New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 12 — The Retreat from Burma
The Retreat from Burma
WITHIN a few weeks of their invasion of Malaya, the Japanese swarmed into Burma. Ahead of them came their bombers, making Rangoon, the capital city and main supply port, their primary target. The first raid came during the morning of 23 December 1941 when a force of some eighty aircraft appeared over the city and prepared to drop their bombs upon its crowded streets and docks. A score of Allied fighters which had taken off from the dusty airfield at Mingaladon a few minutes earlier were in the air to meet them. And as these fighters circled overhead their ground control was somewhat surprised when over the radio telephone there came, not the time–honoured ‘Tally– Ho’, but the excited voice of a young New Zealand sergeant–pilot crying: ‘Hell! Showers of them. Look, Willie, showers of them!’ This somewhat unconventional announcement signalled the beginning of a lively engagement in which thirteen of the raiders were claimed destroyed, along with several more probables. It also marked the opening of the brief air campaign that was to provide the only bright feature in the whole melancholy story of the British retreat from Burma.
Burma had multiple attractions for the Japanese High Command. These included the oil and rice of the Irrawaddy plains, the acquisition of bases for a possible invasion of India and the occupation of territory which would give protection to their already vast conquests in Thailand, French Indo-China and Malaya. But uppermost in their thoughts at this moment was the need to stop the flow of supplies that were reaching the Chinese by way of Burma. Because of the mountain barriers and lack of communications with India, these supplies were being unloaded at Rangoon and sent northwards over range after range of steep mountains, along the few but well–built roads, along the railway to Mandalay and beyond, up the tree–fringed Irrawaddy to Lashio, from where the Burma Road stretched its narrow winding length before the radiators of creaking and straining lorries. And since Rangoon was the start of this last remaining supply line to China and also the principal supply port of the Allied forces defending Burma, the Japanese began by bombing and then attacking towards that city.
The defence available against this assault was far from strong. On the ground there were some 25,000 combat troops, but most of these page 270 were local recruits, only partly trained, and they were not well equipped for jungle warfare. The main defensive position was that of the River Salween, and to help the Army hold it, plans had been drawn up for the construction of eight airfields. By the time war came seven of these had been built and they stretched from Lashio in the north to Mingaladon in the south; there were also landing strips farther south at Moulmein, Tavoy, Mergui and at Victoria Point. But although bases for a considerable defending air force were thus available, the force itself was almost wholly lacking. In December 1941, only thirty–seven front–line aircraft, British and American, were available in Burma, though the defence plan stipulated that a figure of 280 was the minimum necessary to meet an invading enemy. Of this small force, sixteen were Buffalo fighters of No. 67 RAF Squadron. The remainder were Tomahawks of an American squadron—part of the American Volunteer Group stationed in Burma for the protection of the Burma Road, from which they had been detached to aid in the defence of Rangoon. Both squadrons were based at Mingaladon airfield a few miles north– west of that city, for it was rightly anticipated that the enemy would aim first at disrupting this important supply port.
No. 67 Squadron was virtually a New Zealand unit since, apart from the squadron and flight commanders, almost all its pilots were New Zealanders. They were to establish a fine record. Most of them had come straight from flying training schools in the Dominion, but they made up for their lack of experience with a fine aggressive spirit and their efforts over Rangoon in the next few weeks were to win high praise from their more seasoned American comrades.
Based originally at Singapore, No. 67 was not transferred to Burma until October 1941, barely two months before the first enemy attack. On their arrival at Mingaladon the New Zealanders and their fellow pilots had settled down to intensive training and to familiarise themselves with the airfield layout and the area over which they were to operate. They had little time, however, for on 7 December came news of the Japanese landings in Thailand, whereupon full operational readiness was ordered. Three days later the American squadron arrived at Rangoon and a close liaison was soon established between the two units.
