Chapter 16: The Rising Sun Sets
While the Fourteenth Army was preparing for new conquests the air forces were reorganized. In the heavy bomber force, Wellingtons were being replaced by Liberators, and a total of 131 heavy bombers was presently available to attack the very few strategic targets left. In the Tactical Air Force the pilots of nine squadrons of Hurricanes were provided with Thunderbolts as and when these aircraft became available and four squadrons exchanged their Vultee Vengeance aircraft for Mosquitos.
As with machines and pilots so with commanders. On the 26th November, 1944, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse relinquished command, handing over temporarily to Air Marshal Sir Guy Garrod. It had been intended that Peirse’s successor should be Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, but he was killed in an air crash flying to take up his appointment, and Garrod took his place until the arrival of Air Marshal Sir Keith Park, on 23rd February, 1945.
On the Arakan front No. 224 Group was now commanded by Air Commodore the Earl of Bandon, No. 221 Group was still under Vincent, and in the north-eastern zone Major General Howard C. Davidson commanded the United States Tenth Air Force. The commander of the Third Tactical Air Force was Air Marshal Coryton, who remained with it until its dissolution in December, 1944. In addition to these forces directly engaged in the campaign in Burma there were those operating over the Indian Ocean under Air Marshal A. Durston, based on Ceylon, and also using islands and atolls stretching from Madagascar to the Cocos, the Strategic Air Force, under Air Commodore F. J. W. Mellersh, and perhaps the most important of all from the point of view of the troops in the field, the Combat Cargo Task Force, formed in October, 1944, to take the place of Troop Carrier Command disbanded in June. Together with a formation known as Air Cargo Headquarters it was concerned with all operations involving the carriage of troops and supplies by air. The strength of the Combat Cargo Task Force never exceeded seventeen squadrons, of which at one time or another nine belonged to the Royal Air Force and eight to the American Army
Air Force. Its commander was an American, Brigadier General Frederick W. Evans, his deputy being Air Commodore J. D. I. Hardman, who from February, 1945, also commanded No. 232 Group, which was the RAF component of Combat Cargo Task Force.
Thus matters stood in October, 1944, when the season became favourable for the resumption of active operations on an even more strenuous scale. The plans then laid included an elaborate series of airborne assaults, particularly on the plain north of Mandalay and then in the country immediately north of Rangoon, but more important than these were the amphibious attacks designed to clear Arakan and to recapture the Island of Akyab. The design was based as yet not so much on a false as on an incomplete reading of the situation. The successful defence of the ‘Admin. Box’ in Arakan, and of Kohima and Imphal on the central front, and the equally successful manner in which Stilwell’s forces in the north had been supplied during their move southwards towards Myitkyina, had shown the possibilities of this totally new factor in war—the prolonged and daily use of transport aircraft operating after air supremacy had first been secured and then maintained. The fact that this would be the major factor not only in winning the campaign but also in destroying the Japanese invaders of Burma, was still not appreciated or at most only dimly surmised. ‘Indeed’, says Keith Park in the first of his despatches, ‘had it then been suggested that Rangoon could be reached by an army travelling over land and supplied entirely by air, the proposal would not have received serious consideration’. Yet that was precisely what happened, and it happened because the Supreme Commander had an open mind and a lively apprehension, which made him quick to seize and resolute to exploit any new conception, however revolutionary, provided that he was convinced that it was sound.
In what manner some seventeen squadrons of slow unarmed transports of the Combat Cargo Task Force and six of Air Cargo Headquarters maintained an army of more than 300,000 men, fighting in a country which is in certain respects probably the most unfavourable for air operations, must now be made clear.
The air supremacy won by Spitfires in the first instance was maintained in the immediate war zone, while the long-range American Mustangs performed a similar duty further afield. The climax was reached when thirty-one enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground at Don Muang, twelve miles north of Bangkok, 780 miles from the nearest Allied air base—a flight which in Europe would have corresponded to a raid on Vienna by single-engined fighters based on London.
By the end of July, 1944, the monsoon being then at its height, all flying by the Japanese Air Force ceased. When in October he resumed his activities in the air, the enemy possessed in Burma at most 125 aircraft, of which half were fighters, out of a total of 750 aircraft in the South Asia Command area. With these forces the Japanese could effect little, and, as the campaign developed, opposition to the Allies in the air became negligible. Occasionally the enemy had a stroke of good fortune, as on that day in November when he shot down five transport aircraft in the terrible valley of Kabaw. But the raid by three Japanese bombers on Kharagpur, sixty miles west of Calcutta, on Christmas night, 1944, with a loss of two of them, can scarcely be described as a success.
The operations of the Allies were in contrast ubiquitous and all-embracing. First there were those of the bombers. These were of four kinds. They sought to cut at long range the enemy’s supply routes into Burma; to destroy his dumps and to sever communications inside Burma; to prohibit, in conjunction with No. 222 Group, the movement of all vessels; and finally to fly over the battlefield itself and drench with bombs targets chosen by the army.
About half the needs of the Japanese Army in Burma could be met by the products of the theatre in which it was operating, and the chief means whereby supplies were transported was provided by some 5,000 miles of railways. The most important, because it was the chief artery, was the infamous railway linking Bangkok with Moulmein, which the enemy had built at a cost of the lives of 24,000 Allied prisoners of war. It ran for 244 miles through thick jungles of bamboo and coconut palms, round and sometimes over mountains, and along its length were no fewer than 688 bridges, spanning chaungs, rivers and ravines varying in breadth from 100 to 1,200 feet. This line alone received 2,700 tons of bombs, a very large amount for that theatre of war. Many of them were dropped by Royal Air Force Liberators in daylight, for there were only a few large targets and the technique of the saturation raid could not in consequence be adopted. The bombers concentrated therefore on destroying bridges and obliterating tracks. Their greatest obstacle was neither enemy fighters nor anti-aircraft fire, but the vast distances they had to fly. Between 1,000 and 1,100 miles lay between the heavy bombers and their target, and when they first began to attack it, a load of 3,000 lb. of bombs was considered the utmost which could be carried with safety. In a short time, however, it was found possible, as a result of experiments in the consumption of fuel, to raise this weight to 8,000 lb., or nearly three times what had been originally carried. With this improvement it was possible to make a round trip to
Moulmein of 1,800 miles; to Bangkok, 2,200 miles; to the Kra Isthmus, 2,300 miles; and eventually to the Malay Peninsula, 2,800 miles. By the beginning of 1945 such long flights were being made regularly by four heavy bomber squadrons. The use of Azon bombs, which could be controlled by radio from the aircraft which dropped them, made attacks on railways easier and more accurate, so much so that from January to April of that year, the heavy bombers of Eastern Air Command could boast that they were keeping an average of nine bridges perpetually broken between Bangkok and Burma. This was accomplished despite the ant-like activities of the Japanese, whose methods of constructing reserve bridges—at some points they threw as many as four across a particularly important ravine—were truly remarkable. To bombs, leaflets were added, of which the effect was very different from those released over Germany in 1939. The native railway workers—truckmen, switchmen and track labourers—upon whom they fell, and who were thus warned that bombing attacks might be expected at any moment, fell suddenly and distressingly ill, or ‘found it necessary to attend distant funerals’. Soon there was a critical shortage of labour along the whole railway and indeed throughout Burma.
