The British Empire Library

The Burma Air Campaign 1941 - 1945

by Michael Pearson

I should definitely declare an interest before I review this book. My grandfather was a pre-war volunteer to the RAF and was assigned to 99 Squadron. Although this was a bomber squadron it had the interesting posting of being shipped out to India to fight on the Burma Front for much of the war. Hence I am always on the lookout for little snippets of information about my own family's history and heritage and so was drawn to this book very much like a moth to the flame!

The book itself is very clearly written from beginning to end and I thought it was extremely well edited. I really don't think I came across any glaring errors or mistakes throughout the entire book - which is no mean feat these days! I felt that the author had an engaging style that trod that fine tightrope of giving enough strategic overview whilst still zooming in close enough to the aviation theme to connect the two without drowning either out. There were also plenty of juicy little interesting asides that really brought the story to life. I definitely felt that I learnt an awful lot from this book and it held my interest from beginning to end - indeed I found myself making excuses to go and read this book most nights.

Although ostensibly about the Burma Campaign, the book of course puts this into the context of the Malayan Campaign and the wider Asian theatre - especially China - as a whole. The famous 'Burma Road' that was such a feature of early propaganda films provided an additional concern to local commanders with what was effectively the only direct link to the war effort in China. The book also goes back further into Imperial defence priorities. It explains that Singapore had initially been earmarked as the linchpin of Britain's Asian Empire as far back as 1921 but as aviation was still very much in its infancy then, those planners continued to conceive of a Naval strategy to defend their colonies. The bean counters in Whitehall soon realised that air power might indeed provide a far cheaper defensive capability, but the headlong rush to war advanced too rapidly for Britain's defence architecture in the region to have been updated in time. The author explains how it was assumed that 582 British planes were thought to be required but that as war broke out in Europe only 88 were in theatre and that most of these were old if not antiquated in design. Britain's defence requirements at home and the Mediterranean pushed Asian defence priorities to the very bottom of the pile and as a theme throughout the book, their they pretty much remained for the rest of the war. Notwithstanding those priorities, it would later be amazing at just how much was achieved for so little investment in men and material - but that was all to come later. In the short term, the disastrous Malayan Campaign and Fall of Singapore are explained clearly. There were consistent command and liaison problems which compounded and amplified the British and Empire's difficulties in this campaign. Perhaps it is sad that such a disaster had to reveal such weaknesses facing the British. Fortunately, as the book makes clear, the British would indeed learn these lessons and would later produce an extremely effective integrated command structure - perhaps one of the very best in any theatre of the war! But that also was still in the future.

Perhaps, little demonstrated the end of the era of the battleship as much as the Japanese attacks on the Prince of Wales and Repulse. Over 80 Japanese planes descended on these ships which critically lacked air cover to protect them. With their sinking it was clear that aviation as a means of projecting power was very much on the ascendant. Having said that, the ageing Vildebeest of the RAF's own anti-shipping capabilities were hardly up to the task of sinking well protected Japanese ships. The lesson clearly was that planes had to be modern and their side had to be able to establish air superiority before their full capabilities could be unleashed. The few hurricanes in theatre showed that the Japanese could be matched in the sky but these were too few and far between to make a significant difference. I have to say though that I was amazed at just how many Japanese Army planes were lost in the Singapore campaign. The author states that the JAAF themselves lost over 500 aircraft in the taking of Singapore and Malaya... this is twice as much as the RAF although these would not all have been solely from air combat losses, still it was far higher than I would have expected and definitely forces something of a reevaluation of their true effectiveness.

