmen together in the large bamboo canteen at Imphal and explained the situation. Their temper and spirit rose with every word he uttered. Orders were given that every man should carry arms; emergency radio networks were set up to take the place of the ordinary telephone system should it break down; the ground crews and other administrative services on the airfields were formed into self-supporting ‘boxes’, of which the garrison was required to hold out till overrun. Retreat from them, as from Imphal, was not even considered. At night, until the decision to remove most of the fighters to other airfields outside the plain was taken, pilots and ground crews guarded their own aircraft and lived in foxholes nearby. ‘One Spitfire box looked like a honeycomb. Each section of pilots, armourers, fitters, riggers, electricians, wireless technicians and maintenance crews was responsible for its own dugout and all were arranged to guard the perimeter. Pilots, armed, stayed by their aircraft.’ Such defensive positions, ‘pimples’, to give them their local name, spread like a rash over the fair plain of Imphal. A very strict blackout and absolute silence were maintained from dusk to dawn. Then, with the bright light of day, the fighters and fighter-bombers took off to fly and fight, for now more than ever it was essential to hold the mastery of the air.
Every day the weather allowed, slow unarmed transports lurched over the mountains freighted with vital supplies. They could do so only under the protecting wings of Spitfires and Hurricanes, and from dawn to dusk these were spread wide. Despite short rations, dysentery, lack of sleep, ‘red ants and large black spiders that left itching spider-lick on men’s skins’; despite ‘cobras that... coiled themselves round wet things like wash-basins in the dark’; the six thousand-odd besieged airmen remained in good heart. Occasionally they had their reward, as on that evening when Squadron Leader Arjan Singh of the Royal Indian Air Force, on patrol at dusk reported over the wireless that he had observed a Japanese battalion only eight miles away and moving, so far as he could see, straight on Imphal. Pilots and crews had already been dispersed for the night; some were eating their supper, others in their canvas baths. One and all made at once for their aircraft, those who had been bathing dressing as they ran. Within ten minutes nine Hurricanes had taken off, and in all thirty-three Hurricanes, accompanied for some unexplained reason by an elderly Harvard trainer, presently arrived over the area through which the Indian officer had reported the enemy to be passing. In the almost gathered dusk nothing could be seen but the dim outlines of trees and scrub; but the leading aircraft,
flying very low, turned on their landing lights, and in their beams the Japanese column was clearly descried. The squadrons went in with bombs, cannon and machine-gun fire, and though they could see no apparent result no enemy appeared in the environs of Imphal. It was only later that they learnt from captured documents that 220 Japanese, including 14 officers, had met their ends that evening.
This was perhaps the most successful of the many sorties made by the beleaguered squadrons. The usual task of the fighter-bombers was to attack the enemy’s suspension bridge at Falam and then the village of that name, passing on to the winding Tiddim road, coiled like a snake through the folds of the Chin Hills. This road, if so rough and precipitous a track merits the name, was attacked again and again, especially when Japanese tanks were observed trying to make their way round its hairpin bends.
In their work of bombing and low level attacks, the Royal Air Force fighters received aid from the Naga tribesmen, who from the start showed a great hatred and contempt for the Japanese. One day Khating, an educated Tangkhul Naga, slipped into Imphal to report that in the densest jungle, so many miles west of Ukhrul, was the headquarters of a Japanese general who was living there closely hidden with 200 mules and about 1,000 men. Khating undertook to return to the place, and with a number of his comrades all wearing the scarlet government blankets issued to them would, on a given day and at the chosen hour, stand in a ring round the ravine which was sheltering the Japanese. On seeing them the aircraft had only to fly a few hundred yards and then drop their bombs in the circle. The first attempt to execute this plan failed, but on the second, aided by a sketch map drawn by Khating, two flights of six Hurricanes each rid themselves of their bomb loads in what appeared to be dense jungle scrub, and then circling round passed eight times over the spot firing cannon and machine-guns. Their fire was not returned, nor did they receive any signs of the enemy’s presence. A few days later news came in that some 100 of the enemy had been killed. Khating subsequently became a captain in the Assam Regiment and won the Military Cross.