The fighter pilots of No. 67 Squadron acquitted themselves well in these opening air battles. On the 23rd, Sergeants Bargh1 and G. A. Williams2 were among the first to sight the enemy. In a moment Bargh was among the Japanese fighters, where he at once became involved in a series of confused dogfights. Then, as the enemy fighters drew away from the formation, Williams saw his opportunity and went for the bombers, shot one of them down and got bursts into the petrol tanks of five or six more; since the Japanese tanks were not self–sealing it is possible that some of these aircraft failed to return to their base. Meanwhile, with his aircraft shot full of holes, Bargh dived away from the enemy fighters, flew out to sea and regained height to renew the attack. His windscreen had oiled up so he took off one of his flying boots, wiped the perspex clean with his sock, and then swept down upon the bombers as they came away from the target. Joined now by Sergeant Beable,3 he dived on the enemy formation and succeeded in destroying one bomber and probably a fighter. Beable also got a long burst into a bomber, which was last seen trailing smoke. Sergeant Christiansen4 was among other pilots who engaged the enemy, but his windscreen became covered with oil and he was unable to observe results.
Sergeants Bargh, Finn3 and Rutherford4 were among other pilots in the thick of the fighting this day and each of them scored hits on enemy aircraft. But during the air battle No. 67 lost four pilots, three of whom—Sergeants Macpherson,5 Hewitt6 and McNabb7—were New Zealanders.
The destruction by Allied pilots of more than thirty enemy machines in these two days was no mean achievement considering the difficulties under which the defence operated. The worst of these difficulties was, and remained, the lack of an adequate warning system. In the whole of Burma there was only one single radar unit. Worn and already obsolete, it was sited to the east of Rangoon, where it supplemented a chain of observer posts spread thinly along the hills and reporting by means of the local telephone service. The unit did its best, but its efficiency may be judged by the fact that only on one occasion did the warning which it gave of the approach of enemy aircraft arrive earlier—and then only by a few minutes—than that given by the men of the Observer Corps. Similarly, on the Rangoon airfields there was no modern system of communication and during the first heavy raids orders to ‘scramble’ were often delivered to the waiting pilots by messengers racing to them on bicycles.
Inevitably, of course, many of the bombers succeeded in getting through and there were casualties and damage in Rangoon and on the airfields. In Rangoon the population was quite unprepared for total war and curiosity ousted fear. Traders in the market–places left their stalls, sweating coolies laid aside their burdens to line the quays or the Strand Road, worshippers ran from their pagodas, women and children from their houses—all peering intently upwards to watch the dogfights in the skies. On the first day there were 2000 casualties from the fragmentation bombs. On the second day no one wanted to miss the sights so there were 5000 more casualties. Then panic was immediate and widespread. All who could fled the city or prepared to do so. Thousands moved out to live in the open. Thousands more, uncomprehending, left their homes in sad processions for the hills. Seen by our pilots from the air, the trains and lorries running north from Rangoon resembled moving twigs on which bees had swarmed. Indeed the number of men, women and children who began to stream out of the city will never be accurately known but it was not less than 100,000. In the following months, as more of Burma was overrun by the enemy, this number increased until it seemed that half the population was wending its way northwards, disorganised and panic stricken. Thousands died by the wayside from cholera, malaria, or from fatigue and hunger. Through the hot jungle, past steaming paddy fields up into the hills they plodded on, making for the doubtful safety of India. But only a broken and disease–ridden remnant achieved their goal.
At the end of December 1941, however, this appalling migration of human beings, one of the grimmest ever recorded, was still in the future. In the absence of further daylight raids the first panic subsided and life in Rangoon returned to something like normal for a few weeks. On the airfield at Mingaladon all hands had set to work to fill in bomb craters and repair damaged aircraft against the possibility of further raids. The operations room, demolished by one of the first bombs, was quickly rebuilt, the ground staff worked hard to achieve maximum serviceability and pilots waited at readiness for the next attack. When the Supreme Commander, General Sir Archibald Wavell, visited the station a few days later, he was able to congratulate all ranks not only on their defeat of the enemy but on their efforts in page 275 repairing the damage and having the squadron again at maximum preparedness.