The broad result of these long-range attacks was to reduce the tonnage carried by the railway from 750 to 150 tons a day. Inside Burma itself results were even better, for the range was shorter and the weight of attack could therefore be greater. By the end of 1944 rail traffic by day was almost entirely at a standstill, and this despite that ingenious Japanese invention, the Locotruck. This was a small diesel-engined locomotive with two sets of wheels; one made to run on rails, the other fitted with tyres. On reaching a gap in the track, the locotruck could, by a very simple manoeuvre, be removed from the track, when it would then proceed on its tyres across the gap until it reached undamaged track once more. A device of this kind could, however, never be more than a stop-, or rather bridge-gap; it could not be a solution. In these shorter-range raids Beaufighters took part, sometimes at considerable cost. One squadron, for example, lost sixty-two aircrew killed in eighteen months, casualties which were by no means light.
The long-range bombers, to be precise one squadron of Royal Air Force Liberators, also laid mines in enemy waters. This insidious form of attack was peculiarly successful, a fact sullenly acknowledged by the Japanese after the war.
The work of the heavy bombers, and for that matter of the fighter-bombers also, was improved and made easier by the labours
of the Photographic Reconnaissance squadrons. These began their long-range flights in December, 1943, the aircraft used being Mosquitos. At first their sorties were comparatively modest, but soon they were photographing Bangkok in Siam, and before the end of the war they had provided a detailed picture of targets as far distant as Sumatra, Southern Malaya, Singapore and Java. The record long-distance flight was achieved on 20th August, 1945, when a Mosquito based on the Cocos Islands made a round trip over Penang and Taiping of 2,600 miles in just over nine hours. The two most outstanding feats of the squadrons—two Royal Air Force, No. 681 Squadron flying Spitfires and No. 684 Squadron flying Mosquitos, and three American—were the photographic survey of Burma carried out at the beginning of 1944, and the detailed photographing of Malaya after the fall of Rangoon in preparation for assaults which, owing to the surrender of Japan, were never carried out. The survey of Burma was a particularly useful piece of work, for maps of that country were almost non-existent and those that were available were sprinkled with every kind of error. The new maps based on the photographic survey were of special value to the army.
More, perhaps, even than the other branches of the service did the photographic reconnaissance pilots have to combat the weather. The Spitfire squadron was often able to supply the wants of the army by taking advantage of local weather conditions to make short sorties to obtain pictures of specially chosen objectives. The Mosquitos fared worse and more than once an aircraft would return with torn fabric or ominous wing flutter, evidence of the severe conditions of climate through which it had passed, and of the fact that these aircraft, in the construction of which wood and adhesives were much used, were unsuitable for the tropics.
Against the enemy at sea, the most important operations were those carried out by No. 222 Group. From the surrender of Singapore until the end of 1944 its chief role had been protective, and following the practice of Coastal Command its aircraft flew many hundreds of thousands of miles on patrol over the wide seas keeping close watch for German and Japanese submarines. The Group was responsible for the whole Indian Ocean, more than 2½ million square miles of salt water, an area more than twice as large as the North Atlantic. To fulfil their monotonous but necessary task the squadrons made use of bases or ports of call in the Maldive Islands, at Diego Garcia 500 miles to the south of them, and the Seychelles. The low green islands with their coral reefs and lagoons, beloved of romantic writers and their readers, saw the frequent arrival and departure of
the heavy graceful Sunderland flying-boat, the toiling indefatigable Catalina. Upon some of them small numbers of men and women—for members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force were to be found even in these remote places—laboured at the never-ending task of maintenance. Theirs was a lonely life lived in conditions of great peace and beauty, save for the period of the monsoon when winds of hurricane force swept down upon their island paradise.
In all these long hours and miles of patrol, No. 222 Group sank no U-boat or Japanese submarine, all those which were destroyed falling to the Allied naval forces or to the naval aircraft of the United States. But if the Group had no good fortune in the matter of submarines, it had to its credit something of great or greater value; the saving of more than 1,000 souls sailing in the ships which were their victims. In this kind of service the most striking example occurred in July, 1945, when the crew of a Catalina discovered an American merchant vessel in flames with more than a hundred of its crew on rafts, in lifeboats or swimming in the water. Sharks were present in large numbers and could be seen attacking the swimmers, who it was afterwards discovered had been taken into the Japanese submarine, tortured for information and then flung, bleeding, overboard. It was the blood from their wounds which chiefly attracted the sharks. For a long time the Catalina dived repeatedly upon them, driving them away until in due course rescue ships appeared.
The era of the defensive ended with the end of 1944. In the first four months of 1945 No. 222 Group, which had been expanded, accounted for about fifty enemy surface craft of various sizes discovered along the Arakan Coast. Moving farther eastwards, they then, with the aid of the long-range Liberators of the Strategic Air Force, sank some twenty ships in the Gulf of Siam, including a ten thousand-ton tanker. The Group also sowed enemy waters with mines, one Liberator Squadron, No. 160, based on Ceylon, dropping nearly 1,000. Its longest sortie was to Singapore, a round trip of 3,350 miles. This was accomplished in twenty-one hours.
In the assault against enemy shipping the labours and achievements of the Beaufighter squadrons of No. 224 Group must not be forgotten. These were directed against coastal traffic moving along the shores of Tenasserim and across the Gulf of Mataban to Rangoon. One of the first actions of the Japanese on entering Burma had been to commandeer all native vessels, and to set about the construction of wooden coasters about 100 feet long. Soon after the attacks began these vessels were forced to hide by day and to move only at night,
for the Beaufighters sank twenty-eight of them in a very short space of time. By February, 1945, these squadrons were claiming a total of almost 700 small vessels.
Once, in the previous September, a larger target had presented itself. Beaufighters of Nos. 211 and 177 Squadrons, patrolling at extreme range over the Andaman Sea, discovered a convoy of Japanese coasters heading north along the Tenasserim Coast bound for Rangoon. Four attacks with rockets and cannon fire were mounted during this and the succeeding day at the end of which fourteen of the ships, including two sloops and a gun-boat of their escort, had been hit. Most of these were either beached or left blazing.
This brief description of the activities of No. 224 Group which were, of course, carried on at the same time as those of others in other areas, is almost in the nature of a digression. It is now time to return to Burma and the heavy bomber force. Its fourth and last activity was to ape the role of the fighter-bomber and to attack the enemy entrenched upon the battlefield. By the end of 1944 the tactics of how to do so had been evolved in the course of two exercises, ‘EARTHQUAKE I’ and ‘EARTHQUAKE II’, which subsequently gave their names to all such operations. EARTHQUAKE I or MAJOR was carried out by Liberators; EARTHQUAKE II or MINOR by Mitchells. Such operations were exceedingly difficult to mount, for not only were the targets, bunker positions and known defensive sites, small and very hard to find, they had also to be hit at a precise and predetermined moment by aircraft which had to fly many hundreds of miles over mountains, often in bad weather and with wireless communications very different from the elaborate networks in use by then in the European theatre. ‘It is as if Bomber Command in England’, explained one Commander, ‘were to be laid on in bad weather... to attack at the right moment before a ground attack, trenches occupied by a few very stout-hearted men in the thickly wooded foothills of the Swiss Alps’. Nevertheless, before the campaign was over good results from this form of bombing were obtained.