The allied Air Forces waiting in the next theatre of Burma were hardly in better shape than their compatriots had been in Malaya. British morale had been shattered with the Fall of Singapore. The war was going badly in the North African desert meaning that few extra planes were being released to help the colony defend itself. The primary RAF plane of defence was the ugly and unwieldly Brewster Buffalo. These were supplemented by P40s flown by American volunteers - more commonly known as the Flying Tigers. One of their squadrons had been posted to Burma to help guard the critical Burma Road. They happened to share an airfield with the RAF at Mingaladon just outside of Rangoon and soon the Americans and British would find themselves very much in the way of the Japanese juggernaut. It has to be said that these pilots fought surprisingly effectively against the victorious Japanese with all their recent combat experience, victory and modern aircraft. In the air, even the Buffaloes were taking down more Japanese aircraft than they had any right to expect. The Allies' main Achilles Heel though were their airfields themselves. Japanese bombers relentlessly pursued and attacked the facilities and hoped to destroy planes on the ground or force them further afield. A chronic lack of spares, ammunition and replacement airframes meant that any loss was a catastrophe for the Allied airmen. They were able to dispute Japanese aerial supremacy over Rangoon where they focussed but at the cost of Japanese air superiority elsewhere in Burma meaning that road, rail and water transport was painfully vulnerable. The few RAF Blenheim bombers in the area found it difficult to deal with the Japanese Army's infiltration tactics... Japanese soldiers were as often behind or amongst British soldiers as in front of them. The Blenheims consoled themselves with attacking Japanese airfields in Siam and Malaya but the distances involved and prevalence of Japanese fighters made this hazardous in the extreme. I did love the story of an Indian Air Force Lysander squadron was so incensed when their own airfield was attacked by Japanese bombers that the single engine small planes slapped bombs on their side and flew hundreds of miles at treetop height to retaliate and hit the Japanese airfields that had been used to hit them!

Some Hurricanes were rushed from the Mediterranean to help with the defence of Burma but these arrived fairly late in the day and still had their desert air filters and long range fuel tanks attached. Both of these hindered the manoeuverability and speed of the planes; fatal flaws in the face of nimble Japanese planes. They soon had to pull these planes out to rectify these problems and attempted to come up with new tactics. The most successful being a swooping attack from above followed by a half roll or aileron turn to get out quick and regain precious height quickly.

The decision to abandon Rangoon came as something of a surprise to the Allied air squadrons. It also threw up new problems as it dawned on them that they had far too few transport planes to help evacuate such a large centre in a hurry. In fact the author explains that they had the grand total of just two DC2 planes available! A hurried request for more transport planes from the Middle East was urgently despatched. This was actually a critical turning point in the entire campaign although almost certainly not appreciated by both sides at the time. Transport planes would become the unsung heroes for the Allied air forces in the coming years. Bizarrely, the Japanese themselves failed to appreciate their true utility and value. Indeed, they even failed to prioritise shooting down Allied transports preferring to go after the more virile fighters or bombers! This was possibly the most catastrophic miscalculation made by the JAAF in Burma.

The RAF and Americans were still effectively fighting over Rangoon until literally their airfields were overrun and new Japanese planes were moved up. An allied counter attack on their old airfield of Mingaladon was actually fairly successful in disrupting the advancing Japanese air forces. However, it came at a dreadful cost. The Allies had concentrated their forces at Magwe to undertake this operation and had returned there to refuel, rearm and repair. Unbeknownst to them, a huge Japanese Air Armada of some 230 planes was headed to that very airfield. The timing of the attack virtually wiped out the Allied air capacity in Burma in one fell swoop. The Japanese would have air superiority for the time being and the allied retreat from Rangoon would have to be done with little help from the RAF!

Japanese power was reaching its apogee. The Imperial Japanese Navy appeared on the scene in the Indian Ocean and even challenged the British in what was thought to be the relatively safe island of Ceylon. A desperate air battle unfolded there which saw the even more manoueverable Japanese Zeroes inflict yet more losses on the RAF. This naval incursion though was something of a feint to allow Japanese troops to be put ashore at Rangoon without intervention from the Royal Navy or any remaining aircraft in the region. The Japanese Carrier force soon withdrew to fight in the Pacific. JAAF bombers were soon in range to bomb Calcutta and bring India into the frontline fully. All this whilst the British Army fought a skilful if painful retreat up the valleys towards Northern Burma and the Indian border. Critically they lost control of the Burma Road. This gained the attention of the Americans who were particularly wedded to supplying Chiang Kai Shek and keeping the Chinese armed and supplied.

To the credit of planners in the region, they quickly realised that India needed an urgent upgrade of its own airfield capacity and radar systems. A massive airfield construction project was undertaken. It was clear to all that the geography of the area amplified the benefits of Air Forces... jungles, steep valleys, monsoon rains, huge rivers all made moving on land treacherous at the best of times. The Chinese were soon being supplied by air, although only after a hair raising journey across the Himalayan mountains which some of the planes struggled to negotiate with or without Japanese planes lying in wait.

Fortunately for the Allied Command, planes were being made available. The reason was primarily because they were being phased out or replaced back in Europe or North Africa. Still the commanders did not look a gift horse in the mouth and gladly received any spare Hurricanes or Wellington bombers (such as my grandfather's squadrons') going. The continued Japanese bombing of Calcutta was primarily brought to an end when Beaufighter nightfighters were made available. Suddenly, the Japanese bombers were no longer bombing with impunity at night time. American transport planes also began to arrive. Initially to resurrect the supply routes into China, but soon they were being put into operation supporting a brand new venture.

