New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Volume III)
CHAPTER 13 — Fighting Back from India
Fighting Back from India
IN India the early months of 1942 were the hottest for many years. Calcutta residents remembered nothing like them and Indians in unprecedented numbers died in the streets. Out on the airfields where blast pens were being built against the expected Japanese attack it was possible to work only until ten in the morning. At Allahabad, a reinforcement base for Hurricanes and Blenheims, many of the ground staff were stricken by heat exhaustion and several died. At Asansol the temperature reached 127 degrees in the shade and the heat distorted aircraft panels so that they gave in the air. Everywhere men longed for the monsoon, hoping that the rains would bring relief from the misery of the endless stifling heat.
At Alipore, where Hurricanes were based for the defence of Calcutta, fighter pilots lay listless waiting for the ‘scramble’ warning that would send them climbing into the cooler air four miles above. They had arrived before sunrise, walked through the parched grass to the aircraft, unpicketed them and taxied over to the dispersal hut, checked, placed harness ready, and then hastened to find a place among the coco-fibre couches known as ‘Charpoys’. There they had their pets—pariah puppies or a baby Himalayan bear—and fondling them they became hotter still for they wore full flying kit to save seconds in case of a sudden alarm. But the weeks dragged by and no Japanese bombers came. At dispersal the atmosphere remained humid and lifeless, and even before dawn pilots sweated as they dressed for readiness. They had to wear long sleeves and long trousers against the danger of sudden flame on skin, and also, in case they baled out, as protection against jungle leeches. So they sat while on patrol with the sun beating through the perspex of their cockpits, their own sweat stinging the prickly heat into red weals. And prickly heat was not the only bane of that torrid summer, for there were other less pleasant torments caused by the myriad flies.
In Calcutta itself, where the heat was probably more unbearable than out on the sultry airfields of the Ganges, these were strange days. The great city was now filled with refugees and there were sailors without ships, aircrew without aircraft, and soldiers awaiting an army. The hotels had become squadron messes and fighter pilots waited at readiness in the shoddy splendour of the Grand Hotel, a few yards page 285 from their aircraft parked along the Red Road. For the impressive red-coloured highway which runs down one side of the great open space in Calcutta known as the ‘Maidan’ was now being used as a landing strip—partly because better warning could be received, partly because of the shortage of adequate safe dispersal at nearby airfields and partly for the morale of the local population. Sometimes a squadron ‘scramble’ would send the green and brown Hurricanes up through the cloud above the baking ant-heap of the city, but on most occasions the pilots would hardly have time to reach the cooler air above before the radar plot would prove ‘friendly’ and orders would come over the radio telephone for the squadron to land.
At last the monsoon broke and the days of drought were over. To the men on the Indian airfields it came like a grey-blue horizon moving towards them across the Ganges plain, becoming darker each moment as the wind mounted to a gale. For a while it was rainless under the black sky and then the storm burst. Often it came so quickly that pilots who rushed out at the first warning to turn their aircraft into the wind and picket them down were too late and had to struggle in the rain. But the monsoon, they soon found, brought no respite from the heat—only moisture and howling winds. Indeed, in this and the following years, the period from June to October was to prove one of acute and prolonged discomfort—the kind of discomfort that comes from working in a stinging downpour and then finding camp beds and blankets as wet as the air they breathed. For months on end men had to endure such conditions, often with uncooked and almost always with monotonous food, their cigarettes frequently spoiled by musty-tasting damp, with no proper means to dry their clothes and with everything in the tents mildewed. At the outposts there were neither books to read nor hurricane lamps to read them by, so in the long nights men lay sweating under their mosquito nets, talking across the tent until there was nothing left to talk about.
The storms abated but not the heat. In the intervals there was no wind to disturb the clammy blanket that settled over the land and the overpowering humid heat, the mounting incidence of malaria and the general atmosphere of defeat, all tended to produce a mood of unbearable depression. Yet the men in their flights and squadrons overcame the sense of oppressiveness in various ways. They played cards and wrote letters, they became friends with the native children, made pets of all kinds of animals; they put on plays and revues, sang the old RAF songs and made up new ones, argued endlessly about the war, about tactics and about their future prospects. But in all the forward units the story was the same—not enough equipment, too little to drink or smoke and a monotonous diet of bully beef and ‘soya link’— that rather unpleasant kind of sausage made from the soya bean. It was under such conditions that the war in Burma was now fought and the achievements of the men can hardly be appreciated unless they are understood and remembered.page 286
While the monsoon of 1942 thus came and went, both Army and Air Force were gradually re-forming and re-equipping after the long retreat from Burma. Weapons and equipment, however, were scarce, for with the Allies sorely beset in Europe, in the Middle East and in the Pacific, little could be spared for the new front in South-east Asia. There were other limitations owing to the very unsettled political situation in India at this time, the attitude of the Congress Party in particular being anything but helpful to British arms. In the circumstances, therefore, General Wavell and his air commander, Air Chief Marshal Peirse,1 were mainly concerned during the next few months with renewing their strength and consolidating the defences of India.