The campaigns which were to result in the re-conquest of Burma were fought at the outset on three fronts—in the north-east round Myitkyina by the forces of the Northern Combat Area Command under Stilwell and later his successor General Sultan; that in the centre by the Fourteenth Army, its objectives being Mandalay and Rangoon; and that to the south-west in Arakan, by the XV Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Christison. The commander of the Allied land forces, South East Asia, throughout this
period was Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, the Fourteenth Army being under Lieutenant-General, later General, Sir William Slim.
All these forces were to be supplied from the air by the seventeen squadrons of the Combat Cargo Task Force and the six belonging to the Air Cargo Headquarters of the United States Tenth Air Force, and almost immediately a crisis developed. Far away in China a sudden Japanese thrust menaced Kunming and to meet it operation GRUBWORM, carried out by three American transport squadrons of the Task Force, took 25,000 Chinese, together with their guns, jeeps and pack animals, across the ‘Hump’ to the danger point. While engaged upon this very necessary task, they could not be used in Burma. Hardly had they returned when a new difficulty, inevitable in the circumstances, arose to plague General Evans, the commander of the Combat Cargo Squadrons. As the armies advanced, the distances to be flown increased and the amount carried by the transport aircraft had therefore to diminish in proportion. By the time the plains of Burma were reached, the crews of Dakotas flying from Chittagong, Comilla and Tulihal had to take off at first light and, if they had orders to make three trips, did not complete their work until long after dark. ‘The strain on technical, maintenance, flying and loading personnel can well be imagined’.
To an urgent request for additional transport aircraft the Chiefs of Staff responded by the despatch to Burma of Nos. 238 and 267 Squadrons. These arrived in March, 1945, but were by no means the solution of all difficulties. Some of these were inherent in the problem itself while others were created by a lack of understanding of the new method of transport. Though easy to condemn in retrospect those responsible for them, it is still easier to understand their preoccupations. The speed with which the air forces handled the supplies was such that the ‘Q’ staff of the army were not always able to keep the depots fully stocked. This in its turn was partly due to a breakdown in surface transport. There were never enough lorries either in the rear or in the forward areas. The long siege of Imphal had by now accustomed the army to regard air supply as both normal and indispensable. Its demands, therefore, were not as austere as they might have been. Moreover, it was its practice to keep each main type of commodity separate at different airfields. The supply aircraft had therefore to fly from field to field if they were to carry a mixed freight. Inevitably those in authority over them and the pilots and crews began to believe that the army looked upon the Dakotas and Commandos as so many airborne lorries. When there was a shortage of a particular type of store at any airfield the army
had to suffer and naturally grumbled. The organization on the ground, both of the army and Royal Air Force, was in fact, not by any means wholly efficient, and the supply squadrons were in consequence overworked, especially when, as so often happened, there was a local urgency. But the greatest difficulty of all was lack of airfields near to the front line to sustain the haul. This had to be met.
Faced with these problems, which he well understood, Air Marshal Garrod made a tour of the fronts and quickly discovered that by far the most efficient of the various systems used to tackle the task of air supply was that employed by the Tenth Air Force, composed of American squadrons, operating on the northern fronts. Here Garrod found that ‘collective responsibility for the task of air supply was rated higher than service allegiance. Each body trusted the ability of the others to carry out their part of the work and did not attempt to dictate on matters outside its own sphere’. The supply service was also furnished with excellent communications, and a moving belt principle had been applied to the operations of packing and loading, thus ‘eliminating a multitude of small delays’. While the Americans of the Tenth Air Force were handling the problem with that business-like efficiency for which American industry is renowned, British officers and Indian other ranks far away to the south at Hathazari were working seventy-two hours at a stretch to complete their tasks. On his return to headquarters, Garrod immediately set about putting into practice the reforms which were so greatly needed. The most difficult problem, how to shorten the haul and thus increase the loads, was on the way to solution.
On 2nd January, 1945, the pilots of two Hurricanes, flying low over Akyab, saw a number of its inhabitants waving their arms to signify that the Japanese had left the island. A few hours later the former Judge of the island, Wing Commander J. B. G. Bradley, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, landed in a light aircraft, to be greeted by the local doctor. Akyab was occupied without opposition and Christison’s offensive had thus attained all its objects. The first Spitfires to be based upon the island arrived the next day and were serviced by a Royal Air Force Servicing Commando Unit in action for the first time. They shot down five out of six Oscar fighter-bombers sent by the Japanese to attack the formidable mass of shipping already engaged in landing men and stores.
The next step was to make an amphibious assault from Akyab on the mainland of Burma at Myebon to the south-east. Low flying attacks by Hurricanes and American Mitchells, and a smoke screen laid by Hurricanes, enabled the troops to go ashore and presently to engage in a grim battle, in which the 3rd Commando Brigade
particularly distinguished itself, and the enemy left more than 2,000 dead upon the field. The Strategic Air Force and the fighter-bombers of No. 224 Group, guided by visual control posts, were well to the fore and dropped 750 tons of bombs in 1,150 sorties.
On 21st January, Ramree Island, seventy miles to the south of Akyab, was occupied, the landing again being covered by Spitfires, Lightnings and Thunderbolts. Of its garrison of 1,000 Japanese all but 20 died rather than surrender. The capture of Ramree was particularly important, for the island being flat provided an excellent site for airfields. Unfortunately it was not until 16th April that it was in use for transport operations. Even at Akyab these were not in full progress until 1st April. The importance of these two islands in solving the air problem of supply seems not to have been fully appreciated, and the delay thus caused, through no fault of the air forces, led to difficulties when it became necessary to capture Rangoon before the onset of the monsoon. During the deliberations of a conference held on 23rd February in Calcutta, Sir Keith Park, the new Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, agreed that the planned maximum lift should be 1,887 tons a day between 20th March and 1st April, increasing to 2,075 tons a day between the 1st and 15th May. If this weight of supplies could be transported daily, and Park pledged his word that it could, new and great possibilities, hitherto dreamed of only by those whose faith in the power of the air was almost fanatical, at once became of practical significance. Should the Japanese be defeated in the Central Burmese plains round Mandalay with reasonable despatch, Rangoon might be captured before the rains came in June, and, with the fall of Rangoon, the conquest of Burma would be virtually achieved. There was, however, an even more imperative reason for haste than the probable appearance of the monsoon at the end of May. The American Chiefs of Staff, who had provided much of the transport aircraft, made it quite clear that those would be withdrawn by 1st June whatever the situation of the armies might be. In these circumstances the army had to conclude the campaign by that date or find some other method of bringing up essential supplies.