The innovation of the Chindit force would ultimately transform aviation tactics in the region. The need to be able to drop supplies to such a large force for such a long time meant that they needed more transport aircraft in a hurry. Although this force achieved little militarily, it achieved three vital breakthroughs. Firstly, it transformed Allied morale in the theatre. No longer were the British on the defensive against an all conquering Japanese Army. They were taking the fight to the Japanese and giving as good as they got. Secondly, they gained invaluable experience with regards to the aerial dimension. The ability to create makeshift airfields, the fact that they needed to be able to evacuate wounded soldiers, the need for a variety of planes to conduct a variety of missions was all invaluable. Thirdly, they realised that air supply could deny the Japanese their key tactic of envelopement, infiltration and the isolating of defenders. If troops could be supplied from the air then they did not need to panic and surrender when Japanese formations appeared behind them. This last lesson would lodge very deeply in Lt-General Slim's mind.

The fact that the Japanese never cottoned on to the usefulness of transport aircraft in the Burma Campaign is a recurring theme. The Japanese relied on sea, road and rail transport all of which were increasingly targetted over time, by air power no less, but the Japanese did little to provide air transport capabilities to their forces. Worse yet, they failed to prioritise attacking Allied air transport capabilities and denying the tactical and logistics options being provided to their enemy.

Strategic bombing was never on the scale that it was elsewhere in the war, however the Wellingtons and later Liberators in theatre did achieve some remarkable feats with their limited numbers. The fact that they were willing to continue flying through the monsoon was an impressive feat. Japanese aviators virtually pulled out of theatre during this season assuming it was too difficult to fly. It added danger for sure, but the cost benefit analysis was felt to justify the decision. The bombers targetting of Japanese airfields also meant that the JAAF pulled its planes further back and indirectly lead to Allied bases being made fairly safe from Japanese air attack.

Another plane which made an impressive appearance was the Beaufighter. The cannons on this made the plane a perfect platform to attack Japanese freighters, light craft, trains, trucks, you name it... It ranged far and wide and must have struck fear into any Japanese who heard its engines in the distance.

The real game changer though was with the arrival of the Spitfire. Long a queen of Europe's skies, the older models were being upgraded there and so earlier iterations were finally sent out to India and Burma. Japanese recce planes like the Dinah which had been virtually immune to attack from Allied planes due to their speed and altitude suddenly found themselves bounced and virtually removed from theatre. Taking away a key Japanese reconnaissance ability would have a long term and profound effect on the unfolding offensives, but in the short term the newly arrived Spitfires provided a welcome boost to the Allies as a whole. The Spitfire clearly outclassed the Oscar but even held their own against the newer Ki-44s being introduced.

Another key to the Allied success was the way they successfully integrated their command structures. Initially the Americans in particular were reluctant to combine their forces into a Joint Command under primarily British control. Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to the creation of SEAC after the Quebec Conference. The British gave assurances that this was the best way to ensure that goods kept flowing to the Chinese also and to keep up the pressure on the Japanese and so bleed resources that might otherwise go to the Pacific. It had helped that Orde Wingate had been present at the meeting and impressed both Churchill and Roosevelt of the need for innovative and aggressive thinking. To the credit of all concerned but especially the USAAF, they all got behind the project and worked seamlessly with one another almost hand in glove.... the Americans provided primarily air capacity and especially air transport, but there were American ground troops too as well as Chinese, Indian and local forces. The combination of Mountbatten in Ceylon and Slim in Burma proved an exceptional choice of command. They may have been virtually at the bottom of the list for material and equipment but they were very fortunate in the choice of commanders made for them - at almost every level.