And so, while British sappers directed thousands of Indian labourers in the building of roads along the Arakan coast and across the Naga gorges towards the Manipur frontier, the RAF pressed on with the construction of airfields, the establishment of supply and maintenance bases and the setting up of wireless and radar units in Bengal and Assam. In the air the three light-bomber squadrons brought out of Burma were made up to strength with Blenheim IVs, and these were later joined by a few Wellingtons, the nucleus of a night-bomber force.
The fighter defence of north-east India, which had previously rested on one squadron of Mohawks, was augmented in June by three Hurricane squadrons from the United Kingdom. Catalinas, Blenheims and Hudsons were organised for sea and coastal reconnaissance, and presently it became possible to replace the Blenheims by Beaufort torpedo-bombers. Some photo-reconnaissance Spitfires arrived in November 1942, but another year was to elapse before these modern machines appeared as fighters and changed the course of the war. A few Liberator heavy bombers also came that same month but they were kept grounded for some considerable time by lack of spares. To this modest air strength was gradually added the small Indian Air Force which, after many vicissitudes, eventually reached a strength of six Hurricane squadrons and two armed with Vultee Vengeance bombers.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard E. C. Peirse, KCB, DSO, AFC, Croix de Guerre (It), Order of Polonia Restituta (Pol), Knight Grand Cross of Orange Nassau (Hol), Legion of Merit (US), Order of Cloud and Banner (Ch); RAF (retd); born Croydon, 30 Sep 1892; Deputy Chief of Air Staff, 1937–40; Vice-Chief of Air Staff, 1940; AOC Bomber Command, 1940–42; AOC-in-C, India, 1942–43; Air C-in-C, SEAC, 1943–44.
Lilly commanded a Hudson squadron that was formed in June 1942 at Dum Dum, near Calcutta. The Hudsons, among whose crews there were sixteen New Zealanders, flew shipping escort and anti-submarine patrols over the Bay of Bengal; they also reconnoitred the Arakan coast. Lilly was no stranger to such work. Joining the RAF in England a few months before the war, he had flown with Coastal Command for over a year and had then taken a flight of Hudsons out to operate from Singapore and Java.
Maling, who had now been with the Air Force for eight years, was in charge of No. 5 Squadron which, equipped with Audax and Wapiti aircraft, had previously been engaged in operations over the North-west Frontier against rebellious tribesmen. When war came it began to re-equip with Mohawks, but before this changeover was completed Maling and his pilots were called upon to cover the retreat from Burma. Flying from Tezpur in Assam, the Mohawks had been employed on fighter patrols and the Audaxes and Wapitis to drop supplies and pick up messages from the ground, such messages often providing the only information from forward posts about the enemy's advance. Now, however, the squadron was turning to the offensive, bombing and strafing roads, railways and airfields in northern Burma.
Mowat led a squadron of Hurricane fighters that was based at Alipore for the defence of Calcutta. He had already distinguished himself in operations with Fighter Command, which he joined at the outbreak of war, and had brought his squadron out to India early in 1942. He subsequently achieved a fine record in the Burma theatre as leader of a Hurricane wing and then as operations officer at Air Headquarters.
1 Wing Commander J. R. Maling, AFC; born Timaru, 5 Nov 1913; clerk; joined RAF 1934; transferred RNZAF 1 Jul 1945; commanded No. 27 Sqdn, India, 1940–41; No. 5 Sqdn, India, 1942; No. 619 Sqdn, 1944; prisoner of war, 26 Jul 1944.
2 Wing Commander N. J. Mowat, DSO, m.i.d.; born Clydevale, Otago, 18 Sep 1914; joined RAF 28 Dec 1938; transferred RNZAF Jan 1945; commanded No. 607 Sqdn, 1941–42; No. 166 Wing, India, 1942–43; held various appointments India and ACSEA, 1943–44; commanded RAF Station, Peterhead, 1944–45; killed in flying accident, 7 Nov 1946.
These concentrations of Dominion personnel were, however, largely fortuitous and, despite the efforts of some squadron commanders, did not long persist. No official moves were made to form New Zealand squadrons in the India-Burma theatre with the result that, as the campaign progressed, Dominion airmen became widely scattered through the RAF organisation. Unfortunately the New Zealand Government and Air Force took little interest in their men serving with the RAF in South-east Asia Command. Not until another two years had elapsed was a liaison office established at Delhi, and then it was staffed by a single junior officer. Flight Lieutenant Twigge1 worked hard to deal with the many problems involved, but only towards the end of the war did the arrangements approach what was needed.