The first aim was the defeat of the Japanese in the plains around Mandalay. The Fourteenth Army, covered by Vincent’s No. 221 Group, had already made great strides in its advance, the object being to induce the enemy to give battle on the Shwebo Plain. On 20th December, Wuntho had been occupied by the IV Corps, and before the end of January, XXXIII Corps, having driven the Japanese from their stronghold at Monywa, had reached the general line of the Irrawaddy. Here, before the month was out, the 20th Division had
secured a bridgehead at Thabeikkyin and Singu, but bitter fighting was still in progress in the great bend of the Irrawaddy at Sagaing. All the indications were that the Japanese commander intended to make a stand along the Irrawaddy at the places which the Fourteenth Army would most likely choose for crossing, and every encouragement was given him to persist in this belief, for a bold plan for his discomfiture had been adopted—nothing less than the encirclement of the Japanese forces. To achieve this, General Sultan’s troops were to pin down the Japanese forces in the north-east. XXXIII Corps would assault from the north and west with the aid of No. 221 Group, while—and this was the master stroke—IV Corps, under Lieutenant General Sir Frank Messervy, moving with the greatest secrecy, would swing outside the right flank of XXXIII Corps and push southwards from Kalemyo along the Gangaw valley towards Tilin and Pauk. These reached, the Corps would be in a position to make a rapid thrust across the Irrawaddy towards Meiktila and so trap the Japanese forces in the plain south of Mandalay. The seizure of Meiktila was the key to victory and as soon as Messervy and his men arrived before it, they would be reinforced by a British brigade flown to the airfield in American Dakotas.
Such a plan, without supremacy in the air, could not but have failed. With it, given the quality of the troops, success, though the arbitrament was like to be bloody, seemed assured. The quality of the air support was equally outstanding. It was generally in the hands of the headquarters of No. 221 Group, but the Mustangs which played so important a part in supporting IV Corps against Meiktila were controlled by an advanced headquarters of the Combat Cargo Task Force, living cheek by jowl with the army commander. When the size of the area over which No. 221 Group was spread is remembered, its difficulties and achievements will be appreciated. Its wings and squadrons were covering a front of 200 miles, and flew from bases up to a like distance away. By the end of April that distance had increased to 600 miles. Only by keeping the squadrons mobile to a degree up till then unknown in the air force except possibly in the Western Desert, was it possible for them to give that close tactical support upon which the army relied. But this mobility depended upon the speed with which air strips could be constructed, and here the needs of the army and those of the air force came inevitably into conflict. It was impossible for the transport aircraft to supply both simultaneously, and there were moments when the army seemed to show impatience if priority was momentarily given to the air force. This was no more than the occasional gesture of a hand rubbing the velvet the wrong way. In general relations were exceedingly good,
and the speed with which fighter air strips were constructed would in any other theatre of war have been regarded as phenomenal. Thus squadrons of No. 906 Wing were operating from airfields near Ye-U by the middle of January, a fortnight after its occupation by XXXIII Corps, and before the end of April nine fighter squadrons were at Toungoo, though it was only captured on the 22nd, and four more at Magwe, which had fallen into our hands on the 18th.
The system of visual control posts manned by the Air Support Signals Units was firmly established before the battle for Mandalay began, although training difficulties had made it impossible for more than ten teams to be placed in the field. By May, 1945, this number had reached thirty-four. Their presence with the army greatly heartened the rank and file, as did the appearance above the battlefield of ‘cab ranks’ of fighters and fighter-bombers. Such a system in so vast a country as Burma, where even after a four-inch pipeline had been run to Imphal and was delivering more than three million gallons of spirit a month, every drop of petrol and oil had been carried by air, was far from economical. It was gradually abolished as the air forces obtained more and more airfields close to the battle line.
For the battle of the Shwebo plain near Mandalay and for the campaign as a whole, close support was provided in general by Royal Air Force Thunderbolts and presently by Spitfires, but all the time by the Hurricane fighter-bomber, which had proved its worth in the 1943/44 campaign and was still a most exact weapon in the hands of the pilots now flying it. These enjoyed ‘an immense reputation for their accurate pin-pointing of targets within a comparatively few yards of our own positions’. Mitchells were also used first by No. 224 and then by No. 221 Group to provide those ‘MINOR EARTHQUAKEs’ which were a feature of the campaign.
Of the indirect support afforded by the air to the army, a notable example was the attack by fifty-four bombers on 13th January, on Mandalay. Seventy major buildings in the Japanese quarter were destroyed and about 1,000 of the enemy killed. By February, when the campaign was fully launched, ‘nearly two-thirds of the total number of sorties flown by Liberators of the Strategic Air Force were directed against targets in or near the battlefront’. These included combined storage dumps near the Japanese railhead at Madaya and the district of Yenangyaung. Later on, villages lying in the path of IV Corps when moving against Meiktila also received the attention of the heavy bombers. Throughout this period Hurricanes, Spitfires, Beaufighters, Lightnings, Thunderbolts, Mosquitos and even Mitchells made frequent sorties at night against enemy transport.
Such in brief was the type of aid given to the Fourteenth Army by the air forces during the final campaign in Burma.
As has been said, the plan for the destruction of the Japanese forces near Mandalay was bold and its execution not always easy. XXXIII Corps sought to cross the Irrawaddy at Singu and Myinmu. Close behind them, at places only eight miles from the battle-front Hurricane fighter-bombers were ready to operate from strips hastily built by the airfield constructors of the Royal Engineers, whose work both then and throughout the campaign was beyond all praise. The crossing at Singu was made with strong air support and another carried out at night at Myinmu was also successful in the teeth of vigorous opposition. The troops were aided by ‘Canned Battle’, a device for reproducing the sounds of hand-to-hand combat, and by the remarkable performance of Group Captain H. Goddard, who, flying an elderly Harvard trainer, notorious for the loud snarl of its engine, roared up and down the river twisting and turning, and providing what in the circumstances was a remarkable imitation of an entire squadron entering into battle. In establishing the bridgehead at Singu, Mitchells and Thunderbolts, flying as many as five sorties a day, succeeded in silencing in forty-eight hours Japanese heavy artillery brought up to defend it.
Meanwhile Messervy’s IV Corps was moving with speed and secrecy towards its goal, Meiktila. After an initial bound forward, its advance guards of no great strength were held up at the village of Gangaw. They and his whole force had been covered by fighters of No. 221 Group from dawn till dusk with orders to make certain that no Japanese reconnaissance aircraft flew above the valley to discover the movements of IV Corps. On 10th January an ‘EARTHQUAKE MINOR’ carried out by American Mitchells, supported by Royal Air Force Thunderbolts and Hurricanes, deluged Gangaw with bombs. A visual control post, operated by Royal Air Force officers who had fought in the ranks of the Chindits, then guided Hurricane fighter-bombers to the attack of any positions left untouched by the bombers. The bombs fell at 1430 hours and ninety minutes later a signal from Messervy informed Vincent that, thanks to his ‘most excellent “EARTHQUAKE”‘, Gangaw had been captured with the loss of two men wounded. By the 27th January IV Corps had reached Pauk, and early in February they were on the right bank of the Irrawaddy and could see upon the other side the gilded pagodas of the ancient village of Pagan.