That the Japanese did not succeed in regaining control of the air was in no small measure due to the efforts of long-range American fighters—Lightnings and Mustangs, which, in a series of sweeps in March and April, attacked the forward Japanese airfields. Some of these squadrons were based on a secret airfield hacked out of the jungle in the Hukawng valley, down which Stilwell’s American/Chinese force was advancing. So secret was this place that more than one pilot failed to find it, and when his fuel ran out, crashed into the
jungle. ‘The only way you could see it’, said one American pilot, ‘was to spot a saddle in the mountain and then set course for three minutes. If your compass was right you would be there’.
Despite all these efforts by the air forces the achievement of victory was no simple matter and the position in Imphal remained critical for many days. The presence of the Japanese Army in the surrounding hills gravely interfered with the warning system, and when the radar units set up in the Chin Hills had been overrun, almost put an end to it. When this happened, the fighter defences of Imphal lost eight precious minutes, a very serious curtailment of the warning period, especially when the enemy aircraft were flying low. Nevertheless certain posts were maintained in the very front line itself, where they performed most useful service, though at night they had to stop the diesel engines working their equipment so as not to betray their positions to Japanese patrols. As an additional precaution the long discarded system of fighter patrols had to be brought back into use, and these were flown to guard the two main entrances to the Imphal valley. Such foresight, however, had its reward when an enemy raid of twenty Oscars was intercepted and ten of them shot down. The impotence of the Japanese Air Force to intervene in the battle may be judged from the fact that during the eighty days the siege endured only two Dakotas and one Wellington on supply duties were shot down. Besiegers though they were, the efforts of the Japanese Army Air Force amounted to no more than three per cent. of those of the British and American, and soon such ‘sporadic and meagre support’ as it was able to provide had to come from airfields as far as 600 miles from the battlefront. The meaning of domination in the air had once more been proved and the defenders of Imphal may be left for the moment in good heart, supremely confident in the ability and fortitude of their air forces, while a third and perhaps the most striking example of all that air power means is described.
Wingate’s Chindits, or the Long Range Penetration Groups to give them their full name, had, it will be remembered, already made one prolonged incursion into Burma in February, 1943. This was in the nature of a dress rehearsal, and, despite the many difficulties encountered and the casualties sustained, had been considered, tactically at least, so successful, that the Supreme Commander decided to repeat it on a far larger scale. It was known as operation THURSDAY, and was planned to take place on 5th March, 1944. The date is of great significance. By then the first phase of the Japanese offensive had come to an end, and the second was about to open. In each it was the use of air transport which proved the major
factor in the defeat of the enemy, first in Arakan, when the ‘Admin. Box’ was supplied from the air, secondly at Kohima and Imphal; but, and this is the point, the number of aircraft available for this all-important task was limited. They had to be switched from one area to another and from one phase to the next with a speed of which only aircraft are capable. Thus, hardly was the Arakan fighting over, when the resources of Troop Carrier Command had to be used for moving Wingate and the Chindits to their destination far behind the Japanese lines, and then without a moment’s pause they had to take up the heavy duty of maintaining supplies to Imphal, to Kohima and to Stilwell in the Hukawng valley. Had operation THURSDAY taken place a few days later, or had the siege of Imphal begun a few days earlier, an Allied disaster in one or other theatre would have been almost inevitable, for the air transports would have been committed irrevocably to one task at the expense of the other. As it turned out, they were just, but only just, able to fulfil both.
The first expedition of the Long Range Penetration Groups had shown the limits of endurance which even brave and highly trained men could reach. The prospect, if gravely wounded, of having to be left behind to face a lingering end in some jungle hut, or a hideous death if captured by the Japanese, was one which placed too great a burden even on the fortitude of a Chindit. It was therefore decided that casualties should be flown out. An important part of a special air force, brought into being to aid the Chindits and commanded by Colonel Philip Cochran, an American, and known officially as the Air Commandos and unofficially as ‘Cochran’s Young Ladies’ or ‘Terry and the Pirates’, was detailed for this duty. While the Mitchells, Mustangs and Dakotas of the Commando performed their varied tasks, light communication aircraft, L.1’s and L.5’s, which could land even in a very small space, were to bring out the wounded. To create such a special force except in an emergency is wasteful and extravagant, for inevitably it reduces the efficiency of the Tactical Air Forces as a whole by taking pilots and aircraft away from their general duties and attaching them to a specific army formation. The flexibility of the air arm is thus impaired and its operations restricted. Such an Air Commando in the special circumstances prevailing throughout operation THURSDAY was, however, certainly justified.
