Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Operations Over Burma
Operations Over Burma
No. 67 Fighter Squadron
Meanwhile in Burma, which the Japanese had attacked through Thailand at the narrowest part of the Kra Isthmus, the New Zealanders of No. 67 Fighter Squadron (the only RAF squadron in the country), were pitting their Buffaloes against the Japanese at odds of one to eight. It was of paramount importance that the great port of Rangoon—vital as the sea terminus for the Burma Road and supply link to China—should be preserved as far as possible from damaging air attacks. The first raid on Rangoon was made by the Japanese on 23 December with a force of some sixty bombers and fighters.page 26
At Mingaladon aerodrome on the outskirts of the city, No. 67 Squadron received adequate warning of the enemy's approach and took off to intercept, in company with a squadron of the American Volunteer Group which had arrived from Loiwing, in China, three days before. Sergeant C. V. Bargh31 and Sergeant G. A. Williams32 were in R/T* communication with the ground control when the raiders were sighted. Instead of the time-honoured ‘Tally-ho’, there came over the radio link the excited voice of Sergeant Bargh: ‘Hell! Showers of ‘em, look Willie! Showers of ‘em!’
For a first combat the results were impressive. In a moment Bargh was in amongst the Japanese fixed-undercarriage 96 and 97 type fighters, and immediately became involved in a confused series of most hazardous dogfights. It had been drilled into the pilots that their primary object was to shoot down the bombers, and Bargh, by his single-handed manoeuvres, succeeded in drawing the Japanese fighter escort away from the formation.
As in Malaya, a New Zealander drew first blood. Sergeant Williams saw his opportunity and calmly proceeded to carry out ‘copy-book’ attacks on the enemy bombers, shooting down one and getting bursts of machine-gun fire into the petrol tanks of some six more. As the Japanese tanks were not self-sealing, it is probable that some of these aircraft failed to return to base.
In the meantime, with his aircraft shot full of holes, Bargh dived away from the enemy fighters, flew out to sea, and regained height to await the return of the bombers. His windscreen had oiled up but, nothing daunted, he took off one of his flying boots, wiped the perspex clean with his sock, and turned in to attack the bombers as they came away from the target. Joined now by Sergeant E. H. Beable33 at 17,000 feet, he dived on the enemy formation and succeeded in destroying one bomber and probably a fighter. Beable fired a long burst into a bomber which, last seen trailing smoke, he claimed as a ‘probable’.
Sergeant W. Christiansen,34 though slightly later in sighting the enemy, attacked at the first opportunity. His own words describe the combat:
‘I climbed to 16,000 feet and did a front-quarter attack, opening fire at 400 yards and breaking away at approximately 100 yards. I broke away to the front of the formation and repeated this attack. My windscreen was covered with oil, making it impossible for me to observe the results of my attacks. I did three more front-quarter attacks and then broke away as I couldn't see out of my front windscreen. I was firing at 12,000 feet when I saw another formation 1000 feet below me. I dived and did a climbing stern attack by pointing my aircraft at the formation and firing. I could not aim or see any results as by then visibility through my windscreen was nil. The formation headed out to sea in a north-easterly direction and I returned to base to refuel.’
The remainder of the squadron and the American Volunteer Group had a very satisfactory total score for the day of thirteen enemy aircraft destroyed and several probables. Of these, No. 67 Squadron was able to claim six destroyed and three probables without loss to themselves —a highly creditable performance in their first encounter. Nevertheless, many of the bombers had succeeded in getting through to the target and both Mingaladon and Rangoon were heavily attacked. At Mingaladon one of the first bombs demolished the operations room, two airmen being killed and two Buffaloes destroyed on the ground. For all that the squadron was well pleased with the day's work and morale was high. All hands set to work to build another operations room, and by the evening of the following day this was completed. The aircraft were again page 27 brought to maximum serviceability and the pilots waited at ‘readiness’ for the next attack, living on somewhat scratch meals owing to the disappearance of all the native mess staff.