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The monsoon severely restricted air activity during 1942. Nevertheless, from April to December that year the RAF flew 3790 sorties and lost 81 aircraft while so doing. During the torrid summer months, while fighter pilots waited at readiness to defend Calcutta, Blenheims and Mohawks went out whenever possible over Burma to bomb and strafe airfields, railways and any military concentrations they could find; Dakota crews continued to search for and drop supplies to the groups of refugees still struggling through the dense jungle to the safety of Assam; Lysanders and Audaxes kept in touch with forward army units and Hudsons continued their coastwise patrols.
Flying over the ‘Hump’ was extremely hazardous, not only because of the high and treacherous mountains that had to be traversed, but also because of the great cumulo-nimbus clouds which hung in huge masses of brown vapour above them. To enter such cloud formations meant almost certain death, for the currents in their gloomy depths were of unimaginable ferocity and violence. Nevertheless, despite these natural obstacles, the supply aircraft continued to operate intensively and the service grew rapidly until one transport was taking off from India for China every few minutes of the day. This remarkable achievement greatly reduced the extent of the Japanese victory in Burma, for Chinese resistance, instead of withering from lack of sustenance, was now fed and nourished from the skies.
In contrast to this Allied activity the Japanese Air Force was remarkably slow in developing operations against India. From the end of October there were sporadic raids on our forward airfields in Assam and the Chittagong area, but they inflicted only slight damage; the enemy fighters did, however, have the better of our defending Hurricanes, which, lacking an effective warning system, were usually caught at a disadvantage of height.
It was not until late December that Calcutta had its first raid and then only a few Japanese bombers came over at night. They did little damage except to the morale of the local inhabitants, over a million of whom, including the cleaners, fled the city, leaving piles of uncollected rubbish rotting in the streets. However, the timely arrival from Britain of a few Beaufighters, specially equipped for night interception, soon put an end to the nuisance raids. Within four nights in mid-January they shot down all but two of the seven Japanese bombers which came over Calcutta. After that there were no more raids and the city returned to normal.
1 This was because the primary American interest in South-east Asia was the support and supply of the forces fighting the Japanese in China. Britain had no such commitment and her main concern was the reconquest of Burma and Malaya. These diverse national objectives were, in fact, to have an important bearing on the whole of the subsequent campaign in Burma, since they led inevitably to differences of opinion regarding future strategy.
Three vaguely defined ‘fronts’ or areas of contact with the enemy ground forces had then established themselves. The nearest was in the Arakan, a country of sharp mountains running down to the narrow coastal plain which fringes the west of Burma. A middle front lay to the north below the Imphal plain, while a third stretched through the fever-stricken valleys north-east of Mandalay. The Japanese were most favourably placed to resist any attack on our part or to launch an offensive of their own. They had behind them the entire road system and waterways of Burma, the excellent port of Rangoon and the comparatively safe bases of Indo-China; moreover, they held the driest and healthiest part of Burma. The British and Americans, on the other hand, were holding positions in the mountains and in the malaria-infested valleys of the north where communications were most difficult. In the circumstances, and with our ground and air forces still relatively weak, Wavell could not hope to launch any major offensive, but since the Japanese seemed reluctant to move on India he had decided to take the initiative and attempt two minor objectives. The first was the capture of Akyab on the Arakan coast; the second was the launching of the first ‘Chindit’ operation through the Japanese flank on the northeastern front.
In preparation for the attack in Arakan our light bombers, with fighter escort, had already begun to concentrate upon that region. Hurricane squadrons from the Calcutta zone, in whose defence they had spent so many months of frustrated waiting, now moved forward across the bay to airstrips in the vicinity of Chittagong. There they lived in tents or in ‘bashas’—a kind of bamboo hut with overhanging eaves—which were usually tucked away in the jungle alongside the landing strips. Meals were prepared and eaten in the open, with ravenous kite hawks hovering above ready to swoop and carry away in one razor-clawed dive any food left unattended. Before long both fighter pilots and bomber crews were almost continuously in action. The region over which they flew was far from attractive. ‘Bad pranging country’, they called it. For down the Mayu peninsula runs a range of mountains shrouded in thick jungle, with long valleys to the seaward page 291 side and mangrove swamps and low-lying paddy to the east. On the mainland stagnant marsh and mud flats gradually give place to a low coastal shelf, beyond which lie the fierce folds of mountains called ‘The Arakan Yomas’ and then, towards the Himalayas in the north, come the Chin Hills. Most of this region offered little chance of survival for those unfortunate enough to be forced down, even if they landed uninjured.
