To honour those who served their country

“In this their finest hour”


The Air Forces in Burma

The foregoing account of the war in Burma has dealt with the land campaign, chiefly because any campaign is judged by the progress of the land forces and the objectives that they gain. As Earl Mountbatten points out in his Report to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, however: "It is important . . . to remember that air operations . . . formed the background 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 organisation."

At the time that war reached Burma, there was a chain of seven airfields linking Lashio in the north with Mingaladon (Rangoon) in the south, besides landing strips in Tenasserim and at Myitkyina and an airfield at Akyab. Number 221 Group, however, with its headquarters in Rangoon, had only 37 first-line aircraft, although defence plans had stipulated a minimum requirement of 280. There was also a squadron of 21 aircraft belonging to the American Volunteer Group. To these meagre forces the Japanese opposed some 400 bombers and fighters. Yet when they raided Rangoon on Christmas Day, 1941, heavy toll was taken of them by the few defenders. At the beginning of January 1942 a squadron of Blenheims and some Hurricanes arrived to reinforce 221 Group. The Blenheims bombed Japanese bases as far away as Bangkok, and destroyed many Japanese aircraft on the ground. The fighters also defeated two attempts by the Japanese to gain air supremacy, at the end of January and at the end of February. Their efforts enabled reinforcements for the Burma Army to be landed without interference, and in the last stages protected the essential work of demolition.

From the beginning of March onward, 221 Group, or what was left of it, made its way towards India by successive stages, giving what cover it could to the retreating army. The air force remaining in Burma was practically wiped out, however, by raids on Magwe (south-west of Meiktila) and on Akyab at the end of March. In the final stages of the retreat, bombers of 221 Group operating from Tezpur and Dinjan in Assam gave as much help as possible to the army in Northern Burma. Both American and British transport aircraft and troop-carriers assisted in bringing out refugees and sick and wounded, to the number of nearly 9,000, and in dropping supplies to the army and to refugees.

Almost before the retreat was over preparations for the future began. No. 221 Group was re-formed in Calcutta, and was made responsible for all bomber and general reconnaissance operations over the Bay of Bengal and on the Burma front. No. 224 Group was formed in April 1942, to deal with fighter operations throughout Bengal and Assam. Reinforcements reached India throughout 1942, and the first campaign in Arakan, from December 1942 to May 1943, was supported by air attacks on Japanese troop movements and communications and supply centres. In the same period, the first Chindit expedition was kept supplied by air; Nos. 31 and 194 Squadrons flew 178 sorties by night and day and dropped 303 tons of supplies. Experiments were made and much was learned about the technique of supply-dropping that was to be of great value later in the campaign. The monsoon of 1943 curtailed operations, but expansion continued.

When South-East Asia Command was formed in the autumn of 1943, Eastern Air Command was set up to control operations in Burma, with headquarters in Calcutta, and the American Lieutenant-General George E. Stratemeyer as Commander; first Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin and then Air Marshal Sir Alec Coryton commanded the Third Tactical Air Force; and the American Brigadier-General Howard C. Davidson and later Air Commodore F. J. W. Mellersh commanded the Strategic Air Force. In the new command, units of the Royal Air Force and of the U.S. Tenth Army Air Force worked side by side. In the autumn of 1943 there were in the South-East Asia Air Command, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, 48 R.A.F. and 17 U.S.A.A.F. squadrons; by the following May, the figures had risen to 64 and 28 respectively.

In the second Arakan offensive, the 81st West African Division in the Kaladan Valley was supplied largely from the air, and the whole advance was supported by air raids on Japanese airfields, supply centres and communications. When in February 1944 the 7th Indian Division were completely cut off by the Japanese, their successful continued resistance was due to their being supplied from the air-some 2,000 tons of supplies were dropped in just under a month. By the end of March, air supply on the Arakan front was no longer necessary.

The Strategic Air Force continually attacked the Japanese lines of communication, which, stretching some 900 miles from Bangkok to Myitkyina, were very vulnerable. In particular, the new railway from Thailand into Burma (Bangkok-Moulmein), built with prisoner-of-war labour at a cost of thousands of lives, and the line from Rangoon to Myitkyina were under continual assault from the air. Roads and oil installations were also targets for the Strategic Air Force.

In the defeat of the Japanese attack on Assam, at Kohima and Imphal, air transport again played an important part. The 5th Indian Division at the critical time was moved by air from the Arakan to Imphal, and reinforcements from India were flown in haste to Assam. During the Battle of Kohima, supplies were brought by air to the beleaguered garrison; and fighter-bombers in 16 days flew more than 2,200 sorties against Japanese strong-points. Imphal, too, cut off by land, was maintained from the air, with quantities rising in June to 400 tons per day. Fighters and fighter-bombers of 221 Group protected the town and the supply aircraft from six airfields within the Imphal plain, and thanks to their protection only three supply aircraft were shot down during the eighty days of the siege.

In the second Chindit expedition, which was launched on 5th March, 1944, in the course of six days more than 9,000 men, over 1,300 animals and 509,082 lbs. of stores were landed far behind the Japanese lines by transport aircraft and gliders. This force continued to receive supplies from the air, and air ambulances brought out its casualties. On the northern front, troops were flown in to help in taking Myitkyina, and for six months the forward troops there were supplied by air, until the Ledo Road came into use.

Once the Japanese were defeated at Kohima and Imphal, the air forces had the welcome task of harrying their retreat. Another task of a different nature, but most valuable, was the spraying with insecticide of the extremely malarial Kabaw Valley, with a consequent great benefit to the health of the advancing British troops.

From July 1944, Japanese opposition to the Allies in the air was negligible. Allied air activity continually increased. Photographic reconnaissance flights continually discovered new targets for the long-range bombers, which cut supply routes into Burma, disrupted communications within the country, and carried out bombing raids in advance of the army's movements. Beaufighters of 224 Group dealt with Japanese coastal shipping off Burma, accounting for almost 700 small vessels by February 1945.

The moves down the coast early in 1945, to Akyab, Myebon and Ramree Island, were heralded by the Strategic Air Force and by fighter-bombers of 224 Group. So were the attacks on Mandalay and on Meiktila; after the capture of Meiktila airfield at the beginning of March, it was used to land supplies and reinforcements and to take out casualties even while Japanese guns and snipers were still firing upon aircraft using the field - the Japanese attempted to regain it up till the end of the month. At Mandalay, bombers helped to reduce Fort Dufferin, after the city had fallen.

In the final stages of the campaign, the heavy bombers had Rangoon as their most important target, and attacked Japanese dumps of all kinds around the city, as well as the Japanese Headquarters there. Parachutists from Akyab were flown to the mouth of the Rangoon River to aid in the sea-borne operations for the capture of Rangoon. And finally, as described above, an air force officer, fittingly, was the first to enter the city.

It is not surprising that the Fourteenth Army was described as "the most air-minded army that ever existed."



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