Not only had all opportunity for reconnaissance been resolutely denied the enemy; he had also been confused by a number of mechanical deception devices, including the ‘Canned Battle’ already
mentioned, which had aided XXXIII Corps at Myinmu. Among them was Perafex, which on hitting the ground imitated the sound of rifle fire and the explosion of hand grenades, and Aquaskit, which on striking water fired Verey lights. These mechanical aids to deception, together with dummy parachutists, were dropped for some days before the main crossing was carried out at Pagan and had an appreciable effect. The opposition met with was mostly machine-gun fire, for the enemy was confused. One visual control post was lost, but another gained the far bank and immediately the close support of Mitchells and Thunderbolts on patrol overhead was obtained. The bridgehead was widened by constant air attacks, in which the new and dreadful weapon, the liquid ‘napalm’ fire bomb, was used. The fires created by this contrivance spread with devastating speed and effect, so much so that one commander of the ground forces noted among his men ‘a tendency to watch the exhibition rather than to get on with the attack’. The Japanese had been worsted.
Their real discomfiture began when IV Corps made its final swift advance of eighty-five miles to the airfields of Meiktila. Its leading elements, some of their vehicles driving for a time six abreast, captured the airfield at Thabutkon seventy-two hours after leaving the Irrawaddy. In the next three days Dakotas flying from the plain of Imphal landed a brigade—it was in a short time to become a division—together with its weapons for the defence of the airfield. The men thus brought to the fight were presently able to exchange Thabutkon for the main airfield, marching to do so through a grey bedraggled town beside a lake filled with Japanese corpses. The capture of Meiktila at the end of February was to set the crown of victory on Slim’s head. This town was the nodal point of the enemy’s communications, for through it passed the main railways and roads. Here too were situated the principal Japanese airfields and supply dumps for north and central Burma.
Kimura, the Japanese commander, had been outmanoeuvred. Denied the help of air reconnaissance he still believed that the crossing of the Irrawaddy near Pagan reported on 13th February was but a minor move, and that IV Corps was still in the north with XXXIII Corps with which he was now hotly engaged. For him the main threat would develop at Myinmu. To this place accordingly he had sent most of his reserves, supported by what remained of his tanks. These precious chariots of war had been most carefully hidden, for it was his evident intention to use them at the last and most decisive moment. At 1000 hours, however, on 19th February, Flight Lieutenants James Farquarson and R. J. Ballard, flying Hurricanes, began a close search of the ground beneath them.
Presently Farquarson discovered what appeared to be a small native shed built in a nullah. The only unusual feature was its roof, which was camouflaged with the boughs of trees. There were, however, no trees near at hand. His suspicions aroused, Farquarson fired his guns and the shells ripped off the roof to reveal a tank. He and Ballard, his No. 2, immediately attacked it with cannon and set it on fire. Shortly afterwards they discovered another tank in a chaung half a mile away and dealt with it in the same manner. More Hurricanes joined them and presently twelve tanks were uncovered and destroyed. That evening XXXIII Corps signalled: ‘Destruction of enemy armour was essential in battle for the bridgehead. Well done.’ The division carrying out the attack was less formal but equally warm in its appreciation of this feat. ‘Nippon hardware corporation has gone bust’, ran its signal. ‘Nice work. Tanks a million.’
To strengthen his forces at Myinmu, Kimura sacrificed everything to achieve concentration. Considering the difficulties of his communications after two and a half years of allied bombing, and the fact that he had to move entirely by night, he carried out this redistribution with astonishing speed and brilliance. But when IV Corps broke out of their bridgehead near Pagan and penetrated to the Meiktila area, the Japanese commander was confounded. His plan to concentrate all his resources against XXXIII Corps was forthwith abandoned and he sought to counter what he now realized was the major threat to his whole position in central Burma. But by then it was too late. He had lost Meiktila, and, as one of his staff officers said afterwards, the loss of this town was the turning point of the battle for Burma.
And all this time the Dakotas pursued their way across the mountains to deliver, in the month of February alone, more than 60,000 tons of food and ammunition, unhindered everywhere save at Meiktila, where to land for the purpose of discharging stores and taking wounded on board became very dangerous. For as soon as the Japanese commander had realized the full peril in which he stood, its airfield was constantly assailed, and all aircraft landing, taking off or at rest in pens were the targets for Japanese guns. On 20th March, seven Dakotas were destroyed in this manner. It may be that the risks run in landing aircraft at this stage were beyond such as are acceptable, even in an operation where the prize was so great. But at the time they were accepted without hesitation. For some days so uncertain was the situation that before the Dakotas could land, some 400 men of the Royal Air Force Regiment, who had from the beginning shared in the defence of the airfield, had to sweep it from
one end to the other to make sure that no gully or foxhole held a Japanese sniper. The operation took two hours to complete but was the only certain method of ridding the ground, temporarily at least, of the enemy. By then the Regiment had had some experience, both at Palel in the Imphal valley and at Onbauk near the Irrawaddy, of the close defence of airfields. It stood them in good stead and at Meiktila they were able to fight with great skill and resolution, on one occasion driving back two companies of Japanese and inflicting a loss of forty-eight killed, their own casualties being seven. On 22nd March, however, the Dakotas were ordered to risk no further landings and thereafter, until the beginning of April, when landing became possible once more though shells were still bursting less than 200 yards from the field, supplies were maintained by parachute.
One type of aircraft continued to operate in all conditions. Light Sentinel L.5’s took away from the Meiktila airfield 556 sick and wounded to the Casualty Air Evacuation Units in the hospital zones. As the fighting grew more severe, their efforts were not sufficient and the Dakotas landed to supplement them. On board one of them was Leading Aircraftman I. Fiddes. He had just finished loading the wounded, some of whom were in a very serious condition, when the aircraft was hit and the undercarriage smashed. Under fire, Fiddes and others near at hand carried the stretcher cases to blast pens nearby and subsequently took them with great difficulty to an assembly point where ambulances were able to collect them. He then returned to the airfield and for forty-eight hours continued to tend wounded in a defensive box. For these services he was awarded the army decoration of the Military Medal.
In the meantime to the north Mandalay had fallen. On 20th March, its great red castle, Fort Dufferin, surrounded on all sides by a wide moat and with walls backed by earth forty-five feet thick, was assaulted. Thunderbolts, Hurricanes and American Mitchells sought to blow gaps in these ancient but immensely strong defences. Their efforts were directed by the commander of the Thunderbolts, who, using the technique of the Master Bomber, gave advice as to the precise spot at which the bombs should be aimed. Twenty-six breeches, or their pounded equivalent, were made by the aircraft and over them moved the assault troops. The defence did not stay to receive their charge but fled through a sewer, and before the day was out, the flag of the Fourteenth Army was flying above the ancient home of the Burmese Kings.
Japanese casualties in the Mandalay plain were very heavy for by now the whole vast area—Mandalay, Myinmu, Myingyan, Meiktila—was one battlefield through which roved the Fourteenth
Army with No. 221 Group above them destroying the disorganized forces of the enemy and inflicting upon him losses from which it was impossible to recover. By the beginning of April his military power had been broken, and in the north, too, fortune had smiled. On 6th March, Lashio was taken by a Chinese division and the enemy retreated into the Shan States. ‘You have won the battle for central Burma’ said General Slim in his Order of the Day of 16th April to his troops, ‘Though every unit of the Fourteenth Army played its part there could have been no victory without the constant support of the Allied Air Forces. They never failed us and it is their victory as much as ours’.
This battle can be seen in retrospect to have been decisive. At the time, too, this was more than suspected, but the eyes of the Supreme Commander and his army and air commanders were still fixed on Rangoon. Their conviction that final victory must elude them until this city had fallen was tactically and strategically sound. Moreover, does not Rangoon, in the original language of Burma, mean ‘the end of the war’?
