II. The Air War in the Far East
The Singapore Memorial bears the names of men of the Air Forces who gave their lives not only in Malaya but in India and Burma and throughout the Far East. Although reference to their task is made in the preceding summary of the campaign in Malaya, and in introductions to other registers, some general note on their work is called for.
In 1941, the Far East Air Command included Hong Kong, Borneo, Malaya and Burma, and stretched across the Indian Ocean to Ceylon and on to Durban and Mombasa. Air power was to be the basis of defence in the Far East, and in planning it was assumed that the Japanese would not be able to attack simultaneously at several widely separated points, and that, therefore, the British, Dutch and American Air Forces would be able to reinforce each other at need. By the time the Japanese attacked, however, the necessary air strength to withstand them was not available, and they delivered precisely such simultaneous attacks as had been believed to be impossible.
So the campaigns of 1941 and 1942 present a story of continual retreat. The aerodromes in Northern Malaya were useless almost from the beginning. Thereafter, until the fighting came within range of the airfields on Singapore Island, the army had to carry on without adequate air support. The air forces strove nobly to carry out their many tasks: they were called upon to bomb airfields held by the Japanese, to perform long-range reconnaissance in search of possible enemy reinforcements and fresh landings, to protect valuable incoming convoys with British reinforcements, to carry out photographic reconnaissance. And all this with few machines, many of them obsolescent. When reinforcements did arrive, in January 1942, some of the machines were not really suited to local conditions, and the crews were inexperienced in the tropics; moreover, the airfields they had to use were already subjected to heavy bombing. In the first ten days of February, the fighters were almost continually airborne, striving to ward off the continual Japanese attacks.
By 16th January, all air force units in Malaya had been driven back to Singapore Island. To lessen the congestion there, the bomber squadrons were transferred to Sumatra, where there were two airfields near Palembang. Operational and maintenance facilities there were primitive and accommodation of personnel presented a problem. From Sumatra, bombers made the long flights to attack Japanese-held airfields in Malaya and maintained daily reconnaissances across the South China Sea, while fighters escorted shipping in the waters between Sumatra and Malaya and operated in defence of the Sumatra landing-grounds against air-raids. The Japanese soon closed in on Sumatra too, however; they landed parachute troops near the main aerodrome on 14th February and on the 15th made an attempt, which was thwarted by British air attacks, to sail a convoy up the Palembang River. A steady stream of British aircraft attacked troop transports, landing craft and barges, and caused very heavy casualties among the Japanese, sinking three transports and several landing craft. There were further landings of parachute troops that day; the Japanese established themselves near Palembang, and it was decided that all air force units must withdraw to Java. This they did that evening and on the 16th, but were forced to leave most valuable equipment behind.
The End in Java
In Java, organisation was not easy, as on the one hand units from Malaya and Sumatra were arriving, more or less organised and equipped, and on the other hand the Japanese might be expected to land in the island before long (actually they came twelve days after the evacuation of Sumatra) and a great exodus of civilians was beginning. On 22nd February the withdrawal of General Wavell's headquarters was ordered, and it was decided that the British forces that remained should operate under the Dutch naval and army commanders. The actual change took place on 25th February.
Air reconnaissance was to be kept up over the whole of the Java Sea and as far north as possible on both sides of Borneo, and an invasion was to be opposed as far out to sea as possible by air action. The first invasion convoy was sighted by reconnaissance aircraft on 26th February. By the 28th, other convoys had been located, and it was evident that about midnight there would be simultaneous landings at the eastern end of Java near Sourabaya and at two points in Western Java near Batavia (now Djakarta). The eastern convoy was twice attacked by American and British aircraft in the night 28th February/1st March, and considerable damage was done. The same night, British aircraft made several attacks on the Japanese convoy which was approaching east of Batavia, and on Japanese troops as they landed. The airfield from which these attacks were carried out was captured by the Japanese the following morning, and with it several aircraft which could not take off in time, though the majority of the ground staff escaped. Fighter aircraft from another airfield continued to attack enemy columns which had landed and to carry out reconnaissances, until on 3rd March they had to withdraw to Andir, near Bandoeng. By 4th March, the Japanese were advancing rapidly in both eastern and western Java. Surplus air force staff, a great many of them without arms, were being evacuated as fast as shipping permitted, and from 3rd March till the 7th reconnaissance aircraft were flown out to Australia and Ceylon. By 5th March the Japanese were closing in on the final western stronghold at Bandoeng, and on the 8th the Dutch Commander-in-Chief issued the order to surrender. Altogether, more than 5,000 men of the Air Forces were involved in this surrender, many of whom had escaped first from Malaya and then from Sumatra.
The Air Forces in Burma
The story of the land campaigns in Burma is told in the registers of cemeteries and memorials in that country. The part played by the air forces in the defeat of the Japanese there cannot be described here in full chronological detail, but tribute must be paid to the immense value of their contribution. The Eastern Air Command which from early in 1944 waged the air war in Burma included Royal Air Force and United States Air Force formations. The Strategic Air Force, under the American Brigadier-General H. C. Davidson, included No. 231 Bomber Group, and in the 3rd Tactical Air Force, commanded by Air Marshal Sir John Baldwin, the R.A.F. elements were Nos. 221 and 224 Tactical Groups. There were also Royal Air Force elements in the Photographic Reconnaissance Force and the Combat Cargo Task Force. From the nature of the country and the way in which the campaign for the liberation of Burma was fought, the army was more dependent upon the air force than in any other campaign. Units were operating on land far behind the Japanese lines for prolonged periods; they were taken there by air, were supplied by air, had their wounded and sick removed to base hospitals by air, and could call on the air force for help in battle. All this was a matter of gradual growth; experiments were made in the ways of carrying and dropping supplies, in the methods of calling up air support and co-ordinating ground movements with fire from the air. It was on the Burma front that large formations were first moved long distances by air and were maintained by air supply; in March, 1944, in the second Chindit expedition, thousands of men and animals were landed far behind the enemy's lines and were maintained by air for months. Small wonder that the Fourteenth Army has been described as "the most airminded army that ever existed."
The work of the Strategic Air Force was carried out over a vast area from bases in India. Japanese bases and lines of communication stretched some 900 miles from Bangkok to Myitkyina, and were very vulnerable to air attack; but the raids upon them involved round trips of anything up to 3,000 miles. A quarter of the operations of the Strategic Air Force were directed against railway communications-in particular the new line between Burma and Thailand. Roads along which Japanese supplies had to be brought, and oil installations in Burma were also among their targets. Reconnaissance aircraft, searching for targets for the bombers and observing the results of their sorties, and surveying Burma and Malaya photographically, also covered amazing distances and, perhaps even more than other branches of the service, had to combat the weather, some of the aircraft used not being really suitable for the tropics. Tropical storms took their toll of all branches of the air arm, as did other hazards of flights over jungle country.
When victory was within sight, General Slim in an Order of the Day said: "There could have been no victory without the support of the Allied Air Forces. They never failed us, and it is their victory as much as ours." There was, then, a peculiar appropriateness in the fact that the first man to enter Rangoon, on 2nd May 1945, was an Air Force officer of 221 Group, who landed his machine at Mingaladon airfield, walked into the city, and having assured himself that the Japanese were really gone, sailed down the river in a commandeered sampan to meet the troops advancing from the south.