Covered by Hurricane and Mohawk fighter patrols, our troops moved forward at the beginning of December 1942 and in a few weeks success seemed within their grasp. They occupied Maungdaw and Buthidaung unopposed and shortly afterwards reached Indin. But then they paused to bring up supplies, and while they were doing so the Japanese reinforced Akyab in strength and, what was more serious, began moving other columns from the Kaladan valley towards the British left flank. Bitter fighting developed, and as the enemy began to infiltrate behind our positions and against our communications it became necessary to withdraw. By the end of April our troops, severely shaken by this first new encounter with the enemy, were back in India where they started. They had suffered 2500 casualties in battle and malaria had claimed many more. ‘The greatest gain from the campaign,’ wrote General Wavell, ‘was experience of the enemy's methods and of our own defects in training and organisation. The serious loss was in prestige and morale.’
The RAF did its best to support the Army during these months. Flying ahead, both Hurricanes and Blenheims attacked Japanese transport on roads and waterways and set fire to enemy-held villages. These operations were very effective and soon the enemy was avoiding movement in the open by day. But our close-support bombing, except on a few occasions, was less successful, for the Japanese were adept at concealment and their cleverly camouflaged ‘fox-holes’ proved difficult to discover and destroy; similarly, their infiltrating movements through the thick jungle were hard to discern even from low-flying aircraft. When our troops were withdrawing, however, bombing certainly helped to keep the enemy immobile and enabled our men to escape from some dangerous situations. Aircraft also evacuated casualties and dropped supplies to isolated columns.
During March and April the Japanese Air Force made a determined effort against the airfields from which our squadrons were operating over the Arakan front. They inflicted a certain amount of damage and brought some of our fighters back on to the defensive, but they failed to drive us from the air as they intended; forty-three of the raiders were claimed destroyed or probably destroyed for the loss of fourteen RAF fighters. Our Hurricanes then returned to harass the enemy on the ground with renewed vigour. Soon they were making a daily page 292 practice of what were known as ‘Rhubarbs’, searching the tracks and waterways behind the enemy for any sign of movement. Sometimes the Hurricanes would go east over the Arakan Yomas then down to the tree level of north Burma. There they might detect a cloud of dust near some such centre as Shwebo and find a convoy beneath the dust cloud. Cannon and machine-gun sprayed the vehicles and the roadside bushes into which the Japanese hurled themselves. And then came a climb over the mountains and back to base. Sorties along the coast to Akyab were often hazardous because of the mirror-like surface of the sea and the thick mists which spilled out from the low-lying valleys of the Arakan. Unable to judge his height accurately, a pilot might fly gently towards the water and then, in a few moments' time, there would be nothing left on the sea; no wreckage, not a sign that the Hurricane had gone in. In fact, the disappearance of several aircraft in the coastal area remained a mystery until one pilot, after escaping from his cockpit beneath the sea and then being picked up by fishermen, returned to tell what had happened.
Air attack on the enemy's road, river and rail traffic reached a climax as the 1943 monsoon approached and the Japanese sought to hurry their last convoys forward before the storms blotted out the tracks. Towards the end of May a concentrated three-day assault was launched against communications and supply centres; every available squadron was employed and a total of 547 sorties, nearly a quarter of them by the now growing American forces, were flown in what appears to have been a very successful operation. The Japanese at once retaliated with three fairly heavy raids, two of which were directed against our main airfield at Chittagong. But local warning had now improved and on each occasion the raiders were intercepted and suffered fairly heavy casualties.
Of the New Zealand fighter pilots who flew and fought through this first Arakan campaign, Flight Sergeant Rudling1 of No. 136 Hurricane Squadron had more than his share of excitement and adventure. For twice during combats his Hurricane was set on fire and he was forced to bale out, but each time he succeeded in making his way back through the jungle; moreover, on each occasion he succeeded in shooting down or damaging several enemy machines before he baled out.
Also prominent in patrol and attack over the Arakan were men like Flight Lieutenant E. A. Pevreal and Flying Officer T. B. Marra of No. 146 Squadron, Warrant Officers Dean1 and McIvor2 with No. 135 Squadron, and Flying Officer Jacobs3 of No. 136 Squadron. And among those flying with No. 67 Squadron were Flying Officers A. A. Cooper, P. S. Hanan and E. L. Sadler; Warrant Officers E. E. Pedersen and G. A. Williams, and Flight Sergeants Oliver,4 K. A. Rutherford and S. M. D. Wilson.5
Squadron Leader P. D. Smith, flight commander in No. 113 Squadron, with Pilot Officer Davidson6 and Sergeant Gilchrist7 also deserve mention for their part in the Blenheim bomber operations during the campaign.
8 Originally the expedition was planned to aid a Chinese army advance but this advance was postponed. Wavell, however, decided to allow the Chindits to proceed because of the experience that might be gained and the fillip it would give to morale. See paragraph 24 of Wavell's despatch, Operations in the India Command, 1 January to 20 June 1943.