After the fall of Mandalay a pause for regrouping both on land and in the air was essential, all the more so since the position in Meiktila did not become finally stable until the beginning of April. By then no less than 356,000 troops were being supplied by the seventeen transport squadrons of the Combat Cargo Task Force, whose pilots to do so were flying twelve hours a day. It was an unparalleled achievement, but for how long could it continue, for in April came the first rains—the ‘chotah monsoon’ or mango showers, as they are called in the Far East—and Rangoon was still nearly 300 miles away? A bare month remained during which it would be possible to keep up supplies at the then prevailing rate. After that the weather’s part would be decisive and there would inevitably be a falling off. The arrival of June would put an end to them altogether for the aircraft would then leave Burma in accordance with the ruling of the Chiefs of Staff.
Even with the improvements effected by both parties, the air and the army, the operation was still far from perfect. Inaccuracies in details, which it is hard to describe as minor, though in effect that was what they were, marred an otherwise conspicuously successful enterprise. Some examples will make this clear. Thousands of tons of potatoes and onions were flown into Shwebo, but since local transport was lacking, they remained piled round the airfield till they rotted. A cargo of pineapples carried by one Dakota was found to be overripe and uneatable when they were unloaded, while fresh specimens of this fruit could be bought in the nearest village for
eight annas a piece. Controllers at the forward airfields were often content to keep transport aircraft circling while tactical aircraft took off on routine operations, ‘whose delay by half an hour was immaterial’, and, until late in the campaign, very little provision was made to feed and rest the crews of the Dakotas.
Looking back it is now possible to say that the Ledo Road, on which so much material, so many men and such great resources of skill were lavished, was, for the purpose of supplying the armies in Burma and China, almost entirely useless. In a country where white elephants are said still to exist, it was the largest white elephant of all. Had those same resources been directed to the provisioning of more forward airfields and more supply depots, the time required to reconquer Burma would have been appreciably shortened and the race with the monsoon might have been avoided.
It began on 12th April, when IV Corps moved southwards along the main Mandalay/Rangoon axis. Parallel to it marched XXXIII Corps and by the end of the month both had covered about 250 miles to reach the outskirts of Pegu, where the giant figure of Buddha recumbent gazed with his strange smile on the scurrying efforts of mankind, white, brown and yellow, who fought each other about his feet.
The efforts of the Tactical Air Forces and the Combat Cargo Task Force were redoubled. Such enemy transport as could still be found was ruthlessly attacked and deception tactics were used to simulate the advance of an army towards Loilem. Before April was out the transport aircraft had succeeded in flying in, in pieces, eighteen locomotives to haul trains along the newly repaired railways. 86,000 gallons of petrol had been dumped at Meiktila, and American gliders carrying a large variety of loads, which included bulldozers, jeeps and water, had arrived at the newly captured airfield of Lewe. Here the Japanese Air Force made their last attempt to interfere with the progress of the Allies. Oscars arrived and wrought havoc among the gliders which were on the ground, but most of them had already been unloaded.
For the heavy bombers the most important attacks were those on Rangoon, the object being to destroy the supply dumps of the enemy. The Japanese had accumulated supplies for six months in some 1,700 dumps of all sizes in and around the city. These were attacked by the Strategic Air Force aided by the bombers of XX Bomber Command. If they were not destroyed, the enemy, whose fighting qualities were still considerable, might rally and at the most vital moment halt the advance of the army at Toungoo. At the time it was claimed that 524 of the dumps were wholly or
partially wiped out, and that on 29th March some four hundred Japanese, including many officers, were killed in the bombing of Japanese headquarters in the city itself. When the war ended a number of Japanese generals maintained under interrogation that these attacks on Rangoon and its neighbourhood had not seriously hampered operations and that the bombing of the headquarters had not held up work for more than two hours. On the other hand they agreed that the effect on the Japanese troops stationed there, of attacks which endured for a month, had been severe. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the Japanese made no attempt to defend Rangoon.
While the Fourteenth Army was advancing at a speed which was presently so great that the further bombing of bridges was prohibited lest it should hold up their advance, No. 224 Group and XV Corps in Arakan prepared to mount a modified form of an operation known as DRACULA. This was made necessary because the capture of Rangoon had to be effected by the end of May when the American transport aircraft were to be withdrawn. Despite the speed of its advance, it was by no means certain that IV Corps would reach the city in time. General Leese, therefore, mounted the operation with such resources as he could collect. Parachute troops were to be dropped at Elephant Point, and a seaborne force preceded by fighting units of the Royal Navy was to sail up the river and seize Rangoon. On 1st May the parachutists, a battalion of Gurkhas, took off from Akyab, and though having to fly through storms, reached the flat plain round Bassein, south-west of Rangoon, and dropped near Elephant Point as planned. On the next day, preceded by minesweepers, the seaborne troops, the 26th Indian Division, were landed, but by then the truth had become apparent and they knew that they would not have to fight. A Royal Air Force pilot, flying over Rangoon saw a figure on the flat roof of the gaol laying on whitewash with a brush. Looking down he read the message: ‘Japs gone, British here’.
On the afternoon of 2nd May, while the invasion forces were moving up the river from Bassein, Wing Commander A. E. Saunders in a Mosquito perceived a large white marking on Rangoon’s airfield, at Mingaladon. He landed and found it deserted. Making his way along the road to the city he reached the gaol and there met with Wing Commander H. V. Hudson, Royal Australian Air Force, the senior prisoner of war, who had been in charge since 25th April when the Japanese guards had departed. For a moment the two officers were at a loss how to convey this welcome news to the assaulting troops, for Saunders’ Mosquito had burst a tyre on
landing and could not take the air. He embarked, therefore, in a sampan and moved down the river towards the oncoming flotilla, while Hudson, with a small party of newly liberated airmen, began to put the airfield at Mingaladon in shape to receive the supply aircraft which he knew would shortly arrive. They did so under the command of Group Captain J. Grandy, who before landing dropped the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes on Government House. He was glad to meet with a Royal Air Force officer who, somewhat irregularly dressed in a loin-cloth, could point with pride to the gangs of Burmese already engaged in filling holes and clearing up debris. Of the liberated prisoners of war all but three, unable to stand, steadfastly refused to be flown out until they had completed their task of putting the airfield into order.
By the evening of 3rd May, the 26th Division had entered Rangoon, thus arriving in advance of their comrades of the 17th Indian Division still thirty-two miles to the north of the Pegu road. Though technically the Fourteenth Army had lost the race for Rangoon, ‘it was’, says Mountbatten in his despatch, ‘their drive, helped by No. 221 Group, which had really won the battle’. That same day torrential rain began to fall. The monsoon had broken. It had been a matter of hours.