They did not have long to wait. About eleven o'clock on Christmas morning the warning system reported 120 enemy aircraft heading for Rangoon, from the direction of Mergui on the Tenasserim coast. Twenty-four Buffaloes and Tomahawks scrambled immediately.
This time, apparently somewhat shaken by their previous reception, the Japanese paid our pilots the pretty (if back-handed) compliment of despatching some eighty fighters with their raiding force, including a number of Navy ‘O’ or Zero type, which had not previously operated in this locality. Heavily outnumbered, the defenders met them on the way in, but the fighter opposition was so intense that only Williams and one other pilot got through to the bombers. They speedily shot down one, of which each claimed a half share. Williams then attacked a fighter, raked it from end to end, and saw it go down out of control. He was then ‘jumped’ from behind so was unable to see it hit the ground.
Pilot Officer G. S. Sharp35 and Sergeant E. E. Pedersen,36 meeting a fierce attack by an almost overwhelming number of Japanese fighters with height advantage, fought their way through after shooting up three of them. Sharp forced-landed on Mingaladon with some controls and electric cables cut and a bullet hole in the ammunition tank.
Meanwhile, Beable was making the most of the opportunities that came his way, and in three separate attacks he blew up a Zero that was on his leader's tail and claimed a ‘possible’ and a ‘damaged’. From each of these combats he had to dive away to evade enemy fighters, but returned to the fray until his guns would no longer fire. Sergeant J. G. Finn,37 who was with him at first, was attacked before he could reach the bombers, but in turning he was able to fire a good burst into the wing root of an enemy fighter; a bright flame leapt from its petrol tank.
The indefatigable Bargh was caught on the climb, but got a burst into a fighter which immediately began to trail smoke. He then had to dive to ground level before shaking off a Zero which had got on his tail. By the time he had climbed back into the fray the enemy had disappeared and he had to be content with one probable. Sergeant K. A. Rutherford38 raked a bomber but was ‘jumped’ by three Zeros and had to dive away without a claim.
The Tomahawks of the American Volunteer Group had a field day and claimed twenty-one destroyed, giving a total from all sources of twenty-seven destroyed, two probables, and two damaged. Thus in the course of two raids the Japanese lost over forty aircraft out of some 180, against which there had been never more than twenty-five British and American fighters. No. 67 Squadron lost Sergeants J. MacPherson,39 E. B. Hewitt,40 and R. P. McNabb41 (RNZAF) and Flying Officer J. Lambert (RAF) killed.
The Japanese did not appear inclined to face a repetition of such fighting and Rangoon remained virtually free from attack until 23 January 1942. Thus, in the opening stages of the air war in Burma, a creditable victory was achieved by the Allied fighter force which ensured the safe disembarkation of reinforcements, including the 7th Armoured Brigade, at Rangoon.
Back on the ground at Mingaladon on Christmas morning conditions were far from normal. The airfield and surroundings had been thoroughly pattern-bombed and all native labour had disappeared. Cooks and kitchens had vanished and, instead of sitting down to Christmas dinner, all hands were employed filling bomb craters on the airfield and repairing damaged aircraft against the possibility of another raid next day. That night the pilots had their Christmas supper—bully page 28 beef and beer. The Supreme Commander, General Sir Archibald Wavell, and the Governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, visited the station and warmly congratulated all ranks, not only on their splendid defeat of the enemy but on their efforts in repairing the damage and having the squadron again at maximum readiness.
The Buffaloes were dispersed around the airfield and meals were brought round by truck, and although the pilots waiting for the next attack knew only too well the odds against them—and only those who have waited for the enemy in such circumstances can appreciate the sense of strain—there was never any indication of jumpiness. Before dawn the flight truck would roll up to the dispersal hut and yawning pilots would jump out to disentangle their flying gear from the heap on the bench. Outside, in the keen air of the early dawn, the silence would be split by the sudden crackle of Cyclone engines bursting into life, blue flames licking back from the motors as they were run up.