At first things went well. Five columns penetrated the enemy lines, and in a series of operations against the railway from Mandalay to Myitkyina they destroyed four bridges, cut the tracks in more than seventy places and brought down many thousands of tons of rock upon another part of the line. They then crossed the Irrawaddy to attack the Mandalay-Lashio line. But the Japanese became aware of their movements and this project had to be abandoned; eventually, under growing pressure from the enemy, the expedition was forced to break up and return to India in small parties.
During the three months that the Chindits1 were behind the Japanese lines their losses were high and their achievements seemed small in proportion to the effort expended. In fact, however, the Japanese were seriously disturbed by their advent and postponed a proposed attack on northern Assam. Moreover, the venture did serve to demonstrate for the benefit of later campaigns that the solution to jungle warfare against the Japanese lay in the air rather than on the ground.
The RAF efforts at supply and protection had indeed attained a large measure of success. Flying by night as well as by day, Dakotas of Nos. 31 and 194 Squadrons made 178 sorties and dropped just on 300 tons of supplies for the Chindits. They ‘did us proud,’ writes Major Fergusson of the Black Watch. ‘Their spirit was exemplified by the unknown aircraftsman who always dropped the morning paper on us at the end of the last run, and was wildly cheered by the men on the ground.’2 The majority of the tonnage was collected by the Chindits, though in the early stages aircraft were less expert at dropping and the troops at receiving than they subsequently became. Towards the end of the campaign there were, however, times when aircraft duly arrived and circled vainly above Wingate's columns, who could clearly be seen in the jungle. These, though they needed the supplies badly enough, dare not signal for them, for to do so would have brought the enemy against them in strength. Nevertheless the transport aircraft returned again and again to seek and aid the heroic bands of men marching back, not along roads or even tracks, but through the thick jungle and over a mass of formless hills. Patrol and attack by Mohawk fighters and Blenheim bombers also helped to distract the enemy's attention from movements of the Chindit columns.
1 Wingate's men came to be known as ‘Chindits’ from their shoulder-flash depicting a ‘chinthe’—the guardian lion of Burmese temples.
2 The Wild Green Earth, p. 247.
Among the New Zealanders who flew in support of this first Wingate expedition were Flying Officer Mellsop,1 one of the original pilots of No. 194 Squadron, and Sergeants Garrett2 and Jackson3 of No. 31 Squadron. They flew transport aircraft on the supply missions. Flying Officer O'Brien,4 Flight Sergeant McLeary5 and Sergeant Culpan6 piloted Blenheims of No. 34 Squadron, while Flight Lieutenant Buddle7 and Flying Officers Edwards8 and Hunter9 of No. 155 Squadron and Warrant Officer McLauchlan10 of No. 5 Squadron were among those who flew Mohawk fighters; they worked hard escorting Blenheims and Dakotas on their missions as well as attacking ground targets.
One New Zealander went into Burma on foot as an air liaison officer with Wingate's expedition. He was Flight Lieutenant Denis Sharp, a fighter pilot who had fought over Singapore and had afterwards had an exciting escape by way of Sumatra. Sharp came through the campaign with great credit. When the Chindit brigade split up he was given command of one of the parties, and in the hard and dangerous march back to India kept his men going with fine example and determination, on one occasion walking into a village alone in order to obtain food for them. He took part in a pitched battle at Hintha, reconnoitred a route to the river and, with his party, fought another action with the Japanese, after which he led a splendid forced march farther than any other party and through most difficult country.
At this early stage one squadron of Wellingtons and one of Liberators were all that was available for night bombing, and they lacked many of the maintenance and operational facilities that existed in Britain for operating heavy bombers. Nevertheless, as early as November and December 1942, the two squadrons managed over 180 sorties against airfields in Burma and almost as many against communications and military targets. While the Wellingtons concentrated on nearer objectives such as Akyab, Taungup and Mandalay, the Liberators went farther afield down the Irrawaddy valley as far as Rangoon. A New Zealand Liberator crew flew Air Vice-Marshal Stevenson, who was in charge of the Bengal Air Command, on one of the first raids against Mingaladon airfield at Rangoon. And it afforded the bomber men no little satisfaction to strike back at this and other air bases from which our squadrons had been driven during the retreat from Burma. Airfields remained a priority target for the Wellingtons and Liberators throughout the first half of 1943, during which time they flew 477 sorties and dropped 762 tons of bombs.
The continual night raids on Japanese air bases, combined with the daylight attacks of our light bombers and fighters, had their effect. For it would seem that the enemy had intended to operate against India, not only from second-line airfields in Burma but also from advanced landing grounds. Because of our air attacks, however, he was forced to retain his squadrons in rear areas and in Thailand, only moving them forward in short periods as, for example, in support of his counter-attack in the Arakan. This made it more and more difficult for the enemy to intercept Allied aircraft over central and upper Burma; it also restricted the scale of air attack which he could bring against India, and it enabled our own air force to operate with greater security from advanced airfields in north-east India, which was important since they were so few.