The New Zealanders readily adapted themselves to the new conditions and to the strain of waiting—a strain which only those who have waited for the reappearance of the enemy under such conditions can fully appreciate. Here is one pilot's description of the early morning scene at Mingaladon airfield:
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 Cutfield1 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 all 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 life something denied to those whose lot is cast in a more peaceful mould.
For the moment the defence of Rangoon remained the primary task, but No. 67 Squadron also flew occasional photographic reconnaissances to obtain information about Japanese air concentrations in Thailand. As a result of one such flight the Buffalos were sent to shoot up Mesoht airfield. The enemy was taken by surprise; buildings were thoroughly strafed, aircraft at the end of the runway hit and a large fire started. A week later, while on reconnaissance over Tavoy, Pilot Officer Brewer2 surprised an enemy aircraft and sent it crashing in flames into the hills.
The advent of these reinforcements, small though they were, enabled the RAF to hit back at Japanese airfields and bases in Thailand. The Blenheims, on the very night of their arrival after their long flight from the Middle East, took off to fly hundreds of miles over strange country and bomb the docks at Bangkok. They began operations in earnest ten days later, after a refit at Lashio, when their targets included the airfields at Mesoht, Tak and Messareing; they also paid another visit to Bangkok. Meanwhile the Hurricanes were in action from advanced bases at Moulmein, Mergui, Tavoy and elsewhere. Their operations, along with those of the Blenheims, achieved a considerable, if fleeting, success. For they had soon destroyed or damaged some fifty enemy planes on the ground and by so doing delayed the achievement by the enemy of air supremacy.
During the last week of January the Japanese made a determined effort to overwhelm our small fighter force at Rangoon. They made repeated daylight attacks on the city and docks, but after losing some fifty bombers and fighters in six days they gave up the attempt and again reverted to night raids. This second failure on their part to achieve command of the air was a measure of the soundness of the defence and the skill and courage of the Allied fighter pilots.
This renewal of the air battle over Rangoon was accompanied by disturbing news from the south, where the Japanese land assault from Thailand had now begun. The British garrison at Tavoy had been overwhelmed and Mergui evacuated. The airfield at Moulmein, our main forward air base, was captured on 30 January and as a consequence the warning system, such as it was, was disorganised. Soon it was no more than a solitary Hurricane which patrolled above Rangoon, keeping watch like ‘Jim Crow’. As the Japanese pressed on, our few Blenheim bombers did their best to aid the Army by attacking vehicles, troop movements and supplies, but their efforts, though gallantly made, were too small to stem the enemy advance. By mid-February Japanese troops had reached the Sittang River, where they inflicted heavy losses on the retreating British Army; most of 17 Division was cut off and our pilots witnessed the melancholy spectacle of Empire troops drowning in the broad river after the bridge had been demolished. A few days later air reconnaissance reported the enemy in strength near Pegu, only seventy miles north-east of Rangoon, which meant that the city might soon be isolated and captured.
On 24 and 25 February the Japanese renewed their air assault on the capital, employing over 150 bombers and fighters. Once again they were met by American, British and New Zealand pilots in their Buffalos, Hurricanes and Tomahawks who, in a series of hard-fought battles, once again inflicted substantial casualties. One report states that a fifth of the raiding force was destroyed. But, whatever the actual damage, the fact remains that the Japanese made no further attempt to dominate the air over Rangoon until its airfields had been captured. By thus holding off the Japanese Air Force until the very end, Allied pilots enabled reinforcements arriving at the last minute to be put ashore unmolested, and when the Army was finally compelled to retreat from Rangoon its demolition parties were able to complete the destruction of the oil storage tanks, refinery and port installations—all without interference from the air.