The remainder of the war in the Far East can be very briefly described. One more battle had yet to be fought before Burma was entirely freed. It was known as the Battle of the Sittang Bend, or the Battle of the Paddy-fields. Though Mandalay and Rangoon were firmly in our hands, there were large numbers of Japanese still capable of fighting who had been swept aside in our advance southwards. These were now biding their time in the rain-soaked ravines of the Pegu Yomas, awaiting the moment to cross the Sittang into Siam. They presently decided to attempt a mass break-out timed to start in the early part of July, but their plans had fallen into our hands and we were ready. The fighting which followed was the most bitter of the whole war. In it the air played its full part, though by then the Eastern Air Command and the Combat Cargo Task Force had ceased to exist, or more properly speaking had dissolved into their component units. The Americans had been transferred to the China theatre. The part their aircraft and crews played in the reconquest of Burma had been very great. Indeed victory could not have been achieved without them. In combat they fought mostly on the northern front, but in the most important operation of all, the carriage by air of supplies, their role was always important and sometimes predominant. In all some forty-seven squadrons of the American Army Air Force were deployed in Burma. On behalf of the
Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park in his Order of the Day sent to General Stratemeyer, gave them thanks. ‘All British forces’, he said, ‘both land and air are deeply grateful for the wholehearted support and complete harmony that existed between the American and British Air Force units in this theatre’.
The support given to the troops fighting in the flat open country covered with scattered scrub round Nyaungkashe, Abya and Myitkyo in or near the Sittang Bend followed a now familiar pattern. Squadrons of Spitfires and Thunderbolts, flying ‘cab rank’ patrols under the direction of visual control posts, inflicted heavy punishment on the enemy. They attacked known enemy positions, troop concentrations and river craft of all kinds. Among their more successful achievements may be mentioned the destruction on 4th July by the Thunderbolts of No. 42 Squadron of a 105 mm. gun and the silencing of two others. There was also the exploit of the Visual Controller Flight Lieutenant J. T. Taylor, who was able to direct as many as seventeen aircraft at a time on to targets only 250 yards from his post, thus enabling 600 Gurkhas to escape from a trap into which they had fallen. After a time his wireless set became unserviceable, but the operator, Corporal S. R. Jackson, remained in action and repaired it, though a shell splinter had torn open his chest above the heart.
By 11th July the last desperate offensive of the Japanese had been brought to a halt, and now it was the turn of the Burmese guerrillas, adequately organized at last, to ambush and cut to pieces hundreds of the escaping enemy. Force 136, which had begun three years before as a handful of agents living precariously in Japanese-held territory, with the prospect, if they were caught, of certain torture and death, had now grown so powerful that, between November, 1944 and May, 1945, 2,100 tons of stores and a thousand agents by way of reinforcements had been dropped to it by the air force. Among the aircraft employed on this service were even to be found the long outdated Lysanders, with their strangely shaped wings which seemed always about to flap. The pilots flying them removed the seriously wounded, enemy prisoners and documents, besides bringing in urgent stores. This aid from the air was indispensable and a vital factor in the successes achieved by Force 136. Among their feats was the prevention of the Japanese Fifteenth Army from helping in the defence of Toungoo and the slaughter of 700 Japanese, including a general, in that area. They had also been indefatigable in providing targets for the Strategic Air Force. Now they were to have their reward. Ruthlessly they moved down upon the fleeing Japanese slaughtering them without mercy and calling on the Mosquitos and
Spitfires of the Tactical Air Force to aid them in the task. Thanks to their messages, Nos. 273 and 607 Squadrons killed about 500 Japanese in the village of Pa-An on 1st July, and they repeated these successes on the 15th and 16th July. ‘Both I and every guerilla’, wrote Captain J. Waller, the British officer commanding at Okpyat, ‘would like to make it known to every pilot who took part in the battle just how much all the brilliant offensive action of the RAF fighter-bomber pilots was appreciated. ... You are killing hundreds of Japs and your perfect co-ordination and patience in reading our crude signals is saving the lives of many thousands of defenceless civilians’.
As the days went by, the rate and weight of the massacre increased. On 21st July the enemy began his last and most desperate attempt to cross the Sittang with between 15,000 and 18,000 troops, many of whom were sick. Every available squadron was at once thrown in against them, despite low clouds and heavy rains. ‘The July killing lasted until the 29th’, Park reports in his second despatch. ‘The Thunderbolt squadrons, carrying three 500-lb. bombs on each aircraft, played havoc among concentrations of moving Japanese troops. The Spitfires too, carrying one 500-lb. bomb on each aircraft, pursued the enemy relentlessly.’ After nine days the Japanese had lost more than 10,000 men killed. At that same river two years or more before, the British army had met heavy defeat. The wheel had come full circle. In this, the final action of the war, the Royal Air Force flew a total of 3,045 sorties and dropped some 750 short tons1 weight of bombs. The Japanese were out of Burma, at a cost of 100,000 dead, not counting the unnumbered skeletons in the inhospitable jungle.
To this pass they had been brought by the use of air power to the widest possible extent and the highest possible degree. From no feature of the campaign was it absent: whether the problem was to supply troops in the field, to blast a cunningly concealed bunker in which the garrison were holding up the advance, or to carry out the wounded—by the end of April, 1945, 110,761, of whom 50,285 were transported in aircraft of the Royal Air Force, had been taken to safety—the air forces were called upon to play their part and nearly always it was a major part.
But the hazards of flying in the monsoon were the worst that had so far been encountered by man in his conquest of the air, and of them all the greatest was that created by the cumulo-nimbus cloud, which is at its worst in the months of June and July. Beginning
a few hundred feet above the earth, it may tower upwards for more than 30,000 feet and stretch for many miles in breadth. Any aircraft meeting it strove to fly beneath, above or round it, but very often that was impossible: there was not enough petrol in the tanks, or it could not reach the required height. Two examples of the perils which beset the pilot were he forced to enter that cloud may be given as illustrations, not inapt, of perils which were met with daily during five out of the twelve months of the year.
Warrant Officer F. D. C. Brown, Royal New Zealand Air Force, of No. 681 Squadron, flying a photographic reconnaissance Spitfire, was returning to Chittagong one day in June, 1943. Ten minutes before reaching his base, when he was already at a height of 23,000 feet, he was faced with a wall of cloud stretching across the horizon as far as he could see and rising another 20,000 feet above him. To descend meant the strong possibility that he would strike the cloud-covered mountains of Arakan, and he had not fuel enough to attempt to fly round or over it. Into it therefore he plunged. The rest of his story can be told in his own words.
For twenty minutes I was on instruments with flying conditions becoming rougher and rougher with the engine continually icing up and losing power, which could only be overcome by vigorous pumping on the throttle. The aircraft then struck a series of terrific bumps which sent the instruments haywire. I could see my Artificial Horizon up in the top corner of the dial, while the Turn and Bank Indicator appeared, as far as I could see, to be showing conditions of a spin. Deciding then that I must be in a spin I applied correction for it, but that was my last conscious thought. As I pushed the stick forward, there was a terrific ‘G pressure which forced my head down between my knees and tore my hands from the controls—then I lost consciousness. When I came to I was falling head over heels just under the cloud base, with pieces of the aircraft fluttering all round me and the main part of the fuselage two or three hundred feet below me, minus the engine, wings and tail unit. It was turning in a lazy spin and with a big rip right down the back. My first thought and reaction was to pull the ripcord of my parachute, without looking to see what could fall on me. Luckily everything worked out all right, after an anxious moment when I thought the ‘chute’ wasn’t going to open. It did, however, and the pieces of my disintegrated Spitfire went down, leaving me behind. On taking stock of my surroundings, I could see that I was about 2,000 to 3,000 feet above an island which was in the mouth of the Ganges. This put me fairly well on course, which was fortunate, as I hadn’t seen land for over an hour. My parachute descent didn’t last more than two or three minutes, and after making sure I was going to land in a clump of palms, a strong wind carried me well over them until I finally came down in a paddy-field, to be dragged along through the muddy water before I could release my harness.