Rutherford, a sheep farmer from Canterbury and wise in the ways of bushcraft, could usually be found building a fire—at a safe distance between the aircraft and the hut—to brew the inevitable tea. Christiansen and Cutfield42 developed the routine of a morning session of ‘Acey Deuce’, a game very popular with the pilots of the American Volunteer Group. Other pilots, deciding that an opportunity to sleep was not to be lightly tossed aside, would stretch themselves comfortably on a pile of parachutes and flying gear, while some would make the most of a chance to repair equipment. Before long the mess truck would arrive with supplies of eggs and bacon, soon to be sizzling in the frying pan. Then a rattle of cutlery and laughter as they gathered round to breakfast from huge sandwiches composed of a fried egg on a slice of bacon held between two planks of bread. The carefree manner, cheery banter, and spirit of comradeship among all ranks gave their life something denied to those whose lot is cast in a more peaceful mould.
Because of the importance of defending Rangoon, the Air Officer Commanding (Air Vice- Marshal D. F. Stevenson) could not spare any aircraft from the tiny force at his disposal to take the war to the enemy, and until reinforcements of Hurricanes and Blenheims began to arrive in January he could give very little support to the Army. No. 67 Squadron carried out an occasional photographic reconnaissance to obtain information on Japanese air concentrations in Thailand, and as a result of one such flight the Buffaloes were sent on a strafing attack on Mesoht aerodrome. The attack was a complete surprise. The aerodrome buildings were thoroughly strafed, an aircraft at the west end of the runway shot up, and a large fire started. Rutherford concentrated on the hangars and received several hits from light anti-aircraft fire. Sergeant E. L. Sadler43 claimed a ‘flamer’ on the ground, the enemy aircraft firing back at him from its stationary position as he flashed over it. The whole operation was over in a few minutes and the Buffaloes returned without loss.
While on patrol down the Tenasserim over Tavoy, Pilot Officer P. M. Brewer44 crept up on a single-engined two-seater aircraft. His first burst must have killed the observer as there was no return fire; no evasive action was taken by the enemy aircraft, which caught fire and crashed into the hills.
Towards the end of January the long looked-for and sorely-needed air reinforcements began to arrive. The fighter strength was augmented by thirty-six Hurricanes which were distributed amongst Nos. 17, 135, and 136 Squadrons; pilots for these squadrons, including several New page 29 Zealanders, had already arrived from England and the Middle East. Reinforced by these three fighter squadrons and by No. 113 Bomber Squadron equipped with Mark II Blenheims, the Air Officer Commanding was able to attack occupied airfields in Thailand and so reduce the scale of air attack on Rangoon. To achieve this he commenced a ‘leaning forward’ evolution with a portion of the fighter force, and from advanced bases at Moulmein, Tavoy, and Mergui resolutely attacked enemy aircraft wherever found. This policy brought encouraging results, fifty-eight enemy bombers and fighters being destroyed and many more damaged.
No. 113 Bomber Squadron
No. 113 Squadron also inflicted much damage on the enemy at this time. Six New Zealanders flew with the squadron—Squadron Leader P. Duggan-Smith45 and Flight Sergeant J. Keys46 (pilots) and Sergeants A. M. Dingle,47 J. Beard,48 E. Brooking,49 and J. B. J. McKenzie50 (navigators). On 7 January, the night of its arrival at Mingaladon from the Middle East, the squadron despatched ten Blenheims to carry out a raid on Bangkok in which 11,000 lb. of bombs were dropped on the dock area. This operation, undertaken so soon after arrival, was most creditable, particularly on the part of the navigators. Next day, because facilities at Mingaladon were poor, the Blenheims flew out to Lashio, near the Chinese border, to be serviced. They returned on 18 January and began operations at high pressure, both in support of the retreating army and in long-range bombing of enemy airfields and bases. Mesoht aerodrome was again attacked by shallow dive-bombing from 2700 feet, the runways being pitted and several fires started. In succeeding days the squadron's activities included strikes on the Thailand airfields at Tak and Messareing, whilst a transport convoy was attacked near Kawareik.