The purpose of the operation was to put down far behind the Japanese armies in north-east Burma about 12,000 men or the bayonet strength of two divisions. Of these, 10,000 were to be transported by air and 2,000 were to make their way on foot through the jungle. Their orders were to sever the main arteries of supply feeding
the Japanese forces, more particularly those opposing Stilwell, advancing slowly, but steadily, towards Myitkyina. The airborne part of this great and unique expedition was to land in two jungle clearings, ‘strong fortresses’, as Wingate called them, with the code-names of PICCADILLY and BROADWAY. Since it was impossible in the thick country to make sure that these clearings would be free of the enemy, the first arrivals were to signal the local conditions. If these were favourable, the second wave was to come in.
That Sunday afternoon, 5th March, Lalaghat, the airfield from which the operation was to start, was strewn with American Dakotas and gliders. Each tug was to pull two gliders, of which there were eighty, massed in a double row along one side of the runway. Wingate was directing last minute loading operations when an officer ran on to the field, a photographic print, still wet, in his hand. It showed that PICCADILLY, the chief landing ground, had been obstructed by the enemy with logs of teak laid in rows and hidden by long buffalo grass. The photograph had been taken an hour or two before by Lieutenant Russhon from a low-flying Mitchell of the Combat Camera Unit. Photographs of the other landing ground, BROADWAY, taken by the same officer, showed that it was clear. Had the Japanese got wind of the proposed operation, and did they hope by obstructing one landing place to lure the whole force to the other and there ambush it? Take-off was postponed and the news kept from the men. Presently someone remembered that PICCADILLY had been used for the evacuation of wounded during the First Chindit Expedition and that a photograph of it had appeared in the American Press. Thus the enemy would know of its existence; but would he necessarily know more? It was decided to take the risk and to put all the gliders down at BROADWAY only. At eight minutes past six the first combinations took off.
The flight of the tugs and gliders was not accomplished without casualties. The turbulent air and the overloaded condition of the gliders caused several tow-ropes to part almost immediately. Four gliders crashed into the jungle near the point of take-off, three more broke loose east of the Chindwin and two east of the upper Irrawaddy. Of those, which so to speak fell by the ‘airside’, five by chance landed near a Japanese headquarters, and those of their occupants who had escaped injury went instantly into action with far more than local effect. The enemy at once jumped to the conclusion that Mountbatten, who had as they well knew once been Chief of Combined Operations, had planned raids of this kind on the headquarters of the various divisions in order to disrupt their offensive as it was about to pass into its second phase. The real significance of operation
THURSDAY escaped them and they took no action to deal with it until far too late.
A report of the Chindit officer and his fighter pilot liaison officer in one of these strayed gliders shows the spirit of those whom the Royal Air Force will always be proud to have taken on their high and perilous mission. ‘Our position’, runs a sentence, ‘was on paper complicated, but in practice was simplified by the fact that we did not know where we were and had no map’. Men who would accept such risks as these as a matter of course were invincible.