As the fall of Rangoon became imminent the remnants of the Allied fighter force—three battle-worn Buffalos, four American Tomahawks and some twenty Hurricanes—were ordered northwards. Abandoning page 278 Mingaladon, they went to a hastily built dirt-strip cut out of the paddy fields at Zigon, where they stood by to cover the evacuation of Rangoon. So treacherous was the surface at Zigon that one landing in five resulted in damage to the aircraft; invariably tail wheels were rendered unserviceable and bamboo skids had to be fitted as a temporary expedient in order to fly out damaged machines for repair. On 7 March sappers began the work of demolition in Rangoon; the last ships left the port and a forty-mile column of vehicles, including newly arrived tanks, began to wend its way northward. Overhead circled our few remaining fighters flying through the heavy haze sent up by burning oil depots and the port. No enemy bombers appeared.
What remained of our air force now moved by successive stages towards India, covering the retreat of the Army as best it could. For a few weeks Blenheims and Hurricanes operated from the civil airport at Magwe, or from ‘Kutcha’ strips cut out of the jungle and on the hard paddy land bordering the Prome Road. There were no dispersal pens and no proper accommodation for pilots at Magwe. Some of the New Zealanders with No. 67 Squadron lived in deserted buildings on a peanut farm, and they were glad to supplement their meagre rations with tinned food and fruit cakes saved from food parcels sent to Rangoon by relatives and friends back home; and as an alternative to drinking chlorinated water from the Irrawaddy, they ate melons bought in the local villages.
Main Battlefronts on the India–Burma Border
1 Contemporary reports give sixteen destroyed on the ground and a further eleven in the air.
Our pilots, with their ground crews performing miracles on engines and airframes, had fought to the end, displaying a spirit and tenacity equalling that shown by the men of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. Every day for eight weeks at Mingaladon and the other airfields, then at Zigon and Magwe, the pilots had been at two minutes' readiness. This was an intolerable strain but these youngsters —for most of them were little more—had borne it and had flown and fought to exhaustion. It is recorded that one of them was caught at last over Akyab and shot down into the sea. In the water he found the nozzle of his Mae West and blew hard, but the life-jacket did not inflate. For a moment he searched to find the defect and, finding none, blew again. Only then did he realise that the air was escaping not through the Mae West but through a hole drilled by a bullet in his cheek and jawbone. Unaided by his lifebelt, he kept afloat for three hours until picked up by natives in a canoe, and before long was flying Hurricanes again. Of such were the pilots of the Burma retreat.
Now that they had command of the air the Japanese fighters and bombers ranged over a wide area of northern Burma, attacking Lashio, Mandalay, Loiwing and Myitkyina. Their assault on Mandalay, delivered on 3 April, was particularly devastating; in a few hours three-fifths of the ancient city was destroyed by high explosive and fire and thousands of its inhabitants blasted or burnt to death. The ever-growing stream of refugees making their way northwards through jungle and over mountain to India brought the tragedy to its awful climax. Meanwhile the Japanese ground forces were advancing with great rapidity. Before the end of April they had reached Lashio and cut the Burma Road; and with their capture of Mandalay a few days later all hope of holding northern Burma had to be abandoned. The British Army now began its final withdrawal to India. It was a melancholy retreat, lightened only by the many individual acts of courage and fortitude that were performed as the tired and weary troops fought their way back across river and mountain and through the jungle.
Great and timely aid to both troops and refugees was given by the unarmed and unarmoured Dakota and Valentia transport aircraft of No. 31 Squadron from India. Flying far beyond the normal limits of endurance for men and machines, they dropped food and medical supplies along the routes and, landing wherever they could in Burma, brought out thousands of sick and wounded soldiers and civilians. page 280 In this work of succour and rescue it was sometimes necessary to fly as high as 17,000 feet in order to cross the Naga Hills between the Brahmaputra and the Irrawaddy, and at the same time find cloud cover in which to elude Japanese fighters. On more than one occasion the transports were attacked on the ground and their passengers and crews machine-gunned by low-flying enemy aircraft. But the work went on, helped in its later stages by an American troop-carrier squadron. In all 8616 men, women and children were flown to India and about fifty tons of supplies delivered to the refugees and the troops.