The new aerial capabilities were unleashed in 1944. Both the British and the Japanese were planning offensives of their own. Had the Japanese attacked just days before they actually did they may well have thrown the Allied offensive plans awry as they were straining their transport capacity to the full when they decided to drop and support another Chindit operation in support of the American/Chinese Forces to the East of Burma. This was a huge effort in resources and massively increased the scope of the previous Chindit operation taking on board the lessons learned previously. They were joined also by an American equivalent force; Merrill's Marauders. Tragically and somewhat paradoxically Orde Wingate himself was killed in an air crash when his bomber crashed into mountains. Why this is ironic is because nearly all the transport planes delivered their cargoes virtually without loss. Fortunately the dominoes fell conveniently for the Allies. The Japanese launched their own attacks and sought to envelope the Allies forces and take over their supplies and equipment. They were in for a rude shock when Allied soldiers dug in and were supplied from the air whilst they received little themselves. Worse, the Japanese were surprised when fresh troops appeared en masse when an entire division was air transported from Arakan to Imphal... this was another innovation in the scale of the troop transfer. It required an infusion of yet more aircraft from the Middle East but the flexibility it gave Slim was profound and it totally threw the Japanese offensive off kilter. The Allies had also greatly improved their air to ground capabilities and planes like the Vultee Vengeance dive bomber which were considered obsolete elsewhere but came into their own with local air supremacy to protect them as they struck Japanese wave attacks with deadly precision.

Air power was a vital component to the defeat of the Japanese Imphal Offensive but it continued to grow in strength and ability even as the Allies finally went on the advance. Incredibly sophisticated aerial capabilities became finely honed. Strategic bombers took out railyards and bridges, Long range fighters took out rolling stock, road transport and interdicted any reinforcements being moved. Dive bombers and ground support planes cleared the way for advancing British soldiers, remove strongpoints in the way or defend hard pressed formations. Fighters denied Japanese reconnaissance from knowing where the Allied formations were or where they were heading, Allied reconnaissance knew precisely where the enemy was and all the time transport planes constantly supplied food, equipment, ammunition and resources to where they were needed most. Perhaps the penny finally dropped for the Japanese at the airfield of Thabutkon. The Japanese had decided to make a stand at a river crossing nearby but had neglected to defend the airfield. The Japanese commander quickly recognised mistake as he realised British and Indian troops were being landed directly into the warzone. Desperate fighting to retake the airfield ensued with planes literally landing under small arms fire or being targetted by artillery and disembarking troops almost directly into the fighting. Day in and day out the Allies would try to clear the runway and sweep the area for Japanese only for more enemies to return. You can't help wondering of the dismay of the Japanese as they realised the aerial capacity of their foes that they so palpably lacked. By this time the remaining JAAF was a shadow of itself, many planes had been withdrawn to defend the Philippines but most others had simply been destroyed or could not get spares, fuel or ammunition due to the effectiveness of the Allied own interdiction sweeps. Nothing illustrated this more directly to the Japanese than their ulitmately doomed defence of Thabutkon.

The subsequent advance into Rangoon saw Superfortresses pave the way for paratroopers and gliders to seize surrounding airfields and key locations. Liberators dropped mines to stop any Japanese fleeing by sea. Mustangs and Beaufighters lay in wait for any fleeing formations. All bridges were destroyed and roads were patrolled incessantly from above. In the end the city fell without a shot being fired as the Japanese simply collapsed. Those Japanese formations still outside of the city who tried to strike Eastwards found out that there was little let up from the air as planes doggedly pursued them all the way to Siam and transport aircraft dropped fresh Allied troops to block and harry them all the way.

The book perfectly illustrates that this theatre of operations which could have the most atrocious geographical and meteorological challenges was transformed by air capacity. The fight for air superiority was key. The large distances and uncompromising conditions made it a challenge to attain air superiorty everywhere. Both sides could and did challenge for air superiority where needed for short periods of time at least. The Japanese planes were often more nimble and faster but were less resilient as a result. The Japanese also had a harder time replacing their personnel losing valuable combat experience over time. The allies were under pressure from the outset but continued to stay in the game and slowly gained the upper hand in aerial capabilities. The arrival of the Spitfire decisively turned the air superiority balance and this was amplified by long distance fighters like Mustangs and P38s arriving which helped project allied air superiority even deeper into enemy territory. However, the real workhorses for victory were almost certainly the humble transport planes. These kept the Allied armies going when they might otherwise have retreated or even worse surrendered. They allowed for deep incursions into enemy territory and they allowed resources to be moved quickly to where they were needed. The title of the book as 'The Burma Campaign' illustrates this more holistic treatment of the entire campaign from start to finish. Even the humble bombers get a mention and for that small connection to Allied victory in Burma I am eternally thankful to the small role played by my own grandfather. So for me, this book helps put my own family's contribution into wonderful context. I really cannot recommend this book too highly as an enjoyable, informative and accessible insight into an intrinsicially fascinating campaign.

British Empire Book
Michael Pearson
Pen and Sword


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