The touchdown of the main body on BROADWAY proved full of peril, for several gliders were wrecked by concealed furrows in the clearing, and while efforts were being made to drag them away, other gliders came in to land on top of them. Casualties began to mount, and about half past two in the morning, on receipt from BROADWAY of a pre-arranged code-word, the main wave of gliders was recalled. After that silence fell, and all efforts to get into touch with the clearing were unavailing. Had the first wave been ambushed as had been feared and was a grim battle now raging at the place where, if all had gone well, Dakotas were in a few hours to land with more men and supplies? At last the code-word ‘PORK SAUSAGE’ sounded in straining ears at Lalaghat. Some 400 British soldiers, under the expert guidance of American engineers and using such bulldozers as had survived the initial landing, had succeeded in hacking and stamping a runway, and late in the afternoon reported by wireless that they were ready to receive aircraft at dusk. Mules were coaxed or forced on board the waiting Dakotas, last mugs of tea drunk, and presently the force took off. The majority of the troop-carrying aircraft belonged to the Royal Air Force, but the first one to land was flown by Brigadier Old and he was closely followed by Air Marshal Baldwin, who two years previously had taken part in the first 1,000 bomber raid on Germany. ‘Nobody’, he wrote afterwards, ‘has seen a transport operation until he has stood at BROADWAY under the light of a Burma moon and watched Dakotas coming in and taking-off in opposite directions on a single strip at the rate of one take-off or one landing every three minutes’. During those hours of darkness, sixty-two Dakotas landed on BROADWAY and twelve gliders were put down upon another strip called CHOWRINGHEE. For two nights streams of Dakotas landed there and then Wingate decided that the operation had been fulfilled and gave orders for the strip to be abandoned. Two hours after the last man had left CHOWRINGHEE Japanese aircraft arrived to bomb it, but of the Chindits’ presence at BROADWAY the enemy remained ignorant until 13th March. Altogether, in six days, 9,052 officers and men, 175
ponies, 1,183 mules and 509,082 lb. of stores were transferred by air from the confines of India to places 150 miles or more behind the Japanese lines. The total casualties amounted to 121, all among the occupants of the gliders. Not one Dakota was lost. As an achievement it merits the epithet ‘unique’.
On 23rd March the second phase of the operation began, and on this occasion a Chindit brigade was taken to yet another clearing—ABERDEEN. These clearings—they eventually numbered five airfields together with about a hundred small strips for the landing of L.1’s and L.5’s—were all of the same type and pattern—an open space, reasonably flat but undulating and covered with coarse grass, surrounded in all sides by the tall, creeper-hung trees of an impassive, neutral and often deadly jungle. From these places Wingate’s columns, some thirty of them in all, set out upon their work of devastation. They were soon to be without their leader. On 24th March, Major-General Orde Charles Wingate was killed when, caught in a storm, his aircraft with its American crew crashed into the Naga Hills. So perished one who had transformed the ancient art of war by a novel use of the power of the air. He had discovered a strange and perilous path which only the bravest could follow, but victory was at its end.
To find even well-lighted dropping zones in darkness—for, since they were well beyond the range of fighter cover the Dakotas could not approach them in daylight—was a task requiring a very high degree of navigational skill. ‘By night’, reports Flight Lieutenant Coghlan of No. 31 Squadron, ‘map reading was, of course, impossible, and there were no landmarks except for the hills; but I worked out a technique whereby we always flew to a pinpoint, which was a certain point on the Chindwin known as the Sittaung Bend. We then flew on a certain course for a certain number of minutes until we picked up a triangle of lights. The course was then altered once more and we flew on the last leg, again of a given course for a determined number of minutes. If our calculations were correct, we would then arrive over the dropping zone, when we would flash our letter of the day’.
As has been said every Chindit column was accompanied by a Royal Air Force officer who soon proved invaluable in guiding by radio the fighter-bombers on to their targets, in choosing places where the ambulance aircraft could land, and in marking dropping zones. During an action these officers would establish themselves in observation posts overlooking the target, and would then talk to the pilots of the Mitchells telling them exactly where to place their bombs, the aiming point being indicated by a smoke-shell fired by the Chindits.
So expert did these Royal Air Force observers become, that, long before the end, no Japanese battery dared to fire if an aircraft were anywhere near and the same fear restrained the infantry. ‘This formation’, runs a signal from Brigadier J. M. Calvert to Major-General W. D. A. Lentaigne, who took over the Chindits after the death of Wingate, ‘could not have taken Mogaung without the assistance of direct air support. The results they accomplished were accurate and decisive’. The fall of this town occurred in June, and by then the Royal Air Force observers had perfected their technique, through long weeks of many trials, relatively few errors and much hard toil, in conditions without precedent in the recorded history of warfare. Their casualties were far from few and it must not be forgotten that each and all of them were operational pilots who, having completed at least one tour of duty in the air against the enemy, were officially described as ‘resting’.