The warrant officer was in due course taken to hospital, where it was discovered that his spine was fractured. Before leaving for home, where he recovered, he was handed a laconic message from the salvage crew sent to bring in the remains of his Spitfire. It read: ‘Aircraft unsalvageable; scattered over an area of twenty square miles’.
In the summer of 1944, No. 615, a Spitfire Squadron, was stationed at Palel, on the Imphal plain. On 10th August, sixteen of its pilots were ordered to fly thence to Calcutta. When but thirty miles on their journey they entered cumulonimbus cloud and very soon ‘all the aircraft were almost beyond human control. One was thrown from 5,000 to 11,000 feet and others were tossed about in the black clouds like so many leaves’. Four pilots, including the commander of the squadron, were lost, four more had to take to their parachutes, and the remaining eight all arrived at their destination with hands cut to pieces in their efforts to control their aircraft.
To the perils of the air were added those of the ground. To bale out meant a fall into jungle impenetrable to all but natives, Chindits and wild beasts. In appearance it was often of great beauty, and not dissimilar from those jungles in the islands of the Far East described by Somerset Maugham, and which are ‘a symphony of green, as though a composer working in colour instead of with sound had sought to express something extraordinarily subtle in a barbaric medium. The greens ranged from the pallor of the aquamarine to the profundity of jade. There was an emerald that blared like a trumpet and a pale sage that trembled like a flute’2. Once in its depths the pilot, despite instructions both by pamphlet and verbally at courses conducted by experienced persons, had little chance. Though the jungle might offer concealment, food and at times even protection from the elements, it was a place through which it was almost impossible to move. Those who fell in it were exhorted to keep themselves alive on the roots of creeping vines, on the shoots of bamboo, on young fern leaves, and anything which they might observe pigs and monkeys to eat. They were shown how to make a bivouac and to thatch a roof, and how to move, yet when all was said and done of the many pilots and crews who crashed into the jungle few survived.
If these were the dangers, the comforts were correspondingly sparse. For the pilots of South East Asia Command, except those whose good fortune took them to permanent bases like Calcutta, amenities
were few, food monotonous and housing uncomfortable. These were accepted often with cheerfulness, usually with resignation, and though in 1943 it was a temptation to believe that the war would endure indefinitely and that they belonged to a force which had been forgotten while their more fortunate comrades strove with the Luftwaffe, the advent of Spitfire squadrons brought promise of victory as the arrival of the swallow that of summer. From then onwards, however unpleasant were the physical conditions of existence, the mental steadily improved, until before 1944 was out, there was no officer or airman but did not know that he was a member of an all-conquering force, performing a feat up till then undreamed of in the long history of war, and making a contribution to what was to prove the defeat, overwhelming and complete, of a fanatical and hard-fighting enemy. In this knowledge they flew, content and resolute, till the sun of victory, peering between the dun-coloured clouds of the monsoon, lit up their wings.
After the fall of Burma, preparations were very actively pursued for the mounting of operation ZIPPER, the invasion of Malaya. It was never carried out. On 6th August the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Four square miles of the city were destroyed and more than 160,000 people perished. On the 9th the second bomb fell on Nagasaki, and on the 14th Japan accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. The Second World War was over.
In playing their part in overthrowing the Japanese and casting their proud empire down into the dust, the Royal Air Force element of Eastern Air Command dropped some 36,000 short tons of bombs. The targets upon which these fell were ports, harbours and shipping, railways, airfields, camps, and targets on the battlefield. The estimated number of Japanese aircraft destroyed by the combined air forces was over 900. Most significant of all, the weight of supplies carried by the Combat Cargo Task Force and its predecessor Troop Carrier Command amounted in all to some 600,000 short tons. It was, indeed, a remarkable, an awe-inspiring achievement, and all this was accomplished by an air force which, British and American together, did not exceed forty-eight squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers, eighteen squadrons of bombers and twenty-four squadrons of transport aircraft.
The cost was not low, but the victory was complete and absolute. Yet when, after the representatives of His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Japan—‘very small men clad in shabby and ill-fitting uniforms ... each member carrying a sword nearly as tall as himself’—shuffled away into oblivion, one task still remained. Ten days
after the unconditional surrender of Japan a photographic reconnaissance Spitfire of No. 681 Squadron was flying over the prisoner of war camps in the Kanchanaburi area of Siam when he noticed the inmates of one of them waving and cheering. His eyes next beheld a huge Union Jack marked out upon the ground to indicate who they were. In a very short space of time the air force was heavily engaged in conveying to places of comfort and safety many of the hundred thousand Allied prisoners of war and civilians in Japanese prison camps all over South East Asia. They spread the news of the enemy’s surrender by dropping millions of leaflets on the principal towns and the known prisoner of war camps in that area; they warned prisoners of war that they would shortly be freed; they dropped medical supplies, teams of medical officers and wireless operators, whose task it was to signal the most urgent requirements of the camp in which they had landed: they dropped quantities of food, clothing and other necessities: and finally, they carried out by air many thousands of prisoners from Malaya, Siam, French Indo-China, Sumatra and Java. By 31st August, leaflets had been dropped on 150 localities and 90 prisoner of war camps, and this despite very difficult weather. Having disposed of some 33,000,000 leaflets in this manner, the Air Force then turned to operation MASTIFF, the bringing in of medical supplies. In the course of this operation over a million tablets of Atabrine, the prophylactic against malaria, were dropped weekly by one Dakota and nine Liberator squadrons. In one week some 400 tons of stores were dropped or landed by the Dakotas, which brought back 4,000 prisoners of war, and in the next week 3,700. By the middle of September 9,000 prisoners had been carried to Rangoon from Bangkok. These were the worst cases—the men who had survived the ordeal of working on the Siam/Burma railway. Altogether in three weeks 327 sorties were made. Two-thirds of the supplies for prisoner of war camps were flown from the Cocos Islands and every available Liberator and Sunderland was used to keep the depots there fully stocked.
So let this History end, after the fire and fury of the battle, the gallantry and the fighting, on a note of peace and healing. To the ears of men who for three long years and more had starved and sweated without news of family or home, often brutally tormented, naked to the burning sun or the drenching rain, never at ease, surrounded by comrades less robust who died before their eyes—to the ears of these men there came one day the sound of aircraft engines. They lifted haggard faces to see above them the widespread wings of bombers bearing the roundel of the Royal Air Force. Surely these aircraft never deserved the named of Liberator more
than they did at that supreme moment. Down fell the modern manna—food and clothes and medicines. A few days passed and they came a second time, and with them the slow Dakotas which took on board men who could no longer stand, but who could still think and feel. The engines roared, the dusty scrub flashed past and fell away; and the aircraft climbed, and steadied in strong level flight, and so bore the unconquered home.