On 24 January another night raid was made on Bangkok, all serviceable aircraft participating. The Blenheims attacked singly at ten-minute intervals, bombing from 2000 feet with a war load of four 250 lb. bombs and four 25 lb. incendiaries. Large explosions and several fires resulted. An intense anti-aircraft barrage was again encountered over the target area, and two aircraft, including one navigated by Sergeant Dingle, failed to return. The Japanese retaliated with persistent bombing of Mingaladon, and No. 113 Squadron was withdrawn north to Taungoo in the Sittang Valley. A detached flight remained in the Rangoon area, being dispersed at Zayat Kwin and Johnny Walker satellite strips.
Operations now included attacks on enemy river traffic near Kado, north of Moulmein, as well as further raids on Bangkok. During the third week after its arrival No. 113 Squadron made 102 sorties and dropped 89,992 lb. of bombs on the enemy. Although, like the fighters, there were too few bombers to affect the final outcome materially, there can be no doubt that these operations did much to check the Japanese advance at a vital period.
Throughout February the squadron carried out a variety of attacks and hit the enemy wherever he could be found. River steamers, railways, barracks, troop concentrations and stores dumps all received attention, until on 18 February, after a month of continual flying, the land threat to Zayat Kwin made this airfield untenable and the detached flight was withdrawn to Magwe. The squadron continued to operate from Magwe until 7 March, when the fall of Rangoon and the advance of the enemy made it necessary to withdraw to India. From its new base the squadron continued to support the retreating army.page 30
In the meantime, the fighters had been in action without respite. On 23 January the Japanese attempted a surprise strafing attack on Mingaladon with twenty-three Army 96 type fighters. Fortunately the warning system gave notice of their approach and the Buffaloes and Tomahawks were waiting for them. Christiansen shot down one plane and Pilot Officer A. A. Cooper51 damaged another. The next day the Japanese came again, evidently intent upon annihilating the Allied air force at Mingaladon.
Cooper, Sadler, Bargh, and Christiansen were patrolling above base at 18,000 feet, and this time had the height advantage, when an enemy formation of Army 97 bombers was sighted ten miles east-south-east of the base. All the enemy were shot down in the ensuing action. Sadler made two attacks on a bomber, which immediately dropped out of the formation and crashed in flames. His next attack also set fire to a bomber, which was claimed by two other pilots who finished it off. Cooper got a long burst into a bomber which blew up, but he received return fire in his own engine and it began to emit smoke and flames. He dived steeply with switches off and blew the fire out. Bargh followed up earlier successes by getting a ‘flamer’ after an attack pressed home to 100 yards. He saw all the other bombers in the formation going down, some in flames and some disintegrating with wings falling off. The last one he followed down had evidently received attacks from other fighters, as it blew up when he was about to attack it and crashed beside the railway line north-east of Pegu.
On the ground, however, the situation was rapidly deteriorating. The retreating British Army sustained a severe reverse at the Sittang Bridge, and the way was open to Rangoon. The Air Force was forced back to Magwe, where the warning system—so vital to aerial defence—was totally inadequate to cope with the possibility of surprise strafing and bombing attacks. As more airfields fell into the enemy's hands so the weight of his attacks increased, and the situation of the defending fighters became ever more precarious.
Between 23 and 29 January the Japanese, who for some time had concentrated on night bombing, attempted to annihilate the small Allied fighter force, using a total of 218 aircraft, most of them fighters. The Buffaloes, Hurricanes, and Tomahawks shot down some fifty of the enemy in six days; immediately, he returned to night operations. On 24 and 25 February the Japanese made a last attempt to claim air superiority, using a total of 166 aircraft; they lost heavily, thirty- seven bombers and fighters being destroyed, of which the American Volunteer Group shot down no fewer than twenty-four.