Photographic reconnaissance was now required over a wide area— from Akyab in the west over the whole of Burma, and far beyond to Thailand and the China coast. To meet this need valiant efforts were being made by No. 681 Squadron, which was equipped with Hurricanes and Spitfires and a few twin-engined Mitchells for long-range work. Flying Officer C. B. Wareham, who had already done good work over Malaya, Flying Officer O'Brien1 and Warrant Officers F. D. C. Brown2 and Carpenter3 were pilots with this unit and Flying Officer Cummins4 navigated Mitchells.
The squadron was based at Alipore, near Calcutta. When an operation was ordered, pilots would usually be briefed the night before and then would take off shortly after dawn for one of the forward landing grounds; there they would ‘top up’ with petrol before setting out to the assigned target, flying usually between 20,000 and 25,000 feet. The single-engined Hurricanes and Spitfires were without radio aids and their pilots had to rely mainly on map reading for navigation. Most sorties involved a double crossing of the Chin Hills and the mountains along the border between India and Burma; these went up to 12,000 or 14,000 feet, and in the monsoon period when storms raged and thick clouds covered the peaks the photographic pilots faced many hazards.
Such conditions were met by Warrant Officer Brown one day in June 1943 when he was returning from his twenty-third mission. Over the Arakan Mountains, when he was already flying at 23,000 feet, he was faced with a wall of cloud stretching across the horizon as far as he could see and rising another 20,000 feet above him. If he went down below it there was the strong possibility that he would strike the mountains, and he had not sufficient fuel to attempt to fly round or over it. So he decided to plunge through it. What happened next is best told in his own words:
Brown managed to reach a native village, where he spent the night, and the next day after a rough journey by bullock cart and native boat he eventually reached an Indian hospital. Not until some days later was it discovered that his spine was injured. Before leaving for home, where he subsequently recovered, Brown heard that a salvage party had discovered pieces of his Spitfire scattered over an area of twenty square miles.
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As the monsoon developed and storm clouds gathered again over the mountains in June 1943, roads and tracks through the jungle country along India's eastern border became waterlogged and impassable and land operations were brought to a virtual standstill. The RAF, however, although it had to withdraw squadrons from forward landing grounds, continued to operate. Casualties increased and the sorties in soaking, bumpy weather, under brown weeping clouds and over green impenetrable jungles, were anything but spectacular; but all ranks were sustained by the knowledge that they were doing, as a matter of regular and normal routine, what the enemy, with better airfields and better organisation, could or dared not do.
To the lonely garrison at Fort Hertz and to our troops in the Chin Hills and at Goppe Bazar east of Maungdaw, where the pass had been washed away, went a steady stream of supplies. In July alone the Dakotas of No. 31 Squadron flew 286 sorties carrying 784 tons, and General Giffard, in command of Eastern Army, afterwards declared that without the maintenance of this air supply, his troops could not have held their positions through the monsoon. Simultaneously, from the wet tree-fringed airfield at Fenny, Blenheim bombers continued to fly out and attack chosen points through which the Japanese were bringing supplies to their Arakan front. The Blenheims, although page 300 still doing splendid work, were almost worn out and their indomitable ground crews, short of equipment and spares, had to work long hours to keep them serviceable. Because no jacks, and frequently no winches, were available the aircraft had to be armed by hand; bombs were lifted on to backs that, as often as not, were sore from prickly heat and somehow the job was done.
Hurricanes continued with patrol and attack and escorted transports and bombers over enemy territory. Hudsons and Catalinas maintained reconnaissance along the Burma coast and over the Bay of Bengal; they sighted few targets but their presence did much towards keeping the seas clear of the enemy and ensured the safe arrival of our supply convoys. The Wellingtons and Liberators also kept up their night attacks in between the storms. With few radio aids to help them on their long flights, navigators had to rely partly on the stars, which were not always visible. And strange though it may seem to those unfamiliar with monsoon conditions, the crews sometimes had to fly through icy clouds; there were also freak storms at their base, where at various times a Wellington camp was blown down, damaging the bombers, and Liberators were lifted bodily into the air so that they flew backwards across the airfield.
The monsoon went on; and so did the flying. More squadrons gradually came into the line, some of them equipped with more modern machines such as the Vultee Vengeance dive-bomber and the faster twin-engined Beaufighter. Like so many aircraft untried in this extreme climate, the Vultee Vengeance had at first given trouble and was withdrawn from operations, but it now returned as a most successful and accurate attack aircraft. Pilots soon became adept at finding well camouflaged enemy strongpoints, both in the Arakan and among the Chin Hills. Following one attack at Maungdaw, observers reported back that: ‘After bombing six funeral pyres were seen’, and on another occasion they noted with grim satisfaction that ‘six lorry loads of dead were removed from Razabil.’