Before long the ambulance aircraft of the Air Commando were in full operation. Known by the sinister sobriquet of ‘Blood Chariots’, these light aircraft flew immediately above the tree-tops often in full view of the enemy to pick up wounded. On one occasion forty wounded men were thus brought away, though each had to be put on board under fire. For young pilots, unused to contact with sick or wounded men, the task of flying over the jungle was sometimes made still heavier by the condition of their passengers. The delirious screams of men in an advanced stage of malaria could be heard above the roar of the engine, and the knowledge that they could do nothing to help them did not make for peace of mind. Now and then the passenger they carried had been rescued from the Japanese, such a one, for example, as that Gurkha who was found still alive bound to a tree with strips of flesh cut from his thighs and legs and who cried out in agony each time the Moth bringing him to hospital bumped in the turbulent air. In addition to the L.1’s and L.5’s, Helicopters were used and, at the other end of the scale, Royal Air Force Sunderland flying-boats, which landed on the Indawgyi Lake and brought out altogether 537 casualties.
Such, in brief, was the contribution of the combined air forces to an operation which accounted for more than 5,000 of the enemy many miles behind his main armies, in the heart of a country he had dominated for two years, and which as day succeeded day began to render the position of the besiegers of Imphal more and more desperate.
The Japanese received heavy blows, too, from Stilwell and his Chinese. In April, the 50th Chinese Division, 8,000 strong, had been flown from Sookerating to Maingkwan and thereafter all Stilwell’s
troops were supplied regularly by air. Moving steadily southwards from Assam towards Myitkyina, the General flung a small column of Rangers, known as GALAHAD Force, against its main airfield. They seized it on 17th May and immediately troops in Dakotas and gliders were flown in, led once more by Brigadier General Old. In thirty-six hours, despite enemy opposition, which shot down one Dakota in the air and accounted for several more on the ground, a Chinese regiment complete, six light anti-aircraft batteries, twelve Bofors guns with their crews, an airborne engineer company and a mortar company, together with many loads of ammunition, food and stores, had been landed.
It had been hoped to capture the town of Myitkyina by a swift assault in the first forty-eight hours, but the Japanese garrison, fighting with great resolution and hastily reinforced by troops from the surrounding country, held out, and it was seventy-nine days before the town fell into our hands. By the end of May the number of its besiegers who had arrived by air had reached the strength of a division, and this though they had to land at a place not above a thousand yards from the positions of the enemy. For the next six months Troop Carrier Command continued to be entirely responsible for the supplies of these forward troops; the first convoy of lorries did not reach Myitkyina until mid-November, 1944, travelling over the much vaunted Ledo Road, which until then had not carried a single ton. It was computed that during the flying-in to Myitkyina seventy-five Dakotas performed the work of twelve hundred 2½-ton trucks, and that the men required to fly and service them were less than half the number which would have been needed by ground transport using the road.
While the American-Chinese forces were pressing on into northeast Burma, the Japanese siege of Imphal was beginning to wane. By the end of May the enemy had lost his key positions in front of Imphal and Kohima, and when on the night of 5th/6th June the Aradura Spur, three miles to the south of Kohima, was captured, the battle in that area was at last at an end. IV and XXXIII Corps now began to advance towards one another along the Kohima/Imphal road. It was more than ever urgently necessary to reopen this highway, the main, almost the only, link with India, for though the weather in June had proved unexpectedly kind, the monsoon had broken and to transport supplies by air would soon become very difficult. The onset of the rains brought with it not only bad flying conditions but serious congestion on the all-weather landing strips at Imphal. Ground crews, loading crews and pilots were becoming exhausted.
‘Sometimes the loading parties on the despatching airfields’, runs Mountbatten’s despatch, ‘who, in common with other troops in the area had for nearly two months been on reduced rations, were unable to keep pace with the number of aircraft which needed loading’. It was calculated that by the end of the first week in July the defenders of Imphal would have run out of essential supplies. A great effort both to increase the air lift and to free the road was therefore made, and both were successful. The amount of supplies brought in by the first steadily increased, and on 22nd June the 2nd British Division and the 5th Indian Division met twenty-nine miles from Imphal and 109 miles from Dimapur. The road was open once more.