No. 67 Squadron was now reduced to six Buffaloes, while the newly arrived Hurricane squadrons had also suffered severe losses. Living conditions were becoming more and more primitive and regular food was hard to obtain. Some of the New Zealand pilots lived in a deserted building on a peanut farm, where they contrived meals of half-cooked tinned sausages and water melons, washed down with cocoa made with goat's milk and water from the Irrawaddy River. Fortunately, some food parcels from home were rescued from Rangoon, and for a short time they were sustained by feasts of fruit cake.
Rangoon fell on 7 March and the Japanese air attacks became heavier. In an effort to upset the enemy as much as possible every available aircraft, including the Blenheims of No. 113 and No. 45 Squadrons, was despatched to attack the airfield at Mingaladon. This strike was carried page 31 out with great determination and over twenty-seven Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground and in the air without loss. The enemy at once made reprisal raids against Magwe before the aircraft had been serviced on their return. Only four Hurricanes and six Tomahawks could be scrambled to intercept twenty-one bombers and ten fighters, but four of the enemy were shot down. Further raids at half-hour intervals succeeded in swamping the defences and inflicting considerable damage to the runways.
It was the beginning of the end.
On the following day there was no let-up, and raids continued with two waves of twenty-seven bombers and ten fighters each. The early-warning system no longer functioned and the Allied fighter force was all but overwhelmed. By midday the runways at Magwe were useless and many of the remaining aircraft had been destroyed on the ground. That afternoon the four remaining Tomahawks of the American Volunteer Group were flown out to Loiwing in China.
Next day the enemy again thoroughly pattern-bombed the runways at Magwe, and although two of the three remaining Hurricanes intercepted the raiders, no enemy aircraft were shot down. Our aircraft managed to get back on their aerodrome only by a miracle of airmanship. That night the bomb craters were filled in sufficiently to allow such aircraft as could be made airworthy to take off for Loiwing. The ground crews travelled overland in a motley collection of motor transport in which they ran the gauntlet of Japanese army units from Thailand. A few other aircraft were patched up and flown out to Akyab on the coast, and thence to Dum Dum in India. The air battle for Rangoon had ended.
Much has been written of the achievements of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. In faraway Burma, in tropical heat and rain, a few RAF and American squadrons fought to a finish against overwhelming odds. According to such records as are available, 233 enemy fighters and bombers were claimed to have been destroyed in the air during this campaign, 179 by the P40 Tomahawks of the American Volunteer Group and fifty-four by the Royal Air Force. Although accurate assessment is difficult in such country, fifty-eight enemy aircraft were also claimed as destroyed on the ground and seventy-six as probably destroyed; a further 116 enemy aircraft were damaged. Allied losses were twenty-two Buffaloes and Hurricanes, sixteen Tomahawks and eight Blenheims in aerial combat, and fifty-one aircraft of all types destroyed on the ground.
Throughout the first phase of the campaign the lack of an adequate early-warning system had been a source of constant anxiety. There was only one radar set in Burma at this time, for which there were no spare parts. By constant servicing it had been maintained in operation with the aid of locally manufactured parts and, together with natives of the Burma Observer Corps who operated from various lookout posts linked to the civil telephone system, had played a most important part in staving off surprise strafing attacks and in enabling our fighters to become air- borne in time to intercept raiding bomber forces.
On the ground the Japanese had swept all before them and in three months had conquered Burma. In the air, however, they had suffered one defeat after another until at last, because of their ability to keep on reinforcing their air force, they overwhelmed the dwindling squadrons opposing them. The Royal Air Force, with its Commonwealth representation, retired to India, licked its wounds and prepared for the recoil. By its devotion and self-sacrifice it had delayed the Japanese advance at a critical period, thus assisting in the extrication of General Alexander's hard-pressed army, which crossed into Assam just as the monsoonal rains came down and provided a natural barrier between captured Burma and India.page 32
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