The Beaufighters, ranging farther afield than the Hurricanes, attacked road, rail and river traffic. The latter was a highly profitable target since the Japanese were making full use of Burma's many waterways. And before long the remains of four river steamers and hundreds of sampans and small river craft littered the banks and sand bars of the Irrawaddy and its tributaries. So successful were the Beaufighters in these operations that they quickly earned the name of ‘Whispering Death’; for the Beaufighter had a trick of remaining silent at low level until it was almost upon its target. It is recorded that on one sortie a Beaufighter came upon a full-dress parade of Japanese troops at Myitkyina, on the birthday of Emperor Hirohito. The troops were standing, rigid, round a flagpole from which fluttered page 301 the Rising Sun of Japan. In front of them were their officers seated stiffly on their horses. By its silent approach the Beaufighter caught the parade unawares and in a few moments it was a shambles. Dead and wounded men lay strewn on the brown earth, riderless horses galloped in panic among the bodies, and the flagpole was hit and the Rising Sun lay drooping in the dust.
During the whole period of the 1943 monsoon, from July to October, the RAF flew nearly 8000 sorties. Forty-two aircraft were lost. Nearly all these casualties resulted, not from enemy action, but from the treacherous climate and the bad flying conditions. Some machines crashed in the mountains and their crews were either killed or lost in the jungle—for a green bomber crashing in the green sea of tropical forest stood little chance of being found. Of the aircraft which came down in the Indian Ocean, just over half the crews were rescued, mainly through the efforts of the long-range reconnaissance squadrons since, as yet, an air-sea rescue organisation was not developed. Despite the losses and difficulties, however, air operations during the monsoon had been well worth while. Our troops and outposts had been kept supplied by air transport and valuable experience acquired in the technique of supply by air. Determined attacks on enemy bases had driven the Japanese Air Force back and our own army and air bases remained unmolested. And the continuing assault on communications, particularly on such important points as Akyab and Rangoon, had hindered their use by the enemy.
During this same period the Japanese Air Force had flown only 411 sorties from its bases in Burma and Thailand. Their interception of our bombing raids never presented a serious problem and they showed little inclination to develop strategic operations against India. But it is now known that, apart from the pressure exerted by our bombers from India, the Japanese Air Force was handicapped by calls made upon it from elsewhere. In particular, Allied successes in the New Guinea area had necessitated the withdrawal of both fighters and bombers from Burma. The air situation in South-east Asia was thus becoming more favourable for the Allies, and during the next few months the RAF was quick to seize every opportunity for pressing home its advantage and winning command of the air. Such indeed was the essential preliminary to any military operations aimed at the recapture of Burma.
New Zealand airmen had continued to play their part. They flew fighter patrols and bombing raids into Burma, transported men and supplies, reconnoitred enemy territory and patrolled over the Indian Ocean from bases in India and Ceylon. They were also active in various ground duties. It is, moreover, interesting to record that of the 300 page 302 aircrew from the Dominion serving with the India Command during 1943, nearly 200 were pilots.
Three New Zealanders had the distinction of leading RAF squadrons at this time. They were Wing Commanders L. G. W. Lilly, Maddox1 and McClelland.2 Lilly continued in command of Hudsons, which did splendid work on sea reconnaissance and then in the carriage of mail and freight; Squadron Leaders E. J. Henry and Hawkins3 were his flight commanders. Wing Commander Maddox, Who had previously served as a flying instructor in Canada, was in charge of a squadron of Wellington bombers. During November 1943 his squadron logged over 750 hours' flying, mainly at night, against such targets as Akyab, Taungup, Prome and the Irrawaddy port of Sagaing near Mandalay. McClelland controlled a Catalina flying-boat squadron which operated from Ceylon over a wide area of the Indian Ocean, from the Maldive Islands right across to Aden and south to Mauritius. During his early service with the RAF McClelland had specialised in navigation, and under his guidance the squadron reached a high standard in that difficult art. This was well demonstrated early in May when two lifeboats containing seventy-six survivors from the motorship Ocean Hope were located in the vastness of the sea and duly rescued. And it was shortly after McClelland assumed command that the first of a series of record-breaking long-distance flights was made by a Catalina of No. 205 Squadron, bringing the first airgraph letters from Australia. The flying boat flew from Perth to Ceylon in twenty-four hours, covering a distance of 3040 miles, which was no mean achievement for those days, even in a Catalina!
2 Wing Commander N. McClelland, OBE; RAF; born Sydenham, 20 Jan 1913; joined RAF 1937; navigation staff, AHQ Far East, 1941; navigation staff No. 222 Group, Far East, 1941–43; commanded No. 205 Sqdn, India, 1943–45.