By 20 May the last British and Indian troops reached Imphal on the Indian frontier, just before the monsoon burst, flooding the rivers and sending landslides down to block the roads and tracks over which they had marched. During the last stages of this withdrawal aircraft based in India—some Blenheim bombers and a few Mohawk fighters— gave what help they could. Lysanders, small aircraft normally employed only on short-range reconnaissance for the Army, turned themselves into improvised bombers and at least one of their pilots developed the habit of hurling hand grenades at Japanese troops while flying low over their advancing columns. But such gestures of defiance only served to demonstrate the state to which our air force had been reduced by the series of disastrous events in Burma and by our unpreparedness for war in the Far East. It was indeed fortunate that the advent of the monsoon, together with difficulties of supply and communications, prevented the Japanese from pressing their advantage and invading India.
1 Wing Commander H. L. Andrews, MBE; born Parnell, 4 Feb 1906; served RAF 1930–36; rejoined RAF Sep 1939; transferred RNZAF May 1945; commanded ‘RAF China’ 1942–43; Organisation duties, No. 221 Group, India, 1943–44.
Flight Lieutenant McMillan played a worthy part in the organisation of the air lift by No. 31 Transport Squadron. He had been with the squadron for nearly two years before war came, operating over the North-west Frontier. He worked hard in training new crews, and when the squadron was called upon to operate at maximum intensity in support of the retreating army and the refugees in Burma his efforts were fully justified. Moreover, his effective organisation of sorties and his example were in large measure responsible for the efficiency and determination which were the hallmark of the squadron's operations.
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During the early months of 1942 New Zealanders also shared in the defence of Ceylon and in reconnaissance over the Bay of Bengal—both highly important tasks at this time for the sea approaches to India and Ceylon were now wide open to the Japanese Fleet. With the enemy advance into Burma the port of Calcutta, where a quarter of a million tons of shipping was concentrated, had come within range of air attack.
Reconnaissance over the Bay of Bengal was maintained by a few Hudsons based at Cuttack, south of Calcutta, and using Akyab as a forward refuelling point. While the Army was withdrawing from Burma, the Hudsons patrolled down the Arakan coast to guard against surprise attack from the sea and sudden infiltration from behind. They also watched the Andaman Islands after their occupation by the Japanese, and early in April their vigilance was rewarded by the discovery of thirteen enemy long-range flying-boats preparing to operate. In two attacks, the second of which was made in the face of stiff fighter opposition, they sank or put out of action the whole of this enemy reconnaissance force, thus depriving the Japanese of knowledge of the valuable shipping target which awaited them farther north. Indeed, it was another three months before any enemy flying-boat attempted reconnaissance flights, and well before that time some seventy British merchant ships had safely left the port of Calcutta and dispersed themselves among other Indian ports. Flying Officer Page,1 Pilot Officer Daniel2 and Sergeant Laloli3 were among the small group of men who flew Hudsons on these various missions.
By the summer of 1942 the Japanese surge of conquest sweeping southwards into the Pacific and westwards towards India had brought a long succession of victories. They had overrun in turn Malaya, Hong Kong, Borneo, Java, Sumatra and Burma. Their armies were established on the frontiers of India, prevented from advancing more by the heavy rains of the monsoon than by any opposition which our forces could offer. At sea their fleet in the Indian Ocean had not been brought to action. Their attack on Burma had carried all before it and the only remaining supply route to China had been cut. Further victories in South-east Asia seemed to await the enemy. But these they were to be denied. For plans were now maturing, slowly and inexorably, that were to stem the Japanese advance and eventually turn it back into complete and utter defeat. The success of these plans was to depend largely upon the weapon of air power and its use in novel and daring fashion.