The rout of the Japanese Fifteenth Army, in which the air forces played a major part, was now inevitable, though in the early stages of its retreat it still fought fiercely. There followed a series of engagements of which the best known is the Battle of the 40 Hairpin Bends on the road from Tiddim to Kalemyo. In this, Hurricane fighter-bombers intervened at almost every milestone and maintained the high reputation of No. 221 Group, which by now was harrying the fleeing enemy without pause, breaking the bridges across every chaung and river and allowing him little respite. It also gave assistance of another kind to the army when it reached the terrible Kabaw valley to capture Tamu. The name means the Valley of Death, and it is said to be one of the most highly malarial places in the world. The fighter-bombers sprayed the whole length of the road with D.D.T., and this together with the excellent health precautions taken by the troops reduced the casualties caused by disease to a very low figure.
These many tasks were accomplished in monsoon weather, during which 175 inches of rain fell in Northern Burma and 500 in Assam. Of necessity, this reduced the number of days flying and the number of squadrons available. Nevertheless, there were always enough of both to sustain the attack. At the beginning of the monsoon Vultee Vengeance aircraft were prominent; at the close of it, Thunderbolts. Everywhere the ubiquitous Hurricane was to be seen. Yet close support was by no means easy, for at places where the enemy had reached prepared positions the bunkers composing them were found to be strong and extremely well sited. The same phenomenon had been observed on the Arakan front where the utmost efforts of heavy bombers had failed to destroy such defences. Now, with the enemy in retreat, these conditions were met with, increasingly rarely, and he suffered all the more. What his total losses were will never be known, but on the battlefields round Imphal thirteen and a half thousand dead were counted and these had been slain in battle. The number
who died from wounds and disease cannot be computed, but at a conservative estimate, between the middle of March and the middle of June, 1944, the Japanese lost 30,000 men and nearly 100 guns in Northern Burma.
Despite the monsoon, Mountbatten determined to press on, knowing that he could rely alike upon his men on the ground and his men in the air to pluck from the tree of victory all its fruit. By August the Chindwin River had become the centre of interest, and Beaufighters from No. 224 Group appeared to attack the various ports on its banks. Mines were laid by British Wellingtons and American Mitchells and these played havoc among the sampans, the main forms of transport left to the Japanese. Nor were roads and railways neglected, for Beaufighters, in drenching rain or treacherous mist, sought out Japanese trains in the jungle hiding-places and destroyed them. In vain did the enemy explode land-mines and stretch trip-wires between trees in an effort to destroy the Allied aircraft which flew ever lower and lower. And all the time, within a mile or two of the fighter-bombers, in close contact with the enemy, the slow unarmed Dakotas carried on their task of supply in almost any kind of weather. ‘It has taken on occasion’, runs one report, ‘67 days of battling through torrential rain, strong winds and 10/10ths cloud down to 200 feet to achieve one mission; but it has been done’. Individual items asked for were brought with the minimum of delay. A 75-mm. pack howitzer, for example, weighing 2,000 lb., called for by the army at 1630 hours one afternoon, was dropped a few hours later with ten parachutes attached to it and was in action at 0230 hours the following morning.
In drenching rain and clammy heat the Fourteenth Army pressed on. Down the Chocolate Staircase they went to Tiddim, which was occupied on 19th October, and then to the most strongly held position of all, ‘Vital Corner’, captured on 2nd November after a bombardment by artillery, mortars and four squadrons of Hurricane fighter-bombers. Fort White came into our hands on 9th November and Kalemyo five days later. The Japanese at length had been driven from the mountains on to the plain. The Allies were across the Chindwin at Sittaung, Kalewa and Mawlaik in considerable strength. It was now possible to concentrate the bulk of the Fourteenth Army in the Shwebo plain, and as soon as the rains lifted to make use of the armour. All was now ready for General Slim and his forces to take the road to Mandalay and thence to Rangoon.