For fighter pilots the monsoon months of 1943 had been less eventful. It was, in fact, a period of restricted activity, since ground operations on both sides were limited to patrolling; moreover, Japanese aircraft had seldom put in an appearance over the frontier. Often the Readiness Flight would be scrambled to intercept approaching aircraft, but almost invariably ‘the bogey’ turned out to be friendly. Occasional sorties in support of army patrols and attacks against ground targets helped relieve the monotony, and in such operations No. 67 Hurricane Squadron, still predominantly a New Zealand unit, was able to play a leading part. Typical of the antidotes to inaction was that found by Flight Lieutenant Buddle of No. 155 Mohawk Squadron, who captained the unit's rugby football team which dealt successfully with numerous challenges from army teams in their area.
The Beaufighter and Vengeance crews that ranged widely over enemy territory saw more action. Warrant Officer J. S. France, who flew with No. 27 Squadron, was among the first Beaufighter pilots to operate over Burma. On a typical sweep along the Mandalay-Myitkyina railway, six engines were hit along with several petrol tankers, and at Kawlin enemy trucks were raked with machine-gun fire. On another day France and several pilots shot up ten locomotives, between seventy and eighty trucks, as well as numerous buildings and water tanks along the line.
It was while leading such an attack against bunkers and trenches in the Akyab area that Metherell's aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. ‘Metherell's leadership,’ wrote his Commanding Officer, ‘always showed great skill and determination. He was a great character on the squadron and if any one man was responsible for its success and high morale it was surely this officer who always had a laugh and a joke for everyone.’ And it may be added that this was by no means an isolated example of the reputation already established by Dominion airmen in the RAF squadrons with which they served.
New Zealanders had also served in various ground duties. Indeed, during this and the following year, nearly one hundred men were thus engaged and they included administrative, planning, operations, equipment, technical and medical officers. Several held senior posts. Group Captain Morshead,1 for example, was Officer-in-Charge of Aeronautical Inspection, and as such played an important part in the expansion programme; he subsequently became Senior Engineering Officer on the Research and Supply Staff, where among the many problems with which he grappled was that of damp penetration in equipment and aircraft.
Two other officers who made a useful contribution in the technical field were Wing Commanders Brickell2 and Tiffen;3 Brickell had served with the RAF during the early days in France and was later interned in Algeria for two years. There were also men like Group Captain Mason,4 who was on the Planning Staff, and Wing Commander Stewart,5 who served as a Senior Medical Officer throughout the campaign.
4 Group Captain R. H. Mason, OBE; born Weybridge, Surrey, 10 Sep 1918; joined RAF Sep 1938; permanent commission 1945; served with RAF Mission to Russia on port equipment staff, 1941–43; staff duty, Admin. Plans, India, SEAC, and ACSEA, 1943–45.
5 Wing Commander J. G. Stewart, MC, m.i.d.; born Invercargill, 7 Aug 1890; medical practitioner; served with the RFC and RAF in 1914–18 War; joined RAF 18 Sep 1940; President, SMEC, 1941; President, No. 10 CMB, CME, 1941; SMO No. 11 Fighter Group, 1941–42; SMO Nos. 22 and 225 Groups, India, 1943; SMO, HQ Bombay, 1943–45.
New Zealanders also served as aircraft technicians, radar mechanics and ground wireless operators. These men often worked under conditions of extreme hardship, sometimes at remote outposts that were completely cut off during the rainy season. The work done by the men of the radar or forward signals units on the India-Burma frontier was amongst the most completely detached that RAF men were required to do anywhere in the world. Their posts were spaced at twenty-mile intervals along the Arakan Yomas and in the Chin Hills. Before the monsoon broke the crews would set off to their various assignments— usually places with only a map reference for a name—carrying with them enough supplies to last through the monsoon, together with such books and comforts as were available. At the outposts deer stalking and growing vegetables helped to pass the time, and they discovered that in the humid climate peas could be eaten within three weeks of planting the seeds.
From time to time pilots were also employed in various non-operational roles. Squadron Leader J. T. Strang, for example, was in command of the Ferry Control Unit at Allahabad, where aircraft of all kinds flew in from Karachi, 900 miles to the west, and were briefed, fitted and despatched as reinforcements to the forward areas. Pilots were posted to ferrying duties for rest between operational tours and they were allotted to aircraft according to their experience with the various types. During 1943 some forty New Zealanders spent periods with the unit. They were kept well occupied as an average of 120 aircraft were ferried across India each month. There were many other ancillary units throughout the India Command in which New Zealanders served for short periods. For the most part such work went unheralded and unsung, but it all played a part in the build-up of the RAF and the eventual turning of the tide against the Japanese.